Gisborne . . .
And still we traveled. Monty’s coat was slick with sweat despite our midday rest. He had astonishing stamina and as I looked between his ears, I marveled at the war-horses in front of me. I could only imagine the courage and steadfastness that rushed through their veins.
We stopped twice more and then the halt that I had longed for was called. In flat land that spread for miles all about and which was covered in a grassy tussocks that I doubted the horses would find oversweet, we stopped to make camp. To our right flank was an immense coppice of spindly birch trees, their leaves pale gold, most fallen and winter yet six weeks hence. A stream sketched a languid line from its distant source, past our feet to the coast far off. It barely ran and I wondered if every horse would suck it dry.
Guy was close by. He had stayed near for the whole day but we hadn’t spoken. If I had thought to pretend to be mute that morning, it had ceased to be a joke by this time. Our eyes met and I could see he felt sympathy for me and what he had put me through with this subterfuge.
And yet I understood. The merchant’s had told of our dangers; that there were brigands and lawless barons all across this moorland who would think nothing of picking we dozen off. I’d love to have made mention of our own fatal run-in a week or more before, but Guy’s eyes barely flickered and I could see him warning me to maintain my charade.
As I looked around now, I had the grace to feel some awkwardness, even concern. Stretched out around me, unsaddling horses, tethering, lighting fires, and doing any number of other such necessary things were one hundred and sixty one men. Whilst I might resemble a youth, my skin prickled at the thought that I was the only woman amongst such lusty and perhaps unbridled company. I kept my head down, unsaddling Monty, tethering him close to the stream where he could drink his fill and eat. I knotted up some tussocks and dragged them over his body to remove the sweat, concentrating on his spine and girth where he might suffer friction galls on the morrow. I was conscious of Guy watching me, knowing he could do nothing to help me because I was, after all, his squire. Such scrutiny made me blush and I lifted my eyes to his and smiled. His mouth twitched, nothing more.
I walked over to his mount and began strapping him, wiping with a smooth motion and settling the animal. I picked up his giant hooves and checked them for stones caught on the edges of the shoes and then retired to sort out the saddlery and make some sort of bedding for us. I doubted we could wrap ourselves in the barding. It would be cold and I did not want Monty or Guy’s horse to chill. They had to carry us to the boat yet. We had saddles for pillows and our cloaks for warmth and a large saddlecloth each that could be another layer. For the rest, we should have to sleep close to the fire and hope we would be warm because we could hardly lie curled against each other the way we had previously.
I fished in the saddlebags and found bread that had been sliced into thick pieces and some salted ham and a slab of cheese and was surprised to find my stomach rumbling as I had been too sore to notice as we rode. I toasted the bread, placing the ham with cheese slices onto the toast and warming it, so the cheese began to bubble and run. I passed part of the meal to Guy as he sat beside me and I began to chew on the other.
One of the merchants, a smart, loud chap with an eye to his own good looks of which I observed there were none, spoke to Guy. ‘You say he’s a pretty ordinary squire.’ I could feel my eyebrows lifting. ‘But the meal smells good enough, your horses are comfortable and your sleeping arrangements settled.’ He passed Guy a wine bladder and a swig was taken as the fellow continued. ‘Pretty enough fellow too,’ his gaze slid over me and I realized he couldn’t see a woman beneath the clothes, only the body of a youth.
‘Indeed,’ said Guy. ‘Pretty enough and capable with it. And tied to a maid as beautiful as he in my demesnes.’
My eyebrows did rise then and I coughed, reaching for my water bottle. The merchant looked disappointed and I thanked God for Guy’s quick thinking. ‘Yes,’ said Guy. ‘He’s to account for himself to me on this trip as he got his maid with child before we left and them both unwed. She’ll be dropping the babe just as we are due back. He has a lot to prove apart from how well his oats are sown.’ By now I was stunned at Guy’s little back-story and found an urgent need to . . .
Mary Mother, I thought. I am a woman and must take care of my private needs amongst an army. I glanced around in trepidation to seek some sort of place away from prying eyes and stood, moving first to the horses to check them. I hoped I could move behind them and walk to the birch coppice without attracting attention from Guy or his dainty merchant friend.
The shadows were long and night was barely a breath away. The moon had risen and was lighting the dark side of the sky to the east whilst the sun had set in the west casting a bronze glow heavenward. What little light there was lit a path amongst the spindle-thin trunks and my feet crunched the dried leaf-fall occasioning a scuttle of forest creatures. Ahead of me was a shrubbery, waist high yew with dense enough growth to offer secrecy. I did what I had to do and as I turned to retrace my steps, I heard the chuntering of the stream over pebbles and an urge to cool my sore legs and to wash my face led me close to the running water. I stripped off my boots and hose and stepped in, the level reaching my knees, the cold water biting into the inflamed skin. I splashed my face and drew off the caplet, unknotting my hair to shake it out, feeling the smallest night-breeze finger the strands.
All around I could hear crickets and frogs and the occasional whirr of wings as a small bird or some insect flitted past. Above the nocturnal sounds though was the murmur of the army; shouting and laughter, the burble of men’s voices, the whinny of horses, the crackle of many fires. I pulled the hose and chamois boots back on and stood to walk back to the camp, my caplet in my belt, my hands twisting and knotting unwilling hair into a tight roll. My mind was far away, by the side of the man who guided me to my home and as I turned past a birch, a hand grabbed me and another covered my mouth so that I was pinioned, an arm encircling my chest like a ring of iron.
‘Why, what a hard flat chest you have . . . milady.’
I struggled against the hand across my mouth and a voice I knew whispered in my ear. ‘My lovely girl. Don’t struggle. What do you think the army out there would say if they knew we had a lady of such godly gifts as yours in our midst.’ He laughed softly and I hated him as much again as I did the first time I met him. My hair had fallen down and covered my shoulders and I could hear him sniffing it. ‘Your hair smells so fine, Lady Ysabel. So much nicer than the horse and man sweat that has beleaguered me these last days.’
He nuzzled under my hair and kissed my neck and I squirmed and tried to kick but his grip tightened and he laughed. It was a snicker that was colder than an ice wind and it slipped down my spine, pulling fear in its wake. ‘I think we could be such loving friends, Lady Ysabel. Don’t you? Especially if you don’t want your little secret revealed out there.’
I thrashed my head about but he just held me more grimly, his grip over my mouth almost suffocating me. I tried to open my jaw to bite his fingers but he clamped tighter still.
‘Don’t fight, Lady Ysabel. If you deny me, then I shall contrive something terrible against Gisborne out there, maybe even against your father as well. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?’
I froze. The man who held me had his own kind of influence, his own status and power, and I knew it was no idle threat; that Guy and my father would suffer if I fought against my captor’s wishes.
‘What a good girl you are, that’s better. Now, if you move or make a noise when I take my hands away, rest assured I shall cause much suffering to Gisborne and your father . That’s it, just hold still whilst I put this here,’ he placed a gag across my mouth and pulled it tight as he talked as if to a recalcitrant child. ‘Oh what a precious lady. See? That’s not so bad, is it? If I just tie your hands like so, we can get down to business.’
Despite the fact he had stood behind me all the time, in my mind I could see his face and the meal of earlier began to climb to my gullet. I felt him move in close behind, rubbing himself against me and I wanted to scream but could barely articulate a moan.
‘Now, now . . .’ he ran a hand down over my shoulder. ‘It’s going to be . . .’ he choked.
‘Vasey,’ Guy’s voice whispered in the cruelest way. I felt another movement behind. And then Guy saying, ‘Step away, Ysabel.’
I moved and there was a slick flick and the bonds at my wrists fell apart. With a stroke of a knife in one hand, Gisborne had freed me whilst with the other he held a stiletto against Vasey’s throat. Moonlight fell between the trees and perhaps it coloured Vasey’s face with a pallor reserved for the truly stricken. Or maybe it was fear. Whatever the case, I could see a trickle of blood and would not have been adverse to Gisborne slitting the repulsive throat.
‘Vasey,’ Guy’s voice growled, more gutteral than I had ever heard it. ‘You are a marked man.’
Vasey laughed. He had courage, I would give him that as the stiletto depressed his skin. Either courage or stupidity.
‘You think, Gisborne? If you hurt me, who do you think will be the cur? Myself, who marches with Richard’s men to London or you, a lowly squire?’
‘Enough,’ Guy snarled at Vasey and more blood appeared.
‘Gisborne, Gisborne, why trouble yourself with a penniless little has-been? Don’t you know? Moncrieff is no longer her father’s. If you thought to buy yourself some sort of sinecure with the family for services rendered, you’re wasting your time.’
I could barely listen to the man as I ripped off the gag, and yet . . . ‘What do you mean?’ My voice cracked as I spoke and I moved near him.
‘Holy Father, she speaks!’ Vasey grinned at me and I was reminded of an image of Beezelbub in an illuminated manuscript I had seen in Aquitaine. ‘I mean, Lady Ysabel,’ he continued in a light voice, ‘that all you have left now is your title. Your father has ceded Moncrieff to Baron de Courcy in payment of gaming debts. And if gossip serves, there was another little deal on the side . . .’ He yelped as Guy dug the stiletto ever deeper so that a stream of blood ran down the knight’s neck to his chemise. ‘Let me go, Gisborne and I shall forget this little contretemps.’
‘Guy!’ I wanted Vasey’s head on a pike and could see Gisborne deliberating.
‘Be silent, Ysabel,’ he muttered. Unbelievably he dropped his hand and Vasey’s came up to staunch the flow of blood.
‘Wise move, Gisborne. Your future is not with her and I can make or break you, never forget. I shall make you pay for this,’ he indicated the bloody incision at his neck. ‘Have no doubt. But in the meantime, you are a man I can use and I can raise you to heights quite beyond a squire. Think on it, dear chap.’ He sauntered past me. ‘You know, Lady Ysabel, I think he just saved me from making a terrible mistake. When I tup I like to get my money’s worth and you, dear lady, have no money.’
Like the youth I was supposed to be, I spat at him as he left and then whipped round to Guy. ‘You double dealing bastard! I trusted you . . .’ I bundled my hair under the caplet and went to leave, to saddle Monty and head out on my own, but his hand grabbed my arm and he yanked me back.
‘Now you know, Ysabel. It is what you wondered. You go back to nothing. Nothing beyond maybe an arranged marriage with a noble or with the Church.’
‘Better that than with you.’ My voice was hoarse with emotion and I felt as gutted as a fish in the marketplace.
‘I will see you to your father and then after that we shall pursue our separate lives. In case you had not thought, if your father is no longer the Baron Moncrieff, I am no longer his squire.’
‘And how long have you known this? Just tonight?’ I could feel the tears threatening and hated my weakness. I felt duplicity wringing the blood from my body.
‘Ha!’ I mocked.
‘Why would I waste my time escorting you back to Moncrieff if I thought there was nothing for me to go back to?’
But I was not listening, not really, wishing to rant and behave like a shrew. ‘You thought you would get money for my safe passage. And notoriety. You are like Vasey, Gisborne. A user.’
Two hands grabbed my shoulders and shook me.
Tell me I’m wrong, please. I could barely see his face and then the moon moved away from the branches and lit his eyes and his reply chilled me and thrilled me at once.
‘I thought I could use you, yes. But then other things got in the way.’
‘What things, Gisborne? My father’s bankruptcy?’
His eyes burned with a terrifying coldness that I shall never forget. He said nothing. Merely bent his head and pressed his lips hard against my own and then dragged me back to the camp, stepping amongst snoring bodies and pushing me down onto my bedding.
I lay for hours, long after I heard his breathing become regular. I hated myself for being a woman who needed a man to get her safely to her home. I hated my father. I hated my mother for dying. I hated the world and God and Mary, our holy Mother.
But more than anything, I think this night I actually hated Guy of Gisborne.