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Authors: Roberta Gellis

Fires of Winter (6 page)

When that place was offered me, I thought King Stephen was the equal of all the gods and heroes of legends. He looked the part, broad and well muscled of body, his face not of breathtaking beauty but handsome, framed in light brown hair, high of brow, with greyish blue eyes, a strong nose, and well-formed lips. But it was not the king's appearance that impressed me; it was his response to my birth. I had told him at once that I was no more than a whore's son trained in knightly skills by the charity of Sir Oliver, and he laughed and said it was all the better for him as I would give him my undivided loyalty.

He had that always—even if he did not always believe it, and even though I soon learned I had been mistaken in my first judgment. Not about the king's kindness; many of Stephen's troubles came from his generosity of heart, for he promised too lightly what he could not perform. Worse, for me, was that his sense of honor was not what I had learned from Sir Oliver. I learned to hold my tongue, but not before I came close, a few times, to prison or exile. Indeed, it was the king's kindness that saved me from his own wrath. Is it then any wonder that I loved Stephen and love him still?

It was the day I took service with the king that I met Hugh Licorne. I liked him at once, despite his strange face, and we soon became fast friends. I learned that he had been the first to bring news of King David's invasion, but it was my confirmation of the news that enabled King Stephen to set aside other demands upon him and take his army north to drive out the Scots. I had no chance then to show the king my abilities as a fighter. The Scots fled before us, and Stephen took the opportunity to prove himself a ruler wise, just, and of good will. Because I knew the land and the customs, I was able to help him and he showed his pleasure in me openly and told me more than once that he had been wise indeed to take me into his household.

Only one slight shadow marred those clear and sunny weeks in my life—I can hear laughter for all know that Stephen made peace with David in Durham in February and that month is mostly wet and sometimes snowy and bitter cold in the northern shires. I do not recall the weather. I only know for
the skies were clear and the sun shone. After the treaty was sworn, Stephen made a progress around the keeps of the northern shires, and where he could do it without grave offense, he found husbands for heiresses and guardians for orphans among his own men. The little cloud I mentioned began to gather when I realized that Stephen intended to add Audris to the heiresses for whom he had found husbands.

The cloud was soon dissipated, however, when Audris called me “brother” before the king and flung herself into my arms as soon as she laid eyes on me, like the heedless creature she is. That made the king lose interest in getting her married because, Hugh told me to my horror, Stephen believed he could rule Jernaeve through me if necessary. But when my first distaste for the idea that I could be induced to take Jernaeve from Audris had passed, I became satisfied to allow the king his mistake. Should the situation ever arise, I thought, I could see Audris well married and happy and then find service elsewhere.

In any case, I need not have worried about that matter at all; Hugh and Audris settled it by themselves. All I saw, with a mild gladness, was that Audris took to Hugh, just as I had. She showed not a touch of her usual indifference to strangers but displayed to him her warmth, her laughter, and the sweetness of her nature, which is like a perfume that drowns the senses. I could see that poor Hugh
drowning, but I said nothing to him; he did not need me to tell him that an heiress like Audris was not for such as he—or so I thought. I did not speak to Audris about Hugh at all, assuming that her kindness to him was for my sake.

I am very glad I had not the smallest suspicion that Audris had found a new fixed purpose. My warnings would have changed nothing and added to the difficulties she and Hugh had to surmount—and would have been a grave mistake too, for I have never seen a better matched pair. Not that they married soon. It took them two years to bring their desires to fruition, but I knew nothing of that. Audris, little devil that she is, never hinted of her purpose in any letter to me; and, although Hugh and I served together later that year at the siege of Exeter, he said nothing either. That was not to deceive me. At that time he had no idea that Audris desired him as he desired her, and anyway, we were both too taken up, first with the joy of fighting and then with the growing disaffection and tension among those who had just sworn to support the king.

I think Stephen hoped the yielding of Exeter would put a stop to any further rebellion and permit him to strengthen his grip on his throne and his barons. Exeter's lord, Brian de Redvers, was one of the very few who had not come to swear fealty and do homage to the king at the great Easter court of 1136. Although Stephen had pleasantly and without penalty pardoned those who had failed to come when summoned to his coronation in December 1135, he had made it clear he expected all to attend him at Easter. In the end, even Robert of Gloucester, Empress Matilda's half brother, had done homage. After Stephen had ordered Redvers to yield up the royal keep at Exeter, Redvers had offered to do homage but Stephen refused, delighted to have one man he could defeat and hold up as an example of the fruit of rebellion.

It is pointless now, so many years later, to describe the foolish mistakes made at Exeter. All I need say is that Robert of Gloucester's influence caused King Stephen to offer too-generous terms to Redvers to yield his keep. This caused a bitter quarrel between Stephen and his brother, the bishop of Winchester, during which the bishop said the one thing Stephen could not forgive—that he was like his father, a coward. In addition, I think the fact that the king seemed so fearful of offending Gloucester started William of Ypres thinking of being rid of Lord Robert once and for all, and that led to Ypres's attempt to assassinate Gloucester, which in the end caused the loss of Normandy.

I am sure that the king blamed the failure of our campaign in Normandy on Ypres and that Waleran de Meulan kept green both that memory and the insult Winchester had uttered. I did not like the strength of Waleran's influence. He was a fine soldier, but I could not forget how he had betrayed King Henry and he was too ambitious, too single-minded about his own advantage. I know that most of those who surrounded the king thought primarily of their own fortunes—and I, to my shame, was as guilty as any other—but Waleran was both short-sighted and arrogant, which often made his advice dangerous. However, I think it was Waleran who convinced Stephen to return to England to prepare a defense of the northern shires against a new invasion by the Scots.

He may have guessed the king would not be free to go himself and wished to defeat the Scots to raise himself still further in Stephen's esteem. The king had appointed Queen Maud as regent, but Waleran had no great opinion of women and may have assumed—what never occurred to me—that Roger, bishop of Salisbury, the king's justiciar, and the other high officials would ignore her and hold for the king's return all the business they dared not complete themselves.

Salisbury was well able to rule the nation for he had acted as regent for King Henry, but Stephen never had the same trust in him—I suppose because the bishop had been Henry's man and Stephen feared Salisbury hid a secret leaning to Matilda. And ignoring Maud as he did, which was made plain from the amount of business Salisbury had to present, angered the king. Stephen had all my sympathy. I too felt it was wrong for him to be bound to Westminster when he should be marching north to meet King David's offensive.

No loss came of Salisbury's insistence that Stephen attend to the acts and grants that had been pending for months. Waleran took the footmen of the king's army west into Cumbria and drove the Scots east into the arms of the Northumbrian barons, who did not love them. The king intended to follow in a few days with the mounted troops, but it was actually closer to three weeks before we were able to leave.

Fortunately there was little need for us as a fighting force. Waleran's swift advance through Cumbria forestalled any invasion or rebellion in that shire. When we met Waleran's army in southern Scotland, we learned that he had relieved a siege at Wark, discovering among those killed and taken prisoner a number of men from Cumbria. That was enough for Stephen. Their service to David against him, after swearing fealty to him in 1136, made them open rebels. This was more than adequate cause for the king to disseise these men or their heirs if the rebels had died in the battle, and put loyal followers of his own on their lands.

So we turned west, again harrying southern Scotland. The memory of that action is dim. I know the purpose of burning villages and taking the stored food and livestock, but I cannot help being troubled by the agony of the poor common folk as their homes are destroyed, their women raped, their children carried off. I knew too that their agony could only increase as they starved and froze and sickened over the bitter months of winter.

I was greatly relieved when we turned south into Cumbria. Here, we went slowly and Stephen forbade wanton destruction. His purpose was to visit each keep or great manor and insist on a renewal of the homage and oath of fealty given in 1136 from each man who had not joined King David. From the adherents of those who had been killed or captured in the force besieging Wark, the king demanded total submission, offering them only life, the clothing they were wearing, and their arms when they went into exile. Even those poor terms were grasped at eagerly; most often, worse befell helpless rebels, and the king's army was large. None of the keeps or manors had the smallest hope of withstanding it, so all yielded immediately except one, and that was taken in a single assault.

Strain as I will, I can remember nothing noteworthy about taking the manor of Ulle. Oh, I remember that Stephen named me to lead the attack. The king had taken two small keeps in Normandy by assault and I fought at his shoulder. Stephen was an exceptional fighter. It was a thrill to fight beside him, and I had some compliments on my own strength and skill. In fact, after the king and I had almost been isolated from our party and trapped in the bailey of the second keep, fighting back to back to save ourselves from being dragged away as prisoners, Stephen said something to me about knighting me. That came to nothing—Stephen often forgot such promises—but he had not forgotten my skill it seems, and he passed over his greater lords and named me captain of the assault. No one objected. Little honor could be gained from winning so easy a contest, and the prize was not valuable. Ulle manor was not likely to hold rich loot. In any case, with the king present, the loot would be his to distribute. With one thing and another, my appointment was no cause for envy.

There was no cause for sharp memory either. All I do recall was a sense of surprise that those within Ulle had tried to resist; there were simply too few to defend the place. We were over the wall on the first rush, and I cannot remember that any of the king's men suffered a worse injury than a bruise. Then I ordered the gate be opened for Stephen. There was no keep. The halls within the manor compound were meant for living in, not for defense, so I did not fear for the king's safety. Still, I went ahead of him into the main hall after the ram had burst in the door. There was not a man in the place, and since all I saw was a group of wailing women clinging to one who seemed too petrified with fear even to cry, I left more hastily than I had entered. I thought that was the end of the matter, but it was not. Eight months later, the king bade me marry Melusine of Ulle.

Chapter 4


Because life had been smooth and pleasant—except for Mildred's barrenness—the shock to us was all the greater when Sir Gerald of Irthing returned from a journey to Carlisle with the news that King Henry had died in Normandy on the first of December; that his nephew, Stephen of Blois, had arrived in London less than two weeks later; that Stephen had been acclaimed king by the Londoners; and that Henry, bishop of Winchester—Stephen's brother—had convinced Roger, bishop of Salisbury, who was justiciar of England, to accept Stephen as king. All this might still have come to nothing, Sir Gerald went on, but Salisbury and Winchester together had talked William Pont de l'Arche into putting the royal treasure into Stephen's hands. Stephen now had the funds to pay the mercenary army his wife was sending in waves from Flanders, and the archbishop of Canterbury, with the bishop of London's approval, had hesitated no longer but had crowned Stephen king in Westminster on 22 December. Papa stood gaping like a netted fish, staring at Sir Gerald, and after a moment Magnus shrugged.

“So, all the better,” he said indifferently. “We will not have Matilda as queen.”

Papa turned his shocked gaze on Magnus. “But Stephen
,” Papa roared. “He
for the right to swear to Matilda before Robert of Gloucester.”

Magnus was the cleverest of my brothers, and not the sweetest. I did not always succeed in duping him, and when I did get my way, I was often left wondering whether he had been fooled or yielded because what I desired fit in with some private purpose of his own.

Now Magnus shrugged again and smiled. “That would be a clever move to make. After Stephen himself is forsworn, with the august approval of three bishops and an archbishop, how can any other man be troubled about violating that oath? It is no bad thing to have a clever king.”

“It is no good thing to have a dishonorable king,” Papa rejoined. “I did not love Henry, but a man could trust his word once given. Who could trust the promise of a man who forswears himself apurpose?”

“Would you rather trust the promise of a woman?” Magnus asked, his lips twisting. “Do you think Matilda more likely to stand by her word than Stephen?”

I was annoyed. I cannot say I was above duplicity in dealing with my father and brothers when their misconceptions about me and protective instincts threatened my reason and freedom, but I have never broken a promise and I do not see why women should be thought less trustworthy than men.

“Why should you think Lady Matilda more likely to take what is ours from us? Is she not likely to abide more faithfully by her father's arrangements than a nephew who has already violated his oath?” I asked hotly, and, I admit, considering what I knew of Matilda's character, before I thought. And then, seeing how surprised the men looked, I realized they might have been considering the nebulous “good of the realm,” which so often occupies men when they should be thinking of their own affairs, and I added, “I suppose you
talking about the possibility that Wyth, Rydal, and Irthing will be seized by the Crown and bestowed on others?”

My father put out his hand and stroked my cheek. “Neither is any trouble to concern you, pretty chick. You may be sure I will find a husband for you whose place is secure—but not tomorrow, eh, my love? You are needed here at Ulle, and we must see what comes of this usurper's claim to the throne before I choose a man.”

“Do not so glibly say ‘usurper' of a king who has a fortune in hand to pay the army of mercenaries that support his claim,” Magnus warned.

Turning from me, my father made some sharp remark in return, but I had lost interest in the discussion, which I knew would have no immediate result. I had heard everything Sir Gerald had to say, so I knew the facts, and I had noted Papa's and Magnus's opinions, which I was certain would only become more fixed the longer they argued. Ulle breeds stubborn folk. If it should be necessary in the future for me to try to bring them together or to change some plan of action, I had the information I would need to reason or plead, speak or weep. I felt I could let my mind wander to a more personal topic—that of my marriage.

By Church law—a law made by men, of course—a girl may be married at twelve. I learned that listening to a priest who had come to propose a match for me with a neighbor well into his fifth decade, who still had no heir to his lands. This was just before I had begun my thirteenth year, and the priest's statement of the law was his reply to Papa's protest that I was too young. In fact, I am sure Papa was not thinking of my actual age—I was always his “little baby girl,” even long after I had topped the height of most of the common men—but it drew forth a lecture from the priest on the nature and duty of females. This so angered Papa (not that he thought better of women in general but because
was the subject) that he roared, “I have said my daughter is too young, and Church or no Church I am the master of my daughter's life.”

That fat slug of a priest, who had been eyeing me in such a way that I guessed who
intended should father our neighbor's heir, was terrified by Papa's rage. He began to stammer compliments about how good a father Papa was and to assure him that the purpose of the Church in fixing the age for marriage at twelve was to protect daughters of less kindly and considerate fathers from being married off at nine and ten, or even three and four, not to force marriages. At that point, Mama, who did not believe in giving unnecessary offense or allowing anyone to realize how much value my father set on me, pointed out that she was not well and I was needed at Ulle.

There had been offers after that too, but my mother was dead by then and I
needed at Ulle. I suppose my father could have married again—had he done so I would have managed to induce him to find a husband for me. Once Ulle came under my sole rule and I had fitted my shoulders comfortably under that burden, I do not believe I could have tolerated any woman in authority over me. Even at fourteen or fifteen I was too much mistress to become maid again. But Papa showed no interest in marriage for himself—not even after my brothers died. At the time I did not think about it, but now I wonder if he could have cared more for my mother than I believed. For my own part, I was content as mistress of Ulle and more relieved than sorry that Papa did no more than say he had turned a suitor away or, more often, did not mention the offers to me at all.

After Magnus married Winifred, however, I noticed that Papa began to talk about my marriage again, always with excuses for his delay in arranging for it. I knew he did not want to part with me but felt guilty about depriving me of my right to be a wife and mother. I could have soothed him with a few words, assuring him that I did not wish to marry, but…I was not sure. When I saw what was between Donald and Mildred, I could not help longing to taste that enchantment for myself; and when I saw Winifred's pride and contentment, I could not help wondering if something very important was not missing from my life. And so, when my father mentioned marriage to me, it was that I thought of rather than the effect Stephen's crowning would have. How could I have guessed that the one would make the other?

Not immediately, of course, although neither did life move on unchanged. Sir Gerald had brought the news about Stephen after Epiphany. Too soon after, a royal messenger demanded entrance at the gate of Ulle manor—but the messenger was from King David, not from King Stephen. The man gave us news first: that Carlisle had yielded to David in the name of Empress Matilda; then he said that King David desired Papa's pledge to support King Henry's daughter against the usurper Stephen in her rightful claim to the throne of England. Papa would have given his word then and there, but Magnus signalled urgently to me, and I went forward and drew the messenger away, cooing of women's concerns—that the man was cold and tired, that he must be warmed and fed.

Instead of taking him to the guest house and seeing to his comfort myself, however, I brought him to Winifred to be cared for so I could go back to the hall. And just as I feared, Magnus and Papa were at each other, hammer and tongs, Papa swearing he would stand by his oath to Matilda and Magnus swearing that Papa would ruin us by opposing the power Stephen had mustered. Usually I did not interfere between my father and my brothers when they argued. They loved each other too well to do one another any harm; in fact, mostly they seemed to enjoy a loud quarrel. But they were all stubborn men, so sometimes, if the matter seemed important, I would make peace between them. Then, later, in my own way, I would bring one or the other to see the case as
thought right.

This time I stood silent, though I was shivering with inner cold. This time, I knew that tears and pleas would not change Papa's purpose, yet I felt sure it was Magnus who had the right of the argument. He, like me, was of Ulle and cared nothing whether we were ruled by Scot or Norman so long as the overlord was just. What was foremost in Magnus's mind was the safety of our lands. Moreover, what he said was true; Cumbria had been subject to the king of England since the time of the first William. David had been my father's overlord, but only as a vassal of the English Crown.

As if answering my thought, Papa snarled, “I do not swear to David as king of Scotland but to Matilda, who is the rightful queen.”

“She is too late with her claim,” Magnus snapped in reply. “No human hand can wipe the holy chrism from Stephen's brow. Whether or not the archbishop of Canterbury was right or wrong in anointing him king and setting Saint Edward's crown on his head is not ours to decide. Stephen
king of England. Swearing faith to Matilda cannot change that. It can only lose us our lands when Stephen comes to contest the Scots.”

“I swore—”

“You are absolved by the highest priests in England!” Magnus shouted. “Did not they swear also? You do not want Matilda for queen, do you?”

My father shrugged. “What does it matter who rules England? David will be our overlord again if Matilda takes the throne. Queens even less than kings are likely to trouble us. There are no jewels here, no rich fabrics, and no reason to fear us, since we swore while she was the weaker—”

“And so you name us enemy to the stronger,” Magnus interrupted furiously. “I tell you, Matilda will never hold the throne, and David will not hold the north. If he stopped with taking Cumbria, Stephen might ignore it since there would be no one—or almost no one—to protest David's rule. But David will strive to take Northumbria too, and they will resist and cry to Stephen for help. And Stephen will come to them. So early in his reign it would be disaster for him to refuse help to a vassal attacked by a foreign king.”

Papa growled a wordless, angry admission that Magnus was right and kicked a log protruding from the hearth, which sent sparks fountaining up toward the black beams of the roof. There was no chance of setting the high roof afire, but some of the embers that sprayed outward flew beyond the slabs of stone on which the fire was laid and smouldered among the dry rushes. I stamped out a few near my feet, and a manservant ran to kill the others. Papa stared morosely at the threads of smoke that rose and then were extinguished by the servant's feet.

“I have lived my whole life in the expectation that this summons would come,” my father said at last. “I will not turn my back on it. And who knows,” he added, shrugging again, “David may conquer.”

Magnus, enraged beyond speech, did not answer that but flung himself out of the hall. I heard him calling for his horse before a servant closed the door, which he had left standing open in his fury. Papa did not raise his eyes to follow Magnus nor to meet mine. That was the final proof that my fear was well founded that Papa knew he was doing wrong, and that King David could not be the victor. And he was not, of course. It happened just as Magnus had foreseen—King David invaded Northumbria and the barons of that shire cried for help. When King Stephen rushed north in strength to drive out the Scots, King David knew he was overmatched and yielded without a battle.

Nonetheless, no immediate evil came of Papa's—to my mind—ill-placed loyalty. In fact, when Papa returned to Ulle in March 1136, he brought with him several heavy gold armlets and a magnificent necklet of rubies and diamonds, as fine as anything I had seen Lady Matilda wear, and gave them to me. I smiled and thanked him and tried to look pleased, for to do otherwise would have hurt him, but inside I shuddered with horror. I knew the jewels were loot—one of the prime reasons that men so loved war—and I could not help but imagine them torn from the throat of some poor woman who might also have lost more of value than the ornament.

I was disgusted, too, that Papa was so cheerful in the face of his liege Lord David's defeat, thinking that his high spirits were the result of his gain, for he had brought home horses and armor and I think silver and gold coins as well as the jewels he gave to me, but I was wrong in that. As soon as Donald could be summoned and come from Thirl, Papa explained why he was so pleased with what seemed a crushing blow to King David. We learned that the peace Stephen had offered was mild beyond any expectation. Far from seeking to punish David, Stephen had allowed him to keep control of Carlisle and some of the lands beholden to the keep. Unfortunately, Ulle and the new manors were not part of the lands ceded to David, but Papa had appealed to King David to exchange our manors for some others near the coast so that he would be our overlord.

King David had agreed to grant Papa's request, but I suppose he had no time to suggest the exchange to King Stephen because in April Papa was summoned to come to Oxford to swear fealty to King Stephen. I was afraid that he would refuse, but when I mentioned my fear to Magnus he laughed and assured me that Papa would go. The swearing would not affect the transfer of the lands if Stephen had no other reason to refuse; he could release Papa from his oath at any time. I was glad for the reassurance, but somehow my uneasiness would not disperse. There seemed no reason for it; Papa went to Oxford and returned home well pleased. The king had accepted his homage without a word about his joining King David and had uttered no threats or warnings. Stephen was a very easy-tempered man, Papa said, but still some sense of foreboding clung to me. Once I tried to warn Papa that the king's seeming indifference to his disloyalty might be a trap, but he laughed at me and told me not to trouble my pretty head about men's affairs and that in any case Stephen had gone to Normandy and would be no danger to us.

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