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.”