Fougères (Brittany) – AD 1166
Two-year-old Robert sat on his sister's lap and sucked his thumb, watching his brothers play. Guillaume, seven, and Henri, four, were "playing war" with wooden statuettes and an upturned pot that was the motte of the castle. Mabile, five, sat in their mother's lap with her rag doll, uninterested, while Marguerite, six, preferred to play with the live doll who was her little brother. The firstborn, Juhel, had been sent to be a page to the Duke of Brittany since he was already nine years old.
The game stopped abruptly when a bloodied soldier burst into the room and knelt in front of the lady of the castle. Marguerite went so still that Robert's thumb popped out of his mouth as he looked up at his sister's face.
"My lady, the sortie was a failure and Lord Raoul was captured. The king demands the surrender of the castle or he will kill the hostages."
Robert heard his mother gasp and looked at her. She rose majestically from her stool next to Marguerite, as Mabile slid down from her lap, and motioned to the messenger to stand up.
"Very well, the king shall have the castle," she said.
Robert heard snorts and moans coming from his brothers as the guard bowed again and quickly left.
"Children." The lady turned to look at each of them. "Gather your things. Quietly and quickly."
"Where will we go, Mother?" Guillaume asked, worried.
"You shall go to Dinan to start your knightly education soon," she replied sternly. "As for us, we'll see what your father wants to do when the king releases him. Now go get your things."
The children obeyed. As Robert followed his brothers, he grabbed his favorite toy, a wooden horse with straw stuck to it as mane and tail. He followed his siblings into the timber bailey of the castle, where house servants were already gathering with bundles of clothes and utensils.
With the help of a servant, his mother checked them all, then the wooden gate opened to let in the king, his men, and the captive lord of the castle, Raoul of Fougères.
Robert hid in the folds of his mother's ample gown when he saw the frown on his father's face. Marguerite took his hand, so he clung to her instead.
"Out," the king ordered bluntly.
Robert was picked up by his mother while his father pulled up Henri, and they all walked out of the timber palisade in silence.
They left the rocky islet and found a dry place at the edge of the marshland, on the rocky shore of the river Nançon. Robert watched the flaming torches of the king's men hit the palisade surrounding the timber castle, then the square timber tower itself.
His mother put him down, and Marguerite's hand was ready to grab his again, as he stared at the flames slowly catching the old, crackling wood.
Robert put his thumb back in his mouth, his wooden horse against his heart since his other hand was still in Marguerite's. He watched his home burn without tears. The flames devoured the timber castle dancing up in the gray sky.
He looked at his father's frown, unsure, then his attention went back to the flames on the rocky islet.
"Two hundred years it has stood," his father said with bitterness. "And now Henry Plantagenet has torn it down, like he has done with so many English castles."
Robert looked up again, but kept his thumb in his mouth. His eyes went to his male relatives: his brothers and his tall, proud father who wore an over-tunic with ferns neatly embroidered on the sleeves, the symbol of the family lovingly stitched by his mother. Underneath he still had his chain mail hauberk, and a most impressive sword hung by his side.
"I'll rebuild it in stone!" Lord Raoul straightened himself and everybody looked proud, even Marguerite and Mabile, so Robert considered pulling his thumb out of his mouth, but decided against it.
"Don't let him kill you," his mother said softly, taking her husband's hand.
Robert glanced at his parents, then his brothers and sisters, and Marguerite squeezed his hand, a tentative smile on her face.
He smiled back, his thumb still in his mouth, then his eyes went back to the flames as they slowly faded out, unable to spread beyond the river and the marshland.
Little Sturton Castle (Lincolnshire) – AD 1166
Simon paced the great hall, unable to sit still. Screams of pain came from the upper floor and his private chambers, so he stopped to listen with a worried frown. Having a stone castle wouldn't protect his wife's life this time, probably.
"Sit down, Simon, they will call you when she's done," his mother said as she gently cradled his daughter to sleep.
"This doesn't look good, she's suffering too much!" He resumed his pacing, unable to stand still.
"Don't worry, Isabel is young and strong," his mother insisted. "And Gunhild is the best midwife in the county. Have you already forgotten what happened when my namesake was born?" She pointed with her chin at the now sleeping one-year-old in her lap.
Simon stared at his mother and his daughter, frustrated, then Isabel screamed again. When the screams of pain became moans and pants, Simon couldn't wait any longer. He had to see her, see how she was doing, meet their second baby.
He burst into the room as the midwife covered the still body of a little thing that would never receive a name. Isabel was covered in sweat and bleeding profusely, panting with her eyes closed – she probably hadn't seen that the baby was stillborn.
He rushed to her bedside as the midwife tried to save the mother and stop the blood loss.
"Isabel!" he called, frowning with concern. The smell of blood in the room made him feel as if he were on a battlefield. And his beloved wife was losing her own personal battle.
She was already fading out. "Simon..." she panted, "I failed you..."
"No, you didn't!"
She hushed him with a finger on his lips. He took her hand with both of his, kissing her pale fingers.
"I don't have much time left." Her voice was slurred with pain and drowsiness. "Simon, swear you won't marry Brithwen off without love."
"She's the only thing I leave you. Marry again, but don't marry her off without love. Promise."
The last word had a little more strength, but also an urgency that forced him to answer quickly. "I swear it. Our daughter won't marry without love. And I swear I won't marry again..."
He realized she hadn't heard the end of the speech and he stopped. He tried to continue, but couldn't. He stared at her beloved, pale face, speechless.
His head hung on her hand. "I love you, Isabel..."
The midwife backed away as he slowly started sobbing.
Part One: Tournaments
Saint-Jean-le-Thomas (Normandy) – AD 1185
Robert saw the great hall of the castle of Saint-Jean-le-Thomas for the last time soon after Easter, less than five months shy of his turning twenty-one. The castle had been built on the cliff facing the Mont Saint-Michel over sixty years before by Thomas de Saint-Jean, who had had troubles with the Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel who had accused him of destroying his woods. Lord Thomas had also changed the name of the village with its old church from Saint-Jean-au-bout-de-la-mer to Saint-Jean-le-Thomas.
Now Thomas's son Roger was lord and his nephew Guillaume had married Robert's widowed grandmother, hence Raoul de Fougères had chosen the lords of Saint-Jean for the education of his youngest son. It wasn't the lavish castle of a great baron, like Guillaume, Juhel and Henri had had, it wasn't even in Brittany, but was close enough. And only four other squires entered with Robert into the presence of Lord Roger instead of the dozens ordained by wealthier dukes and barons.
Robert had spent the night in prayer and knew the ceremony awaiting him would mark a turning point in his life: he would become a knight and would be able to go back home after fourteen years of training, mostly at the castle, where he had become a very close friend of Manfred, Lord Roger's second son.
He looked forward to being a knight and meeting his heroes on the tournament fields, but also to seeing his parents and siblings again. Disturbing news had come from the Duchy of Brittany from time to time during those long years and he really hoped to hear the other side of the story soon. For the Duke of Normandy and King of England Henry Plantagenet, his father, Raoul de Fougères, was a rebel baron, but he knew there were good reasons. Like the destruction of the old timber castle when he was barely two. He had kept his mouth shut about it with his Norman friends, but he looked forward to talking openly with his brothers and father.
Roger de Saint-Jean sat on his wooden stall in the middle of the dais. He was a tall man, ruggedly built who exuded an unmistakable air of authority. He was clean-shaven and wore the haircut that was so fashionable with Norman noblemen. His over-tunic had his coat of arm embroidered on the left side of the chest.
A priest stood by his side, along with the heir, Guillaume, a tall young man with a haughty expression and an unusually long nose.
The lord of the castle stood up as the five squires, including Robert and Manfred, entered dressed in their best. Robert's over-tunic had ferns embroidered on the sleeves, a gift sent by the mother he sorely missed.
Lord Roger smiled a welcome and signaled the first of the line to come forward.
"Manfred de Saint-Jean," the herald announced.
Robert watched as his friend was knighted and moved to the opposite side of the stall from Guillaume. Manfred's triumphant smile met Guillaume's scoff, which put a frown on the younger brother's face. Robert knew they were rivals more than anything – they weren't really like the siblings sung in the chansons de geste, or the four de Preux brothers who were part of the royal Angevin household and were always together like Robert hoped he would soon be. He already imagined himself with Guillaume, Juhel and Henri going from tournament to tournament and winning glory as a perfect team.
The herald called his name and it was his turn. He went to kneel in front of the lord of the castle.
Lord Roger pulled him back up on his feet, and, as he had done for his son, belted him with a sword, then buckled his spurs. Robert breathed deeply to calm himself, as a feeling of elation almost overwhelmed him. He had a sword! His own, personal Durendal! He could be Roland now! Or King Arthur with Excalibur! He looked Lord Roger in the eyes, proud but hiding his joy.
The lord of the castle gave him a gentle slap at the nape of his neck.
"Be a knight," he said, smiling fondly at him. Lord Roger had taught him everything about being a courteous knight – he along with those trouvères who sang of the Matter of France and the Matter of Britain. Robert knew by heart all the exploits of Charlemagne and King Arthur and their knights, his favorite author being Chrétien de Troyes, whom he hoped to meet one day. His favorite "song" was La chanson de Roland, a one-century-old epic poem with the name of the author lost. He really wanted to be like the nephew of Charlemagne and distinguish himself in battle. Or be like Gauvain, King Arthur's best knight according to Chrétien de Troyes.
Robert flashed a smile back at Lord Roger and bowed, joining Manfred while the knighting proceeded. There weren't a hundred squires like in Erec and Enide – and probably the Angevin court – but the five of them had been bathed and groomed following their night in prayer.
All five had been dressed with parti-coloured robes matching their family colors and they'd find fiery steeds awaiting them in the courtyard. They'd receive a shield and a hauberk, a long shirt of mail reaching the knees. Then the helmet, and the "coiffe" beneath it to protect the head. The "ventail" of linked mesh to be worn across the lower part of the face and attached to each side of the neck to the "coiffe", to protect the throat. And finally the greaves to cover the legs.
"I was almost certain Guillaume would try something nasty," Manfred whispered while his father made another knight of Alric de Pilrou.
"Why should he," Robert replied in the same low voice, "when he can beat you on the field?"
"That's what he thinks!" Manfred scoffed, glancing at his older brother.
Robert smiled and shook his head, feeling the urge to grab his sword's hilt and start swirling it around with screams of joy. Soon they'd prove their real worth to Guillaume who was already looking forward to the challenge.
The castle courtyard was filled with people standing against the building's walls or leaning out of windows to watch the play tournament of the new knights. Since it was a celebration, the use of heavy armor and weapons was limited, putting emphasis on horsemanship.
Villagers and servants cheered as the dozen knights, both old and new, gathered with their helmets gleaming in the sun. They were mounted on strong horses, their swords hanging on their left side, their shields brightly colored – and five of them brand new. Lances at the ready, the knights opted to run at the quintain instead of jousting.
The mannequin mounted on a pivot and armed with a club unsaddled more than one, especially the younger and less skilled. But Robert won by striking the wooden post cleanly with his lance, and avoiding a hit by the revolving arm.
"Well done, le Breton, you can teach some tricks to my brother, here," Guillaume said, taking off his helmet.
It was lunch time by now, and everybody was heading back to the great hall for a banquet celebration.
"We fight together, Guillaume. We're like Roland and Olivier from now on," Manfred replied scornfully.
"I'm sure Robert can find a better partner than you," Guillaume teased. "Hey, Robert, why don't you pick Alric?"
"Manfred is good, we're a perfect team," the champion replied. He didn't bother telling Guillaume that he and Manfred couldn't actually decide who was Roland and who was Olivier, there was enough rivalry between the two brothers already.
They took off their hauberks and washed their hands before sitting at the long tables, where food and wine abounded. Stuffed pheasant and roasted boar with vegetables covered the table of the lord. The wine came from his cousin's vineyards and the kitchens had worked since morning to prepare the banquet.
A minstrel sang in the background, unheard. Laughter and chatter covered his voice as servants rushed in and out with more food.
The smell of roasted meat became the smell of freshly baked cakes. Guillaume, with a fair damsel by his side, joined Robert and Manfred who were toasting and making plans for their future.
"Have you decided which retinue you will join?" he asked, implying by his manner that they weren't welcome to stay at Saint-Jean-le-Thomas – as if Manfred needed such a clue!
"Not yet, we're considering various options," Manfred shrugged. "Unfortunately the Young King is gone..."
Robert sent a prayer to God and crossed himself at the thought of Henry the Young King, firstborn of Henry Plantagenet, whom his father had made king of England but had died three years earlier at twenty-nine years old.
"He wouldn't have accepted you," Guillaume said scornfully.
"He would have!" Manfred retorted, clenching his fists.
Robert put a hand on his arm to calm him.
"I'm visiting my family first, I miss them," he told Guillaume, who nodded, skeptical.
"Count Geoffrey might take you on," he conceded. "Although I've heard only firstborns inherit land over there."
"Well, then, we'll start going to tournaments and win them all," Manfred boasted. "We'll become richer than you!"
"Or die trampled," Guillaume scoffed. He turned to Robert again. "Why don't you sing something and silence that wretched jongleur?"
"You are a much better singer," Robert replied. "And I'd love to hear your latest composition before I leave."
Guillaume straightened himself, beaming, and guided his young lady to sit before silencing the minstrel with an imperious wave of his hand.
Manfred shook his head, disgusted.
"Are your brothers like him?" he wondered aloud. "I don't think I can handle another Guillaume."
"How can I tell?" Robert smiled. "I was seven when I came here, I know your family more than mine."
Manfred sighed as Guillaume hit a wrong note.
"Did you really have to ask him to sing?" Manfred complained.
"Better him than you," Robert teased.
"You were asked to sing first!"
"I'm not in the mood." He sipped his wine. "Let's get drunk instead."
Manfred smiled and toasted to that.
The sun shone on Saint-Jean-le-Thomas when Manfred and Robert gathered their things and said good-bye to Lord Roger, who blessed both of them for their journey. Robert was sorry to leave the good man who had taken the place of his father, but the sadness was dimmed by the prospect of seeing his family again, and going back to Fougères, in the valley of the Nançon.
Being a page at Saint-Jean-le-Thomas hadn't been too hard, becoming a squire had been tougher. Even Manfred had been sent to the French court for a couple of years then.
"We made a real knight out of you," Lord Roger told Robert, smiling fondly at him. "Keep an eye on Manfred, he tends to get himself in trouble."
"Father!" Manfred protested. "I'm the eldest, I'm the leader! Besides, Robert is even worse than me most of the time!"
Lord Roger smiled and hugged his son.
"Be careful, both of you," he told them.
"Don't worry, Father, we'll come back covered with glory!" Manfred's frown vanished as Robert smiled his approval.
The two young men mounted their horses and left the castle at a gentle trot, following the coastline towards Mont Saint-Michel. Not far from the castle and its village, next to a fishery made of wooden and stone dams, stood a pretty peasant girl who seemed to be waiting for them. Her plain over-tunic encased a generous bosom and her luscious lips were upturned in a mischievous smile.
"Uh-oh, isn't that Agnes?" Manfred asked, slowing his horse to almost a halt.
"Looks like her," Robert shrugged.
"Is she waiting for me or for you?"
The girl stepped into the middle of the road as they approached and stopped both horses, looking at the two knights alternately.
"Where are my knights going?" she asked impertinently.
"To the Duchy of Brittany, to visit Robert's family," Manfred answered boldly.
"When will you come back?" she insisted.
"We have at least two years to enjoy tournaments and earn wealth and glory," Robert replied.
"That long?" She frowned.
"Maybe longer," Manfred said. "Will you be waiting?"
"Don't." Robert smiled. "His father will never let him marry you, and neither will mine, so it's a waste of time."
"I thought you loved me," she pouted.
"I do!" Manfred said.
"He loves every woman he meets," Robert scoffed.
"How about you?" she asked, hopeful.
"I never said I loved you," he replied.
"Fine! On your way, oh great knights! And don't come back!" She stomped away, her braid and over-tunic blowing in the wind.
Robert and Manfred looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"You have a way with women!" Manfred said.
"Do you think she's pregnant?" Robert asked.
They stared at each other, their smiles slowly fading. Manfred nodded.
"Mine or yours?" Robert insisted.
"Who knows," Manfred shrugged.
They spurred their horses forward, resuming their gentle trot. They had to get off the beach and reach the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel before the tide came in.
"Women!" Manfred snorted. "Remember the ladies at Lagny?"
"How could I forget that tournament!The Marshal won the day!"
The sole mention of it was exciting – and he hadn't participated since he had been only a squire at the time. The deafening sound of war cries, lances crashing, horses neighing and steel on steel when swords were drawn had rung in his ears for two hours after the end of the competition.
He had found a hero that day, somebody he wanted to emulate: William the Marshal had already earned the reputation of being the greatest living knight. He served the king of England as head of household security and followed him everywhere. At Lagny he had been in the retinue of Henry the Young King, who had died shortly after with a cross sewn to his tunic, meaning he wanted to make a pilgrimage to Palestine. Because he couldn't do it, William Marshal had taken that cross and left for the Holy Land on behalf of the Young King.
"Do you think he has come back yet?" Manfred asked.
"I don't know, but he's a real knight and I want to be like him." Robert was still elated at the memory of that tournament and the thought of his hero. He wondered if William Marshal was back from the Holy Land as much as Manfred, and looked forward to meeting him as a knightly equal.
"You'd never join King Henry's retinue," Manfred teased. "You hate the Plantagenet too much! How about Count Geoffrey?"
Discussing the Plantagenet family was something they did only in private. King Henry was also Duke of Normandy and had placed his third son Geoffrey at the head of the Duchy of Brittany by marrying him to Constance, the only heir of the late Duke Conan IV with some help from Raoul de Fougères, who was first cousin of Conan. Both Duchies were supposed to pay homage to the king of France, but the vassal now had in fact more land than his king, which didn't please young King Philippe: first his father divorced his first wife and allowed a much younger King Henry to marry her, now the Plantagenets had built an empire with Eleanor's dowry and marriages of interest.
"I don't know, he seems to be treacherous." Robert pondered. The Plantagenets seemed to be a warring kind, and his father had sided with Count Geoffrey and his brother the Young King before the latter was killed, but still... things were constantly shifting in Brittany and Normandy, it was hard to take a side and pledge fealty to a lord, not knowing whom that lord would follow – the king of England or the king of France? Not even Henry II's sons seemed to know.
"Well, he shifts sides quite often, but so do his brothers," Manfred said, knowing Count Geoffrey kept a tight grip on Robert's home country anyway.
"We should move to Flanders," Robert suggested. "I heard Chrétien has left Aquitaine to settle there."
"Nay, not Chrétien!" Manfred snorted. He wasn't as fond of Chrétien's work as Robert was. He pondered. "Robert, what would you fight for?" he asked.
Robert had no hesitations. "God and my family."
Manfred scoffed. "I fight for myself," he declared. "I'll make a name for myself!"
"I know you will be brighter than Guillaume one day," Robert said.
"Don't you want to best your brothers?" Manfred asked.
Robert shrugged. "They're my family," he said. "Until I have my own, I'll stand by them."
"So, what do you want to do?"
"See the Holy Land. And find a wife."
"Which comes first?"
Manfred shook his head with a grin. "You're a dreamer," he said.
Robert smiled back. "So are you."
Little Sturton Castle – AD 1185
"My lady, your father has returned."
Brithwen screamed for joy at the announcement, making Ysmene cringe. The maid was slightly older than the almost twenty-year-old lady of the castle, and they were more friends than mistress and servant.
Brithwen threw her embroidery in her basket and rushed out of her room to run into the great hall, where her father had just come in. In fact he was still taking off his travel cloak before accepting a goblet of wine from a servant.
"Father!" Brithwen ran into his arms and almost spilled his wine.
Simon chuckled, holding her tight. He was tall and handsome, clean-shaven like all the Anglo-Norman lords, with the brown hair and blue eyes he'd passed on to his daughter. Brithwen often wondered if she'd taken also after her mother – an angel whose face she couldn't remember – but didn't dare ask him.
"Hey, Brithwen, are you trying to kill me?" he asked. She pulled back a little, wrinkling her nose.
"How can I, my lord?" she teased. "You need a bath!"
"I know, Gisela is preparing it," he smiled.
They moved to a bench near one of the ogive windows. A gray sky hung over them outside, but no wind bothered them.
"How was king's duty?" Brithwen asked, holding her father's hand with both of hers. She had missed him, as always. Sometimes Little Sturton Castle felt very empty.
"We escorted Queen Eleanor to Prince John's knighting," her father answered.
"She's back from Normandy?"
"Aye, she often travels with the king, but still has custodians. He doesn't trust her anymore."
"Has she tried to contact her other sons?"
"No, but you never know when she'll want to see Richard again. He's still her favorite after all. Now Jehan is escorting Prince John to Ireland, I'll have to join them soon."
"Oh, Father!" Brithwen pouted, disappointed. "So, how long will you stay?"
Not long enough, as usual. Being a knight in the retinue of Henry Plantagenet kept Simon Fitz Osbert too long away from home, Brithwen thought. But who was she to ask him to stay? Yes, she was his only daughter, and he had always refused to remarry, but still...
"Don't you want a husband to keep you company?" he asked later, while they dined together, alone in the empty great hall. The small retinue of the lord of the castle was already headed for Ireland under Jehan's command. Only Simon had taken the luxury to sleep in his own castle for one night.
"No," she answered promptly. She only wanted him to stay.
Her father had been more present during her childhood, and even when he had accepted her cousin Roger de Roumare, three years her elder, as page she had kept his undivided attention, and even earned a brother at the same time.
Then Roger had become a squire at fourteen, and had started to shun her. Still she had loved him more and more, and she knew by now that her cousin had been her first unrequited love. Her father had knighted Roger three years earlier and her cousin had gone back to his father's castle. He sometimes wrote, both to her and her father, but never visited. He was even married now, and she hadn't been invited to the banquet.
After the knighting, her father had started spending more and more time with the king. He had started saying she should find a husband so he could retire to a monastery with his brother-in-arms Jehan, but she wanted none of it. She wanted him to stay at Little Sturton, not put another man in charge. Roger would have been perfect, but he already had his father's fief to inherit, and besides they were first cousins.
By now she was over her crush on Roger, and was seriously considering another option. Being the bride of Jesus sounded so much better than marrying an earthly knight!
She decided to enjoy her father's company without bothering him with her newly formed idea. As he traveled much more than she ever would, she asked him again about the land beyond the sea that had given birth to their ancestors, and all the castles and places he had seen while following the king.
He showed her his latest sketches of castles and knights. He was very good at drawing and his style was quite different from the monks' illuminated manuscripts, as if one side of his ancestry had passed the Anglo-Saxon school of miniatures that had died after the Norman conquest into his blood. Simon had his own way of treating the human figure that were reminiscent of a couple of pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon scrolls still available in the castle and in the little annexed church. He used the same disposition of the drapery with fluttering folds, but his limbs were more proportionate than the old school's and he sometimes attempted portraits or busts inspired by Greco-Roman statues but based on contemporary subjects.
Brithwen had inherited his passion. Except she used her talent to draw stories on pieces of parchment. Her first work – hidden in her chest among the tunics – was the story of a squire and his lovely cousin. Then she had drawn the story of a knight – who looked very much like Roger in her opinion – who saved a damsel in distress with brown tresses like hers. She had done illustrations for her books, but was so awed by her father's superior skills, she had never dared to show him anything.
She studied the sketches done in ink and sometimes a cloud of watercolor – whenever her father had been able to use a brush along with the quill. They didn't look like the miniatures in her Book of Hours or other illuminated manuscripts in her possession and she loved them even more.
"When Jehan finishes his chanson de geste, will you do some drawings for him?" she asked.
Simon chuckled. "Why not. If he ever finishes it."
Brithwen waved good-bye to her father and sighed. He was gone again. Ysmene patted her shoulder and went back inside, but she stood still until her father's horse disappeared at the bend of the muddy road.
Brithwen toyed with her long belt, feeling frustrated and lonely. Was it asking too much to have her father at home? Why should he always be on king's duty? Could she have her childhood back? The extended family comprising Jehan and her cousin Roger? Would she ever be able to recreate that?
Finally she went up the wooden staircase and into the castle. She passed through the great hall and up again on stone stairs to the sleeping quarters on the second floor. She made her father's bed and picked up the drawings he had left on his table, putting them in the leather folder that contained all of her father's pictures.
She sat on the window bench, flipping through the parchments one more time, stopping to stare at her favorites and sighing over the portrait of Roger done a few days before he was knighted.
Smells of cooked food came up from the kitchen and her stomach reminded her it was empty. She closed the leather folder and put it back on Simon's table, heading downstairs and musing about her own drawing talent. She often doubted she was as good as her father, but maybe she should ask for his opinion instead...
She could become the next Herrad of Landsberg. The Abbess of Homburg's Hortus deliciarum was one of her favorite books. Or Hildegard of Bingen. The story of Christina of Markyate was also very close to her heart, lately. All those women had been able to express their artistic and religious side by becoming a bride of Christ... something that appealed to her more and more.
Fougères – AD1185
"It doesn't look that bad!" Manfred said as they approached Fougères castle, now built in stone on the same islet that had hosted the burned timber castle. "Did your father have permission to rebuild?"
"I doubt it," Robert answered. He was glad to see his father's castle still standing. The reconstruction had taken most of his childhood, but then his father had rebelled against Henry Plantagenet again, risking another destruction. Those disturbing rumors had reached Normandy fast enough, and Robert looked forward to hearing his father's version.
The two young knights dismounted in the courtyard and left their horses to the stableboys. They headed for the great hall, admiring the tall, reinforced walls and towers that now defended the main building of the castle.
Robert found his mother in the great hall, directing servants and maids in dressing tables for a banquet. Lady Mathilde was still beautiful, especially in her son's eyes. Her blue dress had wide sleeves and a long gown reaching the stone floor with a short train, making her look like a queen.
Robert stopped to look at her: he had missed her so much! Manfred stopped by his side to observe the activity with curiosity. Servants kept moving around, oblivious, but Lady Mathilde noticed the newcomers. When their eyes met, Robert's smile blossomed spontaneously.
"Mother!" He went to her with open arms, rejoicing at her pleasant surprise.
"Robert! It's you!" She stopped him to take him all in. "My God, you're a man now!" She pulled him close and hugged him. "Welcome back."
"I missed you," he whispered in her ear before letting her go. "The lord of Saint-Jean-le-Thomas made me a knight, along with his son," he said, turning to check that Manfred had followed him. "Mother, this is Manfred de Saint-Jean."
"Nice to meet you." Lady Mathilde offered her hand and Manfred kissed it with an elegant bow. "Your father has gone hunting, we're preparing for his return," she told Robert.
"Where is Marguerite?" he asked, aching to see his older sister again.