The last instalment for FanstRAvaganza. Further uploads of Gisborne will take place in the short term on Mesmered.
Be calm. Don’t panic. Think. My heart raced and my legs threatened to fold as I poled the craft as quietly as I could. It humoured me, allowing me to slip along in the current, barely making a ripple. But the darkness suffocated. Swathes of giant grasses lined the banks like serried rows of pike-men in some duke’s army. Huge trees towered above the grasses and I fancied they resembled trebuchets and mangonels. The air itself, hardly moving in the night, was moist and laden with the odour of mud and weed. As Walsocam drained into the rivulet there were other smells as well – excrement, the bloated remains of a butchered sheep… the fragrance nauseating.
But the current slipped me swiftly past these excresences and presently the air was sweeter, less of man and more of the watery fens. Nothing awoke to my passage and I pushed the pole into the mud and held it there to track my journey. Landmarks, I need landmarks. Mary Mother help me, it’s dark!
The shapes around me blended into the shadows of midnight as I swung myself in a circle. River. That way – Walsocam. Trees, Willows. Three oaks. I could define the shape of the autumn leaves as they leaned down over the rivulet and the occasional acorn dropped in the water with a subtle plop. Three oaks! I poled the punt toward the sentinel trees and pulled myself back and forth amongst the grasses, the noise a shifting, crackling sound.
There! There it is.
A disused opening to a channel that seemed deep and navigable but overgrown and unseen. This was the secret backwater – this was the way to Moncrieff.
I pushed through the grasses, allowing them to close over the punt, meshing fast like a drawbridge slamming down. The darkness was total, so overgrown were the sedges leaning right across my head. Spiderwebs feathered across my face and I rubbed at them with the crook of my elbow, sucking in my breath. I hated spiders. Don’t think on them, keep going.
But I stopped to get my breath. Breathe. The water barely moved here, flowing away from me toward Moncrieff and I realized if I sat down low in the punt, the current such as it was, could do the work. As long as I reached Moncrieff before dawn.
As the crow flies or riding the roads, Guy and I would have taken under a day to reach Moncrieff. By these channels it could take an unknown time – I knew not what obstacles I would find. Fallen trees, drained channels, even worse – cleared land. I only knew that I must get home before Guy. Why? I couldn’t answer my question beyond thinking on the visceral reaction at watching the bag change hands.
I closed my eyes. All I wanted to see was his face when he delighted in something – an anecdote he related, a book, even something I said. His face when he said, ‘Look at me.’ I hated him. I wanted him to help me but…
I grunted as the punt swung a little in the dark. My back and belly ached with a vengeance and I thought I detected a faint warmth between my legs with no cloth to staunch it. I must hope for a slow arrival of my courses until Gelis met me…
I blamed such discomfort on Gisborne. What he had put me through on this whole journey. He? Was it not Father’s actions that had reduced my life to a travesty? I shook my head. The cloths then – if I’d not seen him with Vasey, not been forced to abscond, I would have them. Were you forced to abscond? And who arranged for the cloths anyway? This wretched voice of conscience tried repeatedly to gainsay me, to upset my conclusions and I would not listen.
I travelled on through the tunnel. A water rat flopped from the bank, too close for comfort and occasioning a squeak. So much of sneaking rats and rats’ eyes reminded me of Vasey. What of Guy? What does he remind me of?
A snake, my temper supplied. Remember the snake in the Garden of Eden, hissing its tempting words.
But a snake has black, gimlet eyes.
Guy’s eyes seered with the blue of an Occitan sky.
Time seemed to snap at me. All the time I was conscious of night flitting by and dawn approaching too rapidly. The current meandered and finally I could stand it no longer and stood with the pole to push myself on faster. We skimmed along and a feeling of success lightened my anxiety and just as I sighed with relief at the increased speed, the bow hit something and I crashed forward. My head hit the gunwhales as I went down and there was a brief pain and then nothing.
I opened my eyes to a paler dark, to the snipe of a lone bird somewhere and as I tried to sit up, aware of dawn beginning to break, blood trickled down my face and the bottom of the punt seemed to leer up at me. I sank back. God, why did you do this? Mary Mother, tell him! I held my arm to whatever contusion was on my temple, feeling the egg-sized lump as I sopped the ooze. Dammit, dammit! I sobbed now. Ysabel! Cease your wailing and get moving. Watery sentiment is for later. So thinking, I pulled myself over the bow and felt with my toes to see what the punt had hit. A spit of sandy mud lay in front of the boat and I trod carefully forward to determine how much further the spit would block my forward passage. In the strengthening light, I could see that the channel continued on, splitting to flow around this isle of nuisance and I leaped back into the punt, poling in reverse and then heading for the left hand side, sliding in a space the width of my craft, poling, pushing, grasses dragging against me, light gaining, my breath puffing and blood dripping onto the tunic.
The current seemed to strengthen beyond the spit, almost as if it had its own agenda and I let the boat float on as I tried to staunch the bleeding. I had no care for the depth of the wound, nor any thing other than the need to enter Moncrieff by my secret way before full daylight.
The marshes were tipped in pearl light and a dove-grey mist rose off the water, the colours blurred and almost featureless. But the palate of the place, so lately in my thought as something of welcome, a tender memory, was now merely camouflage and subterfuge. I chafed to find my secret entrance, the entrance to the subterranean tunnels that lay beneath the bulwark of Moncrieff Castle.
My heart stalled as I heard hounds baying, followed by men shouting and then hooves, a dozen or so horses hammering the paths close by. A voice I didn’t know. ‘Spread out and search every inch. She’ll be there somewhere.’
No! No! How can they know?
I pulled at some draping reeds, dragging the punt deep into the undergrowth, hand over hand as I edged toward the towering grey stone mass of Moncrieff. I could barely see it, but the light had darkened as the castle stood between myself and the sun. I heard horses gallop across the drawbridge, heard nothing but shouts and baying and only knew that before my heart stopped completely, I needed to get closer.
The punt was too much of a liability and I nudged it hard under the reeds and sedge so that it could rot there for eternity and without any care for anything other than reaching my home, I slid into the cold water. My home? They are not Moncrieff’s men. I pulled myself hand over hand, barely creating a ripple. I have been betrayed. On my shoulders, I could still feel his hands, on my lips I could feel his… I spat out a small mouthful of river water as the grille that covered the concealed entrance appeared to my right.
Dear God, have mercy on me, I beg of you. Thea’s little string bracelet hung limply from my wet wrist as I hauled the grille open enough to pull up and slip over the ledge. I flopped like a half-dead fish onto the beaten earth that was the very foundation of Moncrieff Castle. Thank you, thank you. Water ran across the floor, a weak stain of blood still forming on the tunic. I could hear nothing in these bowels, nothing but a dripping, musty silence and it suited me. Moncrieff’s layout was tattooed on my heart and mind and I believed I could find every secret passage that would take me to Gelis. I stepped from the chamber, looking to the left and to the …
A hand slid over my mouth, and I was pulled back hard against someone. As I struggled so they held on tighter, until a voice spoke close to my ear, velvet-soft and deep.
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