A long low howl shattered the still air, and the world froze for one moment. Then Valéran leapt to his feet, dragging Geoffrey behind him. Nearly mindless with fear, he almost ran in the wrong direction, but his brother grabbed his arm and pulled him back the way they'd came. In the dark Valéran could never have found his way alone, but Geoffrey seemed to know just where they were and how to return. They burst out on the main road, panting and shivering, to find their horses screaming and fighting their restraints. Without saying a single word, the pair mounted up and raced for Morcar as though the devil himself were two steps behind them.
Only when they rode through Morcar's gates did Valéran release a deep breath of air he had not been aware he was holding. Riding into the stables, they found it empty, and began stripping their tired and terrified horses.
"Where's the stable-boy?" asked Geoffrey, as he undid the clasp to his saddle.
"I'd like to know that, as well," muttered Valéran, rubbing his gelding's neck. His father had always taught him to care for his horse before caring for himself, and no matter how cold or weary he was, he had to make sure the beast was safe before taking his own rest. After placing the animals in the stalls, they walked out of the stables, and Valéran turned to his brother.
"You said the villagers killed a wolf," he said, and Geoffrey nodded.
"Yes; actually 'twas John Thatcher. He had accompanied Isabeau and a few others on a ride through the forest, and they were attacked by a she-wolf. He shot the beast through the heart, and that ended the menace, or so they thought."
"Isabeau told me about that incident." Discomforted, Valéran remembered that confessional night and the knife she had given him. The cold wind blew snow flurries into his face, and he realized that it was not only freezing, but dark. "Let's go inside," he said finally, "while we still have our fingers."
Isabeau loved her bath. To soak in the soothing hot water, to feel the steam caressing her face, to pour fragrant water over her hair and allow it to stream down between her breasts. Sheer ecstasy!
The Church called bathing a sin -- not so much cleanliness, as the pleasure one takes in cleanliness. But then, Isabeau had never been very pious. She loved too much to sink into the water, to watch the little waves toss themselves against her body, like ocean waters beckoned by the moon. Often into her bath she would dip in a tiny basket, filled with aromatic thyme, apple peel, sandalwood, fresh myrtle, and most rare jasmine, imported from the Far East. Valéran claimed the end result made her delicious enough to eat, and Isabeau, laughing, had often fended off his nibbles and kisses after she had stepped dripping from her bath.
Tonight she stepped from her bath solitary, except for Ourcen, who obediently handed Isabeau a glass of wine made from the white grapes of Southern France. Taking a sip, the lady smiled at the taste, which had been enhanced with myrrh and mint. Then Ourcen held a mirror as Isabeau pinned back her hair while gazing into the glass disk, affixed in an ornate ivory frame, with a handle carved into intertwined lovers.
"Is my lady cold?" asked Ourcen as she held up a warm woolen shift. Isabeau snuggled into it quickly, though she actually enjoyed the way her skin had prickled when the cool air struck it. She dismissed her maid with a wave of her hand, and sat solitary in her chambers.
The world grew cold, the dark stretched into long nights, and the moon shifted shape. Isabeau held up her mirror and trembled at the sight of her reflection.
The doors opened with a loud bang, sending the servants scurrying for cover. Valéran and Geoffrey stalked inside, shedding their boots and gloves and beating the melting snow from their bodies. A powerful gloom had settled over Geoffrey, and he sat beside the fire in silence, warming his hands. Valéran paced back in forth, seething with rage at his own uselessness, clenching his fists. The Clares have held this land and protected its people for a hundred years, he thought, grinding his teeth, and I refuse to be the first lord who failed to do his duty!
"At last, you're home!" his wife called behind him, and Valéran turned to see Isabeau running down the stairs. "I feared something had happened, and sent John Thatcher looking for you. I feared the worst!" Embracing him, she jumped back at his cold touch. "You're freezing!"
"John Thatcher is gone?" Valéran shrugged out of his coat. His voice was angrier than she had ever heard it, and she saw something dangerous in the hard set of his mouth.
"Yes, but he should be back soon," Isabeau told him, wrapping her arms around his neck. "He's been gone for a couple of hours now."
"We saw the wolf's tracks," Geoffrey said suddenly. He was scratching ice from his eyebrows and his tone was so curiously flat and dead that Isabeau shivered.
Valéran encircled his wife's waist with his arms and held her close. Her hair was slightly damp and smelled of jasmine and sandalwood. "It's a monster, an evil monster. I'll not have you leaving the castle until we can kill it."
Her brown eyes met his, but he found her thoughts unfathomable. "But…"
"I promise." She dropped his gaze and moved from his embrace. Valéran stared after her for a moment but did not move towards her again. Isabeau drifted away and stood forlornly at the end of the hall, hugging herself tightly.
"It's late," Geoffrey said abruptly, shattering the icy silence. "The moon has risen. We should be going to bed." He made no move to leave however, and instead paused to warm himself before the fire. Though he seemed as calm and steady as a stone, Valéran saw his hands tremble slightly as he held them out to the flames.
Isabeau stormed from the room, her skirts rustling and snapping with her sharp steps. Her husband did not protest, but only knelt before the fire and blew on his fingertips. "She is angry with me."
"She is angry with the world," Geoffrey replied wearily.
"Are you?" asked Valéran.
"No, I'm just disappointed. The songs paint a bright, beautiful, chivalrous picture. The reality is cold and bleak and unjust. Men are craven and weak. Myself most of all." It seemed all the world's woes could be found reflected in Geoffrey's sad slate gaze.
"I dreamed of becoming a great hero when I was a boy," he said. "I imagined myself as all the valiant knights in the pretty songs and stories. Galahad, Arthur, Roland. But I am no hero. I am not even Lancelot." Without even a word of goodbye he stood up and left the hall on soundless feet.
Valéran lay in bed next to his wife and knew there was a breach between them wider than all of creation. She was curled and quiet, though her breathing had not become the steady sigh of sleep. His hands were still cold and she trembled when he touched her.
"Say that you love me," Isabeau said softly.
"I love you."
She rolled over and stared at him tenderly. "Say it as though you mean it."
"I do mean it," he insisted.
"You left me to go on your grand adventure, leaving me in this wilderness far from anyone or anything I ever knew. I was a girl, lost and alone, heavy with your child. I wept oceans of tears every night and ached whenever I heard your name. Your brother ravished me with his eyes and wild beasts stalked the night, and yet I thought only of you. I learned a new tongue and brought a life into this world all for you. And you have never appreciated any of this."
"Isabeau…" he began, but she covered his mouth with her fingers.
"I am still a girl to you, your little maiden bride. You have never seen the woman, the wife, the mother, and yes, even the monster. You have been blind to me, Valéran. You have done me a great disservice."
He blinked and for the first time Isabeau came into focus before him. Not just her russet hair and brown eyes brimming with soul, but her humanity as well. She was not a girl, nor his desirable bride, but a fully grown woman asking for his attention, his consideration. She was worthy of his love, deserved it and demanded it.
"I love you," he said, "all of you."
When she sighed, it was as though all the world breathed out with her. Isabeau pressed his hand to her cheek and smiled serenely. In the tranquil flickering candlelight, she had never looked lovelier. "At last," she whispered, "you mean it."