Berengaria leaned against the ship’s hull. The deck creaked and moved gently beneath her feet in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle that thronged all about her. She knew she was in the way; knew that the sailors were shooting her sideways glances, wishing her below with the rest of the women, but also knew that they dared not speak to her, dared even less to jostle her in their impatience. She wished them cordially well in their work, but she was not going to move, not an inch. Everything was so rich, so strange, and so very foreign. And apart from that, she could not stand the noisome stench below decks.
The language the sailors spoke was melodious and sometimes she was sure she could pick out words that sounded almost Navarrese. The sailors themselves were unlike any men she had seen in Navarre, or throughout France for that matter; they were taller, leaner, darker. Like well-trained hunting dogs, she thought. She watched them, fascinated, as they moved in co-coordinated chaos. Ropes were hauled and stowed in piles as neat as embroidery threads. Baskets and chests and nets were dragged over the bows and packed away as quickly as they arrived. Over all, the billowing sails, pulled and tautened by many skilled hands, began to fill with wind and blow out like puffed cheeks.
Dragging her eyes reluctantly from the scurry on deck, she glanced towards the harbour that bent in front of Brindisi like a bow. Behind the arch of boats, the town shone white, dazzling in the spring sunshine. She shielded her eyes with her hand and watched intently, interested in everything, everyone.
She should, she supposed, be worried about whether she would be sea-sick or not. Amalia had assured that she would be that it would be terrible.
“The motion of the sea,” The older woman indicated the problem with a wavering hand. “It never stops, never. It is awful, I am dreading it.” She shuddered delicately.
Berengaria had nodded sympathetically. Would she be sea-sick, she had wondered? The sea seemed calm enough now, its motion at harbour very pleasant indeed. The fresh, briny smell was also pleasant, and it was wonderful to be able to stand, rather than ride. The frantic activity was distracting to thoughts that darted like the little fish clustering around the ship, thoughts that persistently returned to nibble at the thing that tormented her; the thing that should be no torment at all. Almost as soon as she had come on board, she had stolen down to her cabin like a thief, clutching her precious Roman de la Rose. Turning the pages gently, she had finally wrapped the book in silk, kissing it gently before stowing it away in the middle of her clothes.
“Goodbye, old friend.” She whispered, realizing how silly she would feel if she were discovered. “You have been loyal to me for so many years, but now I have my own romance to lead. Perhaps in years to come I may give you to my own daughter, to pleasure her quiet hours.”
As if the putting away of the book had turned a key in her mind, she had immediately begun to worry. Richard. Richard, her husband. Richard the man she had not seen for ten – no, almost eleven – years. Richard, whose likeness nestled against her breasts, beneath her tunic, but whom she would have recognized in a moment anyway. Richard, who haunted her dreams and wakening hours alike. But …. Would Richard remember her as fondly? Would she be as Richard remembered her? Would Richard be pleased with his bride?
The thoughts chased endlessly through her mind and she was glad of the distraction as the ship´s master bawled an order, and the great ropes that moored the ship to land were cast off.
She knew quickly that she would not be sea sick. She found the motion of the ship pleasant, the brisk, salt-laden air invigorating. Isabel, also, was not ill, but she was quickly commandeered by Eleanor as each and every one of her ladies immediately succumbed to mal de mer, and as one woman all screamed at Isabel to bring basins, sweet herbs, wine. Screamed in vain, for Eleanor simply claimed Isabel for herself, leaving the groaning women to fend for themselves as best they could.
The weather was pleasant, almost warm, and Berengaria elected to spend much of the remainder of the journey on deck rather than in the fetid cabins below with their stink of vomit and close-kept bodies. Once the frantic activity of departure eased, the sailors accepted her presence with resigned shrugs, and smiled, seeming pleased at her fortitude.
She leaned on the hull, staring up at a sky as blue as the inside of a robin’s egg. The featureless expanse stretched over her, rounded like a bowl and she wondered, fascinated, why the sky should appear to curve when everyone knew the earth was flat. Strange, she mused, strange. A shout from one of the sailors broke her serenity and she gazed about, startled and then abruptly shocked.
Land. One day had merged unbroken in to another, and she had simply lost track of time. Now, she realised that for the first time since they had left the harbour at Brindisi, the horizon held more than the unbroken blue of sea and sky. Land. Messina. Richard. She drew a shuddering breath, her stomach clenching in a mix of terror and anticipation.
Suddenly, the deck was once more a bustling city of activity. She was elbowed aside with great gentleness by the sailors, who darted everywhere. Sails were raised, other sails lowered. The hull creaked like an old woman with rheumatism as the boat’s direction was turned, water-logged ropes twanging and chains rattling. And all the while, Messina harbour loomed larger and larger until, in no time at all, it dominated her world.
Although no larger than Brindisi, this harbour was a world apart. Every inch of shoreline seemed crammed with ships; not the innocuous little fishing boats she has seen in Brindisi, seeming to rub together at anchor like friendly cats, but great vessels, decked out ready for war. Huge drommonds, their prows girted with iron to ram and pound the enemy. Ugly ships, wallowing low in the water, ships that were built to inflict pain and, to Berengaria´s startled gaze, ships that actually seemed to look forward to war. Other vessels, equally large but lacking armour, she guessed to be supply ships to support their warrior kin. As her ship approached the harbour, she began to see people, clustering behind the ships. Gradually, the crowd grew larger and larger, until she could hear the hum of their voices, rising like the random noise of bees.
She gripped the hull so fiercely that a splinter of wood lodged in her palm, and she jumped, sucking at the wound. At what seemed the very last moment, a narrow berth appeared between the great warships and their smaller vessel pushed in slowly, dwarfed by the greater ships to each side.
“Land, at last.” Startled, Berengaria realised Eleanor had appeared by her side. “And where, I wonder, is my dear Richard? Late as usual, I suppose.”
Berengaria licked her lips.
“The crowd is so thick, Mama, he could be anywhere.” Or nowhere, she thought, her heart sinking in disappointment. Not here, not here. After so very long, not here.
As the boat made its final approach, a great cheer rose from the crowd, which at the same time parted abruptly, smoothly. A great cloud of white dust rose from the pinnacle of the hill leading down to the harbour and Berengaria saw a troop of horsemen galloping down towards her, the mounted men huzzaring and hallooing, waving their caps in the air like madmen. They thundered towards the harbour and reigned in abruptly, the great war horses rearing and snorting. Each rider was dressed entirely in white, all but one wearing a blue band of leather around their right thigh. Berengaria felt sick with excitement as the lead rider dismounted, throwing himself casually to the ground and landing with the litheness of an athlete, striding towards the boat and leaping over the prow almost before the ship had touched harbour.
“Mama!” Richard knelt before Eleanor, gathering her hands and raising them to his mouth to kiss the withered old fingers. “I have prayed for your safety daily, and at last, you are here.”
“Richard.” Eleanor loosed one hand to stroke his head tenderly. “Can you do nothing quietly? Must it always be show and noise?” Her fond smile betrayed her words.
He grinned boyishly. Berengaria stood to one side, feeling deeply out of place, unsure whether to step forward, to speak or remain silent. She took the opportunity to watch him greedily all the same, taking in his great height and strong body, the red-blond hair and fair skin. Just the same! Just the same as she remembered. Tall and strong and every inch a king. How could she have expected less?
“Son.” Eleanor tapped Richard on the shoulder. “My son, your pleasure at seeing your mother does you nothing but credit. But I think you forget your bride. Berengaria,” she beckoned Berengaria forward. “Can you do anything with this great fool, this son of mine?”
Richard sprang to his feet immediately and bowed deeply to Berengaria.
“My Queen.” He murmured. “My bride.” Just as he had with Eleanor, he sank to his knees before Berengaria, but instead of taking her in his arms, to her disappointment he gathered the hem of her skirt in his hand and raised it to his lips, kissing it repeatedly. “I am at your feet, my Queen. Only command.” The crowd cheered and cheered and cheered. The white knights huzza´d again and again, setting their mounts prancing. Berengaria´s murmured reply was lost in the row, for which she was grateful, for she hardly knew what she said.
Richard threw back his head and laughed loudly. Ignoring the frantic activity of the sailors, intent on making the ship secure, he stood and scooped Berengaria into his arms and jumped onto the shore with no apparent effort, landing as lightly as a cat. Once on land and greatly to her relief for she was hanging on to him for grim death, he set her down tenderly and beckoned to one of the white-clad knights.
“Take great care of my lady, Rafe.” He commanded. “See she is safely taken to the fort. I will follow with the Queen.”
Mounted on a neat palfrey, Berengaria was led through the crowd by the knight, who forced his way through before her on his towering, snorting destrier. The beast showed its great yellow teeth in a snarl of fury at those foolish enough to come close but still the crowd jostled around her, hands reaching out to touch her, their strange English voices sounding pleasant enough, although after the sweet sea air, Berengaria found the stench of so many unwashed bodies hard to take. She was deeply relieved to reach the fort.
The knight helped her from the palfrey with a delicacy that surprised her.
“My Lady.” He bowed deeply. “I am Richard’s man, and now your most obedient thrall. Only ask, and if it is in my power it will happen.”
“Thank you.” She swayed slightly, confused that the ground appeared to be rocking under her feet in exactly the same way as the ship´s deck had done. “Please, show me my accommodation and bring my servant to me when she arrives. I need nothing else.”
“My Lady.” He offered his arm, and she leaned on it, relieved, sure she would not have been able to walk unaided.
“It´s the sea, my Lady”. He explained. “It gets into your legs in some way, and for a while your body thinks it´s still on water. Were you sea sick?”
“No, not at all. I enjoyed the voyage.”
The tall knight had an easy and pleasant manner. Berengaria found him agreeable and was faintly reluctant to part with his company when he bowed her into her apartment. To be alone after being surrounded by constant company seemed disturbing, rather than the luxury she had anticipated. She sank on to the prie-dieu, her thoughts whirling, and prayer the last thing on her mind.
“Richard.” She whispered. “Richard. My husband.” She rocked back and forth, hysterical giggles rising in her throat, and Isabel, arriving a few minutes later, blinked at her in surprise. Berengaria wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.
“Oh, Isabel. Did you see him? Did you see Richard? So tall, so strong. So handsome. Every inch the most perfect knight in Christendom. And he is to be my husband. Oh, Isabel, I am so happy I am mazy.”
Isabel smiled, watching her mistress´ delight with cautious pleasure.
“Madam. I am happy for you.” She leant down to help Berengaria rise from the prie-dieu. “I think, Ma´am, it would be good for you to take a little nap. There is a great feast arranged to welcome you tonight. The entire world will be there and you must be ready for it.”
Berengaria allowed herself to be undressed and drank the sweet potion Isabel offered without protest. Later, she could not remember her dreams well, but it seemed to her that there was a curious juxtaposition of Richard and Rafe, her gallant escort, so the two men were one, not two. When she woke, Isabel was directing a procession of servants to tip hot water from steaming jugs into a half-barrel shaped bath.
“I have shaken out and hung your cream silk gown, Mistress, and scented the inside with rose water so you will smell sweet as a flower.” Berengaria sat on a little stool inside the great wooden tub, the interior lined with sheets. Still in a dream she lifted her limbs to order as Isabel stroked her body with a sponge soaked in a decoction of sweet herbs. Her hair was anointed with some liquid that felt unctuous and pleasant. “When your hair is dry, I will rub it with silk so it gleams. Will you leave it loose, Ma´am? It is a shame to braid it when it is so beautiful.”
Berengaria murmured her agreement. She would have agreed to anything, if it made life easier. Wrapped in a drying sheet, she wandered about her solar, Isabel scurrying after her trying to pat her mistress dry. The cream silk gown did indeed smell delicious.
“Does that have to be so tight?” She complained as Isabel cinched and laced a wide kirtle around her waist.
“It shows your tiny waist to best advantage, madam.” Isabel coaxed, rocking back on her heels to put Berengaria´s feet into her shoes. “Oh, Ma´am! But you look beautiful.”
Berengaria glowed with pleasure.
The great hall of the fort was smaller than she had expected, but even so the walk to the high table stretched before her endlessly as a lane that had no turning. Every head turned to watch her progress and the movement of the men as they rose and bowed seemed to her to be like wind rustling through a field of ripe corn.
Richard rose and bowed as she took her place on his left hand, Eleanor already seated at his right, with her daughter Johanna to her side. Berengaria smiled timidly at the other young woman, wondering about her. Would they be friends? Johanna stared back at her with frank curiosity. As Berengaria sat the hall erupted in a great cheer of welcome.
Remembering Eleanor’s warning that Richard had no time for picky eaters, Berengaria tried as much of the food as she could force down. Richard ate heartily, and drank more heartily still, as did Eleanor, but Johanna, Berengaria noticed, ate in slivers and barely sipped at the strong, sweet wine. She peeked round at Berengaria from time to time but said nothing to her directly, instead chattering away happily to Richard, who responded to his sibling with indulgent smiles and shared jokes, obviously born of a lifetime’s acquaintance. In the midst of the throng, Berengaria felt intensely lonely. Intensely alone.
“My Lady, do you care to dance?” Richard stood, towering over his bride.
Immediately on cue, the musicians struck up and Richard led her on to the floor. After the first measure, Richard gestured for the rest of the company to join in and smilingly passed Berengaria´s hand to one of his knights, who had petitioned eagerly for the privilege. In quick succession, Richard danced with Eleanor and Johanna, and then resumed his place at the table with his womenfolk.
“My God, mother,” Richard smiled widely, his words belying the public face of pleasure. “What have you condemned me to? What happened to the little, slim fish you promised me? This is no bride to bring to my bed. She is fat, and her skin is mud.”
“Only think, brother. “ Johanna leaned across the table, smirking. “Those child bearing hips will give you a tribe of children, and with breasts like that, she can suckle twins and not be discomforted!”
Eleanor smiled and bowed her head graciously, as if Johanna had uttered some amusing witticism. She spoke quietly, but her voice was acid.
“Peace, my children. Richard, I think perhaps you are blind. Or is it that you have taken too much wine? Berengaria was little more than a child when you saw her last, now she is a woman, and a lovely woman at that.”
“She is fat.” Richard muttered sulkily.
“She is not fat.” Eleanor ground out between clenched teeth, her smile unmoved. “She has a beautiful figure – look at that tiny waist. And she is deliciously pretty, with those great eyes and that wonderful hair. Her skin is gold, not dun, and anyway what do you expect after being in the open air for so long? And just look at her neck, so gracile, so elegant.”
“Aye, Mama.” Johanna interrupted, almost hiccoughing with suppressed laughter. “But I fear my dear brother must take care. If he were to get into one of his rages and put his hands around her neck, he might find a corpse in his bed rather than a bride!”
Richard roared with laughter.
“Johanna, I think you are jealous of my bride!” He teased. “As Mama says, she has in abundance the curves that you lack.” Johanna pouted, and Richard was immediately contrite. “Sweet sister, you know that if only you were not my sister, then I would have eyes for none other. Mama, it is no good you railing at me. I like my women slender as boys, and that is all there is to it. I suppose I will manage somehow, but God help me! I know not how.”
“Aye?” Eleanor nodded towards the dancers. “Strange, then, that all those of your knights who are men, rather than fashionable catamites, are dancing such eager attendance on your bride.”
Richard raised his head and looked down his long Angevin nose towards Berengaria, dancing lightly on the arm of one of the courtiers. The music ended as he watched, and immediately another knight stepped forward, bowing for her favour.
“Of course they are.” A note of doubt crept in to his voice. “She is my bride; it would be disgracefully impolite for them not to pretend they are in love with her.”
“They do seem to be falling over their own feet to dance with her, brother.” Johanna admitted grudgingly. “And I suppose she is very graceful.” Berengaria laughed at a remark from her partner, and the man bent to kiss her hand.
Richard erupted in fury.
“How dare they? How dare she flirt like this? In front of me, as well.” He sprang to his feet and Berengaria found her partner thrust aside by Richard. “My Queen.” He bowed. “You have danced long enough with my men, now I claim what is mine.”
Richard finally handed her back to her chair, and sank back onto his own throne. Berengaria caught a flash of movement at his feet and craned her neck, expecting to see one of the many hounds that lurked about the castle. She frowned as she realised that the figure was actually a boy. Richard dropped his hand and fondled the child’s hair.
“My troubadour.” He murmured. “Shall you sing for me, dear one? Shall you play for your lord?”
The boy rubbed against his legs, disturbingly catlike, and reached behind him to produce a lute. Cross legged, he cradled the belly of the instrument in his lap and began to pick out a gentle, melancholy tune.
Richard hummed along for a second or two, and then began to sing, his deep tenor soaring above the lute. The boy joined in immediately, his much higher voice wandering above Richard’s own. Berengaria swallowed the lump of jealousy in her throat and managed a smile.
Johanna leaned across to speak to Berengaria directly for the first time, her lip curled in disdain.
“Meaching little toad.” She whispered. “I can´t stand him, but Richard dotes on him. Lord knows why.”
Berengaria whispered a silent prayer of thankfulness, deeply relieved that her own instinctive dislike of the young musician was shared by her sister-in-law. Even more relieved that Johanna had decided to acknowledge that she existed! The song at an end, Richard reached across the table and selected a sweetmeat, which he held out to the boy teasingly, inches from his lips. The boy made no attempt to grab for the sweet with his hands, but instead leaned forward, puckering his lips in a coquettish kiss. Richard roared with laughter and pushed the sweet between the boy’s lips.
“Toad.” Johanna said between tight lips. “He plays the child, but he has been around the court for so long any innocence he might ever have possessed was misplaced long ago.” She smiled at Berengaria. “Shall we be friends, dear one?”
Berengaria nodded gracefully and smiled back.
Her unease at the play with the young troubadour had quickly evaporated as Richard slapped the boy’s legs and sent him away. The child had gone sullenly, with many a backward glance, but Richard had already turned to talk to Berengaria and ignored him.
Isabel braided her mistress’s hair carefully, and helped her into her nightgown. Berengaria sat up in bed, as excited as a child waiting for the Three Kings to come with Christmas gifts. She pleated the sheet between her fingers repeatedly.
“I do not intend to sleep, Isabel. Blow out the candles and go to your cot, don´t worry about me.”
Both women paused, heads up like startled dogs, at a growing tide of noise outside the apartment. Feet shuffled on bare flags; masculine voices hushed each other; a cough, a laugh, quickly stifled. Silence, and then a tap on the door, repeated quickly when there was not an immediate response. Isabel rose, and then hesitated, glancing at Berengaria for guidance. The door swung open before either woman could move or speak.
“My Queen!” Richard was framed in the doorway, a wide grin stretching his lips, his hands clutching each side of the arched entrance, as if he needed the support of the stone. Behind him, Berengaria saw whispers of white cloth as his companions fled. “My bride! My … What the hell is she doing here? Out!”
Isabel ran, ducking under Richard’s arm as he turned and aimed a kick at her fleeing backside. The movement threw him off balance and he grunted in anger, petulance replacing pleasure.
“My bride, why do you keep that Jewish bitch at your heels? Eleanor dotes on her as well, I cannot understand it. Get rid of her, I beg of you.” Recovering his equilibrium, he smiled fondly. “Never mind – I will have no unpleasantness tonight. Tonight, all will be joy as I welcome my queen.” He walked carefully toward the great testered bed. Berengaria watched him warily, wondering how much, exactly, he had had to drink at dinner. And after.
“My lord,” she murmured shyly, her eyes downcast.
The rope keeping the mattress tight creaked under Richard’s weight as he sat heavily on the side of the bed.
“Do you lack anything, my Lady? Have I left anything to chance?”
Before she could reply, he started to his feet and began to prowl about the apartment. The sturdy oak table and a chair impeded his progress, but he seemed not to notice, heaving the chair aside with his thigh and banging off the table. A breeze stirred the candle flames and in the flickering light his face appeared demonic; his eyes glinting red, pouches beneath his eyes appeared as smudges of black. Berengaria fought the urge to cross herself and whisper a prayer.
Richard wheeled in mid stride and turned back to her, looming over the bed, staring down at her intently.
“There is nothing – there can be nothing. Have I not dedicated twenty-four – twenty-four, I say! – of my bravest, most noble knights to your service? The cadre of the Knights of the Blue Thong, all sworn to guard you, to care for you, to die for you if need be. What else do you need, my Lady?”
“Sire, I ask for nothing. Nothing except for my king.” Berengaria said softly. If Richard heard her, he made no acknowledgement. Berengaria had the uncomfortable feeling that, although he was looking straight at her, she was no more than an audience to him, and one that would be expected to applaud his performance in due course. “Nothing.” She repeated louder, “Nothing at all.”
“You do not know what I have done for you, my Queen.” Richard said earnestly as he swayed, grabbing the bed hangings to steady himself. “You do not know how I have humiliated myself for you. Me! The greatest king in Christendom. But it was necessary. Yes, it had to be done. My soul must be without stain, my conscience shriven, before we marry.”
He slumped onto the bed, and then slithered bonelessly to the floor to sprawl in an untidy heap beside her. Raising himself on one elbow and leaning on the mattress, he peered intently into Berengaria´s face, his breath hot and sour with wine.
“I will show you! You will see what I have endured for you!”
He jerked backwards and tore at the lacings on his tunic, ripping the cloth in his haste. Berengaria gawped as he struggled, finally succeeding in tugging the tunic open and yanking it down from his shoulders. Abruptly, he turned his back on her, twisting from the waist and turning his head to watch her reaction.
“See! See what I have done for you! Would any man, man I say! Man, not king! Would any man do more?”
Her mind spun with confusion. Leaning forward tentatively, ready to spring back if Richard made any move, Berengaria peered at his exposed back. His skin was white like the breast of an egret, strung with faint pink lines, as if he had scratched angrily at a particularly irritating itch.
“You see?” He asked eagerly. “You see how I have suffered for you? Suffered to redeem my sins? For I am deep in sin, my Queen.”
“Yea, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Berengaria whispered softly.
“Aye.” Richard threw his head back, eyes bulging. “White! Aye, white as snow! For I have been shriven, my Queen, my sins forgiven. But at what price! I – the King of England – I stood penitent and barefoot in the great doorway of the cathedral in Messina and confessed my wickedness and bade the Bishop – the Bishop himself! – scourge me for my sins. The Bishop whipped away my sins, the people saw him do so. I am purged, purged of any hint of earthly wickedness.”
Berengaria stretched out tentative fingers and traced one of the pink lines tenderly. Richard grunted and flinched; Berengaria immediately snatched her hand away.
“Nay, nay, my dove.” Richard grabbed her arm and bowed his head, forcing his back against her fingers. “I deserve to have pain inflicted upon me. It is the only way I can mitigate my sins fully.” He writhed against her touch, grinding his skin against her palm. She stared at him in bewilderment, thinking how strange it was that a trick of the light could cause his open mouth and wide eyes to appear as if he was in the grip of ecstasy, rather than contrition.
“Scratch me! Use your nails to scourge me as the nails scourged our Lord!” She obeyed reluctantly and Richard howled. “Ah, white! Yea, my sins shall be white!”
He drew a shuddering breath that Berengaria felt under her hand and became still. A drool of saliva hung from the corner of his mouth, speckling his fair beard like a pearl. Suddenly, his eyes focused on her and the film seemed to lift from his eyes. He drew back and smiled his expression sheepish.
“Forgive me.” He muttered into his beard. “I was overwhelmed by the intensity of my feelings. To have my sins lifted and to know that I stand before my bride shriven and innocent as the lambs in the field…” He held open hands before her submissively and then stood abruptly. “My Queen, I withdraw. I am your servant.”
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her bunched fingers tenderly.
The draught from the closing door blew the final candles out, and Berengaria was left in darkness. Her hand groped towards the miniature of Richard, hidden in the folds of her gown. Pressing it to her lips, she smiled and sighed and closed her eyes. A fleeting thought troubled her; was this normal? Was this how all men behaved before their wedding? But she pushed it away with a shrug, both mental and physical. This was the King. Had not Eleanor said she must not expect him to be as other men? Of course not, what was she thinking of?
“Most perfect gentle knight,” she whispered to the warm darkness, “My King, and my own. My husband. What more could I ask? I am the happiest of women. I am.”
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