LADY CLIO’S FATHER claimed her pale silvery hair was her greatest asset . . . or perhaps his greatest asset, considering he had the duty to see her wed to some poor unsuspecting fool.
To look at Lady Clio of Camrose, one would think she was the image of what every man, knight or king, peasant or merchant, wanted in a wife—someone who was meek in spirit: to make a man feel braver and stronger. A wife who was docile enough to allow a man to be the king of his castle. A woman whose head was as light inside as outside, to assure him that he would be more intelligent and therefore superior.
According to the Church, the color of a woman’s hair bespoke her true nature. The men empowered by the Church based this theory on the conclusion that hair grew directly from the brain.
Fiery hair in a woman warned men of a woman’s devilish spirit. Since woodland covered two thirds of the English isle, hair the color of tree trunks was considered common and showed the woman had little imagination.
Hair the color of midnight, which everyone knew was the witching hour, crowned the heads of women all too clever and devious. ’Twas even said by those same men of the Church that Eve herself had hair as black as a woman’s sin.
But a woman with light hair was perfect.
Unfortunately, those men of the Church did not know Clio. Like a field of golden buttercups that hides a prickly hedgehog, Lady Clio’s hair hid her true nature.
She was headstrong and determined, traits admired in men but scoffed at in women. Her father swore she had been born with that stubbornness.
Before Clio’s birth, Clio’s mother had lost five babes. With Clio, as before, her mother’s birthing pains had come before her time. So Clio came into the world two months early. When the priest tried to perform Last Rites over her puny blue body, she kicked his hand and, according to her father, opened her mouth and almost wailed the castle walls down.
To the utter amazement of everyone, Clio lived.
From the first moment of her life she had fought against the impossible. Lady Clio was born fighting to control her own destiny.
Of course, in her mind she wasn’t stubborn. Persistent was what she was. Had she given up at birth, where would she be?
Dead, that’s where.
So Clio believed in being determined. She would not let anyone control her life, for only she held power over her survival.
She believed that with persistence came success. If one of her wonderful plans failed, she could always come up with another.
She was small in stature, but had the heart of a giant. Her mind was sometimes too quick for her own good. Once she got one of her infamous ideas into her head, she seldom thought about the consequences, of which there were usually many.
Yet no one could say she did not learn from her errors. She was not that much of a goose. She seldom made the same mistake twice.
She always made new mistakes.
Which suited her, because she was the one who determined her own future. Even if the path was strewn with the remnants of her failures. At least they were her failures.
Clio never allowed something as minor as a lack of skill to daunt her efforts. She firmly believed perfection came with practice. Of course she had no sound reason on which to base this belief. Indeed, history, logic, and her reputation demanded just the opposite.
But she loved a challenge. Embraced it, reveled in it. Those who knew her called her tenacious spirit a mulish exercise in futility. But Clio just didn’t believe in giving up. She would just conjure up a new plan—an idea.
Clio thought ideas were wonderful things. Those who had been privy to some of her fiascoes recognized the warning signs. The quiet and sudden stillness of her manner. The small frown line that wrinkled between her brows. The thoughtful chewing of her lower lip or the twisting of her mother’s jeweled ring on her finger. Her expression became dovelike. Peaceful.
But whenever Lady Clio got that look and, worse yet, when she claimed aloud that she had one of her “wonderful ideas,” those around her immediately lost their sense of peace.
With good reason.
When she had just passed her tenth saint’s day, her father paid a large penance to the Gregorian monks for what he referred to as “chanting for help.” Months later he’d claimed it was worth eating all those nightly platters of cheap, stringy mutton, since it only took until St. Thomas the Martyr’s Day to haul the new catapult out of the moat.
When the tinker’s cart had suffered the same fate two years before, it had taken twice as long to recover and had cost him much more.
At age twelve Clio took up a needle and thread to tend a hunting wound of a visiting bishop. After which her father used all the gold in his heavy purse to buy pardons for her from a passing pilgrim.
It seemed that unbeknownst to her father, the lecherous bishop had chased Clio for the entire previous week and had foolishly cornered her on the staircase, where he stole a kiss and squeezed her small breasts. So when it came time to doctor him, she had smiled sweetly and stitched up his wound in the shape of three sixes, the sign of the devil.
At fifteen, Clio was banished from the queen’s court after only two disastrous days, and her father sent the pope a jewel-encrusted golden chalice in the hope of receiving papal prayer on behalf of his daughter and only child.
It had worked, for a week later the betrothal offer arrived from Merrick de Beaucourt, a knight who was then in the Holy Lands making the English king and the Church wealthier under the guise of fighting the infidels.
She asked her father to tell her what Sir Merrick was like. Her father said he was a great warrior.
That was not exactly the answer Clio was looking for.
She wanted to know if he was tall and kind and had a face that was sweet on the eyes. If he could play the lute and sing love poems. If he would hand her his heart on a silver platter.
Her father laughed and claimed Sir Merrick would protect her and that it did not matter whether she liked him or not, because she had no choice. The betrothal was by order of King Henry, his liege lord.
But de Beaucourt was to be gone for four more years, and her father caught a chill one exceptionally cold winter day and died a few days later.
Lady Clio became a ward of Henry III. Queen Eleanor still barred her from court—once had been quite enough, thank you—and suggested that the king pawn his new ward off on one of their enemies, perhaps whoever was the latest troublesome Welsh prince.
Henry refused. He wasn’t ready to start a war.
So until de Beaucourt returned from the Crusade, the king sent Lady Clio to a remote convent, where her life continued much as it had before her father’s death: one “wonderful idea” after another.
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