With a Sword in My Hand has won several major European awards for children’s literature, including the prestigious Thea Beckman Prize, the Boekenleeuw, the Flemish Children’s and Youth Jury Prize, and the Kleine Cervantes.

‘The lively dialogue, the sharp humour, the colourful descriptions and the sheer pace with which the story is told, turn this novel into a feast. It is a highly diverting and compulsive reading experience.’ De Morgan


Jean-Cl aude van Rijckeghem & Pat van Beirs
Translated by John Nieuwenhuizen


This edition first published in 2010
First published in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2009
by Uitgeverij Manteau/Standaard Uitgeverij, Antwerpen.

Text copyright © 2009 Uitgeverij Manteau/ Standaard Uitgeverij, Antwerpen.
All rights reserved.
English translation, copyright © John Nieuwenhuizen, 2010

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin
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Phone (61 2) 8425 0100
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Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the
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ISBN: 9781 74175 865 8

eISBN: 9781 74269 005 6


The translation of this book was funded by the Flemish Literature Fund (Vlaams Fonds voor de Letteren -

Cover design by Lisa White
Cover photo by Getty Images
The inside cover image is a portait of the real Marguerite.
In English it is titled,‘Margaret of Dampierre, Countess of Flanders,
Artois and Burgundy, Duchess of Burgundy’. The artist is unknown.



























The knights of Flanders and Brabant will swear allegiance to the infant in its cradle. The leaders of the free cities will welcome the child within their walls and wish him happiness, health and wisdom. The traders from the East will present the young squire with gerbils and spider monkeys for his amusement. Even before his seventh birthday, the kings of France and England will offer him their loveliest daughters and talk to his father about arranging a marriage. The Pope, God’s vessel on the sea of humankind, will bless the boy in his prayers.

My father’s son will become Count of Flanders. He will be a leader, a warrior and a diplomat. He will be admired for his knowledge of the world and its secrets. He will be able to sing in French, Flemish and Latin, and discuss the stars as if he had personally scattered them across the heavens. He will be able to bring down a wild boar at a full gallop and will never ask an unnecessary question. He will be hard in war and gentle in love.

He will be a man. A knight.

On the last day of the year one thousand three hundred and forty-seven, my mother, the Duchess of Brabant, feels cramps in her sleep. She is lying in the women’s room of the castle of Male, in a wide bed amongst ladies-in-waiting and washerwomen. The women lie together on sacks of straw, under sheepskin blankets. They’re lying skin to skin, for in winter not a breath of warmth must be lost. The room is not quiet. The women cough and grunt and sneeze and snort. Their throats are raw as butcher’s meat and their noses blocked like the narrow neck of an oil bottle.

My mother suddenly feels a warm gush of water between her thighs. With a jolt she sits up and the cold grabs her bare back. She realises instantly that I will be born on this freezing night. She has no idea how far the night has advanced. The world floats between Compline and Lauds, in a moment when time is vague and the night has no name.

A lady-in-waiting opens her eyes and asks what is going on. My mother shivers. Her breath is visible in the cold. She says the child is coming.

Someone groans, ‘At last.’ It is the midwife, Hanne, who, with her daughter, has been staying in the castle for the past month to take care of the confinement.

A moment later the whole bed comes to life. Ladies-in-waiting and washerwomen get up and, shivering with cold, pull shifts on over their bare bodies. They take my mother to the kitchens where the warm ovens still smoulder. It’s the only place in the castle where there’s some warmth left. They kick the kitchen boys awake and send them packing. They put red cushions on the long table and my mother lies down on them. One of the washerwomen runs across the inner courtyard to the main building. She hammers on the door of my father’s room.

‘The time has come, my Lord Count,’ she shouts.

Grunting and stumbling sounds come from the room. A moment later the door opens. My father is naked. The washerwoman averts her eyes.

‘Get someone to wake up the surgeon,’ he growls.

The washerwoman looks up at my father in surprise. She hesitates. She wants to say that confinement is women’s business, but doesn’t have the courage.

‘What are you waiting for, woman, a sign from God?’ my father snarls, grabbing his shirt from a chair and pulling it over his head. The woman runs to the men’s sleeping quarters to find the surgeon.

My father, the Count of Flanders, smashes the ice in the wash bowl with his fist. He splashes water over his face, feeling his cheeks tingle. He puts on a black robe, a belt, hose and a cloak. He crosses the courtyard to the kitchens. He sees his wife lying on her side. With a grin he runs his rough fingers over her cheeks.

‘I love you, my Brabant,’ he whispers in her ear.

She takes his hand, smiles, and says, ‘And I you, my Flanders.’ Then she has a cramp so fierce that she scratches my father’s arm open with her nails. She gasps for air and moans.

Midwife Hanne and her daughter Beatrijs both have muscular arms, thick fingers and big heads with round cheeks. They are mother and daughter, but they are so like each other people take them for sisters. Beatrijs starts a fire in the kitchen hearth. She breaks the ice in the water barrel, fills a kettle with water and hangs it over the fire.

Master Surgeon Wirnt van Obrecht enters the room. He’s one of the best surgeons in Flanders, wise and old, at least forty, and exceptionally capable at treating a pierced shoulder or putting together a shattered cheek bone. But he has not the faintest idea what goes on inside the hard belly of a woman during childbirth. For him, that has always remained a divine mystery. During the pregnancy, Surgeon van Obrecht prescribed a calming poppy extract for the Countess every day, and now that the day has come he leaves the finishing touches to the midwife.

Meanwhile, Hanne slides her hand into my mother’s belly. The wildly flickering fire in the hearth is the only light in the room, and the corners of the kitchen remain invisible in the black, eerily dancing shadows.

‘I’ve consulted the stars this very night,’ Surgeon van Obrecht says to my father. ‘They are very favourable for the confinement. Very favourable. And furthermore, it is the New Moon. New Moon!’

‘A good portent?’ my father asks hopefully.

‘An excellent portent,’ the surgeon confirms expertly. ‘And just this morning my apprentices tasted the Countess’s water, and it was sour!’

‘Sour?’ the Count asks worriedly.

‘Yes, yet another good sign. And then there is the colour, my Lord Count,’ whispers the Master Surgeon, ‘the colour.’

Wirnt van Obrecht lifts the sample book hanging on his belt. He unties the strings that hold the wooden covers together. In the book, strips of fabric varying in colour from pale yellow to inky black are bound together. The surgeon chooses a deep orange strip and triumphantly holds it under my father’s nose, as if the colour makes everything clear.

‘Good?’ my father asks nervously.

‘It could not be better, my Lord Count.’ Wirnt van Obrecht nods wisely. ‘It really could not be better.’

That is when my mother screams. The midwives give her a wad of linen to bite on. Her cheeks burn from the heat of the fire and her face is beaded with sweat. She pushes the wad away.

‘It hurts so much,’ she moans. ‘I can’t stand it.’

‘That’s how it’s meant to be, woman.’ My father beams. ‘He will be a solid fellow.’

Then Hanne withdraws her hand from my mother’s belly and crosses herself. She turns to my father.

‘My Lord Count,’ she says, calmly but seriously. ‘I advise you to have Masses said. Right away. The Countess will need every bit of help she can find tonight …’

‘What do you mean, woman?’ the surgeon interrupts her. ‘All the signs are favourable. The new moon, the stars …’

‘The child is lying crossways,’ Hanne interrupts. ‘And there is nothing the stars or the moon can do about that. Only God can help us.’

My father looks at the surgeon, then at Hanne, and eventually at my mother. He sees the fear that wells up in her eyes. My father storms out of the room, runs down the stairs cursing all the saints who have walked the Earth since St Peter, and all the saints who are still to come. He curses Heaven, Hell, Earth and Purgatory, but when he enters the church he crosses himself, kneels before the altar and asks forgiveness for his frivolous curses. He orders the bells to be rung, gathers up everybody – the knights, the pages, the soldiers, the washerwomen, the stablehands and the shit scrapers – and sends them off to the chapel. He takes Chaplain Johannes van Izeghem to one side. The poor man is shivering. He has to look up at my father, who is two heads taller.

‘I want to hear everyone praying,’ my father hisses, ‘till they have no spit left in their mouths. And make sure God hears you!’

The little man nods and runs back into the chapel, shaking with cold. My father climbs the stairs to the outer wall and marches along the battlements. The cold hits him like a blow to the nose. The wind snaps hairs from his beard. He pulls his hood over his ears, puts his hands under his cloak and balls his fists. Why is God putting him to the test? In the moonlight, he stares over the marshy snowfield that stretches out around the castle. A feeling of fear tugs at his bowels. Is it true what people say? That God is punishing humankind for their sins with a perpetual winter?

Tomorrow will be Easter already, the first day of the new year. And still no sign of the thaw. Winter ice holds the world tightly in its deadly jaws. Only last week an iceberg as tall as a church tower rammed a caravel in the port of Sluis. And stores are running out. In the great barn of Lissewege, where one tenth of the farmers’ harvest is stored, the monks are selling the last, mouldy remnants of grain at extortionate prices. In Kwaadkerken, a couple ate their own children out of sheer desperation. In Gistel, the bodies of hanged men were taken from the gallows for food. In Bruges, where the ice on the floodplains is so thick that carts can ride on it, people gather every morning at St Donatian’s Church, on their knees on the cold stone floor, to pray for forgiveness.

They all turn up: the clergy, the nobility, the guild masters and even the common rabble. At the hallelujah, they raise their eyes to the vaulted roof, which is decorated with flowers to remind people of the promise in the Bible that after every winter there will be a spring. But no matter how fervently they pray, how firmly their shaking hands clasp the crucifix, how many candles they light before the crucified Christ, spring does not come.

Never has winter been so severe. Never has winter gone on for so long. Even Morva says so, the ancient woman whose age nobody knows. Some of the oldest local farmers say they used to know Morva in their youth and that even then she was ancient. They say Morva has slept with the Devil and because of that she has eternal life. But my father does not believe that. He knows that she has a rare understanding of things in Heaven and on Earth, and of the secrets of herbs. At this point, my father’s breath catches in his throat. His thoughts freeze. Why is he thinking of Morva? Is it a sign? Is it a thought God has put in his mind? For a moment doubt gnaws at him, but then he knows for certain. Morva is the only one who can help his wife in her confinement. He crosses himself and hurtles down the stairs.

Morva lives in Plathoeke, a hamlet near Moerkerke mostly inhabited by rushcutters and duck hunters. The Count orders his best horses to be harnessed to a coach to go and fetch Morva. He is hoping his horses won’t break their legs on the frozen tracks. Then he marches to the chapel which is now full of people.

Dozens of steaming mouths murmur prayers in the icy building where even the holy water font has frozen over. The chaplain vigorously swings the censer. But even in the chapel the Count can hear his wife screaming, and with every scream it seems as if the child in her belly is tearing her apart.

The water is boiling in the kettle over the hearth. Hanne hangs linen cloths on a stick which she holds in the rising steam to cleanse them. Beatrijs lights the specially blessed candle of Our Lady. Even Master Surgeon van Obrecht knows that a confinement must be over before the candle has burnt down. If not, the child will be stillborn. Hanne gives the Countess a sprig of basil to hold in her left hand and a swallow’s feather for her right. In the castle, doors and cupboards are left open to enlarge the opening in my mother’s belly through which I must arrive in the world. In the courtyard, five archers fire arrows at the clouds to speed up the birth. It is all superstition, and the church disapproves of it, but, says Hanne, a child that is lying crossways needs every bit of help it can get.

The night drags on and Our Lady’s candle slowly melts away. Beatrijs constantly dampens my mother’s forehead with rose petal-scented water. At last, the opening is wide enough and Beatrijs and Hanne press with all their might on the hard belly to push me out. My mother shrieks with pain. The only thing that appears is my bottom.

Hanne crosses herself because she knows I am doomed. She plunges a mug in the rose water and throws it over my backside. So they baptise my bottom in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost Amen. So nothing more can happen to me. So my soul will not languish for ever in the dark waiting room of Heaven and Hell called Purgatory.

At that moment, old Morva appears in the room. She has long fingers, a small mouth with five lower teeth and a dark, suppurating hole where her left eye used to be. The midwives stare at her in bewilderment and even the Master Surgeon holds his breath. It takes Morva just a few moments to take in the situation. Our Lady’s candle tells her how long the confinement has already been going on and when she observes my little behind sticking out she realises I am suffocating. In a rasping voice, Morva makes it clear she wants to be left alone with the women. Her voice grates through the room and makes the hair on my father’s neck stand on end. And my mother, in the grip of sorrow and pain, moans and weeps.

Wirnt van Obrecht grips the Count by the shoulder and whispers to him that surely he is not going to put his trust in that sorceress they call ‘the witch of the Marshland’.

‘She is the devil’s brood. Even if the child survives, it will be cursed,’ he whispers.

My father removes the Master Surgeon’s hand from his shoulder. He looks at Morva, with her one yellowish eye, and tells her that his son’s life lies in her hands. Morva repeats that she wants to be left alone with the women. My father takes the Master Surgeon by the wrist, propels him out of the room and pulls the door closed. My mother hears the surgeon call out in the passage. That the Count mocks his knowledge; that he will speak to the Master of his guild about this and that the child will be born into misfortune.

Suddenly, my father is in doubt. Has he done the right thing? Had it really been a sign from God? He, too, had been frightened by Morva’s deformed appearance. Ten years ago, during the epidemic of the dreaded grain disease which turned healthy people into dying wrecks overnight, the people of Plathoeke had blamed old Morva for the disease. They said she had poisoned the grain. One night, at the end of the harvest period, they surrounded her mud and straw hut and set it on fire. But somehow Morva survived the fire. She had become a terrifying sight. Her hair and part of the flesh of her scalp had been burnt away. The flames had melted her left eye. But though her face had been disfigured, her hands had been spared.

And it is with those utterly capable fingers that she now pushes me back into the belly. Her lower arm disappears completely inside my mother’s body. I am a plaything in Morva’s fingers. She turns me around completely inside the warmth of my mother’s belly.

The candle sputters, startling the midwives. Morva has noticed too. Time is pressing. She croaks orders at the women. They must cook onions and hang red linen cloths above the steaming water. My mother repeatedly loses consciousness. She groans and rambles deliriously in French.

And then, finally, Morva pulls her arm out of my mother’s body. She produces a small flagon from the purse that hangs off her belt and dips her fingertip into it. When she pulls the finger out, it is dripping with a red fluid. To the midwives’ horror she uses it to write strange heathen symbols on my mother’s belly. With her bony hand spread over my mother’s tightly stretched navel, she mutters something incomprehensible in a language that should have been dead long ago.

Hanne the midwife stands up and makes the sign of the cross on my unconscious mother’s forehead. Then Morva hits my mother in the face. The old woman hisses that the child lives and that the Countess must now give her all.

And, with the last scrap of energy left in her body, my mother pushes. The small veins in her face burst with the effort, and the midwives press with all their might on the hard belly. My mother howls while my head finally slides into Morva’s hands.

Morva is the first to carry me in her arms. She smacks my bottom. I gasp for air and squeak. But my squeaking is soft, far too soft. Morva bites through the navel string while Our Lady’s candle dies. I have been born just in time, but I look like a hundred-year-old goblin. I am covered in wrinkles and so thin that the midwives think I might break in half at any moment. Morva takes a handful of the boiled, softened onion and rubs it over my body.

Time passes while the midwives wait patiently. The Countess falls asleep. Outside, day breaks.

Finally, Morva hands me back to Hanne and Beatrijs who rinse my body with lukewarm rose-scented water. Already I look a lot less wrinkly. I am yellow and green like any newborn. Beatrijs and Hanne wrap me in red sheets which are to protect me from childhood illnesses and evil spirits.

The Countess wakes and asks if I will live. Beatrijs and Hanne look down at the ground. They have seen so many infants die in the first few weeks after they were born. Morva looks at the Countess with her yellowish eye, and on her hideously deformed face a smile appears.

Morva turns to the door. Everything has become quiet in the castle. She shuffles away through the passage and wakes my father, who is dozing on a bench. She tells him that the child lives. My father asks how he can reward her for her services. She says that every year, with the first snow of winter, he should deliver a stack of dry wood so she can keep her chimney smoking through the cold months. Then she asks him to help her to her carriage. While Morva staggers away on my father’s arm, my mother is wondering if Master Surgeon van Obrecht was right, if Morva really has slept with the Devil and her child has been born into misfortune. She crosses herself and reels off Hail Marys while Beatrijs hastily washes the heathenish symbols from her belly.

Before my mother cradles me in her arms, she anxiously examines my body for signs of the devil: a club foot, or a large birthmark in the shape of an animal’s head. But all she sees is my gaping mouth, my little jaws and my fingers trying to get a grip on her body. She decides I cannot be born for misfortune and whispers to me that everything will come right, that I am a descendant of the Counts of Flanders and the Kings of France. I am blessed and, like her, will be protected by twenty-six angels. Nothing can befall me, my mother whispers into my ear, nothing at all. I have been born for love, good fortune and happiness. Just like her.

My mother is startled from her thoughts when she sees her husband swinging into the room. He looks at my little face and at my little body, which his wife has covered with the red cloths. My mother smiles. My father glows with happiness.

‘He looks like me,’ is all he says.

Then my mother’s smile freezes and she lowers her eyes. My father worriedly lifts a corner of the red cloth. His lips tremble when he sees my lower body. He stares at my mother and his eyes fire a thousand reproaches at her. He can hardly speak with disappointment.

‘It … It is … a girl,’ he stutters. Then he turns and leaves, slamming the door.


I am five years old. I’m wearing a trailing red silk dress stitched through with gold thread. It’s my first real gown and my ladies-in-waiting are constantly telling me to lift my skirts so the seam doesn’t drag on the ground and catch on the horse dung littering the inner courtyard of the castle of Male. I’m wearing a necklace with rubies from the ancient mines in Sicily. They’re the colour of doves’ blood. My hair is braided with coloured ribbons. I can’t wait to show myself off to my father.

I run to the great hall where he is readying himself for the tournament. I walk into the hall and look up at the portraits of the Counts of Flanders, painted on wooden panels. Grim and stern, they stare at me. They’re all dead. Except my father.

He stands in the middle of the hall, surrounded by four squires who run back and forth feverishly. He’s no broad-shouldered hulk who relies on brute strength to crush an opponent. He’s a lean man with sinewy arms. His cheekbones protrude sharply; his hooked nose is prominent in profile; his short beard always forms a perfect triangle. He has reddish-brown hair and narrow-set eyes. There are those who call him ‘fox head’, but never to his face. My father smiles when he sees me in my dress.

I make a deep curtsy. He nods elegantly. He’s wearing leather trousers and a leather vest, both of which are too small for him. A boy is lacing up the strings of the vest on my father’s back, while another fetches a small bucket of pork fat, which he rubs into the leather. My father never stands still. He always needs to be in motion, as if his bladder is full and he can’t find a spot to pee. He moves even while he’s eating, and during games of chess he constantly paces up and down the room, pondering his next move.

Now he keeps flexing his arms and legs to check that the leather is not too tight. Hurriedly, the boys grease a hauberk. My father goes to stand between two stools. Each boy climbs onto one of the stools. My father lifts his arms and from their stools the boys slowly lower the heavy chain mail coat over his body. The iron will protect his chest, stomach and crotch. Then the boys lash up the armour. They fasten the four thigh plates around the leather trousers and hurriedly strap on the shin plates and the steel kneecaps. For a moment my father’s blue eyes look at me. They are set deep in his face and a scar curls around his right eye. The scar looks like a finger, so you get the impression that his eye is held in a clenched fist. I look at him and our eyes lock. Then my father turns away. He marches to the window and the boys are forced to crawl after him on their knees so they can fasten the last of the buckles. And still more steel appears: for the upper arms, the lower arms, the shoulders, the elbows. Then he puts on his armoured gauntlets and the ring-mail cap, the coif that covers his head. He takes up his tournament helmet with the narrow slits that restrict his vision but protect his eyes from his opponent’s lance. The whole suit of armour weighs nearly fifty pounds. The sunlight reflects from the polished steel. My father looks like a warrior from some legend. The metal squeaks and clinks as he walks out of the room. The boys, though exhausted, run ahead to fetch his horse. I run to my mother, who is seated on a dais.

My father ties my mother’s scarf around his arm. The people of Male cheer and throw flowers while my father and his opponent ride at a walking pace to their squires who hand them the first blunt lance. The clarions sound. The war horses snort impatiently and the knights push them into a fast trot. After a few metres the horses swing into a gallop. They storm towards each other. Faster and faster. Each along one side of the wooden palisade. Mud flies and the knights lower their three-metre lances. With an enormous shock the lances shatter against the shields. Sharp splinters fly around. The people in the front row duck, shielding their eyes. My father stays in the saddle, solid as a rock, but his opponent is thrown and, with a dull thud, slams into the ground several metres away.

He doesn’t get up. My father is the champion. I break away from my mother, jump from the dais and run to him across the field. I step on the seam of my dress and fall face down in the mud. People laugh. Someone shouts that I need a bit more practice at being a lady. A lady-in-waiting helps me up, but I tear myself away. Proudly I stride towards my father, wiping the mud from my sleeve.

My father throws the remains of his lance away and wrenches off his helmet. He sees me standing before his horse. Holding on to the front of his saddle, he leans down sideways and lifts me up with his right arm, his sword arm.

I can’t get a grip on the armour, so I throw my arm around his head and feel the iron ringlets of the coif against my cheek. My father smells of armpit, horse, wet earth and pork fat. His face is drenched in sweat. I kiss him. His beard prickles against my cheek. People cheer. I untie the scarf around his arm and wave it at my mother. She gets up from the dais and her round belly is visible under her beautiful blue gown.

My beloved Male is the most beautiful castle in all of Flanders. Built from red bricks, it’s a military fortress with turrets and fortified ramparts, but at the same time it’s the palace of a count. The chroniclers sing the praises of its sophisticated beauty. There are large gardens with cages full of birds from faraway regions and tall towers above which our flags flutter. Its great hall is cleared of fleas every month, and then its floor is covered with a fresh carpet of dried flowers.

From the castle tower I can see the city of Bruges, and when the wind is westerly I raise my nose to sniff the salty wind coming off the sea. The land surrounding the castle is so flat that it looks as if the clouds are caught in the treetops, and everywhere, as far as you can see, there are meadows and fields bordered by low dykes with the occasional windmill. Along the dykes stand rows of pollard willows pushed askew by the west wind.

The lady-in-waiting who always plaits my hair so reluctantly is Constance Bouvaert. She’s from Provence, the land of the troubadours, somewhere in the South. Her name is actually Boúúaert, but, following the latest fashion, she has turned her family name into Flemish to improve her chances with Flemish men in the marriage market. It isn’t much use, because, as a child, Constance crashed at full speed into a Provençal wall, which knocked half her teeth out and left one of her eyes permanently half closed. She is not bothered much by amorous noblemen and so has all the time in the world to teach me the most refined manners: that I must always walk with my back straight, that I should wash myself every week.

She shows me aromatic oils of lavender, honey and almonds which I must drip carefully onto my neck so they slide slowly down my back. She teaches me that a woman’s fingernails must never be allowed to grow too long, how to crumble scent tablets amongst the satin dresses in my clothes trunk, how I can bleach my brown hair with dove poo, and how slovenly it is to have wisps of hair falling over my forehead. The higher the forehead, the more elegant, which is why my mother has my eyebrows and the hairs at the top of my forehead plucked out. It hurts a lot, but my mother says that real beauty is born from pain.

Constance also teaches me that I must kneel before God and bow before my parents. And how common people must greet me by kneeling, or bowing, or, at the very least, by nodding their head. She teaches me how to lower my eyes when a nobleman looks at me, how I must set an example at the table by spitting on the floor and not on the table-linen – particularly if a priest is sitting next to me. And how I should pull a small piece of meat off a bone and lift it to my mouth between thumb and index finger. Ripping meat off the bone with your teeth is for the hungry rabble or for backward English noblemen who have only recently learned to walk upright.

Constance is under orders to keep me in her sight all day, and I turn escaping from her vigilance into a contest. I often hang around in the inner courtyard where life buzzes around me on all sides. There is a blacksmith called Ferre. Hair sprouts from his ears, and beneath his skin run cables that must pass for veins. Flemish pours from his enormous mouth in a thick stream.

‘Look, little lady,’ he roars, pointing at the open stoke hole of his forge. ‘You know what that is?’ he asks.

I look at the glowing coals and the blazing flames, which give off a fierce heat, and shake my head.

‘Have a good look,’ he urges.

I take another step forwards. I feel the scorching heat all over my body.

‘It’s Satan’s arse,’ he hisses in my ear.

The fire growls. In a panic I take a step backward and bump into Ferre’s hard leather belly. He lets go of the bellows he’s used to fan the fire to give me a fright and roars with laughter. I am angry and pummel his belly with my fists. He catches them in his thick, fleshy hands.

‘When you grow up, little lady,’ he says soothingly, ‘I’ll make you a sword.’ He lets me go and with two pairs of tongs pulls a red-hot sword from the fire. With a hammer he pounds it into shape. It takes a long time. The forge seems to be full of thunder and lightning. Sparks fly in all directions. He shouts above the noise of his hammer blows. ‘That’s what I do, little lady. I tame the lightning to make a sword for your father.’

I nod and tell him I can’t wait to grow up so I can hold him to his promise. He takes up the tongs and lowers the sword into the water. It sizzles and bubbles.

‘What promise?’ he asks innocently.

‘Your promise to make me a sword,’ I remind him.

He snorts and says he was only joking. ‘Women and swords, they don’t go together, little lady,’ he growls, bored now, and burns his fingers on the tongs. He curses a handful of saints, and bellows, ‘It’s your fault.’

I grin.

I also hang about in the kitchens of the castle of Male, where I chat with the kitchen boys who pluck the chickens, chop the vegetables and knead the dough. They teach me to curse in Flemish, for if you have to curse, there’s no language like Flemish.

Swearing is actually not allowed. For a swearword, or ‘maledictum’, you can burn in Hell. Yet everybody swears. And not least the priests, the monks, the convent nuns and, it’s whispered, even the Pope – they all use the name of Our Lord in ways that you could at best call frivolous. There are actually severe punishments for swearing and cursing: Claes de Mollenpiepere from Dudzele was sent on a pilgrimage to Rome because he told my father that ‘his taxes were so exorbitant that even Our Lord would piss on them’.

As for me, I try to swear as little as possible, except when it is really necessary – no more than ten or fifteen times a day. The kitchen boys call me Little Lady Wiesterkapelle because they think that, despite my fine manners and French accent, I don’t look like a lady. A chapel, of course, always points to the East, and a chapel that points to the West – a Wiesterkapelle – is the wrong way round. They think I’m half a boy.

I call them the seven bleaters, because there’s always one of them crying in the kitchens. The kitchen boys are so clumsy they cut their fingers or burn their hands on the spit day after day. And to think this bunch of bunglers are going to be squires one day, perhaps even knights! Kitchen Master Aelbrecht is so busy looking after their little cuts with his special Apostle Ointment – so called because it has twelve ingredients – that he hardly gets around to putting together a menu.

That summer I am lazing near the water mill on the south side of our castle. I’ve got blisters on my right foot, so I soak my feet in the water, then pick some mugwort and stuff it into my clog to soften the pain. On the other side of the mill I hear the tattling of the washerwomen. They laugh and chatter while they beat the rolled-up sheets dry on the stones along the bank. Then I hear they are gossiping about ‘the Count’.

I crawl towards them and see them at work. Some are rinsing tablecloths in the moat, others hold linen on their knees and scrub at stains with pumice stones. One of them cackles that as ‘the Count’ can manage to father sons with peasant girls, why can’t he do so with his own wife. Another woman boasts that the Count often visits her and that there is certainly nothing wrong with his equipment.

I jump up, shouting that they’re lying. The washerwomen get a fright and the bitch who made the remarks about my father’s equipment blushes bright red up to her kerchief.

‘You must have misunderstood something, Madame,’ the woman called Greet stammers. She’s in such a dither she lets the wet washing drip all over her lap.

I walk up to her and shove her in the chest with my wooden clog. The woman nearly topples over the edge into the water, and the next moment I feel Constance’s arms pulling me away.

‘You’re lying about my father,’ I scream at the washerwoman. ‘You’re lying.’ Tears roll down my cheeks. I turn to Constance and shout that the washerwomen are all nasty hell-cats who spread lies.

The women make themselves scarce while Constance calms me down.

‘You must have misunderstood something, my sweet,’ she says soothingly. ‘Really, you must have. Why would those women say bad things about your father?’

I hiccup and blubber, my whole body shaking with fury.

I don’t say anything to my mother about the incident. I can’t keep my eyes off her. Everything about her is delicate. She has thin lips, grey eyes, a small nose and her skin is an almost milky white with blue veins showing under it. She has slim fingers and small feet. She is all calm and elegance. The only thing about her that is not delicate is her belly. She is forever expecting.

We’re in a coach on the way to Bruges. The two ladies-in-waiting who accompany us are trying to wipe black smears off my face with a damp cloth. They whisper together in Flemish, saying they just can’t keep me clean. One of them sighs that it’s a pity I’m not a bit more like my mother.

I understand what she is saying, give her a kick and hiss in French, ‘I am so like my mother.’

My mother hears me and smiles. ‘Of course you are, sweetheart,’ she whispers, and the warmth of her hand caresses my face.

The coach slows down near the Holy Cross Gate where the guards talk with the soldiers who are escorting us. A moment later we ride into the free city.

The sounds of Bruges wash over us: the clattering of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, the creaking of the signs hanging outside the traders’ houses, the lepers’ rattles, the whining of stray dogs and the moaning of the children who work the dockside cranes. The smells of Bruges seep into the carriage too. Permeating everything is the smouldering stench of the pigskins that the leatherworkers burn clean in the street and then scrape with sulphur on the banks of the canals. The stench of rotting animal fat in the water stings my nose every time we go over a bridge.

Finally, we stop at the Belfry Tower. My mother gets out. I feel the ladies-in-waiting holding me by the shoulders. I must not walk away. My mother’s blue gown nearly disappears into the teeming crowd. She turns to me and says, ‘Come along, Marguerite.’