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.