When I was trying to come up with story ideas for Nanowrimo, I tried to pick things I thought I could write quickly and easily. Since I recently read this book about Matilda of Flanders Queen Of The Conqueror (which I highly recommend) I thought I could fairly easily pull off 11th century France. Boy was I wrong, but all of that to say. The history in these chapters is as real and close to actual recorded history as possible. And I'm leaning heavily on the historian mentioned above, and Kathleen Cushing's Reform and Papacy in the 11th Century.
Enjoy and don't forget to vote for the next chapter!
There were sounds of human existence in the form of feminine laughter. I sat up, trying to figure out why that was so important, why I should care if there were people around or not. I lived in San Luis Obispo, a large college city that certainly didn’t lack the sounds of humanity twenty-four seven. So why was my brain searching so intently for human contact? My foot rested in a mud puddle. A long narrow mud puddle that stretched off into the distance like a road and smelled strongly of animal excrement. I couldn’t come to grips with any of it. All of the possible hypothesis crowded in my brain too fast for me to think rationally. I laid back down (more like fell) and squeezed my eyes shut. I remembered a yoga class I went to with a groupon coupon where we were taught to take ten deep breaths and then let it out and hold still for thirty seconds. It was the only useful thing I’d learned since I hadn’t had time to go to the second class, but the breathing trick persisted as my go to strategy whenever someone’s chart and symptoms erupted in a giant fustercluck. It never let me down. So I counted my breaths and willed reality to come back. I got to the tenth lungful of air and let it out, my eyes still squeezed shut. I ticked off the seconds to thirty in my head, knowing that I was fully capable of handling whatever crisis was causing this delusion.
But when I opened my eyes, I was still sitting in a overly green meadow swamp with my foot in a puddle of muddy cow poop. Well crap. Literally. I could hear the sound of voices again, this time getting closer. I struggled to my feet and found myself inextricable drawn to these sounds of people.
They found me before I found them. It was a group of women...really tiny women. The smallest one was in the middle. She was wearing a dress exactly like mine...except she had a long white shift underneath it, and there was gold embroidery on her red trumpet sleeves. They all stopped and stared at me. At five foot six, I felt like the Jolly Green Giant wearing a bikini. Never had I been quite so shockingly aware of my bare knees and feet.
“Emilie…Is that you?” The super small girl asked. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Like Rory Gilmore and Catherine Zeta Jones rolled into one. Her voice though sounded like someone twice her size.
“Ummm….no...I mean...I don’t know?” I said, unsure of what else to say. If I was unconscious, maybe it was better to go along with narrative in hopes my brain worked through it and woke up. But if I was in a coma, maybe I should fight it and claw my way back. Or maybe it was a hallucination of some kind. A coping mechanism for all of the stuff I didn’t want to think about. “I’m Emilie Durand.” I said, going for basic honesty in the end.
“Your father sent word you were coming, but honestly I was expecting a little more ornatus I must say.” The girl clapped her hands, and two of her handmaidens came forward to me and I had the sudden impression of a rabid dog in a corner and animal control cautiously approaching it with a dart gun. I held up my hands. “I’m sorry, I think there’s been some mistake, my father is dead and I really need to get home.” Did you hear that brain?
“Well yes, we know that.” she said, not unsympathetically but definitely with a note of slow patronization in her voice. “This is your home now, I’m Lady Matilda.” When that didn’t get the reaction she was looking for, she added, “...my father is the Duke Of Flanders?”
Flanders...Flanders. Where was Flanders? The only thing I could think of was a picture of fields and fields of white crosses from the battle of Flanders in World War One. Was that France? Was I in France? Impossible.
“Where is your chemise? And what happened to your kirtle?” I was surrounded by all of them now and they fingered the fabric of my tattered red costume with such shock and horror I felt like I’d been caught taking a baseball bat to a BMW convertible.
“I will give her new fabric.” Matilda said with such authority, I was pretty sure she could command this whole episode to end. A dozen head swiveled from her to me as if they were expecting me to say something.
“Uh...thanks.” I said. This clearly was not the right answer. Their eyes bugged out in dismay, like I’d just ripped up a check for a million dollars.
“...new fabric.” One of them hissed at my elbow, like maybe I hadn’t heard properly.
‘I am most grateful...my...lady?” I said, faltering and feeling like an idiot. “...auribus teneo lupum” I muttered under my breath.
Matilda’s voice pealed out with laughter. “You speak latin?” She asked, seeming surprised.
“No” I assured her. “Not unless you count all of the bones in the human body plus the impolite sayings we passed each other in anatomy and physiology.” I said, not sure whether to be horrified or surprised she’d understood me.
“You write!” She said, even more surprised by that, than my latin.
“Well that depends on which professor you ask.” I said, but this didn’t seem to make any sense to her.
“Professor,” She said, “a Magister?”
“Nevermind.” I had decided it seemed much safer to go along with whatever she said. If only because you couldn’t help but want to do what she commanded.
“We were just on our way to Mass” She dropped her head in a small sign of respect, and I was impressed that at least she demurred to someone, even if that only person was God himself.
The nuns at the local church weren’t nearly as shy or polite as Matilda’s handmaidens who had all given me wide birth as we walked through what felt like miles and miles of dense forests and muddy swampy ground. I’m sure I must have looked like a fish, with my mouth gaping open, super impressed I could even imagine stuff like this since it didn’t look like any part of the world I was familiar with. Now I was in a stone room, with stone windows, stone towers and stone statues of bearded men stabbing goblins with spears. To be honest, it felt cold and dark, and all one color. Like the world had gone black and white in this inside world of rock.
“We have Charlemagne to thank for that.” One of the nuns said noticing me staring at the garish artwork, as she yanked my hair into three sections and began to vigorously braid. I was now wearing the proper amount of clothes, but if I’d thought the red dress was ratty, the chemise I was wearing looked like it had been patched out of three different rags. But it was clean...sorta. And I had leather booties on that had molded to someone else’s feet and were upset at having a new host, but those were small complaints compared to what my mind was beating at… trying to make sense of everything. I’d had lots of vivid dreams in my life and something about this did not feel dreamlike. For one, it was too ugly and too harsh. The stones didn’t look like stones, they looked dusty and smelled like urine. It was dark in the church, but not in a spooky, gothic way rather in a “this is totally normal” way that shouldn’t have felt normal to me.
“Why His Grace would let one of his charges out in the countryside half nekkid is matter for Father Jacques if I haven’t ever heard so myself.” The nun had crossed herself when she touched my bare leg. ‘Merciful heavens, you’re as smooth as Sister Marie’s rose petals, you don’t practice the arts do ye?”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by “arts” but intoned it wasn’t crayons and watercolors. Although I didn’t see what shaved legs had to do with God, I kept my mouth shut and prayed. And then prayed some more when I found myself kneeling on a wooden bench at an altar with someone waving smoke above my head. I wondered if this was what it felt like for someone trying Dr. Pepper or pizza for the first time if they’d just popped out of the serengeti. What was clearly normal to everyone around me, felt strange in an unnerving sort of way for me. I noticed Matilda...The Lady Matilda as I’d been corrected twice now... was watching me closely. I did my best to move my lips when everyone else did, and copy their movements as closely as possible, but I surprised myself (and apparently everyone around me) when I wholly unexpectedly burst into tears when we started singing the Gloria Patri.
“Don’t mind her.” Matilda told the startled Father who did not look like a Jacques and looked more like a Nick or Ethan. “She is demens, the Duke will take care of her.”
This soaked up the holiness of the moment like a dry piece of bread, my mind snapped back to the thornier problems in front of me. What exactly did she mean by the Duke would take care of me? I had a strong suspicion everyone who’d met me thus far thought I was clinically insane, and I had to entertain the real idea they might be right. What did they do with crazy people in...wherever I was...and whenever I was? This was clearly an era long before modern accouterments But it also seemed to be in an era where even lamps and carriages would have been dazzling technological advances. The Middle Ages maybe? But when? A wave of panic washed over me as I remembered the major medical traumas of that time period. Was I before the Bubonic Plague or past it? There was no way to tell! And that was assuming I didn’t die of malnutrition, starvation, or some other infectious disease. I doubted they even had clean water.
That I was even considering all of this as a real possibility, just confirmed that yes...I was indeed dangerously past the line of pervasive psychosis. I sank back onto the stone floor and brought my hands shakily in front of my face. They looked pretty real and normal. There was the hangnail I’d tried to bite off with my teeth, and the scab where I’d snagged my knuckle grating cheese a few days ago. Something snapped inside of me, and I realized belatedly that I had to come to a self preservational conclusion. I was going to have to stop freaking out and either lay down and wait for death or consciousness to come, or I was going to have to catch up as fast as possible and go with Matilda. I stood up, then got yanked back down with a hiss from the girl next to me.
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