Geri Copitch lives in the woods in ‘true’ northern California with her husband of several decades, Phil. Geri earned a degree in sociology from Antioch College. She is the mom of two boys, and the maid to two cats and a 181-pound pet wolf.
I am often asked how I get my story ideas.
The short answer: From life.
Not a very satisfying answer, is it? Okay, so let’s see… As a child, I was prone to getting carsick, which meant that unlike my brother, I couldn’t read on long car rides. Remember, this was back in the dark ages before all things digital. Back in a time when children had to use their imaginations for entertainment. So basically, I daydreamed a lot.
Nowadays, I have a thirty minute commute along country roads to my job as a teacher, during which my biggest distraction is the occasional suicidal deer. That leaves 29 minutes to daydream. I have great conversations with my characters during my drive time.
Daydreaming leads to “What if…” What if I had a class of fifth graders and told them they were going to spend the month of November writing a story? Would a ten year old boy be as excited about it as I? Probably not. What if…What if he also was in a new school? Why would he be there? What if…What if his older cousin was on a hotshot crew fighting wildfires? What if…What if something happened?
Ideas are all around us, on the road, in the shower, in front of the bathroom mirror. I've had some of my best story ideas come to me while procrastinating. For me, the quiet times are the best time to spot them. I just hope that one leads me to ask, “What if?”
I often write to get away from the mess in the living room.
Geri Copitch reads the prologue, Rule Number 1—Know Thy Enemy
An Inauspicious Beginning - day one
King Rouen could hear the child’s cries from down the hall. He rushed into the room, his chancellor close behind. There on the bed lay his wife; her flaxen hair shone brightly against the backdrop of blood. So much blood. The physician stood next to her bed, twisting a cloth.
“I’m sorry, Your Grace, I did everything I could to save—”
The king crossed the room in three long steps and thrust his dagger into the man’s gut, yanking upwards before pulling back his arm and letting the man drop to the floor. He wiped his knife on his tunic and stuck it into his belt. Then he turned to the wailing infant.
“You foul little butcher.” He scooped the child up, and lifted it over his head.
The chancellor watched all this. Fear and self preservation told him to keep his tongue still. The king was not one to cross when he was angry. On the other hand, once the king came to his senses, his wrath at the chancellor’s silence would no doubt end in the same result.
“Your Grace, the alliance!”
King Rouen turned towards him. “What?” he roared.
The chancellor cringed. “The alliance with the king of the north…” He pointed at the child the king still held in balance over his head.
The king lowered his arms and looked at the infant for the first time. She had stopped crying and was looking up at him. She had her mother’s broad forehead and gently curving chin, but her hair was pale auburn with dark brown streaks: just like his eldest son’s had been, just like his. The other two had been born with black hair. And her eyes, the color of maple leaves in spring, much like his. He huffed.
“There is no denying this one is the fruit of my loins.” Unceremoniously he dropped her back in the cradle and started to leave.
“You could send her to the convent until she’s of age,” the chancellor offered.
The king glanced back over his shoulder. “No, as you said, the alliance is too important. There she will be easy pickings for Comte Anouile or one of the others who would like to see my downfall. No, the bitch will stay here where I can keep an eye on her.” He stormed out of the room, passing his sons in the hall without a word.
Prince Perrin led his brother Etienne over to the cradle. He tried not to look at the mess that used to be his mother. The midwife and his mother’s relations were all fussing and wailing, and paid no attention to the two small boys. They stared at the tiny bundle.
“Who’s that?” the younger of the two asked.
“That’s the baby that killed our mother.” Perrin spat on it. Etienne took his hand and smeared his brother’s spit all over the thing’s face. “Come on,” Perrin said. “There’s nothing here for us now.”
A smirk crept onto Etienne’s face and he smacked the newborn. He grinned at his brother as they dashed out of the room.
By gar! She hated the Eldest and resented being little more than the king’s pawn, something to be bartered for an alliance. The king had always made it quite clear that this was what had kept her alive. Still, Genevieve could not tamp down the bitter taste that her value was in her breeding potential.
Her hands were still shaking with anger and humiliation. Genevieve slowed her horse to a trot and worked to calm her breathing and gather her thoughts. Sunlight dappled the ground as it filtered through the chestnut trees. Most of the birds had already left on their journey southward and the wood was strangely quiet. However, it could have been raining frogs and she wouldn’t have noticed.
“Halt! Who trespasses on King Ethelred’s land?”
Genevieve’s throat tightened. She reined in her horse, Feu, and tried to find the source of the voice. She had broken one of her own rules and allowed her anger to cloud her thoughts, as a result she hadn’t been paying attention for the last few minutes. She tried to remember if the command had been in English. When had she crossed the boundary into King Ethelred’s land? Just how far ahead of the others was she?
“Why, it’s a woman, or rather, a girl,” said another guard, emerging from the trees.
Yes, they were speaking English, and now she saw they wore blue and gold—the colors of the house of her betrothed. There were five of them: a standard patrol.
“Who are you and where is your escort?” asked the first guard, eyeing the woods around them. He sported the king’s charge on his tunic—a stag with a crown, marking him the one in command of this patrol.
She consciously relaxed the features in her face and turned to address him. “I am Princess Genevieve, daughter of King Rouen of Ocsh,” she said, concentrating on her English. “I am traveling with the king and my eldest brother to wed Prince Esmour. I rode off to explore a bit of the forest and I must have wandered farther than I thought.” She smiled innocently. In actuality she had ridden off after the Eldest had goaded her with his crude description of what she could anticipate on her wedding night.
Genevieve had taken off before her escort was aware she was gone. He had been chosen to accompany her to her wedding as an honor to his family, not because he was particularly astute. “More earwax than brains” was a description that fit him well. She had heard it used in a play by one of the traveling troupes at the last summer’s hot fair.
The guard narrowed his eyes. “What king would allow his daughter to ride alone?” The other men nodded. “You don’t even sound like someone from the south. Your whole story is most peculiar.”
He glanced around warily, and addressed the guard closest to him in an undertone, “We should get out of these woods. This may be a diversion. Ride out and find James’ patrol and have them check the area.” Turning back to the princess he said, “You must come with us back to the castle and make a proper accounting of yourself.” Genevieve felt like a nest of snakes was writhing in her stomach. “I’ve told you, the king and the others are not far behind. I was just excited about my upcoming marriage and wanted to see some of the land where I’ll be living. I’m sure the others will join us shortly.”
The guard shook his head and signaled the others to position themselves around her. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. I have strict orders from King Ethelred that all trespassers are to be remanded to the castle without delay. I can’t be sure you are who you say you are, but I am certain of what will happen to my patrol and me if we don’t follow our instructions. Now, if you’ll be so kind as to follow Teren…” He gestured to the man to her right.
“Please, just a little longer…”
The guard shook his head.
Genevieve considered her options: comply and be introduced to her husband and his family as a trespasser; or turn her horse around and try to outrun the guards and their arrows, a course of action that would no doubt lead to more trouble. So, she stared ahead and urged Feu on as requested. So much for a fresh start. She had been looking forward to being introduced to a court that knew nothing of her. What a fool she was, allowing the Eldest to manipulate her so easily.
They rode along in silence. One guard in front, followed by Genevieve, who was flanked on either side by guards, with the patrol leader positioned at the rear. Genevieve’s mind raced. There had to be some way to convince the patrol leader to let her return to her traveling party. King Rouen was going to be furious—with good reason this time.
All too soon, they left the shade of the woods. On a rise in the distance stood a large, stone castle with a village at its base. From here its size was daunting. No wonder her people hadn’t been the victors in the last war. What would the people be like who lived within its towering walls? Her stomach felt like a lead ball had been dropped into it. Tears started down her cheeks. Zut! She hated tears. Tears were for the weak. She sat a little straighter and tried to ignore them.
Just outside the village the road hugged a slow moving stream. The princess dabbed her eyes carefully on her sleeves, stopped her horse, and turned to the patrol leader. “Since you are insistent on presenting me to the king, might I at least take a moment to wash my face and put myself in order?” She hoped this hadn’t sounded too curt.
The patrol leader studied her for a moment, looked up at the castle, and then back at her. He nodded. “Garret, be so kind as to hold the lady’s horse.”
The guard to her left slipped off his horse and attempted to take Feu’s reins. Feu would have nothing to do with him, he shuffled about avoiding the man’s hands, snorting. Genevieve suppressed a smile. She could count the number of people Feu would tolerate on one hand and have fingers left over. She dismounted and dropped the reins over the horse’s head.
“Best just to stand there,” she said to Garret, who had grown a bit pale, his eyes wide. “He is a bit temperamental.” Garret nodded his head and watched the animal. Genevieve went over to the stream to wash up, careful to keep her robes out of the mud.
One of the guards dropped back to talk to the patrol leader. “Vance, are you sure about this? Perhaps she is who she says she is. She certainly is well dressed, and she is very calm for someone who is about to be brought before the king as a trespasser.”
Vance watched Genevieve brush road dust off her dark red surcote with gold griffins embroidered down one side. No doubt her father’s coat of arms. Why hadn’t he noticed that sooner? “You may well be right, but we’d’ve been spotted by the castle watch as soon as we left the woods and headed up the hill. We can’t very well turn around and take her back without soldiers being sent to find out what we were up to.” Vance shook his head. “Best just continue on.”
Genevieve picked up her horse’s reins and remounted without assistance.
“Why, she’s not riding sidesaddle,” the other guard said in an undertone to the patrol leader. “I know peasant women who ride like men, but have you ever seen a noblewoman do so?”
Vance shrugged. “Her people are known for their horsemanship, perhaps it is typical for women there to ride in this fashion.”
Genevieve turned to face the patrol leader again. She knew she’d be called upon to explain her actions and she needed more information so she could plan her words accordingly. She took a deep breath and released it before she spoke. She didn’t want to sound as panicked as she felt.
“Sir, please tell me, what sort of man is King Ethelred? Is he a man who likes flattery, or does he prefer people who speak to him plain and true?”
Vance wrinkled his forehead in thought. “I do not profess to know him intimately, but in my dealings with him, I have found he prefers not to have matters presented in a roundabout way.”
Genevieve nodded. “That is good to know. I thank you.” She made to urge her horse on.
“Wait,” Vance rode up to her. “Your hair, it has gone a bit awry.” He waved his hand in a vague circular motion. He knew nothing of how women managed their hair and he wouldn’t have dared touch hers if he did. But, he was beginning to think that perhaps he had acted in haste. He felt a bit of compunction about how this was going to play out for the girl, and wanted to help her make the best impression she could, given the circumstances.
Genevieve smiled wanly and attempted to tuck the loose ends of hair under her head covering. They must have come free when she took off through the woods. She usually shunned anything on her head save her circlet. However, Nana had been very persuasive in arguing about the importance of first impressions, so she had agreed to wear a small red cap embroidered with gold leaves. It was complemented with a skirting of tule which covered the upper portion of her hair. When she was finished she glanced at the commander. Genevieve appreciated the man’s kindness, and understood that he was only doing his duty. She couldn’t believe she had gotten herself into such a mess.
They rode through the village, Genevieve thought once again about first impressions, but realized that without her retainers the villagers would have no idea who she was. The villagers in her kingdom had known her since she was a girl of eight or nine and began sneaking off on her own to get away from her brothers. She could not expect the same relationships to develop here. In fact, it was very likely she would be confined to the walls of the castle most of the time, allowed to venture out only with a full escort and limited contact with the villeins. Nana had prepared her well, and she was under no illusions of what would be expected.
“Women in the north view this entire southern region to have morals so lax that it is likened to one vast brothel. On whole, northerners are far more sequestered than noblewomen here, and more often than not are kept within their husband’s fortifications.”
While she was glad to be out of King Rouen’s house, Genevieve resented what she predicted would be the new restrictions on the rest of her life.
Mainly, she resented being born a girl.
In anticipation of the arrival of the bridal party, the household of King Ethelred had assembled in the courtyard. The king and queen were seated on their thrones, which had been brought outside and placed in the center of the assembly under a flowing purple canopy, with the broad stairs leading up to the castle proper behind them. Colorful banners, bearing the coat of arms of each knight present, fluttered in the breeze. Genevieve rode into the inner ward with her head held high. Given the circumstances she felt meekness was not the best course of action. Had she taken the time to think about it, others would have approached this situation far more humbly, but she was a Valois, and she had learned quite young that playing a hand from a position of weakness left one a victim. Strength, even under impossible odds, had always been the best approach for her.
The patrol leader rode to the front, dismounted, and saluted the king. “Sire, we found this woman riding through your woods unattended.”
She tried to ignore the finger pointing and whispers of the crowd: a crowd which was as large as any she had seen at the annual jousting tournaments back home when the purse was large.
The king locked eyes with her. “Who are you and what is your business?” He was a sturdy man, impressive looking even sitting down. His chestnut hair had wisps of grey, and he appeared not much older than her father.
Genevieve dismounted, and presented herself with a deep curtsy, before she addressed the king. In her clearest English she said, “Your Majesties, I am Princess Genevieve, daughter of King Rouen. I had ridden ahead of my accompaniment when your patrol found me. I asked them to wait for the others to catch up so they might confirm who I was, but your guard felt it prudent to bring me here at once.”
The queen, motioned for her to rise. “Do you make it a habit to ride unattended?” Her words sliced through the air like sharp knives.
Genevieve turned to answer. The queen sat straight and stiff on her throne. Her features were fixed as if carved out of rock, and she stared at Genevieve. Her dark hair peeked deliberately out from the edges of her wimple.“Oui, Madam…” Mon Dieu! She had slipped into French already. She hurried to correct herself. “Yes, My Lady, I have on occasion.”
The queen’s face remained unchanged. “Why were you riding alone on this occasion?”
“The Eldest had said something to me which I found … upsetting, so I rode ahead a bit to calm myself.”
The queen’s icy blue eyes pierced right through Genevieve’s chest. “Who is this Eldest and what could he have possibly said to make you do such a foolish thing?”
Genevieve took a deep breath. This was not a woman to mince words with. “I’m sorry, My Lady, the Eldest refers to my eldest brother, Prince Perrin. He had made a comment about …” she paused, searching for the vaguest way to answer the question, “… my wedding night.” She lowered her eyes and felt herself blush. She hoped she would not be asked to elaborate further.
“I see,” said the queen, tersely.
Perrin had always delighted in humiliating her, and today had been no exception. He just couldn’t let her go without at least one last stab at tormenting her.
“Your husband is probably a big ungainly lout three times your age, with greasy hair, and rotting breath, and tomorrow night he will climb on top of you, grunt himself sweaty, roll off, leaving his hot melt and your virgin blood to run down your leg, and then go back to join the wedding feast without a word. Well, at least not to you. I’m sure he’ll have plenty to say to his ‘advisors’ on the other side of the bed curtains,” the Eldest whispered. The crooked smile on his face drove his words deeper.
In fact, she had little reason to believe that his words, crude as they had been, would fall far from the mark. She had seen what marriage to a prince was like. His own, for one.
After Perrin had taken his new wife’s maidenhead, and boasted about it to all in attendance, Genevieve watched him proceed over the course of the evening to seduce three other young women new to court, only to roll into his wife’s bed at the end of the day reeking of them and drink and demand his due from her. This pattern had carried on every day until he tired of his wife and returned to his mistress.
His description of what lay ahead for her had come too close to her own anticipation of the ‘event.’ In response she jabbed her horse, and galloped off ahead of the entourage. She hadn’t wanted to watch him enjoy how much this description had rattled her.
A tall dour faced man who stood next to the queen stepped forward. Genevieve recognized the king’s Lord Chancellor. He had come to King Rouen’s castle three years ago to review her preparation and her character. He had been cold and curt with her the entire time. Only after some months had passed did King Rouen let slip that her marriage had been confirmed for the week after the fall festival of Michaelmas, in her sixteenth year, leaving her to conclude that the Lord Chancellor must have given a tolerable report to her future husband’s family.
“Your Grace, how can we be sure of her virtue if she, by her own admission, has ridden off on her own on numerous occasions?”
Obviously, his opinion of her had not improved with time and absence.
“I am not helpless if such a situation should arise where I needed to defend my own honor Lord Chancellor,” she said, with a polite smile. She noticed the king suppress a smile of his own as he turned to one of the guards who had escorted her in.
“Garret, ride out to meet King Rouen and assure him that his daughter is safe. I’m sure they are concerned that they have not met up with her.” Garret nodded and headed out.
“Tell me Princess, for I do believe you are who you say you are,” he gave a sideways glance in the direction of the patrol leader, who stared at the ground. “And, since we have some unexpected time to get to know you,” he smiled at her, “I’ve been curious. We have heard many stories of your people and your family.”
Genevieve’s heart quickened. Stories…what stories?
“This older brother of yours,” the king continued, “we hear reports that he is quite the swordsman. Undefeated for several years now, is he not?”
Genevieve thought this an odd question at this time. She wondered what other rumors the Lord Chancellor had heard during his visit and reported to the king.
“Yes sire, my brother does possess quite some skill with the épée, and on the jousting lists.”
The Lord Chancellor furrowed his eyebrows together. It was apparent it bothered him the king was taking his point so lightly. “I do not see your brother guarding you with an épée now. What if someone had meant you ill in the woods this morning?” He advanced towards her and grabbed both her arms. As he moved in Genevieve slipped a small dirk out from her sleeve and had it pressed firmly against his upper thigh before he had tightened his grip.
“I would recommend that you unhand me sir,” she said through clenched teeth. Merde! Once again she had acted impetuously. Nana would be disappointed...no, mortified. The Lord Chancellor’s eyes widened as he realized what was pressed against his legging. He recoiled, and she attempted to sheathe the weapon without drawing too much notice to it.
The queen arched her eyebrows. “Is that a dagger in your hand?”
“Yes, My Lady,” Genevieve replied, all the moisture in her mouth gone. She found herself unable to meet the queen’s gaze.
“And just how did you, a girl of noble birth, come to learn to use it in such a … familiar way?”
Genevieve’s heart sank. Already more of her unorthodox behavior had been revealed before the arrival of her retinue than she had hoped would ever see the light of day. She should have pretended she didn’t understand English from the beginning and waited for Nana.
Just then, a cheerful sounding voice said, “Well, I hope you’re not planning on using that on me!”
She looked around and saw a broad shouldered young man with shoulder length chestnut hair, perhaps five years her senior, approach from the midst of the gathering wearing a grin that seemed filled with sunshine. He strolled through the crowd like someone who had known since birth that all that he could see was his—yet his eyes were warm and generous with each person he passed. There was little room to doubt that this was the prince. Genevieve looked down and brushed her fingers across her forehead. “Of course not, My Lord.” The prince’s smile was so kind and genuine. He didn’t appear at all shocked about what had just transpired. She wondered if he had been in the crowd long. And if he had, why had he waited there? The prince came and stood near her.
“Esmour, I am awaiting an answer from the princess. There are some issues, which must be cleared up to my satisfaction, or there will be no wedding,” the queen said. For a moment the princess considered obfuscating the truth, but just for a moment. The truth always had a way of getting out, and she had learned long ago that it was best to be upfront and honest from the beginning. Nonetheless, the circumstances of her knife lessons would not be well received, no matter how carefully she couched them.
She turned back to the queen. “I learned it from a tavern maid in our village.” There were gasps. She might as well have said she had taken lessons from a whore.
“You had best explain what you were doing associating with a tavern maid,” said the queen, her lips little more than a tight line on her face.
“On those occasions when I left the castle without an escort,” Genevieve said, glancing in the Lord Chancellor’s direction, “I was in the habit of visiting the village. It is a much smaller village than yours. I did tavern keeper a kindness once. He was adamant on repaying me by offering me a bowl of his soup every time I was in the village. I observed the interactions of the other patrons during my visits, and I noticed there were some who felt the tavern maids were…” she wrinkled her brow searching for a suitable English phrase, “fair game.” This elicited more murmurs from the crowd, including chuckles from some of the men. It appeared things were the same in this village. Genevieve went on. “I noticed that one of these women was more deft than others at thwarting off unwanted attention without creating much ado.”
She paused as she considered the best way to proceed. “Last winter I became concerned about the attentions of one of my brother’s friends, and discreetly sought out this tavern maid’s advice. At first, she refused, warning me of the implications of our being seen together: worried about maligning my reputation. But, in the end, I persuaded her to help me, pointing out that far more than my reputation would be ruined if this young man had his way.”
The Lord Chancellor peered down his nose. “What else did this gixy teach you?” This produced some tittering from the crowd.
Genevieve turned red and shot him a haughty glare. “Nothing of the kind that you imply, Lord Chancellor. Merely how to protect my honor from a dishonorable nobleman’s son.”
Just then the trumpets blared to announce the arrival of King Rouen and the rest of the cortege.
“Not a moment too soon,” the prince whispered. A smile fluttered across her face. She was not looking forward to the king’s reaction to the events of the morning. He was not happy with her in the best of times. She did not envision this going at all well.
The king’s carriage hadn’t fully stopped when a large man with long red hair, jumped out and marched over to her, speaking French at full tilt. “How could you have disgraced me so, running off like a frightened rabbit, being picked up by a patrol, and escorted to the castle as a common trespasser for your piece de résistance! You act like some wild creature with no sense of discipline or propriety! I was a fool to think you could secure the alliance for our people. I would have been better off leaving you as an offering to the beasts of the wood.”
Genevieve stared at the ground. She could hold her own with most. But the king— he always cut her to the quick. Perrin dismounted from his own horse, and sneered at her from behind his father.
The king continued, “I should have insisted you ride in the carriage with me. This idea that you get sick to your stomach riding in a carriage like a proper lady has always been nonsense. You are willful and troublesome. You have always been a disgrace, but this is unacceptable, even for you!”
King Ethelred and Queen Alianore were staring aghast at King Rouen. He hadn’t even bothered to greet them; that, and the fact that he was ranting in a tongue that they did not understand, in front of the entire household left them at a loss. A low murmur swept through the crowd.
At that moment a dignified, gray haired woman stepped out of the carriage and purposefully made her way over to the king’s side. “Votre majesté, il me semble qu'aucun mal ne l'a arrivé a elle. Voudriez-vous rencontrer le roi Ethelred et ma cousin? Your Grace, no harm seems to have befallen her. Perhaps you would like to meet King Ethelred and my cousin?”
Genevieve stared at Nana with her mouth opened. She shut it and then burst out in English, “You speak French? We have been together for the past ten years and you never once let on that you spoke, or even understood French!”
Nana calmly met her gaze, “Of course not child, if I had you would have insisted on speaking in French to me and you would have never learned English so beautifully. You were an exceedingly stubborn child.” She looked the girl up and down and sighed.
“Lady Catherine, how good to see you again,” King Ethelred bellowed, glad the obvious reprimand had been terminated.
Lady Catherine subtly guided King Rouen by the elbow towards the royal couple.
Genevieve began the introductions. “If it would please Your Majesties, may I present my father, King Rouen, and my eldest brother, Prince Perrin.”
“That’s all right my girl, I’ll take over from here,” piped up Nana.
“In that case,” the prince spoke from Genevieve’s elbow. “May I take the princess on a tour of our gardens to get acquainted while you complete your exchanges?”
King Ethelred smiled, “By all means. I think she could do with a bit of a respite.”
The princess was grateful for the chance to get out from the center of attention. This had not been how she had envisioned her introduction to her husband’s house. Perhaps her absence would help King Rouen make a better impression as well. In addition, she loved gardens. The one at home had always been a quiet place where she could go to gather her thoughts, and the past half hour had not been pleasant.
Feu tossed his head and neighed, reminding Genevieve he was still there.
“Wait, I need to attend to Feu, my horse, first,” she said.
“I’ll have one of our grooms see to him,” said the prince.
Genevieve tried to be diplomatic. “He is not a palfrey. He is very skittish and does not respond well to strangers.”
The queen overheard the exchange and shot her a look. “I’m sure our stablehands are quite capable of caring for your horse.”
“Please, your Highness,” Genevieve pressed, “they should be very careful about …”
“Are you doubting the competence of our stable marshal?” she asked.
“No, My Lady, not at all. Please pardon my rudeness, I’m just anxious about the day I’m sure.” She barely had time to curtsy before Esmour pulled her along. She knew however, she wasn’t overreacting at all. If anything it had been an understatement. She would have to check on Feu later.
“Come, let us go before you have to explain anything else,” the prince said, as he pulled her through the crowd. His words and actions were in stark contrast to any of the young lords-to-be she had been brought up around. He was self confident, without acting pompous, and—well she couldn’t quite explain it given the fact she had just met him, but he exuded an air of sincerity, which was promising.