It was there! Her name was there! 'Elizabeth Fairshall of Sellymead! It was as plain as plain could be. Her name was there and I thumped out the words to him with a fist upon the table so hard his quill jumped from the ink well and splattered a line of blots across the page.
It certainly took him aback and he was suddenly fumbling for a cloth and grovelling with apologies. And rightly so, they'd got it wrong and there were no two ways about it. But as the snivelling idiot signed the pass that I needed to see the pompous ass of a Provost he was still bleating on with excuses, and unable to take any more of his drivel I snatched both pass and ink splattered list and strode with them up the stairs.
I was boiling with rage but at the same time I was overcome with relief that I was getting somewhere at long last. It was just as the Prioress had said, Elizabeth's name was on the list of those to be freed. The only trouble was that after a three day ride with it from the priory it had taken me another two days to get into the Provost's office. The myriad layers of protocol were ridiculous.
It had been a terrible few days altogether. When the news came it had been a terrible shock. The girl's mother and I were soon to be married and I was at her house when the news arrived. Her mother, as you can imagine, was distraught. Four months earlier, on her seventeenth birthday, Elizabeth had told us that she wished to spend a year studying at a priory and because I had a long standing connection with the St.Vera's Priory up country at Cronville it was decided she should write to Mother Hazel the Prioress. This she did and was soon accommodated there to study and assist the sisters in their labours.
Even though we were enduring the most catastrophic upheaval in our history her mother and I had both thought Elizabeth would be perfectly safe in a priory. We were at peace now. The war was over. We were a defeated nation, defeated by a godless rabble of heathen slime that had threatened our border for generations, and certainly since the disastrous alliances with Helderland and Sjeelburg. We'd lost everything. We'd lost our sovereignty, our pride and our dignity. Old officers like myself had been stripped of rank, forcefully retired, and that was supposed to be the end of it, and I say again we were at peace. But we'd been wrong to let her go.
Although the war was lost little bands of resistance still prevailed in the hills. Little groups of gallant men and women were still attacking the Gorbian troops whenever they saw a chance. It was madness, they had no hope of driving them from our soil, but God bless them they were persisting still.
Their gallant attacks almost certainly swelled the numbers of people running to join them. They were being hailed as heroes but it was lunacy, and every one of their attacks carried a heavy price. Tragically, every time they hit the Gorbians so the Gorbians took revenge, seizing and putting to death innocent civilians.
In one incident when an attack on a small camp resulted in six Gorbian soldiers dying in a blaze they retaliated by taking a dozen nuns from where they were working in the gardens alongside their priory and condemned them to be burnt. The priory was St.Vera's at Cronville. Four of the twelve however weren't nuns at all. Working in the gardens all twelve were dressed in ordinary working clothes but four were simply young helpers, and one of them was Elizabeth.
The Prioress pleaded for days on end for the lives of all of them and eventually the Gorbian Military Department relented and agreed on a compromise to execute the nuns and free the girls. This led to the Civil Affairs Department in Sellymead getting involved, and with the Prioress naming each of their prisoners two lists were drawn up, one list naming the eight nuns who would be put to death, and the other naming the four girls who would be spared.
However, when the names were written out and copied someone got it wrong. When the prioress saw the execution list nailed up in the Cronville town square she found there were nine names on it, the ninth being Elizabeth's. Whether it was an innocent mistake by one of the clerks or a sadistic act by someone we will never know, but it was a nightmare. A nightmare that compelled me to go all the way to Cronville to collect the original list from the Prioress and on my return to Sellymead endeavour to show our so called public servants their stupid mistake.
Once inside the Provost's office I dumped the list onto his desk and spread it before him with both hands. “There you are,” I said. “It's exactly as I've been telling your imbecilic clerk downstairs. Elizabeth Fairshall's name is on the wrong list! For god's sake man its obvious. You know well enough the order was amended to execute the nuns, not their helpers!”
It was like talking to a child. “She's not a nun!” I kept saying. “And if she was a nun her name would be down as Sister Elizabeth Fairshall, not just Elizabeth Fairshall, and her address would be St. Vera's up at Cronville, not a private address just two miles down the road from here!”
It was inconceivable but this mindless servant of all this endless red tape our new masters so glorified in was still struggling to read a list of names that a twelve year old would have read in one minute flat. As for the difference in addresses I really don't know why it wasn't immediately obvious, but after what seemed to be an eternity he eventually drew a long and laboured breath. “Well Sir James,” he wheezed, “It does look as if there has been a mistake.”
“At last!” I said, with no effort to disguise my disdain, and now it was my turn to heave a sigh when he assured me that any further copies would now be amended to match this one and instructions for Elizabeth's release would be sent to the prison without delay.
I can assure you it was with enormous relief that I was was able to turn my back at last on that accursed Town Hall. It was a veritable quagmire of bureaucrats, a legion of pen pushers and stuffed shirts, and now I was free to go back to the girl's mother with the good news. However, before collecting my horse I sat for a while to rest outside the tavern next door with a tankard of ale and a bowl of beef stew.
I was certainly ready for it, and as I sat there with my first proper meal for two days I thought how it would have been for the poor girl if her name had remained on that list, and in my mind's eye I could see her. Just seventeen with soft brown hair, and those gorgeous green eyes, standing helplessly lashed to the stake with the fire raging around her. And what if I'd been a commoner? The girl wouldn't have stood a chance. There was no way those town hall vermin would have seen me. She would have been just one more defenceless wretch for them to burn.
I'd seen it often enough. The first was when I was very young. The girl had been accused by her mistress of witchcraft and she lived in that fire for nigh on twenty minutes, and there had been another over in Lillington too. And then there had been the heresy purges. They weren't sights you'd want to see that's for sure, and mercifully my apparitions were ended suddenly by the clattering sound of a Gorbian platoon of lancers approaching. I sat and watched them pass, twenty jet black horses with riders smart and erect in their gleaming silver breast plates and their scarlet plumed helmets; and I spat on the cobbles. Only minutes before I'd been starving but now I couldn't eat another morsel.
On my way out of town I was stopped at the river gate. It was something that happened all the time. Some-one with nothing better to do would authorise a spot check somewhere and a bunch of Gorbian morons would demand your papers and then spend ages trying to read them. This, I will tell you, is the price you pay when your government is too weak to stand up to an aggressor. This is the price of surrender.
As I rode, my thoughts turned again to Elizabeth, soon to be my daughter, and then to her mother. It was late in life for me to marry, but after so many years as a soldier I was ready to live out the rest of my life in comfort with a woman I'd come to love dearly. I'd come a long way in life and there had been too many battles for a wife, but now it was all going to be so very different.
Nevertheless, even then as I rode, I cast my gaze across to the distant hills to my left, and along to the Sellidan ridge and up to the Brafton Forest, thinking I might just see something. On another day, or at another time, perhaps there might just have been a thin spiral of smoke all those miles away. But there was nothing.
And the reason I was looking? Some of my men were up there. They were holding their ground up beyond the Bellmoor river. In that great forest there were men who still walked with honour, men who hadn't wilted like the rest of us, brave men who I knew would never surrender. Heroes every one of them, heroes with the hearts of gods and all of them doomed. Every one of them would die. There was no tomorrow for warriors.
With a surge of despair I dug my spurs hard into the flanks of my horse and we were on our way. On our way to a new life. No longer was I a warrior.
When I reached the house old Agnes came to the door and went immediately to tell her mistress the news and Elinor came to me in a joyful flood of tears. At last that fearful burden this poor woman had been enduring had been lifted. At long last she knew her daughter was safe, and straight away we knelt and duly gave our thanks to the Lord.
The wheels of bureaucracy were always going to turn slowly, I knew that, but after a week I grew impatient. Her mother was worried and so was I. In the end I sent word to the Prioress care of a Constable's Courier that I would come if I heard no news by the following week. That week came and still there was no news. And so I rode the long journey north again, back to the miserable little town of Cronville and its grim prison.
Again it was a long and tedious journey of three days. There are no inns along the way. In that part of the country you eat only from what you carry in your saddle bags or gather from the green and greythorn bushes, and each night I slept at the side of the track, my sword handy at all times.
Wearily I eventually arrived at the town ditch, and found the town strangely quiet. Soon I was to discover why. As I came round the hill where the Priory can be seen up among the Layla trees I looked across the town to another hill, Oldgate hill, a baron rocky perch upon which the prison stands like an old ancient castle.
For most of the journey I'd been followed by a dismal grey cloud, and now there was another awaiting me. It hung motionless over the prison like a shroud and I guessed what it was and why the streets were so deserted. The people of Cronville were in morning, most of them hidden away behind locked doors.
I checked my horse to a slow walk. I was in no hurry, and it wasn't until I came into full view of the prison that I saw the fires. Up along the stony terrace that runs along the foot of the wall there was a line of eight pyres blazing away for all to see, and even at that distance you could see that in the flames of each there stood a figure, black and motionless.
As I got closer a few people were shuffling towards me. Brave and ragged figures drifting back to their homes who spoke not a word as they past. Neither did they look upon me, but by the tears of the women I knew they had come to pay their last respects, for clearly those bodies were the eight nuns.
I waited for the flames to die down a little before I ventured up the hill. Nevertheless when I got up there the smell of burnt flesh was still lingering in the air, and one look along that line of pitiful remains was enough. All that was left of them was a row of indistinguishable shapes chained upright to their stakes. Each a smouldering black and lifeless form of charred flesh and bone.
With very little patience I hammered on the gates, and once my demand for entry had been answered by some minion speaking through a small iron grill I hastily rode in. A serf then took my horse and I presented my credentials to the guards who of course checked and double checked them. Then at last I was shown to an anti room and told the Prioress was also there at the prison. I had wanted a bath before anything else, even before a meal, but I couldn't keep her waiting and before long I heard the guards unlocking a door somewhere and moments later she burst into the room.
She came almost running to me and sounding very anxious. “Sir James,” she said, “Please tell me you have her papers.”
I looked at her in bewilderment, and she clasped her hands in anguish.
“Her release papers, they haven't arrived!” she cried, “When they didn't arrive yesterday I told them you would have them. Please Sir James tell me you have them.”
I shook my head in dismay. “No,” I said, “I don't. Where are they?”
“I don't know!” she cried, “They should have been here days ago.”
I was seething. I couldn't believe it. “They'll still be back at Sellymead!” I was saying, and I was telling her the blasted fools at the town hall would just have to bring them as a special delivery, but she wasn't listening, instead she was almost shouting at me.
“Sir James!” she was saying, “There's no time, if you don't have her documents for release they're not waiting any longer! They want to burn her today!”
I stood and stared at her in horror. “But they can't! They can't, her name's on the right list now. They put it right! They changed it!”
“But they haven't sent it!” she insisted, “And they're not waiting any longer. When it didn't arrive with the Constable's Courier I had to plead with them to wait for you to come, I was sure it would be with you and you were our last hope!”
I was stunned, but not for long, I stormed out of the room and bellowing like a lunatic I was demanding to see the governor. I ranted and raged, and when the gate keeper said he couldn't be summoned I kicked over his table and grabbed him by the neck. I told him I was going to break it and his miserable little colleague ran off in terror.
Fortunately for the wretch in my grasp several guards arrived with swords drawn and beseeched me to let go of him. This I did but refused their request to unbuckle and drop my sword. And so, with an uneasy truce, I was taken to the governor who received me in an almost palatial apartment. Even for a Gorbian he was repulsively smarmy, and so too was his lady friend who fixed me with a sickly smile the whole time I was with them.
I told them everything, everything that I had done to secure Elizabeth's release, and he was quite willing to listen, even sympathise, but it was all deceit. I was told that a rider would be sent immediately to the area commander in the town with my plea for a stay of execution.
“He's a reasonable man,” I was told, “Rest assured he will surely see that there has been a simple mistake.”
In the end there was nothing more that I could do but accept his word. And so, uneasily I put my trust in him. Yes, I put my trust in a Gorbian, and for that I will rot in hell.
The Prioress was able then to take me to see Elizabeth. She was in a terrible state. As we entered her darkened cell she was kneeling in a corner and shrank away in absolute terror. Her grace told her hurriedly that it was us and that I had come to secure her release, and when she saw me she burst into tears. We helped her up as best we could because she was chained by one of her ankles and we sat her on a stool. It was terrible seeing her like that, and we knelt the whole time with her, trying our best to comfort and re-assure her. As the Prioress cuddled her I was telling her that the mix up with her name being on the wrong list had been dealt with by the mayor back home, acting on behalf of the Civil Affairs Department, and here the area commander had been told, and so on and so on, and that everything was going to be all right. And of course I told her how much her mother was longing for her to come home.
It was a long wait but we filled our time with prayer, and as well as we could we concentrated on plans for the future, and on the wedding we were soon to have between her mother and me. Eventually though I was called away to meet the area governor. I was told that he had come personally to meet me, and I can tell you I felt very anxious as I rose to go.
I was ready for anything and it was a comfort to feel the weight of my sword at my side. I was taken in silence from the cells and through a door that led to a murky corridor. The only light came through a barred window that overlooked an inner courtyard and soon after we came to a flight of stone steps. These led down to the rear of the prison. My guide very politely allowed me to go first and at the bottom I turned a corner and was confronted by my horse!
There was no-one around, there was just my horse, saddled and tethered to a rail alongside a big gate which, strangely, was wide open.
Suddenly I heard a noise behind me. I spun round just in time to see my guide disappearing through a door and I realised I'd been tricked! I sprinted to the door but before I could get there he'd closed and bolted it. I tried to barge it open but it was hopeless and I stopped to gather my wits and curse myself in an unholy rage for being such a fool!
It was then that I heard the sound of another door, somewhere above me, but this one was opening. I looked up to see the governor and his grinning lady friend leaning over a balcony. He started to apologise for the fact that I'd been abandoned and impatiently I shouted up to him to come to the point. He duly obliged and I was told that regrettably the area commander had refused my request, describing my claim as a falsehood and Elizabeth's execution could be delayed no further.
Furiously I was shouting up to them every obscenity that raced into my mind, but they just withdrew from sight, and instinctively I tore back up the steps, along the corridor and back to the door I'd been brought through, but that was bolted now and no matter how much I barged and kicked it I couldn't budge it.
God knows how long I ranted and raved. I kicked at the door, time and time again, then turning back to the window in the corridor I smashed the glass with my bare fists and heaved at the bars. I was hoping to drop into the yard below, but for all my strength and desperation I couldn't even bend them. Realising I was getting no-where I ran down the steps again, mounted and galloped out through the open gate, hoping and praying to find some other way of getting back into the accursed place.
It was useless though. There was no way back in. There was no way even of climbing over the walls, and of course when I circled the terrace I found the main gates were closed and no-one even answered my curses or the beating I rained upon the gates with my fists and the butt of my sword.. Nor did a solitary soul peer at me from the wall above. It was quite clear those slimy bastards were just waiting for me to go, but I had no intention of going. I was staying. And I knew full well as God is my witness they were not building a pyre for Elizabeth while I still had blood in veins! No bastard was going to burn my Elizabeth, not while I had a sword in my hand. They wouldn't even lay the first faggot, or if they did I'd be lying dead across it.
Constantly I patrolled all round the walls, watching both gates, but they didn't venture forth one solitary step. Those heathen cowards couldn't even find the courage to face a single real soldier,
and in the end I got off my horse and sat on the ground.
I was ready for a long wait, and as it got dark I looked again along the wall at what was now a row of smouldering embers. No posts supporting ghastly black shapes stood there now. Now there was nothing but ashes, but as the darkness grew those ashes started to glow and my resolve was fortified a thousand times over. Those brave nuns were with me! Their spirits still glowed, I was no longer alone!
As it turned out though it wasn't long into the evening before I heard a cry. I listened again, hard, but at first I heard nothing, then suddenly I heard it again and it was coming from inside the prison, and when I heard it again I was sure it was Elizabeth!
Jumping to my feet I furiously beat again upon the gates but still no-one came and still no-one answered my shouts, but each time I stopped hammering I could hear cries. And then I stepped back some distance to look up to the wall. I don't know why, but as I did I saw something that turned my blood cold. It was smoke, its underside lit by an orange glow!
In panic I rode furiously back to the rear gate and here her cries were louder. In a mindless fury I dismounted and flew up the steps that led to the corridor and saw immediately the glow of a fire coming through the barred window. I ran to it and looking down into the yard I saw her. They were burning her! The bastards had stripped her naked and she was standing in a haze of smoke and flames with her wrists chained up above her head to a post. Her ankles were chained to it too and she stood on bundles of brushwood and branches which, all ready, were well ablaze!
The sight of her went through me like a knife and I yelled down to her. The Prioress, striving to be as close to her as she could, was begging her to pray, but when Elizabeth saw me she started crying out to me, frantically pleading with me to save her, and as I strove with all my strength to rip apart those bars several below were turning and looking up at me, laughing of course and callously deriding my efforts.
I was pulling at those bars so frantically I was going mad, but I couldn't move them! I just wasn't strong enough. I'd grown old and useless! And by now the fire was raging, already it was becoming an inferno and two men were dragging the Prioress away from her, and as they did Elizabeth started to scream. She was burning now. She was screaming and writhing in absolute torment. She was going berserk! Oh God it was ghastly!
I could do nothing, nothing but tug and tug at those bars, until eventually I was desperately pleading with the Lord to take her quickly, but her torture went on and on and I couldn't face it any longer, she was suffering so terribly, twisting and screaming until I had to turn away. I couldn't watch her poor body turning red raw like a pig on a spit, I just couldn't. I turned away and I slumped to the floor with my hands over my ears, but I couldn't block out her screams, and then suddenly I found I was running.
I ran to the steps and leapt down them two and three at a time, but she was still in my ears. That hysterical screeching was driving me mad. I jumped onto my horse and fled through those gates and down the hill and through the town, flogging him until he must have bled. But although we galloped like the wind across those moors her screams stayed with me for mile, after mile, after mile!
In truth, I hear her every day. Sometimes she's screaming, and sometimes she's calling out to me, pleading with me, begging me to save her. And in my nightmares she's asking me why I failed her.
It was a long journey back. It seemed to take for ever. But gradually the end came into sight. As that road descends at last from the moors you come to a fork in the road. You might know it. To the left is the Bellmoor river and the high ridge that leads to the forest of Brafton. To the right the road leads down to the meadows of Sellymead. There I stopped with no-one for company but my poor old horse, and slouching in the saddle I thought again for the millionth time of Elizabeth's mother, at home just five leagues away.
It was late afternoon. She would be with her old servants, busy with flowers and vegetables, clean bed linen, bread, milk and butter, and fruit from the garden. Dinner would be cooking, and they'd be gossiping, making plans for our wedding, and yes plans for a party. A special day soon when at last her daughter would come running through the door.
I sat for a long time looking down that road. Long enough for the tears to roll down my grimy face and soak into my stubble, for I longed to be there. I so longed to live the dream, a dream I'd cherished for so many years. A home. A wife. And peace.
I looked then to my left, and again I looked for signs on the horizon, perhaps a wisp of smoke rising from the forest, but again there was nothing. Yet they were there. There were men of honour in that vast forest and I knew I could find them. I looked once more to my right, down the road to Sellymead, and then quickly before my tears could drown me I pulled my horse round to the left and kicked my spurs into him hard!
With a startled snort he leapt forward and we galloped off towards that distant forest, and for the first time since that God forsaken day of our surrender I suddenly felt free! Free again, free to fight, and yes die too, but once again dear Lord, there would be Gorbian blood on my sword!!