Read an Excerpt
The Passions of Eleanor of Aquitaine
By Ellen Jones
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Ellen Jones
All rights reserved.
Bordeaux, Aquitaine, June, 1137
Eleanor was suddenly awakened from sleep by the sound of horses' hooves ringing against the tiles of the courtyard. Riders arriving at Bordeaux in the dead of night, long after the city gates were closed, usually heralded ominous news: an uprising somewhere in Aquitaine, a sudden death—unless—perhaps her father had returned from his pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela in Spain!
Slipping naked from the bed she shared with her younger sister, Petronilla, Eleanor ran lightly across the carpeted floor to the narrow window of the turret chamber and pushed it open. The scent of honeysuckle and night-blooming jasmine rose on the June air, heady, almost overpowering. A pale shaft of moonlight crept over the buttressed walls of Ombrière Palace, illuminating the squat tower that housed Eleanor's quarters, and outlining the riders below.
Two dark figures dismounted, ringed immediately by a score of grooms and palace guards.
"Wake the Duchess Eleanor and the archbishop," called a familiar voice which Eleanor recognized as belonging to Conon, her father's equerry.
This was followed by the sound of booted feet thundering across the courtyard.
"Where is Duke William?" A guard's voice echoed the question in Eleanor's mind.
The reply was inaudible as riders, grooms, and guards vanished from view. Eleanor's heart jumped. Where was her father? She waited a moment longer to see if more riders would appear. The courtyard remained deserted, ghostly under flowing black clouds that now obscured the moon.
Eleanor turned from the window then stopped short. For a moment she felt her heart freeze, the breath catch in her throat. Duchess Eleanor? Had Conon actually said that? Holy Mother—she clapped a hand over her mouth, swallowing a scream. No. She must have imagined it. Barely awake, her wits were still dulled with sleep.
But something was afoot. In her mind she heard her dead mother's soft, sweet voice cautioning her against unseemly curiosity, the tendency to meddle where she might not be wanted. Most unmaidenly behavior for the eldest daughter of the House of Aquitaine. "But this matter—whatever it is—concerns me," Eleanor whispered under her breath. "I know that it does. Please understand."
Careful not to wake her sleeping sister, she ran across the faded Syrian rug her grandfather had brought back from his crusade to the Holy Land, snatched the first thing she saw—an ivory gown that lay crumpled on the floor—and hurriedly pulled it over her head. A candle end still sputtered. Trying to ignore the apprehensive ache in her breast, Eleanor picked up the silver holder, glided past the sleeping bodies of her attendant women, and slipped out the door of the chamber.
Her bare feet made no sound against the cool stone as she flew along the passage, spun down the winding staircase, and slowed to a halt before the open doors of the great hall. Yawning servitors were just lighting torches in their iron sconces. The flames cast flickering shadows over the stacked trestle tables and wooden benches, lending an eerie glow to the scenes of falconry and hunting depicted on the heavy tapestries covering the stone walls.
Torchlight illuminated the rotund body and tonsured head of the archbishop of Bordeaux, deep in conversation with the two equerries, Conon and Roland.
Her heart thumping, Eleanor blew out the candle then marched resolutely into the hall.
"Where is my father?" she asked in a tremulous voice.
The archbishop exchanged quick glances with the equerries. "My poor child—I was going to wake you but felt I should hear—good heavens, you are not dressed! Most unseemly. Go back to your chamber and clothe yourself properly."
Ignoring the archbishop, she steeled herself to ask again: "Please—where is he?"
"I bring sad tidings, Mistress." Conon faced her with bent head. "Duke William—may God give him rest—is dead of a fever."
Dead of a fever. Dead of a fever. Dead of a fever. The senseless words beat like a drum roll in her head; Eleanor could not take in their import. Impossible that that great affectionate giant of a man, bursting with life, should be suddenly extinguished like a candle flame. She wanted to run screaming to her bed, hide under the bedclothes, and turn back these unforgiving moments; pretend she had never heard Conon's shattering words. But she was rooted in place, compelled to hear each last agonizing detail.
"Where?" she whispered.
"In Santiago, Spain. We buried him there not ten days ago then rode straight back to Aquitaine with the news. With his last breath the duke urged us to keep the matter secret."
Tears sprang to Eleanor's eyes. "His death secret? Why?" Her voice was barely audible.
"Why?" Conon paused in obvious surprise, exchanging another look with the archbishop. "Because of you, my lady, of course."
His words made no sense. "I don't understand."
"Once word of his death is spread abroad, my child," said the archbishop, "every greedy and ambitious lord in Europe will light upon the duchy like a flock of vultures. While those covetous vassals within Aquitaine's borders will converge upon Bordeaux like bees to nectar."
Eleanor looked from the archbishop to Conon to Roland.
"She doesn't understand, Your Grace," Roland said. "It's the shock."
The archbishop snapped his fingers. "Bring your new mistress a goblet of wine," he said when a servant appeared.
"I know this is a terrible tragedy, Eleanor, but you must pull your wits together. You are a great prize now. Many will want to marry you, by force if they cannot have you any other way. He who possesses you, possesses Aquitaine. You and the duchy are now inseparable."
The prelate's words cut through her anguish. Stunned, she took an involuntary step backward. When the servant offered her a goblet of wine she could barely hold it, downing it in shocked acquiescence.
"Now, my child, we will decide what to do when you are more appropriately dressed."
"What—what else did my father say, Conon?"
Conon withdrew a roll of sealed parchment from beneath his hauberk. "Duke William has charged us to deliver this message to King Louis of France without delay."
For an instant the hall and its occupants reeled. A message for her father's greatest enemy? Had the world suddenly gone mad?
When the walls and wooden beams of the ceiling had righted themselves, Eleanor saw that even the archbishop looked stunned.
"Do you know what this message contains?"
"Only too well, Your Grace," replied Conon, his voice laced with bitterness. "'Eleanor will be your duchess now,' the duke said to me with his dying breath. 'She is barely fifteen years of age and my heart trembles for her safety. I must leave her and the duchy in someone's keeping until she marries. Louis of France is overlord of Aquitaine; he will find her a suitable husband.' Thus spoke the duke. This is what the message contains."
Conon stuffed the roll back inside his hauberk.
"Benedicamus Dominum!" The archbishop shook his head in disbelief as he crossed himself. "It is quite beyond my comprehension. I assume the poor man felt this was the only way to protect Aquitaine from the vultures. Desperate times require desperate measures." He crossed himself again. "Perhaps, at the hour of his death at least, the duke was graced with wisdom. After an unruly life, filled with acts of folly, this was God's blessing on him. Perhaps we are wrong to judge him. But France? Come, my sons, you must have a goblet of wine and some cold meat or you will never survive the journey to Paris."
He snapped his fingers and ordered a servant to bring some bread and cold meat for the equerries.
He pointed a finger at Eleanor. "Go now and do as I bid you."
Ever since the demise of both her brother and mother seven years earlier, Eleanor had known that with her father's death she would one day become duchess of Aquitaine and countess of Poitou—unless he married again, which he had not done. While she had wanted, one day in the far distant future, to become duchess of Aquitaine, she had never imagined that day would come so soon. Not when she was still so young, so—so untried. The thought of shouldering all her father's burdens filled her with terror.
When her mother had died Eleanor had mourned her loss, inconsolable without that gentle, self-effacing presence, admonishing but always loving. But then she still had her father, her grandfather, and grandmother to share her misery. Now she had no one but her younger sister, who always looked to Eleanor to nurture and comfort her.
For a moment she was robbed of all breath. How could she sustain this second loss? She felt so alone, so small, so unfit to bear the yoke of Aquitaine.
"... what kind of husband will the king provide, I wonder," the archbishop was saying now. "It is such a risk."
Husband? The word and its implications cut through the engulfing fog of despair. A stranger in her bed? In her duchy? It was impossible that her father, in his rightful wits, would ever have placed her fate in the hands of a man he despised as much as the French king. Her family had never trusted their overlords any more than they trusted Holy Church. No. Despite all the warnings about vultures descending on her beloved Aquitaine, she did not want or need a husband. The thought was so hateful that Eleanor felt her whole body tremble. Outrage warred with grief.
"It must be a mistake, Conon," she said. "As His Grace pointed out, my father was desperate at the end, so concerned for my safety that this blinded him to what he was doing. I beg you, please do not carry this message to Louis of France."
The archbishop clucked like an old hen. "Not carry the message to France? My child, what can you be thinking of? The word of a dying man is sacred. Whatever our personal feelings, Conon must do as the duke ordered."
"His Grace is right, my lady. The duke was fully alert and quite clear on this point. It was an agonizing decision but he did it to protect Aquitaine—and you."
A servant refilled her goblet. She held it in both hands, clinging to it like a spar, then downed the wine again, almost choking on the bitter dregs. She had to do something. What could she say that would make them listen?
"I—" She took a deep breath. "I am—I am the duchess of Aquitaine now. Well, you said so yourself, didn't you?" She paused, desperately hunting for the right words. "I—yes, I—hereby order you not to go to France with this message. We will find another way to protect both the duchy and myself."
The two equerries and the archbishop stared at her as if she had two heads. Suppose they ignored her words? Refused to do her bidding? How had her father and grandfather before him summoned the power to make themselves obeyed?
"The child is young yet headstrong and frivolous, spoiled, as we all know. At this moment she is undone by grief," said the archbishop in a severe voice. "How can you heed her words? Do as the duke bade you, my good fellow."
"Conon, Roland—" Holy Mother, what could she say? What magic incantation could she call upon to sway their hearts? Body shaking, palms damp with her own sweat, Eleanor hesitated.
"For three hundred years my family, whose roots go back to Charlemagne and beyond, have ruled in Aquitaine. When I speak, it is not just my voice you hear, but the voice of all the dukes that have ever ruled this land."
She saw the equerries look at each other then at the archbishop. Eleanor felt herself sway with relief when she saw Conon and Roland drop down on one knee and bow their heads.
"As you will, my lady. I am your man," Conon said.
"And I," echoed Roland.
"By the Mass, I hope your vanity is satisfied, you foolish, selfish child," said the archbishop in an icy voice. "You have just abandoned Aquitaine and yourself to the first brigand who comes along with a show of force. This is your father's headstrong behavior all over again."
Her relief was short-lived. The prelate's words filled her with dread. Could he be right? Was Louis of France the wiser solution? A ray of dawn sunlight streamed through the open doors of the keep and into the hall accompanied by a brisk morning breeze. She shivered, aware now of her light gown, and how unsuitable she must look.
"Please wait," she said in a faint voice. "I will be right back."
She walked out of the hall with all the dignity she could muster. Before she dashed up the staircase she heard the archbishop's voice echo across the threshold.
"... every inch her grandfather and father's child. Willful and concerned only with her own desires. I fear it is bred in the bone. The worm in the fair apple."
Inside the chamber her sister and the women were still sound asleep. Despite her need to seek solace in her younger sister's arms, Eleanor could not bring herself to wake her: soon enough Petronilla would hear about their tragic loss.
She tip-toed across the Syrian rug to where a pole protruded from the wall next to an ornately carved chest. From the pole hung several tunics and gowns. Atop the chest rested an inlaid wooden box. Its lid gaped open revealing a tumble of gold and silver necklaces, jewel-studded brooches, and ornate rings. A flash of rust caught Eleanor's eye. Digging into the box, her fingers curled around the rust-colored stone her father had given her so long ago at the fishing village of Talmont, and which she had saved. She lifted it out, her father's words ringing in her ears "... this priceless jewel become yours. Guard our heritage well."
Eleanor passed a shaking hand over her forehead. Against all the odds, what she had always wanted had come to pass: Aquitaine was now hers. But for how long? Would King Louis, a greedy overlord and her father's enemy, try to swallow up the duchy himself if she defied him? If she followed her father's wishes, what kind of husband would the French king provide for her? Eleanor was wise enough to know she would have absolutely no say in the matter.
It might be a man old enough to be her grandfather, or a child of eight. The dreadful possibilities made her flesh crawl. Which was the greater evil? The devil one knew about or the devil one didn't know; the king of France or Aquitaine overrun by—what had the archbishop said?—brigands, unscrupulous vassals. Where could she turn? God? He would only tell her to follow the archbishop's advice. Stifling a sob, Eleanor sank to her knees beside the chest, closed her eyes, and asked her blood for guidance.
When she finally opened her eyes again, she knew what she had to do.CHAPTER 2
Louis the fat, king of France, lay half-dozing as he attempted to fight off the virulent effects of a persistent flux of the bowels, his third such attack in less than a year. As Paris lay sweltering under an unseasonably hot June, he had been taken to a hunting lodge on the outskirts of the city where it was somewhat cooler. Here, in a crowded chamber, servitors vainly tried to swat away the dark swarm of flies clustered thickly on the oaken table and bed, on pewter pitchers of fetid wine, even on Louis's bloated body.
Through slitted eyes he could see one black-robed physician taking his pulse with the aid of a sand-glass, while another examined his urine, swirling it round and round in a silver basin. The stench of excrement and unwashed flesh hung over the chamber like a shroud.
His eyes closed and he was about to drift off into sleep when a voice startled him awake.
"Sire, I have important news. Couriers from Bordeaux have just now arrived to tell us that Duke William of Aquitaine has died in Santiago, Spain."
The voice belonged to Abbé Suger, his chief advisor. Louis forced his eyes open and tried to speak. Although his debilitating illness had not impaired his wits, sometimes he could not force his weakened body to obey the dictates of his reason.
"Give thanks to God and all His Saints," he finally croaked, even as his heart burned with a fierce joy. The most unruly, rebellious, and stubborn of his vassals was dead. "It is nothing less than a miracle."
A palsied hand made the sign of the cross while his mind leapt to embrace the full significance of the abbé's news. "If Duke William is dead then who—let me think—didn't the son die some years ago? So there is only the young daughter?"
"Eleanor. She inherits all of Aquitaine and Poitou. And that's not all," Abbé Suger said. "These couriers say that with his last breath the duke begged you, as overlord of Aquitaine, to find the daughter a suitable husband."
The King tried to raise himself then groaned, shaken by a spasm of pain. The physicians hurried forward.
Excerpted from Beloved Enemy by Ellen Jones. Copyright © 1994 Ellen Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.