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Lady Katherine and The Family Secret (LK11)

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Chapter 1

The cold, crisp air was harsh as it whipped across her skin, the tears it brought to her eyes almost freezing as soon as they formed. Meanwhile her fingers were numb where they gripped the reins of her horse and her backside was equally sore from hours in the saddle. Yet, despite all this, Lady Katherine of Markham couldn’t help but be exhilarated by the galloping path she was cutting, a smile creeping onto her lips as she geed Delta on. His hooves kicked up a puffing cloud of loose snow while crunching over the compacted lower layers that carpeted the Markham estate.

The snow had come late that year. Even though it was now late February the icy fingers of winter still held a tight grip of the land. It had been a long, hard winter as they passed from 1191 into 1192. Having grown tired of living off their dwindling stored supplies, Katherine had persuaded some of her troops to accompany her on an impromptu hunt for fresh meat for the people of the village. That is, she had instructed them they were going hunting and then quickly quashed any disagreement with one of her patented stares, having no need of words to back up its power.

Katherine had maintained the trip was for the good of the whole community and had nothing to do with her own need to get out from the confines of the manor house if only for a few hours. It was always a difficult time when the snows came, basically cutting them off from the outside world. The manor house could get rather claustrophobic after weeks spent in the same company, not to mention decidedly smelly. At this time of year the whole village would batten down the hatches and wait for the thaw that signalled the onset of spring. That meant the great hall at the house was overflowing with peasants since many would live and sleep there during winter, abandoning their own chilled homes to take advantage of the lord’s hospitality and roaring fire. Or in this case the lady’s hospitality.

When Katherine had been re-instated as head of the estate after the untimely death of her husband, Mark, there had been those that were worried about her capacity to run it, considering she was only a ‘weak woman’. The fact that her first act as head of the estate had been to dismiss one of her supposedly most loyal knights, Charles Kirby, had only added to the reservations of her doubters. What those people didn’t know was that Kirby was a devious, scheming, coward and couldn’t be trusted in the slightest. Katherine realised she could have made this public knowledge, but that was the sort of thing Kirby would stoop to. Katherine was better than that. She had gotten rid of him, there was no need to go around disparaging his character; she preferred to leave it to others to come to their own judgements.

For a while after his departure she had worried that he might re-surface, and try to take advantage of her initially precarious position in an attempt to usurp her. However, she hadn’t seen his dark, tattooed face since the day she had punched it some three months previously. His parting threat that he would ‘get her back’ hadn’t come to fruition – yet. Knowing that he was still potentially dangerous though, Katherine had instructed the captain of her guard, Tobias, to keep track of Kirby’s whereabouts and activities. It appeared that he’d been spending a lot of time in Nottingham, in the company of the Sheriff. Katherine didn’t think that boded well, knowing the Sheriff’s reputation for cruelty and tyranny, and waited anxiously for each of Tobias’ reports. The last thing she needed was Kirby turning the Sheriff against her, the other man being one of the most powerful in the country. Katherine had always maintained an uneasy relationship with him in the past, not liking his morals or ethics, or more precisely his lack of them, but knowing she couldn’t afford to have him as an enemy.

Still, nothing had happened as yet and as the months passed, Katherine’s position only became stronger. She had been in the situation of having to stand in for her dead husband before. However, this time there was absolutely no chance that he was going to make a miraculous return from the grave. Katherine had seen him murdered in front of her eyes and subsequently buried him beneath the now frozen ground outside Markham church.

People were even starting to get used to her more unorthodox way of running the manor. If it wasn’t already odd enough that she was a woman, she confounded people even further by being close to the common people, caring for them and listening to what they had to say. To Katherine it was only common sense – it was the peasants who really know the land and were the lifeblood of the estate. So it was much better to gain their trust and respect, rather than take the approach of many other lords and noblemen and seek to abuse and use them whenever possible.

Katherine knew her approach wasn’t exactly approved of by her fellow noble men and women, but on the other hand many did have a grudging respect for her and some even admired her. One thing was for sure, all of them knew who she was.

“M’lady!”

Delta exhaled a great cloud of air from his nostrils as Katherine pulled up hard on his reins, his breath a mass of white in the freezing air. Katherine undid the scarf over her own mouth, pushing back the furry hood that covered her head so she could speak properly to the person hailing her. The coldness of the air was sharp, stinging against her flushed cheeks.

By her side, Tobias drew level on his own mount. His cloak sported the blue and gold colours of the Markham estate, billowing out behind him in the stiff breeze. “Thomas thinks he saw some tracks off to the west of the trail,” the stoic man informed her, removing his own face covering momentarily.

Katherine brushed some of her damp auburn hair back from her face, her thick hood having kept in both the heat and moisture. “Then I suggest that’s the way we go.”

Tobias merely nodded, informing the rest of the blue and gold bedecked troops of her decision while Katherine pulled her hood back up and turned Delta in the direction specified. She could immediately see what Thomas had spotted, urging Delta on through the deep snow in search of their quarry.

They were close to the edge of Sherwood Forest now, on the far western edges of the Markham Estate. The great swathes of the Forest were mostly uninhabited apart from a few hardy souls and pockets of outlaws who used the forest to take refuge from their various misdemeanours. One of the most notable groups was that overseen by Robin Hood, Katherine having a particular interest in that band. Of course she kept any such association well and truly secret. Even her renowned ‘eccentricity’ wouldn’t stretch to it being acceptable to be involved with outlaws in general and one outlaw in particular.

“There!” came a sudden shout, breaking Katherine out of thoughts before she could get too pleasantly carried away.

She saw a quick darting flash of antler through the bare trees, immediately spurring Delta on into a gallop. The young colt seemed eager for the chase, charging through the snow and sending up a shower of white in his wake. Katherine tried to keep her eyes on the bobbing head in front of her, but it became increasing difficult with all the snow being thrown up in her face. Having wiped some from her eyes she realised she had lost the animal, bringing Delta to a stop on the crest of a hill for a moment to survey the area.

Now she was at rest, Delta merely shifting on his feet as she guided him round in a circle, Katherine noticed for the first time that she was alone. She deduced that she must have left the others behind in her haste and supposed she should just wait where she was until they caught up. Delta whinnied beneath her, perhaps upset they had stopped and he was now getting cold. Katherine reached down to comfortingly pat his neck when suddenly there was a loud crashing noise through the undergrowth beside them and a pair of antlers loomed from the greenery. Delta reared up instantly in surprise, dumping Katherine straight off his back into the soft snow where she tumbled back down the summit’s slope.

When Katherine finally came to a halt and got to her feet it was quiet once more, her own frantic breathing was all she could hear in the still air. Katherine quickly removed her tangled scarf from her neck and pushed her hood back so she could study her surroundings. Delta was nowhere to be seen in the white landscape, having seemingly disappeared somewhere beyond the ridge. Katherine ruefully brushed the loose snow off her coat, cloak and trousers, cursing herself for having lost the rest of her party. It would be a long walk back to Markham, especially when the snow was almost up to her knees, her thick boots invisible beneath it. She was gauging exactly which way the manor house was when the soft sound of scrunching behind her penetrated the calm.

Katherine slowly swivelled round, being met by a pair of angry yellow eyes and an even deadlier pair of horns. The stag was standing about twenty feet away, simply staring at her, the steam rising from its nostrils before quickly dissipating into faint wisps in the winter air. Instinctively Katherine felt for her sword, her gloved hands finding that her scabbard was empty. Being careful not to make any sudden movements she cast her eyes around the snow, which yielded no sign of the missing weapon.

“Good boy,” Katherine tried, starting to back away with deliberate slowness.

The stag let out a snort in reply, a fresh plume of steam heading up to the azure sky.

Katherine was continuing to edge backwards, wondering how fast she might be able to run. “No need to get angry,” she said in calm tones, knowing that however fast it was, it wouldn’t be fast enough.

Suddenly the stag let out one last whinny, dipped its head and started charging. Katherine turned and began ploughing through the snow in an awkward hop skipping run. She could hear the pounding feet behind her, getting closer and closer with each of her own laboured steps. She could almost sense the stag’s hot breath on her back when all of a sudden a whistling noise rose above the sounds of the frantic chase. A dull thud was followed by a louder one as the stag collapsed into the snow behind Katherine.

Breathing heavily, Katherine swung back round to see the stag lying still in the snow, an arrow sticking straight up from its side, buried deep within its flesh. The blood pumped from the wound, staining the pure white of the snow with a garish river of red. Beyond the stag’s body, Katherine saw another human figure heading her way. They wore all black, including a black hood pulled up over their head, while the bow responsible for the deadly strike was slung across their slender shoulders. As they got closer, they pushed back the hood to reveal their soft golden hair, a pair of piercing blue eyes fixing on Katherine.

“How many times do I have to save your backside exactly?”

A lop-sided grin broke across Katherine’s face. “At a rough guess, I’d say at least a few dozen more,” she replied with amusement.

Anne rolled her eyes, reaching down to extract her arrow from the fallen animal. She paused as her hand neared it, resting it gently on the top for a moment to see if there was any residual heartbeat. Katherine seized the opportunity to sidle closer to the young woman. “I thought you liked coming to my rescue,” she commented.

“That was before I realised quite how frequent an occurrence it was going to be,” replied Anne wryly, straightening up with her arrow having ascertained the animal was dead. “You might want to keep this closer in the future,” she added, reaching under her cloak and producing Katherine’s sword.

“Ah, my lucky sword!” Katherine identified, “Or your lucky sword, should I say.” She accepted the weapon that had originally been a gift from Anne during the period the year before when Katherine had been required to live amongst the outlaws for a short time.

“Not quite so lucky in this instance,” noted Anne as Katherine sheathed it.

“I don’t know,” allowed Katherine, “I always seem to worm my way out of even the most dire of circumstances when I have it.”

Anne couldn’t help smiling at that. “True, and even when you try to lose it, it comes back!”

Katherine smiled too, being warmed by the sight of Anne’s soft smile despite the ambient temperature. She knew Anne was referring to the fight with the dark witch Bronwyn when the blade had seemed lost down a deep chasm only to reappear when the unnatural fissure closed up.

“And even when the sword doesn’t work its magic,” added Katherine, coming even closer to the other woman now, close enough to feel the heat radiating off her body, “I know I have you to rely on.”

“Lucky for you I was close by,” noted Anne, also easing nearer. Her chest was now almost touching Katherine’s, her blue eyes regarding the slightly smaller woman with a sparkle of desire in them. As always the look penetrated straight through Katherine.

“Lucky for me,” she agreed, pulling Anne across the remaining distance and melding her lips to the inviting ones before her.

Even though they had been together for nearly ten months now, Katherine never ceased to be carried away on a wave of blissful emotions when they kissed. Each kiss seemed as freshly wonderful as their first all those months ago in Sherwood Forest, and Katherine hoped that never stopped being the case. When she kissed Anne it was as if nothing else in the world mattered, certainly not the fact that they were standing knee deep in snow, freezing their backsides off.

It was only the sound of approaching riders that broke the amorous women apart, Katherine reluctantly releasing her hold.

“Sounds like my cue to leave you to it,” noted Anne, her hot breath fluttering out over Katherine’s lips.

“I’ll see you later?”

“Of course,” replied Anne with a parting grin, before disappearing back the way she had come.

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Chapter 2

 

Lady Phillipa of Keighley sat in front of her cloudy mirror, absently pulling a brush through her long auburn hair. The repetitive task helped to calm her when her mind was troubled by dark thoughts as it was now. The action took her back to happier times of her childhood when it would have been either her mother or her elder sister, Katherine, doing the brushing. As she continued to ease the brush through the strands, her thoughts drifted to her sister, hoping that she would be seeing her soon. It had been too long and she needed her now more than ever, what with recent developments with the unsavoury knight, Hugh Coleville.

“You’re going to brush it right out.”

Phillipa jumped, having not heard her husband Peter entering the room. He smiled his usual warm smile at the startled reaction, though she wasn’t sure he would have been grinning quite so profusely had he known the subject of her thoughts.

“Mind elsewhere?” he asked as he came to sit on the bed at her side.

Phillipa glanced at him wondering, not for the first time, whether she should tell him about Coleville and his demands. She knew she should have said something the first time the man came to visit Keighley Manor, but now it was getting harder and harder on each occasion.

“Oh, I have some news,” added Peter, relieving Phillipa of the need of making a decision, “Hugh Coleville is coming to see us again.”

Phillipa just about restrained the audible groan that threatened. She tried to keep her voice as even as possible when she spoke, though already the feelings of dread were welling up inside of her. “When?” was all she managed.

“I’m not sure exactly - it depends on the weather, but soon.”

The happy look on his face put paid to any last notions Phillipa might have had of telling him what had been going on with her and Coleville. The two of them were good friends, though whether Peter knew of his friend’s less admirable qualities Phillipa wasn’t sure. And not only were they friends, but also Coleville was an important contact, being so closely linked to the powerful estate at Stratford, her childhood home. It just wouldn’t be prudent for her to cause trouble.

In fact she sometimes wondered whether it would just be easier to give in, to give Coleville what he wanted. Even as she thought it she couldn’t help shuddering – the man was just so…creepy.

The only ray of sunshine on the horizon was that Katherine would be coming soon too. Her sister had always been the strong and resourceful one, so perhaps she might be able to help with Coleville. Phillipa had already written to Katherine, and now all she could do was pray that she would arrive at Keighley before her other much less welcome visitor.

……..

 

Katherine ascended the stone steps at the rear of the great hall of Markham Manor, leaving the heat of the fire and the raucous noises of the peasants behind her. Her apparent kill had been greeted with universal acclaim, and Katherine had felt a touch guilty for taking credit for Anne’s handiwork, but not guilty enough to correct the assumption. She was sure Anne wouldn’t mind, especially when it only made Katherine more popular amongst her people.

It was cold on the stairs and Katherine quickly ducked inside the solid oak door to her bedroom, pleased to see that her maid Beatrice had recently stoked the fire in there, the crackling wood generating a golden glow round the stone walled room. The young maid was now downstairs enjoying the feast with everyone else, so Katherine could only assume she had slipped away at some point when she had managed to tear herself away from her sweetheart Thomas for more than five minutes. The conscientiousness of Beatrice’s work could be rather haphazard, her attention to detail seeming to waver in direct correlation to the young man’s presence in the house. Still, Katherine could hardly complain about the distractions of love since she herself was prone to their effects. She was also wont to be more lenient on Beatrice since she relied on the maid to keep her secret and actively aid in it remaining that way.

A sound at the window indicated that her ‘secret’ was on its way into the room at that precise moment. Anne hopped through to silently land on the wooden floor, crouching like a cat in the shadows. For a second she didn’t spot that Katherine was already present. It gave Katherine a brief moment to watch the light from the fire dancing along Anne’s jawline and up across her cheekbones, her long blond hair almost glowing in the faint light, bright against her black clothes. Then Anne suddenly sensed the perusal, her blue eyes darting to the other woman. As soon as she saw it was Katherine she straightened up.

“Good evening,” she said, a soft smile on her lips.

“Good evening,” replied Katherine, moving across the room to wrap her arms around Anne’s waist. Anne’s body was cold, but Katherine didn’t mind, slowly easing both of them towards the fireplace. “No problems getting in I assume?” she asked.

“No, the guards are far too busy trying to warm their hands by the fire,” Anne answered, happy to be guided towards the warmth, “And I made sure I utilised their own tracks in the snow around the courtyard as always.”

“Then we shouldn’t be disturbed,” noted Katherine, stopping so she could lift her head up and continue to warm other parts of Anne such as her lips.

Anne’s hands slid down Katherine’s side as they quickly sunk into the arousing touch. When they reached just above her waist Katherine suddenly flinched.

Anne immediately pulled back. “What is it?” she asked the concern evident in her blue eyes.

Katherine rubbed her side gingerly in the sore spot. “I just banged it a bit falling off Delta earlier, I didn’t realise it was quite so sore until I got back here.”

“Let me see,” said Anne, making to unhook Katherine’s top from her long skirt

Katherine caught her hands. “It’s all right really.”

Anne merely stared at her, the look on her face suggesting she didn’t believe her for a second. “That stag could have skewered you on its antlers and you’d still be maintaining it was all right. Let me have a look, I might not have any mystical healing powers anymore, but I do know a thing or two about bumps, bruises and scrapes.”

Reluctantly Katherine offered up her side, Anne easing the material up so she could feel the damage. Katherine flinched again at the touch, partly because it hurt and partly because Anne’s fingers were freezing.

“You could have warmed those up a bit,” she noted grumpily.

Anne glanced up from where she was studying the skin, her eyebrows raising suggestively. “Do you have any idea how I might do that?”

“Christ! You’re not doing it that way!” exclaimed Katherine, knowing full well what she meant. “You can warm them over the fire like everyone else.”

Anne grinned at the indignant retort before turning her attentions back downwards. Katherine winced a couple of more times as she gently poked and prodded.

“So there still haven’t been any signs of any of your abilities coming back?” asked Katherine casually.

“No,” confirmed Anne, “The connection I used to feel with nature is gone, broken for good.”

“I’m sorry.”

Anne stopped what she was doing again. “Why are you sorry?” she asked, “I willingly gave it up.”

“For me,” Katherine reminded her.

“Yes, for you,” agreed Anne, “But for me too! Don’t forget I was basically dead at that point. Having mystical powers wouldn’t have been much use if I was six feet under.” She pulled Katherine’s top back down over her skin. “Anyway, I think you were right there’s nothing broken, it’s just a bruise, you’ll survive.”

“See, I told you so,” Katherine pointed out, “Lucky for me, since I don’t really fancy the long trip to Yorkshire with sore ribs.”

“Yorkshire?” repeated Anne, trying to keep her voice even but failing miserably, “When are you going there?”

“I just had word from my sister that she’d like me to visit as soon as the snows clear. I haven’t seen her for nearly a year, so it’s high time I did my sisterly bit.”

“I see,” said Anne with a tiny nod, “And how long will you be gone?”

“Three or four weeks,” Katherine replied, “Depending on travelling time.”

There was more thoughtful nodding from Anne but no further words.

Katherine reached out her fingers, to stop the bobbing with a soft hand on the cheek. “You’re terrible at putting a brave face on things you know,” she remarked with a wry smile on her face, “You can say you’ll miss me, or you don’t want me to go if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Of course I’ll miss you,” said Anne, her face falling to allow her obvious disappointment to show through now, “But I can’t control your life, and I know you have other responsibilities and duties beyond me.”

“But none as important as you,” insisted Katherine, rubbing her fingers across Anne’s still chilled face, “And anyway, who says you’ll have to miss me. I was hoping you might accompany me.”

Anne merely looked confused. “What, but how? An outlaw in a noblewoman’s official party?”

“True that would be bad,” agreed Katherine, “If you were coming as an outlaw.”

“And what am I coming as?”

“One of my maids.”

“One of your…” repeated Anne, thinking it over, “Does this mean I have to wear a dress?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“And bow and curtsey and all that rubbish?”

Katherine couldn’t help smiling at Anne’s aversion to formality and etiquette. “Only when in the presence of the others who don’t know about us,” she allowed, “Though you can continue to do it when it’s just us if you like.”

Anne pouted at her before her face took on a more thoughtful expression. “Maybe I should practice now then?”

Before Katherine could ask exactly what she had in mind, Anne had taken her right hand and sunk to one knee in front of her. “I am your humble servant,” said Anne as earnestly as she could manage though Katherine detected the faint tremor of laughter from the bowed blonde head.

“I’m not the queen, you know,” Katherine pointed out, “Kneeling is only required for royalty.”

Anne’s eyes slowly tracked up Katherine’s body. “Are you sure about that?” she asked, the wanton look in her eyes unmistakable.

She released her hold of Katherine’s hand, her fingers sliding across the floor instead and lifting up the hem of Katherine’s skirt.

“Absolutely sure?” prompted Anne again.

Katherine looked down at the kneeling woman, her breathing starting to shorten in anticipation. “Actually, now you come to mention it, I think I may have read somewhere that it’s become more common amongst the regular nobility too.”

“I’d best continue paying my respects then,” commented Anne nonchalantly before lifting the skirt up higher and dipping her head underneath so that she was completely under it.

Katherine had to quickly brace herself against the wall as she felt Anne’s tongue sliding up her inner thigh. The teasing trail was achingly slow, Katherine screwing up her eyes and letting out a low moan when it reached its target. Her legs were already beginning to tremble as Anne slipped her tongue between the flesh and into the inviting wetness. Katherine heard a soft murmur of appreciation from somewhere under her skirt, the sound only heightening her own arousal, her fingers scraping on the bare stone of the wall behind her.

Anne continued to swirl her tongue around and in, each small penetration greeted with a fresh groan from Katherine. Then she was tracking it up through the flesh to the intensely sensitive area just above. As soon as Anne flicked her tongue across it Katherine felt a judder go through her whole body, having to desperately try and find something to hold onto on the wall lest she fall down.

Anne mercilessly teased it, sliding her stiff tongue back and forth across it with increasing speed until Katherine was biting her lip to stop from screaming out. Finally it was all too much and Katherine’s head was tipped back against the wall, a silent scream issuing from her lips as the orgasm shot through her. She leant heavily back against the stone, panting, as Anne slipped out from under the dress.

As she stood she wrapped her arms around Katherine, seeing that she was having trouble standing, pulling their bodies close. Anne’s head was dipped near Katherine’s neck and Katherine could feel her starting to kiss the pale skin that lay there.

Katherine pulled back from the embrace. “Ah-ah, it’s my turn,” she noted with a wag of the finger. As Anne made to speak, Katherine quickly pushed her back onto the waiting bed.

She winced slightly as she clambered on top of the prone woman, her strained side complaining loudly at the exertion, but Katherine was hardly going to let a little thing like that stop her. Not when she had near six-feet of gorgeousness between her thighs, just waiting to be taken advantage of.

Anne’s lips were eager as Katherine bent low to kiss them, hands shooting up to pull her down further so that warm bodies pressed together. Katherine slid her hand beneath the barrier of clothing, seeking out the flesh beneath. The guttural moan from Anne bubbled up past her lips as Katherine’s fingers closed over her breast, teasing the nipple into swift erection. When a second hand slipped beneath the black material Anne’s head was tipped back on the covers, mouth open, gasping, while her fingers reached up to tangle in Katherine’s hair, dislodging it from its bindings so it tumbled over her shoulders.

Katherine slipped up to kiss the inviting neck exposed to her, swirling her tongue over the smooth skin, pausing every so often to make a small nip. Anne’s long golden hair was loose over the blankets now, splaying out behind her twisting head as Katherine continued her trail round to Anne’s ear. She paused, hovering close to blow gently over the opening, able to feel the corresponding shiver beneath her roving hands.

She stilled the trembling anticipation in her own fingers as they wormed their way down over Anne’s abdomen and under the hem of the black trousers. Anne was so wet that Katherine couldn’t help the small groan of desire that slipped past her lips to flutter out over Anne’s ear. Her fingers easily slid through the moisture and into the soft flesh beyond, first one, then another.

The moan from Anne’s mouth was cut off by Katherine hungrily pushing hers to the full lips as her fingers delved deep within Anne. She could feel the other woman clenching against her as she slowly curled her fingers up to find that extra sensitive spot, the hands that grasped frantically at her, digging into her shoulders telling her without words when she had.

Anne’s breathing was becoming increasingly shallow as Katherine remorselessly stroked the flesh, building into an unstoppable rhythm that finally reached a crescendo with Anne screaming out to the night as she held Katherine fast within her. Katherine had to quickly thrust her spare hand over Anne’s mouth to quell the noise, afraid they would be quickly joined by some of her guards fearing she was being attacked.

When she could see Anne had regained at least some of her senses she removed it. “Sorry about that, but I’m sure it’s better than having Tobias burst in on us.”

Anne caught her hand before she could take it too far, kissing the digits tenderly. “I’m sure he must be used to it by now, with all the noise you make.”

“I do not make noise.”

Anne merely raised her left eyebrow, the one with the small scar above it. “Care to make a wager on that?”

“What do I get when I win?” asked Katherine with a saucy grin.

“I’m sure we can come up with something appropriate,” replied Anne, rolling Katherine over onto her back, “But you won’t win…”

 

……….

 

“Will you stop fiddling with that dress? You’re going to wear out the fabric!”

Anne looked balefully at her companion, the dark-haired maid, Beatrice. “But it’s so damn annoying! How do you manage to attend anyone properly while wearing this?” Anne made another indignant tug of the folds of her skirt.

Beatrice stuck her hand on her hips unsympathetically. “You would rather traipse around in trousers like some worker out in the field?”

“Yes!”

“And that wouldn’t look too conspicuous would it!” cried the maid in exasperation. “Now come on, we need to get this right,” she added, turning her attention back to the table before them. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning and you still haven’t mastered how to lay the table and present food properly.”

“Because I always wanted to know those things,” replied Andrea sarcastically, “Unsurprisingly table manners are not foremost in an outlaw’s mind when fighting for a fair share of the day’s food round the fire.”

“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn. I’m going to make a lady of you yet, or at least someone capable of being a maid to a lady!”

Anne frowned at Beatrice once more as the maid took the seat at the table, playing the role of noblewoman to Anne’s maid. It had been two weeks since Katherine had told her of their impending trip, and with the turning of February into March the snow had finally melted to make it possible. Anne wasn’t sure if she was looking forward to it or not. Going was better than the alternative of staying behind and missing Katherine for a month, yet her lessons with Beatrice had convinced her she was definitely not cut out to be a maid. It was all just too servile for the independent Anne. Still she would give it her best attempt for Katherine’s benefit, and her own.

“Oi, are you going to make me wait all day, wench!”

Anne stared at Beatrice who seemed to be enjoying herself far too much. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me, wench. Now give me my food!”

“I’ll give you something,” replied Anne, starting to lift the plate she held above Beatrice’s head.

“Hey!” cried Beatrice, holding up a stalling hand, “I’m just trying to give you a taste of your typical noble person. And that’s not Lady Katherine, believe me.”

Anne lowered the plate, thrusting it onto the table in front of Beatrice with a surly look on her face.

“No, no!” exclaimed the maid instantly, “That was from the wrong side! Always serve from the right.”

Anne silently whipped the plate back up, walked round the back of Beatrice and banged it down from her other side. The force jarred the wooden table, sending one of the knives clattering off the surface and down onto the floorboards. Anne swore loudly in frustration. She reached down, snatched up the knife and then hurled it point first across the room where it buried itself in the upright post of Katherine’s bed. Now that’s what you used a knife for! Another voice broke her out of her smug study of the still quivering handle.

“I hope you won’t be using language quite that colourful when we reach Lord Gilbert’s house,” noted Katherine from the doorway, “And though it was very impressive, the inventive use of cutlery might be a little attention grabbing.”

“Why don’t you come and try laying these things out and then make your sarcastic comments?” offered Anne indignantly.

Katherine tilted her head to the side. “Is that a challenge?”

“Yes!”

“All right,” said Katherine, purposefully rolling up the sleeves of her top as she crossed the room. Anne moved out of the way to allow her access to the table, Katherine pausing for a moment as she passed. “Nice dress, by the way,” she remarked with a wink. “Now, what would m’lady like?” she asked, addressing the still seated Beatrice.

The maid was doing her best to stifle a grin. “I want my dinner, w…” she paused on the word. It seemed Beatrice couldn’t quite bring herself to use the derogatory term with Katherine, even if they were role-playing, “…now!” she finished with instead.

“Yes, m’lady,” replied Katherine, in a quiet servile voice, dipping her head slightly.

Anne could only watch in consternation as Katherine bowed and scraped her way round Beatrice. It wasn’t pleasant viewing, though she played the role amazingly well.

“All right, all right, enough!” cried Anne eventually, rather disturbed at seeing Katherine so out of character.

Katherine straightened up, still holding one of the knives in her hand. “Why don’t you imagine the knives and forks as your extensive sword collection,” she suggested, handing it back to Anne, “And treat them with similar reverence?”

Anne took the knife, offering one last pout of indignation. This could well be a long trip.

 

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Chapter 3

 

After two days of travelling out of Markham, Anne’s acclimatisation into the world of servitude wasn’t coming along much better. She’d been accepted as a new member of Katherine’s entourage easily enough by the other servants and troops, since the members of any noble’s household were always quite fluid anyway. However, learning what it was she was meant to do was proving much harder. She just wasn’t used to having to follow anyone’s orders, much too free-spirited to fit into a prescribed role.

A much sterner test awaited her too on the third day, as they were due to stop over at the local Lord’s house in Royston. So far they’d been camping on their journey, but since Katherine was reasonably good friends with Lord Gilbert, it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up – to have a solid roof over their heads for at least one night.

It was nearing dusk by the time the party drew into the courtyard at Royston, a procession of horses and carts trundling lazily through the mud. Anne leapt down from the cart she was riding with the other maids, the hem of her dress immediately flopping into a puddle. Her curse was quickly bitten off when she saw Beatrice giving her a warning look, at the same time indicating the approaching Lord with her eyes.

If Anne had been in a kindly mood she would have classed him as being ‘sturdy’, but today she just thought of him as fat. His podgy face was fixed in a smile as he saw Katherine descending from her carriage. The man quickly reached out to take her hand and help her as if she was incapable of doing something so taxing on her own. Katherine smiled back as she accepted the aid, Anne convinced it was utterly false. Then again Katherine had known the man for years, so perhaps she didn’t mind him fussing over her.

The pair of them quickly disappeared inside as the rain started to fall, leaving Anne and the rest of the party to unload in the fast fading light. Once inside the manor house, Anne kept close to Beatrice, following her into the kitchens where preparations were being made for dinner. The only good thing about the room was that it was welcomingly warm after toiling out in the freezing rain. Other than that it was a hive of activity, cooks and maids and guards tripping over one another in the hubbub. Anne was sure they didn’t all need to be in there, supposing it was the warmth that drew them in. She felt decidedly uncomfortable in the crowded enclosed space, especially when she got jostled a few times by busy workers. A far corner of the room that was away from the fire looked appealingly quiet and Anne managed to barge her way to it, finding it already occupied when she finally reached its safety.

“All right, Anne,” greeted the young guard Thomas, chewing on what looked like a chicken leg.

“Thomas,” she acknowledged, sliding into the corner next to him. “Is it always like this in these places?” She felt safe displaying her lack of knowledge to him, since he was one of the few people in on her and Katherine’s secret. Not that either of them had told him personally, but they had known it wouldn’t be long before he found out once Katherine told the garrulous maid Beatrice.

“Pretty much,” he confirmed, continuing to munch noisily on his food. “Though I think they’re extra keen to get it right for Lord Gilbert, he’s a bit of a tyrant from what I’ve heard.”

“Really?” noted Anne with interest. And Katherine was friends with this man?

“Yeah, all his servants seem to be scared of him – has quite the temper apparently. I think we forget how lucky we are with Lady Katherine sometimes.”

Thomas was prevented from saying anything further when the form of Tobias appeared through the haze of the room.

“Is there any reason you’re lounging around in here?” the stiff captain of the guard questioned Thomas.

“Er…no, sir.”

“Then you can get outside and sort the horses out,” instructed Tobias.

Any argument was swiftly cut off by a stern look from the dark man.

“Yes, sir,” said Thomas meekly, dumping what was left of his food and heading for the door.

Tobias gave Anne an almost imperceptible nod before he too left the room. Anne didn’t get to linger there long however, before she was sequestered to help with the dinner. As a plate carrying some sort of roast meat was shoved into her hands she realised she should have made herself appear busier.

Anne didn’t really have much choice but to be swept along in the tide of other servants carrying various foodstuffs and plates, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible. They hurried down a torch-lined corridor and up a short flight of stone steps before coming out at the back of the main hall. It was of a similar size to the hall at Markham, and as there was dominated by the long wooden table in the centre and the large fire at the opposite end. Anne was surprised at the number of people sitting around the table and the level of noise in the room – it was more raucous than even the kitchen. She had assumed that it would just be Katherine and the Lord, plus whatever members of his family there were. Yet there were a whole host of other people arrayed around the table. As Anne studied them, she realised she had been wrong in her first assessment – there were a whole host of men arrayed around the table. Katherine was the only woman present apart from the servants.

Katherine didn’t appear perturbed by that fact, happily swigging away at a mug of ale as she laughed heartily with the nobleman next to her. Anne sidled round the room with her plate depositing it on the table as she watched the other woman the whole time, hoping to at least catch her eye. Yet it was as if she was invisible – not only to Katherine but to all the other seated people in the room. A strange unsettling feeling was building inside Anne as she continued to witness Katherine’s behaviour – how she was fawning over the men and generally trying to ingratiate herself with everyone present. This was a side of her Anne had never seen before and she wasn’t entirely sure she liked it.

Suddenly there was a crash that resounded round the whole room, breaking Anne’s thoughts.

“You stupid woman!”

Anne turned to the sound of the raised voice, seeing that one of the maids had somehow managed to drop a dish over Lord Gilbert’s leg, the offending item now on the floor. The man was red in the face as he glowered angrily at her.

“I’m sorry, m’lord,” the mortified maid said, attempting to dab at his thigh with her dress. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen years of age.

“Don’t touch me!” bellowed the man. His hand shot out in a flash, striking her hard across the temple and sending her sprawling on the stone floor.

Anne was fastest to react as he rose from his chair, intending to continue with his retribution. She was swiftly in between the two of them before he could land another blow.

“Leave her alone,” she ordered.

The room was silent now, as if it had taken a collective intake of breath at Anne’s temerity. The Lord’s face curled into an incredulous sneer, looking at Anne with more contempt than anyone had ever directed at her. Or at least directed at her and lived to tell the tale.

“You dare to speak to me like that?” he thundered.

Unlike the poor maid, Anne easily saw the incoming fist and caught the Lord’s wrist before it got anywhere near her. He yanked it back again, his mouth opening and closing in silent fury as if he couldn’t find the words to express his obviously immense rage. Anne merely stood defiantly where she was, noting that there was finally some movement from other quarters of the room. Beatrice arrived at her side, trying to pull her away, while Katherine was next to Lord Gilbert, placing a calming hand on is arm.

“I’m sorry for my servant, m’lord,” said Katherine with obsequious apology, “She’s new to my household.”

“New? New?” blustered the Lord, “She needs to be taught some manners!” cried the still angry man.

“I know, I know,” agreed Katherine, nodding as she deftly managed to turn him away, “And I shall deal with her later. But why don’t we sit and have another mug of ale, forget about these stupid peasants? You can tell me all about how you managed to capture those highwaymen that were plaguing you. I hear it was quite a feat of cunning on your part.”

“Well, yes it was…” he agreed, falling for the flattery and allowing her to lead him back to his seat.

Anne caught the barest of looks from Katherine as they sat back down, warning her not to make anything more of the incident. Anne gritted her teeth, and decided to allow Katherine to deal with the man if she was so inclined. After helping the downed maid to her feet she stalked back to the kitchens.

…….

A couple of hours later, Anne had finished up in the kitchens and was on her way to the servants quarters. Those basically consisted of a large room where they slept on the floor. Anne didn’t know what she had expected on the trip, but it was turning out to be a lot harder and a lot less glamorous than she might have imagined. She was surprisingly weary, that strange because she would normally be a lot more physically active when out in the Forest. She considered that maybe it was the constant pressure of the servant’s lot that added to her tiredness. As she trooped along she thought that if this was the life of a servant then they could jolly well keep it. It was easier being an outlaw, at least you didn’t have to answer to anyone in Sherwood Forest.

A sudden movement off to her side caught Anne’s attention before she was yanked out of the corridor and into a small side room. Katherine’s warm body swiftly pressed up against her, soft lips brushing past her own. For once the act did little to stir Anne out of her morose mood.

Katherine wasn’t slow to pick up on that fact either, pulling back to look up at Anne with inquisitive eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m surprised you could lower yourself to come down here,” noted Anne, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “Dragging yourself away from your people.”

Katherine merely looked bemused at Anne’s hostility. “What are you talking about?”

“The refined noblemen and women,” outlined Anne, “Isn’t that where you belong, with them? Not with the common riff raff like me.”

Katherine continued to look perplexed, but Anne was warming to her subject now. The behaviour of the lord and all the other nobles earlier had annoyed her and now was the time to express some of that frustration. Never mind that she was directing it at entirely the wrong person. “Seeing you tonight made me realise just how far apart in class we are,” she added bitingly.

Katherine took a step back, starting to see what was occurring. “This is because of how I was with Lord Gilbert and the others?” she deduced, “I thought you would have known me well enough by now to know that was just an act, a front I have to put on to play my role as the lady of the manor. You know I don’t really think like that. As far as I’m concerned being born into nobility might give you money and power, but it doesn’t automatically give you class. We may have been born into different worlds, but I love you Anne, as an equal.”

“But I’m not an equal am I?” pointed out Anne, “And I never will be. In the eyes of everyone else I’m some lower class peasant. You saw how Lord Gilbert looked at me, like I wasn’t fit to lick his boots, let alone be in the same room. I’m surprised you even dare be seen talking to me.”

“This is ridiculous,” cried Katherine, throwing an exasperated hand in the air, “Since when have I ever cared what anyone else thinks?”

“Then why am I playing the role of servant?”

There was a definite pause as Katherine stared at her. “What do you mean?” she finally asked.

“I could have pretended to be some contemporary of yours,” offered Anne, “A long lost relative perhaps - god knows you nobles have enough of those - but you naturally cast me in the role of your subordinate.”

“I just thought that would be easier.”

“Easier for you, you mean.”

Katherine sighed, stepping closer to the young woman again so she could stroke her arm. “This is silly, Anne, I don’t think of you as my subordinate. I merely thought it would be easier for you to pretend to be a servant because it would draw less attention to you. You are a wanted outlaw, after all, as a servant you could just blend into the background.”

Anne wasn’t in the mood to be placated, still too incensed by what she’d seen earlier. “Right, because no one notices the servants do they? In fact it’s like they’re not really people at all. Beat them, use them, it doesn’t matter; we are only ‘stupid peasants’ after all.”

Katherine’s face darkened as Anne used her own words against her. “That’s not how I think,” she stated, letting her hand drop away from Anne’s arm, “I only said that to calm Lord Gilbert down after your little show. Quite frankly I’m hurt that you would even suggest it.”

“You’re hurt?” cried Anne obstinately, “You’re not the one who has to ‘blend into the background’, the one who has to suck up to idiots like Lord Gilbert!”

“I didn’t make you come with me on this trip!” Katherine reminded her, her own tone becoming more irate by the second, “You could have stayed behind. And anyway I have to do just as much ‘sucking up’ as you do, just in a different way. I’m having to be something I’m not, just as much as you.”

“But why, why does it have to be that way?” implored Anne, “Why can’t we be who we are? Why do we have to hide behind pretext and lies?”

“You really expect it to be any other way?” Katherine asked incredulously, “This is the society we live in, and sometimes we have to act certain ways, fill certain prescribed roles to fit in with its constraints. We might not like it, and we can do small things to change people’s attitudes, but it’s not going to change overnight just to suit us.”

Anne petulantly kept her mouth shut, maintaining her fierce glare. Katherine returned it in kind, her pale blue eyes bright with determination in the dim room. “Would you rather I openly declared the nature of our relationship to the world?” she offered, the frustration obvious in her voice, “Because I will if that’s what you really want. But think long and hard on what might happen first.”

Katherine held her gaze for a couple more seconds to add weight to her point before sweeping from the room and slamming the door behind her.

 

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Chapter 4

 

The tension between Katherine and Anne eased little on the rest of the journey north to Katherine’s sister’s home in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Anne remained stubbornly indignant about the events at Royston, even going so far as to remain with the other maids when they stopped to make camp, rather than sneaking in and joining Katherine in her tent as she had done on the first stage of the journey. Katherine was equally as stubborn, not bothering to speak to the young woman as their travels continued for another couple of days. It was a fine day when they finally arrived at the town of Keighley on the edge of the moors, their vast swathes looking benign in the spring sunlight. However, Anne had heard tales of how dangerous they could be – how many a traveller had been caught out attempting to cross them. The weather could sweep in fast and then those travellers were never heard from again. Katherine’s sister’s house lay just outside the town, occupying a slightly raised position as was befitting the home of the local lord.

The train of people, horses and carriages from Markham trundled into the grassy courtyard of the house, but they had barely come to a halt when the door had been flung open and someone was bounding out to greet them. Anne could see the family resemblance straight away, the woman heading eagerly in their direction having the same auburn hair and blue eyes as Katherine. She was a few years younger and slightly fatter about the face and body, but otherwise it was obvious they were sisters. Katherine just about had time to get out of her carriage before Phillipa swept her up in a warm embrace, squeezing her tightly.

She couldn’t hear what they were saying from her place, and then they were off, walking inside. Anne watched them the whole way, hoping that Katherine was going to turn at some point, even if just for a second, but she didn’t. As the door swung resoundingly shut Anne let out a resigned sigh, feeling more disenchanted by the minute. She wondered how far it was back to Sherwood Forest and how long it would take her to walk there, if she didn’t steal a horse along the way that was.

Yet she couldn’t quite bring herself to follow that course of action, however tempting it might be. There was something intangible that told her this was where she was meant to be. Annoyed at her own feelings, along with Katherine and everyone else she trudged inside with the rest of the retinue.

The house was similar to the one at Royston though much larger, with the main hall dominating things and the servants banished to the kitchens and the warren of corridors and quarters out the back and downstairs. Anne was getting good at looking inconspicuous amongst the servants by now, keeping her head down and trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone. She busied herself at one of the tables half-heartedly grinding some wheat while managing to eavesdrop on small snippets of conversation as she did.

“I hear Mr Coleville’s back again,” she heard one woman saying over by one of the large wash tubs.

“Again?” cried the other woman next to her, busily scrubbing at some clothes, “I think he’s after her ladyship you know.”

“Don’t let the lord hear you saying that,” said the first woman quickly, glancing nervously around as she did, “You’ll be in the stocks faster than you can say rotten cabbage!”

The other one seemed unrepentant. “Then what’s he here for so often then?”

Her companion made a show of looking round the room again, Anne making sure to keep her own eyes down turned as they passed by her. Finally she leant in to her colleague, whispering none to subtly. “Well, keep this to yourself, right,” she hissed, “But old John told me that he heard Mr Coleville asking to buy something off her ladyship.”

“What was it?”

“I dunno, but whatever it was, she weren’t keen on selling,” she noted, sucking a breath through her rotten teeth, “Apparently he won’t take no for an answer, keeps coming back, and you know her ladyship – far too polite to tell him to get lost.”

“What are you up to?”

Anne jumped at the question suddenly directed at her, swinging to see Beatrice behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the two women were aware of her presence now and had moved off to a more discrete distance.

“Thanks,” noted Anne scornfully, “Just when it was getting interesting!”

“What was?” queried Beatrice.

“Never mind,” said Anne dismissively, “So what are we meant to be doing. Waiting on the great and the good like trusty little servants again?”

“Pretty much,” agreed the dark haired woman, “They’re having a dinner this evening, apparently there are a fair few guests, including some well-to-do knights and lords.”

Anne grunted disdainfully at the information. “Maybe Katherine can find a nice new husband then, someone more befitting her status.”

Beatrice’s brow furrowed at the remark. “Why are you being so hard on her?” she asked, already being aware of what had transpired to some extent, “She’s with you isn’t she? She may not go around broadcasting it to the world, but she’s yours where it counts – in here,” she added, jabbing at her chest.

“And how do I know that’s not just another role?”

“Oh, don’t be so stupid,” cried Beatrice, “God, I thought Thomas was dense sometimes, but you…Or is it just you being pig-headedly stubborn?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” insisted Anne, though it wasn’t really the truth.

“You don’t want to admit you were wrong do you?” commented Beatrice pointedly, “You’ve set your position and now you’re going to stand by it now matter how ridiculous it is or how much it hurts you personally. Better to think you’re right than be happy!”

Anne wasn’t going to admit it out loud, but she knew Beatrice was right. She had been stupid to let the argument simmer on more than was necessary - it wasn’t Katherine’s fault that they had to play the parts they were doing. Anne knew she had let her anger at Lord Gilbert and society in general be unfairly directed at the one she claimed to love. Having realised her mistake, the only problem now was finding a way to diffuse the situation.

……..

 

Katherine found herself caught up in a whirl of activity as soon as she got inside the manor house, most of it centred on her enthusiastic sibling. Phillipa had always been a bubbly personality, and now with the thrill of seeing her sister after so long she was in her element. Phillipa’s husband, Peter, flashed by in a blur as she whisked Katherine around the impressive house – it made Markham look quite shabby. Katherine didn’t think it was Phillipa’s intention to show off her wealth, but it couldn’t help coming across that way.

Once upstairs, Phillipa led Katherine into the private quarters where there were two small figures sitting on the floor, engaged in some sort of game with a maid. Both of their heads swivelled instantaneously on hearing the door, quickly followed by broad smiles breaking out on their young faces.

“Aunt Kathy!” cried both children as they leapt up, the boy and girl running over to hug her skirts.

Katherine felt the familiar pang she always did at times like these, the nagging regret about never having any children herself. She and Mark had tried, but it had just never happened. Not that her life had been unfulfilled in other ways, yet she couldn’t help the tiny doubts that somehow her worth as a woman was diminished by her inability to have children. It was stupid, she knew, and most likely just another example of society’s effect on her thought processes, but it was a real feeling nonetheless.

“Are you all right?” asked Phillipa, seeing the faraway look and guessing what caused it.

“Yes, fine,” said Katherine, offering her a reassuring smile.

“You never know, you might yet have some,” noted Phillipa, “What with Mark gone, god rest his soul, you’re free to marry again.”

Katherine couldn’t help the small rueful laugh that escaped her lips.

Phillipa looked puzzled at the outburst. “What?”

“Nothing, I just don’t think that’s likely,” Katherine remarked.

“Don’t be so negative,” insisted Phillipa, “Hugh Coleville’s here this week you know, and apparently Robert still asks after you.”

There was a faint stirring in Katherine’s heart at the mention of her first love. She and Robert Ashdown had shared a brief romance before she had settled down with the more suitable and steady Mark.

“He’s doing rather well at Stratford by all accounts, dare I say much better than father ever managed.”

“Really? Perhaps I shall have to pay him a visit to find out,” noted Katherine, unsure why she had made the statement. She didn’t still hold any feelings for him surely? She mentally shook herself – of course she didn’t she maintained. It was just her current estrangement from Anne that was causing such niggling doubts.

“Anyway, I’m sure you’ll want to rest up after your journey and then get ready for dinner,” said Phillipa, “Then we can see about attracting one of those nice men,” she added with a wink.

…………

 

When Katherine saw where she was seated for the evening she could tell Phillipa had taken it upon herself to ensnare Katherine a new husband as soon as possible. Like most people, it didn’t seem right to Phillipa that Katherine was a woman alone, not at her age - she needed a good man to look after her. Never mind that she had a perfectly good woman to do that, though she could hardly tell Phillipa or anyone else about Anne. She was slightly tempted to mention it to her sister, but wasn’t sure of the reaction she might get – whether the ties of family would be stronger than the prejudices of society. At least if she did tell her it might stop the constant far-from-subtle attempts to push her together with the various knights in attendance.

Not that there was much to tell at present, since she hadn’t even seen Anne since they had arrived, but the young woman was never far from Katherine’s thoughts. She realised their entire argument had been stupid, but now it seemed to have escalated to such a point that neither woman was willing to back down. Katherine considered ruefully that at least with men you could get them to easily do what you wanted – a bit of eye fluttering, a bit of playing the hopeless female and they were putty in your hands. None of that would work with Anne. She was more stubborn than a recalcitrant mule, but Katherine was determined not to back down this time – she could be stubborn too if she wanted.

“And here we have the guest of honour,” came Phillipa’s voice, bringing Katherine back to the current dinner. She was approaching Katherine with a tall, willowy man in her wake. Katherine recognised the Stratford crest on his tabard, it being the one of her ancestral family home in Warwickshire where she had grown up.

Phillipa drew up in front of her, the man regarding Katherine intently with a pair of keen brown eyes. Katherine felt faintly uncomfortable under the unflinching gaze. “Katherine, this is Hugh Coleville, captain of the guard at Stratford. Hugh, may I present my sister, Lady Katherine of Markham.”

“It is an honour to meet the first born daughter of Lord Edward of Stratford,” said the man rather formally. Katherine thought the greeting strange but made nothing of it, even when he took her hand to kiss it with great reverence.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Katherine remarked, shooting Phillipa a quick quizzical glance at the man’s odd behaviour.

Phillipa merely shrugged, and Katherine had to look back to Coleville who was staring expectantly at her again. “All of it good I hope,” he commented with a smile.

“Yes, and I assume you must be a good captain of the guard if you’re Robert’s…I mean the current Lord Stratford’s number one,” Katherine said, having to remember to keep on formal terms for the time being.

Coleville smiled again, and Katherine could see Phillipa trying to sneak away - surely she wasn’t trying to set her up with Coleville? He seemed pleasant enough, but the way he kept staring was vaguely creepy.

“May I take the seat next to you?” asked Coleville

“Yes, it would be a pleasure,” replied Katherine, unable to think of a suitable excuse to refuse.

As Coleville graciously pulled out her chair to allow her to sit, Katherine could see Phillipa taking her own place opposite. She looked faintly disturbed, putting paid to Katherine’s earlier assumption that she might be trying to get them together on purpose. It looked like Phillipa was uneasy in the knight’s presence too, and Katherine made a mental note to ask her about it later.

Once Lord Peter had taken his seat at the head of the table, the myriad dinner plates started to be brought forth from the kitchen. Katherine resolutely kept her eyes trained on the table in front of her, even when she caught sight of the blonde head amongst the other servants. Stubborn, she reminded herself, she was going to be stubborn too. Anne had wounded her with her behaviour at Royston, so Katherine resolved to ignore her for now.

That was easier said than done when suddenly a certain someone was reaching over to place a roasted pig’s head down in the centre of the table right in front of her. As Anne drew back, she turned her head to look directly at Katherine for a moment, lingering ever-so-slightly as she leaned over the table. Katherine couldn’t help but meet the gaze, the blue eyes boring into her. However, rather than the antagonism Katherine was expecting there was something else. An unformed apology? A yearning to say something?

Before Katherine could ponder it more the moment was rudely broken. “Yes, yes, thank you,” said Coleville tetchily, tugging on the back of Anne’s dress to pull her out of the way, “That will be all.”

Anne straightened up so that Katherine could see Coleville sitting next to her again, commanding her attention.

“Bloody servants!” he said with disdain to Katherine, “Sometimes you wonder where their brains are, they’d forget their own names given half the chance.” It was as if he didn’t care that Anne was standing right there next to them in full earshot.

Katherine’s mouth opened, but nothing was forthcoming as she was torn between defending Anne and maintaining decorum. The young woman hovered for a moment, staring at the top of Katherine’s head before disappearing for the kitchens. As Coleville continued with his eager conversation, Katherine couldn’t help glancing every so often to the kitchen door hoping to catch sight of Anne again, but the young woman did not re-emerge for the remainder of the meal.

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Chapter 5

 

“Good shot, M’Lord!”

Katherine watched her brother-in-law’s arrow lodging in the near-centre of the target, not really interested in whether Coleville thought it good or not. Her mind was far too occupied with thoughts of the night before to pay much attention, especially as it was just Coleville and Peter shooting while she and Phillipa looked on, playing the part of doting womenfolk.

Coleville was notching another arrow in his bow now, aiming for the target set up just outside the walls of the manor house. He checked to see if Katherine was watching, offering her a small smile before he loosed the bolt that thumped in close to Peter’s shot. Katherine dutifully and half-heartedly clapped the shot.

“Can’t we sneak back inside,” she whispered to Phillipa as the men contemplated their next shots.

“Something urgent to attend to?” queried Phillipa, studying her face for a reaction.

If Katherine didn’t know better she would have suspected Phillipa knew she wanted to get in and try and track down Anne. The dinner the night before had gone on into the small hours, Katherine unable to extricate herself until it was far too late to do anything about her desire to see and talk to the other woman. That desire had long ago overridden any lasting annoyance at Anne’s previous behaviour, especially now Katherine could see just how obnoxious some nobles really were. Coleville was really starting to grate on her nerves with his attentiveness and smarmy attempts at impressing her.

“No, nothing in particular,” replied Katherine, wracking her brains to come up with a plausible excuse. She considered saying she was cold – it certainly wasn’t the most inviting day to be standing around outside as the wind whipped down off the moors.

“I say, M’Lord, I think we might be boring the women,” said Coleville suddenly, interrupting them.

Katherine just about resisted the urge to confirm his statement. “Not at all,” she lied instead.

“Perhaps they think we’re making a poor show of it?” suggested Peter, “We haven’t hit the bull once after all.”

“It is rather windy,” remarked Coleville, “I bet even Robin Hood himself couldn’t hit that bull today.”

Katherine saw the perfect opportunity to prick the man’s pomposity, walking over to join them. “Mind if I have a go?” she asked, holding out a hand for one of their bows.

Coleville looked bemusedly at her. “You want to shoot a bow?” he asked incredulously. “It’s rather dangerous, I’m not sure it’s suitable…”

Katherine prevented any further discussion by taking Peter’s bow from his hands and quickly notching an arrow.

“You need to hold your elbow up a bit,” offered Coleville helpfully as she took up her stance.

Katherine merely stared witheringly back, silencing him before he could give any more pointless hints. She turned her eyes to the distant target, waiting a few seconds as the wind ebbed and flowed, gauging its force and direction. Ignoring the few scoffing snorts behind her she waited until she was happy before she loosed the arrow, the bolt sailing fast and true and thumping into the dead centre of the target.

With a satisfied smile she turned back to the dumbfounded Coleville. “Nothing to it,” she commented, handing Peter back his bow. He looked like he was trying to hide a smile.

“But…but…” stammered Coleville, stupidly looking back and forth between Katherine and the target.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me I think I shall be heading indoors into the warm,” said Katherine, immediately turning on her heel and leaving the dumbstruck Coleville behind.

She hadn’t been inside more than a few seconds however when she was accosted by someone else.

“Aunt Kathy!”

Katherine sighed to herself as she saw her nephew and niece running towards her. She loved them dearly, but she really wanted to attend to other matters. Playing the part of good aunt, she quickly pasted a smile on her face.

“George, Elizabeth,” she greeted, “What can I do for you?”

George who was six bounced eagerly in front of her. “Can you come and play? We were with Mary, but she had to go do something in the kitchens.”

“Yes, please come and play,” added Elizabeth, the elder of the two at eight years of age.

As they started tugging on her dress sleeves, Katherine had to relent. “All right, all right,” she said, “Come on, let’s go upstairs.”

It wasn’t really where she wanted to be, but Katherine supposed Anne would just have to wait until later.

…….

It was a good couple of hours before Katherine finally managed to negotiate her way out of the nursery, with assurances that she would be back shortly. She hurried down the back stairs towards the kitchens, thinking that at least she would have the excuse of procuring some food for the children to explain her presence. The corridors were empty and she had almost made it when something caught her attention. It was raised voices, coming from the direction of the courtyard.

“I’ve told you before, it’s not for sale,” came Phillipa’s voice.

“Trade then? There must be something I can offer you in return for the goblet?” The other speaker was Coleville, and an intrigued Katherine slipped closer.

“No. How many times do I have to tell you? It’s a family heirloom - I’m not willing to part with it at all.”

“You may regret not accepting my more than generous offers.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Whatever you want it to.”

There was silence after that comment, Katherine presuming one or other of them had departed. Stepping out into the courtyard Katherine found her sister still there, Phillipa quickly trying to hide her worried expression.

Katherine wasn’t fooled by the attempt. “What was that all about?”

“Nothing.”

Katherine crossed her arms and pinned Phillipa with a stern look. “Don’t give me that. What was he after?”

Phillipa sighed as she realised she would have to confess. “You know the goblet father gave me, the gold one with the emeralds and the strange writing?”

Katherine did remember it; it had been one of her father’s prized possessions, though she had never quite understood why. “He wants that?” she queried.

“Yes,” confirmed Phillipa. “He’s been here several times asking after it. I wanted to tell you before, but there just never seemed to be the right moment. He’s been bothering me for a couple of months now, but I didn’t think I could really say anything to Peter – they’re such good friends.”

“Is all this why you were giving Coleville that odd look at dinner last night?”

“Yes, not only has he been creeping around here all the time, but also there’s just something about him I don’t like.”

“I agree,” said Katherine. “I wonder what Robert was thinking in making him captain of his guard?”

Phillipa shrugged. “Who knows? But let’s forget about him, we have a party to prepare for.”

“A party? Actually I was…”

Phillipa cut her off before she could even attempt to come out with her excuse for going to see Anne. “Now come on,” she said, “You need to help me get ready, just like we used to do when father held all those gatherings and we’d sneak downstairs to join the grown ups.”

Before Katherine could raise any more objections, Phillipa had taken her hand and was leading her back up the stairs.

………..

 

Anne worked her way through the crowded hall, having to bump past a number of exuberant peasants and guests before she could find a safe spot to sit down in the corner. It was dark outside now, but the large room was brightly lit by the fire and the many torches that lined the walls.

The gathering was meant to be a celebration to mark Katherine’s visit, a time when the servants could join in with the nobles on an almost equal footing, both of them up in the main hall merrily dancing and eating. Anne’s eyes drifted over the others present, seeing the happy faces as the ale was swigged down with abandon by one and all. Already many of them appeared drunk, Anne catching sight of Thomas twirling Beatrice round the room before latching onto a surprised Lady Phillipa. She joined him for a pass back and forth up the room, Beatrice deciding she may as well join in by persuading Lord Peter to be her partner. Anne watched them wistfully for a moment before looking down to her own still full mug of ale cradled in her hands. She didn’t really feel like celebrating.

“Are you just going to sit there with a scowl on your face all night, or are you going to come and dance?”

Anne’s eyes shot up, seeing Katherine before her looking stunning in Anne’s favourite red dress. Her eyes tracked up it, a gasp almost issuing involuntarily from her lips when she met Katherine’s face, or more pertinently her hair. It was…different. Anne merely stared dumbly at it, and it took a moment for her to recall her prior mood. “You want to dance with me?” she asked incredulously, unable to stop another sly dig popping out. “Are you sure that’s seemly for a lady of the manor?”

Katherine bit her lip for a second. “How much longer are you going to keep going on about that?” she asked, “Because it’s getting really tiresome. I’ll say this once more, then I don’t expect to have to repeat it, all right?”

Anne automatically nodded, unable to do anything else under the commanding stare.

“I don’t care where you come from,” stated Katherine, “Or what you’ve done in the past, all that matters is who you are here and now. And despite this latest bout of infuriating stubbornness, I love you, Anne. Not some title, not some class, you and all your maddening quirks! Now, I’ll ask again, are you going to come and dance?”

Anne stood up, taking the hand that had been extended the entire time. As soon as their fingers touched she could feel the warmth filling her whole body, banishing the previous few days petty arguments. “I would like that very much,” she said, the smile close to her lips now.

Katherine led her out onto the dancing area, seemingly unconcerned about being seen together. When another couple of the maids barrelled past, dancing together, Anne surmised that for once they probably wouldn’t look out of place. Especially not when everyone was too far-gone to notice or care. They had danced together in private before and one or two times at the outlaw camp since no one there gave much credence to societal conventions. Even then there had been a few disapproving looks from some of the men, and Anne couldn’t help glancing around them at that moment, to see if anyone was watching. She didn’t care about herself, people could think what they liked about her, but she didn’t want to be responsible for ruining Katherine’s reputation, especially not in front of her family.

“It’s all right, no one’s paying attention to us,” Katherine remarked, seeing Anne’s study of their surroundings, “And it doesn’t matter if they are. I’m merely joining in the celebrations with one of my household aren’t I?”

Anne smiled back, still somewhat unconvinced, but willing to go along with Katherine if she was happy. Fixing on the music, they fell into step with the other dancers.

“I’m sorry for how I’ve been over the past few days,” Anne said in a whisper as they clasped hands, “Lord Gilbert just annoyed me, and I think it played into my own insecurities regarding how I see myself compared to you.” She paused to twirl Katherine round at the appropriate moment. “Part of me thinks I’m not fit to be with you, that I don’t deserve you.”

Having spun, Katherine was now close by, body pressing into Anne’s. Her eyes tracked upwards and Anne almost missed her next step when she saw them gazing lovingly at her. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Katherine.

If they had been alone Anne would have leant in and kissed Katherine at that point. She was sorely tempted to anyway, but remembered her vow not to make Katherine look bad. “I shouldn’t have taken out my anger on you,” she said instead, still feeling the need to apologise for her actions, “I know we can’t go around telling everyone of our real relationship, but it doesn’t matter, as long as we know that’s all that counts.”

Katherine grinned again. “And I thought I was going to have to sit this one out for much longer, you must be softening.”

As the song demanded, Anne pulled Katherine tight to her, able to whisper her next remark in the other woman’s ear. “Someone made me realise just how stupid and stubborn I was being,” she said, “Oh, and by the way, I like the new hairstyle.” Before Katherine could pull away in time with the music, Anne flicked her tongue over her earlobe, still able to hide the action behind Katherine’s hair despite the fact that it was much shorter than it had been earlier that same day. The gesture elicited a corresponding shiver from the other woman.

“I think we’re going to need to make our excuses quite soon,” Katherine whispered huskily, a slight blush on her face as she finally pulled back.

Anne grinned as the soft blue eyes fell upon her face. “So what happened to your hair?” she asked, having been wondering about it ever since she had set eyes on Katherine that evening.

“You don’t like it?”

Anne’s fingers traced through the now exposed auburn strands at the nape of Katherine’s neck. “Oh no, I like it very much.”

Katherine smiled, the soft expression framed by the newly shortened hair. “It was Phillipa’s idea, apparently it’s a cross between a ‘bob’ and a ‘page boy’. Don’t ask me what those are! I think she was secretly hoping it might help me attract a new man.”

“And is that what you want?”

Katherine grinned as she delivered a clandestine pinch to Anne’s bottom. “Definitely not.”

 

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Chapter 6

 

As the song ended, Katherine and Anne parted, applauding the musicians as was customary. Thinking she needed to cool off before she was forced to ravage Anne in the middle of the hall, Katherine pressed through the throng to find another drink, leaving Anne chatting with Beatrice. It was certainly true what they said about absence making the heart grow fonder, not to mention other areas that were also longing to be with the young woman. Katherine was sipping slowly at her ale when she was joined at the side of the room. Phillipa sidled close, leaning in to speak in hushed tones.

“So…what’s going on with you and that servant?”

“Which servant?” asked Katherine nonchalantly in return.

Phillipa rolled her eyes. “Which servant she says! The tall blond that you were dancing away with and longingly staring into the eyes of.”

“I was not!”

“Then why are you blushing now?”

Katherine took Phillipa’s arm, gently guiding her away from any other ears. “Phillipa you can’t go saying such things in public,” she said when she had determined they were in a safe spot.

“Maybe you should have thought of that before you started tripping the light fantastic together in front of everyone,” pointed out her sister, “You couldn’t have made it more obvious if you’d tried.”

Katherine had assumed no one would notice. “It was that bad?” she queried.

“All right, maybe I am exaggerating,” admitted Phillipa, “Most other people probably didn’t think anything of it, given the celebrations, but I am your sister, after all - I can tell when you’re in love.”

Katherine felt the heat rising in her cheeks again. It felt vaguely embarrassing being discovered by her sister like this, like she had been caught doing something she shouldn’t.

Phillipa was quick to pick up on the facial reaction. “Ah ha, I knew it!” she cried loudly.

“Shhh!” hissed Katherine, “Keep your voice down.”

Phillipa lowered her voice again. “Sorry, but it’s just too exciting, my big sister in love again at last.”

Katherine was rather taken aback by the response, she had expected Phillipa to be much more adverse to it. “You think it’s good then, despite the…you know…”

“What? Despite the fact that she’s a woman?” asked Phillipa. Katherine merely nodded. “I do have to say it’s rather surprising,” admitted Phillipa, “But it’s not that unusual.”

“It’s not?” Katherine was gobsmacked, wondering what sort of people Phillipa was now mixing with. Whoever it was Katherine had never met them.

“Perhaps not quite so much two women,” considered Phillipa, “But the men, especially the soldiers, they’re always at it.”

“They are?” Katherine had to wonder how Phillipa knew such things.

“Oh yes, it’s been happening for years, all the way back to the Romans. Not many people like to admit it openly though, since it’s supposedly such a sin.”

Katherine could identify with that, it was exactly why she hadn’t taken many people into her confidence. Even if as many people as Phillipa seemed to think were secretly ‘at it’, she was convinced none of them would be willing to stand by her should she reveal her own secret relationship.

Phillipa was continuing with her comments. “But I don’t think love could ever be a sin. And I have to say I’ve not seen you look at anyone that way since Robert. You never looked at Mark like that and he was meant to be your husband for god’s sake - it must be serious.”

“It is. I know it probably seems crazy, but I do love Anne, in fact I’ve never loved anyone more. Certainly not Mark and not Robert either.”

“So the mystery woman has a name,” noted Phillipa with interest, “She also seems to have quite the hold on your heart. Something tells me that she’s not your average servant, in fact I don’t think she’s one at all, is she?”

Katherine had to hand it to her sister; she could certainly be perceptive when she wanted to be. “No, she’s not,” she confirmed.

“So, who is she then? How did you meet?”

Katherine deliberated over how much to reveal, but she had never been good at keeping things from Phillipa. “You won’t tell anyone this?” she asked before committing herself, “Not even Peter.”

Phillipa looked even more interested at the prospect of something clandestine. “This must be some secret, but all right I promise not to tell.”

“I actually met her in Sherwood Forest,” Katherine began slowly.

“You met her in a forest?” repeated Phillipa looking mightily confused, “Hang on a minute, Sherwood? Isn’t that where all the outlaws hide out?”

“Yes, it is.”

The dawning light of realisation was slow, but it got there in the end. “Oh my god!” cried Phillipa, having to clamp a hand over her mouth to curb her incredulity for a second. “She’s an outlaw? You’re seeing an outlaw? And I thought it was dangerous enough that she was a woman, but this? Are you mad?”

Katherine ruefully nodded her head. “Sometimes I think I might be.”

“Oh my god, oh my god…” repeated Phillipa, too stunned to say anything else for a moment, “So what did she do?”

“Sorry?”

“To be an outlaw,” clarified Phillipa, “I presume she must have committed some crime or other.”

Katherine hadn’t planned on the conversation taking this turn. “It’s not that simple,” she tried to explain.

“Either she did something wrong or she didn’t,” Phillipa noted. For the first time in the conversation Katherine could sense that her sister was not entirely happy with Katherine’s choice of partner. The only consolation was that it seemed Anne being an outlaw ranked as a higher impediment than her being a woman.

“It depends on how you define ‘wrong’,” pointed out Katherine. She didn’t actually know the full extent of all of Anne’s previous misdemeanours herself, and wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to. However, as far as she was concerned that was another life, and one Anne had led with some justification. Knowing she had to tell Phillipa everything to help her understand, Katherine proceeded to tell her all about what had happened to Anne’s parents, including how it was Mark who had murdered them.

Phillipa looked absolutely stunned at the revelation, and even more so when Katherine went on to recount what had happened on Mark’s return with both him and Charles Kirby.

It took her a couple of moments to find her voice at the end of the tale. “I never realised Mark and Charles were such…” she sought a suitable term, “…bastards!”

“Charles is certainly a bastard,” agreed Katherine, “Mark…I don’t know, I think he was just confused. At least he showed some remorse for his actions in the end.”

“Before Anne killed him.”

Katherine bit her lip as she rolled her eyes. “I explained that wasn’t her doing, she was possessed by a pagan witch at the time.”

Phillipa merely stared at her as if she had gone completely insane, and Katherine supposed that it did sound faintly ridiculous when she said it out loud. Unless you had encountered such things, magic and witchcraft sounded utterly implausible.

“And then you killed this witch,” recalled Phillipa, “Or was it Anne you stabbed? I’m having trouble keeping track.”

Katherine narrowed her eyes to indicate the facetious remarks weren’t appreciated. “I shouldn’t have told you,” she said, turning to go, “Forget I ever said anything.”

“Wait,” said Phillipa quickly, catching Katherine’s arm. “I’m sorry. It was just a bit of a shock, I’m having trouble taking it all in. I’m sure Anne is a lovely person, she must have something if you were willing to sacrifice your life for her.”

“And I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Phillipa nodded, perhaps starting to really understand the depth of Katherine’s feelings. “So when you say you met her in the forest, she was robbing you wasn’t she?”

Katherine glowered back at her, but Phillipa quickly raised her hands. “I’m just interested!” she said in defence.

“She was part of a group that wanted something from my party, yes,” explained Katherine, “But it was a mystical stone that Mark had stolen many years before – they just wanted it back.”

Phillipa digested that for a moment. “And you were happy to oblige once you saw who was asking?” she asked, with a sly grin.

Katherine rolled her eyes, though she thought that at least the playful remark meant she must have gotten some sort of acceptance from her sister. “I’m not that bloody easy!” she pointed out, “To begin with I was most indignant at being attacked, and thought she was just the same as all the other outlaws. But I soon found out differently.”

Phillipa seemed to really be getting into the spirit of things now. “I just bet you did!”

Katherine sighed, thinking that maybe she wanted the hostile Phillipa back. “Will you get your mind up out of the gutter? I meant that though outwardly Anne appeared as a rough, hardened almost scary outlaw, it soon became apparent that she had a much softer, caring, loving side that she kept hidden away.”

“And you helped her bring that out?”

“I guess I did in a way,” noted Katherine with wistful remembrance. “And she helped me discover things about myself too.”

Phillipa’s eyebrows were almost creeping off her forehead. “Really?”

“There really is no talking to you!”

“Oh come on, I’m just interested what it’s like,” said Phillipa innocently.

Katherine considered for the barest of moments. “It’s wonderful, and even better because I love her and she loves me too.”

Phillipa didn’t really have an answer to that one and before either of them could add anything further a shout from across the room drew her sister’s attention.

“It looks like I’m wanted,” she said, peering through the crowd at their summoner before turning back to Katherine. “I think it’s great, I really do,” she insisted, “But just be careful all right. I’m sure you’re aware what this would do to your reputation if anyone found out.”

“I know, but it’s worth the risk,” Katherine replied.

Once her sister had disappeared, Katherine scanned the room, searching out the familiar blonde head amongst the other bobbing ones. When she located Anne and saw who she was talking to, Katherine quickly crossed to join them, pushing her way urgently trough the heaving throng. As she neared she could see Anne looking a mixture of uncomfortable and annoyed as a drunken Hugh Coleville leant closer than was appropriate while looking directly at her chest rather than in her eyes.

Before she even got there she could see Anne looking pleadingly at her. “Is everything all right?” Katherine asked once she was in earshot, though Anne’s expression had already answered that for her.

“Ah, Katherine,” mumbled Coleville, staggering towards her instead and placing a heavy arm across her shoulders.

Katherine momentarily sagged under the weight, managing to roll him off and onto a nearby chair. “I think you need to sit down for a while Hugh,” she noted.

He tried to hang onto her hand as she made to pull away. “Stay and talk to me,” suggested Coleville, indicating the empty chair at his side.

Now it was Katherine’s turn to look beseechingly at Anne who shrugged sympathetically. Seeing she was on her own Katherine pretended something had caught her attention across the room. “Oh, I think I hear my sister calling,” she told Coleville, “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Before he could say anything more she had moved away from him, thinking he was probably incapable of giving chase anyway, unlike Anne who had taken the opportunity to remove herself from his vicinity too.

“That guy is weird,” remarked Anne, once they were a safe distance, “And far too interested in you.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t like him either,” Katherine noted, “It’s almost creepy the way he keeps looking at me, like I have something he wants.”

Anne quirked a single eyebrow to indicate it didn’t take much deductive reasoning to fathom what that something might be.

Katherine shook her head though. “Not like that. It’s something else, something I can’t put my finger on. And he’s been hassling Phillipa too.”

“I could always arrange a little accident for him, a freak archery mishap maybe?”

Katherine thought on it for a moment, sucking in a contemplative breath. “Tempting, but I think we can put up with him for a few more days.”

There was a crash from the far side of the room, the band stopping what it was playing at the disturbance. The crowd parted in time for Katherine and Anne to see Coleville sprawled in a heap on the stone floor, no one rushing to help the inebriated man up. Eventually Lord Peter managed to engage a couple of men to heave him up and escort him from the room.

Now the musicians had stopped for a moment, Phillipa stepped into the centre of the room, gaining everyone’s attention. “How about we hear from some of our guests?” she suggested, turning first to Katherine. “Maybe you could sing us something?”

Katherine almost choked on her drink. “You know I can’t sing. I think you only brought it up because you want to impress everyone with your own talents.”

Phillipa smiled slyly, moving towards the musicians and requesting one of their instruments. “All right,” she said, turning back to Katherine and offering the lute to her, “You play, I’ll sing.”

Katherine looked from the instrument to Phillipa to Anne at her side. The young woman raised her eyebrows, seemingly keen to see the outcome of this. After a final glance round the room to see the others present waiting expectantly, Katherine took the lute, perching herself on a chair and plucking at a few strings to test it out. It had been a while.

Phillipa waited patiently until Katherine nodded that she was ready. A surprising level of quiet descended over the room as Katherine began to play the melody of a well-known folk song, Phillipa picking up on what it was straight away and joining in with the words. Katherine noted that as always she was near flawless, her voice floating gently and effortlessly round the room. Many a time when they were children Phillipa had been called upon to entertain visiting nobles with her singing and it seemed time had done little to dull her voice.

The crowd seemed as enraptured as most of those nobles had been, all faces turned towards Phillipa and basically ignoring her accompanying musician. All faces bar one that was. Without even needing to look up from her study of the strings Katherine could feel the single set of eyes on her. As the song came to an end she made a quick glance upwards, verifying that the blue eyes were indeed pinned on her in a look of wonder.

Applause broke out at the conclusion of the song, Anne quickly coming over to speak quietly to Katherine as Phillipa received most of the other plaudits.

“You never told me you could play.”

“You never asked.”

“It was lovely, maybe you could play for me sometime?”

Katherine was still smiling warmly in reply when Phillipa’s voice rose above the hubbub once more.

“Who wants to sing next?”

There were no volunteers, most likely no one wishing to follow the level of excellence Phillipa had set.

“Come on, one of you must be able to sing?”

Phillipa was glancing round those assembled, each and every one of them suddenly finding something intensely interesting about their feet. Finally Phillipa’s gaze reached Katherine and Anne.

“How about you?”

“I already told you…” began Katherine.

“Not you,” quickly interrupted her sister, “I thought maybe Anne would like to sing us something?”

Katherine flicked a look at her sister, wondering if she was deliberately trying to embarrass Anne, but all she saw was a genuine interest.

Anne meanwhile was looking desperately between the two of them. “I don’t think I could, I’m not very good.”

“But you do sing?” picked up Phillipa.

“Well, yes, a bit,” allowed Anne, giving Katherine another beseeching look.

“Great!” cried Phillipa enthusiastically, as Katherine merely shrugged her shoulders, knowing when her sister was on a mission, “Just tell Katherine what you’d like and off you go.”

Anne leant in close to the still seated Katherine, speaking out of earshot of everyone else. “What I’d like is to take you upstairs now, tear your clothes off and make wild, passionate love to you all night long, but I don’t think that’s quite what your sister meant, do you?”

Katherine suddenly felt incredible hot and it was nothing to do with the raging fire close behind her. She swallowed nervously before answering. “No, I don’t think so,” she managed in a hoarse whisper.

“In that case, how about ‘My English Rose’, do you know it?”

Katherine nodded that she did, unable to produce any more words given the way Anne was surreptitiously rubbing her thigh up against her. She almost let out a sigh of relief when Anne stopped her teasing to turn back to the crowd. Katherine struck the introductory chord and then Anne was off, singing the first verse of the slow ballad.

“I was but a wanderer, a rover o’er this wide land,
Through the pastures of life I strode without a place to stand,
‘Til one day I came upon a maiden, fair as the sun,
And on that day I knew for sure my life had just begun.”

Such was the absolute spellbinding power of Anne’s voice that Katherine was finding it hard to make her fingers continue to play along. Her singing was exquisite, dare she say even better than Phillipa’s. Where Phillipa was note perfect and precise there was just something else in the quality of Anne’s voice, a haunting undercurrent to it that made the listener feel she meant every word she sung. As Anne prepared to start the second verse Katherine considered that could well be true when she saw that the young woman was now looking directly at her as she sung.

“Before that day I was poor, in hand as well as my heart,
But when my eyes met hers I knew it was but the very start,
It was the fate of ages that decreed we be a pair,
And now my life is filled with riches that are beyond compare.”

Katherine had to look down to her hands as her fingers fumbled over the lute. Risking a sideways look, she could see the rest of the crowd as enraptured as she was as Anne begun the final verse.

“Now come the icy winter frost or the dark, long days of snow,
I know that she’ll be with me wherever I may go,
And I’ll stand by her for all my days, nothing shall oppose,
The love that stands for all time, of me and my English Rose.”

The final note echoed round the otherwise silent room for a second before the thunderous applause broke out. The sounds of the throng washed over Katherine who was far too busy staring at Anne. Her eyes in turn remained fixed on Katherine as they had done during the song. Getting up and discarding the lute back into the arms of its original player, Katherine decided it was time to make good on Anne’s other wish.

 

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Chapter 7

 

Anne snuck stealthily up the corridor, hoping she was out and about early enough to avoid being seen making her way from the noble’s quarters back down to those of the servants. For the first time in days, and what seemed weeks, she had spent the night with Katherine. A smile spread across her face as she recalled all that had happened the night before, a night with not much sleep but a lot of pleasure.

In her distraction she almost missed the sound of a catch along the corridor. She froze on the spot, frantically looking for somewhere to hide. In the end she had to resort to pinning herself to the wall and hoping whoever it was didn’t spot her. A door opened near the end, Coleville emerging and quickly turning the corner. Anne heaved a sigh of relief and was about to carry on her way when something peaked her curiosity about his appearance – just what exactly was he doing sneaking around at such an early hour too?

Anne carefully ran up to the end of the corridor, trying to stop her dress swishing about noisily as she did. This was why she hated wearing the things for anything other than show – they were so blasted impractical. Though she did suppose that most women weren’t usually called upon to chase strange men around while wearing one. Reaching the end she tentatively peered round the corner. Her initial suspicions proved accurate as she witnessed the man picking the lock of a door just up the corridor. The faint click of the mechanism being released drifted down to Anne and the man cast a couple of nervous glances about before entering the room.

Anne wondered whether she should follow immediately to see what he was up to, though that would leave her rather exposed in the corridor. The alternative was to wait and see what he came out with, providing there weren’t any other exits from the room. Just as she was still deliberating the merits of the options, she felt a small tug on her skirt. Wheeling round, her hand shot out to latch onto the tugger.

“Ow!”

Anne was rather surprised to find herself holding the hand of a squirming child, a little girl to be precise. She had a tumble of wavy light brown hair and wore the clothes of a servant girl - a simple, plain dress. Anne guessed she must have been about seven or eight years old.

“Ow, you’re hurting me,” cried the girl loudly, still trying to release Anne’s unshakable grasp.

Anne swiftly let go, instead grabbing the girl round the mouth to shut her up and pulling her back against the wall with her. “Shh!”

The girl didn’t appear too keen to be shh-ed and continued to wriggle in Anne’s arms, mumbling incoherent things against her fingers. Anne ignored her and glanced round the corner again, to check she hadn’t lost or alerted her quarry. Suddenly a sharp pain shot through her palm and she yanked her hand back from the girl’s mouth.

A small trickle of blood was tracking across her skin. “You bit me!”

“Let go!” cried the girl again since Anne’s other arm still held her fast, “Or I’ll bite your other hand too!”

“All right, all right!” said Anne, doing as she said and kneeling down in front of the girl, placing a hand on her arm. “Can you just be quiet for a moment, though?”

Her green eyes widened, her interest seemingly piqued. “Why, what are you doing?”

“Nothing that concerns you,” Anne stated, “I just need you to be quiet for a couple of minutes. Then you can go, all right?”

“Is it anything to do with that man you’re following?”

Anne’s eyebrows shot up in alarm momentarily, before she fixed the young girl with a serious stare, deciding that she should be the one asking the questions. “What are you doing here?”

“Please don’t tell them I strayed on the way back to the kitchen, I was just observing you, I won’t tell anyone,” she pleaded.

“Observing me?” asked Anne sceptically.

“Ever since you got here I noticed that you seemed different to the other servants. They’re all so boring and you seemed exciting. You were beautiful at the party last night, and that was such lovely dancing with the lady.”

Anne found herself blushing despite herself. Fortunately the girl seemed too preoccupied with her gabbling explanation to notice.

“So when I saw you this morning after I had taken the hot water up to the Lord’s room, I thought I’d tag along. It looked like an interesting game.”

“It is not a game and you should not be here,” Anne informed her, regaining her composure, “Go back to the kitchens.”

“Please,” whined the girl, “I won’t be any trouble.”

Anne sighed as the young girl jiggled up and down expectantly in front of her. It was probably more trouble than it was worth trying to persuade her to leave or, even worse, causing a noisy scene by making her go. “All right, but be quiet.”

The girl smiled before bringing her finger to her lips. “Understood.”

Anne rolled her eyes at her newly acquired fellow conspirator, and turned her attention back to the door down the corridor. She felt the girl pressing up against her skirt behind her, pinned to the wall in a mirror of Anne’s pose.

“What’s your name?” came a small whisper after a moment.

Anne glanced back round, a frown creasing her brow. “I thought we were being quiet?”

“Oh right, yes,” remembered the girl in a hushed voice. “Well, tell me your name and then I’ll be quiet,” she quickly added with a small grin.

Anne quirked her left eyebrow. “Is that a promise?” Despite her attempts to be cool and serious, she was finding it hard not to be charmed by the girl’s enthusiasm. And she had called Anne beautiful after all.

“Cross my heart.”

Anne eyed her suspiciously, doubting that the girl could keep any such promise. She seemed like someone that was naturally inquisitive and loved to talk “It’s Anne.”

“Hello, Anne, I’m Natalie,” she replied offering her small hand.

Anne took the fingers, shaking gently. “Pleased to meet you, Natalie. Now hush!”

After a few more minutes of studying the empty corridor Anne wondered if the man was ever going to emerge. Perhaps she was going to have to take a risk and go and investigate.

“How did you get that scar above your left eye?”

Anne rested her brow on the cool stone, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths. She knew it wasn’t acceptable to throttle small children, no matter how appropriate it might seem. She ignored the question; finally deciding it was time to take a chance and advance down the corridor.

“You wait outside,” she instructed Natalie once they got to the door.

“But I want to come with you,” pleaded the girl.

Anne sighed, suddenly thinking of something supposedly useful the girl could do. “You can warn me if someone’s coming if you stay out here.”

“All right,” agreed Natalie with an eager nod before she took up her station.

Meanwhile Anne carefully eased down the catch to the door, finding it was still unlocked. As she craned her head round the door she could see the room appeared to be unoccupied. The only light came from a small window off to the right of the room. It illuminated the ornate cabinets that lined the walls, the shafts highlighting the gold carving that edged the fine wood. Anne crept over to the nearest one, opening the doors to see an array of expensive looking items. Her inner outlaw couldn’t help viewing them in awe, wondering how much she could get for them. Trying to remember the role she was currently playing, Anne resolutely closed the wooden doors and moved onto the next one. The contents were similar apart from the fact that there seemed to be an empty space, a faint ring of dust indicating it.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Anne whirled round seeing Lord Peter in the doorway, brow furrowed in a look of consternation. It seemed her lookout had disappeared on her.

“I asked you a question, what are you doing in here?” demanded the lord who was still in his night robes. He strode towards her, “This room is off limits to servants.”

“My apologies,” answered Anne, adding one of her newly learned curtsies, “I did not realise. I’ll be going back downstairs right away.” Anne deemed that retreat was the most sensible option, since she could hardly tell Lord Peter that she had been trying to sneak back from Katherine’s quarters. Unfortunately she didn’t have the opportunity to close the cabinet doors without being too obvious about it and as she was trying to head for the door, Peter’s eyes fell on the still open cabinet.

“Wait a minute? Where’s the goblet?”

Anne immediately started to run but her way was blocked at the door by the tall form of Coleville.

“Hugh!” called Peter from behind, “Stop her!”

Anne tried to dodge round him, but he was surprisingly quick, latching onto her arm. Anne swung her free one, catching him across the cheek with a glancing blow. Coleville staggered back against the doorframe, Anne pressing home her advantage by ramming her body forcefully into his. The exit was clear now and she wasted no time dashing out into the corridor.

“Stop! Thief!”

Peter’s call only verified to Anne that she had lost any hope of giving a reasonable explanation for her presence in the room and the missing goblet. She had probably lost that hope the instant Peter had found her in there. An accusation that it was the noble, Coleville, who was responsible instead was likely to fall on deaf ears. So Anne ran for the stairs only to find that a group of troops were coming up them towards her. They must have been close by and heard the shout. Spinning on her heel she sprinted back the way she had come but now Coleville and Lord Peter were blocking the corridor. She was trapped.

She quickly sized up her chances, but knew there was no way she could take on all of them. Anne stopped where she was and allowed one of the guards to grab hold of her as they reached her position.

Lord Peter advanced, coming to stand before her with annoyance plain on his face. “Where is the goblet?” he demanded.

“I don’t have it,” stated Anne.

“Liar!”

Anne didn’t even see Coleville’s fist until it struck the side of her head. She staggered but was held up by the guard’s resolute grip on her arms.

“Steady on, Hugh,” said Peter, making to hold the other man back, “She’s only a woman.”

“A lying, thieving, peasant woman,” corrected Coleville.

“In which case we shall hand her over to the Sheriff’s authority and let him deal with her,” reasoned Lord Peter. “Guards, take her down to the dungeon for now.”

“And make sure you put the chains on her,” added Coleville as they dragged Anne away.

…………..

 

Katherine lay in her bed, dreamily staring up at the ceiling, lost in thoughts of the night before. There were two knocks at the door before the sound registered in her distracted brain. Clambering out of bed and pulling on her robe, Katherine wondered who could be calling at such an early hour. It wasn’t that long after daybreak after all. With a final flick of her auburn hair behind her ears she was ready to greet her guest, pulling open the oak door to see Coleville hovering. Katherine immediately wished she hadn’t bothered opening it.

“Good morning, m’lady,” he greeted jovially.

“Is it?” she replied sarcastically, “I hope you have a good reason for waking me so early.” Katherine didn’t bother to let on that she had actually been awake for hours; in fact she’d barely been to sleep.

Despite her frostiness Coleville continued to look entirely too smug, that fact causing a faint stirring of unease in Katherine. “I thought you would want to know that we had to detain one of your servants for theft,” he informed her.

The stirring became a painful clutching in her stomach. Somehow she knew who he meant. “One of my servants?” she repeated in as calm a voice as she could manage.

“Yes, the tall blond woman,” he clarified, “Quite an attractive girl if you like that sort of thing, though unfortunately she is also a thief.”

“What is she supposed to have stolen?” asked Katherine, thinking that it couldn’t actually be true - why would Anne be stealing from her sister?

“A family heirloom, a goblet that once belonged to your father.”

Now Katherine knew there was something definitely wrong with the situation, when that very item was the one that Coleville had been so interested in. “And you found this in her possession did you?” she asked doubtfully.

“Not exactly, but Lord Peter and I did find her in the cabinet room and it was missing. It’s obvious she took it.”

“She could just have been in the room for other reasons,” pointed out Katherine.

“And why would she be on this floor of the house at this hour if not for nefarious purposes?”

Katherine was momentarily stymied. She could reveal that Anne had been in her room, but thought that the fact was unlikely to lend much to Anne’s case. If anything it might make them more suspicious of her, while at the same time ruining any chance Katherine might have of sorting things out.

“Simply being in the vicinity of the crime does not make her guilty,” Katherine reasoned.

“Which is why Lord Peter has instructed the guards to carry out a search of the staff quarters, to see if we can find the goblet.”

“And if you can’t you’ll let her go?”

“You seem awfully attached to this servant. Does it really matter what happens to her, she’s just a peasant after all?”

It took much of Katherine’s willpower to reign in her anger at his insulting words. “She is still a person who has the right to freedom if she’s innocent.”

“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, though I’m sure she did it.”

Katherine clamped her jaw shut, not trusting herself to say anything further on the subject. “I’d like to speak to her,” she said after a moment’s deep breathing.

“I suppose there’s no harm in that, she might confess all when faced with her mistress. I’ll take you down there.”

………

 

Having made a swift change of clothes Katherine followed Coleville in the direction of the dungeon. As they descended the stairs Katherine’s thoughts raced over what might have happened to lead them to the present predicament. Why had Anne been in the cabinet room? When she had left Katherine’s room she had been intending to slip back downstairs to the servant’s quarters before anyone saw her, so why tarry?

The only way she was going to get answers was from Anne herself, but when they eventually reached the cell where she was being kept, Katherine realised with dismay that Coleville was intending to follow her in.

“May I speak to her alone?” she asked, stalling by the locked door.

“She’s a potentially dangerous criminal, I think it’s best I accompany you.”

“She’s a maid,” corrected Katherine, knowing that in fact Coleville hadn’t been that far off the mark, “I hardly think I’m in danger.”

“Nevertheless your brother-in-law would not be happy if I let you in there alone and something were to happen to you.”

Katherine sighed in frustration, knowing she wasn’t going to shake the man. “Fine, unlock the door then.”

Coleville nodded and produced a large set of keys, turning one in the lock and pushing open the stout door. The cell was gloomy and damp, the only light from a tiny window near the top of one of the walls. Anne was sitting on the floor against the far wall, her eyes turning up at the sound of visitors. The blue eyes pierced through the gloom, immediately latching onto Katherine.

“K…M’Lady,” she said, quickly correcting herself as she got to her feet, the sound of the chains around her hands and feet clanking round the room.

Katherine looked aghast at the hefty restraints. “Is there really any need for those?” she asked, looking to Coleville, “She’s behind a locked door for god’s sake.”

“You can’t be too careful with that sort.”

Once again Katherine just wanted to slap then man, but she resisted. Now was the time for a cool head. Turning back to Anne she had to take a few breaths to calm her racing heart. She would get Anne out if this; she just needed to remain sensible and focussed. However, it didn’t help that as her eyes adjusted more to the dim light she could see that Anne’s lip was split, the blood on it quickly drying in the chill air.

“Did someone hit her?” she demanded, rounding on Coleville once more.

“She was resisting,” he replied nonchalantly.

“She is still my servant and as such under my supervision and care,” pointed out Katherine, “She is not to be harmed. In any way. Is that undestood?”

“Whatever you say, m’lady.” The snide way he said it made Katherine think that given half a chance he would be beating Anne black and blue, maybe worse.

She held his gaze evenly for a moment. Her eyes narrowed slightly to indicate she was aware of what he would like to do, and that he would be sorry if her even tried it. Finally, hoping she’d made her point, she switched her attention back to Anne. “Are you all right?” she asked.

She wanted to say so much more, to do more, but she knew she had to hold back in Coleville’s presence. It was agony though, restraining the urge to reach out to the young woman before her. All she could do was settle for trying to impart her feelings silently through her eyes.

“I am fine,” answered Anne, a whole world of meaning hidden in her simple answer too.

Katherine could only nod, suddenly overcome by the surge of emotion within her. Seeing Anne incarcerated like this brought home how precarious their relationship really was. How the weight of society and class was arrayed against them. If Katherine had been a man she was sure she could have told Coleville exactly what she and Anne had been doing the night before and most likely be congratulated for it. But she wasn’t a man, and it was never going to happen.

“I did not take the goblet,” added Anne, breaking her silent ruminations.

“Ha!”

It was Coleville who let out the incredulous snort, Katherine quickly silencing him with a single sideways look.

“I believe you,” said Katherine, eyes on Anne once more, “But do you have any idea what happened to it?”

Anne didn’t reply immediately, but Katherine noticed the way her eyes shifted ever-so-slightly to the right in Coleville’s direction.

“Do you know who did take it?” pressed Katherine.

Again Anne replied with the almost imperceptible movement of her eyes. Katherine could only assume she was trying to tell her that it was Coleville who was responsible.

“See, she’s not saying anything. She’s guilty!” butted in Coleville.

Katherine was fast losing patience with him. “Let’s just wait and see shall we,” she noted in cool tones, “See if Peter uncovers anything.”

Coleville merely grunted doubtfully at that, Katherine thinking he had every right to be dubious if he already knew nothing would be found. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort this out,” Katherine said to Anne, risking a small rub of the other woman’s arm. The contact was all too brief, but enough to sustain her as Katherine left the room, trying to banish thoughts of what might happen if she couldn’t make good on her words.

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Chapter 8

 

Coleville tracked Katherine all the way back to her room before he finally saw fit to leave her alone. Once he was gone, Katherine began to ponder her plan of action. Despite her defence of Anne, she knew that Coleville already had Anne in his sights and wasn’t going to let a small thing like lack of evidence stop him. Unfortunately since Anne was a commoner all it really took was the word of someone like Coleville and she was as good as convicted. With Anne taking the blame it would leave him free to depart with the goblet, safe from suspicion. What Katherine needed was proof of who the real culprit was.

There was a gentle knock at her door, Katherine immediately wondering if Coleville had returned already. She half contemplated not answering, but when another even more timid one came she surmised it wasn’t the knight at her door. Once she opened it she had to cast her eyes downwards to see who her visitor was. Standing nervously before her was a young girl of perhaps eight years of age. She clutched at the skirts of her dress, avoiding looking up at Katherine.

“Yes?”

“I…I…wanted to tell you something,” stammered the girl, still staring down at the floor.

Katherine’s brow creased unsure what the servant girl could want.

“It’s about your maid, the one they arrested,” added the girl.

Suddenly Katherine was interested, ushering the girl inside with a quick check of the corridor as she did. Once the door was closed Katherine knelt down in front of the girl, putting their eyes on the same level. “What do you know about that?” she demanded.

The girl flinched slightly and Katherine realised maybe her words had come out a touch harshly in her agitation. She took a breath and tried again in more soothing tones. “It’s all right, you’re not in trouble, just tell me what you know.”

Finally the girl looked up at her, soft green eyes scanning hers in a worried look. “It wasn’t Anne that did it, it was the bad man,” she suddenly blurted out.

“And how do you know that?”

“I was there…” The girl looked nervously at her feet once more “…I was meant to be keeping a watch, only…I got scared.”

Katherine placed a comforting hand on the girl’s slender shoulder. “It’s all right, that happens to all of us,” she said reassuringly, “Who was this ‘bad man’ that took the goblet?”

The girl seemed heartened by Katherine kind words, looking up and speaking with more certainty. “It was Mr Coleville, he came out a hidden doorway in the corridor. That’s when I got scared. I thought he was going to see me so I ran away.”

“But he had the goblet?”

“Yes, I saw it in his hand. He took it to his room.”

Katherine nodded, “Thank you…”

“Natalie,” filled in the girl.

“Natalie,” repeated Katherine, offering an appreciative smile, “You’ve been very helpful.”

“You will help her won’t you,” queried Natalie as Katherine straightened up, “She was nice.”

Katherine smiled again – it seemed Anne had been busy making small friends. If they weren’t in such dire circumstances she would have had more time to contemplate the cuteness of that. However, she didn’t have time to dither now, packing the girl back off downstairs and checking that Coleville was busy down there too before seeking out his room.

Katherine had learnt a thing or two from her time in the outlaw camp in Sherwood Forest, one of which was how to pick a simple lock. Luckily for her that was all Coleville’s room possessed and she quickly overcame it and slipped inside the room, hoping that he was stupid enough to have kept the goblet therein.

Katherine tiptoed across the floorboards, though many of them still let out what sounded like deafening creaks in the silence. Cringing at each one, she prayed that there wasn’t anyone below aware enough to make the connection between the noises and the knight’s supposedly empty room. Finally reaching the safety of the drawers she pulled them open in turn, rummaging through the contents.

Having been through each one, she let out a sigh of annoyance – there was no sign of the goblet. She cast her eyes round the rest of the room looking for other likely hiding spots. Quick checks under the bed and the pile of clothes in the corner still yielded nothing. Had he hidden it somewhere else in the house? If that was the case then it could be virtually anywhere and Katherine certainly didn’t have the time to search all the rooms on her own before Coleville would be wanting to march Anne to the local gaol.

Katherine sat down heavily on the bed, rubbing at her face as she pondered her next step when suddenly she saw something she hadn’t before. From her new vantage point she could see the slight displacement of the stones on the far wall, the fading light from outside just catching it and casting a shadow. She was quickly up and scrabbling at the stonework, pulling aside the loose chunk to reveal a small hiding spot in which sat her sister’s goblet. Katherine had just pulled it out when she heard the creak from behind her.

“So you found it then,” noted Coleville as Katherine whirled round, “That is unfortunate.”

“For you certainly,” agreed Katherine.

“I think not,” he said, suddenly darting for her.

His hand was gripping her wrist before she even had the chance to move, his fingers painfully tight. Yet Katherine had learnt a few other things in Sherwood Forest, one of which was that when fighting you should use any means available to win. One swift knee to the groin doubled Coleville over, the man releasing her arm to clutch at his damaged privates. Katherine wasted no time in running for the door, but Coleville somehow managed to shoot out a foot tripping her on the way. Katherine crashed to the floor, the goblet flying from her hand and clattering across the wooden boards and out the still open door. Then Coleville was vaulting over her prone form, snatching it up and dashing off down the corridor.

Katherine clambered to her feet, sprinting off in pursuit, glad she had thought to change into something more practical before attempting her small bit of villainy. Coleville was already leaping down the stairs at the end of the corridor, Katherine just catching sight of his shadow in the flickering torchlight. She followed him down, having to stop at the foot as she tried to gauge where he had gone, her head swinging from side to side. The sound of a door banging shut drew her attention and she ran to it, wrenching it open to find it led out into the yard. Coleville was halfway across it, heading for the stables.

“Stop!” yelled Katherine into the wind, more in the hope that someone else would hear and arrest his progress than he would actually come to a halt. Yet it seemed fortune was not on her side. No one appeared, most of them probably in the main building out of the cold.

Katherine splashed out across the muddy ground, the biting wind instantly hitting her in the side of face as she exited the shelter of the doorway. As she reached the stable she was almost knocked off her feet by the horse that came barrelling out, carrying Coleville on its back. Katherine let out a curse as she watched him pounding out through the yard to the road beyond.

She knew there was no time to go back and get anyone else – he would be long gone by the time she had roused the troops. So instead she ran into the stable, unhooked the nearest saddled horse and clambered onto its back. The mount eagerly galloped off after Coleville and his horse, Katherine glad to find she had picked one almost as swift as her own Delta.

Even in the dim light of the overcast day, Katherine could see Coleville ahead of her on the road. He glanced over his shoulder at the pursuing woman, head down against her horse’s neck. Turning forwards again, Coleville wrenched on his horses reins, taking it off the road in the direction of the moors, which loomed dark against the grey sky. Katherine’s own mount easily vaulted the roadside ditch in his wake.

As they galloped up the grassy slopes, Katherine began to wish she’d had the presence of mind to grab something else to wear. Though she did have trousers on her bottom half, all she had on top was a shirt and a light jerkin. The wind whipped easily through those, while her fingers were starting to get numb where she tightly gripped the leathery reins. When the heavens suddenly opened, she considered turning back, but she had come too far and was determined to catch Coleville.

Her clothes were quickly soaked by the downpour, the leaden skies and torrential rain making it increasingly hard to keep track of the man ahead of her. They were high up on the moors by now, the safe haven of Keighley far behind them, lost somewhere in the gloom. Katherine reached up to brush the rain and hair from her eyes and in that instant she found that Coleville had suddenly disappeared from view. Pulling up her horse, she strained as she listened out for any sign of the fleeing man. All she could hear was the constant beat of raindrops on the turf and her own panting horse. She was alone in the bleak landscape.

Biting back a curse Katherine made to turn the horse back down the slope, only to hear the sound of a far off whinny. Galvanised once more she urged her mount off in the direction it had come from, quickly seeing that Coleville had been thrown from his horse and was attempting to re-mount. He had been lucky that he had been thrown off comparatively safely since his horse was standing precariously close to a sheer drop. Perhaps the nearness was what had caused it to unseat him in the first place.

Coleville must have heard the pounding hooves approaching because his eyes swung to her long before she reached him. She could only watch in horror as he produced a crossbow from his saddle, aiming it in her direction. Katherine desperately tried to alter her course, but she was a sitting duck out on the exposed ground as her horse’s hooves skidded on the wet grass. The bolt shot straight and true, thumping into the flank of her horse. The animal let out a cry of pain before it pitched forwards, sending Katherine flying from her saddle. She splashed down onto the muddy ground, sliding a few feet across it before she came to a stop.

Raising her head from the puddle it was resting in, she caught sight of Coleville still trying to get back on his horse and get away, apparently uninterested in her now he had downed her mount. Katherine staggered to her feet, her soaked clothes pulling at her legs as she ran for him. With a final lunge she caught hold of his foot just as he tried to swing it atop the steed. Her added weight pulled him back off it, the horse letting out a startled whinny before it bolted away leaving them both in a heap on the sodden ground.

“Why couldn’t you just let me get away?” cried Coleville over the howling wind as he clambered to his feet. He still held the stolen goblet in his hand.

“Because you have something that doesn’t belong to you,” stated Katherine, indicating it. She tried not to shiver as a fresh gust of wind tugged at her dripping clothes.

“Who says it doesn’t?” shot back Coleville, “And we need it more than you do!”

“We? We who?” asked a bemused Katherine, trying to keep him talking as she edged inconspicuously closer.

Coleville laughed up to the stormy skies, the raindrops cascading over his face. “It’s no good,” he said, “Even if you stop me, you won’t be able to stop all of us.”

Katherine had no idea what he was talking about and didn’t really care as long as he was distracted. He made to shake his head and Katherine instantly seized her chance. She quickly reached down to her boot and pulled out the dagger concealed there before lunging for Coleville. The blade sliced across the surprised man’s arm, causing him to drop the goblet in the mud.

He recovered quickly, latching onto her wrist when she darted for him again. They staggered backwards as they tussled for the dagger, Katherine desperately trying to wriggle free. Then suddenly the dagger was gone, spiralling out of her fingers, banging once on the rocky edge of the cliff and tumbling over it. Coleville was in danger of following after it, his feet slipping ever closer to the edge too. Katherine grabbed for him, catching hold of a single hand.

His tattered sleeve billowed in the wind and it was then that she saw it for the first time, the strange tattoo on his forearm, just above the wrist. It was an odd shape, a series of lines radiating out from a central circle. The lines came together to make five points, three to the left and two downwards. Something about it sparked a recollection in her mind and suddenly Katherine realised why it was familiar – it was the same basic pattern as the one Charles Kirby had above his left eye.

“What’s this?” she asked, forgetting their perilous predicament for a moment.

“Maybe you should ask your father?” sneered Coleville in return.

Katherine’s eyes widened, taken aback by the reference. “What? My father’s dead, what has he got to do with this?”

Coleville was merely grinning silently back at her now.

Katherine grabbed hold of the front of his shirt in both fists. “Tell me!” she demanded, raindrops shaking down from her fringe as she jammed her face close to his.

Coleville still refused to speak; only now he was struggling in her grasp, trying to free himself.

“What are you doing?” asked Katherine in consternation, “You’re going to…”

Katherine’s words were lost on the wind as Coleville finally wrenched himself free of her grip. He hovered before her for an instant, a look of surprising satisfaction on his face, before his feet slipped away into nothingness, plunging him over the edge of the cliff.

Having lost her hold on him, Katherine swayed backwards, falling to the ground. Then she was sliding inexorably towards the edge herself, her body gliding over the slick rocks. Her feet desperately scrabbled over them in a vain attempt to stop her slide into oblivion, but she was gaining momentum. The rain-soaked surface offered no purchase for her frantic hands.

She closed her eyes, expecting to feel the whip of the wind past her face as she hurtled downwards, yet instead there was a strong hand suddenly grasping onto her arm, holding her back from the abyss. Her eyes flew open as they shot to her saviour, seeing a familiar pair of blue eyes through the driving rain.

“Is this another one of those few dozen times when I need to save your backside?”

The relief sweeping through Katherine on seeing Anne determinedly holding onto her arm was enough to preclude any comment at that point. Anne quickly pulled her back from the edge, setting her down at a safe distance.

“Are you all right,” asked Anne, brushing Katherine’s drenched hair away from her face and running her fingers across her cheek as if checking for damage.

“I’m fine, if a little cold,” Katherine insisted, catching the roaming digits in her own, clutching at the warmth of them. “But how the hell did you get here?” she asked in a mixture of relief and consternation. “Not that I’m complaining,” she quickly gabbled, “But…?”

“What? You thought I was going to sit in some dungeon cell after I’d seen you dashing off after a dangerous villain alone?”

“You broke out?” deduced Katherine in no small amazement. “Why didn’t you just do that before?”

“Because I was trusting in you to clear my reasonably good name by fair means,” explained Anne, “So as not to bring embarrassment on you and your household.”

“Well, I’m glad you didn’t wait on me any longer in the end,” noted Katherine with a rueful smile, “Or I might be crushed on the rocks below along with Coleville. It was almost like he would rather have died than let me capture him.”

“Odd,” agreed Anne, “But we can ponder more over his motivations somewhere much warmer and drier,” she suggested, standing up and offering Katherine a hand, “Your horse awaits, m’lady.”

Katherine took Anne’s hand, holding onto it once she was on her feet. “Wait, I forgot to thank my loyal servant for saving my life,” she noted, quickly yanking Anne towards her and kissing her resoundingly.

The inclement weather was quickly forgotten as Katherine lost herself to the luscious lips. The wind and rain pounded the pair of them but it could not break the moment.

Eventually Anne pulled back, the raindrops still trickling down across her face. “I hope this isn’t how you thank all your servants,” she remarked sardonically.

Katherine smiled, having long forgotten about her sodden clothes and frozen body now she was in Anne’s warm embrace. “Only the attractive ones,” she replied, quickly kissing Anne again before she could comment.

…………

 

Epilogue

 

It had been a good day for Amos Fletcher. He’d managed to catch a good few rabbits hidden away in the outskirts of the forest, so it’d be a fine stew when he got home to his cottage later. The dead animals were slung over his shoulder, tied together by their feet, as he traipsed back through the undergrowth, the last light of day fading through the trees. He came to the gnarled stump that indicated he should take an easterly turn when he noticed something out of the ordinary off the track. Unable to resist investigating, he slipped silently through the forest, using all his skills of subterfuge that he utilised when sneaking up on unsuspecting rabbits.

As he got closer he could see there were four men gathered in the forest. At least he assumed they were men, the fact that they wore long cloaks and hoods up over their heads not helping in identification. The figures were talking amongst themselves, Amos not able to make out the words until he shuffled closer, being sure to keep out of sight behind some convenient bracken. Something about them told him he shouldn’t really be listening in. They were well spoken, nobles no doubt, and when such men gathered for clandestine meetings it didn’t usually bode well.

“…Coleville will be a loss, he was a trusty servant of the cause.”

The man next to the one who had spoken didn’t seem to share his compatriot’s feelings. “He was a fool,” he declared, “Allowing himself to be discovered by Katherine and that outlaw friend of hers.”

“Even worse the Lady Katherine now has her sister’s item,” said the third man.

Amos wondered if they were talking about Lady Katherine of Markham since she was the only noblewoman of that name he could think of in these parts. By all accounts she was just the sort to cause a stir too. He’d heard tales from some of the villagers on her lands about her unconventional ways, though at the same time they never spoke a bad word about her. However, these men didn’t seem to be of the same opinion.

It was the fourth man who spoke now, his voice filled with a calm, powerful authority as if he was in charge. “It may not be as bad as you think that Katherine has the item.”

The dissenting man was quickly in again. “But she now has two, three in a way.”

“But she has no idea of their significance or what to do with them,” pointed out the calm one, “We may be able to use this to our advantage.”

“How exactly?”

“Rather than us having to expend time and energy to retrieving the remaining three artefacts, we could give her a few prods and hints in the right direction and let her do all the work.”

“Isn’t that a bit dangerous? What if she finds out too much? I say we just go get the ones she has off her now before she uncovers anything.”

Whatever it was they were talking about, Amos didn’t think it sounded too clever for the Lady Katherine. The antagonistic man appeared to be advocating stealing from her.

“But she already knows something,” the reasonable man said, “Better to turn that to our advantage than trying to cover it up and risk making her more suspicious. If we manipulate Katherine into collecting them all for us and bringing them to where we want, then we don’t have to risk bringing suspicion on ourselves until it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it, including her.”

The plot of the four men was sounding more and more sinister to Amos, and more and more over his head. Whoever they were they must be powerful to even be talking about such things – deceiving and manipulating a fellow noble. He decided it was probably a good time to take his leave.

“I suppose you have a point,” conceded the argumentative one eventually as Amos made to go, “And if she does get too close to the truth then we can always resort back to our original plan...What was that?”

Amos froze where he was, the broken twig still under his foot. He dared a glance back to the clearing, seeing that all eyes had swivelled in his direction. Their faces were still hard to make out, though even in the gloom Amos managed to distinguish one of them – the angry, challenging man who had spoken last. Amos had fallen foul of the tyrannical former lord of Ollerton a few times in the past, certainly enough to recognise the menacing face of Charles Kirby beneath his dark hood. Not waiting any longer, Amos turned and started running.

 

THE END