Book three of the Bellême series
In Pursuit of justice
The crowning of
William the Conqueror's youngest son Henry,
transformed the anointed monarch from a mere mortal
to a Consecrated Rex, a divine person, God's representative on earth,
all powerful and all corruptible.
The appetite of King Henry 1st for power and control grew
and God help anyone who stood in his way.
25 July, 1082- Coutances, Western Normandy
As grey dawn approached a solitary stranger made his way through Coutances, towards the western gate. The only sounds to be heard were the tread of his feet on the rough ground and the cries of agony from a nearby house. He noted the anguish, looked up briefly at the flickering candlelight in the window, thought only of his own wretched existence and continued on his way.
Gurtrida, a thirteen year-old girl, lay desperately ill. For three days she had been trying to give birth. Her mother, Hawise, frantic with worry, sat next to her and cooled her forehead with cold, wet cloths, trying to block from her mind her own helplessness in easing her daughter's torment; praying the infant would somehow be born soon.
The pains had subsided again, 'But for how long?' thought Gurtrida. 'God above, help me. For how long must I suffer?' It had left her weak, weaker than she could ever have imagined, not able to move her arms, hardly able to open her eyelids. She could hear muffled voices nearby; a cloud, a wave of numbness drifted over her. 'What is happening,' she thought. 'Can't move! I can't move, l'm helpless!'
Time passed. She awoke to another surge.
“Oh no! Aah!” she screamed, a scream as of a ritual. Pain and scream. Pain and scream, a duet, sung since before time. Gurtida could feel it growing to another surge. Pain gripped her stomach, then subsided. 'Strange! Every time the pain goes away images come before me. Images floating on a slow flowing river. Suspended above water, the sun's rays glistening on wavelets. Meadows, lush green meadows. What is it,' she thought. 'My Prince is catching me?' She spurred her horse, the wind rushing through her long red hair as if she were ready to fly away like a great bird. 'He liked my hair.' She could feel him brushing the strands away from her face. 'He was so gentle and so long ago. I can hear voices, what are they saying?'
'Follow me,' he shouted. A timbered house loomed foreboding, its drawbridge clanking down over the moat. 'This is my hunting lodge, you'll be quite safe here. Safe!' She could hear voices. 'Safe?'
“She'll be all right soon.”
They reined their horses. He was talking, his lips gave a strange smile. A funny round face.
'Hungry?' he asked.
She felt very hungry. They had met by chance and had ridden many times since their first meeting. He was always courteous. She knew who he was. Had seen him with her father conducting business. 'What business? I don't care. He's a fourteen years old Prince, a year older than me. I told him to fuck off and stop playing with my tits! He said he liked me. He liked me because I wasn't a fawning milk sop. 'Oh,' said I, 'what are you after?' I bet him. I'm stupid. 'I can race you into the ground. If you catch me you can touch me.' Stupid! Stupid! I wish I hadn't. It was a bad and stupid thing to do. How was I to know his horse was an Arab thoroughbred.
She could feel hands and something inside her and imagined it was trying to get out. The pain swelling up into another bout…
The midwives, massaging the girl's stomach with oils, noticed Gurtrida go completely limp.
“Is she dead?” said one.
“No! She's alive and I think we've managed to manoeuvre the baby into the correct position,” said another.
But still Gurtrida could not give birth.
Her father, Simon, a wealthy silversmith, could endure his daughter's suffering no longer.
“What's going wrong? The child should have been born long before now!” he shouted, pleading with the midwives. “Isn't there anything else you can do? Why is it taking so long?”
“We don't know why. Her waters have burst, the mite's head is in the correct position. We can't do more than we are doing,” replied one of the women.
Gripped by the fear of losing his daughter and her child, Simon in desperation left the house, bridled his horse and rode out, seeking help from his liege lord.
“My lord,” Simon begged, thankful that he had found the young prince. “Forgive me for disturbing you at this early hour of the day. My daughter Gurtrida is in labour and has been wracked with pain for three days. There seems no end to her suffering and still there is no sign that the baby will be born. I beg you, my lord, by all that's holy, we need a physician to help with the birth, otherwise they will both die.”
The prince considered the man's request. 'The girl was good, very good,' he remembered with a wry smile. She had been his very first. He liked her. He liked her a lot, especially in the way she rode astride the saddle. He liked her spirit. She was a fantastic fuck. Now I'll be the father of a bastard at fourteen! My first with my very first fuck. Jesus! I must be potent. I'm the most potent prince I know! But what do I want with a snotty nose kid?' He paused in his thoughts for a moment. 'It will have my blood, royal blood. What will my old man say? Mmm, isn't he a bastard? Anyway, nobody needs to know. What about its mother and this silversmith? I'll throw a few silver coins at him and get her married off to some chinless wonder at the French court. In the meantime, I'll get a wet nurse and hide the kid away until I get my own court. I could even sire some more.' He was beginning to form a plan. 'Yes, I'll raise the child somewhere near Mont Saint-Michel. After all, it's far enough away and the old man won't live for ever.'
Slowly and deliberately he took hold of a goblet, sipped some wine and returned it to the table. All the while the silversmith stood nervously watching the prince tear off a piece of bread and place a slice of cheese on it. Then pushing it away, he looked up at the man before him.
“Return to your home, silversmith. A physician will attend her.”
“Thank you, my lord,” replied Simon, retreating from the room.
'I knew the Prince really cared for my daughter,' thought Simon, returning home with hope in his heart.
By the time it was full daylight the prince, accompanied by his physician and mounted troops, had arrived at the silversmith's house,
“Where is she,” he demanded.
“In here, my lord,” answered Simon.
He showed the prince and the physician into the crowded, airless room, where his wretched daughter lay. The air was thick with smoke and the odour of burnt tallow and sweet herbs. Midwives, not noticing the prince entering, continued in their frantic attempts to induce labour.
“Everybody out!” ordered the prince.
When they were alone, the physician examined the unconscious girl. Turning to the prince, he whispered, “My lord, the infant and mother are in imminent danger. I need to speak to one of the midwives.”
“Do it, but quickly!”
The physician came back and re-examined the girl. “My lord, the head of the unborn child is stuck within and it will not allow the rest of the body to come through. If I am to save the mother, I'll have to kill and dismember the child.”
“Never mind the mother,” growled the prince. Taking hold of the man's neck, “Save that child.”
“But my lord!” protested the physician.
“That is my child,' he said through clenched teeth. “It is my first child. It is of my blood. Save it! Do...you…understand! Do whatever you need to do but save the child!” Calling the guards, he ordered, “Bar the door, let nobody into this room.”
An hour later the physician placed the sleeping, newborn baby girl in Hawise's arms.
“What of our daughter?” Simon pleaded.
“She could not be saved,” said the physician, gently.
“What have you done! What have you done to her!” screamed Gurtrida's mother.
“You're lucky this child is safe and well,” said the Prince.
Turning to the silversmith, he handed him a bag of coins. “The child comes with me.”
“But my lord …?”
One harsh look from the Prince left Simon stunned into silence!
As far as the Prince was concerned the dead mother had served her purpose. The bastard girl child, who was to be christened Isabella, had only survived by being cut out from her mother's womb.
The father was Prince Henry, son of William the Conqueror, later to become King Henry I of England.
Mid-morning - 21st August 1113
Isabella's new home, Maison-Sur-Ource, situated 37 miles north-west of Dijon,
a gift from her step-son William III (Talvas) de Ponthieu's, brother-in-law, Hughes II, Duke of Burgundy.
“My lady,” said Quarrel, the commander of Isabella's small garrison, “you shouldn't be doing manual work in your advanced condition, you should be resting.”
Isabella had no intention of resting nor of hiding her pregnancy.
“Oh, shut up,” she retorted playfully, wiping the perspiration from her brow with a handkerchief. Brushing the dust from the sleeves of her long, dark green dress, Isabella noticed Quarrel shake his head.
“You're giving me one of your disagreeable looks.”
“You shouldn't be wearing such a beautiful dress doing this kind of dirty work.”
“Stop fussing. You're being too bossy,” retorted Isabella. “My dress is well protected. I'm wearing this sleeveless leather surcoat, that should be enough.” Isabella took a deep breath, held the stanchion in place and nodded for Quarrel to hammer it into the ground.
Extraordinarily for her thirty-one tempestuous years she still retained her youthful beauty, which always had an unsettling effect on her male adversaries. As some of her critics voiced, she was like her notorious late mother-in-law Mabile de Bellêull me, whom she had never met.
In the sun, golden lights glinted in her long copper red hair which hung down her back in one single braid entwined with a gold thread. Though she had an eye for quality and beauty, she was no delicate flower but a woman of action who could ride into battle wielding a broadsword as well as any man and who enjoyed being involved in the building of her new home.
“Are you wishing for another boy?” queried Quarrel.
Isabella smiled, “It would be good for my son Robert to have a younger brother.”
'Should I tell him what is at the back of my mind,' she thought, 'of my secret yearning for a girl? Perhaps not. Another boy will also be trained as a knight and go into battle.' She closed her eyes at the prospect of her boys being killed in battle. 'Then what? Left childless with nothing of husband Robert. Just memories.' She opened her eyes, 'A girl,' she mused, 'a daughter will always remain my daughter wherever she goes and whomever she marries.'
“Whatever the sex, I'll be happy as long as it is healthy and normal in limb.”
“Have you felt the child move yet?”
Isabella momentarily laid her hand on her protruding stomach as if to reassure herself the infant was still there and safe. “Oh yes. It seems impatient to get out but let's get on with this work. Just because I'm pregnant, doesn't mean I cannot hold this post in place. You should be concerning yourself with helping me build this outer corral for my mares, who don't like to be kept tethered and restrained by ropes while they graze.”
She looked at Quarrel as he took one final swing at the post with the heavy iron headed hammer, grasping and tugging it before he was satisfied it was truly secure. He didn't take chances. For the men of Isabella's garrison, his word was law. He had helped train them and made sure they were fit and always aware of Maison's vulnerability from the north. Therefore, he always kept his greased armour and double edged battle sword close to hand.
“I think it's well and truly in place now,” he said, leaning on the long shafted hammer. He then looked with satisfaction to the other side of the corral where their men were completing another section of the fencing.
She watched Quarrel take up the hammer again and move on to the next post to be secured into the ground.
Though his cropped, once jet black, hair had now turned grey, he kept his appearance immaculate. She could never get used to the terrible scarring around his eyes, especially near his left eye, where a long raw looking wound stretched diagonally from forehead to cheek. Twenty five years previously, he was castellan of Saint-Céneri, one of Robert de Bellême's fortresses. Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror's half brother, wrongly thinking that Bellême had turned traitor, laid siege to the fortress. Quarrel and the garrison had fought valiantly, despite the antics of Robert's first wife Agnes, a pious and fanatical supporter of the church who had made a public spectacle of herself by falling on her knees, wringing her hands, pleading for Quarrel to open the fortress gates to the warring Bishop. Quarrel defied her for her husband's sake and so the garrison had fought on until forced into surrender for lack of food. He had been taken prisoner along with the garrison. An attempt had been made to blind him with red hot irons on the orders of the Bishop. However, Quarrel had had friends among his gaolers and they had made it appear as though the punishment had been carried out, whilst saving his sight.
Isabella at times thought he showed too little sympathy for the afflictions of some of the garrison. Perhaps it was the physical pain he himself had suffered. She had heard that those who had undergone horrendous torture and burning had little sympathy for others in pain.
'He is a brave and intelligent man,' she thought. He had been cast, it seemed to her, from the same celestial mould as Wulfnoth, their old Saxon friend. Her husband Robert had first met Wulfnoth when he was a boy in England after the Great Battle of ten sixty-six. Wulfnoth had been a housecarl in that battle, fighting for King Harold of England. He and his twin brother Edric had trained Robert to become a devastating leader and knight.
Proud as she was to have Quarrel as commander of Maison, she felt the need for Wulfnoth's strength.
She awaited Wulfnoth's return with news of her husband, Robert de Bellême who had been falsely arrested for treason and imprisoned by her father King Henry I of England. 'How could it be treason,' she thought. 'Robert had kept his pledge by supporting the Duke of Normandy in his rightful claim to the throne of England, after the death of King William II, as had been written and witnessed in the Rouen Peace Treaty of ten ninety-one.'
Quarrel's rhythmic hammering was almost mesmerising. She had to concentrate hard and in so doing became aware of the distant noise of the blacksmith's hammer on the anvil, as if the sounds of work were playing a melody over the harmony of the rasping noise from the saw pit.
Beads of sweat from Quarrel's forehead dripped down his nose and hung like huge dewdrops.
'There is so much work to be done,' she thought. Thankfully her garrison was gradually expanding as more followers from her husband's fallen Normandy fortresses continued to join them.
Four days earlier a new arrival had ridden in, Oswald by name, leading a heavily laden sumpter. He had been seeking Isabella's whereabouts for many weeks and now offered his services as a knight, for little or no pay. It didn't seem to matter to him, he only wanted food and lodging and to be of use; to support her against her husband's enemies.
Isabella was at first suspicious of his offer and had ordered him to be kept under surveillance. Quarrel, on the other hand, remembered him from before the battle of Tinchebray and had put her mind at rest, convincing her that Oswald was a loyal knight and would be true to her and be of great value to them.
“I think this is enough for now, my lady,” said Quarrel.
They walked towards the confines of Maison and stopped by the lower end of the corral at the back of the stables.
“What do you think of this foal, isn't he a beauty,” said Isabella entering.
The four month old foal trotted over to her, whinnying as if to say, good morning.
“Look at those gentle eyes.”
“To be sure he's a fine lad,” said Quarrel.
Stroking the animal's neck, she began inspecting its fine narrow withers and then stood back to admire the rest of him.
“Off yer go my lad, back to your mum,” said Quarrel, gently slapping its rump. The foal twirled around as if he enjoyed the light slap, before cantering away.
“A real beauty that one,” said Isabella.
“That foal to my mind, is going to develop into your perfect warhorse and he'll fetch a good price,” said Quarrel. “Nice, strong leg bones a handsome lad indeed. I marvel at him every morning. I just love the way he moves, always bright and perky, never sluggish.”
“You know a lot about horses.”
“I should do, I've been around them long enough…. Are you all right, my lady?”
Isabella had become giddy and, feeling a familiar pop, grabbed hold of Quarrel's arm.
“Get me to bed. I need Maria. Quickly, I think I'm about to give birth!”
That evening, Isabella was able to hold her newly born daughter in her arms.
“Do I get to hold her?” asked Quarrel.
Isabella handed him the tightly wrapped bundle. The babe's eyes squinted in the evening sunlight shining through the open window. Oswald stood to one side with his arms folded, while Quarrel kissed the infant's cheek, his prickly beard tickling her skin. Then he handed the babe to Isabella's eleven year-old son Robert who had started to laugh. The sight of the burly steadfast Quarrel holding and kissing his baby sister's tiny face seemed to him very funny. He couldn't stop laughing.
Robert returned his baby sister to his mother. A more motley group would be hard to find; leather clad, armed with broad swords and coo - cooing at a babe.
“Stop making stupid noises and give me a name for my child,” ordered Isabella from her bed, adjusting the swaddling clothes.
“How about, Mabile?” suggested Quarrel.
“I agree,” said Robert, “Father would like that.” He turned to Oswald, who nodded and smiled.
“Mabile it is then,” replied Isabella, feeling slightly guilty. 'I never knew my own mother,' she thought, 'only that her name was Gurtrida and that she had died giving birth to me. I'll name her Mabile Gurtrida and keep both their memories alive.'
“By the way do you know what birth month it is besides being August?”
The men paced the room searching for an answer. Returning to Isabella's bedside they looked at each other blankly. Oswald was the first to answer.
“To do with any particular saint?”
“No.” relied Isabella.
Quarrel, shaking his head, said, “Apart from it being August I can't think of anything.”
“Don't the signs of the zodiac mean anything to you?” asked Isabella.
Robert shook his head, “No. Not to me.”
“Nor me,” answered Quarrel.
“Well, for your edification, my beautiful baby girl is borne under the sign of the Lion. She's a Leo. According to wise men who study these things and of whom it is said, they can foretell the future, she is going to be very intelligent, strong willed and argumentative. She'll be a force to be reckoned with.”
“I'll take your word for it but I've never, ever seen a lion, not one,” said Robert.
- Four weeks later -
Isabella's new timbered home had taken shape more rapidly than she had anticipated. She hadn't thought much about its defences, concerning herself primarily with the living quarters for herself and the garrison, before the Autumn rains came. Now, thanks to her friends and the garrison they had a roof over their heads.
The living quarters and smithy having been built, her other concern had been to construct the stables for both her working horses and her breeding stock and the foals. This building was situated in the north east corner of the Maison enclosure and was large enough for fifty stalls together with supplies of fodder and equipment. The mares that she had kept tethered outside could now roam freely in a fenced corral.
Isabella had woken from a fitful sleep which left her, for the rest of the morning, in a dark mood.
She tilted her wide brimmed straw hat forward to protect her face from the early September sun and lent heavily against the stable door frame. The autumn breeze that had rustled against her face earlier had now dropped. The air was still.
'Today I feel as if I'm damned,' she thought, looking down at her slightly calloused hands. 'Ugly! Worn out! I'm devoid of all normal human feelings for everything and everybody around me. Why? Why am I afflicted with this malaise? Am I missing my husband? Yes, yes of course and I'm alone! Terribly alone. I might as well be dead!'
“Isabella!” called out Quarrel, from the smithy, “Do you want to inspect the new gate?”
Looking towards the smithy, she could just recognise him in the shade of the building. She shook her head and dismissed him with a wave of her hand.
'Why don't they leave me alone? Can't they make their own decisions? I don't want to be at everyone's beck and call.'
Although Maison was to the south of Normandy and under the protection of the Duke of Burgundy, Isabella continually feared her father.
'I know he hates me for marrying his enemy, Robert de Bellême. But surely he wouldn't come this far south to attack me here in Burgundy?' She shook her head. 'No! He has my husband Robert in his prison. Perhaps Henry has mellowed. That's a laugh. No! That's not funny, not to me, not to anyone. I know that the more he has his own way the more he wants. I was his favourite child once, I remember those far off days. Indulged. Spoilt. Shown off in his court wearing exquisite gowns, placed on a table to sing his favourite nursery songs. His beautiful little red haired puppet.' Drawing her breath, she tried to reach out through the haze of time but the pictures kept changing. 'Was it really me?' She knew deep down it was, yet she felt strangely detached from her past, as if it had never happened. 'But it did,' she thought to herself. 'Once I loved him! Yes, though I find it hard to believe. I would have done anything for him. A kitten. Yes I remember a small tabby kitten that had something wrong with its eyes.' She scrunched up her own eyes and shook her head in disgust. 'I strangled it to put it out of its misery, to please my father. He then kissed me on my cheek.' Tears began to stream down those very same cheeks.
'We would play games. I would find and take papers from people's rooms for father to see, hiding them in the pocket of my gown. I wanted to please him and when he was pleased he would give me a silver piece.
I was a twelve-year-old virgin, sent to seduce and kill my father's vilest enemy. I was happy to go because I wanted to please him. Oh, Robert! I didn't know any different, please forgive me. The moment I saw you, you stirred something within me I had not felt before. Was it love? Real love? Yes it was.' She smiled to herself. 'That first kiss. I felt its fire throughout the length and breadth of my body. I then gave you my virginity, willingly. You old rogue!' She smiled to herself. 'You are my only love and now my father has taken you away from me. Robert, what am I to do? I will wait for you no matter how long it takes. I can't trust anyone, especially not that trickster King Louis who made you his ambassador, sending you to talk terms with Henry for the release of the Duke of Normandy. If it wasn't for him you wouldn't have been arrested and put in chains at Bonneville by my lying, murdering, fratricidal maniac of a father. Why do I call him my father! I hate him! I wonder if the Pope will get you released. Possibly, if he hasn't already been bought by Henry's gold. Where's Wulfnoth? I hope he's safe. I need him to help get Robert released. He'll have news of you? Robert, Robert, where are you now.' At the very thought of his name, tears welled up in her eyes.
'Wulfnoth inspires me. I admit it, I admire him A dear friend. But why should I need to be inspired? Am I not a complete person? Am I so pathetic?' She scratched the back of her hand viciously and drew blood. 'Good! I am alive but I'm languishing here doing absolutely nothing, except feeling sorry for myself. Am I that weak? If so, I hate myself. I just have no energy. Perhaps the birth of Mabile has sapped my strength. But I can't stand or loll around here doing nothing except being a milk ridden cow. Thank God I have a wet nurse from the village. I'm drained. It's so hot. Even to brush away this stupid fly that has settled on my arm, seems such an effort. If you think you are going to feed on my blood, think again fly! I'll kill you first.'
She remained leaning her weight against the timbered frame, seduced by the lazy heat of the sun. Her hand had stopped bleeding leaving a smear of congealed blood over the scratch. She brought her hand to rest on her stretched stomach. 'I need to exercise and get back into shape.'
Arched wisps of lightly brushed clouds drifted high in the silence of the bleached out mid-day sky. The only sounds to disturb the stillness were the varying pitch of dry, screeching cicadas and the buzzing of the undulating and seemingly rudderless flight of the bees.
The distant ochre baked grasslands towards Laignes to the north west, shimmered in the heat of the sun.
A snort from a horse brought a momentary silence. Isabella tilted her head and summoned up the energy to brush away another carnivorous fly. Folding her arms, she continued daydreaming about everything and nothing.
As much as she kept her eyelids shut from the glare of the reflected sunlight, it still bore into her head, leaving her sensitive blue eyes streaming; or were these more tears? She blew her nose, tipped her straw hat further forward and closed her eyes once more, determined to keep them tightly shut for ever and ever.
She was unsettled. Despite knowing that Quarrel or the guards on duty would have warned her of anything untoward she still listened. Then Isabella became aware of a presence. A horse whinnied from somewhere behind her. She turned her head towards the open, main gateway, squinting her eyes to focus beyond. Seeing nothing she shifted her gaze towards the west, beyond the Maison perimeter, where the road meandered north. A distant cloud of dust took hold of her attention. As it drew near, so its features became distinct and familiar. She watched with a satisfactory smile the solitary rider, closely followed by a dog matching the rider's pace all the way round the perimeter to the gateway.
“Wulfnoth! Oh Wulf, you're alive!” she shouted running to him and grabbing the reins. “And you're not injured?”
“Not a scratch,” he said with a big grin. Jumping down from his horse he lifted Isabella off her feet and spun her around.
“Put me down, you big ugly, hairy Saxon. What of my Robert?”
“Who's ugly? Ugly no. Saxon yes. There's only one hairy beast and that's this hound that's been following me since Chartres, ” he said, looking about him. “At least my wife thinks I'm handsome, hairy or no. Where is she?”
“What of Robert? I need to know.”
“He's well enough, given the circumstances. They've shipped him to England, under close guard, to the fortress of Corfe.”
“Where is that?” said Isabella, finding it a little difficult to keep her balance after being swept off her feet.
“In the southwest of England, near Portsmouth,” replied Wulfnoth, stripping off his sweat soaked leather jacket. “Isabella, it's taken me many days to get here. I'm thirsty, hungry, hot, tired and not necessarily in that order and I want to see my wife.”
Isabella pointed out a building on the west side, “Maria is in there, asleep and …pregnant.”
Wulfnoth, at the word pregnant left, running, the dog bounding after him.
Maria and Wulfnoth were sitting with Isabella on the steps of the main hall, out of the heat of the sun.
“I expected to see the main hall finished and furnished with tapestries on the walls, instead I find bare walls and rows of beds,” said Wulfnoth.
“In time. We're lucky to have a roof over our heads,” replied Isabella.
“I can see there is a lot of work to be done yet,” said Wulfnoth.
“Tell me everything Wulf. What has happened to Bellême?”
“The news is not good. Henry's troops, together with those of the Count's Theobald de Blois, Fulk d'Anjou and Rotrou de Perche, surrounded us at Bellême and lay siege to the town for three days. And there I was, thinking that Fulk was a friend of Robert's brother, Arnulf,” he added scornfully.
“He was,” said Isabella, “but Henry has offered his son William Adelin in marriage to Fulk's daughter, Matilda.”
“I thought she was promised to William Clito, Duke Robert of Normandy's son?”
“She was,” replied Isabella. “It seems Henry has cleverly driven a wedge between King Louis and Fulk. He's now desperate, or why would he be marrying off all his bastards to gain influence and control?”
“What! All of them?” said Wulfnoth.
“I don't know, Wulf. What I do know is, he didn't marry me off to one of his marionettes. Anyway, there are rumours he has sired over twenty of us but you know what rumours are like. Robert's sister, Mabile told me he has tried to offer Marie, my half sister, in marriage to my young nephew, Hughes.”
“Clever! You seem very well informed.”
“I may be here in Maison, out in the wilderness but the Duke of Burgundy keeps me up-to-date,” said Isabella. “Hughes' mother, I know for a fact, is sighing with relief. The church stepped in and stopped the marriage.”
“Does Henry never stop spreading his web?” said Wulfnoth. “I just wonder what else he has promised Fulk.”
“Piss on his peace,” replied Wulfnoth.
“I don't know any more. But there is one certainty, while Henry lives, none of us is safe.”
“True!” Wulfnoth thought for a moment, then gathering his thoughts, took a deep breath. “Getting back to Bellême, it was obvious we couldn't hold out, at least not indefinitely but we could make things difficult for them. The fortifications were strong, thanks to Robert. On the third day, the festival of 'The Invention of the Holy Cross,' Henry called for a day of peace in celebration. His nephew, Theobald, suggested some fun and games; a series of single armed combat challenges. Of course, our lads were up for that. The opposition seemed ragged, not up to the mark, if you see what I mean. But here's the best bit. When our lads came out, Henry suddenly launched a full scale attack of knights with lances, backed up by archers. Our lads didn't stand a chance. It was a fucking slaughter. They didn't even make it back to the main gate before they were shot to the ground, their bodies bristling with arrows, preventing the gate from shutting.”
“Oh no!” exclaimed Maria, in distress.
“He'll pay dearly for that!” Isabella promised.
“He may well do. In the meantime, a lot of us managed to get safely into the citadel but as far as the town was concerned, it was all over in a short space of time. As I said, the fortress was strong and we had no trouble holding out for a couple of days more. Guazo and I and some others decided to escape by rope from the Talvas Tower in the north wall. In the dead of night, we got out and met up in the forest, north of the town. Guazo led most of the others to Ponthieu, to join up with Robert's son, William Talvas. I went on to Cherbourg for news of Robert and was able to join the crew on the ship that was taking him to England. The rest you know.”
“Did you tell Robert what happened at Bellême?”
“No. I didn't have the heart.”
No one spoke for a few moments.
“So,” asked Wulfnoth, breaking the silence. “Where do we go from here?”
“I don't know. That's the trouble, I really don't know. I haven't planned anything, other than to construct a home and build up our bloodstock. We need another Arabian stallion, possibly two. But we must finish the living quarters first. I'm beginning to feel like a gypsy, I need to put down roots.”
“I'll start organising a defensive ditch to improve the perimeter fence,” said Wulfnoth.
Three days later, to cheers from the guards, Guazo appeared at the main entrance, driving an old horse and battered two wheeled, open cart that had seen better days, his warhorse tethered behind.
“What kept you?” shouted Wulfnoth.
“I did what you said! Saw the lads to Ponthieu and here I am.”
“And what's this?” said Wulfnoth in disgust, pointing to the ancient horse and cart.
“My horse went lame. This was all I could afford,”
“Listen Guazo, I've sailed to England and back again and you have only just turned up.”
“Well, I'm not like you. I'm somewhat on the large size and not invisible to Henry but I managed to get here just the same.”
“Quarrel!” shouted Wulfnoth.
“Take this man. Rest and feed him before he shrinks down to our size. Good to see you, Guazo.” Wulfnoth watched them both walk away. “Now, we're a whole team again.”
“I'm concerned,” said Isabella.
“We need to produce sufficient foals to make a living.”
“Surely your brother-in-law, the Duke, would help?” said Wulfnoth.
“I am already deeply in debt to Hughes for this land,” replied Isabella. “Besides, I want to be independent. I have sufficient means for the present. I am a doer not someone who sits on their arse doing nothing but cry.”
“So what's the plan?”
“Regarding the horses we brought with us, plus the 'Chargers' we came here on, all the animals are in good health. What concerns me is our breeding stock; two eighteen year-old Arab stallions, five Percheron mares, one of which is reaching the same age as the stallions. We need to buy two yearling stallions. I can get more Percheron mares, that's not a problem but I do need Arab stallions.”
“What about breeding our own Arabs?”
“That's what I would want to do in the future,” admitted Isabella, “but those mares are very expensive. I also want two Jennet mares to experiment with and increase the mix but I need to conserve and build up our resources. Traders from the Iberian peninsular don't want to sell Arab mares only stallions, otherwise it wouldn't make economic sense for them. They would be out of business in no time. Robert left me financially well off; the gold and silver I took from Bellême will give us breathing space but there has been no money coming in. What with constructing Maison and building up a viable stable and the need to have a fully armed garrison, it is a real concern.”
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