PART ONE: THE OLD FEUD
Yoredale Forest, Yorkshire, September 1459
In the ancient forest Ned Elder sat motionless in the saddle. The sound was faint, but unmistakable: the ring of steel upon steel - but it was not the sound he wanted to hear.
He urged his mount forward, picking his way through the densely packed hazel and birch. His friend, Will, followed close behind on a track that was barely discernible. Where birch gave way to beech, Ned pulled up and listened again: the sounds of struggle were fading. He walked his horse on through a labyrinth of green shadows and hazy shafts of light until he emerged into a broad sunlit glade.
Dazzled by the September sun, Ned stopped, shading his eyes. He thought he saw movement on the far side of the clearing and squinted at the trees. A horse wandered towards him, its rider slumped forward over its neck.
“Is it him?” asked Will, drawing alongside.
Ned looked long and hard at the lone horseman, harnessed for battle but wearing no helm. He nodded and rode into the clearing.
“Tom!” he shouted.
The rider’s head jerked up; his bearded face was cut and bruised and his breastplate was spattered with blood. When he saw Ned he simply gave a weary smile and came to a halt alongside his younger brother. Ned scarcely recognised the gaunt face but took his outstretched arm with relief.
“We’ve expected you for weeks,” he said, a question in his tone.
“Glad to be here at all!” replied Tom, nodding a greeting to Will.
From somewhere in the wall of trees behind Tom came a shout of triumph. He glanced back. “We’ll have to lose them in the forest, Ned.”
“The Radcliffes fell upon us; the others are lost…”
“But …” Ned broke off open mouthed as an arrow sped across his chest and flew on into the trees.
“Come on,” ordered Tom sharply, but Ned hesitated. “Ned! Come! You two aren’t harnessed for fighting! This isn’t one of your noble causes - you can’t win here!”
Ned was about to argue when the next arrow struck Tom’s horse in the rump. The tired mare reared up in outrage, throwing him to the ground. Through the mottled curtain of leaves behind them thundered a mounted knight, encased in black, burnished steel. Two men at arms tracked behind him on foot, breathing heavily as they struggled to keep up. Tom, dazed by the fall, staggered to his feet and drew his sword. Another arrow shot past him.
“For Christ’s sake, Ned, go!” he shouted. “You don’t understand! The old feud’s begun again! Father’s executed, we’re all attainted… lost! Now, ride!”
The oncoming knight rode at Tom with sword raised. Ned glanced at Will who gave a sharp nod; they were not about to leave Tom having just found him again.
“Go to Lord Salisbury - trust no-one else!” Tom cried and turned to face the rider who was already upon him, hacking down at his unprotected head. The blow caught him on the neck, cutting him deeply. He cast a despairing look at Ned and fell to his knees, dropping his sword. The knight’s momentum took him back into the trees but the men at arms hurried forward to finish Tom off.
“Look to Tom!” said Will and turned his horse to meet the two men head on, drawing out one of the fine blades given him by Ned’s father. He was a week past nineteen years old and had never drawn his sword to spill blood. The men at arms hesitated but, hearing the knight returning, they stood their ground. Will rode at them hard, great shanks of red hair flying behind him. He drove between them slashing down with his sword and left one of the pair clutching his bleeding face. Both stumbled away into the bracken and Will turned to meet the oncoming knight, closing on him fast. He met the jarring force of the knight’s sword with his blade, turning it aside. Then he struck his opponent’s helmet, driving him off into the trees.
Wrestling his horse to a standstill, Will sat trembling in the saddle. His hands shook so much he had to sheathe his sword to avoid dropping it. He was about to follow the knight but then, remembering the arrows, he dismounted and approached the trees with caution. The early fallen leaves whispered softly under his feet as he crept between the grey shafts of beech. A few yards in front of him some drooping stems of bracken wavered and there was movement in the undergrowth to his right. He took a deep breath and slid the narrow steel blade silently from its scabbard.
Ned gripped Tom’s hand as if faith alone might revive him.
Tom tried to speak. “Get your sisters, Ned … and run,” he said - his voice no more than a rustle of dead leaves.
Ned pressed his hand to the neck wound, but his brother’s life trickled away through his fingers. Another horseman rode into the clearing, armour glinting in the sun. Ned growled in anger, laid Tom gently onto the ground and got to his feet, snatching up the fallen sword. He was a year younger than Will and equally untried, but he lifted the blood-stained weapon high and held it steady in front of him, as he had done a thousand times in practice. He willed himself to focus on the steel-clad rider pounding towards him with a short-handled pollaxe in his hand.
“Shit, but he’s well-harnessed,” he muttered to himself, “Lord, if I die, pray make it swift.”
Then his assailant was there, swinging the axe down at him. Ned kept his bare head low, scything his sword up under the axe and striking his opponent’s elbow. Something cracked, the bone joint snapped and the knight cried out. The axe slipped from his hand and thudded into the long grass at the forest edge as his frightened mount bore him back into the trees.
Ned rammed the point of the sword into the ground and stood motionless, then his shoulders drooped and he laid his hand on the sword hilt once more, for someone else was coming. When he looked up he saw with relief that it was Will, emerging white-faced from the trees, wiping the blood from his sword.
Ned knelt down once more to Tom and his brother’s eyes fluttered open briefly.
“What do they want, Tom?”
“All we have,” breathed Tom.
There was a powerful hammering on the oak gate at Elder Hall. Emma watched Lynton, the elderly estate steward, trudge up to the top of the small, stone gatehouse to see who was making such a clattering.
“It’s your … neighbour, Lord Radcliffe, my lady,” he announced, “with some men at arms…”
“What does he want?” Emma muttered to herself. The interruption was an irritation but also a little intriguing for she knew well enough her father’s opinion of Lord Radcliffe and it was far from favourable.
“What’s your business, my lord?” Lynton's tone was brusque as he called out from the wall.
“My business is with your mistress, you old turd, so fetch her here!” shouted Lord Radcliffe.
“Better wait then,” replied the steward.
Emma couldn’t suppress a smile as the taciturn servant took his time making his way back down the narrow steps to the courtyard. She had been cutting the last of the lavender in her small herb garden – one of the indulgences her father allowed his seventeen year old as a reward for managing his household. The blue flowers of borage and lavender were past their best now, she thought as she got up and went to the gate, still clutching the bundle of lavender stalks.
“God give you good day, my lord,” she called through the gate, “how may I be of service?”
“Lady, I’d gladly bid you good day but please open the gate, for I bear grave news.”
Emma glanced at Lynton who shook his head. “With your father and brothers not here, my lady – it’s not safe.”
“Oh, let him in, Lynton; there’ll be no peace until we do. I’ll see what he wants but the rest can wait outside.”
The old man muttered to himself as he struggled to unbar the gate.
She brushed some broken lavender stems from her robe and pushed a stray lock of black hair under her wimple whilst Lynton slowly dragged one of the gates open. Before he had done so, however, it was given a hefty shove from outside as Robert Radcliffe rode through, his horse knocking Lynton to one side. The old man tumbled back onto the cobbles and rolled on to his knees, cursing.
“My lord!” protested Emma.
Lord Robert dismounted. She had not seen him for several years. He was a powerfully built man in his late forties though his dark shock of black hair was beginning to reveal flecks of grey. Time, she decided, had not been generous to his once handsome face.
“Your dear father is dead,” he stated bluntly. “Tried and executed for treason.”
This terse announcement delivered, he carried on whilst she was struggling to grasp what he had just said. “Your brothers are also dead… killed by outlaws in the forest.”
Emma let fall the lavender stalks. She had not seen Tom for weeks but Ned had ridden out only a few hours earlier.
“Surely Ned is on the estate still?” she said. Lord Robert took her arm but it did not reassure her.
“Lady, we’ve no time for delay. I’ll take you to Yoredale Castle – you’ll be safe there.”
“But I’m safe here, my lord,” she replied, shrugging off his hand.
Abruptly the veneer of sympathetic cordiality fell away. He seized her by the throat and pinned her to the dusty gatehouse wall.
“Hold your tongue, girl! Your shit of a father married into what little nobility he had and you’re just the dregs of his traitorous loins!”
Without hesitation, he lifted her bodily and threw her onto a horse. “Still, now he’s dead, I’m sure I’ll find a use for you.”
“No!” Emma screamed.
Lynton made to seize the horse’s rein but stumbled as he did so and Lord Robert cuffed him down with his gauntlet. Mounting his horse, Lord Robert took her reins and dragged her horse out of the gate and along the road to Yoredale Castle, whilst his retainers dismounted to begin the plundering of Elder Hall.
Eleanor and Becky ran as if death pursued them, abandoning the open grassland near the falls and hurtling into the forest. As they fled through the trees, the falling leaves swirled a trail of ochre and red in their wake, marking their passage for the men at arms that followed them. The girls were younger and fitter than their pursuers and they knew the forest as well as anyone. The longer they evaded capture, the safer they felt. They went to ground and listened breathlessly for the sound of the chasing pack but their pursuers now seemed further away.
“Who are they?” whispered Becky.
Eleanor shook her head.
“Well, we can guess what they want,” Becky went on, “it might be easier if we just let them have it!”
Eleanor frowned, not sure at first whether her servant was serious or not, until Becky’s grin told her.
“We should split up,” suggested Eleanor, “then at least they won’t have us both.”
“You should’ve covered your hair – we could’ve passed for lads.”
“I’m not covering my hair for any man. Wait here. I’ll draw them off and see you back at the Hall.”
“Your hair marks you out,” persisted Becky.
“Aye, it does!” She smiled and hugged Becky to her. “Now, lie low for a while.”
She set off at speed into the thinner part of the forest which stretched from the riverbank almost to the walls of Elder Hall. Flitting between the trees, she was confident she could elude her pursuers until she noticed a line of men ahead threading their way methodically down the hillside of oak and hazel towards her. Surely, she thought, these men had not just chanced upon the two lasses thinking they might try their luck?
She darted away from the advancing line, trying to keep to a route which would take her back to the Hall, but all too quickly she realised that she was being driven with purpose towards the River Yore. Her initial confidence began to waver in the face of the sheer number of men tracking her and, for the first time, she considered she might be in real danger. She changed course and began running parallel to the river, crossing the many small becks that trickled into it, scrambling over sharp rocks and careless tree roots. She weighed up the likelihood of success higher up the slope but realised with a jolt of anger that they were trapping her against the river once more.
Now she had no choice but to make for the riverbank. If she was lucky she might surprise them by crossing the ford ahead of them but when she reached the bank she saw at once that she must be caught. There were already men at the ford and the rest steadily closed in behind her. She stopped at the river’s edge and turned to face the encircling line.
They slowed to a halt several yards from her, distracted by her stunning beauty so at odds with her leather breeches and jerkin. She was accustomed to that but, if they intended to steal what little virtue she still possessed, she would make sure they paid a heavy price for it. She stretched her arms out slowly behind her, reaching over her shoulder for the long knife she carried in a scabbard strapped to the small of her back. The soldiers watched mesmerised as she arched her back and the leather stretched tight across her breasts.
“We’ll help you with that!” called one and reached out to her. In a breath, she drew the knife and lashed out. He jumped back, yelping as the blade sliced across his palm. She smiled and held the weapon out in front of her, swinging it from side to side as the others began to close in more warily.
“Well lads, what do you want to do?” she bawled at them. “Kill me, or just run your grubby little fingers all over me?”
As she expected, they were stunned by her speech and manner but she didn’t wait for them to consider for long. Seizing upon their doubts, she ran at them, twisting this way and that and turning her blade on any man who got too close. Several tried to disarm her but clutched handfuls of air as she danced around them, stabbing at them and using her swift, lithe movement to wrong-foot them. Cornered once more on the edge of the riverbank, she thrust out towards an unprotected neck and was rewarded by a spurt of blood splashing onto her face. She forced a grim smile as her victim fell to the ground, blood pouring from his wound. Though his comrades tried to wrest her lethal blade away, she broke from their grasp once more, her confidence growing.
The single commanding voice paralysed them all and the overbearing tone left her in no doubt as to who was in command of the pursuit. Still brandishing the knife in front of her, she remained motionless, whilst the owner of the voice surveyed the scene.
“I told you to take her quietly,” he barked at his men. “Look at her! She looks as if she’s been scourged!”
They stared back at him sullenly.
“What do you want with me?” demanded Eleanor. For if they were not seeking her body then she could not imagine what else they wanted from her.
She felt his eyes upon her, taking in her beauty as all men did: her long tresses of blood red hair, the green eyes that Will found so bewitching and her smooth skin no doubt still glowing from the chase. Yet she could tell from his expression that she was not to his taste.
“I’m your neighbour, Richard Radcliffe, my lady,” he replied smoothly. “You’re in no danger from us, but there are men in the forest: outlaws who respect no law but their own. You’ll come with us for your own safety.”
Eleanor gave a bitter laugh. “If these ‘men of the forest’ are as dangerous as yours… Dick, then I’ve little to fear. You can leave me to defend myself!”
“No,” he replied, “I fear not.”
She was already on the move before he’d finished speaking, darting between the two nearest men and slashing at an exposed face. One man caught her arm and she raked her knife across his chest. They were chasing shadows but there were so many of them she couldn’t get clear. An outstretched foot tripped her to her knees but she rolled to hack at the forest of legs that surrounded her. She was raising the knife to strike again when a boot kicked it from her hand. At once she sprang to her feet, throwing herself at Richard Radcliffe and clawing at his face until he punched her hard in the chest and stomach. Only then did she drop to the ground, snarling at her adversaries like a wounded she-wolf, blazing eyes frantically seeking an escape route. She looked desperately towards the river but more blows rained upon her from all sides and, with a final, despairing scream, she succumbed.