Gisborne . . .
Guy was such a strange man. Secretive? Without doubt.
I could have talked on my mother for the whole journey. To talk would have been to honour her. But Guy would not talk of his own mother at all. At one point I had chatted so much to him about Moncrieff and my memories of the place, it was many leagues before I realized he had said nothing – just sat quietly allowing my words to surround him, possibly even drown him. When I thought on it, I was surprised he hadn’t ordered me to desist in that cool, authoritative way of his. Already during our travels I had seen flashes of his temper.
Sometimes I felt that by being so still and self-contained, it was his way of controlling himself. Preventing an outburst. Maintaining decorum . . . being chivalrous. I wondered if he already trained himself to be knightly. If this was his way of preparing himself to be the leader of men that he planned.
As my monologue on my memories of Moncrieff drew to a close, more because my voice needed a rest than anything, he spoke up.
‘Moncrieff may not be what you remember, Ysabel.’
I straightened my kirtle where it had rucked at the top of the stirrup leathers, the creases biting into the flesh of my thighs. ‘How so?’ I asked.
He eased his horse to a halt and I pulled up beside him. ‘Eight years is a very long time to have been absent. I have no doubt that when you left for Montrachet, Moncrieff was the absolute epitome of grandeur.’
‘It was, as I told you.’ My brow tightened as I felt I was about to hear something awkward. Guy’s face had such a dark look about it . . . not anger, not that. It was solemn, as though he had news of a death to impart.
‘Indeed. But three years ago, your mother became ill for the first time, as you know. What you don’t know is that she remained convalescent and in fact never regained her health.’
‘How do you know this?’ The grief that I had pushed away began to creep forth again. No one had told me my mother had stayed frail. My mother had only written to me with her usual sweetness and light in her fair, church-learned hand. My father certainly hadn’t enlightened me. If I had known, I would have travelled back home and nursed her. The kind of thing expected from a loving daughter. The kind of thing that eased the tightening band of guilt around my chest.
‘Come,’ said Guy. ‘I think we should eat and drink and rest the horses. Rouen is not too far and we shall make better time if we are refreshed. I shall tell you while we sit.’
I went about settling my mare and sitting on the grass by the road, but it was a habitual thing – I hardly noticed. Not when my mind filled with images of my glorious mother as a faded, ill woman.
‘She barely left the solar,’ Guy continued. ‘I know this because her tire woman, Gelis of Upton . . .’
‘Gelis,’ I cried out. ‘Gelis was my mother’s friend!’
‘So I heard. Not the typical mistress-maid relationship. I heard from Gelis herself. She is still at Moncrieff. Out of loyalty to your mother’s memory I think. She told me how your mother was the life of the place, how she was loved by all, how she threw herself into everything. How she was your father’s backbone.’
She was, I knew, and as Guy said this, something cold and unpleasant began to crawl down my own spine.
‘As she became more frail, your father lost direction. His bailiff struggled on but your father weakened in tandem with your mother. When I was employed as Sir Geoffrey’s squire, three months before your mother died, Moncrieff had slid badly. Fields had been left unploughed, those that had been harrowed were unseeded. Sheep flocks were untended. No wool was gathered for sale. Food crops were reduced. Gelis kept as much as she could from your mother in order to spare her, but she was a prescient woman, Baroness Moncrieff, and it was she who urged your father to hire a squire. She had heard of me, and must have thought that along with the bailiff, I could keep your father on the straight and narrow.’
‘I can hardly believe you.’ I jumped up and began to pace, my kirtle still hitched into my girdle. ‘Father would never allow Moncrieff to fall into disrepair. He lived for the glory of the estate, was proud beyond belief.’ But in truth I knew that my father was a weak, disingenuous fool whom everyone loved. As in all good marriages, someone like my father was improved and strengthened by living with the love of his life. ‘He grieves, Guy. That is all. When I am come, it will make all the difference.’ There was an imploring note in my voice, when perhaps there should have been an assertive tone and I suspect Guy noticed, because he took my hands in his own and I forced myself to look into his face, a face I realized that I could possibly love if I allowed myself. ‘Oh Mary Mother,’ I said. ‘There is more?’
He held my hands firmly. ‘I have worked with the bailiff to put things to rights. The land is worked as it should be. The forests are managed, the hunting stock controlled. The domestic stock is farmed as expected. The castle itself has been thoroughly re-organised and interior and exterior inventories sorted out.’
‘But . . .’ my voice was as hollow as my belly which had refused food.
‘Three years of no income has meant three years of drawing on your father’s coffers.’
‘He is a rich man. I . . .’
‘Was a rich man.’ Guy’s voice was so quiet that any hope I might have had vanished completely.
‘Was?’ I whispered.
‘Ysabel, there is little left. The staff of Moncrieff has been whittled down considerably.’
‘But the villagers, how are the villagers surviving?’ A knot of panic began to harden and nausea bubbled. I was not going home to my memories. So much for the contentment I imagined in the reign of Richard.
‘We, that is the bailiff and myself, make sure that no one starves.’
‘Is there enough to pay you?’
A new note entered my voice. A bitterness resonating with the life that Guy had lived in his time.
‘Enough. You need not fret, the remaining staff are honoured. But Ysabel, Sir Geoffrey needs someone strong to guide him. Your homecoming is vital.’
I suspected he was not telling me crucial information on my father, but I found myself unwilling to unveil any attempt at truth. I was not ready. Instead I asked something else, something that flashed into my mind in an instant and articulated itself before I could hold it back. ‘Did my father ask you to fetch me back?’ As I asked, I dared him with the intensity of my gaze. He looked at me long but then scrutinized our joined hands. I felt tears gathering, one rolling down my cheek as he began to answer.
‘No.’ He spotted my tears and wiped them with his thumb. ‘No, it was Gelis’s idea. I agreed with it. Simply, if you do not return then Moncrieff is lost.’
My face must have crumbled, I can’t recall, because he took me in his arms and held me while I cried. As the storm passed, I sat there, feeling the warmth and comfort of his body.
And something else.
His lips grazed my temple.
I moved my face and my cheek touched his. An infinitesimal brush that sent shocks coursing through my body.
I turned my head slightly so that his mouth feathered across the corner of my own and then I tipped my lips to his. We barely met.
Air passed between us. But then by mutual consent, more pressure was brought to bear and we kissed long. I kept my eyes closed, Moncrieff pushed to the outer edges of recall by what I did and what I was feeling.
His mouth slid down my neck whilst his hands lifted my hair and I knew, as sure as I knew that my father and Moncrieff would be changed forever, that I had begun to love the man before me.
But in the far off reaches of rationality, a tiny voice was whispering: ‘Heaven help any who love Guy of Gisborne.’