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Authors: Roberta Gellis

Fires of Winter (4 page)

Before I realized it, two years had passed. Every few months a messenger came from Audris in Jernaeve with a letter of news about the keep and the family, and I sent a letter back with the man with my small news, but in 1126 I had matter of greater interest to tell, great enough to hire a messenger of my own to carry word to Jernaeve. King Henry's son-by-marriage, emperor of the Romans, had died, and his widow, Empress Matilda, had returned to her father. King Henry had been in Normandy all this time, but now he was coming back to England, bringing Matilda with him with the avowed purpose of forcing the barons to swear that they would take her for their queen when he died.

To my surprise, I was chosen to accompany Sir Eustace to the swearing. It was most interesting to see the seeming eagerness with which all men swore to uphold Matilda's right to the throne against all others in the king's presence. The greatest lords gave their oaths first. King David of Scotland swore to her first; after that there was nearly a quarrel between Robert, earl of Gloucester, the king's most beloved bastard, and Stephen of Blois, sister's son to the king and his favorite nephew, as to who should first swear fealty. Robert claimed the right of half brother; Stephen the right of sister's son.

I could not help wondering, considering what I had heard in Alnwick, on the road, and in the drinking houses, which of the three would betray her first, for Matilda, I could see, was not the kind of woman who could make a man
wish
to die for her. Out of the king's sight and hearing, it was clear that no one was happy with the idea that a woman would rule England.

Chapter 2

Melusine

I was the precious poppet, the dearest toy, the brightest ornament of the manor of Ulle. It is not often, I know, that the birth of a daughter is welcomed with cries of joy by her mother, let alone by her father, but my parents already had seven strong sons. It was plain enough why my mother was joyful about having a daughter; she had no other woman of her own kind to share her interests and burdens, but one might be surprised by my father's gladness and attention to me. He never said why, of course, and for a long time I did not know his treatment of me was different from that of other fathers so I did not ask. By the time I realized that I was cosseted and favored above most other daughters, there were good reasons for his favor and I was too busy and too content to think about it. Now that I look back, I would guess that my father was a man who needed the soft love of a woman, the fond flattery and the gentle bantering talk that only a woman can provide.

I do not mean to say that my father and mother lived unhappily together. They did not quarrel nor hate each other, but there was a cause of distrust between them. I know that grieved my mother, at least in later years, for she felt the cause was long gone—but she did not know my father as well as he knew himself. Thus, she could not understand the wariness he still felt toward her after so many years as husband and wife, and when she sickened it troubled her mind so much that she talked of it.

My father, Sir Malcolm of Ulle, was not born in Ulle. He had been liege man to Duncan, eldest son of King Malcolm of Scotland. When Malcolm was murdered and his brother, Donald Ban, came to power, Duncan fled to England and my father came with him. Papa learned the ways of the Normans in the court of King William Rufus and rode back to Scotland with Duncan when, with the English king's support, he drove his uncle from the throne. In less than a year, however, Duncan had been murdered too, and my father fled for his life to a distant cousin of his mother's who held the lands of Ulle. Three years later, Edgar, Duncan's half brother, drove Donald Ban from the throne, but though Papa loved Scotland and still considered himself a Scot, he saw no reason to go back there. He was a younger son in a large family and had no heritage to claim. Edgar, the son of Malcolm's second wife, was not likely to offer much to his brother's man when he had so many of his own retainers to reward. And Papa had made a place for himself in Ulle, for his cousin was a lazy, dissolute man who was delighted to let my father manage his estate. He had no heir and wanted none, quite content that Papa should hold the lands after his death—if he could.

Mama did not know when Papa's cousin died, but by 1104 when Henry, who had been king of England for four years, came on a progress to take fealty of those subjects who had not previously sworn to him, Papa was holding Ulle. At that time, King Henry did not have the absolute power he came to wield over his subjects in later years, and he still needed to consider the opinions of his barons. So, because Papa's neighbors liked him and his tenants had few complaints, King Henry decided not to try to drive him out of Ulle, even though he was Scots born and had no real legal right to the estate. On the other hand, King Henry did not trust Papa—well, from what I have heard, he did not trust anyone very much—I mean that he trusted Papa even less because of his Scots birth and his remaining love of that country.

Mama was the answer to that distrust. Her father was totally dependent on King Henry's favor, and Mama was bidden to marry my father and to watch for signs of treason in him. If she sent warning, she would be rewarded and her children would be assured of the estate and of other favors from the king. If she did not send warning, not only would she and her children suffer the same fate as her husband but her father and mother and siblings would go with her to blinding or exile or death.

I remember crying out against so disgusting a charge and saying that I would not consent to be a spy against the man to whom I was united in wedlock. Mama's eyes had grown huge with the wasting of her face and body, and now, though she laughed at my childish protest, they glittered darkly with tears.

“A woman has no choice,” she said. “Could I seize my sword and leave my home to make my own way? My father would have beaten me to death if I had set my will against that of the king.”

“There are convents—” I began.

She laughed again. “Few that would take in a woman against the king's will and her family's will, but even if I had been a man, I would have been constrained to obey. My refusal would have meant disaster for my whole family. How could the king trust my father to hold lands and enforce order if he could not obtain obedience from his own family?”

“And why did Papa agree?” I cried, for I was still young enough then to think my father the strongest and wisest man in the world, one who did not need to submit his will to any man.

“He had no right to Ulle,” my mother replied. “He had no more choice than I, for if he refused so reasonable a request, no one would have blamed King Henry for being unwilling to enfeoff him.”

So, in exchange for a charter for his lands, Papa had to agree to take Mama as his wife. Whether King Henry actually told my father what he had arranged, Mama did not know, but Papa was not stupid and he guessed.

I did not learn until much too late that my mother had been the victim of
two
clever men. Years after Mama had told me her story, Papa retold it, except he laughed—not at my mother's pain, I do not mean that. Papa was not a monster, and he had had his own grief to bear, for he had never dared to let himself show affection for Mama or let her forget her purpose. It was King Henry at whom he laughed because the king had not seen the trap he was laying for himself—at least, that was the way my father saw the matter. To promise my mother that the lands would stay with her and her children if she gave warning of any treason intended by my father had freed him, Papa said, to do as he pleased. When there was some contest between England and Scotland, where he felt his honor was engaged with the Scots, he planned to tell my mother to send her warning, which would ensure she and his children would be safe from retribution.

It happened that it did not matter. In all the years of King Henry's reign, there was peace between Scotland and England. I do not count the raiding by outlaws and by the lowland lairds, who sought to add to their thin fortunes with loot from England. Naturally, Papa fought raiders with the same ferocity whether they were Scots or English or anyone else, just as any other landholder did. Besides, most of the raiding took place in the west, where, I now know, the land is richer. Thus, there was never any reason for Mama to be torn between loyalty to her husband and fear of the king.

At the time my mother spoke to me of these matters, of course I did not know why my father had kept the memory of the purpose of their marriage always between them. I thought that wrong, but there were many reasons I never spoke of the matter to him. The most important was that when he saw Mama was dying, he softened and became tender to her. I was afraid then to blame him for past coldness lest he be angry with Mama for telling me of her long pain and withdraw the warmth he was at last offering. There were also selfish reasons: I adored my father and could hardly bear, even for my dying mother's sake, to make him angry. Least important, but still a real problem, was that I had little time or energy to spare for anything. As my mother weakened, more and more of the ordering of the household fell on my shoulders. I was only thirteen, and for fear a mistake would bring the servants' scorn on me and make them disobedient, I did too much myself and mulled over every order ten times before I dared give it.

I have not mentioned my grief at my mother's illness and death, partly because it has grown dim over the years that have passed and partly because that whole period was so filled with pain for me that I could hardly distinguish one grief from another. I know that such things are the will of God and God's reasons are beyond our understanding. So I am sinful and rebellious—I have been told that many times—but I still think it cruel and unfair that sorrows be heaped all of a sudden on the head of one who is unaccustomed to their weight. Sorrows, like any other burden, should come small at first and then larger, until one has gained the strength to bear them.

For me they did not come that way. From the day of my birth, I was petted and pampered, for my brothers might contest against each other but all of them scorned to fight a girl. As an infant and a young child, I was a toy, a beloved plaything, to all the men in my family. Not one came back from his fostering for a visit without bringing to me a new toy or, later, a new ribbon or lace or other ornament. To speak the truth, although I was tall and sturdily made, they all, my father also, watched over me so closely that I sometimes felt I would be smothered under their care. It seemed I could not turn around lest one cry out, “Be careful, you will grow dizzy and fall,” nor walk a straight path lest another take my hand to be sure I would not trip and scrape my knee.

Among them, they would have made me unable to draw breath without help and spoiled my temper completely, except that even with seven coming and going, my brothers were rarely at home. Papa too was often away, and when he was not he was busy. Thus, my care and upbringing were in my mother's hands, and Mama would have nothing to do with weakness and willfulness. She saw that my father and brothers would soon ruin me, and as soon as I could walk and talk, she set about teaching me not only all the womanly skills she had but that I was a real person, no weaker and no stupider than my brothers. If Mama bade me carry a message for her and I said I was tired, she sent me five times over the route. If I wept without reason, she whipped me soundly to give me a reason. If I pouted and said a lesson was too hard, she set me two that were harder.

I learned quickly that I was strong enough and clever enough to do anything. And since I had learned that lesson from Mama when I was very young, my menfolk's cosseting raised a demon of mischief in me. To say it plainly, I led them all round by their noses, and by setting one against the other and working on their fears for me, I induced them to teach me all kinds of unsuitable things. Papa was the one easiest to wheedle with tears; he taught me to ride a fat, placid pony because I wept and pleaded, but it did not take me long to transfer that knowledge to a swift, rangy mare called Vinaigre for her habit of biting. But she did not bite me, for I brought her sweets, and by the time Papa learned what I had done, I managed her so well he was proud rather than angry.

Duncan, my eldest brother, taught me to shoot a bow. Malcolm, my second brother, taught me to handle a hawk. Donald, the third, was a great one for women, willing or not; he taught me to use a knife and other ways to defend myself against men. Andrew, who was pledged to the Church, taught me to read and write. Angus let me ride hunting with him—but he was only four years my elder and not as sure that I was as fragile as his older brothers believed. The two youngest, Magnus and Fergus, taught me nothing new, but I honed my skills against theirs and they knew I would not break.

So my life was full of joy, holy and unholy, until my thirteenth year. I was born in the spring, on May Day, and that day had always been a high festival for my family. If they could, my brothers came from wherever they were to join the celebration, and so five of them did in the year 1129. Five came and four, two with their wives and their children, died.

I was too sick myself to understand the calamity that had befallen us. When I learned of it, I wept for days and began to sicken again. I remember my father sitting beside me and trying to comfort me, begging me to eat, himself weeping, holding me in his arms all night long, rocking me in the hope I would sleep. The kindness made me worse, for I felt it to be my fault that so many had died. All I could say, between sobs, was that they would still be alive if they had not come to make me happy on my birthday. Then Mama came to sit with me for a little time, begging my father to go and rest, but as soon as Papa was gone, she slapped me as hard as she could—not very hard, for she was weak herself—and called me a selfish, thoughtless slut.

“You spoiled, self-indulgent monster,” she hissed. “Do you think your father does not grieve, nor I? What right have you to add to our pain with your lamentations? If as you say it is your fault your brothers are dead, is it not your duty to comfort
us
? Your father has not slept in two nights because of your selfishness. Will you be more content when you have killed him too?”

The slap and the cruelty of her words stunned me. I was silent for a minute or two, then cried that she was cruel and heartless and I hated her, and wept more than ever—I wonder if I wished she would beat me in the hope that the punishment would lift away some part of my burden of guilt. But she did not respond either to my tears or my words, only sat staring into nothing with a face like a stone mask of misery until my father's step could be heard returning. Then her face changed and she went to him and scolded with loving gentleness because he had come so soon. He said she should be in her bed herself and that he could not rest while I, his pearl of price, he called me, was in danger.

My cot had been moved into Mama's bedchamber so that she could hear how I was cared for even while she lay abed. The window was wide open in the mild spring day, and the light from it fell full on Papa's face as he stood in the doorway. When I saw how sunken were his eyes, their bright blue dimmed to watery grey, and how the skin hung on the broad bones of his face, my mother's cruel words rang in my head…and did not seem cruel but just. I
was
a monster not to have seen how much I added to his suffering while I indulged my own grief. From that moment I struggled to bury it, and I think I succeeded in becoming a comfort to Mama and Papa. But I never celebrated my birthday again…never.

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