Philippe completed a rapid tumble from thirty feet of stone and landed with a great flourish on the hard dirt below. A random squirrel was his only audience but Philippe nodded his thanks for the chorus of bravos he was no doubt receiving in squirrel speak.
“Thank you my small furry friend. I can feel your appreciation in my frozen bones.” Philippe gave a moment’s thought to trapping his audience for dinner then thought better. He’d caught a brace of rabbits not three nights ago and even with his companion’s copious appetite there was still plenty of stew.
“But only because you liked my tumble.” He pointed at the squirrel that was unconcernedly washing its face.
Digging into the dirt along the edge of the tree line, Philippe turned up three medium potatoes and a slug. The weather had been a great deal finer in recent days but the evening’s chill could still reach between Philippe’s ill fitting clothes.
“Oh Lord, I do so thank you for the quite excellent spring weather these past weeks,” he knocked as much soil off the potatoes as he could and hoped Imperius wouldn’t notice the new dirt under his fingernails. “After freezing every delicate part of my body for a month I felt sure you were planning to bury me under this pile of rotting stones. “ He paused in his assessment of the vegetable. “Not that stone can rot I think. For there is very little of the flesh about a stone. So nothing to rot.”
Turning his back on the small corpse of trees that ran north of the monastery, Philippe leapt onto the first of the giant carved rocks that created an unnatural staircase leading back towards his temporary home. He might not have burgled a coin in the last three months but never let it be said that Philippe the Mouse had lost his touch. He was still as flexible as he ever was.
After Imperius had brought him back to the monastery from Aquila, Philippe had been determined to journey as far north as he possibly could. He had coins lifted from the foolish of Aquila and a fierce determination to leave fairy tales along with their beautiful protagonists, far behind. He’d done his part, done more than any lone thief should be asked to do. It had been Philippe’s chance to have something for him, something new.
They’d been so perfectly happy. Philippe’s heart had ached just to look at them.
Philippe jumped nimbly from one ruined turret to the next and tried to stop his mind from revising every thought and action he’d taken since pushing himself face first down a sewer drain. His mind, as it often did, betrayed him. Blue eyes and golden hair were conjured before him with a rare, deep laugh that made him shiver.
“Lord? You know I trust you now with a commitment not seen by even the noblest of cardinals, but really?” Another leap and a small pause to catch his balance. “Will you not just let me forget them?”
“Mouse?” Imperius bellowed from the central hall. “Where’s my potatoes? Have you eaten them again? If you eat them raw you’ll twist your insides up and I won’t lift a finger to help, you know.”
“Definitely north next week.” Philippe muttered as he ran up the last staircase and dodged a molding tapestry. “North till I hit the ocean and then I’ll become a pirate.”
After a bowl of rabbit stew that tasted better than it had on the first day of its creation, Philippe spooned the last of the potatoes insides onto some hard bread and inhaled the scent of good food. Living with Imperius had certainly improved his physical health, as well as his appreciation for butter traded from a local farmer.
“There is something I’ve been meaning to tell you Little Mouse.” Imperius spoke into his cup, not lifting his eyes to where Philippe sat across the fire pit. The cup was mostly water these days with only a few splashed of wine. Philippe was having a good effect on Imperius’s health as well, not least of which the old monk was doing a much better job of finding Philippe’s hiding places.
“You are with child?” Philippe asked seriously. “I’ve noticed a certain glow to your cheeks lately.”
“Bah.” Imperius snorted into the cup. “Your fool mouth is nothing but trouble my boy.”
“I’ve received a message this past week. A wonderful message.”
Philip’s smirk slid. “It’s not from God, is it?”
“No Mouse.” Imperius met his gaze and smiled in a way that Philippe hadn’t witnessed in three months. “A pigeon from the garrison at Saint Lorene. A simple note around its leg. They are coming.”
Philippe’s heart started to beat in a way that would surely lead to a sudden death. “The garrison?”
The old monk ignored the question as they both knew it hadn’t had any merit to it.
“Isabeau and Navarre will be here in two days. They are to visit us.” Joy suffused the lined face and deepened Imperius’ smile.
“Oh.” Philippe couldn’t think of anything to say. His brain had halted it motions at their names and refused to start.
“They’re passing through to the Anjou Estates, perhaps to visit Isabeau’s family for Christ Mass. But they will shelter here for a few nights.”
“That’s good.” Philippe nodded like a doll he’d once seen a shopkeeper’s child clutching. No life, just a farce of limbs and woolen hair.
“Yes, I’ve missed them.” Imperius settled back and drank deep from his watered wine.
Something deep inside Philippe started panicking.
Philippe had missed every single one of his chances to leave. The first night Imperius had told him the news had been his best chance. The woven sack from the middle chapel would hold his few possession sand he’d leave Imperius most of the coin to use at the small hamlets scattered around the plains.
He’d easily steal more coppers and then he could run north and find a port and bargain for passage.
Philippe had crawled under his furs and fallen dreamlessly asleep.
Two days and the woven sack stayed in the middle chapel.
He missed all his chances and now he stood with Imperius at the high tower and watched two riders come out of the mist and head towards the causeway.
He stood on the exact spot he’d almost died. The place where his grip had weakened and she’d fallen…
The smaller of the two riders’ head came up and then began to wave furiously.
Imperius waved back and bellowed, “Welcome, my dears. Remember to walk on the left side!”
Philippe doubted either rider would hear from that distance, but the energetic waving stopped and the horses picked up their pace a fraction so perhaps Philippe was wrong.
Wolves had excellent hearing after all.
Ten minutes later, Philippe hovered partially behind a crumbling wall with the sun in his eyes and his heart in his throat. The man dismounted first, a clank of armour and the settling of a great sword across his back. Gloved hands reaching up to the lady, offering polite assistance.
Which she ignored, of course, and dropped easily to her feet. “Imperius!” She smiled and walked into the monk’s arms for a firm embrace.
Philippe thought that the old man might swoon at her feet.
“Sweet child, I am so glad to look at you. Sweet child.”
Isabeau pulled back to wipe her hands tenderly across grey whiskered jowls. “Now Father, don’t weep. It’s been months since we last spoke and I wish to see naught but happiness on your face.”
“Lord bless me it is happiness Isabeau, nothing but.” Imperius stepped back and looked at the tall man standing patiently to one side. “Navarre.”
“Old man.” Etienne Navarre’s long legs put him in front of Imperius in the blink of an eye. Philippe’s breath once again caught in his throat at the way the man moved. Navarre pulled Imperius into a brisk embrace then stepped back and looked around.
His eyes locked with Philippe’s.
Philippe looked away. One of the reason’s he’d been nicknamed the Mouse was because he was a coward.
“I’ll settle Goliath and the mare. I cleaned out one of the bigger storerooms for a stable.” Dodging past Navarre, Philippe pulled the reigns over Goliath’s head and tugged. “C’mon Boy.”
“Philippe?” Isabeau sounded confused and somewhat hurt. Philippe’s throat closed.
“Welcome M’Lady, M’lord.” He forced out, gaze lost in glossy black hair and tugged at Goliath again. The stallion snuffled at his cheek then placidly moved in the direction Philippe wanted him to go. The mare followed.
Navarre said nothing.
Philippe crept towards the dining hall, hearing the low burr of voices tantalizing his senses alongside the smell of smoke and buttered fish.
He moved though the great arch and set to carefully washing his hands at the basin by the door. Imperius wouldn’t think twice about embarrassing Philippe in front of their guests by refusing him food on the basis of too much dirt on his person.
“The winter was harsh in Aquila as well,” Isabeau said to Imperius but when Philippe looked up her eyes were on him.
He smiled faintly and was shamed to see relief brighten her countenance.
Philippe had expressed his chaotic feeling to the Good Lord while brushing down the sweet mare calmly eating some oats. He’d determined that God wouldn’t have brought Isabeau and Navarre to the monastery if he hadn’t wanted Philippe to talk to them. They weren’t a punishment for one of Philippe’s many sins, they were simply people. People who wanted a break in their journey, a few days rest before continuing on their way.
Philippe had spent five weeks in the prisons of Aquila. Three days with the two most desirable people he’d ever imagined would pass quickly in comparison.
“Captain.” Philippe gave the warrior a small nod and settled down near Imperius. The monk offered him a bowl of the vegetable broth they’d made earlier which Philippe kept his eyes on while the conversation resumed around him.
“The Duke has agreed that Pious is best suited to be the new bishop. It was…a difficult choice.” Philippe could hear a certain weariness in the Navarre’s voice.
“But we’ve been pardoned for our deeds. The Cardinal would rather the whole matter be forgotten.” Isabeau said wryly.
Philippe felt a stir of resentment on behalf of the lovers.
“A bishop bestows a hellish curse for two years and the Cardinal would prefer it be forgotten?” He asked sharply.
From across the fire Navarre turned to him. “Nearly a hundred clergy witnessed his death. I’m content to not be in the dungeons right now.”
So riveted by having Navarre’s attention on him, Philippe startled when Isabeau settled on the stone next to him. She linked her arm through his and gently took his empty bowl.
“I missed you Philippe.” Her words were low and sweet.
“No, no M’Lady,” Philippe’s mouth began to divert without conscious thought. “No lowly thief such as I should be missed when all the glittering lords and ladies of Aquila…”
“…cannot bring themselves to look at me after the cathedral.” Isabeau finished for him. “The few friends I had before the curse have either married and left Aquila or no longer see me as someone to acquaint with.”
Philippe turned his face to finally meet her gaze. Her beauty floored him as always, but the fire in her eyes was what made his heart beat faster.
“Then they are the fools I’ve always suspected they be M’Lady. To forego a moment in your company.”
Isabeau smiled. “Always such a gentlemen, Philippe.”
Philippe was fighting off a blush when Isabeau leaned forward and kissed him.
The smooth press of her lips was the most delightful feeling Philippe had ever known.
She smelled of smoke and pumpkin.
Philippe swayed forward and deepened the kiss, his hand rising to her cheek. She was dream come true.
In all the long lonely months since leaving Aquila, Philippe had dreamed of this.
Imperius groaned as he stood up.
Philippe tore himself away from Isabeau and threw a horrified look across the fire.
He’d kissed Isabeau.
As Navarre sat not five feet from them.
A deep pain began to twist Philippe’s guts as he realized he had betrayed the only man he’d ever felt he could love.
Navarra stood up, his face shadowed lost to flickering shadow.
Philippe made a noise of pain and scrambled from the room. He ran so fast that only knowledge of the tumbled stone saved his feet from stumbling.
“Philippe!” Isabeau called.
“Mouse…wait!” The Captain yelled voice laced with something that had to be rage.
But Philippe knew he was lost. He’d had them back for scant hours and he’d ruined it. Unable to control himself around Isabeau, he now had to run to save his skin.
It didn’t matter that he had no coin or cloak. He would run and run. Fleeing his past as he always did he would escape the pain of being without them? Philippe the Mouse would run north to the sea and maybe continue until he drowned.
The unmistakable sound of powerful hoof beats reached his ears.
“No, no, no….” Philippe panted but he was onto the grass and there was no way he could outrun Goliath.
“No.” He whispered in defeat as he was yanked up from the ground and drawn tight into the man aside the stallion.
Philippe would have struggled but after the first time Navarre had pulled him onto Goliath’s back he knew that resisting was useless. Philippe was wily and quick, but he had no chance of overcoming Navarre’s brute strength. Particularly on horseback.
It was only a minute before the stallion slowed to a walk and Philippe was lowered with surprising gentleness to the stone steps of the monastery. Isabeau stood in the doorway of the hall.
“Etienne you’re scaring him.” She scolded, but it wasn’t true. Philippe had lost all feat the moment Navarra had lifted him onto Goliath’s back. If the Captain had wanted Philippe dead, Goliath’s hooves would have taken care of him.
Feeling a numbness crawl along his limbs that had little to do with the springtime evening chill, Philippe slowly climbed the stonework and followed Isabeau back into his current home.
But she didn’t lead him back to the fire pit. Instead it was the room he’d spent most of yesterday cleaning and chasing the cobwebs from. Isabeau and Navarre’s bed chambers.
Philippe stayed silent and Navarre followed him in and closed and bolted the door behind them.
Long, awkward moments as they avoided each other’s gaze.
“Etienne, you must tell him. He doesn’t understand.” Isabeau spoke with gentle censure.
The captain nodded and took a deep breath, spine stiffing into a soldiers guard stance.
“Do you think I would hurt you Mouse?” he asked and Philippe didn’t mistake the shade of hurt in his captain’s voice.
Philippe shook his head.
“For two years I had no-one but...” Navarre looked to Isabeau for help. Her lips tightened.
The Lord must have taken pity on Philippe at that point because like a rising mist the veil of confusion was lifted from his mind. In a flashes Philippe saw every moment between the lovers since they had arrived scant hours ago.
Navarre reaching to help Isabeau from her mare and being avoided.
Her smiles for Imperius and Philippe but not Navarre.
A shared meal at the fire with Navarre choosing to sit with Imperius between him and his lady.
If Philippe hadn’t known them, he would never have guessed they were married.
Two years they travelled and never spoke a word to each other.
Philippe couldn’t have stopped himself from speaking even if he had wanted too.
“Two years Captain and she is no longer the courtly maid you lost your heart to. Not just being along most nights, Isabeau learned so much more than fine art and dance steps. She hunted for food when your saddlebags were scarce and left you a portion when you were going without just to give her morsels. Did she tell about the bandits she fought that would have ravaged her by the river in summer? Goliath killed one but it was not your horse that broke the skull of the second with a flaming brand from her fire. She is beautiful, yes, and a sweet lady true. But Isabeau is a woman fierce and strong after your years of travelling. She is no delicate lady in need of a gentleman anymore.”
Isabeau’s hand rose to cover her mouth and her eyes glistened at Philippe’s words.
“She cannot take her eyes from you when make the even the most careless of movements and she wears your clothes to be surrounded by your smell. Isabeau’s gaze is filled with hunger now when she looks up on you. She loves you more than life Captain, but she fears you no longer want the woman she has become.”
A tear slid down Isabeau’s perfect cheek. Navarre would have looked less stricken had Philippe ran his sword through him.
“M’lady you must see that Etienne lives every moment with the fear that you will be taken from him. Not as a possession he owns but by fate or by another curse. He was the son of a knight, grandson of a Lord of the Holy Empire. Etienne Navarre was a Captain of the Guard and gentleman of Aquila. Now, he has no honor and is a murderer of bishops. A rough bandit who made his lady live like a criminal. He thinks he still is not worthy to kiss your hem.”
Navarre’s gaze was fixed on Philippe.
“I have seen the Captain so controlled in all things. Be it fighting for our lives or carving our meal, his hands are rock steady always. Yet, Isabeau, when you come close to him he trembles.”
Isabeau, eyes on Navarre, crossed the room and stood in front of Philippe.
“My friend, my love Philippe.” Her hands came up to clasp his shoulders. They were of a height. “Do you see why we need you?”
She turned him towards Navarre. The Captain looked down at him; soldier’s rough fingers came up to touch Philippe’s face with awkward grace.
“You spoke for her and you spoke for me. Will you help us? We need you.” Navarre lowered his head until his lips brushed Philippe’s. “Please, Mouse?”
“Please?” Isabeau whispered in his ear.
“Yes,” Philippe said, knowing he had never spoken a truer word. “Yes.”
As Etienne’s mouth closed over his and Isabeau’s fingers trailed under his shirt, Philippe knew that the Lord was granted him the life he had always dreamed of.
Two mornings later, Navarre closed Goliath’s saddles bags while Philippe eyed Isabeau’s mare dubiously.
“Maybe you should ride on Goliath M’Lady and I’ll ask this lass if she’ll have me?” He asked, nudging the mare with his face when she snuffled at his hair. Horses loved him for one reason only. He walked them to warm stables and fed them oats.
Isabeau smiled down at Philippe from the saddle and patted the coarse brown mane.
“I think Cocotte and I will be just fine Philippe.”
As she moved her arm, Isabeau’s dress shifted and Philippe could see a small reddish bruise on her collarbone. He felt his face warm a little in the cool morning air.
“But both of us will be too heavy…” Philippe began then faltered as Isabeau’s smile turned into naughty grin.
A large leather clad hand curled around the back of his neck then smoothed down to twist the fabric between his shoulder blades.
“But Captain..!” The lift and bump of his body being hauled across Goliath’s saddle was becoming familiar and somewhat arousing. The hand moving to his rump allowed Philippe to squirm around until he sat in front of Navarre, a warm solid arm settling around his middle.
Philippe’s backside reminded him of the previous night’s activities and he just knew that Imperius could see his blush deepen even further.
“Imperius? Would you ask the Lord why he allows the Captain to toss me around like a sack of grain? What dignity I have scratched together is continuously scattered to the wind.” Philippe complained as he settled into the warmth at his back.
“Sacks of grain are heavier.” Navarre said with that wry tone Philippe realized had been in his Captain’s voice all along.
Philippe opened his mouth to protest when Isabeau urged Cocotte forwards.
“Farewell Imperius, we’ll return next year in spring.”
The old monk nodded and wiped at his eyes. “God willing I’ll be here to welcome you back my dear.”
A great black cloak swirled across Goliath’s neck and wrapped around Philippe. Navarre lifted the reigns and gently kicked the stallion into a walk.
“Goodbye, Old Man,” he called, chin pressing to Philippe’s temple. The short whiskers there made Philippe shiver. “Do you forgive us for stealing your mouse?”
“Oh, he was never mine Navarre.” Imperius yelled back. “I just kept him safe while I waited for you to come get him.”
Waving as best he could over Navarre’s shoulder, Philippe said resentfully. “I kept myself safe, thank you very much. That monk has a fragile heart. The wine would have killed him and then the Lord would punish me for eternity because I let an old man die. Would you do that Lord? Hold me responsible for Imperius? I only lived with him for months, you had years to do all that damage. Oh, will it be warmer the more north we travel? I was planning on trying piracy. A thief on water, I could be famous!”
“Have you ever been on a boat?” Isabeau asked, as she cheerfully let her horse break into a cantor.
“No. But I’m a man of many talents M’Lady. One of which is being a swift learner.”
Navarre’s laugh puffed low and warm into Philippe’s ear.
Isabeau’s hood fell back to allow the growing light to catch in her pale hair.
Philippe smiled into the rising sun.