Though her clothing was still damp and she was shivering with cold, Eleanor was grateful to have only a few cuts and bruises after her exploits thus far. All the same, night was never her best time, for it allowed all the grim spectres of her past to crowd in upon her. As she sat now, in almost complete darkness, on the rickety stool provided by her captors, it was hard to avoid some serious soul-searching.
Mercifully, they had left her alone and the nearest guards were on the floor below – preferring their own company to hers, it appeared. One of them she recognised as the sole survivor of those holding her at the cottage. His rough handling of her, when she was recaptured, revealed that he was all too aware what she had done to one of his comrades. She reckoned there were three men watching over her in all – and three seemed too many even for her. This time, escape was surely impossible.
The past few hours’ reflection reminded her of the exhilarating life she once led – a life lived on a knife’s keen edge – a life where death sat every hour upon her shoulder. In those uncertain times, she had never felt more alive; but such a life was gone for good. And now, what else beckoned for her – continuing to spend her days as a vintner in Ludlow and watching over her nieces? If she did that for the rest of her days, she would end up alone and her heart would wither along with her body. Was that a life for Eleanor Elder: lingering on as a wizened old crone, railing ever more bitterness at the world and his dog?
The prospect made her shudder with disgust and at that moment she resolved that there would be no meek surrender. A rueful smile played across her dry lips as she decided upon her course. If the traitors did not have her to trade for her beloved nephew, John then he need not surrender himself for her. Thus, in the end, whether she lived or died, John Elder – the child she had helped from his mother’s womb – would survive.
A sudden creak from the floor below warned her that a guard was ascending the stair and a sudden surge of anticipation gripped her. Since it must be perilously close to dawn, she would have to act now – if she was going to act at all. The appearance of the guard at the top of the steps provided the spark she needed to stir some cold, abandoned embers of resistance.
Holding out his torch to cast its stark glare upon her, he snarled: “What have you got to grin about?”
His brutal demeanour stoked a fire that was already coursing through every fibre of her body: wild, uncontrolled and merciless. Her fierce eyes gleamed back at him.
“I was wondering what I could offer you to persuade you to let me go,” she replied.
“Hah! Don’t forget, you old bitch,” growled her captor, “I know what you did to Blake.”
“Blake?” said Eleanor.
“The fellow you cut up at the cottage,” he growled. “His name was Blake – and you butchered him like a pig. But I’m no fool, lady. The same trick won’t work with me.”
“What’s your name then?” asked Eleanor, standing up.
“You don’t need to know, ‘cos soon you’ll be beyond all knowing,” he told her.
She hardly noticed the import of his words for she was beyond that now. Instead her eyes followed his right hand as it slowly drew out the knife from his belt.
“This isn’t going to be a slow end, lady,” he murmured.
“Let’s see how it turns out,” replied Eleanor, as she swung the chair at him, sweeping aside torch and man in one savage gesture of defiance.
Rocked backwards by the blow, he let fall the torch and only just stopped himself from falling down the steps. But he regained his balance and raised the knife.
“Not enough, lady! Have you got nothing else?” He spat the challenge at her.
Snatching up his fallen torch, Eleanor thrust the burning brand at his face. Though he lunged at her hand with his blade, the flame forced him to retreat down several steps. The more she brandished the torch, the more the fire licked at her own hand but, ignoring the singeing skin, she focussed only on the man now half-way down the stair. Of course, as soon as they reached the next floor, she would be in trouble for he would have room to move and the noise would almost certainly have alerted his comrades.
Just as she was beginning to doubt her courage, she tripped on a step and plunged down onto him. The fiery torch caught him full in the face and brought a scream of agony. Next moment, the impact of her body striking his, propelled them both down to the bottom of the stair. Eleanor lost her grip on the torch but had a softer landing than her opponent, whose scream was abruptly cut short. In the dying glimmer of the guttering torch, she stared at his fire-ravaged face twisted at an unnatural angle.
Just before the torch went out, she glimpsed a head and shoulders emerge on the stair from below.
As all was plunged into blackness again, the dead guard’s comrade cried out: “Meeks? What’s going on? Is she dead?”
No, she isn’t dead yet, thought Eleanor, as she fumbled her hands over Meeks’ warm corpse, but failed to find his knife. Concluding that he must have dropped it when she struck him, she crawled across the landing to retrieve it.
Footsteps retreated back down the stairs and she realised that the other guard must have gone to fetch another torch – and, no doubt, his comrade. Against two armed men who could see what they were doing, she would not last a minute. But, so be it; she had made her choice.
The sound of the men coming back up the stair was accompanied by a flickering glow. Knowing she had only moments, Eleanor scrambled across the floor until a sudden stab of pain shot up into her leg. But, despite her sore knee, she almost cried out in triumph for she had found the missing knife. Even armed with Meeks’ blade, her only hope would be to strike before both men reached the landing. Struggling to her feet with the knife in hand, she stumbled towards the stairwell, guided by the light of the torch.
With a silent curse, she saw that the first man up with the torch was holding a sword in his other hand. But there was no turning back now so, crouching low by the top of the steps, she waited for him to reach the landing and stabbed her knife up into his thigh. Often, she knew, such a wound could be mortal; but on this occasion, it was not. Her sudden attack only served to enrage her intended victim who swung his sword low where he expected her to be. Though Eleanor had hastily dropped flat, the blade still made slight contact, scoring across her back.
Before he could swing his weapon a second time, she leapt up at him, stabbing his torso several times before he caught her wrist and hurled her back across the landing. She had clearly hurt him, but not enough, for though his leather jack was now streaked with blood, he calmly handed the torch to his comrade behind him, near the top of the steps.
In the wavering light, the dead guard was plain for them to see, as was the figure of Eleanor, crouched back beside him once more. The wounded man glared at her with a shake of the head.
“That’s two of my friends you’ve killed now,” he said. “But you’re going to wish you hadn’t, before we’re done with you. Ralph, bring that torch a bit closer.”
He was not looking at Ralph, who was still behind him, but Eleanor was. She watched spellbound as he gave a slight shudder before letting out a sudden squeal. Then he just disappeared along with his torch, leaving his stunned comrade alone on the dark landing with Eleanor. Since she had no idea what had just happened, she reckoned that her adversary must be equally uncertain. The torch which had fallen below had clearly not been extinguished for a dull wavering light still showed upon the stair. But would her opponent go back down to investigate, or keep coming for her? A scraping noise on the stair persuaded him to do the former, edging back away from her to peer down the steps.
Eleanor tried to discern from his expression what he could see below, but all she saw was puzzlement. Clearly uncertain, he lingered at the top of the steps for several moments and then stared across the landing at her. Even in the low light, she could tell that he had made up his mind.
Standing up to face him, Eleanor thought that some hope remained. She still had the knife – and he was wounded and alone now. But there was no blood pouring from his chest and she realised that her knife thrusts had been too weak, too shallow to really hurt him. Now he had his eyes fixed upon her and took a pace forward to halve the distance between them.
Another sound upon the stair behind him caused him to pause once again but, perhaps unwilling to turn his back upon her, he raised his sword and pointed the tip of the blade at her breast.
“No more reprieves, lady,” he said.
But Eleanor was no longer looking at her nemesis; instead she was staring beyond him. If the shock registered on her face at all, he must have thought it some clever deception on her part. Only when her expression did not change, did he react, turning around sharply to find a gaunt figure limping towards him, sword clutched in a hand that hung by his side.
Without hesitation, the guard swept his sword at the newcomer who barely managed to raise his weapon in time to parry it. Driving him back, the guard sought a killing blow, until Eleanor plunged her knife hard into his side. Though he tried to push her away, this time blood was pumping from the wound and when he tried to face his new adversary, a sword punched through his chest to steal away his life. With a groan of despair, he dropped to his knees with the fatal sword still embedded in his breast.
“René!” shrieked Eleanor, crushing her saviour to her so hard that, weak as they both were, they collapsed in a heap on the landing floor.
“Thought you might have forgotten me,” he murmured.
“I thought, by the water, that I heard your voice,” she wept. “But I knew… it couldn’t be you.”
“Well, it is,” he said, getting up to retrieve his weapon.
“Are there any more of them below?” she asked.
“Not unless they’ve come since I started up – but then it’s taken me a while, lady.”
She smiled at him, astonished how pleased she was to see him.
“Come,” she said. “We have to get to my nephew.”
He nodded. “Slowly though, eh? I’m still recovering from making my up.”
“What happened to your leg?” she asked, wrapping an arm firmly around him.
“Stray arrow,” he grumbled. “It’ll heal.”
“If you don’t go up too many more steps,” she added, with a grin.
Together, they took their time to descend to the ground floor with Eleanor holding the torch and helping to bear as much of René’s weight as she could.
When they arrived back down at the house door, they giggled at each other like a pair of guilty children; until the door opened to reveal another armed guard upon the threshold.
“Oh, sweet Christ,” groaned Eleanor, as René pushed her aside to reach for his sword. But he was too slow and his opponent’s weapon was already in mid-air. But there the blade lingered and the arm that held it began to tremble as the dying man spent his final moments contemplating the sword point that protruded from his chest. When he fell, Eleanor cried out when she saw that it was her son, Will who was standing over the corpse.
“Good day, mother,” he greeted her, with a rueful smile. “How is it you always manage to get yourself into such trouble, I wonder?”
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.
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.
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.”