Gisborne . . .
‘You must let me come with you. If an escort is to be found for my maidservant, then I am surely entitled to have a say in who they are.’
Guy shook his head, a barely-there movement. ‘It is not seemly . . .’
‘For a Lady to go about seeking pilgrims or merchants with her squire? Lord, Sir Gisborne, I think it’s more than seemly. You can step two paces behind if it is more appropriate.’
He spoke under his breath as he turned away.
‘I beg your pardon, sir, I did not hear what you said.’ My words chased him.
‘I recall saying something about spoiled and thrashings. Your manner has not improved my mind.’
‘Yours is little better.’ I sighed. ‘All I am asking is the right to find the travellers who could best care for Marais. She has been my companion as much as a maidservant for the eight years I was at Montrachet. It is the least I can do for her. Please?’
He walked to the gate as he answered, his spurs jingling in the tranquil and dove-filled quiet of the forecourt. ‘Tomorrow then, after you have broken your fast. Good day to you, Madame.’
I said nothing to Marais about sending her back to Aquitaine. I would not have her disillusioned if we could find no escorts of any sort. The following morning after breaking our fast in the refectory with other guests, I told her that Guy of Gisborne would accompany me to the market and that she was to rest. She said something which bought a smile to my face. ‘You watch that Gisborne, my lady. I can see you are mesmerised by him. But he has a dark streak which will muddy your own waters.’
‘Heavens, Marais, what can you mean?’ I turned away and looked out to the forecourt where I could see Guy standing very still in the early morning sun.
Sometimes I wondered if it was a studied attempt at ease – as if he were tired beyond belief. He looked toward me and I hastily stepped behind a pillar as Marais continued.
‘He is a man laced with bitterness, you can see it in the backs of his eyes and that bitterness eats away at a man’s heart.’
‘Oh Marais,’ I laughed as if I had not a care in the world. ‘Do you think I wish to love him? La, how wrong you are. He merely returns me to my father. Besides, he is too taciturn for me. I like light and life.’
But I lied. I wanted to know about him. The fact that Gisborne’s form and face were acceptable, were mere nothings. He had a past of some sort and I wanted to know. Despite being my father’s squire, he was indubitably of the nobility. That made him acceptable in terms of chivalric behaviour, I thought, completely forgetting the mad, bad and indifferent nobles that littered the past history of the world in which we both moved.
The cobbled streets of Tours took on the semblance of a pilgrim’s way for us both. The sun beat down and each inn, each guild hall, even each church knew of no one heading south immediately. A group of pilgrims had left the day before our arrival, heading toward Marseille in order to find passage to the Holy Land where they planned to walk in the footsteps of Paul. A gathering of merchants was to leave next week, but I could not leave Marais on her own for that length of time. I sighed and rubbed my aching feet against each other as we sat in the shade at an inn.
‘We cannot wait a week, Lady Ysabel. We are risking the closing down of the sailing season as it is. Once summer is over the winds rise up and the seas become hazardous.’ Guy undid his leather tunic and pulled it off, revealing a chemise that should have been whiter. Looking down at my own clothes, I realised that we both bore the marks of dusty travel. He had not walked two paces behind me as we scoured the town for an escort for Marais, and as I had suggested he did in my moment of sarcasm the night before. Instead he walked by my side: a tall, black presence with a hand at my elbow. I was aware of his effect on people as we moved through the alleys and ways. The suggestion of power was evident. The women stopped talking to watch him pass by. Not feeling remotely humble, I gloried in the magnetism of my escort.
‘I’m not afraid of a bit of rough sailing,’ I replied. ‘And call me Ysabel. This deference is ridiculous.’
‘That’s not the point,’ he said and I wondered if he meant my title or the journey. He signalled to the innkeeper. ‘A small flagon please? And two mugs? The point is that ships don’t cross the sea at that time. Shipping closes down. If we could find a boatsman mad enough to make the crossing, it would cost more than we could afford. Including our lives. Thank you.’ He acknowledged the maid who bought our refreshment and she simpered, her eyes a perfect ‘come to me’ glance from lowered lashes.
I snorted as if her behaviour was laughable, but as Guy poured the wine I noticed his hands and shivered. Strong but fine, as if he could as easily handle a lute as well as a broadsword. He passed me a mug and our fingers brushed as I took it. The sensation burned into my flesh and yet as I looked at him raising the mug to his own lips, I doubted he felt a thing. This stillness of his frustrated me. On the one hand he gave the impression of being so secure within himself, so confident, and on the other it implied a barrier, as if he were warning away anyone who might try to get close. Sometimes that stillness intimated calm and it was at those moments the fortress walls looked as if they could be breached but then he would move his head slightly or give a fraction of a glance and the hope of such a thing would die. Many would call him aloof, even arrogant. But in my kinder moments, I did not. I saw a river that was deep, a smooth swathe of shadowed water that on a cool day is so inviting. In my mind I could see myself wading in and then I could hear a roar as round the corner rushed a deadly current that could suck me under . . .
His voice penetrated my thoughts and I put down my mug. ‘I’m sorry. You were saying?’
‘What do you wish to do with Marais. It seems she must come with us, or stay here until the merchant train leaves for Aquitaine.’
‘I dread leaving her alone, even if she is at the nunnery . . .’
‘Pardon me, Sir and Lady.’
A heavily accented voice as deep as a bass drum spoke to us from the shadows of the vine under which we sat. We turned together. Sitting behind us was an Arab, his turban a grey as slate colour, his robes the dark and dusty shade of the desert nomad. He had a steel grey, perfectly trimmed beard and his eyes were the darkest I had ever seen. A woman of comparable age sat with him, her hair and half her face hidden decorously under the folds of a pale head-covering. Her hands were stained with hennaed tattoos and I knew she smiled at me because her eyes, paler than her husband’s, almost hazel, crinkled at the corners. ‘I am Ibrahim and this is my wife Haifa. Salaam,’ he touched his forehead and his chest and bowed his head. ‘I am a doctor from Acre and I am travelling back to my home. I leave at Dawn and shall be travelling through Toulouse. Is that close to where you wish your friend to go? She is welcome to join my wife and myself.’
I looked at the Saracen woman and found nothing but innate kindness in her eyes. Her hands had not led an idle life and she was Marais’ age, I guessed. She smiled and spoke, her voice like warm honey. ‘Salaam alaykum, lady. We are quite fluent in the tongue of the Englishman, so your friend would not be lonely.’
‘Alaykum as salaam,’ I replied.
Guy’s eyes opened a little wider and I detected a twitch of his lips.
I had learned the Saracen tongue from the itinerants who visited Montrachet and felt an uncommon advantage over him as I thanked Haifa for her kind offer.
‘The lady we talk of is not English and only speaks Occitan.’ Guy responded.
Ibrahim rattled off a comment in the tongue of Aquitaine saying that Marais would be amongst friends and once again, if we wished for her to travel with them, she was welcome. For me, the deal was almost settled.
‘Have you any men at arms?’ Guy had turned fully toward Ibrahim and I could see he was thinking the same thing, that Marais would be accommodated and we could continue on.
‘No. We trust to our God to protect us.’
‘But there are godless men on the road sir, and I am sure the Lady Ysabel would never forgive me if I allowed anything to happen to her friend. Would you be adverse to men at arms escorting you? I can provide you with men that I trust from my command.’
Ibrahim grimaced. ‘I find escorts attract as much trouble as they deflect. But if you think it will keep your lady friend safe, then I cannot object. Perhaps we can share a meal to seal our plans.
Thus it was that Marais’ journey was organised. Guy went to the nunnery and retrieved my homesick servant and we all ate together. Haifa and Marais gossiped in Occitan about their grandchildren, about herbal remedies, about their daughters and sons and it seemed a plan made in heaven. Arrangements were made to meet at dawn at the town gates with our escort and we would watch Marais leave with her new friends. We would take the two men at arms remaining and head north.
As I lay my head down that evening, I pondered that I would now be alone with Guy of Gisborne. Except for Wilfred and Harold, the men at arms who had known me since I was a child. The others attended Marais and our Saracen friends. When I asked Guy why he had sent so much of the escort, he replied, ‘Ibrahim, Haifa and Marais are elderly folk, not able to fight back in a difficult situation and no matter what Ibrahim may think about his God, the very fact that he and Haifa are Saracens is like to bring down the wrath of the ignorant upon them. It seemed a safe measure. We can look after ourselves.’ I noticed he included me in that sweeping comment and wondered if he thought I was more adept than he had first thought. Certainly if the occasion arose I intended to be.