By the time Mabel arrived with her ladies, the hall was filled with local lords, ladies, and the burghers of Alençon. There was no balcony for her to climb to, so she stayed a few steps up on the stairs that entered from the side of the room to look over the throng. She saw right away the serious faces of the men-at-arms around the perimeter. So many people were talking, laughing, reaching out to clap shoulders, that no one else noticed they were surrounded by an outside force.
Not even her father. He was smiling, looking almost handsome, watching his son approach.
That was another thing that was wrong.
Arnoul was leading the group of men through the parting crowd. Seigneur de Laval, her brother’s lord, was half a step behind his own squire. Like most of the de Laval men, Sieur Guy had the long nose and dour face which usually made people feel they were disappointing him. His black hair and eyebrows were shot heavily with grey; his dark eyes were clear and sharp. He was about ten years older than Talvas, but his stone face remained unlined.
Walking next to Sieur Guy was Seigneur de Mayenne. That was the man whose castle had caused all this trouble. He built a fortress right on the border of Bellême and gave lordship of it to Fitz Giroie, a vassal who had sworn to serve both Bellême and Mayenne. After the first castle was destroyed, he started building a second one nearby, and named it Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei, as a reward to Fitz Giroie. A reward for faithlessness.
Arnoul was staring right at their father as he approached. It almost looked like the two men weren’t related. Except for the squarish face, neither he nor Mabel favored their father, who was looking very aged and faded as he faced these three dark men. The noise in the hall lessened as people began to sense the tension. Talvas, however, rose from his seat next to his mousy new wife, Emme, and started to descend the dais, arms outstretched to embrace his son. Her brother halted. “I haven’t come to save you,” Arnoul growled. “I’ve come to save them.”
His voice had deepened since she last saw him, several months ago at her father’s wedding. It was loud enough to carry through the remaining noise in the hall. Talvas peered at Arnoul and at the men at his sides. Then his eyes scanned the room, noting the position he was in. He smiled defiantly.
Instead of anwering his son, Talvas spoke to de Mayenne. “Well, Geoffrey,” he greeted loudly. “That explains the presence of your enormous nose. Perhaps I should have smelled something wrong when an enemy rode to my rescue, but you were snorting in all the odor, weren’t you?” Seigneur de Mayenne merely smiled. “What is this? Am I to be tried for my ‘crimes?’”
“We’re not a jury,” Sieur Guy told him. “We’re the executioners.”
There was a stir in the hall as people began to leave, mostly women. Hildeburgis tugged on Mabel’s sleeve and whispered, “Come away. We mustn’t see this.”
“Yes,” Mabel told her. “You should go. You don’t want to see my father kill yours.”
She looked back to see Talvas’s watery blue eyes on Arnoul again, his lip curling. “Come to save them, have you? So dramatic, so heroic. Oh, look! They can save themselves.”
The elegantly clad nobles and townsfolk were rustling and swishing from the hall with distressed sounds, much like Hildeburgis and Cecilia had. However, no weapons were being drawn yet.
“But this is tiresome,” her father continued. “You have no authority here, none of you. I am Seigneur of Alençon by right of the Duke of Normandy, on whose land you now stand. Do you hear?” He spoke loudly to his men-at-arms. “You serve the Duke of Normandy!”
A sword was unsheathed then. One of her father’s men held a bare blade, but there was a knife at his throat, wielded by de Mayenne’s man.
Arnoul addressed their father’s people and men-at-arms. “You all know what my father did. He didn’t give his vassal a chance to defend himself. In fact, he never claimed any wrong at all! He invited him, as a friend, to his wedding. I was there. I saw him laughing with Fitz Giroie, sharing drinks and jokes. When his guest and his men were drunk, the servants seized them. I told him it was wrong, it was unjust.”
“You sputtered and cried, then ran off to hide behind your papa,” Talvas pointed at Sieur Guy. Arnoul looked at Seigneur de Laval, accepting that the granite-faced man was his true father.
“I am ashamed I didn’t stand up more forcefully to you, but I would have suffered the same fate as Fitz Giroie. I sought help from a better man.” Arnoul talked to his jury again. “I rode from Bellême to Laval in two days, and the better man agreed to negotiate for Fitz Giroie’s release. By the time we returned, it was too late. Without accusation, without trial, Talvas tortured a man he tricked by inviting him into his home as a guest. He mutilated him, burned out his eyes, then pushed him out the door. But we discovered there isn’t only evil in Talvas’s world. A merchant had been about to take Fitz Giroie into this home when we found him.”
“There was no need for a trial!” Talvas shouted. “The vicomte de Maine was there for his daughter’s wedding and didn’t try to stop me.”
Emme was still sitting on her chair, though she had sunk down so far she could be mistaken for a seat cushion.
Talvas continued. “Fitz Giroie’s own men slunk away without much protest. Why? Because everyone knows the man took up arms against me, his sworn lord. He should have quit Montaigu when my army approached it, but he didn’t. He chose defiance and war. Disloyalty! Oathbreaker! I summoned him for his judgment, allowed him one last look at joy. It was a mercy. I showed mercy! I could have hanged him and it would have been justice. He has his life still. Though he can’t have any more children, he’ll have grandsons to bounce on his knee, even if they’re just the bastards his sons got on the women they raped while destroying your farms. But this! What you are doing now is not justice. It is invasion. This is Normandy and none of you have any right!”
Mabel looked around at the people remaining. Some were waivering. Alençon was a major stronghold of the duke, an important bulwark on the border, and Talvas was the lord. She knew they were wondering if this would be considered an attack on his territory. Would the duke send Ralph de Gacé? The Constable of Normandy was a man known to be as ruthless as Talvas, and possibly a murderer of his own family.
“I have letters,” Sieur Guy announced in his quiet yet forceful way. “Duke William wants you dead, but will settle for dispossessing you from Alençon. Your cousin, Gervais, and your brother, Ivo, have also agreed to transfer lordship of Domfront and Bellême to Arnoul.”
“To Arnoul? He doesn’t even have any hair growing out of his asshole!”
Her brother’s face was blazing as he put a hand on his sword. She could see how much he wanted to carve up his own father. What kind of monster had he become?
“You’re finished,” Arnoul said through tight lips. “No longer will anyone have to follow an ogre who feasts on the misery of his own people.”
“I cursed that Bastard when he was a babe. I knew he would bring ruin to Normandy and the house of Bellême. And so I curse you,” he told Arnoul.
“I don’t think I’ll worry,” Arnoul responded. He was about to walk away on that, but then his eyes locked with Mabel’s. They were so like her own. But this young man was a stranger. A hated stranger. She turned and walked up the stairs.
Michael and Julie write separately, but when they write together they are...M.J. Ortmeier!