Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 20, Part 1

The glow of a campfire illuminated the night. The surrounding woods, a place of danger and darkness, had its foreboding eased by the sound of soft chatter, made by the men sitting around the blaze.
From the boar that was roasting on the spit, Owen cut a thick piece for himself. As he ate it, savoring the smoky flavor, he looked over at the hounds. They were calm and obedient, as they were trained to be. But their eyes were bright with expectation, their noses wiggling at the wafting scent of meat, and their tails swishing in a sign of hopefulness. Owen’s mouth turned up slightly as he carved off generous portions of the roast. He tossed the pieces to them, giving them their hard-earned reward. They were equally a part of the company – a group contented by the satisfaction of a hard day’s work and full bellies.
A long and grueling day of training was done. The men had run for miles, weighed down by their heavy coats of mail. They had passed around a heavy leather ball to improve their upper body strength and coordination. They had engaged in sword-fighting, of course. And then, there was the hunting of the boar. Taking down such a beast was considered a great feat of courage and manhood - the culmination of practices meant to prepare one and all for war. Now the prize was crackling on the fire, providing a feast for all.
Owen only wished his contentment could be complete.
Looking at his father, who was sitting nearby, he saw that Guy’s expression was firm with concentration, his thoughts clearly on something beyond the assembly of men and dogs. In his grasp, pressed between his fingers, was a tiny object. There was no need to question what it was. Owen was quite used to seeing the trinket - a little amethyst cross that was forever in his father’s possession. Usually, it was hidden beneath his shirt, but at times he just held it in his hand, looking at it. Cassia Gisborne wore a similar cross, hers embedded with an amethyst jewel. Years ago, she had gifted her husband with a cross of his own, this one embedded with a diamond that was meant to endow its wearer with courage and fortitude, and to bring him good fortune and victory. The examination of the bauble was always accompanied by a certain look – an expression of softness that Guy of Gisborne rarely wore. It was a look that Owen had seen many times. But for the first time, he felt that he truly understood it.
They would all be returning home late. When they arrived, there would be a look of peace that would come over his father’s face. It had always seemed to Owen, at least in his way of thinking, that there was much disappointment to be found in ending a day of war games and training. But his father had always seemed so eager to get home - so content to be done with everything outside the walls of the manor. Not so long ago, such a mind-set had been a source of contention for Owen. But now, he wondered if what he was feeling inside was the very same turmoil his father had always struggled with.
True contentment, it seemed, was in the promise of something sane in an insane world. A home. A family. A loving woman, most of all. With a deep sigh, he thought of what he would be returning to. Nothing of significance, in truth. Once, he had relished a solitary life. Now, he found himself wishing there was someone waiting for him when he returned from a long day - the kind of soft, warm presence that his father was so eager to come home to. As he gazed into the fire, losing himself in thought, he recalled the countless times during his life when he had seen his mother and father reunited, particularly after a long separation. No matter how they had tried to disguise it, no matter what manner of polite and proper behavior they exhibited to those who were watching, there was always an obvious fire between them. He wanted to share such a secret passion with Isabella – a deep love that others envied, the way they envied his mother and father. And he wanted not only to find comfort and love in her, but to give it in return. That, he now understood, was what it truly meant to be a man. Not to conquer enemies and seek glory for a king, but to have something of his own – someone of his own, and to be the one who protected and provided for that someone.
His father’s voice suddenly shook him from his thoughts.
“Something is on your mind, Owen?”
Owen shook his head. “It is nothing, Papa.”
It was an untruth that his father was surely aware of. Since their return from Toulon, they had not discussed Isabella. What was there to speak of? It was useless to go on with endless arguments about what should and should not be done. There was the more important matter of war preparations, which held precedence over everything else - even matters of the heart. But his mother and father had surely noticed his deep distraction, even if they said nothing of it.
There was a long space of silence that passed between them. Guy cut a piece of meat from the roast, pausing it at his lips as he spoke.
“Your mother is quite recovered from Phillipe’s birth.” Eating the meat, he maintained a casual air. “She wishes to visit your brother soon.”
Owen’s posture immediately straightened. “Does she?” he asked.
He was careful to control the volume of his voice. The other men, even Lucien, were aware that something was on his mind, and they rightly assumed that a woman was the cause of his trouble. He had, after all, confessed to having such a distraction in his life, but no amount of coaxing or taunting had pushed him to reveal her identity. They knew nothing of his relationship with Isabella, and it was important for it to remain that way. There could be no hint of excitement expressed. Guy’s reply was guarded as well.
“Aye, she does,” he said. “But a woman cannot travel alone. I think perhaps we should accompany her.”
Owen’s answer was quick, spoken firmly, his voice calm even as a spring of anticipation welled up within him. “I think that is a wise decision.”
It was hard to suppress the happy expression that threatened to give away his secret. But he called upon his knightly discipline to give him strength, to see him through the act of pretending that he knew nothing of love.
If love is a crime, he thought, Then I am as guilty as a man can be.
“A message has come for you.”
Isabella, occupied with the cleaning of windows, broke herself from her revere. Of late, happy thoughts of Owen had been a constant in her mind, even while doing chores or other tasks. He had been on her mind at that moment, when William had entered with the rolled parchment, which he handed to her. Looking down at it, she saw a familiar imprint in the red wax, and was stunned.
“It is my father’s seal.”
Her father’s seal. The sight of it made her gasp. Breaking it quickly, she began to read as she found her way to a nearby chair, and as she read, William slowly approached her, his eyes and manner curious. A myriad of feelings was written over her face – a moment of joy, then a moment of sorrow – and without looking away from the letter, she shared her news with him.
“He and my mother are well. But my brother is in failing health.”
Poor Bernardo, she thought. He had never been the strongest of young men, but now it seemed that he would never rise again from his sickbed.
“I am sorry to hear of it,” William said.
Sitting back in her chair, she felt the sting of tears in her eyes. But sorrow was quickly taken over, trampled by an altogether different feeling – one of fear. A motion in the distance, seen from the corner of her eye, caught her attention. Men on horseback, coming at a swift pace. A familiar banner, with a well-known crest, waved in the air as it was carried along, and the scroll dropped from her hand. William came to her side, worried by the paleness that had overtaken her.
“Isabella, what is it?”
Her reply was nearly a whisper, her voice choked by fear. “Gilbert.”
“He has come. He has found me.” Panic gripped her senses. Backing away from the window, taking to pacing back and forth in quick, frightened steps, she brought her hands to her lips, trembling.
“All is done. My end is near.”
Gilbert would see her dead. Even if his own hand did not manage it, he would see that she was taken to task by the law, and they would not be merciful. Images of horrifying tortures, of brutal suffering, played in her imagination. The sudden grip of William’s hand on her arm did little to shake her terror, even though his voice took on a sudden sense of commanding that she had not heard from him before.
“Go out the rear door. Make haste to church, and be at prayer.”
“At prayer?” she cried, bewildered. He gave her a firm but gentle push towards the door.
“Tell the priest that you claim sanctuary.”
“But I…”
His voice rose. “Do as I tell you!”
The strength of his words seemed to grant her the return of her senses. Still shaking, but bolstered by William’s command, she rushed out the rear door. The church was but a short distance away, just past the garden. As she hurried into the hall, she nearly collided with the elderly priest as he was leaving. The elderly cleric had been kind to her from the first, just as William had been, and clutching his arm now, she pleaded with him, her face flushed.
“I seek sanctuary!”
The priest seemed bewildered by her sudden appearance and anxious state. Looking at her, he spoke with a confused air.
There was no time for long explanations. Falling to her knees, she pleaded with him. “My husband comes for me. He will end my life.” Grasping the hem of his robe, she pressed it to her lips. “Please help me, father. I beg you.”
In her heart, she feared that he would turn her away. He and William, and all of the Gisbornes, had been more generous than she deserved, and she knew she was asking too much of this honorable man. But God in heaven, she hoped with all of her being to be granted one last reprieve.
A moment later, she felt the priest’s hand pressing against the top of her head.
“Rise, child. You are under God’s protection.”
Slowly she came to her feet. Taking his hand, she pressed her lips to his rings as grateful tears rolled down her cheeks. Taking her by the arm, he led her to the steps of the altar, where he told her to kneel. She needed no incentive to do so. With her hands clasped together, she uttered fervent and desperate words of prayer, all the while fearing that at any moment, Gilbert would rage through the door. He would not have a care for the boundaries of the church. His only care would be for revenge, and when Gilbert LaCroix wanted something, he would stop at nothing to get it…
William stood firm as the party approached. He felt no fear for himself as he stood on the stoop, watching the small but fearsome looking band of men coming forth, led by the sheriff of the village. Sheriff Lefitte was not a man given to friendly conversation or laughter - a man resigned to the violent nature of his job. At nearly seven feet tall, he towered over everyone surrounding him, which gave him a physical presence that was usually enough to deter mischief. And yet, he was not one to exploit the power of his position. He would assess the situation and act with fair judgment, and William was confident that no act of persecution would fall on his own head, for he was a man of God, and Lefitte would respect that dynamic.
The protection of Isabella, however, was not so certain.
Gilbert LaCroix was clearly set to a dark purpose. It was rumored that he was set on marrying his mistress, and he wanted to be shed of any previous attachments…specifically, the former wife who was still living. Somewhere along the way, his plans had transitioned from imprisonment to something more sinister, but when Isabella had escaped from the convent, his plans had been thwarted…and he was infuriated by the deception. Now he was here, clearly set on a mission of punishment. But William felt his confidence holding him up, his faith supporting him. He stepped forward to greet his visitors, his hands clasped firmly behind his back.
“Good morrow, gentleman. To what do I owe this visit?”
Lefitte slid down from his horse, with the other following his lead. His approach was unhurried, but his purpose serious in its manner. He was plain-spoken, as was his way, his words beginning without a polite greeting.
“We seek the lady Isabella.”
William answered with equal straightforwardness. “She is not here.”
“Our sources indicate otherwise. Produce her, Diaconate.”
“I say again, she is not here.”
Gilbert came from behind, trying to push the sheriff aside.
“You would willingly aid a criminal by harboring her? We know she is here, so produce her now or pay the price for your deception!”
Confronted by a red-faced, fiery-eyed brute, William replied in a cool and confident manner.
“She resides in the church, my lord. She has claimed sanctuary, and by law, she is under the protection of God.”
In an instant, the reply seemed to disrupt the heavy tension hanging in the air. The sheriff looked at Gilbert.
“If she has truly claimed sanctuary, there is nothing to be done, baron.”
The baron’s response was swift, angrier than before. “I will drag her out and have her displayed in the streets as the whore that she is!”
Lefitte pushed him back with a calm hand, but offered him a strong rebuke. “For God’s sake, man. Remember yourself. You are in the presence of a man of God.”
William shook his head, a slight smile coming to his lips. “I am not offended, my lords. And you have my permission to search the premises if you like. But take care. I do not feel it necessary to destroy my meager possessions.”
Lefitte was silent for a moment, perhaps contemplating just what action to take. After a few moments spent in thought, he spoke his command.
“Search the house, men. But seek, and do not destroy.” He turned to a page boy. “You, go to the church and see if the woman is there. Speak to the priest, and inquire about her situation. Make haste.”
As the boy hurried away, the men went about their search of the house. William watched, seeing the hesitance in their actions as they looked. They were fearful, it seemed – fearful of the reprucssions of disrupting a religious household. The baron, clearly not sharing their concerns, fumed silently near the doorway. A short time later, the page boy came rushing in, offering the sheriff the report.
“The priest has confirmed the news, my lord. She is confined to the church and cannot leave the grounds.”
Lefitte slowly let out a breath. “Then there is nothing to be done,” he said, and he gestured for his men to depart. “Come, men. There is more important business to attend to.”
As he turned away, moving back towards his horse, Gilbert followed him with a furious stride.
“You will abandon your duty in the mere blink of an eye?”
The reply was given calmly.
“My duty has been done, LaCroix. If you wish to pursue this matter, do so of your own accord. My men must occupy themselves with more important business.”
“Then I will punish her myself!” Gilbert began a march towards the church, but Lefitte stopped him with a forceful shout.
“You will not!”
Everyone grew still and quiet, staring at Lefitte as he commanded the baron. “Go home, LaCroix.”
Enraged, Gilbert cursed as he struggled to mount his horse.
“The lot of you are useless! Fucking useless!”
Once in the saddle, he quickly departed with his men, kicking up a furious trail of dust behind him. From his own place in the saddle, Lefitte looked over at William.
“Rid yourself of the woman, Diaconate. She is a curse upon your household.”
He gave his horse the spur, riding away, and William turned his steps towards the church. A weight began to settle on his heart. A duty lay just ahead of him…one that might very well tear at the fabric of his family’s bond.
In the chapel, he saw Isabella kneeling at the altar, her hands clasped in prayer. The priest came to his side, and after a brief conversation whispered between them, he left William and Isabella alone together. Slowly, William came to stand behind her. His tone was soft, almost sad, as he began the unenviable task.
“Lady Isabella…”
He hesitated for a moment, and was surprised when Isabella spoke first.
“I have brought such strife upon your family. I can bear the guilt no longer.”
There was a note of finality in her voice – something that told him she had come to a most important decision.
“What will you do?” he asked.
Lifting her head, but remaining still with her hands still held in prayer, she replied in a calm and steady voice. “I am uncertain. But I know I must choose a new path. One that takes me far from your family, and preserves your happiness. If I stay, I will be the ruin of the Gisborne family.”
It pained him to know that he would be forced to turn her out. And worse, she would go willingly, at the possible detriment to herself. He thought quickly, seeking some solution – anything that would make this burden easier to bear, and he was relieved when a possibility came to him.
“Perhaps you should seek your own family.”
He saw how she turned her head slightly, listening to him, and the idea in his mind began to grow.
“If you wish to travel to Spain, I will provide you with the means.”
Just speaking the words, he felt a sharp stab of guilt. When Owen discovered this, he would be heartbroken – and furious. It was likely that he would retaliate with aggression. A part of him dreaded the thought of the betrayal. But it had to be done – and both he and Isabella knew it. She spoke softly.
“You are too generous, my lord. I know not how to repay your kindness.”
He came to sit on the steps of the altar. Neither of them looked at one another, each knowing the difficulty of their duty to be done, and the pain they would be inflicting on Owen, as well as themselves.
“Isabella, my mother and father will be here tomorrow. Along with Owen. The greatest kindness you can bestow upon my family is to make my brother see reason.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw the slight nod she gave.
“I will do my best, my lord.”