Title: The Blessing
Author: Mojave Dragonfly
Warnings: possibly slightly AU
Word count: 3,777
Summary: How do Isabeau, Navarre and Philippe live following the movie? Fugitives from the French king's soldiers find supernatural aid in the forest.
A/N: I postulate that while the Bishop's curse no longer keeps the lovers apart, they still have the ability to transform.
Merten and Albrecht pressed their tired mounts hard, veering clear of roads and villages, fording streams and attacking hills, looking for cover. Behind them they felt and sometimes heard, the pounding of pursuit as the French king's entire army hunted them as spies. Merten cursed the folly that had spurred him to escort his young prince into France. Surely there were other high-born ladies the young man could marry. It might seem a fine thing to Albrecht to die for love, but Merten was far less sanguine about it.
"There," Merten called, pointing. "The forest."
France's primeval forest — the part not yet tamed and cleared for huts and cookfires — stretched before them, a fairyland fence between them and safety. Above it, wings glinting in the fading sun, a hawk circled, watching.
Merten saw Albrecht's look of doubt, for, to reach the dark haven, they would have to cross open meadowlands, visible to anyone in the vale below. Once there, though, they might elude their pursuers in the night. What soldier would be eager to enter that wood? Only the desperate like Merten and his prince would welcome its ominous embrace. Merten urged his horse into the open and Albrecht followed.
Their sprint to the forest felt like it took an age. Despite the wind singing by his ears, Merten heard the shouts of discovery from the men behind them. His back prickled as he imagined being shot by an arrow. The forest was their only friend.
Above them, the hawk cried.
At the forest's edge, their horses shied. Merten nearly toppled over his mount's head, the creature stopped so abruptly. Albrecht's horse reared, and only the boy's excellent training, for which Merten was responsible, kept him in his seat.
"Go, go!" they both cried, spurring. Merten's horse turned its head against the reins and showed one white-circled, terrified eye. Albrecht's horse sidestepped to the east, along the forest's edge, ignoring its rider's commands. Their pursuers were halfway across the grassland.
"We have to leave the horses," Albrecht said, dismounting.
Merten had objections — many objections — but the forest consumed his prince, and he must follow. With a silent apology to his horse, he slid from the saddle and dived into the brush.
The forest was another world, a world of dappled green and deep shadow. Thin at the threshold, so Merten and Albrecht moved easily, if noisily, through the lighted areas. They heard the soldiers reach their horses.
"Find them," cried a harsh voice. "Twenty gold to the man who brings me a head. Twenty for each."
Merten and Albrecht doubled their efforts to reach the darker, thick verge as they heard the crashing sounds behind them. "What's the matter with the damned horses?" someone yelled. Albrecht paused at the thicket and Merten nearly fell on top of him.
"Go on," Merten urged. "They can come in on foot."
Albrecht gave him an apprehensive look and stepped gingerly into the dark. He struggled with the thick brush, finally leaving a disturbed area where Merten could follow. Above the din of angry voices, Merten heard the hawk again.
Abruptly, he could hardly move or see, trapped in grasping branches and shackles of wood as high as his knees. He heard Albrecht panting nearby and a wheezing that was his own breath. "They're coming," Albrecht said in a low voice, for many of their pursuers were in the thinner wood, nearly in hearing range. "I can't move in this."
"Stay still. The sun is nearly down." Their options had dwindled. Unable to flee farther, hiding and praying was their only hope. Merten prayed to the Holy Family and to every saint he could remember. The distant sun hid its face behind mountains, and all was black. The nearby voices changed from angry to fearful. The captains lashed at their men with threats and taunts, but in the end, the soldiers withdrew to the edge of the forest. All this Merten learned from his ears; his eyes told him nearly nothing.
"Now what?" Albrecht whispered. "We can't go back; they're bivouacking out there."
Merten shivered and resumed his noisy struggles to move more freely in the brush. "Beyond this forest are the peaks that border our land. We must get as far as we can tonight. In the daylight they might find the courage to follow."
"But this forest . . ." Merten could almost make out his prince's pale face as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. "We could be lost forever in here."
He nodded. "I know." Their own land still held untamed Forest, and its legends were vile. The Witch Who Ate Children, The Black Baron, The Poisoned Beauty, The Devil's Lights, The Cat's Cauldron . . . all these forest enchantments sprang into his own imagination, and would be plaguing Albrecht no less. "We have no choice, my prince. We have no food or water, much less shelter."
"You're in a tighter noose than that, my friends," said a cheerful voice. Merten managed to draw his sword, despite the branches, as he turned. Only a short distance from them, higher on a slight rise, which he wouldn't have known was a rise until now, was a man; young, by the sound of his voice, wearing light colored clothes that made him look ghostly in the gloom. "You!" Merten's voice sounded strangled, and more panicked than commanding, to his chagrin. "Who are you?" Beside him, Albrecht also had sword in hand.
"You're in my forest," said the man, proudly. Merten saw him more clearly, now. More boy than man, perhaps, no older than Albrecht, and carrying no weapon but a serviceable knife on his belt. Tied to his back was a faggot. His clothes were poor.
"Your forest?" Merten asked, still startled. No living man who looked like that owned a forest. He could still be a spirit.
"Yes, indeed. My forest." He stuck out his chest, but only for a moment. From somewhere beyond him came a loud animal growl. Albrecht cried out and Merten flinched, his heart pounding harder. The mystery man, standing nearer to the growl, jumped. "Well, not my forest, exactly," he stammered. "No, of course that's not what I meant. It's my lord's forest. It's his. It's his." He looked around and the growl faded. "Anyway, you're trespassing." He had swiftly recovered his composure and showed no further concern about the unseen beast. "Tsk. And one of you a prince." His look in Albrecht's direction was openly appraising, frank and insolent for one of his class.
Fear for his prince overcame a host of other fears, goading Merten into action. "Boy," he said, lurching through the underbrush, "Who are you and who is your master? Answer with respect." The boy recoiled from Merten's sword, but Albrecht's hand was on his arm. "Wait," Albrecht said. "This is not the time."
The mystery man, after sidling out of Merten's sword line and putting a hoary tree between them, called out, "What, no growling? It's all right when they threaten me, is it? Fine, then."
"Sir," Albrecht said, choosing his French address with care, "we don't mean to trespass. We would ask your lord's leave to pass through his forest, if you could take us to him."
"Nice to see some manners, for once," said the peasant petulantly.
Merten deeply, truly did not want to contradict his prince in front of this insolent commoner, but he had no choice. "His lord? My prince, his lord will owe allegiance to our enemies, if he is flesh, and to the Dark One if he is not."
"Don't be insulting," said the peasant. "I'll have you know that if I leave you here, the demon wolf who guards these woods will eat your insides out. And whatwould be the use of your wooing then, my prince?"
"What do you know of my wooing?" asked Albrecht in alarm, throwing Merten a glance.
The boy smiled enigmatically. "Have you never heard the saying, 'A hawk's eyes sees men's hearts?' No? You're not from around here, are you? You'd better come with me."
The unholy growl resounded in the trees around them. Merten could not suppress a gasp.
"I said," the boy called defiantly to the trees, "they're with me." He looked back at Merten and Albrecht. "Put your swords away, if you please. I'd rather not have those at my back. It gives me nightmares."
Merten and Albrecht stared at him.
This mysterious person put his fists on his hips. "My lord has no allegiance except to his lady and maybe to God, though I wouldn't want to test that one too hard. Don't worry." He glanced up into the impenetrable treetops. "Well, you can worry a little. Come on." With that he turned and started along some path visible only to himself. Not knowing what else to do, they followed.
"Sir," Albrecht ventured as they stumbled through the night, "what may we call you?"
"I like 'Sir,'" said the peasant, "but most people call me Mouse." He stopped abruptly and faced them, puffing his chest out again. "You can call me . . ." He searched the night around them for inspiration, then deflated. "Oh, just call me Philippe," he said dispiritedly, turning back on the way. "They'd only laugh at me."
"And who is your lord, please?"
"He is . . . he is . . . a Fairy King. That's right. You'd better behave or he'll turn you into something . . . slimy. Yes. A toad prince. You'll have to get your princess to kiss you." Philippe chuckled. "Good one, Mouse."
"You're lying," Merten said.
"And you're rude. It's God's truth, I swear it."
"Be careful, here," said Philippe, stepping out onto a wooden bridge. The night was so thick that Merten couldn't see what they were crossing, but he heard no water. Philippe gestured where both men could see the sweep of his arm. "Walk on the left side."
They crossed safely, and on the opposing side they'd not gone far before the forest parted and in the round clearing stood a single tower. Firelight glowed in irregularly placed windows. No other towers could be seen, no walls connecting or enclosing, no trench, no moat. No defenses. It was the strangest sight he'd ever seen. "Impossible," Merten said.
Despite his misgivings, Merten longed for a rest by a fire. He thought he should warn Albrecht not to eat anything in this Otherworld, but his own stomach was so empty he guessed he would not have the strength to resist food, himself.
"Nothing is impossible," Philippe said. "I should know." Philippe pushed open the heavy door and stepped within. Merten followed, his hand ready to his sword, Albrecht behind him. Inside the half-moon shaped room was a hearth and fire, fur rugs and cushioned chairs, a table and chests. A number of functional-looking weapons hung on the walls. Standing in the middle of the room was a large blond warrior in black armor, wearing a coldly angry expression. Unconcerned, Philippe shrugged out from under his load of sticks, dropping them neatly in a wood bin. "Good evening, Captain," he said.
"Close the door," the blond warrior ordered in a steely voice, addressing Merten and Albrecht. Praying fervently, Merten obeyed. He was only one man, Merten assessed. Philippe had only a knife, though there were plenty of weapons on the walls . . .
"Uh, yes," said Philippe, standing between them, but to the side as if he didn't want to be in the list between jousters. "This is where I introduce everyone, but since I don't know our visitors, perhaps you could all exchange names. Not—sword blows." He gave a forced smile.
"You don't know them. You don't know their crimes," said the blond man in a disturbing growl, never taking his eyes from his visitors. "Why. Did. You. Bring. Them. Here."
Philippe lifted his chin. "I do know their crime. It's a crime of the heart. True Love. It's been worth risking for before."
At that the blond warrior turned a slow incredulous gaze on his servant—for servant Philippe must be, though unlike any servant Merten had ever known. The master's gaze focused on Philippe, melting into an expression of helpless exasperation. Philippe smiled again and shrugged. "It's what I do."
"And you think I won't stand in the way," he said, his tone now one of wonderment.
"I hoped," Philippe said brightly. "You really shouldn't, you know. Not you."
Merten's own amazement grew. Since when did a servant instruct his master on how to behave? This man was clearly a lord of power if not of wealth; Philippe was indeed a mouse next to him. "Not me," said the man thoughtfully. Then, to Merten and Albrecht he said, "You are Philippe's guests. You owe me nothing." With that, the lord left the room by way of an arched passage to a staircase inside the circular walls.
Philippe took a deep breath, smiling. "There, you see? Rest. I'll see if we've any food. I know we have bread, but meat? I don't know . . ." He left through a door opposite the door to the staircase, into the other half of the round tower.
Merten and Albrecht turned to each other. "This place has no defenses," Albrecht said, hurriedly. "The King's men must know of it. If they enter the forest they will come straight here."
"Unless it really is magical," Merten said. "How did Philippe bring us here? We couldn't even move in this brush until he showed us the way. The soldiers may not know it."
"But if they do they could come in the night."
"They were afraid to enter at night."
"I think I know why. Our horses had more sense than we."
Magic. Surely it was preposterous. Merten looked at his prince and his sense of the ludicrous began to stir. "I don't want to be a toad," Albrecht said somberly, but with glinting eyes.
Merten couldn't help it. He sank onto a chair choking back laughter. "I swear . . . to you . . . my liege . . . it won't happen."
"I am very glad to hear it," Albrecht said, allowing himself a weary smile.
The outside door opened, and both men jumped. The firelight showed the shape and gown of a woman, which slowed Merten's startled heartbeat. He got to his tired feet.
The woman glided in, allowing the heavy door to swing closed behind her. The fire glinted on the rich embroidery of her gown and made her cropped hair glow like the halo of an angel. Merten's heart sped up again. Her wide-spaced eyes were the beautiful light hue of an August sky. Her skin was like the smoothest marble sculpture.
Her hands, hooked like talons, were bloody and held the limp remains of four hares. She smiled gently. "Gentlemen," she said.
Merten recollected himself enough to give a deep bow, but Albrecht stood transfixed. Indeed, she was the loveliest and most terrible creature Merten could remember having beheld. He heard Philippe come in behind him. "Ah, Milady," the boy said, "you've brought the meat."
Philippe hurried forward, spreading a cloth between his hands. The vision dropped the hares into his cloth and wiped her hands on it. "Thank you, Philippe," she breathed. Philippe retreated, with a knowing smirk at Albrecht, who still stared like a schoolboy. Merten nudged him, as he had when his prince had been a schoolboy, daydreaming.
Albrecht bowed, still speechless. The vision turned her full attention to them. "You will be safe here," she said, all grace and benevolence. "The soldiers will not find this place. You may eat and sleep here in peace. May I know your names?"
Caution returned, and Merten gave her two low-born names. With the wisdom of the ancients in her eyes, a teasing tone in her voice, she asked, "Are those really your names?"
"Of course they aren't," said a forgotten voice from the stairs. The blond warrior had re-emerged. He strode across the room, joining hands with the woman as if at the altar, in a motion so natural to both of them, it was like two streams flowing together. "Were you planning to tell them our names?" He smiled into her upturned face.
"Philippe told them his," she said.
"Philippe," said the man, sounding for all the world like an indulgent uncle, "wants his legend to grow, not be forgotten. He told them he was the ruler here."
The woman looked at the visitors, her hands still in his; The Lady and her Lord. "You mustn't believe a word Philippe says," she told them, "particularly when he swears it's the truth."
"I heard that," Philippe called from the other room, the sounds and smells of which marked it as a kitchen.
"Hurry up with dinner, Ruler of the Forest," the man barked. "Your guests are hungry."
"Lady, what — may I call you?" Albrecht finally spoke.
"You may call me Lady Hawke," she said, sharing a private joke with the man.
"And you, sir?" Merten asked.
The blond warrior released the woman's hands. "You can call me The Devil," he said, almost profanely, as he strode toward the kitchen. "Philippe, I suppose you need help. Are a few coneys the masters of the Mouse?"
"There is only me, you know," replied the voice of Philippe. "You could help. Here, hold this." The sound of metal clattered on stone, followed by swearing.
"Dinner will take even longer now," said the lady serenely. She turned her beautiful bird-like eyes on Albrecht. "It is you who is in love."
"Yes, Lady," said Albrecht.
"Does she return your love?"
"She does, but our fathers are enemies."
She nodded sadly. "It is an old story."
"Not to me, it isn't," Albrecht cried, all the pain of his young life in the words.
"Forgive me. Stories are never any good while you have to live them." She took Albrecht's hand in hers. "Do not despair. I nearly did, and nearly lost myself. My lord did, and nearly lost everything. But God's mercy is subtle and mysterious, and you will feel it, all unlooked-for, on some strange day."
Albrecht's eyes filled with tears. "Are you a witch?"
She smiled, shaking her head. "I speak only as one who has been where you are and has had the great mercy I tell you of."
Time passed strangely in her presence, and it seemed but a few moments before Philippe emerged with savory smelling stew, and placed it on the small table where Albrecht and Merten found themselves sitting. The blond lord himself gave them bowls and ladles. "Eat," he said.
Half famished, neither of them stirred. It was all so strange. They had not said grace. The table was too small for the others to join them, and no one else was eating. They all watched. Merten's mouth was suddenly dry.
"Try it, anyway," said Philippe. "I'm not that bad a cook, no matter what he says. You are still in France, you know."
Merten merely looked at him, trying to think what to say.
"What the Devil is the matter with them?" demanded the blond man, as if they were not in the room.
"Ah," said Philippe, looking sheepish. "I might have given them a slight . . . misconception."
"What kind of misconception?" asked the Lord sternly.
"It could be that they fear to eat because they think they are in the Otherworld."
"And why would they think that?"
"I may have led them to believe it when I told them you were—" Philippe stopped. The lord stood and towered over him.
"That I was what?"
"A king!" Philippe cried, stumbling backwards off his stool. "I told them you were a king."
"Of the Otherworld?"
"Of the fairies," Albrecht supplied helpfully.
"Thanks very much," Philippe spat at him.
"Of the fairies!" roared the lord. Philippe broke for the stairs, and the lord dived after him. The sounds of their fracas moved up within the walls of the tower. The lady's laughter was peals of tiny bells in the room.
"Is that true?" she asked them, wiping tears of mirth from her beautiful cheeks. "Are you afraid to eat because of what Philippe said?"
Embarrassed, Merten nodded. "Let me ask you this," she said. "Did he swear it was true?"
Grinning now, Albrecht said, "He did indeed, Lady."
"Then I think you are in no danger from his stew."
"Yes, Lady," Albrecht and Merten chorused, and they both fell on their stew with a will. It was delicious.
Later, the Lord and Lady retired, leaving Philippe to bed his guests down on the fur rugs by the dying fire. Merten fell asleep before Philippe was done fetching warm skins for them.
In the morning they woke alone. All traces of their meals were gone, and the hearth was cold and clean of ashes. By the filtered dawnlight it was easy to believe that the night had been a true fairy feast, with the humans left abandoned.
Merten gathered their few things. "I hope we don't reach home only to find that seven years have gone by," he grumbled.
Albrecht stretched and yawned contentedly. "At least I'm not a toad," he said.
Outside, they met Philippe carrying a well-bucket of water. "Good morning," said Merten.
"I've never met one that was," the boy said. He set the bucket down and shrugged. "It's good that you are awake. Those soldiers may find their courage soon."
Merten studied the forest, which looked as impenetrable by day as it had by night. "How shall we find our way?"
Philippe pointed vaguely upward, and a hawk cried. "Follow the hawk. She'll lead you out."
"She?" Albrecht asked.
"She's a lady," Philippe said with a grin. "Treat her with respect."
"What is this place?" Merten asked. "Who are you people?"
Philippe reached into the bucket and splashed the water on his face. "It's too long a tale for today, I'm afraid. It is a tale of magic and mystery, and this is the happy ending. The parted are joined, the guilty are redeemed, the villains are punished, and what was a curse has become a blessing."
Albrecht stood forward, looking every inch the prince. "And where do you fit into the story? For I think it is you we have to thank for our deliverance."
"Me? I told you. It really is my forest." Philippe picked up the bucket and continued toward the tower door. "Find your own happy ending. You have my leave to go."