Gisborne . . .

Rumour in the house was as rife as on the road, only in this instance I was impelled to believe every word – almost the horse’s mouth as it were.  I was glad Sir Guy was gone frequently because when he was around, it was like a threatening thunderstorm and the house whispers elucidated on the damage such storms could cause.

I don’t remember this about him.  Not this danger.  What induced such thoughtless, cruel behaviour?  Was he such a lackey of the Sheriff’s that he enacted every order imlicitly?  Did Vasey have a hold on him?  Was he that desperate for money and position?  Was he so base and without principle?  None of this sat well with me and I condemned him righteously.

But then I reminded myself that I too was doing almost anything for coin.  Was I so different?  By working in his house, was I not condoning what he did by smoothing the ruffles of what had been a rough household – a silk purse from a sow’s ear?

The afternoon before his guests arrived, I heard shouting and horses, and lifting my head from the herb garden where I picked borage and rosemary, I noticed a cavalcade gallop past with Sir Guy at the head. The men were armed with sword, basinet and chainmail and Vasey’s black and red chequered bannerol streamed behind.

I returned to the house, the basket of herbs on my hip, dirt falling on my old kirtle.  Laying the herbs on the table, I cut the boughs of elder I had collected earlier, my purpose to arrange two large churns in the dining hall.  The waxy cream elder flowers would look pleasant against the bitter blue of the borage and I was hoping the rosemary and whatever herbs I could find to throw on the fire would conceal the smell of men.  My mother had . . . ah, but there was little use dwelling on that.

The cook clicked her tongue against her teeth behind me, sighing and then clicking again.  I turned, knowing she wanted to talk.  To my surprise, tears rolled down her ruddy face.

‘Ellen, what is wrong?’  I touched her hand.  She had a heart did Ellen, more than the rest of this house.

‘Oh Prue.  It be my nephew.  My nephew, Owen . . .’ she sucked in a trembling breath.

I nodded and stroked her hand.

‘They ride to arrest him.’  The tears were flooding now.

‘Why?’ In truth I wished not to know because it would surely mean a further atrocity with Vasey’s signature and Gisborne’s hand holding the inkwell.

‘He st . . . st . . . stole a sheep.  He has five children and three are poorly and his wife is skin and bone.  Their barley crop failed and the Sheriff took their little savings in placement for their tax-share and Owen was distraught.  He stole one of Sir Guy’s sheep for food and they are going to hang him tomorrow before sunset in front of the Prince and the other guests.’

My stomach turned as the woman in front of me collapsed onto her arms on the table and sobbed as I hugged her shoulder.

Much, much later I placed the last churn on the other side of the hearth and stood back.  I should have been pleased.  In a short time, this dour, heartless place so redolent of its tenant, had transformed.  I’d wager even the Sheriff would be jealous.  And frankly who cared if it brought down wrath upon the manor.

‘You know your job.’  The voice spoke from behind me.

Always he comes at me from secret places. I needed two seconds to think and then answered back.  ‘As you appear to know yours.’ I turned and he was leaning against the entrance to the stairwell, blocking my exit and with his arms crossed over his chest.

‘Meaning . . . ‘ His voice was low and if he’d been a dog, I’d have seen his hackles rise.

‘A starving man and his family, Sir Guy.  You should sleep well.’

He was across the floor in two strides, an arm lifted, but I stood my ground and stared him down.  The arm dropped but the sound of his breathing was enough to ruffle any feathers.  Finally I pushed past him.  ‘Excuse me, my lord,’ the sarcasm dropped from my lips, ‘I go to the abbey.’

‘The abbey?  You think to become a sister?’ he mocked.

I turned, desperate to see something familiar but the shadows of the chamber masked his face and I could see nothing.  ‘No, my lord.  I go to pray for souls.  Yours and Owen Millington’s.’  I left apace but not quick enough to avoid the sound of pewter hitting a wall.