“Confess yourself,” said the priest, coming toward him through shadow and light. “Notable captive.”
“There has been too much life,” said the Duke of Alençon, in his flannelly voice. He had
emerged from the darkness of his cell to settle on the floor of the gallery among lepers, Jews, and
the dogs who hunted the red wolves of Paris. One and all deferred to his hooded-hawk silence. In
the afternoons a splinter of sun entered through an arrow loop and it was understood, probably
cosmologically, to be his winter sun, and his place on the floor of this great tower, the keep of the
château fort du Louvre: the wolf-den.
Deep in the wall’s immense jambs the wind caught the cruciform aperture and a bit of sun
twisted through. He had glimpsed there once a falcon on a créance falling upward in the sky, all
at once tethered and free.
“You are sentenced to death. Confess yourself, mon fils.” The priest stepped over the legs
of others, the hem of his soutane speckled with chaff. The scent of frankincense blotted the
rancid simmer of the candles.
Alençon had found the surface of the day. “I’ve been sentenced to death before,” he said,
closing his eyes to place the cathedral smell. The splinter of sun pierced him. Twice he had been
sentenced to death, and once long ago he was pulled by English soldiers from a pile of corpses at
Verneuil, fairly dead that time too. And still he opened his eyes to sunlight.
“Confess yourself, and you will come to know true blessings,” said the priest.
“I understand true blessings, better than you yourself,” said Alençon. The priest had
startled the admission into his mind, and it was the fearsome girl, kneeling for hours at altars,
who had carried the smell of frankincense in her cloak.
“Then you understand the need to be saved.”
He had attacked Paris once, with the girl, not far from where he now sat. It did not bear
thinking about, but his unworthiness had seemed nothing when she had helped him carry it.
Alençon dusted the ashlar floor, his hand stiff and ruined from years of the sword. He did
not know why he smoothed the spot. In his periphery the priest’s hand hovered, thumb
uppermost, poised to make the sign of the cross. Despite his resistance, absolution always arrived
for him; despite the years of intemperance and villainy that had resulted in this cold prison, he
had once known loyalty; he had known tremendous faith.
The eaux-de-vie, the courtesans; all the perfumed ribaudes of Toulouse could not remove
this fact from his history. For he had galloped down from Les Moulins with her—with la Pucelle.
“En avant!” she cried. “Kind duke, to the assault!” Their culverins fired, and they charged
through the ditches and barricades of the swine market to the Porte Saint-Honoré, where the
Seine had flooded the moat with the September rains. “Cowherd!” called the English, looking
down from the walls of Paris. “Sorceress!”
Dismounted, they struggled on the earthworks. Arrows and stones fell around them. They
fought on in the rain, after darkness. She had taken a crossbow bolt in her thigh and she
weakened and lay calling for her men to strengthen their assault, and even after they carried her
back to La Chapelle he continued to work in the dark and the rain, hauling hurdles and ladders
and every cart or scrap of wood he could lay hands on to the moat and throwing it in until he had
a causeway built, holding his shield over the back of his head. Arrows indistinguishable as
raindrops plinked into the water around him, reminding him that he was not alone, but while he
fought with her nothing had touched him, and after they destroyed her his life became a slow
She had a plan to ride to Normandy and raise the siege of Mont-Saint-Michel, and though
it had not come to pass, it remained an ersatz memory, seeded in his brain. It was his one
He could see it perfectly—her first glimpse of La Manche, she who had never seen the
sea. That tidal vista of wet sands around the monastery on the sea-mount, and her charger’s slow
snorting gallop, and the treble of her voice and the cries of the ocean birds.
Allowed her own battlefield strategizing, there was nothing she could not achieve, and
once in Normandy they would have ridden on and freed his kingdom. In an eternal way they had
taken up arms together, and in some form it seemed that she was always beside him, rolled on
the ground in her cloak, and eating rabbit.
“Leave me with my sins,” said Alençon. “There is too much to tell, and the good and evil
are so mixed together I’m afraid to let any of it out.”
Jessica Lackaff was born on the Oregon coast, where Sacajawea saw the whale. She is a writer, a runner, and an ex-book dealer, not that you ever really stop. She has what Chuck Palahniuk calls a “kitchen table MFA”. Her thesaurus of choice is an old Roget’s from 1925.