Gisborne . . .
There are times in life when one just wants to forget about concerns and cares. To ignore the shouted whisper of caution in the ear. To believe that nothing could ever be wrong and that every dream or fantasy one has ever had is about to be fulfilled. This was such a time.
Guy drew me along a passage to a large room at the front of the inn. It glowed with candlelight and a fire popped and cracked in a modest hearth. A few people sat at benches and trestles and the hubbub eased briefly as we entered – rather as a breeze does as it turns the corner of a building – rising again as we sat. A serving maid placed goblets and a flask of wine in front of us and I watched Guy’s hand lift and pour. Even such a simple movement had its effect and part of me sighed with such sadness that we were destined for something other than what my heart had hoped for. I was unable to speak and the silence between us grew longer and longer until I began to squirm. He just fiddled with the stem of his goblet, looking around, never meeting my eyes.
He had kissed my hand. Why this apparent indifference? Ah but think, Ysabel. The kiss was like a butterfly wingbeat, you said. Does that not mean devoid of emotion? Is it not your own longing that makes it seem more than it actually was? I closed my eyes, realizing that I had made something of absolutely nothing. To my own detriment. Damn! My stomach sank along with my hopes.
The serving maid placed a rough plate in front of me filled with a meal from which the most delicate fragrance arose. On its edge sat chunks of steaming bread and the juices of the stew had began to soak in, casting a fawn edge to the dough. Stew was in fact too crass a name for the magnificent meal. The sauce was thick and glossy and I could see parsley, onion, carrot and succulent pieces of rabbit and my depression lifted slightly as I took my first mouthful. It was a gift from God. My eyes closed as I chewed, tasting the flavour on my tongue, identifying a spice . . . pepper, I thought. When I opened my eyes after swallowing, I found Guy’s gaze upon me and he smiled.
‘Mary Mother yes! I had forgotten what well-cooked food tastes like.’ I sipped the wine, lifting the bread to my lips and tearing off a piece with my teeth. ‘I’m actually starving, I think.’
‘I did tell you we needed feeding,’ he said as he tore at the bread himself, dragging it through the fine jus.
‘I shall grant you that.’ Be polite. Expect nothing. ‘I confess you are right and I think I’ll sleep the better because of it.’
‘You should have a good sleep tonight, Ysabel. I cannot guarantee our comfort on the boat and the weather does not look good. It may be rough.’
‘I’m not worried. I’m used to sailing that stretch of water. I did it every year as a child.’
‘Hmm,’ he said as he sipped at his wine and topped up my goblet. ‘And that was how many years ago?’
‘And you have not been aboard a boat since?’
‘No, but you are either seaworthy or not, and fortuitously I am. It will not be an issue for me.’ I loved the sea and I couldn’t wait to prove it to this disbeliever. ‘But Guy, I would that we talked for a moment on other things . . .’
He had a habit of turning his head fractionally to the side when he was perplexed or assessing a situation. His brows would crease just slightly. It was that same glance that met mine as I continued. ‘I owe you thanks. My clothes are quite beautiful. Where on earth did you procure them.’
‘It’s part of my brief, Ysabel. To keep you safe and comfortable. Clothes are part of that.’
‘But these are very expensive. How have you paid?’
‘I have funds.’ His voice began to close down,
a note to it that advised me to stop now, this instant. I could see if I pursued it I was going to drive a wedge between us and that was not my purpose. I was tired. Tired of struggling with the depths of my emotions which had stretched thin almost to breaking by circumstance these last weeks. In many ways I knew it was Guy that had kept me on an even keel on this voyage through the vicissitudes of life. In his own way, and as much as I didn’t want to admit it, his companionship had given me support when I needed it most. If I looked beyond the arrogance, the misplaced ambition, the temper and moodiness, he had been there when I needed strength. Which is why I did not pursue the issue of expense and tried another tack instead.
‘Well tell me then, where did you buy the clothes? For this is quality, the sort we see in noble houses.’ I fingered the girdle. ‘This is Saracen-made, Guy, and the gold threadwork is very fine.’
‘You are astute. It is a Saracen piece. The goods all came from the merchants with whom we traveled. They have warehouses here in Calais from where they ship goods to England. Your girdle came from Acre as a matter of fact and the woolen fabric in the kirtle was woven and dyed in Bruges, the kirtle itself made here in Calais. As to the chemise and other things, I have no idea. It was a matter of moment to do business. You needed a change of clothes, I could provide them.’
‘Then it as I said, thank you.’ I spoke simply and with feeling and unconsciously reached across and pressed his hand. I confess I was shocked when I realized what I had done and froze with my hand on his. He looked at it and then at the empty flask. Removing his hand, he picked the flask up and asked the serving wench for more. It wasn’t a rebuttal exactly. But it had a sense of removal and I blushed with the action. I suspected he sensed my discomfort because he immediately asked me a question to diffuse the moment.
‘How do you feel after the journey on Monty? Two days on a campaign horse . . .’
‘I know what you are going to say. That it is hard enough for a man, let alone a woman. Well, truth? God but I am sore. I swear I thought I would fall down the stair. But Monty was reliable beyond words and I can only think that whomever acquires him will be a lucky man.’
‘You did well, Ysabel. None of the merchants suspected you were a woman. Indeed I would that you reverted to your disguise when we are on the boat and in England.’ He fiddled with his knife, the one he had taken from his belt when eating. It had a bone handle that was intricately carved. Irish I thought. I must ask . . . But then Guy’s words jumped out at me. Disguise? Again? I remembered he had said that once before. As if it were important.
‘Why Guy? What reason?’ My stomach began to curdle again. Guy shook his head slightly and I assumed he was not going to be explicit, so I pushed. ‘Please. If this is something that can affect me, you must say. Tell me. Am I in danger?’
He sighed and shifted, his voice so low it almost rumbled. ‘Danger? Not like the forest where we lost Wilf and Harry. A different sort of danger.’
‘What then?’ I was going to England for God’s sake, to my home. What danger could there be? I had no inheritance to speak of and was worth nothing to anyone except perhaps to my father. My father?
‘Vasey told me that De Courcy waits for you, Ysabel. From my point of view it’s best I get you to England and your father unrecognized. After that, it is not my concern. But I will not let you fall into De Courcy’s hands.’
‘Vasey said? And you trust him?’ I scoffed. Vasey, that sewer rat? God help us.
‘In this instance, yes. He had nothing to gain from telling me of De Courcy. And even if it was doubtful intelligence, I would be a fool to ignore it. Your safety is at stake.’
I shivered. ‘You scare me.’
He reached across and touched my arm, a small squeeze which he withdrew as swiftly as it was offered. ‘I don’t mean to. Have you eaten enough? I think we should retire.’
‘Um yes, I have, thanks be. But you need to tell me more. I think I need to know every single thing.’
He stood and placed his hand under my elbow, easing me from my seat. ‘There is not a great deal more to tell. Besides, it may be best to talk privately.’
Privately? I look around the room. Men sat drinking, apparently uninterested in us and yet Guy seemed concerned that we would be overheard. Perhaps he was unnaturally cautious. ‘Of course,’ I agreed. ‘As you wish, my lord.’ Ah yes, you are supposed to be my spouse are you not? I gave him my hand and in the most chivalrous manner he led me from the chamber, up the stair and to my room. All the while my heart pattered at the way we walked: close, our bodies side by side, his hand underneath mine . . . solicitous. He pushed open the door and we passed through, he moving to a chair by the window, me taking a seat by the hearth. I pulled the folds of the kirtle from underneath my feet and fiddled with the hem. ‘What else have you to say? Why do you imply danger?’
He sat in the shadows by the window. I couldn’t see his expression, whereas I dare say he could see mine in full view, every passing emotion. I was hardly a skilled actress. ‘De Courcy is a violent man, Ysabel. For some reason he wants you. I don’t know why, although I am wondering if your signature might be required on deeds of transfer, although legally the signature of a daughter seems odd. Be that as it may, the man’s nature precludes any contact with him until after you have seen your father.’
‘How violent?’ What sort of infidel has my father allied himself with?
‘The kind that as a young boy would probably have killed puppies. Ysabel, trust me. In this instance I do know best.’ He was just a dark voice in a corner of shadows.
‘Be specific, Guy. How violent?’
‘God damn you, Ysabel.’
‘No!’ I almost shouted as I stood up. ‘God damn you if you don’t tell me.’
He came toward me, a black clad figure whose face I would remember all the days of my life. ‘Ysabel . . .’
‘Tell me,’ this time I yelled.
He was so close
and I let his arms slide around me as he pulled me toward his chest, buffering me from his next words. ‘He would rape you, Ysabel, it is what he does to get what he wants. He would kill your father if he so wished and go to a banquet after.’ I struggled against him but he held tight. ‘It – is – what – he – does.’
I sucked in my breath and a little sob followed but I had no tears as I viewed how much my life had collapsed in a few weeks. ‘God . . .’
He eased me away from his chest. He was infinitely gentle, lifting my face so that I had to look at him, his hands either side of my jaw.
The pain I felt as my ruined life rattled around me like a thunderstorm was stupendous, but Guy was there . . . as he had been every step of the way, and once again I let him take the pain away. I lifted my right hand to his and covered it as it lay on my jaw-line. There are times in life when one just wants to forget about concerns and cares. To ignore the shouted whisper of caution in the ear . . .