Terry Marcel owns all the rights to the characters and I'm only borrowing them to play with.
A single candle flame flickered feebly past the high turret window; and was suddenly paled into invisibility as a bolt of lightning ripped across the storm-black sky outside. For an instant the castle stood outlined luridly against the angry sky; then all was profoundly black. Almost immediately a crash of thunder shook the very stones of the keep and the little candle flame guttered apologetically in the draughty corridor.
The hand of the cloaked and cowled figure that held the candle sheltered the flame, coaxing it into bolder life. The stairs were steep and treacherous; it would not do to negotiate them without any light. Gradually the flame lengthened and strengthened; and the figure heaved a subdued sigh of relief, careful not to breathe too hard on the insubstantial light. The way was lit; and the candle flame bobbed as it was carried downstairs, round the twisting turret stairway into the richly decorated rooms below. Feebly its light fell on painted pilasters and gaudy tapestries designed to make the main living quarters more comfortable and draught-free than the little room where it had begun its journey. As the flame danced in the airflow in the larger rooms, lightning again shredded the sky, bringing the colours into brief, stark clarity. Again came the sharp detonation of thunder, terrifyingly loud to the fugitive whose ears were strained to hear sound of imminent discovery. It was just in time that the thunder's angry grumble receded to permit the sound of footsteps to echo hollowly along the main corridor; and the gleam of a torch preceded the guards as they approached. Quickly the candle was blown out; the way would be easier from here anyway. The cloaked figure stepped nimbly into an alcove behind a tapestry, listening as the guards came closer, chatting idly. Their talk revealed that they had no qualms that anything was amiss, for the talk was inconsequential: though the bawdy story recounted in great detail by one of them brought a blush unbidden to the face of the fugitive.
Again the night was torn and shaken by the storm and one of the guards shuddered
"I hate this," he declared. His companion shrugged.
"So does everyone else." He said philosophically. "At least you can guarantee that for the first time you've been on night watch everyone else in the castle is also awake."
The first laughed a little shakily. Storms frightened him.
"Except Hugh the vintner." He attempted a feeble joke. "Nothing short of Ragnarok – uh, I mean Armageddon – would waken him. I wonder how the Lady Annis is coping up so near the sky in her turret?"
The other had shot him a reproving look at his pagan lapse, but answered the man's question.
"I'll wager Lady Annis doesn't turn a hair. That young 'un has nerves of steel. Besides, she'll be all right. She doesn't have to go outside as we do to check the stable block. And 'tis no good putting it off by askin' impertinent questions and droolin' over the thought of the young mistress sleepin' you craven – so move."
They moved off, the other expostulating over his companion's intimations about his thoughts and went reluctantly out of the postern and into the stables. Still the fugitive waited, though in the confined space it seemed that a frightened heartbeat could rival the thunder for noise. After what seemed an age, the guards returned, grumbling gently about the driving rain; and went back the way they had come. The fugitive pulled a face. Rain was all that was needed!
Presently a dark figure was slipping out of the postern. Carefully the wet and slippery steps into the stable yard were negotiated, by the fitful light of a cloud-tossed moon; and the figure slid thankfully into the warmth and dryness of the stables. The horses stirred slightly at the sound of the stable door and the horse Rowan whickered gently as he caught a familiar scent; and was hushed. A concealed pack was retrieved from where it had been hidden earlier. Quickly, efficiently, slender hands saddled and bridled the horse and led him out. The outer postern was unguarded; the path to it was too precipitate for any that did not know its pitfalls intimately. The fugitive did know it, had climbed it countless times; and within half an hour was safely down on the flat, the horse Rowan following trustingly. On the flat Rowan was mounted; and the rider skilfully picked a path that would avoid most of the village that sprawled at the castle's foot. Once beyond habitation, the rider reined in the horse and looked back. The hood fell back as the lightning flashed, revealing the pale gold aureole of Lady Annis' hair and her serious blue eyes dark in her pale face. She smiled once, grimly, resettled the pack she had prepared; and rode off, turning her back on the castle where she had grown up.
Dawn found Annis sheltering in the Great Woodland in the hollow trunk of an ancient oak. Rowan whickered deep horsey disapproval as the leaves of the gnarled old tree shook in the morning breeze and gave up droplets of water they had shielded so well from the forest floor during the storm.
Annis emerged from her shelter and stretched out the kinks of an uncomfortable night. She unhitched her unhappy horse.
"Come now, Rowan, let us find a stream for a morning drink. You will feel better for that, and some soft grass." She soothed the young stallion. Rowan showed her the whites of his eyes to give her to understand that midnight jaunts in the rain were not things of which he approved; but Annis merely laughed at him and patted his neck. "Now it is light I shall rub you down well." She told him; "As soon as we have found a good place to see to our thirst."
Annis led the beast to a clearing where soft grass carpeted the bank of a laughing brook, swelled by the storm rain. Tentative shafts of early sunlight quested their way into this little hollow, warming the wet grass and bringing it steaming into a light mist that swirled thicker about their feet as they passed through it. Spiders' webs sparkled with diamond drops of water strung on their silken threads. Birds sang with gay celebration of a new bright dawn; it looked like being a fine late summer's day. Annis watered Rowan and settled him to graze after a rub down with a blanket from her pack.
"There now, I imagine you are glad to have lugged the extra weight for this, mmm?" She laughed. Rowan gave her a sideways look. "I almost think you understand at least half what I say to you." She added. "Though I'm sure someone would say it heresy to even suggest it in fun. Now, have some breakfast and stop looking hard done by. You are fat and lazy anyway." She left the horse to his own devices as she breakfasted for herself on some of the oatcakes she had brought, sitting in her petticoats with her cloak and dress laid over a thorn bush in the sun to dry. She must wait too until the sun had risen enough to dry vegetation; for there were herbs in abundance in this woodland for the gathering. Annis planned to pay her lonely way through the world by pedalling herbs and simples, for she was skilled in the use of herbal medicines.
Sun-warmed and feeling free, Annis sought herbs that thrived in the wooded environment. Shady nooks were filled with violets, none in bloom, but with an abundance of leaves, good for coughs. Comfrey, such a versatile herb, grew on well-drained hillocks under smaller trees, loving partial shade; it was rather late in the year for the best of the leaves, a little early for the root: but Annis shrugged and made the best of it. Back down near the stream she found angelica for indigestion , and willow, the bark of which would make such a good painkiller and combat fever. Blackberry grew abundantly everywhere as did nettle for rheumatism and dandelion for bladder trouble. She had to search for eyebright, stealing the goodness from the ground-hugging plants it colonised slyly underground by suckers; yet so useful that it seemed wrong to think of it merely as a parasite. She felt lucky to find a clearing filled with feverfew, still in flower with its raggy white daisy flowers. Feverfew was rarely out of flower save in the winter months, there were usually a few flower heads right through the autumn. Annis chose leaves from those plants that were not in flower, for they would be stronger in effect, not having to go to the effort of reproduction. Headache sufferers would be glad of a tea made from them! She had put on a simple gown of unbleached wool, that it matter little an she damage it on thorns or stain it from the picking of her herbs; and she might have passed as a peasant wench.
Annis was so engrossed in her labours, selecting the best leaves, that she did not hear the men entering the clearing.
It was the sound of a harsh, grating voice that made the girl whip round as it broke the stillness in the glade.
"See, Pierce, a pretty wench. Jus' a-waitin' for ussen, wouldn' you say?"
The speaker was a hefty man with heavy jowls and greasy hair. He was dressed well enough, but there was a suggestion about his clothes of unkemptness; and Annis could smell the stale sweat on his body as he moved. His companion was little better, though his armour-clad jerkin at least seemed well cared for. Both men had serviceable looking weapons. Annis thought 'mercenaries' and felt slightly sick.
The two men advanced on Annis. The girl's heart was pounding; but she stood her ground. Running would be nothing but an exercise in futility; they could easily outrun her – and they stood between her and Rowan. Unseen, however, by her would-be attackers Annis held the big knife she had been using to hack back brambles. She kept it held relaxed at her side, hidden in the folds of her gown, forcing herself to breathe deeply and easily. Now the unwomanly lessons in warcraft she had pestered out of Will the Steward would show their usefulness. Still as she could make herself, Annis stood until the first was reaching out to her, chuckling.
"Look like she'm a willin' wench too!" he crowed, his hand on the front of Annis' robe. He bent forward towards her, and Annis tried not to blench as she smelled the foulness of his breath. Her training told her dryly that he should have chewed on liquorice and cloves; and she firmly dismissed the thought, concentrating on what had to be done.
The man screamed, once, a scream that ended on a horrid gargle as she struck; struck the way Will had showed her as she played at being a warrior in the happy days before her father returned. She had got it wrong; her knowledge of anatomy told her where the heart should be, but somehow the resistance of the body to the knife caused the blade to deflect. He should have been dead instantly; and was not. Annis stared in horror as her assailant sat down, his hands clasped to the sticky red ooze from his side, a surprised look on his face. He looked up at her reproachfully, opening his mouth to speak; but a red froth came instead of words and with awful slowness he rolled over to one side and lay still.
Waves of nausea roiled through Annis and she faltered. The other villain, the one called Pierce, recovered his wits first and leaped at her, drawing his sword. He called out, summoning companions.
"Hey, fellas, there's a wench here an' she's gutted Solly!" He cried, holding his sword threateningly. Annis acted instinctively as the blade came close, swinging up her own short weapon to knock his away.
The man was heavier, better trained, the veteran of many battles. There should only have been one outcome. But suddenly the man dropped the point of his sword, stepping out of range of the girl's knife as he did so, keeping half a watch on her but mostly staring behind her, a look of fear lurking at the back of his eyes. It might be a trick; but Annis knew she had to look over her shoulder.
Besides, the thud of hoofbeats on the short turf told her that they had been joined by another; and Annis wondered in sudden terror whether her father had discovered her absence and come to find her. An he had, she would never have another opportunity to escape! She turned slowly, unwillingly; and heaved a sigh of relief that she knew not the newcomer.
A man on horseback had entered the clearing. The first impression Annis had was of black: his horse was black, he was garbed entirely in black, even his hands on the bridle wore soft black leather gloves. A closer look revealed the glint of steel; and his curiously wrought helmet was dark metal but looked very serviceable. If asymmetrical.
The left side of it was filled; the right showed a hard glittering eye.
Annis quailed inwardly.
Everyone had heard stories about Voltan the Warlord, despoiler and spawn – so they said – of the Devil.
Annis, as a healer, had little time for superstition: but she knew this was a man to be feared. The better, therefore, not to show it. This might just be as bad as falling into the hands of her father or his men.
Annis spread her skirts in a curtsey and forced a polite smile.
"Lord Voltan." She murmured. "I am …. charmed to make your acquaintance."
His visible eyebrow raised in supercilious surprise at her cultured accents; with her torn bodice bespattered with the blood of her dead assailant her attempts at civility seemed incongruous. The corner of his mouth twitched with rare amusement at the girl's boldness.
"How flattering to be recognised." He mused. His voice, though quiet, was redolent with the menace of the sound of a steel blade drawn from its sheath. "But you have the advantage of me, girl. I do not like that. What is your name?"
He checked his black horse as it tossed its head impatiently; Annis noted that muscles like steel held the mettlesome beast with seeming effortless grace. She swallowed but kept her chin up.
"My name is Lady Annis Haldane of Highkeep, daughter of its custodian, Lord Peter Haldane." She answered him fair. "I do apologise, My Lord, for not being dressed suitably to receive an illustrious visitor; you see I was not expecting you."
Voltan stared at this conventional inanity and gave her a suspicious look. Annis knew her dimple was popping in and out as she contained an incongruous mirth over her ridiculous comment; and the warlord noticed. The eyebrow went up again and he scowled, unsure how to take such deliberate flippancy. He dismounted, throwing the rein to an underling who stood close by the horse's head to hold it still. He strode over to Annis.
"And what" purred the black garbed figure "Is the lady Annis Haldane of Highkeep doing abroad at this hour of the morning and unattended?"
Annis swallowed again, bit her lip and dropped her gaze. Her chin was raised roughly by Voltan's riding crop. He stared at her thoughtfully.
"Riding to meet a lover?" he queried. She snorted derisively. The eyebrow twitched upward. "Well as you say, you are not dressed for that anyway…A runaway then?" he asked softly, and read the truth in her defiant eyes. "Well well! To run implies cowardice – which I despise – but your spirited stance against poor Solly gives that the lie. And" a sneer flashed briefly across the bronzed face "You know my name but show little outward fear. A paradox."
"To judge by stereotype is orthodoxy; which will leave many a paradox; and a fine pair o'doxies they be." She could not resist the word play even in a potentially desperate situation. "If you will but take your whip from my throat, my lord, I might just feel civil enough to answer your question." She added tartly.
The corner of his mouth twitched at the impudence of her first comment; and at the second he stared.
"Do you rebuke me?" he asked, amazed.
"If the rebuke is meet, accept it." She snapped, looking down her small straight nose.
There was a gasp from those men who had joined Voltan in the grove. Voltan glowered for a moment; then threw back his head and laughed, withdrawing the whip from under the girl's chin and thrusting it back in his belt.
"Just a snip of a girl" he roared "But with more balls than the lot of you!"
"Excuse me, my lord" interrupted Annis. "Whilst that may have been intended for a backhanded compliment, may I say I have never before been accused of possessing male accoutrements."
Her comment amused the warlord.
"You are no blushing violet, either." He remarked. "so what am I to do with you, lady Annis of Highkeep? Mayhap your loving father Lord Peter will pay well for your safe return?"
"T'is a moot point, lord Voltan." She said carefully. "I may be some use to him as an instrument of alliance. It is, after all, apparently the lot of a woman to be bought and sold for the commodity of a small and insignificant region of flesh, be that many times for a street whore or as a singular transaction if she be a lady." She considered briefly with a frown. "Though the price is higher in the latter case, the rent might in normal circumstances be expected to cover the use of more internal organs for nine month periods." Her voice held scarcely concealed bitterness over these prospects.
Voltan grinned maliciously.
"So do we have a loving bridegroom who might also pay for his pretty bride, do we?" he asked
"My lord Voltan" she spoke carefully and with what she fondly hoped was dignity "I am a skilled herbalist and healer. As such I could be of more use to you and your men than the small amount of gold you might extract from either my father of his choice of husband for me. They would seek aid from the Church first for my …betrothed has – cronies" she chose the word with care " – high in the Church." Her young voice was filled with scorn.
He paused, surprised.
"You sound as though you scorn the Church – yet you wear a crucifix." He accused, gazing upon her cross with loathing.
"I believe in God, my lord." She answered him evenly. "But I also know that corruption gnaws deep at the roots of the Church, filling those venal churchmen who seek only power and advancement with the temptations of peculation and chicanery. Such creatures as Lord Marfey are hypocrites who use their supposed devotions to bribe the corruptible into turning a blind eye to any perfidy!" her voice rang clear in condemnation. "I had rather marry the Devil himself; who is at least an honest villain!" she finished, shocking herself at her own temerity.
Voltan's laugh rang out again.
"And am I an honest villain too, then, girl?" he asked, still chuckling.
She regarded him thoughtfully.
"If the stories are true" she said carefully "I'd say, if nothing else, you have, um, more balls than most of them."
There was a moment's stunned silence; then the warlord shook with silent laughter.
"Why, I do believe you might be the most amusing hostage I have ever held." He said. "I will indeed hold you ransom; but I may yet decide to double cross your father and keep you and the money both!"
He turned from her, his cloak swirling behind him as he vaulted lightly into his saddle; and made an imperious sign that she should mount Rowan and ride with his company. Annis remounted easily.
"Pass me my bag, fellow" she said to one of the soldiers.
"My Lord?" he asked Voltan.
"What be in it?" the warlord demanded.
"Certain herbs that I planned to make into common simples to peddle" said Annis "As it be a waste to leave here after mine efforts; that may also give proof to my words that I be a competent healer, and be used to aid your men. You have not felt it necessary to take my knife; there is nothing dangerous in my bag not even herbs that may be poison in large quantity. I had not yet gathered monkshood for a rub against rheumatism though an I work for you I would suggest you permit me to do so in the future. In the pack on my saddle are but my clothes; that I will be needing."
"Hand her the bag" said Voltan. "We shall see how good a healer she be."
So it was that Annis found herself riding back to Voltan's castle. He had not had her tied; there was a sufficiency of men to make it obviously futile to attempt an escape. It was a fine day for a ride, and under other circumstances might have been enjoyable. Annis however was wondering whether she was out of the frying pan and into the fire; or whether this new development might somehow come out to her advantage. One thing she regretted was that her father would learn her direction and would be bound to act – one way or another.
It was not a far ride to the castle; the wood stood on the borders of the lands of Lord Voltan and Peter Haldane and made a rather uncertain boundary. They emerged from the woods not far from the warlord's castle, that it was said he had taken by force from its previous occupant who had been hanged from the walls. Annis knew not whether such were true or not; but she had heard no good tales of the previous occupant as a lord, though she had nothing against him save that he was a harsh taskmaster and accounted a hard man; as many a lord of the northern marches might be for the uncertainty of the living with the wild northern barons beyond them and brigandage rife across the country. She looked up at her new dwelling place with some interest.
The warlord's castle rose, gaunt and mournful, a sheer black crag piercing the mist that rose sullenly from the marsh that lay on three sides of the keep. Towers thrust aggressively upwards, darkening the rich cerulean blue of the late afternoon sky by their ominous presence. Ravens croaking on the embrasures made the vision almost too melodramatic.
Annis felt a gurgle of merriment rising, and could not entirely suppress it. Her laugh escaped as a snort and a gurgle.
Voltan rounded on her.
"What is so funny?" he demanded.
Annis bit the inside of her mouth to bring herself under control; but her eyes still danced.
"I am sorry, my lord" she managed "But it is so….so….SUITABLE!" and she dissolved again into gurgles of mirth. "So very much what one should expect as the castle of a bold bad baron!"
Voltan's mouth twitched.
"I thought so when I took it from its previous owner." He said dryly. Annis hiccoughed once or twice and brought her laughter under control.
When they reached the village that sprawled untidily at the foot of the castle, Annis' amusement was wiped from her face. Dispirited peasants worked fearfully, leaping out of the way of the cavalcade as Voltan and his men rode through the rude collection of huts; and their lacklustre eyes were cast down for fear of giving offence to any of the armed men. Annis drew her brows together in disapproval. This was fearful submission, not respect. She would have to do something. The girl noted that at least the village church had been left standing; a poor enough building, made of wattle and daub like the houses and barns, but still possessing its bell and proudly erect crucifix on the small steeple. Presumably Voltan had left this as a sop to keep the peasants working; it was one thing at least. And she need not fear that a country priest would be tarred with the same brush as some of the cynical city ecclesiasts. Annis determined that she would do all she could to help the unfortunate peasants here.
The cavalcade swept on across the bridge that spanned the moat which was in truth merely a continuation of the marshy mere into which the castle's natural rocky foundation thrust. Within the outer walls, it was less forbidding: the courtyard was full of bustle and life. The keep was a large squat building, hunched sullenly against the rear wall. Around the walls were the customary wattle and daub outbuildings, between which people moved on their daily tasks. Voltan looked around and picked out a leather clad warrior, beckoning imperiously. As the warrior approached, Annis saw that it was a woman, battle hardened and competent looking, her blondish hair cut as short as a man's. Voltan spoke.
"Elissa. This here" he swept his hand towards Annis "Is the Lady Annis. She is to be permitted free range of the castle and its environs,"
"Free range, Lord Voltan?" Elissa queried, surprised. He grinned.
"You think I grow soft in my old age?" he asked jocularly. Elissa swallowed and shook her head rapidly.
"Just clarifying, my lord." She said hastily.
He laughed harshly.
"It is my whim that she have free range." He repeated. "I rely on you to see to all her wants and needs, Elissa, and protect her from unnecessary insults. Oh" he added, smiling mirthlessly, "And kill her if she tries to escape."
The woman bowed her head.
"Yes, Lord Voltan." She acquiesced.
Voltan rode forward, leaving Annis face to face with the female warrior, who was appraising her, evidently not delighted at the prospects of seeing to the needs of some gentlewoman. It was quite plain that she expected the girl to require something between a wetnurse and a tiring maid. Annis smiled coolly.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Elissa." She said firmly. "My primary needs after I have settled into my involuntary accommodation will be your aid in maintaining my fitness – and lessons in swordplay. My skills are indeed basic; and it will aid towards making the protection part of your duties less onerous. I presume I am to go with you this time and not see to mine own horse."
She dismounted as Elissa blinked; and looked around for a stablehand. Voltan was unashamedly listening; and Elissa turned to him.
"My lord, is this girl for real?" she asked bluntly. Voltan gave Annis a quizzical look.
"She knows the rudiments of swordplay." He told the astonished warrior. "She killed Solly when he would have – amused himself – with her. If it amuses you to bring her on I shall not prohibit it. It may" he added dryly "keep her out of trouble. Be careful, Elissa – I suspect our hostage has a propensity for being trouble."
Elissa re-avaluated the young girl. A ghost of a smile touched Annis' lips.
"Lord Voltan is quite correct in some ways." She remarked. "Except that I never go looking for trouble. It just crops up unawares like a cheeky stablehand."
Voltan's good eye glinted.
"Be wary, wench." He said softly. "I believe you just compared me to a cheeky stablehand."
"I was not" she said, looking down her nose, "At the time necessarily thinking of you, lord Voltan, as trouble. Actually, right now you are more in the nature of a good angel." She smiled brightly at him.
"By all the devils in hell, girl, you know how to turn an insult!" Voltan roared.
Annis let her gaze become limpid, though her heart hammered at the temerity of the risks she was taking in playing such games with him.
"You will not want me then, lord, to put you in my prayers?" Her dimple twitched in and out despite her apprehension. Dangerous the game might be, playing word games: but it was fun, sheer fun! At last she had met one who appreciated her dry understated wit, recognising it for what it was, one who could appreciate irony and deliberate choices of words! Besides, her games seemed to please him; and Annis knew well that her only chance lay in pleasing the volatile warlord. She scorned to take the path of appeasement and grovelling; and had she but known it, to do so would have earned nothing but contempt, as indeed would gentle womanly compliance and civility. As it was he grunted a half laugh.
"I would fain prefer curses to prayers and blessings, girl. And when you have visited the turret room that shall be your prison, you will come to my apartment. Let us see what healing skills you really have." His mouth sneered as he swung down from his horse, handing the rein to an underling as he strode away.