Gisborne . . .
To begin with, my name isn’t Prudence. I am called Ysabel. And I do not have brown hair. I am by nature blonde. I am from the family Moncrieff. My father was Baron Geoffrey of Moncrieff and my mother was Alaïs de Montrachet from Aquitaine. A cousin twice removed from Eleanor, the mighty queen, and who was the mother of our king, Richard the Lionheart.
It was my family’s habit from when I was born to make the arduous journey to Aquitaine once yearly so that Alaïs could enjoy the southern climes and renew her interest in the troubadour tradition and stitching which was so well-developed in the south. And of course to meet with our Montrachet cousins.
Geoffrey, my father, loved Aquitaine and would sink himself deep in the mountaineous society. I sometimes wonder if he loved it more than Moncrieff which is northeast of London, very flat and surrounded by the blurred edges of the fens and marshes. On the slightly higher ground, Moncrieff had valuable pasture and its forests were sought after for reputable hunting. Moncrieff Castle itself was considered a well-appointed place and my mother filled it with acquisitions from Aquitaine, my father’s purse-strings always open. He was a well-loved man: ingenuous but well-loved.
When I turned twelve, my mother sent me to Aquitaine to join the slightly fractured courts that existed between Queen Eleanor’s frequent imprisonments. Everyone knows what she suffered with King Henry’s tantrums, it is in the recorded history of our country. For myself, in Aquitaine I enjoyed the arts, the troubadour tradition, and whilst I became sophisticated and educated in the courtly style which was what my mother intended, I missed the pale colours of my home – the mystic trees and reed-frilled fens, the forests that wrapped around me and whispered legends in my ear.
Despite such longings, at fifteen I was ‘finished’ and becoming objectionable. By twenty, and still in Aquitaine, I was bored. Worse, I was unmarried. No man would have me because I was sharp, opinionated and as accomplished as all of them at hawking, archery, poetry . . . even gambling. I was every man’s best friend, but most definitely not their lover.
Each year Alaïs would arrive at the beginning of the English winter and she would find her daughter a little more polished. At eighteen, I was concerned when an ague kept her at Moncrieff. At nineteen, I fretted that a further ailment kept her from Aquitaine. At twenty, a messenger’s packet informed me my lady mother, Alaïs of Moncrieff, had died.
My father sent no message of comfort or orders for my future and I drifted around the Montrachet demesnes in a dark and distant mood. I adored my beautiful mother and had lost my way with no one to show me the path back.
I had saddled my palfrey, and the groom helped me mount astride as I detested the more feminine side-saddle. I wanted to gallop and cry far from the meaningless prattle of the Montrachet set. I wanted to grieve, rent my clothes if I wanted and as soon as I was over the drawbridge, I urged the mare madly downhill, caring nothing for her safety or my own. My heart hurt, I had not been able to see my mother for two years nor tell her what she meant to me in her last days. It seemed to me that I had deserted her when she needed me most.
My tears prevented me noticing a horse gaining on my flank, but I saw a hand reach out and my reins were grabbed and pressure was brought to bare on the mare’s mouth. She slowed, shaking her head in protest and the horse beside her matched her pace.
Eventually we stopped and both rides stood heaving whilst I swallowed on my pain and turned to stare at the man who had halted me. He still held my mare but he bowed his head slightly and spoke and I will remember the tone of his voice to this day. It was visceral, and even through my hurt I could feel goosebumps.
‘Lady Ysabel, I am sorry for your loss but breaking an innocent animals legs does neither you nor your mother, Lady Alais, any credit.’
I went to slap his face, a face with strong planes and shadows of tiredness. But he grabbed my wrist, tugged hard so that I had to lean toward him and then he calmly placed my fingers back across my reins. His eyes met mine, glance for glance, the air solid and tempestuous, but I recognized something in his expression that touched my grief. He felt compassion for me, not pity like the rest of Montrachet, but an understanding of loss and confusion. The mare snorted and shook herself and I realized this man was right. I had been thoughtless and cruel.
I jumped off, nothing lady-like in the action, my gown still hitched high, and he dismounted beside me. He towered over me with height and broad shoulders, reminding me how effeminate and small were the men I had known. I guessed he was older than myself and he had a manner that implied he had seen life . . . far more than I had.
‘I am Guy of Gisborne, Lady. And I am charged by your father to return to Moncrieff with you forthwith.’ I gasped as I held out a sweaty hand which he took but did not kiss. I was to go home and my heart, so lately broken, began to warm and I almost thought I might bear my mother’s death after all. Gisborne’s own hands were dry and cool and immensely strong and something about the way our fingers touched slowed the world around me. I looked at his hand and as I did, a blush warmed my cheeks. I glanced at him quickly from under my lashes and I noticed he was intent upon me. Something had seeded itself and begun to curl to the light.
‘When sir? When do we go? Oh, thank God!’
‘Tomorrow at cockcrow. They pack your chests now.’
I stood looking out over the view of the dry, stony valley with the fierce lapis-shaded sky and I brushed falling hair back from my forehead.
‘It’s not the green of England, is it? Damnably hot as well.’ He spoke with a degree of sarcasm.
I realized he was dressed in chemise and breeches only and that the southern wind was blowing the white cambric back hard against his chest. For the first time in months I smiled. ‘But they write excellent poetry, have delectable food and play at chivalry like none other.’
His mouth barely curled and yet I could see he was amused.
‘I am a reader, and I write, and yet I believe there’s a time and place for it. Things here seem out of balance.’
‘Is Moncrieff any better?’ I asked. ‘It is so long since I have seen it. Eight years, Sir Gisborne.’
‘I am not yet a knight, merely your father’s squire.’
‘You are a knight because you rescue me from this place and return me to my father. How does he? I miss him.’
‘I have only been in your father’s service for six months, Lady Ysabel. But in truth I would say he is much aged and your presence may sooth him in his troubles.’
My heart jumped and I grabbed Guy’s arm, not unaware of the power beneath the fabric. ‘What troubles? Is he ill?’
I could see Guy chose his words carefully but I did not read anything beneath what he said. ‘He grieves,’ he replied.
Tears threatened again. ‘Tomorrow you say? How long will it take us?’
‘A month to reach the northerly coast, then three weeks sailing and riding to Moncrieff.’ As he spoke, he helped me mount, brushing away the tears that chose to fall on my cheeks.
I watched him spring aboard his own mount and touched my cheek with my fingers. Seven weeks or more with this man, as I journeyed home. For the first time in my life, I felt the stirrings of something utterly unfamiliar and dearest Alaïs, my mother forgive me, I would enjoy every minute of every league we covered.