PART ONE: Angoulême, France, 1199
Great and Dreadful Day
Isabelle leaned over the teeth of the castle. Behind her, the sounds of leaving; in front, the arc of a hawk floating in the blue day, its shadow drawn across the fields. She shut her eyes and held her arms away from her tunic, imagining herself in flight. No fear. No one yelling witch. Just away, over the lavender in the garden, the orchard still heavy with apples, the meadows and forest, farther and farther until she tired and landed in the great woods where hid soft rabbits and foxes with cunning ears. All of the land of Angoulême, which was hers, or would be when Papa died. But she wouldn’t think of that.
Strands of hair, tickling like little blond mice, slipped free from her wimple and waved in the heat rising from the stone; she tucked them back and turned from the land towards the bailey below, filled with the clank of iron-wheeled carts and shouting men. Noise opened the hot fist of the afternoon.
In the weeks since the accident, the household had fermented; cooks, seamstresses, and laundresses bubbled like yeast, and everywhere they went, they ran. The portcullis was kept closed, which only increased the turmoil, like a lid on a pot over a great fire. But tomorrow the gate would open and Isabelle would travel to Lusignan, her first time away from home, away from Maman and her endless rules. Excitement crept into Isi’s stomach, like a chicken, pecking, squawking.
For three weeks she had not been allowed outside; Maman had clutched her close, insisting she learn womanly tasks. “One day you’ll be Countess here. When I die, I’ll look down to see how well you manage your responsibility.”
Pismire. Isabelle rubbed her palms across her chest. Still flat. In less than a year she would be twelve, old enough to marry; she hoped by then she would have real breasts, because when she was twelve and deemed a woman, Papa would marry her to someone powerful. Isabelle planned to have her own power: she would name all the dogs, decide what to eat, and order featherbeds for everyone, even the children.
Papa said a woman had other powers. Maman said, “Don’t fill her head with babble.”
Down below, Hugh de Lusignan, their visitor, crossed the bailey. She remembered his warm hands clutching her tunic as he lifted her to the safety of his broad back, and how Papa had blessed him afterwards. Today his curls were touched by the sun. Red-gold, not brown. If he shook his head and roared, he’d be like the famed Richard, Coeur de Lion.
Behind Hugh came servants carrying Isabelle’s new trunk; its glittering nail heads demanded a closer look, so down the wooden stairs she went, reviewing Maman’s rules on each step: Keep clean, even in thy lower parts. Hop down a step. Stand tall, so as not to be seen as unworthy. Hop. Read the Bible. Two hops for that one. Learn thy lessons. Maman meant especially Latin and its hated nouns. Just today Isi had learned adflatus, masculine, fourth declension, a breath or hot blast. Ad fervens aer flatus. She didn’t think that was right. Her tutor, Paulus, would laugh and say girls were not capable of learning Latin. Well, she knew her conjugations and was going to prove him wrong. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. A word for each step, and there she was at the bottom.
She crossed the bailey under the last slant of light. Swifts, like slices of moon, whirled overhead, men labored, women carried, and the wooden trunk was thumped into the cart. All for her. Though she was supposed to behave like a proper maiden, a cackling rose up inside, as if her chicken flapped, feathers awry, neck bobbing madly, red comb erect. She burst out hopping, singing, kicking her legs, swishing her tunic in arcs.
She stumbled and fell. Pismire. No one noticed, but, oh no, a rip in her overdress, the last one without a hole. Maman would be furious. She spit on her finger and rubbed her knee.
When she stood, her shadow stretched over the stones. The castle wall was biting into the sun, guards silhouetted. As dark crept across the bailey, passing horses trailed black monsters. She walked faster. One night last week a pounding on the gate had sent her fleeing to the inner keep, but it was only a traveler who’d lost his way. Afterwards, what ifs had buzzed in her mind. What if marauding outlaws attacked? What if the village burned or Maman was abducted? The twenty feet of thick wall between Isabelle and danger thinned to straw at night. Today, while there was still sun, she ran for the safety of the great hall.
In the long twilight, it being the eighth month of the year, the family gathered in the tiny chapel, and Paulus intoned a prayer for the safe journey of the filia of the house. As he conjugated the Latin words and dropped them in front of the Lord, Isi stuck her finger through the hole in her tunic, then closed her eyes and said, Absolve, Domine, Please don’t let Maman notice. She leaned against her papa and stared at the carving of Mary. When the castle was built, in the ancient past, the stone cutter must have been more adept at walls than statues because Mary’s nose was crooked and one arm longer than the other. But even in the dim evening—Maman saving candles—the Virgin looked right at her, reminding her that Alain was dead.
It had been three weeks since Isabelle knelt in the same chapel, clasping her hands so tightly that the tips of her fingers went numb, bowing her head, exposing her neck, shoulder blades wedged together. Perhaps God was waiting to strike her too—but no, He left her alone. You know it’s not my fault. Please take care of him, he’d like wings, amen.
The chapel was small, the wooden box at the front even smaller. Isabelle couldn’t hold its smallness in her mind; her friend had always seemed big, running so fast, turning cartwheels, climbing the tallest tree. She pulled her shoulders tighter and pinched her mouth. She wanted him back.
If there must be a funeral, and there must in order to send Alain to heaven, Isabelle was glad it could be in their own chapel. Alain had been afraid of the massive Angoulême cathedral, with its carved animals peering through tangles of flowering vines and its rows of holy men standing on little shelves; she herself hated the echoing arches inside. She’d once confessed to Paulus, “I always feel little.”
“That’s the way you’re meant to feel. God is great and powerful. You are nothing.”
Isabelle didn’t believe she was nothing, but she’d held her tongue. Today, sitting on the cold stone bench and staring at the wooden box where Alain lay, she understood what Paulus meant. She hadn’t been able to save Alain. Only God could have saved him, but He hadn’t bothered. Maybe He wanted Alain’s company.
When the candles, real wax for a funeral, were lit, Maman came and sat by Isi. Alain’s mother and father were behind them, but where were the others? When the old seamstress died, the chapel had been full. The emptiness swirled in Isi’s stomach. Did no one care about Alain?
O quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbata. One of the acolytes studying with Paulus began to sing. Isabelle filled with words. Quae fessis requies, quae merces fortibus. He was singing about rest. And fortibus, fortibus, what did that mean, oh yes, the brave. What a good song. That was Alain. Climbing the wooden stairs to the guard’s place on the walls, leaning way out, throwing acorns at those below. Isi remembered him ducking so he wouldn’t be seen, and a sob mixed with a giggle popped up from her chest. Maman nudged her sharply, and Isi bowed her head. Yesterday we were together, and now he’s in that box.
The singer started a new verse, and then there was her papa, standing next to the coffin and opening the Bible. Papa? Where was Paulus?
As her father read the words, Alain’s mother wept steadily. Another cook had come in and she too sobbed, but Isi didn’t cry a single tear. Her eyes were drilled by candle flames, her hands and feet heavy, cold.
Papa read quickly, and it was over before the candles had burnt down a single inch. Maman would be pleased. Isabelle shook her head. Don’t think about candles. Alain’s gone.
She stood to follow the servants, who would carry the little box to the graveyard where more prayers would be said, but Maman stopped her.
“We need to pray at his grave, Mama.”
“But we always—”
“Enough. Your papa had to argue with Paulus to hold this small service. He knows how much Alain meant to you, but he can’t be buried in hallowed ground. We won’t speak of this again, do you understand?” She took Isi by the chin. “Look at me. You must forget about your friend. There is danger now.”
Isabelle could see her face in her mother’s eyes. Very small, as if her mother’s look had shrunk her. She whispered around the pinching fingers, “Because I’m a witch?”
“You are not a witch. You know that. But those in the village…” Maman pressed Isabelle close, her familiar scent of cinnamon and incense bringing safety into the chapel. “You’re getting so big.” She wiped her eyes and began pinching out the candles. “Come along. Time for studies.”
“Please, may I stay and pray for Alain?”
Maman hesitated, then lit a rush lamp lying at the foot of the Mary statue. “You may stay until this goes out.” She placed it on the stone with a loud scrape. “Remember, not a word, not even to Paulus.” She was gone.
Isi bent over and sobbed, her fingertips touching the base of Mary’s statue. Alain was damned. He wouldn’t have wings and fly in heaven. He would writhe in Hell’s fire.
With all the candles snuffed, the space expanded around the prick of the rush light. I might topple over into the darkness and die. The rush flared and the statue’s shadow wavered across the stone walls; cool air swept down the stones and across her ankles. Isabelle choked back her fright. This was important. Drying her eyes with the hem of her tunic, she looked up at Mary. “You love children. Jesus was your son. Don’t let Alain go to hell.”
The stone eyes flickered in the light, and Isabelle caught her breath. In a minute she would be out in the sun, but she waited to see if Mary would speak to her. Maybe the carved head nodded a very little. Isabelle soul expanded, stretching to fill all the corners of the little room as if she were truly in Mary’s presence, then the light went out and she ran.
Isabelle’s eleventh birthday had been two days after the funeral; in the past Maman always ordered a picnic in the orchard, but when Isi woke on her special day, she kept her head under the coverlet and prayed, Please, not the orchard.
They ate in the formal garden. Paulus said special prayers to ward off the evil eye, Papa carved a magic sign into the stone wall and made Isabelle touch it, and finally Maman gave her a small sack in which was sewn a garlic bulb. “You are to wear this at all times. And, Isabelle, you are absolutely forbidden to leave the castle.”
The garlic sack hung on a hot cord and chafed Isi’s neck. The servants ducked and mumbled when they passed. Outside lay the woods, the cool edge of the river, but Maman compelled her to woman’s work, teaching her to turn the vinegar barrels, to weigh the wool before and after spinning, to trim candles and save the bits of wax, to uncork and mete out ale. Isabelle sighed through the days. Only two of the tasks interested her: measuring the spices and plunging her hands into the stores of cloth.
When Maman turned the key to open the spice chest, smells like colored angels flew into the larder. Nutmeg was Isi’s favorite, scented like faraway places, Paris or London or even Jerusalem, where Coeur de Lion had traveled. “Could I have one of these?” She rolled the little ball on her palm.
“That is not for play. Put it back at once.”
In a carved wooden coffer lengths of wool, linen, and silks were stored, strewn with lavender. Isi learned to measure the fabric for mantles, vests, and tunics. Some of the wool was blunt, as if still on the sheep’s back; other lengths were fine-threaded and dyed a rich red.
One day Maman announced, “Your father has decided you are to have a new overdress.”
Isi’s heart trilled for the first time in days. “May I choose the cloth?”
“Let us see what you choose.” Maman put her hands on her hips.
Isi pulled the fabrics out one by one: knobby wool, linsey-wooley, scarlet tiretaine. In a special compartment, wrapped in fine linen, lay the valuable silk. The cloud of colors slid on her hands; she touched a length of pale bitter green like the woods in spring. “This one, s’il vous plait.”
Maman snorted. “Silk is for women.” She pushed Isabelle away and pulled out a russet worsted. “Use your lesson. Measure and cut.”
Wool worsted. Scratchy, heavy, and stinky when wet. Even though she was only a year from being a woman, Isabelle started to cry.
“Don’t mewl, child. You’ll need it in winter, and the color will set off your hair.”
In the days after Alain died, the eyes of those in the castle clung to Isabelle, holding her in a web. Rumors of demons trickled in through the portcullis and among the seated servants at meals. Paulus was stern, Maman all elbows and duty. At the table with Hugh de Lusignon, Isi’s heart clenched oddly when he smiled at her. At night she squirmed in her bed as bonfires were lit in the village and pots pounded late into the night to scare away the devil. Only with Papa could she breathe.
One night, standing with him on the edge of the castle, star-shine on her face, she asked, “Will they come for me?”
“I would never allow that.”
“Will I have to stay inside the castle forever?”
“Ah, ma petite. Perhaps we should send you away.”
Her internal chicken gave a little squawk, the first since Alain died. “In a little cart?”
“We shall see.”
To go away surely meant horses. My own cart out into the world. Universum. Her cousin had married when she was twelve and been sent off to Rochefort, traveling under the pennants of her new husband. Isi leaned farther into the night, imagined traveling across the land with the pennants of Angoulême snapping red and gold. Her chicken scurried forward, then sailed into full flight.
The Air Shall Carry Thy Voice
The day before he was to escort Count Aymer’s daughter from Angoulême to safety, Hugh de Lusignan stayed outdoors, accompanying the falconer. Even in the meadow he couldn’t shake the grip of the old castle, hunkered on a distant hill in the hot August air, stained, outdated, and made even darker by the anger Hugh felt towards it. Except for the excitement of saving Isabelle—swinging that stick to bring the howling crowd to its knees—the past month’s visit had been the most dreadful and lonely of his sixteen years.
As he waited for the Count’s falcon master, he stared up into the flat blue as it streamed from the froth of the forest’s edge. Beyond the sky were angels and whatever else God had placed there. With wings he could fly up, shatter heaven like a glass chalice, burst into air thin and fragrant with incense. Float free, never come down. Then my father…
The falcon master nudged Hugh’s shoulder. “Concentrate. These birds are dangerous.” He tossed him a leather glove. “We’ve many to exercise today.” He pointed with his chin at the cadger toiling across the field, a wooden hoop swinging from straps over his shoulders. Leashed and clinging to the hoop were two merlins, two gyrfalcons, and a peregrine, hooded and snapping their curved beaks right and left. “You’ll fly the merlins.”
Merlins. How dare the master give him birds only ladies flew? Hugh was sixteen, long a man. He stamped away into the field, little burrs catching at his leggings. What use to be a man if you never had a chance to prove yourself? He lengthened his steps, hand clenched as if to a weapon, imagining the metallic whisper of mail heavy on his shoulders. He could lead men to the Holy Land, brave and stalwart as his grandfather and great-grandfather. The grass became sands of the East, the sun thickened and raged, the forest transformed into distant cities waiting for his conquering.
“Master.” The cadger panted up beside Hugh. “Don’t forget your glove.”
Hugh dropped his head to hide dark thoughts. Always watched. Always insulted. “Are the merlins wearing proper jesses?”
“Yes, young master.” The cadger flicked the leather thongs attached to the bird’s feet.
Stung by young, Hugh held out his fist, and the bird flew to it. Through the leather glove he could feel the talons gripping, the points of the claws increasing the angry flashes in his body. He was the son of a count, a descendant of men who went on crusade, worthy of a peregrine, not this diminutive thing.
The falcon master shouted, “Set her loose.”
Always directed. Always under their eyes. Shaking an internal fist at all that Angoulême encompassed, Hugh turned and catapulted the merlin skywards.
Away it soared, bells ajingle, above the half-harvested stripes of field, back across the meadow, skimming the tickle of grass, winging again up to the blue. I’d be like that. No one telling me what to do. No father saying go to Angoulême and listen, they may have dangerous plans. Hugh had listened as admonished but heard only of crops and thievery. No plans for siege, no soldiers training, no talk of taking back the borderland between Angoulême and Lusignan. What did Father expect? Hugh could have been home with his—
“Bring her in.”
Hugh held out his fist with a bit of rat as reward, and the merlin returned, heavier now, relaxed and tired on his arm. The cadger, who smelled of dung even in the meadow, replaced the tiny hood and took the bird away. Then the falcon master released the peregrine, which flew close to Hugh’s head, jesses snapping his hat.
“By God’s bones, you—” He bit back further angry words; the falconer sat at high table with the Count. And on the morrow Hugh would leave.
When the birds were well exercised, he walked away from the men, their condescension and arrogance, and wandered along the wooden stockade that protected the village, alone for once.
Just inside the gate, two boys were playing with sticks, flailing at one another and shouting. “Take that!” “Take that yourself!” “I’ll cut your heart out!”
“That’s not how to hold a sword.” Hugh couldn’t help himself; someone was always correcting him. He would pass it on.
The boys stared at him, sticks dangling at their sides.
“Here, give it to me.” Hugh reached out a hand and was reluctantly given a stick. “Like this, you see.” He stepped towards the opponent, bending his knee, pushing the sword straight out in front of him. “That’s a thrust. That’s how you cut out a heart. You try.”
The little boy’s wobbly thrust almost toppled him into the dirt, and Hugh smiled. “Good. Now, you.” He pointed at the other child.
A passing man lifted his cap. “Good day to you, sir.”
The children goggled. This was a sir?
Hugh nodded at the man, then sliced the stick through the air. “See? That’s how you remove a head.” The children’s eyes snapped back to their game. “One swish, and your enemy dies.”
Great laughter. With Hugh’s encouragement, they were soon thrusting and swishing and kicking up dirt. “Keep practicing. One day you may go on a crusade.”
“In hook s’vincy,” the boys shouted in unison as Hugh walked away.
“In hook…?” He puzzled it out and finally realized they meant In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign I conquer,” motto of the crusading Templars. Where did lads learn these things? He was grinning when a girl stepped out of a hut and threw a sparkling rope of water.
Hugh’s momentary entrancement with the shape and flight of the water—shining drops like the sound of bells—evaporated when it hit his shoes and the girl howled laughter instead of apologizing. Because she was wearing a tunic with the “X” of thread on the neckline required of local prostitutes, he grabbed her.
Beneath his hands her shoulders shook with amusement, lively as rabbits; her breasts bobbled under the grey fabric of her tunic. The cloth was coarse, unevenly woven, but what it covered reminded him of another pair of breasts, covered with pale blue linen and revealing the prick of a nipple. He released the girl and slid his thumb down one breast, testing for the little knob. Yes. His body leapt up, and, not looking at her face, unwilling to break the feeling that he held a different, much loved girl in his hands, he pushed her back into a room that smelled of vinegar and tomatoes. From the door a band of hungry sunlight found a broken piece of bread on a crude shelf.
He was reaching for the hem of her shift when she twisted and gripped his hand with knobby fingers. “It costs. Even for fine-looking young men.”
“I have…” He had only lust. His body throbbed with a memory of the girl back in Lusignan, but this girl stepped away. In the dark it was impossible to read her eyes. As he ran his hands down his body—he must stop this urge, rub it away here in the dark—he touched his belt. “A feather. To wear in your hat.”
“Hats aren’t allowed.”
“From the count’s gyrfalcon to put on your wall. Proof someone from the castle visited.” He held out his offering. Please take it, please. I must have… For a brief moment he thought how fun lust was, how surprising; then he brushed her face lightly with the feather.
She snatched it and stepped into the doorway for a closer look. The sun pressed through her shift’s thin fabric. Wider than his lover, shorter, but with curves that called to his hands in the same way. He stepped close; her hair smelled of smoke and apples. He lifted her dress and ran his hands up to her breasts, almost losing control.
“You’re from the castle?” She held the feather up to the sun.
“Yes.” He was rubbing against her and stroking the points of her breasts. His body led him; he no longer cared that she didn’t look like his lover, or that there were eyes watching him all the time. He focused entirely on the fire building inside. He managed to choke out, “I’ll be a count someday.” Not in Angoulême but in Lusignan. As if it mattered to the girl.
She pulled away, stuck her payment into the piece of bread, stripped off her dress, and let him into her soft parts.
This novel started with several sentences in a book that outlined a bit of British history unfamiliar to me. In 1200, King John of England abducted Isabelle of Angoulême from her fiancé, Hugh de Lusignan, and married her. As queen she gave John heirs, but when he died she returned to France, married Hugh, and had nine children. I was immediately intrigued.
My BA in History, with an emphasis on medieval Europe, taught me that, with few exceptions, women in that era were bargaining chips for power or wealth; their main duty was to bear sons. But did Isabelle played an active part in the abduction? (Women had to consent to marriage.) Why had her fiancé waited for her? There was a great story in there.
I gave each main character a point of view so as to write about the events from all angles. Isabelle came first, almost twelve, the age when she’d be considered marriageable. I invented the trauma that sent her to Lusignan to be fostered, a common medieval practice, then followed her into womanhood, the abduction, and her years in England, admiring (creating) her capability to maneuver in constrained, often dire, circumstances. Historically, Hugh seemed weak; John captured him in battle. He also must have loved deeply—after all, he didn’t marry in the sixteen years of Isabelle’s absence. To complicate things, I envisioned a lost love for him. Finally, I wanted to give John some humanity, after the drubbing he usually takes in history; he may have been slightly mad, impetuous, insanely jealous, but he was a good administrator of the country—some would say too good, too invasive—and I wanted to find or invent reasons for his decisions. A lot of speculation swirls around the abduction, a leading factor in John’s loss of British territory in France. I decided that Isabelle had the personality to attract him, and that over time she used this personality to gain some control in her life. Not a modern woman, but recognizable in her strength.
Research at the Library of Congress, in history books, and online supplied information about the seventeen years covered in the novel. I read about the Magna Carta, of course, but also about the times when John imprisoned Isabelle. I researched celebrations, falconry, childbirth, superstitions, religion, mores, and popular lays (songs) in order to recreate the tenor of everyday medieval life. Using a timeline of John and Isabelle’s travels and biographies of the King’s trusted knights, I built the story.
I will confess to a historical problem caused by my first reading: the claim that Isabelle returned to her original fiancé. Sources I later found stated the original fiancé was Hugh’s father. There are many Lusignan Hughs—they were an important family in both the crusades and France—but the surviving records are thin and often contradictory. In my defense, Hugh’s father seems to have married Mathilde of Angoulême in 1189; she died in 1233, precluding an engagement in 1200. In any case, I have chosen to make the original fiancé Isabelle’s eventual husband. It’s a better story.
Terri Lewis, after a career as a ballet dancer, turned to writing, studying at the Writer’s Center in Maryland. In 2019 she was invited to the Sewanee Writers Conference. Two of her short stories received awards from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts, and she was the winner of a Bethesda Literary Festival Writers contest, as well as being selected for the Jenny McKean Moore workshop at George Washington University. She reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and several of her reviews have been excerpted in LitHub. She lives in Denver with her husband and two crazy dogs, and is working on a new novel set in the theater. You can reach her here.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021