As it fell out upon a day as many in the year, John went
to the church to see the fine ladies there. Like many of his time, he
feared the God he had been brought up to fear. But from the things he
had seen in the world he doubted that there were any gods. Still,
though, he went to church, partly to expiate his sins, partly to see
the ladies, who were always to be seen there. He stayed awake during
the readings and sermons, and lent his voice to the hymning.
After what seemed a whole day, the handles on the doors clattered, then the doors opened. Sunlight flooded through the doorway, yellow, buttery with summer morning heat, casting shadows on the flags. John could hear the shouts of children playing, the trilling of the song birds, smell the warm fields. The congegration murmured as it moved toward the sunlight.
John flowed with the congegration; as he shuffled along the aisle, he cast his gaze around the church. A peasant girl from the village caught his eye. A rustic beauty, with large brown eyes, and still young enough to be shapely. She was fifteen or sixteen years old, John guessed. Then he saw the Lady Barnard. Gentlemen ahead bowed as she passed and moved toward the door. She glanced up quickly, caught John's eye, then walked into the morning sun.
John followed her, squinting at first at the novelty of sunshine. He looked about him, and saw the Lady Barnard talking to one he recognised as Squire Fanning. Her maids stood discreetly some distance away. Squire Fanning was the uncle of John's friend Matty, with whom he was staying. Fanning nodded at John, so John walked over to greet him.
"Good morning to you, Squire Fanning," John said.
"Good morning to you John," Fanning replied. "Any sign of that nephew of mine?"
"He drank too much at the inn last night, and was unable to come to church with me this morning."
"Matty is an indolent boy," Fanning scowled.
John looked at the Lady Barnard. Fanning caught his look, and said "Lady Barnard, may I introduce John Simonson." John bowed. Lady Barnard seemed to think for a moment, then said, "Ah yes, Matty's mysterious friend John. Is it true you are an agent for our Queen?"
John smiled. "I do not know who spreads these stories, my Lady Barnard, but I assure you there is little truth in them."
Lady Barnard lowered her voice, which took on a faintly mocking edge, "As you know, John, your friend Matty is fond of a drink, and has spread tales of his brave friend John around the taverns."
John looked up toward the green hills of this downy country: "Matty is a good friend, but a drinker, a fantasist - did you know of his poetry, my lady? - and he enjoys his tales I warrant."
"There is no truth in Matty's tales then?" the Lady asked.
"Oh, it is true enough that I am in the pay of the Queen's court. But I run simple errands of state, engage in some minor diplomacy. You are a lady, you have some ideas of the things I speak of."
Lady Barnard nodded. "Come," she said, "walk a while with me."
The Lady Barnard walked down the path toward the lychgate. Her maids fell in behind her. "You are wrong though," she said, "to think that I know anything of courts. I am a country lady. I have hardly travelled beyond the borough."
"By the rings on your fingers, I could tell, if I did not know, that there is a Lord Barnard."
"Yes, I married a Lord," the lady sighed, "but so what?"
"I would not presume to ask whether you were or were not content in your role."
"I note that you purposely choose the word 'role'."
"Well, let me ask, Lady Barnard, are you a commoner, or to nobility born?"
"I was a commoner, the daughter of a parson. So as educated as a country girl can be."
"You are also fair, Lady Barnard. I am sure that the Lord did not wed you solely for your intelligence."
"Yes, I know I am fair, John. But that is no clever trick. How many begin their young lives fair. I caught sight of you earlier, enraptured by young Kate, the daughter of our village miller."
"She would be the young girl with the large brown eyes?"
"That is she."
"A young slip of a girl," John said. He turned his head to appraise the Lady Barnard, only to find her looking, somewhat mockingly, at him.
"But still you would like young Kate in your arms, would you not John? Even if I were to tell you that she is but 15 years old? I am nearly thirty, and I know by the look in your eye that I am still fair. But that is because life is soft for me. I have money, good food all year, servants. Kate will soon be married, bearing children, old before her time. Soon she will be, what, twenty-five John? And though her eyes will still be big, and her hair still auburn and tumbling to her shoulders, you will look past her, through her, through the housewife and mother, at some other slim-hipped slip of a girl."
"You sound bitter, my lady. Yet you have, as you say, an easy life."
"You suppose I cannot guess, as a woman, how they feel? I have two sisters, John. One is twenty-five, and already has three children. Her husband beats her, the children scream, there is never enough food."
John began to chafe at her bitterness, and steered the conversation elsewhere.
"And Lord Barnard; where is he this morning?"
"He has gone to the wood, hunting."
"And left you all alone, my lady. It is well I am here to protect you." John bowed.
"You may desist from your flirting John." Lady Barnard looked around to her maids, who were giggling and dallying some distance behind, then looked directly at John. "You can sleep with me today, if you wish."
John hesitated in his step for a moment - a small, insignificant pause, but the Lady Barnard remarked it, said, "Would you like that John?"
John feigned an indifference he did not feel (as the Lady knew he would), and said, "You know I would."
Lady Barnard turned her head slightly, watched John. With the tales that circulated in their small village, it was easy to forget that John was just twenty-two years old. The stories Matty spread made John larger than life, a dashing agent with his cloak and his dagger. Was it true, she wondered, that he had been in Spain when the Armada set sail.
"Are any of Matty's tales true?"
John smiled. "Some."
"Did you see the Armada sail?"
"Yes, I saw Philip's fleet leave harbour."
They walked on in silence for a few paces.
"When does Lord Barnard return?" John asked.
"He is usually away a couple of days, sometimes a week if the hunting is good. You have nothing to fear, John, nothing to fear at all. And to ease your mind, I'll set a trusted page at the gates. He'll come to us at the first sight of a horse."
She could still see doubt writ in his face. "I would not want your body cut, young John. You will after all visit young Matty again." They passed through the plain wooden gates of Lord Barnard's hall, went in through the heavy oak door. "Come, eat," said Lady Barnard. She dismissed the maids. Lady Barnard and John went to the dining room. A servant brought cold meats, bread, and mulled wine. When the servant left, John said, "How can you trust the servants not to tell Lord Barnard?"
"The maids are in complicity with me. Apart from them, there is a cook, the servant you have just seen, and a page. All the other servants are out to hunting with Lord Barnard. The cook I trust. The servant sees only the kitchens and the dining room, and returns to his own house at night. The page will be sent to the gate."
"The page is the weak link in your chain," said John doubtfully.
Lady Barnard laughed. "I hope you are not vain enough to think yourself the only man I have entertained in this way, John."
John tried not to feel slighted, and failed. He hoped it did not show in his face.
"And you have trusted the page with this task before?"
"Yes, and he has never failed me before."
The Lady Barnard stole a glance around the room and then leaned over and kissed John fully on the mouth. She sat back and drank some wine. She said: "That is how confident I am."
"Very confident, I see," John conceded.
"Beguile me with a tale from your adventuresome life while we eat."
John looked at the Lady Barnard more closely. She was a beautiful woman. Her waist was narrow, her breasts full, her skin was fair and her teeth admirable. He imagined her naked in bed, stripped of her concealing gowns. Lady Barnard remarked his stare, said, "A tale first, John; warm me, enrapture me, enthrall me with your voice."
"I am not sure what you wish to hear, Lady. Tales of court?"
"No - tell me the truth behind one of Matty's tales."
"Well, I was in Spain when the Armada sailed."
"You speak Spanish then?"
"A little, mainly picked up in Spain. But I speak French reasonably, having spent part of my childhood with my father in France. I pretended to be a Frenchman with a smattering of Spanish, rather than English."
"Our Queen sent you there?"
"Yes - me and many others. I saw a fellow agent captured by Spanish soldiers."
"You did not fight to save him?"
"How could I my lady? To do so would have marked me out as an agent of our Queen. I would have been quickly outnumbered by Spaniards. It grieved me, but I let him be taken away."
"What would they have done with him?"
"Executed him - and perhaps tortured him first. The torture would have been pointless. He could only have told them what he knew - which would only have been what they already knew. But it is, unfortunately, a sign of the times we live in that torture is so readily applied. The Spanish Inquisition has given the lead in this area." John fell silent for a moment.
"Did you never fear capture, and torture?" Lady Barnard asked.
"Of course I did. What made me learn to speak Spanish so quickly? What made me constantly speak French at all other times, such that I began to think in French? What kept my ears open, my eyes keen? What kept my left hand so near my sword? Fear my lady. I have seen torture. We use it England as well. And it is not a pretty sight or sound."
John suddenly saw the spark of renewed interest in Lady Barnard's eyes; how often he had seen that when he mentioned torture.
"What is it like?" she asked.
"The first time I saw it, I puked."
John wondered how disgusting, how truthful he should be. Yet he knew the words never carried the weight of the vision.
"When they broke the man's leg, I flinched. I felt the blood drain from my face. They dropped a stone that took two men to lift on his shin. The leg was supported behind the knee and ankle. The leg was like a bridge, and when it broke it cleaved in the middle. To suddenly see this thing bending backwards, flopping, useless, was disgusting. The victim screamed for a few moments, and then suddenly went quiet. He seemed to have retreated inside himself. The inquisitor asked some more questions, but the man could not answer. I said to the torturer, let him recover a while, he may speak then. The torturer just laughed, said I hadn't the stomach for real men's work. I was just nineteen years old, and felt compelled then by my vanity to stay and watch and prove myself a man. So then the torturer took one of his irons, that had been left in the fire until it glowed red, and thrust it into one of the man's staring eyes. The man let out one sharp scream as the skin of his eye melted and the juices inside ran onto the iron and sizzled and steamed. His good eye closed; then I felt faint, and then puked. I could hear the torturer and inquisitor laugh at me as I made my way from their room. I do not know if the man died then, or merely fell unconscious, later to wake and suffer more abuse."
"Was the sight so terrible?"
"I love the sight of spring, of a naked woman, of the sea. I do not like to see a man or woman suffer. Perhaps I am young and love life - any life- too much. I cannot bear to see suffering inflicted so wantonly."
"You would not protect yourself then?"
"That is not wanton."
"Tell me what else happened in Spain."
"There is not much to tell. I merely observed. I counted the ships in the Armada. I listened to the sailors in the harbour bars, tried to discover when the fleet was to leave. Any information I gathered I relayed to another agent in a village outside Cadiz. That agent passed it on to an agent in France. Eventually my information would reach the Queen and her advisors.
"Come to my room now."
The Lady Barnard stood, took John's hand and led him from the dining room, through the hall and up the staircase. At the top of the stairs she led him into her bedroom. She slammed the door behind her, took John in her arms and kissed him hotly on the mouth.
Remembering torture, thinking back to Cadiz, had temporarily cooled John's ardour. When he felt the soft smallness of the Lady Barnard in his arms he felt his breath catch; the world became, for one brief moment, suspended, as a sudden sense of tension, wonder, desire, pinched him inside his stomach, perhaps, lower in the guts. When the world resumed its movements that feeling in his
guts moved lower still, to his groin, his thighs. His mind had not moved entirely yet to his cock - he remembered that the Lady Barnard had not set the page at the gate.
"My Lady," he said, breaking away from her and looking down into her eyes, that sparkled and danced so now, "What of the page?"
She smiled, stepped out of his embrace, and went through the door toward the stairs. John could see her, for a moment skipping, light as a dancer, on the landing before she descended the stairs.
John looked around her room while she was gone. The bed was large, covered in many sheets and furs. A large wardrobe took up one wall. John opened a door, looked at, touched, smelled, some of the clothes inside. He could smell the scent he already recognised as that of the Lady: a hint of her own musk; some oil, like sandalwood, from the East; the ever pervasive smell of the pomander. The clothes felt soft; these were the clothes of the rich. So different, sensually, from those of the lower orders. As he stepped back from the wardrobe, the smell of oranges and cloves became stronger; he looked behind the door and found a pomander hanging there. John smiled at himself. He knew he was playing the agent again; but that was how he lived. That was how he had trained himself. He shut the wardrobe door, looked around the rest of the room. One wall contained the fireplace, in which a fire burned hot and bright. Against the wall containing the door was set a large table, covered in make-up, face powders, lip colours, jewellery, baubles, bangles. The other wall was taken up by a large, draughty window. John crossed to the window, looked out on the courtyard. He saw the page crossing toward the gate. He saw the rain begin to fall. The rain, caught on a sudden gust of wind, rattled against the window. The page glanced back, once, toward the window. John looked up at the clouds, saw they were lowering, grey, full of rain. He felt sorry for the page, who would be at the gate until nightfall; even John would not worry about the Lord Barnard heading back from the wood at night. His sympathy for the page was interrupted by the return of Lady Barnard, who came up behind John, wrapped her arms around his waist.
"You nothing have to fear, now John, nothing at all."
John twisted in her arms, turned, faced her. He took her head in his hands, tilted her face up, said "Only your desires, Lady," then kissed her on the mouth. He ran his hands over her body, felt
the subtle curves beneath her layers of clothing. Hot now, he threw her on the bed, began to pull her dress over head, while she reached for the buttons on his trews. He removed her dress, then began to feel beneath her petticoats for the warmth of her thighs, was rewarded with the softness of her skin, suddenly found the roughness of the hair between her legs; you know the rest.
The page was already away to the green wood. It was the rain that had finally broken him. The rain and the grey. He had always loved the Lady Barnard, did not want to hurt her. He had watched her take her lovers to her room, had guarded her, shielded her; he had bitten back his own jealousy, worried at it, then chased it back again; always believing that his love was all that mattered.
But today he had seen enough, suffered enough. He wanted to protect the Lady Barnard from herself, to keep some part of her pure for himself, and for herself.
That, and the grey.
That, and the sound of the raindrops beating at his hood.
He was away. Away to the green wood. Away to find Lord Barnard and his party. And the further he ran, the more sure he became that he did the right thing. And as he ran, he knew he must tell the Lord all. And as he ran, he became driven. Something drove him to run faster. A voice urged him on - faster faster faster. And when he came to the small leat, he fell on his belly and swam. And when he reached the other side, he took to his heels and ran.When he reached the green wood, dusk was already falling. He followed the main path into the wood, suddenly realising that he had no clear idea where his Lord might be. So he ran along the track, looking for clearings, looking for smoke, signs of a fire. As he ran, he called Lord Barnard's name. And after three hours, when it had grown quite dark, and he almost insensible to what he was doing, where he going; feeling, now, out of control, out of breath, in a world of endless trees; now suddenly a torch was thrust toward him, and in its pool of light he could see Lord Patrick.
Patrick recognised Lord Barnard's page; tried speaking to him, received no answer. So he took him to Lord Barnard.
The page was soaked to the skin. He sat, wrapped in cloaks, before a large fire over which some meat was roasting. He shivered, clutched the cloaks tight around him. Lord Patrick took a knife, carved him some meat.
Lord Barnard stood, tall, before the the page, his back to the fire. His voice was more gentle now, had a caressing tone, as he said: "Again, Simon, I ask - what brings you here?"
When Lord Patrick had led Simon to Lord Barnard's camp, Simon had at first cried quietly. Simon could see that Lord Barnard was worried, thinking something bad, some accident perhaps, had
happened to his lady. And Simon had wanted to reassure him, to tell him that Simon loved her too, and would allow no danger to befall the Lady Barnard. And then his mouth had been stopped by a jumble of images, as he realised that now he had put her in danger; he could see his hot tempered Lord slapping the Lady, cutting the Lady. The Lord Barnard had shouted, raged for a while, but Simon had become confused, watched the dancing flames, become absorbed by the trembling of his muscles. Then Lord Patrick had stood up, taken Lord Barnard by the arm, taken him toward the trees. Another Lord, Simon had not seen whom, passed him a warm drink. He could smell that it was mulled wine. He had stared into the chalice for a while, losing himself in the colour of the wine, in the smell of it. Somewhere, somewhen, he had returned to the clearing, looked around, saw the other Lords lying in cloaks or skins around the fire, and returning from the trees, the Lords Patrick and Barnard.
And softly Lord Barnard had asked: "Again, Simon, I ask - what brings you here?"
Simon sipped at his mulled wine, looked up at Lord Barnard, across at Lord Patrick. He was ready to speak, but for a moment he was stilled by Lord Patrick. Patrick was a lifelong friend of Matty, and over the years had befriended John. He was a Lord in his own right and owed no allegiance, except an easy acquaintance, to Lord Barnard. How would he react?
Simon took a deep draught of the wine, and looked up into the sky above the clearing. The rain fell gently now, and he could see that this summer's night was moving toward day.
"Your wife, my Lord. The Lady Barnard. She... she has spent the night with John Simonson, Matty Fanning's friend."
Simon was aware of how Lord Barnard stared at him, the horror and the hate that was boring into him. Beyond him he could see Lord Patrick, head bowed, staring at the leaf strewn ground. He sensed, rather than saw, the restraint of the other Lords; how no word was spoken, how little movement they made, how still this camp had become. Only the fire still spat and crackled, as rain and fat fell into it; only the leaves rustled gently; only the heavy drops from those leaves gently pattered around them.
The Lord Barnard spoke: "Look at me, Simon."
Simon forced himself to look into Lord Barnard's face.
"If this be truth you tell me, then gold shall be your fee; if this be false you tell to me, then hanged you shall be."
Simon thought: "If you knew how I love her, you would know the truth I tell. You would also kill me here."
And the Lord Barnard turned away, spoke to the Lords; "We will ride now." He fixed each Lord with his stare. "And until the truth is known, I will hear no gossip."
They kicked dirt over the fire, loaded the horses, mounted. Lord Barnard ordered Simon to sit behind Lord Arthur, turned to the Lords and said, "Nobody blow their hunting horn, lest our
coming it should betray." Lord Barnard kicked his horse and galloped away. The Lords followed in train.
Simon held tight to Lord Arthur's cloak as Lord Barnard led the party at a fast pace back to the hall. As they rode, and morning rose drear and grey, Simon looked at Lord Patrick just to the side of him. Patrick kept pace with the party but Simon could see he was distracted, rode his horse automatically, allowing it to follow the rest of the party.
As they left the woods and began to cross the fields, a mile or so from Barnard's hall, Patrick stopped his horse, took out his horn and blew as hard as he could. Immediately, the Lord Barnard wheeled his horse around and returned to Lord Patrick. The other Lords reined their horses to, then followed Lord Barnard. As Lord Arthur and Simon approached, Lord Barnard knocked Patrick from his horse. Immediately, Barnard slid from his horse and unsheathed his sword. Simon jumped down too, interposed himself between his master and Patrick. "My Lord, I did not wish my news to cause uncalled for violence."
Lord Barnard stood before Simon, his sword raised, his breathing ragged and harsh, hard anger in his eyes, as he looked from Simon to Patrick and back again. He lowered his sword, resheathed it. Controlling the trembling in his voice, he looked away, back to the woods, said: "Begone Patrick. Remount your steed and leave these fields. But do not show your face on my land or at my hall again. Give me a wide berth in the woods."
Lord Patrick stayed where he had fallen as Lord Barnard remounted his horse. As the party rode away, Patrick slowly stood, watched the horses and riders. So close to death he thought, and for what. Had John even heard his horn? Stiffly he climbed back onto his horse, reined it around and made his way back to the woods. As he did so, he blew on his horn again.
John sat up in bed. Something had woken him. He felt the warm hand of the Lady Barnard move down his back. "What troubles you John?"
"Something woke me."
In his dreams it had perhaps been a hunt approaching.
"Oh, I think you heard the jay, John," the Lady Barnard said softly, then moved her hand to his half-erect penis, "or perhaps, the morning cock." She laughed, and rubbed gently. John twisted, took Lady Barnard in his arms. She said, "Have I not set a page outside the gate? And you with a gay lady in your arms! And yet you would away?" John replied by kissing her; then, leaning his head on her shoulder, he fell into a doze. And it only seemed brief moments later that the door slammed against Lady Barnard's dressing table, and he heard her small, sharp, frightened squeal. John sat up again, to see the Lord Barnard standing at the end of the bed, red-faced, taut, looking even bigger than John remembered.
The Lord Barnard stared down into John's eyes; the Lord held himself in check, but John could see from his breathing, from his stance, that it took much of his strength to hold himself so.
"Get up John," he said, in a voice that was both weary and dangerous. "Get up as fast as you can. For it will never be said within my lands that I slew an unarmed man."
John threw back the quilts and blankets with a courage he did not feel, and stood naked before the Lord Barnard.
Suddenly, the Lord slapped his face. John staggered. Barnard turned, left the room. John felt his cheek, then looked down at the Lady Barnard, who was sitting up now, with the sheets pulled tight around her breasts.
"He has gone to get his sword," she said.
"True enough," came Lord Barnard's voice; John looked up, to see the Lord on the landing, carrying two swords. "Here you see two of my finest swords, Simonson, and they cost me deep in the purse; and you shall have the best of them, and I shall have the worst. Now throw on some rags and follow me to the yard. Make it quick though boy, or I'll cut you where you stand."
John stumbled into his trews, picked up a shirt and put it on, then grabbed his tunic, hoping that its padding might afford him some protection. He could feel the fear in him. He briefly looked at the Lady Barnard then moved toward the bedroom door. Lord Barnard moved down the stairs before him, nimble despite his size; an agility made more so by the Lord's anger and fear, John realised.
They made their way out into the morning, which was still grey and drizzling. The air was close. The other Lords stood together, near their sweating horses. None of them spoke to John, nor pleaded for for him. Fear of Lord Barnard, he wondered, or did they also feel that the only correct course of action under such circumstances was to kill the adulterer? John looked up into the morning grey. So if I kill Lord Barnard, John wondered, does that mean that I have won the Lady Barnard? Do I win his land? That, after all, is what would happen in the animal kingdom. And that is what this is about, isn't it? Dominance? One animal over another.
He heard Lady Barnard's voice. He turned.
"Why kill him?" she said. "He is just a boy. You should be punishing me. It was I who seduced him."
The Lord Barnard roared, turned, and slapped Lady Barnard across the cheek. She crashed to the ground, whimpering.
"Fear not, my Lady; you will be dealt with appropriately when I have cut the heart from this dog."
He threw a sword to John. "Take this, Simonson. Don't expect a fair fight."
John quickly looked around him; before him was Lord Barnard, and beyond, the house. To his right were the Lords and their horses. To his left was a cart, and beyond it, some out-buildings. And behind him, the path back to the gates and the open fields.
Immediately, he brought his attention back to Lord Barnard, who now lunged at him. John easily parried the stroke. John feinted one way, then the other. Each time he could see that Barnard had followed his sword, so he moved his weight back slightly, observed Barnard's body. Barnard carried a large hunting knife, sheathed at his belt. John noted it, realised that Barnard might surprise him with it. Then Barnard was lunging at John again, and this time he moved forward, moving his sword quickly, using his size and strength to force John backwards. John parried Barnard's sword thrusts often enough, although he caught a cut on his forearm. But the sheer physical presence of the man was beating him back and back, until he blundered into the cart. Now his movement was limited. John saw Barnard's left hand move towards the hunting knife. Then, a moment later, John was aware of movement on his left side. Barnard's sword was chopping towards his neck. An inelegant stroke, but Barnard's feint toward his knife had worked, it had distracted John; and John even had time to feel stupid about it. So he ducked down and forward, but still caught the top of the blade and the wrought metal of the finger-guard. The blade bit deep into his flesh, while the blow knocked him down unconscious. The Lady Barnard shouted as John fell, ran toward him. Blood poured from John's cheek, into his eye, over his shoulder, and onto the stones. Lord Barnard towered over the fallen body, his sword at John's throat, and taunted the Lady.
"Now see your bright young boy, my Lady. What do you think of his beautiful young body now?"
Lady Barnard cried quietly as she looked down at John. How could such an innocent, lovely, sweet adventure end in such a way?
"Well I like your feather beds, and well I like your sheets. But I'd rather a kiss from John's lips, than you in your finery."
Angry, the Lord Barnard turned, slashed at Lady Barnard, slashed at her breasts, slashed at her neck, until she fell, her hand covering her face.
And as John came to, he could hear Lord Barnard's blade cutting into Lady Barnard, and he rolled over, saw Lord Barnard's back toward him, heard the Lady Barnard cry, then stop, saw the Lady Barnard's body fall loose, saw the looks of concern on the faces of the other Lords by their horses.
He saw the Lord Barnard pull his sword from the Lady Barnard, and rest it limply by his side, while he looked down, unmoving.
Knowing the Lady Barnard was dead, knowing he could do nothing but try and survive, John wiped an arm across his face to mop some of the blood away from his left eye, then he pushed himself beneath the farm cart. On the other side he turned, moved stealthily, slipped along a passage between the out-buildings.
He heard Lord Barnard's shout, then, and knew he must run.
About ten yards in front of him was a wall about six feet high. He put the sword between his teeth, ran as fast as he could toward the wall and then jumped. Grasping the top of the wall tight, he pulled himself over, fell down the other side and tumbled into a ditch. The ditch was wet after the rain. Cursing, he ran up the bank and slipped. He tried again. Again. Finally, he thrust the sword into the bank and pulled himself up with that. He was now on a small embankment. To his left were open fields, but slightly to the right and in front of him, about a hundred yards away, were
the trees of the woods. An obvious place to run. He could hear the
sharp report of hoofs from behind the wall, and knew the Lords were on their horses. He would never make it to the wood from here.
Instinctively he rolled back into the ditch, and ran along it toward the back of the house. He could hear the dull thud of the horses in the wet land around him. He rued the blindness caused by the blood in his left eye, and the embankments beside him, but he ran, reached the corner of the wall then turned right and followed the ditch. About a third of the way along the ditch some low trees overhung the bank and wall. Cautiously, again using his sword,
John pulled himself toward the top of the bank. He could see one who looked like Lord Arthur riding toward the woods, and another riding over the open fields. Surely they would realise soon that he could never have gone that far. Quickly now he climbed into the tree, shinned along a branch then dropped back into Lord Barnard's grounds. Cautiously he made his away around the side of the house.
He saw no-one until he reached the front. The page stood before his dead mistress. John held the sword steady, level, approached the page quietly. The ground around the Lady Barnard was slick and red. Some stones shifted beneath John's feet, and the page turned.
"Ah, young John," he said sadly.
"Why did you tell the Lord Barnard?" John asked softly.
"I loved her," Simon said. "And now she's dead. Which is not how I intended this tale to end." Simon laughed bitterly. "The Lord Barnard said that gold would be my fee. As if I ever wanted it or needed it. Believe me John, it was not gold that made me do this. It was love of the Lady. I wanted to save her."
John stared down at the Lady Barnard. Her clothes were soaked through with her blood. Cuts slashed across her cheeks and arms.
"And you failed," John said.
"Who is to blame for this death John? You? Or I? Lord Barnard; or the Lady herself?"
Simon turned to face John, smiled sadly, and then, before John had time to move, grabbed the end of John's sword and thrust himself upon it. John clutched at him as he fell, but felt the weight of his body tearing the sword through his vitals. John stood back then, let Simon slip down and from his blade.
He was silent for a brief moment.
Then with a start he realised where he was, and what he should be doing. The rain began to fall again as he made his way to the stables, where he found an old grey mare. Pulling himself upon her back he guided her from the stables, out of the gates and into the fields. He could see Lord Barnard returning, now could hear his shouts. He kicked the mare toward the woods. It was only a hundred yards. Once there he could lose Lord Barnard, make his way to Lord Patrick. He could see the trees coming toward him. He looked around; he could see Lord Barnard, and the other Lords had turned their horses too. He held tight the mare's mane, squeezed his knees into her belly. He wiped some blood away from his face.
He could see the darkness in the woods. He could feel the rain lashing at him, washing him. He knew now he would live.
This is actually the first chapter of a story set in Elizabethan times. As I've progressed no further than this chapter – and some notes and ideas for a couple more chapters – and as this stands as a story on its own, I thought I'd make it available for your perusal...