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    Real Strategy Requires Cunning
Chapter 256 - May 1134
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 256

    May 1134 - Bordeaux, Kingdom of Aquitaine

    As Ælfflæd stood on the steps of the palace in Bordeaux, hearing the cheers of people in the streets in the distance, she felt something unexpected.

    Pride.

    Or, more specifically, pride in her place. Pride in her status. Pride in her husband.

    She could see the knights and soldiers approach, with Geoffrey on a horse near the front. Dressed in his mail and a red surcoat with three golden bulls on the front and wearing his crown instead of his helmet, the king waved to those gathered, his slow pace indicating he was soaking it all in.

    As he entered the palace gates, Geoffrey dismounted, along with those at the front with him - his commanders, as well as Prince Alias, Duke Simon and the younger Adhemar de Limoges. Making his way up the stairs, his mail and sword rustling loud enough to be heard over the crowds behind them, Geoffrey made a beeline for his wife.

    And Ælfflæd’s heart fluttered.

    In retrospect, perhaps she should not have been surprised by her emotions. She had been fearful of the city falling and of a repeat of her fate against the heathens. Even worse, her children might suffer for her ambition. For all her bluster before Duke Osmund, she was powerless to stop him. She needed someone to save them, with all the knowledge that in the past, that had not happened.

    But this time, and perhaps for the first time, a man in Ælfflæd’s life had not disappointed her.

    In her arms, her infant daughter stirred. She had not liked the loud noises before, but eventually had grown used to them enough to be rocked into a sleep. But her mother’s racing heart may have disturbed her, for she began to cry.

    No matter - Ælfflæd was pleased her daughter was showing off her strong cry as her father got to see and hold her for the first time. Even if he wanted a son, that Ælfflæd was able to birth a child healthy under such circumstances felt like a badge of honor.

    The scene was almost as she had dreamed as a little girl - a handsome, young, dashing husband returning to his queen, who had kept the realm and his family safe while he was away.

    That feeling grew even stronger when Geoffrey reached her, following greeting Prince Guilhem at her side, leaning down to kiss her on the forehead and then smiling broadly as he took his nearly three-month old daughter and held her close.

    “Have you named her yet?” he asked.

    Ælfflæd smiled. “Marguerite.”

    Geoffrey nodded and looked to his mother, who stood close to the queen. “Mother, what is the name?”

    Ælfflæd chuckled. “That is the name, husband. Marguerite. After your mother.”



    Geoffrey’s brow rose as he switched his gazes between his wife and his mother.

    “She was a great help to me during this trying time,” Ælfflæd said. “I thought it was right.”

    “You need not look surprised, my son,” Marguerite said. “I always have the interests of your realm in mind. Aiding the queen is a large part of that.”

    Geoffrey was not always good at hiding his emotions, and Ælfflæd could see the wide-eyed look and then flummoxed face as signs he was both in disbelief and suspicious of this harmony between his wife and mother.

    But he was able to put it past him, at least for now, as he gave his daughter back to her mother and then moved down the line to chat with his council, speaking at length with his cousin, Bishop Edouard. Meanwhile, Ælfflæd was treated to the sight of Berard and Assalide reuniting. Given that Ælfflæd remembered husbands and wives who never saw each other again after Wiltshire fell, and her fears about Bordeaux, it warmed her heart to see the pair had avoided such a fate.

    Geoffrey turned back toward the city, and seemed to take in the love of the crowd once more. Then he made his way into the palace’s main hall, with everyone else, Ælfflæd included, following. Geoffrey bounded up the dais quickly, but did not sit on this throne. Instead he turned back to those gathered, and motioned for Ælfflæd to join him. She gave her daughter to Benoite, and then followed Geoffrey up the dais.

    Then, Geoffrey took her hand, raised it with his and proclaimed: “We have defeated those who would deny your queen her rule - their arrogance checked by the strength of our knights! Soon, we shall bring them to their knees, permanently. But tonight, we celebrate! Drink, be merry!”

    Ælfflæd was pulled close by Geoffrey, who kissed her deeply, to the cheers of the crowd. And the queen’s heart raced once more.

    ….

    Because of the siege, the food for the celebration was light. But the wine flowed in great abundance in celebration of Bordeaux’s conquering hero. That Geoffrey had not actually done anything but make up for his own error was not lost on Ælfflæd, but she guessed most of those gathered shared her sentiments - she simply didn’t care.

    The celebrations were raucous, as less food and more wine made drunkenness commonplace in the hall on the evening. The guards had to be alert as a few scuffles between knights broke out, with those involved separated and in some cases, removed from the hall.

    Of less concern to the guards were the women who found themselves in the grasp of the men present. Ælfflæd tried to send guards to aid a few who looked particularly distressed, but they became more numerous as the night went along, and the queen’s own lucidness decreased as she drank more and more of her ale.

    Before the celebrations had begun, Ælfflæd had wondered if Geoffrey would go to her on this evening or to the arms of his lover, Ana. By the end of the night, there was no longer any doubt, as Geoffrey had Ælfflæd on his lap, tossing proper decorum out the window. Sober, she might have cared. Drunk, in the midst of celebrations that were partially in her honor, and happy her husband didn’t run to his whore, she enjoyed his sloppy affections.

    Then, as Geoffrey began to grow even less restrained in his affections toward her, Edouard suggested to the king that the pair move to either her chambers or his for privacy. Though Geoffrey glared at his cousin, he listened, pulling Ælfflæd out of the hall and to his bed.

    She didn’t remember much speaking when they arrived. No sweet words. Just lust, passion and release, which suited her just fine.
    ….

    Though things calmed down in the coming days, Ælfflæd was pleased to see her elevated status remained unchanged.

    She and Geoffrey shared a bed the next few nights as well. And during the days, he included her in his business. Her being by his side as he held court was no surprise, but her being present when he conducted his strategy meetings on what next to do about her uncle, was. Not that Ælfflæd was anything but an observer, but it still felt nice.

    Perhaps he really does view me as his queen, she thought. And for the first time, in a long time, Ælfflæd began to feel some sort of affection toward her husband.

    He is not perfect, she reasoned. But he did what my father could not. And will elevate me in ways others refused to. He has looked past his lover for me even though he could have chosen either one of us. Perhaps…

    The previous times she had felt betrayed by him loomed large - a loud voice in the back of her mind, reminding her not to trust him. He will run back to Ana. Or the countess. Or some other whore. He just uses you for now.

    But she tried to ignore it the best she could, as Ælfflæd enjoyed what might have been the happiest few days of her life. A queen in more than just name, with a husband who appreciated her and two children she was proud of… it was perfect.

    Unfortunately, it could not last forever.

    Geoffrey drove Osmund off from Bordeaux, but he was still out there. And England remained across the channel. Until Geoffrey brought his troops to Devon, Ecgwyn’s handlers would not bow before them.

    At a strategy meeting, Mayor Frederic of Saumur revealed Osmund had fled north toward Tours and Geoffrey announced he would leave as soon as possible to trap and crush him. Then, he would not return to Bordeaux, but instead, head north to conduct his invasion of England.

    Hearing him speak of it made Ælfflæd’s heart flutter. It was harrowing to hear in one sense - it was her homeland that was being invaded. But it was for her benefit, her reign, her son and it reminded her how much she wished to be there.

    It wasn’t outlandish, in her mind. Ælfflæd had gone with Geoffrey toward Dauphine on his first campaign, with her difficult pregnancy being the only reason she returned to Bordeaux. And her second pregnancy was the reason she had not pressed the matter the last time.

    But Ælfflæd wasn’t pregnant anymore and though she certainly could be again soon, especially if she did accompany Geoffrey, she would deal with that when she came to it. In the meantime, there was no reason she couldn’t do as she had when they were first married, especially since this war was for her personally and not her husband.

    Still, even if it made sense she should go, Ælfflæd had a sense of foreboding. Her uncle’s declaration she would be Geoffrey’s puppet… surely he would let me come as well.

    Since Geoffrey made no mention of Ælfflæd’s place during the meeting, she resolved to broach the subject with him after.

    She asked him to return with her to her chambers, and given that his hand went immediately to her behind, Ælfflæd knew he was of one mind. And she did not have a problem with that… once he had heard what she had to say.

    When they returned to her chambers, Ælfflæd dismissed her ladies and servants, and Geoffrey immediately began to paw at her.

    So impatient, she thought. Some things never change.

    “Husband,” Ælfflæd began, “there is a matter I wish to discuss with you first.”

    “We can after,” Geoffrey told her as he pulled her body against his.

    “It won’t take long,” Ælfflæd said. “I ask just one thing.”

    Geoffrey sighed and though he did not release her from his grasp, motioned for her to continue.

    “England,” Ælfflæd began. “You did not make mention of where I would be.”

    “Was there reason to?” Geoffrey asked. “You would be here, as you were before I returned. And would be had I not been forced back here by your uncle’s trickery.”

    “I was heavy with child,” Ælfflæd noted. “But I have birthed our daughter. I have recovered from it well enough and undergone my churching. I could accompany you to England.”

    Geoffrey began to chuckle. “Why would you do that?”

    “Because you seek to make me queen in my own right?” Ælfflæd asked. “Your Boudica? She did not hide behind others while she attacked the Romans.”

    “She did not have a husband alive to do so,” Geoffrey said. “There is a difference.”

    Ælfflæd had been nervous about broaching the subject. But seeing Geoffrey grin and seem so dismissive...

    “So you will say I’m to be a queen in my own right, and I am not even present when you move across England in my name?” Ælfflæd demanded.

    “Your time will be when we are crowned,” Geoffrey said.

    “When we are crowned…” Ælfflæd repeated as she slipped from his grasp. She could already see it - Geoffrey slowly but surely turning this into his conquest… making England his kingdom. Not hers. Osmund’s words proclaiming she would be a puppet to Geoffrey gnawed at her.

    “Your uncle still is out there, in the countryside,” Geoffrey said. “We must track him down before I head to England. Your best place is here, behind the safety of these walls.”

    “Walls that have already come under siege?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “But did not fall,” Geoffrey said. “And won’t, since I will not leave your uncle with enough men to threaten them, if I leave him with any at all.”

    Before his bravado was endearing and almost attractive. Now, it was irritating.

    “You speak of my countrymen,” Ælfflæd reminded him. “My subjects, who are brave men, will leave families of widowed wives, and fatherless children.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “Such is war. And I gave them the option to acknowledge us as their rightful king and queen. They refused.”

    “Perhaps because they do not wish to acknowledge you as their king,” Ælfflæd noted.

    Geoffrey’s brow rose. “The Saxon we captured called you a heathen harlot. Trust me, my dear wife, they think as little of you as they do of me.”

    Over the course of their seven year marriage, Geoffrey had said many things to Ælfflæd, including attempting to pin any complications of her first pregnancy on her. But nothing he ever said struck her as hard as repeating the accusation of Æthelræd.

    It was something she’d long dealt with since her return. She knew plenty among the Saxon and Norman nobility thought she had forsaken the church, that the heathens had turned her. They rarely said it to her face, but snickered and whispered behind her back.

    It had been something she had been able to mostly leave behind in Aquitaine - whatever talk there had been dissipated as the people here grew used to her as queen. But it was never wholly forgotten, and one of the worst insults she could suffer.

    She was speechless at first, sucking for air as if she had been struck in the stomach. But when she did regain her bearings, she simply said: “Leave me.”

    Perhaps realizing his mistake, Geoffrey sighed. “It was what he said. I don’t believe it. I just tell you what they think.”

    Her eyes fixed on him, and narrowed into a glare. “You tell me that to belittle me. To remind me of my place. Well, you have done well husband. I am reminded I am not wanted by them, and only by you when I can be a symbol. Nothing more.”

    “I did not mean it like that,” Geoffrey said he tried to pull her close again.

    But she jerked herself away from him. “I told you to leave me! Go, bathe in the blood of my countrymen and then summon me when you need to drop a crown on my head to justify your ambitions.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes, but did not press her any further, moving to leave her chamber. But he turned back to her as he neared the doorway.

    “Your father was ambitious too,” Geoffrey said. “And look how that turned out. Be happy you finally have someone who can actually deliver on what he promises, rather have his family ruined by them.”

    It was time like these that Ælfflæd could see how Geoffrey was the son of a renowned speaker. He was actually quite good at pointing his words - he just never did it consistently. And half the time, he seemed unaware of his own power.

    But on this occasion everything he said hit her, and did so hard. The implication was clear - her father was a failure, her countrymen were failures and by proximity, she was a failure as well - only good to be a showpiece to her betters… and birth their children, who hopefully would be untainted by her side of the family.

    Ælfflæd did not have her ladies rejoin her after Geoffrey left. Instead, she sat alone, tears in her eyes, wondering if she had made a terrible mistake, and whether her uncle was right all along.

    ….

    Geoffrey departed a few days later and Ælfflæd barely mustered the strength to see him off. Her uncertainty over all of this left her hesitant to play the role of symbol any longer, but she told herself that, if nothing else, it was for her children’s futures. They would be left to deal with this when she was gone, whether she liked it or not.

    Once Geoffrey departed, and with the threat of the Saxons gone, Bordeaux seemed to return to some semblance of normalcy. And in that, Ælfflæd’s days as an inspirational figure had gone.

    She returned to doing things like holding court, but was more of a showpiece than anything else. The decisions mostly lay with the council, and the steward, Bishop Edouard at the head. Marguerite also was involved, and she would throw Ælfflæd a bit of policy every so often, but the queen felt her opinion was only asked for when the matters were long decided.

    She certainly felt a bit more useful when it came to her children, though even that had begun to lose some shine. Guilhem was growing older, and tended to spend most of his time with the other boys in the palace, and the men overseeing them.

    Young Marguerite, naturally, still needed her mother, as Ælfflæd breast fed her. But wet nurses could and did do that as well.

    It felt a far cry from what she had been promised months ago, and had been coached to believe was in her future.

    And about a month and a half later, she heard news that surprised her… and left her even more frustrated by her situation.

    Riders arrived one afternoon, bringing news of another battle between Geoffrey and Duke Osmund. It was hardly a surprise to her that Geoffrey had trounced her uncle again, this time near Tours - the ancestral homeland to Geoffrey’s grandfather, Duke Foulques IV.

    The English army had not been completely destroyed, but Osmund had been left with under 1,000 men - enough to raid but not enough to threaten Bordeaux.



    And apparently, Geoffrey felt comfortable enough to call for the thing that shocked Ælfflæd - he wanted Prince Guilhem to join him, along with the king’s cousin, Centolh d’Uzes.

    Geoffrey had preached safety and protection for the prince. To this point, it had meant leaving him where his mother was, whether it was Angouleme or Bordeaux. But to take him on campaign?

    Naturally, Ælfflæd disagreed. But she knew she could not fight with Geoffrey on the matter.

    And a day later, a foreign visitor provided the likely reason for Geoffrey’s sudden change of mind.

    Ælfflæd was greeted by a man introducing himself as Earl Oswulf of Brycheiniog, chancellor to Duchess Adelise of Mercia. Ælfflæd officially met him in the main hall, but eventually received him in private, alongside Helie, Assalide and Benoite.

    “The girl Ecgywn can boast no more than 1,000 men in total,” Oswulf explained to her of the situation. “And much of that is with Osmund, here in Aquitaine. England is essentially undefended.”



    “Can she hire mercenaries?” Ælfflæd asked. “Or will other lords rally to provide her more men?”

    “The duchess says support for Ecgywn falters,” Oswulf said. “The Countess of Cornwall still backs her, as does her mother. Kent does as well, since Osmund remains away. But Lady Aevis grows hesitant, as does Duke Sigeric of Essex.”

    “They think of abandoning her?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “Not openly,” Oswulf said. “But they will not provide her much aid. No additional levies, nor money for mercenaries. It means they all but doom her. Your husband will face little resistance once he lands in England.”

    On one hand, Ælfflæd was relieved to hear that. Regardless of her frustrations over how she was being treated, the die had been cast. Losing the war would hurt her children, and she didn’t want that. It was better this was over quickly, and England accepted its fate.

    Then another thought occurred to her. “Did you see my husband, before reaching me?”

    “I did, my queen,” Oswulf said. “Duchess Adelise instructed me to see him as well as you.”

    And suddenly it made sense - Geoffrey was told the English were all but broken. So he decided to keep his son close to him, figuring he could likely keep him away from a siege camp. He might seize a town or Ecgwyn’s manor and keep Guilhem there. Heck, Geoffrey himself might use it as his headquarters.

    But Ælfflæd could not help but feel insulted. Not only had Geoffrey denied her, but he was taking her son from her, having the prince where she should be.

    If I allow this, I will never receive what I was promised, she thought. I will never be anything more than his puppet. And England will suffer as a result.

    So she resolved to not let it happen. If he could take her son, she would go with them. And Geoffrey would be forced into either sending her back, ruining her symbolism, or accepting her by his side.

    Of course, getting to Geoffrey was part of the problem. She might have been queen, but she was not free to move about as she pleased. She needed to get the council to go along with it.

    Ælfflæd wasn’t sure about Bishop Edouard. The steward, as Geoffrey’s maternal first cousin, had shown himself to be close to the king. But he had run afoul with Geoffrey of late - not enough to be stripped of his authority entirely, but enough that even Ælfflæd knew of their disagreements. So she was left uncertain if he was the one to approach.

    Instead, she found herself going to Marguerite.

    The queen mother was the one who counseled her on the display needed against Duke Osmund. This would be a continuation of that, Ælfflæd reasoned. Even if Geoffrey can’t see it, perhaps his mother can.

    If she couldn’t, Ælfflæd wasn’t sure what she’d do. But the queen resolved to cross that bridge when she came to it.

    “You wish to take to the field?” Marguerite asked when Ælfflæd approached her. “It is not what I would enjoy.”

    “I suspect your son had already designs on not having himself entirely in that field,” Ælfflæd said. “Why else would he summon your grandson, after fighting a war to protect him?”

    Marguerite nodded. “You make sense.”

    “You agree with me then?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “Agree?” Marguerite asked. “It is not about agreeing or disagreeing. As I said, I would not do as you do. But I am not you. I am not a queen anymore. However, I am curious as to why you think you can go against my son’s order and why you think Geoffrey will not send you straight back here.”

    Ælfflæd swallowed hard. Not that she didn’t see all of that as a possibility. But it was another problem she wished to deal with when she came to it - and if she left Bordeaux, she would have a few weeks before that would be required.

    She cleared her throat. “Well, his order was before he routed my uncle, again. And before he summoned my son. If it is safe for a child of six years, then it certainly is for the woman who is to be his shield… which I can hardly do in Bordeaux if he is in England.”

    The words made even more sense as she spoke them. And angered her once more. The nerve of Geoffrey to do this…

    “I don’t think England is the place for him,” Marguerite said. “Do you agree?”

    Ælfflæd wanted to agree, but if she did, that might make it less likely for her to go as well. Still, she also knew in this case, it was irrelevant what she thought.

    “It hardly matters,” Ælfflæd said. “My husband has called him. Therefore it falls on me to make what I can of it… and protect my child the best I can. That means being with him, while my husband is distracted attempting to take Ecgwyn’s holdings.”

    Marguerite smirked. “You’ve gotten better at this.”

    Ælfflæd could not resist a smile. She never thought she’d be happy for praise from her mother by law a few years ago. But things had changed quite a bit since then.
    “I assume you come to me to convince Edouard,” Marguerite said. “We will tell him. He will not dare go against the both of us, especially if we use your reasoning.”

    ….

    The next matter was her ladies.

    Technically, they were obligated to go with her. But Ælfflæd was taking them to a foreign land, where there was conflict. And there would be some risk, even if Geoffrey thought little of it.

    So she did not wish to demand it of them. Instead, she would ask them, earnestly and honestly. And she would hold no ill will if they did not wish to come.
    But if nothing else, it would be good practice for when she would have to make speeches if she ascended in England. When she ascended.

    Ælfflæd gathered them in her chambers and she explained her plan to go to England with her husband and son. It was no secret the king had refused her request before. So Ælfflæd had to at least address why she felt it was needed for her to challenge her husband.

    “I know you might think it is not a queen’s place to be,” Ælfflæd told them. “Or that the king has already spoken. But I must be there. A queen’s duty is to her people, that is what you all always remind me. And if my people are to once again be my Saxon brethren, then that is where I must be now. My husband will lead, as he always does, but I must go with him and do there as I do here.

    “I ask much of you,” Ælfflæd continued. “Too much. This is not Angouleme. This is going to a different realm. To either sit in an army camp or some foreign manor, which will not be as nice as this palace. To take your families, or potentially leave them behind. I cannot fault you for not wanting to go… so I ask you, but I want to be clear I will not make you. If you do not wish to go with me, I hold no ill will. You will receive no punishment. You can resume your duties when this war is past. The choice is yours.”

    “I would be with you, always,” Helie told her.

    “Me too, my queen,” Benoite said.

    “And me as well,” Escarlmonde said. “And I will get to be with my husband as well.”

    Their eyes all fell on Assalide. In truth, Ælfflæd was not certain how she would respond. She was the newest among her ladies, and certainly the one most married to the traditional view of a woman’s role. While that might be debatable in some cases, flaunting Geoffrey’s will was a clear violation of that code.

    “I am your lady, my queen,” Assalide said. “And I will go wherever you do.”

    Ælfflæd smiled. “I know you probably think ill of this, Lida. I appreciate you following me anyway.”

    The lady nodded and mustered a weak smile. She did not love this, clearly, but Ælfflæd was pleased she went along with it.

    And with that, Ælfflæd had secured what she had to at home. The next test would be her husband.

    …..

    With a healthy escort of knights and infantry, there was little danger for Ælfflæd or her family.

    They were treated well, naturally, since this was the royal family. Villagers came out to see their queen, along with the prince and baby princess. Of particular warm welcome was in Angers, where some of the old residents who remembered the days of the Iron Duke and Geoffrey’s father when he was a boy got a chance to see the latest Angevin heir.

    And technically, it was a chance for that heir to see what had come before.

    “Greatness once walked these halls,” Helie explained to Guilhem as she joined Ælfflæd and her family as they toured the keep. The old woman smiled as she ran her fingers against the stone.

    “My great grandfather?” Guilhem asked.

    The old woman nodded. “But he was not alone. Your grandfather. Your great aunt. They both grew here.”

    Ælfflæd looked around, trying to imagine what it was like then. A world before her husband, who she knew had been born after his father had moved the court to Bordeaux. A world that existed when she was just a babe… and before Tunis.

    She found it interesting. Foulques IV was a figure of her family’s past and little did her grandfather know at the time, their future as well. But the man was a bit of a mystery to her - his accomplishment of Rouen was widely known, but the world of Angers back then was shrouded in mystery. It had been left behind when Geoffrey I had taken his court south, and Geoffrey II knew nothing of it beyond what Agnes had told him… which was what Agnes had told her. And it left Ælfflæd with so many questions.

    The Iron Duke. What was he truly like? What was this place then? Agnes… what must have it been like for her as a girl as she ran through these halls? Had she any idea of what awaited her? Did she even know she wanted it?

    But while Ælfflæd was fascinated by Angers, she could not remain there long. They were still required to arrive in St. Malo as quickly as possible so Geoffrey could get on with his invasion of England.

    They found the town bustling with life - not a surprise since Geoffrey had his army spread around the county, while the king and his staff took up residence while waiting for their ships to be ready.

    Geoffrey was staying in the home of the mayor and it was there that Ælfflæd and her children were brought.

    The king’s brow rose as he saw Ælfflæd, but did not say anything at first, as he was greeted by his son, whom Ælfflæd had told could give him a big reaction.

    “Papa!” Guilhem exclaimed. “Mama says you’re taking me in a boat? To where she used to live?”

    Geoffrey nodded. “I’ve heard you like to pretend to be a knight. So I thought it was time to show you what it means to be one. And there is no better time than when we fight to win a kingdom you will one day rule.”

    Ælfflæd narrowed her gaze at her husband. Funny that reasoning was good enough for Guilhem, but not for her.



    The king looked at her. “Come to see our son off?”

    “No,” Ælfflæd said. “I thought I would accompany him. Since it is safe enough for a child to be there.”

    Geoffrey eyed her, and she could see the red begin to color his face. He turned to Berard.

    “Why don’t you take the prince and show him the boats we will be taking,” Geoffrey suggested. “And your son - I assume he is here, since he was summoned as well?”

    Ælfflæd nodded. “He is here, Sir Berard. Waiting with your wife Lida, and your new son.”

    Berard bowed and then led Prince Guilhem out of the room. The discord must have been clear enough for the boy to pick up on it, for he had a slight frown on his face as he departed.

    When the door was closed, Geoffrey glared at Ælfflæd, shaking his head.

    “I told you that you were to remain in Bordeaux,” Geoffrey told her. “I sent for only our son. Had I wished for you and our daughter, I would have called for you both.”

    “You send for your son, but not his mother?” Ælfflæd demanded. “You do not see the insult, after I asked to accompany you?”

    “No,” Geoffrey said. “I had no intention of taking our infant daughter, and she needs her mother.”

    “She shall have her mother,” Ælfflæd said. “And if you think it is safe for your six-year-old son, then why it would not be safe for your adult wife is a mystery to me.”

    “I prefer a babe to be kept in the safest of conditions,” Geoffrey said. “Even if I do not expect England to be very dangerous now, it is still enemy lands.”

    “But still safe enough for our son?” Ælfflæd demanded.

    “Safe enough, yes,” Geoffrey said. “Children are sturdier than infants after all. And it is time Guilhem gets some idea of what will be expected of him. I will not wait too long, as my father did with me.”

    “Our daughter is no weakling,” Ælfflæd said. “She can handle a manor home. I did, and I hardly got that. The drafty keep in Wiltshire was where my mother had me most of the time.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “I issued my order. Our son joins me. You do not.”

    Ælfflæd narrowed her gaze. She would not back down.

    “I am Queen of England,” Ælfflæd said. “I am not going to sit by and let you seize it with me sitting half a realm away in Bordeaux!”

    “Are you saying… you intend to take control of my army?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I did not,” Ælfflæd said. “They are the armies of Aquitaine, husband. Your armies. I am but your consort there. But in England… I am the queen. And it is only right that I am there.”

    “As you say, it is my army,” Geoffrey told her. “And as such, I can and will tell you that you cannot accompany it.”

    “So, you would tell my people that you seek to make me a true queen, and not your puppet,” Ælfflæd said. “But you would leave me behind? What will they think?”

    “Do I care what they think?” Geoffrey scoffed. “I put them down in Bordeaux. I put them down at Tours. And if they muster any resistance when I cross the channel, I will put them down again.”

    “We are not dogs, husband,” Ælfflæd said. “And the problem was rarely about a show of force. Everyone knows you can best my homeland in a fight. The problem… and whole reason you claim to be in this war, is because you cannot control what happens off the battlefield. You wish to protect our son? Our daughter? Then you will have me there, so that you can continue to insist that I am to be England’s true queen when this is done.”

    Geoffrey narrowed his gaze. Then Ælfflæd added: “Your mother agrees. As does your council. Why else do you think I’m here?”

    She would have preferred to stand on her own merits, but Ælfflæd knew that might not work. If her path to England lay through relying on the support of her husband’s mother and council, then so be it.

    “And if you do send me home,” Ælfflæd continued, “how do you think that will look?”

    “Like I reminded you in your place,” Geoffrey snapped.

    “Like we cannot agree,” Ælfflæd said. “I have joined you… but you sent for our son. It only makes sense I come as well. We go together. For if I am Queen of England, and you are king, then our son and daughter are prince and princess. We should all see the realm that will now become a major part of their lives.”

    Geoffrey grunted and leaned forward on the table. His head dropped, and he fell silent. All the while, Ælfflæd’s heart raced. He had to accept this, didn’t he? But what if he didn’t? The humiliation. The shame? Could she take it? Could she dare to simply refuse his order and force him to make this even worse?

    Geoffrey lifted his head and sighed. “I suppose it is not the worst idea. I expect to seize a proper place to reside while we lay siege to the girl’s keep. And it may tempt the Saxon lords to abandon her when their true queen is on the island.”

    Ælfflæd’s lips formed a wide smile, though her heart still raced. “Thank you husband. You will not regret it.”

    “Hopefully not,” Geoffrey said. “But perhaps we can conceive another prince while we wait out the surrender of Ecgwyn’s handlers, and make it truly worthwhile.”

    That wasn’t exactly what she wanted - granted she knew another prince probably did add a bit of security for herself and her children. But she thought victory could well be close and having to step onto the throne while carrying another child could make things more complicated than it needed to be.

    Still, it was a trade she was willing to make. She wanted to be in England. While in some ways she would remain a passenger, at least she would be there. And if needed, she might be able to interfere on behalf of her people, should Geoffrey get too brutal.

    …..

    They departed a few days later, leaving port early in the morning aboard a cog.

    In total, only half of Geoffrey’s army headed to England. The rest remained behind under the command of Duke Foulquesson, to keep an eye on Osmund or anything else, just in case the English had any other tricks.

    Ælfflæd rode in a cog with her husband, her children, her ladies and their families, and Berard, along with some of Geoffrey’s soldiers. In total, near 9,000 men set out from St. Malo, with their destination the coasts of Devon. Geoffrey intended to land and march on Sutton, a town on the River Plym, seize it, then establish it as his headquarters before sending the bulk of his force to besiege Ecgwyn in her keep in Lydford.

    As it had been when Ælfflæd traveled previously, the sea was choppy, making the travel bumpy. A cold spray frequently escaped the sea and made its way onto the boat, leaving Ælfflæd glad she was wearing a whipple and cloak over it.

    At one point, she looked over to Geoffrey, who stood in the center of the boat, holding on to the mast tightly. He was as pale as she’d ever seen him, with eyes wide.

    “Are you alright, husband?” she asked him.

    “I hate boats,” he grumbled as he tried to brace himself against the rocking.

    She didn’t care for them either, but for different reasons. Boats had often taken her away. She had been shoved onto a boat and hauled to Tunis. She had been put on a boat to Aquitaine, sent away from what remained of her old life and shoved into the unknown.

    Her returns had not exactly been joyous either. She was happy to be free when she returned from Tunis, but did so feeling the shame of imprisonment. And the knowledge her mother was not with her then.

    She had come back to England after arriving in Aquitaine, but that was for her mother’s funeral, all while she was estranged from Geoffrey. It was certainly not anything to celebrate.

    This promised to be different.

    The coastline came into view and Ælfflæd’s heart began to pick up once more. She was nearly there.

    They could not travel all the way to shore in the ships, and they were not docking in any port as an invading army, so row boats would be required to traverse the final distance.

    Geoffrey got into the row boat first, and offered his hand as Ælfflæd made her way into it to join him. The prince and Helie, holding Princess Marguerite, followed. It was the late afternoon, but the skies were cloudy.

    “We need to make it to shore to set up for cover,” Geoffrey told her. “In preparation for the storm.”

    “It’s often like this,” Ælfflæd replied. “It does not rain as much as you’d think.”

    Geoffrey grimaced in disgust. “Truly?”

    Normally such a reaction would have prompted a smirk at Geoffrey’s ignorance, but she was too nervous to. Even as the boat rocked as the oarsmen rowed against the waves, her eyes were fixated on the shore.

    The boat was rowed nearly all the way to the shore, before a small group of men came out, grabbed it and then pulled it the rest of the way.

    Geoffrey again stood and was out of it first in order to help Ælfflæd. She stepped out, her soft shoes hitting the muddy sand of the water’s edge, though she soon made her way to the soft, granular portion of the beach.

    She paused to look forward. To the north. Toward the horizon, where the rest of England lay and where parts of her husband’s army was already headed.
    Her breathing slowed and she remained silent, though her stomach felt as if it was doing flips.

    “Are you all right, mama?” Prince Guilhem asked her as he tugged at her dress.

    Ælfflæd looked down at him, trying to hold back tears. She never expected to truly return to England again. If she did, it likely would have been because of some catastrophe - Geoffrey dying and she had not produced a child, like what happened with Rae. Or an annulment of some sort.

    But she had returned and not done so in shame. She returned on the precipice of glory… or at least glory in her name.

    She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

    “Mother, father, Ulf,” she spoke softly, the tears now streaming down her cheeks. “I’m home.”

     
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    Chapter 257 - February 1135
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 257
    February 1135 - Lydford, Kingdom of England



    The walls of Lydford stood unyielding.

    Geoffrey narrowed his gaze upon them as he stood in his camp. A light rain fell from the overcast sky, the liquid running down his helmet as some streams made their way to his face. It was cool but not cold, at least in his leathers and mail.

    He watched as his catapults launched a boulder. And found disappointment once more as the projectile struck the wall, but did not appear any closer to bringing it down. Some scratches, dents and even small holes. But nothing that indicated a breach was on the horizon.

    Geoffrey turned and headed back to his command tent, frustrated at his own frustration. Why should any of this have surprised him? He didn’t think taking the keep of the girl “queen” Ecgwyn would be easy, after all.

    And yet, things were moving at a snail’s pace when he had partially expected that this war would have been over by now.

    Landing in England in October, Geoffrey had met no real resistance. His army had disembarked without any problems, and quickly seized the town of Sutton on the mouth of the River Plym, with the town not having the means to withstand 9,000 men.

    Leaving his wife and children there with half of his army, he moved around the area, forcing villages to surrender under the threat of the sack. His conditions were simple - acknowledge he and Ælfflæd as their rightful rulers and provide food and supply for his army.

    Meanwhile, at Sutton, he had men preparing multiple ladders and catapults for his expected siege of Lydford. Once he had some ready, Geoffrey moved north to the town of Plympton, which surrendered at the sight of 9,000 men ready to siege the town and, the king warned, “hungry for plunder.”

    To sate his men he had let a few villages in the western part of Devon burn, but for the most part had aimed for obedience rather than destruction. He wanted the villages left standing so they could supply his army. Even if he imposed harsh requisitions on them - he needed someone to harvest the grain. Besides he had Devon in mind for where Ælfflæd would nominally rule from.

    However, his first clue at the difficulty he might face should have been when those towns and villages had less food than expected - they had been heavily taxed by Ecgwyn’s collectors that harvest.

    By the time he arrived at the walls of Ecgwyn’s capital, the town had closed off. He learned the Saxons had ample supplies - perhaps because they had been expecting this for some time. Harvest had been completed by the time Geoffrey had established his siege works around the city, and there was talk they could hold out for more than a year.

    Not that Geoffrey was in danger of starving - in addition to what he’d taken from the towns that had surrendered, he’d brought supply as well. With his rear secure and no navy threatening him, he could always send for more.

    But while he expected to just wait out the Saxons, he found they were as aggressive as they were stubborn, constantly raiding his siege camp.

    The raids were frequent and damaging enough that Berard and Knud both reported they were hurting morale. Thus Geoffrey was faced with a choice - endure another year or more of this slow bleed, all the while the English might grow stronger elsewhere, or take his chances on an assault.

    Getting pushed back would weaken him, but if it was true the English had few troops left to defend the island, then even a defeat shouldn’t destroy him. At worst, he would lift the siege, fall back toward Sutton and then summon part or all of the rest of the army in Aquitaine before attacking again.

    However, storming the city would not be easy. Geoffrey learned from the locals that Lydford had been fortified in the centuries before under the Saxon kings. Back then it was to provide protection from the rampaging Northmen who overran the isles, but it had gotten use since.

    It had suffered when the Bastard had conquered the isles, sacking the town. But it had been reinforced by the Normans afterward, establishing a “fort” of sorts in the south-west portion of the town.

    Though originally just more of a grain storage, Ecgwyn’s family, the Dodingtons, had moved their residence there after being raised by the Bastard and his daughter marrying into the family.

    In the years since, the late Burgheard had further reinforced it, turning it into a true keep, though he had yet to complete an inner wall. But it was also surrounded on three sides by a steep incline, and could not be assaulted that way.

    The one side it could be assaulted was defended by a high earthen wall, a massive ditch and a wooden palisade to keep the enemy at bay. Stone wall or not, it would prove difficult enough to take.

    The Saxons had around 1,000 men to defend the city, which wasn’t a whole lot less than Bordeaux had. And while they had to defend against more men, it would be over a smaller area, making it easier.

    Geoffrey had hoped his catapults would finally breach the walls, but to this point he had no luck. And his patience was running thin. He had ladders. He had rams.

    And perhaps, Geoffrey thought, I have a sign from God.

    That sign was a man named Toumas de Najac, a knight from a lesser noble house. He had come to Geoffrey’s attention before the fight at Tours thanks to Berard, who had told the king Toumas had noticed a peculiar way Duke Osmund deployed his forces. He claimed to notice a similar formation at La Sauvre, and it had heralded a delayed cavalry charge.

    Geoffrey decided to keep it in mind, and sure enough, a late flanking cavalry charge did come, though it was easily dealt with by Berard's reserves.

    Toumas was rewarded with a trip to the command tent after the battle and a toast in his name. As it turned out, a man nearing his 40th year, he was growing tired of front-line combat. Thus at Berard’s suggestion, Geoffrey decided to take him along as an unofficial military advisor.



    And a man of vision and innovation might just be what was needed to crack this siege - why else would fortune have had him come to my attention now, Geoffrey reasoned. Though, admittedly Toumas’ plan wasn’t the most ingenious.

    “We attack all areas at once,” Toumas said as Geoffrey’s commanders, his brother Alias and cousin Simon gathered in the command tent. “They have 1,000 men, but some will be on duty around the keep. Others will be around to make certain we don’t mine under the walls. So if we throw most of our 9,000 at the walls, at once, it will just be too much for them to stop all of our men.”

    “If we had siege towers, yes,” Knud said. “But we don’t. It will be hard to get the ladders to the walls, and they will not make it easy to get up them.”

    “You doubt we will succeed?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I think it is far from certain,” Knud said.

    “Then what would you suggest?” Berard asked.

    “Back when my people raided these Saxons, we would sometimes attack at night,” Knud said. “They often kept their camps well illuminated, and we were able to emerge from the shadows and strike.”

    “Attack in the darkness?” Berard asked.

    “Is that wise?” Alias said. “It’s often darker here than in Bordeaux. The clouds block the moonlight.”

    “That could work to our benefit,” Geoffrey said. “We could probably get all the way to the walls before they even realize we’re there.”

    “There is some risk,” Toumas pointed out. “They will have trouble seeing us, but we shall have trouble seeing them as well.”

    “We’ll be literally marching to a stone wall,” Geoffrey said. “We point our men in a direction, and, eventually, they will hit it.”

    “What if we attacked in echelon?” Berard said. “We attack at one point first, and then move forward on all sides once they have engaged and brought more forces to that section of the wall.”

    “Wouldn’t that be hard to coordinate in the darkness?” Alias wondered aloud.

    “We would need to go off sound,” Knud said. “But that will travel no matter how cloudy or dark it is. Once we hear battle, we can move forward with the rest of the attack.”

    Geoffrey took a moment to process it all. This plan had risk, but what in war didn't, especially when it involved an assault against a well-defended town?

    “We shall attack under the cover of darkness,” Geoffrey said. “The initial attack shall be on the northwestern wall, on the opposite side of town from the keep. We want them to think it is our focus… and we will attack with torches to light the way.”

    Geoffrey paused for a moment as he considered the extra risk those men would be taking. Then he continued. “I want assaults on the northeastern and southeastern wall at the same time. Those attacks will move without torches, and go forth once we hear combat on the northwestern wall.

    “Then,” Geoffrey continued, “I want attacks with battering rams on the gates. They will move after we engage on the other parts of the wall. Carry torches to guide your path - they’ll likely be engaged across the walls at that point, so they’ll know we’re assaulting anyway.”

    He looked at his military council. All of those gathered nodded.

    “Berard, you shall lead the attack on the southeastern wall. Knud, the northeastern,” Geoffrey explained. “And I will attack the northwestern.”

    “My king,” Berard said. “Let me. There will be danger wherever we attack, but it will be the worst at that point, if your plan goes as intended. You need not risk yourself there.”

    “Agreed,” Knud said. “But don’t send the Perigord boy. I would go. I have been itching to truly put these arrogant Saxons back in their place. My ancestors demand it.”

    Geoffrey eyed the Dane. He had been looking for a chance at redemption since his pseudo-exile from Bordeaux. While Geoffrey had given him command, Knud had not excelled. He took the longest to break the enemy at La Sauvre, after all.

    And the thought of Knud scaling the walls, shouting in Danish, in the darkness of the night, might well cause the Saxon defenders to piss themselves as their old nightmare came to life.

    A smile formed on Geoffrey’s lips. “Very well Knud. Lead well, and remind them of your ancestors at every turn.”

    “I shall even go with an axe as my weapon of choice,” Knud replied.

    “Then I will attack the northeastern section of the wall,” Geoffrey said. “Berard, you the southeastern section. Knud will attack first. We shall wait until we hear the sounds of battle, and then we shall march with the ladders, followed by the rams. By sunrise, the city will be in our hands.”

    ….

    The night was as dark as Geoffrey wanted.

    Though it had stopped raining, the clouds remained enough to cover the moon. But that darkness was as imposing as Toumas had warned. Geoffrey could not see much of anything beyond the lights of the camp.

    The only bright side was that in a few places, the Saxons had torches along the walls. So they might prove something to aim for.

    Though the cover of darkness was part of the plan, Geoffrey wanted it to take place in the early morning hours, before sunrise. Knud went forth as expected, and word was sent that he was on the move.

    Meanwhile, Geoffrey stood in his section of camp, in his armor and helmet. He would have no steed for this fight - he and all of his knights dismounted for the assault. His stomach churned in anticipation - he had never taken part in an assault before.

    His brother had. Foulques the Younger had been there when they had sacked Barcelona during the war to break free from the control of the Capetians. He had come out safely from that fight, only to be felled not long after in a battle in the open field.

    Geoffrey wasn’t sure what it all meant, or even if it meant anything at all. But when he closed his eyes, he thought he could see the faint memories of his brother’s face.

    This could have been you, he thought, fighting for your wife instead. I do not know if I do you proud in my reasons. But I will not shame you in my actions, today. Nor grandfather. Or father.

    The king suddenly jerked his head up, moving it back and forth, scanning the darkness, searching for sounds as if he were an owl. He heard them then, the sounds of yelling, screaming… of battle.

    “Move!” Geoffrey ordered as he raised his arm and pointed forward.

    Fog had settled in and the torches along the wall in the distance he hoped to guide him had disappeared. Their movements were now practically blind and Geoffrey’s previous bluster felt almost foolhardy at the moment. They might stumble around in circles for hours.

    Please God, guide us in this moment, he prayed silently. Then he crossed himself and continued forward.

    With no torches in hand, and the ones at the camp further and further away, soon they were in complete darkness. The air was thick, humid. It was cool, almost cold, yet it was so wet Geoffrey practically was choking on it. Sweat already ran down his face.

    His sword was out, and he gripped the handle tightly as he dragged it through the tall grass. His breathing was slow, yet heavy, as he both tried not to make a sound and also breathe through the difficult environment.

    Behind, he could see some more faint lights approaching. The rams. They had to use torches, since they had to find their way to the gates. And they had left prematurely - going on sound since they couldn’t see who was fighting.

    But Geoffrey figured that was fine - if the defenders shifted over to counter the rammers, they would again not be able to react to the other attacks along the walls.

    A few torches from above came into view and then the wall appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. The men carrying the ladders moved forward to secure them into the ground and to the walls.

    That no arrow fire had come down upon them likely meant Geoffrey had gotten the jump on the defenders.

    Though Geoffrey wished to lead, even he knew going up the walls first might be suicide. So he shouted his men forward, and one by one, the heavy infantry climbed up, shields overhead, their armors rustling.

    As they moved up, Geoffrey stood back to watch. He saw movement along the walls - the defenders had gotten wise to their plan. They rushed over trying to stop the initial men from scaling - easier said than done since Geoffrey had brought five ladders just to his section. Berard had five as well, while Knud had brought eight, to suggest he was bringing the heavy assault.

    Geoffrey’s archers did let loose a few shots to slow down the defenders, hoping to clear the way. They aimed high as to not hit the men scaling the walls. But they were forced to pull back after a few volleys, as the Aquitaine men reached the top of the wall and hopped over. The fighting in that section had begun.

    Archers were now coming forward on the walls to shoot out at those waiting to scale. Realizing he was hardly safer on the ground than scaling the wall, Geoffrey sheathed his sword and moved quickly over to the heavy wooden ladder. Holding his shield overhead, he grabbed a rung with his free hand and started up, with the knight in front of him just inches from his face.

    The climb was harder than he’d have expected. Beyond the fact that he knew objects would be raining down upon them, he had to do it one handed, as his left arm was dedicated to holding his shield above his head. That meant most of the climbing had to be done with his legs, slowly, as he moved his way up gripping the ladder with his sword arm.

    Above he could hear the screaming and shouting, and the clanging of swords and shields. Objects, he guessed they were stones, struck his shield. A few grazed his free arm.

    Another scream above. And Geoffrey, felt something hard knock against his shield as the scream came flying past his ear. The force knocked him hard enough that he lost his balance, and felt as if he was falling.

    But at the last moment, he grabbed the ladder with his free hand, then his shield arm and gripped it tightly. His heart was racing so fast, it felt as though it might burst from his chest.

    This is madness, he thought. How did my brother do this?!

    But he could not go down. The only way forward was up.

    So Geoffrey raised his shield overhead again and kept climbing. And kept climbing. Finally the man above him reached the top, pouring over the wall. Geoffrey used two hands now and scaled the last rungs quickly, practically vaulting himself onto the wall.

    There he looked around and saw there were men on both sides of him, pushing against the Saxons. He picked the left side and joined the mass of men, pushing and stabbing at the Saxon defenders.

    Spear tips poked past him as the Saxons looked to find gaps in the mass of shields and find men. Geoffrey’s eyes widened as he saw one come though, moving his head out the way just in time to have it just narrowly miss his cheek. Then the point seemed to fall, as the spear lost it’s force, held only by it being caught in the shields. Geoffrey realized it’s wielder must have lost control of it.

    His body was already beginning to tire - his legs felt numb. But the rush of his heart and his blood drove him further, as the mass of men pushed. And pushed. Others who scaled the walls joined. The force was strong enough, Geoffrey almost felt as if he would be crushed.

    And then it all broke.

    The group that Geoffrey’s band had been pushing against lost their battle. They fell, some being trampled underfoot. Others fell off the walls to either side. And others still ran, only to find themselves face to face with more Aquitaine soldiers. Some were stabbed on the spot. Others threw down their arms and begged for mercy. And a few simply threw themselves from the walls.

    The fighting where he was done for at least a moment, Geoffrey could finally fully take stock of what was happening around him. First light had begun to peak over the eastern horizon, but Geoffrey had to rely on the few torches along the walls as well as those in the town for some sense of what was going on.

    His section appeared to have been cleared of enemy forces. And that seemed to be happening all along the walls. Even in sections where the assault was initially pushed back, those defenders were soon overwhelmed by those who did make it to the walls elsewhere.

    The fight seemed to be making its way into the town itself, where the Saxons looked to be trying to reform in the streets, forming up into their walls there. The attacking infantry had more difficulty there, as their attacks were coming piecemeal.

    Then Geoffrey heard a thunderous crash, followed by shouts of a horde of men. From the direction he heard it, the sounds seemed to be coming from one of the gates.

    We must have broken through, he thought. We have this. We have this!

    He summoned a few of the men around him and motioned for them to follow him as he moved to get a better view of what was happening.

    Sure enough as he moved along the wall toward the gate, he could see the fight near the entrance. A mass of infantry streamed through the broken gate, the defenders being pushed back by sheer numbers.

    At this point, it was simply too much. Something under 1,000 defenders were being forced to handle potentially over 8,000 men and had lost their strong defensive positions.

    The streets afforded some protection - their shield walls couldn’t be flanked easily - but the mass of men pushing against that wall would prove too much.
    Geoffrey could hear the chants and shouts from his men.

    “THEY RUN!”

    “PUSH! PUSH THEM BACK!”

    “FORWARD! FORWARD!”

    Geoffrey exhaled as a smile came to his face. The walls were theirs. And the town would soon follow.

    ….

    But by the time the morning light provided a good view of the action an hour later, Geoffrey learned his situation was more complicated than he had expected.

    There was good news. For starters, he learned Berard and Knud had survived their assaults - the latter was uncertain at first given the increased danger he had undertaken.

    Secondly, Geoffrey’s men had won the battle in the streets. The Saxon bodies strewn out along the dirt roads, their blood mixing with the puddles of stagnant water that had been there before.

    But while many of the defenders were either killed or surrendered at the walls, or in the later fight in the town, some managed to fall back toward the keep in the southwestern portion of town.

    Some of Geoffrey’s soldiers gave chase, but even if they successfully scaled the earthworks, they were hit by arrow fire as they did. Some made it into the ditch. But no one who entered it made it out, with the few who did make it to the palisade butchered by the Saxons along it.

    Geoffrey hurried to call off the assault, and eventually, the Aquitaine forces stopped ahead of the clearing before the earthwork, remaining in the cover of the town itself. But at least a hundred men were killed in that initial pursuit.

    From the walls of the city, Geoffrey, reunited with Berard and Knud and joined by Toumas, could see the position of the keep in full now. The lack of a wall made it seem less impressive, but now that he could see the layout, the king could appreciate the task before him and his men.

    The earthworks must have extended some seven or eight feet high, and then gave way to an interior ditch, which dropped some 10 or so feet deep. Then they would have to scale their way back up to the ground where the keep stood, which was guarded by the palisade. Saxons were packed behind the wooden fence, some armed with bows and arrows, while others carried spears.

    Geoffrey probably had near 8,000 men left, though not all were in fighting condition. If he threw them all at the keep, they’d probably break through, but...

    “Should we attack it?” Berard asked.

    “They probably have a few hundred,” Knud said. “Defending one area. It won’t be easy to take.”

    Geoffrey scratched his chin. They would have to clear the earthworks, and then fall into a ditch, where they would be shot up by archers, and stabbed by spears as they tried to ascend.

    “My lord,” Toumas began. “What if we filled in the ditch?”



    Geoffrey turned to him. “What do you mean?”

    “The ditch is the major obstacle,” Toumas said. “If we fill it in, their position will be untenable.”

    “So we fill it with earth and stones?” Geoffrey asked. “But won’t they shoot us to pieces as we move forward…”

    Then Geoffrey had another idea. “Yes, we can send the townspeople and the captured soldiers to do it. They will either surrender, or be forced to kill their own people. The men may refuse.”

    It was cold, but Geoffrey preferred throwing them at this problem then his own troops.

    So Geoffrey ordered the pillaging and looting stopped. Then he had his soldiers round up the townspeople, near the main gate. There, Geoffrey made his way to the top of the gate, flanked by his guards and commanders.

    “People of Lydford,” he began. “Your child lady and her handlers have been defeated. They run to their keep, abandoning you to your fate.”

    He paused to let Knud shout the Saxon version to those gathered.

    “But God has smiled upon you today, for your rightful king and queen have no desire to see their subjects slaughtered needlessly,” Geoffrey continued. “So I have told my men to refrain from any further looting and pillaging of your home… provided you provide me aid.”

    He waited again as Knud barked out the translated version.

    “You will gather rocks from the town and outside of the walls,” Geoffrey instructed. “And you shall fill the ditch between the town and the keep. Do this, and I shall consider the debt between this town and your king and queen paid.”

    Over the next few hours, Geoffrey had the captured soldiers and the townspeople gather all the stones and rocks they could find in and around the town, under the watch of his men. It would not be enough to fill the ditch, that would likely take days, but this was more a statement of intent. Hopefully, he could scare the Saxons into submission.

    Once they had a sufficient stack gathered near the edge of the clearing, Geoffrey ordered the townspeople and the captured soldiers forward with the rocks. There seemed to be confusion at first among the Saxons in the keep, who likely expected Aquitaine’s army to march forward and attempt a coordinated assault. Instead, townspeople marched forward, dropping stones and rocks into the ditch.

    Eventually, one of the Saxons began to shout something back at the townspeople.

    “He says if they come into the clearing, they will fire upon them,” Knud said.

    Geoffrey felt his stomach twist. It was what he expected might happen. But he ordered them to continue anyway, hoping this would cause derision in the Saxon ranks. And he could see that some raised their bows but did not fire. However, many did anyway.

    The king watched from the walls as townspeople fell, struck by arrow fire. They usually tumbled back down the earthwork, some moaning in pain from wounds. Others lay dead.

    Some of the guards were clearly distraught, and appeared to be pleading with others to cease fire. A few even tried to stop the archers, and were tackled and killed.
    Geoffrey watched, imagining as husbands might have been forced to watch as their wives or children were killed by their kin.

    By my order, he thought.

    The king turned away. Then looked back at his own men, who were interspersed in the town. And another idea formed.

    “Tell my archers to form up at the edge of the clearing,” Geoffrey said. “We can provide cover for those laying the stones. And perhaps make the situation even more untenable for the Saxons.”

    The archers were brought forth and returned fire to those both in the keep and those on the outside. Naturally, the townspeople had no desire to advance while the firefight was going on, but Geoffrey ordered his knights and heavy infantry to force them toward the ditch. He reasoned that while his own archers were providing cover, the Saxons could not focus their fire well on the townspeople.

    His strategy appeared to work. Townspeople were still hit, but the Saxon archers seemed confused, wanting to fire at both the townspeople and the Aquitaine troops that had gathered. The knights grouped together in a tight formation, shields up.

    It was ugly. It was messy. And Geoffrey wasn’t sure how well any of this was working. Bodies were beginning to pile at the base of the earthworks, and he saw a few tumble out of view as they fell into the ditch. But it was happening on the other side too, as Saxon forces fell forward, into the palisade and some into the ditch as well. Others tried to fall back into the keep, but there was no way they could all fit into the relatively small area.

    “They could at least fall forward, into the ditch,” Knud said. “Then at least they’d help with the stacking.”

    Geoffrey glared at the Dane before, out of frustration, he turned his gaze out of the city. And in the distance he could see his siege equipment. Some towers, some catapults…

    His eyes widened as an idea came to mind.

    ….

    A few hours later, Geoffrey’s eyes fell on the area around the keep. Bodies were strewn at the base. Some of the townspeople remained along the earthwork, alive. Not all were wounded - some were terrified to try to move away from it, for they were safest from Saxon arrow fire on the slope of the earthen wall. Others, who were wounded, were crawling or dragging themselves away. Some didn’t make it, as they had arrows in their backs as they lay, dying or dead.

    On the other side, the Saxons were less in number. Geoffrey saw bodies along the palisade, but he also saw living men along it, struggling as they were wounded but left where they fell, for there was no place to move them.

    The fighting had ceased in the past half hour though, as the townspeople had stopped coming forward and Geoffrey’s archers had paused to save their arrows. He would need them for the next stage of his plan.

    That next stage appeared at the southwestern edge of the town as his men pushed the catapults forward. Navigating the streets was difficult and slow, and they would soon come into archer range. Once they did, Geoffrey would order his archers to fire and give cover.

    It was a weird experience, for both sides, at this point, were simply resupplying their stockpile of arrows by taking those that had been fired by the enemy.

    However, Geoffrey did not intend this to last long. From this range, the catapults would do a great deal of damage, not only to the walls but the stationary men on the outside of them. And he did not think those in the keep have the nerve to hold out. If they did… the soldiers on the outside might revolt.

    From his position, Geoffrey could see the catapults loaded. And then he heard someone shout: “FIRE!!”

    The rocks were hurled at the keep, including one flaming set of debris. Some crashed against the walls with a thud that was music to Geoffrey’s ears. Some missed a little high, going over the keep, but some others hit low, striking palisades, men, earth and everything else in their path.

    The screams could be heard across the town, leaving Geoffrey to cross his arms and take a deep breath as he watched the carnage unfold. All the while, his archers kept up their fire.

    He could see the Saxons again try to pile into the keep. But since they couldn’t ,others jumped over the palisade and into the ditch. Some began to climb their way out on the other side, scaling the earthworks and then approaching the town. Those that did, threw down their weapons, pleading for mercy. A few were killed, but Geoffrey quickly ordered them spared - he wanted the keep to fall, and that meant he needed the Saxons out of the way. Surrendering was as good enough.

    Another set of projectiles were loaded onto the catapults and then fired. Part of the wall in one section of the keep actually collapsed. It was not a large area, but the stones rained down upon the soldiers underneath, causing more panic.

    Even more of the Saxons fled the keep then, jumping into the ditch for either cover or to make their way to the town to surrender.

    “It can’t continue like this,” Berard said. “They have to surrender. Otherwise, they’ll see the entire garrison slaughtered.”

    Geoffrey wanted to agree. But there was no sign of surrender yet. So he ordered the catapults loaded again. It took time to reset them, and load the projectiles.

    But when they were almost ready, a few men appeared on the roof of the keep, waving a flag.

    It was white.

    ….

    As the sun had begun to set in the partly cloudy sky, Geoffrey made his way across a wooden bridge over the ditch and into the keep.

    It was a small main hall, reminding him a bit of Aurilliac. It was remarkably devoid of death or suffering, as it had been cleared to make it appropriate for him to arrive.

    Of course, while it was clear, the sounds of war were all around them, for while Geoffrey allowed mercy for the soldiers who surrendered, he would give little to those in the keep in Lydford.

    His soldiers were given license to loot a pillage to their hearts’ content. The knights could seize whatever valuables they wished. They could do with the women what they wanted as well, an exception being Ecgwyn and her mother, Queen Mother Leofwaru, should they be found.

    The other exception were children. Geoffrey ordered them rounded up, girls and boys, to see if any among them were Ecgwyn.

    “Why the boys?” Berard asked.

    “They might cut her hair and pass her off as a boy to sneak her away,” Geoffrey said. “I will take no chances.”

    Geoffrey made his way up the dais, where a throne sat. It was too large for a girl, so Geoffrey guessed it was the late king Burgheard’s.

    He looked to Knud. The Dane moved forward and pulled forth his axe. Then, summoning a large swing where he bellowed at the top of his lungs, Knud drove his axe down at the throne, attempting to cleave it in two. It didn’t on the first swipe, but Knud hacked at it until he left the throne a mess of splinters.

    Men then came forward, cleared the rubble away, before some others brought forth a new throne.

    Geoffrey then turned back to those gathered - mostly higher ranking people in the town and some of the soldiers they had spared.

    “I do not sit on the throne of the usurper,” he said. “I am king, by right of the rightful ruler, my wife, the queen, granddaughter of the great Ælfmær.”

    Knud shouted that at those gathered and then Geoffrey took his seat. Then a bunch of children were brought forward.

    “These are all the children in the keep, my king,” Berard said.

    “Are any the usurper, Ecgwyn?” Geoffrey demanded.

    “The people here say not,” Berard said.

    “If they are lying, all these children will suffer the sword, except those of the parents who reveal the truth to me,” Geoffrey warned. “So, I repeat, are any of the children here Ecgwyn?”

    Knud shouted Geoffrey’s warnings, and the children all huddled together as they grew pale. Some began to cry, and plead. Geoffrey could not understand what they were saying, but they were on their knees, begging.

    It was difficult to watch. And at that moment, he really hoped the girl was not among them.

    Knud looked back to him. “They swear she’s not there. All of them.”

    They could have been lying. But given everything that had happened, Geoffrey doubted that was the case. Just like the soldiers earlier, some of them would have broken.

    The king shook his head. Between the raids, the assault and everything in between, Geoffrey had lost around 750 men. While it didn’t sound like a great deal, it still represented around a tenth of what he brought with him to England. And he had not actually ended the war today, as Ecgwyn had escaped his grasp.

    “You took her keep,” Berard told him. “You have her on the run. If they were struggling to keep support before, it will be even harder now.”

    It was still disappointing. Not only had he not caught Ecgwyn, he had failed to nab Leofwaru, the council, or anyone else of note. He’d captured a town, some stone and earthworks, at somewhat significant cost. It was an embarrassment to the Saxons… but it should have been more.

    Geoffrey stood from the throne and turned to his friend. “Order the keep restored. The damage is to be repaired. And this hall must be made to look more impressive - fit for a real king and queen. I want my wife to be able to receive the lords and ladies of England here, when they come to swear their oaths.”

    “What of the people?” Berard asked.

    “The children are not to be harmed,” Geoffrey said, remembering their faces moments before. “I don’t care what happens to the others.”

    The king then walked down the dais and out of the keep to the sounds of screams. He headed to the inn, only somewhat acknowledging the damaged town around him. Smoke still rose in some places, as villagers worked to put out fires.

    But the inn was intact, and its main hall was already being turned into a new strategy room. The table already had a map on it - one taken from the manor they had seized in Plympton. It was of Devon.

    Geoffrey walked over and his eyes drifted to the map. The next big mark was of the town of Exeter. His next target.

    His hope was to end the war on this day. But if it would continue, then so would he.



    Note: The filling of the ditch with stones was actually based on real events. During the siege of Montreuil-Bellay in 1149, attackers laid siege to a castle that had a massive ditch, preventing siege equipment from being brought into position. The attacking lord ordered peasants from a fair in Saumur to fill the ditch with stones to enable his siege equipment forward and eventually, after three years, the castle fell.

    That attacking lord was the real-life Geoffrey Plantagenet, though that filling of the ditch was more successful and more drawn out by what happened here
    .
     
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    Chapter 258 - March 1135
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 258
    March 1135 - Huelgoat, Brittany



    “How’s the wine?”

    Marguerite looked at her sister Mascarose, who had her cup at her mouth. The former Countess of Charolais smiled.

    “Sweet,” she said. “I confess, I like Bordeaux’s wines far more than Charolais or here. I’m glad you brought some for the feast.”

    “Then I will need to send you some,” Marguerite replied.

    Silence fell once more as they sat in the queen mother’s guest chambers at a manor near Huelgoat in Brittany. Small talk was never easy, even for someone as well versed in it as Marguerite.

    Of course, one might argue small talk shouldn’t be necessary to converse with family. Mascarose was her youngest sister, but the pair were not so far apart in age that they had not grown together. And for years they lived in the same locales, Angers and later Bordeaux.

    But Marguerite was in a different world for much of it. Virtually imprisoned after her affair with Aubry Karling, and the bastard son it produced, Marguerite did not see her sister much in Angers, even though they lived in the same locale.

    Things were a bit better when Marguerite and the rest of the Angevin court moved to Bordeaux following the ascension of her husband, but Mascarose had her own duties by that time as a baroness and mother. They remained distant.

    So even now, as they both could sit having shared so many experiences separately, they struggled to experience anything together. But they had been brought together once more for an impromptu family reunion that for once had not been because of tragedy.

    The occasion was the wedding of Ancel d’Anjou, heir to the Duchy of Brittany, to the daughter of Mascarose and her late husband Count Herve of Charolais, Plaisance de Semur.

    It was a large gathering with many of the prominent lords of Aquitaine present, since most were related to both the bride and groom.

    Three of Geoffrey’s councilors, Duke Guilhem along with his wife Marguerite the younger, Duke Adhemar and his son by the same name, and Bishop Edouard, attended for that reason.

    Foulquesson's two full siblings, Philippe of Thouars, consort to Countess Sarrazine, and the Duchess Ermengarde made their way to Huelgoat. Philippe came alone, without the Countess and their two daughters. So too did Ermengarde, as she made the trip without her new husband, the Duke of Transjurania.

    The dwarf duchess was married to her husband, who was 19 years her junior, and ruled lands that bordered Aquitaine to the east near the alps, a few years before. The union had already produced a child, a son. But Marguerite had barely interacted with her, as she usually didn't speak much with the Angevin side of the family.



    Naturally Mascarose was present for her daughter’s wedding, as was her teenage son, Count Geoffrey of Charolais, who had the duty of giving away his sister.
    One conspicuous absence, however, was King Geoffrey himself.

    The king remained in England with his wife and children, sending Prince Alias in his stead. Alias claimed his brother “would have loved to attend, but feels compelled to continue his efforts to raise the queen to her rightful place on the English throne.”

    It was an argument Marguerite didn’t fully buy, remembering her son’s fury at the marriage of Ancel’s sister Marguerite the Younger to Duke Guilhem. She suspected Geoffrey’s sometimes petty behavior reared its ugly head here, even if few could fault the king for continuing his war across the channel.

    Geoffrey had released Duke Simon to go with Alias, however, as well as Rogier and Cenolth d’Uzes, with the latter two first cousins to Plaisance through Mascarose’s sister, the late Ness de Limoges.

    The other big absence was Princess Aines, who was left in a keep near Saumur. But that was hardly surprising - she was being kept mostly out of sight after birthing her second bastard. Technically still promised to Duke Simon, who didn’t not appear in a rush to end the betrothal, she was nonetheless being left under guard to avoid any further embarrassments.

    There was always a fear of that at these get togethers. And since one of the more recent large gatherings involving the realm, the funeral for Plaisance’s father Count Herve, had featured the embarrassing revelation of the affair between Geoffrey and Countess Sarrazine, Marguerite hoped things would go better for her sister’s family this time.

    And it appeared to. The ceremony went off well, with husband and wife married at the steps of a church in Huelgoat, ironically, not far from where Herve fell.

    “Your father watches over you from here,” Mascarose had told her daughter. “That is why God allowed all of this. He wishes him to look out for you, always.”

    It was a sweet thought and Marguerite hoped it was true. She knew she had not been as fortunate with her parents, after all.

    But Plaisance did not appear thrilled the morning after the ceremony and feast, as she was mostly silent and generally downtrodden as she ate with many of the other prominent ladies who had come to the wedding. And Marguerite figured she might as well see how Plaisance was faring - it was as good a conversation as any.

    “How is Plaisance?” Marguerite asked. “She seemed a bit down after everything.”

    Mascarose sighed. “I am not surprised. She was not looking forward to this union.”

    The queen mother’s brow furrowed. “Is my grandson so unappealing to her?”

    “It is not him,” Mascarose said. “She fears marriage to any man. I think she is just not the type to enjoy… the physical parts of a union. But rest assured, I have told her she must perform her duties, and I saw that she did on their wedding night.”



    Marguerite nodded - she had skipped out on that part of the evening as Ancel took his new wife to the marital bed to consummate their union. But Beatritz, Mascarose, Foulquesson and a few others had.

    She did have some sympathy for the girl - it was never nice to be in a marriage that was miserable - but if her objection was to the institution itself, then she was out of luck. Given she was her brother’s only surviving sister - his elder half-sister Eve had passed over a year before after the birth of her second child - Plaisance’s duty would be found as a wife, not a nun.

    “It is not a problem I expect with my little Fry,” Mascarose said. “Already he is sweet on girls.”

    “Yes, I saw him making eyes at his new brother-by-law’s sister, Guillaumette,” Marguerite said. “Have you found a wife for him yet?”

    “Not yet,” Mascarose said. “And I am hesitant to have him marry Guillaumette, given we already have a union with that family. I look to nearby lands, both in Aquitaine and beyond. But it is no rush - he cannot be wed for another few years anyway.”



    “It is not too early to tie him down,” Marguerite said. “He is a count, and first cousin to the king. Surely you have plenty of candidates.”

    “As I said, I am in no rush,” Mascarose said. “Who knows? Perhaps more options will open up soon, if your son is successful in England.”

    And on that, Geoffrey appeared to be. Word had come back of his success in taking Lydford, and he had moved on to Exeter. The English had yet to attack again either there or in Aquitaine with another army, which created a growing confidence it would only be a matter of time before they submitted.

    “Besides,” Mascarose continued, “Fry may be sweet on some girls, but his real desire is to go to England with his cousins and join the king in his war. He was hurt being left out in the first place, with so many others going.”

    “Geoffrey insisted Alias go,” Marguerite said. “As he demanded when he came here to Brittany. I could not stop him.”

    “I did not mean him, but the prince and new princess?” Mascarose asked.

    “I would have preferred the prince remained,” Marguerite said. “But Geoffrey wished it. As for the princess, once her mother decided to accompany the prince, I saw no reason for her not to go.”

    “And Duke Simon?” Mascarose asked.

    “That is a bit different,” Marguerite conceded.

    “Because he is a duke and my son is just the count?” Mascarose asked.

    Marguerite guessed it probably was that. And it might be difficult to stomach for the young count of Charolais, who was currently out riding with Alias, Simon and Adhemar the Younger. Of them, he was likely to be the one of least prominence for most of their lives. He would have to get used to that type of disappointment.

    “Simon is more than a simple duke,” Marguerite said. “Our grandnephew stands to inherit nearly a third of the realm. And he will be my son-by-law, and Geoffrey’s brother-by-law. It is different - and there is no disrespect intended, sister. Just facts.”

    Mascarose nodded. “I know. I am not naive. I just wish Geoffrey would have considered his cousin.”

    “You speak to me as if I have some say over this,” Marguerite told her. “You might be better off speaking to Alias. He has more of his brother’s ear these days than me.”

    Mascarose waved her off. “Nonsense. You are still his mother.”

    “A mother he stopped listening to years ago,” Marguerite said. “Trust me.”

    “You speak as if I do not have a son of my own,” Mascarose noted. “A son who is now feeling his oats and has been handed the responsibilities of a man in his father’s stead. But I make sure he always hears me, even if sometimes he does not listen.”

    “A count is no king,” Marguerite said. “Not to disparage my nephew. It is just different. And he is younger than my sons.”

    “Say what you will sister,” Mascarose replied. “But you are still a mother, and a former queen. Your words carry more weight than most.”

    Marguerite remained unconvinced by her sister’s argument, but found an opportunity to drop the subject thanks to a knock at the door.

    The guest turned out to be Bishop Edouard, their nephew, who bowed before his aunts, likely out of respect. After all, neither one of them held any official title anymore, though Mascarose was her son’s regent.

    “Forgive my intrusion, auntie Mascarose, Lady Marguerite,” he said. “But I have an important message for Lady Marguerite.”

    The queen mother’s brow rose. “Let us hear it then.”

    Edouard frowned. “It would be best if you heard it in private, my lady.”

    Marguerite and Mascarose traded glances, but the younger woman stood from her seat.

    “As you wish, nephew,” she said. “I shall not go far, so just summon me when you are finished.”

    Marguerite nodded but Edouard remained more stoic, making no expression toward Mascarose then, or when she departed. Once the door closed, Edouard slowly approached Marguerite.

    His demeanor was nervous, almost fearful. And Marguerite grew concerned, for it was clear he had a message he did not want to deliver.

    “What is this news you bring me, nephew?” Marguerite asked. “Has some embarrassment befallen Alias while he was out with his cousins?”

    “Not Alias my lady,” Edouard said. “Though he will need to know as well.”

    The bishop sighed. “It is your son. He is dead.”

    Marguerite’s heart skipped a beat. “Geoffrey… Geoffrey is dead?!”

    Edouard suddenly blanched. “No! No, my lady. Forgive me. I did not mean him. I just, I refer to Geoffrey as ‘the king.’ I… I forgive me.”

    Marguerite was speechless, left to shake her head. It is not Geoffrey, came through. But if it wasn’t him…

    “Your eldest son,” Edouard said. “Bishop Aubry. I am truly sorry, my lady.”



    Marguerite again remained unable to speak. Her eldest child, a bastard sired with Aubry Karling - the affair that had arguably ruined her life, and certainly did her marriage.

    The boy had lived a life of exile from his half-siblings, moving to wherever Geoffrey I wasn’t. And upon her husband’s death, Marguerite attempted to do right by her son, getting Geoffrey II to grant him a bishopric.

    It wasn’t ideal of course. She still would have no relationship with Aubry, as he became the bishop of Maulevrier, which was just south of Cholet, somewhat near Angers. And she had annoyed Geoffrey to do it, as he didn’t like the idea of granting his half-brother anything. But at least she had given Aubry a place after he lacked one for years.

    She tried to check up on him. But it was always so difficult to do more than that. What could she say to him? She was his mother in name, but hardly in much else. For most of his life, he’d been away from her.

    And now he would be away forever.

    “When did this happen?” Marguerite finally managed.

    “Four days ago,” Edouard said. “They sent word as quickly as they could.”

    “I wish to be there,” Marguerite told him. “When he is laid to rest.”

    Edouard looked down. “I fear he may have been already. While laymen often flout the church’s wishes of… using techniques to delay burial, most bishops respect our doctrine. He has likely been committed by now. Though if you would like to visit his resting place, and speak with those of the parish, I could arrange it. I could even come with you, if you wish.”

    Marguerite could barely find the words. Her son was gone and now she could not even properly say goodbye?

    “I… I… I would like to go, yes,” was what she managed.

    Edouard nodded. “I will arrange it.”

    He paused before adding: “My lady. Aunt, if there is anything I can do...”

    Marguerite shook her head.

    “If you wish, I can send your sister away,” Edouard said. “Or send her back if you wish company.”

    “No…”Marguerite said. “Send her away. But tell her why.”

    “I will, my lady,” Edouard said. “And, once more, my condolences.”

    Edouard bowed and turned to leave. But Marguerite called for him to remain.

    “Edouard… do you… do you think Geoffrey will do anything to honor him?” Marguerite asked. “He is… he was his brother. Half-brother… but…”

    Edouard pursed his lips and then looked down. “I… I can’t know, my lady. He is preoccupied with England and…”

    Marguerite shook her head. She got the message.

    “Thank you, nephew,” she said. “I do wish to be alone now.”

    Edouard bowed before her before departing.

    When the door closed, a weakness overcame her, and Marguerite stumbled her way over to her bed. Her head swimming, it felt as if she were drowning.

    My eldest… gone, she thought. Like his brother. My two boys. My sons. It can’t be. He was not old. He was not...

    She fell onto bed, still struggling to breathe. Feeling ill, she began to dry heave, in between sobs as the tears began to stream down her cheeks.

    …..

    Despite having done this before, Marguerite was still not ready for what faced her in Maulevrier.

    She had laid her son Foulques to rest nearly two decades prior. It was a thought that needed no help in remaining fresh in her memories, and this made it worse.
    Kind words were spoken to her by all at the abbey. They spoke of Aubry’s devotion to the church and how pious he was.

    “At time where so many of our brethren seek to exploit their flock for material gain, Bishop Aubry was a man of strong moral fiber and a blessed soul,” one of the priests told her. “You should be proud of the man he became, my lady.”

    The words stung, for Marguerite felt she had little input in that. The monks and those who tended to him while she was kept away - they deserved the credit. All she had done was make his life difficult.

    But those feelings of guilt were nothing compared to how she was overcome by emotion as she saw her son’s freshly dug grave. Marguerite fell to her knees in tears.
    His final resting place was a simple grave, without even a hint of the illustrious blood that had flowed in his veins. A child of the Karlings and of the de Poitous, two of the most powerful families in Francia over the past few centuries… left to this. Obscurity. Swept away… soon to be forgotten by all.

    What she would have given to have Aubry buried in a crypt. But she could not bring herself to even ask Geoffrey to place him with his half-brother Foulques, for she knew he would refuse. And he could not join his Karling ancestors - no bastard could ever dream of such a privilege.

    She was not alone on the day. Mascarose had accompanied her to Maulevrier, citing she could never abandon her eldest sister. So too did Duchess Beatritz, perhaps out of respect to her one full-blooded sibling.

    While it seemed as minor a thing as could be, it was not to be scoffed at - Marguerite’s brother Adhemar was nowhere to be found. She knew why - her youngest sibling would not risk having his presence being construed as an insult to the late king Geoffrey I, especially since Geoffrey II did not seem to care for his half-brother.

    Of greater sting was Alias asking out of accompanying her. He claimed to have to return to Geoffrey in Exeter, having not been given leave for anything but the wedding. Marguerite could barely muster the strength to fight him, as she preferred Alias’ cowardice in this instance to Geoffrey’s potential coldness.

    Still, despite the support from her sister and eldest daughter, Marguerite found herself unable to muster much conversation with either. The small talk she could normally manage was a bridge too far. She was silent on their journey, simply listening as Mascarose commented on the world around them, the words going into one ear and out the other. And at night she would remain alone, crying herself to sleep.

    This night was no exception, as Marguerite was granted her own quarters. In a cruel sense of irony, it was Aubry’s, for a new bishop had yet to be appointed and Marguerite’s status as the queen mother meant she was above sleeping with the rest of her party, Mascarose and Beatritz included, in the abbey.

    She could not sleep. Her eyes burned and her throat was raw. She wished to stop her tears. To stop her sobs. But she could not do that either.

    At the table were multiple cups, surrounding a pitcher of wine. It had been set there by those at the abbey for her, assuming she would host her sister and daughter. Marguerite had not and the cups remained empty, while the pitcher was full.

    With a small sigh, Marguerite plopped herself down in a chair at the table and poured herself a cup. She said nothing, but sipped, letting the tart red wine burn her throat as it went down. The pain almost felt good… a contrast to the rest of her body, which felt numb.

    My first born, Marguerite thought as she put down the drink. My poor child.

    “Care for some company? I could use a drink.”

    Marguerite’s heart skipped a beat, for she had not heard the door open, nor footsteps approached. But opposite her, standing with her hands over the chair stood the thin figure of Agnes d’Anjou.

    “You?!” Marguerite exclaimed. “Impossible! You’re dead!”



    “And yet still unable to escape the problems of this family,” Agnes lamented. “Truly, I suffer for my sins.”

    “Of which there are a great many,” Marguerite said.

    Agnes eased herself into the chair and let loose a sigh. “Well I never denied that, did I?”

    Marguerite eyed her. She had long heard stories that ghosts might appear before a person before they died. And if that were the case here, she supposed it was fitting that Agnes would be the one to collect her.

    Still, she wanted to know for certain: “What do you want? Why are you here? To take me to the hereafter?”

    Agnes shook her head as she poured herself a drink, leaving Marguerite befuddled of her intentions.

    “Then what?” she continued. “To gloat over my son’s death?”

    “No,” Agnes said. “I know what it is like to lose a child before what should be their time. And a child who you feel your actions punished.”

    “We are not alike,” Marguerite insisted. “You insult me to even suggest it.”

    “In some ways no,” Agnes said as she poured wine into another cup and placed it to the side. “In this? Conceiving bastards right after our sixteenth birthdays, embarrassing our families, but managing to find a way for them to have some place in the world… only to have them die fairly young, without having ‘lived’ as we define it? I say we are quite the same.”

    Marguerite pursed her lips and looked away. She hated when Agnes had a point.

    “You did the best you could,” Agnes told her.

    “I don’t need or want your pity,” Marguerite said.

    “It is not pity to state fact,” Agnes said. “Given what could have happened to the boy, that he found himself a bishop is no small thing. You did that. His half-siblings never would have aided him so.”

    “A small consolation for the life I forced upon him to begin with,” Marguerite said. “Growing up, alone. With no true family. Shuttled from drafty keep to drafty keep to stay out of my father-by-law’s way… then my husband’s… always knowing himself to be the cause of misery. Of discord… of regret…”

    “Unavoidable,” Agnes said. “Sadly.”

    “And that is my fault,” Marguerite said.

    “You made a terrible mistake,” Agnes said. “As did I. But it could not be undone. The best you could do is make up for it. Which you did.”

    “It is never enough,” Marguerite said. “Nothing I could do was enough. Others suffered… but in some way, they were responsible.”

    “My brother?” Agnes asked.

    Marguerite narrowed her gaze. “Not initially… but he paid me back and then some. My son… what could he do?”

    “He lived his life,” Agnes said.

    “I don’t even know how he did,” Marguerite said. “He was my own child… my first child. And I didn’t even know him. I had no idea he was ill. I had no idea he might pass. And he was buried so fast, I could not even witness it. Your daughter… you knew her. You could… care for her in whatever way you managed. You were her mother. I wasn’t even that.”

    “You couldn’t be,” Agnes said. “Not if you were to be a mother to your other children. And they benefited.”

    “So he was sacrificed for them?” Marguerite asked. “And for what? My poor Foulques is dead as well. Beatritz dislikes her younger siblings… and tolerates me because I am her best ally. Aines…”

    Marguerite’s voice trailed off for a moment. Then she continued. “Alias already pulls away from me, as he should. And Geoffrey… he’s never needed me. He had you.”

    “You sell yourself short,” Agnes said. “I could be his teacher. I could not be his mother.”

    “That’s not what the rumors say,” Marguerite replied.

    Her stomach twisted at her own words. Those hurtful tales… some of which she believed, some of which she didn’t. Why did she even voice it? Just to spite a specter?

    “You don’t truly believe that,” Agnes said as she finished her wine. Looking into the cup she added: “Besides, it was such a foolish one. I was not even with child when he was born. Such stupidity.”

    Then Agnes stood up and turned to leave. Marguerite reached her hand out toward her.

    “Wait!” she said. “Where are you going?”

    “Sadly nowhere,” Agnes said. “I am to wait… for how long? Your guess is as good as mine for when he shall come to me. But I shall endeavor to help until then, as I always have.”

    “Like with your murderous father?” Marguerite demanded.

    “And with your inexperienced son,” Agnes said. “But I have tried to aid you as well. Penance if you will - as paltry as it is.”

    Marguerite shook her head. “Paltry is right. And besides… you cannot help me now.”

    “True,” Agnes said. “Which is why I have brought her instead.”

    “Her?” Marguerite asked.

    And suddenly when Marguerite shifted her gaze to the side of the table, she caught sight of a youthful woman. Her black hair cascaded down to her shoulders freely, and her eyes met Marguerite’s with a piercing gaze.

    It was a face Marguerite had not seen in decades - the face of Aines de Poitou.



    “Mother?”

    “So you do remember my face,” Aines said. "It has been a long time."

    “I could never forget the woman who gave me life,” Marguerite said. “And who, in some ways, stole it as well.”

    Aines rolled her eyes. “So dramatic. I hoped you would outgrow it, but here you are - with hair white as snow and still over embellishing the world around you.”

    “You killed my father!” Marguerite shouted. “It is not over embellishing anything!”

    “Yes,” Aines said. “I took his life. Not yours.”

    The specter took a cup of wine from the table before her and sipped it. A scowl formed on her lips.

    “These wines around the Loire never compared to what we have in Aquitaine,” Aines said. “Couldn’t you have told these priests to use one of the barrels you brought with you?”

    “That is what you wish to talk about?” Marguerite demanded. “Not that you killed my father… your husband… and did not think I would be affected?”

    “No, I did not think you would learn of it,” Aines said. “It is not as if I wanted the world to know Foulques killed him. Unfortunately, sometimes these things happen.”

    “Yes, some sad note in the larger plan. That’s all I was.”

    Marguerite’s eyes widened at the sound of a man’s voice. A man she had not seen or heard from in decades.

    “Father?”

    Emerging from the shadows, Adhemar de Limoges approached his daughter. He smiled as he looked down upon her. He leaned forward to kiss her, but Marguerite felt nothing upon her forehead.



    “You have grown well,” he said. “Beautiful and wise.”

    Marguerite shook her head. “Beautiful once, perhaps. Wise? Never.”

    “You were a queen,” Adhemar said. “One who navigated many treacherous waters. A fool would have drown for sure.”

    Aines smirked. “You would know.”

    Adhemar turned and slapped Aines across the face. Holding her cheek she looked to Marguerite.

    “You see how he treats me?” Aines asked. “You remember, don’t you? It was not as if he did not do this in front of you and your sisters.”

    Marguerite lowered her eyes. She didn’t remember much of her childhood anymore, but sometimes when she closed her eyes, she would see it.

    “You… you were never an easy wife,” Marguerite said.

    “My thoughts exactly, daughter,” Adhemar said.

    Aines shook her head. “Pathetic. You are so beholden to a false memory of this man that you would excuse for him what you would not for anyone else? Would you like it if I said you deserved all that you received from your husband and his family? You did lay with another, after all.”

    Marguerite frowned. “I would not like it. But it would be true. What I have suffered… what I have endured, perhaps it is a penance of sorts.”

    Tears came to her eyes again. “But for what? My poor son still suffered. Aubry… Foulques… both of them dead before their time. What has my suffering earned them?”

    “They were not exactly paupers at their end,” Aines said. “But even so, they are not your only children, my dear.”



    “It is true,” Adhemar said. “Your son is king of a powerful realm and soon of two realms. It is something to be proud of. He could not have done it without you.”

    “He could have,” Marguerite said. “All he needed was his father. And his aunt. I gave him life… but little else.”

    Aines rolled her eyes. “You speak of it as if that is nothing. I have yet to meet a man, great or otherwise, who has managed something without living.”

    “It was my duty,” Marguerite said.

    “Had you simply given up, in those days when you were imprisoned in Angers,” Aines began, “then he would not exist. You struggled. You lived. Your resiliency is nothing to scoff at - for one can accomplish a great deal by simply… existing.”

    “What would you know of that?” Adhemar asked. “You who did not see much past your 30th year.”

    Aines turned her scowl to her husband. “It is one way. But it is not the only way - I packed much into my short life. Why, without my efforts, none of this would be possible.”

    “Yes,” Adhemar said. “Our daughters would not have suffered so. Poor Ness forced to be that disfigured monster’s lover. Our eldest imprisoned, nearly raped, and certainly left to suffer.”

    “Our youngest daughter,” Aines interrupted, “wife of one of the realm’s most respected lords, and mother to a count. Our youngest, the Duke of Gascony. To say nothing of our grandson, King of Aquitaine and soon to be King of England. Or one of our other grandsons, Duke of Poitou. Our great grandson, Duke of Toulouse and one day Poitou. Another shall have Brittany. And yet another, of course, Aquitaine and England.”

    Adhemar’s frown suddenly became a small grin. “Yes… that is true. I have much to be proud of… my cousins - fools that they were, denied my greatness. And look now… my descendents will be the most powerful men in all of Christendom.”

    Aines laughed. “Your cousins were not fools. You did none of this. You provided your seed. But any man could have done that. I carried our children. I gave them life. Then I provided for them. I made our eldest a future duchess, where she would one day be a queen. I placed Ness in the court of Angers, and then my memory is what drew Foulques to her… to sire in her the future Duke of Poitou and all that would follow. It was my efforts that would get Masacrose in the right position to become Countess of Charolais one day. And if not for the lust and desire I had nurtured in Foulques, our son would not be the Duke of Gascony today. I did it all… you did nothing.”

    Adhemar slapped Aines again. “You lying, disrespectful bitch!”

    Marguerite’s stomach twisted at the sight, as she could hear the smack ringing in her ears. But despite the blood from her lip, Aines simply smiled.

    “My apologies… I speak falsely husband,” she admitted. “You did have the decency to die. But then, I suppose I initiated that as well.”

    Adhemar went to strike her again, but this time Aines caught his hand. When Adhemar tried to wrench it free, he seemed unable to. He struggled, his arm shaking as Aines refused to release it from her grasp.

    “Un...hand me!” he ordered.

    “You do not rule over me,” Aines said. “Those days are long since past, husband.”

    She pulled Adhemar down, twisting and turning his arm until he was on his knees before her. But even then she did not release him, squeezing and closing her fingers around his arm so much it caused him to scream.

    “Mother!” Marguerite pleased. “Please! Release him!”

    “You would show him mercy?” Aines snapped. “After you watched him hit me?”

    “I… I…” Marguerite stammered.

    Aines, scowling, turned her gaze back to her husband.

    “You are nothing,” she spat. “A pathetic excuse for a man that my mad father forced upon me. You died as you live, sad, pathetic and forgotten.”

    He welped loudly once more, before crumpling to the ground. Only then did Aines release him, as Adhemar laid motionless on the floor. When Marguerite peered over to him, she saw his eyes, lifeless and cold, his face frozen in horror.

    As she had envisioned throughout her life, when she thought of what must have happened the moment he realized what was to befall him at the inn that night he died.

    “How… how could you?” Marguerite demanded.

    “It is not enough I had to endure him in life?” Aines asked. “Now you wish me to in death as well? Even our vows were not so demanding.”

    “He was my father!” Marguerite shouted.

    “Does that justify his actions?” Aines demanded. “That he sired you means I must deal with his insults, his abuse and his disgraceful actions, for eternity? You would have me suffer so?”

    “He is your husband!” Marguerite shouted.

    “He is not my God!” Aines exclaimed. “And you, of all people, should know better. You, who betrayed oaths to your husband right as you barely finished speaking them!”

    “I honored him later,” Marguerite said.

    “Ah yes, because that makes up for it,” Aines scoffed. “Here is an uncomfortable truth, my dear. Your father was scum. I hated him. And all those knew him - whether they were courtiers in Angers or his cousins… felt the same. And had he not been killed, you would have hated him too. He should thank me - I am the only reason anyone has a positive opinion of him.”

    Marguerite, her eyes blurred by the tears in her eyes, simply shouted. “I hate you! You ruined everything! Everything!”

    Aines rolled her eyes. “There again you go with the drama. I freed myself from a man who would be a tyrant if he had the talent. In the process, I saved my descendants from obscurity, and turned them into something so much more. Exactly what you desired with the bastard you sired, even if he nearly did ruin everything.”

    “Do not speak of him in such a way!” Marguerite shouted.

    “I shall speak of him however I please,” Aines said. “I am your mother, and nothing you can say will ever change that. And nothing you did ever changed what he was.”

    Marguerite wanted to argue. She wanted to scream. But at what? A ghost? What would that do to someone long dead, beyond her reach?

    Meanwhile, Aines sipped her drink and then met Marguerite’s gaze square. “You see my dear, that is the difference between you and me. When I didn’t like my situation, or that of my children, I worked to change it. You? You just wallow in it. And wallow in it you have… for decades now. Even as those who took part in your misery fall away, you remain, clinging to it tighter than you do your own children. Is it any wonder you feel a failure?”

    Marguerite swallowed hard. Once more, her mother’s words cut deep. As they always did, even when she lived.

    “It is more than a feeling,” Marguerite said. “My failure… it is real. You know it. You’ve said it.”

    “I do not think you a failure,” Aines said. “I think you have failed, at times. But there is a difference. Everyone fails. It is how one recovers which proves their measure.”

    “And I did not,” Marguerite said.

    “You did enough to survive,” Aines said. “As I said, it is useful. But you did not thrive, as I would have. That is a shame, for you were capable.”

    “I do not want to be like you,” Marguerite said. “I never wanted to be like you.”

    “But your sons do,” Aines reminded her. “They wish for power. They wish for influence. So to, do your daughters. You cannot deny them this, any more than I can deny your feelings. You cannot hide from who you are, the blood in your veins, or theirs.”

    Marguerite fell silent. She knew this. It was something she had long lamented, but knew she could not change. And it always left her depressed.

    “You spend too much time looking back,” Aines said. “Focusing on past mistakes. Rarely an eye to the future. You did so with Geoffrey, out of fear. But regardless of your reason, it was to his benefit. Now you should do so again. Move on. Let Aubry go. Let Foulques go. They have their peace. You must find yours.”

    “Should I forget what I have wrought on my poor sons?” Marguerite demanded. “Should I just forget how my actions harmed them?”

    “If you refuse to learn from your mistakes?” Aines demanded. “Yes. It would be better for everyone if you simply ignore that suffering and move forward.”

    “I cannot be a cold, heartless woman, like you,” Marguerite said.

    “You have long been colder than me,” Aines said. “But if you wish to be different, then actually be different. Learn from your errors. As I said, you have other children.”

    “There is little I can do for Geoffrey,” Marguerite said. “Nor Alias. Beatritz is a woman, long grown, with children of her own. My time is done.”

    “I wonder,” Aines said. “Do you forget the other girl because she is named for me?”

    “She tried to kill her own family,” Marguerite said. “Something even you would not have done.”

    “And yet… she remains your daughter,” Aines said. “You simply… wish her to suffer in virtual exile as you have done, for what?”

    “For her crimes,” Marguerite said. “They are legion, in my opinion.”

    “What’s the point?” Aines asked. “If you wished to punish her, you should have killed her. Otherwise… this means nothing, except fostering hate within her.”

    “Since when do you care for such things?” Marguerite demanded.

    “Since it will do nothing for any of your children long-term,” Aines said. “If you could see past your anger for a moment, you would realize that.”

    “What… do you mean?” Marguerite asked.

    “The girl will always be a valuable piece, so long as she lives,” Aines said. “As is, she will become Duchess of Toulouse soon. But even if she doesn’t, she will have sway and power. Whether she is sent to a convent, or to the Christians in the Baltic, her blood will carry enough weight to be a threat to the rest of your family, no matter what is done.”

    Marguerite felt her stomach twist. Her mother’s words rang true. Yet she felt powerless. What could she do now? Except...

    “You wish for me to…” Marguerite started. But she could not bring herself to finish.

    “That is one solution,” Aines said. “It would be the ultimate sacrifice… for you and her. But… perhaps it may not be necessary.”

    “What do you mean?” Marguerite demanded.

    “It is a funny thing… relationships between parents and children,” Aines said. “Sometimes we think our words do not matter. But they have a way of resonating… for years to follow. Look at you and me - even now you cannot forget what I have done and said. It shapes you even now.”

    Aines paused for a moment and looked away.

    “It is not just us, of course,” Aines said. “Your husband and his father. Your son and his father. Your son and you. Your daughter is no exception. What you say to her matters. I do not know if she can be salvaged. But… the way I see it, you must try.”

    “I… she fills me with rage,” Marguerite said. “Frustration. I failed her as a mother. As I did Aubry. As I did Foulques. They did not harm others though. She wished to.”

    “And your eldest sons are dead,” Aines said.

    The words felt like a knife to her gut. And she was unable to speak. However, Aines did not release her from her gaze.

    “But your daughter is not,” Aines reminded her. “So all is not lost. You may continue to wallow in your misery, lamenting your multitude of failures, or you may resolve to do better, so that she does not suffer the same fate… and drag your other children down with her. But it is your choice, my dear.”

    “How can I save her?” Marguerite asked. “She will not listen.”

    Aines shrugged. “Then cut the limb off. It is what I would do. But you are not me. So I would suggest using all the wits and resilience you used to outlive your many enemies, and focus them to the one thing left that you can save.”

    Aines stood up. “I have made you listen, despite all that you hate me for. I would think your daughter, who wronged you, would be a much easier task.”

    “But how?” Marguerite asked. “I thought you all were here to usher me to the beyond.”

    Aines smiled. “No my dear. Your time will come soon enough. But not yet.”

    Marguerite looked at her with wide eyes. Then, when she blinked, Aines was gone. The room was settled… as if no one had been there. The wine cups were empty… but perhaps they had always been so? Her father? Gone. Agnes as well.

    And Marguerite’s eyes fell to the table before her. She felt empty. She felt worthless. She felt alone.

    ….

    Days later, Marguerite sat alone once more in a small manor near the town of Saumur.

    It was an area much smaller than she was used to these days, given she had spent the past few decades in a palace. This residence had but a main hall and a singular bedroom, which Marguerite had decided to share with her sister on this occasion, her daughter having gone back to Brittany.

    But at this moment, Mascarose was down in the hall, as Marguerite awaited the guards to arrive with her guest. A guest, who was a resident of the nearby keep.

    The door was opened and the guards entered. Unbound but still a virtual prisoner, Aines d’Anjou entered the chamber.



    The Princess of Aquitaine had been shifted from keep to keep, with an occasional manor mixed in, over the past few years. Between her murder plot, and embarrassing two out of wedlock children, it was considered best to keep her out of sight.

    Even here, she was not given the greatest of conditions. She was not given this room in the manor. Instead, she was kept in the draft keep nearby, under close guard, with a few servants.

    Aines was thinner than when Marguerite had last seen her. But that was hardly surprising - she wasn’t living the most glamorous of lives in a pseudo exile. In some ways, she had stumbled into Aubry’s life.

    Though this is entirely her doing, Marguerite thought.

    The guards left and Aines stood before her. Despite her suffering, Aines did not cow, standing defiant before her mother, scowling in a manner that was reflective of her namesake.

    “You summoned me,” Aines said.

    “You have done a great wrong,” Marguerite told her. “It is scheming as your grandmother would have done. So too your grandfather. Scoundrels that they were.”

    “I have heard your disgust of me before, mother,” Aines said. She paused. “Am I permitted to call you that now? Or is it still forbidden?”

    Marguerite frowned. Such hate. Such anger. Another failure.

    The words came surprisingly naturally. “I am sorry, Aines.”

    To that, Aines’ eyes grew wide. “You… you what?”

    “I am sorry,” Marguerite repeated. “I failed you. As I failed all my children in some way or another. Aubry. Foulques. Beatritz. Even Geoffrey and Alias, but perhaps they had enough other people around them to salvage them. Or perhaps they are doomed as well. I do not know.”

    Marguerite sank her face into her hands as her eyes stung. The thought of her eldest sons made her chest ache once more. But she knew she had to press forward.

    “You did what I have done,” Marguerite said. “In bedding a man who was not your husband. But at least you did not do it while you were already married. I did not teach you to plot against kin - that was the others. But did not fight hard enough against it. Not like I tried with Geoffrey. Even Alias.”

    Aines’ brow was raised as she seemed uncertain of what to make of any of this. Marguerite couldn’t blame her - she wasn’t certain what to make of this either.

    “You… you came here to apologize for this?” Aines asked. “I… I do not know what to say.”

    “I did not just come here to apologize,” Marguerite said. “I came to… to do what I failed to do first. That is… be a proper mother to you.”

    “I think that is too late,” Aines said. “I wanted a proper mother and not an unfeeling ghoul years ago. There were times when I tried to speak to you. When I tried to ask about… the urges and thoughts I had. But it was never anything but dismissal and… and…”

    “You’re right,” Marguerite said. “But it is never too late to start. For you need only look to me to see what not to do.”

    The queen mother sighed. “Your eldest brother, Aubry is dead.”

    Aines’ eyes widened. “I… I had not heard.”

    Marguerite nodded. “I visited his grave. He died away from his blood. Isolated. Not forgotten by men, for he was a man of the cloth. But forgotten by his family. And afterthought to all. I failed him.”

    “Now you understand why I wanted more for my children,” Aines said.

    Marguerite shook her head. “You misunderstand. Aubry would not have been served by being a lord. Or a king. He would have been served in a world that cared and thought something of him. Your children need not be anything more than what they are to achieve that. But they need a mother who can do that. And if they only get a schemer, then they will be doomed to suffer the same fate as my eldest son.”

    Aines eyed her. “I don’t understand.”

    “Your fate does not end in that dusty keep,” Marguerite said. “You have another chance. Do it well enough and you will be Duchess of Toulouse and eventually Poitou. You will still be a princess, sister to a king. Your children will have a chance to be something in your brother’s court… if you do right by your family.”

    “Geoffrey hates me,” Aines said. “I don’t blame him. But he does. He will never treat me as his blood again.”

    “You are his sister,” Marguerite said. “He could have killed you. Or banished you. Or sent you to a convent. He instead allowed you to keep your union. Most people do not get such an opportunity after crimes such as yours. Make something of it. That is my mothering… advice to you.”

    “And if I don’t listen?” Aines asked.

    “Then your children will suffer,” Marguerite said. “As mine have. You included. If that is what you want, by all means, do as you do. For mark my words, it will happen. If you want something better for them, heed my warning instead.”

    Marguerite stood up. “Now then, I have lost another son. But I have sworn I will not lose my daughter without a fight.”

    “What do you mean?” Aines demanded.

    “I have left my children to their own devices long enough,” Marguerite said. “You shall return with me to Bordeaux and take up residence in my chambers. And I shall truly watch you, and guide you… as I should have done before instead of letting you be.”

    “Return?” Aines asked. “Has Geoffrey sanctioned it?”

    “No,” Marguerite said. “But he is too busy to care. And his children are not in Bordeaux. Just yours… and I have not forgotten that promise, should you ever be caught plotting against your family again.”

    Aines swallowed hard. “What if he sends me away again?”

    “He will not,” Marguerite said. “So long as you keep your nose clean. And your legs closed.”

    Aines blushed. “Mother… I…”

    “If you are with child again, tell me now,” Marguerite demanded.

    “I am not,” Aines said. “After Giselle’s birth, the guards told me they had license to skewer Count Gui if he came anywhere near me.”

    She lowered her head and her voice. “Or anyone else who was caught in my bed.”

    Marguerite wished to laugh, but it brought back uncomfortable memories. Instead she just looked at her daughter square.

    “Then let us return to Bordeaux. It is time for you to finally learn how to be a true lady… and believe it or not, you will find few better teachers than myself.”

    Aines just eyed her and Marguerite knew she didn’t believe it. And Marguerite didn’t know if she believed it herself.

    But she had meant what she said. She did not know if she could truly save her daughter. But she owed it to all of her children to finally try.
     
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    Chapter 259 - July 1135
  • JabberJock14

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    • Crusader Kings II: Sons of Abraham
    • Crusader Kings II: The Republic
    • Crusader Kings II: Rajas of India
    • Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods
    • Crusader Kings II: Legacy of Rome
    • Crusader Kings II: Charlemagne
    • Crusader Kings II: Holy Fury
    • Europa Universalis IV: Dharma
    • Europa Universalis IV: Rule Britannia
    • Europa Universalis IV: Cradle of Civilization
    • Europa Universalis IV: Mandate of Heaven
    • Europa Universalis 4: Emperor
    • Crusader Kings II: Monks and Mystics
    • Europa Universalis IV: Rights of Man
    • Crusader Kings II: Reapers Due
    • Crusader Kings II: Conclave
    • Europa Universalis IV: Cossacks
    • Crusader Kings II: Horse Lords
    • Europa Universalis IV: Common Sense
    • Crusader Kings II: Way of Life
    • Europa Universalis IV: El Dorado
    • Europa Universalis IV: Third Rome
    • Crusader Kings II: Jade Dragon
    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 259
    July 1135 - Axminster, Kingdom of England

    It was a stark change from a half year ago.

    The walls of Axminster had yet to yield. From his place on a hill overlooking the town, Geoffrey could see the defenders at their positions. They had held on for over a month now, and did not appear near breaking.

    But the king was hardly fussed.

    He stood in the warmth of the summer sun, enjoying that despite a relatively clear sky, it was not too hot, even in his armor. In his hand was a cup of wine, which he swirled as he looked out at the defenders. The king, well out of the range of their archers, but still close enough for them to see him, waved at the defenders.

    Berard, by his side, was left to smirk at his friend’s actions.

    “Now you’re just taunting them,” he said.

    “I’m just being courteous,” Geoffrey said. “They’ll need to know their king is a kind man.”

    “When he’s in a good mood, at least,” Berard added.

    Geoffrey smiled. He was in a good mood these days.

    After storming Lydford, and suffering heavier casualties than he would have liked, Geoffrey had moved on to Exeter. He feared something similar initially, as the walls were also well built and defended by a fairly large garrison.

    But his fears proved unfounded, as Exeter simply did not have the supply to hold out for long periods, or the guts to raid his siege camp. The town fell within three months of Geoffrey’s arrival, meaning most of Devon was now under his control.



    All that remained was Axminster, a town of note but ultimately smaller than Lydford or Exeter. And like the latter, the enemy had just sat behind their walls, as if waiting for divine intervention to save them.

    Geoffrey looked into the sky for a lightning bolt. But on this clear day, none was forthcoming.

    Spies leaked word the garrison already wished to surrender. They had not because protocol would have placed them at risk from retribution, should they ever find themselves under the rule of Ecgwyn again. But Geoffrey had been assured that they would surrender by the end of summer… and given they would need to harvest for fresh supply in the fall, that made enough sense to place him at ease.

    It was all a formality at this point. England would fall soon enough. He’d even had Ælfflæd hold court in Lydford a month ago.

    It was a way to quiet her a bit - his wife had been rather angry when she’d gotten word of how the town was taken. Geoffrey insisted it was necessary, and that she of all people should know such things could happen in war.

    He guessed that didn’t exactly calm her, so offering her the chance to hear the concerns of her new subjects and giving them some sort of aid was a compromise. Especially since he was not present when she did so, as he conducted the siege here.

    Word had reached him of the funds she wanted to compensate the people for their suffering, and Geoffrey had approved it. The amount was a relative pittance to him, and he paid it with some of the money he’d taken from the Lydford keep after it fell.

    His wife was now calm enough, another town had been taken, another was soon to fall and the young usurper was on the run, with even her most loyal vassals refusing to provide additional support. The wine was truly sweet these days.

    Of course, he wondered if he tempted fate with such a run of good fortune. And the approach of Prince Alias and Duke Simon suggested something might be up.

    Alias was usually the one who delivered news to Geoffrey. Normally, when it was mundane, unimportant information, he came by himself. But when it was something bigger, such as when Geoffrey’s half-brother Aubry had passed, Simon had come with Alias to deliver the news upon their return from Brittany.

    Geoffrey and Berard both took a few steps toward the pair, with the king eyeing his brother as the prince came up upon them.

    “So Alias, what news do you and Simon have for me?” Geoffrey asked. “Important?”

    “Extremely important,” Alias said. “News from Rome. Pope Martinus is dead.”

    Geoffrey nearly choked on his wine, spitting it out in shock and causing Alias and Simon to jump back. “He’s dead?! Truly?”



    Berard added: “Such a shocking turn of events. We are all truly surprised and saddened by the news, are we not?”

    Geoffrey caught his friend’s point. “Of course. I know he had been ill for some time… I am glad he is with… at peace now.”

    He could not even bring himself to fake saying Martinus was going to God. A man like him deserved the fires of hell. Or at least an eternity in purgatory.

    “Who has been chosen as his successor?” Berard asked.

    Geoffrey’s brow rose. “Nicola? Cardinal Nicola?”

    “The messenger did not know,” Simon said. “The cardinals must convene in Rome and make their selection.”

    It made sense, but it would make for some nervous nights. Geoffrey was relieved to be done with Martinus, at least in this life, but Nicola would pose his own sets of problems. The man was loyal to Martinus, so even if he was a eunuch, and thus not a threat to bed his wife, he did hold the potential to carry over grudges.

    Arrigo… why couldn’t you have been more fortunate, Geoffrey wondered.

    Still that it would not be Arrigo meant a plan was needed. Unlike his father and grandfather, Geoffrey had grown too intertwined with the church to ignore these proceedings. The cardinals had given him their blessings - a new pope could easily take them away.

    “Send word to uncle Adhemar in Normandy,” Geoffrey said. “I want him here to discuss matters. And Prince-Bishop Emmanuel needs to be on his way to Rome, if he is not already.”

    “He’s not a cardinal,” Berard noted. “He won’t have any say in the proceeding.”

    “It doesn’t matter,” Geoffrey said. “He’s gained us influence before. It makes sense he is there now in this important time. And who knows? Perhaps they will look to him for the soon to be vacant spot among the cardinals.”

    “I shall send the word out,” Alias promised.

    “Good,” Geoffrey said. “Oh, and have the men crack open a cask from my coronation year.”

    Alias’ brow picked up. “I thought you were saving those for when this town fell.”

    “Just one cask,” Geoffrey said. “I have a desire to… have something nice this evening. As well as share it all with you.”

    Berard and Alias grinned, though Simon just scratched his head. Alias then bowed.

    “It will be done brother,” Alias said.

    The king patted his brother on the back and then watched as the prince and Duke Simon headed off.

    “Try not to celebrate too hard,” Berard warned. “Don’t want anything getting back to Rome.”

    “Celebrate?” Geoffrey asked. “I was just struck by fancy. Who can tell the reason for such inspiration?”

    Berard chuckled before asking: “Shall we head back then? Before your fancy passes?”

    Geoffrey nodded but not before he turned, and smirked as he again waved at the defenders. This time, however, one of the men took aim with his bow and fired an arrow at the king.

    Seeing it, Geoffrey’s heart skipped a beat as he traced the arrow’s arc through the air. It sailed higher and higher before beginning it’s rapid descent… and striking the earth well away, not even reaching the foot of the hill.

    Another smile forming on his face, Geoffrey raised his cup to the defenders and headed back to his tent.

    …..

    Adhemar arrived at the siege camp a little over a week later.

    Geoffrey wasn’t sure if his chancellor would look harried or stressed upon his arrival, having to technically travel through enemy lands to reach the siege camp. But Adhemar looked nearly as prim as pristine as he would in Bordeaux, with just the typical dust and dirt blemishes on his clothes from riding.

    To be sure, after Adhemar had dismounted his horse and greeted Geoffrey, the king asked him how his journey was.

    “As safe as can be,” Adhemar said. “Nary a peep from even brigands along the road.”

    It brought a smile to the king’s face. There was a small fear that as he moved on, the English would look to create trouble in his rear. But that had not yet happened and appeared unlikely ever to at this point.

    “How was the queen?” Geoffrey asked. “I have not seen her since Exeter fell.”

    “She manages well, I think,” Adhemar said. “The show she put on for me in Lydford for my night there was as fine as it could be, given the size of that keep. And what happened there just months ago. Your son and daughter looked well too.”

    “I pray her court is a precursor for what is to come soon,” Geoffrey said. “The English lords on their knees before her and myself.”

    “They may be stubborn,” Adhemar said. “My liaisons with Duchess Adelise suggested her peers may hold out for another year or more. But it is unlikely they will mount any threat beyond cowering in their manors and keeps, hoping we pass them by.”

    “Exactly what I like to hear,” Geoffrey said. Then he directed Adhemar inside the tent. “The others are gathered inside. And you must be thirsty as well.”

    Adhemar followed Geoffrey into the tent, where Berard, Alias, Simon, Rogier and his brother Centolh were gathered. Each already had their drink as they stood around a table in the center of the tent.

    Once Adhemar had taken his, and greeted those gathered, Geoffrey began the meeting.

    “So… have you any news over Rome?” Geoffrey asked.

    “None yet,” Adhemar said. “The cardinals must make their way to Rome, after all. So there is time to prepare how we wish to handle whoever is raised.”

    “Would there be a problem with anyone but Nicola?” Geoffrey asked.

    “There may not even be a problem with Nicola,” Adhemar advised. “There are very few the church can turn to at the moment. The Kaiser is beset by a massive revolt and is excommunicated. Hungary is also in revolt. The Kingdoms of the Northmen are far removed. You have England on its knees. And the Iberians continue to fight among themselves.”

    “There is the kingdom of the Franks,” Centolh noted. “They have greatly strengthened while we have been involved in England.”

    While it was regrettable, Geoffrey knew it was true. Alphonse had defeated the Mallorcans, reclaiming his father’s first conquest from a half-century before. He’d also managed a son, after three daughters.

    But much more importantly, Flanders had once more found itself under the rule of the Frankish kings.

    Geoffrey’s cousin, the child Boudewijn, had been defeated by their cousin Leonard of Paris. The Duke had installed the Frankish prince Yves, uncle to the lord of Paris and cousin to Alphonse. And Yves had sworn fealty to the man who had won him Mallorca.



    In the process, Alphonse had now reclaimed all the former independent fiefs that had split thanks to the rebellion led by Geoffrey’s father. The exception was Aquitaine, which held Aquitaine, Poiters, Anjou, Gascony and Toulouse from the old Frankish kingdom.

    As much as Geoffrey wanted to begrudge his uncle Guilhem’s insistence to focus on the Kingdom of the Franks, the king suspected it might have been prudent after all. Not that he’d admit it, of course.

    “Do you see if Alphonse makes any moves against us, while we are involved here?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Not yet,” Alphonse said. “He has pledged his armies to the Iberian kingdom of Castille, to aid them in their war against the heathens.”

    “He did what?” Geoffrey asked.

    “It seems as if he wishes to make a point,” Centolh said. “Where as it has been made clear you wish to make Iberia your own as the price at driving off the heathens, he will do it for no direct gain to himself.”



    Geoffrey turned his glare toward his cousin. But he then switched his gaze to Adhemar.

    “Is it effective?” Geoffrey asked. “Does he find favor with the church?”

    “He does,” Adhemar said. “But the church is not foolish. Alphonse has done much, but he still stands to be far weaker than us, especially if the English soon bow before you. If you worry they will openly back him against you… I would not be concerned.”

    “What about less openly?” Berard asked.

    Adhemar paused for a moment, his thumb rubbing against the other fingers in his hands. “Possibly… but we can handle less open threats. The late Pope Martinus often operated in such manners.”

    Geoffrey grunted but nodded. He wanted better than the status quo, but he could live with it if necessary.

    “Keep an eye on it,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t need our situation made any more complicated than it already is.”

    “Of course,” Adhemar said.

    “So… you spoke of the revolt against the Kaiser,” Geoffrey said. “How does it fare?”

    He had heard about a revolt by the King of Sardinia, who owned holdings across both Italy and Germany, with his goal of breaking free from the excommunicated Kaiser.

    “Poorly,” Centolh said. “The forces of the King of Sardinia stand strong. At this rate, the Kaiser may lose large portions of both Germany and Italy.”





    It brought a smile to the king’s face. Even if he believed he would prove a match for the Kaiser if required given his healthy finances, Geoffrey knew the easiest way to win a war was have someone else fight them for him.

    “I assume the Kaiser has also been quiet about my sister-by-law’s claim,” Geoffrey said.

    There had been some grumbling by the Duke of Swabia and the Kaiser over the fact that Ælfflæd’s sister, Æthelræda, had a better claim to the throne of England. Likewise, the Duke intimated that his son was the rightful king.

    But it was something Swabia never could hope to press on its own - they couldn’t stand to Geoffrey by himself, let alone with the entirety of Aquitaine behind him.
    And the Kaiser was unlikely to find the resources with his rebellion, nor support from anyone - since an excommunicated foreign emperor was not exactly better than a church-favored king.



    “The only concern I have with the Kaiser being weakened is that it might embolden the Franks,” Berard said.

    To that Geoffrey shrugged. “A weak Kaiser is better than a strong, come what may with the Franks. Now, Adhemar, anything else from there?”

    “A bit of scandal, though not from Germany,” Adhemar said. “It involves your old foe, the Duchess of Dauphine.”

    “What of her?” Geoffrey asked.

    “She apparently was caught in the bed of her uncle,” Centolh said.

    Geoffrey’s eyes widened. “Truly?”

    Adhemar nodded and the king could not resist a smirk. Besides the fact it was nice to know others could be caught in embarrassing affairs besides him, he did not forget the duchess refusing his overtures after capturing her at Murat some seven years before.



    I think I would have been far less embarrassing than your uncle, he thought.

    “Will anyone move against her?” Berard asked.

    “Not yet,” Adhemar said. “She has an ally in her son on her northern border, the Duke of Transjurania.”

    Geoffrey scratched his head. The name sounded familiar.

    “He is technically your uncle, though he is a few years your junior,” Cenolth said. “Through marriage to your aunt Ermengarde.”

    “And they had a son, recently, correct?” Geoffrey asked. After Centolh and Adhemar nodded, Geoffrey continued. “Interesting. I wonder… is there opportunity there? Maybe the duke could be brought under our influence?”



    Adhemar shrugged. “Hard to say. Perhaps we should work on his mother first? She seems in a more vulnerable position. Then we work on her son.”

    “The Duchess has good reason not to care for me,” Geoffrey said. “But send feelers to my aunt.”

    “How shall we address the elephant in the room there?” Centolh asked. “That we did nothing as her son lost his duchy, and his independence, to the Capetians?”

    “I don’t remember the Flemish lords being amicable to us, or her,” Geoffrey said. “So it is hardly our fault. Surely she can see that.”

    “It is hard to say,” Adhemar said. “Duchess Ermengarde was very friendly with your aunt Agnes, as well as your father. Perhaps we can use that to our advantage. Shall I head there?”

    “No,” Geoffrey said. “Stay in Normandy. Send a few emissaries. If things advance, Centolh can go.”

    The young d’Uzes man grew wide-eyed for a moment, but quickly dropped his expression, followed by a solemn nod.

    “Speaking of relatives, I have another matter,” Adhemar said. “I spoke to an emissary from Hungary. Your uncle Charles searches for aid for your cousin Charlotte’s position.”

    Geoffrey knew a bit about that situation. Charles was the youngest of his paternal uncles and aunts, the bastard son of the Iron Duke Foulques IV and Etiennette Karling. He had been married off to the queen of Hungary - a union which produced two daughters before the queen was murdered.

    Now the young Charlotte struggled to hold her crown as nobles sought to oust the girl, born of a foreign father and an unpopular mother. And her father Charles had been recently imprisoned.

    “Do I look in any position to send aid?” Geoffrey replied. “I’m sorry my uncle is locked in a dungeon but--”

    “He is out,” Adhemar said. “They lost the land, so he was released.”

    Geoffrey shrugged. “So their war is over? My cousin has been dethroned?”

    “No,” Adhemar said. “That was defending against encroachment of a German lord with claim to some lands. Though they met defeat there, Queen Charlotte remains on her throne, defending against rebellious Hungarian lords.”



    Geoffrey grimaced, his head beginning to hurt over trying to keep track of it all.

    “I… why do I care again?” Geoffrey asked. “I’ve never met Charlotte, nor her sister. And all I remember my uncle for was his habit of leaving bastards in the bellies of servant girls.”

    As Geoffrey looked around the table he saw the gazes of those gathered fall away, and he got the message clear enough. He tended to lay with noblewomen, but he certainly had entertained a few different maidservants over the years, and a few bastards, unacknowledged given their mothers’ low status, had been left in his wake.

    But he was a king. It was a little different than when a prince, and a legitimized bastard at that, went around doing it.

    Shaking off the looks he’d gotten, Geoffrey added: “So he wants aid. I repeat what I said before: do I look in any position to provide it?”

    “You have nearly 9,000 men in Aquitaine,” Adhemar said. “That is over twice what Charles says they can put into the field.”

    “You would advocate leaving Aquitaine unguarded?” Geoffrey asked. “After what happened before?”

    Adhemar shook his head. “I merely point out what they said to me.”

    Geoffrey didn’t doubt the emissaries said it, but Adhemar likely championed the idea as well.

    “What do they offer to secure the king’s aid?” Berard asked. “Surely they do not just expect it because they are kin. Not now, anyway.”

    “A marriage,” Adhemar said. “To the young queen herself.”

    That drew Geoffrey’s attention. “Who do they want?”

    “Prince Alias, ideally,” Adhemar said, turning his gaze to the king’s younger brother. “But if not him, Prince Guilhem would also suffice. So too would your sister’s bastard, Toumas.”



    Geoffrey scoffed. “Why him? They have a thing for bastards in Hungary?”

    “I suspect they do not wish to be ruled… directly by Aquitaine,” Adhemar said. “So they hope Prince Alias or young Toumas would provide a link but not the direct hand your son, who would then be king of perhaps three realms, would result in.”

    “My mother may have brought my sister back to Bordeaux, but I have my reservations,” Geoffrey said. “As for the others…”

    “They would make me king?” Alias asked as he interrupted his brother.

    “They would, once the queen came of age,” Adhemar said. “Until then, your uncle would still continue as he currently does, handling much of the realm’s affairs.”

    “That would not be for a decade,” Geoffrey said. “I would hope to see you wed far sooner.”

    Alias swallowed hard. “I am in no rush.”

    That drew a roll of the eyes from Geoffrey. “Part of my plan with…”

    His voice fell off as Geoffrey wondered if now was the right time for this. He had an idea of how Alias’ marriage plans were to go - and they were tied to the war in Navarra. But now might not be the time to complicate the conversation further.

    “We will discuss that later,” he told his brother. Looking back to Adhemar, Geoffrey continued. “I have little desire to send my son to Hungary now for a betrothal. Perhaps the girl can come here?”

    “They will never agree to such things until we commit men to their defense,” Adhemar said.

    “A time table on when we would need to commit?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Immediately,” Adhemar said. “Or, at least to secure a betrothal. They will not agree to it until a substantial Aquitaine force arrives in Hungary.”

    “They are not in a position to negotiate,” Geoffrey countered.

    Adhemar shrugged. “It is their demand. I cannot change it.”

    “Then negotiate it,” Geoffrey said. “Because I am not leaving England until this is done. And Navarra is next, after this. I do not want that boy to get any stronger.”

    Word had reached Geoffrey a few months back that the child king of Navarra had, by good fortune, inherited the lands of the duchy of Aragon, doubling the size of his holdings. It would make life more difficult for Geoffrey when he did turn his attention south.



    “I would think us able to beat him regardless,” Rogier said.

    “So do I,” Geoffrey said. “But I don’t want the church getting any ideas. Who knows what may follow with a new pontifex? Delaying Navarra to claim England was unavoidable. Doing it to help a cousin I’ve never met, for a vague promise of marriage a decade off… is not prudent.”

    “So I am to be made to wait again?” Alias snapped.

    Geoffrey gritted his teeth and shook his head before turning to Adhemar. “Unless anything is pressing, this meeting is finished. Thank you for your information uncle. You can remain here as long as you like before returning to Normandy.”

    “Thank you nephew,” Adhemar said as he bowed.

    The rest of the men moved to depart, but Geoffrey held Alias back. Not that Alias would have far to go anyway, given he resided in his brother’s command tent.

    Alias crossed his arms after the others had left and glared at his brother. It just left Geoffrey to sigh loudly and shake his head once more.

    “You need to trust me,” Geoffrey said. “Our uncle wants to use us. Nothing more.”

    “Nothing more?!” Alias demanded. “I would be a king!”

    “In name only,” Geoffrey said. “You would not rule in truth.”

    “Our uncle seems to have a great deal of say,” Alias said. “He was a consort.”

    “Because his daughters are left without their mother,” Geoffrey noted. “Hardly something to expect, nor wish for. His position is weak. He spent time as a captive in the past year!”

    “I could do better,” Alias swore.

    “You have no idea,” Geoffrey said. “I will be likely left to either defend or abandon you, since those Hungarians are unlikely to accept another foreign king.”

    “You say that as you seek to make yourself King of England?” Alias demanded.

    “Yes, me,” Geoffrey said. “Myself. It is my choice what to do with my armies. I do not ask anyone else to lend me men they are not already obligated to provide. You? You have no men to call upon.”

    “If you gave me Navarra,” Alias began.

    Gave you,” Geoffrey said. “Again, it falls to me to provide. And even if I do, Navarra will not be enough to defend Hungary.”

    “It might be!” Alias said. “If we took more than just the petty kingdom and the whole of the child king’s lands instead. He inherited Aragon as well!”

    Despite Alias’ wishes, Geoffrey was hesitant to demand more than what the church had sanctioned.

    “I can’t promise Aragon,” Geoffrey said. “But even if I could, it does not make your plan any more practical. You will be a relatively new lord… abandoning your lands to run to your queen? Or will she abandon her throne to stay with you? Either way it is a recipe for disaster.”

    Alias shook his head, but stammered as he searched for the words to defend himself. Finally he said: “So you would give your son this crown instead?”

    “I don’t know what I will do,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t think I want my son in Hungary, when he might well be needed in England, to say nothing of what I would give him in Aquitaine.”

    “So you will… let this pass by?” Alias asked.

    “I don’t know,” Geoffrey said. “That is my point. I am in the middle of a war to secure my wife on the English throne, and myself beside her. Then I plan to make you the Duke of Navarra, which will be harder than I originally expected now. I cannot, and will not commit to anything with Hungary now. I don’t care what they promise us.”

    Alias lowered his gaze and Geoffrey prepared for another round of their verbal joust. But the prince just shook his head.

    “I understand,” Alias said. “Just… consider it in the future.”

    “I don’t know if you should wait so long for marriage anyway,” Geoffrey told him. “It would be near a decade. I’m not sure that’s what father had in mind when he told me to find a place for you.”

    “I think he would approve of making me a king, as he did his brother,” Alias said.

    “His youngest brother, who was a legitimized bastard,” Geoffrey noted. “Who he didn’t have a place for… if you had not noticed.”

    “More like the brother he had available at the time,” Alias said. “It does not speak ill of uncle Charles.”

    “Father had me,” Geoffrey said. “I was only a few years away from ruling. And you, even if you were a bit further. He chose Uncle Charles. If it was as valuable a place as they want us to believe, I’m guessing father would not have bypassed us.”

    Alias lowered his head again. But Geoffrey figured that was harder to refute.

    “Brother,” Geoffrey began. “I promised father I would provide for you. I would make certain you were a powerful lord in your own right. I intend to do that - but you are not even 16 yet. Your time will come. I swear it.”

    “So you have sworn before,” Alias said.

    “And you doubt me?” Geoffrey asked.

    “No… forgive me,” Alias said.

    Geoffrey shook his head. “You do doubt me. You think I seek to block you. But understand, brother, if I wished to be rid of you, to not fulfill father’s wishes, I would send you to Hungary. And then I would do nothing.”

    Alias swallowed hard. “Nothing?”

    “Nothing,” Geoffrey said. “I would leave you and your queen to your devices. If you succeeded, good for you. If you failed… then you would be gone. But that’s not my goal. That’s not what I want. Do you understand?”

    Alias nodded. “I do.”

    “Good,” Geoffrey replied. “Now I do have to start searching for a marriage candidate for you. I want you to be wed before you ascend in Navarra. I will look at our cousin, Etiennette, second daughter of King Alphonse of the Franks. But if you can think of another choice, I am open to it.”

    Alias blushed. “None that I can think of at this time.”

    “A pity that my wife’s Norman cousins are taken by their decrepit old husbands,” Geoffrey said. “I think a union with them would make a fine way to bind our realms together.”

    Alias swallowed hard once more. “Uh… yes. But do they not align against us?”

    “Adelise has bent the knee in secret, she will do so in public soon enough,” Geoffrey said. “If her sister wishes to keep Lancaster, she will do the same. In any case, it is neither here nor there, for they are not available. So we shall see what emerges.”

    “Yes, brother,” Alias said.

    They fell into silence, and Geoffrey was uncertain what else he could say. He didn’t have a wife for Alias at the moment, and would have to search to get one. He also didn’t have Navarra yet to give him. All he could do preach was patience… and hope his brother accepted that.

    The silence, however, was broken as Rogier d’Uzes entered the command tent once more. He did so with Duke Simon and Berard. Surprised at their appearance, Geoffrey put down his cup.

    “Forgive our intrusion, cousin,” Rogier said. “But I have news I think you will want to hear.”

    “Let’s hear it then,” Geoffrey said.

    “Axminster has offered to open its gates,” Rogier said. “Provided the garrison is spared. I will naturally demand all their supplies and a tribute to keep our soldiers pleased. They expect loot.”

    As relief washed over him, Geoffrey waved Rogier on, indicating his approval of the deal. The city had not driven him to the consternation Lydford had, so he had no problems with that arrangement.

    The king stood up and walked to the map. Alias, Simon and Berard followed.

    “Every town and village in the region now bows before you,” Alias said. “Congratulations brother. England shall soon be yours.”

    Alias then slumped his shoulders and made his way from the tent, leaving Geoffrey to sigh. It truly did irk him that his brother didn’t seem to trust he would make right by him soon.

    Berard, paying it no mind, asked: “What shall our next move be? We could turn on Somerset, or push further into Cornwall?"

    Geoffrey looked at the map. He could attack his wife’s uncle by marriage in Somerset, but he was slightly concerned that might draw Adelise or Aevis directly against him. The latter more than the former, but he wished to take no chances in trying to isolate the girl “queen.

    “Let us deny Ecgwyn and her banners everything,” Geoffrey said. “We will move into Cornwall, and by the time we are done, the girl and her knights will have no strength to do anything. The lords and ladies of England will have no choice but to acknowledge us, saving us the trouble of having to lay siege to everything in this country. And let us be honest - razing the whole of this island would upset the queen. None of us want that.”

    “Especially you,” Berard whispered to him. But after a light shove from Geoffrey, Berard simply smiled and nodded before adding: “As you wish, my king.”

    Geoffrey met the smile with one of his own. His confidence was growing daily as barriers were removed. Martinus. Ecgwyn’s holdings. Her men. All were falling by the wayside.

    Soon enough he would stand triumphant over England. And perhaps a great deal more as well.

     
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    Chapter 260 - June 1136
  • JabberJock14

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    • Crusader Kings II: Sons of Abraham
    • Crusader Kings II: The Republic
    • Crusader Kings II: Rajas of India
    • Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods
    • Crusader Kings II: Legacy of Rome
    • Crusader Kings II: Charlemagne
    • Crusader Kings II: Holy Fury
    • Europa Universalis IV: Dharma
    • Europa Universalis IV: Rule Britannia
    • Europa Universalis IV: Cradle of Civilization
    • Europa Universalis IV: Mandate of Heaven
    • Europa Universalis 4: Emperor
    • Crusader Kings II: Monks and Mystics
    • Europa Universalis IV: Rights of Man
    • Crusader Kings II: Reapers Due
    • Crusader Kings II: Conclave
    • Europa Universalis IV: Cossacks
    • Crusader Kings II: Horse Lords
    • Europa Universalis IV: Common Sense
    • Crusader Kings II: Way of Life
    • Europa Universalis IV: El Dorado
    • Europa Universalis IV: Third Rome
    • Crusader Kings II: Jade Dragon
    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 260
    June 1136 - Sutton, Kingdom of England

    “Don’t let him sack it.”

    Geoffrey stood in the lord’s chamber in the manor house in Sutton. Across from him stood Queen Ælfflæd, her face one of determination. But as Geoffrey met her gaze, staring into her eyes, he saw something else.

    Fear.

    “Look, you know how this goes,” Geoffrey told her. “They were offered a chance to surrender. They did not take it. When it falls, there will be repercussions.”

    “I am aware,” Ælfflæd said. “Heavens know I am aware of all that. But this is family. My aunt did nothing wrong. If anything, she hoped to win support for me. Not to mention she is Adelise’s mother.”

    Geoffrey sighed. Ælfflæd had demanded he speak with her over the siege of Wareham, which was happening the next county over. There Duke Foulquesson, having arrived in England in January, was laying siege to the Duke of Somerset’s main keep. And talk had already spread that the Duke of Brittany had sacked the town, and let loose havoc on all who lived within its walls.



    Rumor wasn’t always fact, however, and Geoffrey knew that the town had not fallen yet - at least from the duke’s last message this morning. News would be at least four days behind with even the fastest of riders, but Geoffrey was reasonably assured his uncle had yet to take the walls, let alone unleash anything on its inhabitants.

    But Ælfflæd was nonetheless concerned, specifically for her Aunt Gunhilda, Duchess of Somerset, and her cousin, Hextilda, the 13-year-old daughter to the duke and duchess. And she had first demanded answers over the rumors and now assurances that they would not come to pass.

    However, while Geoffrey could calm her over the former, he could make no guarantees over the latter.

    “I realize you worry about your aunt and cousin,” Geoffrey said. “But if you have not noticed, I am here. Not there.”

    “Then go there,” Ælfflæd said. “Or let me go there.”

    Geoffrey nearly spit out his wine. “Let you go? Alone? Are you mad? My uncle would ride here immediately to challenge me to a duel for something he’d deem so insulting.”

    “And you’re worried about that?” she asked.

    “He’s a decaying husk,” Geoffrey said. “I have no doubt I’d defeat him. But then I’d have to kill him, because he could not take the humiliation of surrender. And trust me when I say, killing one of my prominent vassals, a blood uncle no less, is not something I need right now. Nor something you need, given your reliance on my armies.”

    And Geoffrey had meant every word of that. Foulquesson was in even worse shape these days than when the war had begun.

    Aside from the continued effects of his leprosy, the duke had been severely wounded while fighting with Ælfflæd’s uncle, Duke Osmund of Kent, on the mainland.

    Osmund had attacked some of Duke Simon’s retinue to the southeast of Toulouse back in the fall, and Foulquesson, who’d heard reports the Duke of Kent was in the area and marched his men to intercept, joined the battle late on.



    The result had been another resounding victory for Aquitaine, but Foulquesson had been struck by a lucky lance point during the encounter. It did not go deep, but caught the duke’s eye, which he had now lost.

    That wound had not only been the reason Foulquesson had missed capturing Osmund, or so he had claimed, but had also left the duke in a fouler mood than usual. And so Geoffrey figured he might as well use that to his advantage, recalling him to England and sending him to Wareham to hopefully bring the Duke of Somerset to his knees.

    With Cornwall falling quickly then, and now fully in Geoffrey’s grasp, Osmund left with scraps unable to do anything, breaking Somerset at Wareham might well be the push needed to finally end the war.

    Only now he was having to deal with possibility he’d unleashed a rabid hound on a close relative to his wife, without any good means of getting the dog under control.



    “I will see what I can do,” Geoffrey said. “Foulquesson is irritable these days. Even more so than usual since he lost his eye.”

    “I don’t care the reason,” Ælfflæd said. “I just want my aunt and cousin safe. Lyford was bad enough. It will not make my life easier if I have to answer for your uncle inflicting horrors on a woman from one of the most prominent families of the realm, sister to a former queen, brother to a duke and mother to a pair of duchesses in their own right.”

    It was an argument he could hear his father making. And so Geoffrey could not deny his wife any more than he could the old king.

    Geoffrey made his way to the door and ordered the guards to find Alias or Duke Simon so he could have them send a message to Foulquesson to make certain Duchess Gunhilda and her daughter were spared.

    “There,” Geoffrey said. “Happy?”

    “I would prefer one of us go,” Ælfflæd said. “To make certain there are no mistakes.”

    “I gave my uncle command of that siege,” Geoffrey said. “I do not plan to revoke it. If he violates my order, he will be punished. I will deny him any further command.”

    Ælfflæd crossed her arms. “What of the town?”

    “I will look to protect your aunt and cousin,” Geoffrey said. “That’s all I can do, even if I commanded the siege myself.”

    That wasn’t entirely true - he’d been far more lenient to Axminster last year than most other towns, but he didn’t want this argument to continue.

    There was a knock on the door and Duke Simon entered. Geoffrey was hoping for Alias, since he trusted his younger brother more than his cousin, but gave him the order anyway.

    “And I want to make it clear,” Geoffrey said, “should anything happen to Duchess Gunhilda or young Hextilda, the duke will face a permanent loss of command. For Navarra, I’ll leave him in Brittany. Make sure he understands that.”

    Simon nodded. “Shall I take it to him personally?”

    Geoffrey glanced to Ælfflæd and given her stern glare, nodded as well. “Go with Knud.”

    Simon’s eyes widened for a moment while his face grew pale. “Y..yes… cousin.”

    He bowed and departed, leaving Geoffrey grin. He didn’t think Foulquesson plotted against him anymore, but he didn’t want to leave him alone with Simon. Knud being present was exactly the type of intimidation required for such a situation.

    “Satisfied?” Geoffrey asked his wife.

    “No,” Ælfflæd said. “But thank you for your efforts, nonetheless.”

    “I hope you show such backbone with your new subjects,” Geoffrey told her. “They could use a ruler who does not cow before their every whim.”

    He could see Ælfflæd furrow her brow and yet have her lips curl up for a little smirk. She didn’t want to like what he said, but she had.

    “Anything else then?” he asked her.

    “No,” Ælfflæd said. “I will recall my ladies and we can return to our tasks for the day.”

    Geoffrey snapped his fingers. “That reminds me. Have you settled on your new chief lady in waiting?”

    Just under a half year ago, Lady Helie had passed. She had fallen ill in the fall, and by the start of the new year could not rise from her bed. Days later, she passed in her sleep.



    It was true she was an old woman - the last person he knew who had known and spoken to his grandmother Beatritz. She was well over seven decades, and had seen much sadness in her life, from the fall of her nephew in Burgundy, to the deaths of her two children, and eldest granddaughter, Eve de Semur, prematurely. She’d also outlived her husband by decades.

    But as she had told Ælfflæd before, she had enjoyed many other things, including seeing her young great-granddaughter become Empress of the Romans in her own right. It had not always been easy, but Helie claimed she lived it to the fullest, and had few regrets.

    Yet it was clear by the sudden sullen look in Ælfflæd’s eyes at her mention that her passing still strung, even though Helie had passed months ago. It was something, given he’d heard they did not get along well at all when Ælfflæd had first arrived.

    “No,” Ælfflæd said. “I have yet to raise any of my other ladies. Why?”

    “I think you should strongly consider Assalide for the role,” Geoffrey said.

    “I should do what?” Ælfflæd asked. “She is the newest among them. Benoite and Escarlemonde have been with me for longer.”

    “Escarlemonde is a known harlot, given her bastards with my uncle Charles,” Geoffrey said.

    “She’s been faithful to Knud!” Ælfflæd argued.

    “For some that’s not much better,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t agree, of course, I just state what is.”

    “So then Benoite,” Ælfflæd said.

    “There are rumors about her as well,” Geoffrey said, neglecting to mention they involved his own father. “But more to the point, her husband is a foreign-born nothing. He served my father for a time, but was replaced. Whereas Assalide is the wife to my advisor - a council member.”

    Ælfflæd rolled her eyes. “A landless brother to a count who only holds status due to his father. If Berard were not your friend, he would be nothing.”

    “But he is my friend,” Geoffrey said. “Which makes him something.”

    “You are too much,” Ælfflæd said. “It is not enough that I must replace a woman I still mourn, but you do not even let me choose who I wish to take her place?”

    “It is a helpful suggestion,” Geoffrey said. “Of all your ladies, Assalide has the most status from both her family and husband. And she is a proper woman, upholding of tradition and our ways.”

    “Ah, so I do not revert back to my old ways when I rule England?” Ælfflæd asked. “If you even permit me to do that, given you won’t even let me pick my ladies?”

    “You can scoff at me all you wish,” Geoffrey said. “But you remain Queen of Aquitaine. The expectations upon you will not change just because we have added England to our holdings.”

    “Unless you are to discount the expectations of those new English subjects,” Ælfflæd replied.

    “They will need to learn to adjust to us,” Geoffrey said. “It is not as if they come to us willingly.”

    Ælfflæd narrowed her gaze. “I see. I suppose it will be good then, that I am their queen. They will need someone to guide them in how to humble themselves before one with an ego as grand as yours.”

    “Your sympathy for those that would stab you in the back the first chance they got is something,” Geoffrey said. “Whether it is admirable or foolish, I haven’t decided.”

    “They are my people,” Ælfflæd said. “That I have been queen of Aquitaine for going on a decade does not change who I am.”

    No, that was Tunis, he thought. It was clear to him now that Ælfflæd’s own standing with her people was not what she wished it would be due to the years she had spent there. In truth, she spent almost half of her life away from England at this point, between Tunis and Aquitaine.

    It meant that to some, Ælfflæd would never be a true English woman, Saxon woman or whatever they were calling themselves these days. But he’d wised up about telling her that - there was no point in breaking her confidence now when he wanted her at her best for when the nobles surrendered.

    “In any case, I could make you take Assalide as your chief lady,” Geoffrey said. “But I won’t. As I said, it is just helpful advice from someone who knows our court. You can do as you please.”

    Ælfflæd crossed her arms, continuing to eye him. “I shall take it under consideration, husband. Have you anything else for me to consider?”

    And while he had her, he did have another thought. “You know that I look for a wife for Alias. I was wondering if there were any women in England I should consider?”

    Ælfflæd’s expression changed, from discontent to apparent surprise. She was left to shrug her shoulders.

    “I have been away from here for nearly a decade,” Ælfflæd replied. “From what I know, all the duchesses, Adi, Aevis and Maud are still wed. There is Hextilda. She is the duke’s daughter. Currently she is his heiress.”



    Geoffrey scratching his chin. Alias could have Navarra and have a wife as a duchess? That might not be a bad way to keep him pleased...

    “That could work,” Geoffrey said. “Do you know of anyone else?”

    “Not at this time,” Ælfflæd said. “But I can have an emissary from Adi ask her to look into it.”

    Relying on Adelise was never his preferred option, but the idea Alias could be used to help bind England’s prominent nobles to their house was a concept that had been growing on him of late.

    Of course, even if Geoffrey had a preferred candidate, there was no guarantee they would be available for his brother. His early attempts at arranging a union between Alias and Princess Etiennette of the Franks had gone poorly. Far from arranging an alliance, Alphonse’s emissaries believed it would be a precursor for Geoffrey to attack the kingdom should Alphonse pass, as he had done with England.

    The thought had crossed Geoffrey’s mind, though fully elevating his brother to a status equal to him in a foreign kingdom was not necessarily a wise decision. But the Franks would not be convinced, and Geoffrey knew now he must look elsewhere for a bride for his brother.



    He’d briefly considered the Basilissa Markia of the Roman Empire, his late aunt Agnes’ granddaughter, given her status and the fact they were family, making potential negotiations easier.

    But the girl was young at only four years of age. It would be a decade before she was old enough to marry, and there was no guarantee she would still be Empress then.

    Of course, the idea that his brother would be emperor, consort or not, of the Roman Empire, was not something he could stomach. He wasn’t sure if his father would be annoyed for his son to be ruling over those “Greek pretenders” or proud his son ruled over the empire he idolized. Either way, Geoffrey wasn’t about to make it happen.



    But he would get no further insight into the matter with Ælfflæd now, so he bid his wife farewell, and left the chamber, allowing her ladies to filter in behind him. Among them was a servant holding his chubby faced daughter Marguerite, who he now called Margo, now over two years old. He gave his daughter a wet kiss and decided he’d like to hold her, taking her from the servant.

    “Would you like to go walking with dada, Margo?” Geoffrey asked her.

    When Margo nodded, he kept her in his arms, stuck his head into Ælfflæd’s chambers and told her he was taking his daughter outside.

    Once outside the manor, he ran around, with his daughter laughing with joy as the warm summer breeze blew through both his and Margo’s brown hair.

    “Faster dada!” she exclaimed.

    And so Geoffrey obliged, enjoying what he’d gotten to experience a bit more lately - being able to actually spend time with his family. It wasn’t something that hadn't concerned him much when Guilhem was young, but ever since he’d heard his daughter laugh for the first time, he’d been aiming to make it happen over and over again.

    He succeeded on this day, as she giggled and cheered. But he was brought to a stop by the sight of his cousin Centolh approaching.



    “Geoff, if I might have a word,” he said.

    “You may,” Geoffrey said, keeping hold of his daughter’s legs around his neck.

    “There is an emissary from the kingdom of Sicily who has arrived in the town,” Centolh said. “He’ll be staying here the night as he travels north to visit with the Duchess of Mercia. The Norman rulers look to find possible marriage candidates of Norman blood and Adelise is one of the most powerful remaining.”

    “And you wish me to greet him for appearances?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Well that, and… they have a princess available,” Centolh said. “Princess Alisce, sister to King Osbern.”

    Geoffrey’s brow rose. He had mentioned to Centolh his desire to find Alias a wife. So that his cousin had already found a royal candidate was a pleasant surprise.
    “Forgive me,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t know a great deal about princesses from kingdoms in Italy. How old is she?”

    “The lady is 24 years,” Centolh said. “Recently widowed, but certainly not too old.”

    “She is older than my wife was when I married her,” Geoffrey noted.

    “True, but not much older,” Centolh said. “Especially since Alias is of age. And as your wife shows, that age is certainly no impediment to having children.”
    “I’m uncertain,” Geoffrey said.

    “Well, she is… third in line for the throne,” Centolh said. “That is higher than your wife was when she and you were wed.”

    “I am not looking to war every realm to install my family as their rulers,” Geoffrey insisted. “England provided a unique opportunity - my wife and children had far more right to the throne than a usurper.”

    “Of course,” Centolh said. “I merely speak of opportunity, should the Sicilian nobles also get any ideas.”

    Geoffrey eyed his cousin, though what else could he say? His reputation was sealed. Every realm near to him would forever eye him with suspicion that he eyed their lands. And in some cases, like with the Franks, it probably was true. But it also would draw him the ire of places where he didn’t have a great deal of interest, like Sicily.



    “So if they suspect me of wishing to install my brother on the Sicilian throne, why would they ever agree to the union?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I’m not certain they would,” Centolh said. “But time is not on the princess’ side. And they come to deal with their Norman cousins, the most powerful of them already is ours in all but name. I’m sure Duchess Adelise could put in a good word for us, should we ask nicely.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. Adelise had held her men back from this conflict, but beyond that, she’d failed to deliver on practically everything she had promised over the years. Having to trust her once was bad enough. But twice?

    “I have my doubts,” Geoffrey said. “Still it would be good practice for Alias. He’ll need to impress visitors if he is to rule his own lands.”

    “Agreed,” Centolh said. “Shall I send for Alias?”

    “Where is he?” Geoffrey asked. “I say we just get him.”

    “If that is what you wish,” Centolh said.

    However, a quick search around the manor home itself did not turn up Alias. So Geoffrey moved back outside, but much to Margo’s disappointment, without her.

    “I want to come, dada,” Margo whined.

    “Maybe later,” Geoffrey told her. “It’s important for me to find your uncle. And I don’t know where he is or what he’s up to. So stay with mama.”

    Margo frowned as a servant girl and guard led her back toward the lord’s chambers, and Geoffrey felt a small twinge of guilt. But Margo had already complained during the search that she wanted Geoffrey to run around again and probably lacked the patience to stay with him.

    The search continued. In the yard, Geoffrey saw Prince Guilhem, now eight years of age, playing with Berard’s son Savarics, the pair laughing as they swung wooden swords in the air. By the looks of things they were trying to impress Benoite’s de Bourges's nine-year-old daughter Toda, all under the watchful eye of Berard himself.

    “Come to see how your son aims to impress ladies?” Berard asked.

    “Not this time, though I’m certain he does well enough,” Geoffrey said. “I imagine he could give young Savarics pointers.”

    “Given what the prince may have learned from you, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” Berard joked.

    Geoffrey gave him a slight shove, but continued with his main reason for stopping.

    “Have you seen my brother?” Geoffrey asked. “There is an emissary I wanted him to meet.”

    “Last I saw, he was headed toward the stables,” Berard said.

    “Ah, thank you then,” Geoffrey said. He paused and took a look back at Guilhem, smiling sweetly at Toda. Then he leaned in close to Berard. “Keep him from getting too close to her. You’ve heard the rumors of her parentage.”

    Berard nodded and started over toward the children. Geoffrey didn’t like the talk that surrounded the girl - that she was secretly actually his half-sister, sired of an affair between Benoite and the late king years before. If it were true… Geoffrey did not want his son blindly walking himself into a potential scandal.

    With that situation somewhat diffused, Geoffrey and Centolh made their way over to the stables, with a few others along the way confirming Alias had gone into them.
    Yet when they arrived, there were a few horses in the stalls, but other than that, Geoffrey did not see anyone. Centolh even made a walk around the perimeter while Geoffrey stood at the entrance.

    And that’s when Geoffrey heard the sounds.

    It took a few moments, but the king soon recognized it for what it was. The heavy breathing, the muffled sound of whispered compliments…

    Centolh returned and before he could say anything, Geoffrey motioned for his cousin to follow him from the stables. Once they had, Geoffrey looked back toward the entrance.

    “He has a girl with him,” Geoffrey said. “I know those sounds anywhere.”

    Centolh scratched his head. “Is that it? Are you sure? I have not seen him make eyes at any ladies.”

    “It is probably some Saxon servant,” Geoffrey said. “Which is good. No one will care if he gets her pregnant. But… I want to have some fun with him.”

    “What are you planning?” Centolh asked.

    “I’m going to catch him in the act,” Geoffrey said. “What else?”

    “Is that wise?” Centolh asked. “He’s your brother. And I would think he wishes for privacy.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “Cen, far too often I just act as his king. For once, I want to treat him as my younger brother. Embarrass him a little, but compliment him after.”

    The king crept along as quietly as he could. In his tunic, hose and boots, he could move somewhat quietly, though he had to hold his sword at his belt to prevent rustling. Tracing the sounds, he came upon a stall on the far corner, at the back of the stable. Creeping up to the door, Geoffrey motioned for Centolh to follow, which he did, slowly.

    Then, once they were in place, Geoffrey threw open the door to the stall… and was left wide eyed at what he discovered.

    Alias was seated on a couple of small bales of hay. As Geoffrey expected, there was someone with him, on their knees before him. But when that person picked up their head, Geoffrey could immediately see from the short cut of their hair, and the beginnings of a beard, that his brother was with no woman.

    Meanwhile, both the man and Alias turned their gaze toward Geoffrey, with the color fading from their faces. A momentary stillness fell over the stable.

    “What… in… what…” Geoffrey stammered. “What is the meaning of this?! What are you doing with…”

    “Why did you come here?!” Alias shouted.

    “To find you to discuss…” Geoffrey began. “No! This is not about me! I was not caught coupling with… with… This is inexcusable! This is….”

    “Get away!” Alias shouted back. “Get away now!”

    “I am your brother and your king! You cannot command me to…” Geoffrey retorted.

    “Cousins!” Centolh exclaimed as he moved in front of Geoffrey, but continued to face the king. “Now is not the time. The stables are within earshot of many things… and many people.”

    Geoffrey glared at his cousin. He wanted to curse him for speaking of such concerns now. It would be what Adhemar would say. Or Geoffrey’s father.

    But it wasn’t wrong.

    Geoffrey tore the cloak off his back and threw it at Alias. “Cover yourself. Clean yourself, alone. Then confess.”

    He glared at the stable hand. “And you, if I ever catch sight of you near my brother again… I shall have you tossed into a river with weights tied around your ankles.”

    Geoffrey stormed off from the stall, quickly moving from the stables and then pausing at a tree a few hundred feet away. His breathing was rushed, his heart racing and when he shut his eyes he could see the image again, his brother, the young man….

    The king forced his eyes so wide open they nearly bulged from his head. His breathing remained rushed and he gripped tightly at his own tunic, at his chest.

    I can’t believe what I just saw, he thought. I never imagined my brother was…

    He could not even bring himself to think it, let alone say it.

    “Geoff.”

    Geoffrey spun around to see Centolh before him. His hand was out, as if he wished to reach to comfort him, but it trembled as he hesitated.

    “What?” Geoffrey snapped.

    “Alias has redressed himself,” Centolh said. “And I can… escort him from the stables. Some heard the noise and came to investigate.”

    Geoffrey’s heart skipped a beat.

    “Be rid of them!” he ordered.

    “I have,” Centolh said. “The best I could, anyway. I think no one suspects anything, for no one saw…”

    “Except us,” Geoffrey said.

    “Yes,” Centolh said. “I uh… there is I know it is not the best time… but the Sicilian emissary…”

    Geoffrey grew wide-eyed and didn’t respond. Centolh, the color faded from his face, backed away slowly.

    “I… I will say you and your brother are unable to see him at this time, but both send your regards and hopes for safe travel.”

    There was no response, with Geoffrey just glaring at his cousin until Centolh hurried away.

    And with that Geoffrey made the slow walk back to the manor home. He did so alone, with Berard being waved off as he came to check on Geoffrey during the journey.

    Geoffrey walked into the manor, numb to the world around him - so much so that he simply barged into the lord’s chamber without knocking, even as Ælfflæd and her ladies sat around, sewing. He then plopped himself down on an empty chair, prompting the queen to hurry to him, as did Margo.

    “Dada?” Margo asked. “Did you come to get me?”

    Geoffrey didn’t respond to her tugging on his tunic, and Ælfflæd stared at him, her brow raised.

    “Husband? What has happened? You look as if you have seen a ghost!” she said.

    “I saw something I shouldn’t,” Geoffrey told her.

    “Do you wish to speak of it with me?” Ælfflæd asked.

    He just slowly shook his head. Ælfflæd’s brow raised, continued to eye him.

    “Do you wish for me to take my ladies outside the chamber?” Ælfflæd asked.

    Geoffrey again said nothing, just nodding quickly. So the queen looked to her ladies and motioned for them to depart the chamber. Ælfflæd, trailing behind them after scooping Margo into her arms, paused at the door.

    “I shall be in the main hall if you wish to speak to me,” she replied.

    Geoffrey nodded and Ælfflæd went to leave. But she stuck her head back into the chamber once more to ask: “You have received no news about your armies? Or the war? Is it something to do with our son?”

    The king shook his head, and Ælfflæd’s expression remained perplexed. With a slight shrug she finally left him alone, the door closing behind her.

    Geoffrey was silent as he sat in the chamber, still in disbelief, and struggled to make sense of it all.

    Of all the possibilities Geoffrey had considered, this had only briefly crossed his mind. Far more likely, he thought, was Alias desired Ælfflæd or Ana. Maybe something more perverse, like a close relative such as one of Beatritz’s daughters, or a married woman like Sarrazine. But to be a sodomite?

    True, it was far from unheard of among the whispers in the court. Uncle Guilhem was widely suspected of it, and Geoffrey, Alias and those within the royal family essentially knew it to be fact. There was also Alias’ namesake, the late count of Perigord, who Geoffrey never confirmed but based on what he’d heard, and the way Berard, Ana and Alberic reacted to such rumors, there was little question in his mind.

    But his brother?

    What if someone else had found him?

    The shame would have been terrible, rivaling anything Geoffrey had ever done, even the Sarrazine disaster. And it would be at the worst time - right when neither he nor Ælfflæd needed anything to fuel resistance of English lords against them. It was easy to envision them holding up Alias as a symbol of the evil and sin that would follow Angevin rule over the island, especially when linked with the tales of what had happened to Ælfflæd in Tunis.

    I need to find a wife for him immediately. Perhaps Ælfflæd’s cousin… no that is still a few years off…

    Geoffrey shook his head. He tried to remember that he had discovered Alias, not anyone else. So it could have been a disaster, but for now… it was not.

    For now, Geoffrey thought. All that happens now is that it remains hidden. But that could change. One slip up. One mistake. One servant who sees something they shouldn’t… or a well placed spy who finds exactly what they need.

    To say nothing of the sinful nature of it. Could he really allow his brother to venture down that road?

    Be good to your brother.”

    Geoffrey could hear his father’s voice clear enough, even now. It was among the final things he had told him. He did not remember everything about the rest of it… but he did remember asking: “I do not know what Alias shall want.”

    His father had told him bluntly then: “It will be your job to learn.”

    What would you say now, father,
    Geoffrey wondered, now that I know what Alias desires… and it is a sin. And what you no doubt would consider an embarrassment. What would you have me do?

    He sat in silence, hoping something would come to him. Some sign, some voice… some memory, something to help guide him.

    Far from nothing came. But it was too much. Too many thoughts, too many possibilities, too many memories and moments… simply too much.

    Trying his best to shut it out, Geoffrey dropped to his knees, and prayed in silence.



    ….

    Had they been in an army camp, Geoffrey wasn’t certain what he’d have done. But back at the manor in Sutton, he had more space to operate and could steer clear of his brother.

    So he was able to think on the matter for some time on his own. Not that any easy answer was forthcoming.

    On one hand, it was a sin, was it not? But why should he be surprised in a family that was awash in it? From his ancestor, who married the daughter of the devil, to his grandfather had murdered a man, married his wife and then years later, bedded her daughter. His father had consorted with heathens and had perhaps bedded his own sister.

    And it was not as if his non-demonic side was any better. His mother had laid with a man who was not her husband, his grandmother helped murder his grandfather.
    Bath in sin, one cannot be surprised that you end up soaked in it.

    And his family had. Alias was a sodomite. Aines an attempted kinslayer. Of his full-blooded siblings, only Foulques seemed to be above it all. And as his mother so often said… perhaps God had called him to heaven as a result.

    What did this bode for him? And his family? Would Prince Guilhem fall victim to vice as they had? Would his little Margo one day suffer?

    If he wished to break the cycle perhaps it behooved him to take strong action on Alias. Demand he never venture down that path again. Threaten he would not receive Navarra if he was caught again. Surely that would force him to re-evaluate his choices.

    But… he is my brother…

    He had taken strong action against Aines, his sister, in the past. She’d been virtually exiled for the last few years. So it wasn’t as if he’d not punished blood before.

    Yet, Aines had plotted the murder of his son. That was a far greater crime than sodomy, no matter how it was spun. Insult was far greater than injury.

    And despite that crime, Aines was being slowly brought back. He had not stripped her of her betrothal to Duke Simon and that meant she was allowed to retain her status, dinged as her reputation was.

    A temporary punishment was an option, but would it really be worth it given the nature of their offenses? Alias might have sinned, but he was loyal.

    And for all his worry over how his father would have reacted, in some ways, Geoffrey had seen exactly how he had.

    His father could have cast out Alias de Perigord. He could have moved against Duke Guilhem. He didn’t. Whether that was because they faked it well enough or not, Geoffrey did not know. But their private lives were not secret to the old king - of that much he was fairly certain.

    And if his father would not force away his friend or bastard half-brother, could Geoffrey really be rid of his full-blooded younger brother who he had sworn to protect?

    Maybe the old king had other reasons too. Perhaps having that over their heads made them less likely to betray him. And while Geoffrey had little interest in blackmailing his brother, it probably didn’t hurt to have that bit of extra reason for Alias to be appreciative.

    But ultimately, every time he tried to bring himself to think of a punishment, he felt it was too harsh. From the threats, to other punishments besides a reprimand. How could he inflict worse upon Alias than any of his other family members had suffered for their transgressions?

    And I just wanted to play with him, Geoffrey thought. I wished to be his brother for once. And now… now because of that I’m to be his king and nothing more?

    His mind was still uncertain about a week after the incident, even though he had summoned Alias to meet him in the chamber in the manor home in Sutton.

    How would Alias act? Repentant? Obstinate? Would he even think to deny it, saying Geoffrey had misunderstood what he’d seen? The king himself had wondered, almost hoped, for that very thing over the past few days.

    The first hint may have been that Alias did not enter the chamber with his head held high. He was sheepish, shoulders slumped, head down, as if he were trying to hide in plain sight. If he had any defiance, he hid it well.

    And in that moment, Geoffrey’s lingering anger faded. Instead he felt a pity… a sadness, for the brother he’d hoped to provide for, the brother he’d hoped to groom properly as his father requested. And with it came an urge… to protect him.

    Alias stood opposite Geoffrey, who sat in the chamber at a table. The prince did not even place his hands on the chair before him, so Geoffrey had to motion for him to sit. Nervously, Alias did as he was told.

    “You… you wished to see me,” Alias said.

    Geoffrey nodded. “We must discuss… the stables.”

    Alias’ eyes fell away from the king. “I am sorry, brother. I know there is no excuse for such things.”

    “I do not know if that is true,” Geoffrey said. “I have thought on it this past week and I wonder if you really are to blame. Father’s court has never been a bastion of piety. The opposite in fact. I mean, look for who you were named!”

    Alias picked his gaze up and met his brother’s, with brow raised.

    “What are you saying?” Alias asked.

    “It is not your fault,” Geoffrey said. “Our family has brought such things upon us with their past. But we will move past it.”

    He poured Alias a cup of wine and placed it in front of him. “We will find you a wife quickly. A woman who is of age, who you can marry by the end of the year. And then you will have a duty, and can start fulfilling it, siring children, as I have. It did not take me long and I suspect it will not take you long either.”

    Alias picked up the cup and stared at it in silence. Unable to let the silence hang, Geoffrey continued.

    “You made a mistake,” Geoffrey said. “But you are my brother. I will not turn my back on you. I shall make sure you never want for a woman again, so that you need never turn to… that… ever again.”

    Alias’ brow suddenly furrowed, and his lips, quivering, frowned. Shaking his head he turned his gaze back to Geoffrey.

    “You think it is because I lacked women?” Alias asked. “You think it is something that I can just ignore?”

    Geoffrey’s mouth hung open. Try as he might, he could not find the words. For he had no idea what to say without sounding ignorant.

    “If I could ignore it… I would have,” Alias said. “I cannot.”

    “Have you tried?” Geoffrey blurted out.

    “Of course I tried!” Alias exclaimed. “I have been trying for years! I tried confessing to the priests. I tried some of the solutions they offered. I prayed the feelings would leave me. I thought perhaps with age, I would find a lady or a girl pretty. I even went to the whore house in Sutton after I… before, when we returned from Cornwall. The best I could manage was with… she was nearly your size and perhaps stronger. But it didn’t… I couldn’t with her. I can’t with any woman.”

    Geoffrey shook his head. “You have to.”

    “I can’t!” Alias shouted again, rising from his chair. But he grimaced and then fell back within it. Covering his face for a moment, he mumbled out: “Duke Guilhem. You know what they say of him. My namesake… Alias de Perigord as you point out. There are others too. I’m fairly certain our cousin Adhemar is too. I am not alone.”

    “That is not my concern,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t care about them. There are expectations. You are a prince. You are expected to be married. To sire children. Can you imagine what mother would say? What father would do?”

    “Father would hide me,” Alias said. “Or send me to Count Alias, if he lived, to figure out how to hide it. But mother… don’t tell mother. Please. She hates herself already. I don’t want to cause her grief.”

    Geoffrey lowered his head. He knew that was true.

    “We must… we must look to find you a wife,” Geoffrey said. “If the Sicilian emissary passes through here again on his way back south, perhaps we can have you meet him. Then a good word can be passed on to his liege.”

    “What are you talking about?” Alias asked.

    “A Norman emissary from the Kingdom of Sicily,” Geoffrey said. “Here in England to visit with the queen’s cousins and discuss marriage prospects. But the sister of the king is recently widowed and could be a fine match for you.”

    “I don’t know,” Alias said.

    “It doesn't matter,” Geoffrey told him. “I have been asking for your input for years now and I got nothing. I now know why and as you say, it hardly matters who I choose.”

    Alias dropped his gaze and mumbled: “Yes, brother.”

    The frown and sullen look in Alias’ eyes, now pinned to the wood of the table before him, brought back the feelings of guilt Geoffrey felt. If he did not blame Alias for this, why was he coming down on him so? Did his brother not deserve better? Was this awful feeling, this strained relationship what he wanted now? Or for the rest of their days?

    Is this what their father, mother… or anyone else who cared for them wanted?

    “Alias,” Geoffrey said. “I made an oath to father to see to it you were properly taken care of. Land, titles. As I have said before, I will fulfill that oath.”

    “Thank you,” Alias said.

    “I’m not finished,” Geoffrey said. He sighed. “You remain my brother. Short of betraying our family, that is always how it shall be. You will be Lord of Navarra. You will be one of my prominent lords. Your destiny… remains unchanged, even now. So I swear it.”

    Alias picked up his gaze and met Geoffrey’s square. “Thank you, brother. I will not… I will not let you down.”

    “I have never doubted you,” Geoffrey replied.

    He was lying. He doubted Alias now. As much as he cared for his brother, he did. And he guessed Alias doubted him as well.

    Eventually this would come out. Perhaps not directly, but indirectly, in the form of viscous rumors. They had dogged the Duke of Poitou. They had done so to the late Count of Perigord. Eventually, they would find their way to surround Alias as well.

    What then? How would either of them know how to react?

    There was no one word which could put them at ease. Maybe their father had that capability, but Geoffrey knew neither one of them possessed it.

    So, the king took a deep breath and did something he did not do often - he spoke open and honestly.

    “When I… when I found you, I heard you before I opened the stall,” Geoffrey admitted. “I knew you were with someone.”

    Alias grew wide-eyed. “Then why?! Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?!”

    Geoffrey lowered his gaze. “I wanted to have fun with you. For so much of our lives, I have been your king. In all of our conversations, all of our business. It is tiring. I haven’t been able to just be your brother in years. Maybe ever. I’ve seen Berard with Alberic, or Centolh and Rogier, that kinship. No politics. No titles. No land, promises or obligations. Just an older brother messing around with his younger brother. I thought it might have been nice to have such a moment with you.”

    Alias shook his head. “And now… you never will.”

    “No,” Geoffrey said. “For days, I have tried to let it change things. But I cannot fully shake the fact that I cannot bring myself to punish you. I don’t want you to resent me. I don’t want to resent you. We are brothers. Soon in arms, but always by blood. That is enough.”

    “Even if I embarrass you?” Alias asked.

    “I’m sure I have embarrassed you before,” Geoffrey said. “The Countess of Thouars, for example.”

    Alias blushed and then began to grin, doing a poor job at trying to hide it.

    “Yes, I know,” Geoffrey said. “I could see it on everyone’s faces.”

    “Honestly, I kind of understood that one,” Alias said. “I just… the others...”

    “Ana?” Geoffrey asked.

    “No, she makes the most sense, even if I don’t think you should have,” Alias said. “It’s the scullery maid. The older, fat one who worked in the kitchens. That’s the one I never got. She’s old enough to be our mother.”

    “How did you know about that?” Geoffrey asked.

    Alias smirked. “When you try to hide things… you get better at seeing who else is hiding something.”

    Geoffrey had hidden quite a few lovers over the years and he hadn’t quite figured out Alias, so he wasn’t sure about that.

    Feeling the heat in his face, Geoffrey did finally answer: “She is not that old. Maybe a few years or little more than my wife. And she had a look about her that I enjoyed. And you should not be judging.”

    “I am just doing as brothers, do, Geoff,” Alias replied. “Is that not what you wanted?”

    Geoffrey sighed. “Well, at least I need not worry about the stable boy growing heavy with child, as the scullery maid did.”

    Alias chucked. “You probably would be happy if he did. So that you might pass him off as a woman.”

    Geoffrey pointed at Alias. “Don’t make this worse.”

    Alias nodded and fell silent for a moment. “Thank you, Geoff. I will do my best.”

    “I know you will,” Geoffrey told him. “Just… be a little better at hiding them than I was with Sarrazine. Or Ana. Or the scullery maid.”

    “So don’t be like you at all,” Alias said. “Understood.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes but raised his cup toward his brother. Alias did the same. He did not know if it would be enough. But at the moment, he oddly felt it did not matter. In time they would get past it.

    ….

    That time was not the next week however, as Geoffrey and Alias were still uneasy around each other. There wasn’t much the king could do about that - but he hoped it would fade in time.

    At least Geoffrey was getting along with the rest of his family. He had finally fulfilled his promise to run around with Margo, having not been up to it after finding out about Alias. He’d joined Berard in watching Guilhem and Savarics play. And he was getting along fairly well with Ælfflæd, with the pair often coupling during the day, since at night they shared the chamber with their children.

    And toward the end of that week, after one of their private times together in the morning, Centolh informed Geoffrey that they had a prominent visitor.

    Geoffrey and Ælfflæd both were made to quickly make themselves as regal as possible, with the help of their servants. Once they were ready, they made their way to the main hall and took their seats upon the thrones Geoffrey had brought in.

    A makeshift court was quickly put together for appearances, though it was little more than Geoffrey’s own commanders and household knights, Ælfflæd’s ladies, the children who had come with them all, along with some prominent individuals in the town to fill out the numbers - skilled artisans, traders and the like.

    The doors opened and a man came forth at the head of a small group of armed men, though a cloaked girl, wearing plain clothing followed in behind. Dressed in mail and still wearing a helmet, Geoffrey did not recognize him on sight, nor even after he removed his helmet and dropped to a knee before the thrones, but was thankful Centolh had informed him before of his identity.

    “King Geoffrey and Queen Ælfflæd,” Centolh began “May I present Duke Æthelsige of Somerset.”



    “Uncle,” Ælfflæd said as she looked down upon him.

    It was her aunt Gunhilda’s husband - the one who Ælfflæd had warned was perhaps a worse lecher than even Count Gui. Not someone Geoffrey wanted around any of his wife’s ladies, nor his wife, even if she had rejected his overtures before.

    “Queen Ælfflæd,” Somerset said. Speaking in Frankish he added: “Thank you for receiving me.”

    “Why are you here?” Ælfflæd demanded. “Where is my aunt? And is that my cousin behind you?”

    “It is,” Somerset said. “Hextilda. Come forth and kneel before your queen.”

    Geoffrey’s eyes widened as the words slowly processed in his mind. Your queen. Had he heard them right?

    Somerset continued, still on a knee: “Your aunt heads north to Lancaster as we speak.”

    “Forget about that,” Geoffrey said. “Did I hear you right? You have come to acknowledge my wife as your rightful queen? And me your rightful king?”

    Somerset narrowed his gaze at Geoffrey. Speaking slowly he said: “I have… come to recognize my lovely niece as my rightful queen, yes.”

    “What of Wareham?” Ælfflæd asked. “Did Duke Foulquesson let you pass?”

    “We escaped,” Somerset said. “I heard the man’s reputation and did not wish to place myself or my wife and daughter at his mercy. I arranged for the town’s surrender, once we were safely away.”

    Coward, Geoffrey thought. But coward or not, he had abandoned the usurper. It could well be the dam was breaking.

    “We accept your oaths,” Geoffrey told him. “What of your fellow lords?”

    “As I was saying,” Somerset began, “My wife rides north to speak with her daughter Aevis. Duchess Adelise already makes her way south, as does Hlothere, the new Duke of Northumberland.”

    “Æfrida has passed?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “Aye, a little under a month ago,” Somerset said. “It is not common knowledge yet. But Hlothere has no desire to place his holdings at risk by fighting this war any longer.”

    “If Aevis listens to auntie… that leaves just Maud and Sigeric,” Ælfflæd said.

    “Maud is ready to talk,” Somerset replied. “She will not sacrifice herself for the girl. Sigeric… I think he already looks to you, my queen. For after his wife recently passed, rather than marrying a young girl, he has married my wife’s, and your late mother’s, youngest sister, Seaxburg of Kent.”

    Ælfflæd’s eyes grew wide and she turned to Geoffrey. “They… they are…”

    Geoffrey could not bring himself to say the words. But he knew it as well as she did. They had won.

    He had a plan for when this happened, based on where it did. And who came first. They would have supped with Adelise. But Somerset was the enemy until moments ago - he could not be treated as well. Yet he could not be handled as a prisoner either - it had to be a middle ground.

    “Duke of Somerset,” Geoffrey said as he stood. “My men will escort you and your daughter to the manor home in Plympton. Make no mistake, you will be treated with all honors a man of your station deserves.”

    Somerset eyed Geoffrey as well as Ælfflæd. “Of course… King Geoffrey. Thank you and the queen for your generosity.”

    The king then ordered Rogier and Alias to be the ones overseeing the escort, figuring a commander as well as the prince would be honorable enough. Plus it was a reminder to Alias that he was not punished for being caught in that compromising position.

    Geoffrey smiled as he took the queen’s hand. She interlocked their fingers and squeezed tightly back.

     
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    Chapter 261 - July 1136
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 261

    July 1136 - Lydford, Kingdom of England

    Queen of England.

    Ælfflæd had repeated those words, that title, over and over again for weeks now. In fact, she had spoken those words since she was a girl, but they never had the meaning they did now.

    Of course, that meaning remained frustratingly elusive.

    Her mother had been queen. She had “ruled” in a sense, standing in for her husband when he was away. But Wulfrun was never her own woman - always Thoræd’s wife.

    In that, Wulfrun was what all queens of England, or at least those that Ælfflæd knew of, had been - secondary to their husbands and limited in their roles. The only exception was that of Æthelflæd of Mercia, who may or may not have ruled two and a half centuries before, during the time of the Vikings. It was not clear she was a true queen, at least in the current sense.

    No, Ælfflæd knew she stood on the precipice of something that felt historic. Monumental. She just didn’t know what.

    In the days following the Duke of Somerset’s arrival to announce the capitulation of the English lords, Ælfflæd had been struggling to make sense of it all. It did not seem real. And yet it was.

    The keep in Lydford was bustling in anticipation of tomorrow’s events when her vassals would swear their oaths to her. Servants, carpenters, and others were approaching her and asking for choices on design and layout of the main hall. Her, not her husband.

    It was true, that much of it could have fallen to her anyway. Salutations by guards happened while she was in Aquitaine. Looking over the ledger was something many women did. Arrangements for feasts might fall under their control. And she guessed Geoffrey had been offered these responsibilities first - he had just refused them.

    It felt different, but was it all an illusion? Was it just hopeful thinking, or a leash being loosened? Did it matter so long as she held the reins of power?

    Such questions led to many mostly sleepless nights for Ælfflæd.

    The previous night had been no exception, as she lay awake, Geoffrey fast asleep holding her tightly, as she stared at the ceiling of the solar and trying to definitively find her place.

    And like the nights before, she had yet to find her answer, hoping that perhaps the coming days would prove illuminating.

    She glanced over at her husband in the morning light that filtered in through the small window opening and into their bed. They usually shared a bed while in England - the lack of space compared to Bordeaux demanded it. And she’d noticed he tended to hold her more now than he used to, as opposed to when he would rest his head upon her chest as if it was a pillow.

    Less a boy and more a man by the day, she thought.

    She was actually feeling affectionate toward Geoffrey again. There was no doubt he had massive flaws in his personality; his lechery, his ego, his selfishness. And she had not forgiven him for the former, and his past humiliations of her.

    But he had done as he promised. He had made her Queen of England. After growing up disappointed with men who had failed to protect her and left her in a dungeon, in lands far away from her home - her husband had raised her to the highest of ranks, in the realm of her birth no less.

    It left her far more tolerant of his non-lecherous antics, which she had not caught him for a while, and she had little trouble playing the role of his queen with a smile on her face.

    She slipped carefully from Geoffrey’s grasp and made her way from the bed to look herself over in a dull mirror, to take in a more personal homage to the passage of time. Gray hairs had begun to appear among her long sea of black, which cascaded down past her shoulders. It would be tied neatly and covered for the show, hiding the fact that it was beginning to show a woman who soon would not be able to feign youth.

    She leaned in to look at her face. A few lines around her eyes and mouth. But it was also much fuller now and as she ran her hands down her sides to trace her shape, she could not deny she had grown fat over the past half decade.

    Just as his mother predicted, she thought.

    A small frown came to her face though she remembered it was the toll of her two pregnancies. And her husband hardly minded - he seemed more drawn to her now than he did back then. But then, given his affairs with heavy set Countess Sarrazine and possibly the late Duchess Essa, it was not a surprise.

    And it might have had the desired effect - her monthly blood was also delayed and she found herself queasy some mornings, this one not excepted, to the point where she suspected she might again be with child. It was still early for her to say confidently, and would not mention it to Geoffrey yet, but it was still another potential boon in a life suddenly filled with them.

    When she left England she was resigned to her fate, and unsure of what awaited. She was not even certain she would even be wed, given the death of Geoffrey’s father could have led to a sudden end to any marriage promise.

    Yet she returned with no doubt as a queen, not only of Aquitaine, but of England. She left a daughter, and returned a mother of two children, with possibly a third on the way. She left as an afterthought, a means to gain influence for the lords and ladies of her homeland, and nothing more. She returned above them all.

    She looked at Geoffrey in the bed, and again was reminded of how much more mature he appeared, at least physically. Did these lords ever think the boy who humiliated himself pretending to be a squire would be the one to humble them all? Did I think he was capable of this?

    She smiled. No. She didn’t. And it was nice to be pleasantly surprised for once.

    It was true for all their victory, they had seized but one county, Lydford. However, Ælfflæd consoled herself with the fact her family had risen from similar humble beginnings to become one of Europe’s great families. At least for a time.

    And now that time has come again.

    She would have preferred Wiltshire of course, but that remained in the hands of her nephew, the King of Jerusalem, who paid no homage to her. And she could not bring herself to attack him - for unlike with England, it would be a betrayal of family.



    Geoffrey had agreed, if only due to the sheer political calculus of it all. And the fact she knew he wanted to turn his armies on Navarra, and soon.

    How long that would be was uncertain, but Ælfflæd was not certain he would remain in England for the remainder of the year. He said the boy king of Navarra was gaining allies - this time Geoffrey’s uncle by marriage, the Duke of Transjurania, and he wanted to strike before anyone else joined the pair.



    A quick departure had the risk of emboldening the English lords, but Ælfflæd also wanted an opportunity to prove herself her own woman. Geoffrey being off in Iberia while she remained in England was a good way to dispel talk she was nothing more than his puppet queen.

    As she ran a brush through her hair, Geoffrey rose from the bed and came up behind her. His arms wrapped around her and he nuzzled his nose to her neck and ear, enough to make the hairs on her neck stand. She actually giggled.

    “I have never seen a more lovely queen,” Geoffrey told her.

    “How many queens have you seen over the years?” Ælfflæd asked. “Aside from your mother?”

    Geoffrey shrugged. “My… aunt Bella when I was a boy. They say her mother was beautiful.”

    Ælfflæd’s brow rose. “You fancied your aunt?”

    “No!” Geoffrey exclaimed. “I just say that she was born of a very pretty woman.”

    His blushing cheeks once more reminded Ælfflæd of the boy who pretended to be a squire. And she found it oddly endearing.

    “Oh!” Geoffrey said. “There was that Queen of Aragon. I forget her name. And my cousin Helie did become the Empress of the Romans… but she was not very comely.”

    Ælfflæd wouldn’t know. All she had learned of Agnes’ youngest daughter was that she had been wed to the Roman Emperor, bore him two daughters, and after his death had been shipped off to wed some noble in the forests of Eastern Europe. An ugly fate in her opinion and one undeserving of Agnes’ daughter, but there was nothing she or Geoffrey could do.



    Still, thinking of the younger Helie made her more grateful for her place today and with a smile she replied: “The most lovely queen, you say?”

    “Stunning,” Geoffrey said as he kissed her neck.

    “Careful,” she said quietly. “I’m fairly certain the children are awake.”

    Unlike the palace in Bordeaux, the royal family all shared a singular quarters, the solar. Ælfflæd had mentioned in Wiltshire her family slept in one large bed, but Geoffrey would not have that. He and Ælfflæd shared one, and then Guilhem and Margo had a smaller one of their own. The chamber was delineated by a wooden screen as well as a linen sheet, which split unevenly with the king and queen owning the larger partition.

    “I’ll tell Guilhem to find Savarics or one of his cousins,” Geoffrey said. “And have Assalide take Margo.”

    “I do not feel well,” Ælfflæd protested truthfully. “Perhaps this evening.”

    Geoffrey eyed her. “Ill in the morning?”

    “I am uncertain if it is anything,” Ælfflæd said. “And things could still go wrong. It is too early.”

    “Of course, of course,” Geoffrey said. “I will wait until you are ready… or until you are certain.”

    Ælfflæd resisted a roll of the eyes. Geoffrey maintained the idea husband and wife should not couple while the wife was pregnant - an idea that she knew from Assalide and Escarlmonde was not universal. It irked the queen even more to know Geoffrey had sinned in a different way during her pregnancies, laying with other women - as well as the fact she was fairly certain he laid with them while they were with child.

    But given her increased tolerance toward his antics, she let the matter rest. If she was again with child, perhaps she might be able to tempt him to abandon his resistance in time.

    “So then, provided you are feeling up to it, have you planned anything today?” Geoffrey asked her.

    “Nothing too strenuous,” Ælfflæd said. “I will be meeting with Adelise to discuss my council.”

    “Ah, have anyone picked out for a role?” Geoffrey asked.

    “No, besides Adelise herself as my advisor,” Ælfflæd replied. “Given her aid, I believe she has earned it.”

    “I think you should be skeptical of her advice,” Geoffrey told her. “But given the number of men at her disposal, if you keep her loyal, it should keep things quiet here.”

    “I think you understate her efforts,” Ælfflæd argued. “Without her, we would not be here.”

    “Without me, you would still be waiting for her to deliver our son a crown,” Geoffrey said. “But it matters little. You could use a friendly lord or lady of power here. She certainly fits well enough.”

    Ælfflæd smirked. “Glad to have your approval, my king.”

    “Since you seem so receptive of my suggestions, perhaps I might make another,” Geoffrey said. “As you do not have a pick for the position, then why not Centolh for your chancellor?”

    “Your cousin?” Ælfflæd replied. “Why him?”

    “He’s done well acting in the role for me here,” Geoffrey answered. “Including selling the Sicilian emissary on Alias as a possible husband for their Princess Alisce. I have half a mind to replace Adhemar with him… but I can’t do that to a high-ranking family member.”

    “So I am to take him on instead,” Ælfflæd said. “I am his consolation. And I get your hand-me-downs.”

    Geoffrey chuckled. “It’s not charity, my dear. He is qualified. And if you do not have good choices to serve you among your new lords…”

    “I see,” Ælfflæd said. “Your cousin as my chancellor. And I suppose his brother as my marshal? I know you’ll never release Berard to my service.”

    “No, he comes with me,” Geoffrey said. “Though his wife can remain with you, as she will not be accompanying me on campaign when we head south.”

    “How generous,” Ælfflæd said. She did little to mask her sarcasm. But Geoffrey seemed to care just as little. So Ælfflæd simply continued.

    “I cannot take your cousins on,” Ælfflæd said. “For the same reason you cannot fire your high-ranking family members. It would look poor on me. They already whisper I am your puppet. Sticking your cousins on my council would just add more to the fire.”

    “They can say what they wish,” Geoffrey said. “They will never do anything about it.”

    On that, Ælfflæd was not so sure. It was true, the Saxon nobles probably could not force Geoffrey to do as they had the Bastard, disinheriting his son. But William’s successor as king, Morcar, Duke of York, had been murdered - proof the nobles could plot against any monarch, even a fellow Saxon.

    “There are other ways to do things about it other than rebellion,” she noted.

    Geoffrey sighed. “Regrettably. Well, in any case, I leave those decisions to you. After all, you are Queen of England. Your council is yours to deal with.”

    She was surprised to hear him say that - in fact at first she thought her ears deceived her. But Ælfflæd soon realized they had not when Geoffrey continued.

    “I do not interfere with who my uncles select on their councils, nor any of my vassals,” he said. “It would hardly be proper to do something like that to you.”

    “I am…” her voice trailed off. A vassal. A queen in her own right… but not really. Just ruling at his leisure.

    On one hand, she wasn’t surprised. He was her husband, and husbands usually claimed dominance over their wife’s holdings.

    On the other, sometimes it was more talk than substance. The late Duchess Essa certainly had ruled in her own right, much to her husband’s chagrin. Maud, Adelise, Aevis and the late Æfrida all dominated over their spouses, even if in Maud’s case, her husband held lands.

    But then none of them were relying on their husbands to keep them in power. And thus Ælfflæd knew she could only be so pointed in her complaints - regardless of how much Geoffrey claimed to want his Boudica, it would be on him to provide the men to make it happen.

    Realizing it wasn’t worth the fight, especially given there would be the oaths tomorrow, Ælfflæd decided to move on.

    “Will you be joining us then?” she asked.

    “No,” Geoffrey said. “You and your cousin can discuss what you wish. I will be out riding in the countryside with some of our guests, my cousin Louis among them.”

    Ælfflæd was glad to hear it. Louis was Agnes’ son, and consort to the Duchess of Albany in Scotland. His wife was among the leading figures in a rebellion to install a new king of the land - a rebellion which had dragged on for years.



    By his own admission, Louis was sent here to feel out whether Geoffrey or Ælfflæd would be willing to aid them. But Geoffrey did not, regardless of his warm feelings toward Agnes, since he wished to turn on Navarra next. And Ælfflæd lacked the strength, both in men and position, to offer any herself.

    She imagined Louis was disappointed, but he claimed to understand it was a large ask, especially since his wife had not offered any aid during Geoffrey’s invasion.

    Still, Ælfflæd appreciated Geoffrey was willing to take Louis with him. Though she also wondered if he might be taking some other important persons from the Isles.

    “Are any of the Saxon lords coming with you?” Ælfflæd asked.

    Geoffrey laughed. “Do you wish for me to have an arrow in my chest due a ‘hunting accident’ or some sort? No, this is just a ride with Louis, my brother, Berard, Alberic and my other cousins.”

    That would be no small entourage. Geoffrey’s male cousins who were of age or close to it had come to Lydford. Some, like Duke Simon, Centolh and Rogier d’Uzes, were already present. But so too had Bishop Edouard, Ancel of Brittany, the younger Adhemar de Limoges and Geoffrey of Charolais. With the guards that would be traveling with them, it would be a group large enough to raid a village, if they so chose.

    “Papa!”

    Ælfflæd and Geoffrey spun around to see Guilhem standing by the linen sheet.

    “Papa, can I come too?” the prince asked. “On the ride.”

    “Of course,” Geoffrey said. “You, Savarics and Simon's brother Jacques will all come along. You are old enough to ride with the men… and the near men, in the case of cousin Small Fry.”

    “He’s not so small,” Guilhem said. “He’s taller than Uncle Adhemar!”

    “But shorter than me,” Geoffrey said with a grin. “And he always will be.”

    Ælfflæd rolled her eyes, at that insinuation, since the boy had shot up since she’d last seen him. “Small” Fry was close to Geoffrey’s height and might pass him yet. But she suspected her husband meant more than just physical stature, and his ego left her unable to resist a small grin of her own.

    She knelt down to her son, though these days she did not have to go far to reach his height. “You be careful. Papa forgets your age sometimes. And he will probably try to prove you ride better than Savarics.”

    “Please,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t need to prove it. Everyone already knows.”

    Ignoring him, Ælfflæd told Guilhem: “Be safe. And be kind to anyone you meet. They will be your subjects one day.”

    Turning back to Geoffrey and grinning, she then looked to her son and told him in Saxon: “And don’t be afraid to show them you know how to speak their language.”

    Guilhem looked to his father nervously and then back to Ælfflæd. She smiled and told him in Occitan. “It will be alright. Your father will just brag how smart you are.”

    The prince smiled and nodded, before running off to get his clothes from the trunk and get ready to ride. When Ælfflæd stood up, Geoffrey eyed her.

    “What did you tell him?” he asked.

    “To speak the language to any locals he meets,” Ælfflæd said. “Good practice, I think.”

    Geoffrey stroked his chin and then nodded. “I suppose it would be. Now then, one other piece of business. I imagine you will be meeting with your lords today.”

    “I’m surprised that you’ll let me,” Ælfflæd noted.

    “My uncle Adhemar reminded me that I will not present here when I decide to attack Navarra,” Geoffrey said. “So it behooves us to see how you handle things.”

    “You speak of me as if I’m a child,” Ælfflæd said.

    “You are inexperienced in dealing with powerful vassal lords,” Geoffrey said. “It is no insult to speak truths.”

    “Perhaps I would have had more experience had you trusted me as your proper regent,” Ælfflæd said.

    “But I didn’t,” Geoffrey said. “And here we are. So don’t do anything I wouldn’t do and manage the best you can.”

    Ælfflæd grew wide-eyed at the advice. So don’t anything you wouldn’t do? So then I am allowed to bed a lord like Duke Sigeric? Or Duke Hlohtere?

    Not that she would. She might have resented his condescending tone, but he had won her this crown and was letting her at least nominally handle overseeing England. With less than a 1,000 men to call to her name, and most of them rabble, she could hardly hope for much more.

    She just had to stomach that it was because, more than anything else, Geoffrey simply did not think England, or her people, worth his time.

    ….

    But not everyone was of a mind that Geoffrey’s contempt for his new subjects was a bad thing.

    “It gives us more room to do as you please,” Adelise told her later that day as they sat in the solar. “And I imagine the English lords will appreciate his lack of interference.”



    “Until I or they do something he dislikes,” Ælfflæd said. “Then what will happen?”

    “He needs you,” Adelise said. “If for no other reason than because otherwise he’ll have to deal with the English lords himself. And that works the other way too - they don’t wish to deal with him either.”

    “They will have to,” Ælfflæd said. “Starting tomorrow, when we do our oaths.”

    “Yes, we should talk about that,” Adelise said. “I have been speaking with my mother, as well as Duke Hlothere and Uncle Osmund. They tell me the lords are willing to acknowledge you. They don’t wish to acknowledge Geoffrey.”

    “I noticed your stepfather took that tact,” Ælfflæd said. “I thought Geoffrey would come down on him for it, but he was so pleased with his victory he failed to notice it.”

    “Geoffrey will pay more attention tomorrow,” Adelise warned. “I, of course, have no problem acknowledging you both. For it is only together that you can prosper.”

    Ælfflæd grinned. “You don’t need to kiss up, Adi. Your position is secure. I would have you on my council, as an advisor.”

    Adelise pointed to herself. “I’m flattered Elf. I certainly hoped, but could not expect.”

    The queen could not resist chuckling. Her cousin was being modest at best, and false at worst. But at the moment, Ælfflæd was too thrilled she was queen to care.

    “So then the first bit of advice I need from you is on the rest of my council,” Ælfflæd said. “Who I should add because they are worthy. And who I should add because they will be pacified.”

    “Then let us start from the top - Northumberland,” Adelise said. “The new Duke Hlothere could be a troublemaker. He thinks he should be king.”



    “By what right?” Ælfflæd demanded. “He has no relation to the Godwins, the Normans, Ed or Ecgwyn!”

    “By the hooey his mother came up with before she passed,” Adelise said. “Duchess Æfrida tried to claim descent from King Arthur.”

    “Impossible,” Ælfflæd scoffed. “Arthur had no children, right?”

    “She sponsored the work of a man named…” Adelise paused and then chuckled. “Geoffrey actually. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who she hoped would give her a crown through the quill rather than the sword.

    "He is a cleric who Æfrida sponsored to write a history of Britain. In it, he recounts the history of England, dating all the way back to the Trojan War, when Brutus of Troy arrived here after their defeat.”

    Ælfflæd actually knew of Troy, though that was because her husband had mentioned the Trojan Aeneas as the ancestor of the Romans and thus his ancestor as well.

    “The world seems to wish descent from a sacked city,” Ælfflæd said as she shook her head. Then she looked back to Adelise. “You’ve read this then?”

    “Part of it,” Adelise said. “I sent one of my monks to copy the texts. I have read what has been sent back, which is only selections, so far.”

    “Then what is all this about Arthur and Æfrida… or Hlothere?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “In it, it is claimed that Arthur was killed in battle against his nephew Mordred, but appointed his cousin Constantinus to rule… as a regent for his young son, born not long before his death,” Adelise said. “And the line of Britain kings eventually intermarried with Æfrida’s family of Saxons, thus making them the true heirs of Britain.”

    Ælfflæd rolled her eyes. “And people believe this?”

    “The history is interesting enough, but I imagine the Arthur/Northumberland connection is too convenient to be true,” Adelise said. “A bit of embellishment if you will.”

    “Will others believe it?” Ælfflæd asked. “Or will they choose to?”

    “Now that is the right question,” Adelise said. “It could be an excuse for revolt, in the wrong situation. But the good news is Hlothere is rumored to be craven. I believe if you find him a position on your council, he will never have the willingness to risk his status to challenge the might of your husband.”

    “Is he competent at anything?” Ælfflæd asked.

    Adelise laughed before responding: “No. His mother tolerated him, barely.”

    “Lovely,” Ælfflæd said.

    “Perhaps you can make him marshal,” Adelise suggested. “Let us be honest - at the moment you will not be relying on England’s men for protection anyway.”

    Ælfflæd didn’t like having to place a completely incompetent man as the one overseeing the realm’s forces - an especially important position because she was a woman and in theory, was not to be involved in the planning of war. But Adelise was not wrong in that at the moment, there was not much to plan involving what she could call her own levy.

    “I do have someone who angles for a council position and might be actually capable of fulfilling it well, however,” Adelise said. “Duke Sigeric of Essex as chancellor.”



    Ælfflæd’s eyes widened. “The same Sigeric who fought so hard against me? The same Sigeric who came to Aquitaine to insult me and my husband? I think not - I have already promised Uncle Osmund that I shall restore him to the position.”

    “The same Uncle Osmund who threatened you in Bordeaux if you did not surrender yourself to him?” Adelise retorted. “I think, outside of Hlothere and myself, you will find yourself short on lords of this realm who did not line up against you.”

    Ælfflæd frowned. It was an uncomfortable reminder of what she dealt with in truly making these lords her own men and women.



    “Not one even just went along for the sake of it?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “Maud,” Adelise said. “She thought Burgheard betrayed her by raising himself over her. And she could not believe the lords selected a child queen, over her, a prominent lady of the realm, and already of age. At least with you, she claims, there was no betrayal as she believes Geoffrey simply uses you.”

    Ælfflæd rolled her eyes. “I have long had enough of Maud’s thoughts about me.”

    “It is unpleasant, I know,” Adelise said. “But there is no lord of the realm better at the role than Sigeric.”

    “What of Aevis?” Ælfflæd asked. “She is versed in Saxon, Norman, Frankish, Dane as well Occitan. And she earned herself friends among the Saxons - it is no small thing given you two are Norman.”



    Adelise furrowed her brow. “She is undeserving of a place on your council after her betrayal of our family.”

    Ælfflæd shook her head. “As you say, I would be short on lords who did not line up against me.”

    “But most are not your family, at least closely,” Adelise said. “Aevis and Osmund are different. Aevis especially, for she could have aligned with you and me.”

    “I think it would be wise to have both my cousins on the council,” Ælfflæd said. She smirked - it was following her husband’s advice, sticking close family on the council.

    “Then let me warn of another reason,” Adelise began. “While the realm features many ladies ruling in their own right, it is still considered… uncouth to place a woman in such a leading role.”

    “The realm thinks it is uncouth for me to rule in the first place,” Ælfflæd said.

    “So we need not add to their discontent,” Adelise said.

    “Could they not say the same of you?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “An advisor to the queen is different,” Adelise said. “You can take advice from whoever you like. Chancellor, marshal… these are all positions that are considered roles for men. I don’t agree… but I also do not wish to fight that battle, when there are scores of others we will need to engage in.”

    Ælfflæd was inclined to disagree, especially since she knew it would be the threat of Geoffrey’s army that would keep the nobles at bay. But she also suspected he may not approve of something that bold either and he would be taking his army from England soon enough to deal with Navarra. Plus, there was that threat they could plot to kill her. So caution might be the wiser choice.

    “Fine,” Ælfflæd said. “I will not select Aevis for the moment. Perhaps I can find a role for her in the near future.”

    “If I might make one other suggestion,” Adelise began. When she fell silent, Ælfflæd motioned for her to continue. “My stepfather continuing in his role as steward.”

    “A bad idea,” Ælfflæd said. “My husband is well aware of his reputation. And given the rumors…”

    Her voice trailed off. She knew rumors with Somerset involved Adelise as well, including her last child was actually his. Is that why she vouched for him now?

    “Rumors are just that,” Adelise said. “You said yourself, you need capable nobles to fill those roles. He is fairly good at managing the ledger.”

    “I am not so bad myself,” Ælfflæd said.

    “Geoffrey let you?” Adelise asked.

    Ælfflæd pursed her lips. “More… recently.”

    Adelise smiled. “Still, he will have a better idea of the accounting of Lydford than you or your husband will. And I shall never leave your side when you are with him.”

    Ælfflæd shook her head. She didn’t want any part of Æthelsige, even if he was the first lord besides Adelise to present himself to her. But she suspected she probably would be forced to… though she’d at least consult her Aunt Gunhilda first… just to make sure it did not run afoul of her.

    As much as she valued Adelise, and knew of the power she held with her loyalty, Gunhilda was no slouch either, given her connections with nearly every lord in the realm now. Aside from the deposed Ecgwyn and Hlothere, she was mother, sister, sister-by-law or cousin to every duke and duchess in England. Keeping her happy was not to be scoffed at.

    “I will consider it,” Ælfflæd said. “Truly. I just… I will speak to your mother as well. She knows him best.”

    “Of course,” Adelise said. “And you should. It is wise to seek as much information as possible. She’ll be happy to speak with you as well - she is quite pleased you are queen over Ecgwyn.”

    “She disliked the girl that much?” Ælfflæd wondered.

    “It is less dislike of her, and more anger at what has happened to her sister’s family,” Adelise said. “You know our mothers were inseparable until their marriages. She hated seeing what happened to your nephew. Seeing you raised has lessened that pain.”

    “She still would prefer Æthelfirth?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “I think she realizes that you are the best positioned to both see Queen Wulfrun’s legacy preserved as well as defend the interests of myself, Aevis and Hextilda,” Adelise said. “So have no fear - she will be your most loyal subject, besides myself of course.”

    Ælfflæd again could not resist a chuckle at Adelise’s overt pandering.

    “There's another matter… less pleasant to discuss,” Adelise noted. “Ecgwyn.”

    Ælfflæd waved her off. “I have already decided. She is to live and be given Cornwall.”

    “Is that wise?” Adelise asked.

    Ælfflæd sighed. The deposed queen. Daughter of the late Burgheard, who would now and forever be her rival. Ælfflæd had taken her crown, and even if Ecgwyn was unaware of it in full, she had to suspect her father’s life as well.

    However, it looked poor upon all those involved to deal harshly with a child, and both Ælfflæd and Geoffrey agreed she would be allowed to keep her title as Duchess of Cornwall, and given the county of the same name as restitution for the loss of both Devon and her crown.

    “I am not happy with the arrangement,” Ælfflæd said. “But my hands are tied. It is what is expected.”

    “What is expected is that you don’t make a show of imprisoning or killing her,” Adelise said.

    “So I am to send her to a convent?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “Not exactly what I had in mind,” Adelise said. “Keep her under your guard for longer… and then perhaps… something happens.”

    Ælfflæd grew wide-eyed. “You are not suggesting what I think you are.”

    Adelise shrugged. “She will hate you and your family for the remainder of her days. She is always a threat to be restored to the throne. So too will her children, should she have any. It is best to deal with it all now, as we did with Burgheard.”

    Ælfflæd looked away from her cousin, furrowing her brow. There was a specific reason she had gone ahead with Ed’s murder… to protect her own child from being killed. With no current threat, it would be an affront to God for her to turn around and kill Ed’s only child after everything else that happened.

    “You are too willing to take lives,” Ælfflæd said. “It should be the last option, not the first.”

    “Do you see another way this resolves?” Adelise asked. “She will always hate you, your husband and your family. You will never win her to your side. She will endeavor to be a thorn in it. Cut out the steps that will make everything more difficult and deal with it now.”

    Ælfflæd felt a twinge in her spine as she imagined a far harder situation to handle - leaving Ecgwyn as a mess to clean up later, where she might have far more support. Or attempting to move against Gulhem with her as a figurehead, as the nobles had with the Bastard over a half century before. Would it be better to deal with it now?

    No, I am not craven, and neither is my family, Ælfflæd thought. I will not allow fear to dictate the murder of a child.

    “I will deal with her as needed,” Ælfflæd said. “Should she move against me in the future… she will live to regret her choice.”

    “I pray we are not left to do the same,” Adelise replied.

    Ælfflæd narrowed her gaze. “Adelise, I remain your cousin, but I am still your queen. Try to remember a certain respect for me now…”

    “We are alone, Elf,” Adelise said. “In public…”

    “It can slip out,” Ælfflæd warned. “So I expect a certain level of respect for my decisions. Such is required of my advisor… who is there to aid me in projecting a proper image to the realm. I cannot do that if you are snide and snippy with me.”

    Adelise was silent for a moment and Ælfflæd eyed her, wondering if her cousin would push the matter further.

    But the duchess eventually nodded.

    “You are right, Elf,” Adelise said. “I must find the right balance. Forgive me, I am new to this role as you are to being a queen in your own right.”

    Ælfflæd smiled. “It is fine, Adi. We will all figure this out together.”

    …..

    The next day, the hall in Lydford was packed so tightly it was difficult to move.

    That was despite the fact the main hall had been slightly expanded since Geoffrey seized the keep a year and a half before. Drapes hung from the walls, candles and torches lit the hall, but it was the sheer number of people that caught the eye, as they spilled out of the entrance, hoping to get a view of the proceedings.

    They came from all walks - a few well-to-do from the town itself. Knights from Aquitaine and the midlands as well as some huscarls from England. Of course, nobles themselves… on one side the Saxons and Normans. On the other, those from Aquitaine, who had traveled from the continent for this day.

    All here to see me, she thought.

    Ælfflæd’s heart raced as she sat on her throne - cut for her specifically, as it had the shells of her family crest engraved in the top corners.

    It was strange, and nerve wracking, to realize these people were here to see her. She was the center of it. Yes, Geoffrey was there, and by all rights, he was their king, at least in name.

    But it was through her. The vassals were coming to swear their oaths to her. These people were present to see them do that. To see her ascendant above every man and woman in England.

    Just as they had her father and grandfather. Their legacy, both good and bad, rested upon her shoulders.

    Meanwhile, Geoffrey was by her side, on his own throne, which had had the bulls heads of his family crest engraved upon it. A step down on the dais was Geoffrey’s council, and for the first time since the start of the war, all gathered together. Adhemar was closest to him, followed by Berard, Duke Guilhem and then Count Douard. On Ælfflæd’s side stood Prince-Bishop Emmanuel and Bishop Edouard, to emphasize the church’s support for the endeavor.

    It was a lie - they still wrangled with the church over a potential coronation. The English clergy seemed resistant toward recognizing Ælfflæd, even after the victory, and Emmanuel shot down Geoffrey’s idea of having the prince-bishop crown her himself, saying it was not his dioceses, nor realm. And the new pope Anastasius had yet to weigh in on the matter, though Geoffrey thought it would come out better since he wasn't Martinus' man, like Cardinal Nicola.





    But the people gathered need not know that as today’s efforts were in the spectacle. There would be time for practical matters later.

    And the spectacle soon began, with Duke Adhemar stepping forward and announcing, in Frankish, the monarchs.

    “Announcing Geoffrey, first of his name, King of Aquitaine and England,” he began. “And Ælfflæd, first of her name, Queen of England and Queen consort of Aquitaine.”

    Her heart raced as she gripped the wooden armrests of her throne tightly. First of my name, she thought. She had never heard that said of her before. It was something that was only spoken of for monarchs who actually ruled, not consorts.

    She did her best to try to slow her heart to keep it from bursting from her chest while Adhemar continued to speak in Frankish.

    It was strange to conduct the court in a language no one spoke as their first. The Saxons mostly knew Frankish, given the similarities to Norman, but preferred their own tongue to conduct business. And they had for every king since the Bastard.

    The Normans were the most comfortable, naturally. Geoffrey knew it well too, since he had grown up during the split with the Frankish kingdom and learned both it and Occitan. Most of Aquitaine's nobles were the same in that regard.

    And the alternatives were Geoffrey having it conducted in Occitan, which would leave the English nobles, even the Normans, in need of translation, or do it in Saxon, where Geoffrey and his people would need someone to make sense of it. Frankish proved a compromise, at least until the English court adjusted.

    Adjustments would likely be needed with how they addressed the monarchs. Adelise had come up with a compromise, which she had run by Ælfflæd, then Adhemar and then the three to Geoffrey.

    The nobles would acknowledge Ælfflæd first, but then Geoffrey as well. That way, it furthered the idea that Ælfflæd was the one who ruled them, even if Geoffrey oversaw it all.

    The king was hesitant to the idea when he returned from his ride late in the day, but eventually was talked into it by Adhemar emphasizing they needed to establish Ælfflæd as a true ruler in her own right. They could not do that by having her subservient to Geoffrey in things relating to her vassals.

    And that was not all when it came to vassals - there was an order they would be received on this day.

    It had to be the deposed Ecgwyn first to make it clear that she was England’s queen no more, giving the other vassals official right to swear their oaths to Ælfflæd.

    Defeated, she had fled to East Anglia, but had been handed over by Duchess Maud, with Geoffrey giving assurances the girl would not be harmed. Maud likely didn’t care - she just wanted to get in with the new monarchs - Geoffrey had no intentions of violating his oaths.

    The teen did not even try to hide her contempt and anger for the situation, moving forward at a snail’s pace as the hall looked on in silence… but only for a time.



    “Get her to her knees!”

    “Shove her forward!”

    “Throw her in the dungeons!”

    Ælfflæd looked out at the gallery. It was being shouted in Occitan mostly, though a few did seem to be in Frankish. And it was those Frankish words that Ecgwyn almost certainly understood caused her to look back toward the crowd and for the first time, looked to have added fear to her range of expressions.

    “Squirm girl,” Geoffrey said quietly in Occitan, but Ælfflæd was close enough to hear him.

    It made sense for him to want her to know fear, to know her place, to know Aquitaine would destroy her if she ever tried anything.

    But for Ælfflæd it was too familiar… being brought forth under threat from foreign invaders, who seized you despite your status and the rank you believed protected you. To not know what came next.

    It was almost instinctual. Ælfflæd stood from her throne and raised her hand. It took a few moments for the crowd to grow silent, or silent enough for Ælfflæd to speak out to Ecgwyn and be heard. She used the time to descend a step on the dais and then motioned Ecgwyn forward, adding: “Come here, my dear.”

    Ecgwyn stood motionless for a moment, eyeing the queen with suspicion. But she made the walk forward, a little quicker than before. And when she reached the dais, Ælfflæd grabbed her in a tight embrace.

    Despite being more than half her age, Ecgwyn already was a head taller than her new queen, though the dais did somewhat hide it. And Ecgwyn seemed surprised by the hug, though she did close her grip around Ælfflæd as well.

    Whispering into Ecgwyn’s ear, Ælfflæd said: “I know what it is like to walk through a hall of enemies. I know what it is like to not know what your future holds. Know this, I do not blame you for the betrayal of my family. If you have anyone here who would be your friend, and not use you to their own ends, it would be me. I would not harm you. I would not let them harm you. I would see you among the leading ladies of this realm.”

    “You took my crown,” she said. “Why would I trust you?”

    “The crown was my family’s,” Ælfflæd told her. “Your father, lured by avarice and greed, betrayed my father to take it. And threatened my son to try and keep it.”

    “My father would not,” Ecgwyn said.

    “Fathers are not always what we believe them to be,” Ælfflæd warned. “I know, first hand.”

    Ecgwyn lowered her head, but slowly shook it. It would not be something that would get through easily, Ælfflæd realized, but in time, she would understand. Hopefully. The queen did pity her… she didn’t want her to do anything to call upon the wrath she had just briefly sampled in the hall.

    Ecgwyn then did drop to her knees and swear her oaths. Ælfflæd brought her up, embraced and kissed her, confirming her as the Duchess and Countess of Cornwall.

    Geoffrey then stepped down with her, and Ecgwyn bowed before him. The pair said nothing to one another, with Ecgwyn glaring at Geoffrey with anger and the king at the duchess with contempt.

    The former “queen” made her way back to the Saxon side of the gallery, standing with her mother, who eyed Ælfflæd and Geoffrey with a hateful glare. To that, Ælfflæd had no sympathy.

    You gambled when you helped murder your husband to elevate your daughter, Ælfflæd thought. You lost.

    Adelise was the next to come forth to swear her oaths to Ælfflæd, since she had been “the first” to actually acknowledge her before. This one was a more joyous occasion as Adelise marched forth with her head held high and a smile on her face as she approached the dais. Holding the skirt of her dress out, she dropped to a knee before the dais.

    “My queen,” she said. Then she looked to Geoffrey. “And king. It is good to see your family, my queen, once more restored to the throne. Your grandfather and father were men of great honor, and fine examples for all of Christendom. I have no doubt you shall follow in their footsteps.”

    Putting it like that just added to the pressure she felt. But Ælfflæd put it from her mind for the moment as she raised Adelise from her knees. Then she and the duchess swore their oaths and embraced, a much more loving one than had preceded with Ecgwyn.

    When they were done, Ælfflæd spoke: “Duchess Adelise of Mercia, cousin, before anyone in England believed in me… and perhaps Aquitaine… believed in me, you did. I would not be here without your belief. Your strength. And so, as I move forth, I wish you by my side, as a member of my council.”

    Adelise smiled. “I would be honored, my queen.”

    Ælfflæd offered her hand and Adelise took it, joining her on the dais and then taking a place on the step below the thrones, and as the closest person to Ælfflæd’s.
    Hlothere came next, as he was the one lord who had not technically taken up arms against Ælfflæd and Geoffrey, having just inherited from his mother in May. In fact, he had not gone through any vassal ceremony to this point, as he had not bothered to swear anything to Ecgwyn.

    “My queen,” Hlothere said. “A more beautiful one I have never seen.”

    Ælfflæd blushed at the overt flattery, before the swearing of the oaths and the embrace. It was an embrace that suggested Hlothere was not just sucking up, as he lingered a bit too long, pressing himself tightly against her. Not wishing to make a scene, she gently tried to extricate herself from the hug, though found it difficult.

    When Hlothere did release, smile on his face, Ælfflæd was left feeling uncomfortable, yet did not know what to do about it. But when she glanced at Geoffrey, she could see him narrow his gaze toward Hlothere. And then after the duke bowed before the king, Geoffrey extended his hand. Ælfflæd was confused for a moment… until Geoffrey pulled him close, and whispered something in his ear. She could see Geoffrey’s grip was so tight, Hlothere’s arm trembled.

    Despite being seven years Geoffrey’s elder, Hlothere’s face blanched, and once released he sheepishly retreated back to the gallery, the king watching him every step of the way.

    Ælfflæd feared something similar might happen with her uncle, Duke Æthelsige of Somerset. But he was courteous, smiling at both queen and king, and keeping things appropriate between himself and Ælfflæd.

    Maud came next, with the Duchess of East Anglia bowing before Ælfflæd and when they embraced whispered: “We must speak again later. I have much to discuss with you.”

    Her transparent grab for influence made Ælfflæd want to roll her eyes - and she was grateful for the work she had put in to hide such thoughts over the years. She would still meet with Maud as a courtesy, but that would be the extent of it.



    Then it was time for Aevis. She was one of Ecgwyn’s strongest supporters, but she was also the queen’s first cousin. It meant Ælfflæd had to make a good show of welcoming her back - all made easier by the fact the new queen wasn’t acting.

    She wanted her cousin with her. No Aevis had discouraged her, unlike Adelise, but she had her reasons. And now, with Ælfflæd’s elder sister likely gone from her permanently, having never met her younger half-siblings who resided in Wiltshire, Adelise, Aevis, Gunhilda and to a lesser degree Hextilda were her closest family now. They could all be involved, even if Adelise was the only one with a council position.

    “I’m sorry,” Aevis told her, loud enough for the hall to hear.

    “All is forgiven,” Ælfflæd replied. “We are family. All that matters now is that we’re together.”

    It was rehearsed, but it didn’t make it any less true for Ælfflæd.

    Osmund, who had only returned to England just a few days before, was next. He was respectful, and like Aevis, asked for forgiveness for his behavior during the siege of Bordeaux. On that, Ælfflæd felt a bit more resentment, since he had threatened her person as opposed to Aevis. But he was her uncle, and her late mother’s younger brother, and he had treated her well enough in the years prior.

    He also had managed to build his personal forces to rival any of the other lords of the realm, so it made sense to treat him with respect.



    Sigeric was last, as one of Ecgwyn’s key supporters, the chancellor who had insulted Ælfflæd and without a connection to her beyond his new wife, who was her maternal aunt. But Lady Seaxburg almost never interacted with her older sisters, unlike Osmund, who spent a great deal of time in Wiltshire. So Ælfflæd felt nothing toward her, and Sigeric would gain little from it.

    However, she had considered Adelise’s advice of making him chancellor, and Ælfflæd decided she would meet with him later to see if she could tolerate it. So she invited him to join herself and Adelise tomorrow, though she did not reveal the matter she wished to discuss.



    Ælfflæd’s lesser vassals came next and she endeavored to deal with them as seriously as she had the dukes and duchesses - their loyalty might not appear as valuable as the others but it was not to be discounted.

    Once the oaths were finished, it came time for her to speak - something else she had been dreading. Eloquence was never her strong suit and with a father like the late Thoræd, who blustered, boasted and threatened more than he charmed it was no surprise.

    But she remembered Geoffrey was made to follow one of the best orators in Christendom and yet managed, so she could make something of it as she followed in the footsteps of one of the worst.

    “A millenia ago, Rome came to Britain,” Ælfflæd began. “The people were cowed. They were subjugated. But one Briton… stood proud against them. A woman… by the name of Boudica.”

    She looked out at the crowd. Those from Aquitaine nodded along - Geoffrey had long since repeated the story to his knights and nobles. But the Saxons appeared to be confused.

    “You may not know of her,” Ælfflæd said. “It is a tale forgotten by many here, for reasons I don’t know. But if you go to Rome, or Aquitaine, or Germany or Francia and speak to the monks, you will hear of her. She burned London to the ground, nearly forcing Rome, the mightiest Empire the world has ever seen to give thought to abandoning Britain. They did not… but she came closer than anyone of her age to stopping Rome at the peak of its powers.

    “But there is another who my fellow Saxons should know - even if my husband’s people do not - the Lady Æthelflæd of Mercia. Sister of Alfred, who led the lands of my cousin against the Northmen. She showed no fear. No hesitation when the people of this island needed her.

    “Neither did my grandfather, the great Ælfmær, who brought us together once more despite the disunion among Saxons and Normans that threatened to tear us apart, nor did he hesitate when asked to pick up the cross to fight the heathens in the Holy Land. Neither did my father Thoræd hesitate to continue his father’s work in Jerusalem, or hold those gains, alone, the best he could against the might of the heathens.”

    Her eyes burned, and she paused for a moment to regain her composure. Perhaps it was better she was tearing up - she could not see then how her speech was being received.

    “I look to them all now: Boudica who faced down the might of Rome, Æthelflæd who showed no fear against the Great Heathen Army, my grandfather who refused to let England be torn apart, and my father, who for a time, became the envy of all of Christendom. They are my precursors. They are my ancestors. I… am their legacy.”

    She opened her eyes wide and stared at the gallery. Her heart beat so fast and so loudly, she wondered if the entire hall could hear it.

    “I am Ælfflæd, first of her name,” she said as she stood from the throne. “Queen of England. And I will uphold their hopes, their dreams, their ambition. I will not fail England. I will not fail them. And I will not fail you.”

    There was a cheer from the gallery. She knew it was from a hall made up of a great many Occitans, along with many who cheered because they believed they had no choice. Or because they saw Geoffrey himself clapping and hailing her.

    But it didn’t matter in that moment. Because the cheers, forced or not, were for her. The Queen of England. God had granted her a place few women held, whether he acted through Adelise, Geoffrey or whoever. He gave her the power he denied her brother and, through circumstance, her elder sister as well. This could have been her, after all, had Foulques not fallen.

    She had joined her father and her grandfather as monarchs of England. But it was just the start, for the two men could not have been more different.

    Her grandfather was a man from humble beginnings who healed England from near ruin to bring it to the precipice of greatness. And her father had reached those heights, and suffered a greater fall, where all he had fought to gain, his family included, was nearly lost.

    She was the heir to them. And she was the heir to Boudica and Æthelflæd, courageous leaders in their own right, whether they were queens or not.

    However, Ælfflæd was queen. In her own right. She still did not know exactly what that would mean. Nor did she know what type of monarch she would be.

    But she was eager to find out.






    Note: Duchess Æfrida gained a strong claim over England before her death, and I assume it's because she fabricated it, since she wasn't linked to any royals that I could find. As it turned out Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is dated to around 1136, so I figured I could incorporate it. Giving Arthur a son was an embellishment... but that's the fun of it!
     
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    Chapter 262 - December 1136
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 262
    December 1136 - Kingdom of Aquitaine



    Alias d’Anjou never expected to attend his own funeral.

    He stood in his chamber, dressed finely enough in a red tunic with gold trim, that came down just past his knees. A golden cloak rested on his shoulders and covered his back. Underneath that outer layer, he wore a shirt with hose and boots over his feet.

    He stood in silence, staring at his reflection in the mirror looking at his mustache and goatee. It does make me look older. Maybe more mature than Geoff? Certainly more man than boy.

    At the moment however, he’d have preferred to be a boy, for if he were a child, he would not be in this position.

    “You look quite handsome,” the younger Adhemar de Limoges told him. “Enough to send any woman’s heart aflutter, especially knowing she is to be your husband.”

    Alias glanced back at his cousin but said nothing before turning his gaze back to the mirror. Adam may have Uncle Adhemar’s words but they lack the same punch.

    Or perhaps Alias was just stressed. Or fearful. Or depressed. Or apprehensive. Maybe all of the above.

    Alias’ mind raced for some escape. Feign severe illness? No, it wouldn’t get him out of it. The Sicilians, led by Duke Robert II of Benevento, looked him over and deemed him fit enough to proceed with the marriage.





    If that doesn’t prove the “worth” of my soon-to-be wife, I don’t know what does.

    Alias had heard very little of this Princess Alisce of Sicily prior to her arrival. There had been some talk of her being “pretty enough” and he’d learned that she had been married once before, to the son of the aforementioned Duke, though her husband had passed. The union had produced no children, but she was considered young enough for it not to be an issue.

    “Pretty enough.” “Young enough.” It did not fill Alias with much optimism to hear Alisce described with “enough” used frequently as a qualifier.

    In retrospect, he would have preferred the Lady Hextila of Somerset - she was only a few years his junior, and despite his aversion toward women, could appreciate her looks. It was familiar at least - as she reminded him a bit of her cousin the queen. Given the growing closeness between the two families, everything would just be easier.

    But Hextilda had been promised to her cousin, the heir to the Duchy of Kent. Alias had asked Geoffrey if perhaps he or Ælfflæd could exert influence to break the union, but the king had already moved on. He had decided a union with Sicily was the best option, and as a sweetener, he reminded Alias that King Osbern had recently passed, leaving his adolescent son to “rule”. It meant Alisce was closer to the throne - which as Geoffrey noted: “Wasn’t that what you wished with Hungary?”





    He had, but most of all, Alias had wished for a delay. A delay in being made to confront his desires and what he believed was his failures.

    Prince-Bishop Emmanuel had counseled him over the years to pray and undertake multiple soul cleansing rituals to rid himself of this. None had worked.

    The demon blood in my veins is strong, he thought. That could be the only explanation. Possibly enhanced by his naming after a murderous sodomite.

    Why did father do that to me,
    he wondered some nights. He must not have realized it. Or simply did not care, thinking us all above such things. Just like he did with the cough. Or when he consorted with heathens.

    Regardless of the reasons, Alias still found himself attracted to men, rather than women. And he feared what would happen if he was unable to perform his marital duties with his new wife. Putting it off as long as possible was the greatest relief he could find… and now that had been snatched from him.

    “You will be wed before you are made Duke of Navarra,” Geoffrey had told him. And his brother was serious. The king had spent the last few months planning two things - the arrangement of this wedding and his invasion of the kingdom which sat just to the south of Aquitaine. He’d all but left England to Ælfflæd in the meantime, even as they operated out of Lyford with Geoffrey’s entire council present.

    They had provisionally agreed upon the wedding by August with plans to conduct the ceremony in early December. And by October, they were on the move, headed back to Bordeaux, with a very large travelling party - one consisting of the royal household, the advisors to the king, and multiple English lords and ladies accompanying their new king and queen back to Aquitaine.

    All the while, Alias’ had been left to dread what awaited him when they returned, to the point where he believed his sickness was caused by it. And his dread had only grown worse upon meeting Alisce herself.

    The most glaring part of her appearance was that she was severely hunched to the point where her back was rounded into practically a hump. Berard, Duke Simon, Small Fry and Ancel had quickly nicknamed Alisce “the camel”, with the Perigord man likening her to the beasts they’d seen while fighting the English. It quickly caught on with the other men in the Aquitaine court.

    Alias hated them for it, because now it was all he saw when he looked at her. His stomach retched even looking at her eat, with the way her jaw seemed to move side to side like one of the beasts he’d seen in the months following their victory in England.



    “Her face is quite pretty,” Adhemar the younger had tried to console him with.

    But even that rang hollow to Alias, with her large forehead and beady eyes. She was nearly nine years his elder and already a widow. And rather than marry her off to his elder son and heir, Robert simply seemed intent on passing her off.

    Alias believed it proof of a bad deal, but Geoffrey accepted Robert’s explanation: it was because the Book of Leviticus forbade a union between the brother of a widow’s late husband and he did not wish to incur God’s wrath. And, the duke added, Alisce was Robert’s niece to begin with, and perhaps the close relation had brought ill fortune to the marriage.

    But between that doubt in Alias’ mind, her age, her outward appearance, the fact she had not managed any children with her first husband, there was little that appealed to him about this union. And it made him even more certain of his future failure in doing his duty.

    There had even been an offer for him to spend the night with Alisce prior to the wedding. Alias immediately refused it, claiming he would not defile the sanctity of the marital bed by taking his promised before their vows.

    It was a lie. He simply was putting it off as long as he could. Even though Alias knew it was unavoidable at this point, he looked for some divine intervention to save him. He even prayed for it.

    But as he turned his gaze to the window, and spied the clear sky, no lightning bolt appeared en route.

    “I can’t do this, Adam,” he said as he turned back to his cousin “She will know as soon as I am to couple with her tonight that I am unable to.”

    “You must try,” Adam replied. “It would be too much of an embarrassment if you could not.”

    “How did you fake it?” Alias asked. “Nobody said anything of your marriage…”

    Adam shrugged. “I managed my first night. After that, people don’t ask much.”

    “What if she does not become pregnant?” Alias asked.

    Adam shrugged. “People will talk. But they will talk of other things too. As they always do, if a couple struggle to find children.”

    Not reassuring. But he did not know what else he could have expected and let the matter rest. Besides, he didn’t want to take his stress out on Adam, his only confidant.

    The son of the Duke of Gascony was one of the few people who knew of Alias’ preferences, and as someone who had similar tastes, understood his experiences and struggles. No, he didn’t always have the answers. But he at least could empathize far better than anyone else he knew.



    Alias would not dare go to his uncle Guilhem. The Duke of Poitou almost certainly was a sodomite, yes, but he wasn’t to be trusted. Whether it was due to ambition, Geoffrey’s likely affair with the late Duchess Essa, their father’s rumored affair with her, or that Alias was getting Navarra while Guilhem's sons weren’t, the Duke of Poitou always felt an obstacle. And this type of thing could easily be used against both Alias and Geoffrey in the long term.

    “If all else fails, take her from behind, close your eyes and think of someone else,” Adam suggested. “It is what I did.”

    Alias frowned but it wasn’t the worst idea. And he had someone in mind - Pau, the stablehand his brother had caught him with. Not willing to risk the young man’s life after Geoffrey’s rage, Alias gave him gold and sent him on his way back to the continent, telling him to find work somewhere in the realm. Alias had not seen Pau since but had thought of him many times after.

    In fact Pau was the last person Alias had been with at all romantically - he could not risk being caught again. The shame and humiliation, as well as the potential consequences, were too much to bear.

    Alias turned when a guard approached him, revealing the queen mother had arrived to see him. After the prince gave his approval for her entry she did so, alongside Adam’s mother, Duchess Anne, as well as Ana de Perigord.

    Alias eyed his brother’s longtime lover with contempt, wishing he’d be done with her once and for all. It was true Geoffrey had not been with her as of late, but so long as she remained in Bordeaux, there was always a threat he might return to his old flame.

    “Giving good advice to the groom?” Anne asked her son.

    “Of course mother,” Adam replied. “I could do nothing less. Alias is like a brother to me.”

    Anne smirked to that, and Marguerite’s gaze narrowed somewhat. Then, Adam, the duchess and Ana departed the chamber, leaving mother and prince alone.

    “Did you need something of me?” Alias asked.

    “I just wished to look at my youngest on his wedding day,” Marguerite said.

    It was a strange request to him, since his mother had rarely taken much interest in his activities before then. She was so often absent from his life, in mind if not in body, he was unused to her gaze upon him.

    He’d understood why - he knew his mother was unhappy with so much of her life. What efforts she could afford had to go to Geoffrey, since he was the crown prince, then king.

    So coming under her focus now, especially at this time, was almost unsettling for Alias. But he had nothing to worry about, at least at the outset, for Marguerite simply smiled with tears welling in her eyes.

    “My handsome boy,” Marguerite said as she looked him over. “You’ve grown up well.”

    Alias blushed, partially because his mother was praising him so. Even if she was distant from him, that praise still felt nice. And partially because he didn’t think himself deserving of it.

    But… his mother might provide some aid for him. After all, she had been in a marriage that she had no joy in. That was clear to him, even as a child. For all the disharmony between Geoffrey and Ælfflæd, there was never the same level of bitterness or mistrust that existed between the king and prince’s parents.

    “Mother,” he began. “How…”

    He struggled to find the words. How do I ask my mother what it was like to be miserable?

    “How did you handle things… when things got difficult with father?” Alias asked.

    Marguerite’s face lost color and she fell silent. It made Alias immediately regret asking the question.

    “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should not have asked.”

    Marguerite frowned and shook her head. “You should not. Somethings are best left in the past.”

    “But…” Alias began. “What if I have problems…”

    “You shall not,” Marguerite said. “But if she causes you problems… I will deal with her, as I would have with your sister-by-law, the queen,had she not proven a worthy wife for your brother.”

    Alias swallowed hard. His problem wasn’t with Alisce herself… aside from her looks, anyway. It was with himself… but how could his mother hope to understand? And if she didn’t, she would probably be horrified. How could she not be?

    With a weak smile, he nodded. “Thank you, mother. I will endeavor to make it work.”

    “You’re a good boy, and have become a good man,” Marguerite said. “Your wife is lucky to have you.”

    To that, Alias said nothing. He did not believe a word of what his mother had said.

    ….

    The day’s next step was the actual wedding.

    It would take place on the steps of the cathedral in Bordeaux, followed by mass inside. It wasn’t an unknown process to Alias at this point - besides memories of his brother’s wedding nearly a decade before, he’d witnessed his cousin Ancel’s in Huelgoat a few years prior.

    Still it was different to be an observer than one of the main participants - to know that this was all for you and if you failed to live up to expectations…

    Alias was not old enough to fully grasp the concept of shows and appearances when his father lived. But the old king’s legacy was strong, and it had filtered through to the prince over the years. It was why he had to look immaculate as he rode his horse through the streets. It was why he had to be close to, but not quite match, his kingly brother.

    And Geoffrey certainly looked regal. A top his horse in his purple tunic with gold trim, showy golden handled sword at his side, jeweled crown, it was a rather stark change from when he’d been riding around in England in dull colored clothing with hat on head. Of course the ego wasn’t completely gone - he’d switched out his broom blossom in his hat for a flower he’d taken in England, to signify his conquest of the island.

    The queen was no slouch either, though hers was more circumstance driven. Pregnant and with an obvious belly, she was not to ride a horse. A carriage took her during the journey from Lydford to Bordeaux, but today Geoffrey had her carried by closed litter - more appropriate he felt. It certainly was extravagant, given it required four men to carry her.



    Ælfflæd was in the center of the lead group of the procession, with Geoffrey out in front and Alias in close behind him. Their mother Marguerite rode in the group, as did Princess Aines and her promised Duke Simon. So too did Simon’s brothers and his father, Duke Guilhem, along with his wife, Marguerite the younger. Duke Foulquesson was there as well, with Duchess Beatritz, their son Ancel and his wife, Plaisance. Their other daughter, Guilluamette was not present, as she was back in Huelgoat due to pregnancy - one that was embarrassing, given she was unmarried.



    Plaisance was not alone, as her brother Small Fry, the Count of Charolais, and their mother Lady Mascarose were there as were Alias’ cousins, the children of Ness de Limoges, Bishop Edouard and the d’Uzes brothers. Rounding out the procession was the family of Duke Adhemar - the man himself, Duchess Anne and Adam.

    Not all their cousins made the lead group however. The daughters of Geoffrey and Alias’ uncle Phillipe, via the Countess Sarrazine, were with other prominent nobles, thanks to the embarrassing nature of the king’s affair with the countess. And Geoffrey’s bastard girls with Ana, along with their mother and the rest of the Perigords were also confined to that group.

    Those prominent nobles were in the third grouping, with the Sicilians coming in behind the lead procession. The order was more than just symbolic of prestige - it was also what allowed for viewing of the wedding itself and entrance to the cathedral. Thus, the families of the bride and groom were given preference, followed by those of varying importance to the realm.

    It was never a long journey from the palace to the cathedral, but the procession was like a parade, since the nobles involved all wished to show off their status to the townspeople. Even still, it seemed to be moving far too fast for Alias, who kept his eyes on the seemingly rapidly approaching cathedral. Everything else was secondary, the people along their route, the sounds of Bordeaux, even the cold wind that blew through on this December day - the prince’s only focus was on what lay before him as his stomach churned and twisted in anticipation.

    Arriving at the stables near the cathedral, Alias was slow to descend from his horse. His walk to the cathedral was even slower. And when he saw the building before him, the steps where he would be married inching closer, Alias’ pace slowed to a stop.

    This is really happening, he thought. There is no escape. I really am going to be forced to couple with that camel. For the rest of my days! And if I fail I will be humiliated and… and...

    The world began to spin around him and his knees began to buckle. Finally, the prince fell to his knees on the dirt path, and vomited.

    “Alias!” Adam shouted.

    It took him some time to regain his composure. He did manage to get his eyes up at those around him.

    Adam was by his side, trying to get him up. But Alias’ eyes were on Geoffrey, who was shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

    “Get him up,” the king ordered.

    “It’s going to take more than fainting to get you out of this boy,” Foulquesson snickered. “Unless I were the bride’s father. Then I’d drag her away from the church myself.”

    Alias glared at his one-legged uncle, with his wild and shaggy hair that was graying around his beard. The prince could not see Foulquesson’s expression beneath his mask, but he knew the decrepit Duke of Brittany was smirking. His uncle might have been a withering husk of a man but he never could resist jabbing a sword into a wounded man, friend and foe alike.

    And yet what could Alias say - especially when the charge was somewhat true. He did wish to be out of this union. And this episode would get him no closer - all the while drawing the ire of others. No one, after all, had leapt to his defense from Foulquesson - not even Geoffrey.

    Adam and Simon did help Alias back to his feet, however. The former also helped Alias dust off his clothing and ordered his servant to tidy the prince back up as a protective ring had surrounded the prince from onlookers.

    As much as they did not wish the townspeople to see it, Geoffrey’s primary concern was likely Alias’ soon to be in laws, who approached the group as Alias was undergoing the king’s inspection.

    Geoffrey gave him a stern glare, but eventually gave a nod, allowing the Sicilians to march through.

    “Is everything all right?” Duke Robert asked.

    “Perfectly fine,” Geoffrey said. “Shall we continue?”

    Not that he expected a change, but the return of the procession forward made Alias’ stomach twist once more. Even a reassuring hand to the shoulder by Adam didn’t help matters.

    Alias was then made to swallow hard as he reached the steps to the cathedral. The doors remained closed, though they would be open soon enough for the mass that would follow. Prince-Bishop Emmanuel stood on the third step from the bottom, awaiting, as he had for Geoffrey nearly a decade before. Back when Alias was a child. Back before he truly understood what would await him here.

    A lie. A lie before God. He nearly vomited again at the thought.

    Was it any surprise that he was hesitant to make that step up? But then it was just as unsurprising to have him nudged by his regal brother, who elbowed him forward. Closing his eyes, Alias did make the step up, to meet the smiling gaze from Emmanuel. It did not help.

    The prince gazed out at the crowd before him, and the approaching Normans. The princess was brought forward by her brother, quite slowly.

    Alisce was more… upright than the last time he’d seen her. Also a great deal stiffer, it appeared, as the steps she took toward the cathedral were awkward and slower than when he’d seen her before. He wondered if something might be underneath her clothes that was altering her posture and why if that was the case, she was not wearing it before.

    Once Alisce made it to the steps, she raised her hand to Alias, who reluctantly took it, and then guided her up the first step so the ceremony could begin.

    Alias paid little attention to the words being spoken, instead looking out at the crowd. He looked over the different women, identifying no less than five he’d have preferred to be marrying to Alisce, as well as some handsome men, which prompted further guilt over his desires.

    Another nudge from his brother snapped Alias back to reality, and he realized he was now being made to say his vows. His heart raced and he felt energy course through him providing the means for his flight from here, should he choose it.

    But he also saw the large group of people that had formed a semi-circle around him, and beyond them, the nobles and townspeople who had gathered in front of the cathedral aiming for a chance to see the festivities. There was no way he could get away.

    And if I do, Geoffrey will never forgive me, he thought. I would humiliate mother. It… no.

    So Alias spoke the vows to bind him to a woman he didn’t want, in a marriage he had come to dread. He breathed, but felt the blood run from his face as Prince-Bishop Emmanuel proclaimed the pair “man and wife”, delivering the final nail in his figurative coffin.

    …..

    Given the circumstances, Alias would have expected his brother to throw a large feast.

    It wasn’t just that they were hosting the Sicilians, complete with a powerful duke and princess. It wasn’t just that it was Alias’ wedding.

    It was also Geoffrey finally getting a real chance to celebrate his conquest of England, on truly his own terms.

    He had complained to Alias before that Lydford was far too small, that he knew father would have been disappointed by the feast thrown there. So a grand affair in Bordeaux was always going to be in the cards, and Alias was not surprised, nor disappointed by his brother’s efforts.

    The stores were full up with meat of all kinds. They had gone hunting in the fall, when the animals were at their fattest, with Geoffrey planning the wedding since October. Boar, cow, chickens, pheasants and assorted other animals were available to the guests. Wines from across Aquitaine, but also imported from the Kingdom of the Franks, Iberia and Italy were available.

    And as a “show of good faith” for their English guests, Geoffrey had even brought barrels of ale back from England.

    “My wife, at least, will be pleased,” Geoffrey had mused in private when he told Alias of it.

    But despite the grandness of it all, Geoffrey actually had to cut down on the number of guests from Aquitaine. Before, being a lord of the realm was guaranteed a place in the hall. The presence of the Sicilians and the English meant there was less space, and thus that guarantee no longer could stand.

    For the counts of Aquitaine, it was more an inconvenience than anything else. They still got entry, but their retinues were made much smaller, and they were forced to squeeze in where there was seating. But their minor lords, mayors and barons were left out, literally in the cold had they made their way to the palace on this evening.

    The dukes and prominent lords of the realm were just fine, however, seated at the long table on the left side of the hall. Though on this occasion, they were also joined by some of the council members as there was simply no space on the dais for them.

    The Prince and his family sat on one side of the dais, with Princess Alisce in the center, next to Alias. Geoffrey was to his brother’s left, with the queen and Prince Guilhem. The queen-mother Marguerite, Princess Aines and Duke Simon, Duke Adhemar and Duchess Anne were also on Geoffrey’s side. Prince-Bishop Emmanuel was seated on the side of the Sicilians, as was Bishop Edouard.

    However, Duke Foulquesson, Duchess Beatritz, Duke Guilhem and Duchess Marguerite the Younger were relegated to the gallery - which Alias suspected may have left them all sore.

    The less important Sicilians were seated next to their English Norman cousins - Adelise’s and Aevis’ groups. The Saxons who came, Osmund of Kent, Æthelsige of Somerset, Sigeric of Essex and Maud of East Anglia, were further down that table from the Normans.

    The less prominent nobles of Aquitaine were made to squeeze in toward the end of those benches, on either foreign side, wherever they could find room.

    There was entertainment in the form of jugglers, fire-breathers and musicians. The latter brought a smirk to Alias’ face as they played a somewhat lewd song hailing women with wide hips and bottoms - the perfect song for my brother, he thought.

    If Geoffrey were bothered by it, he didn’t show it, raising his cup to it, only to make the queen blush. Perhaps because she qualifies these days, Alias mused.

    But while he found the antics of his brother and his sister-by-law amusing, he was at a loss on what to do about his own wife. He struggled to find conversation with her, mixing silence with banal questions like if she enjoyed the weather or how she thought of Bordeaux the town and was grateful for any moment someone else entered into conversation with her.

    There were a few who seemed plenty interested in talking with her, especially the queen and her cousins. The latter duo of Adelise and Aevis could even converse with Alisce in Norman, rather than Frankish, which Alias guessed was probably a treat for the three of them.

    Alisce did return to him eventually, however, following a conversation with the queen and was all smiles as she sat down.

    “Your sister-by-law the queen is quite welcoming,” Alisce said. “We had a fine conversation, speaking about our fathers.”

    “Your fathers?” Alias asked.

    “Yes,” Alisce said. “They knew each other. King Serlo of Sicily aided both her grandfather and father in the defeat of the heathens in the Holy Lands. Without our knights the Crusade would have failed.”



    Alias nodded. “Did he receive anything for his efforts?”

    Alisce frowned. “A little gold, some prestige. But he wished to be King of Jerusalem.”

    A title that had gone to Ælfflæd’s family - and throne she had claim to, though might not ever pursue. And Alias was made to wonder if perhaps his new wife held a little bitterness towards her new queen.

    “Do you blame the Stawells that it did not happen?” Alias asked.

    “No, it was Rome that caused it,” Alisce said. “They did not wish to embolden my father to think himself a new Augustus. So they gave it to the English. A pity for all involved - us, England, and Christendom as a whole - for we could have held the Holy Lands.”

    Alias’ eyes moved to his drink and he took a long sip of his wine. He guessed Alisce probably didn’t share that thought with Ælfflæd.

    “I very much look forward to tonight, husband,” Alisce said. “I have been saving myself for when I would be a wife again.”

    Alias peeked from his cup. It probably was not difficult, he thought.

    “Are you….” her voice trailed off. Alias gazed at her with brow raised, until he realized she was asking if he was looking forward to it as well. And Alias stammered over how to respond, since he most certainly was not.

    But since she had not actually asked the question, he realized, he was not forced to answer it. Instead he tried to switch the subject to something else.

    “Do you like the food?” Alias asked her.

    She was silent for a moment, staring at Alias with a gaze that unnerved him. It was as if she knew what he was doing. But eventually her eyes shifted toward the gallery and then the leg of lamb before her.

    “It is fine,” she said. “Your brother has certainly been very generous with this feast.”

    “He likes to show off,” Alias said. “In the tradition of our father.”

    The prince paused for a moment. “But I suppose he has earned it. Conquering England and all.”

    Alisce looked to Geoffrey, who was speaking with Duke Robert.

    “Do you… do you think he would invade Italy?” she asked.

    Alias nearly choked on his wine. He wanted to laugh - there was almost no way Geoffrey was going to fight to make Alisce the Queen of Sicily. Maybe if she swore fealty to him… but even then, taking England technically made him king by marriage if not outright conquest. Sicily would not be the same.

    “Unlikely,” Alias said. “My brother has made himself King of England. Unless you plan a way to make him King of Sicily as well, I think his interests will lay elsewhere.”
    Alisce lowered her gaze. “No. I don’t think that is possible.”

    Short of both my death and his wife’s, Alias thought. But even if that happened, he doubted Geoffrey would marry Alisce over Ana, or some other woman he considered much prettier. Judging by his brother’s cold reaction toward Alisce upon seeing her, he guessed Geoffrey wasn’t too impressed by his new sister-by-law.

    Speaking of Geoffrey, the king returned to his seat and tapped Alias on the shoulder. Then Geoffrey turned out to the gallery, raising his goblet. It was a sign the hall was to fall silent, for he had something to say.

    “To my distinguished guests, vassal and foreign visitors alike, I welcome you to my home,” Geoffrey said. “And thank you for joining us on this joyous occasion.”

    “Thank you for this fine food and drink my lord!” Duke Simon shouted.

    Alias glanced down to see his cousin raising his goblet, and chuckled at his rather bold attempt to praise Geoffrey. Simon had mentioned to Alias he worried the king did not truly care for him and was eager to change that, especially since he desired to marry Aines and did not want Geoffrey to find cause to dissolve the betrothal so late on.

    On one hand it was surprising, since Aines was considered a harlot. On the other, Alias had heard plenty of men speak to Aines’ stunning beauty.

    Small Fry had lamented his mother’s inability to convince her sister to give him the princess’ hand instead, saying he had spent many nights dreaming of her as his wife. And he’d overheard the Duke of Somerset conversing with the Duke of Northumberland that if all Occitan women looked as Princess Aines did, then perhaps this union between Aquitaine and England would not be so bad.

    But Alias was brought back to the present as he listened to Geoffrey continue his speech, with his brother hitting on that union at this very moment.

    “We near the end of a fine year,” Geoffrey said. “We have brought together the lands, lords and ladies of England to the realm.”

    He raised his goblet toward the table where those English nobles sat. Most of the lords did so in kind, though in the case of the Sigeric it was hardly enthusiastic.

    “God has been kind enough to bless the queen and I, as we expect another child to join us soon enough,” Geoffrey continued.

    He motioned for Ælfflæd to stand. Blushing, the queen did that, gesturing toward the swell of her belly, before sitting back down. It was not a secret and Alias figured it was Geoffrey showing off once more.

    Grinning, Geoffrey continued on. “And now, there is my brother, who has grown into a fine young man. Alias, Prince of Aquitaine, know that father would be proud to see you on this day.”

    Alias jerked to attention and sat higher in his chair as the eyes of the gallery fell to him. He grinned, nervously, uneasy with the praise even though it warmed his heart to hear it. He managed to raise his goblet toward his brother.

    “On that note,” Geoffrey added, “I have yet to give you your wedding gift, for you and your regal bride. Bishop Edouard, if you would.”

    Alias was confused as Bishop Edouard joined Geoffrey in standing before motioning toward the entrance to the hall. The doors then flew open, and a large group of knights and other soldiers marched in, filling the open area in the center between the sets of benches with four tightly packed columns. They slammed down their spears and lances at once, creating a thunderous echo throughout the hall.

    Wide-eyed, Alias turned back to his brother, trying to decipher it all.

    “An… army?” he asked.

    “My army,” Geoffrey said. “So that you might find your place as the Duke of Navarra, alongside me as we fight against the heathens in Iberia!”

    Alias had been promised by Geoffrey that Navarra was next after England. And he’d even mentioned he already received full council support for the action - even Duke Guilhem had not bothered with an objection, citing the fact that attacking Alphonse and the Franks while they fought heathens would look poor upon the realm.



    And yet to actually see this show at the moment left Alias speechless. For the moment he felt so… humbled and honored by Geoffrey’s actual willingness to go to war to win him a duchy after having nearly succumb to doubt, even if it would also be adding to Aquitaine’s lands, that all he could do was raise his goblet toward his brother once more.

    “Soon we will be marching south to bring order to Iberia,” Geoffrey said. “As God and the church have ordained. We will do so together, just as our father dreamed.”

    Faint memories of the old king, whose face Alias could not even remember, wishing the best for him and Geoffrey’s willingness to get it for him, brought tears to the prince’s eyes.

    “Thank… thank you brother,” Alias finally mustered.

    “It is my pleasure, Alias,” Geoffrey told him. “May you be blessed with as fruitful a union as the queen and I have been. And continue to be.”

    Though that last bit brought back Alias’ feelings of anxiety over what was to follow and suddenly the grand show his brother had put on added a heap of pressure to the consummation of the new union.

    “And to everyone, EAT! DRINK!” Geoffrey shouted. “Let the wine warm you from the cold and the meats fill your bellies so that you will not need to eat again until spring!”

    Cheers went up from the gallery and Geoffrey sat back down with a smile as wide as his face. The speech done, and Alias’ anxiety fast returning, the prince decided now was as good a time as any to broach the subject of his actual wedding night.

    “Are you about ready to head to your chambers then?” Geoffrey asked him.

    “I wished to talk about that,” Alias said. “Can we limit who accompanies us to bed?”

    “Duke Robert will want to be there,” Geoffrey said. “And there’s quite the list of nobles on our side who wish to go as well. Even some English nobles are interested.”

    “What if we limited it to you, Simon and Adam?” Alias asked.

    Geoffrey’s brow rose. “Adam?”

    “Our cousin, Adhemar,” Alias said, realizing Geoffrey wasn’t really on short name terms with their cousin. “Is he not good enough?”

    “Not really, no,” Geoffrey said. “We’d need someone of greater prominence. Like Uncle Adhemar.”

    “But not Uncle Foulquesson,” Alias added. “I don’t want them anywhere near it.”

    Geoffrey started to laugh. “Ah, I see. He will want to go. He usually does like seeing… ‘breaking a wife in’, as he calls it.”

    “Keep him away,” Alias said. “If you please.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “Do you know how hard it will be to do that?”

    “You’re king,” Alias said. “He’s your vassal. Just… do it.”

    “He’s also our uncle, and brother-by-law,” Geoffrey said. “He’s not actually going to watch you - just accompany you with a bunch of bawdy jokes. No harm, no foul.”
    “Easy for you to say,” Alias said. “I don’t need any more pressure. It will be hard enough as is.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine. I’ll see what I can do. Ancel and I can probably get him drunk enough that he’ll pass out before the night is done. That should spare you his hoots and hollers.”

    “Thank you,” Alias said. “Most everyone else should be fine. Even… the Perigords.”

    “Oh, I’m glad to have your approval,” Geoffrey said. “Have you need of anything else? A specific person to undress you? A choice of flower petals for the bed?”

    Pau undressing me then standing in my line of sight, he thought.

    But Alias had gotten the hint. “No, brother. Thank you.”

    “Alias,” Geoffrey said. “I am somewhat serious in that question, for I want no excuses. If you need something else, ask. But, I expect you to do your duty. Understood?”

    Alias swallowed hard and slowly nodded.

    He drank a bit, though he remembered Adam had warned him not to get too drunk, for it would be harder to fulfill his duties.

    “A balance,” Adam had advised. “You need to be able to easily envision someone else, but not be unable to see anything in front of you.”

    The pressure to go up continued to build, with Duke Robert joining the chorus. Duke Foulquesson had been barking at Alias to rut Alisce since after the first round of drinks, but his calls got fewer and fewer as Geoffrey made good on his word to get their uncle too drunk to do anything. Not as robust as he used to be, it was an easier task with Foulquesson than it would have been in years prior.

    But eventually Alias knew he had to go. So the group was gathered, with Duke Robert and some of the Sicilians joining Geoffrey, Prince-Bishop Emmanuel, Bishop Edouard, Duke Simon, Duke Adhemar, Adam, Small Fry, Berard and Alberic, Duke Sigeric and the Duke of Somerset.

    Meanwhile, the queen, Duchess Adelise, Duchess Aevis, Duchess Beatritz and the Duchess of Benevento accompanying Alisce to the marital bed.

    Despite Foulquesson’s lack of presence, there were still plenty of lewd jokes made, though Alias tried his best to tune it out and focus on moving forward to his chamber. He didn’t want to hear those accompanying them, he didn’t want to see Alisce, he just wanted to be there and be done with it.

    Not that relief was granted once he reached the chamber. He was undressed by the men present, under Geoffrey’s watchful eye. The same was done to Alisce, with Alias now able to see the full curve of her back, arching up into a hump.

    “Certainly a camel,” Small Fry whispered to him.

    Alias elbowed his cousin hard enough to make the Count of Charolais double over, gasping for air. And then, after Alisce was laid on the bed, Alias reluctantly moved to join her. The curtains on the bed were drawn to a close, and Alias could hear his brother announce: “Let us leave them to it.”

    Through the candlelight of the chamber, Alias saw Alisce smiling back at him, though he could not tell if it was one of affection or simply nerves.

    The prince took a deep breath and ordered her: “Turn around.”

    Alisce said nothing, simply doing as she was told.

    ….

    In the morning, Alias sat in silence at the side of his bed. Fully clothed due to the December cold, head down, looking at the floor, he reflected on the night’s events.
    A small grin broke through.

    Maybe I will survive this after all.

    It was not easy, but Alias had managed to release inside of Alisce, the first time he’d managed with any woman. It had taken him a long time, but he had refused to admit defeat, fearing what would happen if he did.

    But now that he did, Alias was hopeful it might be the last time that would be required for a while. He would be going on campaign soon enough, and if he were lucky, one time might be all that was required for them to find a child.

    Alias rose from his bed and fetched himself a drink of water. As he sipped it, he thought of the next steps.

    He would need to go see Geoffrey to report in. And he would tell Adam he had managed. But perhaps he could get through this marriage without arousing suspicion.

    Hearing stirring from the bed, he looked over to see Alisce. Her body surrounded mostly by covers and turned to the side, he could really only see her face, which, despite his earlier complaints, was one of her better features.

    She met his gaze with a smile of her own. Alisce had not appeared any happier than Alias in the lead up to the night before, so this was a change.

    Perhaps she had her own worries, he realized. And now she is relieved of them too.

    The prince poured her a cup of water and brought it over. Alisce nodded in appreciation.

    “Thank you,” she said.

    “How do you feel this morning?” Alias asked.

    “Wonderful,” she cooed. “I confess, I was rather nervous given the circumstances. But it turned out exactly as I hoped. Thank you for that.”

    Alias smiled. If she enjoyed the experience, all the better.

    “And what of you husband?” Alisce asked. “Did you enjoy last night?”

    Alias’ stomach suddenly lurched. Survived, yes. But enjoyed? Not truly.

    But he could not say that to her, so he was silent for a moment. Eventually he came up with “I have not found release with any woman before you, my lady. My wife.”

    It was true, in a sense. He had not been able to with a woman before. But he had not only been with women.

    “I would not mind if you would take me again,” Alisce said. “I would dearly wish to find a child quickly. And it is fortuitous - I believe this is the time where I am at my most fertile. And I have been drinking potions a midwife in my old home gave me to help the process along.”

    Alias grew wide-eyed. She had been married before after all, and that they were going through all of this made him wonder if they did think her barren. If that were the case, Geoffrey would surely be disappointed… as would he, because he would surely be blamed by his brother for the lack of children.

    Alisce smiled at him nervously and she probably was eager to couple again. But Alias was not.

    “Perhaps… later,” he said. “I must go see my brother, the king. I wish to thank him for everything he provided for us last night, as well as his promise of the war to raise me in Navarra.”

    “We can go after,” Alisce said. “I should like to go with you as well. King Geoffrey was a most gracious host last night, and he is a truly good man to provide for you so. I know I did not think any children I had with my first husband would find lands of their own. And instead, my son will be Duke of Navarra.”

    She moved her hand over her abdomen, as if to nurture the child they both clearly hoped to sire. But for Alias, it was a touch off putting. It reeked of desperation… which was all too familiar for him.

    “I will speak with him first, in private,” Alias insisted. “He is my brother… and I do not know his mood. One never knows how things stand after a night with much drinking.”

    He didn’t expect any problems with Geoffrey, especially since he had managed to consummate the marriage with Alisce successfully. But he wanted to be away from Alisce and any plausible excuse would do.

    “I see,” Alisce said. She sighed and Alias could see she was disappointed. He was tempted for a moment to comfort her - to promise he’d return to her later. But Alias knew he didn’t want to do that, and shoulders slumped, he just slipped from the chamber and made his way toward Geoffrey’s.

    He realized en route that there was no guarantee he’d be allowed entry, since Geoffrey could be busy or even still asleep.

    When he reached his brother’s chambers however, Alias saw Ælfflæd storm from the room, stomping forth slightly awkwardly due to her pregnancy.

    Alias hesitated to get involved, since he knew nothing of what caused this. But Ælfflæd caught sight of him and pinned the prince with her gaze.

    “I pray you treat your wife better than your brother treats me,” she said, her eyes starting to water.

    And with that she marched off, and after Alias watched her go, he paused and debated whether he even wished to check in with his brother.

    What on earth could Geoffrey have done to anger her so, Alias wondered. Did he… return to Ana, or Countess Sarrazine?

    Geoffrey, however, had come to the doorway and after not seeing Ælfflæd, he turned his gaze to Alias.

    “Come to see me?” he asked.

    “I… yes,” Alias said as he looked back toward the hallway where Ælfflæd had gone. “What happened?”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes and motioned for Alias to follow him to the chambers. Committed now, Alias did as he was instructed and plopped himself down at the table in the center of the chamber. Geoffrey sat opposite him.

    “First things first,” Geoffrey said. “How did your night go? I have heard some positive things, but figured there is no better person to talk to than the groom himself.”

    Alias sighed and blushed. “I did my duty. I found my release in her, with great effort, I might add. Hopefully, it results in a child being conceived.”

    Geoffrey smiled and poured his brother a cup of wine, before pouring himself one. Then he raised his cup to Alias, who, reluctantly, did so in kind.

    “I knew you could,” Geoffrey told him.

    “I was not so sure,” Alias admitted. “My wife… she is not the most comely of women.”

    Geoffrey shrugged. “I did not think it mattered to you.”

    Alias rolled his eyes. “I may not be drawn to women but I can appreciate beauty when I see it. Alisce lacks it. That much is clear.”

    “Turn her from behind and close your eyes,” Geoffrey said. “Just make sure you keep finding the right place.”

    Alias narrowed his gaze. Yes, it was not too dissimilar from what Adam had suggested and what he had done. But the nasty dig at the end was unnecessary.

    “I would have preferred Hextilda, you know,” Alias said.

    “And I wasn’t going to have the Duke of Kent furious we ruined his son’s betrothal,” Geoffrey said. “I’m going to take my armies to Navarra. I don’t need my wife’s lords raising a fuss now.”

    “I thought you didn’t care what the English lords think,” Alias said.

    “Sometimes I won’t,” Geoffrey said. “This time, I did. It matters little - you won’t be relying on your wife for a fief. You shall have one of your own soon enough.”

    “Yes, Alisce is particularly pleased with that,” Alias said.

    “And you are not?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Of course I am,” Alias said. “This… that has been the only bright spot to any of this.”

    Geoffrey grinned and took a drink from his cup. Alias followed suit before he was unable to resist prying into his brother’s marriage and what happened with the queen.

    “She is rather unhappy with me at the moment,” Geoffrey said. “Such things happen.”

    Alias eyed him. Given the queen seemed grateful enough over being raised to the throne of England, the prince guessed she had caught Geoffrey with someone he shouldn’t. But he decided to play dumb.

    “What cause could she have for that, given England?” Alias asked.

    “That’s it, though, England,” Geoffrey explained. “She wants to return now that I am headed south. But I refused her demand. She is to remain here, in Bordeaux.”

    “Why?” Alias asked. “I thought she was to rule in her own right, even if she did so as a vassal.”

    “She’s with child,” Geoffrey said.

    “She traveled here with us a month ago,” Alias noted. “And she was clearly with child then.”

    “A month is a long time,” Geoffrey said. “Her belly grows large and her time will not be that long. Perhaps just two or three more months. But honestly, I will not have her birth my child in England where she and it will be vulnerable to any ambitious or plotting nobles. Once she has recovered and finished her churching, she can return to England. Perhaps by the summer.”

    Alias shook his head. “I can see her frustration.”

    “But you understand why I do what I do,” Geoffrey said. “A hostile court is no place for a child. They murdered one of their previous kings some half century ago. I will not make it easy for them.”

    “Won’t she be at risk when she returns, regardless?” Alias asked.

    “Yes, but then she’ll be better able to escape should someone act on the plot,” Geoffrey said. “And the child will be here, not in Lydford.”

    Alias shook his head. “You’re not permitting her to take the child back with her to England? Any of the children?”

    “Guilhem is coming with me,” Geoffrey said. “Margo can remain with my wife until she returns to England. Then I will decide what to do with her - she may come with us, since I plan to have mother come with us as well.”

    “Mother is coming with us?” Alias asked. He never expected to hear that.

    Geoffrey nodded. “I need her to watch Aines and keep me informed over her… progress.”

    “Aines comes with us as well?!” Alias asked.

    A sigh escaped Geoffrey’s lips. “Simon is coming with us and they are to be wed next summer. He has pestered me to let him spend time with Aines and mother suggested it would be a good test to see them both. I see the merits, and besides… if Aines with us, she’s not in Bordeaux. She can’t do much while in a camp with my guards.”

    Alias was surprised by all of this. While Geoffrey had acquiesced to Ælfflæd while in England, that was her demand and there was a political end to it. He did not expect his brother to make it a habit of taking the women of his life to war.

    “I suppose another added benefit,” Geoffrey continued, “will be your wife will have company on the campaign. Though for her sake, I pray mother is more accepting of her than she was with my wife, at least at first.”

    To that, Alias’ eyes grew wide. Of all the things Geoffrey had said, that was the most shocking to him… and the most stress inducing.

    “You can’t be serious,” he argued. “A battlefield or siege camp is no place for her!”

    “My wife handled such things just fine,” Geoffrey said. “As did her sister with our brother. In any case, the sooner you find a child with her, the sooner you can send her back to Bordeaux. Or perhaps, simply seat her in your new lands, as I did my wife.”

    “But…” Alias stammered. “I was not expecting…”

    “You thought you were going to bed her once and then forget about her for however long it takes for me to win you Navarra?” Geoffrey asked. The king smirked. “Alias, you did not think you’d be let out of your responsibilities so easily, did you?”

    “I… I… I laid with her…” he mumbled.

    “It will be need to be more than once,” Geoffrey said. “Even if you manage to sire a child with her now, I do not expect it to be the only child you find with her. So, you had best grow used coupling with her, since I imagine you will be doing it for a long time.”

    Alias could not resist a groan. But what could he say? He was married now. He had consummated it. There was no going back. He was stuck with Alisce. And would be for the foreseeable future, with no reprieve until he managed to get her pregnant.

    “It will be fine brother,” Geoffrey said. “Finding children has never been a problem for our family. I imagine she will be with us for but a few months before you send her back to rest with your child.”

    Alias wasn’t so sure. He’d managed it once, but he doubted he could do it repeatedly… and certainly not as much as Alisce seemed to desire it, if the morning was any indication.

    His conversation with Geoffrey done, Alias rose from the chair and bid his brother adieu for the time being. The prince took a few steps down the hall and exhaled as he thought about his situation.

    For the last few years, he’d pestered his brother for Navarra. To finally be raised. To be treated as a prince… and a man.

    Now he was to have Navarra. A fief to call his own, and a duchy, no less. But with it came responsibility… and a wife he did not fancy. And stress he did not imagine.

    The whole situation practically made his chest hurt. But there was no going back now. He had taken the reluctant first step into his new life.

    And as he felt his legs wobble, he was left to pray the rest of his journey did not lead him to an early grave.
     
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    Chapter 263 - February 1137
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 263
    February 1137 - Pau, Kingdom of Aquitaine

    A gentle breeze blew through a field as Geoffrey sat on horseback, looking out at the snow covered peaks of the mountains to his south.

    It was enough to rustle his hair, and though it felt good at first, it brought a chill to his body, so Geoffrey placed his hat on his head.

    All was quiet on that morning, as the king, Prince Alias, and some of Geoffrey’s commanders sat on horseback a mile outside of the town of Pau. Geoffrey had come out to take in the view, and also meet with Mayor Frederic of Saumur. The Pyrenees were a majestic sight, rivaling the beauty he enjoyed along the coast of Brittany. Unlike with Brittany, Geoffrey knew danger lurked somewhere within that picturesque view - the army of Navarra.

    “How are their positions, Frederic?” Geoffrey asked Frederic, who had recently returned from a scouting mission.

    “Strong,” Frederic answered. “They have prepared positions which will force us to attack up an incline.”

    “We’ve done that before,” Knud said.

    “Flanking the position will be difficult though,” Frederic cautioned. “The inclines are steep. We will be funneled through an area wide enough to bring a good number to the front, but we will not be able to use the whole of our forces. And it will all be frontal assaults.”

    “Charging uphill will not be easy, especially if we must move through throngs of our own men,” Alias noted. But to that Frederic shook his head.

    “Charging will be impossible,” Frederic said. “Even when the incline is more gentle, the terrain is broken - rough and uneven. Any charge on horseback will have trouble gaining momentum and power.”

    “Then we dismount and attack on foot?” Berard asked. “Like the king had them do against the Bretons?’

    “It is certainly an idea,” Frederic said. “We will need the numbers. Their rabble will have an advantage because of their position - it won’t take much training to poke their spears at our men.”

    “But it will take stamina and training to overcome that position,” Geoffrey mused. “Which… maybe a third of our men have.”

    “I wish I had better news, my king,” Frederic said.

    Geoffrey sighed as he turned his gaze back toward the mountains once more. It appeared his ego and bluster had made his situation more difficult than it needed to be.

    Against England, it had been Bordeaux falling under a surprise siege and him having to turn around and delay his invasion of the Isles for a time. Now it was news that his enemies had marched north, coming up through the Pyrenees in the east. He received word just weeks after Alias’ wedding, where he had plainly stated his intent to war Navarra to install his brother as duke, making it clear their would-be subjects were ready for him.

    Through the south of Gascony they moved, raiding villages and towns before falling back to the mountains, with their efforts coming to a halt in recent weeks in the lands of the Count of Bearn. They had not besieged any castles, but they still had done damage.

    And to make matters worse, the Navarrans were not alone.

    The Duke of Transjurania, the husband of Geoffrey’s aunt Ermengarde, had also been ready to aid his Navarran allies. Attempts to dissuade his intervention had failed and he had already marched into Aquitaine, coming from the east. While the duke had not stopped to besiege any castles, he had cut a swath through Toulouse, raiding outlying farms as he headed southwest.

    “Perhaps next time, we should aim to keep our plans closer to the vest,” Berard had suggested after learning of the Transjuranian’s advance.

    Geoffrey’s enemies each had anywhere from 5,000-6,000 men. If they could unite, the pair might be able to bring around 12,000 men to battle. Not only would that be the largest army Geoffrey had ever faced, the king did not have his 18,000 that he took to England at the ready.

    Instead, Geoffrey stood with just over 10,000, neglecting to summon the full might of his forces. It was something he did with hesitation, remembering it arguably had cost Herve de Semur his life to not bring his entirety of forces.

    But between Duke Adhemar and Bishop Edouard, he’d received word that the vassals of the realm were not particularly pleased with yet another conflict, so soon after spending the better part of two years fighting against England for the royal family’s benefit.

    Since Geoffrey was again fighting a war that he swore up and down was for his brother, even if it was with the church’s blessing, the vassals were not thrilled to be giving their lives for his ambition alone. Too much of this, Adhemar warned, could spark discontent, or worse, especially since the English lords were now in the mix.

    So Geoffrey had been left to call on primarily his own levy and even with that he had left some reserves in Perche, Cholet and Vendome. Aside from his minor vassals, he only called for his obligations from Duke Simon, Duke Foulquesson and Alberic de Perigord.

    He had not even approached Ælfflæd with a demand for England’s levy, figuring that would draw too much ire for a relatively insignificant number of troops. And his wife was still angry with him over banning her from returning to England for now, and taking their children at all.



    One advantage to not taking the full complement of his men, however, was that he could draw his forces up quicker. So when the news reached him the Navarrans had crossed into Aquitaine, Geoffrey did not have to take long to meet them.

    The downside was this - being uncertain over whether he had the strength to attack a foe that was numerically inferior, but boasted a strong defensive position.

    “Have you anything that we could use against them?” Geoffrey asked.

    “They are in a hostile land,” Frederic said. “With a little more time, I can find all the passes in the region and we can essentially trap them. If we stop them from raiding, they will either fight their way out… or starve in the mountains.”

    “Perhaps we should pray for a storm,” Berard said. “I imagine it would be unpleasant in the mountains.”

    Geoffrey eyed the mountains and could not bring himself to smile. It was frustrating, and while Duke Simon’s scouts in Toulouse were keeping an eye on Transjurania, they cast another shadow on Geoffrey’s situation. He wondered if they might strike at Toulouse itself, or might turn on Bordeaux - either one would leave Geoffrey in an unpleasant situation.

    “Have your men rest today, and tomorrow take them to scout the passes,” Geoffrey said. “If we can starve them out, then that’s what we’ll do.”

    Geoffrey took one last look at the mountains and then motioned for his group to make their way back toward the castle that sat on the south bank of the nearby river.

    “You know they wait for us,” Berard said. “They have to know we are present. They don’t run, so they may want us to attack them.”

    Geoffrey was silent to that. Berard was trained as he was - both knew that any commander worth a damn would only give battle if he felt assured victory. If the Navarrans were willing to fight, they felt supremely confident they would win.

    And despite the success Aquitaine’s men had in war, and dating back to Anjou before them, Geoffrey knew he could not take this lightly. They had shown signs of struggle in Brittany, even if they had overcome them. And this was a larger army than they’d faced there, with a strong defensive position. Caution was warranted.

    As they neared the castle, Geoffrey could see a small group of men had ridden out just out ahead of the fortifications. Coming closer, the king saw the group was headed by his cousin Rogier, who had command of the camp. That gave Geoffrey pause, but that was countered by the sight of Prince Guilhem and Berard's son Savarics, which brought a smile to the king’s face.

    When he decided to take Guilhem, who would turn nine next month, Geoffrey decided to entrust him to some official duties, acting as a page. And sure enough, as the king approached, Guilhem rode out to the head of the men, with Savarics and Rogier in behind.

    “Father,” Guilhem began. “Duke Simon has said he has an important message for you. It is about the men led by the Duke of Transjurania.”

    Geoffrey smiled. “Did he say anything else?”

    “No father,” Guilhem said.

    To that Geoffrey nodded. “Let us return to the castle then and see what our cousin has to say.”

    While he was pleased at how his son was performing as a page thus far, he left nothing to chance, always having someone with him to hear the message as well. In this case, that person was Rogier, who Geoffrey leaned in close to in order to double check Guilhem’s work.

    “Was there anything else?” Geoffrey asked.

    “No,” Rogier said. “The prince spoke as much as Simon said. But Simon was concerned, however, and only wished to speak directly with you.”

    “Perhaps Transjuranian forces lay siege to Toulouse?” Berard asked. “They were last spotted headed in that direction.”

    “He likely wishes to pull men off to relieve the siege,” Knud said. “Or have you go battle them for him.”

    “Or they head to Bordeaux,” Geoffrey added, just recounting his many fears with an enemy unchecked in his rear.

    Wars not going exactly to plan was something Geoffrey had been slowly introduced to over the past half-decade. From Herve’s death in Huelgoat, to the English surprise attack on Bordeaux, to some of the initial struggles he had capturing Lydford, Geoffrey found himself having to adapt often. He had succeeded well enough to those challenges so far, but every new surprise left him wondering if perhaps this time, he would find himself unable to accomplish his larger goal.

    And the possibility of being forced into some decision with Toulouse, and with it Poitou, or being caught in a compromising position between two armies was not something that left him feeling comfortable.

    They rode back to the castle, overlooking the Gave de Pau, a river which flowed from the mountains to the south. Pau itself was far from the largest village Geoffrey had seen, but had settlements on both banks of the river. It seemed inconsequential enough, though Alias claimed he knew someone who he believed was from there. But since his brother had lost track of the man’s whereabouts, Geoffrey was simply left to shrug it off.

    The castle was where Geoffrey had made his residence, along with his commanders and the prominent ladies traveling with the army. His mother Marguerite, chief among them, knew to stay out of his way, so she said nothing as Geoffrey made his way through the main hall and back toward a small chamber which served as the strategy hall.

    There he found Duke Simon, along with Princess Aines, standing over a map of the region. The pair were frequently together thus far during the trip, with Geoffrey finding it annoying. While he had agreed to do this, both as a test for Aines and to appease Duke Simon, the more he saw his sister, the angrier he got.

    Why should a woman who plotted to kill my son be allowed anything but a drafty convent, he found himself often wondering. He regretted being talked out of it in the years before.

    But cancelling the betrothal now, just months before the union was to go ahead, was a fine way to have his powerful cousin angry with him, along with his mother, not say anything of other lords of the realm. So he was left to stew, and watch, to see if Aines would give him a reason.

    At the moment he simply grunted at her: “Aines. Out.”

    She frowned and gave a look to Simon, as if to ask for his intervention. Which just annoyed Geoffrey further, since his underage vassal of a cousin was in no position to do such a thing.

    “Aines, my dear, your brother will want to hear the message with his commanders,” Simon said.

    “As I said,” Geoffrey began, “Aines, out.”

    Lowering her head, the princess made a quick walk from the chamber and back out to the main hall, leaving Geoffrey to shake his head at her as she did so. He then glanced at his son, who stood close to him - Guilhem had never been told directly of the plot against his life, but he had probably heard murmurs of it.

    “Forgive me, cousin,” Simon said. “She was curious as to our situation. As she is to be my wife, I just wished to inform her.”

    Geoffrey simply eyed his cousin. He didn’t doubt her curiosity, but it was his job to send her away, reminding her what her place was.

    But then Geoffrey guessed Simon was currently incapable of that. He was clearly infatuated by her looks, to the point where Alias said he had the look of a “puppy” following her, while Berard chastised him to Geoffrey as a “lap dog.” It was surprising only that it was the rare time Berard and Alias agreed on anything.

    And Geoffrey wasn’t sure which he liked less - the prospect of his uncle Guilhem using Toulouse like his fief… or Aines doing it.

    However, Geoffrey did have one less family problem to deal with on this campaign. As the commanders all gathered around the map, though there was one notable absence - Duke Foulquesson.

    The Duke of Brittany had told Geoffrey he intended to complete the conquest of his duchy by finishing off the Count of Penthievre. Initially, Geoffrey was on the verge of forbidding it - he wanted Foulquesson’s men for Navarra.

    But Foulquesson agreed to provide his obligations, so long as Geoffrey gave him leave to lead the remainder of his men against the child lord. While the duke was still a valuable commander, Geoffrey could do with a war where he didn’t have to deal with his gruff personality, which had only grown worse as his body withered. Thus the king allowed it, and Foulquesson remained in Brittany, while his men came south.

    And since Geoffrey guessed Simon didn’t have good news for him, he was relieved he wouldn’t have to deal with his uncle’s snark, or grandiose boasting of how he’d have whipped both Navarra and Transjurania three times over by this point.

    “My son tells me you have news for me, cousin,” Geoffrey said. “So, what is it? The Transjuranians, I presume?”

    Simon nodded. “They have moved past Toulouse and head in this direction.”

    “They did not try to lay siege?” Knud asked.

    Simon shook his head. “They never had any intention. It does not appear they carry siege equipment.”

    “They could still assemble them,” Alias said. “But if they head past Toulouse… do they head towards Bordeaux?”

    Simon shook his head. “No. As I said, they head in this direction.”

    “How far are they from here?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Three or four days,” Simon said. “Maybe five or six if they are held up by weather or something else.”

    Geoffrey turned back to Frederic. “Did you get any indication the Navarrans realize we’re only a day and a half away?”

    Frederic shrugged. “I did not see any. But I also would be surprised if we simply got the drop on them. We are over 10,000 strong and surely they had scouts in this town that told of our arrival, just as Duke Simon has scouts informing him of Transjurania’s progress.”

    Geoffrey scratched the stubble on his face as he looked at the map. “They expect their allies to arrive. Either they will join their forces, or they plan to swoop down from the mountains to attack us as Transjurania does."

    “The castle will block them,” Berard noted. “We can battle the Transjuranians, while the Navarrans are held here.”

    “If the Navarrans intend to fight here,” Geoffrey noted. “But there are two other points the Transjuranians can cross and they are not nearly as well guarded as this one.”

    “So we contest that crossing,” Rogier suggested. “And isolate the Transjuranians before the Navarrans can aid.”

    “They’re almost certainly in contact,” Knud warned. "They might move as soon as we do."

    “Even if they’re not,” Geoffrey began as he continued to stare at the map, “They have to have scouts scattered in the county. They’ll know the Tranjuranians are coming, and they’ll also know if we go to meet them.”

    “The risk is great,” Alias conceded. “Do you think this was their plan?”

    “I don’t know,” Geoffrey said. “But at this point it doesn’t matter. I suspect they realize the opportunity.”

    “We still may outnumber them,” Rogier said. “And we must not forget, we have the blessing of the church and God with us. He will see us through.”

    “I think we should be wary of placing all of our faith in God,” Alias warned. “Plenty of men have believed themselves blessed only to find they were gravely mistaken at the most inopportune time.”

    “Do you doubt your brother?” Rogier asked. “Especially as he fights for you?”

    “I just argue not to take any chances,” Alias said.

    “And I will not,” Geoffrey said. “I have little intention of engaging both armies at once.”

    “Should we withdraw?” Mayor Frederic asked. “We could fall back and call forth the rest of your levy.”

    Geoffrey looked over the map. He was not ready to attack the Navarrans yet, given their defensive positions and the mountainous terrain.

    But if he fell back, and allowed the link up to happen, then he would have to call up his men and his vassals’, causing more problems. Yet if he were defeated now, he’d have to call up those men anyway, and do so having the mystique of an army that had not been defeated in over half a century shattered.

    “Frederic,” Geoffrey said. “You mentioned finding some passes. Are there any that will let you get somewhat close to the Navarran flank and rear?”

    Frederic shrugged. “Not many. There is nothing good on the left of their position. My men did discover a path along the right of their position, but it is only good for horses for so far. So we could not charge down it.”

    “But you could move quickly?” Geoffrey asked. “Then dismount and reach their lines by foot?”

    Frederic seemed hesitant to reply but eventually did nod. “It won’t be easy, but yes, I think it’s possible. But I do not think we could take 10,000 men through there?”
    “It won’t be 10,000,” Geoffrey said. “About 150. 200, knights and sergeants.”

    “I don’t understand,” Alias said.

    Geoffrey sighed and moved the blocks into position.

    “The enemy will likely deploy along the incline Mayor Frederic described earlier,” Geoffrey said. “They will be disadvantaged in men, but with our men having to push up the rough terrain, we will have difficulty in dislodging them. However, if we were to get into their flank and rear, we could press them on two sides. Once we break their right, can press forward on the center and left from their flank.”

    “Roll them up like a baker does his bread,” Berard said.

    Geoffrey nodded and then looked at Rogier. “When is the earliest we can move?”

    “If we hurried, perhaps today, but we would not get far before darkness,” Rogier said. “Most likely the morning is our best bet.”

    Geoffrey counted on his fingers. “A day and half, if the weather is good. And Simon, you’re certain our uncle, the Duke of Transjurania, is three days away?”

    Simon grimaced and Geoffrey’s stomach twisted. The young duke replied: “If they make good time… then maybe two? I think it’s unlikely, but… I am uncertain.”

    It was cutting it too close. If he had any delay, or the Transjuranians made good time… or both, he could be the one who ended up getting attacked on the flank and rear. And if he could not break through, he would find himself up against two armies in short order.

    He was tempted to reluctantly give the order to withdraw, and then summon forth the rest of his levy. It would be a bit of humiliation - everyone would know he’d made a mistake. But it was better than a defeat.

    His heart racing, Geoffrey struggled to find the words to give the order. And as he tried to get them out, his eyes fell on the small block representing his cousin’s retinue, as well as the eastern ford where the Transjuranians were likely to cross to come to the Navarrans aid.

    “Simon, how strong is the group shadowing my uncle’s forces?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Near five hundred,” Simon answered.

    “I need them to contest the crossing to the east of here,” Geoffrey said. “Prevent them from fording the river and reaching the Navarrans.”

    Simon blanched. “You… you wish them to attack a force that’s nearly ten times their number?”

    “I need them to delay the enemy,” Geoffrey said. “Just as they did when uncle Foulquesson came to their aid against the English.”

    “So you want them to hold up Transjurania, while you arrive to attack them?” Simon asked.

    “No, I want them to hold up Transjurania while I attack Navarra,” Geoffrey said. “I believe if we can rout the Navarrans here, their allies will turn back for a time and the road to Pamplona will be open. And if they do not, we will hold a strong defensive position and can rout them.”

    “What if they attack here?” Simon asked.

    “They won’t,” Geoffrey said. “The castle will prevent that. And moving to the west of here to cross will take too long. They have to cross there.”

    “So you are to send my knights to die?” Simon demanded.

    “I need a delay,” Geoffrey said. “They need not fight to the last man. But I need a day. Give me a day, Simon, and no more questions - I will give you my sister.”

    Simon’s eyes widened and he fell silent for a moment. His eyes drifted to the map, clearly focused on the block representing his retinue. Then he looked up at Geoffrey.
    “I will give you as much time as you need,” Simon said.

    Geoffrey smiled. “Good.”

    Simon bowed. “I will leave at once.”

    But the king held up his hand. “Don’t get any ideas, cousin. Your father would be furious with me if I let you run off to such a place. Place the man you trust most in command. You will stay here, at this castle.”

    Simon frowned and again looked at the map. But he did not argue.

    “How will we fight?” Berard asked.

    “As I said,” Geoffrey said. “We engage them from the front while Frederic takes a group of knights and sergeants to the rear. They are the hammer, our frontal assault is the anvil.”

    “You trust the rabble to hold long enough for that work?” Knud asked. “I would caution against it.”

    “I agree,” Berard said. “Perhaps let me take the knights of the reserve to add backbone to the line.”

    It was what Geoffrey had done before in Brittany, ordering Berard’s brother Alberic to shore up his line. But here, Geoffrey didn’t want that.

    “That will spread you thin,” Geoffrey said. “I prefer you provide steel where our situation is the weakest. We can’t know that until we engage.”

    “Mayor Frederic had command of the left flank,” Alias said. “Who will command it if he leads the flank attack?”

    Geoffrey knew his brother was hoping for the honor. But this battle, and the flank he would be the weakest initially was not the place for an inexperienced commander.

    “I will go and hold the rabble in place,” Rogier promised. “Mayor Frederic, you will have as much time as you need to win the day.”

    Geoffrey had no problem with that. Rogier had performed admirably when Herve had fallen at Huelgoat. And he believed that Aquitaine’s forces were God’s chosen - which meant he would fight with a fervent belief.

    “I can do it,” Alias said. “You fight for me. Let me fight for you.”

    “You will be with me,” Geoffrey said. “In the center.”

    Geoffrey then dispatched Toumas de Najae to lead the initial fight to join with Knud’s attack on the right, to complete his assignments. And after he did, he could see his commanders did not have their usual smiles and energy.

    They think this will fail, Geoffrey realized.

    It gave him further doubts and a voice in his head told him to swallow his pride and retreat. Call forth the rest of his levy. He would deal with the discontent of his vassals later.

    If I let them link, 12,000 men will wreak havoc on my countryside, he realized. I will be forced to fight them anyway… and it will not be easy then either. But if we win today…

    Geoffrey turned his gaze to the commanders. “I know this has risk. It is not the type of battle we are taught to fight. But we do not always do as we are taught. Or as we are told.”

    He looked at each of them - though Rogier, Toumas and Frederic held pretty spotless records, Knud and Alias certainly did not. And Berard was not afraid of questioning Geoffrey’s orders.

    “As my cousin Rogier says, we place our trust in God,” Geoffrey said. “And know that should we win, we will have ourselves a famous victory, the likes of which Alexander and Caesar would be proud of, to say nothing of my father and grandfather.”

    “Hear hear!” Alias said as he raised his cup to him. The others followed suit.

    Geoffrey didn’t really have any doubts they’d follow him. But he wished to see the confidence in their faces once more, and it seemed to do the trick.

    Which was good, because Geoffrey himself was far from certain over whether this would work.

    ….

    Geoffrey’s sleep that night was restless. And the night after, as they closed on the Navarrans, he barely slept at all.

    Doubts continued to linger - for he truly did subscribe to the idea one should not give battle unless certain of victory. Which meant the longer he doubted himself, the worse his worries became, in a vicious cycle.

    It left him thinking about a withdrawal even more. But having come this far, he could not bring himself to do it. It would damage the morale of his commanders and soldiers. And it would likely anger Simon, who’s potential sacrifice of his retinue would be for nothing but the whims of an indecisive commander.

    Once he’d given that order… he’d committed himself. For better or for worse.

    It left him a bundle of nerves as he rode out to see the Navarran position that late morning. They were at elevation, but there was an area of flat land around a mile wide in between two slopes. That area held a village, which had been where the Navarran commanders had made their residence before joining their men on the steeper of the two slopes.

    Geoffrey was able to view them from the gentler slope opposite them, while his men gathered around the village below. There was a mix of trees and open area, and it was among a denser set of trees that Frederic’s path around the enemy position lay. Overgrown and hardly maintained, it was not something he and his men would move quickly through, even on horseback. But Geoffrey saw no real alternative, given the strength of the Navarran position.

    As Frederic had promised, there were steep inclines on the Navarran flanks - with their right, Geoffrey’s left, practically a cliff. It meant the only way past them for most of the army was up through the center, where they were formed up with spearmen and shields.

    The slopes were fairly close together, so Geoffrey could both view his army advance fairly well from his position, and also ride off to join them when he was ready.

    The battle started with Geoffrey alongside his commanders as they watched the two armies form up skirmishing lines. It was almost comical the disparity in troop numbers - Geoffrey’s archers came forward in a wide front across the Navarran line, while his enemies were congregated in what looked like a single line mostly concentrated in the center.

    What was less amusing to the king was how poor the exchange was going for his men, given their massive advantage in numbers.

    The Navarrans could shoot farther, which meant the Aquitaine troops were forced to advance under fire to close to a distance where their arrows would have an effect. And the effect was muted due to the difficulties in shooting at elevation - many of their arrows found either the ground in front the Navarrans or fluttered harmlessly overhead.

    They tried to limit the damage by approaching in a very loose formation, but it still was an exchange which Aquitaine was coming away worse for.

    “We should just launch our spearmen forward,” Knud told him. “We will come out the worst from this.”

    “We need time,” Geoffrey told him. “You saw the path Frederic must travel. If all goes to plan, we will engage their front, get them dug in, then he will emerge from their rear and hit them.”

    And if I can ask my cousin’s men to buy me time, then I can ask my own, Geoffrey thought.

    He had to give his archers credit as they stood there and took the pounding, perhaps heartened by the fact that even if they were falling, the number of Navarrans was not that great and shrinking, slowly but surely.

    Eventually the exchange was forced to come to an end due to a lack of ammunition. The two sides exhausted their supply of arrows and had resorted to shooting what had been directed at them back at their enemies. But the Aquitaine shots tended to result in arrows that were outside of the reach of the Navarrans, and the Navarrans themselves were reduced in number to the point where they didn’t return enough fire for Geoffrey’s archers to return fire causing it to simply peter out.

    Geoffrey ordered his commanders to their position to prepare their assaults, while he looked on at the results of the skirmish. He saw lots of Navarrans had fallen in front of their lines - perhaps half of their original number of archers. But there appeared to be more dead on his side, some falling where they stood, and others falling down the slope.

    It was an ominous sign - perhaps that he was to win this engagement, but at a high cost.



    Geoffrey crossed himself and then looked to his brother and Berard, the two commanders who remained, since Alias was to command the later wave in the center and Berard the reserve.

    “I’m off,” Geoffrey said. “Berard, if you hear nothing of me, you have leave to take the reserve where it is necessary. Alias, since you cannot charge effectively, take our dismounted knights and advance them if you see the center waver, or if you see us make a breakthrough. Understood?”

    Berard nodded. But Alias shook his head.

    “Geoff, don’t go,” he said. “Let me go in your stead. I can lead the first attack.”

    “That is my position,” Geoffrey said. “Out of the question.”

    “You need to be here,” Alias argued. “From this vantage point you can see the battle unfold. And direct men to go where they are needed.”

    “I normally do as I have done here,” Geoffrey said. “See the early stages and then once everything is set into motion, join the fray.”

    “I’ve heard,” Alias said. “But this is different. What if one of the lines falters while you are engaged?”

    “I trust Berard will know what to do,” Geoffrey said as he looked at his friend.

    “No offense to you, Berard,” Alias began, “but Geoff, you are king. It should be your decision. Your judgment. No one else’s, especially as this fight may well sit on a knife’s edge.”

    Berard shrugged. “If he wishes to go so badly, I say let him. If he struggles, then you can ride off then to aid him.”

    “You won’t have to deal with my mother if something happens to him,” Geoffrey said. “I realize taking her was a mistake - she’s on edge, fearing one of us shall suffer our brother’s fate.”

    “Battle is battle,” Berard said. “It can happen to any of us.”

    “You don’t understand,” Alias said. “We fight against Iberians. My mother has come to believe the superstition that those who come to Iberia from the north are doomed to suffer a curse.”

    “What nonsense is this?” Berard asked Geoffrey.

    “My brother died in Iberia,” Geoffrey explained. “And King Philippe and King Hughes both essentially lost their kingdoms for their heirs as a result of war with Valencia. She thinks it may all be connected.”

    “I thought you complained your mother believed your brother was called to heaven because he was 'too good' for this world,” Berard said.

    Geoffrey shook his head. “My mother is worried about her sons, so she believes whatever suits her fear.”

    “But you will heed it?” Alias demanded. “If I am to go second anyway, why not let me go first? It would be more effective for you to be able to watch and react.”

    “The men can use my bravery,” Geoffrey said. “And this is safer for you. I will not let mother and father down by allowing you to die foolishly.”

    “I am plenty brave,” Alias said. “I am not worried about mother’s ‘curse’ For even if it were true, we are not in Iberia. We are in Aquitaine.”

    Geoffrey smirked at that. I can’t hide him. If he is to be duke, he will need to fight. Come what may.

    Taking a deep breath, the king said: “Go. Fight well, keep your shield up and don’t do anything foolish. I need you to hold them, not break them. And if you need aid, send for it. I will come.”

    Geoffrey turned back to his knights. “Protect my brother with your lives. You hear him - he is not wanting in valor. But we all know a man eager to prove himself may risk himself. Do not let him.”

    “We shall protect Prince Alias as we would you, my king,” said Carles, one of Geoffrey’s knights replied. “Prince Alias, we await your lead.”

    Alias smiled broadly and looked at Geoffrey. “Thank you brother. You will not regret this.”

    Then the prince looked to Carles and the others. “Men! Forward!”

    Shaking the reins of his horse, Alias galloped forward down the hill. Geoffrey’s heart was in his chest as he watched his brother go - knowing that in a short time he would dismount and take his place among the ranks of the soldiers. No steed or anything special to protect him besides his armor, which admittedly better than anything the rabble could manage.

    Immediately, Geoffrey had regrets.

    “I don’t like this,” Geoffrey told Berard. “I should not have let him go.”

    “He’s not you,” Berard conceded. “But he needs to prove himself worthy of what you wish to grant him. And as I said, if he falters, you have the men you were ready to give to him for the second wave. And myself, of course.”

    “I still hate just watching,” Geoffrey said. “I should be at the front, leading.”

    “There’s still time for action,” Berard said. “I do not think this battle will be decided in short order.”

    In that Geoffrey wasn’t sure if it was good or bad. He hoped Frederic would arrive quickly, once Rogier had engaged that part of the Navarran force. But if he didn’t… then he needed his forces to hold. The battle becoming a slog was probably for the best.

    The Aquitaine forces marched up the slope, slowly. Geoffrey could hear men on both sides shouting and chanting, even from his distance. As they neared the lines, Aquitaine men had to step over the bodies of their dead archer comrades, and then their Navarran counterparts, who had moved several paces ahead of their spearline to engage in the earlier skirmish.

    At the last moment, the Navarrans did charge down to engage with their spearmen and rabble. The extra momentum would give them an advantage, Geoffrey realized, and they made sure to maintain their lines well enough that the steepness on their sides prevented them from being flanked. If Aquitaine wanted to break them, they’d have to win a shoving match uphill, or manage to force the line at an angle where they could get to the exposed spear arms of the mass of humanity before them.



    On the Aquitaine left, the king watched as Rogier led the men forth. It was that flank he worried the most about, since Frederic had taken a majority of the knights and sergeants in order to ride around the flank and rear. There were still some left with Rogier, but most of his forces were rabble, so he was left to use his knights and sergeants along with his personal charisma to hold long enough for Frederic to make it to the rear.

    Still Geoffrey took no chances. He had Berard’s reserve on that side of the battlefield, ready to march quickly to stiffen the line if needed. But at least in the early going, Rogier was holding fast, doing his job of pinning the Navarrans for Frederic’s attack… should it arrive.

    Meanwhile, Alias’ push in the center also fought to a standstill, which calmed to Geoffrey’s nerves - if his brother had fallen, the assault would break. If it continued, he was likely still doing well.

    The right, however, was looking concerning. While the others were holding after a good bit of fighting, Knud’s assault was beginning to buckle and waver. If it collapsed, Geoffrey wondered if the Navarrans might pursue or hold back. If it was the former, he could send Berard’s reserve to counter charge and possibly destroy their line. If they held back, then they might shift men over to the center and shift the balance against Alias.

    He continued to watch for minutes, perhaps longer. And the situation did not change, Rogier and Alias holding, Knud’s line slowly being forced back.

    “I could go to Knud’s aid,” Berard suggested. “For either way, it seems that part of our struggle could use some extra punch.”

    Geoffrey knew he was right. Unless the Navarrans were simply static when Knud’s attack fell away, problems would arise from defeat there.

    But Geoffrey also knew committing Berard would mean he would be without reserves should Alias need help - or more likely, Rogier’s attack began to rapidly crumble. And Rogier’s attack was the key - to hold the Navarrans in place so Frederic could fall upon them from the rear.

    He still had his own men with him, and the ones he had readied for Alias original second attack in the center. He could shift them left, but they weren’t as numerous as Berard’s reserve.

    The king’s heart raced as he feared a mistake here could undo his grandiose plans. But if he did nothing, there were two ways it could fall apart, especially since there would be a delay in Berard riding to the reserve and then marching them up the incline to the aid of whoever needed it.

    “Go to Knud,” Geoffrey said. “Hold their men in place. God be with you.”

    “And you Geoff,” Berard said.

    The pair crossed themselves and Geoffrey watched Berard ride off. Then a few minutes later, he watched as the reserve began their march up toward the right, as Knud’s line buckled. As the reserve neared, the right actually broke, as Geoffrey had feared.

    But the Navarrans were light in their pursuit, perhaps because of discipline or perhaps because they saw the additional men moving forward to reinforce. Either way, the Aquitaine right stabilized, and the situation returned to a status quo.

    Geoffrey’s eyes fell to the center, where Alias’ attack seemed to hold well enough. And as Geoffrey watched, he wondered if perhaps his brother was actually doing more than holding the line but actually making progress.

    Or perhaps my eyes are influenced by my heart, Geoffrey thought, worried and hopeful of his brother.

    Then on the left, Geoffrey did notice a bit of a buckle from Rogier’s men. They seemed to be losing ground, and the king’s heart again raced. He glanced quickly at the right again, as if to confirm Berard could not send aid. Then back to the left, as he saw the similar weakening and push back of the line that he witnessed with Knud.

    They are going to break, he realized.

    Again he considered moving forward with what he had left - which might be enough to fully stabilize a collapsing flank. Maybe if I take the archers too, he thought. They aren’t armored and have short swords, but they are numbers.

    It might be necessary to give any backbone he could to Rogier. On the other hand, if he rushed forward - he might be running right to the edge of a cliff that was collapsing underneath.

    The Navarrans opposite Rogier came forth to press their attack with more vigor than those fighting Knud’s men. But despite initially seeing men fall back, Geoffrey watched with wonderment as the line suddenly held.

    Rogier is a miracle worker, Geoffrey thought. His bravery must inspire, as it did at Huelgoat when Herve was….

    Geoffrey tried not to think about that - especially since he did not bring his full army to this fight either.

    But the line’s integrity was not as strong as Geoffrey hoped, and it soon began to buckle once more. And Geoffrey decided then he would need to commit himself to reinforcing it with what little men he had left in reserve - himself and his own guard.

    However, then Geoffrey saw something else. Men coming forth from the Navarran flank and rear on Rogier’s side. And a smile came to the king’s face, as he realized it was the attack by Mayor Frederic, arriving just in time.

    Sure enough, the Navarran assault on Rogier suddenly slowed and then stopped as their men were forced to deal with the attack on the rear, undertaken by knights and sergeants - a stronger group on a whole than the rabble infused group Geoffrey’s cousin commanded.

    But even those rabble were able to make a difference when their opponents were caught between two armies and partially encircled. Rogier’s men stabilized again and began to make gains.

    Geoffrey’s lips formed a broad smile. In the center, Alias’ continued to make small gains. The sudden infusion of Geoffrey himself, and his guard would probably shift the balance there too. If most of the Navarran line collapsed, those opposite Knud and Berard would be forced back.

    It was time - Geoffrey raised his arm and had his men ride down towards the center. Then they dismounted, pulled forth their shields and spears and marched their way forward, eager to join in the day’s glory.



    …..

    As night fell on the battlefield, Geoffrey stood among the tents and extinguished fires of what had been the Navarran camp.

    His soldiers eagerly helped themselves to whatever supplies and valuables they could find, which wasn’t that much, but still better than nothing. And they made use of the camp, as well as the town below, as they celebrated their victory raucously with songs and chants that probably could have been heard for miles.

    For Geoffrey it was a relief as much as it was happiness. Frederic’s attack had destroyed the Navarran right, and between he and Rogier turning on the center, along with Geoffrey himself adding more weight to Alias’ attack, that part of the Navarran line had been crushed as well.

    Only the Navarran left, opposite Knud’s right, managed to escape in good order, pulling back before the Aquitaine left and center could wheel and trap them against the steep-drop off on their own flank.

    The only downside was since Geoffrey’s knights and sergeants had dismounted, and were exhausted from the fight, they were in no shape to launch a pursuit.
    In the morning, they rode out on any paths suitable for horseback, and went by foot on those that weren’t. Some stragglers were found, with mixed results. If the Navarrans held anything of value, they were captured to be ransomed. Some who weren’t wealthy but had some valuables were let go in exchange for what could be sold. And those who could offer nothing were killed on the spot.

    Geoffrey guessed about half the Navarran army escaped. While it wasn’t a complete victory, however, it badly weakened his opposition.



    And news soon came from Simon, indicating his men had been defeated, but news of Geoffrey’s victory here had caused the Transjuranians to break off their march and fall back to the mountains in the east, fearful of Geoffrey turning on them.

    But Geoffrey had little intention of doing that right away, for another mountain engagement was not something he desired. Instead, he marched his army back to Pau, to plan his next move.

    “The Navarran army flees back toward Pamplona,” Simon reported when they returned to the castle along the river a few days later.

    “What of Transjurania?” Geoffrey asked.

    “They have headed off to the east,” Simon said. He traced a circular path around the Pyrenees to the southeast. “Perhaps to await their allies in Aragon or Catalonia.”



    “Let them,” Berard said. “We will take Pamplona before they either reach us, or make it back to Aquitaine.”

    “I agree,” Geoffrey said. “They cannot stop us from reaching the heart of the boy king's lands. We have them… it is only a matter of time.”

    He paused for a moment to look at the map and the block representing Simon’s men. Then he glanced toward his cousin.

    “Simon, tell your men they have the thanks of their king for their bravery,” Geoffrey said. “And let it be known I am sending them my share of the haul taken from the Navarran camp as a reward.”

    Simon’s eyes widened. “Most gracious of you, cousin.”

    It was and wasn’t, since Geoffrey was handing over his share, but he neither needed it, nor was it that much. There was more value in show of the act, rather than the loot that made it up.

    “And one more thing,” Geoffrey said. “You can have my sister’s hand. You have leave to take her with you back to Toulouse.”

    Simon’s eyes widened for a moment before a smile came to his face. He then bowed before Geoffrey.

    “Thank you,” he said. “I swear that I shall treat her as a queen.”

    “Treat as duchess, not a queen,” Geoffrey said. “For that’s all she shall be. Understand?”

    Simon grew pale and then nodded. A nervous grin came to his face. “Of… of course, cousin. My king. It was only a phrase and I did not mean to…”

    His voice trailed off and Geoffrey eyed him. So too did all the commanders present, as well as Prince Alias. Finally Geoffrey simply replied: “Good.”

    “I… I shall beg my leave so I might tell her the news,” Simon said. “We depart from here once we are certain the Tranjuranians have left our lands.”

    Geoffrey nodded and Simon backed his way from the area, the king watching him as he did so.

    “Generous of you,” Berard said. “I might have made him twist in the wind a bit longer.”

    “I extracted what I could from him,” Geoffrey said. “His household knights died to help win us a victory. If I went back on it after that… he could easily rally support against me. I have to take my chances.”

    Geoffrey then plopped himself down in a chair as servants entered the area to pour wine. The commanders took their cups and stood around him.

    “So then to Pamplona next?” Knud asked.

    Geoffrey nodded. “Simon has the right idea to wait a few days to see what Transjurania does next. But assuming they do go east and then south, we turn west towards the boy’s main holding.”

    Taking a sip of his drink, Geoffrey finally let loose a smile. And raised his cup.

    “We have won a great victory,” he said. “It was no easy thing driving them off. Or even the will to fight it. But we did, and not just have won the battle, but I think even the war itself - thanks to your bravery and resolve.”

    “God was on our side,” Rogier insisted. “I know he guided me. I think 10 men fell around me. I felt the wind of a strike against against my ear. A spear point managed to penetrate my mail, but it was stopped from my heart by my leathers and the wooden cross round my neck.”

    Geoffrey smiled and raised his cup to that. Given Rogier’s seeming skill to turn reverses into moments of great success, he had little reason to doubt his cousin had stumbled his way into God’s graces.

    “Perhaps you have a point,” Geoffrey said. “We move well together. It is as if we are guided by some link, or perhaps God himself.”

    Mayor Frederic shook his head. “Perhaps God works through you, my king. For this has been your work. Your father won himself many battles, but such a movement was not something he would do with ease. Nor would he have taken such a risk. We were brave, but we were in a position to be brave because of your plans.”

    “A flanking maneuver is hardly anything,” Geoffrey said.

    “But the willingness to adapt,” Frederic said. “Using your knights as you do. The way we pinned their stronger troops as we did and used a route others may not have considered. That was your genius, your gift, my king. It is something to be proud of.”

    “I agree,” Berard added. “And you showed boldness in your decisions. Even a fine plan can fall apart if the right man is not there to guide them through difficulty. We had that today.”

    “And you had the trust in me to lead the assault,” Alias said. “Willing to put aside your ego for the good of the battle. For the good of the realm.”

    “It’s no surprise to me,” Knud said. “I trained you. I always knew you had it in you.”

    “Hail to our king,” Rogier said. “A more brilliant a strategist the realm has not seen!”

    They all cheered to that and Geoffrey felt flush, almost embarrassed. And yet, he also could not deny his pride. Yes, he outnumbered the Navarrans, but that alone did not guarantee victory, especially against such a defensive position. It took skill, patience and foresight to achieve the victory he did.

    Brilliant strategist, Geoffrey thought. My grandfather would be proud. My father… perhaps a touch jealous. And my brother… he would smile, just as Alias does.



    ….

    That evening, Geoffrey stood alone in the bed chamber of a local merchant.

    The relief of his victory having washed over him, he had to move onto the next stage of the plan. So he arranged a meeting with a merchant to provide some supply for his men to supplement their raiding of lands while they laid siege to Pamplona.

    The merchant, Pierre, had been eager to aid the king anyway he could and naturally agreed to the deal. And as a sweetener, he was willing to let Geoffrey borrow his house for the evening.

    The king imagined the merchant was surprised to be asked such a request - Geoffrey claimed he wished for a more cozy abode for a night as opposed to a drafty castle. But it was more for privacy, the reason for which opened the door and entered the chamber at that moment. Geoffrey smiled as Ana dropped the hood of her cloak and then shook free her hair.

    “You summoned me, my king?” she asked with a sly grin.

    After Geoffrey chuckled she hurried over into his arms, and planted a wet kiss on his lips.

    “You missed me then?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I was terrified for you,” Ana said. “Word had spread about how you were attacking a dangerous position.”

    “Word?” Geoffrey asked. “You mean my mother fretted.”

    “And I joined her!” Ana said. “Between you and my brother, I feared for what might happen!”

    “It was fine,” Geoffrey said. “As you see.”

    “Yes, I hear you are quite the… what was it… brilliant strategist?” Ana asked.

    “My mother again?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Berard,” Ana said. “He was not quiet in his praise of you. But then most are impressed.”

    The sound of that made Geoffrey smile again. “Are you not?”

    “I always knew you were brilliant,” Ana said. “But I am as equally impressed that you convinced the merchant to give up his home to you.”

    “It is only for a night,” Geoffrey said. “I wanted to be alone with you.”

    “And Rogier and Frederic with Berard in the hall?” Ana asked.

    “They know to be quiet, as your brother does,” Geoffrey said. “Alias… I didn’t want him to know.”

    “You should have sent him to the camel,” Ana said.

    “He earned a reprieve for a few nights after the battle,” Geoffrey said. “It’s the least of what I could do.”

    Ana smiled and pressed herself close to him.

    “You should let your wife go back to England so I could have you all the time,” Ana said.

    “She will go,” Geoffrey said. “But I can’t do anything rash… no matter how tempting. Besides, you are here. She is not. That is all that matters.”

    “Do you love her?” Ana asked.

    “Not like I do you,” Geoffrey said. “I don’t think she could appreciate this… as you do.”

    Ana kissed him once more, and he pulled at her clothing.

    He had refrained from this while he was fighting for England, and when he was with Ælfflæd. But he had his needs, and the queen was back in Bordeaux, pregnant, and unable to be touched as often as he'd like. After she gave birth, she would not tolerate coming south - she would want to go back to England.

    And, he wasn’t lying to Ana when he spoke of appreciation. Would Ælfflæd care if Geoffrey had won a victory like this? Maybe… if it saved her from peril or won her a kingdom. But otherwise?

    Ana always cared. Ana was always impressed by his success. She was always impressed by him.

    And after the plaudits he had just earned, Geoffrey could not help but feel it was no less than he deserved.



    Notes:

    1. Was riding without my editor this time. My wife had some semi-emergency surgery, which went well and she's thankfully home recovering. But she's unable to follow the text at the moment and give feedback. Hopefully she'll be good for the next chapter and hopefully this chapter was still OK.

    2. As you can see, Transjurania forces were somewhat close. I painted them a touch closer than they got but CK2's battles last for weeks, rather than hours. So had Toulouse not been there to intercept, there's a solid chance they'd have arrived to join the fight. Given it was in mountain terrain, it could have resulted in defeat.
     
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    Chapter 264 - December 1137
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 264
    December 1137 - Lydford, England

    “Are you all right, my queen?”

    The sound of Assalide’s voice caused Ælfflæd to lower her cup and turn her head toward her chief lady. The wife of Berard de Perigord’s brow was arched, and she seemed concerned - perhaps because Ælfflæd had not spoken a word in sometime, despite the presence of her expanded group of ladies.

    In the past, Ælfflæd might have met the gaze of Assalide and then turned back inward, remaining silent. But things were different now, and she told herself such actions could not be afforded.

    “I have much on my mind, Lida,” Ælfflæd said. “My thoughts are many. And somewhat troubled.”

    Given her obvious mood, there was no point in lying about it. Though when the entirety of her ladies picked up their heads to look at her, Ælfflæd found herself regretting honesty.

    To say Ælfflæd had trust issues with most of them was an understatement. Gone were the days where she could look to Helie, Benoite and Escarlemonde and know their love toward her ensured their loyalty. Instead, Ælfflæd found herself with a varied group of women, most present to fill some sort of obligation, and more loyal to someone else than to their queen.

    Benoite and Escarlemonde did remain, but there were new additions - all from the noble families of England. The youngest of the group was Duchess Adelise’s daughter, Avelina, just six years. Of all the new additions, Ælfflæd liked her the most, thinking strong-minded and not out for anyone, since Adelise already was privy to most of the queen’s thoughts as her advisor.



    Such warm feelings were not present for the other child among them - the second daughter of Duchess Maud, who shared the same name as her mother. The eight-year-old almost certainly relayed any information she could find back to her mother, who had been left on the outside looking in when Ælfflæd had arranged her new court in Lydford.

    Young Maud was usually silent however. Duchess Ealhflæd almost never was.

    “What troubles you, my queen?” she asked. “Is the clergy once more?”

    It was, in fact, the clergy. And it annoyed Ælfflæd that her lady knew that already, for it underscored why she was hard to trust. The consort and wife of Duke Hlothere of Northumbria, as well as the daughter of Duke Sigeric of Essex, Ealhflæd had two powerful lords which she could undermine her queen to.

    And Ealhflæd served herself as well - she was Sigeric’s heir and thus in line to become Duchess of Essex in her own right.



    She also angled to have her children, she already had four despite only being 24 years of age, wedded to Ælfflæd’s. And while Ælfflæd knew she was not alone in that desire, the duchess was the most persistent about it, with opportunistic quips about a betrothal a daily occurrence.

    It grew so tiresome, even Assalide had reprimanded her for it a few days earlier, informing Ælfflæd she had told the duchess in private it was uncouth for a woman to be so blatantly opportunistic.

    Not that Assalide didn’t have her own problems. She also was acting as a spy of sorts, likely sending information to her husband about Ælfflæd’s actions, which Berard would then pass to Geoffrey. It may or may not have been malicious, or anything more than a wife speaking about her duties with her husband, but the effect was the same.

    At least in that case, Geoffrey might undermine her but he was unlikely to plot her removal or death, which could not be said for her English lords.

    There was a certain irony to it all - a decade before she would have given up so much for Saxon ladies instead of the Occitans she ended up with. Now, placed with women, some of whom were family and most should have been peers, she was left to eye them with distrust.

    Ælfflæd thus treaded carefully, having to be forthright enough to not leave them insulted, but guarded to prevent her potential enemies from seeing a weakness.

    “It is many things, Lady Ealhflæd,” Ælfflæd said. “Such is the life of a queen. And a mother.”

    An old trick of the late Lady Agnes - speak from truth, even when deflecting. And it was true, she did have a great many things on her mind.

    She thought of her sons. Guilhem, at least, was safe, and had been in good spirits when she saw him briefly in Toulouse during the summer. Excited to be trusted with official page duties, and bragging about how he was helping his father. There was a pride in his speech that reminded her of her late brother Eadwulf, when he had been tasked to aid their father.

    Ælfflæd tried to forget that it was as their father’s spymaster, when he was murdered.

    Of more difficult thought was her babe, Geoffrey. Born in April, a month after his brother’s birthday, he was named to celebrate his father after the king’s great victory in Pau, where she’d heard he’d undertaken a “bold and brilliant” maneuver to dislodge an enemy dug into a mountainside.

    The only joy Ælfflæd could find in the victory was that it meant the war would be over sooner, rather than later, and Guilhem would be out of harm’s way. But she had no great choices for the name - she knew a Saxon one would never suffice, so she did not fight hard against naming the child after his father.



    Of greater struggle was adjusting to life without her sweet little child, whom she was forced to leave behind in Bordeaux as per his father’s orders.

    She still remembered his cry as she handed him over to the nurse, the shrieks echoing through her head and causing her chest to ache. It formed a horrid cacophony with Margo’s cries, with the princess begging her mother not to leave her behind, and refusing to believe Geoffrey would allow such a thing.

    But he had in fact commanded it, and reiterated that order when Ælfflæd had seen him again in Toulouse. They had come for the wedding of Duke Simon and Princess Aines - an affair neither wished to be a part of but were required due to obligations.



    The reunion of king and queen had been brief. Geoffrey arrived the day before the ceremony and wedding feast and departed the morning after. In between was a night of passion, part of which Ælfflæd hoped would win Geoffrey’s favor to allow her to take Margo and the babe to England.

    She had hope - their night was enjoyable and they bonded over their disgust for Aines, agreeing the sooner they could be away from Toulouse the better.

    But Ælfflæd’s hopes were soon dashed when Geoffrey had refused her request. So she had gone to bed alone the night of the feast, angry at her husband, and was cold to him as they parted ways again the next morning.

    “Leaving our family may be easy for him,” she had complained to Benoite. “But hearing my children cry like that was as bad as when I was dragged away from Wiltshire by the heathens.”

    Ælfflæd hated Geoffrey at that moment - hated him for forcing her and their daughter to suffer, hated him for doing it because she didn’t think he believed in her ability to keep their family safe in England. Hated that he would deem it appropriate for her to be separated from her babe, and that he would make her choose between her kingdom and her children.

    But she would not openly defy him on this, if for no other reason than if she were wrong - if some harm did come to them - she could never forgive herself for it.
    And she knew she could not stay, for her presence was required in the land she “ruled.” Duchess Aevis had been handling things in Lydford in her stead during the pregnancy, with Adelise by Ælfflæd’s side in Bordeaux, fulfilling her advisor duties.

    That did produce some awkwardness - as Ælfflæd was given some token of regency powers in Aquitaine in Geoffrey’s stead, even if she was to share it with Bishop Edouard. And with Adelise present, that gave the impression an Anglo-Norman duchess might be having some say in how the realm of Aquitaine was being handled.
    That had lasted through the mid summer, when Ælfflæd completed her churching with Prince-Bishop Emmanuel and made her return to England.

    Her kingdom was actually fairly prosperous. Because most of the war had taken place in the southwest, the good news was that England was mostly functioning as it had prior to her ascension. But the prosperity and relatively light nature of the war to install her was not proving a tonic toward the hostilities she faced - specifically from the clergy.

    Ælfflæd had been attempting to arrange a coronation ceremony since her victory nearly a year and a half before. And she had been unable to get the support of the clergy for such a ceremony.

    There had been a myriad of excuses. They had delayed initially, then, once Ælfflæd had returned to Bordeaux and become stuck there due to her pregnancy, Ælfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury claimed there could be no discussion if she were not in England. They could not crown her in Aquitaine after all.

    When she returned to Lydford, the clergy insisted they could not go forward if Geoffrey was not present. They did not wish to anger the king, they said.
    So Ælfflæd had sent word to Geoffrey, requesting he give word that he was busy and the coronation could happen without him present. He had sent word back, with the additional input of Prince-Bishop Emmanuel, the coronation could go forth, even if he were not present.

    That should have solved it, but the clergy continued to hem and haw, now saying they needed guidance from a more important official, since Emmanuel was not their superior, but their equal, and his word could not be considered bond.

    So now another person was to be thrown into the mix - Cardinal Ardgal, an Irishman in Tyrconnell, who was a member of the College of Cardinals and as a result, the highest ranking church official in the Isles. And it was the church which prevailed upon Ælfflæd’s thoughts that day, for she was to meet with Ardgal and Ælfric. It was a meeting that would go a long way toward showing Ælfflæd where she stood - and she would have been lying if she felt optimistic.

    A knock on the door offered the potential of escape from her ladies however, and it was fulfilled when Adelise made her way into the chamber, bowing before the queen and greeting the ladies.



    “They are ready for you,” Adelise said.

    The words sent a chill down Ælfflæd’s spine, and she took a deep breath before finishing her cup of ale. She hoped it would calm her nerves. It did not.

    “Be well my queen,” Assalide said. “I am certain you will find what is needed. They must - given the king’s great successes.”

    Ælfflæd mustered a weak smile. The Saxon clergy had shown they “must” not do anything. And she suspected the Irish cardinal would prove no different.

    “What do you have for me?” Ælfflæd asked as they descended the staircase from the solar to the main hall.

    “Bishop Cytelbearn says you should expect further resistance,” Adelise said. “I almost told him to inform the Cardinal and archbishop to cancel the meeting.”

    Ælfflæd, unhappy at the news, shook her head. “So I am to waste my time?”

    “Sigeric believes he stands a chance at convincing them,” Adelise said. “With him, myself and Aevis present, we represent over half the realm. If you add Osmund and Hlothere, the entirety of England save Cornwall and perhaps East Anglia are for finally proceeding with your coronation. It may be hard for the church to resist such pressure.”

    “I am not so sure,” Ælfflæd admitted.

    “Cytelbearn and Aevis both think it’s possible,” Adelise said. “And we have little choice. You cannot afford another snub of a prominent church official. They have not forgotten you and Martinus a decade ago.”

    A mild protest after an attempted rape was apparently a black mark that would follow her through the rest of her existence. To say nothing of what might have happened had she accepted her fate… and it had been discovered.

    The anger bubbled within her again. “Even dead that monster haunts me.”

    “It does not help that his protege has ascended in Rome,” Adelise said. “We must move carefully.”

    It was true - after the death of Pope Anastasius after just a year as the Holy Father, Cardinal Nicola had ascended as the new pope, taking the name Urbanus II. And while Nicola was a eunuch, and thus unlikely to be bedding Ælfflæd or anyone else any time soon, he was Martinus’ most trusted cardinal. If anyone would continue to fight the wars of a man dead for a few years, it would be him.



    The main hall was mostly empty today - cleared out for the meeting with anyone looking to petition the queen told to come back tomorrow. There was a long table in the center of the main hall, normally used for supper in the evening. And it would serve that purpose later - but for now it was where the talks would take place.

    At one end of the table was a throne for Ælfflæd, while sitting at the other end was a tall seat for Cardinal Ardgal. On the right and left of Ælfflæd would sit Duke Sigeric, as chancellor, and Duchess Adelise respectively. Duchess Aevis was also present, as Ælfflæd still continued to involve her in policy despite the end of her regency duties.
    Bishop Cytelbearn of Exeter, Ælfflæd’s spymaster, sat next to Sigeric, straddling between the loyalties to his queen and to his church.

    And rounding out the group was Archbishop Ælfric of Canterbury, to the right of the cardinal. All stood when Ælfflæd and Adelise entered the hall, but only the queen’s vassals bowed, Cytelbearn included.

    “Queen Ælfflæd,” Cardinal Ardgal began, “I trust your day has been fine thus far?”

    Ælfflæd eyed the wisened clergyman, who made no attempt at modesty, dressed in fine robes and wearing a minter adorned in many jewels. As his hands rested on the table, Ælfflæd could see the many rings on his fingers as well.



    Ælfric was only a touch less adorned than Ardgal, with only a couple of rings, but just as many jewels upon his minter.

    Such was to be expected given their status, with Cytelbearn’s jewel-less outfit showing the difference between them.

    “I have had much on my mind,” Ælfflæd replied. “But more importantly, how has your stay been thus far?”

    “It is quite quaint,” Ardgal said. “Much quieter than London, on the rare times I’ve visited there. One would hardly have even known your husband sacked this place such a short time ago.”

    A dig at how I came to be queen, Ælfflæd wondered. But she put it aside, for now.

    “It was longer than it appears,” Ælfflæd said. “The war has been done for over a year and a half now. I have been acknowledged by all in England as the rightful queen.”

    “Even Ecgwyn herself bows before our queen,” Adelise added.

    “Well, she had little choice in the face of King Geoffrey’s knights,” Ardgal noted.

    “Be that as it may,” Aevis began, “that battle is now over. All in England acknowledge my cousin as their queen, and we hope we can move forward.”

    “Do you not?” Ardgal asked. “It seems as things continue to progress here, even with your husband in Iberia.”

    “The queen rules in England,” Adelise added. “King Geoffrey in Aquitaine.”

    “The queen rules with his grace, I assume,” Ardgal said. “As queens often do with their husbands away.”

    Ælfflæd eyed the old man, trying her best to maintain her composure. He might have been belittling her to show how weak she was, or to remind the lords present at who might truly rule England, or both. But it was difficult to stomach.

    “I did not think you came this way to discuss the inner dynamics of the queen and Lord Geoffrey,” Sigeric said. “Instead, we would like to discuss the coronation ceremony that is required yet has been delayed repeatedly.”

    Cardinal Ardgal shrugged. “It is a complicated process, Duke Sigeric. And as such, we look to guidance from Rome.”

    “Guidance from Rome?” Ælfflæd interjected. “I thought the archbishop looked to you!”

    “It is true, but it is out of my hands,” Ardgal replied. “We require the Holy Father render judgment. In anticipation of this meeting I sent word weeks ago. But so far we have yet to hear a response. So we wait.”

    “There should be no need for guidance on coronations,” Adelise said. “The lady is queen. We have all taken our oaths. That should be the end of it.”

    “With all due respect Duchess Adelise,” Ardgal began, “The church does not take their cues from men, but from God. And we look to the Holy Father for such guidance.”

    “But what guidance is required?” Ælfflæd demanded. “If there are no objections here, or in Aquitaine?”

    “My lady,” Ardgal said, “are you truly the rightful queen among your family? Your nephew, the King of Jerusalem, was forced from his throne, perhaps wrongly. And what of his brother? And your sister, who was your father’s oldest child? I personally have no qualms with what has happened here, but the Holy Father must give his blessing in the face of such questions.”

    Ælfflæd’s eyes widened as her heart raced. It was absurd to actually argue this - force had installed her on this throne. Just as the threat of it had placed Burgheard upon it in the place of her nephew. Just as, had Rae’s husband been capable, he may well have tried to do as well.

    In the end, Geoffrey’s army was stronger than all comers. As had been the case for many conquerors over the years, including Charlemagne, who had been crowned Emperor of the Romans despite not being born into such a title. And to say nothing of William the Bastard who took the English crown. Why was she different?

    “The Bastard took the crown from Harold Godwin,” Ælfflæd spat. “And he was crowned by the church.”

    “His claim was found to be just,” Ardgal said.

    “HE WAS A FOREIGN BASTARD!” Ælfflæd shouted as she stood from her throne.

    Her actions actually caused Argdal to flinch in his chair, before the cardinal narrowed his gaze. The others did not appear pleased either, with Adelise and Aevis likely insulted given it was their great-grandfather who Ælfflæd spoke of, and the clergy men because of her tone. Only Sigeric seemed amused, smirking as he stroked his beard.

    “I would suggest calming yourself,” Ardgal warned. “Such demeanor is unbecoming of a lady, queen or not.”

    Ælfflæd kept her gaze on him, but sat back down.

    “My point remains the same,” Ælfflæd said. “The church seems intent on preventing my coronation, throwing up reasons it routinely overlooked with kings of days past. It is tiring.”

    “It is the will of God,” Ardgal said. “That we receive proper guidance before moving forward.”

    “Are you to tell me that the church would demand we place another on the throne?” Sigeric asked. “Forgive me father, for I think that would be impossible.”

    “Nothing is impossible if God wills it,” Ardgal said.

    Ælfflæd didn’t doubt Sigeric’s response here. Even if she didn’t trust him, the idea of her nephew, who Sigeric had helped dethrone, or Rae, who’s husband was as foreign as Geoffrey, certainly could not have been appealing to him.

    “I think it would be mad to tell King Geoffrey that his wife is not queen of the kingdom he has won,” Adelise said. “And I doubt the lords and ladies in England have the stomach to do so.”

    “If Rome says he is to relinquish the crown and the claim, then he must,” Ardgal said.

    You tell him that,” Sigeric scoffed.

    “I will,” Ardgal said. “If it is required. But we shall see. I just speak of possibilities. It is entirely possible in six months time we shall have a grand ceremony to properly crown the lady Queen of England.”

    Ælfflæd wanted to scream again. They were playing games, trying to weasel out of her coronation.

    It wasn’t just Nicola, though he provided a nice excuse for them. She knew part of it was Geoffrey seizing the crown by force - the Saxon clergy did not like the idea of falling under the rule of Aquitaine, and an Occitan king and church in the future.

    Part of it was also her sex. There had almost certainly never been a Saxon woman crowned queen - Æthelflæd of Mercia likely wasn’t and though Ecgwyn “ruled” she had not been crowned either. And she suspected the Saxon clergy wished to keep it that way.

    Would they be so desperate as to force conflict by declaring her nephew king? She doubted it… but who could be sure?

    “I grow tired of this,” Ælfflæd said. “I am Queen of England. And I will be crowned as such. If you will not do it here, then I will take my vassals to Bordeaux and have Prince-Bishop Emmanuel do it.”

    “Is that something you wish, my lady?” Ælfric asked. “It would only spur further talk that you are not truly an English queen, but a pawn of your husband.”

    “I think a crown of my own would go far in stopping such talk,” Ælfflæd replied.

    “Prince-Bishop Emmanuel will not agree to such a thing,” Ardgal warned. “It is a flagrant attempt to circumvent the clergy of your land. Such things are frowned upon and could lead to consequences.”

    Ælfflæd narrowed her gaze. A thinly veiled threat. Excommunication for being crowned in Bordeaux? Unlikely by itself. But it would be another mark against her for subverting the will of the church - and she already was paying for the first one.

    “I don’t believe the queen wishes to go that far,” Sigeric said. “But you must work with us. You give us no timetable. No inkling of what it will take. Instead, we receive almost a threat.”

    “Patience is required,” Ælfric said. “These things take time, especially given the new Holy Father deals with much.”

    “My husband’s coronation took months, not years,” Ælfflæd added. “And I would expect more for the daughter and granddaughter of the men who brought the Holy Lands back to Christendom.”

    “And were unable to hold them,” Ardgal said. “Most of them anyway, since I do not wish to pay disrespect to the fief Lady Aevis holds.”

    Aevis gave a slight nod in response, but Ælfflæd was left to sulk. She was trying to argue reason against men intent on subverting her. If they would not even take Sigeric’s request for some terms, then they had no interest in her arguments, even if they came from God Himself.

    With little left to discuss, the meeting soon came to an end. The Cardinal and archbishop made their exits, escorted by Bishop Cytelbearn, leaving the queen alone with her lord and ladies.

    “The nerve,” Ælfflæd grumbled. “They seek to play games with the realm. To risk tearing it apart because they cannot stomach…”

    She could not bring herself to finish. She wanted to pound the table. She wanted to hurl her goblet at them. She wanted to throw the cardinal and archbishop into the oubliette until they begged forgiveness. And perhaps Nicola with them.

    “They are bluffing in one sense,” Sigeric said. “They will never declare someone else king or queen.”

    “What makes you so sure?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “Because that person would have to pay for it,” Sigeric said. “Crowns are not free. And then that person would have to fight for it. As of now, there might be one man in Christendom who could buy a crown with gold and then win it with blood. And that man lays siege to a boy king’s keeps in Navarra.”

    “What of the Kaiser?” Aevis wondered.

    “The one who finds himself excommunicated as often as the sun rises?” Adelise asked. “The one who lost half of his “empire” to revolt? I think not.”

    That made Ælfflæd feel a bit better, knowing that her husband was about the only man strong enough to take the English crown.

    “They can only antagonize him for so long,” Aevis reasoned. “Not if they wish him to support their other endeavors. The renewed crusade I hear discussed.”

    “So perhaps when his war in Navarra is finished,” Sigeric said. “Perhaps the summer or the end of next year. It would also give time for Rome to save face.”

    End of next year. More delays. Further wait. And again, a crown because her husband would will it. Her title. Her family. Her crown. All of it dependent on him.

    She didn’t know why she was surprised. It was what was expected.

    And yet, it was not what she had been promised.

    Some Boudica I am.

    …..

    Ælfflæd sat alone that evening, after having mustered the strength to sup with Ardgal, Ælfric and the others. She had said but a few words during and made her escape as early as possible, but she could not hide. Not as a queen, puppet or not.

    She was again with her ladies as they prepared to turn in for the evening - Ælfflæd allowing those without husbands present in Lydford use of her solar while Geoffrey was away. It not only gave the image of a good host, it also helped dispel any rumors she was bedding men while her husband was away - an annoying rumor she believed popped up to drive a further wedge between her and Geoffrey.

    But to her surprise, her guardsmen poked their head in to inform her that Archbishop Ælfric wished to speak with her. Ælfflæd wasn’t in the mood, but the guardsman said it was a matter of great importance, so she relented. Her ladies all cleared the solar and Ælfric entered.

    “Queen Ælfflæd,” he said as he gave a slight bow.



    That was different than normal - Ælfric had rarely addressed her by title, or bowed before her.

    “Archbishop,” Ælfflæd replied. “Forgive my lack of refreshments. My ladies and I were about to turn in for the evening.”

    “Of course,” Ælfric replied. “It is my fault for disturbing you. And I appreciate you willing to see me, for it is a matter of great import, especially after the day’s events.”

    The memories of such brought a frown to Ælfflæd’s face once more. “I did not believe there is much to say. The cardinal was quite clear in his judgment.”

    “Forgive me,” Ælfric said. “It is not my doing. I would crown you, if I could.”

    “What’s stopping you?” Ælfflæd demanded. “It was you who called for Ardgal in the first place!”

    “I had to,” Ælfric argued. “There is resistance among my clergy, the Isles themselves and in Rome. They all fear your husband. In time, perhaps it will dissipate.”

    “And in that time, I am forced to look weak and unloved by the church,” Ælfflæd said. “Do not think me a fool to what your game is.”

    “It is not my game, my queen,” Ælfric said. “But it may be what they play at, using many tricks to deny you. They whisper you are not a true Christian. That you are secretly a heathen. Others still believe you the wife of a demon, regardless of his blessings from Rome, which they feel are political more than spiritual.”

    All that confirmation did was make Ælfflæd’s blood boil further.

    “Enough,” Ælfflæd said. “I am sick of this. Sick of them. Sick of you. Get out!”

    “My lady,” Ælfric began. “My queen, please! I come to offer a solution to your problem. To our problem.”

    Ælfflæd’s heart was racing so hard, she could feel her pulse cause her temple to throb. She glared at him, as if throwing daggers from her eyes. “Solution? What solution?”

    “We must force their hand,” Ælfric said. “By a deed which cannot be denied by Rome, nor the men here.”

    “A deed?” Ælfflæd asked. “What deed? What would you have me do?”

    “Your grandfather is beloved by all as the man who saved the Holy Lands from the heathen scourge,” Ælfric replied. “Your father… was respected for completing that work and trying to preserve it. But he did fail, for most of the Holy Lands have again fallen to the heathens.”

    “You need not instruct me over my father’s failings with the heathens,” Ælfflæd said. “I am well aware.”

    “I realize, I just…” Ælfric stammered. “I believe that if you could make a show in reversing that, Rome would have no choice but to agree to your coronation.”

    “Reversing that?” Ælfflæd asked. “You seek for me to win the Holy Lands once more?”

    “Not the whole of them,” Ælfric said. “At least not at once. You have no grand crusade at your back to aid. But the lands of Acre are held by a singular heathen lord. Winning them back would be a show of your strength, and your devotion to Christendom. Rome would no doubt agree to your coronation then.”

    Ælfflæd’s anger faded for a moment. A war… a war in the name of Christendom?

    She could immediately see the political benefit - and also a bit of personal enjoyment as well. She endeavored to prove herself better than her father, and what better way than helping to turn the tide in his greatest disappointments?

    But… Ælfflæd also knew her situation was not exactly one where she could be making such calls on her own. Geoffrey had to be involved… and it would be months before she could send and receive word back from him. And there was a decent chance he’d not want any part of such a war in the Holy Lands so soon after England and Navarra.

    Her intrigue quickly turned to disappointment.

    “I cannot agree to such a thing without my husband’s approval,” Ælfflæd lamented. “So we must wait.”

    “My queen, if I may,” Ælfric said. Ælfflæd motioned for him to continue. “You rule in your own right, correct? If you wait for your husband’s approval, then it will just prove to everyone he is the one who rules England. The clergy will continue to have their doubts.”

    “But they will do it, won’t they?” Ælfflæd asked. “They will be forced to.”

    “Perhaps,” Ælfric said. “But they might claim it is your husband who has won the war, and use that to deny you.”

    “You are telling me to go to war without my husband’s approval?” Ælfflæd demanded.

    “I cannot tell you to do anything, my queen,” Ælfric said. “I just think that he is your husband. He fought to see you raised here. He will not abandon you. And in the meantime, you establish you are not his puppet… but his ally. It will lessen the concerns of the Saxon clergy.”

    “The church seems intent on having someone greatly anger my husband,” Ælfflæd said.

    “It seems unavoidable,” Ælfric admitted. “But you are best positioned to handle such things. Lord Geoffrey can not be rid of you, my lady. You are his reason for calling England part of his realm. You are the mother to the children he hopes to rule this land in the future.”

    All of that was true, but the bishop overstated things. There were plenty of ways for Geoffrey to essentially keep Ælfflæd from doing anything, while still maintaining she was queen. Even if he did do something as drastic as dispatching his cousins, the d’Uzes, to rule in her stead. The nobles might not like it… but Geoffrey might not care if he was willing to again break England by force.

    “You underestimate my husband,” Ælfflæd warned.

    “Perhaps,” Ælfric admitted. “But surely he will be able to understand your position. Not only do you need to prove yourself no puppet, but your history makes it almost necessary to attack the heathens. Your family has lost much of its reputation over the last decade and a half. You yourself were imprisoned by the heathens. Both harm you, not only in the eyes of the clergy and Rome, but with the nobles as well.”

    Ælfflæd didn’t need to be told that. She had known that since before she left for Aquitaine to marry Geoffrey. It ruined her trust in so many people she had considered friends, and left her miserable in her own home.

    “What’s your point?” she demanded. “That doing this will put to rest all that talk? All those rumors?”

    “It cannot solve everything,” Ælfric said. “But you hear what they say. You can prove yourself no puppet, and a true defender of Christendom, as well as a worthy heir to your grandfather in one decisive action. Is there risk? Of course. But would your grandfather be deterred by such things? Your husband? Or… Lady Boudica?”

    Ælfflæd’s brow rose. “You have learned of Boudica?”

    Ælfric nodded. “Your tales left me in disbelief, but I was able to request histories written by Tactitus, and Cassius Dio from monks on the continent. And both tell her story. It is… most impressive.’

    Ælfflæd almost wished to smile. She resisted. “So you see we do not make things up… like mythical links to Arthur Pendragon.”

    Ælfric smirked. “No you do not. But my queen, it is one thing to say you carry the legacy of great persons of the past. It is another to step forward and actually carry them. Christendom looks for champions. I have doubts your husband will ever truly answer the call. But you can guide him, as any good wife should. And in the process, perhaps you both find a measure of salvation.”

    “What makes you think we are in need of such things?” Ælfflæd demanded.

    “Your husband wishes to keep the favor of Rome, despite the presence of those who do not care for him,” Ælfric said. “He has only attacked Christians in his wars of expansion. To say nothing of his personal choices… bedding his vassals and others, acknowledging bastards with not a care toward what it does to the image of a good Christian king. His prince-bishop may excuse such actions. But others notice and if he does not change soon, he will face a reckoning.”

    The words sent a chill down her spine. She did not think it was because she cared for Geoffrey, but she was linked to him. And their children would suffer the consequences, just as Rae’s husband had lost the chance at being Kaiser because of his father’s failures.

    “So you think I can convince my husband?” Ælfflæd asked.

    “Not easily,” Ælfric admitted. “Which is why you must go forward, and pull him with you. It is for both of your benefits. Even if he does not see it now, he will in time. Or others will tell him.”

    Ælfflæd shook her head. “I… I don’t know.”

    She knew Ælfric was out for himself. But she also suspected much of what he said to be true. Her reputation had been damaged by what happened in Tunis, and her father’s failure. Geoffrey was running a risk by solely attacking Christian rulers - especially as he eschewed opportunities to attack heathens to do so. Could she really dismiss Ælfric so easily when she suspected most, if not all, of what he said was true?

    “I… I will consider what you have said,” Ælfflæd conceded.

    “I could not ask for anything more, my queen,” Ælfric said. “Thank you for your time.”

    ….

    Over the next few days, Ælfflæd struggled to put her mind at ease.

    Memories of Wiltshire’s fall and her imprisonment were at the forefront of her thoughts, with the memories of how the heathens had broken her mother. But those thoughts were pushed out for brief moments by stressful thoughts of Geoffrey bringing the full might of Christendom upon himself and their family.

    If he does lose favor of Rome, there will be no shortage of enemies who wish to bring him down. And me as well.

    But she also knew she couldn’t trust Ælfric. He didn’t truly care about her. He wanted her humiliated, he wanted to turn Geoffrey against her… and perhaps he wanted to claim to be instigator for a Christian victory in the Holy Lands.

    And yet, his intent might be irrelevant. If she could win a Holy War… then she could repair her reputation, stave off the church’s ire at Geoffrey, finally get her ceremony… and gain some small measure of vengeance for my mother, myself and the humiliation my family suffered.

    The heathens had burned her home, taken her prisoner, and broken her mother, all while destroying her father’s reputation… and weakening him to the point where the nobles tried to remove her family from power. This would not make it even, but it would be a symbolic strike at those who had wronged them.

    It led to the idea gaining traction in her mind, with the doubts growing quieter and the desire to push forward getting stronger.

    Geoffrey will not care, she reasoned. He does not understand. If it is not in his interests then it will not be done. So if I do not make the first move, it will never be done.

    He would be angry. But he would be made to see reason. If Geoffrey wanted to stay in the good graces of Rome, they needed a heathen target after England and Navarra. If he kept attacking Christians, he’d end up in the same situation as the Kaisers - constantly finding himself excommunicated.

    But for a war, Ælfflæd knew she had to get the approval of her council, and prepared to call a meeting to do just that. And before she would do that, she needed to talk it over with the nobles she trusted the most.

    “The archbishop wants you to do what?” Adelise demanded.

    “War on a sheikdom in the Holy Lands,” Ælfflæd said. “In order to win the favor of the church, both here in England and in Rome, for myself and Geoffrey.”

    “I can see the logic in it,” Aevis said. “Your family were considered the defenders of Christendom, though Uncle Thoræd’s defeats along with Æthelfirth’s removal damaged such things. If that reputation could be restored…”

    “A lot of ifs,” Adelise noted.

    “There’s another as well,” Aevis said. “King Geoffrey holds, at least on the surface, a strong reputation with Rome. If you then strike a victory for Christendom… you could claim no union is a greater standard bearer for the cross.”

    “So you like this plan,” Adelise said.

    “You clearly don’t,” Ælfflæd noted.

    “No,” Adelise said. “The archbishop is using you. He encourages action, but it is risky, and you will bear the brunt if things go wrong. To say little of the fact it is not even possible at the moment - Geoffrey will never commit his men to such a venture while in Navarra. He already holds men back for his own war because he finds too many entanglements.”

    Ælfflæd sighed. The hesitation in revealing the truth made it even clearer this was a road she should not venture down. And yet… did she have a choice?

    “The archbishop suggested to me that I move forward with the war, and force Geoffrey by my side,” Ælfflæd said. “He would have no choice - to abandon his wife to heathens would look poor upon him and weaken his hold on England.”

    Adelise and Aevis traded wide-eyed glances and slowly shook their respective heads. Aevis stammered: “That is…”

    “Madness,” Adelise said, finishing her sister’s thought. “Geoffrey will be livid.”

    “I know,” Ælfflæd said. “But if I don’t do this, the clergy will continue to delay. And I expect no hope from Rome - if anything, Nicola will be even more of a hindrance.”

    “And if they might still delay even if you do,” Adelise said. “It’s clear the church here is your enemy. There is no need to add Geoffrey to their ranks.”

    “So I am to beg him again?” Ælfflæd asked. “As I did with my children? No, he will do as he did then - refuse me. Perhaps he will promise me some vague action in the future, but most likely he will refuse all together. His interests do not lay in the Holy Lands. He will probably turn on the Franks next, and then get himself excommunicated for attacking another Christian ruler.”

    “The church will not do such a thing,” Adelise said.

    “I would not be so sure,” Aevis said. “They allow much because of the promise that the queen’s husband will act against heathens. If he instead refuses to and turns on a Christian ruler who does, as King Alphonse has, then… our queen is right to be fearful.”

    “But I do not think this is the way,” Adelise said. “What happens if he refuses, Aevis? What then?”

    “Refuses to join?” Aevis asked. “He will not. He cannot. He would look weak to not be able to control his wife, or look like a poor Christian to abandon her to heathens. He can do neither.”

    Ælfflæd agreed with that reasoning. But she also remembered the impetuous teen who she had married as well, who might just cut off his nose to spite his face. He was older now, but…

    No, I must go forward, she thought.

    “I advise patience,” Adelise said. “Consult with Geoffrey. Even if he refuses, we can work on him. Duke Adhemar will be amenable to this, I think, especially if Aevis and I both emphasize the risk he faces. Waiting is probably our best choice.”

    “I’m tired of waiting!” Ælfflæd exclaimed. “No one else is made to wait. Just me. It is a testament to my weakness, perceived and otherwise. I want to change it. I need to change it. I have the chance to prove myself, redeem my family, and actually make my husband live up to the ideals he hides behind. He wanted Boudica? Let him have Boudica!”

    Again the sisters traded glances. Ælfflæd could tell by their expressions how uneasy this made them.

    “If this is what you insist,” Aevis said. “I will support you. But I do so with reservations.”

    “As do I,” Adelise said. “And I implore you to prepare for action but to send word to your husband.”

    Ælfflæd knew it was good advice. But she also knew she couldn’t. Because she knew Geoffrey well enough to know he would want no part of this.

    Even if it is to his benefit.

    ….

    A few days later, Ælfflæd convened her council - with five members present - Dukes Hlothere of Northumberland, Sigeric of Essex and Æthelsige of Somerset, along with Bishop Cytelbearn and Duchess Adelise.

    She had yet to entirely fill her council. The master of spies role had been particularly difficult to fill with few nobles in England who earned both her trust and confidence. She had been tempted to turn to her husband’s court for the role, but he too was lacking in good candidates. And none could speak Saxon or Norman, making them questionable choices.

    Her aunt Gunhilda had spoken of the Bishop of Exeter, Cytelbearn, who Ælfflæd had originally earmarked for her court chaplain role. Adelise was less enthusiastic about that, but admitted she could recommend no one better so to take him for the time being.



    It meant Ælfflæd had a bishop leading her spies but no one to technically guide her court’s religious matters in an official capacity, though Cytelbearn did fulfill bits of that role too. But then her council did a lot of things in an “unofficial” manner.

    Adelise was her official advisor. But Aevis operated as a second advisor in that unofficial capacity, sitting in on council meetings as she did today, with Ælfflæd not revoking the privileges granted during her absence.

    Ælfflæd figured it worked well enough - the previous rulers had six council members. She had five and Aevis… was that not the same thing since it was about the realm’s nobility advising the crown?

    And Ælfflæd knew she’d need all the support she could get, given the risky nature of her plan, and the reaction she got as soon as she revealed it.

    “This is madness,” Sigeric said. “With all due respect to the church, we are in no position to wage war in the Holy Lands.”

    “Not alone anyway,” the Duke of Somerset said. “The queen’s husband could provide substantial aid, however. Which might make this profitable after all.”

    “Yes, if Aquitaine is willing to fight it,” Hlothere added. “Then I see no objections.”

    “Geoffrey could not have given approval of this,” Sigeric noted. “He is in Navarra. So it will be weeks before we hear from him.”

    “Surely he has, or else the queen would not bring this to us,” Somerset said.

    Heart racing, Ælfflæd said: “I do not have any intention of asking for his permission. I am Queen of England and it is my decision on whether England wars or not.”

    The men were silent to that, staring at her in varying degrees of surprise. Hlothere seemed flustered, unable to muster anything but some incomprehensible babbling. Somerset had his mouth hanging open slightly. Sigeric simply and slowly shook his head.

    “The church believes Lord Geoffrey will be more likely to come to the aid of the Holy Lands if the queen makes the first move,” Cytelbearn explained. “If he simply hears of it, he is unlikely to agree to such a thing. And… it is not for Lord Geoffrey to decide England’s fate. I thought the lords of this realm would understand and agree.”

    “I understand you seek to make us the target of Lord Geoffrey’s ire when he learns of this!” Somerset exclaimed. “He will think we manipulate him to war! And he will have been… if he agrees to join.”

    “That is… that cannot work,” Sigeric said. “We would have no guarantee your husband would come to our aid. We could be left in a disastrous war on our own.”

    “My husband is mindful of his reputation,” Ælfflæd said. “And what he has worked to build. He will not let us lose.”

    “That is a gamble,” Sigeric said. “I will not risk my huscarls lives on such a thing.”

    “You will do as your queen commands,” Ælfflæd warned. “For it is your responsibility by the oaths you swore to me.”

    “For protection,” Sigeric said. “To defend the realm. This is no defense. It is madness.”

    “It is defense,” Adelise argued. “Defense of Christendom.”

    “The duchess is right,” Cytelbearn added. “It is not as if we simply seek to attack on a whim. These were lands won to Christendom, by King Ælmær and King Thoræd, taken from us by heathens. It is our duty of any good Christian to win them back.”

    “We all benefit if Christendom regains control of the Holy Lands,” Aevis said.

    “You would say that, Aevis,” Sigeric said. “You hold one of the few fiefs left under our control in the Holy Lands. This might expand your holdings. Or give you more protection.”

    “This suggestion comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Aevis said. “It will look poor upon us if we refuse the call.”

    “Is this true?” Hlothere asked Cytelbearn. The Bishop of Exeter nodded.

    “If the Archbishop wishes this war, then he should gain men for it,” Sigeric said. “Getting what we can muster is not enough. Let him lobby Geoffrey of Aquitaine to aid us. Or others in Europe for a renewed Crusade. As it stands, I think he proclaims things and wishes for us to take all the burden, all the risk. Can you not see that, my queen?”

    Ælfflæd lowered her head, responding initially with a small grunt. Of course she could - she was no fool. But she was willing to, believing Geoffrey would aid her if forced to, and that this could help her banish the ghosts of her family’s past. Not to mention let her earn her coronation ceremony.

    “I know what this is,” she finally answered. “But sometimes one must take risks for glory.”

    “King Geoffrey fought a dangerous maneuver months ago that has won him great renown,” Adelise said. “He was not afraid of taking a chance. I would expect you all to be as brave.”

    “And it was a great risk when King Ælmær embarked for the holy lands to begin with,” Aevis argued. “Many in Christendom shunned the call of the church. Look no further than the Franks and Occitans to see that. But he fought. And he won, with our cousins, the Normans of Sicily. Together, why could we not do the same?”

    Ælfflæd smiled. Aevis was good at these speeches. Perhaps she should consider making her chancellor.

    “You speak well, Lady Aevis,” Sigeric said. “But I also remember how the Occitans refused the call to liberate the Holy Lands and then ignored the union of Lord Geoffrey’s brother to Queen Ælfflæd’s sister to defend them. That is why I cannot voice support for this war. You do not have my vote to pursue this, not without guarantees from your husband of assistance.”

    “Agreed,” Hlothere said. “I would give support once Geoffrey states his intention to aid.”

    “Me as well,” Somerset said. “With respect to my wife’s lovely daughters, this is hardly any of your business. You do not understand the nature of war, and why we cannot move forward.”

    “And you do?” Aevis snapped. “When you ran and hid in the face of her husband’s armies rather than face them like the man and lord you profess to be? Then going before him and groveling?”

    “I would not be eager to boast of resisting our proper queen,” Somerset warned. “Wouldn’t you agree Duchess Adelise?”

    Adelise frowned. “That war is past. I think it does none of any good to focus on it.”

    Ælfflæd eyed her cousin. Adelise was certainly one to do just that in private with her - after all that was her argument against giving Aevis anything. But in public, she refused to join in. Was it because of her rumored affair with Somerset, because Aevis would hear her accusations directly… or both?

    “I think Duchess Adelise has the right of it,” Bishop Cytelbearn said. “We must look forward, not back. And on that note, if the queen does not object, I think we should vote on the matter.”

    Ælfflæd nodded. She expected victory here - since she, Cytelbearn and Adelise all agreed on the matter, albeit the duchess doing so reluctantly, the trio of dukes could only match their votes. And as queen, Ælfflæd’s vote was the decider.

    And sure enough, that is exactly what happened. Dukes Sigeric, Hlothere and Somerset stood opposed, while Ælfflæd, Adelise and Cytelbearn were in favor. Aevis, not officially being on the council, did not vote.

    “It is a tie,” Adelise noted. “Therefore since the queen votes for the war, the council hereby approves the declaration and we move forth.”

    “It is only a tie because the council is short a member,” Sigeric replied. “Therefore it should not stand.”

    “Short a member?” Cytelbearn asked. “I was unaware there was a hard and fast rule over how many members a council must have.”

    “Since the Witenagemot’s choice of Morcar of York as king, the council has always held six positions, with the king as the seventh vote,” Sigeric said. “We currently only have five councilors and are thus one short. Precedent states that vote is considered a vote against the king.”

    “The vote is the council,” Ælfflæd said. “Positions which remain open are neutral.”

    “I disagree,” Sigeric said. “It is not how it has been handled before.”

    Ælfflæd’s stomach twisted. The monarchs of England after the Bastard’s conquest had been limited by the Saxon nobility, so she had no reason to doubt Sigeric’s words. And for the most part, the kings of England lacked the strength to directly challenge the nobility on much of anything.

    In theory, Ælfflæd did not either. But in practicality, Morcar, nor any of his successors, could call forth the might of Aquitaine to defend them in the event of noble insurrection.

    Of course Geoffrey might not be in much mood to aid her after this, so Ælfflæd tried to come up with a compromise.

    “If we wish an end to the deadlock,” Ælfflæd began, “then Aevis can contribute her voice.”

    “Aevis is not a member of this council,” Sigeric said.

    “She advises me,” Ælfflæd said.

    “That is officially Duchess Adelise’s role,” Sigeric said. “I care not which sister has it, but only one has an actual vote in these matters.”

    “I held a vote months ago,” Aevis said. “I see no reason given the situation I cannot again.”

    “You were exercising authority at the queen’s request,” Sigeric said. “That authority no longer exists with the queen returned to us. Simple as that.”

    “This is unacceptable,” Ælfflæd said. “There is enough support.”

    “There is not,” Sigeric said. “The council has spoken.”

    “Then I appoint Duchess Adevis as my new court chaplain,” Ælfflæd argued. “And her vote breaks the tie.”

    “She cannot serve in such a role,” Sigeric said. “And even if she could, it would still be a naked attempt to override the will of the council.”

    “I will not be denied by ceremonial crap,” Ælfflæd snapped. “I would not stand for it any more than my husband would.”

    “And I desire a promise of actual aid from him,” Sigeric said. “Get it, and you will have my vote.”

    “I do not need your vote,” Ælfflæd said. “I have the votes I need. We go to war. You will provide your men, or you will be in violation of your oaths, Sigeric.”

    “You cannot…” Sigeric argued. “This is tyranny!”

    “Do you wish to risk the ire of the church?” Ælfflæd demanded. “Or my husband?”

    “Your husband will probably agree this is foolishness,” Sigeric said. “And will have much sympathy.”

    “He will have no sympathy for your refusal to abide by your oaths,” Ælfflæd warned.

    Sigeric narrowed his gaze. “I will not deny you my men. But the people shall know of your actions here. The nobles will not approve.”

    “I am to be a tyrant because I refuse to be a puppet?” Ælfflæd snapped.

    “No, because you refuse to heed the will of your nobles,” Sigeric replied. “It is like when you refused to accept the Witenagemot would not name your son king. Instead you simply invaded your homeland, caring little for anyone but yourself.”

    “You raised a child to be your puppet because you cared not for England, but your own personal power,” Ælfflæd said. “So do not preach to me of accepting anything.”

    “The girl was the best choice given the tragic loss of her father through… suspicious circumstances,” Sigeric said. “I could have tried to elevate my late wife, Duke Burgheard’s sister. I didn’t, because I wished for a healthier realm. I just wonder if I am alone in that wish.”

    “Never question my love for my realm,” Ælfflæd warned. “I have seen it and it’s people suffer more than you have. I know what it is like to bear the burdens of a king’s decisions. I make no move lightly.”

    “We are at an impasse,” Bishop Cytelbearn interjected. “The queen has stated her desire to move forth. We should do as she asks.”

    “Commands, is more like it,” Sigeric said. “I will not stay silent. I will not deny you my men, but you will not deny me my voice.”

    “Nor ours,” Somerset said. “I beg you to reconsider, my dear. The lords and ladies will not be happy.”

    Ælfflæd just glared at them all. Two dukes who stood by as her nephew was forced from power, if not actively pushed for it, and another who was worthless in any capacity beyond the huscarls he could call forth. They would seek to deny her? After using her as a shield to avoid acknowledging Geoffrey as their king?

    “The meeting is finished,” Ælfflæd said. “Go. You will hear my orders once my plans are finalized.”

    She drew the glares of the dukes, but she did not care. They may not have liked it, but she had enough council support, no matter what Sigeric claimed. And once the men had departed, leaving Ælfflæd with just her cousins, the queen was eager to express her frustration at their perceived hypocrisy.



    “They wish for me to fail,” Ælfflæd swore. “They suspect me because they think me my husband’s puppet. And when I move without him, to use him for our benefit, they call it tyranny and try to use him to bind me. What they want is a meek, docile woman to do their bidding. All of them. The nobles. The church. My husband.”

    “We do not think you are a puppet,” Adelise said.

    “No, we do not,” Aevis said. “But… perhaps it is better to wait until Geoffrey gives some promise of aid. It would break the resistance on the council.”

    “The council doesn’t have worthwhile resistance,” Ælfflæd said. “It is three and three. Therefore I break the tie.”

    “They argue otherwise,” Aevis said.

    “I was there, I know,” Ælfflæd said. “You do not agree with them… do you?”

    “I…” Aevis stammered. “I think… there is some validity to the argument. If we take it to the logical end, could a ruler remove all dissenting voices and then claim approval from the council? It makes a mockery of why the council exists.”

    “And what of the tyranny of the council?” Ælfflæd demanded. “You do not see Sigeric grasps at straws?”

    “I agree with his logic,” Aevis said. “Even if I agree with your war. I think a compromise to get Geoffrey’s approval beforehand would head this off.”

    “Then they will claim me a puppet,” Ælfflæd said.

    “If you have your coronation, then what does it matter?” Aevis replied.

    Ælfflæd frowned, her anger now growing at her cousins’ lack of support. So she turned to her other cousin. “What of you Adelise?”

    “I question both sides,” Adelise said. “I think you venture down a dangerous road, Elf. But Sigeric is playing games. He doesn’t want this war. So he uses any means he can to stop it.”

    “Exactly,” Ælfflæd said. “So I will not be party to it.”

    “But also you play into his hands,” Adelise said. “I think this is a mistake. You will have my men for the war, but I beg you to reconsider.”

    “As do I,” Aevis said.

    “I will not let Sigeric, Hlothere and Æthelsige deny me,” Ælfflæd swore. “I am here, alone, without my children, because my husband thinks he knows what is best for me. But he is my husband, and I am powerless to deny his right over my children.”

    She paused for a moment as she felt the emotions threaten to explode from her. Taking a deep breath, she continued: “But I will not beg him to do what I like in my kingdom. And I will be damned before I am to let three men who are not my husband, father or son tell me how to rule, and what is proper procedure on my council where they serve at my behest. We go to war. Get your knights ready, cousins. If I am to fight my enemies with the two of you as my generals, then so be it.”

    They were silent after that for a time. Both duchesses had their heads down, occasionally sneaking peaks at each other and the queen. The atmosphere uneasy, it was the Duchess of Lancaster who finally spoke.

    “Let us hope it does not come to that,” Aevis said. “For one of your cousins is not in… condition to fight.”

    “You are ill?” Ælfflæd asked her.

    Aevis grinned. “No, I am with child.”



    Ælfflæd’s frown finally faded. Her cousin had struggled for the past half decade trying to find a child with her much older husband - to the point where they had begun to wonder whether she was barren. That she wasn’t was no doubt a relief for the duchess, and Ælfflæd could not have been happier for her.

    “Finally, some good news,” Ælfflæd told her. “Congratulations Aevis. I knew you would be blessed eventually.”

    “Yes, congratulations sister,” Adelise said. “It’s about time your husband managed to fulfill his duty.”

    Aevis chuckled at that. “I am surprised myself. I thought for certain I would need to wait until his age took him. But it appears I am blessed after all.”

    “May we all be blessed,” Adelise said. “The road forward will not be easy. But with God on our side, and a little help from Aquitaine, I think we will find success that England has too often struggled to find in the recent past.”

    A little help from Aquitaine, Ælfflæd thought. The words sent a chill down her spine. She could practically imagine Geoffrey’s response. Red in face, shouting, cursing her for forgetting her place.

    It was a frightful image. And one that made Ælfflæd’s stomach twist.

    But she had challenged him before. And Ælfric wasn’t wrong - she could be reprimanded and she could be punished, but if Geoffrey wished to keep hold of England, she could not easily be disposed. At least not until Guilhem was of age, and that was still a good seven years away.

    No, Geoffrey may hate her for it, but he would have to stomach it, just as she had to stomach his affairs, his selfishness and the forced separation from her children.

    You wanted Boudica, husband, Ælfflæd thought. And now she is about to challenge the might of the most powerful king in Christendom.



     
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    Chapter 265 - December 1137
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 265
    December 1137 - Pamplona, Kingdom of Navarra

    Duke Oberto of Corsica’s mouth had hung open long enough to draw flies.

    It had become so when he had entered the home of the Occitan merchant Toumas, and had remained so, even as Geoffrey offered him a drink. It closed momentarily to sip on his wine, but returned to it’s wide-open state soon enough. It was enough to prompt the king to check on his guest.

    “Are you alright, Duke Oberto?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I am… forgive me if I appear shocked,” Oberto said.

    “They do not have nice homes in Corsica?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Oh they do,” Oberto said. “It is just…”

    The duke smiled. “I should wish to enjoy such comforts when I am at war, King Geoffrey. That is all.”

    Duke Oberto’s words were certainly tinged with a bit of envy as well as surprise at the situation. But Geoffrey could not help but grin, because they were also quite true.

    Oberto had been told he would be meeting with Geoffrey while the king laid siege to a barony. He no doubt expected a command tent, in a dirty, retched siege camp. Instead, he was here, at the large home of an Occitan man whose family had come to Pamplona in the last 50 years. The merchant Toumas had no problem renting out his home to Geoffrey on the basis of their shared cultural heritage and the prospect of the king’s family’s ascension here in the very near future.



    The chamber was spacious and the merchant was wealthy enough to have separate bedchambers. It was all furnished so well, Geoffrey only bothered to supply his own cups and plates for his wine and food.

    It all masked the fact Geoffrey remained at war, trying to get the boy king of Navarra, or his handlers, to relinquish his claims over these lands. They had refused so far, even as Pamplona and much to the east and west had fallen to Geoffrey earlier in the year.

    His army progressed to lay siege to Tafalla, a barony within a day’s ride to the south, to allow them to move deeper into Navarra and it seemed as though the whole duchy might fall into Geoffrey’s hands by sometime next year.

    Despite the progress, and the fact he was still close to his army, Geoffrey could hear the questioning of why he was not with his army from his guest. After a glance to Berard de Perigord, who had been silently sitting with the pair, the king decided to justify his residence to his Oberto, lest he develop an unseemly reputation.

    “This merchant’s home does have quite the comforts,” Geoffrey admitted. “But it is a requirement of my physician. He requires me to take some time to rest every so often. And since I have been in the field so often over the past half-decade, I have to find places wherever I travel.”

    His explanation wasn’t entirely untrue. After his recurring bouts of stomach pain a few years back had finally faded away, the physician Odin had suggested to take periods of rest to ward them off returning, claiming it was necessary to keep the humors of the body balanced. And Geoffrey was not going to argue spending more time in well-kept manors and homes.

    “Still, I will be back in the field soon enough,” Geoffrey said. “And I look forward to the chance to finish what I started in Pau.”

    “I have no doubts you will,” Oberto replied before taking a sip on his drink. “In fact, King Karel asked me if it would be unseemly to congratulate your brother on his ascension here, even if it has yet to officially happen.”

    Alias was in the boy king’s now captured keep not far away, as Geoffrey had set him up there as he had once done Ælfflæd in England, to start on the appearance of him in the role of duke. But he wasn’t ready for such grand pronouncements yet.

    “Perhaps not unseemly,” Geoffrey said. “But certainly premature. I am never one to… what is it the farmers say? Count their chickens before they’ve hatched?”

    Oberto grinned as he gave a nod toward the king. The Duke of Corsica was in Pamplona on official business for King Karel of Sardinia and Corsica, to explore a closer relationship between his liege and Aquitaine. It was a matter of great importance for Karel, who sought to stabilize his position after his successful rebellion against the Kaiser of the Germans.

    Karel, along with a host of dukes, had freed themselves from the clutches of the German Kaiser, becoming the latest part of the so called “Roman Empire” to break away.

    It was a wide swath which had done so, much of Northern Germany, the vast majority of northern Italy, as well as all of Bohemia - and Geoffrey could not have been happier with the results. Not only did it weaken the Kaisers substantially, it also took care of a few other issues - including another set of potential English claimants as the Duke of Swabia, husband of Ælfflæd’s sister Æthelræda now was free of the Kaiser. But it meant he stood with just three or so thousand men, fewer than Ælfflæd herself could call, leaving Geoffrey to smile at his own good fortune.





    But among the newly independent lords, Karel stood above them for in many ways, his title of King of Sardinia and Corsica was understating him. It was true he held much of northern Italy, through his mother, the late Duchess Matilda, who ruled all of Tuscany. But he also held Bohemia, through his father, the late king of the region.
    The result saw Karel hold a disjointed but large amount of land, that rivaled even Geoffrey.

    But at the current time, they held little interest in the same area, with the Kaiser between them in central Europe, and multiple Italian lords, including the newly freed Duke of Milan, acting as a buffer to the south.

    The only potential point of discord was that one of Karel’s vassals had attacked and defeated Geoffrey’s cousin, Queen Charlotte of Hungary, in a dispute over a county. But that war was finished, and the situation of Charlotte had stabilized, with the Hungarians no longer seeking to depose her - possibly because her father, Geoffrey’s uncle Charles, had fallen from power.



    And with the old Kaiser also now dead, and a three-year-old in his stead, Geoffrey’s eastern lords had never been safer. It even made the king consider whether he might want to renew efforts to exert influence over Dauphine or Provence.

    But the weakness of the Kaiser was not guaranteed to last forever, which was why Karel’s representatives were here. And why he could not easily dismiss them.

    “So, Duke Oberto,” Geoffrey began, “you did not come here to deliver premature congratulations, nor to stand in awe of this fortunate merchant. What does your liege wish you to discuss with me?”

    “As you know, the Kaiser has lost hold of many of his powerful lords, my liege among them,” Oberto said. “All look for what is to come next.”

    “What comes next is we should stop calling the German ruler, Kaiser,” Geoffrey said. “My father would deem it an insult to the Caesars who came before.”

    Oberto eyed him, with brow raised. Geoffrey was only half joking, given his father’s obsession with denying all those who laid claim to the title of “Roman Empire” as false pretenders. But Geoffrey didn’t care too much in truth, it was just something that lingered in the back of his thoughts.

    “I am only joking,” Geoffrey told Oberto. “Just making light of their weakened states, thanks to lords such as your liege.”

    “Ah,” Oberto said. “Well, King Karel was at the forefront of those efforts. And he believes there are many potential benefits to a friendship between your realm and his. Not the least of which is the Germans might think twice about any efforts against either of us if they know they will be attacked from the east and west.”

    “True, though the Germans are not on my border,” Geoffrey noted. “They are unlikely to find much cause for anything in Aquitaine. Or even England, now that the Duke of Swabia has declared himself as free from the German Emperor as your king.”

    “If the boy is stopped from reclaiming his former lords,” Oberto noted. “We look to your father in fact for guidance. When he led the revolt against the Frankish kings, he fractured the realm. It has since rejoined - all of those lands which had been free are now either part of the reforged Frankish kingdom, or your realm of Aquitaine.”

    “So you think their Emperor will recover those lands?” Geoffrey asked.

    “It is possible,” Oberto said. “Unless he is checked. It is a good time, no? They have a child, scarcely older than a babe on the throne. Our boots could go to his neck - and kept there, so that he and his handlers might grow used to the new state of things.”



    “I have no problem with that,” Geoffrey said. “But understand, I have no interest in fighting in Germany with everything that is going on.”

    “Of course not,” Oberto said. “We would not be so bold as to propose an alliance yet.”

    Geoffrey glanced back to Berard before turning toward Oberto again. “Are you sure? Your king was ready to congratulate my brother before he has been raised. I think he likes to move quickly.”

    “He is not young,” Oberto admitted. “But he is still vibrant, with a daughter nearly as old as your eldest son. In fact, that is one road he has interest in pursuing - given your boy has yet to be promised to anyone.”

    Geoffrey stroked his chin. Guilhem marrying a princess would certainly be a boon for his prestige and give further legitimacy to Karel as an equal.

    However, Geoffrey had also been counseled by many, including Adhemar and Emmanuel, that it might be prudent to instead have Guilhem marry the daughter of a prominent English noble, with the daughters of Duchess Adelise, the Duke Hlothere and Duchess Maud frequently tossed about.

    Either way, Geoffrey was not about to decide such a matter today, and with the birth of Prince Geoffrey, he had another option available. So there was no rush.



    “It is something for me to consider,” Geoffrey said. “Of course, it is far too early for me to commit to anything. Many things are in play.”

    “Of course,” Oberto said. “And I should also remind you that my liege has a great many grandchildren, as well as many great grandchildren, and more on the way, should another union catch your interest.”

    “I will keep your liege in mind,” Geoffrey told him. “I will have much to consider when this war is finished. The world seems to change quickly these days.”

    “Imagine how it is for my liege!” Oberto said. “Much has changed in the nearly seven decades he has lived.”

    Geoffrey nodded. Karel was about the same age his Aunt Agnes would have been had she still lived, and older than his father.



    “It is a great accomplishment to have seen so much,” Geoffrey said. “I should like to see where the world stands when I am near my seventieth year.”

    “Wouldn’t we all, King Geoffrey?” Oberto asked. “In any case, thank you for your time. I hope that your chancellor will visit my liege’s court soon enough.”

    “I will send someone to speak with him at some point,” Geoffrey assured him. “I make no promises as to what will come of it, but as you say, it is good to keep the boot on the throat of that boy.”

    Oberto nodded. “Oh and do give my regards to your queen. Her father’s reign was, in many ways, tragic. I pray she finds better days.”

    “With me by her side, I have no doubt she will,” Geoffrey said.

    “Then the heathens surely tremble,” Oberto said. “They will surely fall away before the might of Aquitaine and England.”

    “Yes… in due time,” Geoffrey said.

    “A short time, no?” Oberto asked. “I had heard talk that you prepare to march against them now, with England heading first to the Holy Lands and you joining them, perhaps once Navarra is settled?”

    Geoffrey’s brow rose, confused at where Oberto would get that idea. Though it was not the first time he’d heard it of late, and could be a natural progression of how people expected things to go. After all, reversing the defeats of King Thoræd would endear the new king and queen to Christendom.

    But before Geoffrey could respond, Berard spoke for the first time since the introductions.

    “We consider many things,” Berard said. “You must forgive us if we keep such plans close to the vest. We have had some poor luck of late with our potential enemies knowing we are coming, so to speak.”

    Oberto smiled. “Of course. Forgive my prying. I will report back to King Karel of your interest in friendship and pray for your success here, as well as any other endeavors you may or may not choose to pursue.”

    The duke then bowed before Geoffrey and made his way from the chamber and the home. Geoffrey eyed him as he did, before turning to Berard.

    “Forgive his prying?” Geoffrey asked. “He was spying. I would have offered him lodging here if I thought I could trust him.”

    Berard chuckled. “He just wishes to feel you out. And anything else he can report back to his liege.”

    “So I’m paranoid?” Geoffrey asked.

    “No, I didn’t say you were wrong,” Berard replied. “But I’m more concerned about that bit at the end. That’s another who claims we are either engaged, or about to engage, in a war against heathens in the Holy Lands. It is odd to hear so much talk.”

    Geoffrey waved his friend off. “They likely misconstrue our actions here. It was no secret we were to use Navarra to move against the heathens in Iberia. With our success here, they probably think we are prepared to take the next step.”

    Which he wasn’t. Even if the war was going better than he could have originally hoped given the aid of Transjurania, he planned a break of a few years if possible before moving forward with anything else, unless an opportunity fell into his lap.

    “I still am wary,” Berard said. “I think you should send word to your uncle in Normandy to look into it. Perhaps speak with either the queen or Duchess Adelise. We could also make use of Count Douard’s spies to see where these rumors originate.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “Has your wife said anything?”

    “Lida can only contact me so often,” Berard said. “A letter every three or four months. So if something has happened, it is possible it has not reached me yet.”

    “I think you worry over nothing,” Geoffrey said. “But I will have Adhemar look into it. If he hears anything suspicious, then I will have Count Douard have his spies search for more.”

    After pausing to take a drink, Geoffrey looked to his advisor. “What else do you have for me?”

    Berard had come to Geoffrey earlier with some news that he deemed important but not urgent, but the king had told him to wait until after the meeting with Oberto so he didn’t have anything else on his mind.

    “Well, I bring good news from Brittany,” Berard said. “Your uncle has brought Breselcoucant to his knees, and taken his lands for his duchy. In your name, of course.”



    “So it is done then?” Geoffrey asked. “There are no counts or anyone else in Brittany who believe themselves outside of our realm?”

    “He reports none left,” Berard said. “I would guess he overstates slightly, but also probably will stamp out anyone who loudly states to the contrary. For all practical purposes, Duke Foulquesson holds all of Brittany, which means you do.”

    A smile came to the king’s face. “Send a few barrels of wine to my uncle to celebrate his victory. It had long been a desire of my grandfather to assert Angevin hegemony over the Bretons. And now we have.”

    Geoffrey wasn’t entirely certain of the truth of that statement - he had known his grandfather wanted to restore the family’s control over the southeastern portion of Brittany. But the entirety? That may have been an invention of the old king Geoffrey, as justification for his expansion into the region.

    But it mattered little now as his family had won. Even justification was hardly necessary.

    “I’m just happy he was able to subjugate a singular Breton lord this time without my assistance,” Geoffrey said.

    “After you had softened him up a few years ago,” Berard said. “The boy never recovered.”

    “Yes, well in this case, I will let my uncle enjoy the success,” Geoffrey said. “Let a dying man have a last hurrah.”

    “How magnanimous of you,” Berard replied. “Success in England and here softening you?”

    “Perhaps,” Geoffrey said. “Or maybe I just have enjoyed the last six months on campaign without his snide remarks and empty boasts. Who can truly tell?”

    Berard chuckled and took a sip of his drink. “I also have news about our enemies here, and their allies under your uncle from Transjurania.”

    “Last I heard they had united and headed toward our realm,” Geoffrey said.

    “Those reports were accurate,” Berard said. “But our presence here has made life more difficult for them. They left over 7,000 strong. They now stand at over 5,000, losing men attempting to take the keep at Foix, in southern Toulouse.”

    “Foix? Is that not where Simon’s old regent hailed from?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Correct,” Berard said. “But the countess has joined the rebellion against Simon, so he makes no request for you to send aid.”

    Geoffrey smiled. It was another situation which had come up well for him. Just a few months after Simon had taken the reins of Toulouse to himself, lords under Count Robert of Gevaudan had rebelled against the teenaged duke. Resenting the potential influence of Simon’s father in Poitou, they fought to see guarantees the two dukedoms would be ruled by different men.





    It meant if Simon lost, Geoffrey would see his potentially most dangerous rivals long term weakened. And it currently forced Duke Guilhem to remain out of the conflict, with Simon eager to prove he could handle the matter without resorting to calling on his father and proving the rebels right.

    Plus it meant his enemies could not have picked a less relevant area to siege - Simon was no doubt thrilled his personal enemies were bearing the brunt of the war.

    And the rebels were also stuck. They did not want to bring Geoffrey into this conflict against them, so they could not allow the Navarrans and Transjuranians passage. All of it shaped up to more fortune for a king who seemed to be awash in it of late.

    With that in mind, Geoffrey poured out another cup of wine for himself and did the same for Berard. Raising his cup, he said: “May we continue to find God’s favor.”

    “Here, here,” Berard said, over the sound of shuffling of boots. Geoffrey looked past his friend to see Rogier and Prince Guilhem make hurried entries into the chamber.

    “Father,” Guilhem said. “Sir Berard. I have news. It is urgent. I wished to tell you when I heard it, but you were speaking with the Duke of Corsica and Sir Rogier said we should not disturb you.”

    Geoffrey smiled as he motioned for his son to approach. “Then it isn’t too urgent then, is it?”

    “It is more an ominous sign than any news,” Rogier admitted. “But tell him my prince.”

    Guilhem nodded. “Your council comes to see you father.”

    “My council?” Geoffrey asked. “You mean my councilor? Is it Bishop Edouard?”

    “No, father, I mean your council,” Guilhem said. “All of them. Bishop Edouard is among them, but so is the Duke of Poitou, the Count of Aurilliac and Prince-Bishop Emmanuel. Duke Adhemar even comes from Normandy.”

    Geoffrey traded glances with Berard before turning to Rogier. “That seems… odd?”

    He spoke to his cousin as a means for confirming what the prince had said. And Rogier’s nod did, with the d’Uzes man adding: “My brother Edouard says they have much to discuss with you.”

    “Did they say over what?” Berard asked.

    “No,” Guilhem insisted. “Just that it was of importance. Should I send an emissary to them?”

    Geoffrey shook his head. “I imagine they wait so they can tell me in person. Thank you son. That will be all.”

    Guilhem bowed before his father and left the chamber. Once the prince had gone, Geoffrey turned to his advisor and cousin.

    “They gave no indication?” Geoffrey reiterated.

    “None,” Rogier replied.

    “The entire council is coming,” Berard said. “That is indication enough. Either they need all of them there, or Edouard did not wish to give you the news alone... or both.”

    “All of which are bad,” Rogier said. “What could it be?”

    “My children?” Geoffrey asked, thinking of Margo and Geoffrey in Bordeaux. If something happened to them, after he had insisted they remain in the palace rather than accompany their mother, he might never forgive himself. And she certainly would never forgive him.

    “I wouldn’t think that requires the full council,” Berard said. “Perhaps someone moves against us? Or the queen? That would require everyone, from the marshal, to the chancellor, steward and master of spies.”

    “Prince-Bishop Emmanuel?” Rogier wondered. “What role does he offer that my brother could not?”

    Berard turned his gaze to Geoffrey. “Could it be this talk of England attacking a sheikdom in the Holy Lands? What if it is true?”

    “My wife would not dare do such a thing,” Geoffrey insisted. “I would never agree to such a thing now and she cannot fight heathens without my aid. She lacks the men, and likely support.”

    “Perhaps one of her vassals has dragged her into something?” Berard asked. “Duchess Aevis has holdings in the Holy Lands.”

    Geoffrey simply grunted to that. He had nothing to add, for he liked none of this. It was speculation and for what? He would not know until they arrived what awaited him - except that it was going to be a conversation he knew he was not going to enjoy.

    ….

    Since the arrival of the council was still a few days away, however, Geoffrey could do little but suffer anxiety over the poor news he was to receive.

    In hopes of taking his mind off it, he had even abandoned the luxurious merchant home and returned to the siege of Tafalla, where Knud had command in his stead, to overlook how things progressed.

    It was monotonous work, just touring the camp to make sure the walls were encircled, checking with the men, viewing some of the contraband that had been attempted to be snuck in to the enemy - mostly food, and looking over as his men looked to create breaches in the walls.

    He even gave a cursory look into what it might take to storm the keep. It was not something he had seriously considered doing, but anything that he could do to get his mind off what was to follow was welcome. In the end, Geoffrey decided that should a breach occur, his men would be instructed to demand the surrender of the keep immediately, rather than storm it.

    Geoffrey did return to Pamplona, however, as news that his council were within a day or so of travel from the town reached him. He went over the possible scenarios in his mind, preparing himself for the worst - that something had happened to Margo or the young Geoffrey - while trying to come up with plans on what to do if another conflict was on the horizon.

    If I am attacked, he reasoned, the vassals will be obligated to support me. They may not like it, but they will not be able to claim I do it for personal gain.

    When the council arrived, Geoffrey was set up once more in the merchant’s home, with Berard, Rogier, Prince Guilhem and Alias, recalled from the keep, at his side. Mayor Frederic had been given leave to return to Saumur, as they were suffering under a severe outbreak of smallpox, which had mostly stayed north of the Loire but affected some of the towns along the south bank of it as well.

    Maybe that plague is the problem, Geoffrey thought, though he realized it was unlikely that would require the full council to be briefed on.

    Sure enough it was every council member was present. Including Adhemar, despite Geoffrey expecting him to be in Normandy. That hardly made the king feel any better about what this was about.

    “So what is it?” Geoffrey demanded. “None of you look as if you have good news to tell me. And that you are all here does not bode well.”

    Bishop Edouard looked down, at the forefront of the council, fidgeting with his hands. His eyes did eventually find their way to Prince Guilhem, by Geoffrey’s side. He focused on the boy for a moment, then said: “I beg your pardon, Prince Guilhem. But I have forgotten a gift of a sword I had made for my brother Rogier. Would you please fetch it for me? It is in my chest, which is still with the convoy, outside of here.”

    “It can wait,” Rogier said. “I can see it after.”

    “No, it would be best to have it ready,” Adhemar insisted. “If the bishop can trouble the prince - I have heard he has been a fine page and no one better could be entrusted to this task.”

    The prince frowned and looked to Geoffrey. It was clear the boy didn’t want to miss anything. But judging by Edouard’s eyes, which were practically pleading to get the prince out of the chamber, that was the point of this errand. It was another ominous sign, but Geoffrey decided to trust in his cousin and uncle.

    “Guilhem, go,” Geoffrey instructed. “It would be a great help to us all.”

    The frown did not leave the prince’s face. Nonetheless, he nodded. “Yes, father.”

    A couple of guards were quickly summoned, and Guilhem made his way from the chamber. Geoffrey then turned back to his cousin.

    “And now this is news you don’t wish my son to hear?” Geoffrey asked. “What is it? I cannot wait any longer.”

    “It involves his mother… and… I don’t think it would do him any good to hear your… well,” Edouard said.

    “My what?” Geoffrey demanded.

    The bishop took a deep breath but struggled to find the words. Finally Adhemar blurted out: “The queen has taken England to war.”

    Geoffrey felt his stomach drop as time seemed to stop. It took a few moments for it all to fit into place for him - the fact the talk was not rumor but fact, that his wife had acted without his permission, let alone a consultation or notification.

    “She has done… what?!” Geoffrey snapped.

    “War with a sheikdom in the holy lands,” Edouard said. “Acre to be specific.”

    “She has also demanded your assistance in the matter,” Duke Guilhem added.

    “She has done WHAT?!” Geoffrey shouted as he exploded from his chair, knocking it over in the process.





    The reaction caused the councilors to jump back or flinch. But Geoffrey didn’t care for their fear - he wanted answers.

    “The queen has said virtue of our alliance we are required to aid her,” Edouard said. “There was an addendum from the archbishop of Canterbury reminding us that the church expects us to confront heathens and it would look poor upon us if we didn’t.”

    “The bitch has done WHAT?!” Geoffrey shouted as he pounded the table. “THEY HAVE DONE WHAT?!”

    “Apologies, nephew,” Adhemar said. “I was stunned when I learned of it as well.”

    “You were stunned?!” Geoffrey exclaimed. “Why did you know nothing of this?! Have you not been in contact with my wife or her advisor? And Count Douard?! Where were you? Where are my spies?!”

    Douard lowered his head and blushed, while Adhemar rubbed his own forehead.

    “I admit, this was a surprise,” Adhemar said. “That is why I rode immediately to Bordeaux, summoned the council, and we have come here. For there is much to plan.”

    “Plan??” Geoffrey shouted. “Plan?!! There is nothing to plan! Nothing! To hell with them! To hell with England! Damn them! Damn them all!!!”

    Geoffrey’s breathing was rushed, and his eyes nearly bulged from his head. “That fat, ungrateful bitch. After I raised her… spilled the blood of my knights for her… and let her claim rule…”

    He began to curse, loudly and yet mostly to himself, not looking at any of his councilors directly as he stared off almost into a void.

    “King Geoffrey,” Emmanuel began, “I realize her actions are reprehensible, but it advisable to deal with it in private. In public it will be expected you aid in her war.”

    “I don’t care!” Geoffrey exclaimed. “I don’t care what is expected. I will not be made to do anything, least of all by an ungrateful cow of a wife who forgets her place! England can burn for all I care. In fact, it is better if it does! Let it be nothing more than smoldering rubble. I will rebuild it and make it a proper place for my son to rule! And it will be easier with the nobles gone or broken!”

    “Nephew, I understand your frustration,” Adhemar said. “Bu--”

    “You understand?!” Geoffrey shouted. “You understand it? No you don’t! Have you ever spilled the blood of your men to raise an ungrateful woman to the throne of a barbaric realm? And then had that woman try to force you into a war a half a world away?! No, no you haven’t. None of you have! I will not hear anything of this, and you are to send word she is on her own!”

    “My king, please listen to reason--” Emmanuel pleaded.

    “There is no reasoning with a woman who would abuse my trust so!” Geoffrey spat. “I will have no more of this, do you hear me?! Nothing else! We provide nothing to her! Let England burn!”

    “Cousin,” Edouard began.

    “Out!” Geoffrey ordered. “I want to hear nothing more from you all! You have all failed me! Worthless!!!! All of you!!!! Get out!!!”

    “Brother,” Alias added.

    “NO!” Geoffrey shouted. “I don’t want to hear anything else from anyone! Out! OUT!!!!!”

    The councilors looked at one another, and then Edouard, shoulders slumped, turned and dragged his feet as he left the hall, the rest of the councilors following. Geoffrey then heard his son arrive back, intercepted by the departing councilors, just outside, as well as Alias tell the prince that it was best to leave him alone.

    Geoffrey almost wished his son didn’t, so that he could shout all sorts of insults and profanities at the queen, showing his son what an ungrateful harpy his mother was. But Guilhem listened to his elders and left Geoffrey alone.

    He could still scarcely believe it - his own wife had practically betrayed him. It was not enough that she had not even sought his approval for war - something he expected of all his vassals and once wished to punish his uncle over - but now she expected him to aid her. And had done it in such a way he would need to wreck his reputation to refuse her.

    I don’t care, he thought. No one will dare challenge me. My vassals may think less of me for a time, but I will break anyone who gets any ideas. I am not Simon. I am not my wife. I am not the so-called Kaiser.

    He punched the table, enough to send the wine and the cups tumbling to the floor. Then, screaming at the top of his lungs, he cursed the name “Ælfflæd”, and added a few extra swears over his continued struggles at actually pronouncing it correctly.

    ….

    Geoffrey said nothing to anyone the rest of the night.

    Then in the morning, the king again decided to quit Pamplona for his army’s siege camp around Tafalla. He did not bother to speak with his advisors before he left, ignoring even Berard, taking just Rogier and Guilhem with him as they made the trip south, arriving before dusk.

    Once more Geoffrey spent his time inspecting the siege works, and again considered throwing an army at the walls. Though he wondered if he pondered a grand assault to justify not having the men to supply to his wife.

    He remained in Tafalla that night, with the conversation as he, Rogier, Knud and Guilhem ate, stilted at best. They talked about the siege, about what would be expected of their enemies, with Geoffrey pressing them into the potential idea of hunting down the Navarrans and Transjuranians - which Knud and Rogier thought ill-advised.

    “They are in the mountains,” Rogier said. “Let them come to us.”

    “I want them broken,” Geoffrey said. “I bested them once in the mountains. I can do it again.”

    “Why the rush?” Knud asked. “I would think it better to drag this out as long as possible, since other matters are hardly appealing.”

    Geoffrey turned his glare toward the Dane, who he had not mentioned anything of Ælfflæd’s betrayal. However, he guessed Rogier almost certainly did as to avoid Knud stepping into it - but the Dane always did have issues with avoiding trouble.

    “I don’t care how quickly this war is done,” Geoffrey said. “We do nothing for her.”

    Guilhem swallowed hard. “You… you would abandon mother?”

    Geoffrey’s eyes now pinned his son with his glare. The boy, nine years going on 10, shifted his chair back slightly as the color faded from his face.



    “She chose this path, not me, when she did this without even so much as a warning,” Geoffrey spat. “A woman who is not loyal to her husband is not one worth caring for. Understood?”

    Guilhem, wide-eyed, was still as a statue. His chest barely rose and fell from breath. And Geoffrey realized he had done something he never thought he’d do - he’d terrified his own child.

    He turned his gaze away for a moment, cursed under his breath and then debated how he was to fix this. Or if he even wanted to. Maybe it would serve Guilhem well to know his mother’s machinations and the anguish it caused his father. He might learn something from it, and lose the undeserved sympathy he has for her.

    “You… you would let mother die?” Guilhem asked, his voice breaking.

    Geoffrey didn’t say anything at first, swallowing hard. He did not think they would kill Ælfflæd - they would likely imprison her instead, expecting a ransom. Which he probably wouldn’t pay.

    “She won’t be killed,” he finally said. “She’s too valuable.”

    “But you would let her be captured?” Guilhem asked.

    Geoffrey looked at his son, who’s complexion remained pale and his expression fearful. It was enough for Geoffrey to turn his eyes from him, before he grunted out: “If that is her fate, then she can suffer knowing she brought this on herself.”

    Guilhem lowered his head to that, and then, to Geoffrey’s surprise, rose from his seat and marched his way out of the command tent. Wide-eyed, Geoffrey was nonetheless speechless.

    “I can drag him back here,” Knud said. “He did not ask to be excused.”

    Geoffrey slowly shook his head. “No. Let him go. But Rogier, keep watch of him.”

    “Yes, cousin,” Rogier said as he stood from his chair and made his way from the tent, leaving Geoffrey and Knud alone.

    “Saxons,” Knud said. “They’ve never been very bright. My people know full well--”

    “Shut up,” Geoffrey told him. “I don’t want to hear it.”

    The king wondered if that might annoy the Dane. But, perhaps offering it for sympathy more than anything else, Knud simply nodded and fell silent. And so the command tent remained for the rest of the night.

    ….

    Guilhem’s departure did not stop at the tent. He left camp to ride to Pamplona in the morning.

    He did so with Geoffrey’s approval, of course, Rogier riding north with him with some of Geoffrey’s household knights as protection. The prince was angry at his father, which annoyed Geoffrey, but he also knew he could not break him of this now. Eventually, the boy might understand.

    After all, Geoffrey had seen his own parents fight. At the time he’d picked sides depending on the argument. Now that he was older, he’d seen he was foolish - they were miserable people who were usually both wrong.

    Of course, the irony was not lost on him, and he was made to wonder if perhaps he was following in their footsteps. He dismissed it quickly of course, but it was a question that was applied more directly later in the day, as Prince-Bishop Emmanuel and Berard rode into the siege camp.

    Geoffrey was not totally surprised to see his councilors arrive, though he did expect more of them. He guessed they had come to plead with him, and perhaps the highest official of the church and his closest friend might be able to apply the right amount of pressure to him. Or so, he guessed, the council hoped.

    “If you think my mind can be changed,” Geoffrey warned. “You are sadly mistaken. My wife has made her bed. I will not share it with her, no matter our vows.”

    “We cannot simply ignore the request,” Emmanuel said. “The eyes of Christendom… and beyond, watch us.”

    “Then they will see what happens when someone crosses me,” Geoffrey insisted.

    “They will see you abandon your wife to heathens,” Emmanuel said. “Something that no Christian king should do. And you will also admit you are unable to control her, which will make you appear weak. It will embolden our enemies, both around us, and in Rome.”

    “My efforts were to be made in Iberia,” Geoffrey said. “Nothing was said about the Holy Lands - lands which have brought nothing but ruin to the Christian king who ruled them.”

    “They have doubts about your sincerity here in Iberia as well,” Emmanuel said. “This only adds more kindling to the fire.”

    Geoffrey glared at the prince-bishop. “Heathens in Iberia are not the same as the Holy Lands. One requires me to send men a few hundred miles to the south. The other - halfway around the world.”

    “Your concerns are valid,” Emmanuel said. “Given we fight here. But any excuse will be used by our enemies. Pope Nicola, excuse me, Urbanus, is no friend of ours.”

    Geoffrey rubbed his temples. “I find myself in a vice that my enemies could never have dreamed placing me in. And it is my wife who has sprung the trap. The harpy. The bitch. Good for nothing except causing me trouble. She must be punished severely.”

    “It is no simple matter with her,” Emmanuel admitted. “Weakening her could embolden the English lords and clergy further.”

    “Then I will crush them all,” Geoffrey said.

    “It will take years,” Emmanuel said. “Look at what happened to their Guilhem the Bastard, or Conquerer, if you speak to the Norman duchesses. It likely is the best path - but it will not be easy.”

    If this goes as poorly as I expect, there may not be much for me to destroy. The heathens will do it for me. But Geoffrey would not dare say that.

    Instead he just shook his head. “The church has no love for my wife. They will not fault me for not honoring the call of a woman who steps out of place.”

    “You can’t see it is just an excuse?” Berard demanded. “Or do you just not want to see?”

    Geoffrey turned his eyes toward his friend, surprised he had finally said something. “I see. I. Don’t. Care.”

    Emmanuel sighed. “My king, please. There are ways we can perhaps lessen our contribution. But we cannot ignore her call entirely.”

    “Watch me,” Geoffrey said.

    “We’re wasting our time,” Berard said. “He’s too stubborn to see reason. His wife hurting his ego is all he cares about. Nothing else and no one else matters.”

    Geoffrey narrowed his gaze. “Should something else matter?”

    “We have bound our realm to England,” Berard said. “And to a degree, to Rome as well. We cannot turn our back to them, regardless of what the queen has done.”

    “There is no ‘we,’” Geoffrey said. “I can. And I will.”

    “Even as your son spits your name in anger?” Berard asked.

    “He should be spitting his disgrace of a mother’s name,” Geoffrey said. “She is the one who has done this.”

    “He has been raised to think it is our duty to fight for Christendom,” Berard said. “Now he sees his mother does that and you respond like this?”

    “It is not that she fights for Christendom,” Geoffrey said. “It is how she has done this… to force me into a fight I did not ask for, when I am not ready. It is a betrayal - she is my wife. And she has acted as my enemies would. It is principle.”

    “It is foolishness,” Berard said. “On both your parts. She is wrong. That much is clear. But you are wrong as well, for you know the damage that will be done if you refuse. And yet you would incur it anyway!”

    “It is my choice,” Geoffrey said. “If there is a price to be paid, I will pay it.”

    “And we will pay it with you,” Berard said. “My wife. The mother to my sons. She is in England. I have heard talk the Caliphate of Egypt come to the heathens aid. And they make for England’s shores to raid again as they did when they fought your wife’s father. When they come, and they make for Lydford, who will protect my Lida?”



    Geoffrey lowered his head, before shaking it. “The Saxon cow, I suppose.”

    “The wife you expect to fail,” Berard said. “No… you would let my wife suffer. You would let her die.”

    “She will not die,” Geoffrey said. “At best, they will take her prisoner. She’s valuable. They will want to ransom her. I will pay, you have word.”

    Berard’s eyes widened. “You pay? That is it? That is all you have to say?”

    “What more do you want?!” Geoffrey demanded.

    “Protection!” Berard shouted. “As should be expected for a king to his subjects! Lida is only in England because you placed her among your wife’s ladies! Do you not see? It is as I have said - you have binded us! We cannot abandon England any more than we can abandon our own people!”

    “She should have left when she saw what that traitor did,” Geoffrey said.

    Berard was silent for a moment, slowly shaking his head. His breathing grew rushed and the prince-bishop approached him.

    “Sir Berard, understand the king is angry,” Emmanuel said. “I do not agree with him, and I suspect in time he will not even agree with himself, but…”

    “But nothing,” Berard said. “This is who he is. This is what happens when he does not get his way. And that is fine. We must accept the results, if this is what he chooses.”

    Geoffrey nodded. He knew Berard would understand, even if he did not like it.

    “I resign,” Berard said. “I step down as your advisor.”

    “You do what?” Geoffrey demanded.

    “Yes, you do what?” Emmanuel echoed.

    “I am leaving,” Berard said. “If you will not protect my wife, then I will do so myself. I will hire out of what money I have, a small band of mercenaries. And I will take them to England to protect her, and with her the queen, I suppose. But mostly her. And that is that.”

    “You cannot,” Geoffrey said.

    “I can,” Berard said. “I ask nothing of you. Not men. Not money. And I do not ask for leave, for I resign all of my positions, advisor and commander. If you wish to throw me in the dungeons for such an act… then you truly have fallen. But I do not think you would. I think you would at least allow me the dignity and respect to leave and protect my wife.”

    “You are not serious,” Geoffrey said.

    “You dared me to watch you,” Berard said. “Now I throw down the same challenge to you.”

    Geoffrey was practically speechless. He did not think Berard could truly do this. But he could not see any doubt on his face, or hear any hesitation in his voice.

    “You… you will be killed,” Geoffrey said. “They will take a woman prisoner, but they will kill you if you fight to protect her as you say you will. A few hundred men will never be enough.”

    “If I die, I do so knowing I did so with honor,” Berard said. “And will go to God, hoping my sacrifice will be enough to protect Lida. Which is about the only way it’s going to happen.”

    Berard stormed from the tent, leaving Emmanuel and Geoffrey alone. The king, dumbfounded at first and then slightly panicked after at the thought of his friend riding off to die, turned to the clergyman.

    “Stop him,” Geoffrey ordered.

    “Me?” Emmanuel asked. “You’re his king. You can command him.”

    “I cannot,” Geoffrey said. “I would be a tyrant and… he would hate me forever. I cannot do that to a friend. But you… suicide is a sin, is it not? That is what this is.”

    “If he goes to fight in defense of others and Christendom, it is more martyrdom,” Emmanuel said. "That is no sin."

    “Damn it!” Geoffrey shouted. “Damn it all! Damn her! Damn her!!!!”

    The king continued to scream at the top of his lungs, not caring who heard him, as his words grew less and less clear, his shouts becoming intelligible shrieks in the brisk, early evening air.

    …..

    Berard did ride north the next day, but Geoffrey came along with him, as did Prince-Bishop Emmanuel.

    The king had sent word ahead for his council to gather once more in the merchant’s home. The prince was to be in attendance as well. Savarics, Berard’s son, was also expected to be there as was Prince Alias.

    When he arrived at the home, Geoffrey dismounted his steed and went right to the main chamber with Emmanuel and Berard. The council, along with the princes and Savarics, were all gathered around the table. All bowed when he entered.

    “My king,” Edouard said as Geoffrey approached the table. “If I could offer you a drink…”

    “No,” Geoffrey said. “Straight to business. First… uncle.”

    When Duke Guilhem and Duke Adhemar both looked at him, Geoffrey glared at the Duke of Gascony. “Uncle Adhemar, I am disappointed that the first I hear of any of this is when I am told war is happening. I expect better hearing from you, in Normandy. England is not far.”

    “I have been… focusing on building support for your claim in Normandy,” Adhemar said. “We may even have a breakthrough---”

    “I don’t want to hear it,” Geoffrey said. “You speak with Adelise. You should not be in the dark as to what my wife plans. Understood?”

    Adhemar nodded slowly. Then Geoffrey turned to his spymaster.

    “Douard, how is it my wife’s actions are shrouded from me?” Geoffrey demanded. “Why does my master of spies hear nothing when my wife plans war? I am left to look to my advisor’s wife for such things? Should I make her my spymaster?”

    Douard dropped his gaze. “My apologies, King Geoffrey. I will… I will look to find places for our people. It is hard to find those who speak Saxon and Occitan.”

    “Find them,” Geoffrey ordered. “You are not short on funds. So I expect results. Or I will find someone else who will get them for me. Understood?”

    Douard nodded, slowly at first but then picking up in pace.

    “Uncle… Guilhem,” Geoffrey said. “Look to my remaining levy. I want to know how long it will take to prepare them for combat, if necessary.”

    “Then…” the Prince Guilhem began, “you are going to help mother, father?”

    Geoffrey said nothing to that, instead turning to Bishop Edouard and saying: “Inform my wife that we will join England in this war. But also make it clear that we are currently busy here, and cannot spare any men at the moment.”

    “Of course,” Edouard said.

    “And when this is finished, which I do pray is soon,” Geoffrey continued, “I will need to allow my men to return home so that they might attend to their personal affairs. Farms. Businesses and the like. So our military aid will come after that.”

    “Then why do you need the men ready?” the Duke of Poitou asked.

    “I hear talk of the Caliphate of Egypt getting involved,” Geoffrey said. “If they come here, I may need men at the ready to stop them. I will not let the realm be damaged by my wife’s recklessness. And that includes England - I will defend it, should a heathen force of a sizeable number come to their shores.”

    The duke nodded. “Understood.”

    Geoffrey then glared at the council. “Never again. Do you all understand? Never again. England is not a separate realm. Not anymore. Ignore them at your own peril. For if you do , I will find councilors who don’t.”

    There were a group of nods from them all and then the king dismissed them. The prince moved with them, though he stopped before Geoffrey and bowed.

    “Thank you father,” he said.

    “I do this because it is what is required,” Geoffrey told him. “I do not do this for her.”

    Guilhem swallowed hard, and nodded quickly, before lowering his head and hurrying off, Savarics following close behind.

    And then Geoffrey and Berard were alone, allowing the king to bring his singular focus to his friend.

    “I trust that is enough for you to remain,” Geoffrey said.

    “You will go to aid them if they face invasion,” Berard said. “No questions asked.”

    “Yes,” Geoffrey said. “It is pretty much the only way I will send anything substantial there. I have no intention of going to the holy lands. I do not think Lida’s protection depends on my knights going near Jerusalem.”

    “Unless the queen decides to lead her men there,” Berard said.

    Geoffrey felt his stomach twist. “She would not…”

    His voice fell off as he no longer was certain exactly what his wife was capable of.

    “By the way,” Geoffrey said. “When I said, ‘never again’, I didn’t mean it for just them. It was for you as well.”

    “Me?” Berard asked. “I was the one who urged you to investigate the rumors.”

    “Not that,” Geoffrey said. “You were right about that. I meant what you did in Tafalla. That stunt. Never do that again. I do not like to be pressured like that.”

    “It was no stunt,” Berard said. “I was deadly serious. If you would not defend my wife, then I would. It is my duty - I made my vows to do so. When you said she should have… chosen to leave…”

    Berard paused for a moment, taking a drink before he continued. “The only reason I stopped was because you were willing to change your mind. I know that is hard for you, and your promise was not nothing. So I will remain by your side, as you wish.”

    They were words that should have eased Geoffrey’s frustrations, but instead they just added to them. Not at Berard, but at Ælfflæd for doing this to him. For putting them all in this position.

    “I am going to have to punish her,” Geoffrey swore. “I don’t know how yet. But I must.”

    “What if she wins?” Berard asked.

    Geoffrey eyed him before a smirk came to the king’s lips. “If she wins this herself, I will throw her a triumph in the streets of Lydford and Bordeaux!”

    He took a sip of his drink before adding: “But she won’t. Hopefully, she will learn humility and her place.”

    “And if she doesn’t?” Berard asked.

    “Then my son will be a king sooner than I expected,” Geoffrey said. “Even if I have to raze England to make him safe.”

    Berard nodded. “I shall start the search for a merchant’s home in London then.”

    Geoffrey tossed him the side eye, and shook his head. It was no laughing matter. None of this was.

    And yet, despite his best efforts, his friend’s promise left Geoffrey unable to resist a small chuckle.

     
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    Chapter 266 - July 1138
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 266
    July 1138 - Pamplona, Kingdom of Navarra

    He has my father’s eyes.

    Marguerite de Limoges had noticed such things before of her son Alias. She suspected it when he was a babe of a few months, and those suspicions had been confirmed as he grew older.

    Those big, round eyes were largely the only aspect she recognized from her father’s side of the family, but they were powerful ones. After all, it was the only reason she didn’t listen to the rumors that her brother Adhemar was the son of Foulques IV - when she looked at him, she was reminded of the late Adhemar de Limoges.

    And Alias was alone in that regard - none of her other children carried that legacy of her father with them. Indeed, it seemed to have missed all of her nieces and nephews as well, from Ness’ brood of boys, Mascarose’s Small Fry and Adhemar’s son by the same name..

    So it was a sense of pride for her when she looked at her youngest child, as she did in this instance. The pair sat in the solar of a manor on the outskirts of Pamplona - a fortified residence where the boy king of Navarra had called home.

    These days it was residence for Prince Alias and Princess Alisce of Sicily, as per the orders of Geoffrey, who wanted his brother to have the appearance of the new Duke of Navarra, even if he had not been raised yet.

    Marguerite was meeting with her youngest son first, as she traveled south from Bordeaux en route to see Geoffrey as he besieged Najera to the south, following his success in subduing the entire county of Navarra.

    Originally, the queen mother had accompanied her boys on this campaign, along with her daughter Aines. And after Aines’ marriage to Duke Simon of Toulouse, she had returned to Geoffrey, but only temporarily.

    A few weeks after Geoffrey had learned of Ælfflæd’s decision to attack Acre without his consent, he had ordered his mother back to Bordeaux, to nominally keep an eye on Bishop Edouard and the council and report back in around a half year with information on how they were handling their duties.

    It probably was no coincidence that Ana de Perigord went with her, as Marguerite had learned the younger woman was carrying yet another of her grandchildren.
    Thus Marguerite also understood the unstated reason for her return was also to give Geoffrey an update on his bastard - what Ana had delivered and the health of the babe.

    It had been a boy, much to the discontent of Bishop Edouard, who said the birth could be a complication. There was an unstated fear over the venom between king and queen, and whether a bastard boy born of the king’s primary lover could be used against the current royal children.



    Marguerite believed such fears overstated - despite his vitriol toward the queen, deserved in her opinion, Geoffrey had no interest in disinheriting his children. Far from it - he seemed to view them as even more valuable, hoping to guarantee they helped hold England, with or without Ælfflæd’s help.

    But she knew her son Alias, who despised the Perigords, would never agree. So she endeavored to keep the subject away from that, focusing on her youngest son’s own personal affairs.

    “How do things go with your wife?” Marguerite asked. “She seems dutiful. Eager to please.”

    “To the point of desperation,” Alias said. “I cannot fault her devotion.”

    “But you can fault her in other ways?” Marguerite asked.

    Alias blushed and took a long sip from the cup before him. He did eventually reply: “Forgive me, mother. I speak rudely of my wife. I should not.”

    “That has not stopped a great many men,” Marguerite replied, trying to ease his conscience.

    “But I am not like a great many men,” Alias said.

    His face had reddened further, and Marguerite feared she had drawn the ire of her youngest. She did not see Alias angry very often. Disappointed, saddened, at times, especially lamenting his lack of a role in the previous years, but rarely angry.

    “I did not mean any offence,” Marguerite insisted. “I did not wish for you to guilt yourself over something others do with impunity. You have heard your brother of late.”

    “I can do nothing but hear my brother,” Alias said. “Even when he is in Najera.”

    “And what is the meaning of that?” Marguerite asked.

    “Oh it is nothing,” Alias said. “I do, as you say, as others do. Complain of one’s brother, despite his great generosity to me.”

    “What have you to complain of?” Marguerite asked.

    “I would prefer not to speak of it,” Alias said. “Either you will think ill of me, or it shall find its way back to him. Neither is something I wish to happen.”

    “If you wish a secret,” Marguerite said. “Then short of plotting to harm your siblings or their children, I will not share it.”

    Alias leaned back in his chair and sighed. But eventually he did fix his gaze upon his mother once more. “It is more just… the way he speaks. He causes harm to others, unintentionally to be sure. But it is still harm. It bothers me.”

    “Has he done so to you?” Marguerite asked.

    “When I see him, the conversation invariably turns back to my relations with my wife, and if she is with child yet,” Alias said. “He does so because he doubts my ability to sire a child with her. But I have my own doubts. I need not have him add his voice to them.”

    Marguerite sighed. “I understand. Your brother just fears he made a bad marriage for you, and hopes she finds a child to ease his conscience.”

    Alias laughed. “Oh mother, no. That is most certainly not it.”

    The prince’s response took Marguerite aback. The certainty at which he said, and the almost derision…

    She crossed her arms: “Then what is it?”

    “Forget it,” Alias said as he waved her off. “I should not have said anything.”

    It bothered her to see her youngest’s furrowed brow and red cheeks, as he was clearly embarrassed by something. It reminded her of his childhood, when he was caught sneaking into the larder for meat pies. Usually she felt some sympathy for him then, when a guard or angry nurse would pull him forth by his shirt. And she felt the same sympathy for him now.

    “I will speak to your brother,” Marguerite promised.

    “No, don’t!” Alias exclaimed. He actually stood from his chair as he spoke. “You promised secrecy.”

    “I… I did,” Marguerite replied. “But I am certain I can mediate.”

    “You cannot,” Alias said. “It is who Geoffrey is. He thinks of himself, his needs and his reputation. It is, I suppose, what kings must do. In any case, he will not change. Instead he may just lash out. And I have heard enough of that of late, directed at the queen, to last a lifetime.”

    “You will never incur such a backlash for just this,” Marguerite assured him. “You do not like his tone. His wife betrayed him.”

    “She did not betray him,” Alias said. “She took liberty in her position, just as uncle Foulquesson did back in Brittany. Wrong, yes, but hardly a betrayal.”

    “You agree with her?” Marguerite snapped. “After what she did to your brother? To the realm?”

    “I don’t agree,” Alias said. “As I said, it was wrong. But I understand why she did it. She wishes to prove herself. To show she is not Geoffrey’s puppet.”

    “Then she is manipulated by her vassals,” Marguerite said.

    “I think she does it for herself more than them,” Alias suggested. “Geoffrey refused to let her go to England while she was with child. He then took her children from her. I remember how she looked on that day - more distraught than even with his affairs. She probably felt less a queen then than any other point since she married Geoffrey - right as she was supposed to be something more.”

    “Excuses,” Marguerite said. “She commits the realm of Aquitaine to her actions - demands the lives of Geoffrey’s knights and vassals. You will have to call forth your men here, despite the resentment they may feel.”

    “It is not as if I will have many men to actually call upon,” Alias replied. “But regardless, I will provide what he asks of me. My complaints aside, I do not want him or you to think me ungrateful for all of this. I take issue how he says things, but he does not do it maliciously. Most of the time.”

    “Blind to the feelings of others,” Marguerite said. “Though not always willfully. He sounds as if he sees things as your father did.”

    “Yes,” Alias said. “So they say. I can’t say I know much of that. I don’t even remember father face, let alone how he treated others.”

    Marguerite knew she should feel some sorrow over that - she could hear the regret in Alias’ voice. He had been a child of six when the old king had died and had been kept away from him for the most part. That had been at the old Geoffrey’s request, for his ego would not permit his youngest to see him literally fall apart as the leprosy ravaged his body.

    But Marguerite had long since stopped feeling anything toward her husband, besides anger when painful memories would resurface. That of the death of their son, his dismissal of her throughout much of his rule, and the corresponding elevation of his murderous sister Agnes.

    “Your father was a masterful statesman,” Marguerite said. “He could charm vassals, emissaries, clergymen… yet when it came time for those close to him, he often looked right past them.”

    “I’m not sure Geoffrey is the charmer he was then,” Alias said. “But he does frequently look past those he is close to. I swear, I do not think I have ever seen his wife as distraught as she was when I came upon her that morning. As if her heart had been ripped from her chest.”

    “Nothing justified her actions,” Marguerite said. “I do not understand why you defend her so.”

    “Forget it,” Alias said as he waved her off. “There is no point. I agree, she is wrong. I just understand and have sympathy for her. That is the short of it.”

    “But you think Geoffrey deserves some of the blame?” Marguerite demanded.

    “If he did not take her children from her, would she have done this?” Alias asked.

    “So this is revenge?” Marguerite retorted.

    “No, she wishes to prove her worth to herself,” Alias said. “But again, let us just leave this. It is bickering over nothing. It is done. I disagree with her actions. That is all.”

    Given her disgust for Ælfflæd, it was difficult to hear Alias’ sympathy, regardless if he agreed the queen was wrong. But Marguerite also could only stomach fighting with her son so much, and agreed to let the matter rest.

    “So,” Alias continued. “You were in Bordeaux, but you did not come this way to visit me. What news do you take to Geoffrey?”

    “That I believe his council does suffer from problems,” Marguerite said. “And he could do with new leadership on it.”

    Alias chuckled. “Easier said than done. I cannot see Geoffrey finding a suitable replacement for any of them. They are either too important, or he lacks a good option. Or they are his toadies so they can enjoy privilege, like the Perigords.”

    “I have heard Berard de Perigord stands up to him,” Marguerite said.

    “It took Geoffrey being willing to let his wife fall into heathen hands,” Alias said. “Bravery due to desperation is hardly commendable.”

    Marguerite said nothing to that. She knew of her youngest son’s dislike of the Perigords, and did not share it. While she did not care for Alberic, Berard had seemed as loyal a friend as could be. And Ana, for all her faults, loved Geoffrey. And she might be the only woman he shared a bed with who did.

    “So you think he lacks leadership… I assume when he is not present,” Alias said. “Isn't that a common problem if the king does not take the whole of his court with him?”

    “It can depend,” Marguerite said. “Your father had Count Alias, who kept the council focused on the king’s goals, rather than their own individual acts.”

    “And Aunt Agnes,” Alias replied. “She did as well.”

    “Yes,” Marguerite grunted. “The point is, they had guidance, even when your father was away. This group lacks that. And it causes problems.”

    “So who will you recommend to the role?” Alias asked. “If someone capable exists.”

    “I believe I could be a great help to him,” Marguerite said.

    “You wish to be given true oversight over cousin Edouard, rather than a share of authority,” Alias said.

    Marguerite’s stomach twisted. She knew the next part would be controversial. Alias was unlikely to approve. But if she could not bring it up to her youngest, then how could she do so with Geoffrey?

    “I want more,” Marguerite said. “Simply expanding my shared regency powers will not change much. I need an official position on the council itself, which commands respect.”

    “He will never fire Berard for you,” Alias warned.

    “Not Berard,” Marguerite said. “Adhemar.”

    Alias’ eyes widened. “That… that will not happen.”

    “Adhemar has disappointed him, has he not?” Marguerite asked. “His failure to hear of Ælfflæd’s schemes. His damaged reputation with the Count of Bearn.”

    Her brother had gotten into a vicious argument with his former regent, which resulted in the count challenging Adhemar to a duel. Despite initially accepting, Adhemar had backed out before returning to Normandy, claiming Geoffrey had not approved the duel.

    Technically it was true - Geoffrey had not. But it was because Geoffrey had not been asked, and once that had become known, Adhemar’s reputation as a coward had again come to the fore. And it did little for Geoffrey to have a chancellor who was so poorly thought of among the realm’s lords.



    “He is still the Duke of Gascony, mother,” Alias said. “One of the realm’s most powerful lords. And your younger brother. This will not be seen in a good light… I think you should reconsider.”

    “Geoffrey needs better guidance than he has received,” Marguerite insisted. “Such things are often provided by a wife. But since his has failed him… I must do my part. There are so few left who can.”

    “Geoffrey is a man grown,” Alias argued. “He does not need anyone to hold his hand anymore.”

    “Did you not hear what I said of your father?” Marguerite asked. “He had need of good councilors throughout his life. Geoffrey does as well. Especially since he lacks the… political savvy of his father.”

    “He will have to find them,” Alias said. “You may provide recommendations, but I doubt he will accept you among them.”

    “He accepted your aunt,” Marguerite said.

    “I was a child when father passed but… it seems as though she was already in such a position,” Alias said. “It was continuing what had worked. This… this would be bold. And I think too bold.”

    “He needs someone,” Marguerite said. “His anger… his words, they are of a man betrayed. He has lost trust in those around him. I must do something.”

    Alias sighed. “There’s nothing to be done mother. Geoffrey is upset, but it is something he must see through himself. He wished for more. Now he has more. More land. More kingdoms. More responsibility. More problems. It is the way of things.”

    All of that was true, but Marguerite could not shake that her late husband had done the same and he was not deprived of valuable subordinates. Someone was needed, and Alias was just too young and headstrong to see it.

    “I will put the matter to your brother,” Marguerite said. “And we shall see what he says.”

    “I cannot stop you, mother,” Alias admitted. “I just warn you… it will not go well.”

    What else could she say to that? If Marguerite was convinced her son was wrong, her stomach would not have twisted during their conversation.

    The pair were then interrupted by a man coming into the solar and after a quick bow before prince and queen-mother, whispered something into Alias’ ear. The prince rolled his eyes and shook his head before standing and frowning at Marguerite.

    “Forgive me mother,” Alias said. “But I must attend to some business.”

    “What has happened?” she asked.

    “Raiders,” Alias said. “Navarrans, attacking the farms beyond the wall. We are in no danger here, but if we do not move quickly those outside could fall prey to them.”

    Marguerite’s heart skipped a beat. “You are to attack them, personally?”

    Alias shook his head. “I watch from one of the towers. By the time I dressed and readied for battle, they could have done damage. We have sentries and knights at the ready. They will defend. But I have a duty to observe. As Geoffrey would say - such things are expected. If you like, I can send Alisce to again keep you company.”

    “No, that is quite alright,” Marguerite replied. “I could use some time alone with my thoughts.”

    Alias nodded and gave her a kiss on the cheek before he and the man made their way from the chamber. Her heart still raced as the thought of her youngest rushing off to battle was difficult to bear, even if she knew he had already. And would in the future.

    She still worried about him. About all her children, even Aines, somewhat. And it did her heart no favors knowing they were in Iberia, where her beloved son Foulques sustained the injuries that had eventually taken his life.

    The curse of Iberia was something she believed in - it had ruined all the Capetians who had ventured south of the Pyrenees since the days of Philippe I. His brother Hughes had also lost his kingdom, while Hughes’ son Henri had died young, and Henri’s son, Leonard, had lost the crown. And now, despite helping Christians against the heathens, Philippe’s son Alphonse, was believed to be severely ill after coming to Iberia, with his eldest daughter held prisoner by the Duke of Provence.



    To say nothing of her own family. Foulques had died of wounds sustained here, her husband had eventually succumb to Leprosy, which could have been a punishment of some sorts. Now her son Geoffrey had found himself in a Holy War caused by an ungrateful wife… who knew what was next?

    All of her children were a concern. But she was especially worried for her surviving boys.

    And a voice soon echoed that concern.

    “The poor boy. He is troubled.”

    Marguerite closed her eyes as she heard the voice. Perhaps she should have been frightened. But after hearing and seeing the specter of Agnes d’Anjou many times over the past year, she did not need to see her to know she was there.

    “And why is that?” Marguerite wondered, not turning around.

    “I am uncertain,” Agnes admitted as she walked into her view and sat down across from her. “I cannot read minds after all. But is clear enough from the way Alias moves. And the way he speaks.”

    “He doesn’t think his brother respects him,” Marguerite surmised.

    “I agree with him,” Agnes said.

    “He is wrong,” Marguerite said. “Geoffrey cares deeply for him.”

    “He may care for him, but does he respect him?” Agnes asked. “They are two different questions.”

    Now Marguerite turned her glare to Agnes. “You have come to insult my sons and drive conflict between them?”

    Agnes laughed. “You vastly overestimate my abilities. I assure you, there is little I can do to bother them. I just speak to what I see. To you.”

    “And just why are you here to see me?” Marguerite demanded.

    “Ask yourself,” Agnes replied. “It is not as if I have much control over it.”

    “I can assure you that I would not summon you, if I could help it,” Marguerite said. “I can hardly think of anyone but your father who I would want to see less.”

    “And yet… here I am,” Agnes replied. “A curious thing, that.”

    Marguerite rolled her eyes. “Have you anything to say besides these pointless questions?”

    “Nothing except that I agree with young Alias,” Agnes replied. “You take a needless risk with attempting to oust your brother. It would be scandalous in so many ways. Geoffrey will not entertain it.”

    “He is frustrated with his council,” Marguerite argued. “My elevation would solve the lack of leadership.”

    “And possibly bring a host of other problems,” Agnes replied. “To say little of whether Geoffrey actually will value your opinion enough to make you chancellor.”
    Marguerite grew wide-eyed. “But he would value yours.”

    “I was never chancellor,” Agnes reminded her.

    “But you were practically everything else,” Marguerite said.

    “With your blessing,” Agnes said. “I was to save your son, remember? And I did.”

    “And now he needs aid again,” Marguerite replied. “And who is left to give it to him?”

    “He has been king for over a decade,” Agnes said. “Longer than his father, I might add.”

    “His father was still a more experienced ruler,” Marguerite said. “And also required aid.”

    “Aid, yes,” Agnes said. “But you can still provide aid in other means. Why do you go down this road?”

    “I have offered aid before,” Marguerite said. “Even when I was regent, he only listened a little. Never the same as it was with you.”

    “You are not me,” Agnes said. “And I am not you. It is foolish to compare.”

    “I am his mother!” Marguerite snapped. “How can I not?”

    Agnes fell silent for a moment though her gaze never lifted from the queen mother.

    “Let us examine how this will play out,” Agnes suggested. “You offer your services as chancellor. Geoffrey refuses. Now what? You can back down, which will end your dream, and prove you lack the will necessary for the position. Or you can fight, which you will have to do. At which point, Geoffrey will grow angry you challenge him, especially after the actions of his wife.”

    “Your fault, I might add,” Marguerite said. “She learned it from you.”

    “I would never have told her to do as she does,” Agnes said. “But it is neither here nor there. She has done it, and Geoffrey will be resistant toward any woman, sensitive toward maintaining societal order. He will not want to appear controlled by women, so he will never give you a prestigious position, whether or not you are qualified.”

    Marguerite was not surprised Agnes made sense. If she couldn’t reason things out, she’d never have been such a trusted person for three powerful lords.

    But Marguerite could also not rule out that Agnes was protective of her own legacy - one which had her as one of Christendom’s most powerful and successful women. Why wouldn’t she aim to undermine her old rival, as she potentially ascended to an even more prestigious position than the late d’Anjou woman had ever managed?

    “You just seek to limit me,” Marguerite said. “To keep me from helping my son because you’re worried I might surpass you.”

    Agnes laughed. “Such things are concerns for the living. I just look to aid you.”

    “You, aid me?” Marguerite asked. “That is laughable.”

    “Laughable?” Agnes retorted. “I have aided you countless times over the past two decades.”

    “Out of guilt perhaps,” Marguerite said. “Or self-interest.”

    “Does it matter why?” Agnes asked. “You received my aid, as you do now.”

    “I don’t want your aid,” Marguerite insisted. “I tolerated it for Geoffrey’s sake. But you can’t help him now. Only I can.”

    “I don’t doubt you mean well by this,” Agnes said. “Just know this will not end the way you want it to.”

    “How can you know that?” Marguerite demanded.

    “I know your son,” Agnes said. “You know him too. Why you do this, I don’t know. But… I cannot stop you. Only advise against it, as I did so frequently with your son.”

    Marguerite narrowed her gaze. “I am not a child in need of hand holding. I am an old woman, one who knows her children. Just because I permitted you to contribute to my son’s reign before does not mean I permit you to hound me now. Do you understand?”

    “If that is what you wish,” Agnes said as she stood. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

    ….

    Marguerite continued on her journey the next day, saying goodbye to Alias for now but expecting to see him again soon enough.

    He was moderately concerned about her trip, due to the raiders, and dispatched a few extra knights for protection. But despite his fears, the ride south to Najera was uneventful and Marguerite arrived three days later in good order.

    At the edge of siege camp, Marguerite was greeted by her grandson, Prince Guilhem, his friend Savarics de Perigord, as well as her nephew, Rogier, who informed her Geoffrey was away touring the siege works around the town with Berard and the Dane Knud. That she did not have to see that frightful brute of a Dane, who she never liked, was a relief.

    Rogier offered to go find his king, taking Savarics, while Guilhem was left to entertain his grandmother, much to Marguerite’s delight.

    Having turned 10 a few months before, Guilhem was blossoming before her eyes. He was not her first grandson of course, but he was the one she had the most pride in, having watched much of his growth thus far. And she liked what she saw.



    Willful and confident, she believed he was developing the strength he would one day need to rule. And despite the fact he reminded her a bit of his maternal grandfather, the late King Thoræd, she had never heard a negative thing said of his looks.

    Then again, the late English king’s biggest problem was his build - short and rather portly. But Guilhem was already his mother’s height, and she was about as tall as her father had been. And he was not thick built yet - with a lanky frame that reminded Marguerite of Geoffrey when he was the same age. She suspected, like his father, he would fill out as he matured.

    Guilhem aimed to look the part of a future warrior king here as well, dressed in mail, though his hood was down and his helmet was off, showing off his shaggy, unkempt brown hair.

    The old king Geoffrey would be aghast by such a sight, especially as he hosted someone of importance, but Marguerite could not bring herself to be angry with her grandson. Instead, she playfully ran her hand through his messy hair after they reached the privacy of the command tent, causing the boy to blush.

    “Grandmother,” he said. “Is that necessary?”

    “I must take such opportunities when I get them,” she said. “You grow so quickly. Soon you will be a man, and won’t let me anywhere near your hair.”

    “You will have my little brother for such things,” Guilhem told her. “How do he and my sister fare?”

    “They are well,” Marguerite said. “Margo misses you all, and wishes it could be as it was when you all were in England. Young Geoffrey has heard stories of this campaign, but he babbles more than speaks in actual words yet.”

    “I miss how it was in England too,” Guilhem lamented. “Have you heard any news of my mother? I had not heard anything in a while and sometimes I wonder if father tells those here not to speak of her to me.”

    Marguerite had heard little besides Ælfflæd had sent the majority of her 4,000 men to the Holy Lands in an attempt to take Acre quickly. The hope, if Acre would fall, the sheik would have no choice but to surrender, regardless of the aid of the Fatimid Caliphate, who had begun to raid the English coast.

    “Do not concern yourself with her problems,” Marguerite warned him.

    “She’s my mother,” Guilhem said. “Of course I worry.”

    “Her actions are unworthy of your worry,” Marguerite said. “To do as she has done… ignoring her place as your father’s wife, his queen, and he, her king… it is a disgrace. I pray you have better luck when it comes time for you to wed.”

    Marguerite could see immediately her words had not landed well with her grandson - his furrowed brow and frown gave it away. And her frustration over Ælfflæd’s behavior was overpowered for this moment by her fear over angering one of the few people in life she valued.

    “Father thinks ill of her too,” Guilhem grumbled. “But he’s wrong and can only see his perspective. Mother does this for the good of Christendom, as my grandfather and my great-grandfather did. The Stawells are defenders of the cross. Mother follows her family's legacy, as I hope to one day.”

    There was something about his earnest idealism which made Marguerite smile. She was too experienced to think this would last - eventually, someone would drive him from such lofty expectations. But it would not be her, at least not today.

    “Forgive me,” Marguerite said. “I, too, appear to have not seen all perspectives. You speak well, my young prince. The Stawell family could find no better heir to its legacy, nor could the d’Anjou.”

    The frown melted away, and Guilhem’s lips formed a smile as wide as his face. A nod gave just the slightest hint of his joy at the approval, and Marguerite was pleased to have encouraged him so.

    “Now then, are you taking care of yourself?” Marguerite asked. “I know boys your age can get into all sorts of trouble.”

    “Father keeps close watch,” Guilhem said. “So does Sir Berard, since I am with Savarics much of the time. And there is not much to do anyway. The Navarrans hide behind walls or stay far away from us ever since father whipped them at Pau.”

    “That is good,” Marguerite said. “War is an unpleasant thing. Unpredictable.”

    “But it is where one finds glory,” Guilhem said. “Father showed that. So many speak of his great victory. It is like my great-grandfather’s victory at Rouen!”

    Marguerite felt her eye twitch. Everything the boy had said disgusted her. But she did her best to restrain herself, not wishing another argument.

    And he is young, she thought. Young men all think that way. He can learn better in time.

    “Well, you must be safe,” Marguerite said. “The girls in court ask of you. I think they hope to catch your eye when you return.”

    Guilhem’s cheeks turned a reddish hue. “I am too young for such things. Father even says so.”

    “I never said that,” Geoffrey said as he entered the tent with Berard and Knud. “I said at your age I wouldn’t get too attached just yet. You’ll probably have a promised soon enough.”

    “But I can have others, can’t I?” Guilhem asked.

    Geoffrey marched over and grabbed Guilhem by the arm, yanking him into the corner. He told him something, that Marguerite guessed by his lips and gestures amounted to not saying such things in front of her.

    Then, Guilhem, shoulders slumped, moved forward, Geoffrey following behind. The prince said sheepishly: “Forgive me, grandma. I spoke rudely there. It is unbecoming to speak of such things.”

    Marguerite could hardly resist a smirk at Guilhem’s apology, especially given who had forced it from him.

    “It is quite alright,” she said with a smile. “You are young. You will learn yet.”

    He nodded quickly before Geoffrey declared he wished privacy with his mother. Both Berard and Knud bowed before Geoffrey and Marguerite, with Guilhem receiving a kiss on the forehead from his grandmother before he joined his father’s commanders in departing the tent.

    “Apologies for that,” Geoffrey said as he handed her a drink. “He needs to learn such things are not discussed in the company of women.”

    “Is that the lesson he must learn?” Marguerite asked.

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes and sipped his own drink. “Besides that, I trust my son made for a good host while you waited.”

    “He is a good boy,” Marguerite said. “Already willful. Traits he will need if he is to both rule here and wrangle the barbaric Saxons and Normans.”

    Could be good yes,” Geoffrey said. “But I worry he will not listen to counsel as he grows older.”

    “Has he not listened?” Marguerite asked.

    “I can see him questioning some of the things told to him,” Geoffrey said. “He still follows, but I can imagine a time when he may not.”

    “That is his willfulness,” Marguerite said. “It is not all that different than you when you were young. Or now for that matter.”

    “But if he becomes like his mother,” Geoffrey said. “Undertaking foolishness because it sounds good. Or because it feels right.”

    “You must be careful in how you speak of her to him,” Marguerite warned. “He cares for her so and cannot tolerate hearing anyone speak ill of her. I saw it myself.”

    “He must learn,” Geoffrey replied. “His mother is not beloved here after what she has done.”

    Marguerite knew that wasn’t entirely true. Those outside of the know believed Geoffrey and Ælfflæd had planned this action, and hailed them both for their boldness. And even those that did know didn’t all think ill of the queen, as Alias had proved to her.

    “She is not beloved to you,” Marguerite said. “Or me. And quite a few others. But the world is not just us. And your son… you do not want to lose your son. Compromise… if only with him.”

    “I have hardly been strict,” Geoffrey said. “There is no need to compromise this. If his wife does this to him one day… he will need to understand.”

    Marguerite held back a sigh, but she could see there was no getting through to her own willful boy.

    “So, do you come to me with news of Ana, or my council?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Both,” Marguerite said. “Ana has birthed a healthy boy.”

    Geoffrey smiled. “Good. Has she thought of names yet?”

    “She wishes to name him Geoffrey,” Marguerite said. “But I told her that might be ill-advised.”

    “I agree,” Geoffrey said. “Lest anyone get any ideas about this boy’s place, as I already have a son named Geoffrey. How is he?”

    “He is a healthy boy,” Marguerite said. “Was always eager with the nurses so he is a good weight. And he walks well. But he does not speak. Babbles, yet no words yet.”

    “Is that a concern?” Geoffrey asked.

    “It has been nearly a year and a half since his birth,” Marguerite said. “Guilhem and Margo both were saying some words by then.”

    “They had myself and… my wife present,” Geoffrey said. “Perhaps that plays a role.”

    “Perhaps,” Marguerite replied. “Is there anything you want done?”

    “Have someone see if they can get him speaking,” Geoffrey said. “Whoever is best suited. Perhaps even you. You were always good with language - you speak four?”

    Marguerite nodded. She grew up with Occitan, Frankish and Latin, though she had also picked up some Saxon from her former daughter-by-law, Ælfflæd’s sister Ælthelræda. However she rarely spoke that - and never to Ælfflæd, for she feared she would butcher it.

    “I will see what I can do,” Marguerite said. “Though… I hope to be of greater use to you than simply getting a young child to speak.”

    “My grandmother Beatritz did such things,” Geoffrey said. “Aunt Agnes told me how the old duchess lectured her and my father on proper Occitan.”

    “She did not do a good job with your aunt,” Marguerite said.

    “No, she did not,” Geoffrey said with a grin forming on his lips. “Agnes would be the first to admit it.”

    Once more she was reminded how he held such fond memories of his aunt. Even though she had dispatched Agnes to guide him, she would have hoped their clashes would have left their relationship more embittered. Instead, he seemed to think better of Agnes than he did almost anyone else - his parents included.

    She wondered if Agnes had stalked her to see it. But after a quick glance over her shoulder, Marguerite saw nothing.

    “Now my council,” Geoffrey said. “What do you have for me there?”

    “The group of them are all quite skilled, as you know,” Marguerite said. “Aside from perhaps, the prince-bishop, but he holds his position due to the church more than anything else.”

    “Emmanuel has been good to me,” Geoffrey said. “So I think you underestimate him. But go on.”

    “Despite their skill, they do not act with a singular focus,” Marguerite explained. “They tend to their own affairs and rarely, if ever, see how one relates to the other. Edouard reads his ledger, checks over taxes, but does not consult with his brother to see how we might increase the men available for your armies, for example.”

    “And why is that?” Geoffrey asked. “Are they ignorant to such things?”

    “They know they should,” Marguerite said. “But they need a firm hand to guide them. They lack leadership.”

    Geoffrey crossed his arms. “So you blame me for this?”

    “No,” Marguerite said. “It is the opposite in fact. They are capable enough when you are present to guide them. When you are elsewhere, they struggle to perform their duties because they all think themselves equal to one another. No one stands above the others, as Count Alias and… your aunt… did under your father. They both had experience and the reputation afforded by their close relationship with him to lead.”

    “I have had my cousin Edouard as de facto regent,” Geoffrey said. “He should be the one who guides them if I cannot be reached easily. There is no reason he cannot be my Count Alias.”

    “But Edouard’s position is not a strong one,” Marguerite replied. “It is through no fault of him or yourself. It is what happens because he serves on a council where his uncle is the chancellor, his half-brother is the marshal, and his superior in the church is the court chaplain. He is supposed lead men who he is to provide deference to normally. It is a difficult thing to reconcile.”

    Geoffrey scratched his chin and slowly nodded his head. “So I should give the power to someone else? Emmanuel, or Adhemar?”

    Marguerite frowned. “Emmanuel is a good man but lacks the skill necessary for such a role. As for your uncle… he is problematic. True, he is an effective diplomat, but he also had a reputation as a craven lord who plots in the shadows. His actions against the Count of Bearn did not help.”

    “That was not helpful,” Geoffrey admitted.

    “I worry not one can do what is necessary to properly guide your council in your absence,” Marguerite said. “That is why I think another candidate is necessary. Someone with age. Experience.”

    Geoffrey’s brow rose. “You clearly do not mean Berard since he lacks experience. My uncle Foulquesson? He wishes for a place on the council. But I don’t think having to listen to his blustering worth it.”

    “It would be unwise anyway,” Marguerite said. “Given he has given Guillaumette to the rebellious Count of Gevaudan.”

    Foulquesson’s youngest daughter had been married to the leader of the Toulousian revolt against Duke Simon, much to anger of both Simon and his father, Duke Guilhem of Poitou. The Duke of Brittany claimed not to care - his daughter’s honor was at stake, for Guillaumette’s bastard child was sired by the Count of Gevaudan. After the death of the countess, Foulquesson wasted little time having his daughter save face by marrying the father of her bastard, with the son acknowledged, but not legitimized.

    Geoffrey wasn’t consulted on that marriage either, which the king was annoyed by, given his soreness over the queen’s actions. But in this case, it at least benefited Geoffrey - it once again put a cleave through any potential lasting friendship between Brittany, Toulouse and Poitou.





    “No,” Marguerite said. “Foulquesson is not a good choice for anything except marshal duty… and it probably is not worth displacing the Duke of Poitou to do it.”

    “Then who?” Geoffrey asked. “You?”

    Marguerite smiled. “Yes. That is exactly who.”

    Geoffrey learned back in his chair, smirk forming on his lips. “You have come for your regency powers back.”

    “Even as regent I found as time went on I was being listened to less and less by Edouard,” Marguerite said. “No, I was thinking something grander. A leadership role on your council.”

    “I am not replacing Berard for you,” Geoffrey warned.

    “Not Berard,” Marguerite said. “Your uncle Adhemar.”

    Geoffrey spit his drink out in surprise, before giving his mother a wide-eyed glare. “You want me to do what?!”

    “He has become a liability,” Marguerite insisted. “It pains me to say such things of my younger brother, but his craven nature… and his failure in monitoring your queen has weakened you. It cannot be allowed to stand.”

    “You are serious,” Geoffrey replied. “I do not know what has come over you, mother, but I think you should retire to your bed for the evening. The wine is hitting you hard.”

    Marguerite narrowed her gaze. “Mind your words. I remain your mother, Geoffrey.”

    Geoffrey crossed his arms and shook his head. “What else am I to say such a thing? Replace my uncle, one of the realm’s most powerful lords, with his older sister, my mother? As my chancellor, no less? My vassals would be livid, replacing an experienced powerful lord with an old, inexperienced woman.”

    “Inexperienced?” Marguerite replied. “Was I not a duchess? Or a queen?”

    “Aunt Agnes held far more responsibility than you did,” Geoffrey said. “I won’t have her here to watch you, and make certain you don’t get me into another situation like Rome.”

    Of all the things he could have said, that might have been the worst. A reminder of the old king’s reliance on his sister over her, in all manner of things. And it was a reminder that Marguerite herself had ceded that ground in the end, so desperate she was to protect her son.

    And that perhaps it was with good reason, for her past actions left a bitter taste in her son’s mouth as it had his father’s.

    But there was no one left who she could trust to guide Geoffrey properly - Adhemar had proven unreliable and his council members clearly were not up to the task. She had to guide him now. As much as she hoped he could manage on his own, the stories of what had transpired when he learned of his wife’s actions suggested otherwise.

    “Your father likely chose Agnes for reasons other than just her experience in handling a duchy’s affairs,” Marguerite said. “But I did gain more authority as he grew frail. And you entrusted me with regency powers when Agnes was gone.”

    “Split with Edouard and never with an intent to expand that to a council position,” Geoffrey said. “Such things are not done.”

    “Mothers have and will continue to rule in their sons’ steads,” Marguerite said. “Especially when their wives are unreliable.”

    “That time has come and passed,” Geoffrey said. “If I were to replace Adhemar, I would go to my cousin Centolh. He has shown potential in such a role.”

    “He is younger than you!” Marguerite exclaimed. “He is in no position to help guide the council in your absence!”

    “And neither are you,” Geoffrey said. “You think the Duke of Poitou will listen to you because you are my mother? He barely listens to me!”

    “He does not intimidate me,” Marguerite swore. “I remember when he was a babe at my sister’s breast.”

    She was actually exaggerating. She had seen him on occasion when Guilhem was a child, but at that point in time, with Ness basically acting as Duke Foulques IV’s wife, Marguerite rarely saw her sister or nephews. She had visited once or twice, but Marguerite had angrily told her to go, so furious was she that Ness had “willingly” birthed the son of their father’s killer.

    Still, the point remained in her eyes. She knew all of these council members when they were basically nothing, with the only exception Prince-Bishop Emmanuel, who had ascended not long after the old king Geoffrey had in Anjou. They were supposed to pay deference to the crown, and the crown’s mother was an extension of that, at least in her eyes.

    “But is he intimidated by you?” Geoffrey scoffed. “No. None of them are. Even when you were regent they worked around you. Tolerated you, but they each handled their own affairs as they saw fit. It was enough then, I don't know about now. Your solution is nothing but more trouble - I would have to deal with replacing a powerful vassal with my mother - something surely to annoy the whole of the realm.”

    Marguerite’s heart skipped a beat. Geoffrey seemed to be confirming her worst fear - that she never truly held any authority, even under him. That it was more a courtesy than anything else. She suspected he was overstating things to make a point - she clearly did have some power before - but her niggling doubts grew louder.

    “I can be of use,” she pleaded. “Let me be of use.”

    “You wish to be of use?” Geoffrey asked. “Perhaps you should go to Toulouse and make certain Aines does not plot against me. Though I wonder about your judgment if you truly thought this was an idea that would help me.”

    And there it was. The words that cut to her core, just as Alias had warned her of. It was not calculated, just a ramble of thoughts as Geoffrey resisted the idea. But it hurt all the same, as even if it was exasperation more than maliciousness, the meaning did not change.

    Marguerite resisted tears as she looked at her son. She struggled to find the words to agree, so disappointed that he no longer had true use for her. Even as he needed aid, he would not turn to her. His own mother. The person who loved him the most. Who would do anything for him.

    And perhaps he saw that hurt, for she noticed his expression change to one of concern.

    “I… perhaps not Toulouse,” Geoffrey stammered. “But just return to Bordeaux. I think I have asked too much of you, at your age. Between keeping track of so much, and the travel… it has exhausted you. Strained you too much.”

    Somehow, his attempts to justify this hurt even more.

    Marguerite closed her eyes as she resisted the emotion welling up in her. Eventually, she did manage to look him square, successfully holding back her tears as she did so. And at that moment, she was struck by an old observation, that never seemed truer.

    “You have your father’s eyes,” she told him.



    …..

    Marguerite departed Geoffrey’s siege camp the next morning, despite him offering her the opportunity to remain as long as she liked.

    As much as she would not have minded remaining near her grandson, Marguerite could not stomach remaining in a siege camp longer than she had to. And it did not exactly make things comfortable with the way Geoffrey had dismissed her -just as Agnes had warned her.

    So as she sat the next evening in an inn along the road north, she was hardly surprised to see the specter of her old rival appear across from her as she sat at a table, sipping on wine.

    “Here to gloat?” Marguerite asked.

    “Why would I do that?” Agnes asked her.

    “You were right,” Marguerite said. “And I would enjoy getting one over on someone I despise.”

    “Believe it or not,” Agnes said as she sat down. “I have never hated you. Alias hated you. Geoffrey resented you. Ness was envious of you. But me? No, I sympathized with you.”

    “Pitied is more like it,” Marguerite replied.

    “That’s fair,” Agnes said.

    It was the smallest of victories, and it allowed Marguerite the briefest of smiles. It was gone quickly though, as she sipped on her drink, the warmth of the alcohol struggling to overtake the coldness she felt.

    “Have you come to collect me?” she asked Agnes, without turning her gaze toward her. “My usefulness at an end, if it ever existed to begin with. If I were to die now, would anyone notice?

    “No,” Agnes said. “I would not do such a thing, if I could at all help it. I would think it needlessly cruel.”

    “It is the hell I deserve,” Marguerite replied.

    “What is it that any of us truly deserve?” Agnes asked. “There are wicked who lead blessed lives, good people who suffer through most of their days.”

    It was, in some ways, demoralizing. Marguerite knew she was not the best of Christians, but she did like to think there was some divine reward or punishment. It consoled her, somewhat, with the death of her son Foulques, that perhaps God had brought him to heaven as a reward for his goodness among a family of wicked persons. And to a degree, it brought a perverse pleasure that perhaps her mother Aines had suffered as the result of the murder of her husband, Marguerite’s father.

    It just compounded the feelings of hopelessness Marguerite felt sucked further into - a feeling she thought she might have put behind her when she resolved to convince Geoffrey to make her chancellor. She had found purpose. Now? She felt an old woman waiting to die.

    “I just wished to help him,” Marguerite said. “All his life, others have helped him. For once, I thought, perhaps I could. I know how to speak with diplomats, emissaries, lords and kings. I know how the council works. I… I…”

    “All of that is true,” Agnes said. “But again, we do not always get what we deserve.”

    “Perhaps you are right,” Marguerite said. “I gave him life, but he hardly gives me the reverence he gives you. Nor a position on the council.”

    “He looked at me differently,” Agnes said. “But there can be no replacing you. As you say, you gave him life. Without you, he would not be.”

    “Will he care when it is my time?” Marguerite wondered. “Not as he did you. He was heartbroken when you passed. More upset than he was for his father. And certainly more than he will be for me.”

    “You speak with such certainties,” Agnes said. “I doubt even Geoffrey knows how he will react when the time comes.”

    “I suppose we shall learn soon enough,” Marguerite replied. “I cannot imagine I have much time left.”

    Agnes’ brow rose. “Ah, so that was it.”

    “What was it?” Marguerite asked.

    “You think your time grows short,” Agnes said. “So you wished to help your son. Before the end.”

    “I thought he would have many to aid him,” Marguerite lamented. “Count Alias. Count Herve. Yourself. Adhemar. Now he has just Adhemar, and he is more a liability than I expected. How can I stand by and watch him struggle so?”

    “He doesn’t struggle,” Agnes said. “He has setbacks, some of which are his doing. Some of which is beyond his control. It is through them that he will learn about himself, and those around them. And you must trust that at this point, at his age, he can take what he has learned from you, myself, his father and others, and handle what is to come before him.”

    “And if he can’t?” Marguerite asked.

    She heard no response. When she looked over, she saw Agnes was gone.

    Of course you leave now, she thought.

    But she also knew the answer to the question. Regardless of if he had taken his father’s work and expanded on it, or showed his own ambition and skill in getting here, if Geoffrey could not handle what was to come, he would suffer. And his family would with him - his children, his brother.

    I can’t help him. I can’t help any of them.

    Part of Marguerite had long believed she had never helped Geoffrey. But she also knew that was untrue - even if she had stepped back for Agnes to guide him, she never was completely removed. She was always present to step in, if required. To be the last option, as she was in Rome, when her actions had saved Geoffrey from excommunication.

    Who would be there for him now? Who would sacrifice themselves for him if required? Or Alias, for that matter, as he stood ready to ascend to a position of greater prominence. And if they didn’t exist for them, what would there be for her grandchildren, born and unborn?

    For years, Marguerite had struggled to find the will to live, using her children as her fire to drive her forward through the misery of her existence. Now, that fire remained, but the fevers and chills she frequently in the evenings, the blisters that itched and burned under her dress, the fatigue and weakness she felt called into question whether that would be enough much longer.

    She had set aside any hopes at happiness for her children. She had ignored her pride. She had given herself to those she despised, and refused to surrender her life, so she could protect theirs.

    And now she was left to fear that it would be all for naught.

     
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    Chapter 267 - October 1138
  • JabberJock14

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    • Crusader Kings II: Reapers Due
    • Crusader Kings II: Conclave
    • Europa Universalis IV: Cossacks
    • Crusader Kings II: Horse Lords
    • Europa Universalis IV: Common Sense
    • Crusader Kings II: Way of Life
    • Europa Universalis IV: El Dorado
    • Europa Universalis IV: Third Rome
    • Crusader Kings II: Jade Dragon
    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 267
    October 1138 - Leyre, Kingdom of Navarra

    The mountains were in the distance, but Geoffrey’s head was already in the clouds.

    Sitting on his horse, dressed in his mail and ready for battle, the king was on a small hill, overlooking an area of flat land, with a river to his left and thousands of Navarrans and Transjuranians before him.

    In between the king and his enemies, of course, was Aquitaine’s larger army, eager to get at their opposition. But at the moment, the valley remained calm and eerily silent, as a calm breeze blew through.

    A bird flew overhead, it’s red plumage striking, reminding Geoffrey of the banners he carried.

    “It is a sign,” his cousin Rogier told him. “A good omen. Perhaps your family watches over you.”

    Geoffrey looked to Alias. The brothers exchanged grins, with the king convinced they were ready to seize the opportunity before them.

    ....

    It was a chance Geoffrey wondered if he’d ever get.

    For over a year, the king had laid siege to the Duchy of Navarra, methodically moving south, bringing keeps and towns under his control. It was effective, but slow, and he longed for another chance at a decisive battle that could bring Navarra to its knees.

    His mind returned to his first success - defeating the Duchess of Dauphine at Murat, where he’d captured her to force peace. At the time, his 16-year-old mind could not comprehend demanding more than just Forez, which he had fought the war for. In retrospect, he wondered if perhaps he should have demanded total fealty, given he held the duchess in chains.

    Since he’d later forced England, a stronger kingdom than Navarra, into subservience, Geoffrey had begun to think he might do the same here. Perhaps not the whole of the kingdom, but why not also take the Duchy of Aragon from the boy king, since it bordered the Duchy of Navarra?

    The only way Geoffrey could do that, however, was with a decisive battle, for it would take far too long to seize the other duchy by siege.

    As it was, Geoffrey was forced to keep an eye on England, which was comically undefended. His wife’s new chancellor, her uncle Osmund restored to the role, had informed Geoffrey that the bulk of the realm’s forces had been sent to the Holy Lands to take Acre.

    In theory, Osmund claimed the queen reasoned, it would force the war to be fought there, well away from their shores. In reality, the heathens had not obliged.

    There was little question an army from the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, alongside men of the Sheik of Acre, were making their way toward England’s shores. Geoffrey knew it because his coastal towns had been “raided” - the heathens had landed on the coast, demanded supplies from weakly fortified villages, and moved on, making their way toward England.

    It meant there was pressure on Geoffrey to wrap up this conflict in Navarra and turn his armies north. It would take time for them to reach England, and the longer he was in Iberia, the more danger his wife and her ladies would be in, much to Berard’s dismay.

    And the Perigord man wished to follow through on his vow, though Geoffrey kept him from leaving by promising to send some aid north after they took the town of Najera. He would either move his army north, or call up his vassal levy and put Berard at the head, sending it to deal with the heathens.

    However, only a few days after Najera fell, word had reached Geoffrey that the combined forces of Navarra and Transjurania had come through Aragon to the east. Their goal was to attack Pamplona from that direction and reclaim the seat of the boy king of Navarra. Alias had requested reinforcements to hold Pamplona, but sensing the opportunity, Geoffrey was not going to just reinforce - he planned an attack.



    The timing was perfect. Najera’s fall meant Geoffrey could simply turn his army around, having ransacked the supplies in the town, and march to meet his enemies. And between the fall of Najera and another grand victory on the battlefield, Geoffrey believed he was in position to win the war, and potentially secure much of northern Iberia for his brother.

    By the time Geoffrey reached Pamplona to link up with the skeleton garrison he had left Alias, the Navarrians and Transjuranians had reached Leyre, which was about a day and a half away under normal circumstances. But by forced march, Geoffrey could be there in less than a day.

    Breaking camp before dawn, Geoffrey pushed the bulk of his men forward, swinging around the flank of his enemies and coming at them from the north. He hoped to trap them in the valley with the river at their backs and destroy them.

    By sunset, he learned he had done exactly that, finding them in the valley, near the river. If not for the fact his army had been marching since before dawn, he would have attacked immediately. But Geoffrey decided to hold for the day, confident he had them. They could not withdraw back from where they came - Geoffrey had covered that escape east. To the north was Aquitaine. To the west, Pamplona and to the south, the now conquered Najera.

    Geoffrey figured he probably could get the Duchy of Navarra right now if he offered them a truce. But thoughts of taking Aragon, which the boy king had inherited just before the war danced in Geoffrey’s mind. He might give that to Alias, or perhaps even his Guilhem in a few years.

    But his opportunity was likely fleeting. With the Fatimids bearing down on England and his reluctance to call forth his less loyal vassals, Geoffrey needed a victory that rivaled Pau. Otherwise, he would be forced to settle for just the Duchy of Navarra.

    So there was no offer of peace. No offer of negotiation. Emissaries from his enemies were turned away. Geoffrey intended to destroy his enemy and nothing would deter him.

    …..



    That next morning, Geoffrey drew his army into two main blocks, possessing both infantry and cavalry, with the bulk moving forth under his command. Knud was at the head of the other part. The rest of the commanders would be arrayed in those two blocks, though Mayor Frederic was missing as he returned to Saumur to handle an outbreak of smallpox there.

    But any concern Geoffrey might have had over Frederic’s absence was long gone as he watched the red bird fly overhead, circling high above his army. Then it flew off to the west, toward the enemy, before disappearing into the horizon. Still smiling, Geoffrey gave the order for his men to move forward.



    The battle began, as they usually did, with archers and skirmishers trading fire. And much like at Pau, Geoffrey’s archers struggled against a group of lesser number. It was clear from his vantage point on a nearby hill that his men were getting the worst of it, with his forces falling more frequently than the enemy’s.

    “We need to do something about this,” Geoffrey told Berard. “Do these men not know how to handle a bow and arrow? It is not that difficult.”

    It truly was confounding to the king, given his own proficiency with the weapon, though he’d never actually used it in battle.

    Having seen enough, he decided to quickly bring his infantry forward. As his archers let loose a few more final volleys, the rabble and infantry came forth. The archers then fell back and their comrades stormed forth, screaming at the top of their lungs.

    The armies met with the thunderclap of shields colliding reverberating for at least a half-mile. Or at least that was the case on the right opposite Knud’s attack. However, opposite Geoffrey and extending along the enemy front to the river, the opposition skirmish line was not as quick at falling back. The result saw some get stabbed and trampled as the Aquitaine army rushed forward.

    Closest to the center of the action, the Navarrans managed to quickly regroup, allowing the fleeing archers through their ranks, and then locking shields to receive the Aquitaine assault.

    But on the Aquitaine left, where the opposition was primarily the Transjuranians, the retreat was not nearly as orderly. The Aquitaine forces cut through the skirmishers, who’s panic brought chaos to that section of the army. And instead of forming up properly, the Transjuranians broke and fled.

    “Should we pursue?” Rogier asked.

    Eyes wide, Geoffrey could barely get the words out to order his men forward.

    Such an opportunity was a dream. Normally flanking attacks had to be made to shatter an enemy front line so quickly. If Geoffrey’s army could run and ride them down, he could eliminate the Navarrans’ allies, and then turn those pursuers on the remainder of the enemy army.

    But Geoffrey did overcome his shock enough to turn toward his brother, sensing an opportunity to secure not only a grand victory, but make a show of it that would make their late father proud.

    “Alias,” Geoffrey began. “Care to deliver the final blow necessary to secure your duchy?”

    Alias smiled and nodded. “It will be done, brother.”

    Alias rode off with the men who had joined him at Pau, to take charge of the pursuit. Some of the Aquitaine forces opposite the fleeing Transjuranians had already started after them, but the prince urged the whole of the nearby forces forward.

    The rabble and the light cavalry launched the most aggressive of the pursuit, aided by the relative lack of armor. The sergeants and knights were slower, but that was to be expected. Still they hurried along, the knights at gallop and the sergeants at a jog.

    Ideally, the Transjuranians falling away would have made the Navarrans easier to flank. But Geoffrey saw his enemies opposite him were able to compensate, with small groups of men on their flank in tightly packed shield walls, spears pointing out. Geoffrey guessed they wouldn’t be very mobile, but it would take time for his men to ride around them, especially if they were at a trot and not a gallop.

    Still, that was fine in his estimation - if everyone around the Navarrans collapsed, they could be encircled and captured at Geoffrey’s leisure.

    Along those lines, Geoffrey’s attention turned to his right, where Knud moved to get around the flank of their enemies. Unlike on the Angevin left, the resistance was stronger, and it appeared much of the Navarrans had deployed their knights there, in an effort to block the flanking effort. So Geoffrey decided to tilt the balance further in his own favor.

    “Berard,” Geoffrey said. “Go around the right. While Knud has them occupied, we can hit them from the flank and rear.”

    Berard nodded and rode off to get the reserve moving, while Geoffrey again viewed the battlefield. Given his victory at Pau saw him observing, rather than taking part in the initial cavalry charge, Geoffrey decided to repeat that here. But with Alias leading the pursuit on the left, he looked to Rogier to move the first wave into position, when the opportunity arose.

    “They hold stubbornly,” Rogier noted of their enemies. “But we could ride around them.”

    “Do so,” Geoffrey said. “I will join you shortly.”

    Rogier then took his group and rode off to engage as Geoffrey looked out in the distance, and realized the pursuit of the fleeing Transjuranians had taken his men about as far as he wanted them to go - if they went much further it would take much too much effort to rejoin the battle. Letting a thousand or so men go to capture three times their number was a better use of their resources.

    He hoped Alias might realize that and stop the pursuit, but it continued on without any signs of slowing down. So Geoffrey was left to send a rider over as quickly as possible to order the light troops back, while also directing Alias to bring the armored men into position to close the encirclement of the Navarrans.

    In the meantime, Rogier was bringing his men around to attack the flank and rear of the center. There was no screen, so Geoffrey doubted the Navarrans would be surprised. But they likely could do little to stop it, especially if the bulk of their forces were opposing Knud and Berard. And once Geoffrey joined his cousin, they would finish the Navarrans off.

    About ready to move to get into position for his coup de grace, Geoffrey took another look at the battlefield to make his final adjustments. He was pleased to see the pursuit on his left had stopped, and started his horse forward.

    However, his eyes caught sight of that red bird again, which was surprising, since he thought it had left the battlefield. Unable to resist, he followed it’s path, which drew his eyes back to the left. And his gaze shifted from the bird to his men when he realized something odd. He would have expected the left to be moving closer to the rest of the army. But instead, they were static.

    His eyes returned to the enemy there and, squinting due to the distance, Geoffrey was able to make out that the Trasnjuranians had stopped fleeing and turned to fight.

    “They recovered?” Geoffrey wondered aloud. Did he break off the pursuit too soon?

    And then Geoffrey saw, coming from the Aquitaine right, a mass of men emerging from a large group of trees that was partially obscured by a small hillside, toward the light cavalry and rabble. A chill ran down Geoffrey’s spine.

    “An ambush.”

    He had tried to guess the numbers of his enemy, but eyeballing what was over 5,000 men was apparently beyond his capabilities. Instead, he must have been hundreds of men short, and had not accounted for this group that was launching a counterattack.

    “Get out,” Geoffrey said. “Get out. Get out now.”

    The rabble was never very brave, nor trained, so running was a distinct possibility. But they did not, as perhaps the shock that their enemies had turned to fight froze them in place. The light cavalry stuck in and around them, they too were unable to get free.

    And to the left flank of those men, the river. They would be trapped against it, not his enemies, and completely overwhelmed. Geoffrey’s mind raced to find a way to save them.

    At full gallop it would take time to get there, he reasoned. And the horses would be exhausted, and unable to charge when they arrived. If they arrived. We would be too good a target…

    He looked toward Alias and the heavier troops. They’re closer. They could…

    But then he saw the Transjuranians converge. And like a wave breaking over his men, they soon disappeared in a mass of humanity as what must have been over 2,000 men hit them, infantry from their one flank, knights riding around to strike them at their rear.

    Geoffrey could not even watch.

    Instead he turned his gaze toward elsewhere on the battlefield, hoping that his men could make quick enough work of the Navarrans to turn their focus on the Transjuranians. If his rabble and light cavalry fought long and hard enough, they could buy time for the rest of his men to still win a great victory.

    It was wishful thinking.

    When he managed to bring himself to look back toward the left, the mass of men that was the Transjuranian army was already turning to march on Alias. If there was any part of the Aquitaine rabble still among that throng, Geoffrey was unable to see them.

    He swallowed hard. Hundreds of his men… just gone in what seemed like an agonizing instant.

    But he had no time to truly contemplate the loss of those men, for his thoughts shifted to his brother, now isolated and ripe to be plucked.

    The prince had wheeled his men around to face them, but Geoffrey could see he was outnumbered. And his men were likely tired after running after their enemies, making them less likely to fight well. Even the knights were forced to dismount, as they had exhausted their horses in pursuit.

    His stomach twisted into such a knot he nearly vomited. It is not whether he will be overwhelmed, Geoffrey thought. It’s only a matter of when.

    That when, however, Geoffrey guessed would not be immediate. They wouldn’t be able to hold out long, but unlike the rabble, they would not break instantaneously. In that time, Geoffrey could bring his knights to his brother’s aid... though it might not be a full compliment if he could not get Rogier back to him. Quickly, he sent a rider off to try to redirect his cousin toward Alias.

    Riding off from his position, Geoffrey lost one advantage he’d had - the ability to see the battlefield. Now he saw less of the enemy approaching his brother, and just the rear of his brother’s forces.

    Though that changed somewhat quickly, as the Transjuranians began to swarm, with Aquitaine forces pushed against the river.

    Part of Geoffrey wanted to order his knights forward now, to charge forward as quickly as possible to reach and save his brother. Of course that would both mute the effectiveness of the charge, and leave the knights hard-pressed to contribute the rest of the battle.

    Yet another part of the king looked around to the relatively small group of men he had alongside and the mass of men attacking his brother and wondered if perhaps this was a mistake. Alias was caught, but was attacking the Transjuranians compounding the mistake? It was cold to abandon his brother, but was it wise to risk himself if this truly was lost? Perhaps joining Rogier in the center would result in victory…

    No, Geoffrey thought. I cannot abandon my brother. He is here because of me. I cannot fail him. Mother, father… they would never forgive me… I might never forgive me…

    As he neared, Geoffrey saw his brother’s forces close up and push forward. They had engaged the enemy. Time was of the essence, and yet Geoffrey was limited in what he could do. Rush his horses too quickly and his counterattack would be muted. Move too slowly and it would be too late.

    A bit of good news did arrive, however, as Rogier men neared, which meant Geoffrey could bring the full might of his remaining cavalry against the Tranjuranians. He even slowed his own men to wait for Rogier.

    “The rider came just in time,” Rogier told him. “I was about to order the charge. But what has happened? Alias has been tricked?”

    “The Transjuranians reformed and then attacked with a group of men concealed by a patch of trees,” Geoffrey said. “It was an attack we stumbled into. And now we must rescue my brother.”

    “And we will, cousin,” Rogier assured him. “If we were not meant to, I would have attacked before you warned me to halt. I had a moment of doubt… a voice in my ear which whispered to wait for a moment. And I think it was God… holding me back, with good reason.”

    That explanation sounded likely enough, and eased Geoffrey’s nerves, if only slightly. But it was temporary - his nerves grew frayed again as he lost sight of his brother’s knights as the Transjuranians began to envelop them. And somewhere in there, was Alias…

    “Go,” Geoffrey ordered Rogier. “Get your men into position.”

    His cousin rode on up ahead, to take part in the first wave. It was a position Geoffrey often took, but could not today. It was too risky to throw himself headfirst into this, not with Alias in danger. If the king and the prince, even if Alias was no longer crown prince, both fell, Aquitaine would be thrown into turmoil.

    The Transjuranians weren’t going to be idle either. Their knights and some light cavalry quickly arranged themselves, ready to countercharge, in order to protect the men enveloping Alias’ forces.

    So when the horn sounded, the thunder of two sets of horses charging forth caused the ground to shake. Geoffrey, however, did not watch intently. He was directing his own men a bit wider, so he could strike at the Transjuranian cavalry from their exposed flank, knowing if they were routed, they could likely turn the battle back in their favor, or at least avoid disaster.

    Once in position the horn was sounded and Geoffrey took his opportunity - one that would have not been there had Rogier committed to the attack. He said a quick prayer, raised his arm, and urged his horse into a gallop, with the thunder of hoofbeats behind him.

    His eyes should have been focused on the task before him, and they would be, but once more he saw that red bird, flying right overhead, straight toward the enemy.

    …..

    The midday sun beat hot in the sky, leaving Geoffrey to bake in his armor as his horse trudged along into his camp. He slumped in his saddle, more exhausted than he had ever been after a battle.

    The stablehands had gathered in preparation, but Geoffrey paid them no mind and actually rode past them at his slow pace.

    “Father!”

    The sound of Prince Guilhem’s voice caused Geoffrey to snap free of his thoughts and the king brought his horse to a stop. The prince had been in camp, waiting for his return and seeing him made Geoffrey realize he had actually come to where he needed to be.

    Dismounting from his horse, he was not oblivious enough to miss the raised brow of Guilhem, who was clearly concerned.

    “Are you alright, father?” he asked.

    He was, because they had survived. Barely.

    The Transjuranians had been driven off. Their knights had not handled the arrival of their Aquitaine counterparts well and had fared poorly in the melee. Once they had been forced to retreat, Geoffrey had begun to attack their infantry, the Transjuranians had fled the field. Normally that would have resulted in far more deaths for the enemy, but Alias’ men were too tired to pursue any great distance.

    Geoffrey’s own men were needed to potentially fight the Navarrans. As it turned out, Knud and Berard broke through in their attack, sending the Navarrans to flight. But after a long march that left the men fatigued, along with a slog of a fight in the hot sun, only a light pursuit was ordered.



    “Do you need some water?” Guilhem asked.

    Geoffrey nodded. “Yes, fetch me some. I will… I will be in my tent. Is your uncle there?”

    Guilhem nodded and ordered some camp hands to fetch the water. But as he went to follow his father back to the tent, Geoffrey stopped him. He had to handle this matter in private.

    Entering the command tent, he found Alias alone. Sitting on the cot, head down, motionless. It sent a chill down Geoffrey’s spine.

    But when Geoffrey did reach him, Alias picked his head up and looked at him, his eyes bloodshot.

    “He’s dead because of me.”

    Again the words made Geoffrey’s stomach twist. The someone was the knight Carles, who had come into his service when he ascended, and fulfilled numerous roles in guards among his family. He had dispatched him to keep Alias safe at Pau, and again throughout the campaign.

    He had done his duty… at the cost of his own life.

    After the Transjuranians had been chased off, Geoffrey had found Alias holding Carles’ body, his neck twisted. There were no tears in the prince’s eyes… just fear and horror. He had been so pale, Geoffrey wondered if Alias had been wounded himself and was bleeding to death. But beyond a few bruises received from blows that his armor mostly absorbed, Alias was physically unscathed.

    Mentally, however, was another story.

    “He stopped a man from smashing me with a mace,” Alias said. “But his horse was wounded, it reared… and threw him from it. He landed… when I found him, he was all twisted. He was already gone.”

    Geoffrey found no words. Despite Carles having been in his service for a decade, he had not been overly close with the man.

    His greater concern was for his brother, who was clearly shaken by this. But then who wouldn’t be, given Alias had nearly been killed in that fight… a fight which he had entered expecting it to be a celebration.

    And it was in a manner eerily reminiscent of their elder brother’s death in Iberia - thrown from his horse and broken. Carles did not survive the fall, unlike Foulques, but the d’Anjou man’s escape from death had only been temporary, as he eventually did die a mangled cripple months later.

    Geoffrey was a small child when that happened and Alias was not even born yet. But both had heard the story as they grew, and it no doubt was at the forefront of Alias’ thoughts at the moment as well.

    The flap to the tent opened and servants with the water entered alongside Prince Guilhem. They placed it down by Alias, and then were dismissed. Again Guilhem seemed to expect to be allowed to remain, but Geoffrey wasn’t having it. Not with the meeting he had planned for his commanders.

    They began to arrive not long after, with Berard and Rogier arriving first, then Knud and Toumas. Geoffrey told his brother to get up and join the others around the large table to discuss their plans, as well as review what had gone wrong.

    “We captured a few Navarrans,” Rogier said. “But the bulk of their forces escaped.”

    “Do we have a better sense of our losses?” Geoffrey asked. “And theirs?”

    “It seems close to equal,” Rogier said. “Perhaps we have a bit more… especially on our left. But we did hurt the Navarrans a great deal. More than the Transjuranians.”

    “The Navarrans are who we fight,” Knud said. “Break them, and the war ends."

    “We can look to renew the attack tomorrow,” Geoffrey said. “Have scouts watch them.”

    “It will be done,” Toumas said, with the knight picking up Frederic’s scouting reigns.

    “What happened out there?” Knud asked. “I could not see much from where I was, but your cousin says we were ambushed?”

    Geoffrey nodded. “The Transjuranians feigned retreat. When we pursued, they turned and their knights pounced on us.”

    “Prince Alias… he was nearly killed?” Knud asked.

    Alias nodded slowly. “Carles… he gave his life for mine.”

    “A tragic loss,” Berard said. “Unfortunate… it was needless.”

    “Such things happen in war,” Geoffrey said. “We will honor his bravery, and bury him as a man of his rank and service deserves.”

    “I just feel as though this should not have happened,” Berard said. “Had Frederic been here…”

    “He wasn’t,” Rogier said. “That is what matters.”

    Alias corked his head toward Berard, his gaze narrowed as he appeared to have finally cast off the shock that paralyzed him earlier.

    “Are… are you accusing me of something?” he asked the Perigord man.

    “Incompetence,” Berard said. “You stumbled into an ambush. If your men had been destroyed by the enemy, all of us would have been put in a precarious position! Our king, your brother might have shared the fate of Carles!”

    The words sent a shiver down Geoffrey’s spine, as memories of his brother’s death again came to his thoughts. And it may have done the same for Alias, as his defiance faded as quickly as it came.

    Lowering his head, Alias just grumbled. “I… I did not see them.”

    “That’s the point!” Berard exclaimed.

    “Berard!” Geoffrey interrupted. “I did not see them either.”

    “You would not have pursued so far,” Berard insisted. “Had he reigned his men in, he could have met the Transjuranian attack with the full complement of his forces! Instead his light infantry were butchered, alone, and the rest were nearly overwhelmed.”

    There was truth to that - and had Geoffrey not seen the attack at the last moment, or had he not notified Rogier just in time, Alias likely would have been defeated. And the army with him.

    “We were all caught unaware,” Rogier argued. “I heard not a man voice concern that it was a trap. And yet all here wish to escape blame… except the king and prince.”

    Berard fell silent to that, his eyes dropping away from both Rogier and Alias. Geoffrey said nothing either, feeling the shame of such a narrow victory… if it could even be called that.

    “I do not know what the fuss is over,” Knud said. “They sprang a good trap. We beat them even with that. Rabble died, but our knights and sergeants mostly escaped unscathed.”

    “As my brother Edouard says of his flock,” Rogier began, “without the rabble, who would toil in the fields? Raise the animals? Do not be so dismissive of them.”

    “Agreed,” Toumas added. “They are… were... brave men, who have done as they were asked, in lands that are not their home. Respect is deserved.”

    The Dane rolled his eyes. “I speak in martial terms, not farming. We are fighting a war, not growing crops. Our knights are the backbone of our efforts… and our knights are fine.”

    That was also true. Though as Alias’ problems in this fight showed, simply having knights was not enough. Someone had to make up the numbers to hold the enemy in place, after all.

    But Geoffrey had heard enough.

    His military training had seen him take lessons from many great generals - Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal… and then there was Pyrrhus of Epirus. Cousin to the legendary Alexander, he had the reputation of one of the ancient world’s finest leaders of men, but had suffered through costly victories against Rome that prompted him to break off his war against them.

    “If I have any more victories like this, I will be lost,” Geoffrey grumbled, echoing what he had been taught the Greek king had spoken over a millennia before.

    “Forgive me brother,” Alias said. “I should have seen it.”

    “Yes you should have,” Geoffrey told him. But then he felt his conscience scream out to him, for if Alias made a mistake in his ad-hoc command, Geoffrey had erred in his overall assessment of the battle. He had eagerly ordered his brother forward, believing a grand victory was near.

    The so-called “brilliant strategist” had been duped.

    “We all missed it,” Geoffrey finally added. “We all could have taken greater precautions. Instead, we charged forward without a care, and our carelessness saw many of our men pay the price.”

    There was a silence in the tent at that assessment. Part of Geoffrey hoped someone would disagree and give him a pass for the error. And yet, the commanders all had their head down, unable to face him.

    “It could have been worse,” Rogier argued. “One might have expected it to be, given the whispers of curses in Iberia. But when the worst came for us, we persevered. And won a victory - costly as it is, a difficult win is better than a difficult defeat.”

    That drew a sigh from Geoffrey, but he nodded in agreement. In fact, he liked that rationale the more he thought about it - the same sinister forces that had taken his brother had come for him and Alias. But through quick thinking and good fortune, he had evaded their grasp.

    After all, it was a deadly trap that nearly worked. And perhaps it would have, had Rogier not still be able to join in the assault. And that only happened because Rogier felt that moment of hesitation that stopped his assault. And the bird… the bird which alerted Geoffrey to the ambush in the first place? Divine intervention, surely.

    “I think you had it right on the battlefield, Rogier,” Geoffrey said. “God was with us. He was what allowed me to see the ambush before I left the hill. And gave you that moment of doubt that stopped you from committing to the charge. He granted us mercy and protection against those that might harm us. But we must be vigilant. Such protections cannot be what we come to rely on.”

    That drew nods from the commanders and Geoffrey dismissed them all. However, Alias remained behind, with an eye on continuing the conversation in private.

    “Thank you,” he told Geoffrey. “For coming to my aid, both on the battlefield and here, now.”

    Geoffrey grunted while nodding slightly. “It was a mistake. But… it was both of ours. Do better. Such things are required of lords. Or they do not remain lords very long… just ask our de Poitou cousins.”

    Alias scratched his head. “We have living de Poitou cousins?”

    Geoffrey eyed him. “My point exactly.”

    Alias’ froze in place, his complexion turning pale. A slight nod was his only movement.

    “I need to be alone,” Geoffrey told him.

    Another slight nod followed and Alias hurried from the tent. Once he was gone, Geoffrey slumped in his chair again.

    He closed his eyes and saw the battle once more. It was easy for him to imagine a situation where he didn’t see the ambush before he left the hill. And then… how Alias would have been overwhelmed… captured and perhaps killed. Once that had happened, Geoffrey’s remaining men might well have been caught by the Transjuranians and defeated, if not worse.

    Just the thought of such things made Geoffrey’s heart race. And the only thing that could calm him is the fact it had not succeeded. He had God’s blessing to thank for that.

    In a show of appreciation, Geoffrey dropped to his knees and prayed.

    …..

    However, Geoffrey’s good fortune and blessings did not appear to last long.

    The king had believed his enemies were trapped and he could renew the attack once his forces had recovered from the day before. But instead, his enemies had managed to cross the river again, and then fall back to the east. Given his army had traveled so far, so quickly, to engage the fight, Geoffrey was forced to let them go.

    He’d hoped the battle, costly as it was, would bring the Navarrans to the table, especially as he saw their losses were comparable to his, even if slightly less. After all, they were less able to sustain them, and had many more enemies.

    But with their withdrawal, and no emissaries, Geoffrey was left to regret missing an opportunity, as well as left to wonder if Leyre had been a costly draw with nothing gained. A true Pyrrhus indeed.

    Geoffrey was now at an impasse - did he stay put? Did he march southwest, which would see him pass through Castillian lands - Castillians who might not be friendly - or did he go east, into the mountainous regions of Aragon, and risk battle in disadvantageous terrain?

    Further reports of the Fatimids and the men of the Sheik of Acre also reached him, further complicating matters. He had hoped to have finished off this war by the time that happened. Now, he would be forced to demand his vassals provide their levy… or abandon Navarra, which was not a real option.

    However, before he could send word out, an emissary arrived from Duke Gunzelin of Transjurania, requesting a meeting between himself and Geoffrey.

    A few years younger than Geoffrey, the duke had plenty of history with the king despite having never met him. He was married to Geoffrey’s paternal aunt Ermengarde, who had come to be known as the dwarf duchess after the diminutive Angevin was the consort to a pair of dukes in her life.

    Beyond that, Gunzelin’s mother was the Duchess of Dauphine, whom Geoffrey had bested in his first martial conquest. And that latter may have been enough to overrule the former when Gunzelin had decided to intervene on behalf of the boy king of Navarra.

    It was odd that Gunzelin gave no word about his allies attending, but Geoffrey agreed to the meeting, wondering if perhaps the duke had enough of this war and wished to negotiate passage back to his lands. Geoffrey was inclined to let him go, though he would want something as restitution after the trouble Gunzelin had caused him at Leyre.

    Despite the meeting being a neutral ground - an open field not too far from Geoffrey’s camp - the king decided to be cautious and leave Alias behind, to say nothing of Prince Guilhem. The king did take Berard, Knud - the Dane’s intimidating presence was useful in these moments - and his household knights as he rode out to meet the duke.

    Banners waving in the breeze as they traveled, Geoffrey made his way to the designated spot. After his scouts returned to report no traps had been spotted, the king arrived to see Gunzelin seated in the field at a table with a few men behind him.



    As he approached the duke, Geoffrey was surprised by Gunzelin’s dress - his armor was still muddied and dirty. His hair was a mess and, while Geoffrey originally thought it was the horses, it turned out Gunzelin himself smelled as if he had not bathed in weeks.

    It was true, such luxuries were not frequently available on campaign for most. But a king, or duke for that matter, could have his armor cleaned, and he certainly could afford a tub to bathe. Especially when meeting a person of great importance, which Geoffrey was certain he qualified.

    The king, after all, had taken care with his appearance, making sure his armor was made to look pristine after Leyre and taking care to be clean in face and body. His father, had he still lived, would not have expected anything less when meeting a lord, even if the duke was a lesser one.

    To say nothing of the fact they were technically united by marriage.

    “Nephew,” Gunzelin said, reminding Geoffrey of that fact.

    “Duke Gunzelin,” Geoffrey replied, trying his best not to show his frustration over being addressed truthfully, but still in his mind disrespectfully. Nor the fact Gunzelin remained seated upon Geoffrey’s arrival, just staying in his hunched position over the table.

    Was this man raised by wolves, Geoffrey wondered. Though he remembered that Gunzelin was the son of the Duchess of Dauphine, who Geoffrey thought was pleasant to look at, even in armor. Apparently such gifts had not passed to her son.

    He almost wanted to call him out on it. But if there was one area he remained a bit uncomfortable in - it was diplomacy. Insulting the duke might be foolish, given he might offer an opportunity for Geoffrey to succeed in his goals.

    Besides, Geoffrey had others to do that for him.

    “Your legs don’t work?” Knud snapped. “You are in the presence of a king.”

    Gunzelin’s eyes widened. “And who are you to speak to a duke in such a manner.”

    “Knud is the grandson of a King of the Franks and the King of the Danes,” Geoffrey answered. “As well as a fine mentor and commander, who taught me much of war.”
    Gunzelin didn’t look pleased at the disrespect, but given what had preceded it, Geoffrey couldn’t muster up any sympathy.

    “This is Berard de Perigord,” Geoffrey said, continuing on. “My advisor.”

    “Ah, but no Prince Alias?” Gunzelin asked. “Since you fight this war for him?”

    “I was not aware he was needed for this meeting,” Geoffrey said. “Are we discussing peace? I do not see the Navarrans present.”

    “Technically it is not peace talks…” Gunzelin said. “But… I think we can all but end the war today.”

    The duke offered Geoffrey a seat across from him, which Geoffrey took after dismounting. Berard and Knud took their places behind him. He was offered a drink, but Geoffrey politely refused.

    No need to risk being poisoned now, he thought.

    “So, the battle the other day,” Gunzelin began. “Quite the fight, wouldn’t you say?”

    Geoffrey eyed him. “It was certainly was a difficult encounter. But you left the field to me in the end.”

    “That is true,” Gunzelin said. “There was only so far I was willing to go for the boy. Though… I must admit, I have been eager to test myself against you for some time. Ever since you defeated my mother a decade ago, I have wondered if it was her feminine weakness or her paltry number of men that allowed for such a victory.”

    “And now you have seen it was far more than that,” Geoffrey told him.

    “It is true,” Gunzelin said. “I thought I had you with that ambush. But you managed to force my men away, despite the advantage we had gained. Your reputation is well-deserved.”

    “Then your curiosity is sated?” Geoffrey wondered.

    “Quite,” Gunzelin said. “I believe me and my men acquitted ourselves well. It was a close fight - few can boast such things after having clashed with the mighty Aquitaine.”

    Geoffrey did not enjoy Gunzelin’s arrogant tone, but he also didn’t think the duke was wrong. He had fought Geoffrey better than any lord previously and could have defeated him on a different day.

    “But defeated you were,” Geoffrey said. “And now you are here to talk. About what, I am not certain, though I expect you will not keep me in suspense any longer.”

    Gunzelin grinned. “I wish to ask for passage through the realm of Aquitaine.”

    “Why is that required?” Geoffrey asked. “Could you not head east, travel along the coast back to Provence and move north?”

    “My mother and the lords of Provence have not gotten along,” Gunzelin explained.

    “And we have?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I trust you are a reasonable man,” Gunzelin said. “It would be in both of our benefits to allow my departure, along with that of my men.”

    Realizing he was offering this without the Navarrans present, Geoffrey’s brow rose. “You abandon your allies to me.”

    “I have honored my obligations,” Gunzelin said. “All they have managed, what little it was, owes to the efforts of myself and my men. But I will not spill any more blood for a lost cause. The boy’s lands in the Duchy of Navarra are yours. Needless fighting for the next year will only prolong the inevitable.”

    “I wonder if they will agree,” Geoffrey said.

    “They will have no choice,” Gunzelin said. “For I will come to them offering a peace - they give you the duchy and the conflict ends. If they do not take it… that is their choice. But they will be at your mercy, alone.”

    It was a fine offer on the surface, but Geoffrey also had begun to harbor dreams of seizing more than Navarra, establishing a stronger foothold in Iberia.

    “But what if I think more is deserved?” Geoffrey asked. “We have made relatively short work of Navarra, so far. You do not wish to be here any longer - that much is clear. Why should I not demand Aragon?”

    Gunzelin frowned. “I would not think you greedy, King Geoffrey.”

    “This venture was to establish a strong presence in Iberia to turn back the heathens,” Geoffrey said. “Aragon would only further that end.”

    “I might believe such things if you were in any rush to defeat the heathens who make for England’s shores,” Gunzelin said. “Yet you look to fight for more land here, against a fellow Christian.”

    “Who said anything about more fighting?” Geoffrey asked. “They could give me those lands now, and the boy can keep what he has in Castille. I think it fair.”

    “I would imagine most would disagree,” Gunzelin said. “And it would be difficult for me to justify my departure - for you will be demanding far more than what Rome granted you.”

    Geoffrey eyed Gunzelin. “Do you really wish to spill the blood of your men over such things?”

    Gunzelin met his gaze. “Do you really wish to confirm Christendom’s suspicions that you would extort your fellow Christians while allowing heathens free reign?”

    “I allow the heathens nothing,” Geoffrey said.

    “We will not quit this war if you insist on this,” Gunzelin said. “Which means you will either have to quit Navarra to go deal with the Fatimids in England, or let England burn. If you choose the latter, what else would you be doing but confirming the worst suspicions of those around us?”

    Geoffrey had no real answer to that. At this point, it was probably one or the other - even if he demanded his vassals provide their levy, he was not certain how large the Fatimid army heading toward England was. Which meant deciding between England and Iberia.

    He had hoped Gunzelin would not fight him on this. If Tranjurania wanted out, then the Navarrans would be hard pressed to resist any demand he was to make.

    “So I am to let you go, unmolested,” Geoffrey said. “After you have caused me problems.”

    “Yes,” Gunzelin said. “Is that such a strange request? Again, you benefit - the duchy is yours. If we fight, it will be in time, but not without more problems for all those involved. Is that what you wish? Or is this some type of request for greater formality? Shall I have your aunt Ermengarde plead for me so you can have the appearance of granting mercy?”

    “It is more principle,” Geoffrey said. “You disregarded my offers of friendship to aid the boy. And now you wish for friendship and leniency?”

    “I don’t wish for anything except a return home,” the duke said. “This war has gone on long enough and the boy has no chance against you. I am not indebted to him, nor am I his vassal. I honored the terms of our alliance and I will fight this battle no longer.”

    “That is fine, but why am I to simply let you go?” Geoffrey demanded.

    “Because he cannot stand without our aid,” Gunzelin said.

    “He cannot stand with your aid,” Geoffrey said.

    “But he will be propped up longer,” Gunzelin said. “Months. Which will delay you in defending England. If that truly is your choice, then I cannot stop you. I will look forward to another test against you on the battlefield. It will be the only good that comes of it.”

    “You think you can beat me?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I nearly did once,” Gunzelin said. “I would be willing to try again, if that is God’s will.”

    A challenge, but put forth in an underhanded way. And Geoffrey was tempted to accept the challenge, putting this disrespectful duke in his place.

    But Geoffrey also knew what might happen if he did refuse - his wife in danger. Which meant Berard’s wife in danger, and his friend likely to taking his life into his own hands by going to defend her. Plus it would involve a longer stay in Iberia, and he probably did not need to take another chance with the curse after the near miss at Leyre.

    “You can guarantee the boy and his handlers give up the duchy?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I would not expect you to grant me passage without it,” Gunzelin said.

    Taking a deep breath, Geoffrey nodded.

    “It will be done,” the duke said.

    “One more thing,” Geoffrey said. “Should you violate our lands or our people, I will be forced to respond in force. Do you understand?”

    “Any man who violates the people or lands of Aquitaine will be hanged by my order,” the duke swore. “You have my word, nephew.”

    Geoffrey eyed him, not pleased at being called that once more. So he stood up, glared at Gunzelin and replied: “Give my regards to your mother. I should like to see her again in my tent, as I did when I conquered her at Murat.”

    The duke’s eyes narrowed. “If you do, I look forward to another test of our mettle on the battlefield.”

    “Likewise,” Geoffrey replied with a smirk on his face.

    ….

    Despite the air of discord toward the end of their meeting, Gunzelin held up his end of the bargain. A rider arrived the next day, informing Geoffrey, who was with Alias at the time, that the Navarrans were ready to capitulate. A meeting was arranged for a few days out, but it was a formality. The war was over.



    The moment the emissary left the tent, Alias fell onto a chair, wide-eyed, but silent. Geoffrey couldn’t help but grin at his brother’s reaction.

    “Overcome by the moment?” Geoffrey asked as he poured them out some wine.

    “A bit,” Alias admitted. “It has not been that long, and yet… it was been quite the journey. And it almost came to an abrupt end in that battle."

    His eyes dropped. "For many, it did.”

    The reminder of that sent a chill down Geoffrey’s spine. Their near brush with the curse of Iberia was hopefully the last twist in this road - one which had given Geoffrey arguably his finest military victory… as well as a near defeat.

    And it was a reminder the best laid plans could still turn sour thanks to things outside of his control. Perhaps he might have been able to press for more than Navarra had it not been for his wife’s decision to attack Acre. Or had he not stumbled at Leyre.

    But he had. England was under threat, and it would take months for him to shift his men north, both due to the logistics of taking near 7,000 men across the channel, and the fact they were exhausted after all of this fighting.

    Calling forth his unused vassal levy was an option, but he again wished to hold off. Even if there was no open dissent over the war for Acre - it would look poor on any Christian who complained of such things in public - Geoffrey had heard his lords preferred if England bore the brunt of the expedition.

    And naturally Geoffrey agreed. So he felt even less willing to push for their aid, and incur their wrath.

    It left Geoffrey with little choice but to take what had been offered. Which was what he set out to do, after all. And yet, after conquering a kingdom, taking just a duchy felt almost… quaint.

    Of course, the problems of conquering a kingdom were there for all to see. Vassals who resented him. A realm to drag him into new conflicts. His initial celebrations were joyous, but the hangover induced headache left him with a small pang of regret with his decision to win England.

    But the issues that lay in the near future could wait until tomorrow. He looked to his brother and raised his cup.

    “To the new Duke of Navarra,” Geoffrey told him.

    Alias smiled and raised his own cup in response. “And to his generous and caring, liege.”

    Geoffrey smiled at that and the two made their way to the edge of the tent flap, as the king wished to summon his commanders to inform them the good news.

    And as they went outside, Geoffrey looked up and saw that red bird flying overhead once more.





    NOTE: I've mention before that I thought Pau was closer than it looked and this is why I think Geoffrey would have lost that battle had the Toulouse soldiers not intercepted Transjurania. Leyre nearly went south, as those casualty numbers show. Part of it was a mistake on my part (Frederic's departure meant I needed a new commander, and I forgot to place one - hence the two blocks of men in the story, rather than the CK2 tradition of three). But that should have been balanced out by the advantage in men - on flat land no less! That it wasn't leaves me to think in the mountains, against what would have been close to equal numbers, Geoffrey would have lost Pau.

    So thanks to the Toulouse retinue, which saved his bacon!
     
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    Chapter 268 - December 1138
  • JabberJock14

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    Before Plantagenet - Chapter 268
    December 1138 - Bordeaux, Kingdom of Aquitaine



    Two lords. Two very different sets of circumstances.

    A little over a month ago, Geoffrey stood in the hall of the castle of Pamplona, prideful and joyous over the occasion. He was officially raising his brother Alias as the Duke of Navarra and the lord of the counties within.

    It felt a long time coming for Geoffrey, and he suspected Alias as well. After all, Alias had long pestered him to go to war to claim those titles. It had been a half-decade before when the idea had formed thanks to the late Cardinal Arrigo and had been a tease at time for the prince.

    Envious and conspiring uncles, tumultuous affairs, the conquering of another kingdom, disobedient wives and vassals, tricks and other machinations had threatened to stop Geoffrey from fulfilling his promise. But he had overcome them, and in doing so fulfilled another promise - one over a decade old, made to his dying father to take care of his brother.

    And with Alias receiving Navarra… he had.

    He had made his brother a duke, married him to a foreign princess. He had made his youngest sister a duchess, overcoming his own reluctance to do so. And he had made himself king of two realms.

    I don’t think you could have any complaints about how this has turned out, father, Geoffrey thought that day as he saw the filled hall, the banners hanging and his brother and sister-by-law approaching him to be officially named duke and duchess of Navarra.



    Today, however, another set of oaths were to be arranged. And Geoffrey was not sure what to expect with this new lord.

    Henri of Limousin stood before Geoffrey and Bishop Edouard, as the three met in the king’s strategy hall in the palace of Bordeaux. Geoffrey sat on his throne, eyeing the son of the late and troublesome Count Gui, wondering which way this meeting would go.

    The red-haired young man was Geoffrey’s junior by a few years, but was now set to become one of his men, as Count Gui had passed a month before, around the same time of Alias’ raising.

    Handsome, with an immaculately groomed mustache and goatee, he came dressed in a clean green tunic, with a red cloak draped over his shoulders. Such things were expected when meeting with a king, but after Duke Gunzelin a few months before, Geoffrey could not take it for granted.

    And much like that meeting, and not like Alias’ raising, Geoffrey was uncertain of the intentions of the man before him.

    Henri had reason to be prideful as an owner of illustrious blood in his veins - his mother, the former countess Catherine, was also a Princess of the Franks - the daughter of the late King Philippe I. It made Henri, like his cousin Knud, a grandson of a former king and nephew to a current one in the ailing Alphonse.



    But despite that familial bond with the Dane, Geoffrey suspected there was no love lost between the two men. After all, Knud had murdered Henri’s other grandfather - Count Toumas of Limousin. Knud’s lack of punishment by Geoffrey’s father had been a primary source of discord between the late Count Gui and the Angevins.

    Not to mention Gui repeatedly seduced Princess Aines, siring two children with her, and making an attempted pass at the queen, who had rejected him.

    And yet Henri was a cousin of the king, as queen-mother Marguerite was a member of the de Limoges house. As non-Angevin lords went, only Adhemar, also of the de Limoges house, and Small Fry of Charolais of the de Semur line were of closer relation to Geoffrey than the count of Limousin.



    So it was anyone’s guess how this meeting would play out, leaving Geoffrey to conduct it behind closed doors.

    But despite his concerns, Henri had shown no anger on his face when he entered, and greeted Geoffrey with a bow.

    “My king,” Henri said. “Thank you for receiving me. I know you have much to deal with these days.”

    “This is one of those things,” Geoffrey replied. “My father never liked to depart on things of great import while having things to be done here. And the oaths of a new lord are one of those things.”

    “I am happy to hear this has as much importance to you as it does me,” Henri said. “Though I understand why it may be required to keep this small.”

    “Your compassion is a fine change from many I have dealt with in your position,” Geoffrey said.

    “Given your mother is a cousin of mine,” Henri began, “and her friendship with my grandfather Toumas, it is the least of what I can do.”

    “Have you had the chance to see her?” Geoffrey asked.

    “I did,” Henri said. “I was happy to - my grandfather Toumas spoke so well of her. I remember him telling me as a boy to disregard the slander some talk of with her. He had seen the goodness in her heart back when they were young and even if the world had hardened her, underneath, she was a good woman.”

    Geoffrey nodded, feeling a pang of sadness twist at his stomach.

    “While we are on the subject of family, my king,” Henri continued, “I wish to offer my apologies.”

    “Apologies?” Geoffrey asked. “For what?”

    “My father,” Henri said. “He never did forget the death of his father at the Dane’s hands. But that does not excuse his actions. He was a scoundrel.”

    “I’m surprised to hear you say such things,” Geoffrey admitted.

    “It is the truth,” Henri said. “The man was terrible to my mother, and I never could trust what his plans were. I suspect they would have harmed my family in the future. And the affair with your sister… it was wrong. So very wrong. I can only hope to make amends to you and your family in time.”

    Geoffrey was genuinely surprised to hear such talk. He thought very poorly of the late count, suspecting it was because of Knud’s murder of Count Toumas, but Geoffrey had an expectation that grudge might continue. That the new count was both willing to put it aside and apologize for it, boded well.

    “Consider it a fresh start,” Geoffrey said. “Your grandfather Toumas performed many a great service for my family, and you appear to be cut from a similar cloth.”
    “Thank you my king,” Henri said. “It warms my heart to hear such things.”

    “Now then, to the business of your oaths,” Geoffrey said. “I cannot promise you a time yet for a more grand affair. However, I can offer you a brief ceremony with the members of my council and Prince-Bishop Emmanuel, if you so choose. That can take place tomorrow.”

    “I think that suits me just fine,” Henri admitted. “I have never been fond of grandiose shows. There is too much which can go wrong.”

    He paused and then grimaced. “No offense to your father of course. I have heard he was the master at such things. I would not dare to dream I could approach his skill in that regard, nor would I try.”

    Geoffrey chuckled. “I don’t blame you, for I can tell you it is no easy task. But we shall do the small ceremony tomorrow and explore if a grander event is required."

    “Thank you, my king,” Henri said as he bowed once more. “Again, you have my gratitude for your treatment of me, my apologies for my father’s treatment of you, and my prayers for your mother.”

    Geoffrey nodded and watched the new count departed. Turning to Edouard he said; “That went better than I could have expected.”

    “Agreed,” Edouard said. “Though I have heard Henri truly grew apart from his father in recent years. The old count Gui had suffered through increasing madness, and Henri feared his father might look to disinherit him in favor of his half-brother.”

    “My bastard nephew?” Geoffrey asked.

    Edouard nodded. “I learned of this from their priest. He did not know whether Henri had proof of such things, but he certainly believed it.”

    “Then another reason to say ‘good riddance to Gui,’” Geoffrey said. He paused for a moment. “Forgive me, for speaking ill of the dead.”

    Edouard made a quick cross in the air. “You are forgiven. Most kings would not have cared to even ask for such a thing.”

    Geoffrey shrugged. “We survived Leyre due to God’s blessing. I do not wish to draw his ire, as I have come close to doing in the past.”

    Edouard chuckled. “I won’t look to talk you out of reasons to be more pious and that one is certainly a good one. And if said piousness extends to England, I know Duke Osmund will be glad to hear it.”

    The Duke of Kent had come to Pamplona a month before, acting as Queen Ælfflæd’s emissary, having been restored as her chancellor in place of Duke Sigeric of Essex. He was begging for aid then, as the heathens had landed on England’s shores.

    But Geoffrey could not possibly move his army to England in an instant. It would take months for them to travel to Brittany and then cross the channel. And as it was, he intended to wait until the spring to make his move. They needed to recover after years of fighting and a difficult battle in Leyre.

    “Of course,” Geoffrey grumbled. “Have I not told them I will bring my men as soon as it is feasible?”

    “Well,” Edouard began. “Lydford is under siege.”

    Geoffrey rolled his eyes. “Of course it is. This is what my wife has wrought.”

    “Be that as it may…,” Edouard continued, “we did promise to defend them. And even if we had not, you are King of England after all.”

    “And I will provide aid,” Geoffrey said. “When my army is good and ready. Leyre took much out of us. And it is winter. We will aim to arrive by the spring.”

    “Osmund fears they cannot hold out that long,” Edouard said.



    Geoffrey let loose an exasperated sigh. “He can look to his niece then and not to me. I didn’t attack the heathens. She did. England’s suffering is on her head, not mine.”

    “Right as you are, should Lydford fall, and the queen with it, then all would be lost,” Edouard said.

    “Tell her to quit Lydford and wait for me to arrive,” Geoffrey said. “Let her hide in Kent, or Mercia.”

    “Osmund said she does not wish to flee her keep,” Edouard said. “Given what happened to her father.”

    “Then she should know full well the consequences of staying too long,” Geoffrey said. “If she wishes to be obstinate, that is her problem, not mine.”

    Geoffrey eyed his cousin, looking to see how far he’d continue this argument. The king was willing to fight as long as he needed to - he might have acquiesced to providing aid for England, but he was through letting his wife dictate how and when his men were deployed. If she wished to risk herself because she did not like his timeline, then he had no problems letting her pay the price.

    Of course it was easier with Berard not in his ear. And his friend had not been for a few weeks now, having been forced to return to Perigord alongside his sister Ana to sort out a family matter.

    “Have you heard word from Berard and Ana?” Geoffrey asked.

    “Yes, a rider arrived earlier and said they are returning from Perigord,” Edouard explained. “Their brother Jaufret is with them.”

    Geoffrey’s brow rose. “He is coming here?”

    “I gave them leave, given the delicacy of the situation,” Edouard said. “If it displeases you, I can find something for him to do in Angouleme. Or