‘You must let me come with you. If an escort is to be found for my maidservant, then I am surely entitled to have a say in who they are.’
Guy shook his head, a barely-there movement. ‘It is not seemly . . .’
The flames in Abbess Beatrice’s room had died down and I began to chill. Compline had still not ended and so I took a poker and stirred the embers, then placed two logs of applewood on the top, the room filling with a pleasant scent as I sat again to continue my thoughts. I glanced around the sparsely furnished chamber. Coffers and seats were furnished with elegantly spare cushions whose simple embroidery created a monastic comfort . . . perhaps a contradiction in terms. A small prie-dieu hugged a wall where a crucifix frowned from the wall above and a carved wooden statue of the Virgin occupied a corner. An oak table held a tray of wine and goblets but I forbore to pour one as it would be an abuse of the Reverend Mother’s hospitality.
I thought about her, Beatrice, champion of Sir Guy of Gisborne, and suddenly there was an illumination as bright as the flames in the hearth. She had been lean with the truths she had told me. Expeditious, she said. But what about the rest? She knew why Guy had changed. Of course she did. But she chose not to tell me because she would not have me hate him again. Heavens, I thought, how does the woman reconcile herself with her God, Bride of Christ that she is?
And that was the moment when I remembered Guy in Tours, saying in a voice overlaid with bitterness: ‘Status is power.’
Beatrice glided into the room moments later, a picture of serenity. ‘My child,’ she said as I kissed her ring, ‘I did not expect you this night.’
‘I am caught out, Reverend Mother. Prince John seeks to find me and Guy has remembered.’ If she noticed I said Guy rather than Sir Guy or Gisborne, she made no comment and listened while I told her of the unfolding of truths at Locksley Manor.
‘I can see you must go far from Prince John and Vasey, although I cannot pretend to understand completely. Although . . .’ she poured us both a wine but chose not to finish the sentence. ‘Guy would not denounce you, Ysabel. That is not the man he is, and if I read into what you told me yesterday, I would say there is a deep relationship between you that he will remember and will want to protect.’
Oh Beatrice, if only you knew. ‘You talk about the man he is now, Reverend Mother. Now he might be Robin Hood or the Nightwatchman but what if his bitterness towards me overrides that?’
‘And why should it?’
I closed my eyes and all I could see were his arms around me, holding me close, and me allowing him.
His intensity beat like a drum and I could even smell the leather and the crisp fragrance of lemons that he wore with masculine ease. ‘Mother, my story will take hours and every minute I take, I lose my advantage. Can’t you see?’
‘I do, but I have a much safer plan. We shall keep the mare here and tell Sir Guy you left it with us and departed with a small group of pilgrims who travel southeast to London and thence to Compostella. That you plan to leave England and return to Aquitaine and they will see you as close to Montrachet as possible.’
Aquitaine! I looked up from studying my clenched hands. If anything might convince Guy . . .
‘I shall tell him you seek sanctuary with your cousins and that you thank him for his employ and the use of the mare.’
‘But he will know if a group of pilgrims have left Nottingham.’
‘Then it is as well that they do. As well that a young woman with long brown hair and . . . well, that a young woman travels with them.’
‘But I do not.’
‘Ah,’ she tapped the side of her nose. ‘But another does. It is all that matters.’
‘And how shall I escape west?’
‘Tomorrow one of our Sisters travels to Gainsborough Abbey to deliver herbs and medicaments to the Infirmarian. She is travelling with two merchants and their wives and a priest. But instead of one Sister there shall be two. As there should always be but we could not afford to send more than one at this time. You shall be our extra Sister. Sister Claire. From Gainsborough it is only twenty leagues to the Welsh border. By the end of the week, you shall be in Wales.’
I jumped up and hugged her and then stepped away, my cheeks flaming with the impropriety. ‘Oh Mother Beatrice, I apologise. How remiss . . .’
‘Rubbish. I love a good hug and miss it in here where there is such a Godly code. And there is a sin I shall have to confess – covetousness. Ah well, let she who is without sin cast the first stone. Now we have all night, you shall tell me the rest of yours and Guy’s story and we shall not pause for any of the devotions. I am otherwise occupied this night.’
What a wonderful woman. She rubbed her hands together and poured us a wine and I could not help remembering my mother, Alais, when she visited Montrachet and wanted nothing better than to sit on the end of my bed, wrapped in furs as we chatted all night about my various male escorts.
We had travelled slowly through Aquitaine. Our pace was geared to old Marais’ equestrian skills which were limited. If I was unchaperoned, I would have encouraged the men to make haste and we would have been in Le Havre or Calais in half the time and ready to find a ship and some good weather. But what could have been an isolated and dreary journey for me was lightened by the amount of travellers we encountered – merchants, nobility, men at arms, mercenaries, pilgrims. Travellers were always willing to pass the time and thus we heard that Henry and Eleanor were at it again. Henry’s amorous adventures with half of the beauties of Christendom was assuming the scope of a legend and it was the only time I heard Marais’ voice lighten. In truth, Henry was unfit and I privately questioned that he would live to a ripe age. His sons continued to battle around him, with each other and with him, and over it all hung the shadow of dark John and golden Richard. I remembered John as a child in Aquitaine and liked him not one bit. He reminded me of the kind of fiend that would pull the wings off flies. Richard on the other hand had Eleanor’s heart and the appearance of a hero. I had no doubt where some of the legend would lie after we were dead and gone. I posed the question to Guy. ‘Prince John or Prince Richard, Guy? Who would you have as your liege lord?’ He started at my voice, as if he had been sure the new troupe formation should keep me quiet and away from his ears. I twisted around to look back at him and for a bare second he gazed at me and then away as if I smelled of something abhorrent. Lord knows why he should treat me thus and it had gone beyond hurting me to a simmering anger. My God! Self-opinionated, jumped-up squire that he was. ‘Well?’ I prompted, ‘Are you afraid to answer? Have you no opinions of your own?’ I could be so outspoken when I was angry. It is not a merit of which I am proud.
It’s well known that the legend of faery is a dark and dangerous one. Much of it was told as a cautionary lesson to children. Even in Peter Pan, Tinkerbell could be a vicious little thing. Was it Disney and television that made the world of the faerie become less profound as time moved on? More sparkles and fairy wings?
He remembers. He knows and remembers everything. I hurried against the tide of food servitors through the kitchens and outside. I could not stay. My freedom was at stake and I had fought for it savagely and would not give in. I found the door I knew gave onto the tower that housed the stairwell and opened it to slip through, hurrying up to the little chamber. In minutes I had packed my small possessions, my mother’s comb, a bracelet . . . a piece of jewelry that reminded me of the best days of my life, and a tiny book of hours, almost miniature, that had been my mother’s. I wrapped them in the old kirtle and chemise together with the cloths and spare chemise. Guy’s coin I secreted down my front, tied on my waist under my clothes and I flung a cloak over the lot.
I’ve been injured and out of action for four weeks now. And in that time I should have almost finished The Shifu Cloth. In fact I have 30,000 words to go and another six weeks of rehab. Finishing is a possibility if I dedicate myself. But the silence from London over Glass Flowers/Paperweights is hardly conducive to me finishing a further novel. I believe there is a summer holiday-break in the UK and London business has almost shut up shop, and it is a soothing thought.
I lapsed into quiet on the stone bench in the Infirmary Garden after my telling, with still more yet to go. Mother Beatrice played with her rosary beads, the clicking a quiet counterpoint to the birds that filled the almond and fig trees. ‘Reverend Mother, it was a short time but makes a long story and one I am not sure I can . . .’
Montrachet’s skies certainly did not weep for me when we left. The blue that blinded one stretched as far as the eye could see and the white rock of southern Aquitaine intensified the glare. I did not weep either, but my handmaid, Marais, sniffed until I told her to desist.
To begin with, my name isn’t Prudence. I am called Ysabel. And I do not have brown hair. I am by nature blonde. I am from the family Moncrieff. My father was Baron Geoffrey of Moncrieff and my mother was Alaïs de Montrachet from Aquitaine. A cousin twice removed from Eleanor, the mighty queen, and who was the mother of our king, Richard the Lionheart.