I slept for a few hours at most. Then, in the early hours, distant shouts and cries echoed across the land. Booms of cannon fire shook the windows. I didn’t go back to sleep. Instead, I wrapped myself in the covers, which I pulled off the bed and huddled myself on the window seat.
My head pressed firmly against the glass pane. I allowed the cold to soothe my burning face. I didn’t know how long I’d been there for. All I knew was that I had been there long enough to see the magnificent sparkling rays of sunlight break down the black cover of night and attempt to penetrate the barrier of mist.
Staying awake did nothing to calm my unease. With every agonised cry, I kept seeing John’s body fall to the ground as it had done so many times in my dreams. Closing my eyes didn’t make the image go either, it stayed as though it was scratched deep into the very fabric of my mind.
A few hours after the sun had awoken, the mist evaporated and for the first time, views from Burnley were clear. Green fields rolled into the distance for miles. I wondered where the battlefield was, but Hadley Wood could obscure it.
There was a quiet knock at the door, the latch lifted, and Phoebe came in. A weak clip struggled to hold back the mass of red hair.
“I had a strange feeling you’d be up,” she said.
“I’ve been up for hours,” I said. “Is the battle over?”
“Yes. Meg is rushed off her feet, the house is filling up with the wounded. There’s blood everywhere.”
I grimaced. “Have you noticed the mist has gone? Just like that.”
“I did. But now it’s gone I sort of miss it. Budge up then.”
I moved so that Phoebe could climb onto the window seat opposite me. She dragged the duvet on top of herself and snuggled down.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“You’re a liar,” she laughed. “If you break the curse, then he might come back for you. You never know what will happen.”
“If I break the curse,” I sighed.
Suddenly, Phoebe’s mood changed. “Listen, I wanted you to know you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.” Tears formed in her eyes. “And I will never ever have a friend as good as you have been.”
“You’re my best friend too.” I noticed she was biting her lips hard. I knew why, she would hate for anyone to see her cry.
She wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. “I just wanted to make sure you knew and also that I believe in you. I know you can do this, and all this weirdness won’t be for much longer, I promise.”
“There’s a lot of faith being stored in me. What if I’m not up to it? What if I can’t break the curse? Then what?”
Her eyes were large and soft. “I honestly don’t know.”
Nell appeared in the doorway. “Come on Phoebe, it’s time to go.” She still looked shocking.
I sat bolt upright. “Where are you going?”
“Nell, can you just give us a few more minutes?”
Nell hovered, a look crossed her face.
“Please?” begged Phoebe.
“Fine,” said Nell. “You have five minutes and then you need to be downstairs.”
I stared at Phoebe. I could see her bottom lip shaking. “Tell me what’s happening.”
“Nell and I have to leave. The battle is over, and we can’t stay here anymore. We don’t belong. I’m sorry, I don’t want to leave you, but we have no choice. Eleanor is staying here, so if you need anything, anything at all then just go to her.”
“How can you leave me here?”
“I am so sorry, but things are happening, changing. We have stayed as long as we possibly could. Any longer and we could damage your chances at breaking the curse.”
“So that’s it, is it?”
“I’m sorry,” she threw her arms around my neck. “I am so sorry, if I could stay with you, I would.”
“What am I going to do without you?”
“You, my best friend, are going to break this curse and make everything right again.”
“I wish I had your confidence. Phoebe, what will happen to me? What will become of Anne?”
“I won’t lie to you, if you break the curse then there won’t be an Anne anymore. How could there be? You’ll be Kate as was always intended. More than that, I cannot tell you.”
Phoebe struggled to speak anymore and so ten minutes later; we were downstairs. Henry was absent, but I assumed he was still down at the battlefield. Nell’s battered mini sat outside of the main gatehouse.
“Did the garage fix the car in the end then?” I asked.
“It was never actually broken,” Phoebe explained.
“Of course, it wasn’t,” I half-laughed.
Outside, members of the household had gathered to say goodbye to Phoebe and Nell. Henry and the boys were missing but Elizabeth stood in all her dark beauty next to Eleanor whose once aged face had smoothed out. She stood taller, no longer hunched over and gold had replaced the white-grey strands of her hair.
Nell wrapped her arms around me tight. “Take care of yourself. No matter what happens.”
“You too,” I said to her. We had never been close. After all, she was only my best friend’s sister. I would mostly see her when I went to Phoebe’s house or when she gave us a lift in her car.
She moved away, saying goodbye to everyone in turn. Nell lingered with Eleanor the longest. I think I even saw tears dampen her eyes.
Phoebe came to me last, and she held me in such a strong embrace I didn’t think she would ever let me go.
“I’m going to hug you and then I’m going to walk away and get into the car with Nell. Don’t count on me looking back because I don’t think I’ll be able to. I will never forget you,” and with those words, she had released me and did a half run-jog into the car.
The engine fired into life with no problems this time and they moved away from the house, starting their journey back to Yorkshire. True to her word, Phoebe never looked back. Not even once.
I dug my nails into my palm hoping that the tears didn’t come.
“Who approaches at such an hour?” Elizabeth said.
I followed her eyes to where a figure strode towards us. His stride was long, and he had neared us in hardly any time at all.
“It’s Rich,” I said.
His pink cheeks bloomed as he greeted us respectfully.
“I was wondering if Anne would like to accompany me on a walk.”
“What a wonderful idea!” enthused Elizabeth. “Anne may benefit from some momentary distraction.”
How could they think taking me away from the Manor would be a good idea when there was so much to do? A five-hundred-year-old curse to break for one thing.
“As long as the battlefield is avoided,” Meg’s words were rushed.
“Of course, that goes without saying. The town have really gone for it this year with it being the five-hundred-year anniversary.”
“Are you sure that’s wise, it’s not that I don’t want to go with you, just that we have a lot going on today.”
“Some fresh air will not harm you this morning,” said Elizabeth.
“I suppose not,” I said. “Let’s go then.”
Before we moved away, Elizabeth pulled me close. “Remember John’s words to you and stay away no longer than two hours. There is a curse to break after all.”
“I promise I won’t be long.”
Rich led the way, and I followed. Something was different about him today. His usual cheery demeanour seemed to have been buried beneath the early morning frost leaving a cool, hard exterior.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“I thought I would take you into Hadley Wood. They are particularly lovely this time of year with spring arriving. It makes everything seem new, fresh.”
“Like a new beginning?”
He glanced sideward at me. “Exactly like that.”
A clear path winded in front of us whilst dense woodland made up of young, leafy beech woods lay at each side.
Even now, loud voices filled the air. I could have been anywhere in the world in these woods but those sounds filtering from the battlefield kept me rooted, reminded me what I had to do.
“I can’t be too long,” I said. “Elizabeth needs me back at the house soon.”
“I will not keep you longer than necessary.”
I noticed that he sounded short and sharp and he hadn’t even looked at me. He walked beside me in big, quick paces. When he raced ahead, as he ultimately did because I struggled to keep up to him, he would turn and snap at me to hurry.
“Look at the leaves blossoming on the tree and the still young daffodils rooting their way upwards through the earth.”
“Yes, spring is lovely.” I don’t think I could have sounded less enthused. I really did think spring was lovely but winter was my favourite season. It meant Christmas and my birthday. Gifts and food.
“They will flourish and bloom until the day comes when they have reached the end of their life and then they die.” He clenched his fist tight, and I increased the distance between us.
“Maybe we should go back to the house, the gardens there are amazing.” But he tore around and grabbed the sleeve of my top to pull me with him.
“Not as lovely as nature, Anne. You see, once something has died then it is gone. Forever. There is no bringing it back.”
“Until they grow again next spring.”
His eyes were dark today and there was something unrecognisable in them.
“I think we should go back.” I looked behind us, the way we had come wishing I was back at Burnley.
When I turned back, he was only inches away from me. I could smell the heavy smell of whatever after-shave he used.
“Rich, what are you doing?”
But instead he brought his mouth down on mine crushing my lips. His kisses were nothing like John’s. Rich was rough and careless.
“Ow!” I cried as he bit my lip. The metallic taste of blood tingled on my tongue. I pushed his away as hard as I could. “What are you doing?”
But he came back again. “I have every right to kiss you and do whatever else I want to.”
I raised my hand to his face, but he caught it with a slap in his own hand. “You have no right,” I spat back.
We were interrupted by a rustling in the trees. I was so relieved when Robin stepped out.
“Robin!” I breathed.
“Mistress Anne, Lady Farthing has sent me to ask you to return to the house. My lady apologies for your lack of time but it appears you are needed.”
“You thought you would follow us and spy on us through the trees? You lowly, insipid fool!”
“It’s fine, Rich. If I am needed back at Burnley, then I am sure Robin was only doing as he was asked.”
“That is so Mistress Anne, so if you please, we shall be on our way.” He gestured for me to join him at his side.
I started towards him when Rich reached out and grabbed my arm.
“You don’t have to go, Anne. There’s much I have to show you yet. I’m sorry about before, truly I am.”
I shook my arm free at the same time Robin strode forward. “I told you I didn’t have long. There’s something I’ve promised to do. Goodbye Rich.” My words were deliberate and harsh.
A muscle twitched in his cheek but time was something I no longer had a great deal of and so I had to leave him. I turned and went with Robin.
“Did he hurt you, my lady?”
“No Robin, I’m not hurt.”
“If he had hurt you, my Lord Montagu would ensure that he would never be able to do so again.”
“Yes, but John’s dead and unless I break this curse, he will remain that way.”