When the rider burst out of the trees towards him, a glance at the sky told John Elder that dawn was only moments away. In his haste to report his news, Hal almost fell off his mount.
“Lady Eleanor’s safe, lord,” he cried, between gulping breaths. “She’s safe with Will and René.”
“So, it’s to the house then, Hal,” said John. “Let’s pray that Conal’s at the postern gate by now.”
But at that moment, the main door to the house was flung open and a figure that he assumed to be the deputy sheriff, John Bandy, emerged. Perhaps Bandy had seen Hal arrive and guessed at the message he was so desperate to convey, or perhaps he simply saw that dawn had come.
“I know you’re there, John Elder!” shouted Bandy, across the moat. “I have your sister, along with Master Poyntz and Lady Margaret. If you want them to live, then you’d best come in here now – alone and unarmed!”
“Lord?” murmured Hal, beside him under the trees. “You can’t go in there. Once he has you; it’s all over.”
But John just smiled and removed his sword belt to hand to Hal. “You remember how to use this?” he asked.
John held up a hand. “Go to Alain at the postern. It seems I’ve got my own way in. Find Conal and get to Meg, if you can – and your Mary, of course…”
Retrieving his knife from the belt, John placed it in the small of his back under his leather jerkin. “Go on!” he urged, before turning away to walk out in the open and stride towards the bridge across the moat.
As he approached the door, his eyes were fixed upon Bandy, but when he reached the threshold, a sound drifted down to him from the solar above the entrance porch – the voice of his young sister, screaming the words he needed to hear.
Bandy must have heard them too for he darted out to haul John inside. As John expected, someone was poised to club him down the moment he entered so, using the momentum Bandy gave him, he bent low as he went in, before rolling forward onto to his feet again. The fellow lying in wait toppled headlong as he swung his cudgel at the spot where John should have been.
When his would-be assailant struck the floor, John pulled out his knife to stab him in the throat. Bandy had his sword drawn, as did the steward, Legge but John, wrenching the club from the fallen man’s hand, parried Bandy’s first thrust. His way into the house was blocked by another man at arms, but he clubbed him aside with the cudgel and bolted along the screened passage. At once, he cried out to Conal but there was no answer, which filled him with dread, for his Irish comrade had never before failed to answer a call to arms.
Pursued by Legge and one other, he reached the door out to the rear yard and lifted the bar across it before turning to face the oncoming man at arms. Battering him back with the wooden bar, he shouted again into the yard but when he glanced outside, the dawn light revealed a grim spectacle. The only one of his comrades still on his feet was Hal, battling to overcome one remaining man at arms. The sight of his fallen comrades fuelled John’s anger and, tossing aside the bar from the door, he began to retrace his path back through the passage with club in one hand and knife in the other.
Though his first opponent held a sword, he backed away now, perhaps suddenly overawed by the reputation of the man he faced: one of the king’s most notorious enemies.
“Are you going to use that sword, or pick your nose with it?” John bawled at him.
The nervous fellow lunged with his weapon before trying to flee into the adjacent hall. On another day, John might have let him go, but he was in the fierce grip of vengeance. After cracking his opponent’s skull hard with the wooden cudgel, he plunged his knife into his exposed chest. Then, ripping out the blade, he continued back to the south porch, where the retreating steward was already on the stair to the solar.
Legge shouted up to Bandy: “Get Meg Elder! She’s all we have left!”
“You harm anyone else here, Master Legge,” warned John, “and this will be the last dawn you ever see.”
White-faced, the steward turned to flee up the steps.
Behind John, the door from the yard slammed shut and he glanced around to see a stern-faced Hal at his back.
“The others?” murmured John.
“Alain’s dead,” reported Hal, “and that poor lad, Gibb…”
“And Conal?” John’s sharp tone betrayed the depth of his concern.
“Still breathing, lord…” said Hal, offering John his sword.
With a curt nod, John snatched the naked blade and made for the spiral stair which led from the inner porch up to the solar.
“We’ll kill her, before we’ll let you take her,” Bandy called down. “But you can still give yourself up and save her.”
“We both know that you don’t have her,” replied John, mounting the steps.
Above him he heard the splintering of the solar door and prayed that those within could hold on just a little longer.
A man at arms posted halfway up the steps surprised John by his dogged determination. Every moment John was delayed, he envisaged Meg being taken by Bandy and Legge and thus he lunged up savagely with both sword and knife. But, hampered by the narrowness of the curved stairwell, he was conceding a considerable advantage to his opponent. Both men took cuts from half-blocked thrusts, but inch by inch, step by bloody step, John forced his adversary back. They were almost at the top, when the other man’s resolve finally weakened and John’s angry sword carved into a tired shoulder.
“I yield, I yield,” cried his opponent.
“Too late!” snarled John, driving his blade through the man’s chest, for the poor wretch clearly did not understand that none of the traitors could be allowed to leave Acton Court alive.
“Finish the dog!” he told Hal, as he crossed the landing and glared at the damaged solar door. He had hoped to come face to face with the ringleaders, but Legge and Bandy had already smashed their way into the solar. When John reached the threshold and kicked aside the remains of the wrecked door with his boot, his worst fears were confirmed.
He stepped into the silent chamber, with Hal close behind him.
“Your call, Lord Elder,” said Bandy, more confident now, with his arm wrapped firmly around Meg Elder.
Legge was smiling too as he held another hostage: Lady Margaret Poyntz, whose husband, Robert stood apart – armed with a knife, but powerless to intervene.
Hal, seeing Mary Ford slumped against the wall, with her brow bloodied, took a pace forward. “Steady, my friend,” warned John, catching him by the arm. “Have patience…”
“Give it up now,” Bandy ordered them, “or watch these women die.”
“You would kill the women?” asked John. “Truly? For if you were to do that, you know very well what the outcome would be for you.”
“Yes, yes, very fine words,” mocked Bandy, “except you won’t risk the slightest harm to your dear sister. So, lay down your weapons – at once.”
“Lord?” murmured Hal.
Ignoring Bandy, John focused instead on the familiar ferocity he saw in his little sister’s brilliant blue eyes, as she gave the slightest shake of her head.
“Do it now!” repeated Bandy. “You must know that there’s no help coming for you.”
In fact John thought that help probably was coming in the shape of his cousin, Will but, of course, by then it would be too late.
“Again, you didn’t search me, Master Bandy,” said Meg abruptly and all eyes turned towards her.
“I didn’t search you,” scoffed Bandy, “because I know exactly where your knife blade ended up.”
“Do you?” asked Meg.
“Why waste all our time, lady,” replied Bandy wearily. “It’s stuck in the door post over th…”
When Bandy saw that Meg’s knife was no longer quivering in the timber post, his face turned pale. At much the same time, he gave a grunt and Meg pulled away from him, so that all could see the growing pool of blood dribbling down from his belly.
“You’re the devil’s brood, you Elders,” gasped Bandy. “What young lady would do that? None, but a child of the devil himself…”
While Legge stared at his dying confederate in abject horror, Poyntz took the opportunity to seize back his wife and cut the steward down for, like John Elder, Poyntz knew that there could be no prisoners…
Though the day had hardly dawned, it seemed to John that it had lasted forever. He regarded the bloody chamber without a scrap of satisfaction for, though he had fulfilled Henry Tudor’s task, it had been at grave cost. The archer, Alain had been his loyal comrade from the early days and it occurred to him that he would lose others close to him before the nightmare of treason ended.
He remained at Acton Court for another four days, chiefly to allow the wounds of Conal and René to heal, but also to be sure that Master Catesby sent no-one else to investigate Robert Poyntz. With luck, the trail would end with Bandy, whose death was soon to become heroic. As Poyntz would relate it, his deputy, riding to his rescue, fell at the hands of some brutal outlaws – all of whom had, in the end, been killed.
Though Meg and Eleanor decided to stay at Acton a little longer, Eleanor was obliged to say farewell once again to René de Merckes. But this time, John thought, it seemed different somehow. This time he saw with his own eyes that there was something between the two – something which would have to be pursued, when peace finally came.
With the horses saddled and his small party preparing to leave, John handed Robert Poyntz a somewhat creased, bloodied and sweat-stained letter from Henry Tudor.
“Read it, my friend,” he said. “And then perhaps burn it.”
Breaking the seal, Robert unfolded the document and both men laughed, for the words had run into one another making them utterly illegible.
“What did it say?” asked Robert.
“It’s a letter to all loyal servants of King Henry, telling them to prepare to join him in retaking his throne in the summer. He expects you to muster the men of the shire for him, Robert.”
With a nod, Poyntz said: “We’ll be ready, my lord. We’ll be ready.”