I had to act quickly, or the well-dressed man lying on his back would be skewered with the sword. Another man with the look of a brigand was standing over him, weapon poised, ready to plunge it into the helpless fellow’s chest.
The would-be victim saw me and his pleading eyes met mine across the forest clearing.
Letting out the loudest yell I could muster, I urged my horse to a gallop.
The brigand looked up and I could see his eyes widen as I thundered towards him. I must have been something of a surprising sight; my hair loose and flying out behind me; my plain chemise tight across my chest and my men’s breeches tucked into my brother’s black leather boots. I dare say he had never seen such a girl before, and certainly not one so intent on riding him down.
He scarce had time to raise his sword before I was on him, knocking the weapon from his hands with my horse’s hooves and leaping across the man on the ground as if he was but a low fence on my father’s lands.
I wheeled my horse, Hestia, round hard and brought her to a stop. This tight manoeuvre made her rear up and let out a piercing neigh as her front hooves lashed out furiously, stopping the assailant from running forward to retrieve the sword. I glanced quickly round. It must have flown across the clearing when I had charged; I could see it shining in the sunlight close to a tree just behind me. He was brave, I will give him that, but Hestia’s hooves were a fearsome barrier and he could not get too close.
Hestia dropped to the ground, so he took his chance and started to run forward. I realised I could not let him get back his sword, so, taking a deep breath, I let out another fearsome yell, pulled at Hestia’s head once again to make her rear up, then threw myself backwards from the saddle and leapt to the ground. Now I was standing behind the rearing horse. I turned and picked up the sword in a single movement and held it out before me.
Hestia dropped again to the ground and ran forward. The brigand must have seen his chance. He rushed around her and came towards me with his eyes down. I assume he was seeking out the sword on the forest floor. Then he glanced up and checked as he saw that I had already retrieved it – and I was holding it out before me.
But it was too late. With a sickening jolt and a sound like sodden clothing falling to a stone floor, he ran straight onto the sword and impaled himself deeply upon it. I screamed as his contorted pock-marked face came up close to mine, and the feel of his hot, sticky blood covered my hand. I shall never forget the sight of his eyes boring into mine with a burning look of shock and pain, before they suddenly went dull, like a candle snuffed out, and rolled up into his head. With a sigh, he dropped to his knees, then fell to his side on the ground with the sword still sticking out from his chest.
The whole thing had taken less time than a hawk flies a hundred yards.
As I stood panting, with my bloody hand held away from my body, the man who had been at the brigand’s mercy raised himself from the ground and stood. He walked over to me and stopped.
He looked me up and down, then shook his head as
if in disbelief.
“A mere slip of a girl, and you have saved my life,” he said slowly. “I would not credit the bravery of your action this day.” He went down on one knee, and took my hand – thankfully the one not covered in the brigand’s gore – and he kissed it. “I am forever in your debt, mistress.”
“Please,” I said, now feeling embarrassed, “it was nothing. I only did what anyone would have done.”
“Nay,” he answered. “Few men would have done what you did, let alone a girl. You saw I was at that fellow’s mercy, and you understood my need. You showed the resource and courage of a man, and a man twice your age at that.”
He stood up and kicked the body over onto its back, then put his foot on the chest and pulled the sword out. It came free with a gruesome sucking sound that made my stomach churn and bitter bile rasp at the back of my throat.
He wiped the sword clean, using the corner of the man’s jerkin, then stood tall and stared down at me. He was not a young man; there was much silver in his hair and trim beard, but he carried himself with the easy grace and poise of a practiced soldier. I could see by the colour and material of the clothes he wore that he was a noble of some description – most probably a knight – and this was confirmed when he spoke again.
“Sir John Fitzwilliam, at your service, mistress.” He bowed low.
I knew that manners required me to curtsey in reply, but I decided not to do so. This whole scene was outside convention – perhaps it would have made me seem weakened. I could hardly play the demure young lady while I had a bloodied hand and the body of my victim lying by my boots. I stood as tall as I could and replied, “Mary Fox, stepdaughter of Sir Andrew Fox, of Marchington Manor.”
“Then I must thank Sir Andrew for the good fortune his stepdaughter has brought me,” he said. “Are we far from Marchington Manor?”
“Yes,” I said, just a little too quickly. It must have sounded false and he raised an enquiring eyebrow. “It is some days’ ride from here…” I added, trying to retrieve some credibility but only making things worse. He raised his eyebrow even further, now clearly disbelieving. I took a breath. I supposed it would have to come out sometime – it might as well be now. “In truth, I have… run away from home,” I said quietly.
“Ah ha. I see.” He stepped back a pace and studied me again. “My duty would always be to return a runaway girl to her family.” My face must have fallen, for then he smiled. “But in this case, the girl in question has just shown amazing bravery and saved my life. So today,” his smile broadened, “I shall not do my duty, but I shall offer the girl in question my protection.” He put his hand on my shoulder, and I felt a sudden rush of warmth towards him, as I imagined a girl should feel towards a fatherly older man.
Would that Sir John was my father, instead of the cold, unfeeling taskmaster that I had run away from.
He took his hand away and glanced down at the corpse at my feet. “Although after the way you disposed of this ne’er-do-well with his own sword, I feel I should be seeking your protection on my quest, Mistress Fox, rather than offering you mine.”
“Nay, sir, it was but a happy accident that the brigand ran onto the sword.”
“Aye, but you came upon the scene and made to run him down, then leapt across my prostrate body with such style and grace, then did a truly acrobatic exit from your horse’s back and landed squarely on your feet. ‘T’was a wonder to behold.”
“Your quest?” I asked, trying to take the conversation away from my supposed prowess and back to something more comfortable.
“Aye, I am on a quest that means much to my family.” He paused, looking me up and down. Then nodded, as if concluding a debate with himself. “You are welcome to join us if you have no other plans?”
Without a moment’s pause I found myself nodding and smiling in agreement – surprising myself with my willingness to throw in my lot with this total stranger. But then, why not? He had looked at me and had seen someone with whom he wanted to share his journey – why should I not return his trust? I had run from home, away from my overbearing stepfather and the plans for my life that would have surely killed my spirit – why not throw in my lot with this kindly knight and aid him on his quest?
Perhaps I could learn from him how a father was supposed to behave towards a young girl? Or must I continue my journey alone – a journey that in truth had no other aim than to get away from Marchington Manor? No, this seemed like a good decision.
Had I but known the danger and adventure that lay ahead, I might have thought differently. But at the time, I simply said, “Aye – I will join you and help where I can.”
“Good,” he said. “Then you had better have this.” He held out the sword, hilt facing towards me. “It is a good weapon – like as not the brigand took it from a fine gentleman in the course of his evil activities.”
I reached and took the sword, hefting it in my hand. It felt light and natural, as if the sword was an extension of my own arm. I tried a few practice swings and lunges, moves that my brothers had so studiously taught me.
Their secret lessons had been something of a diversion for them, almost as an amusement to keep their little sister quiet. But I had dedicated myself to the learning and had proved myself as a model pupil, until I could turn their swords on my own with practice and ease. They had professed themselves surprised, then impressed, and finally, proud.
And now I had killed a man.
“There – a born swordswoman,” Sir John said
I smiled. A swordswoman! Whoever heard of such a thing in the realm of King Henry the Eighth?
I decided to change the subject – there was something he had said earlier that I had not understood. “Us?” I asked. “You said ‘us’ when you talked of your quest. There are others on your journey?”
“Aye,” he said ruefully and called out, as if to the forest in general, “Robert! Robert! Come here boy! Come out!”
I looked round cautiously – wondering who he was summoning.
“Robert, you useless fool, you can come out of hiding now. The thief is dead and with luck we will have back our property!” Sir John looked around. “You would have left me to die at his hand!” he shouted. “But this girl here has more bravery in her little finger than in all of your mangy carcass, and she has saved me!” He stared from tree to tree around the clearing. “Oh, by the Risen Christ boy, show yourself!”
There was a pause, then a shadow moved slowly from behind one of the trees. As Sir John and I watched, a young man stepped slowly out into the clearing. He was maybe my age, maybe a year or two older, with sandy hair, a wispy beard and pinched, thin features. His ornate doublet, breeches and sleeves were in Tudor green slashed with red. His grey hose ended in fine black shoes.
“I am sorry, Father, I panicked and I hid. I am sorry.” His voice was high and querulous, and I could not believe that he was sorry at all. I decided that this cowardly young man, who would have let his father die, would need to work very hard indeed to earn my trust on whatever journey lay ahead.
“Aye, well, you are no swordsman. God only knows what you would have tried to do, anyway,” said his father, with what I thought was an unnecessarily forgiving tone. “I was only fortunate that Mistress Mary Fox came by in time to dispatch the thief to meet his master Satan in Hell, which is where he belongs.”
Robert looked at me, taking me in with wide eyes and, I think, some trepidation – as if I were a Knight Errant stepped straight from the tales of ancient heroes. Then he looked down at the brigand’s body at my feet and the sword I carried, and he paled to the whiteness of freshly cleaned linen.
Sir John gave a snort of disapproval, then marched over to where a small covered cart was standing under a tree, with an elderly-looking horse between the traces. I was surprised to see it there – in the action of that morning I had simply not noticed it. “This is what we have sought these two long weeks,” he said over his shoulder. “I would to God our property is in here.”
He pulled open the small latched door at the back of the cart, then leaned in and rummaged around. After a few moments, he emerged triumphantly, holding a leather bag about the size of a wooden trencher dining plate. “I have it!” he yelled, like a small boy in his excitement. “This is what we have been seeking since this godless thief took it from me some two weeks since!”
He fumbled with nervous fingers at the cords that tied the top of the bag. Finally he got them undone, then opened it and looked inside.
He broke into a delighted grin, and it was if the bag contained a powerful light that cast a golden hue across his smiling face. He reached carefully inside and took out what looked like the golden hilt of a sword, encrusted with rubies, emeralds and other stones. It seemed to light up the whole clearing and turn it to gold. I was surprised to see that there was only about six inches of blade attached, ending in a jagged cut that itself glinted in the sunlight through the trees.
He held it up triumphantly.
“Once more it is ours! Once more I hold the Broken Sword!”