Gisborne . . .
‘We can’t leave them like that. We can’t!’ I sobbed. ‘They were my friends. They have children. Guy, please!’ We had stopped some leagues away and our horses’ sides puffed in and out like bellows. I sat as if I was a half-empty sack, drooping with grief as the image of Wilfred, arching back on his horse, went through my mind. ‘What will happen to them if we leave them? In the name of God I owe them a burial. For their families and for my father.’ I wiped a sleeve under my nose and rubbed my hand over my face. As I did, I noticed it was spattered with blood and cried out, holding it well away from my body.
Guy jumped off his horse. ‘Here,’ he pulled me down by the waist and held me by the elbow as he passed me a cloth from his saddlebag. ‘Hold it and I’ll wet it from my flask and you can clean yourself.’ My hand shook as I held the fabric that proved to be his chemise. He placed his palm underneath to support it and I looked up at him as he did so. ‘I owe you thanks, Ysabel, for my life.’ His voice barely showed the emotion of what we had just been through. A slight hoarseness, but it’s depth smoothed like balm as he rubbed the damp cloth over my hand, removing the blood as tears rolled own my cheeks.
‘I’m sorry. I should stop crying but I find I can’t.’
‘It is shock. You were very brave.’ He gave my hand a final wipe, lifted it to his lips and kissed it. ‘Fearless. Wilf and Harry would have been proud.’
‘Fearless?’ My mouth stretched into a grimace. ‘We must go back, Guy. I won’t go on until we have done our best for them.’
‘I don’t agree. Wilf and Harry would understand, Ysabel. When you fall in the field of battle, you are lucky if you are buried.’
I took my hand back from the gauntleted fist that held it. ‘Then they shall be lucky. If I only give you one order whilst you are my father’s squire, Guy, it is that we must go back.’ His face hardened and I wished it had not. It was as though every plank of the bridge between us had been axed. My hand lay over his arm and squeezed. ‘Please, I beg you to understand. I am not being presumptuous by saying it is an order, but if I have to use my father’s name, I shall.
‘I do understand, Ysabel. I understand that you have known Wilf and Harry for years and that you shared a life at one point. That you feel for their families. That it is your Christian duty. Don’t think I don’t understand. But what I think is that it will be foolhardy and dangerous.’ He left my hand on his arm, his own closing over it. ‘You need to remember that for you to die so soon after your mother would inevitably be the death of your father. Think on that.’
I hadn’t really thought my demise would affect my father one way or the other, because he had been so vaguely affectionate in his treatment of me. Loving when he was with me, but when he was not, I barely heard from him. ‘But if my father had fallen, Guy, I would hope someone would bury him. If you fell, I would want the same for you.’
He slipped away from our mutual grasp at that point and cupped his hands to give me a leg up into the saddle. He mounted his own destrier and made no comment at all, and I felt chastened. Had I been too personal? I only spoke my mind after all. But I felt vindicated as we turned our horses and headed back the way we had fled.
I wished we had not.
Eight men, bloody and disfigured, lay in frozen death throes. Eight men who had wanted to kill us and take everything we had. We had to move through them on foot to find Wilfred and Harold, Guy with his sword drawn, me with an arrow knocked into the Saracen bow. Guy’s eyes were everywhere
and I forbore to talk because we listened to every sound from the forest. Every rustle, every creak and crack. Besides, my breathing was so fast I doubt I could have uttered a word. I had never ever seen human death of any sort and the brutality of what lay around us was almost beyond my coping. I took a huge breath and Guy must have heard, because he turned and in that one glance that passed between us, I felt fortified. I don’t know if he saw the fear in my eyes . . . panic that implied rampant nausea and legs that waved beneath my kirtle like strips of ribbon. All I saw in that quick glance was support, as if his arms were around me to guide me away from this hell. But then I tripped and looking down, realised it was the felon that Wilf had chased, whose leg he had almost severed, and I began to vomit until my sides ached and I had nothing left.
‘Deep breaths, Ysabel. Look at me and take deep breaths.’
Which I did as the world steadied on its axis. ‘Come to the copse and stay there with your back turned until I find them.’ His fingers closed on my arm and he pulled me away.
I was disgusted with my weakness and shook my head. ‘No. This was my idea. Besides, here is Harry.’
He lay in his own blood. He had been stripped to his breeks and everything he owned had been pulled from him. He had always worn a leather thong around his neck about which he had twisted the golden hair of his wife and the white-blonde hair of his twin daughters. It had been an exceptional keepsake and I would have loved to return it to his family. Instead I reached for his hair which lay tumbled in the grass, his basinet stolen, and using the sharp edge of the arrow, cut three locks for his family and placed them in the tiny leather purse at my waist. His eyes were wide and it was too late to close them and I knew I would ever see that look of sadness.
‘Here’s Wilf,’ Guy bent down and rolled the near naked soldier over. Thanks be to God his eyes were closed, and it was obvious he had died instantly from a pierced heart. I cut his hair as well, because they had taken the steel wristlet he wore with his family’s names engraved. I remember he had taken the wristlet to the priest at Moncrieff, a man of letters, and asked him to scratch the names of his family on it. The priest, only used to a goosequill, had done a remarkable job with the tip of a stiletto and Wilf had been so proud, showing it often to any who would look.
‘Who has taken everything?’ I looked around, my eyes focussing on nothing but leaf and tree as if that would sustain me.
‘The cut-throat band to whom these others belong. They have taken our baggage horse as well, and the destriers and weapons. If we are lucky they will be long gone to whatever hell-hole they call home.’ Guy placed his hands under Wilf’s armpits and lifted him across his shoulder, laying him over the saddle of his destrier.
He tied him on and I could only watch. ‘What do you do?’
‘We shall bury them away from here. We passed a stream on the way back and its sides were sandy and we can dig graves more easily. Besides, I think if we are to do this, it is best away from their murderers.’
He was right and I should have thought of it, but my mind was sluggish and all I could do was take the reins of my mare and lead her once Harry had been tied on board.
It took us till dusk to bury them, covering them with dirt and stones. We left the graves unmarked for fear they would be opened by greedy passers-by and I had been pleased that Guy had settled on a spot below the roots of birches that stood skirted by ferns and pulmonaria. The burials barely showed and we were silent as we looked one last time before heading into the gloaming. ‘Guy?’ I could barely see him as we rode, but he answered.
‘Thank you.’ I needed to thank him. He had given in to my order gracefully.
‘I owed you a debt,’ he replied.
‘You owe me nothing of any sort.’ I sensed him slipping away from me. Back to the mistress-squire relationship. Don’t go, Guy.
‘A life debt is just that, and can only be paid up when I have saved your life in return. Until then I am in your debt.’ He was stern and unequivocal.
‘I wish you would forget it. It was what Wifred and Harold would have done.’
‘You shoot as well as any of the men. Where did you learn?’
‘I hunted at Montrachet. It was the only way one could have a little excitement in a lady’s mundane life.’
‘And the Saracen bow?’
‘Like the tongue, learned when the Saracen travellers were at Montrachet. I like the bow. It’s small and light. Better for someone short like me. The long bow was too unwieldy, the crossbow too heavy.’
I heard a chuckle and wished I could see his face in the dark. I would have liked that. ‘Where do we go?’ I asked.
‘We need shelter for this night. Le Mans is too far, but if we ride all day tomorrow, by dusk we shall be inside the walls.’
I was glad to think of stonewalls and heavy gates, for today I felt as vulnerable as a fawn amongst wolves.
‘There!’ Guy’s destrier moved to my right and my nervous mare followed without me even twitching the reins. A tumbled forester’s hut lay in shambles before us, providing a wall and a piece of timber under which we could shelter. I slid from the mare, clutching her mane for support and within moments, we had hobbled our mounts so they could graze within reach, a small puddle of water close by. Guy would not light a fire in case we attracted interest and I, who already trembled with cold, wrapped my cloak tight around me and nibbled at the stale cheese and bread he passed me. I sipped the water from my flask and then lay a head that ached and was weary upon my saddle. The caparison I left on the mare for warmth but would have loved to pilfer it to warm me. My heart lay heavy in my chest, its beats marked, my limbs knotted beneath me as I drew myself into a huddle and as I turned my back against the world, I felt a tear sneaking from my eye, my body shaking as if I froze.
Guy’s arm sneaked over my curled side. ‘It is exhaustion and shock, just breathe quietly and slowly.’ He curled his body around mine like a drake’s tail feather, his own warmth seeping into my anxious body. I found my breath slowing to match his. As I grew more comfortable, my eyes became heavy and it was only as I finally sank into sleep that I realised my hands lay under his and that his thumb stroked over and over across my knuckles.
It was the first time I slept with Guy of Gisborne.