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.
Talvas, 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.”
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?”
“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.