Authors: Ellen Jones
He glared at one of the guards by the door. “You, rout my son out of the cathedral. Tell him to make ready to leave at once for Bordeaux.”
The guard hesitated. “Now, Sire?”
“No, next week, next month, next year! May God give me strength, I’m surrounded by imbeciles and fools! Oh never mind! Just do as I say.”
He turned back to Abbé Suger, his breath coming in short gasps. “Do you tell me that—this daughter of Eve, member of an inferior sex, still hardly more than a child, is of any real concern to you? That between us we cannot tame this wild eaglet long before she becomes queen of France?” Suger turned red; Louis smiled. “Good. Now go.”
When the abbé had bowed himself out of the chamber, Louis closed his eyes. The encounter had robbed him of his strength.
Still, the prospect of Aquitaine becoming a French possession was sure to breathe new life into his ailing body. Indeed, even now, he felt a frisson of anticipation pulse through his veins. Although he had made glib assurances to Suger, he had hidden his own disquiet, a disquiet related not only to a sense of his own mortality, but grave concern for his realm as well.
At his death—which he feared might come sooner rather than later—the old order of things would pass. It always happened in a new reign. Then what? If only he could look into the future. Heavenly Father, he prayed, do not let me die. Not yet. Not for a long time to come. With a shy, devout, inexperienced youth and a willful, tempestuous maid at the helm, what will happen to France?
“My father only put Aquitaine in the French king’s safekeeping and asked him to find me a suitable husband—in time,” said Eleanor, her voice trembling with mingled anger and fear. “How can I agree to marry his son, or anyone else for that matter, when I’m still in mourning?”
Aghast at the news that the French prince was on his way to Bordeaux not six weeks after her father’s death, Eleanor was still sitting in the straw-filled cart that had brought her from the small vineyard outside Bordeaux into the courtyard of Ombrière Palace.
“Such haste is unseemly, but God will understand,” said the archbishop of Bordeaux in an agitated voice. “King Louis feels that he cannot properly protect Aquitaine unless you are closely allied to the Capet family. It is really a great honor he bestows upon you.”
His nose wrinkled in reproof as he took in her skirts bunched up around her knees, purple grape juice dribbling down her chin, smeared across her mouth, and staining her bare legs.
“Although I doubt if the French king would be so eager to have you if he saw you like this. Still treading the grapes at your age! Disgraceful.”
Eleanor ignored this. He had been criticizing her behavior as far back as she could remember, and she had never paid the slightest attention. “How can you call this enforced wedding an honor, Your Grace? Protect the duchy! The French king has always coveted Aquitaine for himself.”
Grieving for her father, struggling to accustom herself to the overwhelming task of trying to replace the late duke, Eleanor had been treading the grapes with the other inhabitants of Bordeaux when the equerry Conon had appeared with the unwelcome news that Prince Louis had left Paris with an escort of five hundred knights. He was on his way to Bordeaux to marry her and she must return to the palace at once.
“Five hundred knights! Fat Louis of France does not give me much choice in the matter.” She prayed she would not disgrace herself by suddenly bursting into tears. “Do my feelings, my grief, count for nothing in this matter?” A foolish question, as she already knew the answer.
The archbishop threw up his hands in a gesture of impatience.
feelings? We are all grieving. By God’s wounds, what do one’s feelings have to do with the matter?” He folded his arms across his black-robed chest. “What do you think it means to be a duchess? To do just as you please? Have everyone jump when you give an order? You have a vast inheritance in your keeping. To rule is also to serve, to bend to the will of others as needful.”
Eleanor shot him a defiant glance. “I don’t recall my father bending to the will of others.” Except when he was forced into doing so, echoed a small voice in her head.
“Naturally not,” the archbishop said in a dry tone. “That was one of the reasons he was an incompetent duke. Of course he was forced to—well, no need to go into that now. In any case he is not an example to follow, my child. Your grandfather, on the other hand, however disgraceful his personal morals may have been, knew how to yield with grace when the occasion demanded.” He paused. “Or so he was able to make others believe. A great gift.”
Eleanor felt a lump rise in her throat. Her charming Troubadour grandfather. Who would rather have conquered women than enemies. Hadn’t her father once said she possessed her grandfather’s gift?
“We waste time. There is much to discuss.” The archbishop gestured imperiously at the driver. “Take this cart back to the vineyards.”
When the cart didn’t move, he frowned. “Well, go on, boy, go on. Did you not hear me?”
The boy driving the cart looked questioningly at Eleanor. An unexpected glow of triumph spread through her, warming the chill in the pit of her belly, giving her a surge of courage. She gave a tiny shake of her head.
The equerry, Conon, spoke for the first time.
“Now that word of your father’s death is no longer secret, Lady, the French king is anxious to move quickly and I, for one, thank God for his haste, no matter how unseemly.” He glanced at the archbishop. “We didn’t want to alarm you, but there are rumors of an uprising in the Limousin, and indications that your vassals there intend to march on Bordeaux, take you captive, then marry you by force.” He signed himself. “In truth, you
have much choice in this matter.”
“You should have told me.” The surge of courage diminished. Bile rose in her throat.
The barons of the Limousin! Her childhood had been haunted by their continual unrest.
“But I do have a choice,” she said bitterly. “Rape, and then a forced marriage by my own vassal, or an enforced marriage to the French prince, and then a rape blessed by Holy Church. I feel just like Queen Radegonde must have felt with the Franks pursuing her.”
“I would hardly call you a candidate for canonization, my child,” said the archbishop.
Six centuries earlier, this learned queen had fled the kingdom of the Franks and her brutal husband. She was later consecrated as a nun and founded the Convent of Ste.-Croix in Poitiers. St. Radegonde, now a patron saint of Poitiers, was one of Eleanor’s favorite heroines.
If only she too could run away. Tears spurted to her eyes and to avoid shaming herself, Eleanor jumped down from the cart and walked a few steps away. Across the river, in the far distance, she watched the line of dark blue hills melt into the blazing sapphire hue of the sky. Closer to view were the purple vineyards she had just left, a winding river, and a herd of cows placidly grazing in a nearby field. In truth, she was just like St. Radegonde. A martyr to—behind her she heard a discreet cough.
“If I may interrupt your reflections, Lady?”
She brushed away the tears and turned. “Well?”
“There is another aspect of this business that has not been mentioned,” said Conon. “The most important part.” He paused. “One day you will be queen of France.”
“I?” She could not grasp the meaning of his words.
“Yes, Lady, who else? No one, not even the great Troubadour himself, would have dared aim so high.” With his usual dramatic flair Conon flung himself down on one knee. “On that auspicious day, on that most glorious occasion, every one of your loyal vassals—I among them—will sleep sounder in his bed knowing that Duchess Eleanor—
Eleanor—rules in Paris.”
Queen? The thought took her breath away. It was impossible to imagine. Until this moment she had not realized the full implications … Queen Eleanor! She silently repeated the title to herself.
She felt Conon’s and the archbishop’s steady gaze. After a long pause she asked, “How old is this French prince and what does he look like?”
The archbishop let out a long sigh and signed himself.
“Sixteen. A year older than yourself. Of pleasing appearance, they say, isn’t that so, Conon?”
“It is as His Grace says, Lady. The prince is indeed pleasing. Though, in truth, ‘pleasing,’ does him scant justice. Comely is more apt. Did I say comely?” Conon closed his eyes and staggered back a few steps. “Mere words fall far short … Never have I seen a youth so fair. His beauty is beyond—”
“Yes, yes. But what does he look like?”
“Blue-eyed, with silver gilt hair like all the Capets. Pleasant and modest as befits a youth fresh out of the cloister.”
Conon thought for a moment. “Also malleable, was my impression. Quite docile in fact.” He gave her a significant glance.
Malleable. Of all that had been said, that word leapt out at her. Conon understood her dilemma far better than the archbishop. A malleable husband would not attempt to interfere too strongly with Aquitaine; a malleable husband would not try to control or overpower her. As Queen of France she would be able to protect her domains.
And the prince must be pleasing to look upon. Conon might well exaggerate but he would never tell her an outright lie. An image of a knightly figure, dashing and debonair, rose before her. The Limousin barons, she recalled with distaste, were dark-visaged, portly, and smelled strongly of garlic.
“There will be a lot to do to prepare for the wedding before he arrives. When I come back we can decide on the guests.” Eleanor jumped up on the back of the hay-filled cart. “All right, Jean, I am ready.”
“By God’s wounds, where are you going?” the archbishop called as the horse pulled the cart away.
“To help finish the grape harvest.”
All the way back to the vineyards while the cart bounced over deep ruts in the road, Eleanor thought about her decision. Had she done the right thing? Not that she really had any other choice, but still … she could change what she did not like, as her grandmother had advised so long ago. What else had the canny old woman said? To get what you want you must take matters into your own hands. Until the death of her father six weeks earlier, Eleanor thought she had what she wanted: a life of merriment, frolic, and idle romance. Free from care and concern. One day, of course, to inherit the duchy; one day, an idyllic love and marriage with some appropriate suitor. But all that was now changed.
Her own hopes and desires must be subordinate to the welfare of Aquitaine now. The duchy had to be kept inviolate. Free from harm. Surely a queen of France would be able to accomplish that? As if in a dream, Eleanor remembered how desperately she had wanted Aquitaine, never imagining there might be a price to pay. In some dark corner of her mind she could hear Dangereuse laughing …
HINK I SEE HIM.”
Petronilla was leaning precariously out the window of the turret chamber in Ombrière Palace.
“See who?” Eleanor asked.
Indifferent to the excited voices of female attendants and relatives packing boxes, stuffing leather saddlebags with shoes, jeweled headbands, and woolen stockings for the journey to Paris, Eleanor sat on an embroidered stool, and looked into a hand-held silver mirror while a serving woman brushed out her long mane of curly chestnut hair.
“You know perfectly well. The French prince, who else? Come and look.”
Eleanor, clad only in her oat-colored linen shift, did not stir. Now that the dreaded moment was at hand she was reluctant to see the heir to the French throne. Her sister’s excitement only made matters worse. She stared disconsolately into the mirror. Large hazel eyes, tilted at the corners and fringed by thick sooty lashes, stared back at her from the soft oval of her face, their usual sparkle dimmed. The full lips that one troubadour had compared to crushed summer wildberries were turned down in a pout. Even her skin lacked its characteristic amber glow. She let the mirror slip to the floor.
“Nell! Do stop sulking and come look.”
Eleanor sighed and got to her feet. The scent of musk oil in the chamber was overpoweringly sweet, the disorder oppressive. Piles of scarlet, emerald, and azure gowns and tunics, velvet cloaks, and leather shoes were strewn over the wide bed and carved wooden chest. Amid a profusion of brooches set with pearls and lapis lazuli, gold and silver chains tumbling out of ivory caskets, a bracelet studded with rubies stood out. It reminded her of huge drops of blood.
Steeling herself, Eleanor joined Petronilla at the window. Beneath a burning blue sky, the chivalry of France had converged on the east bank of the Garonne River that ran beside the old Roman wall confining the city of Bordeaux. Under the fluttering blue-and-gold banners of the fleur-de-lis were a seemingly unending host of knights, barons, heralds, squires, and standard-bearers.
Eleanor shielded her eyes from the morning sun. “Which one is Louis?”
“You see that group of men?”
While royal retainers pitched gaily colored pavilions in the meadow beyond the city, several figures had detached themselves from the horde and were now walking down to the river where a flotilla of boats waited to ferry them across.
“The sun strikes sparks from the head of one of them. It must be a crown.”
Now Eleanor could see that in the center of the group was a tall slender youth in a black cloak with a gold circlet on his head. She caught a glimpse of fair hair, a blur of undistinguished features, although at this distance it was hard to tell exactly what he looked like. Could that really be the French prince? Her heart sank. The overall impression was so—so bland, so unlike the splendid golden cavalier that had filled her hopeful dreams.
“He reminds me of a large, harmless rabbit,” she said to Petronilla, wrinkling her nose.
The women in the chamber tittered.
Petronilla, a brown-haired, green-eyed version of Eleanor with a full-breasted body that belied her thirteen years, looked solemn. “A rabbit in holy orders would be more apt. What kind of a husband will he make, I wonder?”
“Stop teasing, Petronilla,” said Aunt Agnes, recently arrived from the abbey at Saintes. “Eleanor has made a most illustrious marriage. Pray to the Holy Mother that you are only half as fortunate.”