Lady of the English
Author:Elizabeth Chadwick

Three

Tower of Rouen, Autumn 1125

T he gale had blown itself out, and a calm sun sparkled on harnesses and trappings. Matilda’s red silk gown gleamed in its light, as did the sleek ermines lining her cloak and the jewelled coronet securing her white silk veil. The citizens of Rouen had turned out in force to watch her arrive and she had her knights distribute alms and largesse in her name while the heralds rode ahead with their fanfares and proclama-tions that here was the dowager empress of Germany, the king’s daughter. Her heart filled with triumph and pride as she rode through the midst of the cheering crowds, and although she carried her head high with proper dignity and pride, she also smiled as much as was appropriate.

Brian FitzCount’s horse, Sable, was a spirited beast, but well schooled and mannerly. FitzCount himself rode a sturdy chestnut cob that was slightly too small for his long legs, but he was obviously pretending not to notice. Following the previous day’s mishaps, there had been no further difficulties and all had run to plan. She was not yet ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, but was prepared to wait and see.

As they entered the precincts of the ducal palace on the banks of the Seine, her horse flicked its ears and pranced, responding to her tension. It was almost sixteen years since she LadyofEnglish.indd 19

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had last stayed here shortly before her betrothal. Her memories were hazy ghosts of the past flitting among the solid stones and cobbles of now.

A groom hastened to take her bridle. Drogo dismounted to help her down, but Brian FitzCount was quicker to offer assistance. As he took her hands, she noticed that the ink stains were still there, with some fresh ones to boot; he had obviously been at work in his tent after he left hers, and she approved of him for that. It was almost comforting to think of him busy and watchful in the dark hours of the night while others slept.

A tall, broad man came striding towards her with arms outstretched. She stared at him for a moment in perplexity, and then the ground shifted under her feet and the past melded with the present as she recognised her older half-brother. “Robert?” she whispered, and then again in a full voice, “Robert!” His dark blue eyes lit with welcome as he grasped her hands and kissed her on either cheek with hearty warmth that yet managed to preserve public decorum. “Sister! Have you journeyed well?”

“Most of the way. My mare went lame yesterday.”

“I wondered when I saw you up on Brian’s Sable.” He glanced at Brian. “I trust he looked after you?”

“To the best of his ability,” she said with a straight face.

Brian raised his brows and Robert chuckled. “That sounds ominous.”

“I was late to the meet,” Brian said, “and last night’s gale made pitching the tents awkward to say the least. I thought we were all going to be blown to Outremer!” Bowing, he excused himself to make sure that Matilda’s baggage was borne to her chamber.

Robert sobered. “You can trust Brian with your life. I’ll go surety for him. He’s also one of the cleverest men in our father’s entourage.”

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“I will take your word for it,” she said, smiling. Robert was her senior by twelve years and had been a young adult when she went to Germany, but the rapport between them was immediate. It was like donning a favourite garment that had been put away in a chest for years, and feeling the comfort again.

“I hope that whatever Brian has done to offend you, you won’t be too harsh on him.”

“He has not offended me, and he has a very fine horse.

Everything is unsettled, that is all.” Her half-brother gave her a compassionate look as they walked towards the tower entrance. “I am sorry you are here in bereavement. I wish these were happier circumstances.”

“Indeed, thank you, and I do deeply grieve for my husband,” she said, “but I must look to the future. That is why I am here, after all. My father has summoned me for purposes beyond mourning.”

Robert said nothing, but his expression was eloquent.

The doors to the great hall stood wide to receive her and a path of red cloth strewn with flowers had been laid for her to walk upon. Courtiers stood to either side and, with a great rustling of fabric and soft clink of jewellery, knelt as she passed. Matilda paced with slow dignity, looking straight ahead, every inch the empress, her soul comforted by the propriety and the ceremony.

At the far end of the hall, two ornate thrones stood upon a dais. Her father sat upon the larger one, holding a jewelled rod in his right hand. His Queen, Adeliza, sat upon the other, robed in a gown of shimmering silver silk that glittered with pearls and amethysts. Matilda processed to the foot of the dais and knelt, bowing her head. Robert knelt too, but a step behind her.

She heard the swish of her father’s robe as he rose, and then his soft footfall descending the steps. “My dearest daughter.” 21

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He bent, took her hands, and, having kissed her on either cheek, raised her to her feet. “Welcome home.” Matilda looked into his face. Six years had increased and deepened the lines on his face. His hair was greyer and more sparse and the pouches beneath his eyes were more prominent, but the eyes themselves were the same hard, shrewd grey. For the moment they held warmth, and his smile was genuine.

“Sire,” she said, before turning to curtsey to and be embraced by her stepmother, Adeliza, a year younger than herself, delicate and slender as a young doe.

“I am so pleased that you are here, daughter,” Adeliza said.

“My lady mother.” The words were incongruous and sat uncomfortably on Matilda’s tongue.

Adeliza’s eyes sparkled with amusement and it was plain she was thinking the same thing. “I hope I can be like a mother to you,” she said, “but more than that, I hope we shall become friends and companions.”

Matilda’s father processed her around the gathering on his arm, and she was introduced to the great men attending the court. Not all were present; some had duties elsewhere, or had remained in England, but enough were there to make a substantial gathering. Bigod, D’Albini, Aumale, de Tosney, Martel, the archbishop of Rouen, the abbot of Bec, her cousins of Blois, Theobald and Stephen, the latter now Count of Boulogne through his young bride, the Countess Maheut.

“I am sorry for your loss, cousin,” Stephen said. “I offer my sincere condolences.” He spoke with grave and apparent honesty, although Matilda was wary because things were not always what they seemed. Stephen’s remark was a meaningless courtesy.

“I remember you as a little girl with long braids,” he added with a smile.

A vague memory surfaced. “You used to pull them,” she accused.

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He looked wounded. “Only in play—I never hurt you.

Your brother William used to pull them too.” There was a momentary silence at Stephen’s mention of Matilda’s brother—almost as if his words had conjured up the young man’s sea-ravaged corpse from the waters of Barfleur harbour. “God rest his soul,” Stephen added swiftly. “I am glad for the memory of our play and I think of him often.” Matilda suspected that Stephen would tug her braid now if the chance arose, and he would still call it play.

“Nephew, you are a great comfort to me,” Henry said, his hard grey gaze missing nothing. “I know I can always count on your strong support and I value it for my daughter too.”

“Assuredly, sire.” Stephen bowed, first to Henry and then to Matilda.

The talk turned briefly to matters of Boulogne and Stephen’s progress there as its overlord. Matilda observed the camaraderie between her father and Stephen. The latter’s gestures were sure and expansive and he knew how to engage her father’s interest and make him laugh. The other men in the vicinity all laughed with him too, apart from her brother Robert, who was reserved and watchful. Stephen’s small, plump wife hung on his words as if they were jewels in a diadem, but she too was constantly glancing around, assessing the men and conversations in her vicinity even while her demeanour remained becomingly modest.

Matilda thought Stephen’s performance polished, but how much was lip service, and how much sincerely meant, remained to be seen.

ttt

Matilda gazed round her appointed chamber. The larger furnishings and baggage, which had set out ahead, had all been arranged: her own bed with its coverings and curtains, the rich hangings from her imperial chamber, the lamps, candlesticks, 23

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chests and coffers. The lighter baggage she had brought in person was here too, waiting to be unpacked. And when that was done, she could close the door and pretend if only for a moment that she was back in Germany. A sudden wave of homesickness brought a lump to her throat.

“I hope you have all you need,” Adeliza said anxiously. “I want you to feel at home.”

“You are very kind.”

“I remember how I felt when I arrived from Louvain and everything was strange. It was such a comfort to have familiar things around me.”

Adeliza’s voice was like a silvery bell. Her daintiness and innocent air gave her a childlike quality, but Matilda suspected there were more facets to her father’s wife than first met the eye.

“You are right, it is.” Matilda said. “I am grateful for your consideration.”

Adeliza opened her arms and clasped Matilda with spon-taneous warmth. “It is going to be so good to have another woman of the family to talk to.”

Startled, Matilda did not return the hug, but neither did she recoil. Adeliza smelled of flowers. Her own mother had never used perfume. She had been strict and austere, dedicated to learning and to worshipping God in stern and rigorous devotion. Matilda had no memory of softness or cuddles from her. Any affection had been cerebral and this compassionate embrace almost brought tears to her eyes.

The door opened on a gust of cold air and her father strode into the room. Waving aside the curtseys of the women, he stood with his hands on his hips, looking round as if taking an inventory, although she knew he must have seen most of the furnishings when Adeliza was organising the chamber.

“You are settling well, daughter?” His brusque tone demanded a positive reply. “You have everything you need?” 24

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“Yes, sire, thank you.”

Going to the portable altar she had brought with her personal baggage, he picked up the gold cross standing at its centre and examined the gems and filigree work with a professional eye.

Then the candlestick, also of gold, and the image of the Virgin and Child painted with gold leaf and lapis lazuli.

“You made a good start tonight,” he said. “I was pleased with you.” His attention turned to a long leather casket on a table at the side of the altar. “Is this what I think it is?” he asked with an acquisitive gleam.

Matilda curtseyed to the image of the Virgin before picking up a key lying in a small golden dish on the altar, and used it to unlock the casket. “I was married on the feast of Saint James,” she said. “Heinrich and I always kept that day with special reverence. This is mine to bestow as I see fit, and I wish to give it to the foundation at Reading for the souls of my brother and my mother.” She opened the box to reveal a hollow life-sized left forearm and hand wrought in solid gold, set upon a gem-studded plinth. The arm was clad in a tight-fitting sleeve with a jewel-banded cuff and the index and middle fingers raised in a gesture of blessing.

Her father expelled his breath in a long sigh. “The hand of Saint James,” he said with reverence. “Indeed you have done well, my daughter.” He made no attempt to unfasten the base to look inside at the relic itself, because it would have been disrespectful to do so in a secular setting, but he touched the gold with possessive fingers. “They gave you this?” Matilda said evasively, “Before he died, my husband said I was to have it.”

He gave her a sharp look. “Does the new emperor know?”

“He does by now. Would you have me return it?” Her father quickly shook his head. “A man’s dying wishes should always be honoured. Reading Abbey will be greatly 25

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exalted by this gift from an empress—and perhaps a future queen.” He gave her a meaningful look.

She waited for him to say more, but he drew back with an enigmatic smile. “Such matters are not for discussion now.

Settle in first and we will talk later.” She curtseyed to him and he kissed her brow and left the room, his tread assertive and buoyant.

Adeliza had curtseyed too, but remained with Matilda and went to look at the relic of Saint James herself. “Does it have healing powers?”

“So it is said.”

Her stepmother bit her lip. “Do you think it would cure a barren wife?”

“I know not.” Matilda had entreated the saint and her prayers on that score had been answered, but the baby had not survived his birthing and she did not know Adeliza well enough yet to open her heart on such matters.

Adeliza sighed. “I know I must accept God’s will, but it is difficult, when I know it is my duty to conceive.” Matilda felt a surge of compassion for Adeliza because she had been in a similar situation herself: married to an older man and people looking at her month on month, waiting for her to quicken. When that man had already fathered children on other women, the pressure was even greater.

“He is thinking of making you his heir; you must realise that.” Matilda nodded. “I also know I am not the only one he has in mind. My father always has a plan and a contingency plan and then a plan to back up both the original and the contingency.” She gave Adeliza a measuring look. “I respect him, and I know my duty, but I also know that for all my father says he loves me as a daughter, I am but another playing piece on his board. We all are.”

“He is a great king,” Adeliza said firmly.

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“Without a doubt,” Matilda agreed, and thought that whoever succeeded her father would have to be even greater in order to fill the void that the last son of William the Conqueror would leave behind.

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