Conal wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead as he strained to hear what was going on around him. By the sound of it, not much; and that was worrying in itself. They knew he was in the north range, yet they made no attempt to remove him. It seemed they were content simply to leave him there, which meant that he was not hurting them at all where he was. He was supposed to ensure that Lady Meg was safe; so, remaining holed up alone in the north range was hardly fulfilling his lord’s very clear instruction.
Though he knew Lady Meg was upstairs somewhere in the south range, he did not know exactly where. Finding her was not going to be easy, for he reckoned there were at least five armed men between him and the south range – not counting whoever was guarding the lady herself. By Christ, he needed some help, but from whom? He had seen no sign of the grubby tanner’s boy, Gibb and, with the steward clearly in league with the traitors, and Robert Poyntz taken – or killed, who was left? He remembered that Lord Elder was to send Alain to the postern gate, so that might just be his only hope of support.
So, which way to go? It dawned on him that being in a range with three entrances offered only a small advantage for, whichever way he went out; the uproar would soon attract all his opponents to him. Thus, he simply made his way down the stair he had come up which was, as it happened, the nearest to the postern gate. In the narrow, pitch-black stairwell, he trod with care but even then his foot slid sideways on one bloody step and he only just managed to retain his balance. Puffing out his cheeks in relief, he continued to descend. At the base of the gloomy spiral, he expected a sudden attack – and he was right.
They came at him both from outside and within but Conal’s scian slashed and stabbed until the man outside fell back with a cry of pain. When the Irishman dashed out into the small yard, he almost tripped over his wounded adversary. From behind him came a shout but, before he could turn, he felt a blade pierce the back of his leather jack. Roaring a curse from the land of his birth, he swung around his scian blind and was fortunate to see it slice across his opponent’s face. Cheek slashed open to the bone, the fellow rocked from side to side, dropping his weapon. Without a second thought, Conal plunged his blade into his assailant’s heaving chest and twisted it, as he ripped it free.
Knowing he had accounted for one man, possibly two, Conal stumbled forward over the cobbles at a halting run, Feeling his back, he discovered that the wound was seeping blood and knew he must get to the gate fast. He passed through into the larger yard, where the traitors’ horses were tethered and, crossing it, made for the postern gate – but, of course, it was still guarded.
At least there was a flaming torch at the gateway, giving him a little more light so. With a sigh he launched himself at the lone guard, all too aware of the warning shouts of others echoing around Acton Court. The two men squared up to each other and their weapons clashed once, twice, three times. Though the experienced Conal was more than a match for most men at arms, his movement was greatly hampered by his wound. Each man took a deep breath while they skirted around each other for a moment or two; but Conal was painfully aware that time favoured his opponent. Not only were others on their way, but he was losing blood and could already feel the power in his legs waning.
When his opponent pressed forward to pin him against the gate, Conal reached for the bar across it, in vain.
“Alain!” he bellowed. “You out there?”
“Let me in!” cried the Breton archer.
Conal grimaced – for was he not trying to do exactly that? Using his last reserves of strength, he made a determined effort to batter his enemy into submission, slamming him back against a store shed built beside the gateway.
At once a cry came from within the store: “Who’s there? Get me out?”
Distracted by the shout from immediately behind him, the guard froze long enough for Conal to knock him aside and raise the bar across the store house door. But the Irish warrior’s muscle was ebbing away fast and, with leaden arms, it was all he could do to parry each blow from the guard. Next moment, Gibb, the tanner’s lad, burst out of the storehouse door and crashed into the shocked guard.
Conal, torn between trying to finish the guard and opening the gate, decided upon the latter. As soon as Conal fell to the ground with the weight of the heavy bar, Alain pushed open the gate, an arrow nocked ready in his bow. Two more men rushed into the yard to confront them and, at close range, Alain’s arrow hurled one of them two yards backwards, but the other kept coming.
Struggling back to his feet, Conal handed his knife to the unarmed Gibb, while Alain, with no time to nock another shaft, drew his sword to join them. Weakened by loss of blood, Conal was scarcely able to keep on his feet, let alone inflict any damage upon his opponents. The guard felled by Gibb rose to his knees close by the youth, with sword still in hand. Out of the corner of his eye, Conal watched Gibb raise his knife to strike but, at the same instant, the soldier drove his sword up. As Gibb fell upon his quarry, he was impaled upon the rising blade but, whether by skilful aim or God’s help, his knife gouged into his killer’s eye. Both men lay still.
Hard-pressed, Conal could only fall back in despair as he saw Alain hacked down before the gate. Raging at the glowing eastern sky, he found another ounce of strength to stand over the bodies of his comrades. Here, he might make a final stand, but he would not be rescuing Meg Elder. The knowledge that he had failed his lord punished him far more than anything his oncoming opponents might do.
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