Gisborne . . .
This man had elevated me to a position of mild authority in a heartbeart. That he had no thought for anyone’s interests but his own was a surety. I knew of his lineage. Son of a Crusader and that father subsequently a leper. Son of a noble whose heritage was subsumed by greedier nobles and whose mother died when she should not have. A bitter man.
Tied to the apron strings of a Sheriff who had the ear of the Realm.
And for what? To elevate himself to the ranks to which he felt entitled? Word of his ‘tax-collecting’ had spread far and I had not realised I was in a village under his thrall. When I . . . left my former home, I pointed my nose west, doggedly walking from town to village to increase my distance. Rumours on the road are rife and this one stuck to my mantle like mud, because whilst the tax-collector wouldn’t remember, I had known him before, when he was on his upward path from youth and I was . . . doing likewise. I had not meant to find work near him, let alone for him. And yet, the Fates played other games.
I ordered his house that first day in my new position. I walked the interior, made notes of dirt, and dust, tapestries and carpets to be beaten, silver and pewter to be polished, linens to be washed and folded with fresh herbs, beds to be aired and prepared. I left the kitchen management to the bailiff, the ordering of food and wines and the like. Interesting that he should ask my advice on the feasts to be served and which he did with ill-grace. But I told him I agreed with his choices and made little change. I sensed an enemy to be made if I played the cards wrong. But I had no intention of staying long. I wanted coin to move on toward Wales and if a week or two being a housekeeper enabled me, then the chance must be taken.
The first day passed quickly and my list was long, but already the wood was being cut and stacked and the washing lines were full of bedding, fires being laid in chambers. Baskets of lavender were trimmed from the surprisingly well-stocked potager and I placed large bunches under bedding and hanging from the rafters in the one garde-robe that graced the manor. I saw nothing of the tax-collector which was fortuitous as I found myself discommoded by his presence. I wasn’t scared of what he had become, even though I knew what he had done over the years, but I was afraid of what he had been in his past. What he had been in mine.
Late in the evening, I entered the stable and spoke to the mare who knickered in welcome, nosing my hand as I offered her a windfall apple. I looked at the caparisons hanging from the rafters and moved to the thickest barding to pull it down for my bedding.
‘If you take it again, I would have to charge you with theft.’
I spoke without turning. ‘Then it would be your loss, Sir Guy.’
I heard a chuckle. ‘I believe it would be, Prudence. Already my household quails at your lists.’
‘Your manor will be the better for it. Now Sir Guy, I have a big day on the morrow. I would appreciate it if you left me alone with the mare so that I may sleep.’
‘Sleep you will, but not here. There is a small chamber on the first floor you may use.’
‘The first floor is for family . . .’
‘I have no family,’ he snapped ‘and I am the lord of the manor and can give sleeping quarters to whom I want, when I want. Don’t be churlish.’
Me churlish? I turned and dropped a curtsy. ‘My apologies, Sir Guy.’ I spoke to the floor.
‘Say it again.’
‘My apolo . . .’
‘Not that, my name.’
I looked up then and his dark blue eyes had frozen. A winter storm threatened. Even the mare had laid her ears back and snorted. Don’t remember.
‘Again,’ he said, threateningly soft.
I lifted my voice an octave. ‘Sir Guy.’ I couldn’t bear to look at him as the key might turn in the lock of his memory. He was deadly silent. And then he moved close, grasped my arm and pulled me behind.
I followed in his long strides. Four of mine at a trot to one of his. Strides that seemed impelled with anger. We met no one awake in the keep or the hall and he pulled me up the stair, caring little if I stumbled. Along the passage, past torcheres where flame jumped in our wake. He thrust a door open and pushed me through it and I stood and stared, sensing his body behind me, close to my back, my arm still throbbing where he had grasped it. I knew if I leaned back even half an inch, our bodies would touch. Instead I focussed on what the room contained. There was a cot, blankets, and a lamp lit so the tiny room glowed. Across the cot lay a gown – a kirtle of deepest sapphire and a cambric shift of ordinary quality but untorn and clean. A girdle of plain homespun embroidered with field flowers. I closed my eyes at the generosity, telling myself it suited him to have a housekeeper dressed to her station in his house.
But I turned to thank him anyway.
He had gone and with him the fear of my past. I locked the door.