Margueritte was born in the year of our Lord, 697, on the Amorican Mark—the border land that divided Brittany, sometimes still called the kingdom of Amorica, from the Frankish domains around Paris. Her father, Sir Bartholomew, the Count of the Central March had come some years earlier to join two older gentlemen who guarded the March in the North and South. Together, the three were assigned to watch the Breton border and, if possible, keep the peace. Bartholomew married a Breton Lady, Brianna, who was a very distant cousin of King Alain II of Amorica, and together they settled down to his long duty to the Merovingian king, having been granted sufficient land by treaty to support a reasonable number of men and their families. They had a son, Tomberlain, born just after Samhain, and three years later, on a fine spring day, Margueritte came along. In 701, a second daughter, Elsbeth completed the family. And thus, they lived in peace with a small number of Breton serfs to keep the fields and flocks, and an equally small number of free peasants, mostly Franks, who contracted for land for a percent of their produce and for the promise to fight for the Lord of the manor whenever such need might arise.
The manor house itself was roughly the size of a modern Cape Cod, with a thatched roof and glass in the upper windows. A bowshot away so as not to be a hazard should one or the other building catch fire, sat a strong, stone tower, ten years in the building. The blacksmith workshop was there, though outside of the tower itself, as the kitchens were out behind the manor house. Redux was the blacksmith. Marta and Maven were the cooks and housekeepers. Everyone else worked out of the third building in the triangle of buildings—the barn. By far the biggest building, the barn looked the size of the manor house and tower put together; but that was the world they lived in. It was an agrarian world.
The barn was home to the horses, nearly two dozen. Outside, but attached, a shelter had been put up for the milk cows as well as a pen for the sheep. The hogs and chickens also had their own houses outside the barn, proper. There were bins in the barn for every kind of grain, potatoes and vegetables, and a great hay loft from which the beasts were fed. They also had stacks of tools for the labor-intensive form of agriculture practiced. The serfs lived in their small houses just down the little hill from the barn, out of sight from the Manor House, but alongside the fields where they worked. Every morning at dawn they came up the hill, collected their tools, and drove the various animals out to pasture. Those animals came home around sundown, and the tools got put back at dark. It was also a hard life.
The dogs in the kennels were old when Margueritte was born. Lord Barth was not much of a hunter, but Margueritte loved those dogs, and they loved her. She spent most of her time near the kennels, with Tomberlain, whom she loved dearly and looked up to about everything, and later she played with Elsbeth when Elsbeth grew old enough. When they weren’t playing by the kennels, they were in the center of the triangle by the great old oak which their mother, Brianna, insisted stay up. The oak had mistletoe on it, a rare thing, and sacred to the druids and to the people, though whether the lady still felt the same since her conversion to the Christ seemed a question.
All around the triangle of buildings there were trees which helped block the view of the houses of the serfs, but if one looked from the upstairs windows of the manor house, one could see, far out across the cleared land, the misty edge of the forest of Vergen through which one had to travel to reach the Amorican village of the same name. The road to that village skirted the edge of the triangle and came from the east where Lord Barth often pointed and told young Tomberlain, “There is Paris. There is the heart of civilization where ladies of distinction and men of war and great valor live. There, son, is the real world to which you belong, and if you ever despair, remember that we live on the edge of it. Turn your back on the superstitions of the Bretons and look to the golden city, only keep your ears open. You never know when someone might be sneaking up behind you.”
In the year of our Lord, 704, the household packed three ox-drawn wagons and saddled nine horses for the trip to Vergenville, as the Franks called it. Every fourth year the Amorican king, now Alain’s son, Urbon, came to Vergen during the days of Samhain—at the end of October. It was the great fall festival and all sorts of craftsmen and entertainers came to town, many following the royal court. Lady Brianna always insisted on going shopping. They had to go in any case. It had been arranged in treaty that the three Lords of the Frankish Mark would meet with the king during those days and talk trade, review and resolve any complaints, and reaffirm the peace.
Along with Lord Bartholomew, the peace in the south was kept by the eldest of the three lords, Baron Bernard and his Frankish Lady Jessica, while in the north the March was kept by the Count DuBriss and his Amorican wife, Curdwallah, who lived in the Tower DuLac, which is to say, by the lake. Baron Bernard always came in the fourth year with a dozen or more men at arms, believing that arms always spoke louder than words. His lands were the best, being free of the rocks and hillocks that made parts of Amorica so hard to farm, and so his free Frankish population grew larger than the others. Count DuBriss, on the other hand, passed away rather mysteriously some years earlier, along with his two sons. The Lady Curdwallah, a native Breton, now lived alone at DuLac. Sir Barth had written to the king of the Franks several times suggesting the Lady be given a small, comfortable place and the north March be given to another man, but thus far, the king had failed to move. Clearly, Amorica no longer posed the threat it once did.
Brianna and the children rode in the first of the three ox carts guided by Redux the blacksmith. Elsbeth, at three years of age, spent most of the morning journey in her mother’s arms. Margueritte, seven, held tight to her doll. Tomberlain, being ten, felt he should be going on horseback with the men, but Sir Barth would not have it. They argued for days, and it only ended when they agreed to make Tomberlain a page on their return, though he was honestly too young.
The second cart, driven by a man named Andrew—the Christian name he took for himself at his baptism—carried Marta and Maven and all the things Lady Brianna imagined she might need over the next few days. The cart was full, but Maven managed a soft place to sleep while Marta fretted the whole way about thieves and monsters in the dark woods.
The third cart, as was custom, carried grain and gifts for the king, his court, and the people of Vergenville. Both Sir Barth and Lady Brianna had a soft spot for the poor and helpless. They always made sure they had enough to share, and they left that cart in the capable hands of a man named Ky; though lately he had taken to calling himself John. He was not sure, but his Christian name was definitely going to be John—or James.
Sir Barth rode his charger, of course, and a half-dozen men at arms rode with him. The other two horses trailed behind as spares. “Spare tires,” Margueritte called them, though she could hardly explain what she meant.
They left the manor early in the morning, but the sun was well up when they entered the proper forest. Not far along, they came to the point where they crossed the road that came up from the south. Happily, they only had to stop twice to clear fallen branches and a fallen tree from the path, as Margueritte called it. She could hardly call it a road.
“I’ll be black and blue by the time we arrive,” she complained and took every bump, root and rock, personally.
“Why do you think I wanted to ride on horseback?” Tomberlain told her.
“Mama, hold me,” Elsbeth said, and she got to ride in a soft lap.
“Ouch.” Margueritte bumped her knee. “It isn’t fair,” she said generally to the wind.
“Maybe you can hit your head next time and be knocked out,” Tomberlain suggested. “Then at least you won’t know any better.”
“Ha, ha!” Margueritte responded without really laughing, and while she rubbed her knee, she thought a good set of shock absorbers would help.
Their way improved after they crossed the road that came up from the coast. More traffic, Margueritte assumed. They had not gone far, however, and they were still a good hour from the village, when a man in very strange dress caught up with them. He spoke with a heavy accent and with some condescension once he determined that Sir Barth was the one to whom he had to speak.