A Powder of Yarrow.
Whoever is wounded in the side of the body, whether it came from a knife or similar injury, should powder yarrow and drink it in warm water. Hildegard of Bingen: Physica.
The borders of Poitou and Anjou, Spring 1194.
Fontevrault… refuge of bruised souls and last resting place of royalty.
In the guest house, where the great and good of two lands gathered, there were blazing fires and bright tapestries, and the hum of conversation. Here though, in the nun’s domain, the lofty stone cloisters drifted in an ethereal peace broken only by the distant angel voices of the choir. And it was cold, with a relentlessness that turned feet and hands and heart to marble. Even the May sunshine brought no warmth with it as it filtered through the narrow window of the quiet cell to pool on the unvarnished wood of the table, the silver inkhorn chased with Saracen script, the single sheet of parchment.
In nomine domini nostri Ihesu Christi, amen. Anno incarnationis eiusdem MCXCIV, mense maii, regnante rege Philippus Augustus…’’ it read -- neat letters in oak-gall ink, and thus far, nothing more.
Today the ever-present chill was more of a blessing than a curse, for the fever was on her again; but it would not be long now before she could fill the goblet from the flask that stood in permanent readiness, and sip at the draught that numbed the pain to a dull ache.
There was a discreet scratch at the door, and she put down her quill as the Abbess glided in. "How are you today, my dear?’’ the elderly nun asked, settling herself on a small stool with a comfortable sigh and folding her arms into the wide black sleeves of her cowl.
‘’Well enough, thank you, Mother Mathilde. It is more than good of you to come.’’
"Nonsense, my child. Why should I not do so? But look, you are so pale! You should try to eat, though Sister Amicia tells me you take almost nothing now, the Lord Jesù aid you.’’ The Abbess’s lips tightened for a moment; then she put off her grave mood, the serene face in its frame of black wool brightening. ‘’Come, though. I bring news that may cheer you. The visitor you have longed for will be here within the next few days; the messenger arrived just this morning with instructions to make all ready.’’
Burgundy , Autumn 1194.
The room was dark and dank, but it smelt only of general neglect now rather than the spoiled meat stink of a slowly healing wound.
The injuries that scored his abdomen and back like the meanderings of a deep-cut river valley would have closed all the sooner, if he had not sent the healers packing. But ever since he had surfaced from the dark waters that had engulfed him beneath the castle at Nottingham, someone had hovered over him with pastes and potions and proddings, and if he was honest with himself, he preferred the pain.
He had little memory of the time between his near-fatal wounding and his existence here in an obscure and decaying hunting lodge. Intermittent flashes of peasant faces, some vaguely familiar; a child’s thin cry: a low cramped room, with the stench of rotting straw and dung. A nun in a black habit, holding a drug soaked sponge under his nose in a vain attempt to deaden his senses before probing the depths of his quivering viscera with a sharpened reed; another occasion, of something no less excruciating with thorns and needles and silk twine. And through it all, bitter potions forced between his teeth, making his tongue curl and his gut clench.
Then came movement, which, judging from the jolting and pitching and the cries of rook and gull that raked his ears, was by cart and ship and cart again, jerking him now awake and now into unconsciousness from the pain.
He had lost whole weeks lying helpless under the hands of strangers, not knowing where he was and too weary to find out, save by listening for clues in the voices as they consulted above him as if he were the inanimate object he so very nearly was. He was in France, he learned, Burgundy, from the accents, and the nearest village was St Léger-sous-Beuvray, three leagues from Autun on the skirts of the Forest of Morvan.
How ironic that after half a lifetime of loneliness, it had become his greatest luxury to be left by himself. Not with his thoughts, for they were the stuff of madness. He had been dead, and glad to die on the crest of a noble act and the oblivion had been sweet release from a burdensome existence. Waking from that dream had been one of the cruellest blows he had ever endured.
Now he found himself condemned to live out the rest of his years without his soul, and the only way he could bear the pain of it was to concentrate all his essence into just being, inside a very small space. To lie on his pallet and stare for hours on end at a single knothole in the rafters, existing within the confines of that tiny universe. And in order to do this, he needed no distractions. He needed to be alone.
The voice and the running feet that had roused him from his mid-day torpor belonged to the steward he'd forbidden the house a fortnight ago, but who would not stay away. He was old and grey and querulous, like another servant he’d had, back in England, and that was a lot to do with why he had banished him. But like the other man again, he was insubordinate enough never to take no for an answer, and determined to ignore any such dismissal now.
‘’Sieur! You must come!’’
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
She had had herself dressed in the bliaut of heavy silk that mimicked the muted hues of a dove’s breast.
The rich gown hung off her now, however tight the lacing, but it was all she had left that was appropriate to the occasion. As she waited, she stroked the self-coloured broderies that bordered a hanging sleeve, and wondered if any essence of the past still lingered within the interstices of the weave.
Her august guest came hurrying in at last, still the breath of the south wind despite her years, and with none of the pomp that befitted a royal woman, but all the grace and colour. In an instant, the stale atmosphere of duns and greys, of beeswax and incense and boiled cabbage was banished from the frigid air. Knowing tawny eyes surveyed her; then she was swept up in the older woman’s arms, in a whirl of crimson and gold and spirit of spiced roses.
‘’Lysette, my love, what is all this?’’ The musical Occitàn accents were soft with concern.
‘’You know how I am circumstanced, anda meuna.’’
‘’Indeed I do, and it has pained me beyond measure that I could not be with you before now.” The Queen gathered the dagged petals of her gown about her and subsided onto the lowly stool that had recently accommodated an abbess. “The cares of state are a sick burden for a lone old woman to bear. I quite thought Richard’s ransoming would be the end of me. But no.” A still graceful hand indicated the cramped cell and its sparse furnishings. “I meant all this. Though there is hardly enough of anything to merit the word ‘all’,” she pronounced, clucking her tongue in disdain. ‘’ Why on earth are you here, my girl, in the nuns’ ward, and not in the guest house, where you can at least be provided with some comforts?’’
‘’I needed to think, my dearest aunt.’’
Eleanor of Aquitaine raised an elegant brow. ‘’I should think you did,” she chided. “It was my pleasure to be of help to my favourite niece, of course; though you will know why I thought I had every reason to not to do so.” She shrugged, and spread her hands. “If it was not always as personally as I would have liked, then maybe it was as well, for I should have been on fire with disapproval. Not to mention curiosity,” she added, with a smile that took away much of the sting of the reproof. “I did not recognise you at all in your instructions.’’
‘’Indeed, anda Eleanora, I would not have recognised myself.’’ The younger woman drew a faltering breath, as she dared to bring the icy silk of her sleeve to her cheek at last. It smelt of nothing now; not even a ghost-odour remained, and the knowledge was both a reprieve and a knife to the heart.
The Queen abandoned her reproachful air and drew her into her embrace once more. ‘’Well now, my dear. I am here with you at last. So come, tell me the full tale of what has been troubling you all these months. Do they not say confession is good for the soul?’’
Her niece smiled sadly against the papery rose-scented softness of the royal cheek. ‘’Once, I told someone that myself, my aunt. But thus far, it has been no consolation to me.
Eleanor snorted and set her at arms length again, fixing her with a knowing look. ‘’In my experience, Holy Church understands little of a woman’s woes... But where is your mantle?’’ she asked, more briskly, and she looked about her. ‘’Let us have them carry you out to the garth, so you can look on God’s blue sky as we talk, instead of these cold stones. The song of birds will cheer you far more than the songs of the holiest virgins, I feel sure.
Burgundy , Autumn 1194.
‘’Sieur, you must come down now,’’ the steward insisted, his urgency driving him to the presumption of tugging at the greasy tatters of a once-fine linen sleeve.
His master shook him off with a low sound in his throat, the warming rumble of a cornered animal. ‘’Get. Off. Me!” The words were bitten off savagely, one by one. “I don’t come and go on your say-so."
"Sieur, I beg of you’’ The servant was shaking like a leaf by now, and this rash persistence penetrated his torpor at last, alerting him to the havoc that reigned down in the stable yard. From here it sounded as if an armed assault was under way -- the creak and grind of siege engines, the crashing of a ram on splintering wood, the hoarse cries of the defenders and the high angry bellows of the attacking force.
‘’The window, ‘’ he ordered. ‘’Now!’’
His wounds pulled and gnawed at him as he half-walked, half-dragged himself over to the narrow slot, grimacing at the indignity of leaning on a man twice his age. But then he had not anticipated the need for mobility last night when he had decided to finish the cask of wine. There at last, he drew in a breath and looked out. And drew another, and another, as he reeled in shock at the sight and sounds of the scene playing out before him.
It stole his spirit from his body, bearing him off to another country and another time, where events he had long forgotten had first begun to unfold...
Nottingham , Spring 1193.
It had been one more night in hell. He was almost getting used to it.
And, yet again, he was late for duty. He pushed himself to his feet and fumbled his way into his clothes, grimacing at his own stink but unable to summon the will to do more about it than wet his face with the stale dregs from last night’s water-jug. When he dragged his chamber door open at last, it was to be greeted by a dull reverberation, presaging something more ominous than this stiff morning breeze which insinuated itself into the deeper reaches of the castle interior, making his sleep-starved eyes tear.
He emerged, blinking, into a realm of light and noise, to find his lord sitting in the embrasure, staring down into the bailey. The great walled forecourt was never the quietest of places, but today it was an assault on the ears -- the squeal and rumble of wheels, the hollow clatter of hooves striking stone, the bellowings of beasts and the raucous shouts of men. The head-splitting mix drove spikes into his brain, adding their torture to the rows of blacksmith’s hammers already pounding there.
Vaisey, Sheriff of Nottingham, had not come to his present high estate by allowing himself to be caught unawares. Unholy cacophony notwithstanding, his grizzled head turned as he was approached.
‘’Ah, there you are!” he remarked, the clipped, dry tone carrying perfectly above the pandemonium. “You’re late. Didn’t I tell you that we were expecting a guest today?’’
His lieutenant schooled his features to immobility. It was ever his master’s joy to spring his surprises, and his own small sop to his pride to show as little reaction as possible. ‘’No, my lord,’’ said the shadow of a man that had once been Sir Guy of Gisborne. The Sheriff was nodding brightly, high on his own good news. “Yes, my boy. And a very important guest, at that. A lady of the highest rank -- though I gloss over her rather questionable parentage… What is more,” he added, with the grimace that in him passed for great good cheer, “she is exceedingly well to do. Which is fortunate, because she has arrived just in time to save us from a most unpleasant predicament. A fate worse than death, as you might say!”
He spread his arms, beaming with triumph, while Gisborne regarded him bleakly, willing the pot of cold porridge that had replaced his brain to function again. He’d been dimly aware that he was losing his grip on the state of affairs in Nottingham, but in his fog of misery and alcohol, he might have missed more than he thought.
But the Sheriff had paused, for breath and emphasis. Now he continued, pitching his voice low in that disconcerting way he had, so his master at arms was obliged to draw near, smelling the scented oils on the badger’s brush beard and enduring the toe-curling embarrassment of being breathed upon. ‘’You realise, Gisborne, that with our heavier than usual security overheads, and the expenses from our little jaunt to the Holy Land… Not to mention the antics of those bands of petty footpads that have been springing up like nettles during Hood’s continued absence, and which you and your men seem incapable of chopping down…” The confidences emerged in an over-warm gust of stale breakfast ale.
He paused again to change tack, the small cold eyes glinting; the basilisk gaze of a stoat with a rabbit. “Remind me again why I employ you,” he murmured with deceptive affability, and snaked a hand round a shrinking neck to pull his lieutenant closer, his lips against his ear. “To mope around the castle, is it, pouring cheap wine down your throat?” The hand descended, adder-swift, to the younger man’s chest and pushed him away, while the balding head shook in tongue-sucking reproach. “But I digress,” he said, at length. “The sad fact is, we find ourselves somewhat… strapped for cash”. Blunt fingers rubbed together, mimicking a canny money-lender’s gesture. “In short, the city of Nottingham is as good as bankrupt.”
Vaisey eased himself from his stone perch and began to pace, a diminutive figure strutting like a cross black pullet, while his second-in-command looked on, fists tight under the cover of folded arms, his gut still protesting the moment of enforced intimacy. “Naturally,” his lord mused, halting and swinging round to address him again, “You and your men are of no great concern.” He fixed his subordinate with a meaningful stare. “Wages or no wages, I have ways of making you stay, do I not?”
But the question was rhetorical, leaving no time for an answer before the tide of words rolled on. ‘’However,” he was grumbling now as he resumed his pacing, his silken robes a-flap, while Gisborne used the pain of nails gouging leather-clad palms to concentrate his mind. “It is something more of an inconvenience that the taxes owing to our liege, Prince John are overdue. Then those Flemish mercenaries we hired last year did not come cheap, and they are making very impolite noises.”
A scowl corrugated the broad expanse of his brow. “Not that they were any more use to me with Hood than your own good self,” he commented sourly. “Though when it comes to demanding remuneration, they do have the persuasive force of numbers… What is more, all credit with my suppliers has long since evaporated, which means so has my food and clothing and other personal requirements, and your wine. Yet our sources of income have dried up.”
He paused again, gesturing frustratedly. “Too many estates that once owed us dues have been gifted to the church or crown while their owner goes off on a jaunt to the Holy Land. As for the townsfolk and the unwashed peasantry, we’ve bled them dry and they will rush down the slippery slope to armed rebellion if we try to squeeze another clipped penny from them. Presuming they have one left to be… squozen? that is." Here he bounced expectantly on his heels, waiting for his lieutenant’s acknowledgement of the small jest with his usual malign glee.
How could one rather small person be so ridiculous and yet so sinister, Gisborne asked himself bleakly. And so infuriating, too. When would the man get to the point, so he could go and do whatever was expected of him, and then slink away to drown his sorrows again? ‘’My lord?”’ he prompted, squaring his shoulders, though weariness weighed on him like a surcoat of stone.
But the Sheriff was not prepared to show his hand just yet. As usual, he was enjoying the sound of his own voice too much. “And meanwhile,” he continued, resuming his restless sentry-go, “her high and mighty ladyship, the Countess Alix owns a goodly portion of the lands from here to the Humber. Tell me, Gisborne,’’ he demanded querulously, “Is that fair and just? A few…” He paused, fingers snatching at thin air for the word that would best express his rancour. "… amuse-bouches from her table, and my troubles would be over. Let me see….The rents and revenues from a few manors, the income from a nearby village or two... Those water mills, perhaps, along the river Leen.”
He counted it all off on his short plump digits, a predatory gleam in his eyes, as his master at arms shifted on his feet, his spurs ringing softly against the stone. For all the deadening of his senses, he felt a prickle of unease between his shoulder-blades as he sought to anticipate where his master’s train of thought was leading.
Vaisey meanwhile had taken up his diatribe again. “Surely that’s not too much to ask? She’d never miss any of it. So, Gisborne,” he said, retrieving his gloves from his belt and slapping them against his hands, “By interrupting her journey here she has as good as chosen to deliver herself into our hands. And since I am the Sheriff and you are my sworn man, I think it only right and proper that you should be the one to persuade her to hand over those few little trifles. Isn’t it, Gisborne?” he insisted with a slap of his gloves against his lieutenant’s arm. “Especially since this impecunious state of ours is largely down to you.”
His lieutenant’s alcohol-impaired mental processes were still struggling to follow the argument. The morning breeze was cold on his face, but it was doing nothing to refresh him, and the noise from the courtyard continued to beleaguer his brain. ‘’My lord?’’ he ventured again, straightening his spine and shaking the hair out of his eyes, in the hope of shaking some sense into himself.
The Sheriff blew out his cheeks and skewered him with a bilious stare. ‘’My lord, my lord,’’ he parroted. ‘’Don’t play dumb with me, man. We can hardly drag her down to the dungeons and torture it out of her, now can we? Interesting though that might be. Wouldn’t that go down well at court! No,’’ he pronounced with a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘’A little blackmail always goes a long way. Seduce the woman. ‘’
Gisborne’s mind reeled, though he had long since taught himself not to reel outwardly when the Sheriff was about. He had sometimes suspected Vaisey was not quite sane, but now he seemed to have gone completely out of his mind. “Seduce the Countess Alix -- the King’s aunt?’’ he queried, and his voice sounded like a tinker’s nag with the strangles even to himself.
Oh, how he needed that drink! He pinched the bridge of his nose between gauntleted fingers, for the tension was mounting again. One day, he knew, it would burst his brain. “My lord,” he began again, tentatively, as evenly as he could; a last-ditch attempt to appeal to reason in a man who knew no logic but his own self-interest. “Surely she must be long past such concerns. I believe she is near seventy years old.”
The Sheriff grasped his belt and loosed a raucous chuckle. ‘’That never stopped our esteemed Queen Mother, did it? I recall she still had an eye for the menfolk, last time she was here. But no,” he relented, having milked the situation for its full Gisborne-baiting potential. ”You believe wrong. This is not Alix, Countess of Vermandois, otherwise known as Petronilla, we’re talking about here. It is her daughter, Alix, Countess of Vézelay. The King’s cousin. The King’s cousin from the other side of the blanket, to be accurate. But then what can you expect from a family with a woman named Dangereuse in their tree?’’
His teeth bared in malevolent enjoyment as he reflected on the shortcomings of the ducal house of Aquitaine. Then he winked and tapped a finger against a broad nose. “Don’t say I never think of you, my boy. I made inquiries, and I have it on the best authority that she is only…well… your own age, or thereabouts.’’ His hands went behind his back as he strode over to peer down into the yard again.
‘’Tsk tsk! ” He clucked his tongue in counterfeit regret. “Such a shame that women age so much faster than we men do. She is not as fresh as you’d like, perhaps. But look on the bright side.’’ He gave a salacious leer. “Her husband has been dead for a good few years, so she should be grateful for the attention. You know, Gisborne,” he added, striding back to join his lieutenant, who had retreated now to the solid grey support of the exterior wall, “I may say women are like lepers – to be shunned before they infect you with their weakness and their tears. But they have their uses. Especially when you consider it’s thanks to another of them that our prize has not been snapped up already by some land-hungry lordling.” His hands reappeared from behind his back to gesture expansively. “When our countess petitioned the crown for immunity from remarriage, it was her own dear Aunt Eleanor who granted it forthwith. Why, she even waived the fine of a hundred silver marks!”
Gisborne swallowed down the temptation of rolling his eyes and glancing at the arched stone roof above him. He had often wondered if there was a hidden agenda behind Vaisey’s use of the term. He had no proof that the Sheriff knew his history, but it would be wholly in character for him to use a sly reminder of his father’s fate as an extra turn of the screw. As for the present piece of dirty work, aunt or niece, it made little difference to him; the idea was equally unthinkable. The way things were with him now, he could have nothing to do with women, ever again.
He swallowed once more, realising that he was expected to say something, and his throat rasped as if a bucketful of sand had been rammed down it with the business end of a mallet. ‘’My lord!’’
"Oh, come now, Gisborne. Don’t fuss! You are a rough unmannered lout, it’s true. But…" Vaisey’s fingers fluttered again, like a knot of cockroaches disturbed in their nest and a look of sly triumph crossed his face. "A little bird has just told me you might stand a chance with her." He grinned meaningfully, but shook his head, refusing to explain further.
Instead, he reached up to cup Gisborne’s cheek in that yearning way he had that made the younger man’s flesh crawl. ‘’Come along, boy, don’t be coy,’’ he crooned, the insectile digits scuttling against his lieutenant’s shrinking skin. ‘’I’d do it myself, but it isn’t my style. And women do… notice you. No, don’t deny it,” he admonished, as Gisborne attempted a wordless rebuttal. “I’ve noticed them noticing you. Not all of them, mind you,’’ he added thoughtfully, pursing his lips and, running a caressing thumb over his lieutenant’s jumping eye-socket. ‘’That little missie from Knighton wasn’t over-keen, now, was she?” he said, with a guffaw. “Though you certainly showed her the error of her ways.’’
Gisborne braced himself against the wall, biting his abused cheek hard as the tide of anguish tore over him. How could Vaisey have the gall to mention this, in the same breath as one of his sordid schemes? And flippantly, as if what had happened was a mildly amusing joke, rather than the destruction of everything he, Gisborne, held dear.
Would it never end? On and on, it went, day after day; poison dripping into his open wounds, and still he ceded this cruel little man the power to pull his strings. What was stopping him from drawing a dagger, this very minute, and plunging it into that unfeeling heart? Whatever it was, it had not been strong enough to protect the woman he loved. How perverse was that? The pressure inside his head mounted, till he was shaking and sick.
‘’A shame you can’t marry the woman, of course,’’ Vaisey was ruminating, blissfully oblivious of any sub-text in the conversation. ‘’Then we would have the whole lot. But then a husband like you might be a little too much for any leper to swallow. Such a temper!” he chided. “And all that black…so depressing across the supper table.”
He waved a hand in dismissal, deterred not a jot by the naked flame in his lieutenant’s eyes. "Go! We will expect you at supper. On your very best behaviour. And Gisborne…‘’ He paused nose wrinkling, as he turned to move off about his own day’s business, ‘’Clean yourself up beforehand, will you? Give yourself a bath, find something to put on that doesn’t stand up by itself. After all, we are entertaining a lady, and we don’t want you smelling of stable sweepings.”
Dismissed, Gisborne headed for his cheerless bolt-hole again, where he attempted to bleed off some of his rage and frustration by hurling everything not nailed down against the walls. When the desperate bout of physical activity did him no good, he stalked down to the stables and bellowed for his mount. By the time dusk fell, both he and the animal were lathered and winded and his stomach still churned as if rivers of molten metal were snaking through his gut.
Hot, weary and reeking of horse, he trailed back to his rooms to find some faceless manservant hovering, juggling towels and clean linen. ‘’The Lord Sheriff is asking for you most insistently, my lord,” the man ventured, shifting from foot to foot. “If I can be of assistance, I have had hot water brought…”
He elbowed the ditherer aside with a vicious snarl.
He slammed the door shut behind the obsequious little turd. Then he took a moment to stand in the middle of the room, breathing deeply, with his head bent and his eyes closed; collecting himself as he’d so often had to do before he could bring himself to do the bidding of a man he had come to despise as much as he feared. But why should he do so still, after all that had happened? He could see how he’d lacked the incentive to free himself from his labyrinthine coils while he hoped to gain something from the arrangement -- the wealth and power he craved like a starving beggar craves food and drink.
But all that was over and done with. His sole ambition was oblivion now. So why hadn’t he taken off on his horse and carried on riding while he had the chance? Anywhere, as long as it was far away from here.
Seduce my lady, the king’s cousin!
Gisborne prowled the small dark room like a caged beast, rubbing his chin and cursing through his teeth when the clasps on his gauntlets scored his flesh. Vaisey had no idea how tall an order that was. It might be true that women noticed him, he conceded, self-contempt curling his lip. He’d had more than his share of them over the years; but they had all been women of the lower classes; and as he had once callously remarked to Hood, he never gave much thought to their hearts and minds.
He beckoned, they submitted; he took what he wanted as he wanted, in simple animal release, and then moved on. The sole exception had been the Lady Marian of Knighton, and her spirit and delicate beauty had been a fever in his blood. And so he had been prepared to woo her, and had not known how, and his clumsy efforts had borne bitter fruit.
So what could he know of the pretty words and the subtle moves that would bend an empty-headed lady of the nobility to his will – or more accurately, that of his master? Here he was, permanently drunk, incoherent from lack of sleep and in deep mourning, yet he was expected to conjure up all the persuasive power of a Lancelot.
He no longer had the strength for a veneer of common courtesy, never mind sweet nothings. As for anything beyond talk, the sad truth was he was as hollow inside as a storm=blasted oak. He remembered the wretched females Vaisey had flung his way, to ‘ginger him up’, as he lay half-comatose in their rooms in Acre, and similar frowsty dens across half Europe. They had done nothing for him at all, other than make him want to stick his head down the garde-robe and vomit in self-disgust.
Gisborne ripped off the offending gauntlets and threw them into the corner, looking round for something to hurl after them; but after the ravages of the morning, his choice of ammunition was limited.
Seduce my lady the king’s cousin, my arse!
His shoulders slumped. Suddenly he was too weary for rebellion. The run of sleepless nights was demolishing him, stone by stone. Mechanically, he dragged off his sweat-sodden clothes, sluiced himself with cold water, and pulled on clean things .As an afterthought, he ran his fingers through lank wet hair, but it was beyond him to take a knife to the stubble that had been growing ever longer as the nightmare of his days progressed.
So be it. He retrieved his gauntlets from the corner and reached for his sword; then he shook his head, not trusting himself with the blade in his present frame of mind, and he left it lying on the coffer. Yet he felt even more naked and exposed without it as he left the chamber behind.
A meagre array of torches lit his way that night, their fitful glow a pointed reminder of the straightened circumstances and the part he was expected to play in their easing.
It was a black and umber underworld of dancing shadow that he passed through on his way to the Great Hall, and with every step he took, his boots seemed to fill up with lead. He turned the final corner all too soon, and a lively clamour assailed him, taunting his faint heart with lute, flute and carolling voices that dogged the rhythm of his spurs as he trod the last few reluctant yards.
He halted on an indrawn breath when he reached the double doors. Beyond an awareness of the screaming tightness between his shoulder blades, his brain was numb. He had no thoughts, no plan of action - there was only the blind impetus that had propelled him here, as helpless as an arrow from a bow. Even so, it was some moments before he could bring himself to stretch out an arm and reach for the heavy cast-iron handle. It bit, rough and chill into his leather-sheathed palm as he dragged the oaken panel open, the groaning hinges a mocking echo of his state of mind.
And instantly he was buffeted by a rush of heat and noise. A gaggle of minstrels occupied the gallery to his right; they warbled lustily as they sawed away at viol and rebec; a novel departure for castle mealtimes, for the Sheriff had no love for the musical arts, preferring to dine to the accompaniment of a single voice - his own.
In the well of the hall, half an elm tree crackled and blazed in the great fireplace, sending out great gusts of hot air along with explosive showers of sparks and the resinous stink of bubbling sap. Conspicuous consumption reigned down here, in dazzling contrast to the poverty of the dimly-lit hallways. A constellation of torches and fat wax candles blazed about a table draped with unprecedented elegance in white damask, and set with a silver-gilt service he had never seen before.
Gisborne fought the urge to swallow and pass a gauntleted hand over his face, for the smell of food -- the roasted meats, the boiled roots and pungent wine sauces, was as overpowering as the light, the heat and the music. So too was the Mephistophelian presence of the Sheriff. Robed in black gloss silk, he slouched in his high-backed chair like a monstrous death watch beetle perched on a roof bracket.
He uttered a low aside behind a hand, the bark of his laughter ringing out as he raised his goblet to a slight figure in blue who sat half-hidden behind his hunched form. "There you are, my boy! ‘’ he cried, as his master at arms approached the festive board at last, his stride as measured and his back as straight as he could contrive in a body racked with despair and lack of sleep. ‘’Whatever has been keeping you? We are quite faint with hunger here.’’ He turned again to the shadowy form on his far side, with a flourish of a hand in his lieutenant’s direction. ‘’My Lady Countess, may I present Sir Guy of Gisborne, who will be waiting on us tonight… Why are you hovering, Gisborne? Pour us more wine,’’ he directed with an imperious wave, “and bring over some of that spiced chicken there, and a dish of legumes, and serve the lady.’’
The younger man’s spine stiffened. His face was burning, as if he’d been slapped across the cheek with a mailed glove in a challenge he was powerless to return. So Vaisey was going to use him as a serving boy, now, was he, as well as pimping him out? He bit his tongue as the hopelessness of his situation washed over him like floodwater fouled by the effluent from a midden; and though he moved to do his lord’s bidding, he did so with hands that shook with impotent rage. Red-brown globules of sauce desecrated the pure expanse of white damask as he spooned food onto a platter, earning his lord’s clucking disapproval, and it was all could do not to dump the food in the wretched female’s lap; in fact he was inches from throwing the lot of it at her, serving dish and all, and following it with a similar helping for the Sheriff himself.
Tightening his jaw, he set the platters down and stepped back before he could crown thought with action and make things worse for himself than they already were. He thought the woman might have spoken to him as he did so, but he could not bring himself to raise his head and look; all she’d been to him as he’d stood before her, seething, was a pair of pampered white hands adorned with showy rings that glinted in the candlelight as she reached for an eating knife.
There’d been emeralds and balas rubies on the fingers of her left hand and a carved cabochon sapphire on her right thumb, all set in heavy gold. Gisborne set his back against the solid stone bulk of a column and wondered if he was expected to strip those from her too, along with her expensive blue gown and her good name. A river of acid rushed onto his tongue at the thought, but he swallowed it down and skulked in the shadows until the next course was called for, and finally the apples and nuts. And meanwhile the fire blazed on, cooking his brain, and the hell-spawn minstrels twanged and bellowed until his skull split.
Relief flooded through him as the Sheriff drained his latest cup with a flourish and pushed back his chair. But no sooner had he hoisted himself to his feet than he was signalling the minstrels to strike up a carole. "Gisborne,’’ he called, the small brown eyes glinting. ”Stop loitering, and come over here.’’
Gisborne set his shoulders and breathed deeply, fighting the rebellion his body was urging on him, for it only fed the Sheriff’s enjoyment to watch him squirm. He eyed the chased wine-flagons with desperate longing, watching the beads of moisture run down their bulbous flanks and imagining how the rough acidity would melt tension, and ease a closed throat. The humiliation of being treated as a lackey, before a stranger, and a woman at that, had probed his raw sensitivities with tongues of fire, and now an army of slimy creatures were trailing cold-blooded bellies across his flesh, as his thought shied away from whatever his tormentor might have in store for him.
‘’Come, my boy, where are your manners?’’ Vaisey admonished, beating time to the music with an airy gesture. "My lady would like to dance, I am sure. Such fun, dancing, I always think. How should I put it?’’ The blunt fingers fluttered, as if rummaging through a row of pigeonholes in the dung-encrusted dovecote that was his brain. ‘’Ah yes! The vertical expression of a horizontal desire."
Gisborne froze in disbelief at the sheer gall of the man, but the unstoppable tide of words surged on. ‘’Of course, I am devastated that I cannot accommodate you myself, dear lady,” his lord was murmuring, so seemingly oblivious of the deep insult he had dealt the silent presence at his side that he continued to compound it. “I have a strained knee. But our Sir Guy here is nimble on his feet. And he has all the stamina you could want,’’ he added, with an arch look in Gisborne’s direction. “ Now, if you will excuse me, I must leave you. The bishop is about to find he’s asked me for an urgent meeting.’’
He bowed deeply to the silent presence in blue, and then, waving his hand again in time to the carole, he vanished through the doorway like a demon in a passion play, leaving the stench of his malice behind him.
. Vaisey’s parting shot had landed on Gisborne’s gut like a sucker punch, driving the breath from him. The years of his youth were long behind him, but at once he was a callow boy at the Mayday revels again, out of his depth and floundering.
The Sheriff’s enforcer never danced, and the Sheriff knew it. Prancing about like some court ninny wasn’t his style. Or, if he was more honest with himself, the light-hearted intimacy it required was not possible for him, since it would mean letting down his guard, and that he could not afford to do, not ever again.
An even voice cut through the tangle of his thoughts. “Messire... Of Gisborne, was it not?’’ The words were just audible above the clamour of the latest fashionable air. “I confess I am content enough to sit in peace for a while,” said Alix, Countess of Vézelay. “I have ridden a long way these past few days, and I have many more miles ahead of me."
Relief coursed through him like a swallow of hot spiced wine. But, Vaisey being Vaisey, the reprieve could only be temporary, and dancing was the least of his worries. Gisborne’s mouth twisted in self-disgust as he realised he was still acting like a callow boy on his first visit to a whorehouse; unable to look the woman that had been bought for him in the face. God in heaven, would he have been blushing, if a life without shame had not robbed him of the ability?
A covert glance from the corner of his eye afforded him the unhelpful intelligence that she must be a cold soul indeed. Despite the great hall’s stifling atmosphere, she wore a vair-lined mantle over her costly thrice-dyed blue wool gown. Layers of pale veils, secured with a thin circlet of chased gold, were swathed around a face the colour of new ivory.
And then there were those soft white hands, with their pink polished nails and their rich rings. He stared at them as they rested in her lap, his spine crawling as he felt her eyes upon him. After a moment, as if aware of the assault of the heat and noise and smells on him, she silenced the minstrels with a gesture and reached for a silver-gilt goblet, filling it from the matching flagon at her elbow.
‘’Messire…’’ she said again, in her quiet voice, and indicated the chair beside her.
He did not wait to be asked twice. What little strength he had left had deserted him, and he sank down heavily, almost snatching the goblet from her hand. He had drained so many cups over the past months, not even tasting the contents before filling them up and drinking again. Yet now it did not escape him that tonight the wine was a touch above the usual rat’s piss brew the Sheriff favoured. It rolled like silk down his raw throat. Long since beyond the pale when it came to courtly manners, he dragged the flagon towards him and poured once more.
The Countess had risen, meanwhile, and gone to fill a platter from the chafing dishes that had been left on the hearth. When she set it before him, he wondered if he was supposed to feel honoured by the condescension. No one but drudges and hirelings had served him for as long as he could remember; but in his beleaguered state, he found the attention more irritation than comfort. He waved the plate away with a growl so devoid of courtesy, it was outright rude.
"Will you not help me, Messire?” she demurred. “You must not have eaten, and it seems unfair to leave so much when the cooks have worked so hard."
As if he cared on either count! But she was quiet-voiced enough not to grate too much on his ear, with a trace of an accent, softer than the Norman French to which he was accustomed. Nor did she insist when he growled at her a second time, but returned the platter to the table without a further word and sipped at her wine. For all her fine talk of the cooks’ feelings, Gisborne noted cynically, she hadn’t eaten much herself. Most of what he had served her earlier was still on her plate; pushed about with a spoon for appearances’ sake.
But the unprecedented smoothness of the wine was calling to him, and he turned his attention to pouring himself another cup. The familiar blurring of his senses was coming at last, and he welcomed the promise of temporary oblivion with open arms. As for the Sheriff’s games and this woman’s place in them, to hell with them all; he was no longer playing. He necked the contents of his cup at one draught, and poured one more.
And presently, the Countess had the sense to realise that what scant welcome Nottingham had to offer had run out, and she pushed herself out of her chair and to her feet. “By your leave, .Messire," she said. "I am weary to the bone." Her voice bore out her words, for the softness had left it and it was hoarse, like the rustle of dry leaves. "Would you have my minstrels shown where they may sleep, and myself escorted to my chamber?"
Gisborne didn’t wait to be asked twice. He bellowed for the attendant rabble who always lurked in the shadows, then watched the hall empty with impatience, enduring dry eyes and pounding head while he downed the last of the wine. To hell indeed with the Sheriff, his works, and the woman -- all women. To hell with the whole of England, as a matter of fact. Why not, since he spent most of his time there himself?
Fontevrault, Spring 1194
The May breeze was warm against her cheek, carrying the scent of blossom from the herb garden, layered with the smell of grass bruised under the wooden runners of their chairs. A bee like a small amber jewel alighted on her broidered sleeve and was off again, repelled by the sterility of the drab silk flowers. The shadows were short in the garth, but the afternoon sun was soft and spread a subtle wash over everything, blurring lines, attenuating reality. As she closed her eyes and raised her face to its gentle heat, she realised she had been gazing at the scene through a haze of tears.
The Queen’s voice came to her, warm and kind, as she used to imagine her mother’s voice would sound when she was little, and in pain from a skinned elbow or Madame her guardienne’s heavy hand. “I saw him myself you know, my dear, when I was in the shire. A pretty man indeed, the kind to melt the ties of a maiden’s knees. But not so pretty a heart, if I remember correctly.”
"No indeed, anda meuna, no one could call it pretty,” she admitted. “And heaven knows, you of all people have little cause to approve of him. But listen, I beg you, and then you may judge for yourself.”
Alix of Vézelay shifted in the cushioned chair, seeking her comfort before she spoke again, the movement underlining the frailty of spare flesh over bone. ‘’The first time I saw him,” she began, “I saw darkness. Black garb, black hair, and the glint of ancient ice in his eyes that betrayed the shadows in his soul. His lord had introduced him with a knightly title, but that night he was made to perform the duties of a lackey.’’ Her mouth tightened as she remembered how the tightness of his shoulders had screamed his rage and shame, his hawk-like features schooled to a rigid mask over a bone-weariness of body and mind, “The depth of his despair was all too clear to me, my dearest aunt,” she whispered, “because it mirrored my own.”
Her eyes were open now, fixing on the middle distance and the double file of stone arches that marched across the sunlit court, yet she saw nothing of that, for her mind was wandering in time. "It had been a long journey for me, down from York," she recounted, “and I still had far to go, though in truth, by then I thought it of little matter if I never reached my destination... Nevertheless, it had been decided that we should rest at Nottingham for two nights, before travelling on to Portsmouth, and taking ship for Barfleur."
She sighed, feeling again the wave of hopelessness that had washed over her as they approached the grim grey walls. ‘’I could have well done without the formality of a great hall supper that night, for I longed for my bed; the night before I had lain at a very mean manor, on damp straw. And God knows, I owed the Sheriff no courtesy; the story of his weasel ways had travelled far beyond his borders."
She smiled ruefully as the Queen’s eyes narrowed in confirmation. “I well remembered your moues of distaste whenever you spoke of him, anda Eleanora! I can only think it used up less of my scant reserves of energy to fall in with his wishes, rather than argue a refusal - even when he had the gall to suborn my own musicians to play music I had no heart to hear.” She sighed once more, looking down at her hands joined in her lap. “And after a few odious examples, I thought it wiser to tune out what passed for conversation in Vaisey’s book, for it was even more intrusive than the minstrelsy. Indeed, at one stage, he appeared to be offering me the services of this brooding lieutenant of his, in a capacity I had no wish to understand."
Her lips turned down in distaste. ‘’Though judging from the way he put his hands on him as he poured wine and cleared plates, I decided I must have been mistaken, and it was far more likely he preferred to keep him for himself."
She paused, revisiting her confusion at the wrongness of it all, before she could bring herself to speak again. "Indeed, by the end of the evening, the man had acquired the explosive potential of a full keg of pitch -- to which Vaisey archly and deliberately proceeded to set a torch. For with a gesture to my minstrels for a lively measure, he ordered him to dance with me - as if he were a fop from court, a trifler with ladies, a dancing master.’’ She shook her head at the memory of that evening of shared nightmare, and the milk-white gauze of her veils caught the breeze. “Then, with a final stab of innuendo, he skipped cheerfully out of the room before the resultant fireball could scorch his heels."
Eleanor pursed her wrinkled lips and recalled the Sheriff of Nottingham’s ultimate fate. “I suppose you have the satisfaction of knowing the flames caught up with him in the end,” she said.
But her niece was remembering how his lieutenant had swayed on his feet as if buffeted by a hot wind, as the door slammed shut behind his tormenter. Her hands clutched now at the carved arms of her chair, as his gloved fists had clenched and unclenched in time with the pulse that beat in his jaw. “This Gisborne was a proud man,” she commented, “with a proud bearing. But by then his neck was bent, his face averted, as if the weight of the world lay on him. Anda Eleanora, I would have been ashamed to treat an animal of mine the way he had been treated that night, much less my sworn man.’’
The Queen smiled, fondly. ‘"Ah, my Lysette, you always had a soft heart."
“Once upon a time, maybe,” came the mild objection. ”I am not always so milk and water, anda meuna, not any more. Life taught me to be to be ruthless and cunning enough when it suits. And indeed, you might say what compassion I felt for him that night was secondary to concern for my personal safety, for by then he was murderously angry. But that, I knew how to deal with. What was it you always told me?"
Eleanor's eyes lit with reminiscent amusement, for there had been many such angry men in her long and storied life. ’’Feed them, flatter them and futter them. I think that’s how I put it."
Alix of Vézelay’s mouth took on a wistful curve, though there was an answering gleam in her own grey gaze. ‘’That latter, I considered beyond my purview, thanks be to God! As I said when I petitioned you not to find me a new husband, I rejoiced to be free of that particular duty when my lord Count went to his eternal reward. As for this man, I reckoned I owed him some courtesy that night, since it was due to my presence that he was dealt his insults.”
She shrugged over-slender shoulders, for it was precious little she had given him, knowing now the depth of his needs. “The Sheriff’s mummery had not allowed him to eat, though his pallor told me he had not been eating properly for some time,” she said. “And so I bade him to be seated, and set food and drink before him, as we women have always done to soothe our men-folk’s passions. He let his long length down readily onto a chair, but he took as little interest in the food as I did in mine; though the wine went down quickly enough, followed by another cup, and another. And his eyes, anda meuna! His eyes were like spent coals. The relief I read in them when I rose to leave was reward enough for my small considerations.’’
Nottingham, Spring 1193.
When he woke next morning, he was still in hell, for the devil was in his chamber, prodding him to consciousness.
"Gisborne! Gisborne!” a mad voice crooned. “What do you think you are doing here, all alone?"
He surfaced from demon-driven dreams to confront a living nightmare - Vaisey’s face, inches from his own, the breath hot and sour on his skin. This close, the liverish eyes were like a pair of quickened hen’s eggs cracked into a bowl -veined and clotted, making Gisborne’s already rebellious gut churn all the faster.
His tormenter stepped back, fists on hips, intent as always on wringing the last drop of enjoyment from his subordinate’s discomfiture. “Well?" he prompted. ‘"Do you enjoy disobeying orders? Or was my lady Countess too travel-worn last night to appreciate your … sterling qualities?"
The words dripped with a gloating prurience, and had Gisborne been capable of forming any coherent reply, it would not have been repeatable, even in a barrack-room - not least because the gap between the Sheriff’s fevered imaginings and cold reality was a yawning chasm. For now, his mouth tasted like the bottom of the garderobe pit -so much for the smoothness of last night’s vintage - and his eyes were red-hot balls of pain.
He shook his head in a last-ditch effort to shuffle his brains back into kilter and sat up, throwing back the stale sheets and swinging leaden legs to the floor. It didn’t surprise him to find he was still in last night’s clothes; boots, spurs and all. "Happen," he grunted sullenly, "she took me for the hired help."
Vaisey’s teeth bared in a wolfish grin. ‘’ Oh, dear!’’ he crowed. ’’ Are we cross because we had to clatter a few dishes about? But how better to give the lady a proper look at the Gisborne charms, do you think? An elegant bow or two over the roast fowl, a toss of the raven locks as you presented the finger bowls..." A grotesque pantomime illustrated his words. "But you fouled your own nest, didn’t you? You got drunk. Again.”
His tone was silken smooth and infinitely patient, and somehow more threatening than the crazed beratings. “You let her slip through your befuddled fingers! Not a cut farthing we’ve had out of her so far, and you know what they say, Gisborne... Time is money?’’ he supplied, helpfully, as his lieutenant directed a look of blank incomprehension at him. "So,” he went on, a tide of nervous energy propelling him in the direction of the door. “You will be overjoyed to hear that this morning, you get a second chance."
He paused and swung round, kissing his fingers in delight at the thought. “I’ve arranged a little fête champêtre. Women do so love a picnic, though I have never been able to understand the concept myself - ants in your pasties, flies in your frumenty." The grizzled brows knit as his face contorted with distaste. "But as long as it puts her in a receptive mood... You never know,” he added, with a wink and a glance in the appropriate direction. ”The fresh air might perk up your own… limp attitude. No, no." A hand waved dismissively, as Gisborne sat there, stunned and blinking in the half-lit fug of his still-shuttered room. “Don’t thank me. Thank me by doing your job." And off he went, humming under his breath like a wasp trapped under a wine-cup.
Gisborne sloped down the corridor, unfashionably late and chewing morosely on a breakfast crust in the hope that it would settle his stomach, if not his unquiet mind. Emerging into daylight at the head of the outer stair, he lurched to a halt and winced. For the second time in as many days, the echoing space between the tall grey walls was engulfed in raging chaos.
Yet the bulk of this ill-omened expedition, the baggage cart and carriages, had already gone. Only the rear-guard remained. They were over by the gate, sitting their fidgeting horses and smirking, while a crowd of anxious stable hands milled over the cobbles like a flock of rooks disturbed from their feeding, dipping and circling and shouting frantic instructions back and forth.
A familiar scream of challenge rent the air. Gisborne's head snapped round to see his own mount backed up against the curtain wall, saddle and bridle abandoned, battling a white-faced groom. The spooked beast was sidling and tossing his head, snorting uneasy defiance at the denizen of hell that reared up now, shrieking in answer from the eye of the circling human storm.
It was a stallion, tall and black as night. At rest, it must have stood sixteen hands at the withers - leggy for the Saracen blood that showed so strongly in the dished face and curving neck. The mane was long and wild, the high-held tail an oriflamme cut from black spun silk, streaming in the wind. Strong hindquarters bunched and flexed, and the sun damasked strange patterns on the polished ebony hide as the fiery creature bucked and kicked. It was a magnificent animal, and it spoke to him in ways he did not understand. But in his present knife-edge state of body and mind, equine mayhem was the least of his needs. "Which one of you useless cretins let that mad devil out?" he bawled at the hapless crowd of ostlers and grooms..
But then he’d not expected one. He snorted loudly enough to outdo the fiercest stallion and shouldered his way through the dithering throng, ducking under the murderous hooves to snatch at the flimsy strands of plaited red leather, the only harness it wore. The canny creature danced out of his reach, bringing a snivelling boy into his line of sight, cowering by the wall. A muddied cheek ran with blood, the curved sigil of a glancing blow from a hoof. “It was you, wasn’t it?" Gisborne shook a gloved fist at him. ‘’You little runt! Mistake it for the lady’s palfrey, did you?"
"It is the lady’s palfrey," an even voice remarked. The Countess Alix of Vézelay had appeared at his side - a little breathless and her veils and mantle somewhat awry, as if she had been running. To his stunned surprise, she walked on under the flailing forelegs to stand beneath the rearing stallion’s nose.
“Ben!'’ she sang out. “Soau, meun cor!"
It was if she was calling to a child, not an animal. Gisborne watched spell-bound, his grumbling hang-over forgotten, as the high-strung creature hesitated, ears pricked, all four hooves grounded for a grudging instant. And immediately, the Countess stepped forward, taking her life in her hands again to throw her arms round the curving neck and pull the massive wedge of a head to her. Shudders coursed over the twitching black flanks as she touched her face to its brow; until the great beast gave a final snort, and stood biddably within the embrace, the only sign of its unease the distending nostrils and the nervous shuffle of neat blue hooves.
”It would have been my own man who was at fault, Messire," she said, eventually. “He has orders never to leave his side.” She stroked the soft muzzle and looked back at Gisborne, whose foul mood had regained the upper hand, along with his hangover. “Ben is never tethered, for it sends him wild. Your boy was not to know.”
The master at arms snorted again, needing a butt for his mounting frustration. ‘’The little arsewipe’s bound to have done something today that deserves a beating,’’ he commented darkly, looking about him. But it seemed the young fool had sense enough to have made himself scarce. Meanwhile, a hang-dog faced man in dun and gold had emerged from an outhouse to stand close by, wringing his hands - presumably the neglectful groom. He hung his head as the Countess directed a hard look at him, but he made no move to run for saddle and bridle as his lady stepped to the stallion's near side.
Gisborne looked on curiously, expecting to see her wither the man with a further rebuke and a curt order to remedy the omission – and was dumbstruck once again, for neither came. Instead, she turned in to grasp a tuft of the long black mane as if preparing to mount. Could she really intend to ride this hellion as the wild Irish tribesmen did, bareback, with nothing but a few flimsy strands for reins? The more precious elements of society were starting to look askance at women who rode astride even in the normal way, favouring a chair-like contraption that brought the knees modestly together. The thought of a fine lady who sat her horse legs akimbo and without benefit of leather padding under her soft white bottom, was too bizarre to contemplate.
Gisborne’s brow furrowed as he asked himself what was brewing inside that empty head. There was no one about that she would care to impress. Experience had taught him that high-born women rarely spared a landless knight a second glance; even when that knight was at his most fastidious best, and he was so far from that now as to be unrecognizable - another reason why Vaisey’s seduction scheme was doomed from the start.
It could only be a whim then, and a mad one. Like as not, she would break her neck before they got as far as the city walls – provided she could haul herself aboard in the first place! He stood hipshot, arms folded across his chest, and wondered how she proposed to do so without either stirrup or mounting block. A derisive smile played over his lips as he saw her glance back over her shoulder. But it was a position check, not an admission of defeat; confident all was in order, she swung herself effortlessly up and over the great curved neck. She was at the gate by the time he had gathered his wits and turned to his own mount.
She’d better have put something on under her skirts to cushion the ride, he thought to himself as he mounted in his turn, hiding his amusement against his horse’s neck and enjoying the respite of crude imagination given free rein.
Fontevrault Spring 1194
Alix of Vézelay drowsed in her chair in the sun-lit garth, savouring the warmth through closed eyelids. The rose-coloured world thus engendered was a pleasant respite from the shadowlands of the past, or the cold grey cloisters that had been her home for so many weeks. ‘’And this was the last you saw of him, this Guy of Gisborne, as you bid him goodnight in the great hall at Nottingham?” the Queen prompted gently.
"Left to his choice and mine,” her niece replied, "I am sure it would have been. But someone else, in the shape of the Sheriff of that fair town, had other ideas. I was dressing for this wretched outing he had foisted on me…Oh, I know what you are going to say, my dearest aunt,” she demurred, opening her eyes with reluctance and finding herself gazing into the shrewd, age-pleated face. “I did not recognise myself in this constant spineless falling in with another’s will -- and he a stranger, and of no great rank to boot. But I was weary, and Ben had been neglected since I had been forced to take to the wagons. I told myself the country air might refresh us both; let us leave it at that.”
Eleanor pursed her lips and put up a hand to foil a playful breeze that tugged at her veils. Alix suppressed a sigh, tempted to cast off her own head covering and feel the wind in her hair once more. Seemliness was all in this most hallowed of places; if only the tale she must tell could stay within those bounds. “And then,” she continued, returning to her story, “the Lady Constanza hurried in, big with news. While my groom’s back was turned, some nervous stable lad had come across my horse, loose in the tithe barn, and thought to tie him up. You may remember how kindly my Ben takes to that.’’ ‘’So I was reminded, when I looked in on him an hour ago!”
The Queen’s chuckle was warm and rich. “Out he stalked from his stall to greet me at the stable door, as if he were the royalty, not I. But then your Ben is at home here,” she added with a smile, “and much like a favoured hound in his habits, wandering where the whim takes him, yet never straying far. Though I might better compare him to a cat,” she decided, patting the thin hand that lay on the carved arm of the chair beside her. “He likes his comfort, and he lacks the canine servility!"
Her niece’s mouth softened. "Ben is his own self, for sure! But I fear he was far from at home in Nottingham. Nor had he been so for weeks on end; the constant change of stabling had been a sore trial to him. And then for some evil-smelling young scamp to come along and man-handle him while he was dozing…” Her fingers tightened involuntarily round the Queen’s warm flesh.
“He would have been nervous and hard to handle at the very least,” Eleanor acknowledged.
“Indeed! In fact, by the time I got down there, he was out of his mind, lashing out on all sides in rage.” Alix of Vézelay shivered despite the warmth of her mantle, remembering the threat of violent death that had hummed in the air, that fine spring morning. The stallion had never been trained to war, but when roused, he was as vicious as any fighting destrier.
Her aunt’s even voice broke into the sombre reverie. “And what of your other wild creature? Did you think him beautiful in his anger?” she asked, tongue firmly fixed in royal cheek.
“Cèl, anda meuna, he was like a wolf about to spring,” Alix fought down a reluctant chuckle. “Berating that poor lad for a bungling fool, and threatening retribution with an almost sadistic glee.”
“His bellowings can have done little to improve the situation,” the Queen surmised.
The younger woman nodded. The master at arms might have lacked the strong jaws and snapping teeth, but danger bled from him that morning, as it had since the time of their first meeting. “Ben was beside himself by then,” she said, hugging herself under her cloak as she shivered again. “Ready to bolt at any moment, and trampling half the stable staff as he went. I could do nothing but run to him, and pray our bond and the sound of my voice would get through to him.” And meanwhile, Gisborne had looked on with a face that would curdle milk, his arms clasped across the dark expanse of a leather-clad chest. A brooding presence indeed, for a bright spring day.
Two more reluctant pleasure-seekers there can never have been as they rode out together that morning; she longing to be drowsing in her bed for an extra hour or so, and he, to judge from the scorn on his lips and the angle of his nose in the air, with better things to do than dance attendance on an unwanted guest --- a spoiled, silly woman, moreover, in her expensive gowns and ostentatious furs, a capricious choice for the time of year.
Yet the pale sunshine was pleasant, and with the prospect of bird song and the scent of blossoms and new leaves, her spirits had begun to lift.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Nottinghamshire, Spring 1193
The town of Nottingham surged around them with all its noise and bustle and smells - the cries of the stall-holders and street-traders, the press of drab-clad common folk about their daily business, mingling with the black robes of an occasional churchman and the colourful cloaks of a well-to-do merchant or two. The sun-warmed breeze was heavy with the odours of mud and dung and cook-fires, the raw bloody meat of the butcher’s shop on the corner and the reek of decaying cabbage stalks on a nearby midden-heap.
The two horses picked their way gingerly through the rubble-strewn warren of streets, the rear-guard following discreetly behind. Thus far, the great black showed no sign of temper beyond the odd harrumph and twist of ear when passers-by grew too close or too loud. But Gisborne had not forgotten the recent mayhem in the castle bailey. His nerves were taut as bowstrings in anticipation of some disaster for which he would certainly be held to account; and it was not the resultant death and destruction he feared so much as the relentless battering of Vaisey’s contempt.
At least the Countess’s eccentric equestrian preferences had escaped the notice of the crowds. Street urchins and respectable goodwives hurried past them, bent on their own concerns, too busy to stop and whisper behind their hands or point and jeer. His own mount seemed inclined to maintain its distance from his travelling companion, and Gisborne judged the lack of trust to be wise, not forcing a closer approach. And so he and the Countess rode side by wary side with silence between them, until they had left the city gates behind and the clamour and crowds began to subside.
She turned to him then, addressing him in a voice that hinted at origins far south of Paris or Rouen. "I shall not wish you good morning, Messire, since I see that it is not so."
Gisborne acknowledged the observation with a curt nod, setting his jaw and kneeing his mount across the bridge as they rode for the grassy sward that surrounded the walls. He had no quarrel with her conclusion; what nettled him was the fact that his sombre mood must have shown on his face. He had so little of his own in life that he liked to keep his thoughts for himself - especially when they were as dark and convoluted as they were now.
Here he was,on a mission to seduce a woman he had barely met and had no wish to know further, when he lacked the strength to hold on to his sanity, let alone feign an interest it was impossible for him to feel. For the hundredth time in a few short hours he wondered if the Sheriff understood the enormity of what he was asking of him. But then the Sheriff’s belligerent brown eyes were blind to considerations of shame and disinclination; they only saw the route to the prize ahead.
"I dare say neither of us would have chosen to venture out this morning," the cool voice was saying. “Your lord has a way of making offers one cannot refuse. But then you will know that better than I."
Gisborne’s gauntleted hands tightened on his reins. The quiet words had only compounded the unwelcome sensation of having his thoughts picked over like the goods on market stall. Then the Countess exhaled, adding on a theme that was mercifully hers alone, "The day is at least a fair one."
It might have been worse, he conceded. It could have been raining, with that steely persistence characteristic of a Nottingham spring. Lethargy weighed on him like a leaden cloak, but the sun was gentle on his aching eyes and the breeze was mild. Though he could have done without that infernal racket the birds were making, for as usual in the mornings - and afternoons and evenings too, if he were honest - his head was like the inside of a drum. The slightest sound boomed and reverberated between his ears until the bones throbbed. He was so deathly tired in body and mind.
To his relief, the Countess showed no inclination to chatter on. She rode with her face tilted to the sun in quiet enjoyment, entirely at her ease, as if she sat in a cushioned chair in her solar rather than on a mettlesome horse, anchored by nothing but her knees and the goodwill of her mount. The thin red leather ribbons that did duty for reins hung loose from hands folded in complete trust on the stallion’s neck.
As he allowed his eyes to rest on the long white fingers with their expensive baubles, he acknowledged a mortifying truth. He was still behaving like that bashful boy in the stews, unable to look the woman in the face. What did some faded widow’s appearance matter to him, anyway? Wasn’t he merely marking time till he could find a way of extricating himself from this hare-brained scheme? For the first time in his life he found himself wishing Hood and the rest of his rabble were about. A quick blow of his dagger to her ribs, and the outlaw could take the blame. Or, if she chanced to take his fancy, the slippery bastard was welcome to take her off his hands.
After all, he told himself, with grim hysteria, you owe him one…
A sudden stab of revulsion went through him at the rogue thought, bending him over his horse’s neck, weak and shuddering; the animal danced nervously beneath him, sensing his rider’s distress. The crassness of his reflection appalled him - but why be surprised at what he was capable of? Worse things than a few callous notions prowled his mind, waiting for the chance to suck him in.
A hotter sun, the trampled sand, a fountain’s plash…
Still trembling, Gisborne forced his eyes open and set his shoulders back, swallowing down the rush of bile and praying he’d not humiliated himself before the woman at his side. A glance from under his lashes told him the great black was still ambling along, peaceable as a gelding… Although, dear God in heaven, what woman with a scrap of common sense in her would ride with her eyes completely closed?
But again, why should he care? Her foolishness had rendered her oblivious of the storms that raged inside him. It had also presented him with the opportunity to look her over without risking her scrutiny in his turn. A mirthless smile quirked one corner of his mouth. Better the devil you know, as Vaisey would have said.
Measuring her length of limb against her horse’s body, he judged she was of medium height for a woman, and slender; wrist-thick braids the colour of wheat-straw escaped from her veils, a legacy of her haste earlier that morning. Her features were regular enough - a small mouth, a straight nose in a face a little too pointed at the chin to be the fashionable oval. But the signs of her age were there to see in the unforgiving light of morning; the pale skin, the creases at the corners of that small mouth, the bruised shadows under the closed eyes which he thought would be an indeterminate shade of grey.
The woad-blue gown and thick-furred mantle were elegant and costly, and those ornate rings.... They winked in the sunlight, scattering rainbow shards on the silk of her horse’s black hide. Gisborne’s belly churned at the thought of all that wealth, of what the Sheriff wanted of her, and what he himself was expected to do, and he bit back a moan of utter despair…
A lightening-streak of brown shot across his field of vision, jolting him from his dark thoughts. A hare had bolted for the bramble thicket on the far side of their path. His mount shied and whinnied and he tightened his rein, darting a glance in the Countess’s direction, his heart pumping. She’d be thrown for sure, and no way of justifying himself to the Sheriff. But no; her eyes had shot open, and she adjusted her seat, calmly and expertly, patting the snorting stallion’s neck with those be-ringed fingers of hers and whispering to it. As if it were a child, he thought again, his lips twisting in scorn.
And yet he was forced to admit she’d proved alert and in command of her mount – and, more disconcertingly, of herself. Empty-headed would be easier to cope with, he thought, with a rush of impatience; like a lazy doe rabbit, less trouble to trap and subdue. She turned to him now with a quizzical look and he saw that her eyes were grey indeed, and pensive. God help him if she had read his thoughts again. Yet if she had, it seemed she was not about to press the point.
"I hear music, Messire," was all she said. "It would appear we have not far to go."
Fontevrault Spring 1194
A lay sister had brought out a flagon of spring-water, setting it on a small table along with a platter of wafers studded with almonds. Alix of Vézelay cradled her cool cup, sipping now and then at its contents as her tale continued. "A bower had been set up in the glade for our meal,” she said, pausing to put out her tongue and catch the unruly drop that was about to run down her chin. “Attendants were unpacking baskets and the minstrels were tuning up, though they flapped off like a flock of startled sparrows as we rode up.”
“It appears your Gisborne was a man who saw little need to court popularity among the lower orders” Eleanor ventured, examining the plate of sweet pastry with a discerning eye. “As he had so ably demonstrated, back in the castle yard.”
“Not that my Thibault ever bound himself with such inhibitions," her niece answered, compressing her lips.
The Queen chuckled as she chose a wafer. "He has not changed a jot," she pronounced, and bit into the crisp pastry. “He fancies himself a trouvère now, rather than a humble jongleur… I hear he got himself in a considerable bother last month in Paris with that pompous fribble, Philippe," she confided, with a wicked little quiver of her luxuriously-mantled shoulders.
Who but her royal aunt would have the audacity to dismiss the anointed king of the Franks as contemptuously as she did a lute-player? Alix asked herself, concealing a smile behind her hand. And who could eat an almond wafer and lick her fingers afterwards, with such elegance? ‘’Why do you do not surprise me, anda Eleanora?” she said aloud, with a heartfelt sigh. “You should have seen him that day, strolling towards us with that wide-eyed innocence of his, strumming his lute and singing:
Lanquan li jorn son lonc e may
M'es belhs dous chans d'auzelhs de lonh...
At May-tide, when the days are long,
I hearken to the birds’ sweet song…"
She quoted the Occitàn canso’s opening words, an expectant look in her tired grey eyes as she met the older woman’s gaze.
"Jaufré Rudel," observed Eleanor of Aquitaine, recognising the song.
Her niece nodded. “And well suited to the beauty of the day, one would have thought.” The corners of her mouth turned down. “However, you will not have forgotten how it goes on:
…But since she's left me lorn, I find
My long-lost love still haunts my mind… “
The Queen broke in, capping the lines:
“I hang my head, and my face glowers
And sweetest songs and hawthorn flowers
Are naught to me but winter showers… "
She had spoken pleasurably, basking in the perfect memory she still enjoyed at her advanced age. Then she paused, brushing the fallen pastry flakes from her skirts with a thoughtful look. “Ah!” she said, after a moment.
“Ah, indeed,” Alix nodded. “All very charming -- if it had not described Gisborne’s brooding expression to the life! Ailàs, anda meuna.” she said, and sighed again. “I still cannot decide whether it was an unfortunate accident or a deliberate insult - and fraught with the potential of crass intrusion, too.” She winced in retrospect and shook her head, her veils pale wings about a paler face. “Who could know how life had conspired to fashion that dangerously volatile nature? A man of his age would have had dalliances of some kind for sure. For Thibault’s sake, I prayed the man had no knowledge of Occitàn, or the young fool would soon be learning a very expensive lesson indeed."
"That boy would stick his fingers in a wild beast’s cage," Eleanor remarked with an acidulated smile.
"He had just come new to me at the time. I fear the beauty of his voice had already given him an inflated sense of sense of entitlement. He needed a firm hand, anda Eleanora," the younger woman admitted with a grimace. “And by then I lacked the strength to supply it. As for Gisborne…” She paused and set her goblet down to twist her hands upon her lap. “…he sat his horse straight-backed, with his hawk-face set in stone. Yet I could not dispel the uncomfortable fancy that his eyes had narrowed.”
The Queen shivered delicately and pursed her lips. “A disturbing thought,” she murmured, though her niece did not miss the small spark of wry enjoyment that lit her eyes. ”And did he speak?”
“Not a word,” Alix replied, “But I held my breath! Believe me, aunt, it seemed that ages dawdled by before our lack of enthusiasm filtered through to the thoughtless boy at last. Though Thibault being Thibault, he could not resist a second try...” Her words trailed off, as the sweet notes rippled through her mind again; the joyous swooning delirium of Jaufré’s salute to the growing season:
Quan lo rius de la Fontana…
When the fountain’s silver rill
Runs crystal clear on spring’s green hill
And the dog rose blooms, and the nightingale,
Hid midst silken scented hail,
Perfects the flight of its sweet song…
Her throat ached anew, and she made to reach for her cup, but she found she could not, for her hands were locked together, the knuckles white against the blue-veined pallor of her skin as she relived the moment she tasted for herself how a song can break a heart; its soft cadences a cruel reminder of all she must forgo - the hope, the beauty, the many springs that would now no longer be hers.
When she spoke again, her voice was thick, her sense of loss as fresh as it had ever been. “And suddenly, it was I who found Thibault’s minstrelsy an unbearable intrusion.”
She had craved to be free of Gisborne and his dark moods too, and just as suddenly. The desire rose up in her, like a small hot sun. Though which had pricked at her most, the need to escape his glowering presence or the wish to rid him of hers, she was hard put to tell. “And so without pause for further thought, I touched my heels to my horse’s flanks, and we were off…”
They had galloped, they sped, they danced and darted, while the sun dazzled down through the canopy of leaves to caress her skin with fingers of light. The world and its cares had slipped from her, all the fear and the loss and the dull grinding pain quite gone.
The Queen looked on, entranced, as the strain of the past months sloughed like melting wax from her niece’s features. She was young again and glowing, as she relived the joy known to the Saracens as flying without wings.
“Ah cèl, anda Eleanora, but it was glorious,” she said, clutching at the arms of her chair, her eyes like candles. “We reached the river with hooves thundering close behind us and angry shouts in our ears - but too late! We were in the air already, soaring like a leaf in the wind to the other side.” She laughed aloud, as she had laughed then, drunk on the heady freedom of racing on, then turning in a flurry of dust and pounding hooves to run to the brink and soar back again.
“It was a dark Lancelot from a manuscript in grisaille that awaited us on the bank,” she recounted then. “So straight and proud on his quivering mount, while my Ben danced demurely up to him, placing his hooves with elegance and care.” A bubble of guilty mirth escaped her at the memory, though guilt was not what she had been feeling at the time.
“I can imagine," the Queen declared, with shared amusement, her sleeves like crimson banners as she reached to pat her niece’s hands once more. “As if the rascal had his tongue in his great horse-cheek!”
“It was no joke to Gisborne.” Alix remembered, sobering, and the skin pricked along her uncushioned spine with remembered tension; it had sung in the air as if at the approach of a storm. “Not a muscle moved in his face.” She drew the folds of her mantle close, for all the sun’s gentle warmth. “But I saw how his chest rose and fell beneath its leather carapace, and his gauntlets strained across balled fists as they rested on his horse’s neck.”
The gallop had touched his cheeks with colour, and ruffled the strands of his black hair. Somehow the small signs of his humanity were more daunting than the face of stone. In the brighter light of day, she could see that his eyes were not black, as she had first thought. The spent coals of the night before had ignited, to burn with an anger as hot and blue as the flame of a sword-smith’s forge.
Nottinghamshire, Spring 1193
Gisborne was already breathing fire when the woman took off.
It was never going to be an easy day, and it had gone downhill fast from the moment they had arrived at the glade. The discordant squeal of tuning instruments grated on his ears, an alley-cat’s convocation stretching nerves already wound tighter than a cross-bow string. Then that cocky little bastard had detached himself from the dispersing crowd to come sauntering up to them, playing one of his jingles and nodding at them with a toothy grin. Gisborne found the familiarity insulting, his song even more so.
Long-lost love, was it? Tongues had been wagging, then, back at the castle, and their owners were going to be very sorry indeed when he caught up with them. So far he’d kept it beneath his dignity to notice the impertinence. The speech of the Languedoc diverged enough from his own Norman French for a show of ignorance to be plausible; yet wandering minstrels had visited his childhood home often enough to give him an ear for the language. Much more of this now, and he’d march the simpering smart-arse down to the dungeons faster than you could say nightingales and roses -- countess or no countess.
Meanwhile, the arrogant little toad played on, with his flors aiglentina and his rossinholetz el ram, to the accompaniment of a great deal of gurning and showy finger-work. I’ll give you hanging head and glowering face, he thought, clenching his hands on the reins and itching to shut that smug mouth for him with a fist. But that would have been admitting to the truth behind the jibes.
And then he realised the wretched female was no longer hovering at his side on that wildly inappropriate horse of hers. The music must have held no more pleasure for her than it did for him, for she was halfway down the meadow by now, clinging to the neck of her mount like a clump of flotsam carried along by an onrushing tide. Hooves drumming, divots flying, the beast was headed for the river like a warhorse racing for the van. Stopping would be impossible; they’d shoot straight off the bank and into the raging stream.
He knew it! That big black devil was always going to run away with her, sooner or later. And she had the nerve to think she could handle it without saddle or bit. God protect him from the caprices of the idle rich - to say nothing of the wrath of the Sheriff of Nottingham, whose carefully-laid plans would come to naught if she insisted on breaking her neck! The rage hit like a shock-wave, taking him unawares, for hadn’t he been thinking of finishing her off himself, not long ago, and letting Vaisey and all his works go hang?
Duty was a habit that ran roughshod over personal concerns, it seemed. Cursing, he dug in his spurs and galloped in pursuit, the hoof beats an echo of his pounding heart, and his eyes seeing little but the flame that danced before them.
“Stop, woman!” he shouted, thundering closer. “Have you lost your mind?”
A throaty roar was filling his ears now, and the stench of rotting leaves and dead vermin hung thick in the air. Up-country the rains must have been long and heavy. The once-placid River Leen ran fast and full, creaming round the debris it bore along as it made its mad rush for the Trent.
He never had a hope in hell of catching her. He was inches behind as he reined in at the bank, but already she was in the air - a headlong leap of faith his own mount would never match. The breath caught in his throat. Fleet blue hooves slid and skidded as she hit the mud of the far margin. Then they recovered their stride, pounding on to turn on a coin and gallop back. He was holding his breath again as she sailed back across the river to him, light as a flake of wood-ash on the wind.
And she had the gall to come cantering up to him in triumph! Her eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed, the expensive gown mud-spattered and dishevelled, while the hair beneath her veils was unravelling from its braids. It was as if the faded matron had been spirited away and a reckless girl had stolen her clothes. She faced him without fear, her chest heaving and her chin thrust out imperiously, daring him to comment on what she had just done.
Oh, he dared all right! After all, he had met wilful females before…
The thought had come at him out of nowhere, like an assassin’s dagger, and he warded it off with a rush of righteous anger, before the pain could undo him. If he had been the girl’s guardian, he’d have shaken her till her teeth rattled, and if he were the matron’s lord, he would have probably beaten her black and blue.
“Have you a death wish, Madam?" he ground out from between gritted teeth, as she slid to the ground. The Countess shrugged, catching at her mantle as the folds slipped from her narrow shoulders. ‘’If that were so, my horse does not," she remarked, distantly, standing back and eyeing her mount with concern. “He knows his limits well enough.’’ Then she put up a hand and dragged off her wimple, fanning herself with the fine linen cloth before bunching it up to wipe the lather from the sweating equine neck and flanks.
She looked up at him, bare-headed, as she handed the cloth to him, meeting his stare with a gleam of irony in her eyes. In this age, only a husband or lover was allowed to see a grown woman’s uncovered hair, in the usual way of things; but it was obvious that his own mount was dark with sweat, and here beside the river, the breeze was keen.
Expedience overrode his distaste for the flouting of convention, as she seemed to know it would. And what did it matter? What interest could a head of straw-coloured hair hold for him? He tucked the sodden cloth into his saddle pouch afterwards with an impatient twist of his lips, for it was gossamer-fine and rich with drawn thread-work, an expensive item to be discarded so carelessly - another sign that she had more money than sense. Would it be so wrong to deprive her of some of it?
At least her capricious mood did not extend to girlish chatter as they walked their horses back along the meadow. She paced along beside him in silence, leaving the field to birdsong and the rustle of new leaves, while distant strains of music rode the wandering breeze like the rush of waves onto the shore. Gisborne was so caught up in his resentment and malaise that it was not till they were in sight of the glade once more that he realised the stallion was no longer following them.
“In case you haven’t noticed, madam,” he remarked cuttingly, exasperated beyond measure by this further demonstration of feminine folly. "You have mislaid your horse. Were you distracted by a cuckoo? Or perhaps you were humming one of your elegant cansos to yourself?" His tone had betrayed the acrimony of his feelings on that particular subject, and he cursed himself for the moment of self-revelation.
The Countess pushed a strand of pale hair out of her eyes, regarding him evenly as he stared down his nose at her. "It was my horse who was distracted, Messire; by some fine green grass,” she said. “You need not concern yourself. He will be along in his own good time." And indeed, the beast came up to them as they neared the glade, nudging playfully at its rider in search of the treats it must know she carried in the pouch at her belt.
Gisborne averted rolling eyes from the joyous reunion, though the scene now before him did little more to gladden his heart. Trestles had been set up under shady canvas awnings; whole sides of meat were turning on spits, with a great pile of vegetables waiting to be baked in the ashes. The acrid reek of burnt fat raked at his throat, and he fought down the need to retch. If he’d had his way, he thought sourly, a couple of cold roast fowl and some bread would have been more than enough. He needed a drink, and needed it fast. He only hoped Vaisey had been as lavish with the wine as he had with the food.
He turned again to the Countess, impatient to hand her off to her ladies so he could hole up in a corner somewhere with a flagon or two, and to hell with the charm offensive. There she stood, still petting the animal - stroking its muzzle, fondling the pricking ears with those soft white hands of hers. Christ on the cross! What was it with women and the way they were with their mounts? As if they had feelings, rather than being a mere instrument for their use…
Gisborne suppressed a shudder as his memory ambushed him again, with a fleeting vision of another woman and another horse, the one he had given her.
His gut spasmed, and he rammed the image down to the depths of his soul with a grimace. It was like swallowing a sharp stone.
When he came back to himself, the Countess was speaking. ’‘There is reason in Ben’s madness, Messire de Gisborne, I must assure you,” she said, her gaudy rings catching fire in the sunlight as her hands moved hypnotically over the sleek dark hide. "He was an abandoned foal that grew up running with the ponies from the Camargue. They are rounded up for riding when they turn white, at the age of four, though Ben was much younger than they thought, because of his larger breed. And since he had remained stubbornly black, he was sold off as a sport."
Her small mouth twisted. “Of course, he was too immature to respond well to training, and the traders treated him cruelly. But my Ben forgets nothing, Messire, bad deed or good. I have never been able to school him to the bit or saddle, nor so much as tether him, however much he has come to trust me."
"How noble of you to take such a creature on,” Gisborne sneered, decanting his weight onto one hip and folding his arms across his chest. “A sixteen-hand Saracen stallion is hardly an ideal lady’s mount."
“Is there such a thing as an ideal lady, outside the romances, Messire?" was the disingenuous reply, and the glib evasion earned her an impatient snort. "He was a beautiful creature," she insisted, “And damaged through no fault of his own. How could I have not wished to care for him?”
Gisborne snorted again. Typical female sentimental claptrap! He would admit it was a magnificent animal, its spirit the perfect blend of sensitivity and fire. But it was only a horse after all, and of little value even at stud, with such a glaring flaw to its temperament. Only a spoilt woman with too much money and time on her hands would have squandered her resources and her attention so rashly.
Yet as the beast t stuck its muzzle into its rider’s hand and she reached to brush the windblown mane from a lambent eye, ghostly fingers were busy along his spine. For reasons beyond his grasp, the sight disturbed him profoundly, and he could not for the life of him say why. "You might have been killed just now,’’ he reminded her, acidly, to cover his confusion.
The outer end of one arched brow winged slowly up in the pale face. "As I said, Messire, Ben and I have been together for some years now, and I have lived to tell the tale."
The coolness of her tone would have served as a warning for more a cautious man. But then caution was not always his strong point. A spark fell on the tinder again. “And yet today," he growled, ’’your safety was entrusted to ME!”
“You presume, Messire de Gisborne!” Her voice was as sharp as the crack of a whip and her grey eyes flashed, meeting fire with fire. Time stood still as she held his gaze boldly. And then she whirled away, her shoulders slumping - though not before he’d seen the shadow pass across her face. But no, it had to have been a trick of the light, for she had straightened now, and was contemplating him thoughtfully, in that cool clear way she had of looking straight into his soul.
”You are right of course, Messire," she said at length. ‘’I can only say my mind was…” She paused, as if searching for the words, finally settling on “…occupied elsewhere. You are answerable to your lord, and my behaviour was thoughtless in the extreme. Would you like one of these apples?"
The non sequitur threw Gisborne off-balance, as did the fruit itself, for it was wizened, worm-ridden and far from appetising. His lack of sleep was playing games with his brain as well as his body; he stood there staring at it blankly, not knowing how he was expected to react.
"For your horse,’’ the Countess elucidated, with a quick smile. "I believe we have better ones for ourselves."
She signalled to one of her ladies; the young woman hurried over with a silver-gilt bowl, and he took one from it automatically. They were pearmains, green and russet, and even larger than the Locksley apples he had once enjoyed so much. His temples throbbed as the memories crowded in on him again - Marian, with her basket of red and gold fruit, and all so vivid he could almost smell them, and the light flower scent of her perfume…
Until a rasp of scouring sand struck warm and wet through the palm of his glove and snapped him back to the present. The black stallion had arched its great neck over his shoulder, its muscular tongue probing for the choicer morsel in his hand.
The Countess was regarding the tableau with amused indulgence. "Ben was ever a horse of discernment, Messire,” she laughed. “He knows his fruit - nor would he deign to thieve from just anyone. It is to your credit, as well as to your benefit, that for a man of action, you know well enough when to be still. No!" she cautioned, as the muscles of his upper arm began to flex in a move to deter the horse from its search for more. "Your first instincts were correct. Do not touch him, or he will bite. His neck is badly scarred." She stepped forward, gently lifting the long black strands of its mane to reveal a vicious scoring that could only have come from barbed chains. "If you look closely, you will see he is whip-striped on flanks and haunches too."
Gisborne’s brows drew together. He was no stranger to violence; it served its purpose in his world, and he was willing enough to use it when it did. But the brutal treatment of creatures who had not volunteered to be caught up in the affairs of men was a poor use of resources, at very least. The sight of these cruel scars, the source of the odd damasking he had noticed earlier in the day, angered him, in ways he did not fully comprehend.
“’Ben’?” he queried, pinching the bridge of his nose and reaching for something to say to hide the intensity of this formless emotion. "An unusual name."
"For a lady’s palfrey?" The Countess’s smile broadened, and she favoured her mount with the indulgent look of a village woman watching her child at play. ‘’His name is Ebène – though he thinks that is too fanciful for an honest horse."
Ebène… Ebony. It might well have been a creature carved from the dark wood, if it had not been a perfect study in perpetual motion; hooves stamping, ears pricking, the long muscles rippling in the strong flanks and rump as it crunched the last of its apple between its strong teeth and manoeuvred determinedly in the search for more.
"And this fine fellow of yours?" the Countess prompted as his own mount looked on, still wary of the strange horse’s unpredictable temperament, but not without the odd wistful glance in the direction of the fruit.
Gisborne admitted to the name a little sheepishly; it had been given in a moment’s resentful defiance but it had stuck.
"Lionheart indeed! Dickon, then, to his friends?" she ventured, handing him the bowl of apples with a conspiratorial glint in her eye.
He took one, turning away to suppress a tight smile. The king’s kin might be entitled to the jest, but he was not keen to expose himself openly to a charge of lèse majesté. Not that a little disrespect was any worse than attempting to butcher the man, and on two separate occasions. How strange that he’d been so willing to do that. His reasons held little meaning for him now.
He must have been more than a little mad then, and he was just as mad now; only the demons that rode him had changed. In the eye of an outside observer, he stood in a Nottinghamshire meadow, peaceably feeding apples to a horse. Yet the true frame of his existence was another place and time entirely, far distant from the springtime world in which the Countess moved.
A nightmare domain of terror, blood and death.
He glanced up gratefully as a red-faced steward bustled over to call them to the board, releasing him from his unwelcome reflections. But the noise and noxious smells of over-rich cooked food persisted, and he soon muttered a gruff excuse, taking himself off to exchange a few perfunctory words with the guards before posting himself on a rock at the perimeter of the glade with a flagon he’d snatched up from a table as he passed.
Time was wasting, he knew, nd he would suffer for it. He should be about the Sheriff’s business -sitting with the woman, flattering her, worming his way into her confidence, though he had never felt less like making small talk.
As if he’d ever mastered the art of making himself agreeable, he thought with a grimace, and he wiped his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve as if to underscore his lack of courtly manners. It was a skill he’d never thought to need -- until the beauty of a spirited girl had cast a stone heart into the flames, and it had cracked asunder in the conflagration.
He glanced down at the sword at his hip. It was a new blade now; the old one was damned, wherever it was, after what he had done with it. In his mind, he’d dashed it to pieces against a rock a thousand times. He ached now with the need to go off into the trees and press cold steel to his flesh - to feel the sweet pain as it slid into his breast and let down the heart-blood, to flow like scalding rain. He was tired, tired unto death, and yet death would not heal him. The wages of his sin was hell everlasting, and there could be no escape from the fires.
Gisborne flinched. Nowadays, the sound of his given name on a woman’s lips was like the hangman’s blunt blade ripping at his gut, especially when it was spoken with that certain forthright intonation. It was yet another weapon in the demon’s armoury - the cruel echo of her voice as she’d called out to him, commanding the attention he was always so willing to give.
He looked up to find one of the Countess’s women standing before him, a platter in her hands. Soft cheese, manchet bread and an apple peeled and sliced, with a small heap of red berries. Earlier, the smell of greasy meats had made him sick to his stomach. Now, even the light cold food disgusted him.
"Sir Guy!’’ she persisted.
Heartache and nausea made him bare his teeth at her and snarl like a beast in a trap. But she must have had her orders, for she stood her ground; a spare grey-haired woman in unflattering brown, with sallow flushed cheeks and a stony look of disapproval in her hooded black eyes. "My lady prepared this with her own hands," she said.
He snarled again and pushed it away, and he was alone at last to dine on his grief. A fine look-out he was, he thought, staring off into the distance and chewing disconsolately on the few small red fruits that had landed on his lap - they were tart, but cool to a parched throat. A whole troop of outlaws could have crept up on him while he sat indulging his misery, and he’d have been none the wiser.
"Messire de Gisborne?" another voice said, after some time. The Countess herself had come to stand beside him. The hoyden with the mud-spattered gown and streeling hair might have been one more construct of his fevered mind, for the staid matron was back. Her robes were immaculate and she had donned a fresh veil, her hair re-braided and confined in the seemliest way.
She was proffering a goblet, narrow brows raised questioningly. To his disconcertion, his fingers were unsteady on the chased metal stem as he took it from her, red droplets spilling to bead on the back of his glove like liquid rubies -like blood. Unwittingly, he licked them from what had come to be his second skin, like some wounded animal, and her eyes were dark as she looked on.
“You seem weary of pleasure, my lord,’’ she pronounced, eventually. "Indeed, I think we have both had more of it today than we would willingly endure. Would you care to give the order to start back?’’
Gisborne pushed through the frowsty shadows of his castle chamber and threw himself fully clothed onto his unmade bed. He would have chosen to go to ground at Locksley - if it offered no more comfort, it had the advantage of distance, but he dare not absent himself so blatantly. He shielded his face with an arm and groaned, his relief that the long afternoon was over turning to despair. More than a day had passed since the Countess of Vézelay had arrived among them, and he’d barely managed a civil word to her, never mind a seduction.
The woman was like a mangled manuscript to him, cobbled together from random leaves in languages he barely understood. Pampered court lady and coolly competent horsewoman, faded matron and headstrong rebel girl, she was by turns sentimental and shrewd, and the devil only knew which page he would turn up next.
If there was some key to this arcane volume that would unlock her vulnerability, he had no idea where to find it, and given his dismal record with the female sex, he had little hope of doing so.
He didn’t even have the will to want to try.
He lay there agonizing until his mind gave up the struggle, and he found himself slipping into sleep. But he jerked himself back from the brink, heart thundering, disentangling himself from his tumbled sheets with a vicious curse. The demons that came by daylight were relentless, but the ones in his dreams did things to him that froze the blood. No one could face their torment twice in one day and stay sane.
He pushed himself to his feet, rubbing at his eyes with the heel of his hands, and staggered to the garderobe where he threw up copiously, leaving himself panting and weak. Then he swilled his face with the dregs of his morning water-jug and sank down on his bed again, his head a leaden weight between his hands. In a matter of hours he would be required to present himself in the great hall, clean and tidy and ready to perform like a fair-day puppet, and he hadn’t the faintest idea of where to begin.
He considered pleading indisposition - a headache, fever, anything, but he discarded the idea immediately. The Sheriff was a man who refused to entertain the concept of illness, especially in others. A bark of bitter laughter escaped him, as he recalled the Countess’s last words to him.
You seem weary of pleasure, my lord…
He’d been a stranger to pleasure for so long, he no longer remembered what it felt like. But if this was it, he’d had more than enough of it for one day, that much was for sure.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
Alix of Vézelay was tiring fast. The thought of how much there was still to tell dismayed her, and she clutched at the arms of her chair as if they would lend her strength. The flesh had melted off her bones; even the polished wood felt rough beneath her fingertips, its contours sharp as a blade to her hands.
“He asked me if I had a death wish, anda Eleanora!" Her laugh was the whisper of wind in dry grass. “I wanted to weep at the delicious irony of it, and then scream with rage – and mirth. But the incident was a telling reminder of what women’s lives become. I sought to escape my dark thoughts for a moment, and found myself facing the barrage of another’s demands.”
She exhaled, and picked at a thread that trailed from an embroidered acanthus leaf in the border of her sleeve. The stitches unravelled even faster than her life had done, leaving only a ghostly shadow behind. "When does it happen, anda meuna?" she asked, her husked voice honed to indignation. "This subjection of our selves to the needs of others? We are none of us like this as little girls. But then they took me and made me over into a woman – a wife, then a mother and chatelaine at my lord’s side, and finally sole mistress of my demesnes. It has been so long since I listened to myself, I am no longer sure of who I am."
“It begins the minute we can be of use to them," the Queen replied. She too had drunk such cups to their bitter dregs, as her niece well knew. Still she was not free of it, though her long life must have granted her a share of sweeter moments.
Not so for me, Alix thought, her lips pressed together at the injustice of it all. From time to time, the little girl she had been had woken and spoke to her, and she had silenced the small voice with promises of times to come, which would be theirs alone. Yet the will and whims of others had stolen her life, and her dreams had died, unformed and unborn.
Eleanor shrugged shoulders still unbowed by the years. "And yet we go on doing it," she said, sadly. "As I know you are doing, even now; in the belief that if we are as good and as kind as we are taught to be, then some day someone will come along and do the same for us - and there is the catch,” she added on a gusty breath. “No one ever does. Unless, of course, you rediscover a niece who becomes the joy of your heart."
She turned to the young woman beside her with tenderness suffusing her lined face, and Alix's heart contracted with that guilt that is a woman’s untiring fellow-traveller. “Ah, cèl! And now she is causing you pain, anda meuna,” she said.
"Never, my Lysette,” the Queen reassured her, laying a cool palm on her hand. “On the contrary, your courage lends me grace.”
Courage? If it were so, there was more than enough of pride mingled with it, and a stubborn refusal to face the truth. But her aunt’s voice was soft and it soothed her, as the blessed comfort of her bed had done on that Nottingham afternoon, while she watched a lemon-pale sun walk her chamber walls. The bell was tolling for None in the small pointed tower above them, as the river of time swept her up in its eddies again.
“I should never have left York so soon after my latest attack, ” she mused, wondering anew at her own folly; though to set against it was a burning need to be back on the road, ordering her affairs while the chance remained. “Appalling weather hit us as we neared Doncaster, and too many nights in draughty keeps and manors took their toll.”
Indeed, long before she arrived at Nottingham, the pain had been back, griping whenever she exerted herself. Those grim days returned to her in all their dank misery in spite of the May sun, and she glanced down involuntarily, thinking that her mantle had slipped to the ground. “I was hard pressed to conduct my business, anda Eleanora,” she remembered, rubbing at her arms as the ghostly gooseflesh persisted. “In fact, I had to resort to my draught from time to time.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine frowned and eased her spine, as if her gallant old bones were suddenly a burden. “Sister Amicia has a skilful hand," was all she said.
"She was more sparing with the honey in those days, in case I was tempted to over-indulge,” her niece remarked, with a wry retrospective shudder. “She makes it a lot less bitter now… So I lay there in my bed that afternoon, waiting for my dose to take effect, and mulling over the happenings of the past hours to distract myself from my aches and pains.”
“Ah!" The age-spotted but still fine hands came together, palm to palm. ”So you noticed what was going on, even then.”
“I noticed something was awry, anda Eleanora. Am I your niece for nothing?”
Alix leaned back against her cushions, closing her eyes, the better to recall the course her thoughts had taken at the time. “He was candescent with rage when we came up with him at the river bank. And rightly so,” she conceded, her mouth narrowing. ”It was madness to race down the wind and jump a river in spate. Yet who was he to gainsay my desire to feel the wind on my neck? At that moment, I could have cheerfully had him flogged.”
“So that is how you react to being thwarted nowadays?” the Queen inquired, her tone carefully noncommittal.
The younger woman huffed and shook her head. “I have learned how to hone my words over the years, aunt,” she said and sucked in her cheeks to rein in a sudden smile. “Sticks and stones and floggings, I keep for all-out war!” She straightened and shrugged, gesturing shamefacedly. “Besides, it was true enough that I was in his charge for the day, and his master was a man few would care to cross.”
“Yet you say Vaisey himself had treated you with barely veiled contempt.” The Queen's greying brows drew together in elegant hauteur.
“Horizontal desires, indeed! And all the stamina I could want… ” Alix choked on an indignant snort that turned to grudging amusement halfway through. “In the normal way of things, I am sure he would have shed no tears had I lain dead in a ditch, and Gisborne seemed to think no better of me.”
She swallowed, and reached for her cup of spring-water. “It had been folly to go there, as I realised soon enough. It was John’s town and they were John’s men, and it was common knowledge that John never cared for me."
“John has never cared much for anyone but himself, I am ashamed to say,” Eleanor retorted, and stared bleakly into the distance. "But then I always feel responsible for that. His father and I were not on the best of terms when he was born." "And was the dalliance with the Fair Rosamund your responsibility too, my dearest aunt? Though to be fair, nor was it John’s.”
Life found the most ingenious ways to be cruel at times; the reflection cast a dark shadow on the vibrant beauty of this May afternoon. Alix set down her cup and passed a hand over her face.
"As for what lay behind Nottingham’s stake in my continued well-being,” she went on, retrieving her thoughts and her mantle with a sigh, “My women had dropped certain hints as they rubbed balm into my temples and put me into my bed. Servants had been turned off, food-stocks were low and the weekly market was failing - all signs of a city in decline. I concluded that if all this were true, and the Sheriff was hoping for my aid and favour, he was going about it in a very ham-fisted way, for he was snubbing me, even as he was forcing hospitality on me.”
There were pouches about the Queen’s eyes, and a maze of creased skin, but the glance she shot her niece was as shrewd and piercing as ever. “Yes, I know,” Alix said, with a grimace. “There was more to it, of course there was, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. And by then my thoughts had turned to the enigma that was Gisborne himself.”
“Yes,” came the dry interjection. “I thought they might have done.”
Alix’s lips tightened. “What can I say in mitigation, anda meuna? He haunted me,” she admitted wryly, “with that darkness that surrounded him like a gathering storm - his shadowed, angry eyes, his air of forever living on a sword-edge. What kept him shackled to a man he seemed to despise as much as he feared? And what could life have done to him, I wondered, to make him view the world with a despair that more than matched my own precarious state of mind?”
Eleanor’s veils drifted on the breeze like a fall of thick snow as she cocked her head and fixed her niece with the intent tawny gaze of a hawk. “And did your women have no light to shed into these gloomy corners?” she asked.
“Ailàs, aunt, the Lady Constanza had found little on this matter to indulge her taste for gossip. Nor did my young Adela fare much better.” The castle servants were reticent and wary of reprisals, Constanza had informed her, her thin feathers much ruffled. And no wonder; why, she herself had been barked at, and for the incomprehensible sin of using a man’s given name! Alix smiled to herself, recalling the loyal tire-woman’s indignation. ‘With perfect respect and his rightful title, too,’ she had clucked, wimple a-quiver like a pale and pendulous wattle, compounding the impression of a disgruntled hen. ‘But then who knows what goes on in the thoughts of men?’
Luck or blessed instinct had spared her that particular bone of contention, Alix had reflected. Glints of a tattered pride still showed through the ruin despite his best efforts to deaden his senses with drink. He shouldered the Sheriff’s taunts with courage, and rode with the grace of a prince, though the rigid self-control clearly cost him dear. The formal French manner of address she had chanced upon had sat well enough with that.
"He was of noble birth, anda Eleanora,” she continued, “and of Norman stock, as far as Constanza could learn. His father had been lord of a local manor in King Henry’s time, but dispossessed under tragic circumstances - the details were not forthcoming.” Here, her arms went about her under her heavy cloak, as if the chill of lengthening shadows had invaded the sweet afternoon once more. “He was left homeless and penniless; a desperate boy who disappeared for many years, to return a bitter, angry man. The despicable Vaisey’s delight in him as enforcer, factotum and whipping boy could have done nothing to improve his nature. He was a harsh task-master to his men and ruthless over-lord to the peasantry.“
“Something of an unpolished gemstone, then,” the Queen pronounced tartly, underlining the understatement with a disdainful sniff.
“Unpolished indeed!” The admission was suitably wry. “But I remembered how he had stood in a forest glade, feeding apples to my horse, and so delicately mindful of his scars.” Alix shook her head, reliving her confusion. “It seemed impossible that a man so steeped in violence yet had such a gentle touch. Why, my fractious Ben had all but fawned on him, sticking his proud nose trustingly into his hand. As for his own beast, that too seemed loyal and well cared for, and not a mark on its flanks despite the spurs he wore. In short, aunt, his grudge seemed solely with mankind.”
“And his dealings with the gentler sex?” Eleanor asked, with carefully-judged diffidence.
“I deemed that none of my concern,” Alix replied primly, her gaze fleeing the astute old eyes.
“Yet there is nothing like a little gossip or speculation to leaven an idle afternoon,” the Queen persisted. “Or so I found, during my sixteen years of such times.”
Her niece held up her hands in defeat. “Ah cèl! How is it that you know me better than I know myself, my dearest aunt? For indeed, Adela had inveigled some of the flightier serving girls into giggling hints of his dealings with the local women. And so I drowsed there in my bed, ruminating on what few scraps she had heard.”
“Though naturally, they were none of your concern,” Eleanor retorted, brows perfect arches of irony.
“Naturally!” The brief flare of amusement diminished the shame of admitting to this unseemly interest. But then unseemly interest was the least of her worries, Alix acknowledged, stirring uncomfortably on her cushions before making herself go on. “He had not stinted himself, anda meuna, or so the talk went, the liasons perfunctory and short-lived, though there was no talk of compulsion.”
“Hmm.” Eleanor gave a dismissive wave of a jewelled hand, for they were both aware of the persuasive force of power. “Though if memory serves, he was well-favoured enough not to want for willing partners,” she mused, with the speculative air of a connoisseur. “Despite his habitual glowering expression.”
“Pretty was how you put it… If memory serves!” Alix countered, a spark of mischief lighting her eyes. Then she sobered. “According to Adela, rumour had it that he had also paid court to a well-born girl, who had led him a merry dance of hot and cold… Whatever the truth of it, anda meuna, the general consensus was that bad had gone to worse since his return from the Holy Land some weeks before. Quick to anger he had always been, but now he was unapproachable, with a temper to match the hair-trigger on the devil’s own cross-bow.”
But by then, the slanting sunlight of that earlier spring had eased its way from the chamber walls and she had closed her eyes, worn out by all this pointless speculation. He was nothing to her, she had told herself - a hearth-knight, a lackey to a poisonous little snake of a man. She had graver concerns to occupy her mind, and no memory of him would remain on the morrow,when she left the grim grey walls of this unhappy town behind.
And yet the awareness of his inner torment would not release her; it had echoed in the air between them like the notes from an over-strung lute, setting her own taut heartstrings ringing.
“It was a long time before sleep came to me, anda Eleanora.” she murmured, from the present splendour of the Fontevrault afternoon. She had sunk into the darkness gratefully when it did, eager for the respite from over-thinking and the other grim considerations that clamoured to be heard. “At that moment I would have been willing to sleep forever! Though I would have settled for right through till morning,” she recalled with an acid smile. “For I knew I would be expected at supper again. Indeed, my longed-for rest-stop at Nottingham Castle had turned out to be as taxing as my most challenging day on the road, and I could not wait to leave.”
Nottingham, Spring 1193.
“What’s the matter, Gisborne? Has the cat got that honeyed tongue of yours?”
The Sheriff flickered his own tongue suggestively and leaned in close, under pretext of pouring more of the unusually fine Burgundy that had appeared on his table a mere twenty four hours ago, along with the fancy table linen and the silver-gilt furnishings. Given Nottingham's supposed straightened circumstances, the luxury was incongruous.
"What happened to all those sweet nothings you should have been whispering in my lady’s ear?" he persisted, from this unnerving proximity. "She should she be hanging on your every word by now - all the better to hang on your…” He left the sentence unfinished, feigning intimidation at the kindling in his lieutenant’s eyes, but the downward direction of his glance had been eloquence enough.
“Tsk tsk,’’ the needling murmur reproached. “Have you no poetry in your soul?” Then Vaisey answered himself on a gust of winey breath: “But of course you haven’t! That’s why you have been sitting there all evening like a block of wood, and not getting on with the task in hand.” The hooded brown eyes slid up to the head of the stairs and back, and he pressed his palms together in mocking supplication. “Please tell me you have at least been exchanging speaking glances while my attention was elsewhere.”
The master at arms inhaled raggedly and followed the direction of his gaze. Alix, Countess of Vézelay was standing in the doorway, engaged in earnest conversation with one of her women; the crone with the iron-grey braids and sour expression who had brought him his lunch. Her mistress had risen from the table, excusing herself with a courtly dip of her head, and mounted the stairs to meet her, the rich red of tonight’s inevitable mantle a tongue of flame in the shadows. This morning, a lowly stable boy’s welfare had not been beneath her notice; tonight, she spared an old woman’s knees.
A rare and easy grace marked her dealings with her inferiors, and Gisborne could not begin to imagine what it must be like to serve in this way -as if some degree of mutual respect and understanding were possible, rather than the dark compulsion that bound him to his own lord. And yet he’d found the time he had spent in her company far from comfortable. It jarred his over-stretched nerves to be watched and managed; he needed to be left to his duties and keep his thoughts to himself.
Meanwhile he found himself envying her the opportunity to escape the charged atmosphere of Vaisey’s board. The heavy smells, of boiled roots, hot mutton fat and green-wood smoke, mingled unpleasantly with the rank undertow of hidden agendas, and he didn’t know how long his stomach would stay in check. There was one gleam of light on the horizon - those miserable bastards of minstrels had not appeared so far to add their caterwaulings to the unholy mix.
The tire-woman’s tight-stringed purse of a mouth was loose enough this evening. She had hardly paused for breath since she had appeared in the doorway with the Countess’s ruddy-faced steward in her wake, and the candles had burned down a finger's span since then. Though any pretensions of discretion the old besom might have had were defeated by her deafness; she was as loud as she was long.
There was trouble at the Trip to Jerusalem Inn, he gathered. It seemed that cocky little turd of a lute-player had chosen his repertoire with the same brass neck as he’d demonstrated earlier in the day. A small jewelled purse now changed hands - a sweetener, no doubt, to ensure the visiting party would not outstay their welcome, and Gisborne’s tension ratcheted down a notch as the grim prospect of musical entertainment receded further still.
Nor had he been expected to reprise the role of serving boy tonight, he reflected, arching his neck uncomfortably as the unwelcome heat of remembered shame licked at the hollow of his throat. On the other hand, he had been placed directly across the table from the Lady of Vézelay - all the better to gaze soulfully into a pair of fine eyes, the Sheriff had put it, baring his tombstone teeth, and Gisborne had found it as humiliating as dancing or waiting on table. Christ on the cross! He was a soldier, and he’d led a soldier’s rough life. Yet there he’d sat, the whorehouse virgin again, his cheeks on fire.
What was it about that level grey gaze that was so disconcerting, he asked himself, with a fervour bordering on despair. Did it remind him of a certain expression of his mother’s, perhaps; the one that told him she saw straight through his youthful attempts at pulling the wool over her eyes? The guilt and anguish of his boyhood memories threatened to overwhelm him anew, and he reached blindly for the wine flagon.
Oh yes, he decided, retrieving his errant chain of thought as the smooth vintage bathed his gullet in liquid silk. There was more to the Countess of Vézelay than excess wealth and inbreeding, but he could not put a finger on what it was. The botched manuscript came to mind again, with its mismatched pages, riffled this way and that in a wayward wind. Perhaps tonight for once in his life his luck would be in, and when he looked up, the lady of the all-knowing glances would be gone, leaving the field to the vain silly chit who flaunted rich furs on a warm spring day and galloped full tilt at a river in spate.
Far easier to do what he had to do with someone he could despise… Dredge up a few fine-sounding words in that low tone some females found exciting; a searing glance that promised a whole lot more, and her honour and her riches would be ripe for the taking. Though God help him when it had to come to anything else.
How long was it since he’d had a woman, or even thought of wanting one? Not since he was in Portsmouth, on the way to the Holy Land, and half-mad with rage and lust for Marian.
Would he ever feel that surge again, free of the taint of bitter memories; that hunger, that fury, that gut-wrenching sorrow born of betrayal? Gisborne bit down on his under-lip and tasted blood.
The Sheriff was drumming on the table as the interruption to his carefully orchestrated evening dragged on. His displeasure hung in the over-heated air like clouds running before a storm. Patience at an end, he snapped his fingers at the guard that stood at the high back of his great chair.
"What are they still doing here, sergeant?" He gestured towards the doorway, where the steward and the tiring woman were still conversing with their mistress, his expression urbane and all the more dangerous for being so. ‘’I take it you’re going to give me a very good reason why they haven’t been escorted to that… place of safety we discussed earlier, along with everyone else of the party still in the castle?” He paused, and his purring voice took on an edge of honed steel, “Or did you imbeciles send the whole watch to cover the fun and games at the inn? No, you fool!” he spat, as the guard turned about sharply on a booted heel. “You’ll alarm our guest. Wait till her people leave, then follow them down the corridor and do it there. Discreetly.”
Gisborne meanwhile had turned to a morose contemplation of the fine linen napery, distracting himself from his unpalatable thoughts by tracing the intricacies of its weave. He looked up sharply as his lord raised his voice. He had only been half-listening to the one-sided conversation, but it was enough to recognise that this was part of the plan he’d not been made privy to - which did nothing to alter the fact that it was his men that were involved, and therefore the blame would be his, should things go wrong “My lord,” he muttered, swallowing down bile, for in the close heat his world had swayed and tilted as he raised his head. “Is there a problem?”
Vaisey clucked his tongue. “Only with the help round here," he said, with a mournful shake of his head. “He is only a common lout of a man at arms, but you I despair of, Gisborne, I really do. After all I have done to smooth your way -- the dancing, the picnic, this festive repast --and what is the tally so far? He jerked his chin at a platter where a roast bird lay, stuffed with sour apples and studded with cloves. “A big fat duck,” he declared, crossly, “and as you can see, I already have more than enough of that on my plate."
The hoary brows knit and a stiff finger stabbed at his lieutenant’s jerkin. "Tonight‘s our last chance, boy! In the morning she will be gone, taking our chances of solvency with her and you’ve done nothing all evening but sit there and sulk like a spoiled child. Or did the bad kitty-cat run off with your balls as well as your tongue?"
Gisborne’s throat closed. ‘My lord…” he ventured again, choking with humiliation.
"M-y-y lord, my lo-o-rd,” Vaisey mocked. “You sound like a bleating goat!" He threw his hands up in disgust. “Ah well, I suppose you’ll just have to act like one. I’ve cut her out of the herd for you - all her people should be safely out of the way, any time now. Or I’ll know the reason why,” he added darkly, with a glance towards the hapless guard who was still hovering uncomfortably at the foot of the stairs. “So seduction be damned, take her to her chamber and tup her. Or,” he breathed, punctuating his words with meaningful digs of his finger into the younger’s man’s lower belly, "you might find it will be you who’ll be well and truly tupped.”
Flame ignited behind Gisborne’s eyes, and his hand shot out to choke off the taunting flow that spewed from the Sheriff’s mouth like the effluent from a drain. But the rich burgundy had warped his aim, and his open fist connected with the wine-flagon instead. It went reeling into the hands of the Countess, who caught it neatly as she arrived back at the table.
"Messire, are you well?" she murmured, setting down the jug and taking her seat, while the Sheriff occupied himself with a second helping of his duck. "Your face is quite without colour."
Gisborne hissed denial and reached for the flagon again. Pouring another drink had become something of a reflex for him; but now the lip of the ornate ewer knocked against the rim of his cup, spattering the snowy expanse of the cloth with a crimson skein. He felt the flask gently prised from his shaking fingers and the wine was poured for him, though the intervention did little to ease his frustration; nor did the cool voice that persisted in engaging him despite the closed expression that proclaimed his wish to be left alone. “It is stifling in here, is it not, Messire de Gisborne?" she was saying. “Or so I am finding it, even for me. As I plan to leave at first light tomorrow, perhaps I might prevail on you to have me escorted to my chamber now."
"Of course you may, my lady," Vaisey cut in with oily bonhomie. :"He’ll take you himself, won’t you, Gisborne?” adding in a covert whisper as he thrust a crumpled parchment scrap into his lieutenant’s hands. “Take her, indeed. And while you’re at it, make sure it’s for every last penny on that list.”
Gisborne stalked like a great hunting cat at the Countess’ side, his spurs ringing as his boot-heels pounded stone. For weeks now an alcoholic haze had lain over him like a pall of wood-smoke, but suddenly it was gone. He was totally and painfully alert again, resentment and humiliation a seething molten mass in his gut, while his breath came in hot gouts that seared his nasal passages at every step he took. For once, he did not fight it - he courted it. It sickened him to admit it, but Vaisey had known him better than he knew himself. There was only one way he was going to get this thing done; take her by force on the wings of his rage and let her shame do the rest.
They were outside her chamber at last. A moment’s hesitation on his part handed her the opportunity to evade him even then, by slipping past to put the door between them. But she was betrayed by her own careful courtesy; she turned to bid him goodnight, and he seized her by a wrist and dragged her inside, slamming and bolting the door behind them. The sound echoed up and down the long stone tunnel like the clamour of a cracked bell.
Incredibly, she did not struggle. Instead, she stood motionless, a few steps beyond the threshold, still manacled by his grip. A swift glance round the room would tell her she was quite alone with him, and he expected she would fight him then; call for help, dissolve in floods of tears - anything but this preternatural calm. “Messire…” Her voice was as cool as the skin beneath the cincture of his fingers, and she spoke so softly, he had to curb his breathing, angling his head to catch her words. "I think you forget your own strength.”
His lip curled. "Forgive me if my manners lack elegance,” he jeered, his mouth an inch from her ear. “I’m not one of your mincing court peacocks; just a rough man at arms.” Rage still juddered under his restraint, a foam-flecked warhorse ready to bolt at the slightest touch of a heel; but he stepped away at length, flinging her hand from him with a grimace, feeling its scented softness besmirched him.
She met his eyes without flinching as she massaged her bruised wrist with her fingers - casually, as if it had been caught in the strings of her gown rather than crushed in a madman’s grasp. "I know the life men lead,’ she said. "Schooled to hard ways from boyhood. But we all had a mother once, Messire. Surely yours warned you not to be rough when you played with the little girls?"
Her last words were spoken lightly, yet they raked Gisborne’s heart from the burning coals and cast it out onto snow. For the second time in the space of an evening, childhood memories came crowding in on him. He had been drinking hard these past weeks to blot out the horrors of the immediate past, but it seemed that along with the loss of control, older ghosts were surfacing. The rancour he felt towards his parents had been a festering sore in his side for years, before subsiding to a constant dull ache that he'd seen as his atonement for his part in their deaths. Tonight, the wound was bleeding again.
He drew in a breath, clenching his fists at his sides till the gauntlet-leather squeaked so he would not wrap his hands round the throat that had called up such pain. "My mother," he spat, ‘"had better things to do with her time than spend it with her children.”
It was unjust, a voice objected inside of him, and not entirely true. But hadn’t the betrayal had been all the greater because of the times of contentment and trust? “As for my father, he only did what all men do,” he added, his features stony with contempt. “Linger long enough to sire a litter and then move on to the important things in life.”
He had said too much, but it was too late to take it back. The Countess’ head was inclining, acknowledging the bitter cast of his words. In the eye of the storm, he noted how her veils pooled on the shoulders of her garnet-coloured mantle, like the pure stone folds of a chapel window-frame. And then he collected himself with a sneer. She must practise the gesture in her mirror, he told himself angrily before something other than scorn could worm its way in. As if she could know what he’d gone through, day after day, until he’d tamped down all the loss and terror with ruthless deeds and vengeful thoughts…
Christ on the cross, where was the feather-brained chit when he needed her - the hoyden who tore off her veils and jutted her chin at him with her hair streaming in the wind? She had sunk without trace into this sea of cloying tranquillity, and he wanted her back; wanted to shake her to dishevelment, hearing her scream and plead as he mastered her, savouring the warped pleasure of knowing someone else felt as wretched and violated as he did.
Instead it was my lady Countess who glided on into the room, seating herself on a wide cushioned bench before the fire with her jewelled hands folded on her knees. She might have been in her bower with her ladies, preparing to inventory the household linens, rather than closeted alone with a berserker. The costly rings winked in the firelight, green, blue and rose, taunting him with their reminder of his purpose here. The thought of it, the crude reality of putting his hands on her, ripping the smart gown from her body to force himself on her, brought his heart thundering into his throat.
He strode forward. For long moments, he stood over her, fruitlessly sucking in air, until she raised her head and fixed him with her clear grey eyes.
“Indeed, it is a cold world for a child, Messire de Gisborne.” she said evenly, and it drove him from fire to ice again, and back into fire. From a high-born woman who had led a charmed life from birth, the words were insulting.
“What can you know?” he snarled, a muscle pulsing in his outthrust jaw.
The Countess shrugged and cupped her chin in one white hand. "I had no father, as others will have delighted in telling you. As for my mother, I never knew her.” She spoke reflectively, as if to a confidant, rather than a stranger who meant her no good. "Fostering is the norm at court, but she sent me away as a new babe, to be raised by my half-sister in Flanders. She never visited." The cool gaze appraised him for a moment, seeking he knew not what. Then she glanced down again to contemplate her hands, now folded on her lap once more. "Life is not kind to children, Messire. The mystery is why this is forgotten when we have children of our own."
She paused, and her small mouth was taut and bitter. "When I was twelve, I was taken to court at Dijon and wed to a man three decades my senior.” She flung out a hand in dismissal, as if the best thing that could be said about it was that it was over and done. “I bore my lord four sons before I was twenty. Then I let him take them from me when they were scarcely more than babes, to be moulded to those hard men’s ways we spoke of, earlier.” Her head rose and she looked into his face again. “And I thought it the right and proper thing to do, just as my mother must have thought before me - ridding herself of an inconvenience to her future and to her kin."
Gisborne’s throat worked, and he glanced away, folding his arms across his body to hold the tattered remains of himself together. The right and proper thing… As his father had done, setting off to the Holy Land to fight for God, and no matter that he was leaving his family to fend for themselves in this harsh man’s world. Or his mother, forced by circumstance to seek a protector… He could see that now, though he would never accept the purity of her motives - whoring herself in thickets and barns, and to the father of the boy who was the instigator of his troubles.
And what of himself and all he had left of family, his sister Isabella? He had assured her a future, with a rich man willing to take her without dowry-- but who knew what her life had been, as a result of this particular right and proper thing? He’d been too busy selling his own soul to take the time to find out.
"Life is cruel, Messire," the quiet voice was saying. “For ourselves as well as our children. There is a saying in the Old Saxon tongue, wyrd bid ful aread. Fate is inexorable. We are bound by forces greater than we are, and we can but do what we must, would you not say?"
We do what we must…
Gisborne bit at his bloodied lip and closed his mind to her words. Meaningless platitudes, the lot of them. Like stray water droplets scattered on the coals - a wisp of steam, and then gone forever.
The acid burn resumed its slow climb up his throat.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
"Why did my mother dislike me, anda meuna?”
Alix of Vézelay licked dry lips and voiced the question she had always been too afraid to ask. Gisborne’s harsh childhood memories had roused ghosts from a past that should have been dead and buried, though their insistent whispering still troubled her sleep at times. ”What could I have done to her, a tiny girl? You at least would not have condemned her, I know you would not. Yet she sent me away, never to see me again, as if I were some loathsome thing she had discovered under a stone.” Her knuckles were white, her hands a reflection of her tangled thoughts as they twisted together on her lap. “Can you not tell me what it was?” she pleaded. “She is dead and gone now, after all.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine shook her head, silken veils a-flutter in the breeze that carried a redolence of herbs from the physic garden. Girofle and lavender for peaceful sleep, sweet yarrow for wounds to the flesh - but where were the herbs that would heal a damaged soul? "I wish I could staunch your pain, my Lysette,” she murmured, “But I can not. It was done before I had wind of it, and Petra would not speak of it afterwards, not in any manner that made sense." Her lips pursed and her gaze was pensive, as if she focused inward on her own store of unwelcome memories. “I gather it was because your father was not the man she thought he was,” she said, after a while. “Though how true that was, we will never know, for we could never get her to name names. She chose to take the secret with her to the grave."
Alix ventured a wistful smile, her thin fingers seeking the cool sheen of her hanging sleeve. ‘’Do you know, aunt, it used to be my dream that it was the Marshal,” she said, stroking the glossy yardage. “I saw him a time or two, in Flanders and in Burgundy. So tall and noble... And I wished with all my heart that he would ride up one day on his great white destrier and carry me away. Of course, I know now he was far too young."
"Nor did we encounter the good William till some years after your birth,” the Queen confirmed. “Though the manner of our meeting was the stuff of one of Master Chrétien’s romances indeed; he came riding to the rescue when a troupe of traitorous Poitevins sought to capture me for ransom." She chuckled softly, seeming to relive the heady days of her prime. And then she saddened, for that particular tale of chivalry had not ended well, as Alix knew. The Marshal had lost a mother’s brother in the altercation and spent wretched months in captivity afterwards.
"A sweet brave man, in truth, our William, and loyal to the bone to this day,” Eleanor concluded, her lips curving in pleasure. “Of him, you may be sure your mother thought very well indeed. But she was not the only one to let you down, my girl,” she admitted, and the lines bracketing the still lovely mouth deepened. “Your half-sister Mabile was not the most attentive of guardians. Indeed, we saw a deal too much of her at court for that, both in Poitiers and Troyes. While you were a dear little thing, too much alone, and I should have made the time to come and see you more often than I did.”
She gestured abruptly in self-censure, the amber of her eyes darkening. “You and that little companion of yours -- Jehane, was it not? Jehane de Bec, daughter to Count Philip’s chief clerk… The memory of the two of you in that dark corner of the old solar in Ghent, sucking your thumbs and clinging together like kittens in a basket, returned to haunt me many a time, when it was too late to do anything about it.”
"Yet was it not you who sent me my nurse and my tutor, anda Eleanora?” her niece reminded her, with the warmth of heartfelt gratitude. “Your hands were full with the cares of two states and a restless bevy of children of your own, while for sixteen long years the lord Henry made sure you went nowhere at all. Yet it is because of you that I read and write, and hold onto my Occitàn heritage." Alix folded her hands, studying the pattern of her enlaced fingers once more. "We can but do what we must, my dearest aunt, each and every one of us. As I did, in Ghent and Burgundy, schooling myself to be numb and biddable, a quiet child and a good wife. As Gisborne must have done, making himself hard and uncaring when his childhood came to an unhappy end.”
The shadows were lengthening in the garth, the speedwell sky of early afternoon deepening to the hue of windflowers. It was impossible to look upon such a consonance of blues and not drown in the past. Alix of Vézelay glanced up at the high May heaven, radiant above the slate-grey of the cloister roof and her face crumpled. "Ah, anda meuna," she whispered, pressing her hand to her side. "Sometimes I cannot bear it…"
The Queen reached for the small silver bell that would summon a lay sister, but the younger woman stayed her hand.
“No, aunt, no,” she cautioned. “You of all people know there are pains that no draught can cure. The only way I can rid myself of mine is to let it go, and yet I cling to it jealously." Tears welled in her eyes, but she brushed at them away impatiently with the heel of a hand. She was growing maudlin, and she had promised herself she would not weep. Pride in her own strength of mind had often been the only thing that brought her through a dire day. "Perhaps now, here with you, I will find the courage to relive it, one last time,” she said. “Then I can begin to think of the world to come.”
Eleanor took the cold fingers, warming them with hers. ‘’Lysette, my dear child,” she said, gently chiding. ”Am I about to hear what I think I am - and from you, of all people? Even knowing what you asked of me, I would still have sworn the day would never come.”
"So would I, anda meuna, and you have heard me do so many times. But as they so rightly say, pride comes before a fall.” Alix countered her aunt’s knowing gaze with a wry smile. “That night, my world changed. As if it had not changed enough when Sister Amicia gave me the grim news.” A chill whispered across her skin, despite the welcome warmth of the sun on her spine. That was the night when all her truths had been put in question, and all her certainties turned upside down.
"It was a quiet enough evening to begin with," she recalled, suppressing the rogue frisson of shame. "I had thought to put my minstrels out of the Sheriff’s reach for the night by sending them to the inn - there was a famous one close by the curtain wall, and they had begged to see it. I deemed the ploy successful, bar a minor altercation with the inn-keeper, easily settled by a little largesse. Although my worthy Constanza had other concerns.: Her lips twisted sourly, remembering how Vaisey had been a step ahead of her all the time.
“Too many of my suite had decamped, either to the Trip to Jerusalem, or elsewhere, without thinking to inform either her or my steward of their plans.” She met the older woman’s quizzical glance with a sheepish look and a shrug of her shoulders. ”But I was half-dozing by then, aunt, for once over-warm for comfort, and too distracted by the odd byplay that was going on at the table to consider the implications of what I had just been told.”
“Not to mention the after-effects of what you had been indulging in that afternoon. Despite its lack of honey!" was Eleanor’s astute observation. “Sister Amicia’s potion is no child’s cough cordial. No, my Lysette,” she added swiftly, as her niece shifted in her chair, the creak of the wooden slats lending voice to her discomfort. “I make the point in mitigation, not in blame. Who could have done differently in your place?”
All the same, the guilt rankled, for it was her own lack of vigilance that had brought her to this pass - her whole being still in turmoil, when she should have been composing her soul for the road ahead. But what else could she do but nod and press on? “The evening drew to a close at long last,” Alix continued, “with the Sheriff’s final whispered barb, into Gisborne’s ear. He lunged for his master with a strangled oath, but the objectionable little man merely laughed and waved us both away.” Her lips compressed with revulsion. “Believe me, aunt, I had closed my ears to the bulk of the innuendo, but I was rarely more glad to take my leave of anyone.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s expression mirrored her niece’s distaste. ‘’I can imagine, my dear,” she said, her eyes narrowing. ”It is not well done to speak ill of the dead, but I thanked God Vaisey was not there to greet me when I was at Nottingham, a month or so ago, at Richard’s side."
“So say many, I do not doubt,” her niece retorted. “With him and his tame harpy on the prowl, my commissions might have proved impossible, even for you.” What an unhappy woman she must have been, the Lady Isabella. She had reason to be bitter, but she had allowed it to poison her… His sister was another strand of Gisborne’s life that had gone awry, and with tragic consequences. Life was cruel indeed, cruel beyond measure.
A new wave of sadness washed over her, gluing the sides her throat together, and she reached for the goblet of spring-water again. Her voice was threatening to fail her, and so was her courage; she was approaching the meat of her tale, and if she quailed at the thought of laying her soul bare before her beloved aunt and queen, how was she to bring herself to do so before her confessor, and her God?
The metal goblet chinked against the wood of the table as she set it down, and she bent her head, staring down at her slippered feet, unable to face the wild blue glory that hung above. “He walked me to my chamber in grim silence,” she began again. “Yet I was taken unawares when he seized me and thrust me inside.” Her glance flicked up, as knowing eyes burned into her, enigmatic and deep and withholding judgement for the nonce. Alix swallowed her distress and hurried on. “His grip crushed my bones, anda meuna,” she said. “Yet in my haze of tiredness and medication, I felt no fear. It is hard, perhaps, to be truly afraid, when you have so little left to lose.”
"You could yet have come to great harm, my dear,’’ the Queen replied, in gentle remonstration. ‘’He might well have defiled and maimed you, before he took your life."
The younger woman nodded. “Indeed, aunt, and there was a part of me that must have known it, for my heart fluttered against my ribs like a songbird in a snare. Yet I felt detached from reality somehow, as if nothing could touch me- as I did when I was small and crawled out of a tower window, or balanced like a tumbler atop the curtain wall.”
She stared off into the middle distance and saw neither grass nor stone nor sky, but the jet and amber shadows of a fire-lit chamber and Gisborne, tall and implacable, with his hold on himself all but gone. “He blazed, anda Eleanora,” she whispered. “Like a southlands wild-fire - mesmerising, and leaving me conscious of little beyond exhilaration and a breathless envy of this towering, oddly beautiful rage.” Her lips twisted, ruefully. “We have that beaten out of us in girlhood, do we not, my dearest aunt?”
The Queen’s mouth tightened. “It is better to dwell in the wilderness than with a contentious female,” she quoted, acidly -- the words of many a crabbed cleric through the ages, and the opinion of most men. “At times I think we are little better off than the poor beasts they keep in the Tower for their amusement,” she declared, with an impatient snort. "They draw our teeth and claws.”
“Yet the menagerie beasts still roar,” Alix reminded her, the shadow of a smile crossing her face. “I think I had forgotten how much I missed being angry! But then for years, I had not felt much at all.”
Nottingham, Spring 1193.
Gisborne paced like a caged beast in the space before the fire. He’d learned early on in life that to dwell on the past brought a deep sense of loss and unbearable pain. Now once again grief and a burning resentment warred in him, reprising the age-old struggle for dominance of his mind.
At the end of a pass he paused to jab an accusatory finger in the Countess’s direction. “What makes you think I needed to hear your reminiscences?” The last word was spat out like a wad of cold pork gristle.
Her answer was cool, her tone even and assured. “What makes you think I needed to speak of them?” She reached for one of the flagons that stood to hand on a small table, and he watched, nostrils flaring with impatience, as liquid curled from the ornate spout in a musical stream. And yet once more she had wrong-footed him, since the cup was destined not for herself, but for him. He shook his head when she held it out to him, the curt gesture of refusal bringing instant regret, for his brain swam in his skull, while the suppressed grunt of pain abraded his throat
The ruddy glow of the brazier was an untimely intruder from his dreams, a burning eye that winked knowingly at him, hinting at an awareness of what was happening long in him before he knew it himself. And as if on cue, weakness shuddered through his body. He clenched his jaw, locking his knees before they could betray him.
Simmering rage was all that kept him anywhere near functional these days. Without its spur, he felt himself sinking under the combined weight of his tainted past and his increasingly untenable present. Now this last support was draining away; the combination of too much wine and sleepless nights had caught up with him at last, and he was weaving on his feet. He dug his nails into his palms and drew the tattered red remnants about him, though they afforded him no better protection than a beggar’s cloak.
“It is spring water, with a little honey,” the Countess was saying, her eyes a glint of silver-gilt in the firelight - like the coins she would scatter in careless largesse, no doubt, as she rode on progress through her domains. They took on a darker patina as she subjected him to another of her searching looks. “It may refresh you,” she added, holding out the cup again. “Indeed, the great hall was airless tonight.”
Motioning him to a fold-stool, she turned to the array of dishes that flanked the aquamanile and the pair of heavy metal flagons. “There is fruit, too, if you wish it," she noted, raising a brow in inquiry. “Pearmain apples again, and some pears and berries - from my manor at Bingham, of course. How ingenious of your lord Sheriff to requisition my own supplies for my entertainment,” she observed with a tight smile. She had risen from the bench to pursue her investigation, lifting cloths and peering into platters. “No spiced wafers, I see, for I carried none with me, but there is wine, if you prefer it to the water. If I am not mistaken, you will have had some little pleasure of my vintage these past nights, Messire de Gisborne,” she remarked, the taut line of her mouth softening here in gentle raillery.
So this explained the sudden plenty in the midst of monetary famine; the fine napery and rich food on the Sheriff’s table, the silken-smooth Burgundy poured from costly silver- all due to the unwitting generosity of their guest…But Gisborne’s body had overruled his brain at last, folding his knees to deposit him on the stool, on the premise that it was healthier for him to sit rather than fall down. Now it appeared to have loosened his tongue as well. “My lord has little taste for wine," he found himself confiding in a helpless rush of candour. “Our usual brew is as pungent as an outlaw’s armpit. I wondered who his new supplier was.”
“Yet not for very long, I think, before you gave yourself up to a thorough examination of its qualities.” The rejoinder was tart, but her expression was not unfriendly as she put the cup of honeyed water into his hands. It was cool and not too sweet and he sipped at it gratefully, the metal striking cold through the leather of his gauntlets; a comfort to burning palms.
The Countess had reseated herself on the cushioned bench with a comfortable sigh. ’’So,” she said, folding her jewelled hands. “Talk to me, my lord of Gisborne. Since we have agreed to dispense with the social niceties between us, perhaps you will tell me what brings you to my chamber in such haste. Naturally, I would be immensely flattered…” For the space of a single breath, the hoydenish girl peered out at him, a woman grown now, widening her eyes at him in a parody of artlessness. “But ailàs,” she continued, affecting a fashionable bored pout, “You lack the air of a man who is here on his own agenda. Not with a face on you like storm clouds over the Auvergne."
And as if conjured by her words, there was a sudden rumble of distant thunder.
A sound escaped him, more wolfhound’s bark than anything, for there was little humour in the situation, and what there was came at his expense. What could he say that would not cast him into this midden pit Vaisey prepared for him? But of course, he was already up to the neck in it.
“I may be rich and spoilt…” the Countess was remarking pointedly, and his cheeks grew hot as he realised again just how transparent he had allowed himself to be. “But make no mistake, Messire, I am no green girl. I have overseen my domains since the day my lord the Count first rode off to play at war, and my babes still of an age to be hanging on my skirts. So I think I may claim some knowledge of the ways of the world."
She picked up the smaller flagon, the intricate chasing of twining vines proclaiming its match to the plate that had graced the great hall table for the past two nights, along with the exquisite napery and other luxuries. Vaisey had been transparent too, blatantly so, and that was unlike him. Apparent moments of madness aside, he was an experienced and cunning commander. Surely he knew better than place his confidence in a second-in-command who had all the reliability of a nag with a broken wind? Gisborne arched his neck uncomfortably and averted his gaze, focussing instead on the movements of her hands as she filled a cup for herself.
But there was to be no escape from her perspicacity. "Let us see," she went on, counting her points off on her fingers. "My lord Sheriff has had you dancing your rather reluctant attendance on me for the past two days... Now here we are closeted together in my chamber, with a fire banked up in the brazier, a dainty cold collation on the table and my tiring women and steward nowhere to be seen... All so very intimate, would you not say?” She took a sip from her goblet and hissed softly between her teeth, though it was unclear which was so distasteful to her, the wine or the status quo. She set the cup aside with a metallic clink and picked up a pear from its basket. "So. Let me spell it out for us,” she said, paring a thin slice from the fruit, and speaking as coolly as if she were discussing the disposal of domestic duties for the coming week. :"Your lord wants something from me that he thinks I will not give willingly, and you have the task of extricating it from me. By fair means or foul."
It was as if she’d just landed him a roundhouse punch to the gut. Gisborne gaped like a gaffed pike, as she put the morsel of pear into her mouth and chewed reflectively. “May I peel you a pear, by the way?” she asked, casually. “Or would you prefer an apple again?”
He rubbed at his jaw, feeling he muscles tight as steel cords under the stubbled skin. The situation was veering wildly out of control, a siege engine that had slipped its tethers and come thundering down on him. She had caught them at their game; a shrewd and seasoned strategist, dissecting their campaign with consummate ease.
“Though after the kind of evening he has just put you through,” she added thoughtfully as she reached for a pearmain, “you may no longer have the patience for friendly persuasion, Messire. Yet not the will for anything more… strenuous perhaps?” Her cool voice trailed off, inviting a response he was incapable of supplying.
Strenuous… Christ on the Cross!
He rubbed at his taut jaw again, watching the fruit fall in neat white slices from her silver knife. She had peeled and cored him as neatly as she had the apple. Seduction was never going to be a viable option; he’d known that from the start. It was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Sheriff had known it too; but it would have entertained him to pretend otherwise, purely to watch his lieutenant squirm.
Yet what the Sheriff might not have bargained for was that his cruel and ruthless master at arms lacked the heart to force her – or anyone else, for that matter. Not that rape had ever been much to his taste - something tried once, in hot-blooded youth with the pressure of peers, then abandoned for more impersonal ways of imposing his will. But now as he chewed at his cheek, he acknowledged a fact that had trailed him all the way from the Holy Land, to lurk in dark corners ever since - just deserts, after what he had done. In the language of the rough soldier he claimed to be, his prick was dead, beyond hope of resurrection. He would never take a woman again.
Which would have left him with one last string to his bow -intimidation. But now the wind had gone out of the sails of his rage, and she was either too stupid or too foolhardy to be afraid of him. Instead, she sat there sipping wine and offering to share a plate of fruit, as if they were old friends. Gisborne shook his tired head like a hound beset by a cloud of hornets, and the first thing to come into his mind slipped off his tongue. “Vaisey was madder than usual to think this would work.”
"Oh, I don’t know." The Countess crossed one leg over the other and swung a silken slipper from her toe. "There is a certain perverse logic to it. Do not most men believe a woman needs a good seeing to in order to teach her what she thinks, on all manner of topics?” Her nose wrinkled and the hoydenish smile worked its spell on the stately matron’s features. "Then in I rode on my big black horse, and he decided my particular weakness would be for wild dark creatures that toss their heads and snort down their noses a great deal.”
At her words, enlightenment ripped through him like the tidal bore up the Trent. So this was what had prompted the Sheriff's leers as he looked down from the embrasure the other day. He’d likened him, Guy of Gisborne, to this woman’s favoured horse! He tossed his head, snorting in outrage - and snorted again, helplessly and quite painfully, when he realised what he had done. Tears streamed down his nose, adding to his humiliation, and he dashed them away, raking her with an affronted glare - only to encounter eyes that were dancing.
So was his stomach by now, and far from pleasantly, for his traitorous memory was playing a scene over for him; shards of coloured light sliding over the black hide as be-ringed hands petted and fondled... He shuddered, unwilling to think of the lewd images that would have rushed through the Sheriff’s mind when he saw the Countess ride in. Even worse was the realisation that unclean things must been living inside his own skull, whispering the same twisted thoughts to him, for the sight of those caressing fingers to have disturbed him so.
Yet the Countess seemed untroubled by the comparison. In fact, it appeared merely to amuse her. "There is some vague resemblance," she mused, pursing her lips and cocking her head at him, her veils pooling in fluted columns once more. "Though I have to say that of the two of you, the horse has the sunnier disposition." She glanced sidelong through her lashes at him. "How unlucky for you that I chose not to arrive on my old brindled mule,” she remarked, adding with a wickedly unladylike smile. “Then your lord sheriff would have had to resign himself to doing his own dirty work."
At this, all the squalid visions drained away as swiftly as the air from a pricked bladder, leaving in their place the image of a bell-collared Vaisey with elongated ears, batting his lashes and braying ingratiatingly. In spite of his grim situation, Gisborne’s lips twitched - until her next question robbed him of what little composure he had regained.
“So tell me. What is it he wants from me?”
He was beyond weary, on this bitch of a day which had begun with a ride in the morning sun and ended here by the fire. What backbone he had left in him was liquefying, along with the last remnants of concern for the success of this sordid enterprise. So he slumped ungracefully on his stool, his eyes on his goblet as he swung it between his knees and he told her quite bluntly the whole sad sum of it -the Sheriff’s burning need for funds, and the way he thought to have them.
"Not much then," she declared, with heavy irony, scanning the crumpled scrap of parchment he had produced from the neck of his jerkin. "Are you sure there’s nothing else? A county, perhaps? The odd castle in Poitou?" She emitted a small snort of her own. "At least he asked for no wardships. I could never in all conscience hand over young lives to a man like that."
Of course you couldn’t, Gisborne though dully. Not when you have such a prime example of his handiwork before you. A bully and a murderer, who was prepared to take advantage of your over-trusting nature and dishonour you - if he’d not lacked the energy to ravish a roast fowl, that was.
The Countess took another sip from her goblet, then gazed into its depths with a moue of displeasure. "What I can not understand is why he did not just come out and ask me for it,” she pronounced. “Is he not famed for his gall though half Europe?” She ate a sliver of pear, without relish. "But then I suppose that would not have been nearly as enjoyable as manipulating others. Did he truly think I would cast my cap over the mill for a man because he reminded me of my horse?”
Her glare of indignation changed to amusement as their eyes met, for they were both remembering the afternoon, and her sauntering walk down the meadow, with her veil dragged off and her hair streaming free. Then she sobered, her cool grey gaze fixing him like an insect on a pin. “Though as you have come to know, Messire de Gisborne, my horse does no one’s bidding but his own.”
The words were a cold steel chain about his heart, and he flinched as she drew it tight. ”What hold does your lord have over you," she asked softly, “that he can send you out whoring for him?"
“I have nobody.”
Again, the words had spilled from him against his will, through the spadeful of gravel that had somehow lodged in his throat. His fingers curled into his gloved palm once more, the nails biting into already abused flesh, for his tone had betrayed all the bitterness and sorrow of years for anyone with ears to hear. He had said the same thing to another woman once, to Marian; though the excuse was as hollow now as it had ever been. As hollow as the vault of heaven tonight, as thunder roamed its perimeter again.
“Bare is the back without brother,” the Countess quoted, and her small mouth drew into a tight line. “It is a burden indeed to have to face the world alone.”
Gisborne curled his lip. The glib old saw in the mouth of a member of one of the world’s most powerful families was insulting to say the least.
“I was not always as I am today, you know,” she reminded him, as if his sour thoughts had been spoken aloud. “The accident of my birth kept me from family and favour for many years.” He saw her throat ripple as she ran the rich fur trim of her mantle back and forth through restless hands. “It is a rare woman that has choices, Messire, in the grand scheme of things. We pass from owner to owner with little say in our fate.”
She stared into the depths of her cup, swirling the contents round for a moment, before setting it down with a decisive air. When she leaned towards him, her eyes were dark and deep as the southern night. “I have seen how he rides you,’ she said, and Gisborne shivered, as the cool current of her insight washed over him once more. “At times, you have the look of a man in the grip of sorcery."
The idea was as seductive as it was chilling, for it absolved him of guilt and responsibility. And at times, it did seem that a glamour enveloped him, sending him sleep-walking through his own life. As if some other mind ruled his body in its armour of black doeskin, directing it to rant and slash and kill. Yet all this was wishful thinking, he knew. The chains that bound him to Vaisey were of his own making; ambition, greed, a thirst to avenge himself on a world that had treated him with contempt. He’d never set much store by the supernatural, after all. “No,” he said, folding his arms across his chest, his voice still thick and rough in his throat. “I know what I do. And do it willingly.”
The Countess shrugged and signalled him to hold out his cup again. ”And if a cloth poppet is what serves the world’s purpose, rather than a young woman with a mind of her own,” she said carefully, as the pure cold liquid purled into his cup “It is better to lock the woman away to sleep in a box and become the doll. Willingly.” She drew a breath, the flagon clattering against the goblet’s rim. “We do what we must, Messire, cloth doll or man with no heart. Sometimes I think it is we who bewitch ourselves, lest we see what we have had to become, and go quite mad.”
He’d been mad all right, in the moment he was made to see himself through Marian’s eyes. Something less than human. Someone she’d rather die than share a life with. How else could he have found himself standing under a hot sun with his world turned to ash?
The Countess had sunk into a reverie of her own, contemplating her spread fingers as the light played on her rings. “Colourful, are they not?” she said, looking up at him, her smile acknowledging how his eyes had been drawn to them, again and again. “My lord the Count always held that more than one small stone was ostentatious. An abstemious man in every respect -save for his own comfort, of course.” Her lip quirked. “If I wear these now, it is in memory of him. We are always more than they think we are, are we not? So as you see, Messire, I have become much more myself of late. It shall be my prayer that you may do so too."
Gisborne swallowed, shaking his head in fierce denial. Any part of himself he might have wanted to meet had died long ago. “No,” he grated. “I have become even less than that - a nithing.” Only the old Saxon insult could plumb the depths of his self-loathing.
The narrow crimson-clad shoulders shrugged. “As you insist.” But in the depths of her eyes, a rogue spark glinted. ”For certes, a dark horse is the last thing I dare call you.”
She reached for the parchment then, smoothing the creased surface with a forefinger and scanning it over, a pucker of concentration between her brows. ”So much for Vaisey’s demands,” she said at last, casting it aside with an impatient flick of the wrist. “But what of you, Messire? You must want something for yourself, a man in your situation, whose lord cannot always have your best interests at heart. What do you wish for - other than a plate of these fine berries, with a little coddled cream, perhaps?
Gisborne stared bleakly at the small silver dish. Here was his dream handed to him on a plate; land and riches his for the asking, with a helping of strawberries and cream on the side. The sweet red fruits had eased his parched throat this afternoon, but he had no appetite for them now, nor for any of the rest of it. He had sunk pretty low over the years, committed heinous crimes, but this must be his limit. He’d been prepared to whore himself, kicking and screaming, for the Sheriff’s sake.
But not for himself, it seemed.
The silence drew out between them; then the Countess widened her eyes, lifting her chin in triumph at this prompt revelation of hidden depths. “Nor have you offered me insult, when you no doubt had orders to do so. Instead, we have had a conversation. Ah pah!” she said, as his eyes went to her bruised wrists. “That I count a miscalculation.”
“I want nothing from you,” he growled, and he drew himself up, glowering so she would not see how close he was to the edge. The rage was on the rise again, like a bloated moon riding a livid sky, but it was directed against himself now and curdled with shame. Who was he fooling? If he had no interest in the Countess’s offer, it was due to no hidden seam of virtue. It was merely his corrupt life catching up with him at last, destroying his appetite for riches, as well as for pleasure.
“No cream, then,” she deduced, returning the dish to the table but placing it within his reach. “Though a little fruit is surely of no great consequence between us? Please, my lord. Eat and drink. Refresh yourself, and grant me a moment to think on this." She gestured to the crumpled parchment that lay among the debris of her frugal meal.
But Gisborne could only stare down at the berries and then up again at her as she sat in silence, her eyes closed and her arms wrapped round her body under the folds of her mantle, for she had drawn it close again despite the brazier’s heat. Firelight flickered on the planes of her face, gilding the pale features and glinting on the fine gold chains that flowed over her breast like burnished rivulets, eddying in time with her shallow breathing.
She was no fresh-faced maid, but no crone either; straight and slender, with no sign she had borne the four children she had spoken of. Her skin still lay smoothly over her bones, except for some small shirring at the corners of lips and eyes. Yet ghostly fingers had touched lids and under-eyes with a thin wash of blue; in unguarded moments, she seemed as world-weary as he was -- a man who had not slept for weeks.
At last, she pushed herself to her feet with a stretch and a heavy sigh. Her packs had spilled open on the floor, abandoned by her attendants as the guards came to take them away, and she went to bend over them, retrieving a tooled leather box of writing materials; quills and parchment and an inkhorn of heavy Saracen silver. Then she began to write, the nib scratching rhythmically across the page as Gisborne sat on, head in hands. He was half-drowsing now, from the heat from the fire and the lateness of the hour; an indication of just how far his sleepless nights had eroded his powers of endurance. He was nodding like an old gaffer at the hearth.
"Messire de Gisborne, you read, of course?"
He came to himself with a start. The Countess had finished her task and was addressing him. He took the parchment from her and focussed blearily, trying to impose some discipline on the curlicues that danced like dusk-tide midges before his eyes. As far as he was capable of telling, it was all there. Everything Vaisey had plotted for so carefully - the rents and revenues from Linby, Wansley Hall, the other manors, the nearby villages and hamlets and the mills along the River Leen… The income from her quarry in Sherwood too, with its rich contract for renovations on Prince John’s hunting lodge at Clypstone. Every manor and messuage, contract, rent and revenue was there…
The load that for the past two days had weighed on him like the world on the shoulders of a crumbling Atlas slid loose, the steel bands that constricted his chest easing a notch. He stared up at her, half-fearing he had dreamed it all into existence with wishful thinking.
The word was a rasp that stuck half-way up his throat. "Why would you do this?" His eyes were burning - from the pressure of forcing speech through the dry knot, he told himself.
"Because I can," she said. "Because we need this to be over and done with, you and I.”
She spoke so very gently, that for a moment he felt the cold kiss of humiliation brush his heart, thinking she had misinterpreted the moisture that filmed his gaze. If this were so, then it merited no further notice for she spoke more briskly now. “Come,” she said, holding out a hand. “Let me finish it for you.” A low chuckle escaped her, the hoydenish miss reappearing. ”You will be impatient to get back to that rough soldiering of yours.”
She took the parchment from him, tearing a tail and dripping melted wax, which she sealed with her ring with all the skill and confidence of long practice; the wayward baggage who was yet no amateur administrator. Gisborne rose and received it gingerly, holding it by a single corner. The ink was wet and the wax not set on the seal, but what disturbed him most was the impression that he was dreaming, and it would vanish from between his fingers if he gripped too hard.
She too had risen, unaccountably stumbling as she did so, but recovering to cloak herself in the Countess’s dignity. Her head was high and her spine lance-straight as she moved towards him. Even so, her eyes were liquid with light. "A pleasure doing business with you. Messire de Gisborne,” she said, and held out her hand.
Sheer relief rather than courtly manners bowed him over it. As her wrist had been beforehand, the soft scented skin was cool through the barrier of his glove, and he ground his teeth at the thought of the many hours her women must spend rubbing costly creams into hands that had never earned a living - never cared for the animal they deigned to caress. Unconsciously he was crushing her fingers as he raised it to his lips, the carved gold shanks of her rings biting into his flesh.
Yet the softness was not without a hint of steel. She halted the empty gesture well clear of his mouth, awarding him the frank clasp of an ally sealing a compact instead. "I am glad to have been of service, Messire.” She hesitated for a moment then, biting at her lip, her grey eyes troubled. “It is wrong, I know, to set words between a liege and his man,” she said eventually, and her other hand came up to take his briefly between both of hers. “But you were ill served by your lord in this. May I wish you better in the future, and a peaceful night?''
Gisborne ducked his head in mute acknowledgment. These were fine words she gave him, but they were meaningless. What hope did he have of better? For a man who lived in hell, there was no hope at all. He strode blindly to the door, desperate to escape with his prize while he could still summon some kind of dignity. Then he’d be free to go to ground in his lair, and be alone with his ghosts and his misery once more...
Only to find himself baulked at the last minute, for the heavy oak panel stuck stubbornly in its frame no matter how he pulled and shoved. The Sheriff had hedged his bets, ordering the door bolted from the outside.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
"What in the name of heaven were you thinking, my girl?"
The Queen had risen from her chair in a storm of silk and sweet spice. Elegant red slippers bruised the grass as she paced, while her niece looked on, absently running a hand over the silk of her sleeve again. It was as cold to her fingertips as a film of winter pond-ice; the fever was back on the rise, and soon it would consume her. Her one refuge from this grim certainty had been her store of memories, and these she must soon cast aside.
“What would you have done in my place, anda meuna, you who taught me to choose my battles carefully?” Alix of Vézelay exhaled softly. “I was in no condition to fight a war; I was tired and sick and mewed up with a tiger, a tiger that lived in a cage of his own.” She looked down at her twisting fingers, remembering the pain that had rasped in his throat as he spoke of the life he lived. “No friend, no family, and bound by oath to a base and venial man... Oh, he was tight-lipped enough and told me little, but with what I had learned from the gossip and the despair in his eyes, how could it fail to play on me, as if I were a vielle, and he the bow?”
She blinked, her lashes wet, yet she lifted her chin gamely to meet the older woman’s eyes. “Not after the life I knew, my dearest aunt, till you saw fit to free me from my prison.”
“Your late lord did that, I think, when he set out for Outremer to scout the way for his own lord of Burgundy - only to succumb to a bloody flux before he reached Genoa.” Eleanor’s reminder came with a sniff of scorn for a man whose travellings she had outstripped, and with a far greater burden of years. “I merely refrained from turning the key on you once more. Ah well," she went on, her intonation softening “I suppose I have had some small knowledge of prisons. And music, too... I hear many of my own melodies in you, Lysette.”
“Ah well, indeed,” her niece repeated. “So it was for me - as if he were my other self, the one I might have been had I been born a man, and denied the blessings I was given... My nurse and my tutor when I was small and my fellow kitten in a basket.”
“Indeed,” the Queen recalled. “The little Jehane de Bec. A nature to rival the fiery tint of her hair, and the pair of you never out of mischief.”
“And much good that did us when it was time to grow up!” the younger woman observed, with a wry smile. “Of course, I do not discount the more recent kindnesses of a loving aunt.”
Eleanor huffed, dismissing her contribution with an impatient gesture, but Alix was turning her head away. The few gruff words he had given her were echoing in her ears and she dare not trust her composure under the shrewd old eyes. Broken daisies studded the grass in the wake of the Queen’s restless tread and their crushed fragility saddened her, with their intimations of damaged dreams.
“My Lord of Gisborne was no stranger to ill deeds,” she said with a catch in her voice, as if she had breathed in wood-smoke. “How could he be otherwise, with a man like Vaisey for a task-master? Nor was he a monk, as my ladies had learned earlier. And yet he was finding this particular assignment a little too much to stomach.”
Her gut knotted as she relived the tension that had hummed in the air between them, like the recoil of a drawn bow. “He had a fiery soul, anda meuna, but he was proud; seduction was something he would reserve to his private pleasure. And were he inclined to stoop to force, it would be in the heat of his own moment, not at the bidding of others.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine compressed her lips. “A preux chevalier, indeed,” she remarked tartly.
“Without a doubt.” The reply was cloaked in a similar irony and a frank lack of illusion. “Yet that night, he had no heart for either one. He was weak with exhaustion, and too much of my excellent burgundy.”
The Queen rested her chin on a slender hand. “And yet I have to wonder… Would I have allowed myself to take pity on a bully and a blackguard, and handed over all they asked of me without a murmur?” The honey-gold gaze was sharp beneath the finely arched brows. ”Because my lord of Gisborne was too weary, or too wrecked, to ravish me?’’
The younger woman suppressed a grimace. Truth hurt, even when it was but a part of the whole. She shifted in her chair, for the wooden slats had begun to press into her back despite her pile of cushions “Heaven forfend, anda meuna!” she said aloud. “You taught me better than that. I did the accountancy of the deal, and judged my need for a swift exit from the situation outweighed any potential loss. As you did, I think, that time outside Poitiers, when you abandoned the Marshal and his uncle to the mercy of the Lusignans so you could ride to safety.”
“So I did,” Eleanor conceded. “With tragic consequences, as we have discussed.”
Alix ventured a wistfully apologetic smile. “It was an ill-chosen analogy, and unfair of me to mention it. As for myself, I reasoned I would not pass through Nottinghamshire again, and so I had need of an administrator. Which might as well be Vaisey, since there was no one in the shire who was any the less John’s man.” She brushed an errant leaf from her lap. ”And did not the whole affair boil down to the same thing in the long run?”
The Queen's eyes darkened in the knowledge of the grim meaning behind her niece's words. Ultimately the revenues would have been John's in any case. Recovering she waved a hand in disgust. "Ailàs, he and Richard’s scoundrel of a chancellor, that worm Longchamp, have vied for years in their zeal to ensure not a clipped penny escapes their clutches.” Her mantle had slipped from her shoulders as she gestured, and she bent to re-pin its crimson folds with the brooch of filigree Urnes work, her voice slightly muffled as she went on with studied nonchalance. ”And this had nothing to do with your impulse to add another lame duck to your collection of waifs and strays? All those birds and kittens when you were small, and then that air-brained horse of your and your motley band of tenants and retainers.” She gestured impatiently again. “I thought you the last woman on earth to be swayed by a man’s pretty face.”
“Then I am even more like you than you thought,” Alix retorted, with a flash of her old spirit
Eleanor lifted her hands in acknowledgement of the riposte. “Ah, but then I always made sure there was substance behind the gilding, my dear. I never got out of bed, or into one, for less than a crown,” she demurred.
Her niece pursed her lips. “Handsome is as handsome does. Is that not what they say?" She smoothed the dun silk of her gown over her knees, wondering at how narrow they had become, and how quickly. “My dearest aunt, I am no one’s fool, you know - all hearts and flowers, like a fair lady in a romance. I have learned how to deal rough justice when the situation demanded it, or my demesnes would have long since slipped from my grasp.” She paused, a breath escaping her to shiver its way through her frail body. “But that night, aunt, he was in agony of the spirit. How could I judge him harshly when I had spent time in such dark places myself?”
Her throat closed and she reached for the spring water, unable to go on. In her mind’s eye, she was seeing him again, another ink-wash illumination from that manuscript in grisaille; tall and straight but clad in shadow, coaxing her nervous horse with apple in a warped reworking of the legend of maid and unicorn. His innocence was not of sin, but of loving care.
"Lysette, my dear…" The Queen’s voice came to her through the tides of time. ‘’Agony of the soul is a grievous affliction indeed. But was all this not speculation? If he was as damaged as you say he was, how could you know there was anything left in him that was worthy of your concern?" Her warm hands reached for the younger woman’s chill ones, chafing them as she spoke. We were all tender infants, once upon a time. But abuse turns the sweetest pup into a vicious cur, and no going back."
"I did know, anda meuna,” Alix protested. “I knew exactly what he was. He told me so himself."
Eleanor’s brows rose in finely-etched scepticism. "Pretty words are cheap, my dear; and those from a pretty man are cheapest of all."
"He was not so very pretty by then, you know!” The ghost of an impish smile tested the bounds of her pale lips, and then was gone. “Hair and beard like a wild man, and his eyes red and sore… Nor did he intend to tell me, for he did not know himself. And yet he did so, in a way that made it impossible for him to lie.”
Though of course, it had been far from the whole truth after all.
Nottingham, Spring 1193.
Gisborne slammed a hand hard against the rough-hewn panel of the door, then slammed again till the latch rattled and his palm stung.
The stubborn oaken barrier shook but the bolts held firm. He roared his frustration like a beast from the Tower menagerie, yet he felt as helpless and ineffectual as one of Vaisey’s birds, fluttering against the bars of its cage.
“I suggest you save your energy," a quiet voice commented, in a rare interval between bellowing and blows. The Countess had come to stand at his side. From the tail of his eye, he saw her hand reach out to him, then move away like a wandering moth before it could settle on his sleeve, ”In the circumstances,” she ventured, “I doubt anyone will dare admit to hearing you before morning."
She was right, of course... A new wave of weariness rolled over him, heavy as a bank of November fog. Blindly, he followed her over from the door and sank down on the bench before the fire, the precious parchment slipping from his hands. He grunted with annoyance and bent down for it, groaning when his head swam; but she was there before him, folding down to rescue it from among the floor rushes.
"Look at it this way, Messire de Gisborne," she was saying, still crouched before him. "What have you to lose? Who will point the finger at the bold ravisher of my lady the king’s bastard cousin, whether he is half an hour at his task or the whole night?” She sighed, her mouth drooping at the corners. “Indeed, they will only think the better of you for the tarrying - such is the way of the world."
This close, he could see her eyes were black as night and melting. He had watched them darken before, but now the grey irises were almost eaten up by her pupils - whether from her own need for rest or some other cause, he had no way to know. As for myself,” she added with a bitter smile, “either Vaisey will be discreet as my reward for good behaviour, or my reputation was lost the moment I was seen to enter this chamber alone with you, as I have no doubt I was.”
What she said made perfect sense, and he knew he should be grateful for her calm acceptance of the situation. Wailing lamentations would have been more than his mortal flesh could bear, and he knew too well what impotent rage could drive him to do. But something else was disturbing him, something that eluded him for the moment. It nudged at the bounds of awareness, indistinct but ominous, like a herd of wild beasts looming in the mist. No, he whispered, half to himself, as thunder rolled, compounding the atmosphere of impending danger. No. I can’t stay here...
But the Countess harboured no such qualms, or she concealed them if she did. Stifling a yawn, she hauled herself to her feet and stretched, a hand to the small of her back. Gisborne looked on in bleary stupefaction as she dragged off her veil and threw it on the table, rubbing at her temples with a sigh of relief. Oddly, this careless flouting of convention did not shock him now; on the contrary, it was oddly comforting - as if they were old acquaintances, at ease in each other’s company. He half expected her to plump down on the settle beside him, drawing up her skirts to warm her legs at the fire like an old peasant woman at her hearth.
She was a woman of the world, or so she’d claimed; she must be aware of the very unpleasant plans the Sheriff’s enforcer might still have in store for her. If so, she was choosing to ignore them - it was either that or a dumb acceptance of her fate, and amongst the many facets she’d displayed to him this far, he’d seen no sign of meek and mild. Rather, it was as if she was admitting him to her trust, and he could not recall a time when he had been invited into such a position - by anyone.
"Come," she said, her hand covering another yawn. "I am sure we have found it no hardship, you and I, to roll up in our cloaks and sleep on the ground, when on the road or on campaign. And tonight we are blessed with a bed and this very fine settle, too...” She paused to eye the latter thoughtfully. “Which your rough soldier’s common sense will tell you to leave to someone who will not be hanging half off it all night. Do you not agree - Messire Long-legs?"
Gisborne grunted, thrown off-balance yet again. On the face of it, the proposition made sense, but by the conventions of the day it was unthinkable - even to a rough soldier. But not, it seemed, for a headstrong girl who laughed at him over her shoulder as she made her way to the curtained alcove that concealed the garderobe. ”My lady!” he protested, confusion wringing the courtesy from him.
"My lord!’’ was the arch retort, as she paused on the threshold. “Would you stable your horse in a hencoop? Indulge me, I pray you. You have no idea how long it is since I had a man in my bed." And with this she was gone in a whirl of silk skirts, her laughter ringing behind her.
He stared after her, blinking, his palms prickling once more with that very beguiling urge to put her across his knee. To his surprise, he found he was as near to grinning as he’d been in a very long time. He supposed there was a twisted kind of amusement to be had from the thought that a man as debauched as he was could be such a slave to propriety.
This woman's unique blend of plain talking and wry humour had neatly defused his rage; but now he realized that the release of tension had destroyed his last bastion of defence, leaving him open to a vulnerability that spelt great danger to him. The boneless exhaustion was back, along with the sense of foreboding that had been budding in the back of his mind ever since he knew himself to be trapped here in this chamber.
Now the vague disquiet was blossoming into full-blown panic. There was no way he was going to be able to stay awake till morning, yet he dare not succumb to sleep. For when he did the demons would come, and if it was bad enough to live his hell alone in his chamber at dead of night, a witness to his torment would be torture more refined than anything Vaisey’s most sadistic flights of fancy could dream up.
Gisborne stared about him, desperate for escape. The banded oak door loomed in the shadows, solid and obdurate; even if he could have broken it down, he could swear he heard the tramp of booted feet outside, and the intermittent ring of steel. He was the master at arms and these were his men, but it was first and foremost to the Sheriff that they would answer. And they would not let him pass.
As for the window, they were many stories above the ground, and he wasn’t quite far enough along the road to self-destruction to welcome the messy kind of end it offered. A glance at the magnificent travel bed over in the corner showed him sheets he could knot together, but at present the strength and coordination he’d need for the task were beyond him. This left him with Hood’s favoured exit point, the garderobe shaft. But the state of his innards being what it was, even the demons seemed the more attractive option; he hadn’t dodged Vaisey’s figurative midden just now only to land himself in a literal heap of dung.
Then his gaze fell on the silver-gilt flasks, lined up on the table like a phalanx of tourney knights. Experience had taught him that sometimes, if he drank himself into enough of a stupor, the dreams would not come, though he paid the price for it in the morning.
So be it.
He reached for the largest flagon, hefting it eagerly; to his relief, it was it full. Hurriedly, he dragged a goblet towards him and filled it to overflowing.
He had downed it before the taste registered, his face distorting in a grimace of distaste, for it was as bitter as gall. A cautious sniff at the carafe revealed nothing amiss. He could only think that in his haste he’d used the Countess’ unfinished cup. God alone knew what she must have been drinking - some new court fad, he thought, shaking his head at the foibles of the idle rich. One of the strange, wailing ghazals he had heard in the Holy Land came back to him.
Though your cup may brim with poison, bring it to me, I will drink it down, it said, or so he'd been told.
That, he would have said to her, to Marian…
Poison or fad, whatever it was he was past caring, though he reached for a fresh cup all the same, for he’d had more than his fill of bitterness. He poured again and swallowed it down, the rich wine burning a silken path to his gut. He drank till the jug was dry; then he picked up another, until the blessed buzz began in his brain and he felt himself rising above the world.
Back down on the bench, however, his body complained that the pommel of his sword was digging uncomfortably into its thigh. He sent an order to his numbing fingers to loosen his sword-belt, but they would no longer obey him. Exasperated, he directed them to drag off his gloves, but they fared no better in their inept fumbling.
Then other hands brushed his gently aside. "It is a while since I had to do this,” their owner remarked, freeing the buckle and setting sword and scabbard on the table. "When he was in his cups," she remarked conversationally, "my lord the Count was inclined to go to bed in his boots." And she glanced down at his, and then up into his face.
It was difficult to find intelligent answers when you were looking out on the world from a little below the rafters and a foot or two above the floor, at one and the same time. Gisborne could do nothing but stare back, owlishly. Upon which she clucked her tongue and proceeded to draw the boots off for him.
It was a novel experience to have a fine lady on her knees before him, he thought hazily from his perch somewhere up in the roof. To date, it had only been wenches and whores. A pity she showed no inclination to do more than divest him of blade and footwear, he reflected, a corner of his mouth lifting in coarse hilarity, and at that she shot him a sharp glance, as if he had spoken aloud. Yet was she suppressing a smile of her own as she turned to set his boots neatly side by side?
She rose to begin a fresh search of her coffers. He would need a bed robe, she decreed with a nod towards his leathers, and it was true; they clung more hotly to that wretched body down on the settle with every moment that passed. The mantle she handed him was old by the feel of it, light, but still soft and warm. And yet he staggered under the weight of it when he stood, for he was still riding the uncanny sensation of existing in two places at once. His stockinged feet were as cold as lead and as heavy, pinning him to the ground, while his brain bobbed on ahead of him like a painted bladder on a stick at the May fair.
“Messire…” the Countess murmured, as he stumbled, and she put out a hand to steady him. His helpless snigger punted the fairground bladder of his head several more inches aloft as he debated the wisdom of asking her to support him all the way to the privy and hold his prick for him while he pissed.
That burgundy of hers was serious stuff, he thought to himself as he made it to the curtained alcove on his wave of clumsy euphoria. He’d attained the blissful state of feeling no pain, and he’d never known it happen as quick. He sighed with something approaching pleasure as he eased the discomfort of his distended bladder, then discovered water for washing, still warm in a small bowl with a candle beneath. Soft cloths were there too, to press to his burning skin. He forced himself to deal with the worst of his stink, for he knew too well how it could add to his need to retch in the long watches of the night.
He was swaying from his efforts by the time he emerged, the mantle draped over him like a figure from an ancient marble frieze. Yet he was past caring about the ridiculous picture he must make in his haste to get off his feet before he fell off them.
The Countess was a huddled heap among the pillows of the settle as he passed, her rich fur robe drawn up to her neck. In the light of the dying fire, her eyes were puddles of spilt ink between half-closed lids as she wished him a peaceful rest.
Gisborne crawled between the icy sheets of the great travel-bed and extinguished the night-candle.
He went out with it, like a light.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
The sweet mild warmth of May-tide still cast its blessings over the abbey garth as four hands lay entwined in a narrow lap; two spotted with age, the others nowhere near so old, yet all were spare as starveling squabs, their joints tenting slack skin. Hands that had known better days... The Queen’s knuckles boasted rich furnishings of rubies and citrines, but her own beloved rings lived in a box now, too loose for the bunch of dry twigs her fingers had become.
"We drew up the bond," the Countess said at length, clasping her aunt’s long bones for courage. "And dared to hope we were done with the sordid enterprise, and he was free to leave with a modicum of dignity - this proud angry man whose honour was nothing more to his lord than a common clout to be used and cast aside. But it was not to be that easy. The noxious weasel had hedged his bets, and had us locked in together.”
A royal brow rose in grudging admiration. “Shutting the stable door before the horse had bolted. A shrewd move, I must admit, if grossly underhand.”
The younger woman nodded grimly “And no part of the plan that Gisborne was privy to, for the discovery shook him. Indeed, it was as if our roles had been reversed; for surely I should have been the one to shrink with horror at our confinement, and not he.”
“And you did not?” prompted the Queen, gently.
Her niece's lips tightened. “What good would it have done? The events of the past months had made resignation my closest friend. And yes, it was foolhardy of me to think thus,” she conceded with a sigh. “My perceptions were bound to be skewed by what I was going through. But I felt no threat from him, anda Eleanora, not any more. On the contrary, that uncanny sense of companionship persisted, as if there was comfort to be had in the company of a fellow dweller in despair.”
She drew in a long breath, her slender shoulders lifting. “Though just how deep that despair went, I had no way of knowing then; nor how dire the cause… But no, aunt,” she resumed, more briskly, “For the moment, no lurid visions crossed my mind of my violent death or other fates more vile. I merely found myself reflecting that it was a long time since I had shared a sleeping chamber with a man; yet I could resign myself to the snores and the even less welcome noises they feel free to make, since I would not be required to share a couch and endure the other unhappy masculine habit of hogging the space and the coverlets.”
“A shared couch has its compensations, or so I found,” Eleanor of Aquitaine remarked, with a mischievous smile. “But I shall not argue the point with you all over again. Or shall I assume I have no further need to do so, my Lysette?”
Alix's pale skin flushed, a fleeting wash of colour that had owed nothing to the soft breeze that stirred the air. “You must hear me out, anda meuna, before you decide. Though Master Chrétien will not be clamouring to set this little tale in verse, I do assure you.”
Yet from somewhere she found an answering smile of her own, though there was as much of melancholy in it as there was of mirth. “I was weary,” she continued, running a finger over the great golden boss of a carved citrine that adorned her aunt’s right thumb “Yet sleep eluded me, despite the dose of physic I had just taken for my aches and pains, for I had slept over-long in the afternoon. And so I lay drowsing on my cushions, long after he had lurched his way to his bed.” Then she bit her careless tongue, for nothing escaped the wise Queen, and she would soon have cause enough and more for burning cheeks.
And of course, the Queen did not disappoint her. “Ever the flower of chivalry, your Messire de Gisborne,” she said, dryly. “Or am I to presume you forced him at dagger-point to cede the bench to you?”
“How did you guess? I caught him off guard with my little pearl-handled fruit knife... Chivalry be damned, aunt!” Her niece’s defensive tone held more than a spark of her youthful rebellious spirit. “For someone taller than I by more than a handspan, it made perfect sense.”
“Of course it did," Eleanor soothed. “And there was nothing in it at all of kindness for your companion in despair.”
Yet that was what it had been, of course, not mere common practicality - another link in the chain she had begun to forge in the great hall, that first night, when she had seen what lived in his eyes. A chain which had brought her to this day and this pass - baring her soul before the king’s mother in the hope of reaching some kind of peace.
And so she had lain waking on her bench, mulling over the events of past hours; making plans for the morrow and the journey on to the coast, while thunder rolled ever nearer and the lightening added its intermittent blue-white strobe to the brazier’s glow. The rains that had been chasing her down from the north were catching up with her at last. Alix of Vézelay relinquished her aunt’s warm clasp and drew her furred mantle closer, as if that inclement weather bid to encroach on this present fine spring day.
And she was about to unleash a whirlwind indeed. ”It was then.” she began, unsteadily, “that I learned why he had been so unnerved to find himself locked up with me. For in the night, he cried.”
“Nightmares? In such a bully and blackguard?” Eleanor folded samite-clad arms across the rich silk bodice of her gown and regarded her niece with a sceptical gleam in her eye.
Nightmares indeed, and such nightmares… Heart-stopping terror was an alien concept on a joyous May afternoon, but such was the way of the world; ever the shadow lurking behind the light. She had only to close her eyes and the sky and grass and the mellow stone of the garth were gone, and she was back in the darkened chamber with him and the approaching storm.
Her tongue clove to the roof of her mouth and she was hard put to speak again. “Little disturbed the quiet of the chamber at first,” she managed at last, “beyond an occasional low rumble of thunder. But at length, he began to thresh and turn.”
She had held her breath, praying that he would settle, but he did not. The ropes beneath the mattress shrieked in their frame as he flailed and tossed, as if he fought a shadow army; demon warriors, taunting and tormenting him. But it was the sounds he made that tore at her heart. Mutters that became murmurs and then moans, so loud they threatened to carry beyond the confines of the chamber. And such anguish in them, her blood had turned to winter melt-water, crawling through her veins.
“His cries raked like claws along my nerves,” she said aloud, shivering for all her rich furs at the memory of the eldritch sound. “And yet they had me blushing hotly for him, for I knew that Vaisey being Vaisey, guards would have been posted, and well within earshot too. They would have dined out for weeks on tales of the bold bad master at arms who blubbered in his sleep like a girl.”
Eleanor of Aquitaine nodded, the glint of her chased gold circlet like an errant ray of sun she had bound to her brow. “Or rather, considering his mission, one who was so gauchely vocal in the taking of his pleasure,” she suggested, acid humour lurking in the depths of her gaze. ”Your Messire de Gisborne was a man who did not shrink from making enemies,” was her shrewd assessment. “The downfall of the arrogant always makes the most delicious gossip, I find.”
”I had a harsh martinet of a sergeant once who was the butt of much ribaldry,” Alix recalled with wry amusement. “His particular corner of the great hall often rang with cries of Mother! during his encounters with the ladies of the night."
A woman’s name was what he had called on… Marian, again and again. It was not pleasure that had wrung the cries from his throat, she had known that even then. But that was a memory she was not about to share with anyone, not even her wise aunt, who was at that moment rolling still fine eyes.
"Given the rich and amazing variety reported to me over the years," the Queen remarked with an infectious chuckle, “you would think there would be more generosity abroad in the world for masculine foibles of that kind. Louis, per exemple, favoured the obscure saints at the extreme moment - one of the more unsanitary ones, for preference. That is,” she added, a ruby winking on a jewelled forefinger as she pressed it thoughtfully to her lips, “If I remember such a rare occurrence correctly. As for Henry,” she added, with a rancorous snort, “He was more diligent but less inventive. In the main, he would merely grunt."
The Count had been something of a grunter, too. His not so grieving relict grimaced, then thrust the disagreeable memory aside to bask in the warmth of her aunt’s kind heart. The story she was about to tell was not a comfortable one, and the frivolous anecdote had afforded her a welcome moment of respite.
"This was Eve’s true sin, I often think," Eleanor was musing, closing creped eyelids and lifting her face to the sun. “Men are forever our children. We hold them at birth and death, in pain and pleasure, and we see them for what they really are. And so they are compelled to despise us, because their pride finds that too hard to stomach.”
But Gisborne had been a man who had nobody, to hold him or for anything else. Any sense of self-worth had been flayed from him, strip by strip, and he had done what he must to draw the tatters over the raw quick of his core. Like the soft-bodied creatures of pond and shore, he had armoured himself in a shell, making himself cold and harsh and callous, impervious to finer feeling and the compassion he had never been shown.
To do what she did to a man like that was a two-edged sword. To intervene to end his torment was to risk his knowing he had been seen naked in a way that went beyond the mere doffing of clothes. He would allow no one to do this and live – providing the shame did not kill him first. Yet his anguish rendered her incapable of doing otherwise. And so she had resolved to hang the consequences and do it anyway.
She had risen from her nest of cushions to pad over the rushes to him and call his name - softly at first and then more loudly, but he could not hear. From the moment of their first meeting, she had been wary of touching him, having witnessed too many of the Sheriff’s intrusions to want to impose her own on him, and who knew what else had been done to him behind closed doors? She'd reached out a hand to his shoulder and shook him; she even ventured to pinch the warm skin of his forearm, hard, but he had wandered too far from the waking world to know she was there.
"I tried everything I could think of to rouse him, anda meuna,” she said earnestly. “Right down to slapping him across the face -but to no avail. So, our Lady Mother help me, I did what women have done since time began to drive away night terrors, telling myself I would have done same for anyone. As chatelaine, had it not fallen to me to comfort wards too young to be taken from their families, or console the sick and dying with my touch? So I crawled up beside him and took him in my arms.”
Eleanor pursed her lips. “Yet this was neither a child nor an invalid,” she reminded her niece, though her hands found the shrinking fingers and held them till their warmth leached into the cold bones again. How strange that it was possible to freeze and yet burn with fever at one and the same time, Alix marvelled, as she strove to marshal her racing thoughts.
“He was heart-sick,” she reminded her royal aunt. “And weak from his long weeks of self-neglect. Yet he was strong enough,” she remembered, with a rueful smile. “He took me for one of his ghostly assailants, I think, for he fought me fiercely -to the horror of my tire-women, for I was black and blue from him for weeks.” A dry rustle of mirth escaped her, as older, happier memories resurfaced. “Although I bruised easily from childhood. It was always good for a few extra honey wafers from my poor nurse!”
But the more recent past was rushing in on her again, inexorable as a flood tide, and she reached for the curved arms of her chair to centre herself, grateful for the Queen’s steadying presence. “And then at last the whole tenor of his body changed,” she said. “His struggles ceased, and he began to seek me instead -- or whatever shadowy figure his need had conjured up for him.”
It had not been his Marian he was seeing there with him, though it was for her he called. Who was she, this Marian, she had wondered. Whoever she was, his thoughts of her had held no joy. And what of herself? How did she figure in his dark world of dreams? Was she the mother he had professed to scorn or just some nameless pair of welcoming female arms?
Despair had roughened his voice to a grating dissonance as he redoubled his wordless pleas - to be held, to be granted a few moments’ shelter from the hell-spawn that pursued him. Whatever had befallen him that it bled through into his sleep like this? A sorry life in general, or some terrible event that had pushed him over the edge; something that had occurred in the Holy Land, perhaps, as the gossip hinted? But the answers to these questions mattered not at all, as he sobbed brokenly and burrowed his dark head against her.
It was as if he reached into her body and ripped out her heart.
That was another thing she would not share with anyone. Nor how he had rested against her as she gentled him, quivering like a spooked horse; or how she stroked the hair from his brow as he wept and murmured to him as if he were a child. Until at long last they were both stilled, she with her heart returned to her breast, and he sleeping sweetly upon it.
And so she had lain with him, the smell of his skin in her nostrils like salt and new milk, and the flutter of his breath and the rasp of his unshaven jaw on her flesh where his frantic burrowings had laid it bare. While outside the tower chamber, the rain began to fall, whispering against the stone.
Alix of Vézelay swallowed the spiked lump in her throat, and drew herself back into the Fontevrault afternoon. Even now, he was there with her as he always was, and after all this time. "So there you have it, my dearest aunt," she said, at last. “He had done what he must to destroy the tender boy in him, your bully and your blackguard; yet he was still there, buried deep under all the arrogance and cruelty. He wept like a lost child in my arms.”
The Queen merely narrowed her eyes at this, and sat on in expectant silence, for of course she would know there had to be more. Alix gulped at her goblet of spring water, her fingers cramping round the metal stem as she sought the courage to say what she must say next. "But that was not the end of it, aunt, as you have guessed.” Her voice thickened in the strangle-grip of humiliation. "For as I lay with him, I found that I desired him - I, who had lain beside a man for nigh on twenty years, enduring his demands with as much patience as I could muster and no little contempt for his enslavement to the baser needs. Yes,” she continued, with a bitter laugh, “I who so rejoiced at my release from the marriage debt that I came to you in Richard’s train at Westminster and begged you to allow me to remain in chaste widowhood. It was a rude awakening, I can tell you."
“Oh, my poor girl!” Eleanor gathered her niece into her arms and kissed her. "Plunged into deep distress, like the Countess of Dia with that unnamed knight of hers. Though I shall be charitable,” she added, comfortably, “and not say I told you so. Not that I have forgotten our endless debates on the truths behind poetic licence. So," she prompted, regarding the young woman with an indulgent smile. “There you were, my dear, with your heart’s delight dead to the world between your thighs...… He was between your thighs, I take it?" she remarked, easing herself back against her cushions with a contented sigh. "There is no other way to bear the weight of a man of his height in comfort. I hope you are not expecting me to believe you did not at least steal a kiss?"
Alix snorted her mouthful of spring water helplessly and inelegantly through her nose, catching it in her hands and shaking the stringy spill into the grass with a yelp of shocked amusement. "Anda meuna, you are incorrigible! This was my solemn confession, and now you are contriving to make me laugh, when I thought I had forgotten how.”
The Queen produced a soft linen kerchief from her sleeve. "All the more reason to do so, then, my Lysette. You are in sore need of a little levity, or your story will crush you under its weight."
The fine linen was a comfort to hot skin, and smelt deliciously of Eleanor’s favoured spiced roses. “You are right, aunt, as you always are, and I am grateful for your tender concern. But had I not stolen enough?” The soft cloth wove through nervous fingers. “Life had played one of its crueller jests, showing me his naked soul when he was in no state to defend himself. How then could I put my hands on him as well? I should have been no better than the despicable Vaisey."
The older woman chuffed. "Who mentioned hands?" she asked with an airy gesture. "I spoke of lips alone. Though I salute your scruples, my dear. One wonders what would have happened had the roles been reversed, and he had found himself minded for a little sport.”
Her niece shook her head. "He showed not the least inclination in that direction, aunt. Unschooled I may be in the matter of fins amors, but I know enough to have been sure of that." Life had taken that from him too, it seemed; the automatic animal response that men revelled in as their birthright.
Yet she… Her failing body still remembered how it had been for her - her heart racing till she feared it would wake him with its hammering; the hollow ache in her core, and the new and alien sensation of its avid wanton clenching.
And so she had lain sleepless until dawn, sick with shock, hot with shame and faint with wanting him, while the heavens opened at last and the rain lashed the castle walls with flights of silver arrows.
Nottingham, Spring 1193.
It was cool in the well; dark, and silent.
Bark and windfalls had infused its waters with the scent of autumn gardens, and he dared to hope the demons could not follow him here. And so he drifted in delicious languor, knowing that if he raised his head to look, a tarnished silver circle would be floating far above him, like a giant coin hammered wafer-thin. It would keep its distance if he stayed as he was, a still small spark of consciousness, hiding in the shadows. But if he looked up and let it notice him, things would change… The thought set him shifting nervously, his boneless limbs drifting like pondweed, but still so blessedly immune to physical sensation.
He had no memory of how he came to be here, or when. For weeks he’d spent his nights in agony; a crippled insect crawling over a barren plain while another watchful circle hung over him in a lowering sky - a pus-filled eye of a pallid sun that split wetly open as it rose, revealing other eyes behind it, red, and slit-pupilled like a goat’s.
And then they would find him and crowd in on him, gibbering with obscene glee. Demons that rent him with claws and fangs, taunting him with every last foul thing he’d done and doing them all to him a thousand-fold; until he was screaming his throat raw, smelling his own shit and blood, with his shuddering entrails cupped in his hands. And then, when he could not take any more, when oblivion was his most ardent desire, they made him watch her, Marian, dying, over and over.
Aeons would pass; kingdoms rose and fell before he could break the eternal cycle of pain and stumble towards the gleam in the eastern sky that meant day was dawning and the torments of the night were at an end. Though there was no true escape, he knew; they merely toyed with him. Hell was waiting wherever he chose to run.
For when he woke the daytime demons would be with him - the guilt and grief and loss, the roiling gut and pounding head; the grinding tiredness that flayed the very skin from his flesh and poured hot sand into the sockets of his eyes. Yet still he fought his way through the veil between the worlds, dragging himself awake with his heart thundering in his throat till he thought it would choke him; half-hoping that it would, and set him free.
Cruelly, it never could - it never did.
Tonight though in the course of his futile desert wanderings, he had fallen down this well and he never wanted to come out. So there he floated, still and silent, praying to escape the notice of that watchful silver sliver, that distant watery circle of light.
Too late, and too soon! It had grown tired of waiting and was coming down for him, trailing the everyday realm of sound and sight and pain in its wake. Just a little longer, he thought, in deep despair. Give me one more moment of this blessed numb unknowing. But already the wind was whispering in his ears - whispering his name.
A red glow was growing behind his eyelids, fringed lines of light stitching themselves across his brain. He blinked, and found he was awake again, though for one last merciful instant, his limbs were liquid, cradled not in cool water, but in linen and goose-down.
Raw daylight flooded the chamber, for he had been in no state last night to close the curtains round the bed. And at the foot of it the Countess stood, serene in russet and cream, immaculate as a child’s new poppet stitched into its robes.“The hour is half-way Terce, Messire,” she announced, “and we are free.”
Her voice was muffled and indistinct as it came to him, as if a crust of wastrel bread had lodged in her throat. Gisborne shook his head to dislodge the water in his ears - until he remembered that the well had been a dream.
She folded her jewelled hands primly at her waist, her voice regaining clarity as she added "The Sheriff awaits us in his rooms to break our fast, or so my women tell me. They have left hot water in the alcove.”
Gisborne’s sluggish brain finally absorbed the sense of what she was telling him. Half-way Terce? Half the morning was gone! He sat up, his head reeling, though not perhaps as radically as he might have expected, given the monumental quantities of liquor he’d poured down his throat the night before. And yet he felt a little strange, a half-step removed from reality, in a way that differed from his usual morning miasmas. Oddly though, for the first time in weeks he could almost imagine he’d had a little rest.
He shrugged stiff shoulders, waiting for the daytime demons to settle back on them, as he knew they would. And indeed, along they came, right on call. Lackey, they whispered. Craven…
The Countess had retrieved his improvised bed-robe, picking the lint from it, for as always when he was several sheets to the wind, he appeared to have hung it up on the floor. The watchful grey eyes were unfathomable as she handed it to him, but her lips were drawn tight, as if the coarse crust she’d swallowed had been smeared with poison honey. Was it pique for the concessions they had wrung from her, he wondered, still light-headed as he hauled his feet to the floor; or just a bad night on that bench?
This last decision had been hers and hers alone, he told himself as he tucked the cloak’s wool folds about himself. He had too much on his trencher to want to poke about in his conscience further. Besides, he had become aware of a more pressing problem; his body was informing him in the most inconveniently obvious way that his bladder was full to bursting.
But blessedly, the Countess had stepped away from the foot of the bed by then, turning on her heel and wandering off, as if the view from the window demanded her attention, leaving him free to make a hasty bee-line for the garderobe.
Where were you when I needed you, Gisborne thought, glancing down at himself with a snort of gutter humour as he steadied himself on the washstand and waited for his head to catch up with his feet. When he could look up again, it was to meet a ghostly reflection in the Countess’s polished metal mirror. A thunderstorm over the Auvergne was right - glowering slate eyes, a nose to rival the sharpest volcanic peak, and deep caverns under the cheekbones. Bully, the demons whispered conversationally. Extortioner…
He relieved himself at last with a grateful sigh, then pushed a wet cloth at his face. He was in sore need of barbering. His beard was halfway grown and itched as if it was crawling with lice, though he was reasonably sure it wasn't - not after the hefty application of fleabane he'd demanded when the covert rummaging in his scalp had become yet another goad to add to the demon's spears. Nor was his hair in better shape. And he must have caught his cheek with an untrimmed fingernail during the night. He leaned in closer to examine the small stinging cut, displacing a scatter of women’s pots and potions.
And without warning, he was back in his dream again, floating in the cool dark. He clutched at the solidity of the carved wood stand, shaking phantom well-water from his ears and nose until his head steadied and the drifting sensation ceased.
He found a bone comb and drew it through his unruly black locks, then dragged on yesterday’s clothes - though they were not all yesterday’s clothes, he realised. Clean linen had been fetched from his chamber and the sweat-sodden, drink-stained shirt replaced by a freshly-laundered one. He remembered the immaculate picture of the Countess at his bedside; all this would have been achieved in silence and with discretion, through the devotion of her women.
Humanity was a weakness, or so the Sheriff had taught him. Forgetting that lesson had brought him nothing but bitterness and pain. Then he thought of his fumble-fingered ewerer and the idiot stable boy, and grimaced. There was a downside to scaring your servants half to death.
Murderer, the demons chimed in helpfully, in case he had forgotten…
He emerged at last from the dim recess of the garderobe alcove, blinking; sunlight streamed through the windows, painting a pale pathway to the table where the Countess sat. He could only glower at her as she nodded to him in greeting. She would not turn her face up to him in this way, without disfavour, if she knew him for all he was.
But then perhaps she did, he thought, his heart dropping fast and frozen as a stone. Had his demons whispered in her ear as she slept? For now he saw what she was holding up to him with an exultant smile - the precious bill of conveyance, with its strings and tails and dependent red wax seal! The familiar feeling of betrayal hacked at his gut like the blade of a rusted knife as he watched her jewelled fingers tear the parchment in half and half again, reducing it a fistful of tatters to be tossed down the waste-shaft, along with the wizened fruit-peel and the lees of last night’s wine.
“No, Messire, no, you misunderstand.” The triumph fell from her face in an instant, leaving it ghostly pale, and she waved a second, intact sheet in front of him. “I thought to provide a little seasoning for our morning meal, that is all.”
Sometimes a good sharp shock served to concentrate the mind, Gisborne had found. This time however the mists inside his head lingered on, despite the trauma of watching a hard-won prize destroyed before his eyes. “Seasoning?” he echoed dully. Food was another pleasure lost to him, every meal a crock of bitter herbs - though that was nothing to the gall the Sheriff would be dishing up to him this morning, disguised as admiration for his lieutenant’s prowess between the sheets. He did not know if he could find the energy for the only dignity left to him – that of swallowing the taunts whole, with a face of stone.
“Read,” the Countess prompted, bidding him sit and setting the new parchment before him. “All is as before, but with the addition of the manors of Strelley and Gryseleye; it is true enough that they will be more economical managed thus than on their own.” She indicated a paragraph further down the page with the point of her quill. “The same for this fulling mill at Hucknall, which brings in a healthy income. And as you see, the stone quarry has lucrative new orders - work at Newstead Priory and repairs to the cathedral at Lincoln. These I negotiated the day before I arrived here, so I have included those too.” She paused, forestalling the questioning look in his eyes with a query of her own. “Perhaps with discreet handling something might be found for the easement of the local populace?”
Relief and suspicion warred in Gisborne’s mind as he completed his perusal of the new inventory. He massaged the bridge of his nose, defeated by the convolutions of this mercurial mind, for the reasoning behind the changes escaped him. As for discretion and handling, he feared that was beyond him too.
“No matter.” She countered his troubled expression with an easy shrug of her shoulders and dipped her goose-feather quill again. “It will serve to blunt your lord’s appetite for a time, and thus provide a breathing space. But I must confess, my prime objective was not so worthy.” White teeth showed in a tight smile that was suddenly unnervingly predatory; a side of her that was new to him, hinting that to earn her enmity might not be the wisest of moves.
“At this very moment,” she explained, “Vaisey will be expecting to enjoy himself hugely at our expense. Does he not owe us a little entertainment of our own?”
Gisborne scowled and shifted on his feet. This proposal had all the wisdom of poking a stick into a hornet’s nest. She was smiling her hard smile again, but her eyes belied its acerbity as she met his gaze.
“Do not think me unmindful of your constraints, Messire de Gisborne,” she said. “He is a dangerous man. But he can hardly fault you for improving on your remit.” She bent to complete an unfinished sentence on the document, eyeing it with satisfaction before taking up her silver sand-sifter, a match for the inkhorn with its chasing of Saracen script. “You know his mind better than I do. What do you think his reaction will be to all this unsolicited bounty?” she asked, casually.
His brow creased as she blotted her writing and rummaged through the table litter for her stick of wax. And then his lips thinned wolfishly. “He’ll suspect some trap. And drive himself mad, trying to work it out.”
“Which he will never do, since there is none to find!”
The Countess relit a candle from a spill poked into the embers of the fire, and dripped red wax again, looking at him from under her lashes as she applied her seal. “And meanwhile, lurid imaginings of what you must have done to prise it all out of me will churn in his fevered brain." Laughter glinted steel-bright in her eyes, and the tip of her tongue appeared between her teeth; a gesture of impudence no high-born lady would consciously employ.
But a wayward, hoydenish girl was something else again. Gisborne’s fists tightened round palms that were itching again, luring him into a little fevered imagining of his own: something involving putting her across his knee as her guardians must have done whenever she dared to show them that face.
The serene Countess had returned, however and she was pouring a cup of water into which she dipped the hanging seal. “A trick of mine to set wax in haste,” the experienced administrator explained. ”We have kept the lord Sheriff in suspense for long enough.” She rolled the parchment confidently and without mishap as she had promised, and it was as an ally that she smiled up at him as he tucked it inside his jerkin. “Now, Messire de Gisborne. All that remains is for you to choose how you wish to play this.”
“Play?” he asked, nonplussed again.
“Yes, Messire. Which do you think will plague him more - regal hauteur, or billing and cooing?”
Gisborne halted, suddenly appreciating the neatness of this new ploy; she had handed him the perfect weapon against the sheriff’s prurient brand of wit. He considered for a moment, remembering the gaunt reflection that had stared out at him from the mirror. Not a face for billing and cooing, that much was for sure. So he put back his shoulders and straightened the corroded column that did duty for his spine nowadays. “My lady?” he said, bowing with stiff formality, and held out a hand. She darted a wicked look at him, then veiled her eyes with a demure flutter of her lashes.
“Very elegant, Messire,” she cooed. “For a rough soldier.” And her own hand came up to rest on his sleeve.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
Billing and cooing, she had said to him…
A flock of pigeons had gathered on the grey slate tiles of the cloister roof, enjoying a last taste of the sun before they sought the shadowed niches of the dovecote for the night. Alix of Vézelay watched the living cliché of the pair sitting beak to beak in the guttering, eyes closed in their bliss of each other, and her heart contracted. This simple contentment had never been hers, nor would it ever be.
He had been no dove, that was for sure. He was the Sheriff of Nottingham’s hawk, with the fierce heart and the talons to prove it, and if she had been able to come near him at all it was because he was weak from soul-sickness, his reflexes blunted by grief and drink.
She willed herself to inhale and resumed her narrative, her eyes on the birds as her mind winged its way back to the past. “I must have slept eventually,” she began, “for I was woken by an insistent tapping.”
“The guards?” The Queen’s words came to her from a far-off country, for she was mired in her memories again.
“My women. I recognised their knock,” Alix said with a guilty sigh, for she had spared no thought for them thus far. She had been relieved at this sign that they were safe, yet loath to breach the fragility of her strange new world. “I knew they would be frantic with worry by then, anda meuna. The windows had been left unshuttered in the haste of their abduction, and daylight was streaming in, showing me the lateness of the hour.”
She had risen hastily, tightening the laces of her gown and shaking out its creases while he slept on. Then she turned to make for the door, pausing for a moment to look down at him, an incongruous male presence amid the fine white linen of her convent-sewn sheets.
His was the terrible beauty of a ruined angel, hair black as a crow’s wing, his eyes, the wild blue of a May afternoon, now veiled in sleep. Dark lashes fanned his cheek, where a small scar rode high on the elegant bone; and beneath it, a smaller scrape of red where her nail had caught him in the course of their nocturnal battles. His mouth was narrow, firm but well-defined, his nose an arrogant jut which should have been repellent, but in him only added to his allure. He had stirred as she left the bed, displacing the heavy olive slub of the coverlets, and he lay all but naked to the waist, his skin the colour of pale honey over strong shoulders and taut abdomen.
The memory still had the power to stop her breath.
“Plunged into deep distress was not the half of it, anda Eleanora.” The catch in her throat shamed her, though the Queen’s benign scrutiny was a warm poultice on her shrinking heart. “I could make no sense of what had happened to me in the night,” she murmured, forlornly. “In truth, I would have dismissed it as a poppy-dream, had the need not thundered through me still, liquefying my bones. It was as if some monstrous creature had been dwelling deep within me, noticing him all along and waiting for some weak moment to rear its head.”
Was this one more twist of a capricious Fate, she'd wondered with a pang of despair, as she hurried to open the door. She had laughingly dismissed the idea not many hours before, but could a venial schemer like Vaisey have known her better than she knew herself? Was she indeed beguiled by Guy of Gisborne, because he reminded her of her horse?
The heavy oaken panel resisted her and she had dragged at it angrily, the iron ring biting into her fingers as common sense returned. The very thought was ludicrous, the superficial similarities of colouring and temperament an amusing conceit at most. Ben was a pet, an animal, a bone life had thrown her as a sop for the children she had lost. Whereas this was a man, a man with a troubled soul, and a mind she could not know and must not trust. And yet, the Holy Mother aid her, she had yearned to crawl back into the bed with him and taste his kisses.
A footfall, a soft clank of wood and metal, and she was blinking in her chair in the sun-lit abbey gard, back in the here and now. The pigeons had roused from their drowsy contentment, flapping off to join their fellows on the steep pitch of the bell-tower roof, and a lay sister was bustling towards them from the direction of the kitchens, her voluminous white apron billowing like a sail.
“Sister Agnes,” the Queen greeted her, with a gracious smile. “I knew you would not forget us.”
“Fresh from the oven, this very minute, madam, just as you ordered.” The sturdy woman set a tray down on the small table in front of them and bobbed a curtsey, her round countrywoman’s cheeks flushed with pleasure at the courteous welcome.
“You used to love these, Lysette, my dear,” Eleanor coaxed, as the comfortable body hurried off, pride and satisfaction exuding from every pore. She took one of the tiny cinnamon-dusted curd tarts and bit into it, licking the golden pastry flakes from her fingers with a sigh of pleasure.
Alix inhaled the fragrant smell, redolent of long easy afternoons of not so long ago, when she had come to court to petition the Queen, and aunt and niece had rediscovered each other at last, as strong women of like mind. One tiny mouthful, though, and it was almost more than she could swallow. After weeks with nothing but thin pottage to sustain her, the sweetness exploded on her tongue, making tears start in her eyes. But there was gratitude for the loving gesture mingled in their mist, and sadness for all that was coming to an end.
She sank a tooth into her lip, impatient at this new sign of womanly weakness, and reached blindly for the tall flagon that flanked the pastry dish. Moisture beaded the bulbous silver belly, and the lemon-water it held was cool and sweet. “Chestnut honey?” she breathed in sudden delight, and she was awash in older memories, of her nurse’s secret store that had sweetened her bread or her gruel at many a bleak childhood mealtime.
“There, now. I knew I would find something to tempt you,” Eleanor remarked, comfortably. “But then I am not often wrong.”
Indeed she was not, her niece reflected, as she sipped at the sweet-tart drink. For she was compelled to concede defeat in one of their fiercest debates. A woman’s desire for a man was a myth, she had always maintained, existing only in the imagination and the realms of poetry – Guinevere and her Lancelot, Iseult and her Tristan. That much was incontrovertible truth for Alix, Countess of Vézelay.
She had not dreamed how wrong she could be.
"Why does it happen, anda meuna? How is it that we are drawn, beyond all reason, to one man and not another?" Her tone was plaintive, and the weakness galled her, but for once she let it pass, thinking she had earned the right to be querulous. For had it not been so, she would have surely been spared much pain.
The Queen had finished her cinnamon-dusted pastry and was sitting back in her chair, her eyes closed in lazy enjoyment of the sun’s last rays. She opened them now to regard her niece, compassion warming their liquid gold. "Who knows, my Lysette? Why does a bee alight on a particular flower, or that fine cock bird there strutting on the tiles find eager acceptance among the ladies, while that lone one yonder does not?"
She folded her hands before her, examining them with one brow arching, as if their knotted blue tracery was a constant source of surprise. “These are matters governed by laws far older than the ones men have made for themselves,” she said, eventually “Or so it has always seemed to me, my dear. Think of it! Greybeards joined with children for reasons of dynasty; intermarriage between a few families to keep wealth and property intact.” The wrinkled lips pressed together in contempt. "We breed horses with far more sense. Of course,” she added, grimly ”If we all lived as the sainted brother of Clairvaux and his ilk would have us do, in our hali meidhad - our holy maidenhood- the human race would have died out long ago.”
“Not if you could help it, aunt,” Alix laughed, remembering her aunt’s fabled skirmishes with the austere Bernard, and her ten children.
“One does one’s best,” Eleanor replied with a complacent smile. “But when given the chance, a woman would seek comeliness in a man, I think, just as men do in us... Along with a certain vigour perhaps, a leaning toward action and the taking of risks.” The seamed ivory face took on a faraway look, and the thin mouth softened, as if she looked back to the time when her own blood ran hot in her veins, and she had relinquished the crown of France to seek passion and adventure with a lusty young count from Anjou. "It is Nature’s way of ensuring sturdy progeny, no doubt; in us, as well as in the dumb beasts.”
"But I had seen more than my share of handsome men before,” her niece objected, “The courts of Europe are full of them, and I paid them no more heed than I would a pretty tune, or a pleasant day."
The Queen patted the frail forearm gently. “Life gave you little incentive to look closer, my dearest girl; mewed up with an old war-horse of a husband while you were still a child. Or you might have learned long ago that now and then you will encounter the rare one that robs you of your breath and makes your heart run away with your head." She paused and sighed softly, as if paying tribute to her own late lord’s one-time glory.
"But indeed, who knows why this is, my Lysette?” she mused, as the younger woman sat on in a mournful silence. “Perhaps, in some way we do not yet understand, it is the look and taste and smell of them - some unique combination of qualities that draws us towards Nature’s favoured choice. Yes, Fate hunted you down that night, my dear,” she said, stroking the dun silk sleeve affectionately. “And it thrust your soul-mate under your nose. How else could you have reacted?”
Alix of Vézelay’s pale lips twisted in wry amusement. “My one true love, was it, anda Eleanora? What flummery! And what an unholy mess!”
The sourness of her expression deepened as she meditated on Nature’s gross ineptitude. Nothing had been right about it – not the time, nor the place, nor the man. She had been dragged out of childhood, rushed into marriage and motherhood, then hustled through into widowhood; and all of it without her say-so. Duty had consumed her, leaving her nothing for her own wants and needs. And then, when she had reached the end of everything, along he came, her dark nemesis, damaged and more broken than she was, and taught her what it was to live as a woman.
And it had been too late to change a thing, for either of them.
The tide of memories became an ocean, threatening to close over her head, but she could ill afford the indulgence. Not if she was to say all that was still left to tell. She moistened her lips with a comforting sip from her goblet and began again.
“The door swung open and my women fell into the chamber,” she said, heartened by the new vigour of her voice. “They were beside themselves with anxiety and guilt by then, as if the last night’s dereliction of duty been their choice.” Her smile was fond and not a little sad, as she remembered their tireless loyalty - and their inordinate fussing. The time of their final leave-taking had been both a wrench and a relief.
"I gestured to calm their fears and ask for silence, before relieving Constanza of her armful of my clothes, and directing her to bring in the canister of hot water. Adela and the others I dismissed to supervise the preparations for departure."
"Cunning of you," Eleanor interjected dryly. “The fewer prying eyes, the less fuel for gossip.” Her eyes glowed, sunlight through old amber. "Or did you just want to keep him to yourself for a few moments more?" she teased. “I have not yet forgotten how sweet it is, my Lysette, to watch a lover sleep after a night of passion."
Alix of Vézelay s bruised heart was soothed once again by the blessed mercy of laughter. “A stranger night of love there never was," she protested weakly, dabbing at her tears of mirth with the kerchief she had been balling up in her hands. "And more than a little one-sided, do you not think?”
“But not without its charm,” the Queen suggested, too astutely for comfort, for it had been bitter-sweet indeed to know he had found a little peace in her arms. “But we were speaking of your ladies. Your senior tire-woman is no longer young; she must have been quite ill with fear, for you and for herself, by the time she was freed from her own confinement.”
"My poor Constanza!” Alix exclaimed. The faithful retainer had been quivering like an aspen leaf as she'd drawn her into the curtained alcove. “It took a stiff shake and a whispered reminder of a certain incident at Avallon to convince her that Messire de Gisborne and I had discovered we understood each other well enough, and I had been offered no insult. Of course, I forbore to say the boot might well have been on the other foot.”
"And do I want to know what happened at Avallon?” asked the Queen, laughing, and hearing a hint of her impetuous younger self, perhaps, in her niece’s mention of the affair.
"A minor skirmish some years ago when I became an involuntary guest of the Sieur de Roncales.” Alix dismissed its importance with a casual wave of her hand. “I managed to persuade him it was to his advantage to let his hostages go free before payment of the ransom, instead of after. Anda meuna, it was no more than the truth!” she insisted, wide-eyed, as the older woman raised a brow at this dubious display of sleight of hand. “That is, when you look behind all the masculine tomfoolery of wounded pride and petty revenge. He ended up with several alliances and a very good match for his youngest son on the back of his reputation for chivalry.”
"If only you had found the time to be more at court, my love,’’ Eleanor sighed. "There are many occasions when one woman’s wiles are not enough."
“Though you are a woman who has wiles enough for several,” her niece countered, fond but wistful, and wishing not for the first time that her reunion with her royal aunt had not come so late. “But to return to the Lady Constanza. Elderly she may be, but I was grateful for her skilled hands that morning, for I was still far from knowing my ear from my elbow.”
She had washed and dressed her in her russet travelling gown, and rubbed her temples with her soothing balm. "And by the time she had pinned the veils on my freshly-braided hair, my Adela had reappeared on the threshold with a message concerning breakfast, my warmest mantle, and a pile of linen which she thought to have brought from Messire de Gisborne’s chambers...Which reminds me, aunt, to make humble petition for a good place for her."
She seized the Queen’s hands in the urgency of her plea. "I have no worries for Constanza. She has her pension and thinks to live out her days in retirement now. But the Lady Adela is young, and yet wise beyond her years. That morning, she had taken it on herself to extend the courtesy of clean clothes to a man she must think unworthy, but knowing the gesture was to the honour of her mistress.”
The thought of the young woman’s fierce loyalty constricted her throat, and her voice husked as she continued to speak. “Indeed, I had reason to bless her presence of mind on more than one occasion on that journey. I was grateful to her that morning, not for myself, but because he seemed to have known precious little of care in his life, from anyone.”
Silver-gilt braids tumbled from under silken veils as Eleanor’s head shook slowly from side to side. “Ah, my Lysette. Ever the soft heart, however much you might try to persuade me otherwise! You need have no worries for your Adela’s future, my dear.” she assured her, removing her gold circlet with a cluck of impatience and securing the escaping ropes with their pins as best she could. “She may stay with me, or I will find her a marriage to her taste.”
"You will have her grateful thanks,” her niece said, reaching out and tenderly tucking a stray wisp under the gossamer-fine folds. It was rare to see the immaculate queen in any kind of disarray; she must have come to her straight from the road. “I knew you would not fail me, my dearest aunt,” she added, her heart warmed beyond measure by this last thought.
From somewhere she found an impish smile as she added, “Though it is to be hoped Adela is wiser in her tastes in men than I.”
Nottingham, Spring 1193.
Torches still flared in the sconces that lined the long stone hallways despite the advanced hour, doing little to banish the gloom. Yet the Countess might have been moving through the glow of a thousand tall wax candles, and on the arm of a royal prince rather than a burnt-out master at arms. Gisborne’s side-long glance caught the lofty carriage of her head, while her fingers lay on his sleeve in an attitude of such fierce elegance it could almost be parody. Until her eyes met his, and danced, and he knew that parody it was.
Regal hauteur, then...
He drew himself up and strode on, with the brisk clink of sword and spurs that always announced the Sheriff’s feared lieutenant as he prowled the corridors of power; the illusion carried him up to the double doors of Vaisey’s rooms. A yawning guard slumped outside, his eyes red-rimmed and puffy from lack of sleep. He stared openly at their approach, curiosity momentarily overriding his sense of self-preservation; but he paled and hastily rearranged his features, shuffling his feet uncomfortably as his superior officer returned the stare.
Gisborne dismissed him with a curt wave and a malignant smile, then stood aside to bow his noble charge inside. Her nod of acknowledgement would have been queenly, were it not for the irreverent gleam that lurked in the cool grey gaze. And there was the wayward tongue-tip again, escaping her lips. This was a lady, a countess and the king’s cousin - the king’s bastard cousin, she had reminded him nonchalantly; she was also a stubborn ten year old, and a brazen reckless wench, and he never knew which one he would encounter next. For a moment, and despite his misery and the Sheriff’s endless machinations, the ghost of something almost like enjoyment probed the defences of his damaged heart.
She glided on, so close in the confines of the doorway that he heard the brush of her russet wool gown against the rush-strewn floor… And suddenly he was lost in his dream again; floating, deaf and blind, in the depths of the dark well. When he snapped back to reality, alarms bells were clamouring somewhere inside him, but he shook his head impatiently, dispelling their strident message. The deal was done, she would be gone, and he would be free once more to mourn and lick his wounds.
Meanwhile, they had a Sheriff to bait. That was an opportunity that did not fall into his hands too often. Gisborne set back his shoulders and stalked in on the heels of the Countess with something like his old swagger.
Vaisey had begun to amuse himself already, poking large and sticky crusts through the bars of his birdcages and making the hapless inmates scream and flap. He turned and spread his arms in sham benevolence as they entered the musty lair.
"Ah, there you are at last, just as I was about to give you up for lost. Did I hear someone say you were… unavoidably detained? I really must speak to the locksmith about greasing those bolts properly.” He blinked at them innocently and sucked his teeth in mock concern. “But come in, do." He gesticulated towards the table, which was spread with another blatant display of purloined linen and silver-gilt. "Welcome to my board. You both look as if you could do with a little refreshment. Up all night, were you, Gisborne, hmm?” he goaded in a whispered aside, favouring his master at arms with a turnip lantern’s gap-toothed yellow leer.
His lieutenant felt his hackles begin the slow rise that marked so many of his encounters with the Sheriff, and his eyes flicked uneasily to the Countess. Her face was a smooth mask, betraying no awareness of the innuendo, yet somehow managing to convey that if she deemed an insult beneath her notice, this did not mean she was oblivious to it. "So kind…” she murmured, with such imperious disdain that Gisborne was able to retrieve his own mask without delay. He sauntered forward, hand on the hilt of his sword, eyeing the stolen table-furnishings with an affectation of cool surprise; then he paused to draw out a chair for the lady. Another queenly dip of her head -this time without the tongue, he noted, stifling a snort of rare amusement -and she seated herself, arranging her mantle in elegant folds.
The widening of liverish brown eyes at this unprecedented display of courtly manners was balm on his raw sensibilities. But Vaisey was never at a loss for long. He shot out a hand to detain his second in command as he made to take his own chair, pulling him close and putting his mouth to his ear. “Charming, Gisborne!" he hissed. "I didn’t think you had it in you. But the question is, did she?”
His breath was unpleasantly warm and moist on the younger man’s neck as he rasped the coarse inquiry. "You both look a little stale, I’ll grant you. But you are as not tired as you ought to be. Oh, don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve been drooping the point of your lance these past few months, my boy,” he needled, his grip tightening like a blacksmith’s pincers. “I do hope you’re not going to tell me you have let me down again."
Then why send me to do your dirty work in the first place, Gisborne thought, with an inward sneer. But it was all part of a pattern, he knew, honed over the years for the maximum of perverse enjoyment. Ordinarily, such taunts would have turned his brain-pan into a simmering cauldron, yet for once he found himself regarding his tormenter with a dispassionate stare. "You tell me..." he drawled, coating his words with the lightest gloss of contempt, and he reached a leisurely hand inside his jerkin to produce the scroll. “My lord," he added, after a pause so lengthy, it made an insult out of the dutiful form of address.
His master snatched the parchment from him with a most rewarding show of pique and stomped his way over to the window, where he feigned an interest in the bustle below to conduct a quick and covert inventory of the document’s contents. The Countess’s train was forming up for departure, Gisborne realised, the tension in his chest loosening another notch as he dared to believe this whole distasteful episode was nearing its end.
His five years and six winters in the shire had made him a keen observer of Vaisey’s body language, from his customary position at, and slightly behind, his lord’s right shoulder. Was that how the Countess had been reading him, he wondered briefly, remembering the intent grey gaze, and the insight so uncanny he’d been tempted to ascribe it to occult powers.
As for the Sheriff of Nottingham, what he thought and what he said were often different matters entirely. The stocky brocade-clad back was one of the most expressive Gisborne ever had the misfortune to come across; though the older man was not unmindful of the scrutiny and used that awareness guilefully at times. Soon, however, he should be too firmly wrong-footed for dissimulation, and his lieutenant’s past experience stood him in good stead as he watched his master’s reactions unfold without the need to see his face.
The lift of the shoulders on the anticipatory indrawn breath as he began to read…
Their relaxed fall on its release as the preamble was skimmed and found in order...
Then the self-satisfied rock from heel to toe, the infinitesimal triumphant swagger as his eyes moved down the page, travelling greedily from one prize plum to another…
Yet slowly the smug strut began to subside, a guarded stillness creeping in as the anomaly in his precious document became plain. A less devious soul would have shrugged off the unexpected bonus - then hugged himself with glee. Vaisey was taken prisoner by his own suspicious mind.
Gisborne poured himself a cup of ale and sat back in his chair, casually crossing his legs and watching it happen. Light from the corner brazier shivered over the black damask robe like ripples in a brook over a lurking pike - tension, knotting the squat spine as the Sheriff conducted a frantic debate with himself and failed to come up with a satisfactory answer.
Something missing in the tally? Infuriating, but understandable; he was served by incompetents, wasn’t he? But this… This unsolicited bounty? The grizzled head swung from left to right and back again, scanning the text for irregularities, subtle little flaws that would render the whole conveyance void. And when he could find none, he turned to the seal, picking at it, bringing it closer to his face and squinting at it, going so far as to sniff at it in his efforts to decide whether it was genuine or not.
Finally his arms fell to his side, his shoulders hunched in a rare admission of defeat. A leaden half turn landed him in profile, and he beckoned in his lieutenant’s direction, blunt fingers agitating like the claws of an upended crab. Gisborne exchanged a glance with the Countess. Her eyes met his over the rim of her cup, her brows arched in an expression of studied innocence. He suppressed the unruly twitch at the corner of his mouth and strolled across to peer over the shorter man’s shoulder.
"Talk to me, Gisborne," Vaisey grumbled. "Am I hallucinating or am I not?" A palsied digit stabbed at the offending parts of the text. "Strelley and Gryseleye... Did we ask for those too? And these additional stonework contracts… and this… and this? Would you mind enlightening me as to what, precisely, has been going on here?"
"Friendly persuasion, my lord?” Gisborne suggested silkily, meeting the confusion in the muddy brown eyes with an enigmatic stare. "I know they say that less is more. But sometimes…” He paused and permitted himself one of his more arrogant half-smiles. “I find more is -not quite enough. If you know what I mean.”
The Sheriff grunted, eyes narrowing with suspicion. "Yes. Well. If I’d wanted you to use your initiative, I’d have told you so,” he snarled. “So if you’re expecting a pat on the back, you‘ll have to wait till I clear it all with my legal advisors.": Then he exhaled forcefully and held up a portion of the scroll for Gisborne to see. "And what, precisely, do you call this? Aren’t I always telling you it doesn’t do to get too friendly with the ladies? Lepers, remember, Gisborne, lepers!"
The master at arms craned his neck obligingly, and found it was his turn for a small surprise. There was a short addendum to the text as he had last seen it.
And to Messire de Gisborne, it read, for the pleasure of his company, his choice of destrier, courser or brood mare from my stud farm at Ripon.
She must have written it in after the other additions. It was a princely gift; generous, but not insultingly so. Moreover, it implied esteem, with perhaps the merest hint of alliance on some unspecified level - a bee-sting, a tiny poisoned dart of suspicion that would work its way into a black heart and fester there. Beware, it said. Your despised lieutenant just might have connections in high places.
The muscles at the corner of Gisborne’s mouth threatened his composure once again. Aloud he said nothing, regarding his troubled master with eyes that were hooded and bland, but inside he was grappling with the desire to laugh out loud at a wicked girl’s low cunning. The pleasure of his company, indeed! The Sheriff’s brain must be about to implode from the effort of working that one out.
"I thought it a nice touch, Messire," the Countess murmured, as Gisborne furrowed his brow at her from across the table. Vaisey was still pacing irritatedly back and forth under the window, the twitter of the cage birds reaching a crescendo each time he landed in their vicinity, “I would have mentioned it, but I was not sure if your mumming skills were up to reproducing the precise air of modest surprise you have just demonstrated so perfectly.”
She leaned in closer, confidingly, and all at once, Gisborne’s head was swimming. The dream of fragrant well-water was encroaching on his waking world once more. He pushed the illusion aside impatiently as she continued to speak. "The stud farm is genuine enough.” She slid a covert glance to the end of the table where Vaisey was about to rejoin them. "And so is the offer of a horse, should you care to take it up. You might go for a mare, you know, if you have no urgent need of a mount. Ben has been busy while we passed through, so you could be getting two for the price of one."
The Sheriff was picking moodily at his bacon collops by now, oblivious to the interchange. The favourite dish was sticking in his craw today, judging by the sips of ale he took between each laboured bite. His small mouth twisted with annoyance as he chewed, with frustrated glances in the direction of the Countess, who had reassumed her regal posture, sitting straight-backed and serene. The light from the window illuminated the pale oval of her face and glinted on the rich gold circlet that secured her veils. Gisborne found himself watching her with some degree of admiration as she drank daintily from her cup and toyed with a single slice of soft bread with her beringed hands. Butter would never melt in such a mouth, he thought, that drooped at the corners at so finely-judged an angle of disdain. Show me the tongue, he thought, baring his teeth to conceal an appreciative grin.
Time passed, while Vaisey slowly recovered his aplomb, beginning to preen and flutter again, with sly remarks about sad partings and gestures towards the door. The Countess must have been anticipating this moment when he was reaching for the upper hand once more. Her gaze alight with secret mischief, she broke off a crust and dipped it in the nearby honey crock. “If I did not know better, Messire de Gisborne," she remarked in the most decorous of tones, “I would swear this honey was from my own bees at Wilton. Can you not taste the pear blossom and clover?" And belying the icy formality of her voice, she leaned across to feed him a morsel of honeyed bread, in the intimate gesture of a fond mistress to a favoured lover.
Wilton honey it most certainly was, and all in the chamber knew it. Smiling imwardly and very much aware of Vaisey who was looking on in disbelief, Gisborne opened his mouth and took it from her fingers lingeringly, bestowing on her a smouldering look. She responded in kind before lowering her lashes demurely in a fine parody of modesty, but as she glanced up at him again, her eyes were laughing. When she was younger, he realised with a start, she must have been quite lovely.
"My Lord Sheriff!” she was saying in a show of great concern, for Vaisey was almost apoplectic by now . “Has something gone down the wrong way?” She picked up a goblet and filled it from a pitcher. “Do take a sip of ale. It may help you swallow.”
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
“Well, Lysette, my girl,” Eleanor of Aquitaine remarked, when she had laughed her fill at the tale of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s rather indigestible breakfast. “I hope you realise you owe me a full accounting of your conduct and your intentions there. The manor of…Streatham, was it?” The aristocratic features had arranged themselves in a passable approximation of severity.
“Strelley,” Alix corrected, “And Gryseleye.”
“Whatever it was.” The Queen’s long sleeve flared, a banner of crimson silk as she waved a dismissive hand. “Not to mention all those other morsels you saw fit to drop into the original pot. But I suspect you are about to regale me with another of those eminently logical explanations of yours.”
“No, aunt.” Her niece’s sheepish shrug was belied by the glint in her shadowed gaze. “It was just that for once in my life I wanted to kick up my heels and play.”
Eleanor pouted. “You and your fancy man,” she chided, and laughter bubbled up in the younger woman’s throat.
“I had never had one before,” she admitted, dabbing at her eyes with her aunt’s crumpled kerchief. ”Was that not excuse enough?” She reached for her goblet and sipped at the lemon-water, for the mirth had rasped her gullet like a stray bone in the broth. And yet it was some time since she had needed the relief of her potion; indeed, she marvelled at how long it had been. It seemed that memories too had the power to keep pain at bay.
Unbidden, her thoughts flew back to a visit she had made to the fortress of Les Baux, high on a rock in the southlands of Provence. Night had fallen long before they crested the crag, and it was morning before a tower window revealed the patchwork of umber earth, russet tile and green-black cypresses spread far below her, and all of it bathed in heat and golden light.
It was another country, so very different from the lushness of Burgundy or the flat Flanders terrain - a whole new world. And so she had felt that May morning a year ago when the door swung to behind her women once more and she stood and watched him sleep. “He looked so young, anda Eleanora,” she murmured, her restless fingers tracing the carved whorls on the arms of her chair. “The harsh lines of his face softened by sleep, and the lashes dark against his cheek. Were it not for the tightness at the corners of his mouth and the shadows beneath his eyes, I could have been seeing him in the first flush of his youth - a rather impatient youth who, judging from the furrows between his brows, was about to wake and make urgent inquiries about breaking his fast!"
The Queen’s brows arched, disappearing under the lower edge of her veils, and Alix’s mouth twisted in self-mockery. "Of course, the utter ridiculousness of the situation soon dragged me back to a sense of who and what I was,” she said. She had panted after him in the night like a soldier with a prime blonde whore from the brothel tent, only to become the silly maiden upon waking, swooning over the handsome hero in a romance. She had recognized herself in neither of these empty-headed fools. She was the Lady Alix, Comtesse de Vézelay and kinswoman of the king, who deigned to be kindly disposed to a man with a harsh task-master and that was all.
She risked a glance at her aunt, for the Queen had vouchsafed her no cheering comment for once, the royal features intent but non-committal. For the moment, then, she was on her own. “I collected myself,” she said, setting back her shoulders and summoning her resolve as she had done then. “But the rasp of the door against its frame had disturbed him, and he stirred and opened his eyes at last..."
He had been at that waking moment when the soul has lost its place in the book of life and has yet to recall its sins. Was it an illusion, or a glimpse of the child he once was and the man that child was meant to be? Whichever it was, the wide-eyed innocence of his gaze had taken her breath away. It was then that she knew with a sickening jolt of guilt what must have happened.
“His eyes, anda meuna!” she murmured. “They were like windflowers – May-sky blue, with wide dark hearts."
“Windflower eyes? Oh, really, Lysette!" Eleanor’s impatience was tempered with amusement. “That is even worse than that rascal Thibault’s most florid flights.”
“Fancy words for a fancy man?” Alix ventured with a wry smile. ”Troubadour licence aside, aunt, you have to grant me his very fine eyes.” Then she raised her hands, acknowledging defeat in the lists of literary prowess. “Though the triteness of my analogy is incidental to what those eyes revealed. For I had seen such wide and melting pupils often enough before - in my polished silver mirror; which told me that by accident or design he had come by a dose of my physic."
The knowing look on the Queen’s carved ivory face spoke volumes that made very uncomfortable reading, for her niece’s conscience still pulled at her like the scab on a half-healed wound. "Ah, indeed!" she sighed. “A part of me rejoiced that he had been down so deep that he would never know he had betrayed himself so completely - strong meat for a man of his pride to swallow. While the rest of me was riddled through with guilt; for had he not been drugged as well as drunk, I might have roused him before matters came to such a sorry pass.”
“Arrogance and vulnerability are strange bedfellows,” the Queen mused, swatting at a persistent wasp that had taken a liking to the lemon-water jug. “I must admit, I always found the combination irresistible in a man.”
And Sir Guy of Gisborne possessed both attributes in generous amounts, her niece reflected, pressing her lips together. Unlike her poor maimed horse, nothing marred his outward perfection beyond the twisted tangle that climbed the skin of his right forearm. His scars were hidden deep within him, where no one was allowed to go - until a cruel trick of Fate had shown her his naked soul.
”It was to my considerable relief that no shadows clouded his gaze he came back into himself,” Alix went on. “He sat up and set his feet to the floor; and all at once he was no romantic hero, no matchless object of desire - just a man, blinking himself awake, tousled and a little frowsty from the warmth of his bed.”
“There you are, you see,” Eleanor interjected softly, reaching a hand to the bony wing of the younger woman’s shoulder. “The feet of clay. Yet all too often we do not let that stop us.”
“Indeed, my dearest aunt,” her niece agreed. “Quite the contrary. For I knew then that whatever he was, and whatever he had come to mean to me, he had touched my heart.” Her voice faltered as sadness combed over her in a great wave and she closed her eyes, grateful for the solid warmth of the Queen's presence and the sweet smell of spiced roses that surrounded her like an embrace.
The pigeons were abandoning the steep camber of the bell-tower, disappearing one by one over the cloister roof. Like the progress of the sun across the sky, it was a stark reminder of the remorseless currents of time. Alix of Vézelay drew in a breath and prepared to resume her tale, while her royal aunt sat back in her chair, watching over her with an encouraging smile.
“Nevertheless,” she began tentatively, “I collected my errant thoughts and sought solace in the beauty of the new day.” Discretion had driven her to the window by then; now she stared into the middle distance, seeing nothing of the present scene before her as she relived the freshness of that bright spring morning a year ago. Despite the inundations of the night, the weather had promised to be fine; all the dust was washed from the air, leaving colour sharp and clear, while leaf and stone and paving sett wore lingering coats of radiance.
“What was more, for the first time in an age I found I had woken free of pain. My recent bout had loosed the last vestiges of its grip on me, and I felt almost well again, with every hope of completing my journey without further loss of time. It seemed to be an omen; plain sailing after a storm, and new beginnings… But not for him.”
She paused, her throat moving, as the relentless tide of grief came flooding back. “I knew that soon I would hear the tread of spurred boots and he would emerge, shrouded in darkness again, walled up in his carapace of black. In an hour or so I would be on my way, my life forever altered for having known him; while he would return to his grim existence as the Sheriff of Nottingham’s enforcer, and I knew not how long he could endure before it destroyed him utterly.”
“It would seem he spent the great part of his life on the edge of disaster, this other self of yours,” Eleanor of Aquitaine remarked, dryly.
“Yet his well-being had come to matter to me…Ah, cèl, anda meuna,” Alix said with a sudden rush of guilt. “How my conscience pricked me! For it was carelessness that had been his undoing; I had left my draught half-finished on the table, knowing how vulnerable he was, how inclined to seek to numb his senses with drink -- and far too spent by then to know what he was doing. The small joy I had of him was stolen, from under the nose of Fate and my own irresponsibility, and I was bitterly ashamed.”
An irrational longing had consumed her then, for the power to cheat Destiny; to shelter him from his demons and free him from his bonds. “Life had been cruel enough to him, aunt, without my contribution. I decided I owed him something more than the few hours of sleep I had helped him find.”
The Queen reclined against her cushions and rested her chin on her hands, regarding her niece with a quizzical air.
Her niece smiled tightly. “We were summoned to breakfast with the Sheriff. I could not help but remember our previous mealtimes and the humiliations he had heaped on a man who was not allowed to defend himself.” The memory of Vaisey’s calculated malice had her drawing her mantle closer even now, as if the spring breeze carried with it a sudden breath from the north. “All that would have been as nothing, a mere stroll in a pleasaunce, compared with what would have been in store for him after a night spent as he was supposed to have done. But an idea began to form, and I dug out my pen and parchment again.”
Eleanor's amber eyes were bright with interest. “So you handed him his revenge by using his lord’s own suspicious mind as a weapon against him.”
“And cheap at the price!” Alix of Vézelay’s lips parted in a smile of retrospective triumph. “Two manors, and assorted other revenues -- none of which made much difference when the administrative costs were factored in. And to my delight, my rough soldier rose to the occasion magnificently. He handed me into Vaisey’s lair with the dignity of a prince, and proceeded to take his master apart at the seams.”
It was with a light heart that she had indulged herself in the pleasure of play with this man who had come to mean so much to her; watching the Sheriff’s slow disintegration with him, and savouring the rare glimpse of quick intelligence and dry sense of humour that lay beneath the rough soldier’s mask.
How was she to have known this easy harmony would not outlast the hour?
Nottingham, Spring 1193.
At last the farce of a meal was over and the Countess’ steward was shuffling in with the welcome news that the column was ready to depart. Then he shuffled out, moving as gingerly as if his head had been lopped off sometime during the night and was now balanced on the bleeding stump of his neck. He’d clearly made the best of his involuntary leave of absence the previous night and was regretting it heartily.
The merry band of breakfasters broke up forthwith, agreeing to reconvene a short time later at the castle doors. It was Gisborne who found himself first on the scene, driven there by his impatience for the whole sorry episode to be over and done. He surveyed the crowded courtyard from his vantage point at the head of the stairs, arms folded across his chest in his usual aloof stance, presenting a picture of bored indifference to the world at large. Inside however, he had room for little beyond a profound sense of relief. The brief alliance he had forged against all odds with the woman who was to have been his victim had afforded him a few moments’ respite. Even so, the demands of the past two days had all but brought him to his knees.
After Acre and the events that had led him to that terrible moment under a desert sun, the reminder of what passes in private between a man and a woman was salt in a wound to him - and he’d been expected to do more than think. It was nothing short of a miracle that he’d dodged the need to follow through. Soon he would be at leisure to resume his little project of slow self-immolation, and it couldn’t come quickly enough.
He set one booted foot forward, inhaling deeply. The smell of wet stone and bruised greenstuff still hung in the air after the night’s storm; a fitful sun picked out metal trimmings on harness and equipage and brushed snapping banners and caparisons with fleeting washes of bright colour. Last-minute items were being stowed as a flurry of orders rang out over the hum of expectant conversation; traces jingled, wheel rims creaked and groaned, while baggage mules brayed and restless horses stamped and whickered, eager for the off.
The women's carriage too was loaded and ready, a bevy of the Countess’ ladies slumped untidily inside. Not so the old shrew with the iron-grey hair; her bony spine was stiff, her expression rivalling the disdain that lost the legendary Empress Matilda a throne. She returned his stare with a twist of her wizened mouth, muttering some derogatory remark to the young redhead at her side. She also sat straight- backed, but less perfectly impassive, the flapping curtains revealing and concealing pale cheeks and red eyes. As for the rest of the retinue, they were as sheep-faced and wan as the steward had been.
With the Countess gone to supervise the disposal of the last of her trappings, Gisborne had taken the opportunity to exchange a few quiet words with the over-curious young man at arms at the door of Vaisey's rooms. He’d been only too ready to spill, the words tumbling over his tongue in his eagerness to ward off the consequences of his recent lapse in military discipline.
The Sheriff’s tight-fistedness was legendary, but for once in his life he had chosen to speculate in order to accumulate, or so Gisborne gathered from the guardsman's stumbling report. The South Tower had been transformed into a luxurious prison last night - food served on groaning platters, wine flowing like water, staff and garrison under orders to extend the warmest of welcomes to their involuntary guests. There had been games, apparently; and singing and dancing too after the minstrels had been shovelled out of the inn and back into the confines of the castle. In short, to judge from the way the young guard blenched and shied away from meeting his superior officer’s eyes, rather too good a time was had by noble ladies, high-born squires and trusted retainers alike.
So much for polite society, Gisborne thought to himself with a sneer - cheap as the lower echelons when given half a chance. But, as his devious master would have calculated, wild carousing tends to leave you without a moral leg to stand on; there would be no tale-telling in high places about the Sheriff of Nottingham’s unorthodox take on the laws of hospitality.
Not that anything short of the executioner’s axe would crush his lord’s spirits for long. He appeared in the doorway, grasping at his belt and bouncing cheerfully on his heels, the petty irritations of the breakfast table set aside as they waited for the Countess to arrive. Happily for both their sakes she did not keep them waiting; appearing garbed for travel in a heavy fur-lined mantle the colour of cinnamon bark. The cynical show of deference as Vaisey sought her leave to give the departure signal had his master at arms turning aside and glancing in the direction of the wall-walk so as not to be caught rolling his eyes. Yet their guest allowed nothing to mar the serenity of her features. She nodded cool assent and he waved the long column forward, fingers flying flamboyantly, a mocking smile plastered across his face.
Meanwhile, the great black stallion had emerged from its stabling in the tithe barn, to wait quietly at the foot of the stairs beside its groom. Ears pricked, the proud banner of a tail whisking, the beast was never still, even with all four hooves on the ground. Shivers eddied over the glossy hide, tracked by the morning sun, the striped scar tissue writhing like snakes; nostrils flared red as it caught its mistress’s scent and it whinnied, surging towards her.
“Soau, Ben, meun cor!” the Countess called, running lightly down to greet the eager animal before it wreaked its unique brand of havoc on the stairs. Gisborne looked on in uneasy fascination as she stood on the lowest step, the breeze whipping at her red-brown cloak while she cradled the great wedged head in her hands. She had scoffed at Vaisey’s coarse analogy of man and beast, but he was unnerved to feel the acid seethe in his gut again as she fondled the creature, stroking its muzzle and crooning to it.
Nor was the Sheriff about to let go of his entertaining metaphor before he had wrung the last drops of malicious enjoyment from it. He tripped down the stairs in the Countess’ wake, flapping his black damask sleeves and cackling like a demented rook. He paused every few steps as he did so, glancing from Gisborne to the horse and back, miming the tossing of a mane and grinning like a skull in a charnel-house.
“Well, your little romance didn’t last long, did it? ’’ he crowed, as his lieutenant joined him down on the cobbles. "You’ve been thrown over already, Gisborne - for a horse! Oh, don’t be bitter, man,” he hissed into his ear, with great good cheer. “Kiss her goodbye and give her a leg up. You’ve had your leg over, have you not, so it’s only polite.”
Queens, countesses, women of all ranks - the Sheriff of Nottingham loosed his poisoned darts without discrimination. But if the Lady of Vézelay had developed a gift for selective deafness, he, Gisborne, had not. A crimson cloud billowed up behind his eyes - yet still he found himself stepping forward to do his master’s bidding, as he’d always done. And as sometimes, on reflection, he profoundly wished he had not.
How easy it was to fall back into old ways, his moments of rebellion at the breakfast table a memory already. On this showing, he seemed forever doomed to obey, come what might. Just what was the source of this man’s infernal hold on him, he asked himself now, as the Countess had asked before. It had gone way beyond self-interest by this time, way beyond loyalty. As he’d discovered for himself just moments ago, he was no better than a puppet, dancing to his master’s tune. Was he truly in thrall to an evil sorcerer? Or was it as she had said - he had bewitched himself so he would not have to live with the truth of what he had become?
Yet what did it matter who had cast the spell when the outcome was just the same?
These bleak reflections were interrupted by a touch on his sleeve. He glanced up to catch the tail-end of a contented cat’s smile on the Countess’s face, and looking over, a glaze of bored indifference on his lord’s. Knowing her fine line in icy put-downs, Vaisey’s latest series of slights had been repaid by a very corrosive leave-taking indeed.
"I rather think it was your sheriff who had something put over on him, Messire de Gisborne.” she murmured, her voice pitched for his hearing alone. “Though it was perhaps not a leg we used.”
Had she really just said that they’d shafted him?
Gisborne ducked his head to hide the muscle spasm that tugged at the corner of his mouth, and stepped forward to boost her to her horse’s back. She’d managed perfectly well by herself the day before, but as Vaisey had said, it was only polite.
As she turned to her mount in the circle of his arms, her lips were only inches from his ear. “Fare you well, bèl amics,” she said. Her voice was warm though his bruises were still fresh on her wrists. “May the Holy Mother keep you in her care.”
But the words had faded before he could grasp their meaning, garbled sounds borne away by the wind; for suddenly he was deaf and blind, trapped in a world rocked to its core. As she leaned in close for her farewell, the ghostly emanations that had been haunting him all morning had become shockingly, heart-stoppingly real.
Tendrils of warm spice, invading his nostrils, a decoction of cedar and the sweet sharp tang of a fruit he had tasted once in the Outremer; a strange leathern sphere with seed-studded flesh as red as uncut rubies, that the men called apple of Grenada. It was some essence she used, and he knew it all too well.
The dream shattered.
Blood drained from his limbs, leaving him chilled and boneless, as the floodgates of memory opened. The well and its fragrant water had been mere shadow; now he was caught in the full glare of the truth, like a moth in a candle flame.
Images, sensations reeled through his brain, so humiliating and so unthinkable, his own mind must have conspired to hide them from him. Could any of this be real? Or was it some new and exquisitely cruel instrument of torture his demons had dreamed up for him? Slowly he became aware that his hands were still at her waist; so cold despite the heat that raged through him that her cool fingers felt warm through the leather of his gloves.
“Messire…” she murmured. “Is something wrong?”
Gisborne tasted blood as he bit savagely into his lip, painfully aware of a pair of prying brown eyes not so many feet away. He shook his head, a curt denial that was for the world at large as much as for himself. Blessedly, the Sheriff’s mind was on other things for once; a mental inventory of his latest ill-gotten gains, perhaps. However, the Countess’ watchful gaze was not deceived for an instant.
“Soau,” she whispered, swiftly. “Soau, amics.... Walk with me a way?”
He could only nod dumbly. The rational thing would be to hold himself together for a few moments more and wait for her to be gone from his life. She was returning to France, and whatever had or had not happened between them in the dark of the night, she might never pass this way again to taunt him with it. Yet, like a child picking at a scab for the perverse fascination of what lay beneath it, he knew he would not rest till he knew the truth in all its rawness. For a man who lived in hell, what was one more turn of the screw after all?
She was addressing his master meanwhile, with that lofty air that turned off-colour barbs as efficiently as a coat of mail. “Of your courtesy, my lord Sheriff,” she said, in a voice as cool and clear as a rock-crystal aquamanile. “Would you spare my lord of Gisborne for a while longer? I had need to discuss horseflesh with him, and I find I had quite forgotten.”
But of course, now he’d recovered his lost composure, regal hauteur was water off a duck’s back to Vaisey. He grinned delightedly and leaned over to breathe in his lieutenant’s ear. “My lord of Gisborne, hmm? I think she likes you after all! Oh, go on with you,” he grumbled, blunt fingers gesturing impatiently on seeing his lieutenant was in no condition to take the bait. “It’s a wise enough move. Rumour has it Hood is back in the neighbourhood, and we can’t have Prince John thinking we neglect his family. Escort her as far as the crossroads, then, and put her on the Leicester road.” He cast a quick glance round the courtyard, sucking in his cheeks in a show of concern. “Though I don’t see that nag of yours with the amusing name this morning.”
With escape from the more immediate uncomfortable situation guaranteed, Gisborne found his voice, though it was from between gritted teeth. "My horse is in his stall with a bran poultice, my lord. I will walk and hire a mount at the stables in the town, if need be."
"As you wish." A shadow passed across the sun as the Sheriff spoke and all the colour in the world faded to grey. "It looks like rain again,” he pronounced, holding out a palm, as thunder grumbled in the distance. “Mind you don’t get caught out in it and catch your death. Though the way you have been acting lately,” he added with a waspish grin, “I am not sure I’d spot the difference if you did."
"A bran poultice?" The Countess and Gisborne were passing under the portcullis, the stallion following amenably like a great dog behind them. "Nothing serious, I hope?” She had signaled her groom to run back to join the baggage train, so the two of them walked alone, side by side. “You really must do me the favour of accepting that mare. Or there is a fine grey courser that might suit you - Blancart, after the Marshal’s horse.”
There was a rumble behind them, and they stepped aside to allow the women’s carriage to trundle laboriously past. "A sprain," Gisborne said, the mundane nature of the conversation steadying him. "He seemed all right when I got him home yesterday, but then the boy noticed he was limping.”
”Poor Dickon. Chasing after me and this fellow of mine, no doubt.”
The master at arms grunted. Dickon, indeed! “The little runt probably landed him a kick in the knee to get back at me for that tongue-lashing I gave him yesterday.”
"And risk another, or worse?” The Countess feigned horror as she shot him a sidelong glance. ”Messire de Gisborne, who would dare to be so rash?" And she tucked her arms under her mantle and shivered hugely.
Upon which he grunted again and they walked on in silence, retracing their route of the day before; on through the bustle of the town and out across the dry moat, mounted elements of the column overtaking them as they crossed the greensward immediately surrounding the town. The stallion was still following docilely behind; Gisborne could hear the click of hooves and the blowing of air but he did not turn to look. Instead he moved in a self-protective bubble, his eyes fixed on the ground, waiting to speak until he could be sure of not being over-heard - or at least, that was what he was telling himself. The unpalatable truth was he might never summon up the balls.
By the time they reached the point where the road began to run beneath the trees, the sun had come out again, the outer fringes of the forest canopy turning to an outlaw’s hoard of green-gold, gemmed with raindrops like scattered handfuls from a jeweler's plundered pouch. Leaves rustled and birds sang, the scent of flowers and rich loam sweet to the nose - beauty was all around him, yet he was nothing but ugliness inside.
The trunk of a fallen tree lay in a glade, awaiting the woodman’s axe. The Countess left the path and walked over to it, brushing at it perfunctorily before gathering her skirts and seating herself with a dismissive wave for her steward, who had reined in to offer his aid. This was the moment Gisborne had waited for. They were alone at last. But now it had come to it, he could not bring himself to look her in the face, let alone speak. He cursed himself for this womanish weakness, but those shrewd grey eyes could well have seen far more of him than any living soul had the right to do and the suspicion was eroding his last shreds of self-control.
"You tower above me so," she said, mildly. "Will you not sit?” Her next words robbed him of the need to ask his questions, for they cut to the core of the matter, straight down to the bleeding quick. "It is always like that for you, is it not, Messire de Gisborne?” she said as his knees obeyed her, setting him down heavily at her side. ”The demons?”
His heart plummeted like a cold stone, though he knew this had to have been coming. He should have carried on shouting for the guards as soon as he realised they'd bolted the door - shouted all night if need be. Surely some of his men bore him enough loyalty to have come and let him out? It had been madness to believe the imps in charge of his personal night-time hell could be fobbed off with a few extra cups of wine.
Night after night, they came, clawing at his brain, raping his mind, pursuing him into the most secret reaches of his heart. It was always the same, and all the more terrible for its sheer inexorability.
Joy… Marian, warm and alive in his arms again, graceful as a swan in her white wool gown.
Dread … a spear-thrust to the bowels, as knowledge of what was to come had its terrible way with him…
And horror… a bolster of bloodied feathers, impaled on a madman’s blade.
And then the flames of hell would come raging up, and with them, the livid deathshead of a face that leered at him through tatters of rotting flesh - the face which he somehow knew for his own.
Gisborne shuddered, hands clamping on his leather-clad thighs till his fingers cramped, while his mind made a frantic grasp for straws. Who knows, perhaps the indignity of being overheard in the throes of a nightmare was the worst of it. “Bad dreams!” he said, dismissively, grating out the words. “What is it to you?" And he showed her his back and ground his jaw so his teeth would not knock together.
“I took it on myself to try and comfort you,” came the even reply.
And his heart was off again on that sickening downward plunge as he faced up to the fact that too much of last night’s dream had indeed been -- no dream at all.
“In the morning,” she was saying, “I dared to hope you had forgotten. But something has made you remember, has it not?"
Indeed it had. The moment he smelt it on her, the memories had come raining down on him like boulders in a landslide. His weary soul, fleeing from the hellfire of his own mind, stumbling into what his dreaming brain had interpreted as a well of cool water… As it was, he could not have chosen a more precarious haven - the deceptive sanctuary of a woman’s arms.
How long had it been since he’d had someone to hold him? Decades since his mother had been moved enough to care, if she ever had; she’d been quick enough to cast off his father, after all. No… Discounting the kind of touch that could be purchased for coin of the realm, the last time had been Marian. Even now, he ached with the unbearable sweetness of the thought of it, so fleeting, and as illusory as any mirage that stalked the desert sands.
How could he have learned so little from his self-deception? That closeness was still what he craved. He had been so weary, last night, so hurt and so broken, he’d begged for it; he could hear his own voice pleading now, as he’d burrowed into the dream; so pathetically hungry to be held and comforted, he had wept like a woman. His cheeks burned at his gullibility and the rawness of his need.
"Cedar and Grenada apple," he spat, the self-contempt like a hiss of steam from a pot on the boil.
“Ah, cèl! “ The Countess’s retort was a softer echo of that sibilance. “My soothing balm! Of course. The sense of smell is always last to fade. I should have thought not to use it again this morning.”
She shifted on the log, Gisborne’s heightened senses registering the crackle and shirr of dry bark as he battled his mortification. How she must have despised him, he thought, recalling the bitter curve of her mouth as she’d looked down at him, lying in her bed. A rush of bile soured his throat but he swallowed it down, grappling his way to the one port in a storm that never failed him; his white-hot rage.
“How dare you!”
He leapt to his feet, towering above her, stabbing a gloved finger at her and biting the words off, one by one. “Christ on the cross! How DARE you, woman! What gave you the right to poke your high and mighty nose into my business?” To his consternation, his finger was shaking, though the sight was only fuel to the flame.
Yet she did not flinch. She stood to face his naked fury with her chin up and her fists on her hips. “What would you have had me do?” she flung back at him. “You were making enough noise to bring half the garrison running.” She paused, until she saw she’d captured his attention. “Nightmares are a pain in the rear, Messire de Gisborne,” she continued, more calmly. “Even without a large and critical audience. I did not take you for a man who likes to announce his lapses in manly fortitude to the world at large. Or his amatory exploits, for that matter; rough soldier or no.” She awarded him a caustic smile. “For if memory serves, were you not supposed to be ravishing me all night?”
Gisborne stared like a cat suddenly challenged by a mouse, his belligerence stopped in its tracks by the truth of her words. “Though you are right,” she was adding, so softly now that he had to strain to hear above the forest sounds of birds and the rising wind in the leaves. “It was unpardonable of me to have interfered. But I could not rouse you, try as I might. What else should I have done? Fetched that great sword of yours and prodded you awake with that?”
A bark of painful laughter tore from him. And if she’d leaned on it just a little harder, she could have run him through - the irony would have been exquisite. “Happen,” he grunted bitterly, “It would have been better if you had.”
“Happen,” was the pert retort, “your eavesdroppers would have misinterpreted your groans as something other than pain.”
But her attempt at lightness could not divert his thoughts from their dark pathways. Hell would freeze over before groans of any other kind escaped his throat again. Humiliation lowered over him, heavy and oppressive as the gathering storm. He had lain in the arms of a stranger, and shown her his naked heart.
For the sun had hidden itself in a grey cloudbank, taking with it any warmth left in the day, and thunder rolled, ominously near. The stallion had been peaceably cropping grass at the edge of the glade. Now it whickered and blew nervously down its nose. Gisborne slumped down on the log again with his head in his hands. The tide of his rage had receded, leaving him mired in misery like a seabird trapped in estuary mud. His eyes burned, and there was moisture on his cheeks; stray drops of rain were beginning to penetrate the tree-cover, or perhaps it was a simple involuntary tearing; He’d raked gloved fingers through his hair and the wolf-tags had snagged in the strands, that was all.
Someone was speaking, but he was too distraught to pay heed, for in the wake of the humiliation, panic had sparked. Just how far had the disintegration gone? Had he confessed to his crimes against the crown along with his crimes of the heart? As if a traitor’s death was anything to be feared, he reminded himself, with a sick grimace. He should welcome the disembowelling knife like a lover’s caress; for after the agony would come release from all bodily pain.
As for his soul, well, that was another matter entirely.
There was one bleak comfort left to him, however, and that was knowing he knew the worst, "What did I say?” he rasped, clenching his fists on his thighs till the nails bit through the leather and into his flesh. “Tell me! Tell me exactly what you heard. You owe me that at least.”
"A name,” was the quiet answer. ” I heard a woman’s name. Nothing else at all that I could make out.”
Marian… Ever and always Marian.
But it could have been worse.
There could have been words to be quoted back at him in mockery - words betraying his most secret thoughts. He’d cried for her, he knew, this woman whose kiss had been his taste of heaven, and whose rejection had sent him straight to hell. This woman whose love he hungered for even now. To have blurted all that out loud would have been the final humiliation. He fought down a moan, for in his preoccupation with the Sheriff-baiting this morning, he’d forgotten to numb himself with the usual quantities of alcohol, and he was prey to the full force of his pain for the first time in weeks.
His demons descended, and he couldn’t decide which baying horde to flee from first - guilt or shame, loss or betrayal. Through the mists of despair, he felt that touch on his sleeve, light as a moth at dusk, and he wondered that it did not burn to a crisp in the fires that consumed him.
“Ah, cèl,” a quiet voice said, at his side. The Countess had come to sit beside him again. “Do not distress yourself, Messire de Gisborne, I beg you with all of my heart. This was but another of life’s cruel tricks. No one shall know of it, I promise you."
Gisborne snorted. As if this would not make the perfect tale for all those mincing lords and perfumed ladies of jaded court circles - the Sheriff of Nottingham’s hatchet man, mewling like a snot-nosed brat in his sleep! What woman could keep such a prime piece of gossip to herself?
This woman shrugged slender shoulders and exhaled softly. "I know,” she said, the Occitan accents freighted with an emotion he could not begin to name. “I could swear silence on all I hold most holy, but why should you believe me? You hardly know me, and my kin are not known for keeping faith. However…" She paused, as a cold gust found its way through the trees and she drew her furred mantle round her. “In diplomacy, when matters of trust are at stake, it is customary to exchange hostages as a pledge of good faith. So allow me offer you this.” She paused again, her cheeks flushed with sudden colour and she looked down to examine her feet in their soft kid boots. “No one knows of this, now my old nurse and my lord the Count are no more," she began. “Save for my women, that is, and my one childhood friend, and she lives retired in the depths of the French countryside.” She stared down unseeingly for a moment more; then against all odds, wry amusement touched a corner of her mouth as she ventured a glance at him from under her lashes. “Ailàs, Messire, I was a most unseemly young maiden.”
“Yes,” remarked Gisborne darkly, remembering the discarded veil and the impudent tongue. “I was introduced to her, down by the river.”
The woman grown dipped her head, acknowledging the thrust. “I fear I found the life of the bower stifling. So I would wait for nightfall and climb down from the turret window to roam the grounds.” A fleeting smile played across her lips, as memories of those carefree moments returned to her. “That is,” she concluded, collecting herself, “until the morning they found me at the bottom of the tallest tree in the gard, covered in blood.” She was silent again for a moment, her colour deepening, while her throat moved uneasily. “I am scarred long and deep, high above one knee,” she said at length, and she passed a hand over the russet folds of her gown in the region of her inner left thigh as if she still felt the throb of the wound. “So, Messire,” she concluded, her smile tauter now "If ever you should hear that I have been speaking out of turn, you will find it easy enough to discredit a woman who was futtered by a tree branch long before a husband put a hand on her. And of course, more recently by your good self, thus rendering you privy to such details."
Gisborne’s head snapped back, as if he’d been dealt a blow across the face. She’d thrown him off-balance a time or two before, but this barrack-room bluntness on the lips of a highborn lady had set him reeling. It was several moments more before he understood that she had just delivered her honour into his hands. There was nothing to stop him from using this intimate knowledge of her body to his own advantage at any time he chose. Yet seen solely from his own point of view it was an elegant ruse; any unwelcome gossip about himself would be scotched in an instant, dismissed as sour grapes with this titillating little snippet.
Then a sudden sick stab to the gut reminded him that there would always be someone who knew what lived inside him - someone who had seen the soft-bellied creature that cowered behind the wolfish façade. Something no one but Marian had been allowed to glimpse, and even she hadn’t guessed the half or even the quarter of it. Her ladyship of Vézelay had claimed to have his best interests at heart when she’d told him of her intimate distinguishing mark; yet he’d put his trust in women before, and look where it got him.
Lepers, Gisborne, lepers…
What guarantee was there that she’d spoken the truth? Her scar could be pure invention. He rubbed at his clenched jaw, his thoughts churning. He’d seen for himself how quick and resourceful she was, and how cunning, making light work of the Sheriff’s machinations – and his own clumsy efforts at intimidation. His armour of brutality and black leather was his chief instrument of survival; now its integrity had been broached by a conniving woman and the damage might never be repaired.
Although there was something else that lurked inside him behind the spineless worm – that living spark of darkness. It roused now, surging through his veins till his fingertips itched for the haft of the small curved claw he carried in his boot.
A furtive glance round…
The bushes and the bend in the road sheltered them from stragglers from the baggage train - a balking mule, a strolling groom, or any lone traveller that might happen along. With Hood and his outlaws rumoured back in the shire to provide a scapegoat, it was the perfect opportunity, he reasoned again, as he found himself sizing her up for dispatch for the second time in as many days. A hand over her mouth, a quick blow under the ribs, and his pride would be intact again, and no one any the wiser.
He lay with a corpse in his arms each night. What difference would one more make?
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
“How fleeting joy is, anda Eleanora!"
Alix of Vézelay reached for the posy that lay fading on the tray beside the plates and cups. The busy lay sister had spared a moment from her day to add to her guests’ pleasure with a graceful gesture; borage and dog rose were bound together with creamy spikes of betony. Sadness tautened her lips as she stroked the tender petals. Already life was draining from them, growing brown and curling at the edges, their waxy gloss dulling fast.
“The answer, I suppose,” the Queen reflected, resting her chin on a long-fingered hand, “is to know how to wait until the next one comes along.” She glanced up to where the sun was setting somewhere behind the cloister roof. A bloom of citrus and apricot spread half across the sky, while high above, the silver pinprick of a star announced that night was not far behind. It promised to be a fine evening indeed, and the scent of the roses still lingered, souring slightly yet somehow all the more poignantly lovely for the fact that soon it must turn to the odour of rot.
“Believe it or not, aunt, I was happy that morning,” her niece declared, holding the small bundle to her nose and breathing its haunting perfume. “The day was fair and fresh, my aches and pains were gone and the road lay open before me. As I hastened down the castle steps to greet my horse, I felt almost carefree.”
There had been precious new memories to carry away with her, those brief moments of accord with a fierce yet oddly kindred soul, and the stolen glimpses of worlds hitherto unknown. Her features softened, the flowers forgotten on her lap as she lived that time once more.
“My heart was full, anda meuna,” she said. “He bore himself bravely as he came down to stand beside me despite what I knew of him and the battles he fought in the night.” Her hands wrung together, shocking her for the hundredth time by how naked they felt without the defiant bosses of her rings. “He was so pale and careworn, with that constant frown between his brows that sleep could not smooth away. Yet still when I looked at him, I forgot to breathe. In better days,” she added with a wistful smile, “he surely must have shone.”
“Oh, he did that all right, my Lysette,” was Eleanor’s dry retort, her veils a-float as she registered her disapproval with a shake of her queenly head. “Too much so for his own good - and everyone else’s besides! Swaggering about in his black; pounding the roads of the shire on that great horse of his and terrorising the peasants. You would have said he thought himself a prince at the very least.” She exhaled forcefully, like a small but elegant dragon. “Men! Despite the teachings of Holy Church, I often think it was they who brought sin into the world, not us - that damnable pride, that warring and wrangling, those never-ending jockeyings for power.” Her sour smile bore the bitter weight of years behind it. “And that is just within our family! We show more sense with the animals, do you not think, my girl, when we cull excess boars and bucks for the pot?”
Alix choked on a burst of irreverent laughter. “Aunt! I think your saintly adversary of Clairvaux was blessed indeed if he went to his heavenly reward before you could share the likes of that with him.” Her eyes had teared with suppressed mirth, and she reached for the lemon water again to soothe her abused throat.
Eleanor of Aquitaine harrumphed. “The holy Bernard should have known better than to have detached himself from half of God’s world before he gained a proper understanding of it,” she remarked, tartly. “They forget that without us weak and sinful women to bear the bodies for them, they would soon run out of fresh souls to save.”
The younger woman spluttered again, entertained as she so often was by her royal aunt’s robust attitude to Holy Writ. But it was that very ability to look beneath the surface and grasp the bald truth beneath that had enabled the Queen to survive all life had thrown at her - the marriages, her quarrelsome brood, the long years of almost solitary confinement. She supposed she, Alix, should be grateful that she possessed a modicum of that clear-sightedness herself; though it had failed her miserably last spring in Nottingham.
Her hands burrowed under the fur-lined mantle to cup elbows that had grown sharp and bony so alarmingly fast. “Think of him what you will, aunt,” she insisted, “I wronged him by my carelessness that allowed him to drug himself. But I had afforded him honourable resolution of a distasteful mission, with some measure of subtle revenge thrown in. It consoled me to think him none the worse for our encounter.” Then her thin frame crumpled. “But then, anda Eleanora, with that eternal recklessness of mine, I betrayed him all over again.” She clutched futilely at her cloak as it slipped from her hunched shoulders in her distress. “Any good I had done him was destroyed in the space of a single heartbeat.”
The Queen clucked her tongue - at an impulsive niece or a fallen cloak, it was difficult to tell, though the warm woollen mantle was tucked back about her with gentle hands.
“Ah cèl," Alix murmured, her face stiff with shame as she huddled into the comforting folds. “I was weak. I could not resist leaning in for a moment’s closeness, a last private word of farewell But ailàs, he caught the scent of a soothing balm I used, and it broke his dream. What trust I had built between us came crashing down.”
“And this is why you saw fit to entrust him with something so personal?” Eleanor inquired. “A scar I would have known nothing about myself, had not your nurse not been charged with frequent reports of your health to me?” The hooded eyes kindled. “You chose to deliver up your good name to the whim of a landless nobody from the English shires, who earned his bread by doing a corrupt master’s dirtier deeds.”
Alix’s indignation propelled her to the edge of her chair. “Can you still say that was all he was, after what I have told you?” Then she released her indrawn breath, for impartiality was hardly her strong suit here. “But you know me and my rational explanations, aunt,” she continued, sitting back with a grim smile. “I have one for this too. When he demanded to know what had happened, I felt I owed him no less than the truth, though it set him beside himself with rage and shame. As for the risk to my honour, it seemed paltry enough redress for what I had taken from him. Besides, I reasoned I would not have need of it for much longer.”
She stared down at the nosegay in her lap, so she would not have to endure the keen royal scrutiny. ”But you are right, as ever, my dearest aunt,” she admitted with a sad sigh. “It was beyond foolhardy of me. It was one more step along the slippery path I had begun to tread, the moment I encountered him in the great hall at Nottingham and saw my own hopelessness look out at me from his eyes.”
And of course, it had failed to placate him for very long.
The Shire of Nottingham, Spring 1193.
Thunder rolled, louder and much nearer.
The Countess rose to her feet, a hand held out to catch the first determined spatter of rain. She brushed the moisture from her skin, along with the chaff and dead leaves that clung to her skirts; then she stood looking down at him, chewing thoughtfully at her lip. Shrewd eyes that had guarded the many and varied interests of wide estates now pinioned him where he sat, slumped on a log in Sherwood and plotting murder with his gut roiling in concert with his brain.
“You intend me to die at your hands then, Messire,” she announced coolly, indicating the creep of his fingers along his thigh.
Gisborne ground his teeth. Never signal your intentions - it was one of the first lessons his arms master had taught him. Frustration at the lapse made his reaction rash and cruel. “Why not?” he growled, and he lunged for his boot. The wickedly curved dagger sprang obediently into his grip, and the deadly heft of it consoled him for the tremor in his voice. “You have unmanned me. Your scars and your reputation are nothing to me.”
She was watching him unblinkingly through the silver threads of rain, her grey eyes dark and deep. Then she shrugged, her gaze falling. “Why not, indeed?” she said, with a sigh. ”For there is something else you should know. The drinking was all your own doing last night; but from the look of you this morning…” She hesitated, seeming to choose her words with a care she scorned to use for her own safety. “There is… a draught I take sometimes. To help me sleep.”
The wine! The bitter wine in the wrong cup!
Not an exotic court preference, then. Small wonder he had come apart so easily and so completely; he’d been drugged as well as drunk. The hilt of his knife bit into the palm of his clenched fist, though there was something in his deepest heart of hearts that argued he should not blame her; she’d hardly held the cup to his lips.
Oh, no, he’d done for that for himself.
"Life is cruel, Messire,” she murmured, fixing him again with that watchful stare. “And full of irony, do you not find? Contrary to expectations, it would seem you were the one to be ravished last night, not I. Dame Fortune must be splitting her sides.” She squared her shoulders under the rapidly darkening mantle and lifted her chin, moisture beading her lashes as she opened her arms and looked him boldly in the face. “So come, my lord, if you must. You are welcome to your revenge.”
More than you know…
The words were unspoken, yet they hung in the air somehow, conjured from the wind and the rush of rain through the leaves. A taste for reckless riding was one thing, spice for a bored and indulged existence. But what woman of her wealth and status would court death so willingly? A shudder ran through him, down to the very depths of his soul, and it was not because of the sudden cold. The sight of her standing there, offering herself to his blade, reopened a festering wound that would never heal.
He swallowed and shook his head to banish the grim image and the chain of thought that had lured him there. He’d allowed himself to become dangerously sober this morning; it was well known that withdrawal after prolonged bouts of drinking spawned strange fancies in the brain. Add to that the lingering effects of whatever poison it was she’d fed him, and no wonder his perceptions were skewed. Indeed, much of his day so far had been a mixture of nightmare and dream.
”However,” the Countess was saying thoughtfully, as he sat weighing up the pros and cons of cold-blooded murder with the rain falling around them more heavily now, in rods of glinting steel. “Whenever my gouvernante beat me, she claimed the greater pain was hers. Could there be any truth in that, do you think, Messire de Gisborne?”
More than you know…
Those unspoken words echoed inside his skull again, and he grimaced. What gave him the right to decide which hurt the more - the swift sharp agony of a sword-thrust or the relentless demon-driven torment he’d been undergoing day after day? But the question was irrelevant, as he'd reasoned before. One more crime would make no difference to his suffering.
“I know how you feel,” a quiet voice said, and the platitude was oil on hot coals, trailing scarlet banners before his eyes.
“You know NOTHING!”
The dagger dropped unheeded to the ground and his arms went round his body, holding his shattered sense of being together as he relived his humiliation from both angles at once; as himself, sniveling and whining helplessly like a mongrel cur, and as an on-looker, watching the exhibition with cold contempt. “You are the Lady Alix, Countess of Vézelay,” he said, and the granite in his voice could have turned steel. “You have rank, wealth and power. I am a landless nobody, and you have robbed me of what last shreds of dignity I had.”
To his shocked surprise, her answer was a peal of laughter, though it was short-lived, with a taint of bitterness. “So you say, Messire,” she conceded. “But you should understand I was not always what I am now. Once I was a frightened twelve year old on her wedding night, stripped before a rowdy crowd in the bedchamber to prove she was whole and hearty. And then, to ensure there could be no ambiguity about the progeny, they looked on while my childless widower of a husband deflowered me in the marriage bed. Many a wedding sheet has been daubed with chicken blood, after all. So yes,” she concluded evenly. “I know how you feel. You feel violated."
She retrieved the dagger from where it had fallen on the quickly dampening forest floor, cleaning it of leaves and mulch with a fold of her gown before offering it over her hand with a courtly flourish. He took it from her, slowly and sullenly, running a careless finger along the blade. The bleak insight into the mind of a child bride was doing little for the equanimity of a man who had handed over a young sister to an older groom. “You lied!” he accused, latching onto what he perceived as the discrepancy in her story to quell the new source of turmoil in his breast. “You lied to me about the tree branch.”
The Countess gestured dismissively. “I embellished the truth; I thought it made for a better tale. Naturally my lord the Count would have turned down damaged goods. Though the scar is only marginally shorter than I claimed.” Her nose wrinkled with sudden irreverent mirth. “Would you have me prove it to you, Messire, here at the roadside?”
Gisborne averted his head with a grumbling mouthful of oaths; but she only huffed softly, consigning his ill humour to the winds along with the thoughtless cruelty of that bygone Dijon court.
"What I do know” she persisted when she saw she had his attention again, “is that I would have kinder memories of that day if my lord had but turned to me and spoken of his own mortification.” A gust of wind had sent a heavier shower funnelling through the leaves and she huddled into her cloak, though he sensed the tremor of her body was not solely due to the cold. ” Ah cèl!’” she said at length. “It brings me shame to say this, but I shall say it all the same, in the hope that it will rid you of some of yours."
He glanced up sharply to find that for once her gaze avoided his, her eyes downcast, the lashes like smears of wood-ash against her flushed, wet cheeks. For a moment her mouth moved soundlessly; then the words came, and his chin jerked up as if he had been punched on the jaw.
"Life taught me that what happens between the sheets is a pleasure for men alone,” she began, leaving him open-mouthed, like a village idiot gawping at a mummer’s parade. Time and again this woman had dumbfounded him and he couldn’t begin to guess what was coming next.
"My royal aunt, my cousin Marie, and their ladies… They did their utmost to persuade me I was wrong.” Her voice was gathering strength now, the thread of a familiar argument carrying her along. “The whispered delights in the courts of love - Master Chrétien’s romances, those cansos my minstrels inflicted on you yesterday. Fights of fancy, the lot of them, I said - pretty tales to brighten a dull bower afternoon.”
She drew a ragged breath, seeming to steel herself to come to the point. “You should not take shame in anything you did last night,” she said, and paused, her cheeks flaming. When she was able to speak again, her voice shook. “For you see, Messire de Gisborne, while you were fighting your demons, mine were teaching me what it was to want a lover in my bed.”
She spun on her heel like an arrow launched from a bow, her long sleeves lifting in her wake like wings. The rain was coming down in wind-driven curtains by now, and she lifted her face to it, making a noise low in her throat that came bubbling up as she whirled, revealing itself as laughter. She was glancing back at him from over her shoulder, the wild girl shining out at him from a woman’s eyes. “So, Messire,” she said, sweetly. “If there was a whore in the bedchamber last night, then it was not you."
Gisborne's jaw dropped. Then his lips twisted in relish. She might have eavesdropped on his secrets, but she had just stripped herself naked before him in her turn. At once he felt better than he had done for a long time, despite the persistent guilt and pain and endless nights without sleep; better for sure than he’d fared since the day she arrived in Nottingham with her money and her horse and her rings and fancy clothes. Well, your high and mighty ladyship, he gloated to himself. Not so dainty now, are you? No better than those good-for-nothing retainers of yours, up for a little debauchery when given half a chance - while you crawl into bed with a stranger, and a lowly knight at that, hot for him and admitting it brazenly to his face.
She was right though, he realised, with a jolt. Shame had been consuming him from the moment in the bailey when she'd wafted the fumes if her exotic balm under his nose. Now that shame was fading away, to be replaced by something far more congenial; a deep and heady contempt.
Lepers, Gisborne, lepers...
Was there no end to the games they played? Marian, reeling him in with her soft glances and dark beauty, the hints of affection that masked her true intent… His own mother, betraying his trust as she betrayed his absent father with another man... Wenches and whores, winning smiles pinned on their faces, taking him for what they could get. Now here was a great lady whose courtly manners hid the appetites of an alley-cat. No need to kill her to repay her for what she had done to him. There were other, more subtle routes to revenge.
He stowed his blade in his boot, his tongue licking unconsciously at his lips as he savoured the prospect. This is how the wolf feels, he thought, when the foolish doe rabbit walks straight into its jaws. “So,” he jeered, “Vaisey was right all along. What woman can string two thoughts together without a man to service her? Look at you! Desperate to spread your legs the moment you got the chance.”
A shadow crossed her face, like the shadow he’d seen when he’d torn into her for jumping the River Leen. His words had found their mark. That knowledge would have deterred a better man; that man would not have ignored the glaring flaw in his reasoning either, but he was too busy drowning in exquisite pleasure, rich and bitter as a rotting plum.
How could he have overlooked this weakness of hers? It could have provided him with hours of entertainment. He should have forced her as he had intended to do when he dragged her into her chamber, making her beg him for her own degradation. That would have taught her to keep her mouth shut and her knees together, he told himself, as the thunder rolled and crashed about them.
The rain was sheeting down now, moulding the clothes to her skin despite the protection of her cloak. He found himself eyeing her speculatively, noting the small breasts and narrow waist. She might have borne children but her body had lost none of its shape. And then there was that intriguing scar she had mentioned…
He toyed with the idea of pushing her to the sodden grass, lifting her skirts to determine the truth of the matter once and for all - tracing it with a thumb when he found it and watching her squirm. He could almost believe his body stirred at the thought. Then he dismissed the idea with a snort of contempt. The little whore would probably enjoy it too much; besides, his prick would not be resurrected so cheaply.
He glanced her way again. She was shivering, but she met his burning gaze with her head held high. There was even a glint of spirit in her eyes. Anger or indignation? Who could say what went on in a woman’s mind. Their moods were as changeable as the spring weather that had smiled down on them as they left Nottingham, and was now drenching the pair of them to the skin.
She was shaking her head as she embarked on a fruitless attempt to snap the worst of the wet from the hood of her cloak. “Wanton I have admitted to, Messire,” she said. “Desperate is a little harsh - though I grant someone might think that - if they were deaf or daft. So. Which is it?” she asked, the ghost of a wicked smile crossing her lips. “For you are giving me the impression I have been talking to myself for some time.”
Gisborne sneered. "I heard you,” he said, gruffly. “You’ve lived among fops and old men. No wonder you never developed the taste before.”
“Aha!” she said, and her eyes flashed. “Now I understand. You are fishing for compliments!”
He looked up sharply from under furrowed brows. The hurt and the rage persisted, and the irrational urge to punish her, though her one true liability was arriving in his orbit at all. For now, some rebel part of him yearned to parry her thrust, savouring the anticipation as he made his own move and took up his guard again.
As always, she struck from the quarter he least expected. “If that is so,” she said sweetly, “Then compliments you may have, and welcome. For who could accuse my lord of Gisborne of being either aged or effete?”
He glared at her, unable to decide if she had just offered him the praise she’d accused him of seeking or some cunningly veiled insult. It proved impossible to unravel the tangled coil and he shrugged, abandoning his efforts. For the moment, the crossing of swords was enough, a splinter of light in the dark night of his life.
He came to his feet, stretching almost lazily, enjoying the slide of his muscles for the first time in many weeks.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
“You told him what?” Indignation had driven the Queen to her feet for the second time that afternoon. In the haste of her pacing, the brush of her silken hems was audible as she crossed the close-cropped grass.
“You heard me, aunt.” Alix persisted. “I told him I had lain beside him and wanted him. Was that not the truth?”
Eleanor of Aquitaine delivered herself of another of her emphatic yet elegant exhalations. ”I should have thought you had already presented him with far too many of your truths, my girl. You had just handed him your good name on a silver salver. Was that not enough?” She gestured impatiently, her rings shooting miniature bolts of red-gold fire. “To expose yourself, knowingly, to grievous insult… You gambled that he felt no fleshly urges, yet coarse words and coarser speculation were easily within his powers.”
Rooks were wheeling above them in a shifting cloud, calling raucously as they headed for their roosts in the forests beyond. It was as if they sought to add their own invective to the Queen’s reprimands. But her niece was in no mind to be cowed. “Oh, I went one better than that, aunt. I put the coarse words into his mouth for him. What else would he do but run with them?”
Eleanor halted in mid-stride and set her fists on her hips, the very picture of a doughty market-woman confronting a customer who had prodded her cheeses too much. “Did he at least have the grace to allow himself to be shocked?” she demanded. “Never forget, there are men who believe all women are in a constant state of carnal lust. Though what it says about them, that they should feel the need to tar us with their own brush, the Good Lord only knows,” she added in a disgruntled aside.
The last of the rooks were a trail of ink blots across the blush napery of the sky. Alix followed their noisy progress until they vanished behind the dark bulk of the cloister roof. “Oh, Messire de Gisborne was gracious enough to distinguish between the virtuous and the wanton of our sex, for all his sins,” she answered with a tight smile. “He was merely confused by me, I think - as is any man who finds himself faced with an individual rather than a cipher.” She shifted on her cushions in a bid to instill a little discipline into her failing spine. “So yes, anda meuna, he was suitably appalled to have to reclassify me among the fallen, and liberal with his anger and his contempt. Especially as I had just told him I had drugged him, too,” she added, with a catch in her voice that held a touch of melancholy amidst the wry amusement.
She glanced down at her lap, her attention caught by the spreading stain left by the lay-sister’s nosegay. Was it a lake with an island and swans, she wondered, tracing its outline with a finger, or was it more like a thundercloud? How the child she once was had loved to gaze at the clouds from her tree-top perch, imagining they were enchanted beasts and birds - rare moments of happiness that had come to an end too soon. She hugged the memory to her as a talisman against darker thoughts.
“Anger sat more easily on his stomach than shame,” she said. ”And you will grant, anda Eleanora, that I owed him the respite. For who knows better than I do what it is to be shamed as I had shamed him? It was as if he had been stripped naked and forced, as I was on my wedding night.”
The Queen blinked filling eyes. “To my sorrow, I had no knowledge of that, or what you endured subsequently. And his situation was hardly the same, my dear.” The long crimson folds of her sleeves fell back, revealing the white silk of her undergown as she gesticulated again. “You were an innocent twelve year old, exploited by those who had the maturity to know better. While he was a grown man, and a man like that, to boot. What did he know of shame?”
“And he a bully and a blackguard?” Alix of Vezelay stared up at the darkening sky, searching for cloud-unicorns. White or black or burnished with the setting sun, there were none to be had that day. “He knew more than you think, aunt. What was left to him when he was driven from his father’s lands but the clothes on his back and his pride; a pride constantly eroded by a devious overlord? A few coarse words were a small price to pay for the chance to give some of that pride back to him.”
Eleanor snorted and flung herself into her chair again, a whirlwind in carmine and gold. ”Excuses! So many excuses, and all because you fell for a fine body and a pretty face.” The finely–etched brows drew together, crumpling skin as fine and thin as the gossamer of her chemise. “For all your noble intentions, he did not hesitate to use you ill.”
Her niece shook her head. “I shall not insult him or myself with further excuses,” she said. “I have no martyr’s leanings, aunt. I knew his cruel words were not for me; they were for those in his life who had repaid the loyalty he prized so greatly with treachery and lies.”
“All very well and good, my Lysette, if it were a case of words alone,” was Queen’s tart rejoinder. “He drew steel on you - and you stood before him and urged him on.” She slapped the flat of her hand on the chair-arm for emphasis. “Suicide is a sin before God, or had you forgotten that? You risked not just this life, but the life to come.”
No unicorns, no popinjays... A scattering of pink-tinged goose-down pillows was all she could see, as a fine day lay dying into a soft spring night. Alix abandoned her contemplation of the heavens and looked into her soul. “I was not as rash as you think, anda Eleanora,” she remonstrated, her fingers seeking the smooth silk of her sleeves again. ”Oh, I sensed he could have done it at some stage in his life - especially with Vaisey in the equation. But his demons had afflicted him with such terrible burdens, I did not see how he would run the risk of shouldering more.”
She gazed into the once-pure oval of the royal face, hoping to find a little understanding there, but Eleanor pursed her lips, her brows on the rise above her hooded eyes. “You were quite mad, you know, my girl… To stake so much on a whim!”
Her niece laid a hand on the samite-clad arm beside her. “A whim to give him something he had not often enjoyed, my dearest aunt - the benefit of the doubt.”
For many had ranged themselves against him since his boyhood world had fallen apart, while few had stood at his side. If the tender child that hid inside him was not to die, it needed to be remembered now and then; she had wished to give him the opportunity in the little time she had spent with him. “And who was in a better position than I to risk calling his bluff?” she insisted, as the Queen’s lips tightened in reproach. “Not for the salvation of my soul or his, but because so much of him spoke to what I am.”
Though if she had known the full sum of his secrets, she thought soberly, would she have been as foolish, or as fond?
The Shire of Nottingham, Spring 1193.
Gisborne was not given long to enjoy his new expansive mood. Within moments his hand was going to the pommel of his sword, his soldier’s instincts yammering that something was wrong.
It took several moments more for him to put a name to this subliminal sense of foreboding. Save for the buffeting of the wind and the hiss of rain through the trees, it was too quiet by far; the shouts, the rumble of baggage carts, the tramp of feet and hooves - all the noise and commotion of a princely retinue had died away. Between intermittent rolls of thunder, nothing punctuated the bluster of the wind but the anxious cawing of rooks. While he and the Countess had been skulking in the bushes, caught up in their own concerns, her cortege had marched on, oblivious to the fact that they were leaving their liege lady behind.
A frown etched a deep crease between his brows and he cast a glance about him. The stallion was still grazing close by, a nervous flick of an ear greeting each new peal from the sky. Otherwise they were quite alone; what was usually a busy thoroughfare was deserted in both directions, while the heavens were opening, rain sheeting down like unravelling bolts of gauze as the full might of the storm bore down on them at last.
Gisborne’s five years and six winters in this corner of Middle England had taught him just how treacherous this terrain could become - and how very quickly. Roads turned to quagmires that became rushing water-courses in the blink of an eye; fords were suddenly impassable, bridges swept away by the force of the swollen RiverTrent as it pursued its turbulent dash for the Humber and the sea.
The emptiness of the highway bore witness to the urgency of their plight. Before and behind them, floods would be spreading out at an alarming rate; any traveller with a scrap of sense would have hastened to seek shelter as the foul weather approached. He pinched the bridge of his nose and scanned the road again, assessing their options. Their best bet was to rejoin the column, and fast. It couldn’t be too far ahead and there was safety in numbers, the baggage wagons promising cover of a sort. The problem was they were stuck with a single horse between them, and a temperamental, high-strung beast at that.
Anxiety did his manners no favours. “I see your retainers are aware of the trade you ply... madam whore,” he jeered. “They have left us alone for you to turn the trick."
"A handsome lord like yourself, needing to pay good silver for his pleasures?” The Countess regarded him from between wet lashes, wide-eyed. “And for a common roadside tumble too, in the pouring rain! How you must resent the implication.” She shivered involuntarily and tugged the hood of her mantle over her sodden veils, though she had failed to conceal the fleeting twitch of her lips.
Gisborne snorted. Whore or otherwise, the woman was not yet born who failed to exact her price. Yet there was a traitorous tug of amusement at the corner of his own mouth, and he turned away to dig at the claggy ground with the heel of his boot, unwilling to let her see the chink in his iron-clad facade.
And suddenly his heart was leaping into his mouth as his teeth snapped shut on his tongue. For one wild moment, he was convinced his demons had put on flesh and swooped down to wreak vengeance on him. His cruelty to this woman had been as calculated and deliberate as it was unjustified, and now he was about to pay for it. His hand was being devoured alive, gauntlet and all, by something hot and wet and obscenely squirming.
It was the stallion, he realised, his knees loosening in relief. It had come up slowly and silently behind him and was prospecting for apples. How annoying to be caught napping by the tactic he had so often used to good affect himself.
“I think he likes you!” The Countess had been following the fumbling interaction of man and determined horse with indulgence, combing raindrops from her face with her fingers and tucking errant strands of hair into her veils. Now she repeated Vaisey’s erstwhile taunt with impish glee. “As for my people, they no doubt reasoned I could come to no great harm in the company of the noble Sheriff of Nottingham’s right-hand man.” A low chuckle escaped her. “Though how safe he feels himself with me is another matter. However,” she added, returning to sober practicalities. “At the pace they were travelling, they cannot have gone far, Messire.”
Gisborne sincerely hoped so; though in a cloud-burst and on foot, they’d be hard put to catch up before the flood waters reached them and carried them away. But his arms had gone round the great curved neck as he fought off the equine assault on his dignity; from there, it was a natural progression to wind his fingers in the long strands of its mane and haul himself astride. The nervy animal tossed its head and blew down its nose as the unaccustomed weight of a tall man settled on its back, yet it made no attempt to unseat him.
The Countess looked up at him, her face alight, though she was still shivering and hugging her mantle to her, the waterlogged brown wool darkened to almost black. Her head went on one side, her eyes narrowing as she surveyed the scene through the shifting curtains of rain. "You make a fine sight together," she declared. "For all the world like an illumination from Master Chrétien’s Knight of the Cart. All you are missing is the damsel in distress."
Gisborne’s lips quirked with an amusement he could no longer hide, and he reached down a hand. Her fingers were as cold as winter ice, chilling him even through the leather of his glove, and so slick with rain they all but slipped from his grasp as she made to mount behind him. He took her wrist and pulled her up in front of him instead, settling her into the crook of his arm as they moved off at the walk, the stallion blowing softly but making no further objection to its burden. He’d not ridden bareback since he was a boy but his body seemed to remember the way of it; heels down, legs long and loose, instructions delivered by the pressure of knee and thigh. Though he’d never needed to juggle a broadsword and a woman as he did so, he reflected, adjusting his seat with caution, ensuring his spurs were well clear of the scarred flanks. No sense in actively courting disaster.
His years of horsemanship soon helped him find his balance as the great black beast picked a cautious way along the road, the surface beneath the neat blue hooves more stream-bed than king’s highway by now. Rivulets flowed together to gouge out small channels; leaves, twigs and other flotsam sped along, clumping here and there to make miniature lakes of the least depression - until the force of the current swept all away and the flood surged on.
The stallion’s bulk was a welcome source of warmth on a day that had grown colder as it got wetter, but the Countess’s teeth were chattering even so. He pulled her close - then exclaimed impatiently, for the hood of her mantle had slipped off and the rain-drenched linen of her veils leached icy trickles down his neck. They crept into the leathers that had protected him from the worst of the downpour and he hissed at the discomfort, dropping the flimsy reins to drag the sodden yardage from her head and toss it to the ground. Her braids fell down like hanks of thick wet rope between them; he flicked them forward over her shoulder and pulled her closer, a wicked impulse making it a little closer than necessary.
Her nape was narrow and very white.
She stirred uneasily in his grasp as he leaned in to let her feel his breath on her skin, and the horse beneath them baulked, tossing its head. “Messire de Gisborne,’’ she murmured, "If I did not know you better, I could almost think you were enjoying this.”
“Not half as much as you are, my lady,” he replied with a secret rush of triumph, for the unsteadiness in her voice had betrayed her despite the cool composure of her tone. He tightened his grip, entertained to see how she fought to hold herself aloof, resisting her need to settle against him. And suddenly, his demons threw up the image of wide blue eyes in candlelight, and a graceful hand reaching out to him.
He set his teeth in his already bitten tongue, driving away the mental anguish with physical pain.
“Enjoying it, Messire?” this other woman was protesting now. “When I’m soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone?”
But then they always protested, didn’t they? To save face or gain the upper hand.
“Why won’t you let me warm you, then?" he asked, allowing his voice to sink to a seductive purr. “Is it me you don’t trust, I wonder? Or is it yourself?” And he leaned in closer, grinning wolfishly to himself. If he pulled her hard against his body now, would she still make herself shrink away as convention demanded? Or would she give in to her desires, and wind her arms about his neck?
“Come,” he coaxed, as she demurred. “I thought you said you wanted me. Or was that another of your embellishments of the truth?”
It was nothing to him either way. But then living in hell was wearing at times; the respite of their recent verbal sparring had been all too brief and he was hungry for a little light relief. It would soothe his hurts to toy with someone’s feelings; to hear a voice soften with need, and know that for once he was not the one to grow sick with longing - begging like a dog, ready to do anything, no matter how dangerous or humiliating or steeped in sin, for the sake of a few crumbs of attention, a gentle word or two.
For the first time in months, Sir Guy of Gisborne threw back his head and laughed. Then he leaned in again to nuzzle at her.
The wind and rain had washed most odours away, save for the rank stench of mud and rotting leaves. Now, with his lips against her neck, the bitter-sweetness of skin-warmed cedar and Grenada apple filled his nostrils, weaving its spell again; a haunting echo of his dream, the fragrant darkness of the well and its promise of something that could never be his, not even in death.
A few blessed moments of peace.
This was his demons’ work! An illusion of exquisite cruelty sent to taunt him. a phantasm called up by a few musky drops from a whore’s box of tricks. He clenched his jaw till the sinews ticked and he thrust her away, the sense of loss as red-raw as it had ever been. His free hand gripped the reins till the blood pounded in his fist, as he fought the impulse to wind the narrow ribbons round her white throat and choke the breath from her. Then he loosed his hold with a grim shake of his head. Earlier, some perverse whim of hers had made her challenge him to take her life. Why grant her the satisfaction?
He peered frustratedly through the driving rain, craning his neck for a sight of the baggage train, the stallion sidling and shying as he turned this way and that. This woman had been a poisoned dart in his flesh from the moment since she’d ridden into the castle yard, and he couldn’t wait to rid himself of the liability - off-load her into one of her carts, commandeer a mount and slink back to his lair to carry on his regime of self-destruction in undisturbed solitude.
Visibility was down to yards by now, the rain sluicing down as thick as flights of arrows on a battle field. Thunder boomed and boomed again, like kegs of black powder touched off one by one; the bruised grey sky tore like sheets of sodden parchment, revealing the actinic glare of hellfire that lay behind.
The horse skittered and slid beneath them, assailed from above and below as the sky growled and spat and the ground dissolved in muddy torrents beneath its hooves.Then a thunderbolt like the crack of doom wiped the world out of existence and they were off, galloping blindly, a crazed bid to outrace the storm together with the anger and the pain.
They must have gone for miles, clinging like burrs on a sheep to the stallion’s back, aware of nothing beyond the cataclysm of light and noise and the rain that lashed them till they were numb and gasping for breath; until sheer exhaustion and a dense growth of brambles halted the mad flight. They slowed to a walk, and then at last to a stop.
Gisborne slid to the ground. There was a roaring in his ears, the wind and the rage still with him as he stood swaying on his feet, seeking his bearings. They were quite alone, and miles from anywhere familiar to him. Slowly, he absorbed the fact that the storm had passed, and the clamour behind the sound of his thundering heart was the rush of a great river in spate. To judge from the deep-throated roar, they’d ended up close by the Trent, but that did nothing to pin down their location; it would have burst its banks long since, spreading its watery dominance for miles.
The Countess was still mounted, flattened against the horse’s neck, stiff with fright and cold. He reached up to drag her down, sliding her slowly and insolently against his body, leaving her in no doubt of his indifference. The only urge he felt was the desire to punish her, and the thought was sudden fire in his veins. Punish? He wanted to tear her limb from limb for the dream of the well, for thrusting the illusion of peace and comfort under his nose and reminding him how impossible that was for him.
“Not so fast, my lady countess,” he growled, when she made to step away from him. “Tell me again how much you want me. If you ask me nicely, I might even be persuaded to oblige you. Come,” he murmured against her neck, the blandishments deepest insult. “Turn your head a little, and you can be kissing me. But first, you must say the words.”
She was still as stone in his arms and when she spoke it was scarcely above a whisper. “’Messire de Gisborne, I beg of you. Do not do this.”
“So,” he breathed, the rumble of a hunting cat about to slip its leash. "You are a coward as well as a whore.”
“I am what you wish me to be,” she answered, as softly as before. “My concern is not for myself.”
“Is there anyone here to care either way?” He glanced about him, a brow raised sardonically. “If it was true, then tell me again. Or were you lying?” he ground out, his hair-trigger suspicion goading him. “Has everything you have ever said to me been a lie?" He grasped her by her forearm and thrust her from him, turning from her in disgust. “But of course it was! You women always lie."
"We do what we must, Messire,” her quiet voice said. “It is given to few of us to be trained to the sword. Lies are a woman’s only weapon at times."
“Lies!" A sneer distorted his features as he looked down into her wet eyes, his arms folded against his chest. ”And tears, now, is it? You don’t know me at all if you think you can defend yourself that way."
"Ignore them, then," she said, blinking them away. “They are rain, nothing more."
He snorted with contempt. "And still you are lying to me!”
She shook her head, the heavy braids swaying. “Ah, cèl, Messire de Gisborne. You, I would never lie to. This is rain for a drier land than this England of yours.” And so he would not mistake her meaning, she placed the flat of her palm on his breast, over the parched desert that was once a heart. She looked up into his fierce eyes, her own gaze wide and deep. ”I will not deny you what you ask, if it will ease you. Though it is nothing you would want in your heart of hearts, as we both know.”
The bitter truth echoed between them like a note from a warped harp. But before the moment could engulf him in pain, her face lit up, and again she was the grown woman who’d lost none of the devilment of the hoydenish girl. “Though if it is honesty you want, my lord of Gisborne,” she said. pertly, “then I fare worse than the Lady Beatriz of Dia; en greu cossirier - plunged into deep distress. For ailàs, unlike her preux chevalier, this knight of mine deigns not to woo me.” She spun on her heel on the muddy forest floor, laughing, as she continued the popular canso, the words altered somewhat to suit her situation.
““I find myself betrayed,
For this love of mine I told him,
And now I am undone
Night or day when I behold him.”
He seized both her wrists in one hand, gripping hard, intending to force her to her knees, but she was already sinking to the sodden ground, and quite gracefully, as if to a rich carpet at the royal court. The ready compliance only inflamed his need to take her by the upper arms and shake her. “Tell me again what you want from me, woman!” he shouted, suddenly beside himself with rage and grief. “And none of your spineless fantasies! Say the words! I want to watch your face when you do it.”
She looked up at him, meeting his eyes boldly, without a trace of shame or fear. “If you insist,” she said slowly and evenly, her level grey gaze searching his face. “Then on your head be it. I wish I could have known what it was like to be ravished by you.”
“You little whore!” Gisborne snarled, and turned away to spit on the ground. To his annoyance, he was nowhere near as affronted by the sheer reckless courage of her as he wanted to be.
“Here on the forest floor would do,” she wheedled, a fine balance of self-mockery and the sincere in her tone. And she smiled up at him in invitation that was more than half a plea to share in the joke.
The warmth of that smile all but unmanned him, sending him rifling through his rough soldier’s store of foul language for something that would shore up his crumbling walls. But before he could deliver a satisfying rebuke, he heard barking, followed by human voices; the wet snap of breaking branches and the suck of feet dragged from glutinous mud.
He was still battling warring emotions as a clutch of panicked retainers burst upon them. As for the Countess, she had risen to her feet as gracefully she had knelt, gathering up her dignity, ignoring the pain of bruised wrists and the rank patch on her gown to allay her servants' concerns.
"My lady countess, God and all His saints be praised we have found you.” It was her steward, pressing shaking hands to his plump woollen-clad flanks and panting from the unaccustomed exertion. “We feared you had been carried away in the flood." Three attendants in bedraggled tunics looked on, also breathing heavily, together with two men in huntsman’s dun who were wrestling a pair of mud-spattered hounds away from their erstwhile quarry.
"As you see, Master Cambrai, I have been quite safe with Messire de Gisborne,” the Countess remarked, with a sideways glance for the master at arms that was conspiratorial rather than reproachful. And for once he was content enough to stand back and let a woman’s scant respect for the truth go unchallenged.
"It must have been raining up-country for days," Cambrai was expounding, excitedly. "The Leen and Trent have burst their banks. One bridge is down already, at Wilford, and the fields are under water for miles around. It seems we cannot get through, either on towards Leicester or back to Nottingham, my lady. I fear we are quite effectively marooned.”
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
Pain intruded on her memories again.
This time it was attacking her ankle rather than her heart, the scoring of a knife-point over tender flesh. Random ghostly afflictions had been dogging her for weeks and she put the anomalous hot throb out of her mind - until the hurt began a slow journey up her leg, clambering on hooks forged from fire. She glanced down to see a ball of persimmon-coloured fur labouring up the slick incline of her skirts, trailing drawn-thread ruin in its wake; with its brindling of black, it was like a tiny tiger from a bestiary,
“Another of your waifs and strays,” the Queen remarked with a smile as her niece reached down to scoop the little creature to a safe haven in her lap.
The helping hand was summarily batted away by a small warm paw with needle-sharp claws extended. But the kitten curled up willingly enough and fell asleep, heedless of the wreck of a once-fine gown, its snores the buzz of an angry bumblebee. Alix sought the hollows behind the ears where gentle scratches are welcomed most. The curve of a furred head under her palm was an almost forgotten pleasure, fair exchange for a few pin-pricks of blood and a court-gown that was shredded now as well as stained - after all, its day was as good as done.
“A pity not every foundling of yours is as amenable,” Eleanor of Aquitaine commented dryly.
“Ah, anda meuna, but would I have had him tamed by a mere scratch behind the ears?” her niece replied, her fingers luxuriating in the feel of soft warm fur. “There was wildness, a heady scent of danger to him that fired me; it was as if he was feeling everything I had denied myself since I was a child and carrying me along with him. I did not understand it at the time, but I had never felt so alive as I did with him.” Her hand halted in its foraging through the silky pelt and the corners of her mouth drew up in a wry smile. ”Though I confess that was as nothing compared to the melting of my bones when he pulled me up across my horse’s withers and drew me close to him.”
Her body shook in the carved oak chair, though it was with a sudden bubble of mirth as the delicious irony of her plight came back to her. For if anger was what he used to hold himself together, she had her own refuge in her keen sense of the ridiculous; without it, life would have long since ground her down. But how he had blazed, like some dark avenging angel, as he held her and whispered his treachery in her ear! And how she had burned to have him even closer, her flesh crying out at the rightness of it all, while her sense of self-preservation fought to hold her stiff-backed and aloof.
She smiled to herself, recalling how effectively he played the seducer of his own free will, though he had been sickened at the thought of it when it was at Vaisey’s behest. “It but salved his hurts to toy with me, I knew that full well," she admitted, shamefacedly. “But oh, by our sweet Lady Mother, how I longed to take him at his word!”
“Ah yes,” observed the Queen, reaching out a finger to soothe the fractious kitten, which had been disturbed by the tremors in its impromptu bed and was making little grunts of protest in its sleep. “Ever the old dilemma - if I succumb, will he respect me in the aftermath?”
“By then if you recall, I had decided that my pride no longer had much meaning.” Alix huffed softly at her own self-deceit. “But I reasoned that he would feel tainted by a regard that snatched at crumbs he had scattered on the ground.”
The Vespers bell was beginning its slow sweet toll, summoning the community to prayer. It was like a silver-toned reproach from on high, for what were the thoughts she had just voiced if not another kind of pride? As if her feelings could have touched him then, for good or for ill.
“There he is!”
The lay sister had returned to carry away the refreshments tray, delivering her from these labyrinths of pointless speculation. The kitten too was roused; it jumped down from her lap and scampered off, stub of a tail aloft and pink pads flashing. “Your Grace, my lady, I can’t apologise enough,” the harassed woman panted, bobbing a curtsey and wiping her perspiring brow with a corner of her apron. “The bake-house’s best mouser has dropped a litter, and this little imp of Satan gets everywhere.”
Alix glanced off in the direction of its flight but the canny little beast had either concealed itself under the shrubbery or squeezed itself into some shadowed cloister corner. “No harm done,” she reassured the anxious kitchen-hand. “It was a pleasant diversion. Although I think you will find you have a female there - not just a hunter, but a future mother of great hunters.” She displayed her scratched and bloodied hand with a rueful smile. "You should look after her. She has a warrior’s heart
“Do you not sometimes think that the animals have the better of it, anda Eleanora?” she mused as the sister scurried off to dispose of the tray before taking her place in chapel; for by now the bell had ceased to peal. “Male or female, their dam shows them the way of it for a time, and then they are free to follow their hearts.”
“Yet stags fight for domination over the does and male lions will kill the young of a pride if they are not their get,” Eleanor reminded her, folding her hands under her wimpled chin and looking across at her with a quizzical air.
Alix picked at the pulled threads of her ruined skirts and sighed. “Then perhaps we are not so unnatural after all, my dearest aunt. Though our offspring are consumed in wars and weddings, and all for what we decree in our arrogance is the greater good.” And she reached for the fur-lined folds of her mantle, wrapping it more tightly about herself.
Little escaped Eleanor of Aquitaine’s keen eye, for all her seventy years. “It grows chill indeed, my Lysette,” she said, a crease of concern appearing between her brows. “We must have you carried back inside. Yet I could wish it were to somewhere with a good fire rather than that cheerless cell of yours.” And she stretched out her hand for the silver bell.
“No, aunt.” Her niece forestalled her with a gentle touch on the fine-boned wrist. “It was right to come out here. I beg of you, let me have done with him, here under the open sky. Night or day, from the hour of our meeting, he has not let me be. I cannot allow him back in there with me.” The taut line of her lips melted into a sad smile. “Ah, cèl! Who was it said that to seek worldly bliss is to lick honey from a thorn? Yet I shall not regret the remembering of it, once last time.”
“It is strange that such torments are not always unwelcome,” Eleanor agreed, and her own mouth softened as if recalling some bitter sweetness of her own, for she must have known more than her share in her day.
There was mist in Alix’s eyes as she gazed up into a sky as deeply luminous as the Virgin’s robe in the great rose window at Chartres. She would not allow herself to think again of what else that clear blue reminded her - not for now, at any rate. “I had never known what it was to be wooed,” she said, painfully. “Heaven help me, even a brazenly counterfeit seduction was intoxication enough.” Her lashes fanned against her cheeks as she was drawn into the moment again; his voice like granite drizzled with poison honey, his body hard and warm against her back and flanks as they galloped through the storm. “I was like that Saracen maid, anda Eleanora - Shams al-Nahar from Cousin Marie’s book of tales, the one who flew on the ebony horse. She must have been just as frozen with cold, with terror, and delight.”
“I remember the illumination,” the Queen remarked, tartly. “A veritable feast of sentimentality if ever there was one, and every foolish maiden’s dream. Pink silk robes and a handsome prince to carry you off on a gallant steed."
“We were a little more bedraggled than that, given the rainstorm, but the fancy diverted a dried-up matron for a moment or two,” her niece confessed, with a small snort of laughter. ”Though the saints be praised, I held on to my dignity and my sense of the absurd.”
She had laughed indeed where she could have wept. And since everything about him told her he had heard too many lies in the past, she had found a way to give him the honesty he needed and still do honour to them both. Yet so much had befallen her since she woke that morning, she had come to the end of her strength by then. If her men had not chanced upon them when they did, she could not have answered for what would have become of her.
Nor was the day yet done.
The Manor of Sneinton, Shire of Nottingham, Spring 1193.
Gisborne sat shivering in fast cooling, soap-scummed water.
He’d spared little thought for personal hygiene over the past few months, his once-fastidious nature a casualty of the nightmare world in which he lived. Now the luxury he’d been surprised to find himself craving through the hours of chill misery was proving an extension of his discomfort rather than a relief. As if anything as simple as a hot bath could warm the frozen wastes that lived inside his heart, he thought, his mouth tightening to a grim line; how strange that a man who lived in the fires of hell should be so cold inside.
It had been late afternoon when their small party stumbled the last few yards that brought them to safety here. As he’d feared, the vein-like tracery of streams that fed the River Leen had spilled over, forming an unbroken sheet of water that stretched behind them for miles. Ahead, the swampland bordering the Trent was an inland sea, the Hethbeth Bridge that bore the road on south left as a forlorn island in its midst. Their route severed in both directions, the retinue and baggage train had doubled round to higher ground, reaching shelter at Sneinton, a minor holding among the Countess' English estates, lying over to the east on a sandstone bluff overlooking the flood plain.
Only then did they realise their liege lady was not among them. The search party had set out at once, accompanied by a pair of local huntsmen and their dogs. Sensitive noses and knowledge of the terrain had led them to success, but by then the situation was deteriorating fast. They'd had to fight their way cross-country to rejoin the main company in their hill-top retreat, tramping in wider, ever more desperate circles as each new tentacle of the rising waters blocked their path.
Was it courage or reckless pride that had kept the Countess on her feet as long as it did, Gisborne wondered now, looking about him for a hot water jug and finding none. She’d trudged along beside her horse, her feet shod in soft boots never meant for the smoothest of highways let alone a quagmire - until he'd turned from ripping a sleeve loose from a tangle of thorns and found the stallion nosing mournfully at what appeared to be a bundle of rags at its feet.
Exhaustion had felled her, and even then she bit her lip and clung on to consciousness, hauling herself up when he held out a hand, but damned if she wouldn’t stand on her own two feet! He'd stood back and waited for her to take a first faltering step; then he'd slung her over his shoulders, his irritation spiked with amusement as she drummed on his back with her fists. Was there ever a woman born who would just do as she was told?
Yet she’d tired of the altercation soon enough, lying pale and unprotesting when he'd shifted her into his arms for easier carrying. And finally she'd known no more as he pressed on through the driving rain with her, the steward and huntsmen wheezing at his side, while the lymers whimpered their disquiet at this travesty of their familiar landscape, their white and tan flanks spattered brown with the mud that mired them to the hocks.
A blood-curdling scream had roused him from the mindless fog into which his thoughts retreated as he endured the rigors of this nightmare afternoon.
It must have foundered on the crumbling banks of what was once a drainage ditch and was now a raging torrent; neck-deep in the racing stream, it threw back its head and shrieked, its forelegs threshing the ale-brown water to a creamy head of foam. He'd assessed the situation with a depth of emotion that took him unawares. The beast was doomed; its forequarters were a flurry of wild movement but the long muscles of its back and haunches could only writhe impotently.
It had seemed obvious that it had shattered at least one hind limb. There was nothing to be done but cut its throat and put it out of its misery. Yet without pause for further thought, he'd found himself entrusting the Countess' inert body to one of the huntsmen and teething off his gauntlets to fumble at the buckle of his sword-belt.
Off had come his jerkin and boots and he was in the water, diving deep, giving thanks that his boyhood fear of the element had driven him to take steps to master it. Whatever had possessed him? he asked himself now as he shifted uncomfortably in his cheerless bath. Simple revulsion at the thought of the welter of hot blood, adding its foul metallic tang to the already stinking bog - or had it been a knee-jerk protest against the injustice of a world where yet another dumb creature spewed forth its life for no good cause?
The animal’s bulk had provided some shelter from the undertow, but broken branches and other detritus whipped by to tear at his clothing and score the flesh beneath. Battered, blind and choking, with the acrid flood-taint stinging eyes and nose, he’d felt his way down a quivering hock and shank to a hoof. The fitful, aimless flailing was worrying, though he could find no damage there.
Bursting lungs had forced him to the surface and then he was back, tracing the second hind leg, his task twice as difficult as the panicked creature sensed the touch of human hands. The great body became a shifting, writhing mass of corded thews, its struggles mounting in concert with its fear.
And then a shard of ice had slid into his heart. His probing fingers told him that the second leg had been severed at the fetlock!
It had taken him several moments more before he understood the situation, leaving him basking in a warm flood of relief. The hoof was not missing; it was wedged fast in a culvert, that was all. Another lungful of air and he was tearing at the accumulation of small stones and tangled roots that had cemented it there, ignoring the bite of knife-sharp edges into his palms and fingers till he was able to pry the trapped foot loose. The horse had shot out of the water in half a heartbeat, borne on wings of pure terror; though afterwards the beast had been too drained by its exertions to do more than stand there on the bank, head down and flanks heaving, shudders chasing themselves across the mud-daubed hide.
There’d been no such life-saving spurt of energy for Gisborne. He'd hung in the current, swaying like a broken reed, lungs still bursting, his ribs on fire where a flailing hoof had struck a glancing blow. Weariness had engulfed him, his heart urging him to cast his spent body on the tide and let himself be carried down to the sea along with the rest of the storm’s debris…
Shouts had rung out above the rush of the water. A huntsman edged close to the brink, his long Welsh bow extended. And somehow, in spite of himself, he’d reached out and grasped hold of it.
By the time they'd staggered into Sneinton’s mud-bath of a yard, the world had been fading in and out at a sickening rate. The rest of the party melted away, the Countess borne off by a stout yeoman amidst a twittering flock of her women while Cambrai, the steward, and the others headed for their quarters or their posts. No one came for him or for the stallion, which had fared little better than he did after its near-drowning, dragging itself after them like a weary dog for the last few miles.
A barked inquiry to a wide-eyed urchin barely out of breechclouts had located a small outhouse that was relatively warm and dry. There he’d doctored the grazed hind limb as best he could, then rubbed the shivering horse down, plying it with blankets and the warm mash the lad heaved across the yard in a bucket half his own size. By the time he was done, his vision had been darkening permanently and his bones were turning to ice.
Alone in the musty darkness but for the exhausted animal that snorted softly and shifted wearily from foot to foot, he’d peeled off his sodden shirt and crawled bare-chested into a heap of mildewed straw. Burrowing deep, he'd covered his cold body with sour-smelling handfuls and slept like the dead man he longed to be.
Several hours must have passed before the stable boy had remembered him. He'd been in a drowsy hinterland between waking and sleep, half-hearing the drum of running feet and a piping voice shouting for a groom. When he was able to prise an eyelid open they'd been beside him, a shabby house-servant in tow.
He'd been shown to a chamber inside the house, large enough to be respectable as far as he could tell; the light from a scant collection of rush lights petered off into the shadows long before it reached a wall. But the fire was sullen and smoking, and he’d been left alone once more to strip off what remained of his ruined linen and leathers and climb into the unlined tub that awaited him before the hearth.
Inevitably for this run-down manor in the back of beyond, this was luke-warm and less than half-full. It was in chill discomfort that he’d set about ridding himself of the stinking carapace of mud and stable-straw that clung to him like a vermin-ridden hair shirt.
A hesitant step on the brittle scattering of rushes heralded the arrival of a half-witted servant girl who was shuffling in to attend him at last. With a graceless bob, she rolled up her sleeves and proceeded to pummel at his back and shoulders with work-roughened hands, making him wish he'd been left to his own devices after all. The desire deepened when she managed to lay open his cheek with a blunt and clumsily wielded shaving knife; he was still wincing and cursing when she compounded the felony by upending a ewer of tepid water over his head.
“Christ on the cross!” he bellowed, half-drowned, the delicate membranes of nose and eyes streaming from the harsh lye suds she’d used on his hair. “First you cut me to ribbons; now you’ve blinded me." And he cursed again, foully, a flailing arm catching her heavy metal jug; it went flying to the floor where it rolled on the sparsely covered flags, ringing like a bell.
"Get me a towel, wench! NOW!”
There followed a frantic brush of slip-shod feet hither and yon, but it seemed an age before the soft cloth was put into his hand. He hissed with relief as he pressed the absorbent linen to his burning eyes and stinging cheek. "Gather your wits, girl” he grumbled, his eyes clamped shut and his abused features screaming for relief. “Pour me some hot water in here. I’m so cold my prick’s about to drop off and my balls are climbing back into my body."
And how fortunately for her continued well-being that she did so promptly, he thought to himself with a grim smile. The Countess’ precious humanity was a useful tactic for a weak woman to employ, but a healthy dose of fear brought quicker results.
Herb-scented steam rose about him as water lapped at his chest, pleasantly scalding and soothing to his hurts and his aching limbs. Now the fumbling fingers had become deft and sure as they teased the tangles of weed and clots of river-mud from his hair with the aid of some creamy lather that soothed his scalp. Finally it was all sluiced away until the long strands squeaked, the excess moisture blotted with a succession of fire-warmed towels.
Tiredly, he endured the pain of strong peasant fingers that dug into the cramped muscles of neck and shoulders, working the knots undone; then he could lie back at last, eyes still shut against the lye soap’s bite, with his head pillowed on a pad of folded cloth on the rim of the tub.
Lethargy stole over him as the blessed warmth seeped into his bones. He had slept long and deeply in the stinking straw that afternoon, so deeply he had no memory of anything the demons might have done to him. Now he drowsed in lazy torpor punctuated by the wet mineral smell of alum and a touch become miraculously delicate as the wayward wench doctored the cut she’d inflicted so clumsily. Then, with strokes so swift and sure they were almost trance-inducing, she began to skim the remaining stubble from his chin.
This was a shave the like of which he had never experienced before; so close it cut down to the roots, yet it slid across his skin like a cool breeze. Suspicion forced his heavy eyelids open. He winced as the clagged lashes parted - and found himself looking into the thoughtful face of the Countess of Vézelay.
“You! How long have you been here?” He shot the words at her like granite chips spat from the grindstone jaws of a mill.
She accorded him a mannerly nod, as if they had met by chance while crossing some great hall. “Too long for your peace of mind, perhaps,” she remarked serenely, but with the ghost of a knowing smile. “Though for your safety, ailàs, not long enough, I see. I find you somewhat in the wars, Messire.”
Gisborne was infuriated to find heat touching his cheeks, and it wasn’t all due to his shaving cut. Shame had no place in a life of violence and crime, yet he found it surfacing at the most inopportune times - the moments of gaucheness thwarting his attempts to impress the woman he loved; the humiliation of knowing he lacked the courage to protect her from Vaisey’s malice.
Just hours ago, he’d been mortified to find he’d betrayed his deepest secrets with his own mouth. Now he’d been caught quite literally with his britches down and he’d spelled out the fact with a soldier’s coarse attention to anatomical detail. What decent man would use such words in the hearing of a high-born woman? But then he was no decent man, was he?
“So, madam whore,” he growled, cloaking his discomfiture in even more monumental rudeness. “Is this all part of the service?”
She laughed, softly. “In a manner of speaking. I heard murder and mayhem in the solar of my own manor. What else could I do but take up my weapon and come running?”
Indeed, she showed all the signs of haste in a white chainsil under-gown, with her head bare and her braids unbound. As for the weapon, she was holding up a wafer-slim blade; it was limned with soap-curds and dotted with the black specks of his bristles. “Saracen work,” she explained, picking up a cloth from the pile on a nearby table and wiping the knife clean. “My lord the Count brought it home - from a trip to Compostela, if I remember correctly. It rarely leaves my side. There is nothing better for unpicking embroidery - or slitting throats,” she added, turning the chased steel till it glinted blue and deadly in the firelight. “I arrived to find a guest of my manor being done to death by a dull knife and harsh laundry soap; I should have been neglectful of my duty as chatelaine, had I had not taken you in hand.”
Gisborne glanced up sharply at that, suspecting another of her double meanings, but her face was bland as she turned aside to busy herself with other things, wrapping a towel round her waist and drawing up a stool to the side of the tub.
“You must excuse poor Betsy,” she began again, subsiding onto her seat with a grateful sigh “She is more at home in the cowshed than in the solar. But they are a remote holding up here at the best of times, and now I learn their steward has been dead this past month, while half the village is taken with the quartan ague.” She stirred the rotting floor-rushes with a foot, and gave a moue of distaste. “So you will see no insult was intended; in the circumstances, she would have been the best they could find.”
Some comment seemed to be expected here, so he delivered himself of a non-committal grunt.
“She will not have had the advantage of being beaten soundly for each nick, as I was while I was learning,” the Countess continued with a wry smile. “So now I am here, will you do me the honour of permitting me to finish what she began?” Then her expression sobered. “It is the least I can do for the gallant saviour of my horse. You risked your life for him, Messire.”
Gisborne averted his face, stiff-necked, and stirred uncomfortably in his bath, his nostrils flaring as the lapping water revived the scent of green herbs. “Why let a poor dumb beast suffer, because its owner had taught it no discipline?” he said gruffly, turning back to fix her with an accusing stare.
Her eyes took fire, but it was her irreverent brand of misplaced enjoyment that fuelled it rather than anything more confrontational. “Ah,” she retorted. “And to think I feared exhaustion had sent you straying into sentimentality!” She sat back exuding satisfaction, her hands resting on her lap. “Whatever your reasons, it was nobly done, Messire de Gisborne, and this sorry excuse for a bath was poor reward.”
She paused to scrutinize his features with a critical eye. “Grooming is not high on a rough soldier’s list of priorities, I know,” she said, hefting the blade tentatively. “But that poor girl has left your beard with an interesting chequer-board effect. Though I grant it may well become all the rage at court some day.”
Gisborne found he was too tired for further argument, submitting obediently to the whisper of the thinnest, sharpest steel he had ever known across his skin. Do it, he thought hazily as it pressed deadly kisses along his throat. Do what I could not do for a poor dumb animal; let the water run red, and set me free…
But set him free she did not. The blade continued its feather-light dance across his face; a word of caution, and the tip of his nose was taken between cool fingers while she dealt with the delicate skin of his upper lip. Then she was done, and she was standing back with her hands on her hips to appraise her handiwork. “And does my lord’s hair inconvenience him?” she asked at length, deepening her Poitevin accents to a country burr as she leaned to wipe away the few remaining flecks of lather with a soft cloth. “It grows over-long, perhaps, for ease of grooming?”
“Leave it!” he grated. “For the love of Christ, leave me alone!”
He shook his head like a hound emerging from a stream, the water droplets beads of cold on his skin. He had no way of knowing whether the offer was meant seriously or made in jest; what he did know was he’d had all he could take of being touched for one day, even with something as impersonal as a blade.
Life had schooled him to a wariness of physical contact which had only increased during his years with the unpleasantly over-tactile Sheriff of Nottingham. Being touched made him feel, and in this awful weariness of body and soul, feeling was unbearable. For his sanity he needed to be numb and he’d not drunk nearly enough for that today. The cool brush of fingertips and steel had burned him like a branding iron.
The Countess made no attempt to press the point. Instead, she handed him a bath-sheet, depositing a folded pile of new linen on the stool beside the tub. “The Lady Adela’s work," she explained. She turned to retrieve a furred robe from the back of a chair, running a finger over embroidered vine leaves that trailed a truncated line over rich blue wool. "This is unfinished as you can see, but it should serve its purpose well enough. Adela sews in anticipation of marriage as well as for me; it is her chief joy in life, so it is no hardship, she assures me, to cede these few things to you.”
She moved about the chamber, stirring up the fire, placing a handful of fat wax candles on prickets; setting the hastily-prepared chamber to rights with the occasional cluck of the tongue of an exacting housekeeper, leaving him to dry himself and pull on the clean linen and a fine black chainsil shirt. A clap of her hands at the door summoned two clod-hopping lads, still stinking of the stables as they shuffled out with the tub. Next came a bustling red-cheeked girl who deposited a laden tray on the table with an ungainly curtsey and clattered off.
“It is to be hoped our cook is more competent than your erstwhile bath girl,” the Countess mused, removing white cloths from baskets of bread and fruit and peering into a chafing dish. “The bread is only maslin, I fear, but the capon does not look too carbonised.”
Gisborne belted the soft blue wool about him, sniffing suspiciously at it for some cloying flower scent - or worse, the accursed balm the Countess used. To his relief, it smelled of nothing but the wool itself, with a faint echo of the fruit-wood chest where it had lain. All the same, he huffed ungraciously as she handed him a plate of carved meats and a slice of the dark bread. “You are forever trying to feed me,” he grumbled. “Another of your chatelaine’s duties, is it?”
The grey eyes regarded him steadily. “It is a habit we women have, I think, when we do not know what else to do.” She wiped her hands on her makeshift apron and draped it over the back of a chair. “But the body needs food, Messire. I have noticed you seem to forget that, much of the time.”
He glowered and bit into a breast of fowl. It tasted like everything tasted - like sawdust, and he dropped it back on the plate, stalking over to the table to pour himself a goblet of wine ‘’And you tell me that?” he said, pointing an accusatory finger at her from around the bowl of his cup. “You who doesn’t eat enough to keep a sparrow alive?”
She sighed and sank down on her stool, examining the narrow band of the single gold ring she wore at present and turning it thoughtfully. “You have me there, I fear,” she said at length. “But then they have little need of food where I am bound.”
His brow furrowed. “Don’t they eat in France nowadays?” He poured more wine, holding the cup loosely in his fingers as he lowered himself into a chair.
Her mouth tautened, and she pushed a heavy braid over her shoulder, brushing shorter tendrils from her damp brow. “It is to France that I go, indeed; to the Abbey of Fontevrault, to be precise.”
“To give yourself to God?” Gisborne snorted in disgust, and swallowed off the rest of his wine. Here was another deluded female who thought to run away from her responsibilities to a life that was little more than a living death.
“As you say,” the Countess murmured. “But not as you think." Her eyes were on the candle flame that flickered between them, painting her features with a deceptive wash of gold. "Messire de Gisborne, I have a malady of the blood. I am told I have months left to me at most.”
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
The furs were soft, and black as the night that was fast approaching; a rich gift to the Queen's grace from the fabled northlands, where wolves howled at midday in birch forests and the sun forgot to show its face for half the year. Alix of Vézelay burrowed deep into the silken pelts at the thought of those dismal fastnesses, a growing chill invading her bones.
The day was done, the sun was gone, leaving these southerly regions to their own hours of darkness, and yet her tale was far from complete. Her royal aunt had renewed her insistence that she should be carried back to her chamber, but she had begged to remain here under the sky. Such memories as hers had no place within those chaste stone walls. Eventually Eleanor had shrugged and ordered the furs to be brought, along with a pitcher of hot wine prepared to her special receipt; lightly sweetened and heavily watered for a sickly stomach.
“I should never have gone to him, anda Eleanora,” her niece confessed, rubbing an appreciative cheek against the luxuriant pile. “But it was inevitable that I did. He cried out, and I was there before I knew it, straight from my bed in my under-gown, barely stopping to thrust my feet into my shoes.”
“How very obliging of Fate for once,” came the dry commented, “to deliver your heart’s desire into your clutches, naked and unsuspecting! A fitting return for his arrogant treatment of you earlier in the day.”
Alix’s mouth quivered into a reluctant smile. “Setting aside the gratitude I owed him for the rescue of my Ebène, the very sight of him would have wiped the slate clean! Gone was the sinfully handsome man who had taunted me with my foolish weakness, and in his place was a large and disgruntled drowned rat."
A profound sigh escaped her "But if Fate was kind to me, then it was not without a seasoning of cruelty. My duties as lady of Vézelay had obliged me to attend at the bath-side many a time, for family and guests alike. Now it was given to me to tend someone in the truest sense of the word - to smooth away the rigors of the day and make all clean and new beneath my hands. Yet ailàs, even this small joy was tainted; it was one more thing I stole from him, for he took me for some faceless servant or he would not have stood for it at all.”
A ghost of a moon like the film of ice on a winter water-pot sailed a sky the hue of wood-violets; the single pinprick of the evening star had been joined by a scattering of lesser lights - sparks that winked from a celestial blacksmiths’ rasp. The Queen turned from her own contemplation of the heavens, the voice of commonsense in the soft dark. “Your conscience is over-nice as always, my Lysette. Did he not let you finish what you had begun?”
She reached for the chased silver flagon and poured into two goblets. Alix sipped tentatively at the warm sweet brew, anticipating a lurch of protest from her fickle insides; but for the moment all was calm. In the gathering dusk, she could no longer distinguish the familiar features, but to judge from her aunt’s tone she would have raised a quizzical brow.
“He lacked the energy to do much else, anda meuna. I had been put into a soft feather bed in a warm bower to sleep the rest of the afternoon away, but he was reduced to crawling half-naked into a pile of stinking stable straw to seek his rest.”
Eleanor snorted unsympathetically. “Perhaps they should have come and shovelled him in beside you in all his dirt.”
Her niece gave a low chuckle. “I suspect he would have chosen to stay in the straw! Ah well, perhaps in the great scheme of things, my deception was innocently meant.” She turned her eyes to the sky once more, where a rich pouch of gems shone down on her, seeming to offer some kind of absolution. “Everything about him cried out that he had known little of kindness and care,” she said, and exhaled unsteadily, reaching for the Queen’s hand. “Yet it seemed important that what I gave him was given in honesty.”
Though as she was soon to discover, with someone as sorely burdened as he was, there are honesties best left unsaid.
The Manor of Sneinton, Shire of Nottingham, Spring 1193.
He'd have thought the Countess would have exhausted her capacity to unnerve him by now, but this new revelation had dumbfounded him. Then he was cursing himself for a gullible fool. He’d been too deep in the pit of his own despair to spare much thought for the life and times of a passing stranger - but shouldn’t he have learned by now that when a woman was involved, there was always some hidden agenda there?
“You were told?” His throat was thick with the exasperation of being blind-sided yet again. “Physicians will tell you anything if they think it adds to the drama, or their own damned self-importance.” He waved a hand dismissively. “To say nothing of their chances of a hefty fee when they claim to have effected a cure.”
She was sliding her single ring up and down a forefinger again. “Sister Amicia is the infirmarian at Fontevrault,” she countered, her eyes following the progress of the simple gold band. ”She was trained by the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen herself.”
He snorted and looked away, finding nothing useful to say to that, yet feeling oddly aggrieved though he had neither the right nor reason to comment. She was nothing to him, nor he to her.
“I thought it irrelevant to mention it before,” she offered, her voice edged with the same smoked huskiness he’d heard that morning as she’d stood and watched him from the foot of his bed. “I am but passing through, and you have concerns of your own. But I have promised never to lie to you, Messire de Gisborne. In the face of a direct question, it seemed less than honest to equivocate.”
Gisborne folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. She’d shared confidences with him before - her bleak life-history, the disfigurement in her secret places; places she’d claimed to wish to welcome him. This last reflection curled his lip in a cynical smile. But why take her at her word? She’d given him no concrete evidence for any of it; nor did he put much trust in the diagnostic powers of some obscure holy woman who’d been shut away from the world for most of her life. And yet... It would explain the long and laborious journey undertaken with shadows in her eyes, and the shivering of a body coddled with thick furs despite the mild spring weather.
A final progress through her domains then, to set all in order with her own hands? He’d seen for himself how she favoured the personal touch. He’d also seen how she thumbed her aristocratic nose at danger; coolly facing him down when he’d dragged her into her chamber, daring to throw his mother’s training in his face. Though he might have guessed how it would be with a woman who ducked under a stallion’s flailing hooves, or thundered bare-back down a meadow to leap a river in spate. Have you a death wish? he had asked her then. A death sentence might well have the same effect.
“Sometimes I feel that if I gallop hard and fast enough, I can outrun it all,” she was murmuring, as if she’d been sharing his thoughts. “But I never quite manage. The race comes to an end, and there is still the day to face. Or the night.”
Gisborne’s tongue darted out to moisten dry lips. He knew that particular lurch in the gut all too well. When had he ever outraced his own conscience, or the Sheriff’s hold on him? The bulbous silver-gilt of the wine-flagon winked at him in the firelight, and he reached for it, the ornamentation gouging his flesh as his fingers tightened round the handle’s bold curve.
She was still neither old nor ugly. She would have had years of life ahead of her, to re-marry and bear children again; to sit and sew and whatever else it was that women did with their lives. The wine was rich and full-bodied like all the contents of her casks, yet he grimaced as he drank, recalling the bitter dregs he’d tasted in her cup. Who would choose to subject themselves to that, for a mere whim or a love of intrigue?
She was studying her steepled hands intently, turning them inwards, the palms linked by her fingers like the hammer-beams of a cathedral roof. “But when there is pain, I have my draught of poppy and henbane to take me away from it all,” she said, echoing his unspoken thoughts again.
Gisborne could attest to the power of that witch’s brew himself -- though where it had taken him was a different matter. He shuddered, revisiting the shame of that total disintegration.
“I came apart when they told me,” he heard the Countess say, and the short hairs on the back of his neck pricked. For some time an eerie illusion of rapport had been building between them, a subliminal harbinger of distant storm. Now it had grown strong enough to abrade his shrinking flesh like the skim of her Saracen blade - nor was it done with him yet.
“Since then, I have been feeling… numb, somehow,” she was musing, half to herself; the tentative probing of a tongue on a sore tooth. “As if it nothing was quite real and I was not truly awake.”
As he had felt when the first sharp shock was past and he was fleeing that ill-omened Acre courtyard on the back of the Sheriff’s horse. It was a feeling he’d been struggling to hold onto ever since with drink, lest the full horror and guilt of what he had done should surface and drive him quite mad. Of late though he’d begun to suspect he fought a losing battle.
The soft noise she made in her throat brought him back from this grim reverie. When he looked up, it was to find her caught up in mirth once more. Her mouth was turned down wryly at the corners, but the roguish gleam was well in evidence in her eyes.
“I am more in your debt than you can know, Messire,” she told him, gravely. “I had quite forgot what an evil temper I once had, since my guardiennes saw fit to beat it out of me.” Her lips pursed in feigned resignation. “In truth, it would have been counter–productive for the life I was destined to lead. You have reminded me how very satisfying anger can be; indeed, my lord of Gisborne makes an impressive picture when he is enraged,” she confided, her features schooled to bland innocence - until his grunt of discomfiture at this doubtful accolade set her eyes dancing again. “In fact I am resolved to indulge myself at the earliest opportunity, for I am heartily sick of staying strong and reasonable in the face of what life has thrown at me! After I have left,” she added in a hasty aside. “I must not inflict my womanish vapours on one I wish nothing but good.”
“Your wishes would be a waste of your time."
“If that is so, then so be it,” she said and returned to her theme, her tone measured and even again. “And meanwhile, I have been discovering that my predicament is not without its compensations... Do you remember what it was to be a child, Messire?” She had turned to gaze into the fire, as if it held the portal to a charmed past. “To live with no thought of consequences, in the sure knowledge that you will live for ever and nothing can do you harm, though you balance on the top of the curtain wall or climb the tallest tree?”
Gisborne compressed his lips and eyed his hands, the fingers clamped round his cup. “No,” he said bluntly. “It was too long ago.”
But he'd lied through his gritted teeth. He remembered the warmth and security of home and loving parents well enough. He also remembered how the blessed circle began to crumble when his father left for the Holy Land; only to be torn apart completely one fateful day in a conflagration of his own making.
The Countess looked him up and down, her grey eyes dark and deep with thought. “Yes,” she said eventually. “Of course it was.” After a moment she drew in a breath and went on. “Now I am living with certainty once more. A different kind of certainty, it is true, but no less liberating.” She shook her head, as if half-doubting the validity of her own experience. “I have found fear yields up much of its power when you have little left to lose, and consequence has shed all meaning. How else do you think I found the courage to be as I have been these past two days, with you?”
Gisborne’s mouth twisted. “How, indeed? A great lady who stoops to exchange confidences with the likes of me.”
“Yea, a rough soldier, I know.” She gestured impatiently, her spine as stiff as an angry cat's. “And I am the Pope of Rome!” Then her voice softened. “Rank has always meant less to me than courtesy, as you well know. But it has gone beyond that, has it not?” she asked, with a rueful grimace. “I have said things to you that I would not speak of with the closest confidante in my bower, let alone a man; and a man I barely know, at that.” Her cheeks coloured as she played with her ring again. “And now I have come here to you in your chamber in my under-gown for everyone to see."
“And why was that?” Gisborne’s laughter was as bitter on his tongue as a swallow of her wretched poppy juice. “Did you think I wanted – what was that phrase you used for Vaisey’s benefit? The pleasure of your company?”
The wheaten braids swayed against the fine white chainsil. “You cried out, and I came running," she said. “Make of that what you will.”
“Then you have wasted your time, madam,” he retorted sourly. “If what you’ve just told me is true, you’d do better to be thinking of your soul.”
“Do you think I have not told myself that, over and over?” The Countess’ gaze was fathomless as she watched him across the candle flame. “But ailàs, my heart has a mind of its own.” Then her moutli curved in sudden mischief, and she added with mock severity, “Do not forget that were it not for me, you ingrate, you would be quite dead from blood loss and exposure by now, in four inches of cold water.”
She leaned over to retrieve the Saracen blade from the table, examining it critically for traces of soap. “It grows late,” she announced, when she’d satisfied herself that every last inch of blued steel was clean and gleaming. “My women will be anxious for me and I must not undo what small good I have done by talking you to death in my foolish need to unburden myself.”
Gisborne massaged the bridge of his nose with his fingertips, and neglected to gainsay her. He was weary indeed, beyond coherent word and thought.
“I was done anyway,” she told him, laughing softly to see the conventional polite denials were not forthcoming. “You have set my thoughts in order quite wonderfully. Did I not say you are more than you think you are?” And she laughed again, into his bemused eyes, for he was hardly capable of ordering his own troubled mind, let alone anyone else’s.
She came to her feet, smoothing down her skirts and settling her braids so they fell in neat parallel over her breast. “A better alternative than a heap of cushions awaits me in my chamber tonight,” she said, still smiling. “So I took the liberty of having the great travel bed set up here for you.” She held up a candle to a shadowed corner, where it stood in all its decadent goose-down luxury. “And there is good news. Scouts have been out and I am told that the waters are subsiding; by morning we should be free. So I shall wish you a good night, Messire Longlegs, and a peaceful one.”
There was a note of quiet care in her voice and it threatened to unman him - the second time she had done this to him. Moisture sprang unbidden to his eyes and he turned away with a, hiss of self-loathing, cuffing blindly at his face with the sleeve of the borrowed robe.
Peaceful? He would never find peace again. He had destroyed the only woman he had ever loved.
He’d run her through with his own sword.
‘’Oh, sweet Jesù!”
Gisborne was marginally aware of the discordant chime of metal on stone as the Saracen blade fell to the floor; but he was oblivious of the fact that he’d spoken aloud -- until the shocked whisper told him otherwise.
What shreds of self-control he still possessed had been disintegrating fast; a network of fissures spreading out to expose vast oceans of grief beneath. Now his demons had tricked him into blurting out his most heinous crime of all, while fully conscious and stone-cold sober. And to a woman, no less; a woman who would scream and cry and do whatever else they did to impose their will on men, when he no longer had the strength to endure it and stay sane.
Lepers, Gisborne, lepers…
Yet for now she had subsided onto the stool, to sit still as a marble saint in a cathedral niche, white-knuckled fingers steepled as if in supplication to an uncaring god. A crushing weight of pain and humiliation bore down on him and he hunched himself around it, looking on numbly as one narrow hand detached itself from its prayerful configuration on her lap. When it flew towards him, he flinched, his flesh anticipating the cold burn of steel in his heart though his brain half-remembered the metallic clang as the knife had fallen to the flags: the sting of a blow across his face then, followed by a wild railing, a storm of recrimination battering at him.
It never came, not any of it.
Instead, that hand alighted on his bowed head in the way she had always touched him; light as a falling leaf or a wandering moth at dusk. Then it slipped down to brush his cheek with a single finger as she slid from her seat and sank to her knees beside his chair. :Oh, sweet Jesù!” she murmured again, gentling him with that finger’s merest edge, as falconers do with a feather on the breast of a bating bird. “No wonder you are hag-ridden.”
Did she know that too? How could she know that along with his honour and his conscience, this was something else the Sheriff had taken from him with those fondlings that were somehow the more terrible for never straying beyond a dark promise of the intimacies they implied; so that nowadays, his gorge rose at the touch of a human hand on his face. Yet if his jaw now clenched tight as a vice, it was against the fierceness of his need to turn into her touch and feel her cup his cheek: a hellish-brew of longing and revulsion that screamed at him at him to lay his head on some shoulder and feel arms enfolding him.
And suddenly, for one gut-wrenching moment, he was back in that bed with her, mewling like an unbreeched babe, not drunk and drugged this time but in full command of his senses. How did she lure him into humiliating himself this way?
“Ah cèl, bèl amics, how can you bear it?” she was whispering, still kneeling at his side. “But the answer of course is that you can not.”
He shuddered and reached deep down inside himself, clawing the tattered red rags of his rage about him. “Don’t you DARE give me your pity,” he spat, the words as percussive as flying metal shards. His fingers closed on the wings of her shoulders like the jaws of a trap, thrusting her away from him.
"Pity is not on offer,” she flung back at him, her chin coming up and her eyes on fire as she rocked back on her heels. “Did you insult me with yours?”
A bark of painful laughter escaped his closed throat. ”Let me guess,” he taunted, in a perverse need to excoriate himself further with memories of another woman’s dances round the truth. "You’re going to offer friendship. To an extortionist and murderer. How kind."
“Friendship?” The Countess’s snort of disparagement was not the sort of sound a high-born lady should have had at her disposal. ”How honest would that be, pray, after what I found myself wanting from you last night as you lay in my bed?”
Seeing she'd contrived to jolt him out of anger and into attention, she continued, not ungently, ”What I offer is someone to sit beside you, and listen. You did the same for me. Yes,” she insisted as he grunted a denial. “You did so. In your own way. So talk to me, my lord.” Once more the moth-touch rested on his sleeve for less than the span of a single breath. “Confession eases burdens, in the world of men as well as before God. Tell me of this murder of yours. How you sat and planned it with great care and endless forethought; how you chose your moment and did the deed in cold blood.”
Gisborne ground his teeth, feeling like some wild creature at bay, pinned down by her unholy persistence. “You know nothing of what I did or did not do," he said, his words a low growl as he angled himself away from her scrutiny. How could a pair of eyes be as clear as spring-water, yet burn through his defences like torches through the mist?
Cool fingers closed round his wrist, shackles as light as spider silk, frustrating his urge to spring to his feet and pace the chamber like the caged beast he was. "I know enough to see that because of it, you have sent yourself to hell,” was the quiet reply. “Tell me what happened. Tell me how the dream turned to nightmare.”
He ran his free hand over his face and groaned. He hurt, over every inch of his skin and deep down inside of him, the very core of his being raw and aching for oblivion. The well from his dream drifted into his thoughts, the cool sanctuary where he had hung weightless and safe. Solace was out there, it whispered, just within reach; all he had to do was stretch out his hand. But that was a lie; the well was a mirage, a phantasm conjured from the fumes of that misbegotten salve. There could be no peace for him, not now and not ever. He was condemned to live in hell, in this life and the next.
“She could not love me,’’ he muttered, too broken now to stem the rush of words. They spilled from him like water from a broached cask. :"What crime that, on her part?”
“None at all,” she agreed at once, but her voice was as feather-light on his soul as her fingers had been on his face. “Ailàs, Messire, life is cruel. All too often our heart’s wishes are not meant to be.”
"She was so beautiful… " His voice trailed off as he lost himself in the memory of her beauty. It would haunt him forever - the great eyes, the tender mouth, the soft dark hair…
"I know,” the Countess said, and when he bared his teeth at the facile remark, “Is it not there in your voice for anyone to hear? Yet you are no clod, my lord, however much you strive to convince yourself otherwise. Ask yourself this. Could mere beauty have bound you so tightly if your feelings had met with no response at all?”
A great millstone weighed on Gisborne’s chest. His feelings were what had brought him to where he was today. He’d still have been on course for his goal of riches and power, at Vaisey’s side or otherwise, if it hadn’t been for his feelings. And how could this woman presume to read the heart of someone she had never met?
“You talk too much of things you know nothing about,” he said curtly, and he shifted sullenly in his chair, his feet scuffing in the soft kid slippers he’d found beside his bath, making him long for the defiant ring of his spurred boots.
Her slight shoulders lifted. “I see patterns, Messire. In the way we behave, as well as in the clouds and flames and the uneven weave of a length of cloth. Sometimes there is nothing there, I grant you," she conceded swiftly, as he opened his mouth to object. “But I do have some experience of how a woman’s mind works.” The cool grey gaze examined him dispassionately for a long moment. “It is no hardship for the eye to rest on you, you know,” she said eventually. “With more to you than first appears -if one is prepared to look hard enough.” Her lips sketched a wry smile. “But you are not an easy man, Messire de Gisborne. Especially if a woman were to be a maid...”
Gisborne glared. This was a matter he’d not dared allow his thoughts to dwell on, except in a rare night’s darkest watches when he was mellow with wine and the memory of the taste of her lips. “What of it?” he shot back, raking her body in a snide up-and-down inventory. ”As you said yourself, your lord husband lay for years in a cold bed. Yet your ignorance didn’t stop you sniffing round me.”
The Countess jutted her chin. “But as I sniffed,” she retorted, “I knew there was little you could do to me that had not been done before.” Then she added, more gently, “It is the fear of the unknown that is so hard to overcome. Especially when some rogue part of you urges you onwards against everything you have been taught to hold sacred in life. A young girl always has much more to lose.”
Gisborne’s mouth narrowed. He recognised that particular devil in the details - one more to add to the count. “I did not have her trust. I did everything but what I needed to do to earn it,” he admitted bitterly, turning his traitor’s hands before his eyes. His gauntlets lay forgotten in some mud-choked culvert among the other leavings of the storm. No matter, since they’d failed to shield him from taint. His palms were red-raw and weeping from his battle in the flooded ditch, yet behind the recent injuries, he could trace the ghostly smirchings of his crimes.
The Countess’s quiet voice interrupted this morose contemplation. “And yet, Messire, my eye for patterns tells me it was a deeper wound she dealt you than mere indifference or fear.”
His head weaved from side to side in his distress. “It was no more than I deserved,” he moaned. “There is too much blood on my hands. I am the Sheriff’s enforcer; I kill and maim and torture at his command. But ultimately it is for my own ends - for wealth and power. And it was for her own ends that she charmed me with her smiles and her soft looks. I had it from her own lips, though I refused to understand what those ends were.” He swallowed down a choking bolus of grief, for the rare touch of her soft mouth still burned on his skin.
“She told me she saw good in me. I could not believe her, but I hoped that with her beside me, I might have learned to become a better man.” His voice broke. “And then she used me, deceived me; yet her ends were always the good of others, for the good of England as she saw it.” A tender smile flitted across his lips, and he made himself go on. He had said too much already; why hold back anything now?
“She was fearless!” he whispered, wonderingly. “She stood there unarmed in her white gown like an angel facing me down - a madman with a naked sword in his hand! And then she taunted me…” His indrawn breath seared his lungs like flame. “With her contempt, with the name of the man she truly loved. My sworn enemy. Over and over.” He shook his head, in disbelief and admiration. “And all because her king, your cousin, lay on the ground between us with a broken arm and an arrow in his back. For it was him I was about too..." He swallowed again. “...on the orders of the Sheriff and Prince John. She was worth a thousand of him to me, and yet I…”
Pain clawed at his throat, and he could say no more, as the memories assailed him from every side. Her smile, her kiss, her voice speaking his name - hopes raised so sweetly, only to be dashed to the ground. And then, with awful finality, the humiliation and the betrayal; his impalement on her scorn and hers on his blind rage.
And his steel.
“Oh, sweet Jesù,” the Countess said yet again, as the storm of recollection raged about his head. "God forgive you, for I know you will not forgive yourself. Yet your lady spoke truer than you think. Tell me this,” she persisted, as he growled his dissent. “If there is no good in you, why do you hurt so much?”
He could find no answer to that, so he shook his pounding head again and took it into his hands while an uneasy silence reigned, to be broken at last by her deep sigh.
“Ah, Messire de Gisborne....Life is cruel indeed. It has set a beast at the heart of each and every one of us; and then it expects us to keep it caged.”
From the tail of his eye, he saw her ease herself from her knees and back onto the stool, shaking out the folds of her skirts and pleating them between her fingers. "Even that long-awaited king, my noble cousin Richard, has given as good as his own brother sought to deal him at your hands,” she said. “Has he not beggared this country for the sake of his glory? Why, at this very moment he is selling it all over again to ransom himself from the enemies he made with his own rash tongue? Such are the demands of war and politics, you may argue,” she persisted, as he shifted again in his chair, “but what of the thousands of innocents slain before the walls of Acre, their only sin to be born into a different faith?”
She abandoned her preoccupation with her skirts, and stared bleakly into the distance, as if the sights she saw in her mind were far from welcome to her. “Yet who am I to pass judgment? I taunted my third-born mercilessly for his leanings to the cloister – and then watched as he rode out to die, as his brothers had done before him, in his father’s petty squabbles.” Her pale mouth turned down at the corners. “Then instead of refilling my cradles as was my duty, I went to the wise woman so I would not quicken again. Some say that to thwart God’s will this way is tantamount to murder.”
“When there was no life there to take?” Gisborne shrugged, dismissively. What sin matched the theft of a life already begun, in cold blood, away from the heat of battle? He had so much of that to his name, a string of hellish beads to be told over in moments of reflection, the most heinous of his crimes a white-hot centerpiece that charred his fingers to the bone on every round.
“Oh, I took lives too,” she said looking back at him, her eyes dark with shadows. “On my orders, other women’s sons went to the grave in the name of service or of justice. When I knew full well what it is to have a child precede you into the ground.” She compressed her lips, terminating the litany of her own concerns. “As for your lady, Messire de Gisborne,” she began again, her voice gentling him, though she did not touch him now. “Of a certainty, she was everything you say she was, brave and good and beautiful. But in presuming to decide what was the greater good, she drew you in with promises she was unwilling to keep and denied a wounded soul a chance of redemption. And that was unkindly done.”
Gisborne cried out wordlessly in the fierceness of his denial. He claimed to have loved her and he had destroyed her; nothing could diminish the enormity of that.
“No, indeed,” the Countess said, in response to his unspoken words. “She could not have known the true extent of what she did; nor the feelings she kept hidden from herself. Life never wearies of its cruel jests, Messire,” she concluded, sadly, occupying herself again with the soft white linen that covered her knees. ”It makes us feed our monsters, come what may. And then they slip the leash and rip our worlds to shreds in an instant; or they prowl our depths and poison us by slow degrees. Either way, we spend our lives paying for what they make us do.”
Gisborne rubbed at his cramping jaw. His mouth was dry as desert dust, his tongue thick and adhering to his palate - and he did not know what he wanted to say, anyway. All he knew was he wanted out of the situation, closeted here with this woman who saw too much. Alone, perhaps he could begin to process all she had said to him and make some sense of it. Providing he could bring himself to believe he had the right.
And fortunately, the Countess did not expect him to speak. ‘’I cannot be here,” she said with a yawn, and stretched and rose to her feet, shaking out her skirts and retrieving her knife from among the rushes on the floor. “My women await me, as your bed waits for you. Rest if you can, Messire de Gisborne. Lie and close your eyes, if nothing more.”
Would she say to him that if she knew what waited behind his eyelids? It was more real and more horrible than any depiction of hell on a church wall; a flaying not just of sight, but of all the other senses as well. He shuddered, feeling again how his throat grew raw from his cries, the stink of his own roasting entrails in his nose while his foul crime played itself out before himntime after time. “Tell me,” he whispered, passing a hand over eyes that burned even now. “This draught of yours... Does it have the power to stop dreams?”
The Countess halted at the door and turned to regard him thoughtfully, as if weighing up what it had cost him to ask. “Sometimes,” she admitted. “But if you indulge for any length of time, it will first send you mad, and then it will kill you.”
“And then of course I’d have damned myself!” Gisborne exhaled derisively and came to his feet, his fists closing and unclosing as he strode towards her. “What do I care? I’ve managed to do that already. At least one part of it would be over and done.”
Her fingers explored the rough metal of the latch as she chewed at her under-lip. “What is it the ancients say, Messire? Dum spiro, spero. Yet with death comes the end of all hope.”
“Hope?” he repeated, and laughed bitterly. ”What hope do I have but more of the same?” Just a hell of wanting it all to end and knowing it never will…
The metal tongue clinked on the wood as she let it fall and stepped back into the room. “Have you ever thought that perhaps this torment of ours is a mercy, for you and for me?’ she asked softly. “A chance to pay for some of our sins in this world rather than the next? I am told Holy Church says as much of the scourge of leprosy. Why should it not be so for afflictions of another kind?”
Gisborne regarded her bleakly. Mercy was a concept he could not entertain. After all, he had shown little enough of it to others.
His scepticism must have been obvious for she shrugged and said, “But I then I am a woman, not a theologian, and I would have spoken as you do, not long ago.” She rubbed at her arms, as if the cold that always threatened her had renewed its assault; understandable, perhaps, since she had come to him without her ever-present mantle. “When they first told me I was sick unto death, I felt it could not come soon enough,” she said slowly. “Since it would spare me the pain of waiting. Now I know there will still be moments I would wish to live through. Simple things; music and birdsong; riding out on a spring morning with the sun shining through the trees. And talking, with a rough soldier who speaks his mind to me. My life would have been the poorer without the pleasure of your company, Messire de Gisborne.”
Her lashes had brushed her cheeks, her voice faltering on these last words, but when she raised her head, the impish humour had returned to her face. “Though I freely admit too much of the talking was done by me! I shall pray that you find your own moments,” she added, serious again for half a heartbeat, her gaze as luminous as a cresset lamp. “Even in your hell, I know you will. And meanwhile,” she went on, lightly “Perhaps I might offer you a safer remedy for your cares than my poppy-juice. I had an old nurse once who used to distract me with her tales whenever monsters lurked under my bed. Of late, when the nights are over-long and my thoughts have minds of their own, I have been finding such things a comfort again.”
Tales! Gisborne’s lip curled. Tales were for the nursery. They had no place in the world of grown men. But as ever, the Countess was no better than a brachet pup, worrying at the laces of a shoe.
“Sneer all you like,” she persisted, “Believe it or not, a good tale has the power to stop time and carry you away to other worlds. And I will prove it to you. A new collection reached me at York from my cousin Marie in Champagne; translated from a Saracen manuscript recovered at the siege of Edessa. I will have it brought to you.”
“Tales?" Gisborne shook his head, his movements slowed by tiredness and the weight of his scepticism.
"Bed!’’ she chided, resting her hands on his forearms and pushing him gently in the direction of the garderobe. “Go and make ready," she added over her shoulder as she turned to leave. “And do not despair. I shall have spiced wine sent to you too, in case you are truly immune to the powers of imagination."
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
Full night had come, and much too soon.
Already the sky was as darkly blue as the borrowed robe he had worn, the moon a lambent silver clasp at the throat, and the stars a hard gemmed brilliance dusting its skirts. It was the time for words that could not be spoken in the light of day; a night for confessions, as it had been a year ago in the dim-lit warmth of that country solar.
Here in the garth though, it was cold, with a creeping chill more insidious than the cloister’s glacial breath. From her feet to her knees it was slowly turning her to stone, despite the thick down quilts the Queen had called for when the furs were no longer enough.
But that was as it should be; a sign that all fleshly ills were ebbing away. And meanwhile, the scent of night blossoms from the Abbess’ private garden was a canticle of delight in her nostrils, and her heart still glowed like a coal as she relived the moment when she had dared to pace out the bounds of her mortality at last.
“I had not spoken of it before, anda meuna, to anyone,” she said, and the Queen’s reply was muffled as it came to her from out of the night.
“I failed you yet again, my Lysette, I know.”
“Never!” Inside her goose-down nest, Alix squeezed the warm fingers that had come in search of her own cold hands. “How could I have added my troubles to the weight you already bore? For who but you could have freed Richard, and England was in sore need of her king.”
Though it was to England’s loss that its king had never managed to fathom that for himself, she thought to herself, a little too sourly for a woman who should be seeking a state of grace; thought she forbore to add the censure to a tired mother’s load. “But ailàs,” she said aloud. “It is true that many women are prone to weep and wail, while men decide for you what you are thinking and feeling, and I had no heart left for argument or the consoling of others.”
She stared out into the dark, where the dim bulk of the cloister was lightly limned in silver, as if by a master illuminator’s brush. “Ah cèl, anda meuna! I had no desire to speak of it with him either. True, I had promised him honesty, but between the fear of adding to his burdens and the presumption of assuming he would care, I was forever pulled this way and that. Yet the moment always comes when only the truth will do.”
Her voice died away as she gathered her thoughts, and the Queen’s hand tightened on hers. “The best I had hoped of him was indifference,” she continued at last. ”But he neither turned from me nor fobbed me off with platitudes. Instead, his blunt scepticism led me to face facts I had been unable to entertain. Yes, I was to die, but not quite yet. And meanwhile, the air of affront with which he greeted my revelation was balm on my hurts, since I humoured myself that some small part of it was on my behalf.”
Somehow, for having met this complex, turbulent man, her life had no longer seemed in vain. He was an angry sea, or the storm that had marooned them, dropping a full season’s rain in a single day, In the few hours she had known him, she had lived the emotions of a lifetime.
“No selective deafness, then?” Eleanor was enquiring tartly. “You do surprise me. Louis and Henry were past masters of that.”
Amusement tugged at the parched skin of her niece’s lips, augmented by her own reflections. How surprised she had been to discover that this same feeling of affront played a major part in her reaction to her untimely fate. How inconvenient! Indeed, how monstrously unfair, that she should be dying just she had found her place in life - her own woman, with her own property and her own mind! The long-suffering Lady Constanza had been appalled when the scheduled bouts of rage were indulged in as they journeyed on towards the English coast. She liked to think her involuntary mentor would have been proud of her.
She could see him now, a dark whirlwind, his eyes flashing blue fire as the stone flags rang to the tread of his boots; and then she sighed, for her time for anger was long past. The pool from which she had dipped up hope to offer him had drained away, leaving only memories behind, like wet sand. Yet there was still time to build castles before the tide came in and washed everything away.
The thought lent her voice a new briskness. “Whatever his motives were, anda Eleanora, I owed him gratitude,” she said. “My own concerns had been set aside for a time as I became bound up in his, and the respite had strengthened me. And his stubborn pragmatism spurred me to tear away the veil of numbness that hung over me and see the way towards a promise of light.”
A soft clink of metal interrupted her, announcing the return of the lay sister, a squat benign ghost in the gloom in her kitchen whites. The fresh goblet of mulled wine she poured them was a comfort to cold hands as well as to dry throats - hot, and sweeter than before with enough honey to soothe without cloying. Chestnut honey again, Alix realised, with an inner smile. She had taken more refreshment here today with the Queen than she had done in the past several weeks. Yet that too was perhaps as it should be.
“Ah,” her aunt commented, when the obliging woman had bustled away. ”The eternal distractions of a handsome face and a dark heart… Give me a goblet of hot wine any day! But come, my girl. Courage. You are almost there now, or so my heart tells me.”
Indeed, another hill rose before her, and it was a steep one… And then, of course, there would be the mountain to climb. But the honey drink restored her and she gathered up the strands of what must next be told, though the thought of it was a wound that would never close.
“Ah cèl, aunt,” she sighed. “It was as well my load was lightened in view of what I learned next. Though from the very first I had seen the darkness in him, nurtured by a cruel master on what passions he had of his own. Life had taken the gentle boy and made of him a man with the instincts of a wolf.”
“Someone brought us a half-grown wolf-pup as a gift once, south of Antioch,” Eleanor reminisced. “That had blue eyes too, or no doubt they would have killed it. A sport, perhaps, or cross-bred with one of their mountain dogs. It was content enough to travel with us and sit by the fire if no one poked sticks at it.”
“And if they did?” the younger woman asked, although she knew the answer.
“It bit. Fortunately by the time its full teeth came in, its own kind came for it and it left with them.”
Yet he was a wolf who had no one, Alix reflected sadly. And when roused, he was dangerous indeed. Ah,cèl, anda Eleanora,” she said again, "When I heard what he had done, I reeled on my feet. Think of it! To suffer a loss like that, your one light in the dark, and know it was at your own hands!”
She shuddered in her goose-down cocoon, for the horror of it had never left her; a double-edged blade forged from the ice she had seen in his eyes from the first; old and dark as sin. Still it froze her marrow as it burned her with remorse; for her thoughts had not been for the woman whose life he had taken, but so very wrongly, all for him.
“She is beyond all earthly pain now,” the Queen pointed out, calmly and pertinently. “But not beyond our prayers, we must trust. Life is cruel indeed, my dear, and capricious, too. A heavy responsibility for an untried and idealistic young maid, to be the single thread that kept a damaged man from falling.” Heavy silks rustled under her own furs as she eased her old bones into a more comfortable position. “You and he should have met many years ago.”
“Our Lady Mother grant her peace indeed,” her niece replied, crossing herself beneath her quilts. “She can have had no concept of the enormity of what she had done to him; or what it would drive him to do. As for myself,” she added, ruefully, “I could not have been the half of her for courage and beauty, nor would I have meant the hundredth part of what she was to him. How did you put it, anda Eleanora? The one that stops your breath and makes your heart run away with your head?”
That did not mean she could not bleed for his sorrow and the road life had mapped out for him, stonier by far than the one she was destined to tread. How she had ached to hold him, as she had done in the dark hours of that previous night. A finger’s breadth more would have tipped him into her arms and against her heart, with his head on her shoulder.
But when all was said and done, he was not hers to touch. The years had corroded the pride that ran through him like a rod of steel, and she must not set her weight against it, along with the burden of his grief. What else was there to do but what she had done? Stow what words of comfort she could gather together into his saddlebags and send him on his way.
It was not enough, of course. It could never have been enough.
The Manor of Sneinton, Shire of Nottingham, Spring 1193.
Gisborne snorted in contempt. Ignoring the garderobe and the waiting bed, he strode back across the chamber and flung himself down in his chair, where he sat sipping at the last of the wine and staring into the brazier’s glowing heart. He saw no patterns there that anyone would care to put a name to.
The ghostly refrain rose up unbidden from the depths of memory; a lilting voice whispering once upon a time… Shivering, he choked the delicate thought-tendril down, severing it brutally as if it were some poisonous reptile that had reared up before him. And yet, for the space of a heartbeat, he’d been at his mother's fireside on a winter’s night, and he was seven years old...
A ponderous creak of hinges dragged him back to the presen. The heavy oaken door was swinging open, admitting the dried-up old besom that was the Lady Constanza. She hobbled across the scant covering of rushes, her mouth set in a puckered ring, and deposited a laden tray before him with an aggrieved sigh.
Gisborne surveyed its contents with an equal lack of enthusiasm. A curl of steam escaped the spout of an elegant but undersized enamelled flask; beside it stood a matching goblet and the Countess’s book of tales. This was too was a pretty toy, no bigger than the palm of his hand; bound in blue silk and studded with gems in a pattern of birds and flowers. He raised his eyes to the cobwebbed rafters, swallowing his frustration. What use were these fripperies from the women’s bower to him? He’d not get a pinch of common sense out of the one nor a thimbleful of oblivion from the other.
Idly he drew the small volume to him, flicking through the gilded pages. Jewel-coloured worlds of princes, palaces and monsters danced before him; and weaving through the painted landscapes like columns of dark serpents came words and yet more words. The Countess seemed to command an endless supply of those; words of understanding and compassion; words that held out hope like a beacon shining through the mist from a distant hill.
Words that were meaningless without substance behind them, and of that, she had offered him nothing he could trust.
You called out, and I came running...
What was he to make of that? A bucketful of live lampreys would be easier to pin down. He thrust the costly trinket away from him in disgust, sending it skidding across the table. It teetered drunkenly on the edge, then dropped to the rushes to lie with the rest of the dust and debris- which was no less than it deserved.
A throat cleared, and he glanced up to find eyes like a pair of prunes looking down a beak of a nose at him. Moments passed... Then the old tire-woman abandoned her affronted stare and hinged down her creaking frame to rescue her treasure from its ignominy. She muttered darkly under her breath as she brushed away dust and lint and other noisome things and returned it to the table. Gisborne shrugged and turned his attention to the wine-flagon.
Rich smells of cloves and cinnamon assailed his nostrils, but quantity had been second to quality to him for a long time now. Morosely, he up-ended the meager container into his cup; filling it to over-flowing; but that was the lot, give or take a few stray peppercorns that rattled in the jug as he slammed it down. It was a measure of his dissatisfaction that he drank the scalding liquid off at a gulp, thought it did nothing to improve his mood when it skinned his mouth and gullet on the way down.
The crone sniffed. “Will that be all… Sir Guy?”
She’d seen how he reacted to his given name as she'd served him at the picnic. Then it had been used it in all innocence; now her dyspeptic glare betrayed her intention as she flung the poisoned words at him. Well, then. If she was spoiling for a little outrage, who was he to deny her? She started satisfyingly as the bottom of the empty wine-jug made explosive contact with the table, the dainty steepled lid clattering. “You were meant to be bringing me wine, woman, not just the smell of it,” he growled, and he brushed at his mouth with his sleeve, deliberately uncouth as if he were the worse for drink already. “And find me a couple of whores while you’re at it. Can’t a man get a decent night’s fun round here?”
The wrinkled mouth drew in tighter than a miser’s purse, and she turned on her heel without a word, her rear view managing to convey the depths of her disdain as she swept from the room.
Gisborne shrugged again as the door slammed shut behind her. Then he sat on for a while, losing himself in gloomy reflections while the candles guttered and smoked. He had just talked himself into an attempt at shovelling his carcass into bed when the oil-starved hinges groaned for a second time. He hunched his shoulders wearily, preparing to do battle once more. “Well, woman?” he snarled. "What is it now?”
“Your wine, my lord.” The response was cool, but it came with an undercurrent of dry amusement. “And your… entertainment.”
He turned to see it was not the old besom that stood on the threshold; it was the Countess, swinging a tall flagon in each hand like a peasant girl off to the well. The carefree stance was strangely at odds with her attire, for she was formally gowned in a court bliaut of heavy silk that mimicked the sheen of a dove’s breast - a soft grey, shot with copper. Firelight winked on the gold pins that secured a gossamer veil to her netted braids; while her hanging sleeves strewed garlands of fruits and flowers before him in self-coloured broderies as she came to set her burden down.
“A little grand for a country evening, am I not?” she laughed, casting a glance at the costly silks. “My coffers took a dunking this afternoon, so it was this or my under-gown again. I was in the Lady Constanza’s bad books already for my indecorous behavior. Entirely for my own good, you understand,” she qualified, widening her eyes at him.
Gisborne glowered and shifted in his chair. “She thinks you lower yourself.”
“The Lady Constanza is loyalty personified, but she takes it on herself to think a great deal. She insists, par exemple, that I eat and sleep too little.” She clucked her tongue in feigned disbelief, then picked up the dainty wine carafe and shook the empty vessel at him with a rueful smile. “I see she also thinks you drink too much. You must excuse her, Messire,” she added, her tone softening. “She has never learned to make allowances for special circumstances; but in her defence she makes none for herself.”
Here Gisborne attention had fixed on something far more disturbing than an old tire-woman’s hidebound ways, and his eyes narrowed. Special circumstances, was it? Was his shame now common knowledge among her women? There was nothing bower gossip enjoyed more than dirty linen. “And what are those special circumstances she should have taken into account?” he demanded, his voice a predatory purr that the hapless denizens of the lower castle levels would have recognised all too well.
The Countess gestured unconcernedly. “A long trudge through the mud in the pouring rain, perhaps? Emergency livestock retrieval under flood conditions; burial in a heap of stinking straw followed by immersion in tepid water and assault with a blunt weapon... Any or all of these.” She held a long sleeve aside as she poured him spiced wine from one of her own more generous flasks. The gaudy rings were back on her fingers and the candlelight spun rainbows across the walls at her every move. “Another of Constanza’s thoughts,” she resumed with studied innocence as she set the flagon down, “is that you found my book of tales… a little difficult to get into, would you say?”
He watched as she reached for the costly volume he had treated so cavalierly, thinking she was about to inspect it for damage. But she merely traced the patterns on the binding with a loving finger before riffling through the gilt-edged leaves, smiling now and then at some favoured page. He massaged the furrows between his brows with his fingertips. “My eyes were tired,” he muttered. Which was the truth, if not the whole of it, for the weariness extended much further than that. It went down to the very depths of his soul, and he had no patience left for such trivial pursuits as tales.
“Of course they were... Special circumstances,” the Countess agreed. “Ah, cèl, Messire, I see I am no better than Constanza! Why do you not make ready to retire, and then I shall read to you.”
Read to him! Was he a child in the nursery?
Gisborne hissed his irritation, feeling like Lionheart – Dickon to his friends, he reminded himself, half-choking on a snort of hysterical laughter - trying to shake off a particularly persistent horsefly. “Christ on the cross, woman!” he grunted. “Why do you not just give me the wine, and leave me...”
“In peace?’’ she supplied. “Do you think I would not do so, and gladly, if I could?”
And that too was the truth. Hadn’t he shown her how impossible peace was for him - and in the most humiliating way?
“Believe me, Messire,” she said, with quiet conviction. “A little distraction is more restful than an excess of introspection. If my own long nights have taught me anything, it is that.” Then her grave demeanour changed like the sun emerging from behind the clouds. “Come, my lord,” she coaxed, her lips puckering in a wicked parody of a spoilt court beauty’s winsome pout. “Indulge me. A single page. And should the endeavour fail, you have but to snap your fingers and I shall vanish like one of the spirits in these tales.”
Gisborne groaned and pushed himself to his feet. It was not distraction he needed, it was oblivion. But since that was not available, capitulation was probably his next best option - as the Countess had no doubt concluded when faced by the Sheriff’s duplicitous efforts to entertain her these past few days. He supposed it promised respite of a kind.
When he returned from the garderobe she had stationed herself at the bedside. The olive-drab coverlet was drawn back from snowy linen, the pillows piled and plumped. Nothing had ever looked so inviting, yet it could be a bed of nails for all the rest he would find there. At least she’d had the common sense to bring the wine across. He indicated the mulled burgundy and she pulled up a stool and sat down, busying herself with pouring his choice into a goblet while he shrugged off his robe and slid in shirt and small-clothes between the sheets, the clean scents of soap and lemon balm rising about him.
Was she seriously proposing to do this? he thought fractiously as he pounded the mound of pillows in search of an ever-elusive comfort. Read him a tale, as if he were seven years old? It appeared that she was, for she had picked up the book and was leafing through its pages again, pausing now and then, and moving on. He scowled, and reached for his cup. The wine was skilfully prepared and cool enough by now not to sear his throat, while the smooth combination of spice and honey was easy on a skinned palate. Nevertheless he found himself pushing out his lower lip between swallows in an echo of a truculent younger self.
The Countess caught him at it, and a trill of amusement escaped her. “Be of good cheer, Messire,” she soothed. “The queen in this book had more than a thousand tales to tell, and you have but the one to endure. And it is this,” she said, finding her place at last. Smoothing the pages open on her lap with a sigh of contentment, she began.
The hairs on his nape stood proud. That haunting phrase was back to pluck at his heart-strings; though the accents were no longer his mother’s lilting Norman, but the softer Poitevin lisp.
“Once upon a time, in the land of the Persians,” she read, “lived the mighty King Sabur. And to his court one year came three of his most loyal vassals, bearing rich gifts to mark the spring feast of Nawroz-tide..."
A knight made of metal? A mechanical bird that marked the hours? Pointless curiosities, the pair of them, of no more use to a king than a small enamelled flask and a jewelled book were to himself. A few companies of well-equipped men and chests of gold would have been more to the point, Gisborne reflected with an impatient twist of the lips; while a blade to the heart would solve his own problems with greater efficiency than tales. He drained his cup and set it down on the nightstand, ready to call a halt to this charade.
"Then,” the quiet voice was recounting, “the third lord brought forth his gift: a magnificent steed with a hide of darkest ebony…”
Ebony… Ebène. And at once, the Countess’s black stallion came pacing through his mind, picking its way over the impossibly green grass of an illuminator’s imagination on elegant blue hooves…
“Richly caparisoned in bright silks, it was,” the tale went on, “as befitted the mount of so great a king, and the saddle and bridle winked with gold and precious gems…”
Though the ebony horse of his acquaintance had little patience with saddlery, he reflected drowsily - kingly or otherwise. As for the jewels, it preferred to leave those to its rider - those ridiculous, rebellious rings… His head was suddenly heavy, as if he had pulled on a helmet made of lead, and he lay back against the pillows, craving the cool touch of the linen on his burning skin.
“But this was a horse like unto no other,” the soft murmur continued. “No earthly highway rang to its fleet hooves; the boundless sky was its domain, galloping ever onwards, a whole year’s journey encompassed in a single day…”
Words again... Words sowing visions before his waking eyes, as wondrous as any picture he had glimpsed in the jewelled book. Their gentle rhythm was an incantation, stealing his sleep-starved soul away. How soft those cloud-fields would be beneath the pounding hooves; soft as the bed on which he lay… Gisborne’s eyelids drooped as he allowed himself to sink into the comfort, drifting like a rudderless ship on warm seas, for he was weary, weary unto a death he had no right to seek. And meanwhile the lilting cadence wound about him, like a silken thread or a green vine.
“It was the king’s brave son, the loyal prince Kamar al Akmar, who vaulted to this wondrous horse's back,” the voice whispered. “And up they soared together like a great bird, winging over marble cities to wide and verdant lands…”
To ride the sky to the ends of the earth… A dream that would remain forever beyond the reach of mortal men. To float away on a cloud, and leave his living hell behind…
His living hell!
The thought wrenched him back from the brink of sleep so brutally it rattled his brains in his skull and slammed his heart against his ribs. He would never escape his torment; the horrors were right there inside him, waiting to spring whenever he was weak or unwary enough to let down his guard.
That obscene sun leering at him from above the waste land...
The swan; the light slowly dying in eyes that looked back at him with such anguish and reproach, and the sword, impossibly but undeniably his own sword, thrust deep in a white breast and the blood a crimson ocean in which he drowned.
And meanwhile her ladyship of Vézelay rambled on with her tales!
Dear God in heaven, he thought, slanting a searing glance at her from under his lashes. How like a statue she was, or the unpainted effigy that would shortly decorate her tomb - supposing what she had told him of her impending fate went beyond mere words, that was! Downcast lids carved into an alabaster face, a pale chisel-curl of a mouth, all framed by the fluted stonework of her veils… The grey-brown silk overlaying her small breasts might have been polished Purbeck marble for all the signs of life it showed, so still and so composedly did she sit, knees chastely together, at the side of a strange man’s bed.
The very serenity of her pose offended him. Soon, after a brief and pointless life, she would follow her lord and her children into the grave and it would be as if none of them had ever lived. Yet there she sat, cool and calm in the face of her own extinction while he blazed on, a torch endlessly refuelled by despair. And to think this frozen travesty was the same woman who just hours ago had asked him to believe she had lain at his side, burning with her own flame; the woman who had run to him, shamelessly, in her under-gown, and touched him as he sat naked in his bath.
The intimacy, the confidences, everything she had shared with him... She had brushed it all aside like stable sweepings, while she cloaked herself with distance and dignity in the folds of her formal gown. It had all been words, and more words, and they were nothing but lies and deception as he had been lied to and deceived by women before. Bitter experience had taught him nothing, it seemed; she had still been able to inveigle him into dropping his guard.
He had bared his very soul to her. How she must have been laughing at him! And almost more galling was the awareness that now and then she had lured him into forgetting his pain, and the remembering had been all the more terrible for that. He cursed again and shot out an arm, capturing her by a wrist. For the second time that evening, the book of tales slid down among the rushes as he dragged her from her stool and up towards him, pinning her to the bed.
Her heart raced under his imprisoning forearm, and his lips drew back from his teeth in a feral smile. So the statue had some life in it, after all! There was an insidiously dark satisfaction in reflecting that his previous night’s rough handling must be adding to her distress; the bruises would be a bracelet of blue against her pale skin, marking the places where he had grasped her before.
The thought of her fear shot along his nerve channels in a rush of liquid fire - his revenge on womenkind for what he’d undergone at their hands; sweet words and soft glances, yet they betrayed him in the end. Even the most cherished among them had done so, and with the same accursed Huntingdon clan; one with the father, the other with the son. And still they had their claws in his soul.
He tore at her veils, sending the gold pins flying, his breath grazing her skin as he growled into her ear. “So, my Lady Countess. You‘ve come to lie with me again. But you no longer want me, do you, now you know what I am?"
Flame had bloomed in her pale cheeks. She’d been all quiet courage the night before when he dragged her into her chamber, but he hadn’t had her trapped beneath him then with his knee across her thighs and his breath on her neck. He hungered for her to fight him, to struggle and cry out; but she lay quite still, though the tension sang through her body like a drawn bow, while her breast rose and fell as if she had jumped the river again and raced to the Lincoln Wolds and back.
Her eyes were expanding wells of darkness, and the bottom fell out of them as she looked up at him. “Messire de Gisborne,” she said. “You underestimate yourself.”
He shivered as the words twisted and turned, echoing and re-echoing down the corridors of time, sending him back to a Locksley evening and another woman who had toyed with him. Though it was he who had spoken then, to Marian, as she stood before him, beautiful in the firelight. You overestimate yourself, was what he’d said; though of course he lied, for there would never be an end to what she meant to him.The memory harrowed him more than his present failure to arouse the frightened rabbit’s response he seemed to crave; his hands shook with the need to wrap themselves round her long white neck and force a little terror from her.
She reached up a hand, somehow left free in the heat of the moment, and touched his face. He slapped it away, a guttural protest torn from his throat.
“You are bleeding," she insisted. Which was a shrewd enough summing up of the state of his soul, he supposed; then she showed him her finger-tips, and they were red. “Your shaving cut has opened,” she clarified. “Will you not let me tend it?"
He exhaled in frustration, the rage seeping away like the air from a pricked bladder as he released her and rolled away in defeat. “Of course!” he muttered with a sneer. “My lady is disgusted by the thought of my base blood on her fine white sheets.”
The Countess pushed herself up to sit cross-legged beside him like a little girl at a picnic with a skirt full of daisy-chains. “Of course!" she repeated. "The integrity of my bed-linen was ever my prime concern.” And Gisborne watched from his disgruntled one-elbowed sprawl as she reached for one of the pillows, laughing at him over the snowy folds as she tore at the gossamer-fine linen with her teeth. A measure of the unspiced wine went into a second goblet, in which she soaked a strip of the cloth. “As well it has bled freely,” she mused, dabbing cautiously at his cheek with the moistened wad. “Who knows what was on that girl’s blade when she shaved you? I should not be surprised if it was her rabbit-gutting knife.”
He winced at the thought as much as at the sting of the alcohol. And meanwhile she dipped and re-dipped her swatches, warning him to be still while she applied pressure to the welling wound, and murmuring wordlessly to him when he winced again at the resultant stab of pain. A lock of his hair must have fallen forward, and she tucked it behind his ear while she sponged his skin clean, for gore had run in rust-red runnels across his cheek and down into the neck of the borrowed black shirt when his exertions had disturbed the half-formed scab.
And then the healer’s touch became something else altogether; her hands in the unruly strands at his nape, that single finger moving to trace the sensitivity of his newly naked jaw. Slowly, like a hawk hypnotized by a falconer’s caressing feather, he felt his eyelids grow heavy and slide closed… And suddenly, he was seeing her with the stallion again, the white hands petting the long muzzle, her jewelled fingers combing through its mane. Christ on the cross! Next she’d be fondling his haunches. Painfully alert now , he reached for her, manacling her wrists. The goblet flew from her fingers as he thrust her away from him, garnet drops of blood and wine spattering the costly linen as it crashed to the floor to join the book of tales.
‘’I am NOT your HORSE! ‘’
She did not flinch. She merely blinked, then widened her eyes at him in that mock-innocent way she had. “Heaven forfend!” she said. “Else you would have had me dead in a ditch long since with my neck at an unnatural angle! Oh, no, Messire de Gisborne.” she assured him, her voice deepening. “You are a man all right and the one I never thought to meet.”
“And which one might that be?” he demanded, the ever-ready suspicion gnawing at him, a rat in a dungeon that has lost its fear of men.
She paused and seemed to look inward. “Kamar al Akmar?” she asked then. “Did we not fly together through the storm? But ailàs!” Her hand went to her mouth in a gesture of dismay, though the spark in the depths of her gaze presaged another mood entirely. “I have presumed too far. You will have been waiting for me to beg for your favours again, since we were so rudely interrupted this afternoon." Her initial glint of mischief became more difficult to read as she began to quote:
“Bèl amics, avinens e bos…”
Any attempts he might have made to guess her purpose were forestalled by the fact that she was referencing that wretched canso again. Plunged into deep distress, for the sake of heaven and all the saints! Gisborne’s jaw tensed until the muscles ticked. How many men had rued the day their womenfolk had made the acquaintance of the Lady of Dia, he wondered, with an impatient snort, for all the impractical notions she’d put into their heads. Avinens e bos… Gentle and fine.. What a joke for a murderous brute who’d made a habit of manhandling her. He’d been about to add the usual ‘unwashed’ to his catalogue of sins, until he remembered with another snort that she’d taken care of that at least.
As if she had followed his chain of thought, her tone was half coaxing, half laughing, as the words fell from her lips as they would have flowed from the trobairitz’s pen.
“Ben volria mon cavalier…”
Would that these arms / Knew what it was to hold him.
Thus said the soft Occitan.
It was so very quiet in the chamber, with the rest of the manor complement long since abed and asleep, that he heard her heavy silks rustle as she knelt up to him, a hand on the point of his shoulder. The movement brought no trace of cedar and Grenada apple with it now; only the faintest ghost of summer flowers. Was this to spare him from unwelcome memories or for some unknowable reason of her own? He was still debating with himself as he felt her touch her mouth to the corner of his jaw.
On the surface it was a gesture of such sweet sincerity; yet he had been kissed like this before, and from motives that were far from pure. He had known that all too well in his heart of hearts but it had not saved him from wanting to believe.
His heart turned over, but for a moment he allowed himself to be rocked on the warm tide as this other woman reached to smooth the care lines from between his brows with the pad of a thumb. Then his head snapped back and he collected himself with a rush. . “I told you before,” he hissed, gripping her by the forearms. “Leave. Me. ALONE! I have nothing to give you. NOTHING!” And he shook her, just a little, to drive the message home.
Always the perfect gentle knight, eh, Gisborne, he thought to himself, his lips thinning to a grim line; yet he managed to dredge up a laugh from somewhere, long and scornful. “Don’t think for a minute I was interested in you and your new-found… inclinations, this afternoon," he snarled, his tone blistering. “Poetical or otherwise. I was amusing myself with you, that’s all. If you can’t see that, then you’re a fool!”
“And you are blind if you cannot see this has nothing to do with what you can give,” she hurled back, matching his fervour. “It is wishing with all my heart that you had what you need - wanting to lighten your burdens for the short time I have been given with you.” Her stare fixed him like an insect on a pin; until it shimmered into her hoyden’s smile. "Tell me I have not succeeded, just a little, Messire,” she concluded pertly, “You have admitted this very moment that I have had you laughing at me.”
Gisborne rubbed a hand over his mouth, irritation playing his strung-out nerves like chords on a warped vielle. It was akin to wrestling a shadow, or one of those narrow-eyed, ivory-skinned warriors he had encountered in the Holy Land; the ones who turned an opponent’s moves back against them with a smile and a bow. Christ on the cross, he was dog-tired, and he hadn’t the patience or the energy to fight her any more. What he needed was to be left alone so he could bludgeon his unquiet mind and flesh into submission with alcohol.
Frustration threw him back against the pillows, aping some potentate in that cursed book of tales; lifting his chin and raking her body with arrogant half-shut eyes. "Then amuse me a little more," he drawled, his voice dripping cold malevolence. “It’s a long time since I visited a whorehouse. Pleasure me.”
Shock and revulsion were what he was aiming for; followed, he hoped, by a speedy and strategic withdrawal. Or so his better part told him - his dark side was not so sure. It was true she’d aligned herself with the oldest profession only that morning, but that had been in jest, and this… This was a cruel and deliberate assault on her honour. Her reactions aside, he disgusted himself that his mother’s son could have stooped so low.
As it was, what she said and did was… nothing at all. The moment drew out, and his heart pulsed with dark triumph. To hell with the qualms of that mythical better part; stunned silence worked for him too. Any time now she would turn on him and show him the self they all hid behind the words. And then she would flee as he’d intended her to do, and he would be alone to commune with his demons at last. “What’s the matter?” he jeered, driving his advantage home. “Found your sense of shame again, have you?”
He would never have guessed how she would answer him; though on past experience perhaps he should have known.
“No doubt I am waiting for payment in advance,” she said sweetly. “That is the standard procedure, I believe, when a patron is new.”
This was not what he wanted from her, not yet; but the hint of ruffled modesty was a pleasant diversion; her lashes lay dark against hot cheeks, belying the boldness of her words. She gave a rueful shake of her head, her braids evading the last of the pins to uncoil onto her shoulders. “Truth to tell, Messire, a chatelaine’s training contains little on the pleasuring of men,” she said. “And much more on lying back and doing one’s duty - which is an excellent opportunity, of course, to run a mental audit of the household accounts,” she confided gravely, her sense of the ridiculous getting the better of her decorum as ever. “In short, I fear you would find me an indifferent whore.”
Gisborne bit his lip. Slippery as that bucket of fresh lampreys to the bitter end! Now she would walk out, having had the last word, and with her true face still hidden from him. But she was not done with him yet. He watched in bemusement as the impudent tongue-tip made a brief reappearance; then she lent her voice a Poitevin goodwife’s burr.
“But if my lord cared to instruct me in the proper path to his delight?"
Something burst then in Gisborne, like an angry boil swollen with rage and guilt and grief. His fingers cramped with the fierceness of his need to clamp round her upper arms again and shake her, hard, as he growled his impatience to subject her to his will. Yes, madam whore, he thought, through the haze of a mind on fire. You tie me in knots with those words of yours. So now you will either run, or I will see once and for all what you hide behind them!
“Off!” he barked, with a peremptory jerk of his chin towards the silken elegance of her gown. “All of it. And let down your hair."
It fell to her hips.
If he were a horse, Gisborne reflected, some time later, then she was an obedient little mare as she did his every bidding in the shadowed watches of the night. Her hands were cool, the heavy shanks of her rings a delicious scoring across delicate skin, and it was balm on his many wounds to see a highborn woman humbled before him in this way.
Or so he told himself, until the hooks of something in him he had thought long dead caught at him, like a burr under his clothing, dispelling the quasi-dreamlike state into which he had allowed himself to sink. The situation had escalated much further than he had intended or desired, for either of them, and he drew away from her with a face that must look like a badly executed depiction of the Wrath of God.
“Have I have displeased you, Messire de Gisborne?” she murmured, still kneeling before him with her eyes downcast.
But he had not missed the fleeting spark of complicity in the smoky depths that told him that yet again, all was not quite as it seemed. She was by no means as cowed as his conscience insisted she was.
“Messire de Gisborne, Messire de Gisborne!” he mocked, and spat the next crude words at her his exasperation, for he could find none to express what he was feeling now. “Tell me, madam whore. Are you always so formal with the men you hump? “
“And are you always so… informal, with your women?” she asked. She sat back on her heels, a finger to her cheek, as if struggling with a formidable tally. “Now let me see… His Grace the Count was not a one for such liberties as given names. Which is understandable, perhaps, when yours is Eudes,” she added with a wicked smile to go with the confidence. “As for the rest of the company, then ailàs…” She drew a dramatically over-exaggerated sigh. “There is little tolerance for such intimacies there too, or so I gather. Nor has he ever offered me mine. But then to be pedantic I have not humped him yet.”
He could only shake his head at her and press his lips together as she looked up at him with her eyes alight, for answering was quite beyond him.
”So command me, my lord," she said. “What would you have me whisper in your ear, should you deign to grace me?” She reached for his hand, but he did not miss her swift inventory of the raw grazes he had acquired that afternoon in a flooded ditch. “Tsk,” she said and the shadow of a frown appeared between her brows before she brought it to his cheek. “I should have cleaned that too or it will fester.”
He knew he should turn from her now but he found he could not, as she traced the line of his nose and lips with their joined hands, her own lips following where their fingers had brushed. He could feel her smiling against his mouth…
And at last his long-buried hungers undid him, and he slipped his chains and ran free.
At the end, it was all too easy to avail himself of what was so freely offered, with the scent of summer in his nostrils and the sound of her voice in his ear. Her body was taut from her riding, and she had not lied to him about the scar; it was as rough and gnarled as the branch that had made it, an ugly token of good faith perhaps, but no unwelcome sight in the circumstances. And Guion was what she found to call him; his own name forged anew by the Occitàn tongue. He fancied there were other things too, but by then he had gone too far to hear.
When he took her, it was without care or refinement, but she met him courageously. For an instant he paused, savouring the warmth of his welcome. Then he let the rip-tide carry him away.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
The incident of the miserly wine-flagon, the jeweled book and the doughty tire-woman had been related; the last reverberations of the Compline bell were melting into the night as Eleanor of Aquitaine began to speak. “Of course,” she observed dryly, “You were not content to leave it at that.”
A shamed grimace tugged at the corners of her niece’s mouth. “You know me too well, anda meuna.”
“I know your warm heart, my Lysette,” was the Queen’s mild reply. “But I also know your courage. It is the depth of your distress that tells me there is more to come.”
Alix of Vézelay sighed, her mind returning to what she now remembered as one of the minor incidents of that night. “My poor Constanza! She was beside herself when I insisted on going back to him; not least to think it a consequence of her own meddling. I could not make her understand, anda Eleanora,” she said earnestly. “Nor that I would have gone anyway, come what might. How could I, when I barely understood it myself?”
She sighed again, guilt weighing heavily on her shoulders, as she recalled how her women had fluttered about her, and how, in her impatience, she had repaid their loyalty by looking on them as a coop-full of chickens, anxious at the proximity of the fox.. “Perhaps it was a happy chance that the contents of my coffers still steamed before the fire,” she reflected. “It mollified them just a little to dress me in the one thing that had escaped a soaking, safe in its layers of oiled cloth and leather bag: a rich silk bliaut, commissioned for last year’s Christmas court but never worn.” Her lips compressed, though it was at her own rashness as much as their well-meaning folly. “They insisted on braiding and pinning my hair under a fine veil and handing me my rings and brooches, until I was decked as if summoned to a coronation feast. As if the proud display would be shield and buckler for me, a reminder to all-comers of whom and what I was. “
How ironic that again today this should be her gown of last resort, though it was now more talisman and relic than instrument of defence. The blood-stains from his shaving cut had long since been sponged away, but if any trace of him still lingered between warp and weft, it was held close to her.
“You wear the same gown now,” Eleanor discerned, and was silent for a moment, for her tone had held less assurance than was its formidable wont. Yet in the blink of an eye she rallied, brisk as the morning breeze that blows the mist away. “But how very splendid it all sounds. Like a quatrain from that book of Saracen verse young Henri sent home to Champagne from the Holy Land for his mother’s name day. How did it go?” she asked. “A book, a silk-clad woman and a flask of wine…”
"… And humblest byre a sultan’s bower outshines…” Alix supplied. A bubble of mirth climbed her parched throat as cherished memories surfaced of rare carefree days at the court at Troyes, and she sipped at her cup before she was able to speak again. “Did Cousin Marie ever mention the almighty struggle they had to translate that particular verse?” she managed finally, embracing the lighter mood with gratitude.
The Queen chuckled, mellow with her own remembered amusement. “I do recall something about a haunch of mutton in the original Persian,” she said. “The book sits so much better on a Western ear.”
“Yet what tells me,” Alix considered ruefully, “that for all his lack of appetite, my lord of Gisborne would have preferred the meat?”
“So would most men, my dear, if the truth be told!”
Upon which tart rejoinder, aunt and niece subsided into each other’s arms, glad to be weak together for the moment, since it was with the excuse of helpless laughter.
“Ailàs for womankind!” said Eleanor eventually, patting her niece’s thin shoulders, and then disengaging to dab at her eyes with another of the soft linen cloths she kept about her person.. “Are we forever to be at cross-purposes with the masculine world?” Her lively accents warmed, softening to an almost-whisper as she inquired “And had you no joy of him, this heart’s delight of yours, since his memory torments you so?”
Was it joy, then, that had come out of nowhere to pierce her to the quick and leave an echoing void where her heart once lived? Was it joy when the ghost of his presence haunted her day and night, so it seemed she had but to turn her head and he would be there with her, not a hair’s breadth away?
“Have you seen the stone they mine near the town of Whitby?” her royal aunt murmured. “Jet, they call it; black as a moonless night and seeded here and there with flecks of gold. You are not the first woman to be drawn in by an enigma, my dear; that intriguing blend of darkness and light.” She exhaled, deeply and wearily. “Though God knows, the men of my own flesh and blood have been no less black of heart at times, with little precious metal to leaven the mix.”
Silver light from the sky lapped at the Queen’s veils like foam on a passing wave as she bent a head that seemed bowed by regret. “Yes, my girl,” she added bitterly. ” I know full well on whose orders your wolf was sent to stalk my lion. His own brother's, my son John’s. Not that your wild one ever shrank over-much from bloodying his chops on his own account,” she concluded, grunting softly as she straightened her spine.
“And paid a heavy price for it in the end."
As she must pay hers now, Alix accepted; by forfeiting the esteem of the woman who was the greater part of all she had known of family. Lines from the trobairitz countess sprang to her mind again.
A chantar m’er... I must sing of what I would rather shroud in secrecy...
“He was not kind to me,” she stated, baldly, and her lips drew back from her teeth as if she tasted bitter fruit, “He used me like an alehouse whore.”
The words sank like stones into a long silence and it was some time before either one of them spoke again.
“Have you ever considered,” the Queen said, thoughtfully, at last. “That he had no other way of asking for what he wanted? "
Her niece's mouth grew tight, formng an ugly line. “You have heard his story. You know what he lost; his home, his family - and then the love of his life, and at his own hands. What could he have hoped to gain from me?”
“What do we all want, my Lysette?” came the reply, and the weight of a world of sadness could be heard behind the words. “The solace of knowing that, if only for a while, we are not alone.”
Alix felt her eyes fill, the rush of remembered compassion mingling with her shame. As always, her aunt’s wisdom had tweezed out the kernel of the matter. Then she blinked the tears away, for had she not promised herself she would not cry?
“If truth be told, he was not capable of kindness then, not even to himself,” she admitted with a sigh. “And it was I who planted the thought in his mind and the word in his mouth when I named myself such that morning. No. I can begrudge him nothing he might have had from me,” she asserted with grim determination. “Nothing!”
“Indeed!” Eleanor said, with aplomb. “Despite what we are told by those who have chosen to divorce themselves from any experience of such things, it has always been my view that whatever goes on behind the bed-curtains between consenting adults is nobody’s business but their own.”
“Ah cèl, anda Eleanora, therein lies the crux of the matter,” her niece answered, hollow-voiced, and she paused, spent and shivering, to draw her furs closer and wrap her arms about herself. Was this how the Queen had felt while crossing the Pyrenees to bring Richard his bride; buffeted by cold cross-winds as she stood on the summit, willing herself to take the next step? It had been a prodigious feat of courage for a woman of her years; could she permit herself to do less?
“He forced you?” Eleanor prompted. Her face was invisible in the dark, but her tone revealed her features as clearly as the light of day: eyes wide, an elegant brow aloft in anger and concern. “You found yourself with second thoughts, and he forced you?”
Alix shook her head, and her laughter was choked and caustic. ”Oh, no, aunt. On the contrary. It was I who took him at his word, when his intention was but to drive me from the chamber; I who persuaded myself it was for a comfort for him before the nightmare descended on him again.”
A sob threatened to escape her, but she willed it down ruthlessly. “The truth is that it was out of my own brazen wantonness. I wanted him. Who knows, I must have wanted him from the moment I saw him.” Her throat closed as the guilt washed over her, hot and raw as it had ever been. “So no, aunt. He did not force me. I, Alix, the Countess of Vézelay, I seduced him; a man who was vowed to another beyond death. Do you not see? I claimed the highest motives, yet I betrayed him in his vulnerability more shamefully than I betrayed myself.”
She swallowed another sob, drawing it down on a shuddering breath as deeply as her weakened chest wall would permit. It was done. Ever since she had gone beyond the more immediate pain of parting, this was what had gnawed at her. Now at last it lay revealed in all its ugliness, and she awaited her aunt’s condemnation with a leaden but resolute heart.
“Well!” retorted Eleanor of Aquitaine in her most formidable tones. “I am shocked, my girl! Shocked and amazed that my very proper niece should have found the wherewithal to bend a man like that to her fell ends.” The last two words, so prominent in lurid tales of wicked knights and distressed damsels, were pronounced with considerable relish. ”Naturally, he recoiled from your advances in abject horror,” she remarked, dryly, after a telling pause.
Anticlimax bid to transform yet another anguished sob into a snort of misplaced mirth. “More than once,” Alix confessed. “But I changed his mind.”
The truth of this conclusion took her by surprise, and the beginnings of a smile dawned beneath her pallor.
“And there you have the answer to your weighty moral dilemma,” the Queen pointed out comfortably, reaching warm fingers under the furs again to pat her niece’s cold hand. “Men are not like us, my dear. It is a rare one who thinks his life changed and his honour gone after such an encounter. Or so I gather from their tendency to roll off and fall asleep the moment they are done," she confided with a low chuckle. “So urgent is their need to be picking over the darker reaches of their consciences.”
“I bow to your knowledge,” her niece said, on a welling tide of gratitude and relief. The creeping chill that was taking hold of her body receded from her heart as she reflected that he had been far from unusual in that respect. What was more, as per the norm of her married life, she had returned from a tip-toed last visit to the garderobe to find herself without a resting place, his long limbs sprawled bonelessly over the whole expanse of the sheets.
She had drawn the coverlet over him and hunched into the fur-lined folds of the borrowed blue robe to perch herself on the stool beside the bed. She had slept what was left of the afternoon away, and even if she had not, it would have been no hardship to sip at spiced wine that still retained a hint of warmth in its depths and watch over him. Others were given a lifetime to amass their quiet moments, but these few short hours were all she was to have.
His face was gilded by the last flickers from the brazier, his nose a fierce dagger-slash, cruel yet elegant beneath a furrowed brow. But his lashes were thick and soft against his cheeks and the harsh line of his narrow mouth yielding in repose, hinting at a sensitivity impossible to imagine in his waking hours.
How peaceful he had looked, but how vulnerable; his demons at bay for the nonce yet forever watchful, awaiting their chance to drag him back to the fires. For him too, this time would be all too brief; the space of hardly a heartbeat in a life-time of grief and remorse. After all he had been dealt at the hands of women, it seemed a further betrayal that she must leave him now to fight on alone; yet it was preferable to the greater crime of adding her own burdens to his as she would eventually have done.
Moisture had leaked from the corners of her eyes to run down her cheeks. The Lady Adela’s broderies were rough against her skin as she brushed at them impatiently with a sleeve, yet still the traitorous tears had come. Weariness settled over her at last, like the weight of a mail cloak; a deep weariness not just of the body, but of the soul, for she could not remember a time when she had not needed to be strong. In childhood and marriage it had been for pride and self-preservation; in widowhood, to prove herself fit to rule and to spare those who relied on her so they would not guess how weak and alone and afraid she was at times.
While for him, she had needed to be stronger than she had ever been in her life, lest he should sense the true depths of her feelings and shy away before she could give him whatever she could towards the easing of his pain. Life was cruel; but sometimes it was possible to steal a little meaning from it, in a way she would have never dared had her circumstances been otherwise. That was the thought she had been clinging to as she spent her resources to the last of her coin; now though she was coming apart at the seams.
He had stirred uneasily, as if her soul-searchings had disturbed him. The fire had died, but moonlight streamed in quicksilver bars through the slats of the shutters and his eyes were sudden liquid slicks of metal. He gestured towards her wet face “You’re going to tell me that’s rain again,” he grumbled, his voice rough with sleep, “ In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a roof over our heads.”
Yet his touch had not been ungentle as he reached to take a tell-tale drop on a finger-tip.
“The thatch is old and leaking,” she suggested, her own voice emerging far too thick from her throat. Then her heart had turned upside down in her breast as she watched him touch his tongue to her tears.
He blinked, the narrow silver streaks vanishing for an instant, and reappearing. “Of course it is,” he grunted. “And they store their salt in the rafters."
“Ah, cèl, Guion!” she had protested, finding the blessing of laughter. “You were not meant to see!”
The exchange warmed her, though his dark features had still wavered before her through the veil of her grief. And then, judging that honesty was what she owed him now, rather than strength and sense and cheerful banter, she had opened her heart to him. ”It is that morning will come,” she began, ignoring the fact that her voice was cracked and dry as an autumn leaf “And it will cost me dear to leave you. You are in durance, amics, and I do not know the way to set you free.”
At that he had turned his back, a brusque movement that hunched his shoulders and bought his head low, as if the implication behind her words imposed a weight he was unwilling to bear. The rejection had sent her innards plummeting through fire and down into ice till they were cold and heavy in her belly as a tangle of leaden chain.
And then he turned back to her and reached out a hand.
“Run down the meadow again with me,” he said.
With that healing memory, the storm broke, and she abandoned herself at last to the ocean of grief and love she had harboured within her frail body throughout the long months of self-recrimination. She sobbed, brutally and brokenly, until her strength was gone and she could weep no more.
Self-awareness returned but slowly, to find her cradled in her aunt’s arms, the queenly silks sodden with her tears - and worse besides, Alix realised as she peeled herself away and felt the tell-tale parting of glutinous strands on her cheek.
“Hush, child,” the Queen said to her flustered apologies, presenting her with another of the ubiquitous soft cloths. “It was in a noble cause. Believe me my dear Lysette, I have had a lot worse on my clothes in my time than a little snot.”
Alix of Vézelay dried her eyes obediently and turned her gaze to the night-sky again. The stars were singing to her in pure and distant voices; a crystalline tide of sound so immeasurably sweet, she felt light as a feather borne on the breeze. Her mind must be wandering back to the times when she was still strong enough to slip into the beeswax-scented shadows of the chapel, as the choir rehearsed their anthems for Passiontide. Like a cup of cool water, it had been refreshment for the soul.
A sudden start wrenched her from the fever-dream, the shock actively painful, her heart knocking at her ribs and climbing her throat. An arresting weight had fallen on her shoulder and hot breath gusted her ear with the smell of rotting grass. Panicking, she extricated an arm from her quilts to defend herself; then she was laughing, for her fingers encountered not grasping hands but a long silken muzzle that nipped and mouthed gently at her skin.
Anxious shouts filtered into her perception, emanating from the perimeter of the garth; the high piping tones of young stable boys. It seemed her beloved horse, resentful of her weeks of neglect, had eluded his guardians and taken it on himself to come visiting.
“Past time we too sought a warm stable, “ Eleanor decreed when the joyous reunion had been fully celebrated and a sturdy lay sister had appeared, brimming with apologies, the skirts of her baize apron laden with the fragrant dessert apples reserved for the Abbess’ table. Only then could the wayward animal be lured away.
Her niece nodded dreamily. She was drained from the evening’s labours and the unexpected felicity of horse-kisses, but the stars were singing to her again.
“Listen!” The Queen cocked her head and sighed with pleasure. “You would think that mad beast of yours would have driven them away with his junketings… But that is something you do not often hear. A nightingale is a frequent visitor to the pear-tree in the Abbess’s garden, I am told, but tonight he has a rival to answer him from the cloister roof.”
Not the stars then, nor the ghostly voices of nuns…
Alix shook her head at her own foolishness. It seemed she was not quite ready for the shadow-lands, where dreams vie for precedence over reality. But it was a sign; the muddy undertow of helplessness that had still lingered beneath her thoughts shifted, and all became clear as the spring-water babble of the birds. She smiled to herself as the last shreds of her distress melted away and peace settled over her like a sheltering wing. She knew now what she must do.
Aunt and niece sat on enraptured as the full-throated colloquy spun shimmering veils of sound across the night; until at last the birds had sung themselves weary and they winged silently away to seek their roost. Alix of Vézelay was still smiling as they came to carry her inside, with Eleanor smiling back at her as she paced at her side.
Nor did the Queen leave her before she was washed and laid safely in her bed.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
Eleanor of Aquitaine never saw her niece again in this world.
The heady blend of joy and sorrow of the previous night had taken its toll on what the Queen still found hard to admit were old bones; she had slept on, uncharacteristically late, far into the morning.
They allowed her to linger over a breakfast of flaked rolls and new apricot conserve before bringing her the news. Though there was no need for words when the Abbess Mathilde glided in on silent feet; beneath the tight white wimple and black veil, the nun’s features were serene, yet the message was clear in the sympathy that misted her quiet eyes. Alix of Vézelay had begun her confession before God soon after the hour of Vigils, and received the last rites as the Matins bell rang out the summons to prayer.
By the time dawn was lightening the sky to the east, she was no more.
It was not unexpected. Nevertheless, it was a heavy blow to bear, even for one such as she who had developed a more than passing acquaintance with death - a mother, a father, a sister and a beloved uncle; three sons, a daughter and two husbands… The list was painful and long. The Abbess waited a few respectful moments for her to absorb the melancholy tidings. Then she reached into a voluminous sleeve, drawing out a sheaf of folded parchments, and a scroll which bore the poignantly familiar tails and pendant seals. A brief mention of prayers for the newly departed, and the nun withdrew with a murmured blessing, leaving Queen alone with her thoughts.
The chairs that furnished the royal guest chamber were of dark oak, intricately carved in high relief, and she had always found them supremely uncomfortable to her back. Now, acknowledging the courage of her niece’s last hours, she welcomed the reminder to straighten her spine. A queen could show no less resolve, no matter that there was no witness to her grief.
Her gaze returned to the array of documents fanned out before her on the table, and she marvelled how her Lysette had summoned the will to set her affairs in such meticulous order, so frail she had seemed by then. Indeed, she must have risen from her bed soon after they had left her, writing long into the night.
Suppressing a sigh as a further sign of weakness, Eleanor took up her eating knife and slid it under the seal of the letter bearing her name.
And then, despite her resolve of dignity and fortitude, she felt her eyes overflow as she began to read what was written there.
Burgundy, Autumn 1194.
Gisborne's fingers grappled at the sill of his dingy chamber in a desperate bid to anchor himself in the here and now. His mind still reeling in the void between present and past, he stared down into the rutted morass of the stable yard and tried to deny the evidence of his eyes by the exercise of sheer will.
They say a drowning man sees his whole life pass before him like a river rolling down to the sea, though experience had taught this was unlikely to be true. As a three year old in the village duck pond, he’d been too young to remember either way; in the horse-trough at the hands of the childhood bugbear who'd grown up to become an enemy and then, all too briefly, a brother-in-arms, there'd been nothing to see but blackness and shooting stars.
Yet these forgotten few days of a past Nottinghamshire spring had done more than unreel like a passing pageant before his eyes; they had reached out and engulfed him, body and soul, forcing him to live through them again in the minutest detail of sight, sensation and sound.
He had woken the next morning to find her gone from the bed, as he’d half-expected she would be, some craven part of him embracing the fact with gratitude. Sunlight had been streaming in through the gaps in the shutters where once the moonlight extruded its silver bars; it was high morning and for the second night in a row his sleep had been long and deep, as if he'd been under the influence of sorcery.
He’d stretched his long limbs, taking a moment to relish the curious lightness, the pull and play of his muscles, before his daytime demons noticed he had left the domain of dreams and came crowding in to shackle him to the rack once more. His head moved on the pillows, easing his neck, and rainbow prisms winked at him. It had taken his still-drowsing brain some moments to locate the source of this small festival of light; it lay forgotten beside the wine flagons and the gaggle of empty goblets from the night before.
The Countess had left her jewelled book of tales behind.
In an instant he was up, pulling on his clothes; the linens. the shirt, the breeches he found at the foot of the bed - this last the Lady Adela’s work again no doubt, a thing of shreds and patches, the remains of his ruined leathers laced cunningly together with whatever scraps of stout wool were to be found. His boots had been stiff and hard and still damp as he trod into them, but he was off down the halls and out onto the doorstep, heedless of his discomfort; nor could he have articulated the reason for his haste.
The main body of the train had already left. A single baggage cart remained, awaiting the stowing of the great travel bed; even now the first of the bedding was being carried out. Yet he'd not been too late to see her cross the yard on her big black horse, her ladies riding sedately at her side.
He remembered now how the cabochons on her book’s rich binding bit into his palm as he'd watched them go, his throat suddenly constricted as if by a giant hand. At the gate, she had paused; then she dug soft boots into the stallion’s flanks and rode on without looking back.
He’d turned abruptly on his heel and made for the stables, the book still clutched between numb fingers, fixing his mind on a mount to get him back to Nottingham and the travesty of an existence that was now his. As he did so, a scrap of vellum had fluttered down from its hiding place between the pages to land at his feet.
Three short words...
That was all she had written, but they told him the book had not been left by chance. It had been her way to wish him well; a gift of something she prized, for its giver perhaps and for its content, but with the monetary value that might benefit him more if he so chose.
Yet her words and her gift had not prevented him from wiping her from his mind, so quickly and so completely it was as if she’d never existed for him. True, he’d lost whole weeks out of his life when he had lain insensate from his wounds after the last battle at Nottingham; but though he'd been half out of his mind with grief and drink during those three spring days he'd spent with her, he’d hardly been comatose.
Now he stood unsteadily at the upper floor window of a tumbledown lodge in the wilds of Burgundy and asked himself how and why he had come to bury those memories so deeply, only for them to be shocked into vivid life again by what he’d just seen down in the yard. It had been an experience he was unready and unable to process, he acknowledged at last, and so he'd locked it away in the deepest recesses of his brain - an oubliette, indeed - and thrown away the key.
And for once Fate and its fickle tricks had been on his side. The scrap of parchment had disappeared soon after his return to Nottingham and so, not much later, had the book of tales, stolen from his castle chamber one day as he dragged himself round the countryside on his dismal daily round.
As for the rents and revenues, acquired from her at such cost to his fragile sense of self, they had soon melted away to nothing at all. What was not revoked post haste by a jealous prince was swallowed up by punitive taxes; within days John’s henchman, Sir Jasper, had arrived with demands for an additional thousand crowns a month, and that had been just the start.
In short, the Countess of Vézelay might have never passed their way for all the good it had done, for Nottingham or for himself. And by then Hood had been back, mad with his own grief and hungry for revenge, and Gisborne had thrown himself into the moment gladly, welcoming the descent into madness with eager arms. By the time a young woman named Meg had touched him with her kindness, all thought of the Countess had been gone, subsumed in his memories of that brave rebellious girl and of Marian.
He had quite forgotten that once there had been another woman who saw good in him where there was none; a woman whose generosity of heart was undiminished by her awareness of his crimes.
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
The Queen squinted impatiently at the letter again through the haze of untimely tears.
My dearest aunt, it read.
You have long been more than a mother to me.
Now, with your skilful blend of warmth and scolding, you have shed light on the darker corners of my mind and set me free.
And so I dare to make this request of you, though you have already done far more for me than any daughter has a right to expect. Watch over him, I beg you, as you have arranged to have done thus far; from a distance, and with discretion. I have interfered in his life beyond what he would have wished, and I must not diminish what little is left to him of pride.
Here, Eleanor compressed her lips. It seemed her Lysette had not lived to out-grow the over-delicate scruples she brought to her personal affairs. It was fortunate that her life as a ruling countess had taught her strength in other respects.
Ah, my dear, her aunt reflected, with a wistful smile. Your interference went a step too far indeed; but as so often happens, by then the matter was out of your hands. Without orders to the contrary, no operative answerable to me would have dared leave the wretched man beneath a doomed castle with the breath of life still in him, however keen he might have been to depart this world.
As for the local wise-woman - Matilda, she thought it was - she had embraced the task of keeping him alive willingly enough, despite the grievous sword-thrusts he had received. It had been an exquisite form of revenge, the Queen gathered, as much as a challenge to her healing skills, seeing that it served to prolong his suffering.
And yet, her niece continued, I shall leave this world the happier for knowing he lives and thrives, safe from all who might seek to do him harm.
Eleanor shook her head at the ingenuousness of this sentiment, her jaw tightening. Why value a life he did not value himself? Better all round for him to have died there and then as he had wished, and have done with it.
But then who was she to deny a cherished kinswoman’s dying request? She had undertaken far more onerous tasks for family in her life-time, and reaped much less gratitude; even her best beloved Richard had been remiss in that. He had no concept of what it had cost an elderly woman to gather a hefty ransom and travel across half Europe to rescue him from captivity; a captivity occasioned by his own rash insult to a doubtful ally before the walls of Acre.
Anda meuna, the letter went on, the script less well-formed now and more difficult to read, though warmth and courage still flowed through the words.
We have amused ourselves most deliciously, have we not, with the overblown troubadour nonsense of hearts’ delights? Yet if the plain truth be told, he was everything of mine. And so it seems but fair return that I should offer him as much of what he yearns for as lies within my power.
Eleanor raised a hand to her brow as she read this potentially incendiary statement, massaging away the tension that ticked at the corner of one eye. Had the competent and eminently sensible countess lost her head along with her inhibitions? That infernal man! He had wormed his way into the affections of a vulnerable woman with his handsome looks and his winsome air of high tragedy. And how much more galling that he had done the damage against his own will!
Madness enough for her Lysette to have allowed herself to become so besotted, and so impossibly; though understandable perhaps that she should have snatched at the new experience, a woman still young and so cruelly deprived of time. But had she no inkling of the turmoil and vicious infighting that was bound to arise when a common hearth-knight was marked out for high favour and rich lands? To say nothing of the prurience!
And all to no avail, for in that contentious atmosphere, he would not last a week; a minnow among pikes, no matter how carefully he lurked in the reeds.
But as the Queen read on, the silken wimple bands that compressed her temples loosened miraculously.
Ailàs, her niece had written. I am not free to follow my heart; not even in death, or I should have gifted him with all the wealth and power he coveted, as salve to the wounds life dealt him. But given the jealous hearts abounding in our circles, his elevation would last no longer than the revenues I ceded to the account of Nottingham. And so I thought to address his deeper, truer need, as you will see.
Yes, my dearest aunt. I admit it, I seek to play with lives once more; but his will be the choice this time, and I have taken care that no one will be the loser.
Again I beg of you; if you love me, ensure my endeavours do not fail.
And there it ended, save for a few minor requests and special instructions for the disposal of her most personal possessions, lodged here at Fontevrault.
His deeper, truer need?
Intrigued, Eleanor reached for the scroll, careful of the delicate torn tails the younger woman favoured over the more robust security device of wax-sealed ribbon or twine.
Burgundy, Autumn 1194.
Three words on a scrap of parchment.
Meaningless to an outsider; and thus a safer form of communication than any sealed missive could be. Seals could be peeled away, to be re-applied once their contents had been plundered; indeed, the very existence of that affixed roundel of wax screamed secrets! to the suspicious mind when fully intact.
Gisborne remembered again how it had been as he read those three short words - as if ghostly wings beat the air, brushing the edges of his soul with something more merciful than he'd experienced in weeks. But life was cruel as the Countess had been so fond of remarking; he'd been in no state to retain their message then, and he feared he was little better off now.
All the same, there was nothing to be gained from skulking up here in this dingy room. He’d never seen a ghost with his waking eyes, but if ghost it was down there, it was well past time to confront it. Shaking his head at the absurdity of the idea, he pried his cramped fingers from the sill, shrugged off his hovering steward’s attempts to act as human crutch and dragged himself over to the door.
Yet for all his scepticism, when he manhandled the balky panel open, the short hairs rose on the back of his neck as the scene he had witnessed from the safety of four walls assailed him with a new and more immediate reality. His nostrils flared as the stench of fear and ordure floated up to him, thick and cloying; eldritch shrieks like the hunting cries of demons clawed at his ears, punctuated by a human cacophony of panicked shouts, while his eyes looked out on chaos and destruction writ large.
It was as if a storm had blown in from the sea or a conquering army had passed through, bent on plunder. The gate had been demolished, its remains slumping drunkenly on one hinge; long pale spurs snarled like fangs along the shattered walls of the outbuildings, the newly exposed wood stark against the silver grey of weathered boards. Bins and barrels had been tossed aside like dice from a giant’s gaming table, their contents strewn over the rutted ground, while scum-ridden water from an upturned horse-trough mingled with waste from the midden in a stinking brew of night soil and decaying cabbage stalks.
Stable-hands and kitchen staff were corralled in a far corner, frozen with fear, brooms and pitchforks held tremblingly at the ready; a feeble defence against the implacable force that raged through their domain.
It was the spirit of equine fury made flesh; screaming, rearing, kicking and black as night, with an unholy resemblance to another wild black horse he had once known - the sight that had scrambled his brains from his vantage point at the upper window, triggering the barrage of memories that still whirled like desert dust-devils inside his skull.
Gisborne hesitated no longer. He lurched unsteadily down the crumbling stone steps, careless enough of his own safety to trust his weight to the rotting wood of the rail, oblivious of the splinters that drove into his palm. He would prove to himself once and for all that this animal’s sudden appearance was mere coincidence, bearing no connection to a past he’d thought himself done with long ago.
Out he stepped into the sea of mud, oblivious of flailing forelegs and razor-sharp hooves, his boots stirring up foetid odours of refuse and neglect. And as he strode forward, he rifled his mind for the words and tone the Countess had used to calm her ravening stallion, confidant that this present mad devil would not respond and his ghosts would be laid, every last one.
"Soau, Ben!” he sang out, raising his arms and ignoring the warning cries behind him. "Soau, mon filz!"
Not strictly accurate, this last, but nothing, not even peace of mind, would induce him to address an animal as my heart in front of a gaggle of Burgundian retainers. Boy would do well enough - what horse could tell the difference, anyway?
And impossibly, as if conjured by magic, the dark maelstrom paused in its crazed cavortings.
Breath huffed explosively from distended nostrils as forefeet made tentative contact with the ground.
The high-strung beast whinnied; nervous, yet intrigued enough to take a pace towards him. And then it must have caught his scent, for it was upon him, lipping and nuzzling at him joyfully, the great wedged muzzle probing his shirt and open jerkin for the apples it loved.
Against all odds, it was the Countess’ horse; he could see the scar tissue that snaked over its flanks and rump, feel the rough ridges beneath the mane as he ran his fingers through the dark strands, long and matted now as his own hair and sticky with...
Slowly he became aware of the shouts of the steward who was over by the gate, kneeling beside what he first took for a heap of rags; it was almost impossible to make it out as the figure of a man, so thickly was it spattered with mud and gore. Knuckling moisture from his eyes and cheeks - somehow he had not noticed the sudden onset of rain - Gisborne detached himself from the delighted stallion and limped over to investigate.
They had raised him to prevent him from choking on his own blood. It ran in russet streams from one side of his mouth despite the tightly clenched jaw, and there was an ominous red-lipped slash in his surcote in the region of his belly. A spark kindled in the fading brown eyes as they lighted on the new arrival at his side - identifying him by his height and presence perhaps, for it had been long since he’d dressed to suit his rank. “Messire… de… Gisborne?” he croaked with superhuman effort. “I come from the Queen.”
He whimpered and fell back, panting, before he could go on. “Bandits… They took my horse… everything… The stallion… He fought and ran… came back for me, to where I lay in a ditch.” He shuddered and closed his eyes and for a moment Gisborne thought the man was dead, but then his lashes fluttered as he plucked feverishly at the neck of his blood-sodden tunic.
The Queen? Queen Eleanor? The man had spoken with the accents of the South, but what business could he, Gisborne, have with the woman whose son he had twice attempted to kill? How did they know where to find him, hidden away in this godforsaken corner of the world? And how and why did the Countess’ horse come to be here?
At last he saw what was troubling the dying man’s rest. There was a pouch inside his shirt, lying close against his skin, secured by a long leather thong round his neck. Whatever it contained, it must be without intrinsic value to have escaped the brigands’ greed - either that or it had escaped their notice in the heat of the fray. Gently he drew the cord over the battered head, and the man looked up at him gratefully.
Gisborne came slowly to his feet and glanced round the circle of curious faces, seeking the steward and gesturing him to do what was fitting. The man deserved all honour, for he had been brave and loyal to his queen. As the body was borne off to be tended, he wandered over to the steps with the stallion plodding inquisitively behind him. Then he sat down to investigate what he held in his hands.
The pouch was still sticky with the messenger’s blood but it crackled as he handled it. Teasing loose the drawstring, he drew out two scrolls and after them, a folded scrap of parchment, unsigned and unsealed as another parchment had been well over a year ago. Then it had been a message for a man whose life was not his own; this was intended for a man who could not have it known he was alive.
His nape pricked anew as he unfolded it and saw it contained the same three short words; words that formed a name.
Kamar al Akmar.
The Saracen prince who had roamed free across the clouds on an ebony horse.
Silently his lips formed a name spoken only once before, at the very last.
Lys... Was it done, then?
The phantom rain was falling from the hard cold blue of a cloudless November sky, misting his vision once more, while the stallion was hindering his breathing in its efforts to snort into his nostrils as horse-kind did to a friend.
Which was why his fingers shook and his heart was suddenly too large for his breast as he unrolled the smaller of the two scrolls. Some kind of legal conveyance this, liberally signed and sealed… Puzzled, he turned his attention to the larger document, equally official-looking, smoothing it on his knee before beginning to read:
In nomine domini nostri Ihesu Christi, amen. Anno incarnationis eiusdem MCXCIV…
Fontevrault, Spring 1194.
…. mense maii, regnante rege Philippus Augustus, Eleanor read; neat letters in oak-gall ink.
I, Alix, late of the county of Vézelay, being sound of mind, but infirm of body…
Her brow furrowing beneath the creamy confines of her veil, the Queen scanned the document swiftly, skimming past the endless rote of duty bequests, the conventional formulae, the loyal bestowal of worldly goods on sovereign and family. A tight smile touched her lips as she did so. As her niece had written, noble or commoner, a woman had little freedom in this man’s world, not even in death.
Her eyes moved down the page through the list of charitable donations, wondering at the iron discipline which had kept the script rounded and precise to the bitter end. No charge of mental incapacity could be forthcoming here; though the seals of Father Abbott and his chief almoner lay beneath, as well as that of Mother Mathilde, incontrovertible further security for this holograph will.
The sole indication of encroaching debility was an occasional over-spiked letter-tail and the single occasion when the point of her quill had dug into the parchment too deeply.
And there it was, artfully concealed from jealous eyes among the many minor bequests. Eleanor frowned and looked more closely, resting her chin on her hands, for she had always understood that this particular endowment was promised elsewhere. Then she remembered her own note and the special instructions, and nodded to herself. Along with the relevant letter among the several she had before her, the matter would be settled with generous recompense.
And yet, given her Lysette’s avowed taste for meddling in lives…
The Queen thought again, and an appreciative smile crossed her seamed face.
The little minx!
Burgundy, Autumn 1194.
Gisborne read on while the stallion harrumphed and pawed at the ground, demanding his attention. So it was done indeed; she was gone. Though he could not begin to imagine what relevance the long drawn out will of a noblewoman could have for him.
Yet the months of boredom and isolation from the world had honed his curiosity. And there, towards the end of the densely written document, he found his answer at last in the crabbed script of a lawyer’s copy-clerk.
And to the knight Sir Guy of Gisborne, late of Locksley and the shire of Nottingham in the kingdom of Angleterre, it said among the endless slew of irrelevancies, in payment of debts incurred, I give my manor of Li Rossinholetz by the town of Avallon in the county of Burgundy...
Li Rossinholetz... Nightingales...
... together with all rents and revenues; and thence to the heirs of his body and his assigns in perpetuity.
His heirs and assigns...
Now there was a lost cause if ever there was one, given the state he was in, battered and broken and weary of this world; added to which it was a task he could hardly accomplish on his own, and that was a hill he’d never climb.
Nor had he ridden since his encounter with a little too many inches of cold steel, not even with the conventional accoutrements of saddle and bridle. But later perhaps, when he was stronger, he might ride out on this ebony horse of his, and investigate.
The concept of lands of his own, so long desired, seemed almost alien to him now in its sheer implausibility, and he doubted he would find the patience to listen to the nightingales of the manor’s name. Or the heart.
And yet he became aware of a stirring deep inside of him.
It was so long since he had experienced the feeling, he did not recognise it as hope.