Chapter 1 – THE PALACE OF POITIERS, JANUARY 1137
Alienor woke at dawn. The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub and even through the closed shutters, she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and dung heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake. Mounded under the bedclothes, Petronella still slumbered, dark hair spread on the pillow. Alienor crept from the bed, careful not to wake her little sister because she knew how grumpy she was when disturbed too early. Besides, Alienor wanted these moments to herself. This was no ordinary day, and once the noise and bustle began, it would not cease.
She donned the gown folded over her coffer, pushed her feet into soft kidskin shoes and then unlatched a small door in the shutters to lean out and inhale the new morning. A mild, moist breeze carried up to her the familiar scents of smoke, musty stone and freshly baked bread. Braiding her hair with nimble fingers, she admired the alternating ribbons of charcoal, oyster and gold striating the eastern skyline before drawing back with a pensive sigh.
Stealthily she lifted her cloak from its peg and tip-toed from the chamber. In the adjoining room the maids were stirring from sleep, yawning and bleary-eyed. Alienor slipped past them like a sleek young vixen and on light and silent feet, wound her way down the stairs of the great Maubergeonne tower that housed the domestic quarters of the ducal palace.
A drowsy youth was setting out baskets of bread and jugs of wine on a trestle in the great hall. Alienor purloined a small loaf, warm from the oven and went outside. Lanterns still shone in some huts and outbuildings. She heard the clatter of pots from the kitchens and a cook berating an underling for spilling the milk. Familiar sounds that said all was well with the world, even on the cusp of change.
At the stables the grooms were preparing the horses for the journey. Ginnet, her grey palfrey, and Morello, her sister’s glossy black pony still waited in their stalls, but the pack horses were harnessed and carts stood ready in the yard to carry the baggage the hundred and fifty miles south from Poitiers to Bordeaux where she and Petronella were to spend the spring and summer at the Ombriére palace overlooking the River Garonne.
Alienor offered Ginnet a piece of new bread on the flat of her hand, and rubbed the mare’s warm grey neck. ‘Papa doesn’t have to go all the way to Compostela,’ she told the horse. ‘Why can’t he stay at home with us and pray? I hate it when he goes away.’
She jumped and hot with guilt, faced her father, seeing immediately from his expression that he had overheard her.
He was tall and long limbed, his brown hair patched with grey at ears and temples. Deep creases fanned from his eye corners and there were gaunt hollows beneath his well-defined cheekbones. ‘A pilgrimage is a serious commitment to God,’ he said gravely. ‘This is no foolish jaunt made on a whim.’
‘Yes, papa.’ She knew the pilgrimage was important to him, indeed necessary for the good of his soul, but she still did not want him to go. He had been different of late; reserved and more obviously burdened, and she did not understand why.
He tilted her chin on his forefinger. ‘You are my heir, Alienor; you must behave as befits the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, not a sulky child.’
Feeling indignant, she pulled away. She was thirteen, a year past the age of consent, and considered herself grown up, even while she still craved the security of her father’s love and presence.
‘I see you understand me.’ His brow creased. ‘While I am gone, you are the ruler of Aquitaine. Our vassals have sworn to uphold you as my successor and you must honour their faith.’
Alienor bit her lip. ‘I am afraid you will not come back.’ Her voice shook. ‘- that I shall not see you again.’
‘Oh, child! If God wills it, of course I shall come back.’ He kissed her forehead tenderly. ‘You have me for a little while yet. Where is Petronella?
‘Still abed papa. I left her to sleep.’
A groom arrived to see to Ginnet and Morello. Alienor’s father drew her into the courtyard where the pale grey of first light was yielding to warmer tints and colours. He gently tugged her thick braid of honey-gold hair. ‘Go now and wake her then. It will be a fine thing to say you have walked part of the way along the pilgrim route of Saint James.’
‘Yes, Papa.’ She gave him a long, heavy look, before walking away, her back straight and her step measured.
Duke William sighed. His eldest daughter was swiftly becoming a woman. She had grown considerably in the past year, and developed light curves at breast and hip. She was exquisite; just looking at her, intensified his pain. She was too young for what was coming, God help them all.
Petronella was awake when Alienor returned to their chamber and was busily putting her favourite trinkets into a soft cloth bag ready for the journey. Floreta, their nurse and chaperone, had braided Petronella’s lustrous brown hair with blue ribbons and tied it back from her face, revealing the downy curve of her cheek in profile.
‘Where did you go?’ Petronella demanded.
‘Nowhere, just a walk. You were still asleep.’
Petronella closed the drawstring on the bag and waggled the tassels at the end of the ties. ‘Papa says he will bring us blessed crosses from the shrine of St James.’
As if blessed crosses were any sort of compensation for their father’s forthcoming absence, Alienor thought, but held her tongue. Petronella was eleven, but still so much the child. Despite their closeness, the two years between them was often a gulf. Alienor fulfilled the role of their deceased mother to Petronella as often as she did sister.
‘And when he comes back after Easter, we’ll have a big celebration, won’t we?’ Petronella’s wide brown gaze sought reassurance. ‘Won’t we?’
‘Of course we will,’ Alienor said and hugged Petronella, taking comfort in their mutual embrace.
It was mid-morning by the time the ducal party set out for Bordeaux following a mass celebrated in the pilgrim church of St. Hilaire, its walls blazoned with the eagle device of the lords of Aquitaine.
Ragged scraps of pale blue patched the clouds and sudden swift spangles of sunlight flashed on horse harnesses and belt fittings. The entourage unravelled along the road like a fine thread, rainbow-woven with the silver of armour, the rich hues of expensive gowns, crimson, violet and gold, and the contrasting muted blends of tawny and grey belonging to servants and carters. Everyone set out on foot, not just Duke William. This first day, all would walk the twenty miles to the overnight stop at St. Sauvant.
Alienor paced out, holding Petronella’s hand one side, and lifting her gown the other so that it would not trail in the dirt. Now and again, Petronella gave a hop and a skip. A jongleur started to sing to the accompaniment of a small harp and Alienor recognised the words of her grandfather, William the ninth Duke of Aquitaine who had revelled in a notorious reputation. Many of his songs were sexual in content, unsettling in their rawness and unfit for the bower, but this particular one was plangent and haunting, and sent a shiver down Alienor’s spine.
I know not when I am asleep or awake
Unless someone tells me
My heart is nearly bursting with a deep sorrow,
But I care not a fig about it
By St. Martial!
Her father kept company with her and Petronella for a while, but his stride was longer than theirs, and gradually he drew ahead, leaving them in the company of the household women. Alienor watched him walk away, and fixed her gaze on his hand where it gripped his pilgrim staff. The sapphire ring of his ducal authority glittered at her like a dark blue eye. She willed him to turn and look at her, but his focus remained on the road ahead. She felt as if he were deliberately distancing himself, and that in a while he would be gone completely, leaving only the dusty imprint of his footsteps in which to set her own.
She was not even cheered when her father’ seneschal Geoffrey de Rancon lord of Gençay and Taillebourg joined her and Petronella. He was in his late twenties with rich brown hair, deep-set eyes of dark hazel, and a ready smile that made her feel bright inside her heart. She had known him since her birth because he was one of her father’s chief vassals and military commanders. His wife had died two years ago, but as yet he had not remarried. Two daughters and a son from the match meant that his need for heirs was not pressing. ‘Why so glum?’ He peered round into her face. ‘You will darken the clouds scowling like that.’
Petronella giggled and Geoffrey winked at her.
‘Don’t be foolish,’ Alienor lifted her chin and strode out.
Geoffrey matched her pace. ‘Then tell me what is wrong.’
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nothing is wrong. ‘Why should there be?’
He gave her a considering look. ‘Perhaps because your father is going to Compostela and leaving you in Bordeaux?’
Alienor’s throat tightened. ‘Of course not,’ she snapped.
He shook his head. ‘You are right, I am foolish, but will you forgive me and let me walk with you a while?’
Alienor shrugged but eventually gave a grudging nod. Geoffrey clasped her hand in his and took Petronella’s on his other side.
After a while and almost without her knowing, Alienor ceased frowning. Geoffrey was no substitute for her father, but his presence uplifted her and she was able to go forward with renewed spirit.
Chapter 2 – BORDEAUX, FEBRUARY 1137
Sitting before the fire in his chamber high up in the Ombriére palace, William the tenth Duke of Aquitaine gazed at the documents awaiting his seal, and rubbed his side.
‘Sire, you are still set on this journey?’
He glanced across the hearth at the Archbishop of Bordeaux who was warming himself before the fire, his tall spare body bulked out by heavy fur-lined robes. Although their opinions sometimes clashed, he and Gofrid de Louroux were friends of longstanding and William had appointed him tutor to his two daughters. ‘I am,’ he replied. ‘I want to make my peace with God while I still have time, and Compostela is close enough to reach I think.’
Gofrid gave him a troubled look. ‘It is getting worse isn’t it?’
William heaved an exhausted sigh. ‘I tell myself that many miracles are wrought at the shrine of Saint James and I shall pray for one, but in truth I am making this pilgrimage for the sake of my soul, not in expectation of a cure.’ He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Alienor is angry with me because she thinks I can just as easily save my soul in Bordeaux, but she does not understand that I would not be cleansed if I took that course. Here, I would be treated with leniency because I am the seigneur. On the road, on foot with my satchel and staff, I am but another pilgrim. We are all naked when we go before God, whatever our standing on earth, and that is what I must do.’
‘But what of your lands during your absence sire?’ Gofrid asked with concern. ‘Who shall rule in your stead? Alienor is now of marriageable age and although you have made men swear to uphold her, there will be a scramble by every baron in the land to have her to wife or else marry her to his son. Already they circle with intent as you must have noticed. De Rancon for one. He has mourned his wife sincerely I admit, but I suspect political reasons for why he has not yet remarried.’
‘I am not blind.’ William winced as pain stabbed his side. He poured a cup of spring water from the flagon at his elbow. He dared not drink wine these days; all he could keep down was dry bread and bland foods, when once he had been a man of voracious appetite. ‘This is my will.’ He pushed the sheaves of vellum over to de Louroux. ‘I well understand the danger to my girls and how easily the situation could spill into war, and I have done my best to remedy it.’
He watched de Louroux read the sheets, and as he had expected, saw him lift his brows.
‘You are entrusting your daughters to the French,’ Gofrid said. ‘Is that not just as dangerous? Instead of wild dogs prowling outside the fold, you invite the lions inside?’
‘Alienor too is a lioness,’ William replied. ‘It is in her blood to rise to the challenge. She has been educated to that end, and she has great ability as you well know.’ He waved his hand. ‘The plan has its flaws, but it is safer than others that might seem promising at first glance. You have contacts with the French through the Church – and you are a wise man and eloquent. You have taught my daughters well; they trust you and are fond of you. In the event of my death, I commend their safety and welfare into your keeping. I know you will do what is best for them.’
William watched Gofrid read the will again and frown. ‘There is no better solution. I have wracked my brains until they have almost poured out of my skull. I am entrusting my daughters and therefore Aquitaine, to Louis of France because I must. If I wed Alienor to de Rancon, honourable though he is, I will be condemning my lands to bloody civil war. It is one thing for men to obey my seneschal acting under my instruction, another to see him set above them as Duke Consort of Aquitaine.’
‘Indeed sire,’ Gofrid conceded.
William’s mouth twisted. ‘There is also Geoffrey of Anjou to consider. He would dearly love to unite his house with mine by betrothing his infant son to Alienor. He broached the subject last year when we were on campaign in Normandy, and I put him off by saying I would consider the matter when the boy was older. If I die, he may well attempt to seize the moment, and that too would be disastrous. In this life, we have to make sacrifices for the common good; Alienor understands that.’ He made a feeble attempt at a jest, but neither man smiled. ‘If grapes are to be trodden underfoot, then in Bordeaux, we have always known how to make wine.’ He paused for breath. The pain was making him feel sick. The long walk from Poitiers had taken its toll on his dwindling strength. Dear God he was exhausted and there was still so much to do.
Gofrid continued to look troubled. ‘It may prevent your people from fighting among themselves – but I fear instead they will turn on the French as the common enemy.’
‘Not if their Duchess is also a queen. I expect unrest from the usual areas, and there are always petty squabbles, but I do not believe there will be outright rebellion. I trust to your skills as a diplomat to hold the ship steady.’
Gofrid plucked at his beard. ‘Is anyone else to see this?’
‘No. I will send a trusted messenger to King Louis with a copy, but others need not know just yet. If the worst happens you must inform the French immediately and guard my girls until they arrive. For now I entrust you to keep these documents safe.’
‘It shall be done as you wish sire.’ He gave William a worried look. ‘Shall I have your physician bring you a sleeping draught?’
‘No,’ William’s expression grew taut. ‘There will be time enough for sleep all too soon.’
Gofrid left the chamber with a heavy heart. William was dying and probably did not have long. He might succeed in hiding the truth from others, but Gofrid knew him too well to be fooled. There was so much still to be accomplished and it grieved him that their business would now be like a half-finished embroidery. Whatever was woven in the other half would never match the work already completed and might even cause the former to unravel.
Gofrid’s thoughts turned with compassion to Alienor and Petronella. Seven years ago they had lost their mother and their little brother to a deadly marsh fever. Now they stood to lose their beloved father too. They were so vulnerable. William had made their future certain in his will, and probably glorious, but Gofrid wished the girls were older and more tempered by experience. He did not want to see their bright natures become corrupted and tarnished by the grime of the world, but knew it was bound to happen.
Alienor removed her cloak and draped it over her father’s chair. His scent and presence lingered in his chamber because he had left everything behind when he set out from the cathedral, clad in his penitent’s robe of undyed wool, plain sandals on his feet and coarse bread in his satchel. She and Petronella had walked a few miles with him in procession, before returning to Bordeaux with the Archbishop. Petronella had chattered all the way, filling the void with her animated voice and swift gestures, but Alienor had ridden in silence and on arriving home, had slipped away to be alone.
She moved around the room, touching this and that. The eagle motif carved into the back of his chair, the ivory box containing strips of parchment, and the little horn and silver pot holding his quill pens and stylus. She paused beside his soft blue cloak with the squirrel lining. A single strand of hair glinted on the shoulder. She lifted a fold of the garment and pressed it to her face, taking it into herself as she had not taken in his final, scratchy embrace on the road because she had been so angry with him. She had ridden away on Ginnet and not looked back. Petronella had hugged him hard in her stead, and departed with bright farewells enough for them both.
Alienor’s eyes grew sore and hot and she blotted her tears on the cloak. It was only until Easter and then he would be home. He had been away many times before – only last year on battle campaign in Normandy with Geoffrey le Bel, Count of Anjou, and there had been far more danger in that, than walking a pilgrim road.
She sat on the chair, and resting her hands on the arms, put herself in the position of lady of Aquitaine, dealing judgement and wisdom. From small childhood she had been educated to think and to rule. The spinning and weaving lessons, the gentler feminine pursuits had only been the background to the serious matter of learning and ideas. Her father loved to see her dressed in fine clothes and jewels; he approved of womanly pursuits, and femininity, but he had also treated her as his surrogate son. She had ridden with him on progress through the wide lands of Aquitaine, from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the flat coastlands in the west, with their lucrative saltpans between Bordeaux, and the bustling port of Niort. From the vines of Cognac and the forests of Poitou, to the hills, lush river valleys and fine riding country of the Limousin. She had been at his side when he took the homage of his vassals, many of whom were turbulent, quarrelsome men, eager for their own gain, but acknowledging her father’s suzerainty. She had absorbed her lessons by watching how he dealt with them. The language of power was exercised in more than just words. It was presence and thought, it was gesture and timing. He had illuminated her way and taught her to stand in her own light, but today, she felt as if she had entered a land of shadows.
The door opened and the Archbishop entered the room. He had exchanged his his elaborate mitre for a plain felt cap and his magnificent outer garments for an ordinary brown habit girded with a simple knotted belt. Tucked under his arm was a beautiful ivory box. ‘I thought I would find you here, daughter,’ he said.
Alienor felt a little resentful, but said nothing. She could hardly tell the Archbishop of Bordeaux to go away, and a small forlorn part of her wanted to cling to him, even as she had wanted to cling to her father.
He set the box down on a table beside her chair. ‘Your father asked me to give you this,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you remember it from when you were small.’ From a lining of soft white fleece, he produced a pear-shaped vase fashioned of clear rock crystal, the surface intricately worked in a honeycomb effect. ‘He said it was like you – precious and unique. When it gives off its light, it enhances all things that surround it.’
Alienor swallowed. ‘I do remember it,’ she said, ‘but I have not seen it for a long time.’
Unspoken between them lay the detail that this beautiful thing had been a gift from her father to her mother at their marriage, and at her death it had been put away in the cathedral treasury at Bordeaux and seldom brought out.
She cupped the vase in her hands and put it down gently on the trestle. The light from the window struck through the crystal, scattering rainbow coloured lozenges across the white cloth. Alienor gasped at the unexpected, shimmering display. Her eyes blurred on a prism of tears, and she choked back a sob.
‘Ah, daughter, hush now.’ Gofrid came round the table to embrace her. ‘All will be well, I promise you. I am here, I will care for you.’
They were the same words she always used to Petronella, whatever the truth of the matter; they were like a bandage on a wound. It might not heal the injury, but it made it easier to bear. She clung to him and allowed herself to cry, but eventually drew away, and lifted her chin. The sun still dazzled on the vase and she put her hand in the light to see the colours dance on her wrist, vermillion, cerulean and royal purple.
‘Without the light the beauty remains hidden,’ Gofrid said. ‘But it is always there. Just like God’s love, or a father’s, or mother’s. Remember that Alienor. You are loved, whether you see it or not.’