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.