|Ficathon Request:||Fleur de Brabant of Forever Knight|
|Ficathon Prompt:||"I love thee, I love but thee, / With a love that shall not die, / Till the sun grows cold, / And the stars are old..." -- Bayard Taylor, "Bedouin Song," 1854|
|Classifications:||PG-13, ~13,500 words|
|Summary:||While Fleur is pregnant with Andre, a stranger named Lacroix arrives uninvited for a hunting party.|
Please see the endnote for credits, disclaimers and all that good stuff. After the ficathon, I will post the story to fkfic-l and keep it on my own site (nowhere else, please).
a Forever Knight fanfiction
for the "We Love Female Characters" Ficathon
by Amy R. (brightknightie)
after we've gone, your life will be good again.
Sleep. Sleep and forget."
-- Nick, 1229, "Be My Valentine"
September 1236, Artois
"My lord, my lady," their steward addressed Fleur and her husband at the high table. "The Margrave of Namur has arrived."
Fleur set down her knife, smiling as Geoffrey rounded the white-draped table and bounded off the dais to embrace his old friend. She looked over Baldwin de Namur's retinue. Now that they had passed the great hall's flickering fireplace and stood in the finer illumination of the one oil lamp on its stand, she signaled a page to open two bench spaces at the high table: one for de Namur himself and one for the tall, well-dressed man in black beside him.
"Where have you been?" Geoffrey demanded, stepping back. "You're three days past due in fair weather. I was about to take to the road after you myself."
"We've had every piddling bad luck you can imagine." Namur pushed up his brown traveling cap to rub his bald temple. "Fickle mounts, broken straps, wrong turns -- it seemed we only ever got on smoothly after sundown, trying to make up the time. Men and beasts both were too tired to go on come sunrise. And you wonder why I haven't been this far west since before your wedding!"
"Speaking of my marriage--" Geoffrey recalled himself. "Allow me to present the Countess of Artois, Fleur de Brabant."
When Fleur rose and half-curtseyed in acknowledgement, she felt as if all eyes went immediately to her abdomen. She curled her fingers against the urge to adjust her russet tunic over her gown; she had not shown this early with either of her first two children, though she had with her lost third. She preferred not to think about that. "Sir Baldwin, I'm delighted to meet you at last, after all these years. I only hope we can overwhelm the troubles of your road with the pleasures of our hunt tomorrow."
"Countess," the Margrave bowed. After Geoffrey and the two new guests stepped up onto the dais, Namur kissed Fleur's hand dutifully. "And please allow me to introduce Monsieur Lucien Lacroix, who has shared my travel while it coincided with his route to the court of Flanders."
"You are welcome as well, Monsieur Lacroix." Fleur smiled at the pale stranger. His sumptuous apparel assured her he was indeed a gentleman, though his choice of head-to-toe black was strange. Anyone who could afford such fabrics could afford color. "We are great friends of Flanders here. Will your journey allow you to tarry with us and join my lord's hunting party?" Lacroix did not answer at first, and she looked curiously up into light blue eyes that were wide, dazed and -- consuming, she thought. The shortest of a tall family, Fleur couldn’t remember the last time she had looked so far up at anyone besides her own brothers. His burning eyes and icy complexion almost suggested illness. "Monsieur Lacroix?"
"Forgive me, Countess," he bowed low over her hand, and lingered in his kiss. "I did not expect to see you, or I . . . I would have brought greetings from your brother."
Geoffrey's attention snapped from his friend to the stranger. "You are from the Duke of Brabant?"
"No, my lord," Lacroix's eyes shifted, and Fleur could no longer read them. "Her other brother, Sir Nicholas is . . . a companion of mine."
"Oh, the bachelor knight errant." Geoffrey shook his head. "Well, I'm sure my lady will care to hear of him. But now, everyone, be seated and finish eating. We've lingered late as it is, and tomorrow is the last day before Holy Rood -- the end of hart season!"
Pages brought fresh trenchers and cups for the newcomers, who found themselves the center of the other hunting-party guests' attention. Behind a blind of polite chatter, Fleur stalked their unexpected visitor, watching for an opening to seize news of her favorite brother. Nicholas had been in disgrace with Henry -- their oldest brother, the Duke -- ever since that false accusation in Wales when she was still a child, a scandal compounded by the ransom mix-up after the Crusader siege at Damietta. But Nicholas had always been Fleur's hero. He strode through the world like a song come to life.
Once, in her years as a convent student, between her father's death and when Henry called her back to prepare to marry Geoffrey, Fleur had confided in a friend that if she were a man, she would want Nicholas's life, not Henry's. Her friend, misunderstanding, had said surely she would rather marry a Duke. Fleur had never tried to explain that feeling again.
As soon as the conversation and meal allowed, Fleur quirked her lips apologetically and made the obvious ploy. "So, Monsieur Lacroix, you know my youngest brother?"
"Yes, Countess, I know Nicholas." Lacroix met her eyes. "I know him very well."
"And how is he? Where is he?"
"I left him most recently in Constantinople, my lady, with the forces of the Lord Regent John of Brienne." Lacroix sniffed his wine, but set it down again without drinking. "They have negotiated a two-year truce with the eastern Emperor and his ally, the Tsar of Bulgaria. For the moment, there are no battles. The 'Queen of Cities' is . . . not what she once was."
"And what is there for Nicholas to do, if there are no battles?"
"Oh, Nicholas will . . . hunt, I'm sure. Not unlike your husband and his comrades." Evidently reconsidering the wine, Lacroix threw back the entire contents of his cup at once. He lowered his voice. "When did you last see Nicholas?"
"Seven years ago." Fleur took a pitcher from a page to refill Lacroix's cup undiluted; he looked as if he needed it. "He came back from the Levant at last just when the Duke our brother had recalled me from St. Elizabeth's. Nicholas stayed only three days, and I'm afraid I missed his departure. I had some sort of fever, I'm told, and couldn't be woken until after he and his companions had left. It's all foggy in my memory. I've always felt cheated by that. I want my visit over again, when I'm not ill." She laughed. "I had so many questions -- the Crusade, the adventures! But do not think badly of him. I've had letters since. And now you, to tell me more!"
"My lady --" Lacroix's voice grew even quieter as it grew more intense. "Fleur --" He spread his hands apologetically when she raised her eyebrows at his use of her bare name, but his searching gaze did not waver. "Do you remember your brother's travel companions?"
He made her feel guilty, as if she held something of his. "I'm sorry, I --"
Fleur's head automatically swiveled toward the boy's voice. Not her son, nor one of the pages on duty this evening, but her husband's youngest nephew. "Yes, Etienne?"
"My merlin? You said that we could retrieve her after supper."
"If you found the tree in which she had perched, yes, of course." Fleur looked around and saw that the meal had broken up. Geoffrey and their guests had resumed their boasting for tomorrow's hart hunt in the guise of planning strategy, but after three days, that didn't require her presence at the table. Her ladies had drifted to surround the musicians staying through the annual end-of-hart-season revelry at Castle Artois. It was nearly time to retire, even with such festivities. Fleur nodded to Lacroix. "Please excuse me. I am all eagerness for news of my brother, but I solemnly pledged to teach my nephew how to retrieve an errant hawk."
Namur, overhearing, looked aghast. "Surely that is a task for your chief falconer, Countess?"
"I'm not going to climb the tree myself, Margrave." Fleur again curled her hand against the impulse to cover her abdomen. "At least, not tonight. Etienne, go fetch a single-wick tallow lamp with a shield and a loop -- if you don't know the kind, ask at the mews. I'll meet you there after I check on the children."
"My lord!" Namur turned to the Count.
Geoffrey shrugged and waved her on her way. The corners of his lips quirked up. "She is de Brabant."
Fleur hid a smile as she put her arm on Etienne's shoulders and steered him into the adjoining chamber. Shutting the door, she heard Namur's plaintive: "I don't understand."
"The Margrave doesn't seem to know much about hawking." Etienne sounded shocked. "Everyone knows the falconers of Brabant are the greatest in the world! The mews reports to you. Why wouldn't I get to have you teach me?"
Fleur kissed his head, and pushed him gently toward the staircase on the far wall. She stooped over her daughter's trundle bed and took her son from the maid's arms. "Etienne, dear, you're not wrong, but that's not quite what the Count your uncle meant. And besides, you mustn't say that sort of thing about guests. Try, 'perhaps the Margrave prefers angling,' or something like that."
Catching the smirk on Etienne's face as he slipped out, she called, "That was in jest!" It would never do to accuse a gentleman of preferring to cast a fishing line to flying a hawk or riding after a hound -- whatever the reality.
Lacroix watched Fleur go. The thick blonde hair he remembered was hidden by a white linen barbette and veil, as befit a married woman. Motherhood had filled out her figure. But here were the voice, the scent, the eyes that had haunted him every day since he left Fleur behind.
And of course the blood. He had tasted one drop, torn free by a rose's thorn in the garden of Castle Brabant. It had tantalized him ever since.
Silently, Lacroix cursed Nicholas for a hypocrite -- and himself for a fool.
"How do I climb the tree and hold the lantern at the same time?" Etienne asked quietly, pulling on long leather gloves.
"I could hand it up to you when you reach your hawk, young master," John the falconer offered, his voice equally low, "but it would be better if you could carry it with the thong around your neck or arm. You have to move slowly, softly. Do nothing to startle the bird."
"I used to take the strap in my teeth when I did this at your age." Fleur hung the shielded tallow lamp around her nephew's neck. The full moon overwhelmed its light here in this glade, but the lantern would be bright enough to dismay the hawk a few paces into the wood. As a girl, she had not liked to admit her bird ever failed to return to her, after all the wheedling needed to convince her brothers to sometimes allow her along on their hunts, so she had always recaptured her hawk herself. And she had learned how to be the kind of hunter whose birds never strayed. "John's way is much more prudent. And customary!"
"Don't start any fires, now," Agnes teased. Fleur's favorite lady-in-waiting hugged her gray cloak about her in the autumn night's chill, but her grin stretched from ear to ear and warmed her brown eyes.
Fleur smiled back, grateful again for such adventurous company. Her first few years in Artois had been hard indeed without a sympathetic attendant. Those who accompanied her from Brabant did not stay, and those she inherited from her lord's mother had made her feel -- doubtless with the best of intentions -- as if they would like to stitch her eyes shut and tie her to a perch like an unruly, untrained bird. She had waged a long campaign to become chatelaine in fact as well as name.
"What now?" Etienne asked, eyes on the tree in which his hawk perched, gloved hands on the lantern around his neck. "We found the tree, waited for dark, and my merlin looks to be sleeping."
"Now is the time for all your craft." Fleur stepped close and spoke in his ear. "It's a matter of timing. You see where she rests? Climb up under her, softly, leisurely, as if you do not need to get there until dawn. You have no interest in her at all -- or so you want her to think, if she wakes. You're just another bird sharing her tree for the night. Keep the lantern pointed toward her, away from you, so that she will not see your face. Actually, I think they're temporarily blinded when they open their eyes to the lantern, and so trained birds wait rather than flying away, but not seeing your face is the reason I was taught. Then you may take her by the legs."
"All right. No, wait." Etienne's forehead scrunched up. "How do I climb down with her in my hands?"
"Just one hand, dear." Fleur patted his shoulder. "One for holding, one for climbing. Can you do it?"
Etienne nodded firmly. Then he headed for the tree, not too many paces off. At Fleur's nod, John followed silently behind. If the boy fell, the man would catch him, and if the bird attacked the boy, the man would seize her.
"Will there be another ladies' hunt with hawks tomorrow," Agnes asked, "while the gentlemen ride to the hounds?"
"No, everyone will gather for this last hunt of the season. Except me, perhaps. I haven't decided." Fleur crossed her arms over her belly, under her cloak, but kept her eyes on Etienne. "The ladies will stay on the riverbank, and a squire will come to guide them to the hart's unmaking and curée, if the kill is not too far away. All will return together for the feasting. I keep forgetting that this is your first such festivity with us!"
"Last year, the old Count's death intervened, and the year before that, I was not yet here."
Fleur marked Etienne's slow progress up the tree by the faint glow of his lantern. "Everyone honors their huntsmen with a feast at this time of year, but this week-long gala is the great pride of Castle Artois. My lord was so pleased with de Namur's message that he would make the journey this year."
"Everything has gone well so far," Agnes assured her.
"Oh, I don't mean to fret. It's just -- Look! Our canny boy has reached his merlin." An offended squawk followed close on Fleur's words. The light came down the tree much more quickly than it had gone up, and Fleur sprang forward to congratulate her nephew.
"So will you hunt with us tomorrow, Monsieur Lacroix?" Geoffrey, Count of Artois, asked. He tipped his head back to meet his tall guest's eyes. "It looks to be a fair day. My huntsmen will set out at dawn and bring their chosen spoor to our gathering by midmorning. If your horse is worn from travel, you are welcome to one from my stable."
"Thank you, my lord." Lacroix bowed slightly. "But if you will excuse me, our travel mishaps, of which the Margrave told you, have put my documents from the Regent of Constantinople in disarray. I would like to straighten them out as soon as possible."
"Certainly," the Count nodded, his brow creasing in puzzlement at a gentleman who would voluntarily miss the final deer hunt of the year. He returned his attention to his invited guests.
Lacroix resumed his pose of absorption by the musicians. He tried not to imagine ripping out the throat of the inoffensive Count, whose freckles mocked his graying brown hair. This Geoffrey de Artois clearly valued the political fortune he had in the only living sister of the powerful Duke of Brabant. And few could fail to appreciate her face and form. But did the man at all grasp the personal treasure he had in Fleur herself, in that ravenous mind and fearless zeal? With all his chances, did this mortal know anything of what Lacroix had sensed in one drop of blood, which his best efforts had failed to forget?
Lacroix tried not to imagine draining that sturdy frame of blood permeated by knowledge and experiences that should have belonged to Lacroix alone. How would that taste? Father of Fleur's children. Including the one she carried now.
What would happen, Lacroix wondered, if he brought her across while she was with child? It was not an experiment he had ever made.
Lacroix had told Nicholas that Fleur's mortal beauty would fade and die, but it had not yet. Her mature allure exceeded her girlish promise. Her will dominated her household. The memory of that one drop of her blood pulsed red behind his eyes, pushing him to take all the rest, take her, drown himself in her, she who had once said she could not live without him.
He might not take her now. But he would have her yet.
Behind the heavy bed hangings drawn for the night, Fleur laughed as her husband reached around her. "That tickles."
"I'm only trying to feel our son move." He kissed her ear.
"It's too soon for that." She sighed happily as his touches turned from quick exploration to slow rousing. "Besides, what makes you think it will be another son?" Immediately, she regretted the question. Their stillborn third child had been a girl. She did not want to talk about it.
"With no offense to our delightful eldest Marie, of course--" now Geoffrey kissed her neck "-- I just think she and Philippe need brothers. Lots of brothers."
"One at a time, please." Fleur stretched and turned to face him. "I wish I could hunt with you tomorrow."
"When you're safely delivered of this son, I promise you may unmake a deer yourself, if you like. As long as none but our huntsmen are around to see such shocking behavior."
Fleur laughed at his teasing. "Careful! I may hold you to that."
"Oh, I think the mews are enough for you, Brabantine. Speaking of which, did you get news of your brother from that strange gentleman Namur brought along?"
"Not nearly as much as I want. I must have a word with him tomorrow."
"He's a peculiar fellow. Cold." Geoffrey's grasp tightened. "I didn't like how he looked at you."
Fleur soothed her husband with her hands. "How did he look?"
"Like you belonged to him."
"Well, that would be absurd, poor man." Fleur brushed her lips across Geoffrey's. "Now, were you thinking of practicing for our next child? One at a time, remember."
Behind the stables, Lacroix found temporary satisfaction in a minor courtier attendant upon one of Fleur's guests. The man's death would not inconvenience the Countess. But his admiration of her sweetened his blood.
Yes. There. Almost. A memory of her smiling welcome under the sun. Oh, yes! His precious flower . . .
"I will bring you the hart's heart-bone," Geoffrey promised Fleur a charm to ward pregnancy as he mounted his horse in the morning light. Namur, astride a borrowed steed, waited with a sour look.
"Generous, my lord," Fleur's eyes crinkled. "You seek to complete my set of every one taken this season. But I'd prefer the gift of a view of the hunt from my solar, if you can steer it so."
"Ah, that's up to the beasts, dear lady!" He saluted her from the saddle and led their guests toward the river at a gallop. Their household had been setting up there since before dawn, the better to pretend to rustic delights as they broke their fast after mass and debated the best hart to track. The lymerers, handlers of the special scent hounds trained to silence, would return with the prospects soon. A pavilion would shelter the ladies through the day.
In another year, Fleur might have ridden pillion behind her husband, if not followed their hounds herself in front of noble guests. She sighed. At least there would be hawking again tomorrow, before the boar hunt the next day marked the transition to winter's game, and the end of the fete.
"Will you come inside?" Agnes asked, shadowed in the doorway.
Fleur looked up into the warm autumn sun. There would not be too many more days like this one. "I want to check on the kitchens and buttery, and visit the mews. Do you mind taking a turn with me?"
"Of course not, my lady." Fleur's lady-in-waiting took her arm. They strolled across the bailey.
"I'm sorry for keeping you from the gathering," Fleur said. "My apologies to your friend Clara, as well. I'm sure you two had plans and plots for the revelry out there, among the guests or on your own, and here I keep you in like a punishment, just because I do not wish to spend an entire day alone with the Lady de Hainult."
"As if I would leave you for a day to Lady de Hainult!" Agnes snickered. "Clara agrees, my lady, and forgives us both. She will watch over the nursery today, and I will watch over you. There will be other hunts, other holidays. Besides, I am nearly as curious as you are to hear what that Monsieur Lacroix has to say of your brother the Crusader."
"He did not join the hunt?"
"No! And the Margrave's servants say this Lacroix is occupied in his chamber every day, from sun-up to nearly sundown. They have suffered the most grievous losses in their travels. All their horses but his own grew more wrought-up and wild every day -- 'blood-maddened,' said the Margrave's armsman -- and three of their company ran off -- separately! -- in open country over the course of their journey, and could not be found."
"And I thought the Margrave simply ill-humored." Fleur shook her head. People fled near villages and, goodness knows, cities, not alone in rough country to be eaten by beasts. "That's reason for his somberness, I grant." She paused, remembering something she had read. "A detour to the stables, I think, Agnes. Let us have a look at these 'maddened' horses."
Lacroix waited outside the room occupied by Fleur and her attendant. Its luxurious, glazed, oriel windows facing the river were no longer a threat to him, now that the sun had passed west, but he wished to speak with Fleur alone. A lady of her rank would never deliberately be left unaccompanied with a man not of her household.
But it took only patience to ensure a coincidence.
Fleur looked up from the copy of Virgil's Georgics she herself had transcribed, and rubbed her brow. It was almost too dark here to read without lighting a candle, but it was much too early to spend good scholar's beeswax, and she hated reading by tallow and rush-light while there was another choice. When Agnes returned from answering nature's call, they should move to the other side of the building.
That would mean giving up any hope of seeing the curée, however, and her husband, nephews and huntsmen alike would be disappointed if the hart did flee this direction and she missed it.
Staring out the opened window -- the extravagant glazing called "white" was really a greenish blur to peer through, not the miraculous clear glass Nicholas had seen beyond the sea -- Fleur looked from the far pavilion by the river to the grassy space just below and before her, where Agnes's friend Clara oversaw little Marie and Philippe at play. The afternoon sun reached them from a different angle, bathing her children in its warm gold while Fleur sat in shadow indoors.
To her surprise, she saw Agnes join them, not just greeting Clara in passing, but settling next to her on the spread robe as if she meant to stay. Fleur's favorite attendant laid her head on her friend's shoulder.
About to call out to them, Fleur heard the door open. Monsieur Lacroix stepped through. His color was a little higher than the night before, though still extraordinarily pale above his silver-trimmed black tunic and cloak. He did look at her strangely, as Geoffrey had said. But she thought it was not the look of possession; rather, she thought she saw loneliness. She wondered what Nicholas might tell her of this friend of his.
"Countess." Lacroix bowed. "How goes the hunt?"
"I have seen almost nothing from here, alas. But I hope a wily hart has made the chase exciting, if they have not yet run it to ground after this many hours." Fleur closed the volume carefully, with a respect born as much of all the crabbed hours devoted to its copying as of its august author. She set it on the scribe's stand at her side. "I understand your duty to the documents you carry from John of Brienne to the Flanders court prevented you from following the hounds yourself today. Is everything ordered now?"
"Yes, thank you. I thought I might . . . tell you of your brother, if you wish."
"By all means!" Fleur felt a smile splash across her face. She glanced down once at her ladies and children outside. She would hear if they needed her, and vice versa. "I can hardly express what joy news of Nicholas brings me. If you please, leave the door open, and have a seat."
Lacroix demurred to join her in the window, and settled instead on the bench by the darkest wall, next to the table bearing her three trunks of precious books, safe there from water, light and vermin. The trunk where her Virgil belonged was open, and he looked curiously at the topmost leather-wrapped board.
"May I?" Lacroix lifted the volume at Fleur's nod. "Sacrobosco's De Sphaera Mundi! 'On the Sphere of the World.'"
"And his Algorismus, in the back, under that same cover. Do you know Sacrobosco's work?" Fleur asked eagerly. "It is said that at the University of Paris last year, he proved that the calendar is ten days off true, and we must omit one day every two-hundred and eighty-eight years to prevent further slippage. But he doesn't say how we can recover the ten days already lost."
"Yes, I had heard that." Lacroix stared at the book in his hands. "He is a proponent of Saracen mathematics."
"The numerals are marvelous, are they not? It takes a few days to learn them, but then it's so simple a child can compute, tens and hundreds as easy as counting on one's fingers!"
Lacroix raised his eyes to hers, and Fleur almost recoiled from the hunger in that gaze, as clear as the Saracen numerals. "The stars were your new passion when first we met," he said, "and a very old one of mine. Was this the volume you studied then, in the garden of Castle Brabant?"
"So you were among my brother's travel companions, on his one visit. I wondered."
"Oh, did you?"
"By your words only." Fleur spread her hands as if to placate, but converted the gesture into smoothing the full skirt of her yellow gown and adjusting her embroidered over-tunic. She was the mistress here and he the supplicant, regardless of this curious effect he had on her. "I regret that I remember almost nothing of Nicholas's visit, past flying down the stairs to greet him as he entered the hall. I am all embarrassment that you remember me as a girl, while I met you as a stranger last evening."
"You have nothing about which to be embarrassed," Lacroix said. "The girl I left was bright and beautiful. But the woman I find is wise and wonderful beyond my imagining."
"You flatter me." Fleur smiled patiently. No one had bothered to flatter her so in some time, but she still recognized the game. How unusual, that he gave "bright" and "wise" precedence among his praises -- but a shrewd hunter matched his lure to his prey, and she knew herself as vulnerable to acclaim for her eccentricities as anyone. She did not wish to be baited. "That you accompanied Nicholas home then, and are still his companion today, tells me that you two must be close. What tales of him can you share?"
"My lady --" Lacroix seemed to gather himself. "Fleur --" Though he sat in shadow, light reflected from his eyes. His voice fell even deeper and took on an eerie, commanding resonance. "Remember. Remember me. Remember me!"
Her brain no longer fit inside her skull.
Throbbing ignited behind her eyes. Fleur swallowed a groan and clenched her teeth against the sudden pain. Blinking, she strove to keep her expression blank. When she looked away from Lacroix, the pressure eased, and she took a deep breath.
"Monsieur, I regret that I do not remember." Fleur held her tone flat. She called out the window to Agnes, who leaped up and met her mistress's gaze, the maid's expression a mask of dismay, before pelting toward the stairs. Fleur stood. She pulled her rank and dignity around her like armor. "For Nicholas's sake, I greet you as a friend. This need not change. But whatever distinction you hold in lands near or far, never again attempt to order me in my own home."
"Forgive me," Lacroix stood, and bowed low. "In my excitement, I forgot my place. Countess."
Agnes appeared at the door, out of breath. Fleur frowned at her. "I have been taken with a sudden sick headache, doubtless from reading in insufficient light. Please secure the books, and then escort me to my bed."
As Agnes put the books away and locked the chests, Fleur addressed Lacroix. "Our attempts to discuss my brother seem woefully plagued. But I do wish to hear of him, Monsieur."
"And I wish to tell you of him. Many things."
"Perhaps you will come hunting waterfowl tomorrow? I predict a storm to roll in. We may evade rain, but heavy clouds are sure. Good company is as important as good country. Lone hawking is poor sport."
"My lady, I . . . will see what I can do."
As soon as Agnes had escorted her out of earshot of Lacroix, Fleur's lady-in-waiting began to apologize. That Fleur awaited her return had flown completely from her mind. It had been as if she had no memory at all of her duty! And when Clara had asked her about it, Agnes had replied that Lady de Hainult was with the Countess. Agnes had no idea what madness had overtaken her.
But Fleur did.
Was he going mad? Lacroix wondered, still sitting on a bench in Fleur's darkening solar. Her passions pervaded the chamber. It was not just the trunks full of books, or the scribe's stand and writing instruments, but shelves of dried healer's herbs, a falconer's bag and, across from him, too near the window for his comfort, the seasonal progress of the stars as seen from this room painted on the whitewashed stone wall.
With no one watching, Lacroix buried his face in his hands.
He had promised to join Fleur outdoors in the daytime. Instead of diverting her, smoothly, with more than a thousand years of practiced excuses, he had found himself at a loss for words. Staring down into the de Brabant blue eyes, huge in her oval face, his will abased itself at the feet of her lightest desire. The idea of seeing her hunt -- of witnessing her pleasure as her hawk flew and dove and killed for her -- enthralled him.
This was not like him.
But what had been like him, since the fatal moment he first felt the warmth of her touch in the hall at Castle Brabant? Or had it been since he tasted that one drop of her blood in the rose garden? Never otherwise had he taken less than all. Fast or slow, at once or in portions, always he had drained to the dregs. Only with Fleur had he tasted, and yet left a heart beating mortal time behind him. Day after month after year.
He cursed Divia's ignorance of what they were, ignorance that left him, all these centuries later, still discovering limitations she had not admitted.
Lacroix stood and paced the chamber. Four of his long strides from side to side. Turn.
He had tried to forget Fleur's life, to remember only the vengeance Nicholas owed him. Assumed he would never see her again. Believed that having Nicholas must eventually stanch his craving for Nicholas's sister. A moment only, and she would be dust!
But that moment was not yet. He had another chance. Turn again.
Before, she had begged to go with him, said she could not live without him, that her only wish was to be with him. That had made sense. That was the natural order. This reversal was lunacy. Or love.
Lunacy would be less alarming.
Fleur was not asleep, so the scratching at her bed hangings did not rouse her. The cautious sound wanted her attention, but only if she were already awake. With pain still ragged behind her eyes, she took a moment to respond. "Yes?"
"Here, my lady." Agnes immediately pulled back the tapestry curtain, and set down a tray of morsels from those dishes prepared for the hunters' return. She pressed a mug of soup into Fleur's hands. "How are you feeling?"
"Like someone dropped a flaming ember into the center of my head." Laying still and vainly wishing it away had given Fleur ample time to study the pain. "It burned itself up and left a scorched hole behind."
Agnes winced in sympathy. Then she pursed her lips.
Fleur knew that look. "Tell me what it is."
"It's nothing, Countess. You should rest. I'm sorry to have woken you."
Pursed lips again. "Yes, all right," Fleur's lady-in-waiting conceded. "John the falconer says that if it pleases you, if you're not too unwell, he would appreciate your assistance at the mews."
"What's happened?" Fleur slid to her feet, gulping the soup. "Sickness? We got them all through the molt this year--"
"No!" Agnes caught Fleur as she swayed, and took the empty mug. "Nothing to matter, just a netsman who somehow snagged two peregrines with the waterfowl flying south. I told John it was nothing to bother you with today! You should lie down; think of your-- I mean, if the price asked is more than the steward will give him, he can appeal to my lord the Count after the hunt."
"Yes, and he knows that." Fleur leaned on Agnes's arm for just a moment, waiting for the pain to settle, then started for the door on her own. The ache in her head had nothing to do with the child in her belly, she was sure. Agnes should know her better than to coddle. "There's something more to it."
"That's all he told me." Fleur's chief attendant trotted behind.
"Agnes, dear, you fly whatever I put on your wrist in exactly the same fashion, and are always surprised at what the bird does. You couldn't tell a gyrfalcon from a humble austringer's goshawk -- even if we had any gyrfalcons."
"Are you saying John didn't tell me because I wouldn't understand?" Agnes's wide grin was back.
Fleur inclined her head; she didn't feel up to shaking it. "Was the netsman listening? Do you know him?"
"Yes, and no. The netsman is a stranger. Which, come to think of it, is peculiar. Why would he be netting here, if he's not attached to my lord's lands?"
"Excellent question." Fleur lengthened her stride. It was against law and custom for peasants to hunt hawks. Adults on the wing or eyasses in the nest, the noble birds belonged to noblemen. Regular nest sites were guarded. But hawks taken by coincidence in a catch of lawful prey could be sold to the local gentlefolk in a pretty windfall for the fortunate netsman. It happened from time to time, especially as the flocks of prey birds made their fall and spring treks to more comfortable lands. For John to disturb Fleur over Agnes's objections, this matter must be unusual, something to resolve before Geoffrey's return. And the hunters could be back at any moment.
Outside the mews, John introduced them to the netsman, a handsome youngster who bowed low and unsettled the two clumsily hooded peregrines on the padded rod he held, a make-shift imitation of the cadges falconers used to transport hawks long distances. The birds screamed, and John took it away from him.
Fleur frowned at the screams. She raised her eyebrows at John.
He nodded. "My lady, this William offers us two net-caught peregrines. I would appreciate your evaluation."
The birds let her handle them easily, and made irritating noises at every touch. They had mites besides, but John could see that himself, and oppement treatments -- yellow arsenic -- would take care of the vermin. No, it was clear that John needed her judgment not on the birds, but on the man.
Fleur wiped her hands on her skirt and crossed her arms.
"You are a stranger here, I think, William?"
"Yes, my lady."
"Then perhaps you do not know how high is the fine for stealing eyasses from a nest. If all your worldly goods cannot pay it, the Count my husband may blind you as a lesson to others."
The netsman stepped back sharply, until John's hand clamped down on his shoulder. "They're net-caught, my lady, I swear!"
Fleur shook her head at his pretended innocence and genuine ignorance. How could a netsman not know that the longer you could leave the capture of eyasses, the better? "If they're net-caught, then someone else stole them from the nest too soon, was fooled by how easy they seemed to tame, did not expect to have to teach them everything their parents would have taught them, much less the tiresome screaming, and finally let them go to fly straight into your net."
"We are in the midst of a festivity here at Castle Artois. I do not wish to inconvenience my lord with this petty matter, nor annoy my guests with your cries." Fleur sighed. "John, did he bring any of his nets with him?"
"Yes, my lady. He used a net and a clapstick to carry game fowl he wished to sell. The head cook is examining the catch."
"Good. Seize them all as his fine. And release these sad birds in the forest -- unless you want the bother of retraining them? As valuable as peregrines are, these two will always be wayward and prone to screaming. They've missed their moment."
"I thought I might entrust them to your nephew Etienne, as a project for this winter." John signaled his assistant to take the unhappy netsman and turn him out the gate.
"Thank you, John. That's very thoughtful. You might couple them with lanners--"
Agnes called out at the youngster's retreating back, "Thank my lady for her mercy, netsman!"
"This would never have happened in Brabant," Fleur said. "What was he thinking?"
"I'm afraid that he heard a garbled account of how the mews on this manor reports to you, my lady," John sounded apologetic. "He thought perhaps he could deceive a woman."
"Fool." Agnes sniffed. John and Fleur looked at her. "Well of course he could have duped me," she admitted. "I meant he is a fool for thinking he could trick the Countess."
"Never in Brabant," Fleur repeated. The sick ache in her head reasserted itself as the excitement passed, reminding her from where she suspected it came, and what she must do about it. There had been plenty of time to think that through, too.
At that moment, the hunters returned. Geoffrey, leading the pack, swung triumphantly off his horse to present the season's final hart's heart-bone to Fleur.
It took less effort than Lacroix had expected to find someone with a grudge against the Countess. How outspoken Fleur let her servants be! Lacroix would have beaten such presumption out of them, if he let them live at all. But after the banquet honoring the huntsmen and hound handlers, the high point of the week's merriment, this permissiveness had led Lacroix to an ancient undercook who resented her mistress bitterly, calling her -- if only in whispers, only under the influence of wine left from the nobles' table -- unjust and spoiled and unwomanly, unworthy to occupy the place of the Count's revered mother.
Lacroix meant to spin out this kill, taking just a little at a time, savoring the undercook's hostility. He intended to smother his desire slowly under the servant's dislike, to regain his balance and fly out of this trap, to get on with his ambitions at the court of Flanders. To turn his back forever on that one drop of Nicholas's sister's blood.
He saw an arrogant Fleur. Yes. An enraged Fleur. More. A ruthless Fleur. Oh, gods, yes! This -- this -- would be Fleur as a vampire.
The body slumped at his feet almost immediately. He wanted her more than ever.
"So how many are staying in?" Fleur asked.
"Most." Agnes adjusted the laces of Fleur's russet over-tunic. "The guests say the thick, dark clouds mean rain, though my lord told them that the great height means rain will hold off here until afternoon. Many of the gentlemen really just want to rest for tomorrow's boar hunt, though none will admit to such weakness!"
"Margrave de Namur and Monsieur Lacroix?"
"Both coming. They haven't been here long enough to develop flirtations in need of resolution before the week ends, which is what the others will be doing, doubtless. All the ladies have begged off except you and Sir Renier's wife and sister."
"And you and Clara, of course."
"Of course!" Agnes grinned as she checked the white barbette and veil covering Fleur's hair. "If we can get out and back before the rain, avoiding wet feathers, it will be great fun!"
"Be careful today, Agnes," Fleur cautioned. "Something is in the air."
"Did you read that in the stars, my lady?"
"No. It's half intuition, half logic." Fleur hung an extra pouch on her belt next to her chatelaine's keys, then an extra sheath next to her belt knife. The sheath held a short but sturdy wooden stake. Agnes stared. Fleur fastened her own cloak. "Oh, don't let me spoil the day for you! We'll have a wonderful little hunt before the storm breaks, enjoying ourselves with our bravest guests. We'll return in triumph, and the others will rue their timidity."
Agnes looked worried. "Does your head still hurt? Shall we stay close to you?"
"I'm much recovered, but . . . that would be prudent, thank you." Fleur patted her lady-in-waiting's hand as they left for the stables and the mews.
On the way to the fog-bound river, as the dogs and their handlers ranged ahead, Fleur found herself riding between her husband and Namur, with Lacroix on the Margrave's other side in an astonishing, broad-brimmed, fabric-draped hat he claimed was Italian. Like all his clothing, it was black. The Count her husband joked that it would certainly keep the rain off -- him and his horse alike. Lacroix carried no hawk, but wore thick, elbow-length gloves in any case, and long strips lashed his boots and hose tight to his legs. The extra layer would look peasant-like, if the material were not so rich.
Namur kept glancing back and forth from the great female peregrine on the special perch on Fleur's saddle to the little male lanner on his arm. Fleur shot a look at John the falconer; his blank expression confirmed her suspicion. Someone did not like the Margrave. She wondered whether Etienne had spread her pert remark on Namur's hunting preferences around the mews.
On Namur's next sour comparison of their birds, Fleur reined in close. "She's magnificent, isn't she? Aspasia is one of the two best hawks I have ever trained. The other is her brother, Pericles, on my lord's arm."
"The Count flies a male hawk?" Namur craned his neck for a better look.
Geoffrey smiled easily and raised his arm to show off Pericles. A third smaller than Fleur's huge bird, he was still much larger than Namur's. "Those who scorn male hawks have never flown a properly trained one, I say."
"Size isn't everything," Fleur confirmed blandly. "And that lanner you have there has flown with both of them, regularly. You know lanners are patient, dependable birds, of course, relied upon to help restrain capricious peregrines."
"Yes, naturally, I know that." Namur looked much happier. There was no need to tell him that this particular lanner was decidedly second-rate by the standards of their mews, and that her two best peregrines had not needed such cosseting since they were eyasses. She raised her eyebrows at John the falconer; he pretended not to see.
"You trained them yourself, Countess?" Lacroix asked. His manner had none of the presumption of yesterday, and none of the censure she expected from Namur.
"These two, yes. It's been years since I had time to devote to a new bird, though."
"You sound as if you miss it."
"Only just so many activities fit in one lifetime," she met his eyes. There: the die was cast. Unlike John, Lacroix did not pretend to miss her meaning; she appreciated that. But there was so much in his eyes that she could not unravel it all. Surprise, certainly. Triumph? She continued, "Old passions must give way to new ones."
"Excuse me, my lord, my lady, Master John." One of John's assistants had run up to them. "There are cranes just a little down the river! If you would like to cast up your hawks, we will release the dogs to put up your quarry as soon as they reach their height."
"May I, my lord?" Fleur was eager for her robust, experienced hawk to bring down a crane. It would be a spectacle! And she had missed yesterday's hunt.
Her husband laughed. "By all means. May the first kill be yours." He looked at the falconer's assistant. "How many cranes, man?"
"My lord, a whole flock."
"Well then let us cast up two couples of the very strongest birds together, as well as my lady's Aspasia. We will be sure of one, and may take three. Is that what you would recommend, John?"
"It is, my lord."
"That means we don't fly this game, Margrave," Fleur overheard Agnes whisper to Namur, who was getting ready to launch his smaller bird. He looked startled.
But then Fleur forgot about him, as she sent Aspasia toward the high dark clouds, and her spirit soared to that gloomy ceiling with her hawk. Moments later, cranes rose from the river, fleeing the dogs, and Aspasia dove and struck and plummeted, a white bird three times her size bloody and broken in her claws. Fleur's heart raced. She urged her horse to where her hawk came down, and heard others divide around her, following other birds, calling greyhounds to assist hawks struggling with the large prey, or spaniels to point out those lost to sight.
Finding Aspasia at the edge of the forest, Fleur swung off her horse -- as she would not be able to do in a few short months -- and hastened to confirm that the crane was already dead. She praised her bird, brave, strong and skilled, and offered chicken tidbits from her pouch as a temporary reward while she used her belt knife to slice out the crane's heart. Aspasia took the hot, bloody organ from Fleur's gloved hand.
After a timeless absorption in her bird, Fleur was startled to notice John the falconer and Lacroix on either side of her horse. Both remained mounted; neither carried a hawk. "Did you see her?" Fleur asked. "Such a crane! Such a hawk! If I want to fly her again today, I can't feed her any more now, but oh! Such a kill!"
John's face showed his usual detached amusement as he saluted her bird's triumph. Lacroix . . . even shaded by his foreign hat, that was the first uncomplicated expression she had seen him wear. Lust. Instinct blushed, but Fleur defied it and tossed her head high.
His desires were his own problem. And given what she had deduced about him, he must have many problems.
"Do you always leave your lady to perform that task herself?" Lacroix asked. His words were harsh, but his tone curious.
John dared to laugh. "I would not like to be the one to try to stop her, monsieur." He dismounted to put her crane in his game bag.
Agnes and Clara rode up. Agnes was out of breath. "My lady! We lost you when you galloped off!" Soon, the whole party was around them.
Reassembled and remounted, they forded the river to flush partridges, quail and larks in the folds of the wide, stony plain on the other side. This served those carrying the short-winged hawks that did the most to fill the kitchens, for all they were less noble than their long-winged kin. Fleur dropped back and watched John, yet again, talk Agnes through flying a hawk.
Lacroix halted and waited for Fleur. Their horses walked forward together, in sight but out of hearing, as she had wished.
First things first. "So will you tell me of Nicholas at last, Monsieur Lacroix?"
He turned his head toward her. His elaborate broad hat magnified the gesture. "Your brother thrives, Countess. He has been through many . . . changes . . . since he returned from the Levant, and while he does not learn as quickly as I think you would, he does learn. In his own way, he is . . . magnificent."
"He is, isn't he?" Fleur did not try to resist smiling at praise of Nicholas. "You said that he still lives by his sword, but with no permanent liege?"
"I implied that, yes."
"Gracious, but a report from you is like reading in the dark!" Fleur shook her head. Aspasia, on Fleur's saddle, stretched her wings and turned toward Lacroix, watching him. "Come, I can tell your tongue will serve you better than this, if you let it. Tell me a story of my dearest brother! Has Nicholas competed in tournaments? Captured a noble prisoner for ransom? Won a lady's love?"
The broad hat tilted so she could not see Lacroix's face, and at last the words began to flow. She was right; his tongue served him so well it surprised her, as long as he did not catch her eye and drift to another wordless halt. Clever. Learned. Words marched for him one moment, and danced or swam the next.
She understood now, she thought, some of what Nicholas must see in this Lacroix.
He told her of a struggle between factions in a far city, in which Nicholas had taken no sides, by Lacroix's advice -- until one night the fighting spilled onto his own street, and her brother grabbed up a sword, took charge of his neighbors, and cleared the quarter by morning. He told her of Nicholas's new whim for patronizing painters -- as bad as dice for emptying a purse -- and his repeated puzzlement over what to do with his unwieldy purchases on completion. And he told her of Janette, her brother's dark, demanding lady, who moved with equal poise through the Emperor's court in Palermo and the cloth market at a city fair.
"Now, at the height of the Hot Fair of Troyes," Lacroix said, "the streets are in fact lighted at night. It's a wonder, an eerie world of overspent dusk and untimely dawn, and enough guards are engaged at sufficient wages that even women alone can stroll mostly unmolested. Bringing that daytime bustle into the night is one of Janette's favorite things."
Nicholas's mistress sounded more interesting than any of Fleur's sisters-in-law, on either side. "I would like to meet her."
"You did. Seven years ago. You have not remembered . . . anything?"
"No. Is that what happened yesterday?" Fleur reined in her horse. Lacroix's continued a few paces; he circled around to face her, stopped about a furlong behind the little copse of trees where the group was doing something with Namur's bird. "You tried so hard to make me remember that you scoured out a hole in my head! I can feel it now, the ragged place where the memories are not."
"I did not intend to pain you."
"Pain is of no moment. Saints above, what is it that I do not remember?!" Fleur saw Agnes looking back at them. Fleur gestured that all was well, and dropped her voice. "Do you have anything else to tell me of my brother, Monsieur Lacroix? For example," she swallowed, "that he is now like you?"
"What do you know of what I am?" Thunder rumbled far in the distance.
"Your strange behavior, the pallor of your face, the Margrave's troubles on the road, Agnes forgetting her duty, the peeling burn deep inside my head. And two disappearances -- deaths? -- in as many nights."
"Ah. I did not expect those to come to your attention so quickly."
"I am not such a fool as you take me for, vampire."
"Never would I take you for a fool, Fleur de Brabant." Lacroix urged his horse up to her side, head to tail with her mount. Aspasia looked at them in disgust, then looked the other way. When Fleur, too, was under the shelter of that hat, Lacroix's eyes ignited -- like sulfur, like sunset, like swampfire, and unlike any of them. His eyeteeth grew.
Fascinated, Fleur leaned closer than manners or prudence would permit.
"Nicholas showed you what we are," he said, lisping slightly around his fangs. "You had heard of it then, too. You analyzed and questioned, where any other would have screamed and run. You said, you were interested in so many things that were of another world; why should this be any different?" He took her hand, an intimacy even though both of them wore gloves. "Is it different now, Fleur?"
"Lucien. You called me Lucien, in Brabant."
Fleur withdrew her hand. "Lucien. Of course I am interested. I have so many questions! But it is more than my interest you want. What happened seven years ago?"
"You asked to come with me. You were willing to become what I am." His gaze flicked to the hunters, still ahead of them. "You . . . loved me."
Fleur studied his face. "How my ladies would laugh, to hear I had a successful flirtation and don't even remember it. They say I am the worst flirt ever made, because I never guess what a gentleman wishes to hear."
"It was no flirtation. It was love!" He closed his eyes and disciplined his features back into the pale semblance of an ordinary man's. Thunder rolled again, closer. "Do you think this is easy for me? This is the world upside down! Your youthful passion, clear-eyed, fearless, giving -- it was like nothing I'd ever tasted. It became a part of me." He snorted. "You snagged your finger on a thorn. I kissed it clean. And I can feel your heart beating now, as if that drop of your blood were still yearning to be reunited with the rest, as if that incompletion overrode everything else within me. The closer I am to you, the stronger it is, but not a night has passed that I have not felt it."
"Why don't I remember?"
The sound of their companions all approaching at a trot cut off any answer. Fleur rode her horse in a half-circle to come by Lacroix's side again, facing the river, as the group swept them up.
"My lady," Agnes directed her horse between Fleur's and Lacroix's. "The Count and John the falconer have determined that the storm will come sooner than we thought."
"Then by all means, let us get the hawks and guests home -- though they will hardly melt in the rain." Fleur sighed. So many questions unanswered! And she doubted the tale could be told at a trot, and in company besides. Agnes stuck to her on one side, and Clara took the other. Fleur listened as they told how Clara's bird had taken three quail, Namur's one, and Agnes's none at all. Lacroix dropped to the back again.
At the ford, riders lined up to cross at the shallowest point one after another. Fleur joined Lacroix in lingering beyond the end of the queue. When Agnes moved as if to join them, Fleur waved her off. "You have at least one more story of Nicholas to tell me, I think, monsieur. Can you arrange another opportunity, as you did with Agnes yesterday?"
"Yes, Countess." He bowed his head. She could not see his face under his hat. "We will have time."
When Lacroix's horse was several strides into the river and Fleur's about to follow, a sound not quite like thunder reached their ears. Unlike thunder, it didn't stop. Fleur halted her mount in its tracks, and gave the battle-trained signal to back up. The other Artois residents not yet across the river urged, spurred and whipped their horses -- anything to gain the other side before the swell of water and debris hit. Namur and Lacroix were not so lucky.
Unfamiliar with the sound and unluckily placed, neither man reacted quickly enough. In the deepest part of the river, Namur and his horse were bowled over and swept away by the wall of water rushing from an earlier storm in the far-away mountains, perhaps the very one now on its way to them. His lanner made it into the air. Nearer the bank, Lacroix's mount kept its footing until a branch driven by the water struck it across the belly. It reared and went over in the torrent. The horse came up and was swept downstream, swimming and trumpeting.
The vampire did not come up.
Fleur stared, shocked, at where he had gone down.
It took a moment to wrench her gaze from the churning water to the rest of her party across the river. It looked as if John the falconer was shouting, but she couldn't hear him. She saw that his assistants had all been sent down the river in hopes of finding Namur and Lacroix. She swept her arm over her head to show she was uninjured, and then cupped her ear to show she could not hear over the flood.
Now the Count her husband shouted, too. Fleur shook her head.
The expected rain started to fall. Fleur pulled up the hood of her cloak, and swept the end over Aspasia. Fleur puzzled at what Geoffrey and John wanted to tell her. The next ford, a few miles upriver, would be in the same condition as this one. So the only question was how to spend her time until the water went down. Almost all their tenants lived on the side nearer the castle, and the stony plain offered precious little in the way of shelter. Geoffrey was sure to assign a man to watch over her from the other side and ride to her as soon as the water subsided, day or night. So she had better stay in sight.
Craning her neck, Fleur spotted the tiny copse of trees from which they had flushed the quail. She pointed at it. John conferred with her husband, then nodded hugely, gesturing from her to it. She rolled her eyes; their approval doubtless made them feel better, but it was not as if she had choices.
Because of size, the story concludes in the second post. I will present it in a single file on my site after the ficathon. Thank you for reading!