Lady of Spades
The mists from the river curl silently, coiling cold tentacles of air up into the sky. Through the silence, I can feel them, almost breathe in the expectations of these young men from around the kingdom that have been summoned, so that I might choose a husband. My father, the King, is recently deceased, so my choice of bridegroom will be the new king. I, however, have other plans.
I choose to call myself Lady of Spades, for my real name is unimportant. In any case I will not be using it for much longer. From the highest point of the Castel des Cosses, I look down on a forest of banners gathered thickly below, proclaiming the noble houses of this kingdom. Clinks, clangs, and clashes cut into a rumble of male voices. My armor, shield, and sword are things I keep invisible to others, but they are real to me. I lengthen my neck. What lies ahead can mean either freedom, or en-cagement, and early death.
I descend the stairs, and am helped onto my horse. The portcullis grates open, inching up, and the first party of horsemen ride out bearing my emblem of the Spade. Once they are arrayed in front of the castle, one of their number sounds a winding note on a horn: dooh – DOOOOOH!
It is time.
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As I ride out under the portcullis, I raise my head so that all might see me, my red-blond hair done in braids, held together by green velvet bands that match the color of my gown. I am accompanied by my steward, wearing his chain of office, and my ladies. I pull gently on my horse’s mouth, commanding her to stop, and a groom helps me off. The audience has begun.
Each gentleman takes the knee, kisses my hand, and presents a gift. I accept their gifts, smile my thanks, and hand them to my servants, who tuck them away in baskets, bags and boxes, knowing I am needful of all the wealth I can garner. I dart a swift glance backwards to be sure each gift nestles securely in its container before I pronounce my verdict.
I continue in this fashion until I reach the end of the line. Ah yes, there is one more, Sir Walter de Tosny, the most powerful magnate in the kingdom, my late father’s protegé. He is smiling, because he thinks he has me in his grasp. I accept his necklace of precious emeralds. My maid Adeliza puts it safely away, and then my servants leave, hurrying down a slope that leads to the river. I turn to de Tosny. He is nuzzling my fingers, almost nibbling them off in a show of ill-concealed joy. I wrinkle my nose and withdraw my hand.
“No!” I say.
He looks at me, his pupils dilating.
“But you’ve refused all suitors, my lady,” says my steward.
I purse my lips, and gesture. “They do not please me.”
“You must marry.”
“Must I?” I beckon and my groom brings me my horse. “I think not.” I dig my heels into her flanks, turn, and trot away.
The wind carries their reaction to me. “Perhaps if we were to write verses to her beauty,” says one, “then she could choose the fellow she liked the best.”
“How would that help?” says a fellow with a deep voice.
“The husband would go with the verse.”
“Best not to mention that part,” says de Tosny, the wind carrying his irritating reedy voice, “lest that lass turn tail, and make for the hills.”
I smile as I ride quickly down to the river, and climb into a boat. My servants are there with all my presents. We set sail, catching the tide to the sea, to a remote island sanctuary, where I can live out my days in the company of the person I love most in this world, my niece and bed mate, in a convent founded by her mother.
I have left instructions with my scribe. The land that I inherited is to go to my niece’s eldest brother, in return for my freedom — shut up in his mother’s convent.
I shall never have to go through the pain of bearing a child, and dying in agonies, at an early age.
I shall never have to deal with a man I detest, who will beat me for not being good at bed-sport.
I am sixteen, I am free.