Whew...this one was hard. Like Emilie is prone to doing, I had at least 20 tabs on three different windows going...all in an attempt to keep it as real feeling as possible. Enjoy!
The Count’s office was less impressive than the rest of the castle, but that was only because the castle was like ten hospitals hooked to each other with no helpful signs in three languages or maps saying “you are here”. If you could judge the personality of a person by their most intimate room, then the Count of Flanders was a logical statistician in a stark kind of way that didn’t hint at the excessive opulence which would later define the nobility. This harshness probably didn’t bode well for me. I think I would have preferred the detached frivolity I imagined fancy lords and ladies having, better to slide under the radar. I had a feeling there would be no ha’ha-ing here. Gravensteen was the name Aimee told me when we came through the South gates, and it was an apt description, they were all as serious as the grave. I’d been whisked up to this room without a maid, bath or wardrobe change which flew in the face of every novel I had ever read (which I know was ridiculous, but novels and movies were really my only reference at this point...I was a lowly med student, not a history PhD).
I was standing alone because the rest of the girls had carried Matilda off to bed. I wanted to follow them to make sure she didn’t need any further medical attention, but I was stopped by a half dozen soldiers who weren’t carrying fake swords and hadn’t bothered to wipe the old blood off the knives that hung casually on leather straps across their chests. I’m sure it was sheep’s blood, or something equally mundane I told myself. Right?
A dark blonde soldier seemed to be the presiding decision maker. He wasn’t quite as tall as William had been, but his shoulders were broader and he had the same menacing “I’m in charge” look, and I took an involuntary step backwards with visions of ravaging kisses and mud puddles in my head.
“Come.” He had said, and I didn’t dare say no. I could only hope I wasn’t being taken to some dungeon or some room to be molested. My feet turned and padded obediently along with dirty wool clad men who smelled like sheep and unwashed testicles, even though I really would have preferred to sit down and fall apart. Unfortunately I’d already learned life didn’t work that way. If I could have hit the pause button or quit, I would have done it when I was an eight year old standing under a pop up tent in the rain, throwing cheap Costco roses into a hole in the ground where my mother’s coffin lay waiting to be covered up with dirt.
“Wait here.” The keys were roughly made, but solid iron, the circle they hung on was as thick as my thumb. It struck me how heavy it must have been, that even keys which only did one thing, were more cumbersome than my phone which did everything. In this age you had to wear so much stuff. The blonde captain (or lieutenant or whatever he was) looked furious about something, but he remained scrupulously stoic as he led me into the inner study. He must be pretty high up if he had keys to his Lordship’s private office. I waited politely, not daring to move from the spot he pointed to, but I couldn’t help ask on his way out. “Wait! how do I address...er..his lordship?”
His mouth may have crinkled into the barest hint of amusement, but if it did, he erased it too fast for me to say for sure. “You may call him ‘my most esteemable Lord Comte de Flandres’ “
Oh was that all? Sheesh. I really wanted to ask what was to become of me, but I was sure he wouldn’t know, and I didn’t think I could credibly get the words out without sounding as terrified as I felt.
I thought he was going to stand guard over me like some sort of menacing bronze warrior, but he turned heel and marched out. The heavy wooden door barely sent a tremor through the stone floor...that’s how thick and big this beast of a castle was.
“She looks more like a whore than demens.”
“Mebbe she’s both.”
“Shet your mouth Gosse, I’ll not let ye talk that way about someone I plan on stickin’ me cock into later” this casual declaration was followed by muffled hoots and laughter.
“Whatta ye mean, puteresse are the only kind yeh ever get.”
“...and they make him pay double yeh know, because his hoisere smell so bad.”
“Well you’re nen expert never having rutted anything but a sheep yeself.”
I shifted my weight from one side to the other, nervous at the openly lascivious conversation going on a door’s width away.
“Shut up, the lot of you.” came a firm reply. “Nobody’s touching her.”
“Oh, keepin her fer yourself… never share the good stuff.”
“...it’s that baby deer innocent thing she’a got... ticklin’ yer bullocks, eh?”
There was a dull thud, and everything stayed quiet after that. I was pleased to note at least someone out there didn’t hold to rape, but I would have been a lot more at ease if I could have assessed exactly how serious and rampant sexual crimes were in this time period. I tried to remember what Natasha had said (she being the resident anthropology expert in our group), but it was hopeless. I did know beyond a shadow of a doubt, I’d take a fast walk out one of these high windows before I let myself be taken by that group of men out there. I shivered and swallowed bile. I could almost feel the epinephrine and cortisol reaching apoplectic levels in my bloodstream. Too much more of this, and it wouldn’t matter what happened to me. I needed to calm down and fast. The human body could only physiologically handle so much stress before it shut down involuntarily...and I needed it to stay voluntary.
And that’s how the his most holy excellent esteemable lordship Comte de Flandres found me, sucking in great gulps of air and doing the yoga “tree” pose, patched kirtle, tattered red dress and all.
He cocked an eyebrow, and in my flurry to regain my composure, I bowed deeply like I’d learned from my childhood violin teacher. Halfway down I belatedly remembered I probably should have curtsied. Did they curtsy in the Middle Ages or was that more of a Baroque thing? Gah.
“Well mademoiselle, you must tell me of this charming custom.” He said laughing. “Or are you too demens to use your tongue?”
“Uh, no sir...I mean your lordship.” I said forgetting entirely what I was supposed to call him.
“Your father said you were a great belle, but he should have also disclosed you’re touched in the head.” He circled around me like a hawk surveying its prey, trying to decide if it was worth diving in. “But I think perchance you’re not crazy, just foreign?”
There was a dangerous gleam in his eye, as I tried to discern which was worse...being foreign or crazy.
“No your excellency…” During my impromptu yoga I had decided a childhood illness and life of seclusion was probably my best bet. What did they call polio before they knew it was polio?
“...I was a weak child, and not able to leave my quarters. I suffered from ...Apoplexy of the Anterior Horns.” I held my breath, waiting for him to laugh, but either he was familiar with the name or he didn’t want to reveal his ignorance.
“And your father hired no tutors, you had no servants?”
“Our Manor was not rich. My mother, she was English and had...opinions.” I said delicately, hoping he would read between the lines and fill it in with something that made sense to him.
“Ah” He nodded as if he could picture a English woman doing this. It didn’t seem like he was falling for it entirely, but whatever he was thinking, he hadn’t tossed me out...yet..
“I will honour your father’s last will, my sincéres condoléances” He stroked his chin, “But I must warn you…” He leaned forward and I saw where Matilda got her steely demeanor. “.. if I find you’re not what you say, or if you’re really a diseased ratiere in the brain, I will not hesitate to execute judgement for the good of de Flandres. Oui?”
“Yes your excellency.” I nodded respectfully. Not wanting to risk saying anything that would incriminate me more. I made a mental note to start a list. There would be categories. Food vocabulary, horse vocabulary, sheep vocabulary, terms of address, indoor customs, outdoor customs, female vocabulary, male vocabulary. I would be extensive and it would be glorious even if I had to write it on the floor with a damn piece of charcoal and memorize it like it was anatomy lab finals.
He called out “Becon!”
“Yes mi’lord.” The blonde soldier instantly appeared. “Take mademoiselle Emilie to Matilda’s quarters and tell her to have her things put in the third bedroom of the charté .”
I didn’t dare tell them I had no things. My presence seemed to be hanging by a mere thread as it was. I hastily bowed, cringing inwardly at how awkward it all was. I’d spent a large part of my life working very hard not to stick out like a sore thumb. Now this? It was like one of those nightmares where you show up to school naked, but in this case it wasn’t one big thing, but hundreds of little things I was doing wrong every thirty seconds.
“And make sure she’s given an treacle draught and bathed in the white mare’s urine. I won’t have her bespoiling the household if she is demens...or diseased.”
Horse urine? I thought with dismay. Treacle?
The soldier grimly took me by the elbow and steered me out into the passageway where the rest of his men were still waiting for us. I braced myself for more bawdy comments, but they behaved themselves minus the random muttering about babysitting wimmin.”
Thankfully they turned me over to Madame Johanne whose exact job I was unsure about. She didn’t look like your standard bustling head housekeeper, but she seemed to have a fair level of authority within the castle and I could have thrown my arms around her neck and wept. Of course that was before she poured a bucket of horse piss over my head. If i had any visions of keeping 21st century standards of cleanliness, all of those pipe dreams went out the window as I wrung the strong smell of ammonia out of my hair and fantasized about the technological brilliance of terry cloth. I didn’t get new clothes either although i did get a pair of hosiery that were darned and mended so many times I wasn’t sure what their original color was.
Surprisingly it turned out to have a positive affect, as people were smiling at me and making eye contact now. Apparently all one needed to do was smell like animal waste in order to fit in. Who knew. There was a wide moat around one side of the castle. On the way in I had turned up my nose and made a mental note to assume there was giardia and other parasites in the water, but now I was reversing that snobbishness and calculating the earliest possible swim I could take. Fully clothed.
It was my assumption I would eat wherever the servants ate, so I stuck close to Madame Johanne for fear I would get lost and they’d find my skeleton in a few hundred years. I could have done with an IV of electrolytes right now, but would settle for anything in the form of hydration and sustenance. I hadn’t eaten anything much since the funnel cake this morning...whoa...had that been this morning? Impossible. For a second dizziness overcame me again, and I clutched the rough hewn table in the secondary kitchen where Johanne was trying to juggle giving me a tour while yelling at some poor girl for preserving garlic incorrectly. She cut a side glance at me, pursed her lips and set me down. A second later someone pressed a warm mug in my hand and ordered me to drink. I think I was expecting coffee, and nearly choked when I got a blast of spicy greasy broth and piece of feather got stuck in my teeth. Well then, beggars couldn’t be choosers. I guzzled it down. My paleo friends back at home would be so impressed with me right now.
“There you are!” Aimee sounded surprised. What, she wasn’t expecting to find the demens girl in the lower kitchen drinking feathers and smelling of horse urine? I wanted to laugh hysterically. “They’re waiting for us in the upper hall.”
“We?” It didn’t compute.
“Yes, you idiot… the prayers can’t be read until everyone is there. Father Pierre is very scrupulous.”
“Oh, but...can’t I just stay here? I don’t think I’m… suitable for dinner.”
She looked at me like I’d grown three heads. Ok ok, i thought, I’m coming. I’d added mandatory dinner to my master list.
The blonde haired soldier was not in the great hall I noted. But everyone else was. The Comte himself was at the head. I recognized some of the girls, and a few of the people I’d run into in the stairways and passages. There was a seat next to his Lordship that was empty. I wondered if that belonged to his wife or Matilda. As if to answer me, Matilda swept in. She (lucky girl) had changed and her hair had been washed and re braided. There was a fiery glint in her eye though, and I knew she was not ‘over’ the episode from earlier.
“Uh oh, we’re all about to get an earful.” Aimee started shoveling food onto her plate as if it would be her only chance. Was it rude to help yourself when the lady of the house spoke? I waffled, wanting to follow Aimee’s lead because I was starving, but also not wanting to be terribly rude. I settled for the shameful practice of slipping what looked like a date off the edge of a platter and into my mouth. It exploded in a burst of tangy goodness. Sweet mother of mercy. I reached for another.
“Father, I have something to tell you. On the way home from Mass, his lordship the Duke of Normandy…”
“Yes, I heard... barbarian. Indefensible. Shall I demand reparations? Take him to the high court?” The Comte’s voice was level, but something in the way he said it made me realize just how serious the whole altercation on the road was. There was a cadence to the conversation that made it seem more official. Like they were saying this specifically in front of us witnesses for a reason. William may have been the duke of Normandy but he apparently actually was a bastard and if Aimee’s long recitation of suitors could be believed, Matilda was the most sought after bride in western Europe right now. The whole hall held its breath.
“No father. Unless that is... you want to seek redress of your son in law.”
I was wrong. Now the hall was truly quiet.
The Comte too, seemed to have been turned to stone.
“I know..." She said calmly, "...I turned him down. But I changed my mind.” And with that she sat down and began ladling herself some soup as if she’d just casually announced she was going to have eggs for breakfast.
The Comte pushed his chair back and stood up. “I warn you daughter, what you say here cannot be changed. Do you want to discuss this?”
So I was right, stuff in the main hall did have a sort of legal officialese to it.
Matilda cheeks were flaming crimson, but her knuckles were white as she put her spoon down. “I am sure. Let the banns be read.”
It felt like something had just been written in stone. The word “banns” seemed to be the spell that broke the silence and dinner resumed.
The Comte though was silent.
As usual, to find out what happens next, vote in the poll because you never know who's getting doused in horse urine next. :P
On a historical note...here is the real castle Gravensteen where the Counts of Flanders lived and ruled with a sometimes unbenevolent iron fist. In Matilda's father's defense...he helped bring Flanders out of poverty and into the high Middle Ages. i.e. if you had to live during the Medieval times, France was (for the most part) safe, warm and where you wanted to be.