...she loved with a woman's whole heart. – excerpt from The Lay of Eliduc by Marie de France
Their first sunset together after the death of the bishop and the breaking of the curse, Navarre holds her as they watch the sun slip past the horizon. Isabeau can hardly breathe; his arms are wrapped so tightly around her ribs. But, her fingers are digging painfully into his shoulders, so she truly cannot complain.
Only when the sun has left the sky and the first of the evening stars emerge in the twilight does he loosen his grip. Isabeau faces him and can only smile at his handsome, beloved, if somewhat bewildered, face.
He kisses her deeply and they lay entwined, embracing for the first time in two years while the night goes on around them.
The whispers start immediately. Where have they been? Did he truly kill the Bishop of Aquila? What happened to her?
The only thing that saves her from outright disgrace as opposed to the furtive looks and murmurs that occur every time she walks past anyone is the fact that Imperious married them before they fled from Aquila all those years ago.
Otherwise, Isabeau shudders to think what people would be saying directly to her face.
In fact, when a rumour saying she was deathly ill for several months and had to take refuge in the country somewhere and that how she lost that lovely hair of hers starts, Isabeau doesn’t bother to correct it.
Their home, which Isabeau’s cousin found for them, isn’t overly large and is suitable for a woman of her station who has married a man of his. The servants (also supplied by her cousin) are genial, capable and best of all, quiet. Isabeau can tell right away from looking at her new cook and housekeeper, there will be no wagging of tongues.
Isabeau is taken aback by how much this relieves her.
Her lady’s maid is appalled at the state of Isabeau’s hair, if her wide eyes and dropped jaw upon seeing its length is anything to go by. But, Isabeau simply smiles at the young girl and says she has every faith in her ability to make Isabeau look respectable. The maid straightens and lifts her chin and promises to do her very best.
Of course, it’s a struggle to remember to let others do thing for her. She forgets that she isn’t responsible for cooking the food that goes on the table. Making the list and paying the merchants are her responsibility, but not the actual cooking.
However, when Isabeau is presented with dinner in the form of well-cooked beef something inside her cringes. She pastes on a serene smile and does her best to eat. But, it doesn’t taste right. It's missing the smoky flavour of an open fire and she's sitting in a room instead of out in the fresh night air.
It's also too well-cooked. There isn’t a trace of pink in the meat and after two years of eating food that Isabeau herself had caught (either with her hands or her talons), she desires the taste of the freshly killed.
She swallows a bite that reminds her of hard leather and looks at Navarre.
He has the look of someone being forced to eat nails and mud as he picks at the food on his plate with his knife.
Isabeau tries to hold in her laughter. But, he sees it. Soon, they are laughing together and if there is a tinge of desperation to the noises they are making, neither mentions it.
Isabeau often wakes early, before the sun rises and carefully extricates herself from Navarre's gentle hold. She walks to the hall where the tall window faces the east. The sun is just beginning to rise, the gold light spilling onto the fields in the distance. Her lip trembles and her heart pounds in her chest. A gasp escapes her when the light hits the buildings and she is still in her woman's body.
She feels relieved and elated and yet... Her eyes... They are weaker now. Not as keen. She tries in vain to pick out the details of the scene in front of her and it is lacking. Something akin to panic stirs in her chest.
There are noises on the street below and Isabeau steps back from the window. It wouldn't do to be seen. She is a lady, after all.
She hears Navarre stirring in the bedroom and she hurries back to spend at least another hour by his side, all the while ignoring the yearnings for something she's afraid to name.
One day, as Isabeau is listening to the housekeeper list all the things that need doing and functions that must be attended and doing her best to curb her urges to flee, Navarre returns to the house unexpectedly.
The housekeeper makes a noise of disapproval when he barges into Isabeau's sitting room and kisses his wife happily. Isabeau just grins and sends the other woman on her way.
"What brings you home?" she asks taking a seat on the chair nearest the window.
Navarre kneels before her and takes her hands. He presses a kiss to each one before saying, "They want to re-instate me as Captain of the Guard."
There is a stutter in Isabeau's heart and she is alternatively filled with pride and regret. Pride in her husband's ability and honour. Regret in that this will cement their return in ways that nothing else has done. There will be no going back.
"I will only do it if you approve," he says, his eyes clear and direct.
Isabeau smiles and traces a finger over his brow. "I approve. You are the captain. You have always been the captain. It's who you are, my love."
"I would hope that is not all that I am," he says quietly. The look he gives her steals away her breath.
As she leans down to kiss him, she hopes that she is also more than her own titles.
One evening Isabeau attempts to do some sewing while Navarre sits staring into the fire. After stabbing herself in the finger for the fifth time, she drops her sewing into her lap with a sigh.
“I completely forgot how much I dislike sewing,” she says. Navarre looks over at her and smiles. She smiles back and says, “I was thinking of finding something to occupy my time with during the day.”
“Such as?” he asks.
“The convent on the edge of town has great potential and I believe they would be grateful for any assistance I could give them,” she says.
Navarre looks down at his drink and says, “I heard the most intriguing story today while visiting a village not three leagues from here. A peasant woman remarked upon Goliath saying she had seen a horse like him once when she was in the midst of some great distress due to her having fallen and injured her leg. The horse was being led by a young woman who came to her aid by bandaging her leg and helping her to her home.”
Isabeau stares at her husband in astonishment. He meets her gaze with a fond look, then he says, “I think the convent would be most happy to have your help.”
She’s not entirely sure that the nuns don’t know more of her history than they let on. They greet her with warmth and when she demonstrates her skill with medicines and herbs, only a few brows raise in surprise.
In truth, Isabeau relishes the opportunity to use her hands for more than simple embroidery or other womanly pursuits. With something worthwhile to do, her life begins to feel more complete.
And if she catches herself staring out the window into the forest wondering if the trees still whisper their secrets to each other, well… Everyone daydreams once in a while, don't they?
Navarre is settling well back into his role as captain. The men respect him and follow his orders happily. One day, after Isabeau has been performing her errands in the city, on a whim she makes her way to the armoury hoping to see her husband.
As she approaches the main courtyard, she hears the sound of raucous laughter and she hesitates.
Apparently one of the soldiers is to be married soon and the others are in the full throes of teasing him. Isabeau sneaks a look around the wall and her eyes find Navarre instantly. Always one of the men, he is seated amongst them, but not participating in the jokes and insults.
One man with a very red face says loudly, "Women! They'll be the death of all of us! Even our honourable captain fell sway to the charms of a woman."
The courtyard quiets almost immediately, but the red-faced man either doesn't notice or simply doesn't care.
“You know men, it is wily ways of the inferior sex that will turn a man’s head from the more sensible things in life.” He smirks at Navarre. “And it’s not anyone would blame you, captain. Your wife would make anyone’s thoughts turn to the carnal.”
He laughs uproariously, but no one joins in, the men are all looking down or away. Looking anywhere but at their captain. The red-faced man's laughter dies quickly.
Isabeau looks to her husband and shivers. Navarre has gone still, his eyes have narrowed and the light in them has gone flat. It is the look of a predator.
“My wife has been through more in her short lifetime than you will ever know,” he says quietly while a dangerous smile teases his lips. “And she had done so with more grace and strength than any man I have ever known. If you deign to disparage her again, I will run you through.”
The man stammers out an apology, but Isabeau turns away and re-joins her maid. They walk back to the house in silence.
Once, the fierce words of her husband would have stirred a fire within her, made her feel proud of his pride in her.
All she feels is tired.
Two months after she has 'returned' she is invited for a day out with her cousin and other members of society. She is reluctant to go, if for the sole reason that she has grown to love her days helping at the convent and spending the day with people who have no other goal in life except to be idle holds no appeal whatsoever.
But, her cousin is persuasive and Isabeau cannot be rude to someone who has been so helpful, so Isabeau attends.
However, once Isabeau sees what the activity is for the afternoon, her heart turns cold.
Seven hawks with hoods over their eyes wait on the arms of the menservants. They are still and Isabeau knows they have been kept hungry for the hunt. Her face turns to stone and she cannot speak. The ladies around her pull on their gloves made especially for today’s outing. A glove is offered to Isabeau and she shakes her head so sharply, her vision blurs.
She stands to the side and watches the hawks take flight. Her breath catches and she can almost feel the cold air buffeting her cheeks as one of the birds starts her dive. A tear falls from her eye and slides down her cheek.
Isabeau says nothing the rest of the day.
When she returns home she is informed that Navarre has been detained and will not be home until after dark.
So much the better, she thinks. The abrupt thought immediately fills her with remorse, but she has made a plan and she intends to follow it through.
Eating little of her dinner, she tells the servants she is tired and heads to bed.
She pulls a pair of Navarre’s black trousers on and one of his smaller cloaks. Then she steals out into the night.
Isabeau returns home some time after the cathedral bells strike for Compline and enters through the kitchen. She stifles a shriek at seeing Navarre at the table. He looks at her and her clothing. Isabeau stands firm and squares her shoulders.
He takes a sip from his mug and says, “I saw an amazing sight on my way home.”
“Oh?” Isabeau congratulates herself on the lack of tremble in her voice.
“Coming out of the mews near the property of Lord Clermont were seven birds of prey,” he tells her. “Flying out into the night.” He closes his eyes. “A truly beautiful sight. It made my heart ache to see them fly to freedom.”
Navarre opens his eyes and pins her with a stare. “Of course, it will be a great loss to Clermont. He has always prided himself on the agility of his birds and he will no doubt expect an inquiry.”
“No doubt,” she says. Her heart is pounding and her hands have gone cold.
Navarre’s stare is unwavering as he says quietly, “I would have helped you.”
“I know,” she whispers, the cold in her hands travels to settle in her stomach. “I know you would have.”
They sit in silence for several minutes until he makes the smallest of sounds and she is in his lap, wrapping her arms around his shoulders, his face buried in her neck.
It has been over three months and still the cook will not cook to Isabeau’s directions. Isabeau is loathe to let her go, after all what kind of a mistress calls for barely-cooked meat to be served at the dinner table? Isabeau in the one in the wrong, not the cook.
One night, as Isabeau lies in Etienne’s arms (while he is Navarre in the light of day, it is Etienne who touches her in the night), her head resting on his chest, her fingers dancing over his sweat-slicked body, while his hand smoothes up and down the length of her spine. Their tranquillity is broken by the harsh growl of his stomach. Both pairs of hands freeze. Then laughter fills the room.
“You would think you never eat, husband,” Isabeau teases.
“You would think that I could stand the taste of cooked food, wife,” says Navarre. “But, I really cannot.”
Isabeau sighs. Then pushes herself up. “Fine. Come then.”
She pulls her robe on and doesn’t wait for him to follow, confident that he will. The stone floors are cold against the soles of her feet and it awakens something in her.
While she no longer has the vision of a hawk, Isabeau immediately adapts to the darkness and makes her way to the kitchen without the aid of a candle. Navarre is a soothing presence behind her.
She goes to the larder and pulls out some meat obviously meant for tomorrow’s meal. Navarre takes a seat at the table, his bare torso pale and smooth in the moonlight shining in from the small window. She stokes the fire and places the meat in a pan. Isabeau turns it once, twice, then a final third time.
The meat is moved to a large plate and she takes it to the table. They eat with their fingers and the flavour of the barely cooked meat makes them sigh in satisfaction.
At one point, she meets his eyes and cannot help but grin at the gleam of mischief that is surely reflected in her own.
Isabeau discovers that she's pregnant a mere five months after the curse is broken. She has her suspicions but says nothing to Navarre.
When she wakes one morning from a horrifying nightmare in which something with piercing eyes and sharp claws tore its way from her belly, she is positive.
Navarre holds her close after she wakes with a startled cry and she almost tells him, but something holds her tongue.
Instead she goes to visit Father Imperious. While there are times she still feels a pang of betrayal when looking at the old man, he does a very good job of listening.
On this particular day, Philippe is visiting. They sit in Imperious' new accommodation and listen to the Mouse tell of his most recent adventures in a nearby village.
Isabeau finds herself giggling at the outlandish descriptions of the villagers and almost forgets why she came, until she realises that her hand has involuntarily come to rest on her lower abdomen. Her giggles trail off as she looks at her hand.
"Is something wrong, my child?" Imperious asks softly.
"I'm with child," she whispers.
The old man's face brightens and he beams. "What a blessing this is! Oh, my dear, how happy you must be."
Isabeau shakes her head. "I don't know, Father. I don't know how I feel."
Imperious' face falls and he looks uncertain.
"How do you want to feel?" Philippe asks.
She laughs wryly. "I want to feel happy. I want to feel complete. I want to feel certain that this child will be born without any traces of that wretched curse clinging to it. I want to feel secure in the knowledge that I will be strong enough to raise a child."
"You will," Philippe says pouring himself a drink. "You've the strongest person I know, next to the captain. How could this child be anything but incredible?"
Isabeau doesn't know what to say. Philippe's faith in her has always been unwavering and it never fails to surprise.
"And I'll tell you something else," the little Mouse says. "You can be certain I'll never pick the little darling's pocket. Not with you as his mother and the captain as his father. The little thing will probably be able to spot trouble from a league away."
A smile teases the corner of Isabeau's lips and in the end she just sighs and ruffles Philippe's hair.
Navarre is over the moon at the news that he will soon be a father. He sweeps Isabeau up in an embrace that makes her laugh in delight and at least one weight is lifted from her chest.
But the weight is reinstated tenfold when later that week, while assisting at the convent she happens to overhear a conversation with a noblewoman and the Mother Superior.
“I do appreciate you taking in Eleanor,” the lady was saying. “She is terribly headstrong and I fear she would never make a good match. It would be better for her to be here and let her sister have more opportunity to wed advantageously.”
“Of course, my lady,” Mother Superior says with a bow of her head. “Eleanor will be well-looked after here.”
“It’s just so very easy for young ladies these days to be swayed from doing their familial duties and sink to depths of depravity,” the lady continued with a sniff. “Take that d’Anjou woman. Such a disgrace to her family. I hear she spends time here. Well, she should. Perhaps some honest toiling will wash away the taint of her sins.”
Isabeau has to hold a hand to her mouth to hold back the angry words dancing on her tongue. She returns to her tasks, but they are done with haste and when she finally feels too ill to continue, she makes her apologies and returns home.
She goes immediately to her rooms and begins to pace, keeping one eye on the sun slowly making its way to the horizon. This is how Navarre eventually finds her; restlessly pacing and clenching and unclenching her hands.
He opens his mouth to question her, but the look she shoots him quells his tongue.
“I am tired, Navarre,” she says, her voice almost breaking. “I am tired of being whispered about. I am tired of being looked at as though I am about to grow horns! And I am tired of feeling trapped in this cage of unreasonable expectations.”
Navarre stays quiet and watches her with concern.
Isabeau comes to a halt in front of the window, her hands hanging limp by her side.
“We did everything right, Navarre,” she says softly. “We have always lived according to God’s will, even in the face of the blackest evil. We both have suffered for our love, why should we be expected to atone for sins we never committed?”
Her voice rises with her last statement and her frustration echoes off the stone walls.
There is silence in the room, until Navarre says quietly, “Why indeed.”
The words penetrate the veil of anger draped over her and Isabeau turns to face him.
“‘Why indeed’,” she repeats.
His eyes are filled with love and worry for her and it is his child that she carries and she loves him with all the sense, virtue and grace she possesses.
A smile starts to tease her lips as calm pervades her being. “Why indeed,” she says letting the smile break through.
In the morning, Isabeau presses a kiss to Navarre’s hand before slipping out of bed. She goes to her favorite window on the landing and watches as the sun peeks over the hills. Her hand comes to rest on her mid-section and she feels the lightest of flutters under her fingers.
The sun is well into its rise, rays of amber light reflect in her eyes and Isabeau is unafraid.