Another post will be up either late tonight or tomorrow. For now, enjoy...
The call to war had been made. But a battle of a different nature was raging in the Gisborne household.
Preparations for travel were being made with great haste. All able bodied men were to meet at the Palais de la Cite, in Paris, which would be the headquarters for the war effort. Lady Evelyn, a bride for hardly a month, had just returned with her husband. Simon had insisted on bringing her back to the estate, to give her the comfort of being with her family while he was gone to war. But none of the men were prepared for the plans laid by the lady of the manor.
“You will not stop me, Guy of Gisborne.”
With servants bustling around her, Cassia was preparing to travel to war with her husband. Guy watched with helpless fury, knowing what an impossible task it was to change her mind on anything. But he vowed he would not go down without a fight. Snatching a bundle of cloth from her hands, he tossed it aside. A useless gesture, he knew. But he knew of no other way to express his rage, expect to shout and threaten her in the hopes of penetrating her thick skull.
“You will not go to Paris! And if I must bind you with rope and place you under lock and key to prevent it, I will!”
Much like an opponent who refused to submit, she would not back down, challenging him instead.
“Do it, then, if you dare. But the moment you are away, I will escape my bonds. Do not doubt my ability!”
“By God, woman. You are impossible! There are times when I think a sound whipping would serve you well!”
“Beat me, then!” she shouted. “Lock me away in a tower if you will. But while I draw breath, I will not endure the torture of ignorance – of not knowing whether my husband lives, or if I am made a widow! I will not suffer such torment again!”
He fell into silence. It was easy to forget that a long time ago, as a young girl, she had been the wife of another. That man had been lost to her in a war. Behind the light of fury in her eyes, he could see the cause for her fear - the terrifying prospect of losing what she loved most in the world. As she had always done, she seemed to read his thoughts instantly.
“You cannot reassure me with a warm embrace or soft words this time. War brings death, and untold suffering. But the cruelty of not knowing is a thousand times more painful. I will not endure it.”
He had lost the fight. The knowledge of the loss had already been heavy on his mind the moment she had made her announcement. And yet he had tried, though it was in vain. His pride had insisted on such a battle. And it was his pride that commanded him to march from the room. But his ear caught the words she spat just before the door slammed.
“You are an obstinate brute, Guy of Gisborne. Just as you have always been!”
Moving along the corridor, he passed by Owen, who looked at him with questioning eyes.
“Did you speak to her? Did she change her mind?”
Guy gave a loud snort, stunned at his son’s foolish question. “Do you not yet know your own mother? A more unconquerable beast was never born than she!”
The Palais de la Cite was astonishing in its size, and breathtaking in its design and appointments. But for Owen, it felt cold and empty, despite its being filled with so many people.
The night was quiet. The air thick with tension, for tomorrow, the men would all depart for battle. He sat among the many soldiers that were gathered, each of them occupied with the task of preparing for the day ahead. The most common task seemed to be the sharpening of swords and daggers, which he did, but with only partial focus. His eye drifted across the expanse of the Great Hall, where in a corner, the tiny band of women were gathered together. His mother, his sisters, and their ladies. All were busy with the shared chore of preparing bandages and salves. Watching them, he could not help longing for the one face that was not among them.
The journey to Paris had been long and difficult, hampered several times by bad weather and the horrible conditions of the road. But worse was the underlying current of displeasure that had flowed from the men. Guy, Simon, and Lucien were not at all pleased with the rebellion of their women, who had formed an unbreakable pact and would not be turned from their mission. Adding to the darkness of mood was the revelation that Rene – the very same scoundrel that had ruined Isabella – had been forced into service by Simon’s father. He would be among their ranks, and he would have to be contended with, despite the opposition to his presence.
Aside from the burden of Rene, Owen found himself uncertain what to make of the female presence in the castle. A part of him agreed that it was madness to bring women along on such a quest, one that was intended only for the hearty souls of men. And yet, he admired his mother’s tenacity. She had set herself to a purpose, and there was no stopping her. And it turned out – as it always did where she was concerned – that she had made a wise decision. The king, who had always admired her as a dutiful and valuable subject, was happy to assign her and her ladies the task of caring for the sick and wounded when they came. Watching them now, he thought of Isabella, and how he wished she were part of that little group.
His father and brothers had grumbled over the matter of their women following them to war. But it was becoming clear now that, despite the initial opposition to the idea, they were happy to have their mates so near.
If only I could say the same, Owen thought.
His heart was heavy as he resumed his work, which continued until late in the night. When at last the time had come for sleep, he retired to his makeshift bed next to Lucien and Thea, on the floor in the hall. There were no concessions to comfort in such crowded conditions. Only Simon and Evelyn had a measure of privacy, thanks to Simon’s high rank, and his close association with the king. They were allotted a small room of their own, while all other shared space in the hall. But Owen found that he did not care, for he could not sleep as it was.
Among his belongings, he found implements for writing. Isabella had promised to write to him, but he was growing mad with impatience.
Damn the slowness of the written word, he thought. Why can there not be a source of instantaneous connection for two lovers?
He knew his letter to her would not reach her hand for many weeks, but he needed to write it all the same. By expressing his feelings on paper, perhaps he would find some measure of peace.
Looking about, he saw that everyone had settled in for the night. Beside him, Thea and Lucien appeared to be sleeping comfortably. A good thing, he thought, for he was certain that his sister would berate and tease him for what he was doing, and that he was not in the mood for. He had enough on his mind as it was. Taking his quill in hand, dipping it into the inkwell, he began to write. Until the sound of Lucien’s voice broke the still of the night.
“You write to your lady by candle-fire, on the eve of a battle. An interesting sight to see.”
Absorbed with what he intended to express in his letter, Owen gave his brother-in-law only a glance of interest and a short reply as he wrote.
“Why interesting, brother?”
“When first we met, you did not strike me as the kind to partake of such romantic notions.”
“Nor did I think so of you. And yet, my sister managed to cast a spell upon you. It seems love has taken us both as prisoners.”
“A fate I willingly resign myself to.”
Owen could not help but smile. “As do I,” he replied.
From nearby, Guy’s words interjected, kind but firm in their usual way.
“You had best set your minds to the task that dawn brings. If you wish to return to your ladies fair, think only of victory in battle, and prepare yourself for it with sleep.”
He was right, of course. They would depart at dawn, leaving all that was certain behind. But there was one certainty he held in his heart and mind. He uttered it silently to himself.
We shall see it done. And Isabella will be my cause. My raison d'être.
The stench of death permeated the air. It was all around. And it came at him from every angle.
His body seemed to react without thought, swinging his shield up to cover his head from the blow of a mace. With his sword he jabbed his opponent from belly to backbone, sending him to the ground in agony, but another mad warrior followed instantly. Owen swung his blade across his enemy’s neck, severing an artery that spewed blood into the air. The victory was in sight. He could feel it in his blood as men fell to his sword and his fellow soldiers surged forward to take the Château Gaillard.
A shattering pain suddenly took his breath. He felt his sword fall from his grip as every ounce of his physical ability seemed to be sapped from his body. Unable to keep himself from falling, he collapsed to the ground as his brain seemed to register the point of impact. An arrow, lodged through his shoulder, was sending violent waves of agony through his entire being. His mind was screaming, demanding removal of the sharp object that was causing his blood to pour out, soaking his shirt through. He could feel himself weakening, and he began uttering a prayer of deliverance to God, even as he felt his eyes closing of their own volition.
When he heard a deep voice calling him, he stirred slightly.
Have I passed into the life to come? He wondered for a moment.
But the blinding pain returned to remind him that he was indeed, still alive. Through blurry eyes, he saw that the fighting had ceased. But the action remained, changed from engagement of combat to occupation of the enemy. And the voice that called him was not a heavenly one. It was his father, searching for him. Gathering what strength he still possessed, he tried to shout.
“Papa! I am here!”
It seemed like an eternity of waiting, but at last Guy appeared. He and Lucien were there, and Guy uttered a sigh of relief as he examined the horrific wound.
“Thank God you have been spared. We must get you away from here, and quickly.”
Owen groaned in misery as his father and Lucien lifted him up. He tried to walk, but it seemed that his legs would not support enough for it. His mind was clear one moment, foggy the next, and as he was lifted into a cart that would carry him back to the castle, he saw the body of his brother-in-law, lying bloodied and still.
“Good God. Is he dead?”
Lucien answered grimly. “He lives, but death hovers over him, waiting.”
“We must get him to the palace,” Guy said. “Your mother will be able to care for him.”
The cloudiness of his mind seemed to grow heavier. He felt the jolt of the cart as it was set into motion, but everything after, he would not recall as he fell into a dark haze of pain and delirium.