"Phillipe!" Isabeau was pretending to be shocked, but I knew well that tone: she was nothing of the sort.
"Blame the bard, milady, not me," I said, hacking at the stubborn clods of clay with my hoe. "I just sing the lyrics. I don't write them."
"And after the cucumber, what did they buy from the market?" she asked with a smirk, bending to pull up a stubborn root.
"The song doesn't say, but I assume two apricots. One for either side. Because apples … "
"Apples!" she said. "Apples … would be bad?"
"Apples would result in very painful consequences," I said, biting my lip as I watched her tug. Her belly had become so big these last few weeks I expected that Etienne would be coming home to twins if not triplets – but she was a stubborn woman and refused to let me help her as much as I wanted to. "Even walking would be a challenge with such fruit in his basket."
"He'd have to – " Giggling, she had let go of the root and now put her hands over her face, which was turning red with embarrassed merriment. "He'd have to – " She gasped out between her fingers.
"You're absolutely right. He'd have to ride sidesaddle. Or better yet," I said, "he could just lie in the cart, in the shape of the letter Y, lest the – produce – be further bruised." I so loved to make her laugh.
"Oh, you're horrible," she said at last, turning away a little so that I wouldn't see how broadly, how fondly, she was smiling.
The face of love.
She limped as we went into the cottage for noonday meal.
"You're hurt!" I said. "What happened? Is the baby early? Should I get the midwife?"
"No, no, it's nothing!" She waved her hand. "I stepped on a thorn. It poked my foot."
I saw the way she leaned on the table, though. "Sit down, sit down! Let me see."
"It's nothing," she said, but she sat, wincing as I pulled her boot off. There was blood.
"Don't move!" I said, and I ran to the well, pulled up a bucket, thought better of it, dumped the cold water back into the well, ran with the empty bucket into the cottage, and then poured into it some of the water she'd been heating in the cauldron for soup.
"You're going to cook my foot?" she asked, raising one perfect eyebrow.
"It's a radical notion, it's true," I said, taking down the little wooden box that held the soap she used for her weekly bath, "but Imperious said that washing a wound before binding speeds the healing."
"Oh really?" Her voice, as always, was like … like birdsong and butter and velvet and moonrise all at once. "You don't have to do this, Phillipe. I can wash my own foot. Just give me the cloth."
"No, let me do this for you," I said. "After all, did not Jesus wash the feet of His disciples?" You'll forgive me, Lord, for comparing myself to your Son, but my hair is too short to be the Magdalene.
Isabeau tilted her head to one side, in that way that always reminded me of the hawk she used to be, and said, "The night he went to His death."
"Well," I said, carefully soaping and wiping – even her feet were miraculous, delicate yet strong – "if you're hopping on a pegleg when when Navarre comes back, my death is assured."
"And why would she need to hop on a pegleg?" a familiar voice behind me asked.
Even if I had been as deaf as a stone I would have known it was him from the joy that bloomed on her face.
You will know such happiness, as two people dream of, but never do.
I went outside to leave them to each other, and led Goliath to the stable.
"Now that we're friends," I said, sweeping the curry with practised vigor along the horse's side, "I must say that you don't seem as large to me as when we met."
A huge hoof stamped on the hay, rather closer to my own feet than I would have liked.
"Don't take it the wrong way," I hurried to add. "You're still very impressive. An emperor among steeds."
When I went back in Navarre was somber, and Isabeau's head was bowed, her hands curved protectively over her belly. The room had lost all its warmth.
"What is it?" I asked, trying not to sound as frantic as I felt.
"I have until tomorrow," he told me, "then I must leave again. To lead a small battalion to secure our border to the south."
"Lead a battalion!" I could imagine the glory of it: Etienne in his black armor, cresting a hill like a God of War, leading the charge into the enemy's forces. I could see the glint of his sword, the clang of metal on metal, see Goliath's mane streaming like ebony fire as horse and rider whirled and sowed destruction ...
"I do not want to go," he said fiercely.
Isabeau raised her head, as regal as any queen, and said – though her eyes were glistening and her voice trembled oh so faintly – "You must. The king needs you. The country needs you. It is a great honor, to be given such a responsibility."
Though my heart already had risen to the heavens, Lord, at the glory of it – Etienne had gone so far, from Captain of the Guard to captain of a battalion, a commission that was unheard of for one not of a noble house – her words pulled me down twice as deep with the sadness of it.
"I know." Etienne breathed the words out as if they were a death rattle. His shoulders slumped in defeat.
"I will protect her and your unborn child with my life, Navarre," I said. "Until you return."
Eternally together, always apart.
I slept in the barn that night, knowing that he would keep her safe, that he would bring her joy.
Now, some might say, "Lucky Gaston! Once he leaves you'll be alone again with his beautiful woman, day after day!"
But such lewd thoughts have nothing to do with me: I worshipped her. I worshipped both of them. They were like angels, shining and glorious and far above me. I was to them as a donkey is to a war steed, and while both may pull a cart or bear a rider into battle, it's much better when everything is in its proper place, following the destined path for its station. I was content to know that I had helped to bring them together, content to curl at their feet and share their hearth.
If you don't let me live, how can I prove my worth to you?
In the morning I waited to join them until I heard Etienne's laughter and the clatter of spoons and plates from the cottage.
She was stirring a pot of porridge, and he was rubbing her belly and nuzzling her hair while he whispered in her ear. She smiled softly. I can tell you Lord, I've seen many beautiful things in your houses, but I have never seen anything as beautiful as the two of them. The very sunlight pouring in the open door was envious.
"Good morning sleepyhead," Etienne said as he noticed me.
"Is it that late?" I pretended to yawn.
"I've already been to the market and back." He nodded at the table, at a brace of game hens and a cloth-wrapped wheel of cheese.
I smiled as always at this little joke of his, that he buys cheese for the Mouse: but it is true that I have become fonder of cheese as the years have gone on.
Isabeau swung the pot away from the flame and wiped her hands on her apron. Her eyes were sparkling. "Give it to him now."
"Should I?" Navarre raised an eyebrow at her, and then smiled. "All right." He took a leather wrapped bundle from the table and held it out to me.
"What’s this?' I asked. The bundle was heavy; from the shape and weight of it I knew it was a dagger. Perhaps two.
"A gift," he said. Isabeau put her arms around his waist, he put an arm around her shoulders, and I could feel my face beginning to pink under their bemused scrutiny.
I unwrapped the leather, revealing a set of small throwing knives – perfectly weighted and absolutely deadly – and then a dagger that fit into my hand like water fits into a cup. The worksmanship was – well, Lord, when I tell you I was at a loss for words you'll realize how moved I was.
"Are they suitable?" Etienne asked, and I could hear in his voice that these knives had been no casual purchase: no, he had had them made for me, a sign of his trust in me as her protector.
"Perfection," I said.
I asked her if I was dreaming, and she said I was.
As he rode off, he turned for one last look at us. Isabeau took my hand.
Do you remember, Lord, how I once said that every happy moment in my life had come from lying? Well, since then I've learned the joy that comes from telling the truth.
"I love you."
We speak as one.
~ The end ~
Unbetaed, with apologies for any glaring anachronisms. ~ Note that I used the spelling of Phillipe's name as seen in the end credits on the DVD.
(03) 23 Jan 2012