Rouen was my favourite place. I had known it all my life and revelled in the beauty of its surroundings; the woods and forests were where I had grown up, and where I’d escaped to when I tired of book-learning and my tutors.
I loved the river, the Seine, with its deep, mysterious stream – flowing first one way into the land and then dashing and splashing its way back to the sea. Mostly I loved the brief intervals in between its gallops when I could safely swim naked in its sun-lit waters and explore its reedy banks – such a freedom, such a joy to be free of metal mail and smelly leather, to be free of princely duties and boring charters.
Most people thought that I was mad, but most people are dull and frightened of anything different. So my friends contented themselves by sitting on the bank, sweating in the sun and wondering if they should try it.
Today, though, my thoughts were on other matters, in particular a matter named Morberga.
When I returned to Rouen from France one of the first things I did when taking control was to visit the stables. Our most effective weapon was the cavalry. True, it had failed in 1066, but that was due to tactical error, not the cavalry itself. I had pondered long and hard when I was of an age to consider such things – questioned the captains and sergeants, knights and lords who were there at Senlac Hill, and come to understand how such things worked and how best to make use of our different weapons. And most of all I came to understand how to deploy the cavalry to best effect. So if I spent a long time in and around the stables it was because of that interest – until, that is, I spied the girl.
The training of horses was in the temporary care of a sergeant named Baldwin – the previous marshal having got in the way of a well-aimed kick-back by one of his stallions and quit the earth, leaving his brains spread about the outer bailey. It was during those early days while discussing with Baldwin the matter of control, how to keep the warhorse on course while aiming the lance – couched underarm or ready to throw from overhead – when I was distracted by the sight of a bending stable-lad.
‘Does that youth attract any unwelcome attention, Sergeant Baldwin? I’ve not seen a better rump on many a lass.’
Baldwin looked up and reddened. ‘Er…ahem. That, my lord, is my daughter.’
‘Really! Is her front as attractive as her rear?’
‘Lord! Please!’ He looked at me as if I had insulted him; but still, his daughter eh! As we watched she stood up and I could see that she was quite tall, with a long straight back.
My interest was kindled and I waited for her to turn round. It was a pleasant revelation. The front view was indeed every bit as good as promised, although truth to tell she was in an unusual state for a female.
‘What in God’s name is she doing here, sergeant?’
‘She won’t go away, my lord,’ he said with some resignation.
‘Well, tell her! This is no place for a woman… Don’t she do needlecraft or something?’
‘No, my lord, she has no interest in those things. Since her mother died I have brought her up with her grandmother’s help, but the girl will not let me out of her sight as long as I am working within the citadel.’
‘Oh!’ I said, ‘I see,’ although I was puzzled. ‘Is she any use in here? Why has she not got a man?’
By now the girl, who was several horse-backs away from us, had worked out that we were talking about her, and had come to a standstill – staring boldly back in our direction.
‘I have asked those questions, my lord, as much as a father can ask a daughter about such matters, and she says that none are good enough. Although there has been a train of suitors, they all wilt before her gaze and few return. I fear that at sixteen she may be heading for a convent.’
I took a longer look at the subject. She wore a thick winter shirt, open in an unseemly way at the neck, and a sleeveless sheepskin to ward off the cold. When she was bent over she appeared to be wearing breeches, which followed the shape of her rear, but now that she was standing the clothing fell down her legs into the appearance of a skirt which was itself covered by a split leather apron. The hem was high and showed off manly boots. To complete the picture of a stable boy, she was dangling a sharp, curved knife in her right hand, the kind used to attend to horses’ hooves. However, several strands of blonde hair had escaped her leather cap and dangled in front of her face, which I could see was amply decorated with mud. She was a most unusual adornment to a busy garrison stables. I determined to take a closer look.
Speaking gently to the flustered Baldwin, I asked if I might speak to her.
‘You, lord? She smells of horse-shit, and I am not entirely certain that she would appreciate an approach. Try it if you want but please do not hold the consequences against me if she casts her coldest gaze upon you.’
I laughed, which brought the girl’s chin up and deepened the suspicion on her face.
‘Do not worry, sergeant, your position is not in her hands. I will merely engage her in a conversation regarding horses. She cannot refuse me that – after all I do own the poxy things.’
‘Good luck then, my lord. If it please you I’ll stay back and watch from here.’
I wandered slowly down the line of horses, paying attention to each and every one of them, noting weaknesses and strengths and gathering an armoury of topics with which to open a conversation. She had returned to her duties and affected not to notice my sidling approach. She could not ignore me; however, when I came to a halt beside the destrier she was working on and faced her across its back.
Her eyes were level with mine and bright blue, sparkling blue in fact, whereas mine were dark.
‘Good morning!’ I started with a common opening, not as I had intended.
‘My lord,’ she said, and bobbed in a bit of a curtsey.
‘What’s your name, girl?’ said I, trying to take the initiative.
‘Have you not spoken to my father, my lord?’
‘Yes! But about stallions…not brood mares.’ Why did I say that? The eyes flashed danger.
‘I care for them all, my lord…balls or not.’
This was not running at my pace so I tried a different approach.
‘I did not expect to find a girl in my stables.’
I was paying rude attention to her face now that I was close; beneath the horse-shit and mud was something approaching perfect skin. God’s miracles! What a creature he has wrought in this one.
‘Are you going to dismiss me, lord?’
‘How could I do that when I do not know your name?’
‘Oh!’ she replied, and then deployed her most potent weapon – she smiled at me.
‘I am Morberga, my lord.’
And so I was caught, hooked like a fish, speared like a boar, and netted like a bird. Thus was I, the Prince of Normandy, the eldest son of the Conqueror, disarmed and ensnared by a creature half my age. What jest of nature was this?