Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash
After nearly two years of wandering, they were almost home. At least, in a sense of distance. Only half a day’s ride north from Sées, where her uncle Ivo was bishop. Only half a day from the rugged, forested hills of Bellême. So far, however, they were no closer to being able to go there.
To find a true path home, Talvas told Mabel, they had to pass very close to enemy territory.
Sainte-Foy-de-Montgomery was near Echauffour, the seat of Fitz Giroie’s family. The lord of Sainte-Foy—the vicomte d’Hiemois—was exiled from Normandy and living in Paris as a guest of the king. His son, however, had proven his loyalty and was now a very close companion of Duke William. This was the place to start finding a way back into the duke’s good graces.
Sieur Roger welcomed them himself. His gentle manner and soft voice were gracious and solicitous. His eyes, however, were guarded as he looked at Talvas. Auderic was given a particularly piercing inspection.
“Your timing is unfortunate,” he told her father. “I am summoned by Duke William to attend a council of the king. I’ll be leaving tomorrow, but you’re welcome to stay the night.”
Mabel studied him as he spoke. Similar in coloring to herself, pale skin not as pale, dark hair not as dark. A softer contrast. Soft. That was the word for how he seemed. Clean shaven and boyish. And that hair! Shorn in the style some younger Normans had, but with more length in the back. She wasn’t sure she liked it. The comparison to Néel de Saint-Sauveur—with his flowing blond hair and battle scarred beard—was not favorable.
Sieur Roger didn’t look like a warrior, or even like the lord of this manor. Unassuming. Well built, but smaller than the men around him. Nose, slightly prominent though handsomely shaped, especially in profile. Like her, he had heavy brows that might be menacing if they weren’t softened by his eyes. Even through his wary gaze they were plainly kind. But would they remain so when he finally turned them her way?
She was shabby in her charity clothing with no veil. Would she encounter the pity, the contempt or the leer this time?
His sharp glance met hers. Before lowering her eyes in modesty, she glimpsed a smile that must habitually crease their corners warm his dark eyes. Genuine cordiality and appreciation, nothing more, nothing salacious. He was a good man.
Inwardly, Mabel smiled. A cousin and close companion to the Duke of Normandy. A rich and powerful man whose lands bordered her own. A gentle man of basic kindness. Not married.
They traded elegant bows as he welcomed their party into his home. He personally guided her family through the castle and grounds and made them free of it all, except his chambers. He apologized for his bachelor household and immediately hired a girl from the village to act as her companion and servant. That night she was seated at his left side for the meal, and her father was given his right side.
After supper, as the hall was reset for entertainment, Sieur Roger asked, “Do you play chess, Lady Mabel?”
“I never learned.” She never cared to. “Will you teach me? Or do you prefer a serious challenge? My father plays well.”
Talvas overheard the invitation. “My mind is too weary from travel, excellent food, and delicious cider. I never engage in battle if I’m likely to fall asleep in the middle of it.”
Mabel put her hand on Sieur Roger’s offered sleeve. He guided her to a small table set with the game board. She examined one of the pieces. “Look at how funny he is. Are those his teeth?” It looked like the little man with the sword was biting his own shield.
“They are.” He picked up a figure from his own side to show her. “And she is shocked at his behavior.” The queen had one hand up to her cheek.
“She does look scandalized. But it seems all your chessmen are constantly amazed at everything around them.” She copied the wide-eyed expression while she gazed about the room. Sieur Roger really had a wonderful laugh. It made her happy.
“I would like to say the artisan meant to convey a sense of childlike wonder, but it’s more likely he just wasn’t very good.”
“Then it was charitable of you to purchase objects from an inferior craftsman, though perhaps it would be better to encourage him in a different trade if he does so poorly with a knife.” His smile was tight that time. A thought occurred to her. “Did you carve them?”
“I didn’t.” Now his tone was markedly damp. “My brother did.”
Mabel remembered that three of his four brothers had died. Violently. Should she attempt to soothe him? No, she wanted him laughing again, so feigned innocent ignorance. “They are marvelous and unique and your brother is very talented. But I don’t know what to do with them.”
He named all the little men (and women), showing her how they moved. Very soon she had Sieur Roger cheerfully helping her win. He applauded her accomplishment. While they quietly reset the board, she became aware of mood in the hall. His men-at-arms and squires talked and laughed a great deal, as men will do. Two of them were singing a duet with a stringed instrument for accompaniment. Most other halls she’d visited during her exile were filled with far more raucous and crude behavior. Likely, the men here were normally like that, but restrained themselves in her presence. That would be a reflection of the leadership of their lord. He showed her respect, so they did.
“It’s been difficult for you, hasn’t it?” He surprised her with his gentle question, as if he’d followed her thoughts. Talvas said she wasn’t easy to read. Had she let Sieur Roger see?
“And yet I’ve still lived more comfortably than many women.”
He was impressed and pleased. “That’s a remarkably unselfish point of view.”
He liked humility? She could give him that. Sitting straighter, she stuck her nose in the air. “I was very proud when I left with my father, though we didn’t travel with a noble entourage. When I saw vagabonds walking I thought, ‘I’m still better, for I am riding.’” She laughed, sat back in her chair, and glanced at him. His mien was serious.
“See how far I have fallen,” she said with a mocking self-pity, indicating her clothing. Before it was donated to her, it belonged to a noblewoman’s common attendant. She was dressed no better than the servant Sieur Roger had hired for her. “Yet I’ve seen how much farther I could go, and am grateful every time I find safety with a lord such as yourself.”
Sieur Roger sat forward. The hard face her glance caught was thrilling. Perhaps he wasn’t so soft, after all.
She knew what he was thinking. “I have been fortunate,” she continued before he could speak. “In nearly two years, I have always found safety.”
Would it be too much to say it outright? No, she could deliver the hint the right way. She needed to remain more than just one night, and put as much sweet goodness and wisdom as she could into her smile.
“Of course, one never knows what lies beyond the next bend in the road. So, you see, I have learned always to enjoy what I have before me. I enjoy winning at chess. Help me win again.”