Sunday, March 6, 2011

#SampleSunday: The Burning Candle, Chapter 11

Isabel de Vermandois shares a brief meeting with Earl William de Warenne of Surrey.

Chapter Eleven – Parting

Vatteville, Normandy – November 1100

Flames crackled in the open hearth bordered by stone. Drawn to the inviting warmth, Isabel settled on a low stool beside one of the large stone columns that supported the roof. She swept the folds of her mantle back and stared into the fire at the western edge of the hall. Across the chamber, Petronilla looked up from her embroidery lesson, before Claremond gestured for her to return her attention to the task. The maid's weary sighs and stifled groans echoed in the near silence. In a huff, she tugged threads from the cloth, while Claremond urged her to be patient.

A low whimper warned Isabel that the three of them were no longer alone. Then a warm muzzle nosed her hand. An injured alaunt gentil flopped at her side. The poor dog favored her uninjured foreleg, drawing up the other close to her underside. Earl Warenne's boar hunt of three weeks past had ruined her.

Isabel stroked the coarse, white hairs on the dog. The alaunt raised her sleek head for a moment before settling between Isabel and the hearth, her muzzle resting on her forepaws. Her eyelids drooped. Despite an occasional flick of the tail, she remained quiet.

The day after Isabel had resumed her appearances at dinner, she noticed the solitary dog. Unlike the other eager hounds, this one did not tussle over bones and scraps of meat, content to relax beside the hearth. But her ragged state and painful shuffling into the hall each day betrayed an enduring pain. The Earl's master of the hounds had done his best to patch the gaping tear in the left leg but held little hope the bitch would ever hunt again. Isabel doubted his view, believing the dog needed only time and care to heal. Each day, she fed her by hand and chased off any rival who edged too close. She delighted in her renewed appetite and hoped the alaunt might regain her strength soon.

"Milady, aren't you frightened of such a great beast?"

Claremond's raspy voice stirred Isabel from her musings. "Never, for she's as gentle as may be."

"But surely not so in the hunt?"

"I doubt alaunts are bred for gentleness. But she's not hunting now. I've no reason to fear her."

Then the bitch raised her head, her ears cocked, attention on the doorway. William de Warenne entered.

Isabel stared into the flames once more. Her stomach fluttered and clenched as if dinner had soured inside her. She clasped her fingers together in her lap. Unbidden, her thoughts strayed to the evening when they stood alone. She recalled his heated, whispered words in the chapel. “If you belonged to me, I’d never leave your side.”

She closed her eyes to banish the memory of him, which had haunted her for three nights. Yet, that only increased her awareness of him. His heavy, booted feet approached, trampling fresh straw. The scent of horses and the wine served at dinner tinged her nostrils. Her fingers clenched, nails digging into her palms. His footsteps halted at her side. Her skin tingled. Heat that had nothing to do with the nearby fire swept up her spine.

When she glanced upward, the Earl loomed at her side, leaning against the other side of the column. When he bowed, a forelock of dark hair fell over his eyes. He straightened, with a trace of a smile on his lips. Her lips felt dry. She moistened them with a darting flick of her tongue. His smile faded. She shuddered beneath his pertinent gaze. Only when Claremond coughed did his eyes slide away.

“Comtesse, surely it’s unhealthy to sit so close to the flames, inhaling all this smoke. Your vents are aloft, too high to spare you the worst.” He straightened and gestured to the swirling gray wisps.

Isabel snapped her mantle closed around her shoulders and regained her composure. “It’s cold.”

He came around the column and stood directly across from her seat. The hound approached, crawling on her belly. She issued a loud, long-drawn-out whine. The Earl chuckled and crouched beside her. Thick muscles bulged beneath his hose. He patted her head and stroked her coat.

“I’ll miss her. She’s been my strongest hunter for many years, but she deserves her rest now.”

Isabel sniffed and crossed her arms beneath the mantle. “Then, you believe your master of the hounds? You presume she’s outlived her usefulness?”

The Earl raised a darkened gaze before he shrugged. “The injury shall trouble her for the rest of her life. It’s a kindness that she should end her days in relative comfort, instead of dying at the end of a boar’s tusk.”

He returned his attention to the alaunt. The dog raised her head so he could tickle under her chin. She flicked her tail happily.

Earl Warenne said, “I’m grateful for your care, Comtesse. She has long been a favorite of mine, since she was a little pup. You should have seen her then, fierce and daring amongst the litter.”

His generous praise tugged at Isabel’s heart unexpectedly. For the first time, she wished she might have enjoyed such a close bond with an animal. The dog’s proximity offered an odd sense of comfort that she did not understand or question. Her father’s hounds and hunting birds at Crépy-en-Valois were unimportant to the family. After her elder brothers had teased and taunted a dog until it snapped at one of them, her father forbade them from approaching the animals.

“She’ll regain her strength soon, milord, and resume the hunt.”

The dog rolled on her side, inviting him to rub her exposed belly, her tongue lolling out of her gaping jaws. He obliged but looked from her to Isabel.

“Even if she could, I cannot wait. I am leaving Vatteville in the morning. We depart for Gournay, home to my sister Edith and her husband Gerard. He accompanied me here and is eager to return, though his wife may be less eager to see him.”

As he chuckled, Isabel gazed at him in silence and wondered why he chose to share such an intimacy. Then she remembered how her tongue betrayed her during their meeting in the chapel, when she rattled on about how much she missed her husband, to a mere stranger. De Warenne must think her pathetic, starved for attention. Perhaps he pitied her.

Yet, sympathy did not soften his intense gaze. In the dimmed hall, lit only by one window to the north and the vent for the hearth, his look caught the firelight. Beneath a furrowed brow, his candid expression studied her with widened eyes. She leaned forward on the stool, her hands in her lap again. At his feet, the dog enjoyed his slow strokes across her stomach. His fingers smoothed the short white hairs.

Isabel tore her gaze away and folded her hands, suddenly aware she had said nothing in response to his leave-taking. Finally, after three weeks, she would be rid of him. Yet, the news did not bring her the sense of relief she once anticipated. Her thoughts churned as rapidly as her belly did. Nausea roiled inside her stomach anew. Perhaps she had eaten something disagreeable. The eels baked in red wine had tasted a bit more sour than usual. But the Earl had eaten of it and applauded her cook’s efforts.

She shook her head. Why had she been unable to stop thinking of him since he entered the hall? For weeks, she wished nothing more than that he should leave and take his men and dogs with him. The sooner he departed then she could begin preparing for her journey. The long-desired reunion with Robert awaited her.

The alaunt’s plaintive yowl drew her from reverie. When she looked up again, the Earl had stood. His keen expression faded to a placid, stark look. He stared in her direction, but it seemed as though he studied the ground instead of her. He scratched at his chin and took a deep breath before exhaling slowly.

“I would beg milady’s favor…that is, if you would wish it, she may remain here with you. She’s my present to you in thanks for your hospitality, though it’s a mere token.”

Isabel stiffened. “How convenient for you to rid yourself of her in this way. Indeed, your guilt is greatly eased, isn’t it, by making such a gift?”

The Earl’s jaw tightened and his fists curled at his side. She drew back on the stool.

“Do you refuse her, Comtesse?”

“I’ve grown fond of her, milord, as well you know. I accept her with all gratitude.”

“Then why couldn’t you say so without trying to goad me? You try my patience repeatedly….”

He halted in mid-speech and sketched a stiff bow. “Forgive me. I spoke without thinking and beg your favor. Your kindness has not only been to her, but to my men and me. I shall never forget it. I shall always be in your debt.”

“You have no debts unpaid to me, milord. Good Christian charity compelled my kindness. I wish you and your men Godspeed.”

“Then, I thank you for your good Christian charity, Comtesse.”

His clipped tone startled her, almost as much as his abrupt departure. The folds of his mantle snapped his wake.

The bitch dropped her head on her forepaws again and whined.

Isabel’s eyes watered as dark wisps of smoke coiled around her. She swiped at her tears. She should be in high spirits at the hope of de Warenne’s departure. Yet, the sentiment escaped her, replaced by somberness and gloom.

From across the hall, Claremond observed, “Perhaps, milady has lingered too long by the fire.”

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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