The Sheriff’s Collector . . .

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.

‘It’s like the Holy Land,’ Guy grumbled as we headed away, by which I presume he meant the heat of the south.

‘You have been there?’  I confess I too was hot and took no time when we took a comfort stop at one stage, in removing my chemise and just wearing my gown so that my arms were bare.

'Guy . . . said nothing.'

I had lifted my hair into a coronet on my head, well away from a neck that had been sweaty and over-heated.  Guy eyed my appearance when I returned from behind a rock, but at that point said nothing.

‘No, I have not.  But it is my plan,’ was his rejoinder.

‘Why is it that all men feel they must go to the Holy Land as a right of passage.  Why is it necessary to kill a Saracen before you can call yourself a man?’

‘You do not believe in the Christian fight then?’

‘I do not.  What right do we have to tramp men of strong belief into the ground in their own country?  It is not something my God would ask of His believers.  Of that I am sure.’

‘Then you think King Henry has been wrong?’

‘I do and I have no doubt his Queen thinks the same.’  I pushed back a stray lock of hair and noticed Guy looking at my raised bare arm.  ‘In the time I have been in Montrachet, I have met traveling Saracens who are erudite, great healers, men of learning that make us look like primitives.’  I snorted.  ‘But what hope do we women have of stopping such madness as a crusade.  Men are stupid sometimes,’ I added with just enough disrespect to make a point.

‘As are women who parade before men with bare arms and uncovered heads.  Lady, for myself I don’t mind.  But we have men at arms with us who may not be so couth.’  He made a point of his own with a severe expression that cooled the air.  Nothing like the man I had met yesterday and who had opened a door for me to a new life away from Montrachet, and heated my skin like a ray of southern sun.

I sighed with no attempt at concealing my petulance.  ‘Oh for heavens’ sake.  I am showing no more than their own mothers and wives show in the fields.’

‘Without doubt,’ he replied in a superior manner.  ‘But you are nobility and should act accordingly.’

I turned to see if he was serious and God help me, he was.  His face had not a vestige of a smile.  I’m afraid I could not contain myself and burst out laughing.  ‘My memory of Moncrieff, such as it is, is that the nobility create their own rules as they go along.  Today’s bad taste could be tomorrow’s new fashion.’  Then I added as an after thought, ‘Rather like a crusade.’  To which his mouth gave a twitch that flipped my belly upside down.

'To which his mouth gave a twitch . . . '

‘You make your point, Lady Ysabel.  But let me say, the attitudes of Aquitaine have been your life for eight years.  You may have forgotten what England is like.  There is a stiff decorum in the houses of the nobility with whom you will associate.  It is best you realize that now, before you reach Moncrieff.  It would not do to upset the Baron.’

I felt put upon.  ‘So I have spent eight years learning to be something which will not suit England when I could have been back in Moncrieff being truly happy.’

Our horses jogged a little and conversation became difficult, but I felt my calf rub against Guy’s and our stirrups clinked.  I pushed my mare apart although I would have been happy to rub alongside for a while longer.  I tried not to analyse what this man stirred in me, endeavouring to enjoy every moment.  To be truthful, I did not want to countenance any fact that he may not feel the same.

As our horses settled, he commented.  ‘Perhaps both your parents thought you would marry in Aquitaine and it would thus be time well spent.’

‘Marry any of those effetes?’  My voice had lifted and I laughed again.  ‘Sir, poetry and chivalry are all very well, but I crave to marry a man.’

My mare had jogged ahead again and all I heard from behind was a very low, ‘Indeed.’

Our first, second and third days past in such fashion.  We chatted about anything and everything that was superficial and yet as we talked, I felt I came to know the man a little more.  The erudition of a mere squire surprised me.  He talked of Welsh stories, legends he called by a strange name, Mabinogi, and he knew Chrétien de Troyes’ words as well, and conversed readily.  He mentioned an enjoyment of visiting small libraries of the nobility when he traveled with my father and with former employers.  We talked of illuminated manuscripts and I told him of my admiration of the church scribes.  In all, I was surprised he knew so much.  He even quoted poetry written by Prince Richard and written during his times in Aquitaine.

During one of our nightly encampments, Marais and I sat under a canopy Guy and the escort would rig for us.  I watch him moving among the men with assurance and with an air of command that seemed to come naturally.  It was not quite dark and being mild, he worked in a chemise, strapping his horse with wads of grass and chatting with the men.  He towered over the escort and I could see the width of his shoulder as he dragged the twisted grass over the sweat marks on his mount.  Marais muttered about her own saddle sores but I allowed her complaint to drift over me.  And then Guy turned and our eyes met.

'Our eyes met . . .'

His gaze held mine and I could not help my lips curving slightly before I lowered my head and flicked grass seeds from my hem.  But I knew, as sure as the moon would rise that night that a thread existed between us.  It might be fine and breakable, but a thread nevertheless, and I still had six weeks left to encourage its strengthening.