The Summer Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine
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 slumbered, dark hair spread on the pillow. Alienor crept from the bed, careful not to wake her little sister who was always grumpy 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 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 tiptoed from the chamber. In the adjoining room, yawning, bleary-eyed maids were stirring from sleep. 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 someone 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 dappled palfrey, and Morello, her sisterâ€™s glossy black pony, still waited in their stalls, but the packhorses were harnessed and carts stood ready in the yard to carry the baggage the 150 miles south from Poitiers to Bordeaux where she and Petronella were to spend the spring and summer at the OmbriÃ¨re Palace overlooking the River Garonne.
Alienor offered Ginnet a piece of new bread on the flat of her hand, and rubbed the mareâ€™s warm grey neck. â€˜Papa doesnâ€™t have to go all the way to Compostela,â€™ she told the horse. â€˜Why canâ€™t he stay at home with us and pray? I hate it when he goes away.â€™
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 gaunt hollows shadowed his well-defined cheekbones. â€˜A pilgrimage is a serious commitment to God,â€™ he said gravely. â€˜This is no foolish jaunt made on a whim.â€™
â€˜Yes, Papa.â€™ 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. â€˜You are my heir, Alienor; you must behave as befits the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, not a sulky child.â€™
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 fatherâ€™s love and presence.
â€˜I see you understand me.â€™ His brow creased. â€˜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.â€™
Alienor bit her lip. â€˜I am afraid you will not come back â€¦â€™ Her voice shook. â€˜That I shall not see you again.â€™
â€˜Oh, child! If God wills it, of course I shall come back.â€™ He kissed her forehead tenderly. â€˜You have me for a little while yet. Where is Petronella?â€™
â€˜Still abed, Papa. I left her to sleep.â€™
A groom arrived to see to Ginnet and Morello. Alienorâ€™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. â€˜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.â€™
â€˜Yes, Papa.â€™ She gave him a long, steady look before walking away, her back straight and her step measured.
William sighed. His eldest daughter was swiftly becoming a woman. She had grown tall 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 Petronellaâ€™s lustrous brown hair with blue ribbons and tied it back from her face, revealing the downy curve of her cheek in profile.
â€˜Where did you go?â€™ Petronella demanded.
â€˜Nowhere â€“ just a walk. You were still asleep.â€™
Petronella closed the drawstring on the bag and waggled the tassels at the ends of the ties. â€˜Papa says he will bring us blessed crosses from the shrine of Saint James.â€™
As if blessed crosses were any sort of compensation for their fatherâ€™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 that of sister.
â€˜And when he comes back after Easter, weâ€™ll have a big celebration, wonâ€™t we?â€™ Petronellaâ€™s wide brown gaze sought reassurance. â€˜Wonâ€™t we?â€™
â€˜Of course we will,â€™ Alienor said and hugged Petronella, taking comfort in their mutual embrace.
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