Lady of the English
Author:Elizabeth Chadwick

Two

The Road to Rouen, Normandy, Autumn 1125

A wet unpleasant morning had cleared to the east as Matilda’s entourage wound its way through the forests of the Beauvais towards the great city of Rouen, heart of Normandy on the banks of the Seine. Now, with barely an hour till sunset, the blue sky was welcome, but the wind had picked up and was blustering hard. Tonight they were making camp by the roadside. They should have been met at noon by a party from Rouen led by one of her father’s barons, Brian FitzCount, but thus far there was no sign of it, and Matilda was growing annoyed and impatient. Her mare was lame on her offside hind leg and she was having to ride pillion on Drogo’s crupper as if she were a woman of his household, rather than his liege lady. Her knights and attendants were giving her a wide berth. Drogo’s placatory remark that by tomorrow night they would be in Rouen with every comfort had not improved her mood; she was accustomed to precision and smooth order.

A gust of wind struck her side-on and she had to grab Drogo’s belt. “I refuse to ride into Rouen like this,” she hissed.

“Domina, if it comes to the worst, I will give you this horse and saddle up my remount, but there is no point doing so for what is left of the daylight.” He spoke with the pragmatic calm of one long accustomed to her demands.

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She eyed the melted gold of the westering sun and knew he was right; there was no point, but it made her angry. Why couldn’t people keep their promises?

Suddenly the knight drew rein and the jolt threw her against his spine. “My apologies, domina,” he said. “It appears our escort is here.”

Peering round him, Matilda saw a troop approaching at a steady trot. “Help me down,” she commanded.

Drogo dismounted and swiftly assisted her to do the same.

She shook out her gown, adjusted her cloak, and stood erect.

The wind snatched at her veil, but fortunately it was well pinned to her undercap. She had to lock her legs to keep her balance.

The oncoming troop splashed to a muddy halt. Their leader flung down from the saddle of a handsome black stallion and, removing his hat, dropped to one knee before her.

“You are late,” she said icily. “We have been looking for you since noon.”

“Domina, I am deeply sorry. We would have been here sooner, but one of the cartwheels broke, and there was a fallen tree across our path. The wind has made everything more difficult and slowed our pace.”

She was cold, tired, and in no mood for excuses. “Get up,” she said with a brusque gesture.

He rose to his feet and his legs were so long that they seemed to unfold forever. They were encased in fine leather riding boots laced with red cords. His black hair swirled about his face and his eyes were a deep, peat-pool brown.

His mouth had a natural upward curve that made him look as if he were smiling, even though his demeanour was serious.

“Domina, I am Brian, son of Count Alan of Brittany, and lord of Wallingford Castle. I do not expect you to remember me. The last time we were in each other’s presence, you were witnessing one of your father’s charters in Nottingham before 9

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you went to Germany and I had not long entered your father’s household as a squire.”

“That was a long time ago,” she said, still annoyed.

“Indeed, domina.” He gestured over his shoulder at the men of his troop, who had also dismounted and were kneeling. “We have brought a fine pavilion and provisions. It will not take us long to make camp.”

“It will take you even less time if you tell those men of yours to get up off their knees and start work,” she said tartly. “My own will help if you have need.”

His expression impassive, he bowed and went to give brisk orders. A host of workmen and serjeants began unpacking sections of a large, circular, red and blue tent from a two-wheeled cart. The outer canvas was stamped with golden lions. There was a pale silk inner lining and rich woollen hangings set on curved rods for the interior. The wind billowed the canvas like the sail of a ship in a storm. Matilda watched the men struggle with their burden and mentally shook her head. Had she not been so tired and cross, she would have burst out laughing.

One of Brian’s company, a wide-shouldered young man, was examining her mare, running his hand down her lame foreleg and soothing her with soft talk. When he saw Matilda watching, he bowed and said, “She needs rest and a warm bran poultice on that knee, domina. There is nothing wrong with her beyond the strain of the road.” He gently scratched the mare’s neck.

He was not a groom, for his cloak was fur-lined and his tunic embroidered. His open features were raised above the average by striking hazel-gold eyes. “Were you at Nottingham with my lord FitzCount too?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No, domina, but my father would have been. He is William D’Albini, lord of Buckenham in Norfolk and one of your father’s stewards.” 10

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“I do not recall him,” she said, “but I know of your family.” Obviously he was a spare young blood at court, sent out with FitzCount on escort duty. “Your own name?”

“Domina, it is William, the same as my father.”

“Well then, William D’Albini, you seem to know about horses.”

He gave her a wide smile, exposing fine, strong teeth. “Well enough, domina.” He rubbed the mare’s soft muzzle with a large, gentle hand.

“I hope my lord FitzCount has a spare mount.”

“I am sure he does, domina.”

Matilda was not so certain. Sounds of a heated exchange flashed across to them. Someone had mislaid the tent pegs and everyone was blaming everyone else. “This would not have happened at my husband’s court,” she said with displeasure.

D’Albini gave an equable shrug. “There are difficult days when whatever you do, you suffer mishaps; today is one such.” Clucking his tongue to the mare, he led her away to tether her with the other horses.

The tent pegs turned up in a different pannier to the expected one and, following more bad-tempered oaths, were driven into the ground and the canvas secured. Brian FitzCount directed operations, now and then scraping his hands through his hair, looking increasingly embarrassed and exasperated.

Gradually, however, order emerged out of chaos and Matilda was able to enter the tent and at least be out of the wind, even if the canvas sides flapped like wings striving to lift the structure into the air. Her women set about making her bed, layering several mattresses on to the strung frame and topping them with clean sheets and soft blankets. A manservant hooked a partition across the middle of the tent and someone else fetched a chair with a quilted cushion. A bench and a small table arrived.

Matilda remained standing, arms folded.

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Brian FitzCount entered the tent followed by servants bearing a flagon and cups, loaves of bread, and assorted cheeses and smoked meats. “The men are making a windbreak,” he said. “At least it isn’t raining.”

“No,” she agreed, thinking that rain would have been the final seasoning. She sat down on the chair. The servants spread the table with an embroidered cloth and brought food and drink. Before she could change her mind, she indicated that Brian should join her. News of the court in advance of her arrival there would be useful.

He hesitated, went to the tent entrance to bellow more instructions, then dropped the flap and returned to serve her himself. She studied his long fingers as he poured wine into silver cups. An emerald ring glinted, and another of plaited gold. His hands were clean, the nails clipped short, but they were ink-stained, as if he were a common clerk. She tried to remember him from her childhood, but found no trace. It had been too long ago and he would have been just another youth at court.

“My father is well?” She took her first sip and felt it warm its way to her stomach.

“Indeed, domina, and eager to see you, even if the circumstances are sad.”

“I have seen him but once since I was a little girl,” she said shortly. “I know why he is pleased to welcome me home.” Silence fell between them. She decided that the windbreak must have been successfully erected, because there were fewer flurries at the sides of the tent. She broke bread and ate it with a slice of smoked venison, gesturing him to eat too.

“Would you rather have stayed in Germany?” The directness of his question took her by surprise; she had expected him to continue being the deferential courtier. “It was my duty to return at my father’s bidding. What would 12

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have been left for me there without my husband? His successor has his own affiliations. I would either have had to marry into them, which would not suit my father’s policies, or retire to a nunnery and live out my days in service to God.”

“That is a worthy thing to do.”

“But I am not yet ready to renounce the world.” She gave him a shrewd look. “Has my father spoken to you of his plans for my future?”

He returned her stare. “He only speaks in general terms and even if I did know his heart in the matter, it would not be for me to say. You must be aware of some of his intent yourself, domina. If he did not have plans for you, then you would still be in Speyer.”

“Oh, I know he has plans, but not what they are.” She leaned back in the chair, beginning to relax a little. On the other side of the partition her women talked quietly among themselves.

Brian leaned back too, mirroring her posture. “When you left England, you were a serious little girl, full of learning and duty. I remember you well from that time, even if you do not remember me. You did not want to go, but you stiffened your spine and did as you were bid, because it was your duty. That part has not changed, but now you are an empress and a grown woman, accustomed to holding the reins of power and command.” She gave an acerbic smile. “It is true I do not suffer fools gladly, my lord.”

“You are your father’s daughter,” he replied with a straight face, but there was a spark in his eyes.

Matilda almost laughed and hastily covered her mouth. It was the wine, she thought, and the tiredness. Suddenly her throat tightened with grief, because this blend of politics and near-flirting was too close to what she had had with Heinrich, and it made her ache with loss. She controlled her voice. “I am indeed my father’s daughter. If you cannot tell me what my 13

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future holds, then at least tell me about the court so that I may be prepared.”

He offered her more wine and she shook her head. He poured himself a half-cup. “If you were accustomed to your husband’s court, then you will be accustomed to this one. They have the same denizens.”

“But who is friend and who is foe? Whom can I trust, and who is competent?”

“That is for you to make your own judgement, domina, and for your father to advise you.”

“So again, you will tell me nothing.” He let out a deep breath. “Your father is surrounded by men who serve him well. Your brother, the Earl of Gloucester, will be pleased indeed at your return. Your cousins Stephen and Theobald will be there also.”

His expression was bland. She had a vague recollection of her Blois relations. Older youths, more concerned with male pursuits and paying her small heed except when they had to serve her and her mother at table as squires in training.

“Stephen is recently married, isn’t he?” There had been a letter but she had been too caught up in worry for her sick husband to pay it much heed.

“Indeed. To Maheut, heiress of Boulogne. Your father deemed it sound policy. It keeps his northern borders strong.” Matilda was thoughtful. Maheut of Boulogne was her cousin on her mother’s side, even as Stephen had that kinship on her father’s—and that made the family ties close indeed. What did her father intend with all this spinning of threads? He was a master loomsman and no one else could weave the cloth of politics in quite the same way. “What is Stephen like these days?” Brian shrugged. “More settled since his marriage. He’s a fine horseman and soldier. He makes friends easily and your father is fond of him.”

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His assessment made Matilda feel uneasy. Stephen had had the time to cultivate her father and gain his attention that she had not. “Are you?”

He looked wary. “He is good company when we ride to the hunt, and we understand each other well enough. He knows when to leave me to my books and my thoughts, and I know when to leave him to the company of other men. His wife keeps him to the mark these days. She gives him backbone, and sound advice.” Brian raised his cup and drank. “Your father has imprisoned Waleran de Meulan for rebelling against him, and he is still being threatened by William le Clito.”

“That is old news,” she said with an impatient wave of her hand. “William le Clito will never be king because he has no ability and Waleran de Meulan was a fool to support him.”

“Even so, it will still inform your father’s policies and determine what he does next. Perhaps it is the reason he has raised Stephen on high—as a counterbalance.” A gust of wind flurried the side of the tent and Matilda felt invigorated by its force. She wanted everything to blow away and leave the world swept clean. Her father had kept his throne against great opposition. He had seized England and Normandy from his rash older brother Robert and cast him in prison, where he lingered even now; but Robert had left a son William le Clito, another male for Matilda to call cousin, and one who was claiming his right to rule. Powerful young hotheads like Waleran de Meulan supported his cause, and although her father had stamped down the rising, like a soldier putting out a dangerous small fire, the smoke still lingered. And where there was one fire, others would rise. Waleran had a twin brother, and their family interests straddled both England and Normandy.

Weaving, she thought. It was all a matter of twisting the threads, and keeping an eye cocked for unravelling strands while dealing with others who were weaving designs of their own.

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She eyed Brian thoughtfully. Her father clearly found him useful and had raised him on high. He held over a hundred knight’s fees by dint of his arranged marriage to Maude of Wallingford. But what to make of him now, on this first meeting? His arrival had been less than impressive, but William D’Albini seemed to think she should give him the benefit of the doubt. She suspected he was adept at hiding his thoughts, and that they ran deep. No shallow blunderer, this one, for all the irregularity of their initial meeting.

As Brian put his cup down, her eyes were drawn again to the ink staining his elegant fingers. “Are you your own scribe, my lord?”

“Sometimes,” he said with a diffident smile. “I find it easier to think with a quill in my hand, and to assemble notes, even though scribes might make the final draft. I am indebted to your father for my education.”

“He obviously values you.”

“As I honour and serve him.” Brian cleared his throat and stood up. “I beg your leave, domina. I should go and make sure all is ready for tomorrow.”

“You may go,” she said formally. “I hope that one of your concerns is finding me a decent horse.”

“Indeed, it is my first and most urgent business, domina.” He bowed and departed the tent.

The moment he was gone, her women, Emma and Uli, bustled through the partition. She let them remove her dress and comb out her hair, then dismissed them with a flick of her fingers because she wanted to be alone to think. Fetching the coverlet from her bed, she folded it around her body, and sat cocooned in the chair, her knees drawn up and her fist pressed against her lips.

Outside, Brian stood in the wind and exhaled his tension.

He had not expected the king’s daughter to be so mettlesome 16

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and perceptive. She was as keen as a knife and just now he felt as if he had the cuts to prove it. When he arrived, she had looked at him as if he were an incompetent fool, and he was still smarting. He hoped he had salvaged something from the situation, but knew his reputation would be ruined if he did not have a horse for her by morning. There was nothing for it; he would have to put her up on his courser and use his squire’s mount. The lad could go double with one of the serjeants.

The white-haired knight who headed her escort stepped out of his own small tent, where he had obviously been keeping a lookout for Brian. “My mistress is always vexed when things do not run as smoothly as she wishes.” He spoke not to excuse Matilda, but rather to reproach Brian.

“I have apologised and done my best to mend matters,” Brian replied. “Be assured the empress will enter Rouen in full dignity.”

The knight gave him a strong look. “Sire, you will find that my mistress does not know how to compromise.” Brian bit his tongue on a sharp retort. “The empress will find that a fitting welcome has been prepared.”

“I have served my lady since she was a child,” the knight said. “I have watched her become a woman, and wield power as consort to an emperor. She has greatness within her.” He glanced at the tent from which Brian had just emerged and lowered his voice. “But she is fragile too, and in need of tender care. Who will give her that, when her pride is both her shield and her sword? Who will look beyond all that and see the frightened child and the vulnerable woman?” Something stirred within Brian that he was at a loss to iden-tify: neither pity nor compassion, but a glimmer of something more complex and disturbing. Her eyes were the grey of lavender flowers but clear as glass and they had met his with steady challenge, and even contempt. He did not see what this 17

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ageing knight saw, but he did not know her. What he had seen was truth and integrity, and it was as if she had taken a sharpened quill and written those words indelibly across his skin.

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