Something warmed my back and as I stretched, my shoulder was gently shaken. Through sleepy lids I could see the sun streaming into the chamber. Guy’s voice spoke just loud enough to push the last threads of slumber from my consciousness. ‘Ysabel, wake you. It’s time to dress and break your fast. The boat leaves in an hour.’
I sat up quickly, dragging the covers over me. To be sure, it hardly mattered because he had seen every part of me overnight. But something about daylight and the resumption of our journey made me more coy than I had been in the hours past. ‘You should have woken me earlier.’ I said.
‘You were tired and needed to rest. I would that you had your wits about you.’
‘Meaning I haven’t till now? I am sure you jest, sir.’
His mouth gave me the smallest hint of a smile as he turned. ‘I shall leave you to dress and meet you down the stair.’
Right then, back to the way it was, even if the meeting below stair is a reprise of the previous night. Besides, I reminded myself, I thought I knew which way the cards lay.
Dressing in men’s clothes is a quick business apart from needing to bind my breasts tightly. My hair, more sweat-filled than ever, smoothed easily into a tight knot that I thrust under the flopping caplet. I folded the coveted lady’s apparel into a neat bundle and placed it in sac that slung from the shoulder and headed for the stair, clopping down as would any youth of my age for I had every intention of being anything but a woman.
Guy waited outside, passing me some bread and a peach. ‘This’ll have to do. We need to get aboard the boat immediately.’ Tightness tainted his comment and I thought we had progressed backward with alarming, but perhaps not unfamiliar speed.
‘Why?’ I asked. The bread was fresh and I was ragingly hungry after last night.
‘De Courcy’s men are in the town.’
Any lightness of heart disappeared in a second and my predicament once again stood larger than life in front of me. ‘You say? How do you know?’ I stuffed the bread and the peach in my pocket, anxiety beginning to build. I licked lips that had become dry.
‘Vasey.’ Guy’s reply was uncompromising. ‘He ate with the Master at Arms last night.’
There was so much I wanted to say about snakes in the grass, traitors and more but I desisted and followed hard on Guy’s heels as we sped down the darker alleys, winding in and out of shadow, twisting ourselves in amongst the ordinary folk of Calais. The people moved toward the wharves like water going down a hole, as if all the business of Calais was to be done by the sea.
It suited Guy, this ready-made camouflage as we fled to the waterside. I had no time to think, to rationalize and had to rely entirely on his assessment of the situation and as we sped around a corner, he grabbed me, pulling me into a doorway, shoving me behind his black clad body so that we were just a deeper shadow amongst many.
What . . .’
‘Don’t speak!’ He reached behind with one hand, grasping my arm, squeezing hard. I sneaked a look around him and saw a small squad of liveried men jog past in formation, following a man mounted on a chestnut gelding. They moved swiftly, too swiftly for me to see the face of the man that led them, but like Guy’s face, like his voice, I would remember the livery to the day I died. It was blood red with a shield chequered in black and white. Blood red.
‘Guy,’ I whispered. ‘Is . . .’
My head flung round as I tried to glimpse more of this man who must surely be my nemesis. All I could see were broad shoulders and russet hair on a man who sat his horse well. All I could feel was the back of the man who had loved me and whom I had loved back and whom I swear I would trust with my life forever.
The troupe passed from sight, turning a corner, and Guy dragged me behind him. ‘Quickly, we must get to the boat and away before he realizes you are gone. If I am right, he makes haste to our inn.’
I puffed beside him. ‘Does it occur to you that Vasey has betrayed us, Guy?’ He didn’t answer and I was not surprised.
The wharf was less than two hundred yards down a steep, cobbled way.
‘That’s the cog. The Marolingian.’ She was moored alongside the wharf, her oars shipped, but a mast poked into the midday sky like a marker and from its tip a white pennant fluttered as if to remind one that the breeze waited impatiently to propel the vessel through the water. The crowd had burgeoned even more, perhaps they enjoyed fare-welling a departing vessel. In so many ways it was much to our advantage. In so many others it signified nuisance as it slowed our escape from the alley. Guy set off again from our shadowy hiding-place and I tried valiantly to tread in his footsteps but the mass of swirling folk pushed and shoved as they went about their business. Soon he was out of sight and my heart hammered. All I could do was set my feet doggedly in the direction I thought we must go.
Looking above the crowd, I could see the pennant and I swear it waved to me. Perhaps it had a voice as well, because by the Holy Mother I could hear someone yelling, ‘Yves, Yves!’ But I knew it was Guy and as if the devil were behind, I pushed and shoved calling, ‘Let me through. Aside you. Out of the way.’
Sweaty and disheveled but with caplet still covering my hair, I finally stood quayside. Guy was on board scanning the crowd and as he went to yell again, his eyes met mine and I swear I saw relief . . . more than just objective concern. His eyes closed for less than a second as if he offered some prayer of thanks and then he was shouting. ‘Come on!’
I flew up the gangway, the captain grabbing me. ‘Here mistress, hide in amongst the hogsheads with Master Guy. The baron’s men are approaching.’ He pushed me down amongst oaken hogs and a sail was pulled across. ‘Jack,’ he called. ‘Cast off. You Piotr, cast the stern line. Jobe, pull up the plank. Ready oars.’ We could hear a woody clatter as the oars were pushed out on the starboard side. ‘Pull!’ The vessel juddered slightly as it moved away from the wharf. ‘Ready port oars . . .pull!’ The movement changed to a steadier forward motion.
‘Are we safe?’
‘Ssh!’ Guy bent and looked underneath the sail and I joined him.
‘You there, Captain!’ De Courcy’s men lined the wharf in their bloody colours and De Courcy himself stood puffed out in front, calling, expecting our captain to spring to attention.
‘Yeah?’ was the shouted reply.
‘Have you two passengers aboard? A man and a woman?’
‘Nope! But I seed ‘em. They come aboard a half hour back and asked for passage up the coast. Had to tell ‘em I was bound for England, not Bruges!’
De Courcy swore and I made fists in silent exultation.
‘Hold the boat steady, men,’ the captain continued. ‘I’ll tell you what I told them.’
The boat drifted parallel with the quay but mercifully far enough away to prevent even the most intrepid of de Courcy’s men from jumping aboard. De Courcy paced along with us, keeping within earshot, pushing people out of the way. A young boy balanced on the edge of the wharf and but for kind hands that reached for him, would have pitched into the dark depths below.
I sent ‘em to the other wharf,’ said the Captain lifting his shoulder to indicate a direction to the stern of the Marolingian. ‘There’s a boat there, the Carolingian, a sister ship. She’s going to Ter Streep and I told ‘em they could get a barge up the Zwynn to Bruges from there.’
De Courcy swore and Guy snorted softly. ‘Good diversion,’ he whispered. ‘But will it hold?’
I looked back from under the sail and saw the Captain touch his forehead with two fingers. De Courcy had flushed red and turned on his heel. He was a good enough looking man in a ruddy, explosive way. His chin was strong and cleft and his hair, that curious titian shade, lifted in the sea-breeze as he turned, his short cloak flapping about him. He wasn’t quite as tall as Gisborne but he had a breadth of shoulder that gave him an illusion of extraordinary power. Men backed away from him as he hurried back to his men and I would forever be reminded of a king in the making. Or a kingmaker.
‘Oarsmen, pull!’ the Captain roared and De Courcy looked over his shoulder. We turned to starboard a little more and then the oarsmen pulled us out into the current and we floated swiftly on the tide, well out of view of the quay. ‘Right you two, we need the sail now, keep your heads down until we are well into the Channel.’
‘Thank you, Davey.’ Guy shook the Captain’s hand.
‘Pleasure, Master Guy. I’ll always help because of Lady Ghislaine, you know that. She were good to me when I was on the demesnes.’
Guy nodded with a thin smile painted on his face.
The sail was quickly rigged and hoisted by the crew and for the first time for weeks I felt safe. Out in the middle of the Channel between England and Normandy, no one could touch me. Not my father, nor De Courcy. Not even Vasey. The sea purled under the bow of the cog, a white lace frill that could have been made by the Bruges dames. Seabirds wheeled above us and the sun shone. Guy moved next to me and as we both stared toward the cliffs of England, Guy’s hand slid over mine as it rested on the gunwhales. He gave a small squeeze, subtle and almost invisible, but a message nevertheless: Courage, Ysabel. We are nearly there.
‘Are you afraid?’ he asked.
‘A little,’ I admitted. ‘De Courcy looks like a man who gets his own way and woe betide any who step in his path.’ In truth, whilst I did feel safe here on the Marolingian, I was afraid of home. Part of me wanted to flee west when we arrived in England… head to the wilds of Wales. But I thought of Gelis and what she had done by sending Guy to find me, to warn me of my father’s parlous state, of Moncrieff’s decline. I at least owed her thanks and in person. Otherwise I would not be the girl she remembered. As for my father? I was confused. Certainly I had a duty to see him… for my mother’s sake, but my feelings toward him were ambivalent. As his no doubt had been toward me, else why would he have allowed Moncrieff to slide so badly that de Courcy was able to pick its bones?
‘I would that you continued to view him with caution,’ Guy said in response to my comment on de Courcy. ‘He certainly wouldn’t have your best interests at heart.’
For a while, we just watched the shipboard activity, the men working as a well-oiled team, the sails now bellying, oars shipped, the cry of seabirds overhead. When I was a little girl, I used to revel in these journeys and the crews with whom we sailed were always kind and patient with me. They told me tales of merrows and mermaids and I would claim to be a mermaid myself, or a descendant of one. I was afraid of nothing. Not the sea when it turned black as pitch in the middle deeps of the Channel, nor when it sharpened its teeth in a gale and gnawed at the sides of the vessels in which we sailed. The crews would tell me stories and my favourite was the one about the selkie, a lithe creature who shape-changed into a divine woman. A fisherman captured her when she sat on the shore one day as a woman and he hid her selkie’s skin, which meant she could never return to the sea. She was at his mercy, living a grief-stricken life on land, spending hours standing on the shore, the waves washing away her tears, the wind tearing at her unfettered hair, pulling at her, saying ‘Come back, come back to where you belong.’ As with most tales, the ending was bittersweet, the fisherman finally giving her the skin back so she could return to the sea. But he tried to follow her and inevitably drowned, which is why, said the sailors, that all shipboard men beware the beauties of the sea.
Such were the tales that filled my voyages.
And now I had different tales I wished to be told and touched Guy’s arm. ‘What is the connection between you and Vasey, Guy? Please don’t turn away,’ I said as he opened his mouth ready to change the subject.
‘You obviously have some sort of history, or you and he wouldn’t have been so… tolerant of each other shall we say, over this last few weeks. You let him go when he threatened me that night in the camp. And when you nicked his throat with the knife he could have called for help and had you arrested but he didn’t. And when I said he’d betrayed us earlier, you didn’t disagree and yet…’
‘And yet I didn’t threaten to kill him or worse?’ He looked toward the horizon, away from my scrutiny.
‘Yes. Exactly.’ My God, I felt he should have sworn an oath to call the snake out over it.
Guy kept looking away as he gave me his answer. ‘Vasey is my cousin, Ysabel. His mother and mine were sisters.’