She had filled out a little more in the last few days, lost that grayness under her eyes and in her face. In her new blue gown and with her hair streaming out behind her as they cantered over the downs, Alyson was more vivid than the fresh summer green of the trees, so bright to his eye after the muted, dusty colors of Outremer. She was more delicate than the scattered cowslips, speedwell and orchids that bordered the chalk track they were racing along, giving the horses their heads. She rode superbly - but then, what did Alyson not do superbly?
And she is mine. Guillelm wanted to utter a war-cry from sheer bravado, utter pride and joy. At the castle gate, one of his guards had asked if he was hunting today and he was, though not with hawk or dogs. His present quarry needed more subtlety, and patience. Patience above all, Guillelm reminded himself, thinking once more of Heloise of Outremer and her dreadful warning.
Desperate to avoid that fate with Alyson, he had planned this day as he might a military campaign and only prayed that his preparations would be to her liking. He knew the arts of war but less those of peace. How did an English lord entertain his lady?
He had taken food from the kitchen for them but now, as he spied a stand of oak trees where they might shelter from the midday heat and relax, he was unsure. As a girl, Alyson had enjoyed romping and eating out of doors but as a woman perhaps she would consider those things too unmannerly, even coarse.
‘I thought we might stop here, allow the horses to graze.’ Fool! It must be obvious that is only an excuse, he thought, scanning the sparse grass under the trees. ’If that is acceptable?’ he went on, compounding his error by actually asking permission.
Alyson nodded and reined in. Swiftly dismounting, perhaps so that she did not have to endure his touch, she knelt by one of the oaks. As he wondered what she was doing, Guillelm watched her take a worn knife from her belt and begin sawing at the bracket fungus growing at the base of the trunk.
‘This may be useful for my healing,’ she explained, lifting the fungus onto a clean scrap of cloth she had produced from somewhere about her person.
‘Healing is surely in God’s hands,’ Guillelm began, recalling old childhood tales of poisoned toadstools, but Alyson wrinkled her nose.
‘It may be, but Christ gave us wit and nimble fingers to aid ourselves,’ she said.
He knelt beside her and took her knife, plunging it into the grass.
‘That is a very round reply, mistress.’ Would she be teased by him, Guillelm wondered. Dare he tease?
The matter was resolved when Alyson thrust her tongue out at him.
What was she doing? Guillelm was no longer nineteen. Because they had stopped beneath the dappled shade of an oak tree, had knelt close to a small, gurgling stream that she could hear but not see, it did not mean that he remembered what she had never forgotten. She had allowed the memory of that afternoon, by another oak wood, on another sultry summer’s day, near to another clear, swift-flowing brook, to govern her actions.
Appalled at her folly, Alyson tried to rise to her feet but was snared in a pair of arms that pinioned her own hands helplessly by her sides.
‘The last time we were this way together, you saved my life.’
‘No, no,’ Alyson demurred, pleased and at the same time alarmed that he did remember. She tried to squirm free of her captor.
‘None of that.’ Still clasping her - so strongly that she felt bound by fetters of iron - Guillelm lowered his head. ‘I mind it well, Bright-eyes.’
‘You called me dragon then, too, when I was ready to confront the royal foresters, and you dragged me under cover. Into brambles, I do believe.’ He was smiling, but then he added seriously, ‘Had those woodsmen caught us, straying into part of the king’s forest, there would have been no mercy for me.’
Alyson nodded, thinking how Guillelm had found a dead deer and had dressed it for meat, recalling how stubborn he had been to keep the deer, although by law all such game was reserved for the king. He was even ready to fight the foresters, whom with her quick hearing she heard riding across the stream before she and Guillelm were seen.
‘You flung yourself on me and brought me to my knees. I remember your words: “You cannot fight five armed with bows and swords and you with only a hunting knife, even if you are as brave as a dragon.” Your good sense saved me. And at the time I was astonished that such a slip of a girl could take me down so easily.’ Guillelm brushed her cheek with his, whispering, ’Your quick wits made me think, reminded me of what really mattered. Your own safety.’
Alyson blushed, aware, as she had not been at fourteen, of the truth of Guillelm’s statement. Then, her only thought had been to save him from the harsh laws of the forest and the king’s justice; she had not considered her own position, or vulnerability, a girl at the dubious mercy of six men, all strangers to her and she to them. ’I was naïve,’ she said.
‘We both were.’
‘You really saved me,’ Alyson went on, but Guillelm shook his head.
‘We saved each other,’ he said. ‘Did I ever thank you?’
‘Did I kiss you?’
Alyson’s heart felt to leap almost out of her ribs. Breathless, all eyes, she waited as his mouth touched hers. She sighed, leaning into the kiss and he gave a mighty groan, gathering her closer, his hands releasing hers to cup her face.
Dazed with the sweet pulse of pleasure coursing through her as their kiss intensified, Alyson did what she had dreamed of doing for years and playfully traced a finger down the length of Guillelm’s nose and then, as he started slightly with surprise and drew back a little, teased her thumb over his upper lip.
‘Little witch.’ In his mouth, the words were an endearment. He nibbled her finger and softly drew her hand away, claiming her lips a second time with his own.
Tingling with sensation, Alyson wondered if she was experiencing anything akin to what the great mystic Hildegarde of Bermersheim had once described as being like ‘a feather on the breath of God.’ There was something almost unearthly to their embrace, the very air about her and Guillelm seem to crackle. When they broke apart to look at each other, the sun seemed brighter, the scent of the bruised grass beneath their knees fresher, the luster in Guillelm’s eyes deeper. His whole face glowed, the fine bristles trembling on his upper lip.
‘You are…’ He swept a hand along her arm, raised her hand and kissed the knuckle above her betrothal ring. ‘I wanted to do this seven years ago.’
‘And for so long I feared you dead.’ In a chilling flurry of remembered horror, Alyson pressed herself against Guillelm, hearing his heart but wanting still more, to be closer, flesh against flesh. ‘Dead!’
She shuddered and he rocked her, crooning a snatch of song. ’Remember this little tune?’ he asked.
‘My Lady’s white rose. It was on everyone’s lips that summer.’ At fourteen Alyson had not known the name of the song. ‘You would whistle it sometimes, to tease me.’
‘Do you still snap your fingers when you are angry?’
‘You will have to wait to find out,’ Alyson replied.
‘If you do, then as your betrothed I may devise some suitable punishment for you.’
‘You can try,’ Alyson answered lightly, hoping her face gave no hint of her darker thoughts and Lord Robert’s ‘punishments’.
Guillelm glanced at her keenly and she shifted slightly, disturbed by memories and by more direct physical discomfort as the dull ache in her knees finally registered.
‘Ach! My legs have gone to sleep!’ Guillelm scowled, then laughed as Alyson said quickly, ’Stamp your feet and rub your calves, that will bring them back to life.’
‘What else do you suggest, physic?’ Rising, he lifted her with him, dangling her from his arms.
‘Food,’ Alyson answered determinedly. ’For you will have brought some victuals for our journey, I think. Now, are you going to set me down?’
Guillelm grinned and did so.
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