Isabeau came to Castle Coeurlieu as a girl of twelve, and its lady: She had been married two weeks before to the Comte de Coeurlieu, who was thirty-two and very large, with an always-angry hatchet face slashed and pierced through the left cheek where he had taken a crossbow bolt at the battle of Leprans, full six years ago. She had been excited beforehand: She knew it was a grand match, beyond her family’s deserts, and he was famous; he had won a tournament in disguise as a young man, although he was too great a seigneur to have exposed himself so, which was very romantic. But she recoiled a little when she met him, and her voice quavered when she spoke her vows to the middle of his chest.
But he looked down at her afterwards, from his great height, and said not unkindly, “I am for the war in Grosviens. You will go to Coeurlieu, my lady, if it pleases you,” and she said with relief, “As it pleases my lord.”
Alone then Isabeau came to Coeurlieu. She was not overly impressed by castles, having lived in many, even great ones, but when the carriage crept out of the woods and climbed steadily up the winding road, she could not look away from the ancient donjon rising enormously, flinty gray that looked nothing like the warm golden stone of the rest of the walls.
“The Duc de Niente built the castle ’round it, three hundred years ago,” Jerome told her, as they sat on one of the outer walls looking upon it, kicking their dangling heels as they ate the quincebread they had stolen from the kitchens. He was the Comte’s son, by his previous wife who had died two summers before, and thirteen, but the plague had caught him glancing as a child. He had survived, but his whole right side was weak: He could not hold a sword. So he had been put to be a magister instead, but he hated to read and write, and in the three days since she had come, he had escaped his tutors six times on the excuse of making her new home known to her.
“Everyone knows there’s no use to the lessons,” he said, matter-of-fact, when she a little timidly asked if he would not be punished, meaning would she not be punished, too. “It will be six years more before I can go to war even to hurl stones. And I won’t live so long. It’s been eight years since the last plague.”
Isabeau nodded. “My mother and my nurse died last time.” She remembered her mother not at all, and her nurse vaguely, a warmth suddenly gone out of her life, but that was why the Comte had taken her, with her dowry of only two small castles. Those the plague had passed over, it most often passed over again, and she had lived crying in her room for a whole day and night cuddled to her nurse already dead in the bed beside her. So many people had been dying that no one had remembered to look for her until they came to bring her to her mother’s funeral the next morning.
But the plague always came first for those it had marked the last time, and it would come again, soon. So she followed Jerome when he led her to the kitchens and past the table where the cook’s sweating third assistant had just brought the quinces from the oven sticky and gleaming in their pastries, and no one stopped them. They carried their stolen prizes out onto the wall, to eat, and to look out the arrow slit at the carts crawling up and down the road to the castle, going in widening circles down the hill and escaping into the countryside, and sometimes they looked instead within, at the life of the courtyard bustling around in the looming donjon’s shadow.
“If you are inside, and you close the doors, nothing can get in,” Jerome said. “In my grandfather’s day, Magistra Pia set fire and wind and half a mountain of stone against it, and all she did was make the walk,” pointing to the long irregular stripe of black stone set into the courtyard, leading to the donjon doors. The walk looked much stranger than the tower itself, so polished that the clouds moved in slow reflected billows across the surface, and perfect shades walked upside down beneath everyone who crossed it on their way through.
“Why build other walls, then?” Isabeau asked with interest. The donjon was so enormous it could have held everyone who lived in the castle, all within, and an army besides. It seemed a waste to put anything more around it.
“Strange things happen at night, or when the doors are shut,” Jerome said in portentous tones. “And not all who go within come out again.”
It was by far the most interesting thing that Isabeau had ever heard of, that she could see with her own eyes and touch with her own hands. She had only heard of war from the jongleurs, singing the clash of swords and the storm-fires raised by the great magisters, and once when she had been eight years old, she had been living in Castle Rouge-Bois and there had been a unicorn sighted in the forest. All the knights and grown ladies had gone out to chase it, and she had run up to the highest tower to watch them ride out in dazzling array, and from there saw one tiny glimpse, on a distant hill, of a white beast darting into the trees. She had never told anyone of it because hers had been the second sighting, and a unicorn was never seen thrice, so everyone came back disappointed with no great horn to make a cup for the king’s grace. But the donjon did not run away or vanish. It stood there gray and stolid and nevertheless wondrous, surrounded with as many stories as there were bricks in the castle walls built ’round it.
Father Jean-Claude, the priest who took her daily confession, was persuaded to put aside his Bible and tell her that one hundred years ago, the rash and boastful Sir Theolian Ogre-Killer had gone into the tower, his squire reluctantly behind him, vowing he would suffer whatever adventure came unto him in that place. But he passed all the day and night loudly carousing, and nothing either strange or wondrous befell him. At last he grew impatient and made to leave, but when he opened the doors to go forth, he found only darkness without, unbroken by any gleam of lantern or sound of human voices. His squire cried out, “My lord, let us not tempt God’s mercy, but close again the doors,” but Sir Theolian said, “Fie, coward,” and seized sword and lantern and set into the dark. His footsteps died away at once, although for a long time after his light might yet be seen receding in the distance.
But his trembling squire knelt and prayed to God for deliverance, and in the midst of his prayers, he heard the bells ringing for dawn, and raising his head saw that sunrise had come into the windows. When he opened the doors and came forth to the courtyard, he there found the same host assembled who had seen Sir Theolian go within, and not the span of a candle’s mark had passed. No sign of Sir Theolian was ever from that day heard or seen by mortal man, and so did God rebuke pride and vainglory. But the squire was greatly chastened and took holy orders and became St. Anselm of the Tower, and ever after told the story to warn others from sin.
And Father Jean-Claude triumphantly took Isabeau to see a small hut built against the side of the tower, beginning to collapse now from pilgrims breaking off parts of the branches. The saint’s cot still lay within, the coverlet slowly rotting, although his remains were kept in the chapel in a golden casket.
Isabeau liked that story, although she liked better the one the old woman told her, who sat carding wool in the courtyard: In the old days, the crone said, before the castle had been built, and there was only the tower, and its doors stood open to the world—no one could tell Isabeau when the tower had been built, itself, or what man had made it—in the old days, when there had only been the nameless village now called Coeurlieu down at the bending of the river where the old mill still stood, there had been a girl called Beau-Mains who brought her father’s flock of sheep every day to graze upon the green hillside ’round the tower doors. But she was sullen to be set to this duty, because she wished never to work, and only to keep her hands fine and soft, so she did not mind the sheep very well. And so one afternoon in warm summer she slothfully fell to sleep upon the hill and started up only as the sun was going down, and found her flock all gone missing with their bleating voices coming faint from within the walls.
She was afraid of the tower, but she feared more the sharp switch that her mother would use on her back if she came home without her sheep, and so she went foolhardy or brave within. She climbed the stairs ’round and ’round and up and up, calling, hearing always the sheep answering her from afar, until she came out upon the roof and found them there with the first stars coming out in the night sky.
They followed her down again. But the great halls had gone very dark, and the stairs went ’round longer than they ought, and though she walked a long time, she did not come to the ground again. The sheep were docile and huddling close around her legs, as though they feared some wolf or beast, and whenever she turned ’round and counted them, the number had changed: There were always more.
She began to fear her own flock, even as they clustered ’round her ever more closely. She shivered and wished mightily that she had paid more attention to her sheep, and could recognize them one from another, and pick out the strange ones, but then to her even greater alarm, one of them she did recognize: As a child, she had taken a fancy to one lamb, small and gentle and white, and had fed it by hand, and called it Snow, and loved it, until by mistake her father had butchered it for the village Maying. She had wept for a week.
She wept now with horror as Snow came and butted her hand, and yet she still petted the soft nubbly head for comfort, and said, “Snow, Snow, which way shall I go,” and when she came to the next landing, which ought have been the ground and yet was not, the lamb baaed softly and turned from the stairs and out into the darkness of the hall.
Beau-Mains and her flock followed the little lamb, which seemed almost to be shining in the dark, until she came to a door which ought not have been there, in a wall which did not curve but ran straight as long as the light reached to either side. Inside she found a table with four small boxes lying open, and in each a great colored jewel as large as her fist: the first of red like blood, the second of browns and deep yellows like mingled shades of earth, the third a virulent green, and the last as clear as water over stones. She gasped with delight and snatched the jewels up, putting them into her apron, and Snow went onward to a door behind the table.
Beau-Mains followed the lamb, and came into another room, where inside stood another table with four larger boxes lying open, each full of coins as is a cup of water: the first of brass, the second of silver, the third of gold, and the fourth of some strange black metal which she had never seen. Beau-Mains would have filled the rest of her apron only with gold, but the lamb butted her until she grudgingly took a few coins from each box, as much as the thin fabric would hold, and followed Snow to a third door.
In the third room there were four great stone coffins of four great lords, their faces and their swords carved into the stone and their names upon the sides. Beau-Mains was only a peasant girl and could not read the letters, but she looked upon them in silence and knew them for seigneurs of high birth, for they were tall and comely and well armored. And in each stone coffin there was a hollow above the lord’s heart, which was made of like shape to the jewels she had found, and upon the eyes of each lord there were carved two stone coins like in size to the coins she had found. Not without a longing look, Beau-Mains put in each hollow one of the jewels, and on the eyes of each lord two of her precious coins, and with the meager handful which was left to her she followed after the lamb through the final door.
And here at last Beau-Mains found herself once more on the floor of the tower, with the great doors standing open ahead of her, but alas! She was not alone in the hall. A terrible beast stood there with a great collar ’round its neck chained three times to the wall: a vast coiling serpent with its maw directly at the door, its eyes red and its teeth yellow and brown with old bloodstains. It moved and writhed restlessly, and it cast its eye rolling over Beau-Mains and her flock, and it saw them and snorted steam and hunger from its fearsome nostrils. The chains restrained the beast so it could not come at them, though it strained at their limits, but neither could she come to the door, but that she would go so close the beast could devour her.
Now once more the little lamb made its soft bleating noise, and from the flock around Beau-Mains, a great many of the sheep came apart to stand with Snow, and among them Beau-Mains recognized a few others which she knew also had gone to butchering, or been taken by wolves. And the lamb led its portion of the flock away from Beau-Mains, towards the writhing beast, and Beau-Mains hid her face and put her arms ’round the sheep that remained to her, burying her head against their wool, so she might not hear the savage feeding.
When the sound of devouring had ended, Beau-Mains lifted her tear-stained face from her sheep, and saw that the great beast had gorged and fallen to sleep, and now slumbered with its wet maw shut. On soft feet she led her flock past its red teeth and through the doors and out upon the familiar hillside, and as soon as they were out together, they ran and ran and ran all the long way home. And there Beau-Mains would have been whipped by her mother for being late, and for her gasping sheep, and also for telling stories, but from her apron Beau-Mains took out her handful of coins: brass, and silver, and gold, and one coin of strange cold black metal which the smith’s forge could not melt, nor his hammer break, and so her tale was known for true, even though the next morning, when the villagers with pitchforks and spears went warily to the tower, they looked within the tower and found neither beast, nor lords, nor chests of gold and silver, but only the sun shining through the round circle in the roof.
This story Isabeau loved better than any other about the donjon, both for Beau-Mains, and for the coin of strange cold black metal, which Jerome showed her: It was in the castle’s treasury, in a small chest of wood, and when she touched it with her own fingertip she could feel it taking the warmth from her flesh with a delicious shiver. She did not mind that there were three other tales of the coin quite unlike the story of Beau-Mains, although she rejected scornfully the one which suggested the coin had not come from the tower at all, but instead had been brought from the East some two centuries before, which was plainly ridiculous: Two such miracles could not be in so much proximity and yet unrelated.
“We can go in, if you like,” Jerome told her. “It’s all right for as long as there’s no star in the sky.” He took her through the doors and pointed up: In the very center of the ceiling, there was a large ring of metal open to the floor above, and when she stood directly underneath it and looked up, she saw a round circle of blue sky visible through a succession of such openings, just as in the story of Beau-Mains.
There were no doors or chambers within. Each floor was one vast great echoing chamber, so far across that when Isabeau raced Jerome from one end to the other, she was breathless and gasping by the time she reached the other side. The wide stone stairs were twice the width of her own foot, big enough to hold the mailed foot of a knight, and they climbed two vast spiraling swoops up the inside of the tower walls until they passed through to the next floor above. A narrow walkway of stone circled halfway up the chamber, like a balcony looking down upon the window, and arrow-slit windows stood at every tenth step along it.
The second floor was just the same as the first, but the windows were larger: She could have stood upon the sill and stretched to her toes and reached the length of her fingers and still the top of the window arch or the sides would have been beyond her. The third was a little less high, and there was only one turn of the stairs, and no walkway: The windowsills stood at the height of her chin, and you could stand upon a box and fold your arms and rest your head upon them and look out for seven leagues in any direction over the folds and rolling waves of the countryside, like an ocean of green and grain, halted for one instant of time.
Then to the roof, where the wind whistled thin and strange in her ears, and the world below seemed more removed than it ought to have been. There was a pool upon the roof, which caught rainwater, and long golden fish swarmed in its dark depths, which no one could catch: She and Jerome tried with nets, but the fish always dived away into the dark, and though they put their arms and their long nets as far down as they could go, there was no sign of them, although as soon as they drew out, the fish came back to the surface.
But mostly they stayed on the third floor, where no one came. During the hours of daylight, there were four pages stationed on the roof to keep a lookout in all weathers, who at every hour had to answer the distant call rising up through the circle: What comes to Coeurlieu? and much woe did they get if they did not report a wagon-train or a carriage or a visitor riding to the castle, who came in by the gates later. Meanwhile the knights on the day’s watch saved themselves the stairs, and sat ’round their table on the ground floor comfortably drinking and playing cards, or very occasionally training; in winter, they made the great circle a riding school. And the second floor was filled with stores, though nothing of essential worth, but the third floor was all but empty: not as useful for a lookout, and too many stairs to climb up and down every day. No one came to look for them there, or objected.
She soon grew used to the endless stairs and the endless country outside the windows. Jerome taught her to read there, the two of them lying on their stomachs on the sun-warmed stone looking over his hated books: Isabeau had been taught her letters, but never much more. He even taught her a few magister’s charms, enough to make small chips of rock hop like frogs and catch the sun in a mirror that would shine for a few minutes. She had never had a friend before. She had lived always with girls either too much older or younger; she did not like to look after little ones, and the elder had not paid much attention to her. She had been trained more or less by a succession of noble ladies, sent from one castle to another as her father gained a higher place for her, and she had a little talent for cards and embroidery, which won her a little share of society and praise. But now the frame and the fabric lay forgotten more often than not.
By the time the letter came, near midsummer, she could read it for herself: The Comte had helped the king break the siege of Grosviens, and he was coming home. “God save my good lord and bring him swiftly,” she said, sadly, handing the letter back to Father Jean-Claude, who had brought it to her. She knew she had not done her duty. Her husband would come home and she would have nothing to show him for her time, but that she had learned to read, which she ought have done sooner, and the distraction of his heir.
She hurriedly began to embroider a cloak with the yellow flowers of the Comte’s coat of arms on long green vines, at least to have a gift which might please him, though so little work would not show her very industrious. When Jerome tempted her again to put it aside and come wander with him, she looked out the window and imagined to herself that she saw the Comte emerge from the woods upon the road, and refused. Jerome sighed but kept company with her, and even turned the pages of his books occasionally when she reproached him.
The vines grew and the flowers bloomed, all along the border, and then she decided to risk beginning the great donjon on the center of the back. She rose with the first light good enough to see her needle, and in the evenings in her own bedchamber bent late over the sewing with smoky candlelight. The tower climbed, its windows stitched in black and the stones in silver thread, until all that was left to sew was the Comte’s flag streaming from the battlements on the roof, which she could not do until the next merchant brought her the blue thread for which she had waited two weeks already. She set the frame down frowning, and then Jerome sat up from his books and looked at the heap of the cloak in her lap and said slowly, “My father has not come yet.”
They climbed the stairs to the roof of the donjon to look out at the countryside: no sign of a company anywhere, only a single rider far distant, raising a small cloud of dust at his heels. The wind tugged at her hair beneath her coif, and she put her arms ’round herself, strangely cold, though the summer sun beat strong and hot upon her skin.
The rider came to Couerlieu before the sun went down. The plague had erupted in Blens, between here and Grosviens, and many roads were closed: The townsfolk had heaped barricades of burning brush across them, to try and fend off death. The king had desired the Comte to stay with him in Mont-Sauvage, and therefore the Comte commended the castle and his lady to Sir Gaubard, the stolid old knight of forty-three who was the chatelain. Sir Gaubard gave orders at once to have the road to the castle closed, and to send men down to Coeurlieu town to receive messengers and supply, which would be brought halfway up the mountain, there to wait three days, before they ascended the rest of the way. The plague would come anyway, of course; the plague came everywhere.
Jerome took the news in silence, and afterwards hid himself in such wise that Isabeau could not find him. She did not see him until the next day, when standing on the walls in the evening, she heard the plague bells tolled in town, faint but clear, with three notes struck to mark three deaths. She turned away and saw him crossing the courtyard with a sack over his shoulder and a walking stick, going into the tower, and no one halted him.
Isabeau stood a moment, afraid, and then she went down the stairs to the courtyard and ran after him, in time to see him climbing to the second floor of the tower. She pursued, calling his name, but he did not turn; he climbed on swiftly, and by the time she had reached the second story, he had disappeared onto the third, and the round circle of sky was grown deep violet blue, although there were yet no stars.
She looked down. The doors stood open, but if she climbed a few steps further, she would no longer be able to see them. A heavy silence lay upon the air within. Everyone had gone out of the donjon, as they did every night when the bells rang for vespers. It was her duty to go out, too. Jerome might stay, just as he might neglect his tasks and lessons, because there was no use to him. But she knew that when she came to look for him in the morning, he would forever be gone: diving deep into dark like the golden fish, no matter how she tried to grasp him.
There were day-candles in small niches along the stairs, and by chance one had been blown out sometime early in the day. She pried it from the puddled wax at its base and lit it from one of the dying stubs, and with it in her hands climbed timidly higher, calling Jerome’s name softly. Her voice seemed to press against resistance, and he did not answer. She reached the third floor, familiar and yet gone strange: Outside the too-high windows she could see only dark, and long shadows hid the curving wall, dancing over the floor to the tune of the sputtering lights. She climbed onward.
Icy air struck her in the face as she pushed open the door to the roof, full of the smell of snow and winter. “Jerome, are you here?” she called. No answer came. Above her head the stars shone high and infinite and unfamiliar, and the horizon was a circle of solid dark all around, with no rolling shadows of hills or trees breaking into the smooth bowl of the sky. She walked quickly around the full circle of the battlements and came back to the door, panting clouds. A thick layer of ice had grown atop the pool, the fish pale ghosts moving beneath it. There was no sign of Jerome.
It was too cold to stay outside. She pulled the door open and crept back inside to warm herself, and then halted and huddled back against the doors. All the dying candles had grown back to life, golden light shining out of the niches onto the turning stairs. But the air at her back was now cold as on the roof itself, and growing steadily colder. She put down her own candle, and shivering went slowly down the stairs with the chill following her. Air streamed white from her lips as though her soul was slipping from her body with every breath.
She reached the third floor. Her fingers were grown almost numb. The candles all stood tall and unflickering as if they had been freshly lit, but they only made circles of light which did not touch one another, or the walls. She darted from one island of candlelight to another until she came close enough to dash to the window seat where she and Jerome had passed their afternoons, where she had left her embroidery forgotten. The cloak still lay on the stones, with the frame fixed ’round the top of the tower where no banner yet flew. But she had sewn the tower against a green hillside marked with white sheep. Now it stood only on a circle of black, and the border was all of knotted white stars in a pattern she had never made.
She held it in her hands, afraid, but she was too cold. She undid the frame and wrapped the cloak, meant for a tall man, around herself sideways twice. The warm thick wool muffled the chill. She looked for Jerome’s books, too, but they were gone: Perhaps he had come and taken them. But he had left his paper and ink, and after a moment she knelt down and laboriously wrote I am here Isabeau with many blots and left the sheet upon the ground weighted with her frame.
She did not call Jerome’s name any more. The stillness of the tower lay upon her too heavily. She hurried back to the stairs and started downward again. She would wait by the doors for sunrise, she told herself, and resolutely did not think of Beau-Mains climbing endlessly, and the dreadful devouring beast. And indeed for her the stairs continued ordinarily downward, and though few candles were kept on the second floor, she could see enough to know that it was still there, and not vanished.
Isabeau could not help but think of an apple in honey, or a handful of nuts: She had not eaten her dinner, silent with the empty place at table where Jerome ought to have been. But the sacks and barrels and boxes of the stores had become strange lumpy shadows, and she remembered unwillingly that the angry reeve had driven all the kitchen boys mercilessly for a whole day last month, because someone had turned ’round all the stores and they had to be put back into order; and only four days ago, sixteen barrels of preserved plums had been found devoured overnight with no one to admit to the act.
She reached the landing, where the stairs plunged onward towards the ground, and for a moment was relieved: she could see the doors, and they stood open. But then she realized—the doors stood open, although they ought to have been closed and barred for the night long since. And while she stood there irresolute, she heard a heavy footstep somewhere on the stairs below her, loud, with the rasp of chainmail rings on stone.
Another step came, and another: climbing. She turned away, her heart pounding like a rabbit, and went out among the stores, sliding her feet one after another slowly ahead of her through the dark, as though her pointed toes would warn her of unsteady ground. She groped past the barrels and sacks, and finally hid behind a stack of boxes as the footsteps grew loud and nearby.
They paused upon the landing and then came onto the floor. Isabeau stayed crouched and shivering. The footsteps were slow and dragging a little, the mail scraping against the stone. They stopped and she heard a creaking sound, a wordless deep grunt, and she jumped involuntarily at a loud crack of splitting wood: he was opening a box, or a barrel. He began to eat: loud smacking sounds, slurping, and she pressed her hands over her ears trembling. He kept eating a long time, making small grunts and panting for breath when he paused long enough to get any.
At last he finished and she heard him push up from the barrel, the wooden rim thumping against the floor as it wobbled with his weight coming off. He stood breathing heavily. She shut her eyes and pressed herself to the side of the box and prayed silently that he would go away, go on higher up the stairs.
He moved. She held her breath listening: the heavy dragging steps began to recede. He was going back to the stairs. She hesitated and then crept slowly forward on her hands and knees, as silent as she could be. She didn’t want to see him at all, any part of him, but she still more desperately wanted to know whether he went up or down.
She crawled to the very edge of the boxes and knelt up and edged her cheek out past it until her eye came clear and she could see towards the stairs. He was a hunched shadow framed in the light of the landing, a gleam of silver mail along the edges of his body. His back was turned to her: His long hair was stringy gray and the pate nearly bare, and dreadfully she saw upon his neck a swollen black lump, and the ends of his dangling wet fingers were blackened as with soot.
He paused a moment and began to turn his head slightly. She pulled back out of sight, clenching her hands. His footsteps went onward, and when she dared one more glance around, his heels were vanishing up the stairs.
She sat down in the dark where she was and hugged her knees to herself under the cloak, listening in relief as his steps went dying little by little away. She still did not move for a time, waiting to be sure, and then at last she crept back out—she did not look into the opened barrel—and darted a quick look up the stairs. She saw no sign of him, gratefully, and she set her foot upon the steps to go down the rest of the way.
And then far-off she heard a voice, strange and croaking-harsh, almost a gargle, say, “Isabeau.”
She froze upon the steps, shaking. The line she had written to Jerome—
The footsteps were coming back. Again and closer the voice said, “Isabeau,” and she fled away and down, clutching up her skirts to go more quickly, her heels skidding down the edges of the steps, scraping her shins against them. On the ground were all the racks that the knights used in their work, the piled hay bales and the tall cut lances heaped; she would hide, she would hide. Her soft leather shoes were quiet, he did not know where she was. She would hide, and pray for morning, and the sun would come and save her.
She slipped and fell and nearly tumbled over the edge, biting her lip not to cry out. The footsteps were rasping one after another above her. “Isabeau,” the gargle said again: hungry. She went quicker, desperate, until she sprang off the stairs onto the floor. The doors stood open, but outside there was only an endless, impenetrable dark, unbroken even by the stars. She stood hesitating, trembling, and then she pulled her thin linen coif off her head and threw it into the doorway, so it fell just across the line of the dark, with the ties trailing.
She fled for the bales draped with cloth, hiding herself beneath, and lay there and caught her gulping breath, her hand pressed over her mouth to muffle the sound. She could see thinly through the weave of the coarse cloth, where the candles made their pools of light, and when his feet came down from the landing she saw them come. The cloth blurred him to a faceless lurching, the scrape of his feet and the heavy wet sound of his own breath.
He reached the floor, and his head turned towards the doors. He did not move at first. In the thick close stuffiness she shut her eyes and prayed, her lips moving soundless against her palm, and then she opened her eyes and saw him in the doorway, bending to take her coif. “Isabeau,” he crooned over it, pressing it to his face. Muffled through the cloth, there was something almost familiar in his voice, as though she had heard it before; but then he went lurching out the doors, into the dark, and the dark swallowed his footsteps as though he had never been.
She shut her eyes a moment more in gratitude, trembling, and then threw off the coarse, hay-smelling cloth and scrambled out meaning to flee back to the roof; she stood up in a gold-glitter cloud of hay dust, pinching a sneeze down behind her hand with her eyes squeezed shut, and when she opened her eyes, she halted. The old knife-scarred table where the knights played their idle cards was in front of her, and three queens sat ’round it, with coins and cards heaped between them. They turned their heads and looked at her.
She did not think of running. There was no use in running, of course, but it was not only that there was no use. If the other had seen her, she would have run until there was no more running, no matter how useless. But they were not like him. Terror and calm nestled together in her belly, but she took the folds of her skirt and she curtseyed to them low, and said, “God give you all grace, noble ladies,” and the one in the middle, tall and pale and clad in black, answered her, “And to you, my lady.”
They were all strangely beautiful and strangely alike: Their faces might have been cut from stone by a sculptor making copies, long and graven and unlined, and each of them wore upon her breast a jewel strung on a chain: one golden-brown and yellow like tiger’s-eye, one the deep red of blood, and the one in the middle, who faced her, a jewel clear as water.
“Come and play,” the red-jeweled one said to her. There was one seat empty at the table, and cards left before it.
“She has no stake,” the yellow-jeweled one said. They were different at a closer look: Her face and lips were narrower, her cheeks hollowed and gaunt, and her hands where they came from her sleeves were so thin the bones strained against the skin.
The other scowled at her across the table. “I am tired of waiting while our sister goes roaming upon the world.”
Isabeau wished to say she did not know the game; she wanted to excuse herself. But on the discard heap, the king of coins stood face-upwards, and it was Sir Gaubard: his frowning anxious face painted so real to life he might have been caught up out of the world and put into it whole. She held up the fold of her cloak so the tower would show, and timidly brought it to the table and held it out. “Will this serve?”
The yellow-jeweled sister eyed it hungrily. The sister in the middle nodded once, and gestured to the empty chair opposite her. Isabeau sat down with them and picked up the cards. The air had warmed; she was not cold anymore. Now her hands shook because she lifted faces she knew with every card from the hand before her: the old sour cook on the nine of coins, Father Jean-Claude with his cross as the ten of cups; a groom who liked to sing on the four of spades. There were so many she could barely hold them all.
“The play is yours,” the red-jeweled one said. Isabeau hesitated, and then took a card from the deck: it was Estienne, one of the younger knights, on the nine of swords. The queens all watched her, silently, as she worked it in among the others. She hesitated and asked softly, “Must I discard?”
They all inclined their heads. She looked down at her cards and blinked away stinging. They were crammed so close in her small hands that the faces were covered, and she could only see the suits and numbers. And yet there was a face upon each one. She could not take one out.
The red-jeweled queen shifted impatiently and made a loud sigh, and with a sharp jerk Isabeau pulled out the lonely six of coins and threw it out onto the pile before she could look too close at the young man upon it: She thought his name was Lucien, and he was an apprentice to the smith.
The play went ’round and ’round. New cards marched into her hands, threatening to spill over: more than there ought to have been, and sometimes it seemed to her that she already held a card of the same markings, but when she looked into her hand, she could not find it. Sometimes she drew a card and laid it on the discards straightaway; she made herself a rule she would not give away one in her hand unless the new was better, to make it less of a choice. But she was too quick at cards not to know that this card would bring her closer, and that one further, and which was the best to throw away.
The red-jeweled queen played impatiently: She drew cards and sometimes threw them out again a few turns later, as though she had changed her mind, and she liked swords best; the yellow-jeweled queen greedily snatched her card from the deck as soon as the turn was hers, and frowned long and lingering before she had to discard each one, grudging. Between them, the queen in black velvet played steadily, without much passion; she took her cards and laid the discards down almost to a measured pace.
They had already been playing a long time when Isabeau drew the king of cups: Jerome with a golden goblet in one hand and a book open upon his lap. She put him at once into her hand, pushing the card in quickly near the knave with Father Jean-Claude upon it, which she had not yet been able to bring herself to discard, on the excuse that she had the ten of cups as well, and some little hope of the nine. But she had a sharp painful sense that she had seen the queen of cups thrown out already in play by one of the others, and two of the other kings were already gone.
As if to taunt her, the nine of cups came on the very next turn: Sister Brigitte, who led the singing every Sunday, and so she and the priest were safe on either side of old retired Magister Leon, who slept in the north tower and rarely ever came down to dinner. But the king of cups continued to stand alone as the turns crept onward, and on every side the others were shifting their cards as though their hands were nearly formed. And then Isabeau took from the deck the king of swords, and it was her husband, with his stern marked face and his kind eyes.
Of the swords she had now the knave and the ten and the nine, so she put him beside them, and threw out the very last of the solitary cards she had saved, a three of spades with a little boy who tended goats upon it. She did not know his name, but she remembered his grinning pride: She had been sitting high up on the castle wall with Jerome when his mother had told him he might take the herd out alone for the first time. She looked away.
The yellow-jeweled sister drew a card and her hungry eyes brightened; her lips curled with satisfaction as she put the card into her hand and threw out another. She looked over with that thin smile as the play continued on, and Isabeau did not need to be told that she had nearly finished. The play came ’round to her again. She reached out a trembling hand and drew a card from the deck with her own face upon it, a queen, and where the suit ought to have been only a jester’s star.
The yellow-jeweled queen was drumming her fingers impatiently. The game was done: Isabeau had to make one hand, or the other. She swallowed and chose, and laid down her cards with her face looking out from between Jerome and Father Jean-Claude, making the long line of cups, and she put the Comte’s card last upon the high heap of the discards.
She wiped away tears as the yellow-jeweled queen threw down her cards scowling, and the red-jeweled queen sighed and tossed her own atop the discard heap as well: The Comte vanished beneath the cascade. They rose from the table and walked out the doors and into the dark, their long trains whispering over the floors until they were engulfed. Across from her, the last of the queens with her black clothes and her clear jewel gathered the heap, and held out her hand for the rest of the cards.
Isabeau hesitated with her hands spread over them, protective, but the queen said, cool and implacable, “All the cards are mine in the end. Only fools forget it.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Isabeau whispered, and gathered them together, and gave them over.
The queen put the deck into a velvet bag that hung from her silver belt and rose from the table. “Go to the roof and shut the door, and do not open it again until morning,” she said. “And never again seek this place. You have given the beast your scent, and he will find you the next time if you do.”
Isabeau shivered. “Is it—Sir Theolian?” she dared to ask.
“It is your friend,” the queen said, dreadfully. “And it is the knight as well, and the others before them. They came to take shelter from me, and when they found me here, they fled into the dark, and still there they hide. But I am there, too.”
Isabeau swallowed and looked at the coins heaped before her in piles of silver and gold and cold black. “May I—may I ransom Jerome?”
“For a little while.” The queen picked one black, cold coin from the heap and held it out. Isabeau closed her hand ’round it, and by the time her fingers had curled shut, the rest had rattled away into the air, vanishing, so she could again see the pale cuts in the wood where hands had carved Bastien likes pigs and Melisende has my heart and a rough picture of a strutting cock with enormous plumes with the name Philippe beneath it.
“Go,” the queen said, and Isabeau climbed shakily from the chair and made her curtsey, and then she flew up the stairs with the coin still clutched tight in her fist, without stopping, until she was on the roof with the door shut behind her, and she took down the pole with the banner of Coeurlieu and barred it, too. Then she wrapped herself tightly in her cloak and huddled against the small shelter of lee of the battlements to wait for morning, and then, though she did not remember sleep, she was waking in a sweat, the sun halfway up the sky and pounding down upon her in the heavy wool.
She found Jerome on the third floor, sprawled limply asleep amidst the scattered heap of his books, the note she had written him crumpled in his hand, and when she shook him he jerked up with a staring look of fear and horror and caught her arms too tight. He held on trembling for a few moments, and then he said, hoarsely, “You did come. I thought I heard your voice, but I couldn’t find you. Is it morning? I didn’t think the morning would ever come again.”
“Yes,” Isabeau said. “Yes, and it’s already growing late. Let’s go outside.”
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