The Sheriff’s Collector . . .
To arrive in Le Mans on that day was remarkable. We had heard rumours on the road of the Plantagenet family wars and it was no surprise to hear that King Henry had fallen sick whilst at Le Mans where he had been born. He and Richard were in the middle of a horrendous brawl over succession, with Phillip of France siding with Richard. Phillip and Richard attacked the town, and feckless, disloyal Henry ordered parts of his birth place to be burned to stall their invasion. But even a king could not control the wind which changed and caused a massive conflagration, threatening to burn his birthplace utterly. Henry fled. Leaving the town to put out its fires and lick its wounds. We had heard that Henry had retired to Chinon but his health failed by the day and he died two days before we arrived at Le Mans. I was surprised the town thought to ring bells to mourn him. Guy said such was the power of a king.
‘But’, said I, ‘the king is dead. Long live the king.’
The bells rang with heavy resonance anyway.
Even so, it was a relief to me that we had arrived in scorched Le Mans because I was exhausted beyond belief: saddle sore, heart sore, tired, dirty and hungry. I should have mourned my former king but I did not. To be frank I cared little. Who could mourn an obsessive man who burned innocents alive to satisfy his thirst to overpower his son. Further, I decided that if any of his sons wanted to fight to secure their kingship, I cared not at all. I wanted to divest myself of all memories of fighting, of blood and gore and yet I knew that what Guy and I had dealt with between Tours and Le Mans would live with me forever.
The Sisters of the Priory Saint Jean, which had not burned, were kind and generous; providing hot water and a small oak bath despite the fact that it was late in the evening. Mind you, whilst they went to prayer, they directed the lay sisters to care for me. The bells of the priory chimed and I gave brief thought to Eleanor, wondering what she felt about her king-husband’s death. They always said that she loved him despite his rancorous treatment of her and his loose morals with the fair Rosamunde and others. I only knew that when I fell in love it would be forever and that I would only ever marry the man that I loved. Which bought me back to Eleanor, whereupon I decided she would be brokenhearted.
My thoughts also went to Guy.
Why, I wondered?
But I shrank from the idea of investigating my thoughts. Whilst I soaked in the tiny bath in front of the fire at the priory, I knew Guy may well be doing the same at his inn. We had arranged to meet after we had broken our fast the next day. The town of course would be in some sort of mourning ordained by the Church, but as long as we could arrange our forward passage, Guy seemed less than worried. How he felt about Henry’s death, I could only guess. What I suspected was that he would shift the pieces around on the chessboard that was his life, and work out how to move forward. And upward. There was a part of me that hoped it would be at Moncrieff, but in reality I doubted it. The man had ambition and for all that Moncrieff was a wealthy estate, it was not his. Ah yes, status was all.
The bells rang through the night apparently, but I slept by telling myself they rang for Richard rather than Henry and that there would be a coronation and England would be happy and contented and my homecoming would be filled with the excitement of this new reign. And I was so tired anyway that the bells rang me to sleep.
The others in the dorter had risen and left by the time I woke and I dragged on my filthy clothes to make guilty haste to the refectory. The portress of the priory handed me a message and as I ate a slice of fresh bread with confit that the clever sisters had made, I read Guy’s words. He wrote with a good hand and I added it to his other attributes. I knew there were stories that even some kings could not read and write, but my father’s squire could do both.
He asked that we delay our meeting till midday and that he would collect me from the priory to shop for fresh clothes and supplies. I had two hours to wait and whilst heavy of leg and low in energy, I had no intention of sitting watching the Sisters following their daily devotion to God. Instead I received directions to the marketplace where I could seek clothing.
‘Should you venture alone?’ The portress asked. ‘You are a Lady, it is not seemly.’
‘I have no choice, Sister.’
‘Two of our Sisters are going to the market to sell our honey. You could go with them.’
‘I thank you, Sister, perhaps it would be best.’ I hastened to the gate to meet my companions.
The town still smelled of charring and there was evidence here and there, but with the resilience of all great places, the market continued and I found what I needed in time. The Sisters accompanied me as I went from stall to stall, buying two finely woven kirtles, two long chemises in plain but surprisingly good lawn and a heavy dark blue cloak. All functional and suited to my journey. The Sisters and I had finished our business and they escorted me to the head of the street in which stood Guy’s inn. I thought to wait for him, I was only early by a half hour and bid the Sisters adieu with thanks. I would return to the priory anon.
The street was paved with cobbles and filled with stone buildings and wove and bent away. But not enough to hide two men leaning in toward each other. One was tall and dark and the other short and unremarkable. One was Guy of Gisborne.
I pulled back against the wall because there was something about the way they spoke that implied secrets. Guy shook his head and the other man grabbed his arm and spoke furiously. The midday light caught on a silvered tooth that glimmered. Even from here I could see it. I didn’t like the manner of the man. It was cocky and I could see that he finally had Guy’s attention as he continued to press whatever was his case. Guy’s face as ever, was immobile and when the other man stopped talking, Guy looked up and saw me.
He said something and waved his arm and I had no option but to walk forward.
‘Lady Ysabel.’ He bowed. ‘On your own? Again?’
‘Good day, Gisborne.’ Something made me want to show his companion that there was nothing but a servant-mistress relationship between myself and Guy. ‘The Sisters saw me to the top of the street. They helped me make market purchases.’ I looked at the sleazy man to Guy’s side.
‘Lady Ysabel, may I present Sir Robert de Vasey.’
‘My lady.’ The silver tooth flashed and the odious man bent over my fingers. ‘I have heard of your father, of course. Delighted.’
He held onto my fingers moments longer than was decent and I withdrew them and looked beyond him. ‘We have business, Gisborne. You may have forgotten.’ I swept past them into the inn and heard Vasey mutter.
‘Arrogant, but a beauty.’
Guy said nothing and I heard his footsteps behind me. Through the door as I glanced back, I could see Vasey walking along the street, whistling and the sussurating sound sent a shiver sliding down my spine.
‘So polite, Ysabel.’
‘I didn’t like him.’
Guy’s eyebrow’s rose. ‘A quick assessment.’
‘He has an air.’
‘He said the same of you.’
‘What he thinks of me is of little matter. What were you doing with him?’
He sat and beckoned to the serving wench who gave him the eye that all maids seem to offer when we were within a tavern. ‘I had business with him.’
‘He looks remarkably dishonest. Not at all the kind I imagine my father would have business with.’
‘It wasn’t your father’s business. It was mine.’
‘Huh, I’ll bet he has questionable dealings.’
‘Ysabel,’ he hissed, his palm slapping the table in front of me, causing heads to turn. ‘He has just returned from Jerusalem via Antioch and Malta. In fact he had news of my father. Now are you happy?’
The maid put the tankard of ale in front of me with a trencher of bread soaked in some fragrant onion gravy with melted cheese on top. She smirked at my chastened expression.
‘Your father. He is well?
‘He is dead.’
No emotion. Cold and final.
‘I am sorry.’ I reached to touch his hand and he flinched.
‘It is no matter.’ The topic of his father was thrown out like pigswill. Leave it alone, was the message.
I realised then that his father’s death was only a fragment of what Vasey had imparted and I was intrigued, but how to inveigle more from Guy?
‘Vasey is a knight?’
‘And he has fought in the Holy Land?’
Guy sat so still I thought he had misheard me. Finally he said, ‘He has fought in many places. He is a Free Lancer.’
‘Really?’ My attention was totally piqued as I chewed on the delicious bread. ‘A mercenary?’
In an instant I recalled what I thought about chessboards and Guy’s future. ‘Guy, you don’t perchance think to become a Free Lancer yourself?’
He coughed and his eyes opened just a fraction wider and if I knew anything, I would say he dissembled. ‘I am your father’s squire, Lady Ysabel. That is all you need concern yourself with at this point.’
‘Hmm.’ I tapped the table with my finger. ‘Remember this, Sir Gisborne. Secrets are dangerous.’
We wandered through the town and watched people go about their business. The sun shone and we checked at the livery that our horses were fit and shod ready for an early departure on the morrow. We left Vasey far behind in our perambulations and we talked again of literature which seemed to be Guy’s great love. We stopped at a tavern that had trestles in the sun and as I sat back under the pergola over which grapevine threaded, I asked Guy to tell me one of the stories he knew. ‘One of the Welsh or Irish ones. You seem to know so many.’
He seemed so relaxed as he sat back, his long legs stretched out in front, his hands clasped over his flat middle. ‘I shall tell you the one of Finn. Some call him Fionn. It’s a good tale.’
‘Oh yes! I have heard briefly of the Irishman.’ I leaned forward and watched him closely as he began to talk.
‘I shall tell you how he met his love. Women like that.’ His eyes glinted and he grinned. ‘Fionn met his glorious and most beautiful wife, Sadhbh, when he was out hunting in the wild forests. The eldritch Fear Doirich had turned her into a deer as punishment after she had turned down his proposal of marriage and she was doomed to wander the forests alone forever, as she never thought to find the love of her life, for who would want a deer to love?’
He looked at me and I nodded.
‘As a graceful doe, she was grazing one day when Fionn’s hounds Bran and Sceolan, tracked her down. Almost ready to pounce on her and drag her down by the neck, they froze. The two huge hounds had once been human themselves and recognised the magic that surrounded her. Fionn paused with his spear raised and she looked at him with her dark eyes and something great passed between them and he spared her. He set forth back to his lands and she followed in his footsteps and the minute she placed a hoof on Fionn’s estates, she transformed back into a woman. Fionn could barely keep his eyes from her, so struck was he by her beauty. He and she fell deeply in love and they married and she soon became pregnant.’
I guessed he had shortened the tale significantly for the sun was sliding and dusk began to tiptoe close behind and being conscious of his duty was sure to want to escort me back to the priory before dark.
‘But the Fear Doirich came to Fionn’s home,’ he continued, ‘and filled with fury that she had not only transformed back to a woman by finding her way to Fionn’s lands but also that she had fallen in love and married the king, the evil wight turned her back into a deer. He chased her away into the forests and she quite literally vanished. Fionn, aghast, left his estates and spent seven years searching for her, but to no avail. He was brokenhearted and the only thing that saved his mind was that at the end of the seven years, he found a child, not quite seven, naked, on the enchanted hill called Ben Bulbin. The child had Sadhbh’s eyes and he was sure he had found his son whom he named Oisin. Father and son hugged and cried but of the child’s mother there was not a sign and Fionn knew then that his great love was lost to him forever. And so he invested his attention in the boy.’
He looked down at his hands at this point and I dare say he thought of his own father and what he had lacked. ‘This child grew to become one of the greatest of the Fianna and one of the greatest Irish storytellers.’
He lifted his goblet and drank a mouthful of the red wine he had ordered for us both.
‘That was wonderful. Where did you learn such marvelous stories?’
‘Ah, that would be telling,’ he grinned. ‘Some secrets are meant to be kept!’
I stood and joined him as we walked out into the street, knocking his arm to grab his attention. He didn’t turn but I could tell he was listening. ‘Don’t you forget what I said.
Secrets can be dangerous, Guy.’