SILVER MIRRORby Roberta Gellis
Alphonse d'Aix won many tourney prizes and gave one of them, a silver mirror, to a lonely little girl being fostered in the French Court. Since her affairs were also left by her father in Alphonse's hands, Barbara was quite sure he was the man chosen to be her husband. Alphonse was too kind to laugh at an awkward, unhappy thirteen-year old, but he kindly made clear that she was not his chosen.
By the time Barbara returned to France, fleeing the unwanted attentions of Guy de Montfort, Alphonse had long regretted his refusal. His immediate proposal of marriage was as swiftly accepted, so swiftly, Alphonse feared Barbara was jesting. But she was serious. Barbara had hidden her pain but never recovered from her first love. Still, when she thought about the many women in Aphonse's past life, she decided a semblance of coldness would be necessary to hold his attention. Only Guy de Montfort had not forgotten Barbara refused him. Out of spite Guy determined to have her, even if it meant killing Alphonse. But Guy's attacks drove Barbara and Alphonse into the hands of the rebellious Welsh and amid the tension and terror of freeing Prince Edward from de Montfort's prison their true love was exposed.
Barbara went slowly outside and stood at the foot of the stair for a moment while duty to Princess Eleanor pulled one way and desire to be free pulled another. She glanced over her shoulder at the open doors of the church and then blushed. In a time of so many great troubles, would it not be a sin to pray for a solution to her very small problem? Surely God and His saints should not be badgered about one girl’s stupid inability to master her own heart. So she started toward the smaller house that had been assigned to Eleanor of Castile, but her need to be away from everyone made the idea of idle conversation horrible, and she set out instead for the kitchen shed to get some apples.
The poor things were very brown and wrinkled, but Frivole would not mind. Feeling better already, Barbara made her way to the stable. She peeped in, but only the huge bulk of battle destriers showed in the dim light, and she did not enter. Around to the back there was an area between the building and the outer wall closed off by a gate where the lesser beasts, the palfreys and roncins and light mares, were kept. Barbara’s fluting whistle drew the attention of all the horses, and several began to move toward the gate. Two were roughly shouldered aside, another nipped sharply as Frivole took precedence.
“Tchk,” Barbara said, as she held out one apple on her open palm. “You are supposed to be gay and flighty, not a shrew.”
Frivole snorted so emphatically that the apple was nearly blown away, and Barbara laughed. She knew quite well that the snort was not a response to her words, but it seemed so like an arrogant reply that her spirit lightened. She went on talking to the mare, who nodded her head, often at comically appropriate moments. Within a few minutes a groom came out of the stable and asked how he could serve her. He looked at her strangely when she bade him go away and said she had just come to visit her mare. Men often came to examine their destriers, which were very valuable animals, but few women rode other than pillion, and even those who could ride usually did not know one animal from another. But it was clear from the way the mare pushed her head into the lady’s breast that she was accustomed to fondling by this woman, so he shrugged and went away.
Barbara gave Frivole a second apple, rubbing her nose and stroking her neck. Eventually she laid her cheek against Frivole’s head, circled the mare’s neck with her arm, and sighed. If she had married and had a household of her own, she could have had a more convenient pet, a dog or cat. But at court such an animal caused endless trouble, and to leave it behind to the uncertain care of people like her father’s kennelman—a good man but totally contemptuous of a dog that had no purpose but to love a mistress—was impossible. The poor creature, loved and petted while with her, lonely and even mistreated by being forgotten when she was away, would go mad.
The stable cast a shade across the yard behind it. It was cool, Frivole was plainly enjoying being petted, and Barbara lingered, leaning against the fence and thinking about a more settled life. But though she complained often about the inconveniences of court service and might have preferred a more gentle and considerate mistress, like Princess Eleanor, Barbara had to admit to herself that she enjoyed the excitement of life at court. She did not think she would care to exchange her life for Joanna’s, living retired and busying herself with babes, a dairy, a stillroom, weaving, and embroidering—in short, a woman’s life. As a retreat from too much intrigue, Kirby Moorside was a desired haven. As a full-time residence, she would soon regard it as hell.
“I knew I would find you here.”
Barbara was so startled that she tried to right herself and turn around at the same time. The combination of her sudden movement and Alphonse’s voice, which was tight with tension, made Frivole throw up her head. Barbara’s hand slipped from the mare’s nose so that she banged her elbow on the top rail of the gate, while the twist of her head to look at Alphonse brought her headdress right under Frivole’s mouth. Never loath to try what was offered, Frivole seized Barbara’s fillet and pulled. Both fillet and the net that held her hair promptly came off as Frivole backed away, and Barbara’s chestnut mane tumbled down her back and around her face.
“Peste!” Barbara cried, leaping up and grabbing for Frivole’s prize.
Unfortunately, with her hair in her eyes, her hand went wide of its target and slapped Frivole’s neck, thus further startling the mare, who turned and trotted away. And because she was reaching out over the gate, Barbara came down on the rail on her belly with enough force to knock the breath out of her and leave her teetering dangerously, her feet on one side, her head on the other.
Alphonse seized her by the hips and hauled her back, holding her against him as she gasped for air.
“Is it I or the horse who is a pestilence?” he asked.
“Frivole! My crespine!” Barbara cried despairingly, ignoring the facetious question as the mare tossed her head, sending the net, its beads glittering, flying through the air into the trodden dust of the yard.
Laughing, Alphonse set her aside and leapt over the gate. The horses all trotted away and he picked up the net and shook it. “Since you do not think me a pestilence, I have saved your crespine. Do you want the fillet too?” he called back.
“You are surely a plague, if not a pestilence,” Barbara retorted. “No, I do not want the fillet. That idiot mare is chewing it.”
She brushed back her hair and reached for the net as Alphonse came over the gate, but he held it away and said, “No, if I give it to you, you will run away again. I have some questions I want answered.”
“I! Why should I run away?” Barbara asked with as much indignation as she could muster. She held out her hand imperiously. “Give me my crespine. Do not act like a naughty child. It does not befit a man of your age.”
He shook his head, but he was no longer laughing. “Is it true that you have come to gather information on the invasion that Queen Eleanor hopes will free her husband?” he asked. “She said she will not allow you to return to England because she fears you have already learned too much and will pass the information to Leicester.”
“I assure you I have not made the smallest effort to learn what I should not,” Barbara said angrily. “Give me the net.”
“I was not accusing you of spying deliberately,” he said. “But—”
“No one hereabouts would need to spy deliberately,” Barbara snapped. “Every mouth, including Queen Eleanor’s, pours forth a steady stream of information. But I assure you, the Earl of Leicester has friends better placed than I to send him important news.”
Alphonse sighed. “I am making you angry, and I do not mean to. You must understand that I cannot help being partial to my aunt’s cause any more than you can help being attached to your father’s. I was only trying to discover if helping you would truly hurt Eleanor and Henry. But I cannot bear for you to be unhappy, Barbe. If you are very eager to go back to England, I will try to arrange it through Marguerite and Louis.”
“I would love to know why you are so eager to be rid of me. Is this some ploy of Queen Eleanor’s to get me out of Boulogne before I learn something she does not want me to know? Or do you have some private reason? Unfortunately for you, it does not matter. I must stay in France for a while whether you and the queen like it or not. Give me my net and I will go away and promise to avoid you—”
“Like a plague?”
Alphonse laughed and held her crespine behind his back. Barbara could see that the tension had gone out of him, but she could not guess why. Because she was staying in Boulogne? She tried to crush that hope, and told herself it was more likely because she had promised to avoid him.
“Sieur Alphonse—” she began with rigid formality.
“Tell me why you came,” he murmured, coming closer, “and why you must stay.”
Barbara stared up at him, transfixed between rage and tears. His playful manner and the relaxation she had seen in him when she said she planned to remain in France had made her feel he had a special interest in her, despite her efforts to remember that he had never wanted her. And now there was something in his posture, in the low, deep voice, which touched her like a caress, that woke sexual desire in her and implied it in him. But the words! The words were pure politics! Queen Eleanor must be completely mad with suspicion and had set him to seduce the truth—which she had already told—out of her.
“You know my reason for coming,” she said. She had intended to sound cold and angry, but her voice trembled. She was furious at him for playing such a role at his aunt’s request, and at herself for responding so violently that she could hardly keep from flinging her arms around him. Her anger made her say, “The reason I cannot go back is that Guy de Montfort, Leicester’s third son, has decided he would like me to be his whore, and I wish to give him some months to find a more delectable and willing morsel.”
Alphonse stared at her. His mouth opened, closed, opened again to emit a harsh croak. Then dark color came up under his skin and he looked away. “Is there no one to protect you?” he asked stiffly.
“Give me my net,” Barbara repeated, barely preventing herself from sobbing with fury.
“Is your husband afraid to offend Leicester’s son?” he asked, as if he had not heard her. “Or—”
“Husband!” Barbara exclaimed. “Have you forgotten me completely? My husband has been dead for over eight years. Do you expect him to rise from his grave to fight Guy de Montfort when he could not be bothered to come to court to meet me?”
“Dead for eight years?” Alphonse echoed. “You mean you never married again?”
“What is that to you?”
“Barbe,” he cried, “you need fear nothing and no one. I will protect you. I—”
“Thank you very much,” she interrupted with icy formality, “but having been born a bastard and seen the bitterness that grew between my father and mother, I have a strong aversion to placing myself under any man’s protection outside the bonds of marriage.”
Alphonse gaped and words he did not seem able to form gurgled in his throat. A bitter satisfaction filled Barbara. That lecher was too accustomed to having foolish women leap at his invitations in the hope of seducing him into marriage. Marriage had been her mother’s hope too—and her mother had almost succeeded—but with regard to women her father was a simple soul compared with Alphonse.
“No!” She cut him off again. “Why the devil should I prefer being your whore to being Guy’s?”
“No. No. Not that. I love you—”
“I have been assured that when they first came together my father loved my mother also, and she him. Besides, if I had not concealed Guy’s pursuit from my father for political reasons, he would have protected me. And if you think the word ‘love’ makes whoring more or less—”
“Will you be quiet!” Alphonse bellowed. “My offer of protection had nothing to do with inviting you to my bed. I am your knight, you are my lady. You have had the right to my protection ever since I carried your favor in that tourney many years ago. But if you feel that my challenge to Leicester’s son will in some way be damaging to you, then I offer myself as husband, not lover,” he stopped shouting abruptly and held out the hair net to her, going on very softly, ”if you will have me. I have loved you for a very long time, Barbe. Will you have me?”
“Of course,” she said, snatching the crespine from his hand and dancing out of reach. She called back over her shoulder, “Have I not been passionately enamored of you since I was thirteen years old? Surely eleven years of constancy should be rewarded. If you can get King Louis’s approval, I will be delighted to be your wife.”