Sunday, February 27, 2011

#SampleSunday: The Burning Candle, Chapter One

PART I: Chapter One – Blood Moon
Crépy-en-Valois, France – February 1096

A billowing shadow, the color of dried blood, devoured the full moon. Isabel clutched the folds of her blue mantle tightly around her and traipsed across the frost-covered ground. The cold penetrated the soles of her leather shoes. Sluices of the evening air tore through her body beneath layers of wool and an ermine-lined mantle. Her heart fluttered inside her chest, but the blood moon enthralled her more than it frightened.

After Vespers, the moon had dispelled the encroaching gloom of dusk and bathed the snowbound landscape at Crépy-en-Valois in its golden glow. Then the light faded, before the ominous darkness began consuming it. Isabel had rushed from the great hall of her father’s château for a glimpse of the sight. Now, her father’s guards and men-at-arms stood in circles around the bailey. They whispered and gestured toward the strange sight in the sky.

“Come away from here, milady.”

Isabel turned at the sound of her nursemaid, Claremond, who shuffled across the bailey. A green mantle fastened across her shoulders with cords trailed in her wake. Beneath Claremond’s ponderous weight, granular deposits of ice cracked. She held a rushlight aloft at an angle in its iron holder. The dim flame illuminated the sagging jowls of her pallid face. Deep folds carved around her opaque eyes and the fleshy wattle under the chin betrayed her advanced years.

Isabel pointed at the rust-colored moon. “What does it mean, Claremond?”

The older woman followed her gaze. “It is an ill omen, milady. First, there were the fires in the sky last April and now this, another sign of God’s displeasure and judgment.”

Isabel shuddered at the thought of righteous anger raining down brimstone and fire on their heads, as her father’s chaplain often preached about during Mass.

Her nurse draped an arm over her shoulders. “No good shall result from anything which occurs this night. It is why I am especially fearful for you.”

“You’re afraid for me? But, why should you be?”

“Come away with me into the great hall and you shall learn. The Comte de Vermandois sent me to fetch you. He and your mother wish to speak with you, before you retire.”

Isabel nodded and fell into step beside Claremond. “Are my parents with the monk who arrived earlier today?”

“They are with Father Onfroi, milady. He is not a monk.”

“He wears the habit of the Benedictines.”

“He does, milady, but he does not live in a monastery, which a monk would never do. He is a priest and confessor.”

“Then why is he here? Father has his own confessor.”

“Patience, milady, you must learn patience. A woman must never appear too eager for anything, including information. Father Onfroi is the envoy of the Comte de Meulan, who is a great magnate and a hero of the conquest of England. I believe Father Onfroi is here to finalize plans for your marriage to the Comte, milady.”

Isabel’s heart leapt. All her concern about the portent of the strange moon vanished. “I cannot wait to be married.”

She picked up the trailing edge of her mantle and dashed toward the château.

“Wait, milady! Milady, please. Proper young ladies do not run.”

Isabel ignored Claremond, who gasped and panted, her bulk slowing her.

Set in the midst of two wooded valleys, the stone-built château of the Comte de Vermandois featured a square stone tower that had stood from the time of Isabel’s maternal uncle Eudes. Eleven years later, the tower still dominated the site. Home to trusted retainers and Isabel’s family, she knew only peace and comfort behind its walls.

The carved wooden door creaked when the guardsmen stationed beside it opened the portal. Isabel drifted through the entryway. Iron wall brackets supported beeswax candles colored a dull brown. Isabel pressed a hand to her pulsing heart and inhaled a deep breath. A sweet honey fragrance wafted through the air. She entered the hall. Every breath from her lips escaped in a thin stream of white vapor. Cold dampened the innermost sanctum of the walls, despite numerous tapestries.

Her parents sat in massive chairs on a raised wooden dais, opposite the entrance. Isabel crossed the hall in rapid strides. A loud gasp escaped her when she reached them. Beyond the central hearth in the midst of the room, stood the black-robed, tonsured Father Onfroi who faced her father and mother. When she darted past him, she felt his stare at her back. With a deep curtsey, she greeted her parents.

Comte Hugh de Vermandois gripped the gilded arm of his chair and leaned forward. He seemed impossibly larger than usual, draped in an ankle-length blue tunic embroidered with gold at the hem and neckline. A gold-studded belt encircled his thick waist. Beside him, Comtesse Adele appeared bored as she fingered several of her rings. An array of topaz, sapphire, cornelian, beryl and sardonyx set in gold shimmered on her long, delicate fingers. When Isabel curtsied, her mother paused in her examination and regarded her husband for a moment. Then she returned her attention to the jewelry.

Isabel straightened but averted her stare. Silence suffused the room, broken only by the shuffle of Claremond’s footfalls when she finally entered the room. With a slight wheeze, she also curtsied and stood beside Isabel, who avoided her stern gaze with a resolute stare at the rush-strewn floor.

“Why were you so long in coming?” Comte Hugh’s baritone rumbled through the hall.

“Forgive her, milord,” Claremond began but an impatient wave of the Comte’s burly hand silenced her. “I addressed my daughter, crone, not you.”

Isabel flushed and dared look toward her father. His moon-shaped face had flushed red. Black brows knitted and framed his deep-set eyes, gray as a storm cloud, the same color as Isabel’s own.

Her mother ceased her inspection of her bejeweled fingers. Her long nails tapped against the chair arm.

“Answer your father, Isabel. Why did you not come to us earlier? Where were you?”

The childlike whisper of Comtesse Adele’s voice belied the strength of her steely gaze. Isabel drew back and her father’s frown deepened.

“I was outdoors, milord. The moon is a strange color tonight. I wanted to see it.”

“It warns of great evil. How strange that such a sight should attract the interest of a child.”

Isabel turned toward the sonorous rumble of Father Onfroi’s voice. Torchlight gleamed off his baldpate. His ovoid blue eyes, set beneath golden eyebrows in an angular face, studied her before he frowned. “Why was the child out of bed at this hour?”

His gaze, full of condemnation, swung to Claremond.

Isabel stepped between them and partially blocked her nurse from his view. “You may ask the question of me.”

“Isabel, you may address Father Onfroi when he speaks to you, not before. Be silent before I force you to leave.” With a nod toward the priest, Comte Hugh apologized.

Father Onfroi mused, “She has willfulness, hardly a desirable attribute in a female. But I would suggest if her nurse,” he paused and looked beyond Isabel again, “is too old to supervise her constantly, that the woman should not travel with us to Pont Audemer.”

“Pont Audemer? Why am I going there? Why must Claremond remain behind?” The inquiry slipped out before Isabel could refrain from it. She received stares of rebuke from both her parents.

Comtesse Adele rose from her seat. Her grey woolen robe, draped in loose folds around her trim figure, swept across the floor as she descended from the dais and stood beside her daughter. She studied her with slate-colored eyes.

Isabel dipped her head and avoided her mother’s penetrating stare.

The Comtesse clasped her hands together. “My daughter knows nothing of these circumstances, not even of her betrothal. We expected she would have had more time to ready herself for this union.”

“She is eleven years old, is she not? A suitable age at which most Norman girls prepare to be wed,” Father Onfroi pronounced.

Comtesse Adele raised her auburn-colored eyebrows and peered down her aquiline nose at the priest. “My daughter is no mere girl. She bears the blood of kings of France from Charlemagne onward. Your Comte aims high in this match.”

Comte Hugh rose and nodded to Father Onfroi. “Forgive the Comtesse. She forgets the Comte de Meulan bears the blood of an ancient and noble line, and that he is also a descendant of the Comtes of the Vexin, Amiens and Valois, as is my wife.”

He glared at the Comtesse for a moment before he took his seat again.

“I do not forget!” The Comtesse’s shrill cry rang around the hall. “It remains a concern for me - the blood ties between my daughter and the Comte de Meulan.”

Father Onfroi said, “We have addressed this issue, milady. An envoy is even now in Rome, requesting a papal decree regarding the matter of consanguity.”

Comte Hugh added, “I have decided to undertake the Holy War against the Saracens, as well my wife knows. My pledge shall be enough to satisfy the Church.”

Isabel sighed at the thought of her father’s departure. She could not fathom why the Holy Land concerned the Church so much. Pope Urban II had proclaimed in the previous autumn that true Christians should liberate the Holy Land from the infidel Saracens. Isabel did not understand why nor did she care. If Jerusalem was as far away, as her father had described, a journey of many months by land and sea, events there did not matter.

“Our daughter is the granddaughter of a French king,” Her mother’s voice banished her morose thoughts. “Does the Comte de Meulan understand her value?”

“He does indeed, milady. Truly, with the wealth of his French and English estates, the Comte is well suited to your daughter. There are no legitimate reasons for concerns about the match. If you can keep your daughter’s pride in check, I do not doubt her betrothed shall be satisfied.”

The Comtesse sneered. “He likes his women docile, does he?”

Father Onfroi bowed. “It is the natural state … for some women.”

Comtesse Adele turned her back on him. With a sigh, Comte Hugh waved the priest from the room.

Isabel looked from his retreating figure to her parents and Claremond. She grasped her nurse’s hand. “You shall be with me wherever I go. You must be.”

“She shall not.” Comte Hugh interjected. “More suitable arrangements must be made for your companionship.”

Isabel forced aside tears. “But I want Claremond.”

“What you want is irrelevant.” Her father glared at his wife again. “I swear each and every day, she grows more like you.”

“Good.” Comtesse Adele regarded Isabel once more. “Then she has my fortitude and none of your weaknesses.”

She ignored her husband’s sigh of disgust. Isabel stared up at her, wide-eyed. As a child, she often marveled at the sight of her parents: her father large and bovine next to her mother, slim as a reed. They seemed ill suited in all respects.

“My daughter, three years ago on the occasion of your eighth birthday, your father betrothed you to a rich and powerful man. He is confidante to an English king and has great estates in that country.”

“Must I live in England with him?”

“I should hope not. It seems an incredibly dull place and there remains a great deal of resentment among the natives for their Norman oppressors.”

Isabel glanced at her father. “Have you met my betrothed, milord?”

Comte Hugh grunted. “At your uncle’s court a few years back when he came to do homage to King Philip. He attended the assembly of nobles at Poissy.”

“Please, tell me more about him, milord. How shall I know my future husband? Tell me of his appearance and his manner.”

Her father shrugged. “He is tall with yellow hair. I do not remember much else of him. What does his appearance or demeanor matter? His wealth shall he enough to make you happy. ”

Comtesse Adele sighed and grasped Isabel’s shoulders. “The Comte neglects to mention that your betrothed is also old. He has lived for fifty years. He is older than your own father.”

“I do not mind so much, milady.”

The Comtesse scowled. “You may when everyone blames you for not bearing his children.” She turned her frown on her husband. “Do you hear that, Hugh? The man may not be capable of siring an heir. Then people shall accuse our daughter of failing him.”

“Isabel comes from good breeding stock. You have borne me several children including her. How could anyone think she is barren? Now let her retire, it is late.”

Isabel and Claremond curtsied. Her father waved them off. As they walked the length of the hall, Isabel halted and spun around. “Milord, I thank you for seeing to my future. I shall be a good wife to my husband and never shame our family.”

Comte Hugh nodded. “See that you do not.”

Isabel de Vermandois, descended from French Kings, was the beautiful wife and lover of two powerful Anglo-Norman Earls in the early twelfth century. The Burning Candle, a story of her life and loves, will be published in 2012.  

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