A kingdom, or a cottage, or a grave.
-Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
Chapter 1. Onward
Southwest of Locksley
He stared up in dismay as black smudges of cloud streaked across the sky, threatening rain. Guy chanced a glance at his sister, pale and hungry. He sighed and fished a piece of bread out of his pocket, wiping lint off it before offering it to her.
Isabella ate ravenously, as if she had not seen food in days. That was near enough to the truth and Guy watched her with pity, but also with revulsion. She's going to make herself sick.
He had bartered his eating knife for a loaf of bread, but there had been no money left for meat or cheese, and two days later, there was hardly any of the bread left either. He had given his sister the last piece thinking she was smaller and needed sustenance more than he did, but already, he regretted it. Sure enough, a few moments later, Isabella retched violently and began to heave the contents of her too-quick meal onto the ground. Guy sighed and leaned over her, holding her hair out of the way until the heaves subsided into sobs and she crumpled against his shoulder.
"There now. It's nothing. You just ate too fast."
She stared at him, but her eyes were too bright and her face was flushed. He frowned and brought a hand to her forehead. It was hot, much hotter than it should have been.
"You…you're burning up. Why didn't you tell me you were ill?"
Isabella's eyes were unfocused now, and he suspected she was going to swoon. He patted her cheeks in panic. "No, no. Stay awake. We have to get you inside somewhere. We have to get you medicine!"
In the end, after she'd walked as far as her fevered body could carry her, after he'd tried his best to bear her the rest of the way, they found only the shelter of a very large oak tree. Its gnarled branches were as good a roof as they'd had in the days since they'd left Locksley. Since we were banished from Locksley. Bitterness flooded his mind and provided an odd but welcome warmth. He put an arm around Isabella, shielding her from the cold, and as darkness came, he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
His dreams were always the same, of fire and brimstone, of Hell.
Guy startled awake to the sight of a dark shape in the shadows watching him. Panic closed around his heart and crushed his spirit. So I am dead and paying for my sins! He squinted, trying to get a better look, remembering his father's words about always being brave, even in the face of death.
The dark shape resolved itself into the figure of a man in a hood. The man doffed the hood, and the early morning sun glared off his tonsured pate. "You are lost."
The monk chuckled. "I shall help you find your way nonetheless." The expression on the monk's face changed abruptly as he caught sight of Isabella. "She looks…unwell."
"She is fevered. She needs some medicine, a healer."
The monk nodded and then pointed behind him, where a small cart stood, led by a tired looking donkey. "I can take you as far as the village. Perhaps someone there can help."
Guy hesitated, not sure what to make of the monk or his offer. But his sister was ill, and he had no idea what to do for her, so he relented and nodded his agreement. Together, he and the monk managed to lift the child into the cart and they rode off along the edge of the river.
Two days later
He ran towards the fire, towards its welcoming heat. The figures in the fire, wraithlike and yet still easily recognizable, called to him. "Come Guy, come quickly. Save us!" But no matter how quickly he ran, they stayed out of his reach, their plaintive cries receding into the distance while he ran futilely towards them.
A door banged loudly and the dream dissolved away. Guy sat up in bed, frightened by the images his mind threw up, but also relieved that it had only been a dream. He tried to wipe his sweat-soaked brow with his sleeve, but a gentle hand stopped him, and he felt the wetness of clean cloth dab at his forehead. It was the monk.
"Before you ask the inevitable questions, I should tell you that you are at All Saints', in the village of Cotgrave. In the prior's house, to be precise."
"You…you're the prior?"
"Ah, no. I'm an itinerant. I go where I am needed." He handed Guy the cloth so he could finish the job himself. "I am called Tuck, by the way."
Guy watched the monk with narrowed eyes. "Brother Tuck. I'm called—"
"Guy of Gisborne. From Nottingham or thereabouts. Your parents are recently dead and you are running away."
Guy gaped at the monk, panicked. "You…how do you know all this? Who are you? Some sort of…seer? A prophet?"
The monk smirked. "Perhaps I am those things. Does that frighten you?"
Guy could not discern if the monk was serious or merely mocking. "No. You don't scare me."
"Don't I? Well, that's unfortunate." Tuck seemed disappointed by this. "But, as it is, I should tell you the truth is not frightening at all. I only know about what you have been kind enough to share in your sleep."
"And my sister? Is she…?" He let his voice trail off, suddenly afraid for Isabella.
"She is…better. Quite weak from the fever, but no longer its prisoner. She'll be well enough to travel in a few days."
Guy smiled at the monk, genuinely grateful. "Thank you, Brother Tuck. I don't know what would have happened if you didn't find us that day—"
"No. Save your thanks for Almighty God, for it is His work, not mine, that saves."
The monk reached into his pocket and drew something out, pressing it into Guy's palm. It was a piece of metal, struck with a seal that he had never seen before.
"Do you know what that is?"
Guy shook his head, perturbed. "Is it a coin?"
"In a manner of speaking. It will help with your travels." Tuck tapped the seal with a long finger. "That is St. Christopher, and as he helped the Lord ford a river one day, so may he help you in your journey."
Guy held the coin up in the light and studied it. "I thank you for your kindness."
The monk inclined his head politely in response. "Just remember, Guy of Gisborne. God opens doors when all other ways are shut."
Ten days later
Guy had taken Tuck's words to heart. They had set out three days ago from Cotgrave, as soon as Isabella was well enough to travel. Wherever they went, he made sure they stopped for the night in a village with a church or a priory. Although the lodgings were never grand and the meals spare, they had both food and shelter, and Guy was eternally grateful for both.
Sometime during their stay at the priory in Cotgrave, he'd made the decision to go to France. There was nothing left for him in England, no lands, no kin to rely on. But his mother had been of a patrician Norman family, and Guy considered he and Isabella might still be welcome there.
But France was still a great distance away. By Guy's calculations, they still had at least a week's travel through the south of England before they came to the sea. But without coin, he had no idea how they would find passage aboard a ship to France. Nervously, he fingered the badge in his pocket and willed St. Christopher to show him the way. Nothing came to him immediately, but he was reassured by the knowledge that a saint was watching out for him. We will cross the sea when we come to it.
Isabella, too, seemed to be in much better spirits. She was still pale and quite thin, but she was smiling now, and seemed content in a way that surprised Guy. He considered she was just a child and probably did not realize what had happened to her parents, or how complicit her brother was in their deaths. This was a blessing in itself and he hoped she would live her days never having to know the ugly truth.
They were at the small church of St. Peter in the village. One of the church walls had been knocked down in a storm and there were villagers everywhere, carting away stone and trying to rebuild it. Guy admired their industry and their commitment. But although he wanted to help, in exchange for the food and shelter the church was giving them, he felt no real desire to be part of it all. He felt somehow separate from those around him, even Isabella, and he could not quite understand why. He suspected it was because he had not been properly trained for life as anything but a knight and lord in the king's service. His thoughts began to meander, taking him far afield, into a great battle with clashing swords and banners flying in the wind…
A tug at his sleeve brought him back to the church. It was Isabella.
"What is it?" he hissed, a little annoyed at the interruption.
She startled but recovered almost immediately, fixing him with an even stare. "I just wanted you to know. It wasn't your fault."
He goggled. These were the first words she had spoken in weeks. "What?"
She dropped her voice to a whisper, as if she were conspiring with him. "The fire. It was an accident. I know it."
"Oh, Isabella." He felt the full force of his guilt in that moment, but even as it threatened to crush him, he swore to himself that he would protect her from every fire, flood and calamity she ever faced. "I'm so sorry. I meant to save them, I really did—"
"Shh, shh." She threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. "We'll be alright. As long as we stay together."
Guy said nothing, awed by her wisdom and shamed by her certainty. He waited quietly until she let him go, a crooked smile still on her pale face.
"Now, tell me. Where are we going? To France?"
Guy chuckled in spite of himself. "Yes. Do you remember?" He took Isabella's hand. "Years ago, when Father first left for the Holy Land, and Mother was very ill? She told us that if anything were to happen, we should go to France."
Isabella nodded emphatically, but the look in her eye told Guy she did not remember. "We're going to a place called Caën, to St. Stephen's. To find our uncle, Martin of Lisieux."
"How will you know where to find him?"
"That should be easy enough. He's the abbot."