Mabel de Bellême would never have described herself as an ogress. Neither would anyone who had ever merely laid eyes on her. But she was the daughter of one, or so she’d been told. Like her father William—called Talvas—she could have the nature of one when the things she most cared about were threatened or offended.
To look at her, though, she was an angel. She’d been blessed with large, wide-set eyes and a mouth that turned up at the corners. This made her appear naturally friendly and cheerful. Those were two more descriptions she would never have given herself. “Ruthlessly practical,” Mabel would have said. But she could admit that she was very charming.
Her personality wasn’t the only thing about her that contained stark contrasts.
The very dark hair against her very pale skin, which on someone else could have been funereal, on her was ethereal. Her brows were heavy enough to be brooding if it weren’t for the permanent smile that God had gifted her. Not even the wide forehead or squared jaw she had inherited from her father could overcome the apparent innocence in her clear, dark blue eyes, or make her face mannish or stern.
If Nature had intended to warn mankind through these seeming contradictions that “Here is a complex and dangerous creature,” She had been far too subtle. However, if Nature had intended instead to mask a predator, She had done very well, indeed.
Those who had a brief acquaintance with Mabel saw a loving, loyal and pious woman. And, briefly, they were correct. She felt very deep love, loyalty and fervent devotion to her family. It was the core foundation for all she was and would do throughout her life.
And she had good reason to be fiercely proud of the Bellêmes. Only a hundred years ago her family had been minor nobility serving a weak and nearly landless King of France, the last of the Carolingians. It was like a story from Greek or Roman legend, but it was real. The child duke of Normandy had been locked away in a tower to be forgotten and die because the king was afraid of the handsome, golden-haired boy. But her great grandfather’s instincts told him that the future didn’t favor this king. His warning to the young duke’s guardian led to the child’s salvation, and to her family’s reward.
Since then, her ancestors had snatched every opportunity, made every alliance they could. They weren’t counts, like their overlords in Maine, Blois and Anjou. They weren’t dukes, like their overlord in Normandy. They certainly weren’t princes, though they held Bellême directly in the name of Henry, King of France. They were simply lords, holding various castles for greater men.
Her family didn’t wait for anyone to recognize their greatness by granting them titles. It was a given, testified to by their ability to maintain a position between violent and greedy giants, constantly pushing and pulling for dominance. Standing on the rugged hills of their territory, they declared that Bellême was a principality in its own right, thus they made themselves princes of their realm.
They not only survived the political turmoil, they triumphed. Her family chose their alliances—and their enemies—well.