Ladyhawke. Navarre/Isabeau. PG-13. ~5200 words. Pastfic.
Common knowledge had it that inside the walls of Aquila the currency of gossip flowed with more swiftness than coin…
Two Threads Twinned
Fate will bring together those a thousand miles apart; without fate, they will miss each other though they come face to face.
No matter one’s rank or station, common knowledge had it that inside the walls of Aquila the currency of gossip flowed with more swiftness than coin. And far more often than not it proved itself to be of greater value.
Wise men did not ignore the wagging of tongues, and though Etienne Navarre would not claim for himself a mantle of wisdom, nor would he count himself a fool. As Captain of the Guard all channels ran inevitably towards his office. Though not the first to hear the choicest morsels of whatever news currently spread like wildfire, he was far from the last. It reached him promptly enough that the cousin of Auguste d’Contentin had arrived at the young Baron’s apartments in the south quarter.
Navarre noted this and went about his rounds, hearing more of Auguste’s cousin and her handsome features as he did. Multiple persons noted her elegant bearing and prestigious lineage . The head carpenter working on the new wing in the Bishop’s palace described her as wide-eyed and graceful as a doe–although, and this came at a whisper, Isabeau d’Anjou was not nearly so placid. Despite her countenance she held a fierceness to her, and yet, the carpenter firmly assured him, Isabeau was not a woman to shame a gentleman with unseemly behaviour. Navarre left the carpenter unsatisfied, having offered no speculation or rumour of his own.
By noon bells the minstrels capered and crowed, proclaiming that the city of Aquila had never known so fair a flower. The guardsmen likewise buzzed with a fervor rarely seen at mid-month when their purses were thin. Navarre discovered that even the dour pair who patrolled along the cathedral walls were spouting wild conjecture and the manner of base comments that required a steely look from their Captain to silence. For all that it saturated his day, Navarre did not resent the flurry, rather, it gave him a trustworthy compass by which to gauge how idle his men had grown. A few days or a week of drilling with full armour in the rough would do them good, sweat the restlessness out of them.
Later inside his office, shaded from the heat of the sun, Navarre sat at his desk composing a letter. Word reached him that the Bishop had already welcomed young Auguste’s cousin, and furthermore, that the Bishop had extended to her an invitation to dine with him at sunset.
Most men would have built up a fine picture of Isabeau d’Anjou in their minds by now, painted by the hand of their own desires. Navarre did not see fit to try and predict the unknown based solely upon rumour alone. Nevertheless he dutifully filed this latest fact away with the others surrounding d’Contentin’s cousin, and continued to put pen to parchment. When finished, the letter dried and sealed, he rose from his seat. The young page at the door bounced lightly on his heels, eager perhaps to have a task that would free him of the stifling mood and lack of two-sided conversation.
“Run quickly, and see this gets to Sir Marquet before sundown,” Navarre said. “If you’re late, I will not deny him the pleasure of tossing you into the dungeons.” He delivered the letter into the boy’s care, and nodded curtly in response to the mumbled ‘yessir’ and sketchy bow.
Outside, the light of day faded. Shadows crept in like thieves, ready to steal the crisp edges of a man’s vision and blanket the city in twilight. On the far side of the grounds came the high, sweet strains of music. The Bishop’s guests would be arriving shortly, and with d’Anjou among them, that meant the need for extra men on the watch.
Navarre gathered up his baldric and cloak, clasping first the one then the other.
It would be a long night.
Navarre had guessed true. The evening dragged, and only the cool of the air promised to revive him. He measured his stride as he left the Bishop’s palace. Each step felt lighter, freer. Gazing upon the cathedral that towered beyond the gardens, he questioned the feeling. Ultimately he attributed it to the heat of the great hall.
Leaving the glow of the lamps behind, he picked his path across the untended portion of the gardens by the light of the stars. His breath left no steam in the air. A month and that would change. The year had already passed from the heat of summer.
With the bustle of the city hushed by the lateness of the hour–workmen retired, storefronts closed, streets emptied of all but rats–inside the cathedral walls the Bishop’s entertainment competed only with the insects. Sounds of merriment spilled like light from the hall’s open windows, carried farther than most inside surely expected. The noise echoed in fits and bursts, dulled only somewhat by the hedges circling the centre of the gardens. Navarre walked deeper into the mazelike hedges, choosing to take advantage of the slight buffer between him and the sounds of revelry, no matter how scant the relief.
The din of the Bishop’s guests had rung louder than the pealing of the morning bells. Cups were filled and drained as if lives depended on it, or as if the consumption of the Bishop’s wine were a race to be won. Navarre had made a brief appearance as courtesy dictated, arriving late enough to sit through several courses until the opportunity to excuse himself arose. Were there not a fresh face to draw out even the most provincial of guests, he might have been forced to stay longer. Even on the longest of nights, Navarre found little interest in a crowded hall full of gentleman and ladies with an excess of time on their hands. He left them behind gladly.
The path he chose wound slowly between a mix of simple flower beds bristling with thorny rose bushes and tall hedges trimmed to precise right angles. Soon he came upon the markers which stood at the edges of the exact centre of the manicured garden. The tall arches of pale stone were all but lost beneath aggressive vines of jasmine. The climbing plant’s tiny flowers thickened the air with sweetness. Navarre inhaled deeply and passed beneath the arch, his hand raising to brush a tiny, bright blossom as he passed. Turning a sharp corner, Navarre lost his newly drawn breath in a gust.
“M’lady,” he said, abruptly face to face with Isabeau.
“It is not sensible that a man in armour should walk so lightly,” she said. She had not jumped, but a quickness in her breath betrayed her startlement.
“My apologies,” Navarre replied, conscious for the first time since early morning of the chainmail resting comfortably near his skin.
“Have they sent you to look for me?”
Navarre shook his head.
“Good. The atmosphere inside weighed heavily.” Isabeau’s nose crinkled at the bridge. She slid a smile towards him as if she knew that he, too, had fled the excitable courtiers. “In truth I prefer the quietude.”
Though he had laid eyes upon the Lady Isabeau inside, rank and status had them seated a good distance away. Even from a distance it had not escaped Navarre’s notice that the rumours spoke true and her rare beauty worthy the commotion. Yet here, in the moonlight, Isabeau shone. Her porcelain pale skin carried the same gentle luminosity as the scatter of star-shaped flowers flanking the path.
“Since I have wandered a greater distance than was my intent, would do you me the kindness of escorting me back, Captain?” Isabeau smiled again as she inquired, a faint tilt at the very corners of her mouth. The length of her lashes cast a shadow upon the high swell of her cheekbones. Navarre fought a strange tightness in his chest.
“Of course,” he replied. He extended his arm and she took it, her fingers as light as feathers upon him. He could hardly feel her touch through the padding of his shirt and the mail beneath.
“Do you find the city to your liking?” Navarre asked, retracing his steps.
Isabeau craned her neck as they passed beneath the arch, her gaze travelling leisurely as she trusted her footing to Navarre. “What I’ve seen of it.”
Isabeau continued to cast her gaze to the distance, and Navarre found himself lacking a response. A knot formed in his throat.
“Trivial conversation is not much to your liking, is it?”
Navarre felt the corner of his mouth quirk up. He suppressed it viciously. “I am a soldier, m’lady.”
“Isabeau,” she corrected, her hand tightening on his arm.
“M’lady Isabeau,” Navarre replied.
“Let us enjoy a walk in silence then, Captain,” said Isabeau, and the bow-strung taut sensation beneath his ribs loosened at the light sound of her laugh.
Escorting Isabeau back to the dining hall found Navarre trapped once more in the cage of conversation. This time he found his ear claimed by Isabeau’s cousin and not, thankfully, by an overly loquacious fop styling himself a poet.
“Restless as rats, you say?” Auguste raised a heavy cup, gesturing with his other hand as he spoke. “Well you could do me the courtesy of using my estates to train your men. I live only to serve our Bishop.”
“That is very kind of you.”
“Merely returning the favour,” Auguste said, brimming with a smile. “You brought Isabeau back in from the cold. The Bishop had begun to worry she might catch a chill.”
“A fortunate accident that I came upon her, then,” Navarre said. He shifted, his gaze skimming across the room. Outside had been brisk, but the fire stoked high in the hall’s ornate fireplace already had Navarre sweating.
Auguste prattled on, heaping praises upon his host in the manner of most men who valued their freedom. The Bishop executed his office with a diligence far beyond that seen in most bishoprics, but he had a growing fondness for holding court and other excesses that did not sit well with Navarre. Navarre did not so easily turn his back on any of his duties, and performed each and every task to his utmost regardless of his personal feelings.
On the other side of the room, the Bishop leaned intimately towards Isabeau. She dipped her head shyly, but Navarre noticed how her attention remained on the Bishop’s stance and not swept demurely to the floor. The Bishop’s desires superceded that of any other man in the county save the King, and even from this distance it became clearer each passing moment that he desired nothing more than to have as much of Isabeau’s company as possible.
Navarre’s eyes narrowed.
“I’ll take you up on your offer,” Navarre said, leaping upon the good fortune of Auguste’s pause for breath. He clasped the man’s hand before he could launch into another speech. Navarre nodded towards the exit. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll see to the details so it may be executed with haste.”
Navarre left quickly. His long, purposeful stride dissuaded any of the other guests from approaching, and soon he tasted the sweetness of fresh air again. As the closing door thinned the wedge of light fanned at his feet, he lifted his arm before him. Though her touch had been nearly too faint to feel, Navarre imagined Isabeau’s fingers had left some invisible print upon his arm, burned through layers of cloth and chain to mark the flesh beneath.
The door echoed shut behind him. He flexed his fingers and looked upwards. The moon seemed to smirk at him.
“She hardly still needed me,” Navarre muttered under his breath. “With a hall full of guests, the Bishop would be a fool to try anything untoward.”
The moon hid its face behind a shroud of dark clouds as if in reply.
It took little time for the quartermaster to arrange the supplies despite Navarre’s insistance upon commissioning enough gear for a sizable company of men. Located due west of Aquila and comfortably within a week’s travel with baggage, the d’Contentin estate overlooked a small village. Navarre and his men rode through at the height of the day, and only the elderly and young children took note of their passage.
The road narrowed as it turned away from the main highway, and Navarre knew himself to be in trouble the moment he found himself rising in the saddle. Isabeau had not remained in Aquila long after her introduction, and Navarre’s pulse jumped, as excited as a boy to see the rooftop of Chateau d’Contantin peeking above a ridge of trees. Tucked up against a sprawling grove, the lavish manor faced east, and as the company rode farther down the gravel road, the mid-morning sun appeared mirrored, glowing upon a multitude of windows.
A flurry of hired hands appeared in a timely manner, and around him, Navarre’s men waited anxiously to hear if they would be put up for the night. Navarre gave them no such hopes, making it immediately clear that they were to wait by their horses until he had spoken to d’Contentin’s Master of the Hunt.
Navarre hosted a secret amusement at his men’s expense as he dismounted. They made sounds of disappointment that grew slightly bolder as he left them behind to stretch their legs in the courtyard. In the mix of the chateau’s staff, Navarre found a boy to run and fetch the huntmaster for him. Navarre caught him by the elbow before he was out of reach and hauled him close. He leaned down, ready to inquire discreetly about Isabeau.
“She’s not ‘ere,” the boy said.
“Oh?” Navarre straightened to his full height and released his hold on the boy. Hardly a word had come from Navarre’s mouth, but it seemed no secret that Isabeau charmed near everyone she met to great effect.
“Stayed for a couple nights, then was off for Gabroche. Took the long way round I heard.” The boy gave a boneless shrug and Navarre dismissed him.
This time the amusement Navarre nursed inside his chest was at his own expense. He shook his head, already dressing himself down mentally for acting so foolish when a chambermaid caught his eye. She waved at him and hurried up, her skirts gathered in her hands to keep them from the worst of the dust.
Navarre nodded, struck with curiosity.
“A letter for you,” the maid said, and drew a letter from the fold of her skirt at her waist. She held it out for Navarre, her eyes flicking between the neat packet and him with poorly hidden interest.
The speed found Navarre’s pulse again when he flipped it over to find the seal of the Count d’Anjou.
Three days after receiving Isabeau’s brief but promising letter, Navarre still kept it near. He felt the edges of the parchment scrape lightly against his skin with every breath, reassuring, promising. He had never been one to play most of the games of courtship, but this felt different, as if he and Isabeau played a different game entirely. If he had time to reflect on the feeling, Navarre might dismiss it, so he focused on the present. His horse, Goliath, stood to the ankle in grass that had turned to mud, and he paced his men diligently as they struggled on foot with sword or mace.
“Falter in your advance and you’ll have more than the weight of the mud to regret!” he shouted. He kicked Goliath into a trot, spattering the stragglers with muck as the horse surged forward. Navarre road to the far end of the line, proud to see determination shining on nearly every mud-flecked face.
On the edge of his vision, he spotted a runner from the group he’d left at the chateau. The page struggled up the hill, quickly overcoming the knights burdened by their armour.
“Sir, a messenger from the Cathedral.”
Navarre looked away from the efforts of his men to glance down at the page. “From Marquet?”
“Nay, his holiness.”
“Then I will not keep him waiting.” Navarre handed his lance to the boy and nudged Goliath forward. Some manner of trouble from the officer he’d left in his stead would have been more to Navarre’s liking. If Marquet had erred in some way, no matter the circumstances, Navarre could attend to the resulting chaos. A message from the Bishop on the other hand hovered in uncertainty.
Navarre leaned back in the saddle as the angle of the hill steepened. Isabeau’s letter prickled against his chest.
“The Lady Isabeau d’Anjou will be returning shortly from touring Gabroche…”
Distilled, the two page letter held simple orders from the Bishop. “Bring Isabeau to me,” lay coiled snakelike beneath the neat lines of writing.
Navarre considered his place. His fealty lay with his country and the man to whom he had pledged his service. Yet, his honour as a knight refused to permit him to turn a blind eye to the corruption growing in Aquila’s Cathedral. He clenched his hand, his knuckles turning white with strain. The parchment with the Bishop’s request crumpled in his grip. Navarre shifted, ready to rise, when shambling footsteps approached him from behind.
“Troubles, my son?”
Navarre recognised the voice as belonging to the local parish priest. Baron d’Contentin’s staff all spoke kindly of him since the church’s cart did double duty to deliver goods to and from the chateau when he came to minister in the estate’s small chapel. “Nothing to burden your ear, Father,” Navarre replied. Regardless, he made room for the portly man to sit beside him. He dredged up the man’s name–Father Imperious–from the catacombs of his memory.
“Ah, a letter from the holy church in Aquila,” Imperious remarked. He lowered his weight onto the bench and eased a small sack to rest on the ground between his feet. “Well if it is official business putting a crease in your brow than I shant pry. I’ve enough troubles of my own in that regard.”
Navarre arched an eyebrow, surprised to hear a man of the cloth express sentiment that could be regarded as speaking ill of his superiors, and from a priest whose church lay so close to Aquila no less. He made no remark of his own, however, and leaned forward, his elbows landing on his thighs. His death grip on the letter loosened and the breeze played at stealing it away. The parchment fluttered fitfully against the inside of his calf, tapping erratically against his boot.
If Navarre needed a confidant, and he felt as if he certainly did, he would be hard pressed to find better. He folded the Bishop’s letter and tucked it into his sleeve, withdrawing in its place the one that Isabeau had written. Imperious cocked his head to peer at it as Navarre cradled the packet in his hands, his thumbs running across the surface of the folded vellum sheets.
Navarre looked up. He focused on a cloud scudding across the blue of the sky. “I find myself…jealous, priest, over a woman.”
“We are all men. Accordingly, we all have our flaws.”
After several long breaths, Navarre turned to Imperious. “This woman, is not one to whom I hold claim.”
Imperious cleared his throat. “Is she claimed by another?” he asked. A warning hovered in his eyes, a reminder perhaps that a stone bench was no confessional.
“None that deserve her.”
The warning disappeared as if it had never existed, replaced by a merry twinkle.
“And you do?”
“I would like to think so.”
“Then the answer is simple,” Imperious declared. He gathered the sack up from the ground by its ties and rested its bulk on his leg. The contents clinked and sloshed. “Win her over.”
Navarre had hoped for words of wisdom a bit more…wise. “Win her over,” he repeated, voice flat with disbelief.
“Sweet words, a poem or two. Simple.”
“Things are never simple,” Navarre said.
“Only because men, carrying out their greatest flaw, seek to make everything complicated,” Imperious replied. He tugged at the mouth of the sack, effecting little progress. “You see?”
The weight on Navarre’s shoulders eased slightly, and he found a laugh rising in his throat. “Poems, you say.”
The obstinate bag finally opened, Imperious wrested a half-full bottle of wine free from its interior. He twisted the cork free and offered a drink to Navarre, who took it gladly. “Maybe a fine perfume as well, or commission a brooch from a jeweller she’s fond of.”
Navarre paused with the bottle near his mouth. “Any other simple suggestions, priest?” he asked.
Imperious chuckled. “Plenty, but commence your courtship of the girl with a poem, regardless.”
The Bishop’s letter outlined the route of Isabeau’s return from Gabroche. Once again, she would ride along the old highway. Navarre wondered if she purposely avoided passage through Aquila. He further wondered if someone had been set to following her to obtain the information, or more likely, if after meeting her the Bishop and his lackeys had encouraged the d’Contentin family to share all they knew.
Navarre waited at the crossroads of the old and new highway in the company of crows. They crouched on the empty gallows across the way, their keen eyes fixed on him as he rested with his back against Goliath’s saddle. Goliath grazed nearby, tethered loosely to the greyed wood of an abandoned cart.
“There’s nothing for you scavengers here now, and none in the near future,” Navarre told the birds as one flew down to perch nearer to him The gallows had been erected when the highway leading south to Aquila had been opened for trade, but thieves and murderers no longer made the long walk into the hills to be hanged; his Grace preferred sentences be meted out within the walls of the city.
As foolish and persistent as the thieves their sires once fed on, more crows fluttered down, intent on Navarre’s belongings. Navarre plucked a stone from the grassy roadside, testing its weight by turning it in his palm. The boldest of the crows crouched, but instead of hopping forward, it leapt up, wings beating and startling the others into flight to follow.
Navarre noticed it a moment later, the subtle echo of pounding hooves through the dirt. He placed the stone back where he had found it and stood, shading his eyes with his hand to scan the distance. No cart nor merchant, he determined. The dust blossomed too quickly.
The trio of riders slowed as they approached. Navarre raised a hand in greeting as he had to the previous passersby. All wore hoods and collared mantles buttoned high for travel. The pair in front moved to pull down their collars and speak when the third rider’s palfrey pushed past them.
“It is no coincidence, I presume, that we meet here, Captain.” Isabeau said, the unmistakable sound of her voice muffled a degree. The distinctive blue of her eyes fixed on him as she undid the buttons on the leather mantle. “Unless it’s another traveller you await so patiently.”
“His Grace asked me to see that you returned safely to Aquila,” Navarre said, trusting that Isabeau would ferret out his meaning well enough. He held a hand out to steady both her and her horse when she shifted to dismount.
Isabeau dropped gracefully into the dust of the road, and requested that her companions take the opportunity to rest the horses. She adjusted her skirts and turned a questioning look to Navarre, who inquired if she might like to take a walk.
“Nothing would please me more,” she said, and undid the hood wrapped around her neck and hair. She cleaned her face and took his arm, saying nothing more until they neared the peak of a grassy knoll.
“Do you plan to see me delivered to his Grace?” she asked. “He is not the first man to find fascination with me after so brief a meeting.”
Navarre saw Isabeau’s shoulders tighten to match the knot formed in his own. Isabeau laid before him no game of courtship, but rather a test of sorts.
“No he is not,” Navarre said, and stepped back to give her room. He would be no threat to her. He hoped she sensed as much. As to the Bishop, he may not be the first perhaps, but Navarre wagered that his Grace might be unique in holding such an unquestionable position of power.
“Etienne,” she began, only to pause and ask: “May I call you that?” When Navarre nodded, Isabeau continued. “I will ask you this bluntly, I implore you to do me the courtesy of answering the same. In your heart, do you think it wise that I go to his Grace and see him as he asks?”
Navarre’s brows drew tight. He wrested with the situation, finding no better answer now than when he had disobeyed the Bishop enough to leave all his men at the chateau. “I think it unwise to eschew his request.”
Isabeau made a quiet, considering sound. High above, the thick clouds obscured the sun, casting nearly the entire valley to be cast in shade. Navarre reacted without thinking, his hand moving forward to catch Isabeau’s. Only, she moved at the same time, her fingers flying to her breast as her head lifted. “You received my letter, I hope.”
“I carry it now,” Navarre said.
Isabeau’s face softened into a smile, and at that moment Navarre wanted nothing more than to always see her in good spirits. “I had hoped Auguste spoke true of your intent,” she said. Her smile faded, and this time, it seemed she had been struck by the same impulse as Navarre–her hands went to his, curling lightly around his fingers. “Will you carry another? One for the Bishop?”
“Isabeau-” Navarre began, but her fingers tightening desperately on his stopped the words in his throat.
“Travel has fatigued me, and both Marcel and Brenne,” she gestured towards the men waiting back at the crossroads, “would attest to such upon my request.”
Navarre thought the idea transparent, but could think up nothing better. “And how long will you feign illness?”
“My rooms at Auguste’s chateau are comfortable,” Isabeau assured him. “Although a letter or two would not go amiss.” Her grip–which had grown lax–tightened again, as if she had made up her mind and Navarre’s as well. Oddly, he did not feel put upon. “I will promise to meet the Bishop at mass regularly for churching once I have had some rest. Perhaps by then, his interest will have waned.”
“Perhaps,” Navarre agreed, hoped. His hand tingled as her fingers slipped away, the sensation warding away the slight chill in the air. “These letters you hope to receive, how would a person get them to you?”
Isabeau smiled again, gathering her skirts as she turned. The clouds finally pushed past the sun, the shade retreating with their westward move. “I’m sure a resourceful man would find a discreet and reliable person to carry his sentiments,” she said.
“And should a resourceful man come to desire expressing those sentiments without an intermediary?”
Isabeau tossed a look over her shoulder, the long strands of her hair picked up by a stirring of the air. Navarre readied an apology should Isabeau feel he spoke too boldly. “I have naught but faith in this man and in the extent of his resources to arrange such a meeting. Perhaps, say, they could exchange a word or gesture on days when a lady might seek a less humble chapel in which to pray.”
It struck Navarre then that the game they played was no game at all, and that he had already long since made up his mind as to where his loyalties lay. To fall in love with such speed, it seemed like fate itself had intervened. He closed his eyes briefly, warmed by the sun and Isabeau’s presence.
“Let us hope then, that such a man is worthy of your faith.”
“And I his sentiments,” Isabeau countered. Her eyes carried a brighter smile than the faint curving of her lips betrayed. Navarre’s heart soared.
“Do you have ink and quill to pen your letter to his Grace?” he asked.
Isabeau’s relief showed in the straightening of her spine and in the warmth of her whispered gratitude. She nodded and tucked her hair behind her ear. Her steps were sure as she started back down the slope. The flare of her skirts fluttered in the breeze.
Navarre followed at her heels, silently composing a poem.