Gisborne . . .
We had travelled slowly through Aquitaine. Our pace was geared to old Marais’ equestrian skills which were limited. If I was unchaperoned, I would have encouraged the men to make haste and we would have been in Le Havre or Calais in half the time and ready to find a ship and some good weather. But what could have been an isolated and dreary journey for me was lightened by the amount of travellers we encountered – merchants, nobility, men at arms, mercenaries, pilgrims. Travellers were always willing to pass the time and thus we heard that Henry and Eleanor were at it again. Henry’s amorous adventures with half of the beauties of Christendom was assuming the scope of a legend and it was the only time I heard Marais’ voice lighten. In truth, Henry was unfit and I privately questioned that he would live to a ripe age. His sons continued to battle around him, with each other and with him, and over it all hung the shadow of dark John and golden Richard. I remembered John as a child in Aquitaine and liked him not one bit. He reminded me of the kind of fiend that would pull the wings off flies. Richard on the other hand had Eleanor’s heart and the appearance of a hero. I had no doubt where some of the legend would lie after we were dead and gone. I posed the question to Guy. ‘Prince John or Prince Richard, Guy? Who would you have as your liege lord?’ He started at my voice, as if he had been sure the new troupe formation should keep me quiet and away from his ears. I twisted around to look back at him and for a bare second he gazed at me and then away as if I smelled of something abhorrent. Lord knows why he should treat me thus and it had gone beyond hurting me to a simmering anger. My God! Self-opinionated, jumped-up squire that he was. ‘Well?’ I prompted, ‘Are you afraid to answer? Have you no opinions of your own?’ I could be so outspoken when I was angry. It is not a merit of which I am proud.
He seemed to grow before me, his eyes raking me as good as a thrashing from my childhood nurse.
He had a way of diminishing one by the every act of looking down from his height. ‘A liege lord is one to whom I have pledged fealty. In my instance, either man would have my loyalty. If Richard becomes king I shall swear allegiance to him. If I am a knight, it is what one does. If Prince John becomes king, I should do the same. But it is a rhetorical question, Lady Ysabel, as King Henry still lives, his sons are vital and Young Henry is the heir.’
My neck by this point pained me from twisting back and if I had been eight years younger I probably would have stuck my tongue out at him. As it was, I kicked my mare into a canter and leaped ahead of the troupe, causing Marais to be even more querulous, for Guy to swear roundly at which I lifted my lips and then punched the air with my fist, and for the troupe to canter after me.
Just like last time, a horse came up on my side and a hand grabbed the reins and that voice said, ‘You really are a wilful child, are you not?’
My horse stamped about, pulling away from the gauntleted fingers. ‘If you think so, Gisborne, you must be right.’ But inside I chuckled. At least that got a reaction, hey? You can’t exclude me completely. Two can play at this game.
But by the time we entered Tours, some two weeks of us irritating each other had escalated to one seriously heated moment. I had walked off on my own through a woodland path to a stream without telling Marais and sat enjoying the pastoral views of fields and sheep and villeins working the land, their holdings little patches of tilled and sown ground like some patchworked cloth. It pleased me to be on my own, for I had nothing of solitude these days and always felt agitated. This was balm to the very roots of my being and I couldn’t help a disgruntled sigh when Gisborne strode into my presence.
‘If you weren’t the daughter of my employer, Lady or no, I would lay you over my knee and thrash you for your wilful and ignorant behaviour!’ He didn’t shout but the words rolled out like stones from a trebuchet. The fury that gave impetus to the words was contained in a body that was taut and stiff and hands that clenched.
‘Are you my keeper?’ My voice began to lift. ‘I wanted some peace away from you and your sour moods and from Marais’ carping. She clings like poison ivy. Go away, Gisborne. Leave me. I shall return at my leisure!’
‘I AM YOUR KEEPER!
On the orders of your father!’ he shouted. You’ll return now! I’ll not have Marais weeping as though you are dead and the men searching individually thus threatening themselves. Christ, Ysabel, will you grow up?’
I admit to guilty feelings. I had not meant to hurt Marais or even to place the men under any sort of threat. I pushed past him but could not avoid the last word. ‘Lady Ysabel, Gisborne. Lady Ysabel.’
But the point was his. His voice that I had compared to velvet, grated like thunder with all the inherent threat. ‘You spoiled little bitch.’
And I was. There is no doubt. Marais collapsed upon me like a house of cards and wept far more than the occasion demanded and I knew I must speak with Gisborne as a matter of urgency. Civilly.
He had deposited Marais and myself at a small nunnery in Tours. It was attached to the Abbaye de Saint Julien and was quiet and befitting my status of a Lady of rank. As Gisborne turned to go, I placed my hand on his sleeve. He wore leather as we travelled and the fibre felt soft and smooth under my fingers, as if it had been worn for many years under untold conditions. It moulded itself to his forearm and I thought how I would love to wear such a tunic myself. ‘I must ask for your time, Sir. I realise you wish to get to your own hostelry but I must talk with you about Marais. Please?’ He nodded his head and took me by the elbow to a bench near the gate. Perhaps now, I thought, our mutual dislike will lessen. ‘Marais must return to Montrachet. No, please hear me out. She weeps daily and will never settle in England. I think you know this as well as I.’
‘Indeed,’ he replied. ‘She suffers homesickness beyond what I would have hoped for your companion.’
‘Then you must see it is a kindness to return her forthwith. Now that we are in Tours, I am proposing we find a group of pilgrims, or some merchants heading south. If we cannot find that, then send some of the men back with her.’
His face barely moved and it crossed my mind briefly what a spy he would make. Never betraying a single thing in his expression. ‘But it means you will not have a chaperone and your father . . .’
‘Oh please. You think someone like Marais will be able to protect my innocence between here and England? Oh Guy,’ his name slipped out and he shifted as we sat together. ‘Guy, don’t. Just return her to Montrachet and me to Moncrieff, it’s all I ask. I promise I shall be biddable if you do.’
His mouth twitched in a way that made my stomach slide in a far too enjoyable manner and because he appeared to soften, I thought to press my case.
‘May I ask you something? Did I offend you on that first day, that you should avoid talking to me or being near me while we travel?’
He rubbed his hands together and leaned forward, his black hair falling over his collar. ‘No. I changed the way we rode for safety reasons. As to avoiding you; I felt it was unseemly for us to ride together. You are a lady and I am a squire.’
I laughed. ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous. If I know anything at all, it is that you are noble-born. As if it matters. You could be a villein and if I thought you were interesting I would talk to you.’
‘Perhaps. But I am your father’s employee and charged with your safety. If you remember anything of England, madame, you will remember that status is everything.’
‘Status is nothing but being born on the right side of the blankets,’ I scoffed.
He said something then which I would reflect on later, something that was much bigger than I gave it credit for at the time. He stood and paced in that agitated way he had when he was concerned. His expression showed a hint of bitterness and if I had realised, I would have said there was anger as well. His eyes darkened at such moments and in profile, with the sculpted planes of his face, he resembled nothing so much as a bird of prey.
‘Status,’ he said, ‘is power.’