Disclaimer: The following chapter is somewhere between PG-13 and R rated, read at your own risk.
Also, I made a typo...Matilda's father was one of the most powerful men in France, but he he was Count of Flanders...not a Duke (count being several steps below duke). I corrected it in the previous chapters.
The winner for this chapter was the "Matilda runs into William the Conqueror, drama ensues and Emilie has to use her modern medical knowledge". Interestingly this scene is also actually true (with some dramatic embellishment).
“Alard, there you are!” Matilda raised an imperious eyebrow at a disheveled reprobate with a three day beard and puffy eyes. As if to punctuate this fact, he had a biblical looking wineskin in one hand, and a hunk of bread in the other.
“Sorry…” he said giving her a sarcastic cheer with his wine, “... our dearest father sent me to the Cottard to explanate the benefits of their preevous agreement.” Clearly chewing with one’s mouth closed wasn’t a current sensibility. I could smell his rotting teeth from five feet away and I had a sudden pang for the big bottle of antibacterial hand sanitizer at every corner of the hospital.
“Who’s this large one?” He asked sauntering up to me. He shoved my cheek to the side with his hand and grabbed my shoulder to turn me around. “Is she’a man?”
“No, she’s Sir Robert’s daughter, Lady Emilie Durand of Bruges come to serve as handmaiden… don’t tell Papa, but I’m pretty sure she’s demens.”
His eyes were nearly black. A fact I could plainly see because I was the same height as him, which was ludicrous considering back at home I had to shove my way to the front during rounds in order to be seen. I tried to back up, but he shoved the rest of the bread in his mouth and grabbed my butt with his now free hand. I yelped and slapped his hand away out of pure instinct, and then froze remembering that wherever I was...it wasn’t the twenty first century. .
He laughed. “She seems pretty normal to me.” He said “Send her up before father gets a hold of her.”
“Don’t be a glos pautonnier” Matilda rolled her eyes at her brother and shooed him away from me. I wracked my brain for anything I knew about the middle ages. This was patriarchy’s heydey right? I got a sudden vision of myself old as an old and worn out piece of property that had a row of tiny markers in a graveyard as the only thing to show for my life. I panicked. Deep breaths… deep breaths.
“See what I mean?” Matilda had evidently had enough of this conversation, because she gestured to her handmaidens and swept out of the courtyard of the church with all the authority of an attending physician. I was carried along with them, feeling a lot like the time I’d foolishly dressed up for a halloween party, complete with fairy wings and butterfly makeup only to find out we were going to a pretentious wine bar where everyone was still wearing their corporate uniforms and discussing the dow (when they weren’t taking sideways glances at the perambulating butterfly nerd in the corner). My current duds consisting of the tattered red dress and patched up kirtle, plus my newfound height made our group an object of interest as we walked through the town back towards wherever Matilda was going.
Alard walked with us, and I wasn’t sure if he was the chaperone, or the person for whom we needed a chaperone. I kept busy trying to keep from tripping over my flopping shoes and keeping my head down. The girls around me were talking in hushed tones about the same thing girls talked about in the 21st century. Boys. Apparently there was high drama going on about someone who had proposed to Matilda. She’d turned him down after her father had said yes, but I couldn’t catch all of it. Honestly I was surprised a woman could turn down a marriage proposal in this time. And they didn’t seem all that shocked by it, like it was an abnormal occurrence or anything. I tucked that away for future reference. Of course it probably helped she was the daughter of the Count of Flanders.
Nobody here looked like I expected them to look and that scared me more than anything else. I tried to put my finger on it...it was kinda like when you watched an older movie and laughed at how dated everyone looked...the poofy bangs and blue eyeshadow of the 80’s on a supposedly Egyptian Cleopatra. It looked ridiculous. Well that’s how even the authentically accurate movie felt right now in comparison to what I was seeing with my eyes. People here were shorter and less hearty looking than the Hollywood extras in historical films. The colors were somehow more vibrant and real than they looked in paintings. And the clothes looked more related to the last Nativity play I’d seen vs the last King Arthur movie. When was I? Had the Roman Empire even fallen yet? It had to have, I remembered the nun had mentioned something about Charlemagne, plus the church seemed to have a pretty firm grasp on the culture. That would put me what...somewhere between 900 and 1400 AD? I wondered if I would ever know. It wasn’t like they had calendars around, and I was getting the impression cloth and paper were a precious commodity. I felt guilty just thinking of all the junk mail I tossed in the trash every day.
It was all so menacing. A tightrope of unfamiliar customs and normal behavior and I was wearing metaphorical high heels. The road we traveled on wasn’t exactly rush hour traffic, but it was busier than I expected. Wagons and people walking with wicker cages, more wooden contraptions for carrying stuff than I ever dreamed could exist, and sheep. Lots and lots of sheep. I was got so lost in thought over the engineering of a baby carrier a young mother was wearing. It was such a genius design, perfectly balanced with hooks for buckets and holes with leather straps, that I almost completely missed the group of riders who came galloping over the hill until I noticed it had gotten abnormally quiet.
The handmaiden next to me (I’d learned her name was Aimee) gasped, and I saw a wave of pure red rush of Matilda who straightened her back and met the incoming melee straight on.
“Sir.” She nodded her head gracefully, as the man in front leapt off his horse practically mid stride. He was as large as she was small. I could see how he would go on to be the most powerful man in western Europe. He had that swagger and insolence that didn’t take no for an answer.
“You letter says no!?” He looked like he wanted to throttle her right there on the spot, but Matilda to her credit, eyed him coolly (now if she were offering groupon lessons, I would sign up in a hot second).
“Go find a baroness or a comtesse, she’d be much more suited for you.” She said it in a charmingly self deprecating manner, but her lip curled slightly at “for you” and I got the impression it was an insult of some kind.
One that plainly met its mark. The man’s eyes narrowed, his russet hair and swarthy jawline made me think he must have a fair bit of viking in his blood. “You would do well to remember who you’re talking to.” The way he said it sent shivers down my spine. Everything about him screamed power. He was wearing boots that when compared to my sad leather slippers, must have cost at least a year’s wage. His cloak and jacket had all manner of accessories that I’m sure had uses, but also worked to make him look crushingly affluent in comparison to the rest of us. I was duly impressed.
None of it seemed to have the desired effect on Matilda. “Yes, mi”lord...” She smoothed out her skirts and flicked an invisible piece of grass away “I am well aware you’re the Duke of Normandy… you’re also a bastard.”
Even though guns didn’t exist yet, it was as if she’d shot him. He stood stock still for a moment, and we all held our collective breaths...even the sheep on the road didn’t make a noise.
"Who the devil do you are, wench?" he demanded. A thick lock of russet hair had come loose and hung down across his brow making him look all the more disconcertingly like a ravaging norseman.
He reached forward and seized her by the arms. She gasped for breath and struggled against him, but succeeded only in looking like a very tiny kitten in the grasp of a lion.
She tried to kick him in the balls. A time honored defense apparently. He almost lost his balance and staggered backwards, pulling her with him. He recovered and she slammed into him.
"Oh, like that, is it?" he said, with a grim laugh. "Well, I'd be most willing to oblige you my puterelle...since I am a bastard after all." He pressed her squirming body against him and ground his hips against her. I moved forward purely out of instinct and not out of any formed plan, but the loathsome Alad yanked me back “Oh no you don’t” he hissed. My mouth fell open in outrage, but I closed it again without saying anything. He was right, I would likely get both Matilda and myself killed.
“Why you bloody bast…” Matilda began, but he ducked his head and kissed her hard, cutting off any more insults she might have stored up for him. He yanked her hair, his tongue roving and pushing in and out, as if he meant to consume her right there on the spot. Then just as quickly as it had began, he pulled back and hurled her to the ground by her braids, dragging her through the mud to toward his horse.
“Put that in your hedge born brain and suck on it when you’re married to some pasty faced liver eater”. He let go of her hair and turned to his horse and men who were all grim faced and deadly serious. His steward handed him the reigns and he leaped up. He paused, and I thought for a second he might turn around and say something else, but he dug his heels in with a ya! and was off.
I rushed to Matilda before anyone else could stop me. While I most certainly did not have any fighting prowess, I made it my goal to get to her and assess her injuries before anyone else had a chance to make them worse. She lay face down in the mud, and I rolled her over gingerly. I didn’t think she had any spinal injuries, but if she was unconscious I didn’t want to make anything worse. Her eyes were open and she was conscious. Definitely conscious. She trembled like a leaf as I took her pulse and looked for signs of serious injury. She was going into shock, but I didn’t see anything that looked broken or needed stitches. Her lips were swollen and would probably be bruised, and it looked like she had a few scrapes.
“Someone give me their cloak, is there water?” I knew absolutely nothing about the local countryside and what grew here, and next to zero knowledge about herbs except for one kooky class I took on eastern medicine because I needed an easy filler class. But I took a chance and asked, “Is there any mint or something spicy growing anywhere? But that was met with headshakes and fear so I shut up and reminded myself that I hadn’t learned the right ways to ask things and what not to say. “Are you ok my lady?” I kept my voice low and put on my best beside manner, but it was wasted.
Matilda leaped to her feet and I realized belatedly that she wasn’t trembling from shock, but from rage. She waited for no one, but stalked off at such a determined pace, the rest of us had to hurry to catch up. I hastily gave the cloak back to the young mother with the contraption I’d admired earlier. “Thank you” I said, and she smiled shyly, I liked her instantly. Maybe I had a better shot of surviving if I stayed around sane looking people like her. Matilda and her man troubles looked like anything but sanity. “Who was that?” I wasn’t going to ask, but if anyone was going to give me strange looks, I’d rather it be this girl. She didn’t laugh, but her eyes did get as big as saucers and her eyebrows shot up into her head. “Why miss, that was William, Duke of Normandy...he call hi’self William-The-Conqueror.”
She said it with such awe I wondered if she could possibly kick it up a notch for the King. I wanted to ask her more, but Matilda and company were already over the next hill and I was going to have to run to catch up. As I turned to go though, I noticed her baby was fussing and sticking it’s tongue out in pathetic wails of hunger. The baby’s tongue was covered in white fuzz.
“Does your baby cry a lot? Does it hurt to feed...him?” I asked taking a wild guess. They didn’t do pink or blue clothes here. I hopped back and forth from one foot to the other. I really needed to go, but I couldn’t keep my damn nose out of other people’s business when I saw an easily solvable issue.
She looked at me in surprise and then suspicion. Crap. “No no… my baby brother had that once..my mam said genetian violet helped...and apple cider vinegar if you have any….and don’t feed the baby ale.” I added as an afterthought as I backed away. One stark fact stuck in my mind from a book on infant mortality saying the very first baby formula was bread soaked in beer. If this poor mom’s nipples looked half as bad as her baby’s mouth then I had to assume she might be avoiding nursing. I wanted to stay, but I couldn’t “I’ll be at the…” I realized I didn’t actually know where I would be “...with The Lady Matilda. Please come find me if you need anything else.” Not waiting for an answer, I picked up my skirts and ran to catch up. Alard was waiting for me at the crest of the hill, he offered his arm quite gallantly. I couldn’t think of a polite way to refuse him, and I figured he couldn’t be any worse than William-The-Conqueror, current Duke of Normandy and spurned suitor of one particularly pertinacious Matilda.
At least I knew where I was.
To find out what happens next, vote below!
Also, on an interesting note, a few hundred years after William The Conqueror died, they dug up his remains which were reportedly "amazingly" preserved and they had an artist draw a portrait up of him. It heavily resembled what we think of as Henry the 8th who allegedly later used William's portrait as propaganda inspiration so everyone would mentally associate him with William The Conqueror who was still in everybody's mind as the last word in manliness and power.