Jehanne held Sylvia's hand firmly as she slipped into their old hut. It was already looking the worse for wear, some of the thatch slipping away and letting the rain, snow and hail in. She waited inside with her little sister, making a bundle to make it seem as though she had come back for some goods. And one thing indeed she meant to keep; their parents' bed quilt, made of scraps of all kinds of fabric from clothes made and odd scraps bartered for from the tinker who would exchange fancier cloths he had got for good linen scraps to sell to paper makers. Jehanne waited long enough that someone might have noticed; then as they left she let the door bang as though by accident; and glanced nervously about before dragging Sylvia at a run towards the forest. Fortunately Sylvia had liked the idea of playing a game to catch the bad men and willingly followed her sister's lead. Jehanne and Voltan had been privily to see the reeve, who had been terrified of the warlord, but glad the children had a place where they were at least better protected than with slavers; and on hearing Lord Voltan's desire to catch the slavers had been willing to tip them off that the girls had been seen around, that watchers be set.
Elissa waited out of sight to take the little girl up in front of her; and Annis emerged from her hiding place amongst the dry bracken beside Jehanne. She nodded to Elissa; and the woman warrior rode off with the little girl, whose part had been enough to excite without scaring her.
"We must needs let any following see glimpses of mine hair" said Annis "One comes; I hear his footsteps. He is no countryman, he crashes through the brake like a billy goat after nannies and puffs and blows like leaky bellows."
Jehanne swallowed and nodded; Annis' levity helped overcome the dry terror in her throat and the tight knot of fear in her bowels. Reassuringly, Annis took the younger girl's hand and they ran into the forest. Annis' fine golden tresses streamed out behind her, enough to tantalise and draw any follower on to the lair they had carefully built the day before. It was in the middle of a huge gorse thicket on the edge of a clearing; a thicket old enough that the centre had died, leaving a ring. They had cut a tunnel into it and built a roof, thatched carefully so that a tall man looking could see it; as children might not be expected to realise. From this roof escaped an thin spiral of blue smoke supposedly coming from their cookfire. Voltan's men were hidden about the forest; the warlord himself and his brother were in the gorse lair waiting to spring the trap. Voltan had made a dry comment about the narrow entrance; and Annis had shrugged.
"Two children would scarce be like to make an opening bigger than it had to be. And you have armour, my lord" she declared unsympathetically.
Hawk chuckled reminiscently.
"Voltan, do you remember, we used to play at castles in these gorse fortresses? We would take turn to defend and attack and sustained awful scratches that we heeded not; or we would pretend that we held it against imaginary besiegers without… I recall I caused a fearful to-do because I fell asleep in one and no-one could find me; I'd gone to play on mine own because you had lessons."
"I remember" said Voltan grimly "Your mother accused me of doing away with you or hiding you and demanded that I be beaten until I revealed where you were."
"Father never did, surely?" Hawk was aghast.
"I think he considered it; even with the word of the priest who taught me Latin that I had been with him, and he had seen you tell me to hurry up with my lessons ere I began….and then suddenly you appeared and demanded your evening meal because you were hungry" said Voltan "I never quite made up my mind an I were just relieved to see you safe or wanted to give you the best spanking of your life for worrying me."
"I'm sorry" said Hawk contritely. Voltan shrugged.
"Boys" he said succinctly "And probably girls too" he added reflectively "As no doubt I shall find out when mine own children give me grey hairs by doing the sorts of things you and I did."
Hawk laughed and linked his arm into his brother's.
"It was my mother, wasn't it?" he said quietly "She started turning father against you, didn't she? Because she felt threatened by having a big boy not many years younger than her who was a rival to him."
"Aye; I'm afraid so" he said "But you may abuse a man's sire, his wife and his children but I have heard it said you should never say a word against his mother or his horse."
"Idiot" he said "I – I do not recall her well enough to have deep memories. I loved her; of course I did. But even as a small child it angered me that sometimes she was unfair to my brother" he sighed deeply "We have neither of us behaved totally well; but circumstances were not always helpful."
"We have each other now" said Voltan "And the world may never recover from it."
They grinned at each other; and suddenly looked more alike than either realised!
The two brothers were waiting in comradely silence as the two girls scrambled in through the entrance.
"We've a hunter behind us" reported Annis "He isn't what you might term efficient."
"Good" said Voltan "Let's hope he reports back to someone to claim his reward."
Annis buckled on her sword in anticipation. The lair was deceptively rough; but left plenty of room for fighting.
It was but an hour's wait before sounds of grunting, swearing and the shaking of branches heralded an intruder; and Hawk and Voltan stepped to the sides of the entrance quietly that they might remain unnoticed if, as they suspected there was more than one intruder.
The first unkempt head poked through. Jehanne gave a little involuntary gasp.
"Har, har, we has you wenches now!" chuckled the slaver "Cmon Lem, they'm both in here" he heaved himself out of the tunnel and advanced on the girls. His companion, a fatter man, came slower and cursing; and Voltan clenched his fists in impatience: for both must in for the trap to be sprung and none left to flee and warn their superiors. The first started to reach out a hand towards Annis; and his face was lascivious.
"Well, older'n I thought….very nice too" he said.
Annis whipped out her sword; and her would-be assailant started laughing.
"Fight me would you, liddle girl?" he said. ""D'ye see that, Lem? The liddle girlie has a swordie! Well, I'll not mark you up, but just disarm you!" he drew his own sword; and suddenly he was hard pressed for Annis advanced on him with determined tread and skilful economical movements and he found he had no breath to laugh any more! Voltan had half an eye on her approvingly; and Hawk watched astounded. He had not yet seen their practise bouts; for they had been too busy setting up this play to catch the slavers.
At last the second head appeared – it was but seconds after Annis drew blade but it seemed an eternity to Voltan and Hawk.
A hand on either side seized the villain by the scruff of his neck to drag him howling at the violence done to his person by the gorse as they did so. The other fists of his assailants hit him simultaneously on the sides of his head and he lost all further interest in the proceedings.
"We have swordies too" said Voltan coldly, nodding Jehanne to help deal with the man Lem as he strode, panther like to lay his own cold steel over the first man's shoulder against his neck.
The man whinnied in sudden terror.
"I cede him to you to play with my lord" said Annis sweetly, saluting her husband.
The fight was short and ugly and as Annis remarked to Jehanne of no instructive value since a swordsman battering an idiot was scarcely edifying.
Voltan used the flat of his blade and the pommel to reduce the man to a gasping pile on the ground rather than follow his instincts to carve the man into little pieces.
He did make sure to hit him in as many painful places as he could however.
Soon both were tied.
Annis approached the prisoners with a stoppered flask. The fatter one had recovered his wits enough to groan by now.
"Be so good as to hold their nostrils closed, brother Hawk" Annis said briskly. Hawk gave her a startled look; but complied, nipping the nose of the first man. His breathing restricted he was forced to open his mouth; and Annis poured a measure of her brew into it. He must perforce swallow or drown; and swallow he did, spluttering at the bitter draft. The performance was repeated on the other rogue, despite his voluble protests and attempts to gag. Annis explained,
"'Tis a method used with small children who refuse medicine. It causes no harm but has the desired result. It will be a few minutes before the drug has the desired effect. When their pupils dilate we can question them for then the effect will have become sufficiently profound."
"What's in it?" asked Hawk curiously.
"Very small amounts of Henbane and Belladonna" she replied "Very dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. The preparation is crucial. Fortunately for them – although when we hang them they may disagree – I do know what I am doing."
"Indeed!" said Hawk, amazed once again by his tiny and implacable sister-in-law.
It was not long before the two precious villains were in a stupored state. Annis spoke in a soothing voice.
"Not very fair of your boss to leave you to be captured and take all the blame for him" she said conversationally.
They grunted in vague assent.
"Now, where was it you said you'd meet him with the girls?"
One of the men shook his head in a dazed manner as though to clear his turgid thoughts.
"Di' we say?" he queried dully.
"Of course. You wanted to tell me" said Annis "But I just want to check I had it right."
He nodded owlishly.
"At the river…. By the sign of the Green Dragon. Mine host is a good friend or ours" he achieved a sleepy leer "He often puts up li'l guests ai y'know what I mean."
"I know what you mean" said Annis softly "And where are the slaves kept an they not be in the inn?"
"Oh, on ve barge…. There be a landing stage upstream f'om ve inn…." His lids drooped.
"You may both sleep now if you like" said Annis "I'm sure you're tired."
Drugged and suggestible their heads lolled.
Hawk was shaking his head in amazement.
"You are one very dangerous young woman" he said.
"It's taken you this long to work that out? I am your brother's true match. And if you ask me. 'tis a good thing, for we need dangerous people to act against scum like this" she added crisply.
"My wife!" Voltan dropped an arm around her shoulder, pride in his voice "There's not another in the world like her, Hawk" he gave a lupine grin "A bit tough on you, but there it is. She saw me first."
Annis grinned up at him.
"My lord is understandably biased. It may be that a man as virtuous as Lord Hawk might find himself at a loss were there another such virago as you usually name me such as myself."
"Good" said Voltan, savagely, kissing her.
Mine host at the sign of the Green Dragon was very happy with the lucrative arrangement he had with the hard faced slaver. Olav Hardmann, the said slaver, was a competent warrior whose career as a mercenary had been damaged by the loss of his right lower arm; where now he sported a hook. That and the scarred, villainous looking visage he sported helped to cast terror into the hearts of the slaves he took, especially the children. Hardmann specialised in children; he might sample his own wares amongst the older girls but the children he kept frightened but innocent.
His high paying customers, some of them churchmen, paid highly for that.
Neither the fat greasy innkeeper not the hard bodied slaver were prepared, as they sat in the inn drinking and discussing business, for what happened next.
The most beautiful young girl Hardmann had ever seen walked in the door. Her hair was so pale as to be almost silver; her skin was as white as snow. Her eyes, dark in her pale face, made her even lovelier than the infant of similar looks from the village of Avenford he had ordered the capture of. She must be an older sister. An she had come to beg for the brat….Hardmann leered. The child was not yet in his possession but he did not doubt that she would be; and he would enjoy the favours of this one as payment to release the child; and then keep both of them to sell.
"Well WELL, my pretty! What can I so for you?" he chuckled.
Annis viewed him thoughtfully. She could guess pretty much the thoughts that were going through his heard; his face was not pretty but because it was scarred he did not trouble to hide his thoughts from it thinking none would notice.
She smiled a little smile.
"You can die" she said, in a dispassionate tone.
Hardmann flung back his head and started to laugh. It was a laugh that ended on a horrible gurgle as Annis' little throwing knife caught him full in the throat.
His men, who had been preparing to watch the fun, jumped up. Most of them promptly fell down with knives and arrows and crossbow bolts sprouting from their necks and shoulder blades as Voltan, Hawk and their band stood up outside the windows and loosed their missiles.
"I LIKE your repeating crossbow" said Elissa to Ranulf "I don't fire a bow account of not having learned from an early age like a boy."
"I'll see about building you one" said Ranulf. "If we're going to work together it makes sense to have Lord Voltan's favourite captains as effective as possible."
"Cheers" said Elissa, eying him covertly and speculatively.
Meanwhile the brothers leaped lightly through the casements into the inn, cutting down with efficiency and ruthlessness any that remained.
"ANNIS! You robbed me of my prey!" roared Voltan.
"'Twas MY sister he sought to steal!" retorted the girl "And the way he looked at me meant he was planning on taking me too! I claim first right!" she grinned suddenly "Besides, it were too tempting a target to pass up!"
"And what of this pig?" he asked, heaving up the landlord from behind the bar where he had thrown himself. "What will My Lady have me do with him?"
"You insult good swine, my lord, by comparing them to so venal and contemptible a creature" said Annis. "He hath a prosperous enough house here that he did not need to supplement his profits helping with the trafficking of children. He was on good terms with the slaver as far as I could see. Hang him."
Voltan's men nodded approval; this was their ruthless lady who was gentle at need and as hard as nails when she had to be. The couple of church knights along with Hawk looked faintly askance and glanced at their captain, Hawk.
"You are right, Lady Annis; we have no choice. And example must be made that those who aid slavers are tarred with the same brush.
Voltan thrust the squealing man towards two of his men.
"See it done" he said.
The took the struggling, pleading, sobbing captive without.
Annis went over to the slaver and opened the scrip he wore.
"Looting, sister mine?" Hawk enquired surprised.
"Looking for anything that may help us find some of his customers" she said grimly "It occurs to me that perchance I was too hasty in killing him ere we had questioned him thoroughly."
"Runs in the family" said Voltan laconically "Hastiness I mean. Anything in there my virago?"
"A rewarding number of letters…. Some of them seem to be requests of quite particular types…..Hawk of you goodness, an you know any HONEST high ranking churchmen you should show some of these to them. I have here two bishops, a cardinal and a prior to date in addition to many merchants in the city. And an he have a chest in a chamber above stairs I wager we may find more there."
Hawk made a noise of disgust.
"Iniquitous!" he said.
"Aye; but power can corrupt; and more often, methinks, the corrupt seek power to indulge their corruption" said Annis. "The slaves will be upstream no doubt as our loathsome informant said. And Hawk, ere thou exercise the famous family hastiness and your own naïve zeal, and thou returnest them willy-nilly to the bosoms of their family DO check that it were not their families sold them in the first place."
Hawk was shocked; but nodded. Somehow he could see Peter Haldane selling Annis into slavery if the price was good enough. He had after all been prepared to effectively sell her in marriage to the best or most useful bidder. And girl children were, to many a peasant useless, unable to do as hard work as a boy on the land and requiring a dowry into the bargain. It made sense that the less sensitive might just see the selling of unwanted daughters as reasonable as well as profitable.
Annis and Jehanne soothed the frightened slave children and began the painstaking task of discovering their origins and how they came to be in slavery; so that those who had been kidnapped might be returned home.
"You'll not offer homes to any, I suppose, brother?" Hawk asked Voltan.
"Do I look like a nun able to deal with excess brats? Kin is different" he said nodding to Jehanne, who smiled shyly at him for that comment. "An any have useful skills like spinning or herb lore I can find them a home. Otherwise let the nuns train them as good maidservants."
"Does not Annis need a maid?" Hawk suggested slyly.
The warlord snorted amusement.
"Not she! She's extremely capable, never know what to do with one, who'd end up bone idle for having no tasks to do! A nursery maid in the future, that be different. And I've one in mind anyway, Lukat's mother. Besides, what will we do with some puling wench when we go on campaign against the northmen next campaign season?"
"You're never taking the Lady Annis on campaign!" he said in horror.
Voltan grinned wolfishly.
"No? I'D not dare break that to her. Would you?"
"Lady Annis? My sister? Can he be serious?"
"He'd better be"
"And who will hold the castle?"
"Jehanne will have been well trained by them; unless she comes too; certainly she will be capable of so doing with Foregrim's help. I'd been holding my father's castle since I was younger than she. Else Foregrim will do so; he's getting too old to go on campaign."
"You are extraordinary, Annis" he said "I wonder an you had been in Eliane's situation you might not have ridden forth to find an erstwhile betrothed and tell him that you no longer wished to wed him."
Annis looked surprised.
"Assuredly I should!" she said "To write were cowardly; though still better than sending no word. To leave it overlong were dishonest. In honour, I could not see that anyone could do anything else without making a cheat and liar of themselves. Of course I should have ridden north in Eliane's shoes. But I understand" she added kindly "From such as I have heard from My Lord Voltan that the Lady Eliane had the misfortune to be rather wet and not over-endowed with intellect."]Hawk flushed angrily and opened his mouth; then determinedly shut it with a snap.
"I never said so" said Voltan mildly "Indeed I never thought so at the time."
"But you described her actions my lord" said Annis "And she seems to mostly have hidden or run until forced to bay with another to protect like a roe deer with her fawn. Sorry, my brother, but I think that had she lived you would have tired of her lack of spirit and been hung up on guilt for the reason of it."
"We shall never know" Hawk's face was set and grim.
Voltan put a hand on his shoulder.
"You know – or perchance you do not – that I am truly sorry for the hurting of you" he said harshly "She split us before; and you were the one that brought her into conversation. Let her not split us again from beyond the grave; let her rest in peace and we live in peace."
Hawk bowed his head.
"You are right" he said "She is gone; it is time to live for the future; to build a better world for my nephews and nieces yet to come." He looked rueful. "The time I though I had killed you…. I do not know how you survived, but I be glad you did. My life was empty. I missed even the hatred between us; without you, though I could work for the church nothing had any great meaning any more."
"And now, let any that cross us beware; and let us go on a spree of cleansing!" grinned Voltan.
The brothers embraced.
And so the party returned to the castle in time for a Christmas celebration that was unrivalled in its joy and comradeship as brothers celebrated together; and the children enjoyed the excitement of the season.
And the villagers rejoiced that their lord and lady had the support of the church and might too expect help from the same in a campaign against the northmen when the barbarians ventured south; and Voltan and Hawk planned tactics with the odd opinion from Annis and wide eyed wondering attention of Jehanne that they might inflict such losses on the northmen in one campaign as to frighten them from returning for many long years.