Rene crouched behind the forest shrubbery, looking at the building in the distance...the imposing structure that was the Abbey of St. Victor. Its outer walls were built high and thick. Surrounding it was a moat, which was probably as deep as it was wide. Such a fortress was meant to shut out the world beyond...and to confine the life within.
This was Isabella's prison.
He had only just learned of her whereabouts from the keeper of the inn where he had recently stayed. Good God, he thought. He could not imagine Isabella in a place such as this. She was a well-bred noblewoman. She had never done work beyond the occasional stitchery or other simple duties. Here, she would not know the comfort of her rank, for she was a sinner condemned. For the rest of her days, she would be expected to do serious penance for her crimes.
Not if I can help it, he thought.
There was not a fortress built that he could not manage his way into. It was a notion of mind over matter. Climbing the walls was one route he had considered. But in the bright light of day, it was too great a risk. He had thought again...and a more intelligent solution had come to mind.
Stepping out from the shelter of the trees, he raised the hood of his friar's robe. His stolen friar's robe. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was aware of the fate the afterlife held in store for him. This falsehood alone...imitating a man of the cloth...would likely grant him a place in hell. But he could not think of that now. Isabella was here because of him. He would see that wrong righted, even if it meant the condemnation of his soul.
He kept his head lowered as he approached the iron gates. Peering at the courtyard within, he could see it was quiet and empty. At this hour, near sunset, all in residence would be at vespers. Tugging the bell rope, he wondered how long he would remain in wait...and he was surprised when a prioress soon arrived to question his presence. He spoke in a quiet, gentle manner.
"Good day, madam. God save you."
The nun was serious and direct. "Make haste and state your purpose, sir. You interrupt vespers."
He nodded. "I beg pardon, sister. I am sent by the Baron LaCroix."
Her eyes grew with interest...and suspicion. "For what purpose does he send you here?"
"The Baron sends me to counsel his wayward wife."
Her expression was cold. "Her counseling shall be done well enough within our walls. We have no need of outside influence."
Crone, he thought. She would not be easy to sway... but he was not fearful of a challenge.
"The Baron sends me," he said, giving a pleading sound to his tone. "To have his request denied will cause him great offense."
She was unmoved. Her voice was flat and cold. "I cannot permit you here, sir. You must return from whence you came."
He had prepared for this circumstance. His pleasantry would not sway her...but perhaps she would respond to other inducements. He reached into his robe, removing a small purse. He held it out to her.
"A donation to your house, madam." He placed it in her palm, noticing the changing light in her eyes. "Perhaps it will amend any inconvenience," he said, "And allow me to see to my cause."
He could see the change in her expression. Perhaps she was displeased with her own decision, but it was clear she would relent. A moment passed. He watched as she produced a key. Turning it in the lock, she opened the gate to admit him...and all the while her eyes scrutinized his every move. He was careful to maintain his placid facade as he followed along behind her.
"Lady Isabella is in seclusion," she said. "You are permitted only a brief audience."
His reply was cool. "You are most generous, madam."
She led him down a long corridor. It was deep in shadow, illuminated only by the occasional window slit. They seemed to walk on and on, and with each step, Rene felt the isolation press heavier upon him. At last the prioress paused before a heavy oak door. She turned to him.
"Make haste with your counsel. I must return to vespers."
Rene lowered his head, acquiescing. The prioress opened the door, stepping back so he might pass. The door did not close entirely as he entered the room, but the thought was only a passing one. His attention was drawn to the occupant of the room. She was seated on a cot, facing a narrow window. She was dressed in a simple gown of pale grey coloring, but he knew her willowy figure, and her long blond hair. It was parted and hung loose. He had expected something like this, for he knew that to live within these walls was to accept the vow of poverty. But nothing could have prepared him for what he saw when she turned to look at him. He found it difficult to speak.
"Isabella," he gasped.
His lovely Izzy, as he had always called her. The mark of her husband's anger was shockingly evident, and it sickened him. Her face was marred with fading bruises. Her right eye was swollen. If this was the result after a few days of passing time, what horror had she first endured?
For a moment, she looked at him with an empty stare. He realized that his hood shadowed his face...that she did not recognize him. He drew the hood back, whispering her name again. Her eyes came alive with recognition. And she began to weep. She shrank away from him, trying to cover her face, but he grasped her hands. She tried to pull away, but he drew her close, putting his arms around her until she became calm. He whispered in her ear, aware of the presence just outside the door.
"Oh, Izzy," he spoke softly. "Forgive me. I never wished for this. I will make it right. I swear it."
After a moment, she spoke quietly. "There is nothing to be done," she sniffled. "My fate has been decided for me. My life is in the hands of God, and I must endure his punishment. For my sins, I suffer his wrath."
With defiance in his eyes, he shook his head. "You will face God in the next life. Here and now, there is no fate but what we ourselves make."
She pulled away, keeping her head lowered. He whispered to her.
"I will come tonight. You will know my signal when you see it. As soon as you can, come to the south wall. I will be there, waiting."
She started to speak, but the chamber door opened. Their time was at its end. He rose to his feet, quickly replacing his hood and making the mark of the cross. The prioress was waiting for him, with that same suspicious look. But he gave her little notice. The first part of his plan was nearly complete. He could only hope the next phase would go as smoothly.