ISABELLA: BRAVEHEART OF FRANCE: excerpt

Edward keeps another menagerie at Langley, some other curious and disgusting animals from the Holy Land now shut up in pens and cages so that he and his friends can stare at them whenever they wish.

There is a lion with a great mane of hair, as well as the most curious horse she has ever seen; it would be impossible to ride, she supposes, for it has a huge hump on its back. She thinks it is deformed, but Gaveston tells her that all its fellows are like this, and this is in fact a prime specimen.

How much does it cost to feed all these curiosities? No wonder the Treasury is empty.

The king is with the common sort again, watching some fellows muck out the yards. He wears just a tunic and breeches, no sign of a king here, but a fine figure of a man nonetheless. A boy says something to him and he laughs and grabs him in a headlock. They roll in the grass, laughing.

Really, is this seemly?

When he looks up and sees her there, he stops laughing and climbs reluctantly to his feet. He looks like a chastened little boy. And here I am, just thirteen. He makes me feel old.

“Don’t look like at me that,” he says to her.

“Like what? I don’t know what you mean.”

“It’s like having my mother trail me about. Every time you appear, the sun goes away.”

“Because I remember I am royal?”

“I find kingship a burden. It does no harm to laugh sometimes.”

“It does much harm to do nothing else.”

“You have that look about you. Can this wait?”

“Not really. You clearly have nothing better to do, your grace.”

He looks sulky, leans on the fence. She watches the muscles ripple under his cambric shirt.

“My father raised two hundred thousand livres for this marriage. I have received no gifts from you, no estates. I do not even have the funds to run my own household.”

“Listen to you. You’re just a girl.”

“I am my father’s daughter. He raised me to be a queen.”

“You are not old enough to be a queen.”

“Yet I have been crowned in one of your churches. Have I not?”

He shakes his head. “It is already decided. You shall have Montreuil and Ponthieu. You don’t have to be strident about it.”

“And what of your friend, Gaveston?”

His manner transforms. He stands straight and glares at her. “He is my friend, and none of your concern.”

“You cannot ignore this, Edward. It is clear your barons will not back down. You must listen to them and come to some concord with them, or they will make an arrangement of their own.”

He stares at her, then shakes his head and laughs. “Listen to you. How old are you? And you see fit to lecture me about politics?”

“I know how these things work.”

“How can you know?”

“From watching my father. Do not let them challenge you, husband. Head them off now until you have a stronger hand.”

He frowns and leans on the rail again, peering at her as if he is seeing her for the first time. “Because you want Perro gone?”

“My duty is to you and your throne. I will not have you undermined.”

The lion roars in its cage, and the echoes of its rage hang on the morning mist. The camel breaks into an alarmed trot, pursued by the farm boys, who are trying to feed it.

“You must sit down with them and hear their complaints.”

“It is their duty to sit down and listen to mine.”

“Yes, it is. But right now, you cannot force them to it.”

He slaps the fence post with the flat of his hand. He shakes his head, confounded by her. Then he walks away. One of the boys makes a joke, and he ignores him.

Isabella tiptoes back through the mud. Another gown ruined.

 

***

 

She can see them from the window, arm in arm, heads together, laughing at some private joke. It is no secret that they share a bed. It is not that she wishes to have him in her own bed, not yet . . . the thought terrifies her.

She just doesn’t want him in anyone else’s.

What do they do together? She does not even know the secrets of a man and a woman, so she does not want to contemplate what joys he might find with another man.

The trouble is, she is lonely despite the large household that is assigned to her. Isabella de Vescy has taken her under her wing; and Edward’s favorite niece, Eleanor le Despenser, is touchingly obsequious, when she is not busy being pregnant. There are others who come and go, attending her as family obligations allow, chiefly Lady Surrey (she must remember not to say anything about her husband for she will burst into tears; it seems he is a great lover of women as long as they are not his wife), and Lady Pembroke (do not talk about children in front of her; she is unable to have any).

She still has her old nurse, Théophania, which is a comfort, and a gaggle of others—she cannot remember all their names—of lesser birth.

She is sitting with her ladies, embroidering garments for the poor, a task that makes her want to fling herself into the moat even on her best days. Seeing Edward so intense with Lord Gaveston makes it impossible to concentrate. The other women have stopped their chatter and are staring at her.

She flings aside her handiwork and leaves them sitting there, walks to the end of the passage, finds something of interest in two pigeons nestled on a branch.

She hears the rustle of skirts and draws herself up straighter. She does not want them pitying her.

“Do not let it disturb you, your grace.”

It is Lady Mortimer. Isabella does not turn around, afraid that her face may betray her. “They are very familiar.”

“They have been friends since boyhood.”

“It is more than that, isn’t it?”

“Whatever could you mean?”

“You all treat me as a child, and in years I suppose that I am. But you forget whose daughter I am.”

“You are very young to be thrust into such a position.”

“The barons think he is too familiar with Gaveston, Lady Mortimer.”

“This is not your concern, your grace.”

“Anything that concerns my husband concerns me.” She turns around and fixes her with a stare. I shall be patronized no longer. “The barons want this man gone, and Edward has appealed to the pope to intervene on his behalf. Is this not so?”

Lady Mortimer lowers her eyes.

“Do you miss your husband?”

The question catches Lady Mortimer off guard. “Miss him?”

“Lord Mortimer, yes. He has been sent to Ireland, I believe. Do you miss him?”

“Yes, your grace.”

“And when he is home, does he consort with other men, as Edward does?”

“He has many friends.”

“Friends like my Lord Gaveston?”

There is a twitch in her cheek. Is she hiding a smirk?

“It will be different for you, for all of us, when he is gone.”

“Perhaps,” she says and returns her gaze to the window. The pigeons have flown away to nest elsewhere. They do not like being stared at, it seems.

Edward and Gaveston come into view, walking arm in arm. Edward kisses his friend since boyhood on the cheek. I should like someone to look at me as tenderly as that, Isabella thinks. She is no longer disgusted, just jealous.

One day I will make him love me like that.

See if I don’t.

 

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Every night, two of her demoiselles sleep at the foot of her bed in trundle beds that are stored beneath her own. They are in their nightgowns and are combing out her hair when they hear Edward’s voice in the antechamber.

Isabella panics. He has not been in her bedchamber since that first night in Boulogne. She sends them scurrying from the room and jumps into the vast four-poster bed. She brings the covers up to her chin and lies rigidly, staring at the ceiling, as if recently buried. Her heart is beating too fast.

I am not ready for this. Her hands clench into fists. She takes a deep breath and waits.

Will it hurt very much?

The metal rings that hold the leather curtain over the door rasp as he pulls it aside.

Her beautiful husband stands in the doorway, flushed and harried. He barely looks at her. He strides across the room and kicks the logs in the grate, puts both hands on the hearth, and stares into the flames.

“I need your help.”

“Edward?”

“I have asked nothing of you until now. I can’t stop thinking of you as an eight-year-old. That’s how old you were when we were betrothed. Do you remember?”

She nods her head.

“You’re still just a child in many ways, but you seem to see things clearly enough. Well, all right then, let’s see.”

“You want my help?”

“I know you don’t think much of Perro, but this is important to me, no matter what you think.”

She had always thought that being a queen would be easier than this; she does not mind being asked for her counsel, she welcomes it, but she never expected that he would barge into her chamber as she was readying herself for bed, and then bark out the first thing that came into his head.

She stares at the ceiling. He looks at the hearth.

“They want to send Perro away. Exile him! They all stand against me on this. It will be war if I don’t.”

She wants to say: Well then, do it. It’s not worth going to war over, is it? Write down a list of the names of everyone who has stood against you and memorize it while you are building your own power. Then one day, when you are all sharing a cup of wine and smiling at each other, have them all thrown into a dungeon and keep them there until they grovel or their bones rot.

That’s what my father would do.

“I am their king! How dare they! I choose who will be at my hand!”

“You are king while you behave as their king,” she murmurs.

“What was that?”

“You must come to an accord.”

“The accord is this: I am their king, by God and by law. I want you to help me.”

“How?”

“Talk to your father. I know you have your spies here. Don’t look so surprised. They carry letters between you once a week, do they not? Well, now I wish you to write a letter for me. Tell him I need him to stand with me on this. If the barons know I have his support, they will run back to their bogs in the marches and remember their place.”

“They are nobles, your grace. No one can teach any of them their place.”

“How would you know? You’re twelve!” He turns from the hearth and glares at her.

“I have thirteen years now, and I know this from observing my father’s court and yours.”

“Will you help me or no?”

“I will ask him, your grace. But my father will not commit his wealth or his army to an English war.”

“Tell him that these ingrates threaten my throne. It is your throne too, so he must come to know the importance of this.”

“I will serve you as best I can.”

He looks satisfied with this. “Your grace,” he says and leaves the bedchamber.

She throws back the linen sheet and lets out a breath. Well. She wonders what her father will do when he hears of this.

He does exactly as she thinks he will do; he says it is none of his affair, that the king of France cannot be seen to meddle in the affairs of England.

 

***

 

At Langley they are set for a beautiful summer; the woods are full of honeysuckle, the breezes bring with them the scent of fresh cut grasses. There are daisies with fragile white petals ready to be plucked: he loves me, he loves me not.

The hawthorn is in blossom in the hedgerows when the king finally comes to his senses. Old Hugh agrees with the king that the barons should one day face censure by God, if not the law, but it is Lord Lincoln who keeps Edward from a civil war that he cannot win.

The king decides to come to an accord.

He makes Gaveston, Lieutenant of Ireland. It is like exile, but with honor. He travels with him to Bristol. It takes three days to load the ships; Gaveston has a vast household with chamberlains, confessors, clerks, falconers, archers—he even takes old Mathilda the washerwoman.

Just who is queen of this country?

 

***

 

The summer had promised so much; but for three days, ever since her king has returned from Bristol, it has rained. The middle of the afternoon and it is as gloomy as midwinter. She hears a bell ringing for nones. Edward, the whole great length of him, is sprawled on a throne under a mural of knights in gold and vermillion riding to a tournament.

He has sent his servants away, all the lickspittles and cupbearers, the dwarves and lute players, all the whisperers and flatterers, all banished so that he might sit here and stare at the shields lining the vast hall, watch the shadows creep across the chamber and mope.

Her footsteps echo on the flagstones, and the shutting of the oak door behind her sounds as if they have dropped the drawbridge without its chains.

He does not move. She believes he is crying, but in the shadows it is hard to tell.

The only time she has seen grief like this was when her mother died. On that occasion her father did not eat for almost a week. But that was his queen; this is Gaveston.

“Well, you have what you wanted,” he says finally.

“I did not want this, your grace. Your Lords Warwick and Hereford wanted it.”

“The archbishop, Winchelsea, says he will excommunicate him if he comes back. Why do they hate me so?”

“It is not you they hate, or even Gaveston. They just wish you to be their king.”

“But I am their king! How can I be otherwise?”

“A king has obligations.”

“No! I have no obligations! It is they who have obligations—to me!” For hours he has not moved, but now, suddenly, he is animated. Rage sends him bounding from his seat. “They have obligations to me!” Every word staccato.

She lowers her eyes. He frightens her when he is like this.

He stands over her, breathing hard. “You’re like this evil little doll. Everywhere I go, there you are. Look at you. A breath of wind will knock you over, but you come in here when no one else even dares peek through the door.”

“I wish only to help you.”

“You’re just a girl. How can you help me?”

“You were ready to ask my help from France.”

“And what good did that do me?”

“My counsel may be of more use to you than all my father’s bluster and threats.”

“So you tell me.”

She ventures to put her arms around him, pats him on the back, and murmurs, “It’s for the best. You and I, we might start anew from now.”

But it is as if he has not heard her. He stares into an impossible future, one with just him and Gaveston in it. “I am sick of all these demands, listening to all this endless moaning and whining. Everyone wants something from me. I sometimes think Perro and I might find a snug house in the hills and plant vegetables in the sun and drink wine and live out a peaceful life.”

Did he really say that? “Edward, that can never be.”

He sinks to his knees. He makes a sound like a dog choking on a bone and covers his face. “I cannot live without him.” And then he wails and curls on the floor. She watches him, wishing she were not here. She cannot run from the room, but having to watch this horrifies her. She wants to pull him to his feet, but even touching him is something she cannot bear to do at this moment.

Finally he stops, exhausted. He looks up at her, his face wet, and seems surprised to find her still there. “Just leave me.”

“You must turn the tables on Warwick and the others. You must be more discreet and more cunning in your ways. And you must subdue the Scots.”

“What has this to do with what I have lost?”

“Everything,” she says and sweeps from the room. It seems so clear to her.

At least she knows now how she will make him love her.

ISABELLA, Braveheart of France  is one of my MEDIEVAL FICTION novels and is published by Lake Union on Amazon