“She is amazing. The woman must be made of iron.” Constanzia whispered to Berengaria. “She’s nigh on old enough to be my mother, and I would not think of undertaking such a journey as this until spring, and then only if I had to. Amazing.” She shook her head in admiration.
“A few more days.” Sancho pleaded. “Surely, waiting until after Christmas is finished cannot make any difference. It would give you time to rest, to make sure all the arrangements were safely made.”
Eleanor stared at him coldly.
“A few more days?” She echoed. “You mean nearer weeks until after Twelfth Night. No Sancho, I am sorry, it will not do. I am certain you can provision us with whatever we need, whatever will keep for the journey, in no more than two days, three at the most. My retinue, if you can call it that, is small, and apart from food we are well prepared for the journey. We need to be ahead of the weather, for one thing. More importantly, I know Richard will be on heat to move on to the Holy Land and press his Crusade and,” she added hastily “Of course, to consummate his marriage there. Also, I have news that all is not well with my daughter, Johanna, in Sicily, and I would spend some time with her as soon as we make landfall there. No doubt Berengaria, also, is afire to begin her new life.” She smiled benignly at Berengaria, taking her agreement for granted.
Berengaria looked from her father to her new mother-in-law to her aunt, but her father lowered his eyes without responding. Knowing her cause was lost, she nodded reluctantly.
“Excellent, it is done, then. Sancho, we will leave at first light the day after tomorrow. Berengaria, ensure that everything you will need is packed by tomorrow, and I will order my men to stow it safely.”
Later, she wondered how time could have passed her by without her noticing it. It was as if she had been asleep for two days, for all she had was fleeting, dream like memories of faces pressing their lips to her cheeks; Constanzia demanding if she wanted to take this, or this, or this. The only moment that stood out clear and firm was a final trying on of her wedding gown, and her father lifting her hands to his lips, telling her that she was beautiful, a true rose of Navarre.
Eleanor instructed that she would ride in the carriage with her. Berengaria climbed in obediently, while Eleanor was helped in by two of her knights. There had been a hard frost overnight, and even with the two sturdy men to help her, Eleanor would have lost her footing on the icy ladder and fallen if Berengaria had not thrust out her hand to grab her sleeve. Eleanor grunted her thanks and settled in the corner snugly. Berengaria was grateful for her groti, the traditional Basque sheepskin coat, thick and warm and soft. The sleeves trailed down to her knuckles, making it easy to tuck her hands inside for warmth. Berengaria´s groti had seen many years wear, and was as supple as silk, the bright, oversewn embroidery to the skirts of the coat faded slightly. Sancho had gifted a groti to Eleanor, who now had pulled the hood so far forward for warmth that Berengaria could not see her face, and her words issued as if from an empty void, making the younger woman shiver superstitiously. It was too like traveling with a skeleton for comfort.
“Pull the curtains across, child. It´s freezing in here.”
Berengaria frowned. With the curtains drawn across the open holes in the carriage doors, there would be no chance for her to look back, to watch Pamplona retreating behind her.
“Mama.” She faltered, the word still strange in her mouth, “I had hoped to wave goodbye to the Court, to my father, my aunt……”
“Nonsense, child. You should be looking forward, not back.”
The carriage moved forward with a jerk and a frozen draught immediately capered into the interior.
“Dear God, this journey will be the death of me.” Eleanor moaned. “For heaven´s sake, draw the curtains before the good Lord calls me.”
Berengaria stood reluctantly and drew the cloth across the apertures. Immediately, the carriage became quieter, a world apart from the horsemen riding pillion and the court ladies shrugged in thick cloaks dallying behind. Even the repetitive clunk, clunk, clunk of the wheels of the supply carts bringing up the rear was muffled. Eleanor blew out a breath of relief and a few moments later commenced to snore noisily.
Berengaria hunched into her own corner, trying to adjust her body to the sway and roll of the carriage. With the curtains drawn, the interior was enveloped in a soft, grey light as if dawn had never arrived. She closed her eyes, and began to trace the journey they were taking, as easily as if she was riding on her own palfrey in the clean, cold air. This bend – that was taking them out of view of the palace. But only for a moment; in a few seconds the track would bend back on itself to avoid a patch of marshy ground and the palace would be visible again. It would stay in plain sight until, just before distance diminished it to the size of a toy, the track wound again and blanketed the high stone walls out of view altogether. Her eyes filled with tears and she opened them wide, wide enough to hurt, in an effort to force the tears unshed.
“I am going to be a queen.” She mouthed the words silently. “Queen of England. I go to marry the most perfect king in all Christendom. I have no need to weep, for my future is gold.”
She pulled the likeness of Richard from inside her groti, but in the dim light his features were blurred and unfamiliar. Deprived of her only solace, the tears fell and ran into the sheepskin drawn around her face.
Eleanor slept for most of the day. She awoke in late afternoon, yawned and stretched and shrugged her shoulders.
“I´m famished.” Berengaria stared at her in surprise; the old queen had broken her fast heartily that morning, and Berengaria herself felt slightly sick at the constant motion of the carriage, and knew she wanted to eat nothing. “Child, stick your head out of the window and ask where we are – if there is a village, or better yet, a monastery anywhere in view.”
Berengaria obeyed, but knew immediately when she looked outside the carriage what the answer would be. They were perhaps twenty miles north of Pamplona, in scrubby plain that supported neither man nor domestic animal. The court hunted hereabouts in summer, for the wild game was plentiful, and there were many clearings where tents could be pitched and fires lit in safety, even during droughts. Dutifully, she asked the nearest out-rider whether there was any sign of shelter, but he shook his head.
“Nothing, my Lady. We topped a rise a few moments back, and I can tell you that this plain extends as far as the eye can see. Perhaps tomorrow there may be a village, but tonight we must make camp as best we can.”
Eleanor grunted when Berengaria passed on the message.
“In that case, we stop now and pitch the tents while it is still a little light.” She banged on the wall of the carriage with a force that belied her years, and the driver stopped immediately.
At Eleanor’s instruction, Berengaria stayed with her in the carriage while all was hustle and bustle around them. Eleanor pushed her hood back and stared at her daughter-in-law. In spite of the dim and rapidly becoming dimmer, light, Berengaria had the uncomfortable feeling that the old woman saw through her as if she was transparent.
“You think me cruel, don´t you?” Before Berengaria could protest, she continued. “Of course you do. I have denied you your last Christmas with your Court, and even refused you a last glimpse of your family. Believe me; it was for your own good. I remember, oh yes, I remember, when I was a young bride, no more than a child, torn from all I knew to be married to the King of France. It didn´t matter that I had been raised to understand that I would make a good match. I was still terrified. I thought – they have made a mistake! They do not know I know nothing, nobody.” Berengaria´s mouth hung open in disbelief. Was the old queen looking into her mind, reading her thoughts, her fears? “I was driven away in the middle of the night, weeping until I ran out of tears. Had I been able to see all I was leaving, I think I would have turned and ran, refused to go. You are a good girl, at least you didn´t cry too much. Trust me, child, trust me. Had I granted you a few more days, a final glimpse, your last memories of Navarre would have been clouded by tears and sorrow in parting; as it is, you will remember only the joyous times.”
She nodded, affirming her words, and Berengaria drew in a deep breath. The coffined air in the couch was foul, and she felt even sicker.
The bivouac was a good one, cushioned by trees but in an open space that provided ample room for the tents, horses, carts and cooking fires. Eleanor leaned on Berengaria´s arm and allowed one of the knights to show them to her tent; once the flap was drawn aside she dismissed the man with a nod and beckoned Berengaria inside.
“Thank you, child. You may come in for a moment, but I will have no further need of you tonight.” The tent flap opened, and Berengaria glanced up to see a young woman enter, her back bowed and a bowl of water steaming in her hands. “Ah, Isabel, good. You´ve made yourself useful already, excellent.” Eleanor frowned suddenly and both younger women stiffened, responsive immediately to the slightest sign of her displeasure. “Berengaria, I gave you no option to bring your own ladies, did I? No, of course not – you would only have had to abandon them in Sicily. Take Isabel, then. She will do until you can get yourself organized with your own Court ladies. She´s a servant, not a lady, but she is genteel enough. My own ladies are far too old for you, you would not be happy with them, nor they with you.” Berengaria sensed self-justification in her words, but didn´t care. Eleanor’s ladies terrified her almost as much as Eleanor herself. “Isabel is much your age, I think.” She added, and flapped her hands towards the tent entrance. “Go, go, both of you. Isabel, you will look after Berengaria as well as you cared for me. Take her to her tent and do whatsoever she needs, and on the way send Maria and Amalia to me. They will take your place. If I need you, I will send for you.”
Isabel bowed silently and turned, holding the tent opening ajar for Berengaria. Berengaria gestured to her.
“Go before me, Isabel, if you will and wait by my tent. I will be with you shortly.”
Eleanor pursed her lips in disapproval.
“No need to be polite to her,” she said. “I told you, she’s not gentle.”
“Is she dumb, Mama?” Berengaria wondered. She had not heard the girl speak.
“Dumb? Isabel? Indeed not!” Eleanor cackled. “She is my eyes and ears, and so useful I rue gifting her to you already. She is neither flesh nor fowl – neither gentle nor quite a servant. She has been my body woman for many years, and understands my needs better than any other. But, youth calls to youth and she will make you as comfortable as it is possible to be on this dreadful journey, I assure you of that.”
Berengaria stared at the Queen but had no chance to ask further questions as the two ladies summoned by Isabel bustled in, and Eleanor’s attention was immediately diverted. Berengaria found her way to her tent, finding Isabel hovering outside. She subsided onto the single chair inside, groaning with the pain of stiffened joints.
“I ache, Isabel.” She murmured. “Each jolt of that carriage, each turn of the wheel, echo in my poor bones. I vow, I feel older than Eleanor!”
“I will bring you some warm water so you may wash, Mistress. You will feel better when you are clean. Do you eat?”
Berengaria lifter her eyebrows in surprise, not just at what was, for the formerly mute Isabel, a positive flood of words, but at her attractive voice. Her tone was sweet, the voice low pitched and almost husky.
“Thank you, Isabel. Water would be welcome. A little wine, but no food. ”
The water was hot and steamed invitingly. With it, Isabel bought a small stoppered flask of viscous green liquid. Berengaria eyed it cautiously.
“Take this much,” Isabel held her fingers half an inch apart. “In your wine, Mistress. It will help you sleep, and ease the aches and pains of the journey. I have put oil of lavender in your water; it is good for the skin and very soothing.”
Berengaria murmured her thanks and Isabel retired as quietly as she had come. The water had a silky feel to it, and left her hands and face feeling soft. She sniffed the green liquid and then shrugged, pouring the recommended amount in her wine and gulping it down quickly. The straw pallet was not inviting and the interior of the tent smoky and stinking from the small fire in a central hearth of rough stones. In spite of the fire, it was cold, and draughty. Berengaria tugged off her outer garments and lay down on the pallet in her shift, pulling rough woolen blankets around her and topping the whole off with her groti, for warmth. She would not sleep, she knew, for the pallet was lumpy, barely masking the rough ground beneath her back.
In spite of her determination, it was morning when she woke, and the bustle of the camp arising was all around. She yawned and stretched and realised, with a flood of relief, that she was no longer stiff. She was also very, very hungry. Astonished, she rose quickly and called for Isabel, to thank her for the small miracles of sleep and appetite.
The girl looked at her with fear in her expression.
“My Lady, I am sorry.” She said quickly. “I had no idea you were awake. I was about to shake out your clothes for you and make up the fire.” Berengaria shook her head and smiled.
“Thank you Isabel. My dress will be creased again in a few minutes, and it´s a fine day so no need for a fire.” Isabel laced her into her bodice deftly, pulling on her skirt and adjusting the band with practiced fingers, sinking to her knees to ease on Berengaria´s shoes.
“I wanted to thank you for the potion you gave me – I slept well and feel so much better this morning.”
Isabel stared at her with her mouth ajar, saying nothing, and Berengaria sighed, wondering what was the matter with the girl? She would ask Eleanor, she decided, if Isabel was quite right in the head. Perhaps she was simple?
To Berengaria´s relief, Eleanor decided she would ride with her ladies. One of the knights helped Berengaria into the side pannier on her palfrey, and Isabel adjusted her new mistress´ skirts carefully, pulling the groti tight across her legs and tucking the sheepskin behind Berengaria´s thighs for warmth.
And so the pattern of the journey was set. One day blended without effort into the next. Often, the caravanserai had to camp in the open, for habitations were few and far between. Occasionally, poor villages offered up what hospitality they could; even more rarely, a monastery or nunnery welcomed the royal travelers. The supplies Sancho had provided began to run low; the great hams beginning to curl and the delectable smoked cheeses to harden and split. The ladies muttered about the prevalence of rice in their diet, but Eleanor appeared not to notice, eating everything with relish.
As they moved north, the scenery changed. Berengaria rode with her hood pushed back, staring round her with deep interest. The rolling pine woods and gentle hills of the Basque country had given way to a greener landscape, scattered with great, black cypresses and patches of cultivated fields. Isabel rode behind her on a sturdy mule, her whole body giving the impression that she was alert to attend to Berengaria´s every whim.
Even with so much that was novel to fascinate her, Berengaria welcomed the arrival of the two travelers as much as anybody. The men arrived as the knights were pitching camp for the day. The hounds gave tongue before anybody else saw them, and they were greeted with bows drawn and ready to fire; hands lying ready on sword hilts. Eleanor’s retinue had been warned that bandits roamed the area, and the knights were taking no chances with their precious cargo. To their exasperation, Eleanor poked her head out of the carriage window to see what the commotion was and – seeing the two strangers – immediately called out that she was to be helped down.
“My ladies, my lords.” The taller and younger of the men paused well beyond the perimeter of the camp and made a flourishing bow, cap in hand, the feather in the cap nearly brushing the dusty ground. Ostentatiously, he beat it against his slashed sleeve before replacing it on his head. “My lords, have no fear of us, for we are nothing more than poor travelers. I am Jack; I play and sing for my supper,” Turning slightly, he indicated the lute strapped to his back. “And my friend Michel, here, will be pleased to cast a horoscope for anybody who desires it done. We ask nothing more, good gentlefolk, than to be allowed to share your food and the warmth of your fires.” He smiled winningly and the knights glanced at each other before lowering their guard grudgingly.
“Who is it? Who are these men?” Eleanor’s imperious voice carried clearly on the still air.
“Traveling people, Ma´am.” The knight John Sideberry called. “This one says he is a troubadour, that one a fortune teller. The troubadour is English. I think.” He added dubiously.
Eleanor clapped her hands with pleasure.
“Excellent. We shall have some amusement tonight, then. Feed them, Sideberry. When we have dined, bring them to me.”
The traveler who had styled himself a troubadour was reasonably skilled on his lute. In addition, he had a fine, forceful tenor voice and amused Eleanor mightily with his songs. Berengaria blushed at some of the lyrics, and found it difficult to share the Queen’s robust pleasure. Finally bored with the entertainment, Eleanor gestured to the silent Michel to step forward.
“Tell futures, do you?” She demanded abruptly. The man nodded, and his companion spoke for him.
“He is dumb, Ma´am.” He said. “A nasty accident in Castille that resulted in him losing his tongue.” Michel smiled, and Berengaria prayed he would not open his mouth.
“And I wonder what sort of accident that was?” Eleanor said archly. Both men grinned. “If he can´t speak, how can he cast a fortune?”
“He can write, my Lady.” Jack said eagerly. “Before his … accident, he was an educated man. An astrologer, skilled with the astrolabe as well as an adept at telling fortunes by the hand and the bones.”
“Indeed?” Eleanor gestured at one of the servants to give the men wine. Berengaria tried not to listen to Michel slurping from his beaker, but it was difficult not to hear. The dumb man sounded like a large dog drinking from a small bowl. “You are English, Jack?”
“Aye, Ma´am. Or at least, I was once. I have been around the world for so long; I doubt any one nation would own to me now. Michel, here, is from Andalusia, from Granada. But he speaks – or rather spoke – many languages.”
“Do you know who I am?” Eleanor asked curiously.
Jack’s eyes slid from side to side as he considered his answer.
“I do not know your name, my Lady. But I can see from your great beauty and elegance that you are of high noble birth.” He looked at her, grinning, obviously hopeful that he had given the right answer. Eleanor simpered. Thirty years ago her expression would have been flirtatious; now, Berengaria thought it plain nasty.
“Good. Then your mute friend can cast me a fortune. No, not for me,” she gestured Michel away. “For her.”
Michel took her hand in a firm grip. Berengaria was reluctant to allow him to touch her, but under Eleanor’s gaze could not refuse. He examined her hand closely, tracing the lines back and forth with his finger tip and then beckoning her to show him her other hand. Finally he shook his head and glanced at Jack, holding his finger and thumb together and making writing gestures. Jack nodded.
“He wants to make a written horoscope for her,” he explained. “Can you give the young lady’s place and exact time and date of birth?” Eleanor raised her eyebrows at Berengaria and she gave Michel the information. He patted her hand gently before releasing it.
“He will work through the night, and have the fortune ready for you in the morning, my Lady.”
Eleanor nodded and yawned widely, not bothering to cover her mouth. In the torchlight, her teeth looked almost clean. Not bothering to dismiss the men, she gestured to her hovering ladies to help her to her feet, and took herself off to her tent.
By morning, both of the traveling men had vanished.
Sideberry was beside himself with fury.
“They stole away like rats, my Lady.” He huffed. “Took a good sack of our supplies and a full wineskin with them, as well.”
Eleanor shrugged, unconcerned.
“A pity. I would have been interested to see the child’s fortune.” She glanced at Berengaria. “I am unfortunate with horoscopes. I had Richard’s cast when he was a child himself, and the answer came that no good would ever come of him. Absolute rubbish, of course. I daresay yours would have been just as silly. Well, Sideberry. If we are even shorter of food now, then we had better move on.”
The stop at a great Cluniac priory was a rare treat. They were welcomed with ceremony, the awed Abbot bowing to Eleanor and welcoming her in to the abbey with flourishing courtesy. That night, even the ladies in waiting expressed themselves satisfied with the food, and the wine flowed with great freedom. After the evening meal, Eleanor dismissed her ladies and gathered Berengaria to her, sweeping her along in her wake with an imperious gesture.
Eleanor had the Abbot’s cell, and she looked around the room with satisfaction, pouring wine for them both with a lavish hand.
“The old man does himself well, I think.” She said cynically. “No doubt for the greater glory of God, of course.”
Berengaria nibbled her lips, but said nothing. She was not used to hearing the higher clergy criticized; her father had been rigorous in his observance of his religion and not a word was ever said against the Lord’s representatives on earth. She sipped from her wine to hide her confusion.
“I came this way many years ago, when we were on our way to Louis´ crusade.” The old woman’s voice softened with the memory. “So many, many years ago now. You are a lucky child, Berengaria. You will see things that not many ladies have seen, when you get to the Holy Land. You have no idea how much I envy you.”
“I can barely wait, Mama.” Berengaria said, truthfully. “I cannot wait to see Richard, and I long to see the Holy Land, perhaps even to see Jerusalem.”
“Ah, the names bring back such memories for me!” Eleanor stared into the fire, her face lost in old dreams. “I remember the colours of it all; the smells; the sheer difference of it. It was hot, and dry and dusty. The sun shone on stones so white your eyes teared but I could hardly blink for fear of missing something. I remember bringing back chests of spices – pounds upon pounds of pepper, and cumin, caraway seeds and ginger, mace and nutmegs. Packets of myrrh and frankincense. And the silks, oh the silks! I was the envy of the court. Such colours as we could only dream of – scarlets and yellows and blues in all shades from nearly black to lightest turquoise; wonderful. And only fancy – so cheap! Barely anything cost more than the tiniest bit of gold.”
Berengaria stared at her in disbelief.
“But, the Crusade, Mama? What do you remember about the Crusade? About Jerusalem? You saw the Holy City”
“The fighting, you mean? Oh, Louis took care of all that, of course. I was allowed nowhere near the battles. The whole place stank, I remember. But then, spilled blood and guts always do. And there was a lot of noise. And the Greek fire was a wondrous sight. At least, it was if one was not on the receiving end of it! But the Infidels, Berengaria, them I remember. The Moors. Such men! Great eyes as dark as Hell, and noses like hawks. Tall, they were, tall and proud and dark. They looked at one as if measuring one’s worth with their glance and when they approved of what they saw,” She drew a great shuddering breath, as if the memories were of yesterday, not years ago. “Why, then I knew what it was truly like to be a queen. I met with Nur Ad-Din, the greatest lord of them all, and what a man! Not even a Christian, but no matter. Had Louis won, I would have told him to bring the man back with him, put him in a cage so I could have looked on him every day.”
She fell silent, and Berengaria sipped her wine quietly before curiosity overcame her, and she prompted Eleanor gently, thinking the old woman had fallen into a reverie.
“And Jerusalem, Mama? What was the Holy City like?”
“A great city, I suppose. Or as great as any of the so called cities were in the East. I am sorry child, but it was all so very long ago. It all merges into a memory of heat and colour and smell in my mind, and at this distance in time it is impossible for me to pick one from the other.”
Deeply disappointed, Berengaria subsided and Eleanor was silent for a few minutes. She spoke abruptly.
“The whole world tells me I am still the most beautiful woman in Christendom. The greatest, most noble queen the world has ever seen. The men still look at me with hungry eyes; the women compare themselves to me, and find they are wanting.” Berengaria stared at the old woman in surprise; could she really believe what she was saying? “Would you exchange places with me, Berengaria? Become the queen of the world? Have everybody bend their knee to you? Only say the word, and it shall be yours! In exchange for one thing and one thing only.” Eleanor stared at her intently. “One thing – take everything I have, but only give me your youth in exchange!”
“Mama, that I cannot do.” Berengaria mumbled, embarrassed.
“Do you think I do not know that?” Eleanor tugged fiercely at the loose skin around her neck, stretching the wattles and throwing back her head the better to force the skin back into shape. She massaged her neck hard. “Oh God, that I should have lived to see this old age come upon me! I tell you, child, I wake in the morning, and every bone in my body aches. I cannot see as I used to; even colours seem to have lost their brightness. I can no longer climb steps with ease; I have to be helped into my bed at night. What use is beauty, what use is greatness, when I can no longer put it to good use? Give me a grandchild, Berengaria; give me a grandchild after my image, so I can see my youth in your child, so I can live again!”
“Mama, I shall do my best.” I will, she thought fiercely, oh, that I will.
“Aye.” Eleanor paused, and Berengaria got the impression that she was choosing her words with care. “Berengaria, you must understand, Richard can be … difficult. He is not as lesser men.”
“He is the King, Mama.” Berengaria said simply. “He could not be as other men.”
Eleanor stared at her, blowing out her cheeks in a long breath.
“Leave me child.” She said abruptly. “Send Amalia to me, I would go to bed now.”
“Mama.” Berengaria paused by the door and said softly, “May you live a thousand years, Mama, and always be as beautiful as you are today.”
Eleanor cackled with laughter.
“Is that a benediction, child, or a curse?”
Berengaria closed the door quietly behind her.
The good Cluniac monks stocked Eleanor’s supplies well and added a warning – they would find there was little for them in Lombardy, for the Crusades had ravaged the countryside, taking supplies and peasants alike off to battle these many years past. The countryside had never recovered; the peasants who were left were themselves hungry, and there were no further substantial monasteries for many miles. Eleanor shrugged, uncaring. The peasants must fend for themselves, her expression said. What was it to her?
The landscape itself seemed to echo the forlorn words of the Abbot. The fields were sere and brown, the earth dry and unproductive. For the first time, wolves followed them; long, rangy beasts that slunk after them like hungry shadows. A well aimed arrow from one of the knights caught the lead beast in its ribs and the pack immediately disintegrated in confusion. But Berengaria cringed when she heard their cries, echoing like lost and forlorn souls.
Day after day after day passed. Days rolled into weeks, and weeks into a month. Eleanor continued to travel coffined in her closed carriage with one or two of her ladies always riding with her. Berengaria travelled in the open, fascinated by everything she saw. Isabel rode slightly behind her, generally maintaining a companionable silence, but occasionally enquiring after Berengaria´s needs, or pointing out something interesting in the countryside. For herself, Berengaria thought she had never known such freedom and felt a pang of guilt when she found herself wishing that the journey would never end, that she could continue to roam forever, gypsy-free, and that she need never be a queen of anything but her own wishes.
The aches and pains she had suffered in the first few days had abated, and she had become more comfortable in her side pannier.
“My arse,” she confided to Isabel “Must be as hard as leather, for I feel nothing.” Isabel laughed, the first time Berengaria had ever seen her so animated.
The cramps came as an unpleasant surprise. The pain woke Berengaria early one morning, and she groaned out loud. Struggling into her clothes, she crawled off her pallet in search of Isabel, sure that she would have a potion to relieve the pain in her belly, and clean clouts besides. She caught one of the male servants crouching over the fire, coaxing it into life. He goggled at her in surprise when she spoke to him.
“Where is Isabel?” Exasperated, she realised the man spoke only English, and repeated the word “Isabel” slowly, moving her outstretched palm in mock search. His face cleared and he pointed towards the tethered horses. “Isabel?” She repeated, convinced he had misunderstood, but he nodded, and pointed again. He watched as she walked across the camp towards the horses then lost interest and returned to his fire.
The horses stirred and snickered at her approach. She walked along the tethered line and was about to go back, convinced the man was wrong, when she saw, shielded by two supply carts, a little tent. A poor little tent, nothing more than canvas strung between the carts and tethered on two sides, a tent too small to stand upright in; a tent big enough for no more than a straw pallet.
“Isabel?” She whispered. Then, louder in disbelief, “Isabel?”
A tousled head peered sleepily between the flaps. At sight of her mistress, Isabel crawled out quickly, sleep replaced with worry.
“My Lady? Is something wrong? Are you ill?”
“I have cramps – my courses are starting, but that doesn´t matter for the moment. Isabel, why do you sleep here? Why don´t you share a tent with some of the ladies in waiting? I don´t understand; the servants have better lodging than this. Does Eleanor know you have to sleep in such disgraceful quarters?”
“Aye, my Lady.” She shrugged. “Eleanor knows full well where I sleep. The ladies will not share a tent with me, and I can hardly sleep with the men, so this has to do.”
“Why?” Lost, Berengaria stared at her, shaking her head. “You have been Eleanor’s loyal servant for years, why does she make you live in ... in a kennel! No, worse than a kennel – my father’s hounds had better lodging than this!”
“Do you not know, Ma´am?” Isabel looked at her curiously. “I was born a Jew. I became a Christian many years ago, but the ladies say it doesn´t matter. They say I still smell like a Jew, and that the stench of me makes them feel sick, so they cannot abide me near them. Only the Queen is above such things.”
Berengaria screwed her face up and shrugged in incomprehension.
“So? You were born a Jew. What of it? My father ensured that the Jews in Navarre had all the rights of any other citizen who paid their taxes – they were allowed to worship as they pleased, and live where they pleased. You must be wrong – Eleanor cannot know.”
“Then I wish I had been born in Navarre, Ma´am!” Isabel said vehemently. “In England, the Jews are nothing. Jews must live in their own quarters in the cities, and wear yellow clothes so the good Christians of the town know to draw their skirts back when they pass. In England, a Jew may be murdered and the murderer not only goes unpunished, but may even be applauded! Queen Eleanor knows well enough. She tolerates me near her because I am useful to her, but she does not care one whit about me.”
“No!” Berengaria said firmly. “No, you are mistaken Isabel. No man may murder another and live to tell the tale.”
“Aye?” Isabel’s lips were set in tight, white lines. “You think so, Mistress? Then tell me – what happened to the good citizens of London who murdered each and every Jew in London, on the same day as Richard was crowned king of England? I will tell you – nothing, nothing at all.”
“No. No. I do not believe you Isabel. This is nothing but rumour, to cause trouble. The King would never tolerate such a terrible thing.”
Isabel leaned forward, tugging at Berengaria´s sleeve in her anxiety to make her believe.
“My Lady, it is true. Ask one of the ladies in waiting if you don´t believe me – they were all in London on that day, they know. Over thirteen hundred Jews – men, women, children – aye, even babes in arm – were killed by the London mob. They were hacked to pieces with swords, beaten to death with fists and feet, their bones pounded by hammers. And afterwards, their poor, battered bodies were thrown into the Thames, to fatten the salmon, or set afire where they lay in the streets. Some of the women and girls were violated as they lay dead and dying, by these so called Christian men. The gentile women leaned out of windows and urged their men on, shouting at them to go and do for a cursed Jew to celebrate the great day. It was said that the mob sought revenge for the usurious rates imposed by the Jews, when the Londoners borrowed money from them, but what had that to do with the women and the children? With the babes in arms?” Isabel blinked away tears. “It is true, Mistress, every word. Two of my cousins were murdered on that day; together with the man I was betrothed to when I was not more than a child myself. And the murderers walked away, laughing, to boast how they had done well by their new king.”
“Are you suggesting Richard had foreknowledge of this, and did not stop it? I think you need to watch your tongue, Isabel.”
“Nay, my Lady. Nay. The king had too much to think about on that day, of all days, to worry about ridding his kingdom of a few Jews. He would have known nothing – it was the will of the mob, inflamed by drink and delight at the coronation. But it was wrong, wrong, wrong.” Her impassioned voice fell suddenly, and she stared at the ground. Her head fell forward, her hair shielding her face, her shoulders hitching. “Of course, I am eternally grateful to Queen Eleanor for saving me from a savage death, along with my people.” Her voice was suddenly toneless, as she realised that she had said too much. Berengaria felt pity rising, choking in her throat. Whether it was true or not, Isabel believed it, and that was what mattered. She must be shown that not all Christians were monsters, capable of any atrocity.
“Isabel.” Her voice shook. “Isabel, tell one of the men to bring your pallet and your baggage to my tent. In future, you will sleep with me, and your possessions will travel with mine. When we have a roof over our heads, you will share my chamber. If what you tell me is true, then I cannot repair the damage done to your people, but I can do something about the injuries inflicted on you. I shall tell Eleanor that this is to be so.”
Isabel remained with her head bowed until Berengaria was out of sight. She clutched the side of a cart for support, so tightly that her knuckles showed white through the skin. Careful, she warned herself. Watch your tongue indeed! The old Queen would have had you whipped for that mouthful of insolence, and put you on water gruel until she could count your ribs. The young one might seem to be different, but they were all the same, under the skin. Careful!
The horror of it tormented Berengaria until the stop for the evening camp, when she could contain it no longer. Her stomach churned with bile; anxiety carried her to Eleanor’s tent.
Eleanor glanced up, a chess piece clasped delicately in her fingers. She raised her eyebrows interrogatively at Berengaria´s abrupt entrance.
“Mama,” she spoke without her customary deference and Amalia, seated with Eleanor before the chess board, gawped at her. “Mama, I found poor Isabel camped in the most abject poverty alongside the animals. I have moved her into my tent - in future she will sleep with me. In comfort.”
“As you wish child.” Eleanor shrugged. “But do not get too close to the girl. Richard abides the Jews even less than he does the Infidels, he will not be pleased to find you championing Isabel. He is still angry with me for saving her from the massacre of the rest of the Hebrews on his Coronation. He can´t stand her. Remind me to tell you Isabel’s story, before you are much older.”
“I shall deal with my husband when the time is right, Mama. And as for Isabel’s history, and the behavior of the so-called civilized people of London, well, I have heard enough already.” It was true, then. Berengaria turned on her heel and let the tent flap fall behind her, dearly wishing it had been a door she could have slammed.
Eleanor pursed her lips.
“Well, well, well. Checkmate, Amalia.” The waiting woman glanced at the board as if she could not understand how Eleanor had come to win. “I wonder if I have time to teach Berengaria chess before we get to Sicily.” She mused. “It might be quite amusing.”