Travel and Shelter

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.


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

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.

Talvas the Ogre


“Talvas the Ogre” is the first complete story published by M.J. Ortmeier. There’s a version on Amazon and a slightly different (better, IMO) version on iBooks.

This story came out of a larger project about William the Conqueror. It’s such a highly complex topic with so many players that I needed a way to separate some out, to pull their backstories out of the main story line. I, however, still need to know who these people are. It made sense to give them their own short stories.

William “Talvas” de Bellême became a reviled character in his own time. For anyone who knows about medieval punishments, that’s saying something. What he did wasn’t any more awful than any of his contemporaries, yet for a while, he was stripped of his possessions and exiled. History doesn’t really explain why he was so thoroughly routed, but I came to the conclusion that it was contextual–think “The Red Wedding.” There was probably other elements of politics, opportunism, and “daddy issues.” The usual tropes.

Oddly, however, I didn’t fully tell Talvas’s story here. I set it about 4oo years in the future, being retold as a fairy story to children, a cautionary tale about honor and revenge. There will be another coming up that will explain more about what happened.