The Moon is Made of Bone

By .:Nichol:.

"Car tant vous aim, sans mentir,

Qu'on poroit avant tarir

La haute mer

Et ses ondes retenir

Que me peusse alentir

De vous amer."

January 12th, 1315 A.D.

            Her voice was light and clear, like a bell, and full of such love and purity that anyone who heard it would count themselves lucky if someone would sing to them like she did. He peered around the corner, and smiled broadly at what he saw. A woman sat in a warm seat by a smoldering fireplace, her russet hair loose around her, and a babe resting in her arms. The dying fire cast a golden glow on her face, and the baby's plump hands waved in the air. Taking one tiny hand in her own, her mother kissed each little finger and whispered something to the child he could not hear. The babe gurgled in reply, and received her mother's incandescent smile in reply. Slowly, she lowered her child into a crib at her feet, carefully untangled little hands from her abundant hair, and tucked the babe in warmly. Sitting back, she rocked the crib gently, and in no time at all her daughter was slumbering peacefully.

            "Well now," he murmured, just loud enough for her to hear him but not so loud as to frighten. "I keep a houseful of women, and this is the welcome I get?"

            She whirled to face him, her brown eyes as soft and soulful as a fawn's, her thick mane of hair covering her like a cloak. He watched as surprise, shock, wonder, and finally, sweet delight illuminated her face, and she leapt to her feet in joy.

            "Valéran!"

            Laughing, he swept her into his arms, and she cried out in delight as he spun her around the room, covering her face in kisses. Burying her face into his fur coat, she blinked away tears of relief. Her hands caressed even his tawny hair, as if to prove to herself that he was a being of flesh-and-blood and not some mental fantasy.

            "Isabeau," he asked his wife softly, cupping her chin in his hand, "why should you cry? Surely you're not disappointed to see me!"

            She laughed at this, a wonderful sound he had missed bitterly. Pressing her warm lips to his rough hands, she squeezed them gently before embracing him with surprising strength. They both collapsed on the couch, where Valéran marveled over the baby.

            "She's our daughter?" he asked, though he already knew the answer. Isabeau nodded, her eyes gleaming and her smile so spontaneous and joyful that he knew angels couldn't smile any sweeter.

            "Born in November," she told him, and Valéran wished mightily he had been here to see it. "Would you like to hold her?"

            He did, but replied, "Let her sleep. I can hold her until my heart's content tomorrow." He held Isabeau tight instead, and she did not protest. They had not seen each other since June of last year, when Isabeau, not even aware she carried a child, said a tearful goodbye to her husband. When his eyes last saw her, she had been a delicate girl-woman, ready to blossom into the lady he now laid his eyes upon, one rich and full with children born. She had become the most beautiful woman in the world, it seemed.

            To an impartial observer, Isabeau had her charms. She was as elegant and romantic as her name, and her dark hair and lush frame suited her well. But her physical appearance was not perfect, for one could see easily that her chin was too weak, her lips too thin and pale, and her nose a mite too long for true beauty. Yet Valéran was hardly impartial nor an observer, and buried in the arms of his beloved, he knew he had found paradise at last.

            They loved each other so fiercely and with such joy that it seemed the world around them spun wildly and exploded. Then they lay in one another's arms, hot and shining with sweat, and said nothing, for they needed no words.

            Valéran had come home to stay.

January 13th, 1315 A.D.

            She awoke with the first piercing light of day, and for a moment could not remember whose powerful, warm arms encircled her. Then Isabeau remembered where she lay, and chuckled quietly in pleasure. Leaning forward, she kissed her husband softly on his lips, her dark hair spilling over his bare chest. One eye opened lazily, and Valéran returned the kiss, moaning gently while a contented smile spread across his face.

            Isabeau wore only her white chemise, while Valéran lay nude. When they first married, he had teased her for her refusal to wear any lacy ladies' undergarments, as the current fashions went; she had replied that her mother had taught her that no respectable lady would allow anything between her legs except her husband.

            Propping herself up on one elbow, Isabeau set herself the task of relearning every line and curve of her husband's face, one by one. She found new lines here and there, and more than a few scars that his body had not borne when he left her. Isabeau had often wondered why poets forever praised women with eyes of "ocean blue", for in truth the ocean was a moody gray, the same color as Valéran's eyes. His months of hard labor and soldiering had bulked him up, erased all traces of the boy in him.

            "Myttin da," she purred.

            His eyes widened in surprise. "You learned Cornish?" Valéran, who had been born and raised in Cornwall, had learnt its language at the breast of his wet nurse, swallowing her Cornish along with her milk, but he had never expected his proper French wife to learn the tongue.

            "Yes." Isabeau giggled naughtily. "I needed something to fill those long, lonely hours, and learning Cornish seemed as good a task as any. Ourcen helped me."

            Valéran was pleased, as she had hoped he would be. "Well then, good morning to you, too, Isabeau."

            She dropped another kiss onto his lips. "Your last letter said not to expect you home until tomorrow."

            "I arrived early than I thought I would," Valéran told her, sitting up in the bed. "I decided to surprise you."

            Isabeau stretched lazily. "You were certainly a surprise! What was Brittany like?" she asked, as he stood up and reached for his shirt.

            "Cold," he said, pulling a fitted tunic over his head, "cold and wild. It is populated by people as dark and stormy as their country."

            Dropping to her knees, Isabeau helped him fasten his hosen over his breeches. As her nimble fingers flew, she grinned up at him, and Valéran grinned in return as he pulled on his cloak. Isabeau herself then dressed in his favorite gown, made of brilliant red wool, fitted to her figure, with full, trailing sleeves lined with gold brocade. The embroidered neckline, set with pearls, lay lightly on her skin and a gold girdle encircled her waist. A rosary made of brightly painted wooden beads dangled from her belt. Her handmaiden then braided her hair into coils around her ears, and then secured a nearly transparent oval veil with a circlet. Isabeau looked stunning.

            She had changed in the months they had been apart, of course, and Valéran found his wife both comfortingly familiar and enticingly different. He had left behind a child-bride barely sixteen years old, and returned to find a mature woman. She had grown into a lady, speaking confidently and with authority. He decided he liked this new Isabeau.

            Their marriage had been arranged by her parents, of course – Isabeau was a daughter of the nobility, and had expected no less. When her parents told her who they had given her hand to, she had hoped only to find him not too old or too ugly. She had been flooded with relief when she met Valéran, who was not only young but also kind and gentle. He never slapped her, nor treated her like a servant, as so many men were wont to treat their wives. Isabeau had been glad she had been given to him; she knew many girls less fortunate than she.

            "Will you join me for breakfast?" she asked her husband, linking her arm with his. Valéran looked about, distracted for a moment, but turned and nodded.

            "Of course I will. Simon! Simon! Where could my manservant be?"

            "I had to dismiss him," Isabeau told him. "I caught him stealing."

            Visibly shaken by this news, Valéran careened in dismay. "Simon? I've known him since I could walk. I can't imagine him stealing. Are you sure?"

            "I caught him pilfering my jewels." Isabeau fingered the edge of her veil. "But let us talk of pleasanter things. We're having a banquet tonight, yes?"

            "Yes," said Valéran cheerfully, having been distracted from the unexpected betrayal of his servant. "I sent messengers as soon as I stepped off the boat. Our neighbors, my cousins, and my brother – they will all be here tonight."

            "Of course they will!" Isabeau assured him. "They all love you, and no one would miss your homecoming. We've all missed you terribly."

            Cornwall had very mild weather, and never in his life had Valéran seen such a frigid winter. The entire county had been caught in an icy grip. Snow fell in white sheets and the streams froze solid. Brittany had been bad, but this was unthinkable. Fortunately, he had his wife to warm his bed and his bones, and so had few complaints.

            "I hope this weather doesn't cause problems for our guests," he said, voicing his thoughts aloud. Isabeau leaned across the table to pour his cider and kissed his cheek while she was at it.

            "They'll be fine. The snow is densely packed and a sure-footed horse has no problem." Her words brushed his face like a warm kiss.

            How I have missed her, Valéran thought, and dropped a soft kiss on her neck in return. Isabeau would never have asked, but he had been faithful to her all his months abroad. Even when tempted by some nubile feminine flesh, he had remembered his wife, all curves and hot kisses and soft skin. Isabeau was worth waiting for.

            "Excuse me, sir," chirped a friendly voice behind them, interrupting their revelry. "Would you like more cider, sir?"

            The speaker was a fresh-faced lad named Robin Thatcher, grandson of Valéran's faithful steward. He was a likely boy, with a pleasant manner everyone liked, and several of the milkmaids sighed and giggled whenever they caught sight of him. He stood expectantly, holding a jug of cider.

            Blushing at having been caught at such an intimate moment, Valéran nodded and lifted his cup. "Pour away, boy."

            As Robin poured, Isabeau nuzzled her husband's neck and left one last kiss on his jaw before turning to her own breakfast. She had missed Valéran more than she could express; when he left, she felt as though there was a great gaping hole inside of her. As she nibbled her porridge, she found herself watching him and remembering everything that she had loved about him. He had a good clean musky scent, very masculine. His face had been burnt brown from riding in the sun and his tangled thicket of light brown hair lent him the air of a majestic lion. His crooked nose had been broken many times thanks to a youthful fondness for jousting, and his good-natured gray-eyed gaze could spark wickedly at times. Isabeau thought him magnificent.

            Dusk fell softly with the snow, and the sky faded from soft pink to charcoal gray. Isabeau retired to her quarters and, with the help of her maidservant, prepared for her husband's banquet. Ourcen brought in baby Clemence and laid her on the bed, so that her mother could spend some time with her before the party began.

            Isabeau slid a ribbon over her head, one with a tiny case dangling from it. Clemence reached up to touch the sparkling metal, and Isabeau gently batted her hands away. The case, as small as the thumb on Isabeau's hand, had pierced sides, and held inside rose petals dabbed with rose oil. Rose was Valéran's favorite scent, and she had taken care to choose a perfume strong enough for him to notice from several feet away, but one pleasant and not overpowering.

            Isabeau wished for beauty tonight; beauty so great that her husband would fall in love with her all over again and never leave her side. I will be good, she told herself as Ourcen brushed her hair until it shone like lacquered wood, I will be a good wife, a good mother, and a good lady. I will bring honor to my husband's hearth.

            With that in mind, Isabeau tucked Clemence warmly in bed and readied herself to entertain her guests.

            The hall filled with friends and kinsmen, people who had known Valéran since he was a boy in short pants. They milled about anxiously until he arrived, and then fell on him in a flood of greetings and salutations. Valéran laughed and jested and smiled till his face ached, and enjoyed himself thoroughly.

            "Finally decided to return to us, I see," said Ralph de Quincy, one of Valéran's cousins, as he hugged him tightly. "We began to worry that you had decided to take up permanent residence in Brittany!"

            "Nay," Valéran slapped Ralph on the back. "I'm back, and for good this time. Not even the Bretons could keep me away from home now."

            Ralph scratched behind his ear, worry written plain on his dark face. "It's good to see you home, truly. I thought for sure poor Isabeau would grieve herself to death before you returned."

            Valéran fell silent, his good mood shattered. "What do you mean?" he asked.

            "Oh, she hasn't told you?" Ralph seemed genuinely surprised. "This is the first time I've been to Morcar Castle since you left for Brittany. Isabeau locked herself inside and wouldn't receive visitors, not even her own kinsmen. I had begun to fear that she would do something rash when a messenger came and told us that you had returned, and that Isabeau was throwing a grand feast in your honor."

            Valéran stared at him in numb horror. Why would Isabeau lock herself away like that, he wondered, when she was always fond of my cousins? It didn't make any sense. But he saw no lies in Ralph's guileless blue eyes, and anyway his kinsman had no reason to tell falsehoods. Suddenly suspicious, Valéran glanced about the hall warily. The castle seemed… emptier somehow, even with all his friends and family crowded in. Where have all the servants gone? Did Isabeau dismiss them? And if she has, why didn't she tell me? In his joy in returning home safely, Valéran hadn't given much thought to how quiet and empty the castle seemed, or how the few remaining servants ran about like wild-eyed frightened rabbits, ready to jump at any sound.