The Hunted

A familiar shape was outlined in the underbrush to Mabel’s left. A small bump, like a loaf of bread, with long ears laid back and head down. Caught in a bad place, waiting for the danger to pass. Mabel knew the feeling well. The single, dark eye stared at her, but its body was relaxed. It didn’t fear her. It probably didn’t know she was a person, could only see the horse she was sitting on. All its focus was on the pack of dogs in the distance.295053

The waving tails reminded Mabel of long reeds in a fen being buffeted in a wind, if the wind were howling and baying in a very annoying manner. At least she was far enough away that the noise wasn’t causing her ears to strain. Her patience with the hunt master, however, was severely strained. He’d just been standing there for what must have been at least a quarter of an hour, watching the swirling mass of the pack as it circled the entrance to the den. Finally, he blew the signal—the prey has gone to ground. The pack followed their shouting masters, still baying and wagging excitedly.

Lifting her bow over the horse’s head, she pivoted, took aim, let loose, and was rewarded a moment later by a short, high-pitched squeal. “You,” she called to one of the dog handler’s boys, then pointed to the bush. “Fetch that.” Winter’s full chill was close, and Mabel woud need furs for her clothes. As the boy held it up, several riders came to join her.

Twelve year old Hawise stood her horse right next to Mabel. “You shot a rabbit?”

“Yes, Stupid,” her brother, Conan, said. “Why do you always ask such obviously stupid questions?”

Hoël looked like he wanted to hit Conan. Normally, a twenty year old wouldn’t hesitate to cuff an annoying tick who was four years younger, especially since Hoël was son of their host, Count Alain. But Conan was the Duke of Brittany. Instead, he said “Hold it up, Eon.” The rabbit dangled by the arrow in its throat.

“You’re supposed to use a lead-tipped arrow,” Conan told her, like she didn’t know. He licked his lips, as he often did, then rubbed them with a gloved hand. “You could have ruined it.”

“I didn’t have a lead-tipped arrow.”

“It was an excellent shot, Lady Mabel.” Hoël complimented her.

“And now we didn’t waste the whole day,” Mabel responded. “Something needed to be killed.”

Conan laughed and started leading the way back to Count Alain’s hunting lodge. As Hawise rode by her side, Mabel asked. “Do you think your mother will ever send for you, Hawise?” Her mother, Bertha, had married the Count of Maine ten months before. News of the birth of Hawise’s baby brother made her very anxious to join the new family in Maine.

“I hope so, but I hope not, too.” It was the sort of typical Hawise response that would make her brother get nasty. “Conan’s gotten worse since he turned sixteen. He says if the Duke of Normandy could be knighted and start ruling when he was fifteen, then why shouldn’t he be able to when he’s sixteen? When I said it’s because they only let you be duke once you can see over a parapet, he and his friend chased me and poured dirt down the back of my dress.”

Oh, it was such a wonderful feeling to be able to laugh like this again. It came out harder when Hawise added, “There were burrs in it. That’s not funny!” But Hawise giggled, too. Probably because, as she’d been told many times, Mabel’s laugh was very infectious.

“I think that’s yet another reason that you should want to go. But why would you hope not to go?”

“Count Hugh is seventeen, but he’ll be my father. I won’t have an Uncle Euzon to run to for protection.”

“Your mother has written that Count Hugh is sensible and kind. Besides, he’ll be too busy with his duties and outmaneuvering Martel to bother with his wife’s daughter.”

“Still, I think I’d rather have a mature man to watch over me. I barely remember my father.” She said it so wistfully. Mabel had to agree. She couldn’t imagine what kind of life she would have if Talvas had been killed when she was only four years old.

They were both surrounded by boys at the moment. Hoël and Conan had their boisterous friends with them. The other ladies—including Hoël’s mother and sister—rode separately, but Mabel enjoyed the energy and talk of young men, and they enjoyed her. Hawise preferred it, too, when they weren’t treating her as a pest. Someday soon, she would have breasts and beauty and wouldn’t be allowed such mingling. Even if she did, though, she was the sister of a duke, and would never know the million little cruelties Mabel had suffered the past two years. When she prayed to God, it was in thanks for bringing her under the protection of Count Alain his Countess, Judith.

Talvas prayed the young Hoël would want to marry Mabel, but she wouldn’t try to gain his attention. He was nice enough, but rather plain and boring. And, oddly, not interested in Mabel at all. Neither was another retainer who had recently joined Duke Conan’s household.

She craned her neck to look around, easily spotting his blond head among the darker Breton men. Straight in his saddle despite his defeat. She couldn’t see his face clearly from this distance, but knew his icy blue eyes and the split in the right side of his reddish beard, a scar still raw and pink from the battle.

Néel de Saint-Sauveur spent three months in a Norman prison after the Battle at Val-es-Dunes, as it was called. He’d been offered forgiveness and a place at Duke William’s court, but was stripped of everything else. He would have been little more than a humbled and humiliated household knight, striving to prove his loyalty to regain favor and position. Of course, that was all he was in Brittany, as well. But Duke Conan hated the Normans for killing his father, and so Néel had a much better chance of rising here.

In Normandy he would have been a beaten and cowering dog. In Brittany, he was a proud but defeated hero. Mabel thought she could love him, but now was certain his heart had been broken before she’d seen him in Lower Normandy. After Val-es-Dunes, it had been nearly crushed. She had no desire to be a consolation prize, a second best, or to gaze into eyes as cold as a shallow pond in January. She wanted nothing but warmth and vigor in her life.

“‘Something needed to be killed,’” Duke Conan startled her, quoting her words with appreciation.

He had directed his horse to fall into step next to her, too distrated to notice when Hawise drifted closer to Countess Judith. Conan chewed on his lip while he regarded Mabel. “You say lots of funny things I like. And you’re very pretty, especially when you laugh. You could be my mistress if you wanted.”

A young lady should never, ever do what Mabel did then. She turned her head, raised her eyes, and stared straight at Duke Conan. His horse’s gait hitched just a bit, sensing his master’s sudden tension.

Straight, dark hair wafted lightly in the chilly breeze, which colored his nose and cheeks. His eyes were so dark, they were nearly black. He would probably be very attractive in a few years, when his pimples receded, his face caught up with his nose, and the smudge on his upper lip grew to a real moustache. He was Duke of Brittany—in name only, at the moment. He was rich, would be powerful someday, and he liked her very much. His free hand was resting where his hip met his thigh, his fingers subtly rubbing the erection under his tunic. She could do much, much worse than be the mistess of a duke. At the moment, she couldn’t do any better.

Mabel might never be a duchess, but she could rule Conan. He would love her, do her bidding, give her everything. Their children would be noble. Someday, if she wished it, she could make him marry her to a lord of her choosing. It was a great opportunity for her, an honor for him to offer, and for that she vowed, someday, if it were ever in her power to do so, she would kill him.

As she continued to watch, Conan’s breathing shallowed, but not with passion, not from nearing a conclusion to his own stimulation. “Mabel—Lady Mabel,” his voice cracked.

The power she held over him in this moment rode on a wave of lust through her body. “Your offer is a great honor, duke. Alas, my father has other plans for me. He hasn’t announced it yet, but he is in the process of arranging a marriage for me back home. We will be leaving soon.”

Mabel hadn’t credited Duke Conan with any kind of sensitivity or perception. Either he was more observant than she knew, or the black intent that filled her at his words seeped out through her smile. He accepted her excuse and took his leave.

But now she’d have to find a way to make what she said true without telling her father why they had to leave.

Ragnor’s Tale

Photo by Max LaRochelle on Unsplash

Mabel began to feel very uneasy in Lower Normandy during the summer months. There was a great deal of activity and passion, but no central leadership. Increasingly there were minor feuds between rebel lords, and a palpable sense of distrust between neighbors. Mabel’s instincts urged her to back away and hide.

Her father told her it was the anticipation of a great storm of change that was charging the air, making the hairs on her arms stand straight. He, for one, would love to be on the mountaintop while the lightning struck down the Bastard.

They were guests of Seigneur de Vire when word came that Duke William had the support of the King of France, whose army was marching into Normandy. The surrounding countryside rapidly emptied of people, as the lords excitedly levied every available farmer and tradesman to the cause. Mabel didn’t see a corresponding excitement in the common footmen, and her unease grew.

One day a great storm did gather over the horizon, from the west. As it grew in strength and height, moving steadily east, it passed close enough that they could see the lightning jumping between clouds and hear the rumble of the thunder. Talvas estimated the armies were probably meeting that very same day, and he laughed about how shocked the Bastard Duke would be by the western maelstrom.

Two days later, Mabel—with her father, Olivier and Auderic—was admiring a length of cloth that would make a beautiful dress. She reached out to stroke it and noticed how the softened light of a late summer afternoon against the deep blue of the fabric made her skin glow. Against her face and hair, she knew, it would be divine. A stir nearby barely attracted her notice, as her stomach was growling from the scent of the local sausages being cooked at the inn across the square and she was dreaming of her radiant hand dipping a juicy chunk into a bowl of mustard.

Image 1-30-18 at 4.30 PMTalvas, however, was very interested. “They must be farmers returning from the battle.” His initial excitement quickly soured. “So soon?” He and Olivier walked toward the group, but Mabel remained, stroking her dream until she caught Auderic’s expectant gaze, waiting on the pleasure of his mistress but eager for news. Rolling her eyes, she followed her family.

“But you are the first to return,” her father was telling the men. Obviously farmers, carrying tools of some sort. Poky things, and heavy things. They were haggard and looked exhausted. They probably wanted to go home, and Mabel agreed. It was nearly suppertime. “You know how it must be. Everyone wants to hear your story!”

There was general agreement amongst the people, but the farmer was reluctant. “Forgive us, my lord, but we’ve been walking all day. We’re tired and hungry. Home’s just two miles distant. Let us come back tomorrow, after we’ve rested and seen our family.”

“Would you do that to your neighbors? Leave them in anticipation a whole night when you’re here now? You, Innkeep. What’s your name?”

“Gosbert, my lord,” the man replied.

“These men are tired and hungry, Gosbert. Surely a seat at your table and a meal would be payment for the news they bring?”

The Innkeeper looked unsure, but the eyes of the round woman behind him lit at the opportunity of getting a dozen townsfolk in their establishment. “Yes, Husband,” she told Gosbert. “I’ll bring out the fresh batch of ale I made just this morning. Ragnor and his men will be well paid for their news.”

“Alright, Morberga.”

Talvas led the small crowd inside. The farmer, apparently named Ragnor, and the three men with him were directed to a place at the largest table, laying their implements below the benches. Several men of the town stood before them, but Talvas pointed at their backs and Olivier and Auderic pushed them aside so he and Mabel could be seated across from the storytellers. First, four mugs of ale were placed before them, and Talvas ordered two more for himself and his daughter. Platters of sausages and cheese were placed before the weary travelers, as well as bowls of stew. The crowd were kind enough to allow the men to begin eating, biding their time with chatter and drink.

Finally, Ragnor began his tale between bites of his stew.

“Yesterday morning we followed our lord onto the widest, flattest plain I ever saw. Asger,” he said to one of the standing men. “You know the land near Gaudulf’s farm, how flat and open that is. This was at least twice that, and not a tree in sight.”

“More than that, pa,” said the younger man seated next to him. “More like five or six times the size.”

Several men had apparently been to Gaudulf’s farm and were impressed at the description. Mabel pierced a sausage with her knife, slicing it on a small wooden platter. She slid it over to the young man who had spoken, gracing him with a quick glance. He thanked her and indicated she should take some, first. Meeting the eyes of the Innkeep’s wife, she said, “Bring mustard.” The woman narrowed her eyes, but obeyed. The conversation had continued.

“I have to admit,” Ragnor said. “I didn’t crowd to the front for the best view, but word was going around. We outnumbered them, by a lot. But the lords didn’t want to use us. They were prancing around on their horses, too eager for blood and action. So after prayers that I joined loudly and speeches I couldn’t hear, they all started running at each other.”

After using a wash of ale to swallow the chunk of sausage Mabel had shared with him, Talvas interrupted. “You weren’t sent first? What about the archers?”

Image 1-30-18 at 5.01 PM“Didn’t really use them, either, lord. It was all clashing swords and lances and horses most of the day. Not too many came over our way, either, but we got in a few good pokes when they did.”

There were some laughs, and someone asked, “So, no ransoms, Ragnor?”

He shook his head, but it wasn’t with regret. “I’m not old enough to remember the battles of Saint-Sauveur’s father, against the Bretons and the English. I’ve seen some raids, and fought my share, but I’ve never seen anything like this. All the corners of that vast field were filled up with men and horses and noise. Some ran into the battle to get what they could, and some, like us, waited on the edges to see where they’d call us. But no one ever did. They were too busy. It was like they were fighting somewhere above us. We were too low for them to bother and tell us what to do. The lords were too hot to get at the duke. The sun was high when we started noticing that footmen were leaving. They weren’t cowards. They weren’t disloyal. Maybe they started to see how the battle was going, though it was hard to tell from where I was standing. And then…”

Ragnor put down his knife and finished his cup of ale. Mabel could tell the room was now fraught with tension and anticipation. But the sausage and mustard she’d craved were too delicious to leave aside.

“Seigneur de Vire and his two sons were killed. It was like the wind changed directions all of a sudden, and all the smells of the field blew right in our face. Not the good smells, of earth and grass and dung. The blood and the shit, and then the cries of the dying. What were we there for, then? Our lords dead. No leader for Lower Normandy. We went home.”

The mood in the room was dire, indeed, but Mabel’s growling belly had been sated. An interesting story and a free meal—though not a new blue gown—had made this a worthy excursion into the village. In the midst of the low and dissatisfied and worried grumbling as the meeting broke up, the Innkeeper approached her father and asked for payment. Talvas ordered Olivier to pay for their cups of ale.

“But you had sausages and mustard, lord.”

“That was Ragnor’s payment for his news. His son shared with my daughter, and my daughter shared with me.” It took no more than a quick look toward their two escorts and her father’s face for Gosbert to realize he’d been mastered. Mabel was surprised he had the nerve to ask in the first place.

The day after that, riders fleeing the battle came through, followed by more straggling soldiers who just wanted to turn their hammers and axes back into tools for labor rather than weapons for war. They brought stories of the utter carnage, and the pursuing chevaliers who were hunting down those who’d survived. Thousands of lords dead, many drowned when they were chased into the waters of the Orne, flooded by the enormous storm in the south.

The duke had won, and his retribution was terrible. When people asked who their lord would be since Seigneur de Vire was dead, the answer came, “Whoever Duke William puts there. If anyone.”

Lower Normandy had been wiped almost clean of Viking lords. There would be no more shelter for the Bellêmes. They couldn’t go east into the duke’s territory, or south into Maine. So they went further west, with the exiles, into Brittany.

Mabel began to think that perhaps her father was mistaken about Duke William. He had the favor of the king and had beaten a much greater force. It might be better to find their way back into his good graces, though she didn’t know how. She did know they couldn’t keep wandering forever. She’d have to keep her eyes open for opportunities.

Knight Takes Bishop

Their small party met a distant cousin who was traveling through Lower Normandy. He took them into an inn, bought them meals and kept her father downstairs while Mabel waited in the room he paid for. When Talvas returned, it was with a pouch of coins and a tale to share. She could tell by the shadows under his eyebrows that it wasn’t entirely a happy one.

“You know that Martel is now the emperor’s father-in-law,” he began.

Heinrich had married Martel’s step-daughter years ago. Everyone knew Heinrich would likely be Holy Roman Emperor one day, so this was no surprise.

“I see the look on your face, girl. Yes, everyone knew it would happen, including Martel. But what does it mean for the game now that it’s a fact?”

Her mind didn’t quite work like her father’s. But she thought of the recent developments involving Martel and the marriage of Hugh and Bertha. She looked out the window at three boys noisily playing in the stable yard. They seemed to be trying to hit each other with rope.

“Well, Martel hates Blois and he wants to have Maine. But now Blois and Maine are united with the marriage of Bertha and Hugh, and so I would guess that now Martel has invaded Maine or Blois. Or both.”

Pride smiled in her father’s eyes for a moment before anger replaced it. “He tried to take Le Mans.” The capital of Maine, and the seat of Bishop Gervais, who offended Martel with his machinations. “Which was a stupid move. Maine is the buffer for Normandy, which wouldn’t sit idly while Martel pushes closer to its border. But when Martel came back from the coronation in Rome and discovered what Gervais had done, he was enraged, and rage makes men stupid.”

“He tried but failed?”

“Le Mans is too powerful a fortification to capture in a rage, and he would need it to keep Maine. Normandy doesn’t want him on the border, and—as weak as Blois is—he also wouldn’t sit by and let it happen. They both would have arrived before the castle fell.”

Her father didn’t continue. Obviously, there was more to the story, but Talvas wanted her to figure out what the next part was. The play in the yard had changed. One of the boys had been hurt and was trying not to cry while another was teasing him. The teasing went too far and the boy’s tears turned to violence.

As she watched the struggle, she wondered. What would I do against a more powerful opponent? Look for the weakness. She could no longer tell which boy had been crying. They looked too much alike. The third boy wasn’t really taking a side. He seemed to aid whichever one was weaker so the fight could go on. How long would the other two allow him to continue before they turned on him?

She knew who Martel would blame. The one who made it happen, who sits in the middle of it all and now has weakened himself. Bishop Gervais gave up guardianship of Count Hugh when he declared the boy was now a man who could marry the hereditary enemy of Martel. “Has he done something to your cousin, Gervais?”

“Ah, very good.” Satisfaction colored his words, but he was not pleased. “When he couldn’t take the bigger prize, which was what he really wanted, he went after one that was easier to get.”

Martel attacked Chateau-du-Loir and took Gervais prisoner. How familiar that sounded! When Mabel’s father had failed to take Montaigu, he hunted down its lord, de Mayenne, instead. With that hostage, he convinced Fitz Giroie to destroy the castle for him.

“What he hopes to accomplish by keeping Gervais, no one knows. He’s Bishop of Le Mans, but Count Hugh is its lord. And Gervais is the king’s bishop! It was revenge, pure and simple, and that I understand. But what can Martel’s longer game be, especially if he makes an enemy of the king? Does he think that being father-in-law to an emperor makes him better than a king? I see no sense in it.”

The boys were no longer in the yard. Mabel had missed seeing how violence, manipulation and humiliation had played out, but it had probably ended with a groom chasing the annoying brats away.

Writing: 7 Ways to Cure the Dumbs

Great piece by J.A. Allen along the lines of discovery I’m going through about my own writing and mental processes. But the Dumbs are not to be feared. All it means is that you have so much information swirling around inside your head that your brain is asking to be allowed to catch up. Revel in your muddled moment! Something awesome is about to happen.

J. A. Allen

Recently I’ve been experiencing a pretty extreme case of the dumbs. man-869215_1920People battling the dumbs often have a difficult time performing ordinary tasks: like replying to emails, speaking in full sentences, or remembering that their spouse asked them to pick up that thing at that place for an immediately forgotten but very, very important reason.

Writing has been painful this month. And, when I say painful, I mean that writing has been like pulling teeth. If the teeth were attached to my eyeballs, and my eyeballs were on fire, and I was being dipped slowly into piranha infested lava.

Despite the leaps and bounds made in today’s technological age, the dumbs are hitting people harder than ever. Information is readily available. Forget the name of your hellion’s teacher? Look it up on the school website. Want to learn how to cook the perfect scrambles eggs? Watch a Gordon Ramsey…

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Music, Math and Words

In Writing Tips for a Disorganized Mind I describe how I get out of my own way and let my brain do its thing when I write. This is not only because it works for me, but also because I am so very—on a deeply fundamental level, which, I assure you, shames me only a little—very, horribly lazy. I don’t much care for work or trying hard. In school, I only got A’s in subjects I enjoyed, which I enjoyed because I was good at them.

I did well in music performance, for instance. I tried playing several instruments–most of them, poorly–but piano was my favorite, and I play with great emotion. I also use music to help me write. There’s a scientific reason many writers do. Brainwaves will try to sync with soundwaves. While writing my parts of Animal Instincts, by M.J. Ortmeier, I listened to two albums: Days Gone By by Bob Moses to evoke alpha waves of emotion; Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, for beta waves of agitation. (By the way, you should only listen to Downward Spiral with headphones. It’s meant to be inside your head). Eventually, I didn’t really even hear the music as I worked, I just felt it.

On the other hand—again, placing the blame where it obviously belongs, on my brain—I am really bad at math. As opposed to my nearly effortless ability to focus and translate mental images to words, there is a physical dysfunction that I can feel inside my head when I try to do math or think in mathematical ways. The neural pathways simply don’t exist. The greatest irony of my life is that I have no problem with words, yet a crippling inability to do word problems. Straight C’s, all through school.

Yet there is a similarity between words and numbers. They are, after all, merely symbols, parts of language, a means by which we describe and understand…everything, though in different ways and to varying degrees. You know, the difference between describing a tree, exploring the wider meaning of a tree, and stating that there are nn−2 trees on n labeled vertices. Yeah, that’s gibberish, but it rhymed, which makes it poetry.

Speaking of poetry, if you went to school, you undoubtedly wrote a poem. And if you’re like me, you received an A for plagiarizing* one that your brother wrote years ago at another school (thanks, Ed). Did I stoop so low because I’m lazy? Yes, and I’ve never been able to write poetry, except for the epic that’s in a box in the basement which once filled me with pride, but is actually trite.

“But poems are made of words, right? You’re good with words, you said.” I’m also apparently inconsistent, because life is complicated and full of seeming contradictions. Besides, math is made of lots of words, but I can’t do that, either. “Hang on,” I hear you say, rudely interrupting yet again. “Math is numbers, not words.” Good point, now shut up.

Math—if I’m not talking completely out of my butt—is about structure. It describes spatial relationships such as size and distance; physical realities, such as molecular bonds, etc.—things that exist on the physical plane. And I’ll bet those who can understand such formulas are often overwhelmed by the intricate and complex dance of numbers that give a glimpse of a vast, wonderful and beautiful universe.

With words, however, we can just make up shit with the purpose of stirring up shit. One might argue that there is a universal formula for manipulating human emotions through the use of imagery and metaphors. Why, then, do I hate inspirational sports stories? They have the opposite effect on me!

Poetry—using the classical definition—is a hybrid language, a fusing of math and words. You make up shit, but within a structure. As is plainly proven in this blog post, structure is my enemy. Rhythm and meter can kiss my ass. I hate writing poetry. So imagine my surprise when this happened one day:

Running running running forward
Stopping for a while to remember
Around you, with you, nearer tomorrow
Nothing goes backward
And time can’t stay forever like flies in amber

Open open up the window
Love, for a lie, powerfully borne in
Who are you? Who am I? Given or borrowed
Disparate, hollow
But time won’t lie on its bed late in the morning

Waiting waiting is not willing
Spin in circles, bronco not broken
Flying apart, from sad joy to glad sorrow
Illusions of stilling
For time is long gone before your eyes are open

Keep yourself
For me
Keep yourself
For you

What the heck was that? I think it’s lyrics to a song. That’s what it’s meant to be. Whether anyone thinks it’s crap or brilliant, it still happened. And I’m baffled. I couldn’t plan such a thing if I tried. I don’t do structure!

But here’s the process. M.J. Ortmeier’s novel, Animal Instincts, is so called because it’s about the eternal vigilance we need to overcome our baser natures and the paramount role of communication and awareness. Use your words, human!

One of the characters has a secret love of music and another character says: “I know you don’t like hearing the ‘L-word’ yet, but the emotion is powerful and sneaky. As good as you look with your new hair and clothes, and as happy as you want to make a potential mate, be sure to keep yourself. You know what I mean? All those disparate things you like that don’t seem to go together? They all meet and blend perfectly in a wonderfully unique” you.

I thought, “that would have a poetic impact on someone prone to introspection and lyricism.” I extracted some words I might use, like sneak, unique, keep yourself, powerful, disparate. That, and the nature of the meeting and relationship of these two people, hummed in the background of my mind for months. I didn’t work on it in all that time.

Then I downloaded another Bob Moses album, All in All, and found Hands to Hold (Acoustic). It was the last element needed for a Perfect Storm of Creativity, of crashing alpha waves and buffeted structures. Literally, within half an hour of downloading the album and repeatedly playing that song, I had written the first draft of the above poem. Another night of sleep and ten more minutes, I had the completed version.


*In answer to the accusation of plagiarism which has been lodged here today: we used pseudonyms in class so we could anonymously critique each other’s work. My pseudonym was Mr. Davis, my brother’s name. So I didn’t so much “plagiarize” as “quote” with attribution.

Chaos of 1047

The early months of the following year were filled with rapid and exciting changes.

News of the marriage of the Count of Maine to the widow of the Duke of Brittany reached them. It was arranged by the Bishop of Le Mans—who was Gervais de Bellême, Talvas’ cousin—while the Count of Anjou was in Italy. This was all a delicious power struggle of the type that Mabel’s father savored, like the game he loved, chess.

Maine, like Bellême, was a small piece between larger players, a bone for the big dogs to fight over. As Mabel knew, however, it wasn’t the size of the territory, but the strength of its people which determined dominance. Both Maine and Anjou had recently lost their more powerful heads. Anjou was now lead by Geoffrey Martel, an assertive combatant not nearly as capable or ruthless as his father. Maine’s new leader, Hugh, was sixteen years old. Gervais had wrested guardianship away from Martel with the blessing of the king. Martel, powerless, had seethed.

When Talvas heard that Hugh married Bertha, the sister of the Count of Blois, a man Martel despised and humiliated, he laughed until he cried. It was a perfect example of the power wielded by Bellême. Talvas was no longer a lord, but his ability to savor the victory was only slightly lessened.

The interest in that news was quickly supplanted by the exhilarating rumors that the nineteen year old Duke of Normandy was dead.

Caught alone at a hunting lodge by a party of assassins, Duke William fled, naked, into the night. But he hadn’t gone to his nearby allies for help. He simply disappeared and some thought one of the parties hunting him had been successful but were hiding for fear of retribution. It hadn’t rung true to Mabel, and it was proven false a little more than a week later. The duke was safe in Falaise, his men from Upper Normandy rallying around him.

But he had been weakened. Would it be a fatal wound?

How they revelled in the months of chaos that followed! The rebel lords punished anyone who supported the duke. Not surprisingly, very soon no one could be found who did—or who would admit to it. Ducal lands and incomes were confiscated. The Bastard and his followers could do nothing more than keep to their own territory in the east, unable to call up a force large enough to retake the west. Their messages went unaswered and their envoys were sent galloping back across the border.

Meanwhile, the lords discussed who might take leadership of the region.

There was very little support for Renouf de Bessin, who was married to one of the duke’s cousins. Renouf, the Count of Bayeux, was fat and lazy. Though he’d be easy to control, the warriors were too proud to elect a puppet.

Many more supported Guy of Brionne, who shared a grandfather with the Bastard and reminded people of Duke Robert. Though Guy had lived in Normandy since he could walk, his father was Count of Burgundy, so he was thought to be too foreign.

William’s uncle, the Count of Arques, would have had more of a claim than either of them, but he wasn’t even considered. He was an Upper Norman, more French than Danish, and they’d had enough of them. Besides, he’d been paid off by Duke William’s guardians to give up his claim long ago. They couldn’t respect him.

Two men who had no direct connection to the ducal family were also talked about. One was Raoul de Cinguleiz, a formidable fighter, a man of honor, so rich in land he was called “Taisson”—badger, because he could go to ground wherever he stood. But he was also called “The Angevin.” Another foreigner.

The favorite of many was Néel de Saint-Saveur. A fierce man of a distinguished family whose father had been admired and respected, he recalled to their Viking hearts the days of old. He had the sandy good looks of a Norseman and started growing out his hair and beard in the manner of their distant kin. Though he had great and righteous anger against the duke and spoke out eloquently about their neglect, he also said he had no desire to rule Normandy. That made them want him all the more.

Mabel found him very attractive, too, but he never looked at her in that way. She suspected his heart was already taken…and broken.

Writing Tips for a Disorganized Mind

I specifically remember lying on my stomach on the bed in my room as a teenager, staring at a blank piece of paper (yes, actual paper and a pencil). My favorite writing surface in this position was one of the big “Illustrated Stories from the Book of Mormon” books, specifically the one where the puma is about to leap out of a tree onto Lehi or Moroni–or whoever–strolling along in his belted tunic and sandals. They were thin, solid and slightly larger than a 7×11 page. (And I found a pic online!)

Jacobs-StoriesThe perfect opening line, however, never came to me, so whatever it was that would have followed never got written down. Oh, the disappointment of needing to be brilliant on demand and failing to perform!

Michael often teases me about how my mind jumps all over the place. It’s most apparent when we do a crossword together. He goes through each question and will consider one thoroughly, studying the vast map of information his brain has laid out. I skim through them all and if the answer doesn’t pop into my head immediately, I move on. I’ve filled in all the small, obvious clues and come back around to where I left him earlier when he’ll suddenly fill in “Arizona Cardinals” with no cross hints solved because he finally located it in his mental spreadsheet of western cities with football teams.

I mention this anecdote because, though I seem to have an agile mind, I still want to work in a very linear fashion, which is why I never got past that perfect first line. Perhaps it was the static nature of a piece of paper, whether forming words with pencil or typewriter. Once it’s on the page, it can’t be moved. I imaged professional writers simply started from the beginning and worked their way to the end, producing a final draft in one go because the drudgery of reworking paragraphs was unimaginable to me. However, even with this amazing machinery I’m clacking away on, I still have the impulse to start from the top.

I know there are courses I can take on how to write. There are tons of articles on process, overcoming block, techniques, structure, organization, etc. But I believe in reinventing the wheel. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about my most difficult obstacles.

Write what’s on your mind. There’s an important scene with technical language and concepts you don’t fully understand. You’re disciplined. You’ve done the research, made the notes, but it’s not there, flowing out of your fingertips. So go back to that other scene, the fun and colorful one that makes you happy. There’s a reason that scene is trying to burst through. Its time has come.

Don’t push it. Your brain runs background programs. You plug in various bits of information all through your life which get collated and filed. Even if it’s something you forgot years ago, it’s still in there somewhere, forming your beliefs and view of the world. Your mind has been putting it all together for you while you were going on with other business. There’s a reason we’re advised to sleep on it. Why consciously try to force something when you can reap the rewards with minimal effort?

Cleanse your palate. It’s all a muddled mess. You don’t know who’s saying what, or where that character is going or why, but you know he has to get over there somehow. So, screw it. Play a video game. Read a book. Watch a movie. Generally, I try to read or watch something that’s along the lines of what I’ve been working on. The mental short circuit will clear the churning detritus, creating a navigable course.

Stand on the shoulders of giants. Brilliant insights don’t pop up, fully formed, from nothing. Frankly, you stole it from something you read or saw years ago. When I’m cleansing my palate, I’m only a little worried I might plagiarize, or, more worrisome, feel constrained from writing something because someone else already did it, and better. In fact, I read a novel that had lots of elements of something Michael and I had written. Obviously we didn’t plagiarize it. We just seem to have commonalities with the author. Anyway, there are apparently only Seven Basic Plots that can exist, and it’s currently popular to rewrite fairy tales and classic novels, so don’t worry about it.

Hmm. During the process of writing, I seem to have taken a great deal of time and energy (both the reader’s and mine) to illustrate my final point. When I was young and having a difficult time in life, I’d randomly open my copy of the Tao Te Ching for wisdom and comfort. My copy with the mysterious stain on the cloth cover is a 1988 translation by Stephen Mitchell. Passage 76 ends, “The hard and stiff will be broken. The soft and supple will prevail.” This is attributed as the first known instance of a concept that has many iterations, notably by Confuscious, Aesop and the Bible, and is most recognized in this form: “I will bend like a reed in the wind.” My favorite, however, is spoken by Wash in the movie Serenity: “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.” Joss Whedon obviously didn’t make that up, he just relayed it very well.