The King began to prepare to leave as the spring burst upon us. Apart from visits to local landowners to assert his authority, and a skirmish that had to be attended to on the borders of his realm of Normandy, he had been at home for many months. Now preparations were being made to return to England and Henry would be going with him.
In the flurry of activity that attends everything that the court does, Nest made her announcement. It was early to be planning. We women know how delicate a time the early days of a pregnancy are but she wanted Henry to know that she carried his child before he left.
While my little dove began to encounter the realities her body must bear to accommodate this new life, he still called for her.
Henry was delighted. He strutted and preened as though he was the first cock in the farmyard to create a chick, but his delight did not temper his appetites. While my little dove began to encounter the realities her body must bear to accommodate this new life, he still called for her. Wracked with sickness each morning, dizzy and tired, she was still called to his bed so that when the final preparations were done and the company were gathered for departure we were relieved to see the back of him.
As they rode away from the castle, I folded my little one in my arms, brushing her wayward hair from her sweet face and promising her rest and comfort.
Each day I brewed the herbs that would comfort her anxious belly; Fennel, Peppermint and Sweet Anise. Our garden was already the wonder of the Castle and many sought our remedies.
As spring gave way to summer, I brought its treasures to nourish her and the child she carried. Sweet wild strawberries, tender spinach, ruby tomatoes, water cress and pungent celery. I brought her milk from the dairy and bread fresh from the ovens.
My girl had little taste for meat at first while the sickness was with her. She had never been one for flesh but as she blossomed, the child within her made its demands and her appetite changed. I met her every whim, bartering what we grew to satisfy her need. We had never eaten so well or lived so free.
I recall that summer as the most joyful I have ever known. The men with their bluster and their demands were gone. The castle became, apart from the few left to guard, a place of women who went about their duties. Of old men who slept in the heat, or young men without ambition for fighting. Only the Priests made demands upon us to observe our Christian obligations and we were clever enough to give them the impression, at least, of piety.
… all we ever truly have is this moment in time.
We lay in bed till late, or rose early as we pleased. We swam and fished in the nearby lake. While others of the court stayed within the castle walls to keep their complexions pale we embraced the warmth of the sun. As my lady bloomed into ripeness, her hair turned pale and golden and framed her like a halo of light. Her skin blossomed freckles and her eyes sparkled like stars.
“I wish it could always be this way,” she told me more than once, more than a hundred times. I could only smile and nod my agreement, reminding myself that all we ever truly have is this moment in time.
But the moments moved along. What summer had begun now could not be undone. As Autumn approached, my girl began to mellow. The pleasures of the first quickening, a sweet delight to us both to share the vigorous kicks of her unborn child, gave way to a slowness that was not in her nature to endure.
With the first cold frosts of winter I found her weeping with frustration at the ache in her back and the tightness of her great belly. I wrapped her in furs and fed her honey cake from the kitchens and made her laugh, as she had once made me laugh at the absurdities of castle life.
Winter nipped at our fingers and our toes. The hauling of logs and the maintaining of the hearths occupied all fit enough to lift an axe. Our garden still yielded some of its bounty as I had planned ahead and I had ensured we had dried fruits and honey to sweeten our mood. When my Princess was overtaken with lethargy and it was too cold to walk abroad, I found her occupation in churning butter or baking bread and I brought the women of the court, and the dandies, to sing for her or brighten her mood with chatter.
Preparations for Christmas were underway when her pains came upon her. The hall was bright with holly and fresh pine branches. We had received no word that the King would be home for this festival but I wanted light and joy to sustain us through these darkest of days in the dying year.
I had done what I could to prepare her for the birth. We had defied the customs of ladies of the court and she had not wasted and grown fat with indolence. She was strong and glowing with health and I had made sure to make offerings not only to the pale suffering Christian God, but also to the bright lady of the woods and fields. Still, as she laboured, I felt my heart tightening with fear, as though clutched by a great uncaring hand. I have seen too many suffer, and so had she.
It is impossible to promise that all will be well. None the less, as she turned her eyes upon me in the hours and minutes of that dark mystery, I promised her anyway and I meant it. I would have followed her to hell to bring her into the light, but thank the forces that stand in judgment at these times, my little one did not make that journey.
Nest’s son was born as the dawn broke, three days before the mass of the Christian god. He was born purple in the face, wailing and kicking, hungry for all that life might have in store for him.
While she looked into his face and marvelled at his perfection I sent a message to the steward. Wherever he might be, the brother of the king must know that he was the father of a son and all was well.
Feature image from a work by Brett Breckon: