• “Kill her,” ordered the Duke, spittle covering his beard. “And bring me my wedding ring as proof.”
    I knew where she would be, but I needed to fetch something first.
    I bowed low before leaving the hall. The winter’s chill bit into me in the gloomy passage, as I headed for the courtyard. Snow had formed soft drifts against the cattle shed and the stables. I ploughed through it to reach the guardhouse, where I had left my sword. The two men-at-arms, who were currently inside, watched me in confusion as I rushed in and out again.
    The heavy mahogany door bounced off the solarium wall, and whacked me in the face. It wasn’t the best entrance ever, but I managed to stem the bleeding.
    The Duchess looked up from her needlework, startled by the sudden noise. I was in luck, she was alone. All the maids were needed to air out the winter blankets, since the sudden snow had caught us unawares.
    She smiled, rising from her seat. “You surprised me, Markus.”
    I walked over to her scowling, and drew my sword. “The Duke demands you die.”
    The colour drained from her blushing cheeks, and her hazel eyes drew wide with horror. The roaring fire lent a golden hue to my sword, as I stabbed viciously forward. She gasped. Blood dripped on to her stitching and pooled on the floor.
    “I’m sorry,” I whispered. Kissing her cheek, I allowed my hand to trace the lines of her arm and brush her hand, before removing the golden band from her finger. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
    I withdrew my sword from the rabbit, throwing its still warm body out of the window. It arced gracefully towards the courtyard, where two dogs fought over it. As I watched them devour it, I tried to think.
    Catherine stepped up behind me, giggling nervously. “For a second, I thought you were actually going to kill me.” I looked down at her ivory face, a soft pink tinting her cheeks. She stretched up and kissed my forehead. “I’ll be hiding in the wine cellar.”
    She drifted across the floor to gather up her cloak; the thick folds flowing into place as it was draped around her shoulders, and pulled a rusty iron key from behind an embroidered cushion. In the doorway, she turned round and blew me a kiss, before daintily stepping into the darkness.
    I gradually wandered back to the hall, barely noticing the blood dripping from my sword or soaking my hands.
    I bowed as I entered. The Duke smiled humourlessly at the glint of gold, as I placed the ring upon the table.
    “Very good,” he drawled, while a scullery maid dropped a large platter of cold meat in front of him.
    “Thank you my Lord,” I said graciously. “I have also disposed of the body.” He nodded, tearing chunks of meat off the bone. “However, you may need to send someone to clean the solarium. I may have made a mess.”
    He waved his hand airily, “Of course, of course. Now go, clean yourself up. I don’t want blood everywhere.” Flecks of meat sprayed across the table.
    “Certainly, your Excellency,” I obediently answered. Bowing, I left the gaping cavern that was the hall.
    I bathed my hands and face in the snow, allowing its soft purity to wash away the crusty vile brown of blood. I let its biting cold replace the chill which had filled me during the morning’s activity.
    The next two hours I spent maintaining my sword. I cleaned, gritted, sharpened, polished and replaced the grip of the hilt. The repetitive motions involved left my mind free to think.
    The Duke believed I was his most loyal man-at-arms. He was a fool. We wanted him to think this. He was too stupid to suspect someone he trusted, which gave me more freedom than I could have ever expected.
    He wasn’t exactly cruel, just unthinking and cold. Paranoia plagued him like smallpox, and jealousy haunted his every step. All he cared for was his art, and his expensive wines, and his title. He couldn’t care about another person, and he definitely didn’t care about Catherine. She was just another object to be admired.
    He didn’t deserve Catherine. She was a thoroughbred among mules, a swallow among pigeons, and the single rose in a field of weeds. She had grace, beauty, intelligence and joy. She found pleasure in everything around her, from an expensive gift from the Duke, to the play of sunlight upon a brook. Only something’s suffering, be it man’s or beast’s, made her sad, and then she would work hard to end it.
    How could he not love her? I had ever since our first meeting. She had been perfection itself. We had gradually grown closer over the following months, and my affections had been returned. We wanted to be together, but there had been no way to escape the Duke. Then his increasing envy gave us a way out. We knew that if he couldn’t have her, he wouldn’t let anyone else.
    I felt lifted. A little more deceit and we were free. He would forget about Catherine now that she had been dealt with, and I could fade away.
    My sword was finished. It gleamed with new found lustre, in the light of the dying sun. I could hear the bell calling us to the evening meal, and I stepped out into the cold. I hurried into the hall. The flames rising in the enormous fireplace looked like the fiery gate to hell, and the heat was suffocating after the chill outside.
    The Duke sat on the dais at the far end of the room, watching the frantic activity of his servants, struggling to bring out the food. No one commented on the empty seat beside him. I hadn’t expected them to; they were all too scared of him.
    After prayers had been offered, the normal noise and specialised chaos erupted, to the full accompaniment of petty squabbles, laughter and singing. Because no one paid me any attention, I could eat in relative peace, and smuggle some food out for Catherine. The mayhem finally ended when the Duke retired, and the tidying up began.
    I wandered back out into the night. Inside the guardhouse, I told the guards to get some sleep and stoked the fire. It was a good thing I had the night watch, or we wouldn’t have gotten away with it. Once I heard their rasping snores, I crept outside and brought two horses around to the gate. Then, I rushed down to the wine cellar. It took some time to find her; she was well hidden, and had dozed off in a corner. For a while, I simply watched her sleeping; the rise and fall of her chest, the cascade of her hair and those long eyelashes captivating me. I woke her up.
    “It’s time to go,” I said gently, pushing the bundle of food into her arms. “Take this, and one of the horses, and wait for me just outside the gate.” Still sluggish after her slumber, she merely nodded and stumbled slightly on her way out, while I headed straight back to the guardhouse, and shook one of the guards from his rest.
    “Tell the Duke that I had to go away,” I said breathlessly when I was sure he was awake. “A message just arrived saying that my grandfather is very sick, and I must go and see him. I might be gone for a while.”
    Before he could stop me, or question what I’d said, I ran out, swung myself into the saddle and galloped out the gate. Seeing me leave, Catherine followed suit, catching me up as I began to slow down. I reached out, took her hand and kissed the slender fingers, which were free of any ornament.
    Then we cantered away, into the tree line. He would never find us, even if he thought to look. We could be together.