The Sheriff’s Collector . . .
‘Go into the kitchens and calm the cook.’ His voice barked at me.
‘Good day to you too, Sir Guy.’ I muttered without even looking at him.
He grabbed my wrist as I pushed past. ‘If you’d been here, the house would have been calm and the kitchen under control.’
‘If you hadn’t arrested the cook’s nephew, the cook wouldn’t need soothing.’ I retaliated, jerking my hand away. I slid by him, knowing it was an unjust comment, that if Reverend Mother was to be believed, Owen Millington was probably already a free man.
Ellen was sobbing, leaning against the wall with a cloth to her eyes. I took her by the elbow and led her outside, conscious that Gisborne had followed me and even now, was watching from a distance. I turned Ellen aside, my arm around her, and whispered, ‘Pull yourself together. Owen’s life depends on it. He will live, but it is our secret.’ She tried to pull away, surprise and shock in her action, but I held tight. ‘Maintain your grief and tell no one. Remember it is his life.’ She dabbed her eyes and nodded and I pushed her toward the kitchen. ‘Cook Ellen, better than ever.’
She bobbed a curtsy at Guy as she squeezed by him whereas I just strode on unconcerned to the Hall where long tables had been set. The head table had prodigiously carved chairs as well as a fine embroidered linen cloth I had pilfered from what looked like Church accoutrements. It had been in a chest in Gisborne’s chamber and I thought nothing of pilfering it for decidedly un-ecclesiastical use.
He had said he wanted platters and not trenchers and so I had purloined a matching collection of pewter. Enough for the nine noblemen who would sit with Prince John – seven plus Vasey and Gisborne. The rest of the guests would be seated down the long sides of the Hall. Behind the high table hung bannerols in Prince John’s and Vasey’s colours and my flowers bloomed in their churns.
The walls were hung with more pennants and the manor’s men at arms seemed clean and polished. I thought that whilst I languished at the Abbey, Sir Guy of Gisborne had been a very busy man. Locksley Manor seemed passable; for what it was. I ordered the huge fire lit and the flagons on the tables to be filled. Finally I went to the four bedchambers and lit the fires myself, waiting until each had caught and was burning steadily and safely. I spoke to servants and gave them orders, Gisborne having hired extra villagers and cleaned them up for this occasion. Indeed I wondered why he needed me at all as everything seemed to be proceeding as he had ordered. But I remebered Ellen in the kitchen and hurried back back to find her once more well in control of the food and her staff. I smiled encouragingly and decided it was time to wash and change into the clean and as yet unworn gown.
The water pitcher and bowl stood where they had been thoughtfully left yesterday and it was a matter of moment to strip to my skin. As I did so, I heard horns and horses, barking and much shouting and knew the party of guests were arriving, trusting the bailiff would take charge. My job was behind the scenes, his was on the stage with his master.
I checked my door was barred as I heard booted feet and noisy voices in the bed chambers and then a shout, ‘Wine, Gisborne. Lead us to wine.’ And I hoped with a vengeance that Ellen’s food was ready.
I finished washing, wishing I could just curl up on the cot and think my dilemmas through. I was almost there, almost. By this night’s end, I would have earned my coin and would be able to leave quietly and with no fuss. So I thought as I pulled on the clean clothes, feeling the softness of the chemise and the way the fine wool of the kirtle clung to my curves. I folded the girdle around my hips – it really was excellent embroidery – and took an ivory comb from my tiny collection of possessions causing a small chamois bag to fall to the floor with a clink. I picked it up and pulled it open and found silver, realizing Gisborne had been into the room and left my pay – a gesture of confidence in my abilities obviously. And a belief that I would stay as long as I was required. Dangerous, Gisborne, very dangerous. I wondered if I meant his confidence was misplaced or that I was in danger. Who knew?
My comb had belonged to Lady Alaïs, my mother, and my thoughts ran over what I had related to Reverend Mother as I worked at knots until my locks hung smooth. How wonderful it would be if life could be dealt with so easily, I thought as I bent forward. A sheet of brown hair slipped over my shoulder, smacking of carefree youth and I snorted, quickly plaiting it and searching for a veil in the small chest on which stood my candle. There were a few feminine things concealed inside: cloths (not yet, please God, not yet), a kerchief, another chemise and . . . a veil which I set upon my head, wondering what I could secure it with. At the bottom of the chest was a filet, a twisted linen one, quite fine and in a blue that matched the kirtle so I tied the veil behind my head, twisting the ends underneath and placing the filet to sit under the knot and around the hairline. I would have wished for a mirror but such things were not for housekeepers and thus wondered whose possessions these things were and if they had always been stored in this tiny room in happier times.
Part of my treacherous mind wanted Guy to have been solicitous enough to have placed things there himself, but the more rational and stubborn part knew this room had been a maidservant’s once and that was that.
By now the first floor noise had disappeared down the stairwell and I could here a muffled hub-bub in the hall, bursts of laughter, a cheer as Prince John no doubt took his seat and then a murmuring quiet as Gisborne gave his welcome. Knowing I should be lurking in the shadows, checking for knots in the fabric of my early endeavours, I thrust open my door aand clipped down the stair, noting torchères that needed to be lit and chamber fires that needed building.
The Hall hummed with the burble of guests. Men and women from the adjoining demesnes and swathed in furs and brocades, had taken their seats and the royal table oversaw the mélange from a dais. I kept to the darkened walls, noting Ellen’s food was being delivered and devoured and pleased that she had kept her word. I slipped into the kitchen without raising any notice and found her sweaty and tired as she ordered the hirelings around. ‘Good job Ellen. Good job indeed,’ I said as I hugged her.
She looked up from dismembering an entire roast sheep. ‘I trust you, Prue. It’s all that matters.’
And the word ‘trust’ lit a trail of bonfires through my mind and illuminated a dark past that I never wished to countenance.
A hand touched my shoulder. Secret places. Again. I turned. Our eyes met and I could read nothing in his, as I hoped he could read nothing in mine and yet his hand laying on my shoulder did more to stoke those bonfires than anything.
‘You look . . .’ he appeared to struggle.
‘Clean and serviceable, like your housekeeper should. For which I must thank you.’
‘I was going to say lovely,’ he snapped. ‘But have it your way.’
I closed my eyes. ‘I’m sorry. I am tired.’
‘All that praying, no doubt.’
I could not help my lips twitching. ‘Indeed,’ I replied.
We stood in the passage, servants filing past with giant platters of meats and breads and flagons of wines. But momentarily we were alone and his fingers touched my cheek. I felt as if a stiletto scored a well-worn track. ‘How did you . . .’ he began.
‘Gisborne!’ Vasey’s voice yelled from the Hall. ‘Get yourself in here, Gisborne.’
Sir Guy’s midnight eyes shuttered again and his hand, so lately intimate, clenched. Rigid with latent anger, he returned to his guests. ‘Thank you,’ he threw over his shoulder.
Another trail of food marched to the Hall on the shoulders of the hirelings and I followed, sure to be un-noticed, and managed to secure a place in the darkest corner, almost concealed by a bannerol. From this secret place, I could watch the proceedings and assess any problems in the unfolding of the meal and subsequent entertainments.
Prince John sat sideways in his chair, a leg carelessly thrown over the arm, his hand dancing up and down with affected boredom. From such a negligent manner only potential trouble could come and from his flushed face and sparkling eyes, I could see he was soaked with wine and I feared for any who crossed him. He was a swarthy Plantagenet son, unlike his brother Richard who was golden haired and tall. He had none of Eleanor’s nor Henry’s looks and I suspected he could almost have been a changeling if one believed in the fey. Vasey whispered in his ear, his silver tooth sparkling, his salt and pepper hair and moustache looking flea-bitten. A small man with an overblown opinion of himself, it was like watching two snakes coiling around each other. But which would strike the death blow?
‘Gisborne,’ Vasey’s voice had the drawl of a man in his cups. ‘His Highness tells me Baron de Courcey is absent for personal reasons. Did you know?’
I grabbed the bannerol to hold myself up, my knees folding as de Courcey’s name pierced my soul. In a vacillating distance, I heard Sir Guy answer with a cool reply. ‘I did not. What say you, sire?’
‘It is a laugh,’ responded Prince John. ‘De Courcey has woman troubles.’ He sucked on a leg bone and followed it with a draught of wine. ‘A month since, Lady de Courcey stabbed him and ran away. The Baron has searched for her ever since. Murderous huzzy! The bitch missed his heart by an inch they say. If I found her, I’d beat her to pulp and hang her from the castle ramparts.’ He slapped the table and laughed and the inebriated Hall joined in.
But I felt sick and lightheaded and turned to go.
As I did, I saw Gisborne watching and I knew by his very expression that my life was in his hands.