The Hunted

A familiar shape was outlined in the underbrush to Mabel’s left. A small bump, like a loaf of bread, with long ears laid back and head down. Caught in a bad place, waiting for the danger to pass. Mabel knew the feeling well. The single, dark eye stared at her, but its body was relaxed. It didn’t fear her. It probably didn’t know she was a person, could only see the horse she was sitting on. All its focus was on the pack of dogs in the distance.295053

The waving tails reminded Mabel of long reeds in a fen being buffeted in a wind, if the wind were howling and baying in a very annoying manner. At least she was far enough away that the noise wasn’t causing her ears to strain. Her patience with the hunt master, however, was severely strained. He’d just been standing there for what must have been at least a quarter of an hour, watching the swirling mass of the pack as it circled the entrance to the den. Finally, he blew the signal—the prey has gone to ground. The pack followed their shouting masters, still baying and wagging excitedly.

Lifting her bow over the horse’s head, she pivoted, took aim, let loose, and was rewarded a moment later by a short, high-pitched squeal. “You,” she called to one of the dog handler’s boys, then pointed to the bush. “Fetch that.” Winter’s full chill was close, and Mabel woud need furs for her clothes. As the boy held it up, several riders came to join her.

Twelve year old Hawise stood her horse right next to Mabel. “You shot a rabbit?”

“Yes, Stupid,” her brother, Conan, said. “Why do you always ask such obviously stupid questions?”

Hoël looked like he wanted to hit Conan. Normally, a twenty year old wouldn’t hesitate to cuff an annoying tick who was four years younger, especially since Hoël was son of their host, Count Alain. But Conan was the Duke of Brittany. Instead, he said “Hold it up, Eon.” The rabbit dangled by the arrow in its throat.

“You’re supposed to use a lead-tipped arrow,” Conan told her, like she didn’t know. He licked his lips, as he often did, then rubbed them with a gloved hand. “You could have ruined it.”

“I didn’t have a lead-tipped arrow.”

“It was an excellent shot, Lady Mabel.” Hoël complimented her.

“And now we didn’t waste the whole day,” Mabel responded. “Something needed to be killed.”

Conan laughed and started leading the way back to Count Alain’s hunting lodge. As Hawise rode by her side, Mabel asked. “Do you think your mother will ever send for you, Hawise?” Her mother, Bertha, had married the Count of Maine ten months before. News of the birth of Hawise’s baby brother made her very anxious to join the new family in Maine.

“I hope so, but I hope not, too.” It was the sort of typical Hawise response that would make her brother get nasty. “Conan’s gotten worse since he turned sixteen. He says if the Duke of Normandy could be knighted and start ruling when he was fifteen, then why shouldn’t he be able to when he’s sixteen? When I said it’s because they only let you be duke once you can see over a parapet, he and his friend chased me and poured dirt down the back of my dress.”

Oh, it was such a wonderful feeling to be able to laugh like this again. It came out harder when Hawise added, “There were burrs in it. That’s not funny!” But Hawise giggled, too. Probably because, as she’d been told many times, Mabel’s laugh was very infectious.

“I think that’s yet another reason that you should want to go. But why would you hope not to go?”

“Count Hugh is seventeen, but he’ll be my father. I won’t have an Uncle Euzon to run to for protection.”

“Your mother has written that Count Hugh is sensible and kind. Besides, he’ll be too busy with his duties and outmaneuvering Martel to bother with his wife’s daughter.”

“Still, I think I’d rather have a mature man to watch over me. I barely remember my father.” She said it so wistfully. Mabel had to agree. She couldn’t imagine what kind of life she would have if Talvas had been killed when she was only four years old.

They were both surrounded by boys at the moment. Hoël and Conan had their boisterous friends with them. The other ladies—including Hoël’s mother and sister—rode separately, but Mabel enjoyed the energy and talk of young men, and they enjoyed her. Hawise preferred it, too, when they weren’t treating her as a pest. Someday soon, she would have breasts and beauty and wouldn’t be allowed such mingling. Even if she did, though, she was the sister of a duke, and would never know the million little cruelties Mabel had suffered the past two years. When she prayed to God, it was in thanks for bringing her under the protection of Count Alain his Countess, Judith.

Talvas prayed the young Hoël would want to marry Mabel, but she wouldn’t try to gain his attention. He was nice enough, but rather plain and boring. And, oddly, not interested in Mabel at all. Neither was another retainer who had recently joined Duke Conan’s household.

She craned her neck to look around, easily spotting his blond head among the darker Breton men. Straight in his saddle despite his defeat. She couldn’t see his face clearly from this distance, but knew his icy blue eyes and the split in the right side of his reddish beard, a scar still raw and pink from the battle.

Néel de Saint-Sauveur spent three months in a Norman prison after the Battle at Val-es-Dunes, as it was called. He’d been offered forgiveness and a place at Duke William’s court, but was stripped of everything else. He would have been little more than a humbled and humiliated household knight, striving to prove his loyalty to regain favor and position. Of course, that was all he was in Brittany, as well. But Duke Conan hated the Normans for killing his father, and so Néel had a much better chance of rising here.

In Normandy he would have been a beaten and cowering dog. In Brittany, he was a proud but defeated hero. Mabel thought she could love him, but now was certain his heart had been broken before she’d seen him in Lower Normandy. After Val-es-Dunes, it had been nearly crushed. She had no desire to be a consolation prize, a second best, or to gaze into eyes as cold as a shallow pond in January. She wanted nothing but warmth and vigor in her life.

“‘Something needed to be killed,’” Duke Conan startled her, quoting her words with appreciation.

He had directed his horse to fall into step next to her, too distrated to notice when Hawise drifted closer to Countess Judith. Conan chewed on his lip while he regarded Mabel. “You say lots of funny things I like. And you’re very pretty, especially when you laugh. You could be my mistress if you wanted.”

A young lady should never, ever do what Mabel did then. She turned her head, raised her eyes, and stared straight at Duke Conan. His horse’s gait hitched just a bit, sensing his master’s sudden tension.

Straight, dark hair wafted lightly in the chilly breeze, which colored his nose and cheeks. His eyes were so dark, they were nearly black. He would probably be very attractive in a few years, when his pimples receded, his face caught up with his nose, and the smudge on his upper lip grew to a real moustache. He was Duke of Brittany—in name only, at the moment. He was rich, would be powerful someday, and he liked her very much. His free hand was resting where his hip met his thigh, his fingers subtly rubbing the erection under his tunic. She could do much, much worse than be the mistess of a duke. At the moment, she couldn’t do any better.

Mabel might never be a duchess, but she could rule Conan. He would love her, do her bidding, give her everything. Their children would be noble. Someday, if she wished it, she could make him marry her to a lord of her choosing. It was a great opportunity for her, an honor for him to offer, and for that she vowed, someday, if it were ever in her power to do so, she would kill him.

As she continued to watch, Conan’s breathing shallowed, but not with passion, not from nearing a conclusion to his own stimulation. “Mabel—Lady Mabel,” his voice cracked.

The power she held over him in this moment rode on a wave of lust through her body. “Your offer is a great honor, duke. Alas, my father has other plans for me. He hasn’t announced it yet, but he is in the process of arranging a marriage for me back home. We will be leaving soon.”

Mabel hadn’t credited Duke Conan with any kind of sensitivity or perception. Either he was more observant than she knew, or the black intent that filled her at his words seeped out through her smile. He accepted her excuse and took his leave.

But now she’d have to find a way to make what she said true without telling her father why they had to leave.

Ragnor’s Tale

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Photo by Max LaRochelle on Unsplash

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.

Image 1-30-18 at 4.30 PMTalvas, 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.”

“Alright, Morberga.”

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?”

Image 1-30-18 at 5.01 PM“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.

Chaos of 1047

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.

Travel and Shelter

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unsplash-logoFelix Russell-Saw

Arnoul had given them an escort until they were well away, in case Fitz Giroie’s family were still waiting. But they weren’t. As she passed her brother, she looked at him and hoped it would be the last time. At least she could remember him geared for battle, looking hard like a man, and not whimpering and pleading like a woman. Perhaps, given time and experience, with the weight of true responsibility, he would come to understand the hard decisions men make, then crawl back to Father with remorse. She might forgive him then.

Mabel would never admit it aloud, but her brother had been right on at least one point. The world was very difficult for a pampered female of fourteen. She had been born into a privileged life in a powerful and respected family. Her grandfather had built Domfront and Alençon. She should now be married to a great lord, perhaps even to Duke William, though at the moment she’d rather see him dead. Instead, the rightful lord of those mighty fortresses had been living like a base soldier on the march for weeks.

She hated it. Hated sleeping on a pallet on the ground. Hated having no women to attend her, to clean her clothes, her hair and body.

What she missed most, though, was a hot bath.

The first time she splashed water from a cold stream on her private parts and washed out her own linens she began shivering, a physical reaction to the cold that became something deeper, until her whole body was quaking fiercely and she worried that she had fallen ill and would drop dead on the bank.

Through clacking teeth she prayed to God: Miserere mei et salva me. God must have taken mercy. After a few minutes she did stop trembling. A preternatural calm she had never known before descended on her. But she never warmed. She felt cold all the time, all the way down to her soul. Even huddled under the extra blanket that Auderic, her father’s constable, had given her at her place next to the fire. Even when the summer sun was beating down on her back.

But she was very well protected, and that was felt deep in her soul, as well. Her men treated her like something precious and she worried that she held them back. Perhaps they could have gone to Italy and made their fortunes in service to William de Hauteville. It was no comfort to hear later that the fierce Norman warrior had already been killed before they’d left the gates of Alençon. For some reason, it made her sad that someone she’d never known was dead.

It wouldn’t have mattered. Her father was too old, and Olivier would never leave him. Neither would Auderic, her father’s most dedicated retainer from his adolescence. Aloys and Gosse were also on the wrong side of their youth and had served father for far too long to leave now.

In the event, she was their greatest asset. After leaving the immediate vicinity where William Talvas de Bellême was most reviled, her presence was the factor that weighed most heavily in the decision to grant hospitality. The ladies saw the wide eyes which matched her gently smiling lips—though she felt nothing inside—and would insist that their lords provide temporary shelter for a child who could not be blamed for her father. Poor lamb, poor lamb, the ladies cooed, or something like it.

Sometimes, however, they would stay where there were no ladies. Her eyes and smile worked in a very different way. Despite the vigilance of her protective men, she’d been touched in ways she didn’t like. She remembered the lesson of Arnoul’s strength. Muscle for muscle, there was no hope. She had to exploit their weaknesses, and be swift, observant and clever, because avoiding the situation was her greatest defense.

They found shelter in whatever household would have them. At first they’d been mostly turned away, the notion of hospitality thrown back in their faces. As time wore on and horror and disgust faded, they found shelter more often than not, particularly in Lower Normandy, where Duke William was becoming increasingly unpopular. There they could stay for weeks in one place.

Mabel didn’t join in the conversations of men, but she heard enough to know that her father helped them along in their opinions. He reminded them that he’d been a close companion of Duke William’s parents. He told them he knew Herleva had been only a mistress to Duke Robert when William was born.

“And only one of many. She was no concubine. At least then they could have called her his Danish wife. But he didn’t pay her father the price of bedding her. ‘Duke’ William was born in a tanner’s hut. He was, in fact, a complete bastard, never legitimated by marriage.”

Mabel asked him later if that was all true. He admitted, privately, that Duke Robert had paid Herleva’s father and taken her to live with him as a wife, but only after William had been born. In the eyes of the Christian church, William had been born a bastard.

The Normans didn’t really care about any of that, with their Danish views of marriage and their Viking respect for warriors and independence. They wouldn’t let celibate Christian monks tell them who to follow. But it was a convenient excuse to latch onto.

Alençon

Chateau Alençon, Normandy – 1046

The castle wasn’t blockaded, but Mabel and her father were shut up inside as if it was. For nearly two months, they dared not leave for fear of personal attack. The family of William d’Echauffour—who was called Fitz Giroie—had come for vengeance. Mabel’s father wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of meeting on the field. He’d done no wrong; he didn’t need to defend himself by combat.
Instead, the brothers, nephews and friends of Fitz Giroie pillaged the countryside all around like common brigands and bandits. That the Duke of Normandy didn’t act to stop them was an outrage, even if he was barely a man. All he had to do was give the order to his Constable, Ralph de Gacé. Alençon belonged to Normandy. They were his people being slaughtered and raped, his lands being burned.

“I knew it when I saw the red curls,” her father told her as she strolled with him in the courtyard, the most exercise she could get these days. “Duke Robert was so proud of his boy’s giant head, he didn’t care that it was covered with the hair of Judas. I warned him he should get a true heir on that Princess of England. ‘Red hair brings ruin,’ I told him. And look at the state of Normandy. Going to hell.”

Mabel agreed. There was constant, uncontrolled feuding amongst the duke’s vassals. All his childhood guardians had been murdered, except de Gacé, who had probably been the murderer. Since Duke William had been knighted two years before, things had quieted down. But his vassals were running wild again, attacking the Bellêmes.

“If he can’t control things,” Mabel said, “then they need to find someone who can. Why was a bastard allowed to rule, anyway?”

“They wanted to keep his father happy. Duke Robert was a devil when crossed. That’s why I liked him so much. A generous man, a great friend, but you had to know the boundaries. ‘Keep them close, but keep them worried.’”

“But when he died they should have put his son in a monastery. There were other, better men to be duke. There was William’s uncle, the Count of Arques. And there was Guy of Brionne, his cousin. Why choose the one who was a bastard?”

“None of them were men. There were only boys to choose from, and feuding factions who controlled them. William had the most powerful men to back him and use him. Duke Robert chose his friends well. Remember that, dearest. Choose your friends well, and your enemies carefully.”

Mabel bit her lip at that. Her father had made some powerful enemies by disciplining one of their friends harshly, and publicly. Though it was justified, Mabel thought perhaps it would be better if one punished one’s enemies quietly.

Mabel de Bellême

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Photo by Lawrence Green on Unsplash

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.

Until now.