The first evening across the border, they had a visit from a rider. He caught the captain by the fire, and Margueritte sat right there, listening. The rider said the duke had moved on to get behind the stout walls of Bourges and they were to meet him there. From Bourges, he had plans to send word to Languedoc and to Bordeaux and Poitiers to call up the army.
“So, you expect the Franks to follow?” the captain asked.
“I don’t know what to expect,” the rider answered honestly. “But the duke has the Neustrian king with him, so someone is bound to follow.”
“What happened?” The captain missed all the action.
“It was a complete disaster,” the rider answered with a heavy sound. “The king and his mayor were only able to raise six thousand men, and I think they were only the ones dependent in some way on the mayor. They were able to double that number with conscripts, but you know militia doesn’t always fight well. The numbers were more even when we got there, but still.” The man paused to sip his drink. “It was an utter defeat. Charles, the Austrasian and Ragenfrid the mayor stared at each other for three days, and Ragenfrid blinked. That is the only way I can explain it.” He shook his head.
“So how did the duke end up with the king?”
The rider shrugged. “I assume the king asked for protection, maybe sanctuary. All I know is the duke said he was lucky to get out with as many of his men intact as he did.”
“About a thousand. Nearly three thousand of our men ended up dead, wounded or captured. It was a disaster. And I don’t think the king of the Franks saved that many. Ragenfrid appears to have fled. Who knows where?”
“And now Duke Odo thinks Charles may be coming here?” Margueritte asked. The two men turned to stare at her, the rider with his jaw open. “What? I’m sitting right here. You didn’t think I was listening?”
“I heard she is a witch,” the rider said, calmly.
“Hello. I’m right here. Are you asking if I’m a witch? I may become one if you don’t answer my question. Does Duke Odo think Charles is coming here?”
The rider shook his head and spoke plainly. “I don’t know what the duke thinks, but I think Charles is bound to come, for you if not for the king.” He turned again to the captain. “When the duke heard who you captured, he got bad angry. When he calmed down, he said maybe she would make a hostage, but he said to tell you if Charles or his advanced scouts catch you, don’t harm the woman. Give her back, unharmed. He said, no point in pissing off Charles more than necessary,” The rider took another sip. “I tell you the duke was badly shaken by the way the battle went. He said Charles was like a cat playing with a mouse. It was bad.”
“So, wait a minute,” Margueritte interrupted. “If the duke did not send you to take me prisoner, who sent you. And how did you know it was me?”
The captain stared at her again and the rider kept looking back and forth between the two of them. The rider looked for an answer, but in the captain, Margueritte could just about see the millstone grinding away at the wheat in the desperate attempt to make flour.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
“Well, someone sent ground castor seeds to spice the soup. Deadly poison. My friends at the inn where you found me are probably all dead, and I want to know who did it.”
The captain nodded and fingered his lips, like it might magically help him remember. Margueritte could just about see the water wheel this time going around and round but not getting anywhere. “So do I,” he said.
Captain Gilbert and his men stuck around for three months. They watched the army gather in May, escort the duke, the king and Margueritte to Toulouse in June, and get bored in July. It started to look like everyone guessed wrong, and Charles was not coming.
Margueritte staved off the boredom by playing chess with Odo. He seemed a nice enough man, and she did her best to keep the conversation pleasant. She wanted to be clearly distinguished from Chilperic II, who was an annoying and demanding sort of person that no one would ever guess used to be a monk. Margueritte, by contrast, got Odo to talk about his favorite subject, himself. She asked about his people and his land, his staff and counselors and such. She asked nothing about his army, so he had no reason to be suspicious. But in all that time she got no indication that anyone might have sent the captain and his men to kidnap her, and she found out nothing about castor seeds. It seemed like whoever stood behind the crime simply vanished, or maybe they vanished. She admitted the poison and the kidnapping might have been two different people.
She heard nothing to indicate it was not Abd al-Makti, but nothing said it was, until an ambassador from Cordoba showed up in Toulouse and became smitten with Margueritte. All he could talk about for four days was her hair, her fascinating green eyes, her figure. Good grief, she had gotten four months along and began to show. Apparently, that did not matter. The fact that she was married did not matter either. He got overheard saying unbeliever marriages were not real marriages.
On the fourth night, he offered Odo a great deal of gold for ‘the girl’. Odo stayed strong and refused. In fact, everything the ambassador did and said seemed to offend the duke. The duke prepared to escort the man back to the border, when the ambassador tried to steal Margueritte in the dark. The man would not settle for no. All he could talk about was putting her away in his harem. He said he had to lock her away where she could be safe and not get into trouble. Captain Gilbert had to kill the man. His company had to make sure none of the Ambassador’s people, mostly Visigoth slaves, escaped.
The duke went into a tizzy. Naturally, Charles showed up. The duke tried to stay strong with Charles, but he mostly worried about what he could possibly say when the Iberians came looking for their ambassador. He suddenly felt surrounded by strong enemies, and at this point, due to recent experience, he feared Charles more. He only knew the Muslims by rumor.
Charles made it easy. He offered to confirm Odo as Duke of Aquitaine for life, as long as the duke did not make any outside alliances with anyone but the Franks. He also offered to take Chilperic off the duke’s hands, which the duke was eager to allow, so in all, it became an amenable discussion until Charles brought up the issue of money. Duke Odo got testy. He had an army of his own. But then again, he saw what Charles’ army could do, and the money was not worth the risk of losing everything.
“What about the ambassador’s gold?” Margueritte whispered in Odo’s ear. “That leaves no evidence that the ambassador ever arrived here.” Odo smiled at the thought and said he could do that. As a result, the down-payment for Charles’ standing army got paid for by the Caliph.
Roland carried Margueritte out of Toulouse, talking the whole way. “Charles gave Chilperic a choice. He could proclaim Charles Mayor of his palace in front of the assembled Neustrian nobles, and Charles would proclaim him King over all the Franks. Then Chilperic could stay in the palace or go back to the monastery, his choice, as long as he shut up and kept his opinions to himself. The alternative was to go and meet his maker.”
“He didn’t really say that did he?” Margueritte asked.
“Basically. Those were his words.”
Margueritte wondered when she stepped into a grade B western movie. She laughed, then she told Roland about her experiences and concluded with, “That is twice now. Someone wants me out of the way, and it is getting serious.”
“Poison is serious,” Roland agreed.
“I almost went into a harem,” Margueritte objected. “If I ended up there, I would look for poison myself.”
Battles and the political struggle for dominance is nothing. What is hard is Margueritte birthing child number two and them traveling all the way to the Saxon March to introduce herself to Roland’s family. Until then, Happy Reading.