The Black Bull: Extract One

Two children played in a farmer’s field, the manner of games a girl and a boy are want to play when no grown-up eye is watching. The grey and leaden sky grew darker still as the sun dimmed, and the girl became scared.

‘My mother will beat me if I am late.’

The boy had nothing to say back to that, as he knew it to be true.

‘Will you come again on the morrow?’ He asked.

‘I will.’ Said the girl.

They had not played together before that day, and neither wanted to say goodbye to their new friendship. They little knew that children of their birth might never be friends.

It was 1774 and the kingdom of Great Britain had been at peace too long. Men need war to grind them down, without it they grow too numerous and butt against one another’s needs. In the county of Leicestershire two proud family’s grew great reputations, though not so great that they are now widely remembered. As is like to happen the two families had no difficulty finding reason to squabble as one, the Bannister’s, were protestant and the other, the Connaught’s, traced lineage back to Catholic Ireland. Even then this was a long settled problem, and most of both religions lived contentedly with others, but as was widely known these two families fought over certain fields that abutted the estates of both, a feud that had been simmering in the King’s court for a decade or more and had more than once erupted into bloodshed.

The Connaught’s had so far seen the worse of this feud, and in the estimate most were no longer the great family they had once been. Their last strength had failed with the passing of Daniel Connaught, the clans patriarch who had caught chill and died unexpectedly two years hither. He had been a cold, disagreeable man and the family grieved for him no more than duty dictated. But he had fought hard against the families foes, and against none harder than the Bannister’s. He left behind wife and three daughters and numerous bastards but only one true born son, and for all his struggles this fact would prove his families undoing.

By contrast John Bannister had seven sons, all healthy, and joined by a host of two dozen of more cousins, brothers in law and hafl bred siblings. Whilst Daniel Connaught lived he matched those numbers with a small army of paid retainers and men-at-arms. But as many suspected and he was soon to prove the son, named Daniel also, whilst far better loved than his father was not half the business man or even a quarter the soldier. The Connaught coin soon dried up, and with it when their strength in numbers.

The fields that Catherine, oft called Kitty, Connaught ran over to avoid her mothers beating were disputed property in name only. The Bannister’s harvested their crops and pocketed the profits. It was only a matter of time before John Bannister found an excuse to incur upon those lands that were Connaught beyond dispute. Only the young Daniel provided any barrier.

Kitty scrabbled to a halt behind a scraggly hedgerow nearby her family’s lodge – greater than a farm house but lacking the grandiosity of a manor, the building was built out of the local dull grey stone, roofed in slate, and had over two hundred years grown to encompass four wings around a large cobbled courtyard. Before her father died the courtyard would have been busy at all hours of the day or night, but now Kitty found it deserted, and hoped she could creep in unobserved.

It was from that vantage point that Kitty Connaught first saw the cart come slowly along the rutted lane that ran the mile or so between the lodge and the road, which in turn led into the distant village of Rothby. A simple farm trailer, flatbedded and hauled by a dray horse, and strange to her. The shapes of some three or four men walked alongside the cart. Though they were too far away to see clearly, the sound of their harsh laughter came crawling over the cold field to her ears, making her feel uneasy.

Back down the lane three riders on horseback came thundering down the lane, racing to catch the cart. As Kitty loked on they overtook the cart then left it behind entirely. As the riders came at a gallop past her and into the courtyard she rcognised one among them. It was the Bailiff, that she knew by his gold chain although she had never glimpsed his face before.

‘Been a time since I was here last.’ All three men dismounted once inside the courtyard. The Bailiff’s voice was impatient, angry even, much as Kitty’s fathers had often been.

‘Well we’re glad of your being here today Bailiff. A man of duty such as yourself is owed a great debt by families such as our own.’ It was the older of the two men who spoke. He seemed angry also, but also fearful, though he hid it will Kitt thought.

‘Two hundred guineas is all your family owe me Bannister, as agreed. Lets get on with this.’

Kitty had never known John Bannister, but knew it to be him the moment she heard the surname mentioned. Rarely a meal had gone by that her father had not found cause to mutter the mans name darkly.

‘What you be wanting here?’

The reedy voice came from the kitchen doorway. Jodie, Kitty saw, a simple boy known more commonly as the lackwit. He had the body and strange plain face of a child, although he had more than three decades to his name and his skin was wrinkled.

‘Go fetch your mistress fool.’ Said John Bannister with a dismissive glance.

‘The lady is not to be disturbed.’ Jodie slurred the words, his lips dribbling.

‘Do as I command or I will hang you by the fucking guts.’ Bannister bore down on the lackwit who fled back inside the lodge. Kitty felt only sorrow for the frightened creature.

She heard the cart coming into the yard befor she saw it, iron rimmed wheels clacking against flint cobbles.

‘Ho, there a problem here da?’

On some other day Kitty would have found the young man who shouted from the cart handsome. His mane of hair was golden blonde over full features that might have been carved in marble, where his father was near bald with a pug face. Kitty supposed the son must take after his mother, who many said to be a great beauty. But there was enough of the father around Simon Bannister’s eyes to prove his heritage, the same contemptuous glare that spoke of cruelty and violence.

‘No. Stop that cart right there and you stay on it until I say otherwise, you hear now?’

The older Banister’s voice was harsh and dismissive. The son shut right up, but the eyes told Kitty a different story. The other men aboard the cart, six or more that Kitty guessed at being brothers and cousins, whispered put downs at their berated brother and sniggered.

‘What brings you riding where you are not welcome, John Bannister.’

Mother. Kitty was so relieved to see her that it was only then she knew what terror she was under. She was beautiful as few of her age could even dream of being. Tall in a shadow blue dress and white lace, her dark hair shinning in a high twisted plait. Kitty’s two elder sisters Ginny and Peg, flanked her to either side, although fear hung about them as it did not her.

‘I’m sad to hear you say that May. I have made only to help you since your husbands passing.’

‘And had I accepted your kind of help, we’d have had no fear of any enemies. Why would they bother us, robbed blind, homeless and helpless as we would have been.’

‘You misjudge me woman. If I wanted what is yours I’d have only to reach out and take it. What would stop me, the strength of women?”

A laugh went up from the cart of young men, although the elder Bannister barely appreciated it.

‘Keep telling yourself that lie John. I hope it is a comfort to you on the cold lonely nights, after the whores have slunk from your bed. But I say again, why are you here?’

John Banister did not answer. Instead he waved the cart on. His men pushed it forward, swatting at the dray horse and exchanging excited, nervous grins. It went slow and with some gutter swearing the younger Bannister snatched up the reins and tugged the dray horse forward. Kitty could see the canvas covered lump the cart carried, and hanging down from one side a pale, stiff fingered hand.

‘We bring your son back to you missus.’ Bannister’s blonde boy called.

Kitty cried out then, although no one seemed to hear.

‘What are you talking about? My son is away on business.’

John Bannister tugged the canvas away then. He was a strong man but not a careful one, so when the cover caught on its contents he simply kept pulling, and the body tumbled out onto the cobbles.

“Danny, where is my bird?”

They were in Holman woods and it was Summer again and the light shone down through the leaves of the trees that rustled in the gentle breeze.

‘I ate it.’

‘You did not!’

‘Did too.’

‘Danny!’

‘It were nice enough. Bit fluffy p’haps. Tasty mind.’

‘Give me my bird back.’ She screamed with laughter. ‘Give. Me. My. Bird. Back!’ Her small hands beat at her tall brother between each word.

‘Alright, alright.’ He knelt down to face her. ‘Hold on a mo.’

He made a show of swallowing hard, then making like he was sick, his eyes rolling in their sockets. Then he brought his cupped hands up and opened them whilst yawning his mouth open. The little robin fluttered free, landing once again on Kitty’s shoulder.

‘I never know why they don’t fly off from you.’ Danny said with bemusement.

‘Its coz I make friends with them.’ Kitty said, running her fingers through the little birds plummage. ‘Nan showed me how.’

‘Did she now? Ma won’t like that.’

‘What’s it to do with ma? You run the family now.’

‘And what if I don’t like it?’

‘Oh, you’re a push over.’

‘Ha!’ Her brother laughed. ‘Perhaps I should put you in charge of the family instead.’

‘Perhaps you should. Danny?’ She said.

‘Yes treacle?’

‘Will I ever see you again?’

‘No treacle, you never will’

His body fell like a sack of sticks onto the hard yard. It was no longer her brother, Kitty knew, any more than than any farmyard carcass. But where had the thing gone that had been Danny? She did not know.

‘Daniel!’ Her mothers scream drove all other thoughts from Kitty’s mind. ‘What have they done to you?’

Mary Connaught came wailing across the cobbled yard to her dead son, falling at his side, hands cupping his pale face. Blood and dirt streaked his brow that she began to wipe away with desperate fingers.

‘Your son,’ John Bannister spoke in a booming voice for all to hear, ‘Has violated one of my daughters. I return his body to you only as a courtesy. I demand restitution for the sleight against my daughters honor and the good name of my family.’

‘I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.’ Mary Connaught screamed.

‘I come with the weight of the law behind me.’

At that the Bailiff came trotting forward. He could not even bring himself to look at the dead boys mother as he spoke.

‘The lad was found in the bed of the Connaught’s eldest girl.’

‘Found uninvited! Uninvited I told you.’ Banister bellowed.

‘As you say. The lad was caught in the act so there can be no doubt of his guilt. When the Bannister men attempted to apprehend the criminal, he fought back and was struck down. No guilt hangs upon any of those involved. As is his legal right John Bannister claims restitution on behalf of the victim, his daughter, in the order of half of the criminals lands and properties’

John Bannister had measured his demand carefully. The strength of his claim would weigh greatly on the opinion of each and every local landowner. All were men and most in his debt, but all also had wives and were he to leave the mother and sisters destitute many of the women might take fear they would be next and whisper doubts in their men folks ears. He would take the lands about but leave the farm house and the immediate surrounds to the women. He would even provide them a stipend. He was not a monster after all, he even had in mind that one or other of the daughters might marry his younger sons as they were pretty enough.

Mary Connaught did not listen as the Bailiff continued his legal diatribe. She smoothed her sons always unruly hair around his face then lent down and with infinite gentleness kissed him goodbye before laying his head down up the ground. She felt her knees shake as she stood, not wit fear but with a pure anger she had never known in herself before that moment.

‘I condemn your soul to burn in hell, John Bannister.’ Her spit found his face followed by her nails that drew three lines of hot blood from his cheek.

‘Damn you woman.’ He shouted, stepping back and away as his young men came between their master and the mad bitch, holding May Conaught away as she screamed and scratched at them. Blood and spit, he thought with panic. Bannister was at heart a superstitious man and remembered then the old rumours of magic and witchcraft that clung to the woman’s maiden name.

‘Hold her.’ Bannister balled. The young men looked askance in the moment but did as they were told. ‘You’ll take your curse back, witch.’

‘May you scream in pain for eternity.’

Bannister clasped his hands for a moment, pushing the stiff leather of his gloves firm against each finger, then stepped forward and smashed his fist hard into the woman’s face.

‘Mother!’ Kitty Connaught scrabbled up from her hiding place and sent herself hurtling out, screaming again and again but still no one heard. Twice more the bastard hit her mother but she was too far away.

‘Enough bannister, or I’ll have you locked in the deepest, darkest pit I can find and leave you there.’ The Bailiff called from atop his high horse.

Bannister caught himself, he was breathing heavily and his gloves and tunic were spattered with blood. Then he struck out again but instead of a blow he opened his hand and pushed the woman away, sending her tumbling down to the filthy cobbles. The good wives would find fear more compelling than love, a part of him reasoned.

‘I’ll not have such such devilry on or near my lands.’ Bannister spat and turned to the two elder daughters who had stood rooted in the doorway throughout, their faces torn with fear. ‘I’ll give you Connaught bitches till the new moon to clear yourselves from what is mine. This house is mine. These lands are mine. Be glad I am as merciful as that.’

‘That was not our agreement Bannister.’

‘Our agreement is whatever my money says it is Bailiff. I hope you remember your station better than your predecessor did.’

With that the Bailiff shut his mouth, and the courtyard went still and silent.

Mother wake up! Kitty Connaught wished as she came down in a crash of skirts beside her mother. Stark purple bruises bloomed across her bloody face, cuts glistened on her lips and brow and her nose was a crumpled mess but Kitty made herself look over it all with a determination born of love.

With much shouting men and women burst out of the kitchen. Armed with carving knives and cleavers the Connaughts cooks and stable boys might have been a threat to the bannisters, had they not been aged less than sixteen or over sixty, with those inbetween all women. They were led by Jim Forster who cared for Kitty’s own horse among others. He was big enough, but that weight was born from too much good food, flabby and useless. Worse, Kitty saw he was as scared as any man might be.

‘Well what’s this then?’ Simon Bannister laughed. He came alive of a sudden, like a bored child who had found a thing to play with. ‘Is this the new Connaught army.’

‘Leave the mistress be now.’ Jim Forster just managed to say.

‘Leave her be? I’ll show you for giving me orders.’ With that the blonde lad pulled his long sword from its scabbard. It looked shiny and new, barely used but still cruel enough. With a shout Simon Bannister charged the rag tag gang and Kitty watched in sadness as they scattered, most fleeing back into the building, leaving their attacker laughing in victory.

‘A month, and not a day more, you hear me?’ Bannister had remounted his horse and wheeled it full round in the courtyard. His young men began to drive the cart backwards, all save the Bannister son. Looking to her elder sisters Kitty felt a pang of disgust as both made weak, fearful nods at Bannisters threats.

Many emotions burned in Kitty Connaught as she knelt beside her unconscious mother. It is rare any person can see the moment of that their choice has arrived, but Kitty felt she saw exactly that. Now she could choose, either too be as her sisters were, meek and compliant, or another path all together that she knew not where it led. Both paths loomed before her as she stood and faced Simon Bannister, still hooting with triumphant laughter.

But no words came. She urged herself to shout, but could not even open her mouth. She ordered her body forward but it had become as solid and unmoving as a statue, trapping her within. Even her thoughts betrayed her as she realised that she was terrified beyond reason.

‘Any Connaught we see,’ Daniel Bannister bellowed ‘We’ll hunt them down the same way we did your son and brother. You’ll scream just as pretty as he did.’

‘Shut your piehole, or I’ll shut it for you.’ John Banister boomed at his son. Something like silence fell as older and younger matched stares. Once more Bannister senior won out, but the son swaggered back to the cart with a look that said his time was coming. He seemed not to even notice Kitty as he strode past her, a little girl not yet ripe for his attentions.

Kitty remained frozen to the spot as the Bannister party remounted and rode out of the courtyard. Only the Bailiff seemed to notice her, his guilty eyes clinging to Kitty’s until he turned away. A long time passed before Kitty could move, and then all that came was shaking and the roll of hot tears over her face.

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