Christendom afire. A thousand Tìbalds and a thousand more took the Cross – in Rouen, in Lorraine, Toulouse and Aix. Entire kingdoms prepared to advance. And Little Peter gathered his forces: merchants and villeins, petty seigneurs – the virtuous, the ignorant, and base – repentant, armored in faith.
They feel . . .
To feel is to know . . .
Jesu, their marshal, shall sweep the enemies away. Beside each pilgrim an invisible martyr so when he dies, the saint ushers him to Heaven. Little Peter says so. Who could doubt? Doubters stay home. To not believe, is not to go. Real Christians go. No wonder Christ chose Little Peter – His voice to the people, the people’s voice to the powers on earth. Injustice. Save the victims. Free the Tomb. They rise. They matter. In such a cause, no one dies meanly. What strength the martyr to topple kingdoms and true, the world confirms it with signs and wonders. There – in the eastern night sky, comets like fiery swords. By day, warriors battle in the clouds and distant cities float amid the nimbus. On earth, infants born with four arms, three eyes, two heads. Some born two years old with the power of speech. Charlemagne up from his grave leading a force across Aquitaine. A goose in the Rhineland filled with the Holy Spirit leading the Völker on their way. Go. Go. They must go. Should not the wounded save the wounded?
Do you not relate?
Deus lo volt! God wills it!
From the keep, Aile saw the Bayeux Road cutting over the hill away from the woodland like a stream, a road to meet other roads well past Bayeux and reach into different lands. She’ll take that road. She ached for it. Sainte Cecilia a wallowing place, the spring wheat had yet to be sown. Indolent villeins. And allowed so by Tìbald as he made plans. That he not tarry.
“We will not come back,” she informed Heaven.
From the village a sound of weeping, ghost-like, did she hear? A mother weeping for her infant . . . rather, its memory. Tight Aile’s fist, ready to beat. The churchyard’s filled with infants, baptized within days of birth. What sin did this mother commit? What was her failure?
She stared at the crest of the hill. Where’s Tìbald?
He sees no farther than his nose. And who is he after all, this husband of sixteen years? She did not know. And knew too well.
“Amour?” she had scolded him. “You’re my husband, not my lover. Fool’s love. Security – that is love.”
“I saw thee with my heart’s eye,” he would say, though not for some time.
They’d met by chance – she was drawing water from a fountain in the merchant’s district, him passing through from Haute Court. How fine he looked atop his coarser in cape and mantel, a Christian miles. He noticed her face. Indeed, struck. So much so, he turned in the saddle and asked for some water. Their fingers touched when she gave him the cup. And touched again returning it. What is it in a face that calls to us? In due course, they sinned. Lustful, glorious sin. Away from the town and under a tree. Not just coupling but seeing each other naked. For in the gaze – everything . . .
It was then Tìbald crested the hill with Rainald and the puers pulling a cart and a warhorse of burnt umber.
“Ysobel!” Aile called. “They’re coming!” And rushed down like a maid.
“Do you have it?” her voice trilled as she met them at the gate.
“I have,” he said, pleased. How good to see her smile. Them again.
She started for the cart but stopped – the warhorse, jittery and snorting, Ugo leading it, tight on the reins. A nasty brute – board-headed and dung colored and filled with the devil.
“That’s an ugly one. He’s not for me?”
Tìbald beamed. “That one will eat you.”
“Has it a brain in that thick head?”
“That and more. If his looks matched his strength, he’d cost much more.”
Ah, the talk of money. How quickly it can turn. “A bargain . . . Your helm is in the cart.”
On tiptoes, she peeked into the wagon. Amid spears and billhooks, the bucklers and leather coifs – a spangenhelm, pitted and nicked from many battles, yet of quality. She plucked it and donned it like a crown. It sank over her eyes. “How’s this?” she said, giddy.
“Fetching,” he said.
“And the sword?”
The puers aghast. What flummery. Their seigneur’s still mad. They’re both mad. Jesú protect us . . . Rainald just there, waiting.
She was decked in iron an hour later in the tower’s hall, the spangenhelm now fitting over the coif she wore. The hauberk (chain mail shirt), fitting over the heavy gambeson, draped to her mid-calf – too long. An old Northman sword weighted off her hip and on opposite side, a round buckler. “How do I look?” she asked, hefting an ash wood spear.
Tìbald smiled. “Fearsome.”
“It’s not so heavy.” She swayed with ease.
“You’ve not been in it long.”
“I’ll grow accustomed soon enough. I’ll wear everyday and become as good a fighter as any in our band. You will teach me.” And leveled the spear. “Defend yourself.” She lunged. Playfully? Tìbald jumped back. She lunged again with a wicked grin. He drew his sword. She came once more with skill, his eyes wide at the point and parried with the flat of his blade.
“Ha!” she cried as he backed away. “Good as any man!” And forced him to the wall. “If I wanted to stick you, I would’ve of by now.”
He grabbed the spear, and signaling his blow, came down with his sword on her upraised shield with a crash and Aile knocked back, her feet peddling. Off flew the spangenhelm and bounced behind her, ringing. The chain mail clattered as she fell. Tìbald with an impish smile bent to help her up. She slapped his hand away.
She would not look at him.
“I didn’t even strike you hard.”
She pulled back the coif to be rid of it.
“What do you think it will be like?”
She picked up the helm and examined it like a delicate cup that just missed destruction.
“You think I meant to hurt you? You think that was a hard blow?”
“No,” she said and composed herself. “It was a humiliating one. An ignoble one.”
“You’ll have worse if you start training. The puers will not hold back.”
“I was playing, not training.”
“As was I.”
“You nearly speared my ribs,” he cajoled.
“You fended it off.”
She slipped her arm out of the shield’s grips to rub it. “I’ll have a tremendous bruise.”
“You’ll have many bruises.” He embraced her.
She brushed him away. “I must know how to protect myself. What will become of me if you should die? I’ll not be helpless because you’re dead. Besides, his Holiness called for pilgrims, not useless women to slow things down.”
“And if I should die now?”
She turned away. “You will not . . . Not now. What can harm you here?”
“‘Harm me here’? Do you so hate me?” sounding wounded.
“Not hate.” She wounded too.
“You wish me to go away?”
“You pretend to love me because you must.”
“I pretend nothing.”
“Shut up.” That he could be so dum. “I want to go riding,” and pulled up the coif.
“Now.” And picked up the spear. “I must become use to it.”
They rode away from things unsaid. He held the pace though not so much as to condescend. The ugly warhorse strained at the bit, looking for an enemy to run down. Aile, all elbows and knees at first on a chestnut coarser, struggled to keep abreast. The coarser between her legs, quite the sensation. A delight . . . for short durations at a leisurely pace. For longer distances, she’d ride a cart. But as they crossed the field, she recovered, sensing his eyes on her and rode ramrod straight, spear a perfect perpendicular, buckler tight to her side with little bounce. Her courser sensed it, falling into a canter with a rhythmic jingling of hauberk and tack – a perfect miles as if on honor guard. On display . . . When is she not on display? The lady of the house. The local beauty. Now the comely seigneurie. So much for Tìbald to be jealous. That she be his anymore – in this suit. She belong to herself only – in this suit.
They stopped at la Forêt. Tìbald’s warhorse pawed at the wood’s lip. To get at it or keep it at bay? A box, a cage, to hem them in, thought Tìbald. Wild country to Aile in want of discovery. So, she would have him think, tall in the saddle and ready to charge in. What does he think he knows? They lived off a memory and suffered under memory. He looked at her in iron – something new, pulling and pushing him away. Aile not caring.
They brooded in silence, la Forêt to each a different thing.
Wasn’t this to be about God and His kingdom?
“Enough,” Tìbald said, red and harried, and turned the warhorse to ride back. Aile followed all stiff back – better than him, better than any man . . .
Once in the baily, she dismounted easy-as-you-please as if the iron was a second skin and the weapons extensions of her limbs. Not a look to Tìbald, much less a word, but a traipse up the steps to their chamber with a door-closing whoosh.
Ysobel!” she called, staggering to the bed. “I cannot lift my head . . . Ysobel!” She threw the helm off to have it bounce on the ticking. “Get this off,” Aile commanded, pulling at the hauberk and bent over like a wriggling fish.
He came in as she dressed. Purple bruises blotched her shoulders and her breasts flattened to her ribs. He pushed her to the bed.
“No,” she said, cut and perfunctory.
He pawed her.
“No,” she repeated.
He laid on top of her working down his hand.
A box to his ear. “I said no!”
He reared up. “It’s my right,” he said lifting off her. “My right,” he said at the door.
The seigneur’s mad.
He came upon Ugo sitting before the hearth. On his lap. Aile’s chainmail shirt that he worked with potash. He cuffed the boy’s ear.