County Durham, England – 1642
He struggled to his feet and lunged at the shutters, scrabbling to open them, almost ripping one from its hinges in panic, before he realised he had not unbolted them. With fingers that seemed too clumsy to belong to him, Gideon grabbed the bolt and jerked it down. It jammed and he had to waste precious time working it free, cursing the rust and dirt that flaked away with each movement. Then the shutters were open and the cold October night beckoned, offering its welcome promise of escape and anonymity. He had no idea where he would go, but he knew he had to escape that place of sudden death before it engulfed him too.
The window was small but big enough for him to push through head first, arms outstretched in front. He rolled forward, tucking his head down as the walls finally released him. The roll was not exactly a tidy manoeuvre and he fetched up against a tree with more force than he would have chosen. He was getting to his feet when the sound of a horse snorting nearby alerted him to the fact that he was not alone. Gideon pressed himself into a crouch against the tree and held his breath. To run at random in the dark would, like as not, mean a broken ankle or worse – and would give away his presence to the rider. His best chance lay in keeping still and hoping he would be invisible in the shadows.
The horse came closer to the tree and then a familiar, lightly melodic, voice called to him from the dark, “Come Lennox – my Giddy One, before the hungry ghosts of the past creep from their very graves to devour us both.” Philip Lord. The man who was responsible for the chaos Gideon had just escaped from.
Heart pounding, Gideon swore inwardly and stayed still. The voice spoke again, close by and sounding amused.
“You are no squirrel to be able to hide in a tree. Although I did think you might make a fine eel the way you came through that window.”
The mocking tone was one injury too far. Something in Gideon snapped and he launched himself towards the taunting voice, wanting only to silence it. His fists met flesh and then they were wrestling on the ground. He had only boyhood scraps to call on for experience, that and the overwhelming desire to throttle the life out of the man who was the cause of his fear, anger and humiliation. But for some reason he could not seem to get a grip on his foe, every time he held a wrist or tried to pound a fist into flesh, the grip was broken on the instant or the flesh was gone. Slowly he became aware that the other man was shaking.
Good if he were afraid! Gideon had swallowed enough fear that evening to last him a lifetime and he had no problem sharing that now. He seized one wrist then the other and realised that he was winning, he had the bastard where he wanted him. It was in that moment that he heard the choked burst of sound and realised that his opponent was shaking not with fear, but with laughter.
Then, in a single movement, the world turned upside down and Gideon found himself flat on his face, arms pinned at his sides by immovable knees and his legs trapped by the weight of his opponent.
“A pox on you, whoreson!” he said, with a snarl.
“Oh God who looks over innocents and fools, why have you delivered this one to me? And what be it anyway? Innocent – or fool?”
“At least I’m not a thief or a murderer!”
“Well, there is that to be thankful for!” Lord said the words with a near-reverent sincerity. “But the time for tantrums is passed. I may not be a physician, but you should be believing me that your presence here when the ‘rescue party’ you did not invite along arrives shortly is inadvisable for your future well-being. Now, I can either tie you like a Michaelmas Hog and then you ride broadside, or you can start to behave like a rational adult in a dangerous situation and ride the regular way. Your choice.”
In response, Gideon struggled, fiercely. “You just killed a man!”
“Two men,” the voice corrected, “and I ordered the death of a third. And I will admit I did contemplate making you the fourth I would be responsible for, by the simple expedient of riding off and leaving you here. But you are young, Giddy One and most probably innocent, so that would surely be a crime in the eyes of the Lord.”
The last words were accompanied by a blow to his head which was not hard enough to knock him out, but was enough to daze him. He was unable to resist more than in token as his wrists and ankles were competently bound and a piece of muslin cloth that tasted as though it had recently been wrapped around mouldy cheese, was pushed into his mouth.
From ‘The Cat’s Head’ by E.M. Swift-Hook