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The Book of Eleanor: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine
by Pamela Kaufman
Three Rivers Press, 2003
We departed London on the Winchester Royal Road riding ten abreast, a royal guard in smart scarlet, helmets and swords glittering in the low winter sun, and my spirits suddenly burst with happiness. I'm not called "Joy" for nothing, eh? I loved being in open air again, loved the jingle of harnesses and clop of hooves, even loved the bright crimson standard with its three lions bobbing ahead of me; most of all, I was happy that it was necessary to move me. We must be winning-otherwise, why whisk me out of the White Tower without the other women? Why send me to the great palace at Winchester? For where else did this road lead?
We stopped about an hour short of Winchester at the river ford.
"Perhaps they're worried about the ice," I said to my handmaid.
Amaria's green eyes slid toward the wood. "Or those men?"
At first the branches looked bare, but gradually I saw men as alike as mushrooms crouched silently on the limbs, men with shaved pates and legs, white tunics with green sashes, toes curled around icy bark.
"Welshmen! God's feet, what are they doing here?"
I spurred my steed to the front of the line where Ranulf de Glanvill was talking to a dour middle-aged Welshman with a scarlet cape over his white tunic.
"Why have we stopped, my lord?" I demanded.
Glanvill's darting black eyes avoided me. "Queen Eleanor, may I present Lord Ciarron ap Dwyddyn?" He raised his arm abruptly and shouted, "Reverse direction!"
The lines of ten abreast turned smartly around and began trotting back to London with their jingling harnesses and standard. Instantly, I roiled my horse to join them, but Glanvill and Ciarron crowded my mount on either side and I found myself splashing across a shallow ditch directly into the forest with Amaria beside me. I was too shocked to be afraid, but I certainly recognized the danger.
"Stop at once!" I jerked my reins. "I'll not leave the road!"
Ciarron grabbed my bridle.
"Lord Glanvill!" I cried.
He stared straight ahead, and I knew my fate. Who hasn't heard of the forest executions of political prisoners? We rode deeper and deeper into the bare trees in the company of the ghostly Welshmen, until the tangle became so thick that we were forced into the river, riding in icy water to our hips, with our longcarts floating behind us. Amaria reached for my gloved hand.
Then the ring of an ax. Again I looked at Glanvill's profile. Malevolent he might be, but I could hardly believe that such an important officer would do the bloody deed, a job fit only for an anonymous brute. The sound of ax blows came closer.
Suddenly we entered a small clearing where woodmen were felling trees, some chopping limbs off trunks to make palings for a wall almost fifteen feet high, looming before us. Above us on the guard platform, Welshmen sat dangling filthy feet. The gate swung open.
We entered a broad compound covered with a light fall of snow. Ice-crusted sheep cast long shadows across the yard. Workmen rested on their tools to stare with open-mouthed curiosity. In the distance, over the tops of brown trees, I spotted Clarendon Lodge. I'd gazed down on this clearing many times from above and so knew exactly where I was: Old Sarum, an ancient Saxon tower, a square, squat donjon constructed of crumbling dry wall atop a steep motte encircled by a wide weed-choked moat. It had been uninhabitable for centuries, but now the new huts and fences told another tale.
I was so angry that I could hardly speak. "Lord Glanvill, is this a joke?"
"King's orders. Dismount, if you please."
"I'll not spend ten heartbeats in that windy ruin. Depend on it!"
His eyes ceased darting. "Must I force you?"
I reared my horse and crashed down on the nearest guards.
A hundred men fell on me. From the icy ground, I bit every dirty ankle I could reach, fought my way to my feet, scratched bare scalps, stamped on Welsh toes with my golden boots. One churl put his hand across my mouth, and I bit his thumb. Blood spurted everywhere. I clung to my horse's neck.
"Help me!" I cried. "Someone help! I'll reward-"
At least twenty men dragged me to the moat bridge. I reached out my foot and tripped a guard, who fell backward through the thin scum of ice. I went limp, made them carry me up the motte, through the tower door into pitch-blackness, up a dark stair, where I banged my head on low beams, then up again to the middle room, up a third stair to the uppermost level of this bat-filled eyrie.
Glanvill stood on the top step, panting. "With the Devil as my witness, I'm enjoying this."
"Even the infidel doesn't enjoy killing women!"
He bared his teeth. "No one's killed you."
"No, nor given me a trial! How dare you, a man of the law, treat me like a common criminal! You think I don't know the purpose of Old Sarum? First Saxons, then Normans incarcerated ruffians here to die a cruel death, but no one-I repeat, no one-ever tortured a woman thus! Certainly not a queen!"
"You will have a trial."
"You take me for a fool? After a year? Capture me, hide me, and maybe I'll cooperate by expiring 'naturally' because your king lost his balls after the Becket scandal. Aye, and he'll weep over my grave as he did over Thomas's! Hypocrite!"
"The king wants to be lenient."
"He offers you a fine position: You may become abbess of Fontevrault, with all the perquisites of your station, a worthy end to your life."
"If I what?"
He came closer. "Recant your orders to your sons."
"So that he can punish them?"
"The king is prepared to be lenient there as well. He loves his princes." He came closer still. I could smell his sour stomach. "Recant, Queen Eleanor."
"I'm tempted . . ." I groped, as if for my kerchief, and found my quoit.
In a flash I whipped him across his eyes. Again! Again! He stumbled backward. Down the stairs: Thump! Thump! Thump! I ran down after him, hitting on his face, his ears, his throat. "Are you dead, Lord Glanvill?"
"Still alive? Pity." I kicked him in the ribs.
He rolled to his stomach, then to his knees. I followed as he stumbled to the bottom of the tower and out the door.
"I will make your king the Pope-a fitting end to his life!"
I returned to the top floor, where Amaria crouched by a stone latrine carved in the wall.
"He means us to die, Am."
"I know." Her teeth chattered.
"Stay here while I examine our great hall."
The tower was built of large uneven stones without mortar and would have fallen long ago except for a tough woody vine snaking around it as support. I could put my fist through the spaces between stones; wind whistled through in strange harmonies, and snow was fast piling at the base. The roof and flooring had once been of wood; since the roof was long gone, I could only surmise that the floors had been replaced, though they were far from secure. One space between stones was larger than the others, possibly an arrow slit. I gazed down on the moat we'd just crossed and saw a suspicious mound beyond it, which might be a mass grave. Then, as I turned, a skull rolled at my feet.
I went back to Amaria.
I led her down the stairs, where they bisected the middle floor, down to the bottom in the dark. There we huddled on bare ground under the steps, the warmest place in the tower. I hastily felt with my hands for more gruesome souvenirs of the past so that my handmaid might be spared. Then I wrapped her in my sables. Our soaked tunics were fast turning to ice.
We heard Glanvill's fanfare and horses.
"We're alone with all those savages," Amaria whimpered. "What will we do?"
"We'll survive." My voice shook with rage. "My sons will rescue us." I hugged her close.
The door opened; a shaft of icy air blew inward. "Queen Eleanor!"
Lord Ciarron carried a lantern in one hand, a smoking pot in the other. "I've brought your food." At least the churl spoke French, albeit with a goatish Welsh tongue.
Stiffly, Amaria and I became two people again. Lord Ciarron placed the lantern on a step while he unwrapped his packet. Instead of bread, we had thin pancakes to dip into a hot gruel, and the wine had likewise been heated. We gulped eagerly. I didn't recognize the mess, though it certainly contained a little lamb gristle. Never mind, it was hot.
Ciarron's lean wolf face watched us without expression, yet even curs respond to gratitude, eh?
"This is delicious," I lied. "Is it Welsh fare?"
"Lagana," he said, pointing to the pancakes.
Amaria was more direct. "Do you plan for us to freeze tonight, my lord?"
He shifted his weight. "You have furs."
"But no roof, no walls." She pointed to snow falling through the open space above, to small drifts piling along the dry walls. "We're not bears, my lord."
I said bluntly, "We'll be dead by morning."
"Help us!" Amaria pleaded. "I've heard that the Welsh are the most hospitable people on earth."
Wordlessly, he took his lantern to leave, when the beam suddenly fell directly on Amaria's face. My handmaid has never been beautiful, even when she was young, with her red hair and freckles, but in this pale glow, her delicate features with their green eyes had a poignant appeal, enough to make him hesitate. I held my breath, but he turned and we were plunged into darkness.
"You know, Am, that the Welsh are last in hospitality, not first."
"He seemed a little more civilized than the others."
We wrapped ourselves against the snow.
"Listen!" Amaria stirred.
Steps, then two lanterns. Between them, Ciarron and another Welshman carried eight sheepskins, smelling like glue and crawling with maggots, but welcome as fine down. Weighting two pelts with rocks, they formed walls against the steps, then piled the rest inside.
Again the lantern caught Amaria's face-deliberately?
"Thank you, Lord Ciarron," I said.
After they'd left, we squirmed onto our rough hides, snug as wood lice.
I had never been so cold. An icy gale howled unimpeded across Salisbury Plain, past the flapping sheepskins, to bite the very bone. The dark was a feral presence, enhancing the cold. My jaw ached in an effort to control my chattering teeth; I tried to warm my hands with my breath; I couldn't feel my feet. Eeeeeoooo! Eeeeoooo!
"Was that a wolf?" Am cried.
"The wind, dear."
"I don't want to be eaten!"
Nor did I.
"Come closer. We must warm each other." We rearranged my sables so we could slip our hands under each other's tunics.
The low mournful tone resumed. Elegiac. Tomorrow never comes, a voice from my past. Was this my last night on earth? Would Ciarron discover Amaria and me in a deathly embrace? Then, to be flung into a common grave, perhaps with victims of the Black Death when the spring thaw came. Stay awake, I ordered myself; don't succumb.
I woke with a start. Disoriented. Where was I? What was that peculiar glow on the beam above? Heart tripping, I slipped out from my sables. The glow had a shape-a naked man's shape! Long pale hair, eyes like blue lances, an apparition to be sure, but familiar. I chilled in a different manner.
"Grandfather, is that you?"
He mocked gently. "Joy, is that you?"
I licked my cold lips. "I'm not going with you, Grandfather. I'm not going to die!"
"Of course you are! We all die, eh?" He somersaulted through the air to a lower beam. "Oc, the same azure eyes, cherry lips, cheeks round as peaches, golden hair-the wintry wind makes merit grow-come while you're still young, dear. Five is a delicious age."
"I was five when you died; I'm fifty-two now."
"And still delectable! You take after me-you know they called me 'Junior.' Did anyone ever tell you why?"
Had he really been so vain? "Junior for Juvenile, eh?"
He leapt again; something brushed my cheek. "And Joy for passion! Aren't we a pair?"
"No, Grandfather, we're not! I won't die!"
He reached a delicate hand. "You have no choice, Milord."
"You couldn't take me before-remember?"
"In laudes Innocentium! Sallat chorus infantium!" he chanted.
"Please, Grandfather, I'm determined to live. Survival will be my revenge for this slow execution! Tell me how-you're the wisest man I ever knew!"
"Am I truly?" His hair rose in a cloud. "Well, perhaps I am, though the competition was dull." He covered his eyes, laughing silently. Then he became serious. "Life is love, my dear, my song and my wisdom. You learned my lesson the best."
"But the world prevailed against us, eh?" A wave of deep despair clutched my vital spirits. "If life is love, Grandfather, than I am truly dead."
"You don't yet know the meaning of death, Milord. You breathe, you experience time, and therefore you yet have hope of love."
"Hope in this windy spike? Of love?"
"You're asleep on your horse, not yet asleep. Carpe diem! Make a tryst, darling!"
"Would you have me seduce a sheep in its pen?"
"Many a man wears a sheepskin as disguise!" He pulled his lower eyelid. "Use your furry flower-you know the tricks!"
"Grandfather! I'm an old lady!"
"Still young enough to be a trickster! However, I grant that your opportunities are limited." His cloudy hair drooped, then rose again. "But not your memories, eh? If you insist upon living, let your gaudy flowers bloom on your vellum! Remember how I scribbled my verses well into my dotage? Love is in your heart-now make it your art!"
With an eerie laugh, he shot straight up and disappeared.
"Levis insurgit, William," I whispered.
I lay under the sable again, colder than ever from my mesclatz conversation with a ghost. I closed my eyes; something struck me on the nose! Grandfather being playful? I was struck again-on the forehead this time. Cold, wet. Ice! I sat upright. Heaven help us, the snow had changed to hard pellets. Hail? No, this ice cut; it was sleet! Huge shards, like glass tinkling and banging noisily. I pulled the fur over Amaria's head, which left me exposed.
Surely the rattle and banging would wake her. The cacophony rose to a friendly racket: Tic! Tac! Hic! Hac! Tiket! Taket! Tic! Tac! Down the stone steps marched the pellets, like horses dancing across cobbles, while on the rotting beams tee, tee, tee echoed the beat of the clappers, of the tambors, and a lusty voice rang out:
Time may come and turn and go
through days and years, sun and snow
[tic, tac, tee, tee, ton]
While I am dumb
With desire, ever new;
My senses numb.
I so want you!
[Ticket, tacket, tic, tic, tic]
Yet the season goes apace
Will nothing halt my heart's mad race!
Aquitaine! Hugh and Guy and Aimar and Achilles cantering down the summer paths, ready for war and love, Cercamon strumming his lyre, Marcabru!
"Did you feel that, Joy?"
"It's only sleet. Try to sleep."
"You sleep! I'll place the fur over your head."
"I dozed a bit; I'm awake now."
And curiously excited. We might be lying in a grave, the sleet might be our final shroud, Grandfather might yet have his way, but I felt alive. My vital spirits leapt to the hot Aquitanian rhythms. And Grandfather was right-I did remember!
"Listen, Am! Did you bring vellum in your longcart?"
"Of course." Her voice was concerned. "Do you think this is the time to write a lai?"
"That's for you to decide, dear. I have my own project. May I borrow a few pages?"
"If I can reach the cart, of course." Now her voice was worried. "To write troubadour songs?"
As if talent ran in the blood. As if this setting could inspire licentious verse!
"Oh no, something more mundane. I must send letters abroad."
"Of course." Her tone filled with pity.
My brain grew more fevered; my heart raced to the drumming around me. While I drew breath, while memory was still alive, let me record my tale. Oc, let the winds taunt, the sleet cut, but let me not slide mutely into my pauper's grave. Let my words live on; let the record relate how he so doted on me that he must have me dead. No doubt he, too, would take up his stylus-or hire some fawning prelate to echo his lies-but somewhere in the crevices of this ancient tomb would lie another story, one of a king's hypocrisy, duplicity, murderous cruelty. He would accomplish my death, no doubt, but never avoid his own guilt, testa me ipso. I laughed aloud-and felt Amaria start.
"What amuses you, Joy?" She thought me mad with fear.
"I was trying to recall that verse from Edras, something about victory."
"Edras one, three: ten: 'Truth beareth away victory.'"
"That's the one-thank you."
Tic, tac, tee, tee . . .
And my tract must also record the secret heart that beat under my royal vestments. What mattered a scandal after my death? The royal scribes would deflate my worldly accomplishments, no doubt, but no one could challenge my private feelings. Not for nothing was I born granddaughter of the first and most famous troubadour of them all, Duke William IX, infamous for his own scandalous life. Not that my passion ever became the stuff of common gossip, nor were the manufactured rumors ever close to the truth.
Yes, I would tell my dual stories, both the public and the private, with a dual purpose, as Grandfather suggested. "He who writes of his life of passion lives two lives." There, I'd made myself smile, for the true maxim is: "He who writes of his life of virtue lives two lives."
My life of virtue would make a short book.
Shall I begin with my birth in Aquitaine? The misery of my parents? The internecine warfare between my aunts and my mother? My father's dour fate? So much, so much. All poignant to me, the rich soil in which I was nurtured, but it was their story, not mine. My childhood was paradise, as I remember it-did the adults shield me from their misery and resentments? I doubt it. I think rather that they all loved me, whatever their other allegiances and resentments toward one another, for love is what makes a child happy, eh? I hoped my own children would remember that. No, my own tale began when I was fifteen, the night when I stepped center stage in the world's drama.
The north wind soughed again, and now it sounded friendly, like the autun wind of the south blowing when I became duchess. Oooo, oooo, the sigh carried me back, and I slipped into the skin of the earlier Eleanor.
Excerpted from The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman.
Copyright © 2003 by Pamela Kaufman. All rights reserved.
Posted with permission of the publisher.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.