Gisborne . . .
‘She’ll be dropping the next one afore I get back.’ Wilf answered my question as we trotted along what passed for a road between Tours and Le Mans.
‘You make it sound as if she’s a ewe popping a lamb,’ I laughed.
‘She might as well be,’ piped up Harry. How many’s that now, Wilfy-boy?’
‘Enough of yer cheek.’ Wilf pushed his own horse against Harold’s.
The journey was light-hearted in so many ways except for the dark cloud that hovered on the edge, Guy remaining quiet if watchful. Whether he approved of my repartee with the men, I knew not, nor cared, for Wilfred and Harold had picked me up off the ground often enough when I was younger and out hunting with my father’s entourage. I had the capacity to get bucked off frequently in those days. The men were a few years older than myself but bore the pressure of a hard life on their faces. Not for them the warmth of furs and heady wines, even though they were better off than the villeins.
I had made no real effort to draw Guy into our conversation. The men kept me occupied with their chatter and I minded not one jot. It was enough that he rode on my side. His presence filled the air around me, ameliorating the grief for my mother that weighed in the back of my mind. In quiet moments, like any infatuated woman, I recalled a hand at my elbow, a vague smile on the lips when I did something that amused him, and a burning glance that reduced me to shredded ribbons and asking to be shredded more. There was part of me that considered myself pathetic and beyond the pale but I went back to those thoughts like a parched man to water. Guy and I would talk I was sure . . . a gap had been bridged in Tours.
The sun shone benignly, unlike Aquitaine where everything seemed bleached white until the weather changed. The more northerly we journeyed, the more subtle and beautiful the light became. Forests of flickering shadow and dancing leaf marked the edges of our path and the horses’ hooves crunched over a stony way worn into ruts and holes by those who went before us. But we met few travellers. At times it felt as if we were the only living things and then a bird would fly across our path, or a rabbit would hop past. Once a deer stood bathed in sunlight, watching us pass with a twitch of his ears. And then he leaped away as if the Furies were behind.
‘To me!’ Guy yelled.
Instantly I was surrounded by the three men, their horses facing out, my mare dancing as the rumps of the destriers pushed at her. I heard a whine and an arrow flew past, lodging in a tree. My heart galloped as I held tight to the reins with one hand, thanking God for the stiletto at my belt. The metallic sigh that was the unsheathing of broadswords had already sharpened my anxiety like a whetstone.
A half dozen men ran toward us, swords raised, their mouths dark screaming circles as my mare tried to spin.
‘Stay behind us, Ysabel.’
Guy’s voice was hoarse as he and the men pushed their battle-trained horses forward. The horses reared, danced sideways, kicked out, even gnashed with their teeth and not once did a sword find a mark, the barding protecting their hides, my men’s powerful sword sweeps deflecting harsh blows. I held the mare hard between my knees and longed for my own sword as I watched a brigand fall with half a shoulder gone and could not take my eyes away from the blood.
‘Ysabel, Ysabel!’ Guy screamed. ‘Behind!’
I turned in the saddle and saw nothing but a sword lifted and smelled sour breath. Panic coursed through me filling my veins with ice, fingers I didn’t know were mine pulled the stiletto and threw it end over end into the man’s neck, his sword hand dropping its weapon as he pulled my knife from his throat. There was more blood spurting wildly and my mare shrieked as the attacker folded under her feet. My head felt as if it were wrapped in a cloud and I thought I would fall on top of the bloody carcass but Harry was by my side calling ‘Breath, breath!’
‘Harry,’ I croaked. ‘God, Harry!’
He grinned and turned to fight off the remaining brigands. My three men pushed forward, slashing until another of the felons had fallen. God was on our side I was sure, as another fell. I kept my eyes on Guy’s back, unwilling to see the damage my protectors caused. Two left, only two, four attackers dead or mortally wounded. The remainder threw down their swords and began to run and Wilfred was behind them, his horse cantering as he drew his sword back in a wide sweep, catching one in the thigh. It was butchery at its worst and I longed for it to stop, screaming ‘Let him go!’ and meaning the one living man.
As I shouted, I saw Wilfred arch back, his arms swinging wide, his sword dropping.
‘Jesus, God,’ Guy called to Harry.
‘The archer! Pull back, back!’ But Harry’s horse reared and an arrow caught it in the neck. It spun around and before Harold could turn it again, another arrow shrieked in from the left and caught him deep in the chest, another in his shoulder and a third in his arm.
I spurred my mare at a canter forward into the bushes, filled with fury and trampling over the hidden archer. He looked up at me as the mare trod about and all I could see was surprise as I screamed at him, ‘They were my friends, my friends!’ I threw myself off the horse but the animal had created terrible injuries and the man’s look of surprise was just that, forever frozen in time. I picked up his bow, a short Saracen one of a type I had handled in the past, though the felon was French. I turned back to Guy but a move behind him made me move with the speed of light, pulling an arrow from the dead archer’s quiver, knocking it and letting it fly.
Oh God, Guy. ‘Fall, Guy, fall!’
He fell forward without hesitation and my arrow caught the final killer. The man screamed, reeling from the trees, pulling at the arrow embedded in his eye. It would have been a kindness to kill him, but Guy galloped to my side as I leaped onto the mare’s back. He grabbed the horse’s reins and pulled me after him and we fled.