Sunday, May 15, 2011

#SampleSunday: On Falcon's Wings, Chap 5

Chapter 5
Lille, Flanders
January 1049 CE

In the bitter cold, Matilda of Flanders attended Mass. Afterward Avicia waited and shivered, while Matilda spoke with the English envoy, Brithric, the young grandson of Earl Leofric of Mercia. Heavy snowfall blanketed them. Matilda and the other women had donned their hooded linen cloaks lined with fur. Avicia enjoyed no such comfort. The wet and wintry precipitation chilled her to the bone in her short cape.

She stared at the pale-faced Brithric and wondered whether Matilda could not also see his sheepish expression and half-hearted shrugs, which answered all her inquiries. Whatever Matilda’s regard for Brithric, Avicia knew he did not find her appealing. He finally begged her leave and hurriedly reunited with his entourage. Matilda sighed and clasped her hands over her heart. Avicia rolled her eyes heavenward.

The next day, she sat with her head bowed over her embroidery, in a corner of Matilda’s room. Since her arrival at Lille, the other attendants had treated her with disdain. Each of the young, unmarried women came from the oldest and noblest of families in the country. They looked down upon her because her father had held no lands of his own.

 “Lady Avicia!”

She looked up and found six pairs of expectant eyes on her. She blinked rapidly and wondered what she had done wrong now.

“You are not finished, while the other ladies and I have completed our tasks. Are you so useless, even at embroidery lessons?”

Matilda’s melodic laughter filled the chamber. Her attendants joined in. Then Matilda rose from her cushioned stool. All the women of the Flemish court envied her subtle beauty and petite frame. Brilliant blue eyes rivaled her indigo colored garments. Her headcloth, secured with a gold and sapphire diadem, concealed flaxen hair except for a few stray strands.

Avicia coughed and the sound rattled deep in her chest. “I am sorry. If milady recalls, we were out in the cold yesterday. Now, I am unwell.”

She swayed in her seat, as a sudden, dizzying wave of heat overwhelmed her.

“Your illness is not my concern.” Matilda dismissed her words with a wave of her hand. “If your uncle cannot provide you with warmer garments, it is not my fault.”

 When she turned from her, Avicia said, “I would not be sick if we had not waited outside the church for so long. Had I not stayed with you, I would be well. In the end, Lord Brithric barely spoke with you before he rushed to re-join his retinue.”

Matilda’s stony gaze returned. “You dare blame me for your weakness. Tread carefully, or I shall warn your uncle of my displeasure. You should be grateful you remain at court. Do not think I have forgotten the trouble you caused me last spring.”

A pained wheeze escaped Avicia. She cringed at the memory of the incident with Edric and the dead merlin. Though seven months passed, Matilda had often remarked on it.

Matilda covered her mouth and nose with her pale hand. “I shall send my physic to you. Perhaps bloodletting may cure you of this sickness. When I receive his report of your condition, you may return to my service but not before.”

She swept from her room and her attendants followed. Avicia glared in their wake before she left.

Outdoors, she gathered her woolen cloak tighter about her shoulders. Brutal cold descended with ferocity this winter afternoon, a few days after the New Year. The bleak landscape at Lille mirrored her health and fortunes. Baldwin’s stone fortress towered over her head, near the Duele River. Massive gray fortifications protected it on almost all sides. Within the courtyard, men-at-arms, servants, and nobles jostled each other. Despite the fetid smell of dank earth and gray clouds, the open air offered the freedom and serenity she had never found in anyone else’s company, except perhaps with one person.

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. She should not have spoken so bluntly to Matilda. She should not have blamed her for the illness, or reminded her how Lord Brithric barely tolerated her.

Gruff demands for entry echoed beyond the gatehouse. The wooden entrance groaned before a band of riders galloped into the courtyard. Count Rudolf rode at the forefront of them. He had returned to Aalst last spring, and since then, he sent no word to her. A sense of foreboding warned her that his return would affect her.

The familiar dress of the men with him sparked memories of her father. One among the new arrivals stared across the courtyard at her with such familiarity, it bordered on rudeness. He was a yellow-haired man with a ruddy face, who wore the robes of a clergyman, yet he carried a sheathed sword. His beady eyes fixed on her, a hawk trained on its prey.

She jerked her face away and met the relentless gaze of another man.

Suddenly entranced, she studied his sculpted face with a cleft chin, high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and a mouth set in a thin, dry line. He wore black hair severely shaved at the back and sides of his head. Her eyes drifted downward. His red linen cloak covered chainmail. His deep, throaty laugh drew her gaze to his face again. He obviously took pleasure in her scrutiny. She blushed.

“Avicia, do not dare turn from us! Attend me.”

Rudolf dismounted and met her on the steps.

She curtsied. “Milord, welcome to Lille.”

“Why are you not with Matilda of Flanders?” His gruff voice betrayed his displeasure.

“She dismissed me for the day because I am unwell.”

Rudolf groaned and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Can you do naught to please her?”

When she made no reply, he shook his head. “Where is she, in her chamber?”

“I am not certain, milord.” She looked past him. Both the clergyman and the black-haired man eyed her boldly.

“Who are those men in your company, milord?”

He scowled at her question. “They are knights from Normandy.”

She gasped. “Are they my father’s relations? Have they come for me?”

He sniggered. “Why should anyone in Normandy care for you? They showed no concern for your welfare when your mother and father died. I inherited the burden, a thankless task. You have done little in these last five years.”

She blinked away tears at his cruelty.

“Why have the Normans come then?”

“Their Duke seeks an alliance with Baldwin.”

“Why would he ally himself with a Norman, milord?”

He assumed his usual posture of superiority. “William the Bastard is Duke of Normandy. His father proclaimed him heir before his pilgrimage and subsequent death. William is a powerful man. Flanders would do well in an alliance with him. I shall convince Baldwin of this fact. They shall seal the alliance with the betrothal of William and Matilda. When they marry, the Normans shall remember my role in forging this union and reward me.”

“Milord, what if Matilda does not want this bastard Duke?”

 “Have you lost what wits remain you, woman?” he asked. “Who cares what she wants? Matilda shall do what her father tells her!” He jerked his head toward the riders. “I have brought William’s envoys to Lille with gifts. When she receives such inducements, she cannot reject William’s claim. I shall ensure it.”

She peeked at the men. Rudolf followed her gaze.

The black-haired Norman grinned again. The yellow-haired clergyman continued his scrutiny. His appraisal bothered her more than the first man’s own. Rudolf’s stare swung back to her, accusation in his eyes. She recoiled from his glare and fled inside.

 She bypassed Matilda’s room, where the door creaked slightly on its hinges. A shrill scream echoed beyond the wall and Avicia halted in her tracks. She returned to the door and peeked inside. Matilda sat on a stool. She ripped the threads from the tunic she had been embroidering earlier. Pink blotches marred her face and her eyes were puffy and red-rimmed.

She looked up. “Get out!”

Avicia jerked at the mournful sound of her voice, but she lingered in the doorway. Matilda tossed the ruined cloth aside and advanced on her.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Milady, forgive me, but you are overwrought. Is there naught I can do to help you?”

“You? Help me!” Matilda laughed as she mimicked her tone. “You are useless! You could never help me. Leave me, and do not return until after you have seen the physic.”

She stumbled backward and collapsed on the stool, before burying her face in her hands. Heavy sobs shook her slim shoulders. Avicia’s heart cleaved, pity warring with her natural inclination to leave the selfish girl to her suffering. After all, Matilda had stood by and watched her whipped for a careless mistake.

“Why do you stand there? Do you stay only to torment me?” Matilda’s eyes lit up with fiery accusation. “You take such joy in seeing my misery?”

“I do not, milady. I wish to help you. Shall I call one of your other attendants?”

“So they can laugh at me? They already whisper that I am a fool behind my back.”

“Surely not!”

“I have heard them! I do not give you leave to contradict me.”

Avicia edged closer. “If they cannot help you, then let me do so, milady. I shall not fail you, again.”

Matilda hiccupped and wiped a hand across her nose. “Would you be willing to do something for me? To deliver a missive for me? It is not for prying eyes, especially not your own. If you betray me….”

“I shall not. You have but to command me, milady.”


Within minutes, Avicia loitered in the shadows of the church. She watched the entryway, as congregants entered and left in succession. The biting cold nipped at her flesh through the short cloak, but she dared not leave before she had completed her duty to Matilda.

At last, the English delegation exited the church. The envoy Brithric trailed them, as they crossed the courtyard, headed for the fortress. He had drawn a hood over his head, nearly down to his eyes, but thin hanks of his white hair escaped the folds of cloth. Just as he reached the steps, she approached him.

He smiled at her tentatively. Before he moved on, she clutched at the rich wool of his mantle. He jerked aside in surprise.

“I do not mean to startle you, milord,” she whispered.

“Then remove your hand, milady. Mercy. Are all you Flemish women so forward?” Accusation embittered his tone and he sneered at her.

“I serve the purpose of another.” She handed him a rolled parchment. “Please, will you take it?”

He drew back the hood. “What is it?”

“I cannot say. I have not read its contents.”

When he snatched it from her, she drew back and clenched her jaw stiffly. He seemed rude and hardly worth Matilda’s interest.

He broke the seal and read the letter. She stared at him expectantly. When he finished it, he tossed it at her and rushed to re-join the other Englishmen.

Avicia returned to Matilda, who sat alone on her stool. Her head cradled in her hands, she looked up. Then, on shaky legs, she rose to her feet. Her gaze drifted to the rolled parchment Avicia carried. She took the missive and noticed the broken seal. A sob escaped her. She shook and stumbled slightly.

Avicia grasped her shoulders before she tumbled.  She did not resist as Avicia drew her near, resting her chin atop the diminutive girl’s head.

Brightly colored tapestries hung along the walls of the Flemish court. Beneath them stood a multitude of people dressed in deep hues of varied colors. In the audience chamber, the rulers of Flanders outshone them all.

Baldwin wore a gleaming gold crown slightly askew on his yellow hair. A broad smile softened his ruddy face. His wife Adele, daughter of the King of France, clasped her slim, bejeweled fingers in a pose of sedate modesty.

Avicia hovered in the recesses of the room. Her uncle approached with the Norman envoys.

A herald announced their arrival in a strident voice. “Count Rudolf of Aalst and the envoys of Duke William of Normandy may draw near.”

“Welcome to Lille, my lords.” Baldwin’s voice squeaked. He held out his pudgy hand. Each finger except the thumb bore a ring set with a ruby or sapphire.

 Rudolf kissed the hand he proffered. “You honor me, Count Baldwin with your gracious welcome.”

The Normans bowed, though Avicia thought their movements stiff and reluctant.

“Why have you come?”

“Duke William seeks friendship. I pray you shall hear his envoys and accept a token of his house.”

Rudolf snapped his fingers. One of his retainers set a wicker enclosure on the floor and removed the linen cloth. The peregrine falcon inside chorused her alarm immediately. Her long, pointed wings thrashed against the cage. Her black head bobbed. She revealed her white throat from which a short, sharp vocalization issued. The bird’s obvious distress pained Avicia, but she kept her distance from the cage.

Baldwin leaned forward on his gilded throne. “It is a fine gift you have brought, Count Rudolf.”

“It is but one of many from William of Normandy intended for Matilda.”

“Indeed? Then news of your niece’s carelessness with my daughter’s prized bird has reached Caen? Did Duke William think one falcon might replace another?”

Avicia pressed back against the wall. Though no one took any note of her, shame filled her at Baldwin’s reference. Rudolf’s visage darkened, but he never looked in her direction.

 “I should not make sport of the issue,” Baldwin sobered. “It is in the past. Let William’s emissary make his address.”

Heavy booted steps sounded. The man who approached seemed a larger version of the black-haired Norman Avicia had admired. He possessed the same cleft chin and aquiline nose. Despite the craggy lines and crinkles at the corners of his eyes, the resemblance was uncanny. She wondered briefly at their connection and then shook her head. She should not concern herself with the Normans at all.

The envoy said, “I am Hugh of Montfort-sur-Risle. His Grace the Duke of Normandy is a friend to Flanders.”

Baldwin’s loud guffaw interrupted him. “His forbearers were not!”

“The Duke desires friendship and peace with Normandy’s neighbors.” Hugh continued without an acknowledgment of Baldwin’s comment. “Duke William would seal the peace with Flanders through a royal marriage. He proposes himself as the bridegroom and the prospective bride, your noble daughter Matilda.”

Baldwin rose from his seat. “William the Bastard thinks much of himself to claim my daughter.”

“Indeed, Father, for I am far too high-born to marry a man of such low birth.”

Matilda entered the audience chamber, her attendants trailing. Restored to her usual outward cheer, she glided across the room in dark red garments. A bejeweled chaplet encircled her headcloth. Rubies set in gold sparkled on her fingers. Her garments rustled lavender and honeysuckle bulbs strewn on the floor.

Baldwin came down from the dais and took her hand. “I present my daughter Matilda of Flanders.”

A grim frown marred Hugh’s visage. “Count Baldwin, perhaps your daughter does not understand the great honor my lord William shows her.”

Matilda giggled. Tears sprang to her mirthful eyes, which she dabbed at with an embroidered handkerchief.

“A descendant of the noble King Robert Capet of France,” she began, “and of the great King Alfred of England shall not sully her body with the seed of a Norman bastard. Return to Caen and tell your Duke I shall never have him for a husband.”

She withdrew while her attendants trailed behind her. Her laughter pealed along the length of the corridor.

Baldwin dismissed the courtiers and trailed after his daughter, with his wife at his side.

The crowd bustled from the audience chamber and swept Avicia along with it. When an iron hand closed on her wrist, she stifled her natural reaction.

“Prove your worth.” Her uncle’s foul breath washed over her. “You shall learn the true reason Matilda refuses this match. Come with me and I shall tell you what to do.”

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