Later That Same Tuesday Evening
Anne felt Collin lean back into her as he pulled at the horse’s reins. Riding behind Collin on a saddle made for one person was no fun, Anne thought. Even getting into the saddle had been a challenge.
Collin was easily up and seated on the horse. He had turned to Anne below and said, “What are you waiting for? Mount up.”
Anne looked up at the saddle pommel, then the seat and cantle. Pretty much all the sitting room was taken up by Collin. There didn’t seem to be any room left for her. “How do I do this?” she asked him.
Collin’s voice was thick with frustration. “First, it’s a woman. Then, it’s a woman who can’t even mount a horse. The prospects for this night are getting dimmer and dimmer.”
“What do you mean, dimmer? It’s already plenty dark,” she retorted sharply. “Now tell me how to do this, will you?”
It had taken three tries, one of which had failed so badly that Anne had fallen to the dirt path, landing on her rear. But she had finally made it into the saddle and reached around Collin’s waist to keep from falling off as they rode away from her parents’ cottage.
“Where are we going?” she asked the back of his neck.
“To a manor house not far from here. Now hold on.” He shook the reins.
Thirty minutes later, Anne was tiptoeing behind Collin as they emerged from dense scrub brush onto a lush lawn that sloped upward. Anne tried to imagine what would happen when they arrived at the manor.
Normally, fog would reach north from Hunspill at this time of year. On this night, however, a light sea breeze from the west kept the fog at bay. The waning half-moon provided a thin wash of light at ground level, illuminating the Highbridge estate.
A formidable ten-foot-high castle-like stone wall encircled the compound, broken only by a heavy wooden gate fronted by a dirt forecourt.
She stopped in her tracks when Collin reached back toward her with one hand; with his other hand he signaled her to be quiet, then pointed toward the gate ahead. Anne squinted into the near-darkness, barely seeing two guards who were lounging against the stone wall, just outside the gate. The pair was an improbable sight. One guard was older, tall, and rail thin. The other was short and rotund. Both were equally inebriated.
Flushed and smiling, the thin guard took a swig from a metal mug and swirled the remains in the bottom of the cup. Both sentries were oblivious to Anne and Collin, who were now just two shadows slinking through the greenery.
Suddenly, Anne heard a loud clacking sound as keys were inserted in the gate lock from the inside. She watched as the guardsmen hastily shot upright, standing at attention.
“Psst—Perkins!” the short guard whispered, pointing to the metal cup still in the thin guard’s hand.
“Oh. Right.” Perkins hurled the mug into nearby bushes, where it struck a blow to one side of Collin’s head.
“Bloody hell—” Collin started to say before Anne threw her hand over his mouth to muffle the cry.
The guards heard nothing except the loud creaking of a small door within the gate. A moment later, a servant in bright red livery emerged through the door holding a wooden bucket.
“At ease, gentlemen.” The servant nodded to Perkins. To the short guard, he said, “And how are you this eve, Salgar?”
The two sentries slumped back into their lounging poses.
“Jons, we thought you was the night inspection,” Salgar said to the servant, a tone of relief in his voice.
Wasting no time, Collin crept silently toward Salgar. His hand held the mug that Perkins had tossed into the bushes minutes ago.
Anne could hardly hear the sound of the mug crashing against Salgar’s head. Perkins remained motionless as Salgar collapsed downward, unconscious. Both Anne and Collin reached out and grabbed his arms to control his fall and try to reduce the noise his armor would otherwise make as he slid to the ground.
Collin rushed to the sleeping Perkins’s side and, with both hands, raised the heavy mug above the guard’s head before striking a silent blow on Perkins’s forehead. Again, Collin and Anne held the guard’s arms to cushion his fall.
Anne shook Perkins’s hand, trying to coax a response, but there was none. “He’s out, too” she said.
“Course he is,” Collin whispered. “Not a word will be coming from either of their mouths for a fair bit of time, I reckon. Now, let’s get these blokes into the bushes.”
Collin grasped both of Perkins’s wrists and began to drag the unconscious sentry across the forecourt, toward the tree line.
“Collin, I know you aren’t leaving me with this fat one to move, right?”
“You want to get it over with or not? Better hurry.”
With a look of disgust Anne dragged Salgar’s huge mass through the dirt behind Collin and Perkins. She could feel matters going downhill already.