Gisborne…fourth instalment of FanstRAvaganza

The fourth instalment as part of Fanstravaganza.

The journey continued like a roll of ribbon unwinding and sometimes I despaired of ever seeing the end. There were other times when I never wanted the end to appear as it meant so many things that I couldn’t bear to countenance. The first time a familiar landmark appeared, my stomach jolted and I wondered if I should be sick. The instinct to turn and flee was a powerful one and had me almost undone. Would I have continued on without Guy’s protection? Somehow I doubted it. Is it Guy’s so called dependability that will make me feel secure? Or is it that my obligations are greater? Oh such good questions, such unanswerable questions.

At some point the landscape had begun to change into flat, moist fens where our paths meandered between ditches, bogs, rivulets and swathes of feathery reeds that towered above us. The grasses rustled and fluttered to some unheard music of nature, the sound slithery and serpent-like altogether. But that was just my anxious mind, I reasoned. In fact the grasses were beautiful and the sound soft and although insistent, if I took a breath quite pleasant.

The forests that I remembered from my youth, thick and almost impenetrable swathes, had diminished but many small copses of trees draped over the watery landscape, covering fens violets in bands of shadow. The oatmeal-coloured grasses that shielded us had been my playground. Not for me the fear of Jenny Greenteeth, that she would leap from the water and devour any child that set a toe on the banks. The water had been a source of enjoyment and I had grown with the sound of snipe, bittern and lapwing piping and flapping. I was as comfortable in rivercraft as I was mounted in a creaking saddle on a good horse.

The modest sight of Walsocam appeared through the waving banners of the tallest grasses – a small place marked by an inn, a severe church in the Norman style and a smithie’s from where a hammer knocked rhythmically against some anvil. Smoke curled into the pale sky from a dozen or more dwellings and a few bleached grey punts attached to the riverbank by worn mooring lines.

‘I know this place.’ I said it quietly as if I lived in fear of being overheard.

‘Of course,’ Guy responded. ‘It’s Walsocam. We are only a day or so from Moncrieff.’

Again my stomach tilted. Perhaps my nerves were becoming overly delicate but I dragged my horse to a halt occasioning a twist of a disapproving mouth from my companion. ‘I do not wish to stay at the inn, Guy. I’m not sure it is safe and would rather sleep rough if I have to.’

Since we had left St. Eadgyth’s we had conversed little, both locked in our own thoughts. Once we spoke of my father’s self-styled library. It appeared to contain a dozen manuscripts – some Norman works and an Irish Book of Hours amongst others. But the centerpiece and which might be considered a king’s ransom, was a Moorish book of poetry.

'A book of Moorish poetry.'

Guy’s eyes lit up. ‘It is beautiful, Ysabel. Written in the Arab tongue by a skilled scribe. The poems are illustrated delicately and depict the Arab life and it is bound in the Coptic style. But its value is not in its content… rather its covers. They are made of wood, the back rubbed smooth as silk and the front heavily inlaid. Not with other woods but with gems. With large rubies, pearls and emeralds in a pleasing design laced with gold filigree.’

‘Then how did my father come across such a piece. And how could he afford to pay a king’s ransom.’ Even I could detect the bitterness in my voice.

Guy refused to be drawn and I guessed straight away. ‘By the saints he won it in a game of chance, didn’t he?’ I slapped my palm on the pommel and swore. ‘Do you gamble like my father, Guy? Do you fritter away your hard-earned monies on paltry entertainments?’

His face barely moved, the master of inscrutability. ‘With what would I gamble? I am but a squire. Besides, the book may just save Moncrieff, Ysabel. Think on that.’

‘If my father hadn’t gambled at all, I wouldn’t be in the position of having to save my home.’ We lapsed into an uneasy silence and continued to the grassy outskirts of Walsocam and where I whispered ‘I know this place.’

‘I think we should seek a barn on the outskirts. There must be one somewhere as there are steadings around. And…’

Guy listened, no comment, no expression.

‘I don’t think we should continue on horseback,’ I continued. We should take to the water. I know the fens well and I’m familiar with backwaters that are secret and we can follow them to Moncrieff.’

His profound silence had the capacity to make me doubt my thoughts but then he shrugged his shoulders. ‘As you wish Lady Ysabel…’ Lady Ysabel? Then I have touched a nerve somewhere… how so? ‘But,’ he continued, ‘we shall have to leave the horses.’

‘Then we shall,’ I replied. ‘The money we lose is immaterial. Better to be secure on the water.’

Unkind, Ysabel. I knew it. He had paid for the mounts himself and I dismissed the fiscal loss as if it were nothing. Unthinking. We spent time circling Walsocam as surreptiously as we could leading the horses, and eventually a barn, a pile of logs and sticks with a roof, was revealed alongside a poor sort of dwelling. No smoke nor light, no movement indicated habitation. ‘We must stay here,’ I said. ‘It’s empty.’

‘Does it not concern you that it may be an empty dwelling because of illness?’ Guy seemed reticent.

‘If it were a contagion they would have burned it. No, it is empty for other reasons.’ Witchery, revolt, the family dying out, forced off; I cared not. To hide was paramount. When did I become the decision-maker? When was it right to reduce Gisborne to the position of a mere employee? I knew I was behaving like a shrew, acting with fear lapping at my legs, but I could barely control it. So much yet to lose.

We crept into the barn, our horses’ hooves muffled by the eons of grasses and leaves that were piled into the structure. We placed the horses in tumbled stalls that were laced with spider-webs and a search for feed revealed a stook of oaten hay, somewhat denuded of its goodness but not mouldy. Water of course was close by – a rivulet sluggishly pulsing behind the barn; a ubiquitous punt, elderly and careworn, pulled onto a sandy defile.

The sun had begun to slide as we finished watering the horses and returned them to their stalls. In the muffled distance, we could still hear the smithy at work and the occasional sound of people in a community, their voices broken on the spasmodic breeze that rippled the water.

We had secured the animals and were venturing out of the barn when Guy grabbed me back, holding me against the walls. He put his fingers to his lips and lifted two fingers to his eyes and then pointed out and I swiveled to peer through the crumbling planks. A punt drifted past with two men, the smell of a pile of eels drifting towards us. They were laughing as they poled away. Unaware of the fugitives behind them.

I exhaled. ‘You see,’ I said. ‘It’s that easy to be noticed. I thank you for your quick wits.’

He nodded and moved away. ‘We need food. Stay here and I shall search the bothy.’

I let him go. I was tired and he was a man. Let him provide for me.

He was back in a short time with an insubstantial pile of goods. ‘A bit of wheaten flour but we need to pick out the weevils. Some stale ale fermented enough to blow the doors off the barn and some almost dry honey.’

‘Can we risk a fire?’

‘If we don’t, we starve.’

‘Then if we do it in the barn, the smoke won’t be noticeable.’ I said.

‘True,’ he had tipped the flour onto his cloak and was sifting through, lifting the tiny cream grubs and squashing them between thumb and forefinger.

‘Well then?’

‘Better to wait till dark and light it outside. The smoke won’t be seen at night and if these folk are as superstitious as I suspect, they won’t be go near the water in the twilight hours. We have a lot to thank legend for.’

I guessed he was right; the likes of Peg Powler and the Knucker held great sway in the peasants’ minds.

I made up a mixture in an earthenware jug. Some flour and a little ale to wet it, some scrapings of the honey crystals. I stirred it with a stick and when night had settled a dark cloth across the sky and eery threads of mist crept toward us from the water, Guy stroked a spark onto a neat pile of tinder. We built the fire and then let it burn to hot coals, placing a stone to heat over them and then dripping the mixture upon it, making flattish cakes. We flipped them with a piece of flint from the yard. They tasted of nothing but old flour, stale ale and a wistful memory of honey but they bulked our bellies and it was better than nothing.

We poured water on the coals, then some sand from the defile. On the morrow, Guy said we would spread it and it would look as if no one had been there. The horses we would turn loose – it would serve.

If I pursued the thought of two horses loose with saddlery and took it to its inevitable end, I would have had a fit of nerves. As it was, in the barn I had just enough energy to yank the hood over my head, to shake out my hair and run my fingers through and to push my head back and then stretch it to each side to ease the tension in my neck.

Two hands slipped onto my shoulders and I froze with my head tipped to the side, knowing the hands that had loved me rested there. I stood so still, my breath held and then I rubbed the side of my head against his knuckles. He turned me round, tipped my chin and our lips met, so lightly it was barely there. And again. And yet again. His hands eased under the tunic, lifting it, sliding it over my head and I watched as he pulled off his own. And then our bodies touched and I sighed.

We made love in silence, not a word spoken, moving in a rhythm that was as driven by desperation as it was by affection. As if both of us needed to defray the tension of what approached, maybe even to hold it at bay. Afterward we lay in the damp and fusty hay, my eyes heavy, Guy’s body curled around mine like the sheath that protects a knife. I slept.

Much later, or maybe not, the slightest movement woke me, as light as a mouse’s tread. I saw him leave then and the word ‘trust’ grinned at me like Beezlebub, taunting me, defying me. I dragged on my clothes, slid out the door, following Guy’s shadow – a drifting shade in the dark.

A guardian angel sat at my shoulder that night. Not once as Guy and I moved in our separate spaces, did I tread on twig or dry leaf. Not once did I startle a night creature into revealing my presence. In single file and far enough apart, we progressed into Walsocam and my heart crashed as loud as a thunder clap. What draws you from our shared bed, Gisborne? Who?

The answer when it presented itself was so obvious I almost laughed with the bitterness of its revelation.

Vasey waited outside the inn.

The two cousins talked and money clinked in the night as a bag was passed over.

'The two cousins talked...'

I didn’t wait. I reversed the way I had come, quickly passing dark dwellings as a lone cur barked, edging through sedge and reed and once disturbing a water fowl that clacked and flapped, but finally reaching the bank where lay the punts. With speed and as quiet as I had ever been in my life, I stepped in, pushing off with the pole to drift into the slow current that would take me to my secret byways and to Moncrieff.

Without Guy of Gisborne.

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