The Orchard of Eden

clay-banks-568138-unsplash.jpgSeigneur de Montgomery didn’t leave the next day, though his baggage did. Talvas wasn’t asked to leave, either. Instead, Sieur Roger was, in all ways, the best of hosts, who treated her father and her half-brother like invited guests, even taking them hunting on the third day. Still, he retained a distant and guarded manner toward her family.

But not toward Mabel.

She didn’t put herself forward, though she made sure she was available and in a position to be noticed. And it never failed. If he walked into a room where she was, he went to her immediately. If she was out in his mother’s garden, with its trellised plants, small tree, flowers, and fragrant herbs, he separated from his men and greeted her. He always treated her as a lady, even if they found themselves in a situation where he had an opportunity to touch her. That last was disappointing, since she was the one creating those opportunities.

Mabel tested her power over him. On the morning of the fourth day—pretending she didn’t notice his presence—she mentioned to her servant, Anne, that her stockings had been darned so many times she might as well have used the thread to weave a whole new pair. In the evening, her servant brought her several lengths of Flemish linen she said was found in a trunk, and which she had been given permission to take. Anne whispered excitedly that Sieur Roger had actually sent someone to Vimoutiers to buy them, and had made her promise not to tell Lady Mabel, so not to shame her. They both giggled about that.

On the fifth day, he told them he did truly need to leave the next morning, but the apple orchards were beginning to bloom and he wanted to show them. That was the subtle sweetness that was scenting the air.

“It will be much stronger, soon,” he warned them. “And then you may not like it so much, especially if it makes you sneeze.”

There were apple trees all around the castle, but he took them riding a distance to show off the vastness of the orchards. They dismounted near a stream, called La Vie, where they could only see the pointed roof of the donjon of Chateau Sainte-Foy. Despite the large spreading trees, Mabel still had a view of the distant, rolling hills and green fields. Brown and white cows were grazing on the spring grass while watching the strolling people with only mild curiosity.

“They’re just beginning to flower.” He indicated the trees, lightly dusted with subtle color. “Now they’re white, but when they open fully, they’ll be pink. Then, later in the summer, from a distance you’ll think the branches have turned orange. The apples are red and yellow. They’re too bitter to eat, so you shouldn’t try, but they make excellent cider.”

He was talking as if she’d be staying for the summer, but she had to be sure. Mabel glanced at her father, who then turned and walked away, pretending to point out something to Olivier.

“Are there apple orchards further north? My father says we have a distant cousin in Honfleur who may take us. I’ve never seen the sea, so I’m very excited about that, but I’d hate to miss the apples and the cider.” She walked over to a low-lying branch and touched the bark.

He didn’t follow her or speak for a minute. Oh, dear. Was she too obviously manipulating him? Or did he really not care?

“Sieur William,” he called out. Her father turned to his host with raised brows. “Your daughter says you intend to leave?”

“Naturally,” Talvas answered, stating the obvious. One didn’t impose when one’s host would be gone for months. “We have family nearby who will welcome us.”

It was one of those polite yet patent lies meant to save embarrassment and difficulty, and Sieur Roger was not having it. He bowed briefly to Mabel and pulled her father aside for private conversation. The pantomime was clear. Sieur Roger spoke plainly, not allowing her father to demur or dissimulate. Of course they mustn’t leave. For Lady Mabel’s sake. And, oh, the subtlety of Talvas’s performance. From his false bravado, to his hurt pride, to his humble acceptance. Masterful.

Pleased with the outcome, Sieur Roger walked back to Mabel with a broad smile. “I hope you won’t be too disappointed to postpone your visit to the beach. Your father has accepted my invitation to stay the summer here.”

“Oh,” she breathed and ducked her head. “But you’ll be gone. You’re too generous.”

“Your father is generous. He’s put aside his pride for my selfish reasons. I’ll sleep better knowing you are safe.”

He leaned in closer to her when he said that, and her face warmed with a genuine flush. Being affected in such a way by a man was new, unfamiliar, and it discomforted her enough that she turned away slightly. A cluster of flowers that were more open than the rest gave her reason for her distraction.

“Look.” She snapped the whole twig off the tree. “They are pink. And so pretty.” She raised them to her face, inhaling the scent and brushing them against her lips.

“There will be no apples if you pick all the flowers, Lady Mabel.” His voice was unusual, husky, and it sent a thrill of pleasure down through her core that made her very bold.

“No apples?” She smiled, very deliberately meeting his gaze. It was the first time she looked at him fully, unwavering. Not only was the expression in his eyes warm, their color was, as well. A pure, dark brown in a hooded gaze. She was light-headed and breathless. “Then you need not fear temptation, Sieur Roger.”


jeswin-thomas-458846-unsplashPhoto by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

May, 1048

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.”

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

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.

Knight Takes Bishop

Their small party met a distant cousin who was traveling through Lower Normandy. He took them into an inn, bought them meals and kept her father downstairs while Mabel waited in the room he paid for. When Talvas returned, it was with a pouch of coins and a tale to share. She could tell by the shadows under his eyebrows that it wasn’t entirely a happy one.

“You know that Martel is now the emperor’s father-in-law,” he began.

Heinrich had married Martel’s step-daughter years ago. Everyone knew Heinrich would likely be Holy Roman Emperor one day, so this was no surprise.

“I see the look on your face, girl. Yes, everyone knew it would happen, including Martel. But what does it mean for the game now that it’s a fact?”

Her mind didn’t quite work like her father’s. But she thought of the recent developments involving Martel and the marriage of Hugh and Bertha. She looked out the window at three boys noisily playing in the stable yard. They seemed to be trying to hit each other with rope.

“Well, Martel hates Blois and he wants to have Maine. But now Blois and Maine are united with the marriage of Bertha and Hugh, and so I would guess that now Martel has invaded Maine or Blois. Or both.”

Pride smiled in her father’s eyes for a moment before anger replaced it. “He tried to take Le Mans.” The capital of Maine, and the seat of Bishop Gervais, who offended Martel with his machinations. “Which was a stupid move. Maine is the buffer for Normandy, which wouldn’t sit idly while Martel pushes closer to its border. But when Martel came back from the coronation in Rome and discovered what Gervais had done, he was enraged, and rage makes men stupid.”

“He tried but failed?”

“Le Mans is too powerful a fortification to capture in a rage, and he would need it to keep Maine. Normandy doesn’t want him on the border, and—as weak as Blois is—he also wouldn’t sit by and let it happen. They both would have arrived before the castle fell.”

Her father didn’t continue. Obviously, there was more to the story, but Talvas wanted her to figure out what the next part was. The play in the yard had changed. One of the boys had been hurt and was trying not to cry while another was teasing him. The teasing went too far and the boy’s tears turned to violence.

As she watched the struggle, she wondered. What would I do against a more powerful opponent? Look for the weakness. She could no longer tell which boy had been crying. They looked too much alike. The third boy wasn’t really taking a side. He seemed to aid whichever one was weaker so the fight could go on. How long would the other two allow him to continue before they turned on him?

She knew who Martel would blame. The one who made it happen, who sits in the middle of it all and now has weakened himself. Bishop Gervais gave up guardianship of Count Hugh when he declared the boy was now a man who could marry the hereditary enemy of Martel. “Has he done something to your cousin, Gervais?”

“Ah, very good.” Satisfaction colored his words, but he was not pleased. “When he couldn’t take the bigger prize, which was what he really wanted, he went after one that was easier to get.”

Martel attacked Chateau-du-Loir and took Gervais prisoner. How familiar that sounded! When Mabel’s father had failed to take Montaigu, he hunted down its lord, de Mayenne, instead. With that hostage, he convinced Fitz Giroie to destroy the castle for him.

“What he hopes to accomplish by keeping Gervais, no one knows. He’s Bishop of Le Mans, but Count Hugh is its lord. And Gervais is the king’s bishop! It was revenge, pure and simple, and that I understand. But what can Martel’s longer game be, especially if he makes an enemy of the king? Does he think that being father-in-law to an emperor makes him better than a king? I see no sense in it.”

The boys were no longer in the yard. Mabel had missed seeing how violence, manipulation and humiliation had played out, but it had probably ended with a groom chasing the annoying brats away.

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.