Chapter 56 (Edit) The Assassin

19 June 1355

John was returning to the library after completing the final measurements.

Ximene emerged from her bedroom and blocked the corridor. ‘Are you ignoring me John?’

‘Me? No. It was you who suggested that we should not be seen together.’

‘Well I am going to the cavern to bathe, it will probably the last time.’

‘Are Alyse and Pipa going with you?’

‘No, but I thought you might like to come.’ Her eyes gleamed. ‘ It might also be your last chance.’

John smiled and nodded. He waved the papers he had in his hand. ‘Just let me drop these in the library and I will come.’

He winced. The Earl was waiting by the door of the library. John just hoped it would not take long.

The Earl closed the library door firmly behind him. ‘John, no time to explain. Guillam has returned and we believe there is an intention to assassinate Ximene here in the Château.’

He glanced around as if to make sure no one could overhear. ‘Find Ximene immediately and do not leave her side. Change into your uniform; wear your sword.’

John sprinted down the corridor. To be ordered not to leave Ximene’s side! An order he would willingly have given himself.

He was in the middle of changing his clothes when he remembered something Lord James had told him during the training at Biscarrosse.

In attempting to get inside a castle a frontal assault is rarely the best way. It is better to use subterfuge to sneak inside, and then hide away, until the opportunity arises to take action.

In this castle, he pondered, where would someone hide?

He pulled his belt tight, slotted his sword into its sheath and went to find Ximene. Not in her bedroom, not in the lounge, not in the study; she must have gone to bathe.

He ran down the corridors where previously he had only sauntered. As he ran his shadow loomed large, flickering in the light of one torch after another.

He skidded to a halt at the entrance to the cavern.

Ximene was disrobing close to the head of the staircase. The preparations for the escape had resulted in most of the tables and chairs being removed from the balcony. Only two remained, each upturned.

Ximene was placing her robes over the edge of one of the tables and was partly hidden by it. She moved towards the top of the staircase.

She was safe. John breathed a sigh of relief.

He decided to guard the other end of the tunnel and was turning away when he realised he would have to explain to Ximene why he would not be joining her. He stated to turn back when out of the corner of his eye he saw movement behind the second table.

A shadowy figure rose, sword in one hand, dagger in the other and moved towards Ximene.

John pulled on his duelling gloves, drew his sword and crept up behind the figure.

John ran forward, intending to hit the intruder over the head with the hilt of his sword.

The intruder sensed him coming and stepped aside. John found himself on the far side of the intruder fortunately in a position to shield Ximene from attack.

Ximene ran down the staircase and vanished into the shadows at the far side of the cavern.

John found himself facing a long slim sword pointing straight at his throat. The intruder grinned. ‘Thomas Bewsley at your service, and you are?’

‘The Lady Ximene’s bodyguard.’

Bewsley grinned again. ‘Boy on a man’s job. Fresh clean tabard. Chain mail vest. Look carefully at my sword. It is an Estoc. No cutting edges, but a sharp point, specifically designed to skewer people wearing chainmail. Light in weight, wonderful for deflecting slashing attacks.’

‘You will have to get near me first,’ John said, staring to dance from side to side on the balls of his feet, all the time moving away from Bewsley.

He slashed his sword at Bewsley’s face. Bewsley ducked and lunged. He missed John by less than inch and was back on guard before John had completed the slash.

John drew a deep breath.

‘They have armed you with a period piece. It would be good for slicing meat.’ Bewsely chuckled.

‘The joint I have in mind is your shoulder,’ John replied, changing his grip and holding his sword above his head. He stepped marginally closer and tempted Bewsley into another lunge.

John grapped the blade of the Estoc with his gloved hand and pulled Bewsley towards him, at the same time slashing downwards. He overdid it and ended up crashing into Bewsley, his sword slicing fresh air. Bewsley wrapped his arm around John and landed a glancing blow from his dagger in the middle of John’s back.  It did not penetrate the mail. John frantically pushed Bewsley away from him, reminding himself that he was supposed to be making Bewsley come to him. He danced a few steps backwards, but suddenly found himself teetering on the top step of the staircase.

The shadows on the walls of the cavern danced and John became aware that one of the torches was at his left hand.

Bewsley pushed in strongly, parrying John’s attempts at defence, which is what John had been hoping for, but John was now off balance.

Desperately, John tried another horizontal slash and then grabbed the torch from its holder and thrust it into Bewsley’s face. Bewsley screamed, but John overbalanced and together they tumbled down the steps to the floor of the chamber.

First to his feet, John realised that though Bewsley’s weapon was deadly, to be skewered by it he had to be trapped within range. He retreated, keeping his opponent at bay with a succession of slashes which Bewsley parried with increasing difficulty.

Water splashed in every direction.

Bewsley was beginning to breathe heavily as he retreated and John took time to search the flickering shadows for Ximene. He continued to back away and one of his slashes finally ripped into Bewsley’s shoulder.

Bewsley backed away, taking time to assess the damage. Then he launched another attack. Not wanting to be too predictable, John moved forward. He penetrated Bewsley’s defence several times and saw Bewsley’s eyes tighten in distress.

Perhaps now was the time. He retreated once again, tempting Bewsley to come to him. Twice in succession when Bewsley lunged he scored hits on Bewsley’s body. Perhaps it was this success, perhaps it was a sideways glance searching for Ximene, but disoriented he stepped backwards into one of the baths.

Bewsley stood over him before he could find his feet. The villain tossed his dagger to one side and grasping the hilt of his sword in both hands, raised it above his head, its point directed at John’s chest.

John thought it was over, but suddenly Bewsley stiffened, arched his back, twisted his head, dropped his sword and fell forward on top of John. John struggled to get out from under Bewsley as the bath water bloomed red. A crossbow arrow protruded from Bewsley’s back.

Ximene stood naked on the stairs from the balcony, calmly reloading her crossbow. She crossed the floor, only lowering her weapon when she was sure Bewsley was dead. ‘Enjoying your bath, John?’ she asked.

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The most dangerous woman in the world

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