Gisborne . . .
As I stared up at the campaign horse, the flames of the torchères in the livery yard made him look like some giant creature of the Apocalypse. Shadows jumped and flickered and thoughts of Moncrieff receded unhappily to the back of my mind whilst I contemplated the mountainous shape in front of me. I sighed as I thought of my little grey mare on whom I could spring bare-back if I chose and I would almost have given in to all my woes, if the bristly lips of my mount hadn’t brushed over the top of my hand as it lay on the hitching rail. The animal was infinitely gentle and I lifted my eyes to his, what I could see of them in the dark, and would swear he sent me a message back. ‘Do not concern yourself with things you cannot change, mistress.’
Indeed, I thought. How you right you are. Guy was nowhere to be seen so I called to the ostler. ‘The mounting block, do you have one?’
He looked at me oddly, as if he didn’t understand.
‘A mounting block, steps?’ I indicated the horse. ‘To get on?’
Whilst the look he gave me was curious, he replied, ‘Yes . . . sir. This way, please.’
Sir? Of course. With my masculine clothes and my hair diminished to a knot underneath a floppy caplet that sank over one eyebrow, he assumed I was a man, but my voice had thrown him. I coughed and coughed, blowing into a square of linen. ‘Pardon me,’ I lowered my voice as much as I could and spluttered again. ‘My throat is very sore and I fear I am sickening.’ The groom, no doubt thinking I was letting loose a plague of some sort, indicated the steps and retreated with haste, away from my presence.
I retrieved the horse and he plodded after me with giant hooves that echoed on the cobbles. He seemed resigned to his fate as my ride and I promised him as I gathered the reins, that I would be kind and not heap my sadnesses upon him. He stood patiently as I lifted my foot high up to the stirrup. I have always been supple and managed to spring and then clamber astride. What I had not reckoned with was the breadth of his back and I whimpered as I settled, my thighs burning as if they were stretched on the rack.
I clicked my tongue and we moved through the leaping shadows of the torchlit space to the front yard of the livery.
‘Ah, Y . . . Yves. I was wondering where you were. You are ready?’ Guy’s black-clad shape could barely be seen.
Yves? Close enough to Ysabel, I suppose. ‘I am, Sir Guy,’ I replied gruffly.
We walked passed a torchère as I looked at Guy
and his eyes glinted with merriment – something one rarely saw much of and I warmed to this new mood-swing. ‘We must make haste,’ he said. ‘The company will be leaving and will not wait.’
We trotted side by side, my horse the height of Guy’s. ‘For how long must I speak like a man? It rasps my throat,’ I complained.
‘Until we leave the company in Calais. It is safer for you, as I said. But,’ he saw my mouth open to complain, ‘of course there is another solution.’
‘And that would be?’
‘You could not speak at all. Play the mute. What a turn-up that would be.’ He laughed and it vibrated through my body, settling its echo in delicious places. Mary Mother but I loved him like this. I would follow him slavishly, I thought, as I observed the mouth that widened into a grin.
He urged his horse into a canter, scattering itinerant drunkards and street laggards and I kicked my mount to keep up.
The horse had a superb stride surprisingly. Long and smooth, despite his muscle-bound bulk. I could imagine him in battle, dancing away from a sword, kicking out with powerful hind-legs as soldiers advanced upon him with lances . . . every movement choreographed in his early training. ‘What is the beast’s name?’ I spoke in a hoarse growl and Guy could barely speak for laughing. ‘By the saints, Gisborne, I’ll show you. I shall be mute as you say!’
‘The saints must be praised then, Yves,’ he called as we proceeded with barding flapping and horses snorting. ‘By the way, he is called Monty. Short for Montaigne.’ Another laugh followed but I knew it was at my expense, so I shut my mouth, concentrating on those ‘delicious places.’
We approached the city gates as the company of armed men were leaving and the sight left me breathless. Dawn was beginning to break and the dark shade of night gave leeway to a stream of light shining from the east. It caught on armour and weaponry which winked and flashed and the noise of jingling harness and many hooves reverberated above the sound of a waking town. Fifty rows of men rode two by two, the first ten rows carrying pennants in Richard’s colours. Behind the army rode a mounted division of twenty men, similarly armoured but with black tabards imprinted with a red lance insignia, but they and Richard’s cohorts leaped well ahead of the band of merchants and ourselves who brought up the rear, twelve of us in all.
Guy’s and my pace did not slacken. We continued at a canter through the bucolic countryside as the dawn light strengthened from grey to oyster. In the fields, men tilled with oxen and their wives walked along behind, collecting the weeds in sacks or trugs, the chocolate-coloured earth a foil to the greener fields close by. I could imagine the scene painstakingly translated on parchment or vellum with a skilled hand laying on colour and then writing words that might indicate the seasons or the hours of a day in any month. A scene in a book that Guy would love to see, I was sure.
We had many leagues to cover and I could feel my legs tiring, the inhuman stretch of my thighs across Monty’s back threatening to unseat me. I hoped desperately we would halt somewhere to rest the horses, if not ourselves. Periodically over difficult stretches of the road, when it narrowed or when we approached large traveling groups, we would slow to a walk on the command of a disembodied voice far ahead. The command would feed back through the ranks and thanking God for the reprieve, I would stand in my stirrups to stretch my legs. Once I even thrust one leg over Monty’s wither, jamming my thighs together to try and rest them, but Guy glanced over and frowned and I desisted, groaning as I felt for the stirrup and heard the command to canter on.
The distance we traveled passed in a blur as I lost interest in my surroundings, pain colouring everything. When we finally halted at midday, barely a single part of my body was painless and I dreaded the moment of dismount, knowing that dressed as a young man I must do without Guy’s strong hands to help me. I gritted my teeth and swung down, falling against Monty’s damp shoulder.
‘Can you mange?’ Guy moved in next to me as I closed my eyes and lay my forehead on the horse’s shoulder. His hand reached around my waist as I sagged. ‘Ysabel,’ he whispered. ‘Are you well?’
A soldier dressed in the unknown black livery of the extra troop walked past, looking for trees against which to relieve himself. He glanced at us with open curiosity, his gaze fixing on Guy’s enclosing hand.
‘It’s too loose,’ said Guy as his fingers slipped onto Monty’s girth. ‘Make sure you tighten it before we mount again.’ He muttered to the soldier as he turned away. ‘Can’t find a decent squire for love or money.’
Love or money?
The soldier nodded and proceeded to piss against the trunk of an oak in full view and I had to pretend not to be scandalized. Guy merely turned to me whilst the soldier had his hands full and winked. His mood seemed lighter to be sure and I wondered if it was because each league we covered we were one league closer to England.
I gave passing thought to the way his moods shifted and whether I could cope with his tortuous mind-sets in the long term. But then I cast my mind back to the many kindnesses he had shown me as he was forced to reveal my family’s straitened circumstances. I decided that despite his dour and withdrawn moments, his callous philosophy of status being power, there was a chance that with my love and loyalty I could encourage the best in him. Such were my thoughts.
Were they naïve? Huh.
His current lightness gave me hope that I would find Moncrieff safe, my father happy to have his daughter once again in his fold. I was not to know how true these thoughts were. How horribly true.