In the solar of Acton house, Meg Elder witnessed tension straining the features of every face.
Beside her, Lady Margaret Poyntz sat rigidly upright, shoulders stiff and her pale countenance directed across the room to where her husband lay bound and unconscious. Close by, Mary Ford sat on the floor, leaning back against the wall and facing Meg. Though she feigned calm, her dark eyes were fixed upon Meg and every fibre of her body was stretched taut, ready to spring up in answer to her lady’s call.
By the open door, Bandy and Legge argued in low, edgy voices and Meg could hear enough to discern the cause of their falling out. Bandy wanted Legge to ensure that Lady Eleanor was still held secure, but his confederate argued that they should simply trade the hostages they had here in the solar for John Elder, who they suspected must already be outside.
“You can’t take on Lord John Elder without some firm hold upon him,” hissed Bandy.
“We’ve got his sister!” said Legge. “We can persuade him to come inside – unarmed – and then we truss him up tight. Once that’s done, we can release her – or not – as we please.”
“You’re forgetting that he already has one man at arms inside the house!” objected Bandy. “We’d have to deal with him first-”
“We’ve got him bottled up in the north range,” declared Legge, dismissing his comrade’s concerns.
“But it’s a big risk,” pointed out Bandy.
“Risk?” cried Legge. “By God, isn’t all of this one huge risk? And what else can we do now? To make the exchange for his aunt, we’d have to go to the lodge and once we’re out in the open… I mean, are we taking all this lot with us? I can’t see how it’ll work. But, in here, we’ve got all the advantages.”
So the two conspirators continued to argue until all that could be said, had been. For a brief moment, they lapsed into an uneasy silence, while Meg awaited the outcome with the patience of a spider. She needed two things to happen before she would be willing risk all: Robert Poyntz needed to come to and either Bandy or Legge had to leave the solar and go downstairs. A single groan from the prostrate Poyntz gave Meg immediate cause for hope, but it was also enough to persuade Bandy that he needed to make a decision.
“Alright,” he told Legge. “Get John Elder in here – but make damned sure that his man can’t interfere.”
Legge, no doubt pleased that his proposal had now been accepted, hurried off downstairs and as Bandy watched him descend, Meg’s eyes turned to Mary – just for an instant – before flitting on to Poyntz. By the time Bandy turned to come back into the room, both Meg and Mary were on the move. Meg flew at Bandy, with her knife well-hidden behind her; whilst Mary employed her blade to sever the bonds that restrained the still-dazed Robert Poyntz.
As Meg hoped, Bandy’s first reaction to her attempt to scratch out his eyes with her left hand, was to reach out, seize it and wrench it down to her side. As he did so, she brought up the knife in her right hand to plunge it into his throat. It was a well-judged ploy, but Bandy was a match for it. He swayed back far enough to avoid the savage thrust which left her knife embedded fast in the door frame. When he tried to throw her to the floor, however, Bandy found her far more tenacious than he expected. Thus he was still wrestling her down when Robert Poyntz lunged at him with Mistress Ford’s knife.
Still hampered by the snarling Meg, Bandy could not draw his sword before Poyntz stabbed him in the side. But, as far as Meg could tell, it was not a mortal wound so she brought her knee up into her captor’s groin for good measure. With a grunt of pain, Bandy pulled Meg closer to shield him from any more attempts by Poyntz, whilst he backed out of the door onto the spiral stair. As he retreated, he tried once again to reach his sword hilt, but Meg’s teeth sank deep into the hand that restrained her, compelling him to release his grip. With a well-aimed boot, she kicked his shin and fled back through the solar door, slamming it shut after her.
“Let me get out to him!” cried Poyntz.
But Meg blocked his path. “No,” she ordered. “We stay here and barricade the door.”
“What?” he gasped. “But we’ll be trapped in here.”
“As long as Bandy doesn’t have us, my brother has free reign to act,” she said. “If you go after Bandy and fail, then he’ll have us all again. I won’t risk that.”
“Fail?” objected Poyntz, in disgust. “I’ll butcher the traitorous bastard!”
“Perhaps,” said Meg. “But perhaps not – and we’re not going to find out.”
“This is my house,” declared Poyntz. “So, it’s not up to you – a mere girl!”
But Meg had spent too many years in the company of her renegade Aunt Eleanor to let that remark pass unchallenged. Nothing was more certain to rouse her fire than the assertion that she was either too young, or too female, to matter.
“Master Poyntz,” she said, “I am Lady Margaret Elder, daughter of the warrior lord, Ned Elder; it’s my brother, John who is at risk here, so I will decide what we do. And I say: we stay here and block the doorway.”
Poyntz glanced across at his wife for support, but Lady Margaret simply said: “I trust her, Robert – so should you.”
Without another word, Poyntz began to move the few items of furniture toward the door.