Christmas was always more than just a Christian festival, even in the devout court at Pamplona. Christmas broke the tedium of the dull winter; relieved the brown fog of ennui endangered by short, cloudy days and cold nights. Christmas sparkled like a jewel set in the bosom of the court. Feasting; dancing; masques; riding out on fair days when the frost still shimmered on the pine trees. Solemn masses attended, grudgingly by some, with gratitude for the end of another year by others.
Berengaria had never begrudged the time spent on her knees in the royal chapel beside her father, but this season she found the time spent in prayer hard won. The news had come in a sealed packet at the beginning of December; her father had called her aside immediately, and she had gone to him smiling, expecting some news of a member of the family. Instead, he had taken her in his arms and embraced her, calling her his “Queen” and laughing at her bewilderment. Hardly able to credit his words, she had excused herself quietly and gone to her chamber, clutching the likeness of Richard, painted in miniature on ivory, that had been with the letter.
Once alone she slid on to her bed, rocking back and forth, her arms clutched across her breasts. It was many minutes before she dared open her hand and look at the miniature; she had held it so tightly that the ivory had imprinted its neat oval shape on the palm of her hand. Her hand shook, but she could still make out the lineaments of his face and she dwelled greedily on the image. Just the same! Just the same as if all the long years had never passed! Still blond, still impossibly handsome, still every inch the king. She could hear his voice, teasing, hear his laughter boom around her chamber, look up and see his smile... She cried, without knowing why she cried. Laughed, but did not realise she laughed aloud. Slept, eventually, with the likeness held fast in her hand. Woke to find – against all the odds – that it was still there.
Even without the miniature to reassure her, she would have known that great changes had come upon her. Courtiers swept her deep bows when she walked past. Suddenly, her small clique of ladies in waiting swelled dramatically as every unmarried woman in the court jostled to attend her. Conversations faltered when the entered a room, only to resume loudly as soon as her presence was registered. Nothing was too much trouble for her; everybody wanted to be close to her. Abruptly, she had no peace, no time to herself.
Aunt Constanzia was beside herself with pride and the court reverberated with her commands. This Christmas would be the most splendid, the most joyous, the most costly the court at Pamplona had ever seen. The great Queen Eleanor was coming to Pamplona to claim Berengaria as bride for her son, and Navarre must not, would not, appear provincial. Everything was to be of the best, the most wondrous. Eleanor was not just to be made welcome, she was to be dazzled.
In the unlikely event that enough hams had not been dried already, more were purchased from the best butchers in the city. To augment the great salt beef carcasses, laid down at Michaelmas, the fattest oxen were ear marked for slaughter for fresh meat. The men of the court were ordered out daily to the hunt; deer and hares; cranes and egrets; black, bristling boars flowed into the palace in a sanguine flood. Chickens and capons and geese were selected and penned to fatten. Pigs were slaughtered and blood puddings made and hung to smoke. The pastry cooks were given their orders and told to be ready – great custards and fruit tarts and delicious galletas were planned, marchpane fantasies constructed. The fish ponds were checked and the best carp noted. Nothing was overlooked by Constanzia, no detail was too small. Every room was swept of the old rushes, and new ones laid, layered with rosemary and lavender so that each step unleashed a cloud of scent. Hangings were taken down and beaten, tapestries rubbed carefully with soapwort so the colours shone like new. All of the ladies had new gowns and hoods, the men – depending on how much their wives had already spent on their own clothes – at least new hose and tunics. The Moorish cat, now very old and grumpy, displaced from his normal place on Constanzia´s knee, hissed at anybody who dared come close to it.
Berengaria saw and heard but found it strange that the turmoil had anything to do with her, that she was the cause of it. Life had become an impossibly sweet dream and she was afraid – so very afraid – that she would wake and find the lovely dream had fled with the morning light. But while the dream lasted, every moment was precious. She smiled and smiled and smiled, accepted compliments graciously, ate and drank but tasted nothing, knelt at mass and rose guiltily, knowing that Richard’s face had been before her eyes and that her prayers had been empty.
She stood still as ordered, and looked wonderingly at the seamstresses pinning and snipping and tacking around her. Several of the court ladies had lengths of heavy silk in their hands and their heads were bent to the intricate, brilliant embroidery of gold thread and pearls that would eventually cover her traditional Basque wedding gown. Others waited impatiently for the seamstresses to finish their work so they could begin theirs. She closed her eyes slowly, and then opened them wide. A wedding dress. Her wedding dress. It was true, then. Not just a dream. She trembled with pleasure.
One of the youngest Court ladies looked at the dress with hungry eyes and moved closer, forcing the seamstresses to shuffle to one side.
“Berengaria,” her voice dripped honey. “You will need ladies in waiting in England, will you not?”
“I imagine so, Carmen. I had hardly thought about it. Aunt Constanzia, will I have my own ladies in waiting, or will Queen Eleanor see to that?” She realised with a shock that there was so much she simply did not know. So much she would have to learn. Would the English Court be similar to Pamplona? What, for that matter, was England like? The English themselves?
“Eleanor will see to things for you initially, dear.” Sensing Berengaria´s trepidation, she hurried to sooth. “No doubt it will be a little strange at first, but Eleanor will be the most wonderful mother-in-law you could ever hope for, and – of course – you will have Richard”.
“Richard Coeur de Lion.” Carmen spoke the words in a whisper. “I can´t believe it,” she blurted. “We all thought you’d been left on the shelf, and would end your days in a convent, and now look at you – Queen of England! Wife of Richard Coeur de Lion, the greatest prize on the marriage market.”
The silence could have been sliced and served. Even the seamstresses paused with needles poised, their mouths agape.
“Carmen!” Constanzia thundered. “You are a ninny. You have always been a ninny. You will always be a ninny.”
The girl bit her lip, close to tears at her faux pas. Berengaria felt laughter catching in her throat and giggled helplessly, joy rising through her body and making her light, light as air.
“Don´t be angry with her, Aunt. She’s only saying what the whole court thought. But everybody was wrong, and Carmen is right – I am to marry Richard. I shall have my own Court. Me, Berengaria of Navarre. Queen of England. Wife of the greatest king in Christendom.”
A collective sigh rose from the throats of the ladies. Berengaria smiled, glorying in the knowledge that each one of them would have given all they possessed to change places with her. Unused to being the object of envy, she found the sensation delicious.
“Take me with you, Berengaria.” Carmen, buoyant in forgiveness, wheedled. “I will make a wonderful lady in waiting, I promise.”
“You are a fool, child.” Constanzia pricked the bubble of her hopes rudely. “Eleanor will bring her own small retinue with her. Eleanor’s ladies will maid Berengaria until she returns to England, and only then will she choose her Court.”
Carmen’s lip jutted petulantly.
“That cannot be so! Berengaria is to be a queen; she must have her own ladies.”
“Ninny.” Constanzia repeated acidly. “Berengaria and Richard are to be married in the Holy Land; Berengaria will accompany Richard on the Holy Crusade. Or possibly in Sicily before he sails, I don´t know – I´m not party to the King’s plans.” Many of the women crossed themselves and bowed their heads briefly at mention of the Crusade. “Do you really think it is likely that Richard would welcome a gaggle of women around him in the heat of battle? Eh?”
“No, and Berengaria cannot go on a Crusade either. Everybody knows women do not go on Crusades It´s bad luck apart from anything else.” Carmen retorted.
Berengaria looked from Constanzia to Carmen, enjoying the exchange. What did it matter where she married Richard? The sooner the better, but where mattered not at all.
“Your ignorance would amaze me if it didn´t annoy me so much.” Constanzia shook her head sorrowfully. “Women do not go on Crusades, you say? Tell me, then, why Queen Eleanor was able to accompany her first husband, Louis of France, on his Crusade? They say she fought by his side and lent him the strength to continue God’s great battle. Just as Berengaria will support Eleanor’s son, her new husband.”
Carmen’s lips pursed in a great “O”, her eyes huge.
“Worth waiting for, Carmen?” Berengaria said slyly, and the ladies sniggered with laughter, nudging each other in glee at Carmen’s discomfort. While their attention was diverted, Berengaria stooped and picked up a scrap of the silk, scrambling it in her hand. She felt slightly foolish, knowing perfectly well that she could have asked for some material, or simply picked some up in full view without anyone questioning her, but for the purpose she had in mind, it seemed more appropriate to slide some away surreptitiously.
Later, towards dusk when the court was quiet and everybody was indoors, for approaching Christmas the days were short and chilly, Berengaria wrapped herself in a thick cloak and walked briskly across the courtyard towards the great outer doors of the palace. Approaching the soldiers on duty, the men clustered around an open brazier glowing with logs, she pushed her hood back and nodded at them; instantly, the men sprang to attention and darted to open the small wicket gate for her. She guessed the men were staring at her in surprise, leaving the palace on foot and without her ladies in attendance, but she knew they would not question her actions, even if they did tattle to their wives about it later. Perhaps, she thought, they wondered if she was stealing out to meet a lover; the thought made her want to giggle.
She walked briskly in her little leather slippers, concerned both that the dusk would overtake her and also to warm herself up, for the afternoon was cold. She glanced up at the sky and decided there would be no snow tonight, for the sky was clear and already beginning to show the first young stars. A frost, though, a frost was quite likely. Later, the guards would make toasts and heat wine on the brazier and huddle around the fire, shoulder to shoulder, sharing each other’s warmth during the long watches of the night, wishing for nothing more than their own beds and the embrace of their good wives.
Skirting the palace walls, she watched the ground carefully; concerned her gown would trail in a puddle and give her game away on her return. Lifting her skirts, she shivered as a cold wind eddied around her legs and seemed to push her forwards. The path off to the left took no more than a few minutes to find, but from thereon her progress was slow as pine and carob trees skirted the path, their branches jutting at head height, and in the uncertain light it would have been easy to catch on them or to trip on the uneven ground. She moved forward cautiously, pushing branches away from her face but still wincing as a bramble whipped and tugged at her ankle. Pulling herself free, she nearly missed the curl of path that branched off from the main track and she turned quickly. A few seconds later, the bulk of the wishing tree blocked out the last of the light. The eddying wind rustled and blew the scraps of cloth tied all over it. Some still had traces of colour; others had been there so long they were gray and frayed at the edges. Others were so ancient the weft and warp of the weave was clearly visible, and the cloth was bleached to the colour of bone. She stopped before the tree, her breath pluming in the cold. Head lowered, she whispered an Ave and crossed herself quickly.
Reaching up, she grabbed a branch above her head and dragged it down; grasping the rough wood, she inched her fingers along until she could clasp a higher branch still – that in turn was grasped and pulled down. Standing on tiptoe, she tied her scrap of silk firmly around the final branch and let go. The pennant of silk fluttered brave and alone, higher than any other.
Satisfied, she lingered for a second, breathing a final prayer.
“Sweet Virgin, intercede for me. Make all well for me, I pray you. Take my wedding gown and the wishes in my heart and give me fulfillment, I beg of you.”
The wind gusted abruptly, making the cloth scraps crack and snap. Her own token streamed out horizontally and she smiled, well pleased at the sign of good luck. She turned into the deepening gloom to make her way back to the warmth and light of the great palace. As she banged on the wicket gate to alert the sentries, a cloud drifted across the moon and in defiance of her forecast, the first snow flakes of winter began to fall lazily, melting on her face.
Constanzia had piled her plate with the choicest pieces of meat, but Berengaria had barely touched it. She drank a little wine, but pushed the food around her plate, fearing that if she tried to swallow any of the reeking char-grilled flesh she would choke. A great boar, its tusks gilded and with glistening grapes for eyes, smoked before her and she drew back, trying to not to inhale its gamey aroma. She knew Eleanor was watching, and smiled timidly, her eyes downcast.
“The child eats little, Sancho.” Eleanor frowned. “Is her appetite always so poor? This will not do for Richard – he is a great trencherman and cannot abide women with sulky appetites.”
“I think, dearest Eleanor, that my Berengaria is a little nervous tonight.” He smiled fondly at his daughter. “Normally, she eats and drinks as well as anybody, but in such august company …..” He shrugged.
“Aye?” Appeased, Eleanor smiled and reached across to pat Berengaria´s hand. The younger woman froze at her touch, longing to snatch her hand away from the caress of old, cold fingers. The veins on the back of Eleanor’s hand stood out blue and shiny. “You must not be frightened of me, dear one. Shortly, I will be your mother. Come now – you may call me Mama from now on.”
She nodded regally, certain of the great favour she was bestowing. Berengaria swallowed a gobbet of disgust, tempted to cry out “You are not my mother! My mother was young and beautiful, her skin was golden, her hair black. My mother smelled of flowers, not dry, old bread as you do!” Instead, she breathed,
“Thank you …. Mama.”
Eleanor nodded regally and ripped a breast of chicken free for herself. She munched at the tender flesh with long, yellowed teeth, her receding gums clearly visible as her lips peeled back from the meat. Her mouth still full, she swigged wine and began to interrogate Berengaria, spraying a mist of flesh and wine across the table. Tactfully, Sancho turned and began to make conservation with Constanzia as Eleanor probed Berengaria´s likes and dislikes, her interests, the ins and outs of her daily life, first in Latin and then abruptly switching to L´angue D´Oc. Berengaria followed easily, switching languages with little effort, used to speaking both tongues every day.
Finally satisfied, Eleanor turned to Sancho.
“Do you dance, my friend?” She enquired. Sancho rose immediately and made a deep bow to Eleanor. She chuckled. “No, no, not with me. These modern dances are too vigorous for my old bones.” Sancho immediately demurred;
“Eleanor, you will never be old. It is not possible for one as beautiful as you to age.”
She laughed, delighted with the gallantry. Startled, Berengaria realised that the old woman, used to flattery every day of her life, simply accepted the compliment at face value and believed it. She still thought of herself as beautiful. Berengaria envied her confidence; she had never thought of herself as beautiful, never would.
“Thank you, Sancho. But I do not dance tonight. But I´m sure Berengaria would love to tread a measure or two with her father.”
Berengaria forced a smile as she rose immediately and curtsied to Eleanor. Behind the smile, she clenched her teeth as she realised with terror that she desperately needed to pass water.
Nevertheless, dance she did until she was satisfied that Eleanor was no longer watching her with undisguised interest. Sancho would have led her back to her place at the high table, but she excused herself with a surreptitious wave of her hands and a whispered explanation. He bounced his eyebrows in a gesture she remembered from her childhood and spoke softly.
“Don´t worry. I will keep the fair Eleanor amused – she will not miss you for a few minutes. But don´t be too long.”
Thankful beyond anything, Berengaria slipped behind the dancers and out of the great hall door. The house of easement was too far from the hall for comfort, and to reach it she must pass in front of the assembled revelers. The courtyard would do. It would have to do. The hounds – ejected from the hall for the evening – immediately came sniffing around her, their doggy breath steaming in great plumes before them. She shooed them away and squatted in the gutter, holding her heavy skirts away from her thighs and sighing with relief as her bladder emptied. She leaned her burning cheek against the cold stone of the courtyard wall for a second, glancing up at the star strewn sky. The threat of snow had come to nothing, after all, but as she had thought earlier, there would be a crisp frost before morning. Her veil cushioned her skin from the stone, but the cold seeped through and she shivered.
The panic came without warning. Her breath hitched in her throat and she gulped for air, unable to manage more than a couple of shallow sips that were little better than nothing. Still staring heavenwards, it seemed to Berengaria that the very walls of the palace were closing around her, sealing her in, refusing to let her go. Suddenly, the sheer impossibility of what was about to happen to her trampled over her former happiness as she realised that she could not do it.
“I am nobody!” She spoke out loud. “I am nobody, a little, obscure princess from a provincial court. An afterthought, an old maid. I cannot be Queen of England! I cannot marry the great Coeur de Lion! I cannot become as Eleanor. Not me, no. The English court will laugh at me; Richard will be ashamed of me.”
The walls whispered her words back to her, agreeing with her. Tears stung her eyes. She stayed crouched, unable to move. Even the great door opening and closing swiftly was unable to break the spell. She shrank back against the wall, invisible in the gloom. Two figures passed by swiftly, crossing the courtyard to the private chambers on the opposite side. Half way across, they paused, exchanging a succulent, sexual kiss. The woman laughed out loud; a high, breathy giggle that broke Berengaria´s paralysis.
Carmen, Carmen and one of the knights, it was too dark to make out which one. Carmen, who had begged to be her lady in waiting, a disappointed Carmen who now, Berengaria guessed cynically, would be heading for a spring marriage instead.
For some reason, the thought gave her courage. She would not be as Carmen; a foolish ninny who knew only how to use her own allures to entrap. She would be queen. She had waited for so long for this, for her own perfect, gentle knight to make the glamour of the Roman de la Rose flesh, and now the moment had come only her own fear could stand between her and her fate. She would not, could not, allow herself to fail. Not now.
Tugging down her skirts, she rose, lifted her head and walked back into the great hall, every inch as regal as the great Eleanor, even if all but a mite of it was pretence. Behind her, the hounds lifted their muzzles to the uncaring moon and howled their disappointment at being left out in the cold.