Saturday 10 December 2011


Here is the first chapter of my work in progress on Eleanor of Aquitaine and the first paragraph of the second chapter.   I hope you enjoy the sneak peek!  Each day on Facebook, I always include the morning's opening lines and the evening's closing ones for those who like to guess what's going on!
Here now though, is a longer chunk.  

Chapter 1
The Palace of Poitiers,  home of the Dukes of Aquitaine, January 1137
Alienor woke at dawn.  The tall candle that had been left to burn all night was almost a stub and even through the closed shutters, she could hear the cockerels on roosts, walls and midden heaps, crowing the city of Poitiers awake.  Mounded under the bedclothes, her sister Petronella slumbered, her dark hair spread on the pillow.  Alienor crept from the bed, careful not to wake her, because she knew how grumpy Petronella could be when disturbed too early.  Besides, Alienor wanted these moments to herself.  This was no ordinary day, and once the noise and bustle began, it would not cease.
            Alienor put on the gown folded over her painted coffer, and pushed her feet into soft kidskin shoes. She unlatched a small door in the shutters and, braiding her hair with nimble fingers, leaned out to inhale the new morning with pleasure.  A mild, moist breeze filled her nose with the scents of smoke and stone and freshly baked bread. For a long moment she gazed at the alternating ribbons of charcoal, oyster and gold striating the eastern skyline, and eventually drew back with a pensive sigh. Lifting her cloak from its peg, she tip-toed from the chamber into the adjoining room where the maids were catching the last moments of sleep, or else yawning and scratching with bleary eyes.  Alienor slipped past them like a sleek young vixen and on light and silent feet, wound her way down the stairs of the great Maubergeon tower.
            A drowsy youth was setting out bread and wine on trestles in the great hall.  Alienor stole a small loaf, still oven-warm from the bread basket, and went outside.  Lanterns still shone their fuzzy light in some huts and outbuildings. She could hear the clatter of pots from the kitchens and a cook berating a scullion for spilling the milk. Ordinary, every day sounds, saying that all was well and familiar with the world, even on the cusp of change.          
At the stables the grooms were preparing the horses for the coming journey.  Ginnet, her grey mare and Morello, her sister’s glossy black pony were still in their stalls, but the pack horses were being harnessed and carts stood ready in the yard to carry the baggage the hundred and fifty miles south from Poitiers to Bordeaux where she and Petronella were to spend the spring and summer at the OmbriĆ©re palace overlooking the River Garonne. Alienor enjoyed travelling, and she loved Bordeaux, but this time it was different and she felt unsettled, as if there was a storm just beyond the horizon.
            Entering Ginnet’s stall, she offered the Spanish palfrey a piece of new bread on the flat of her hand, and rubbed the strong, sleek neck.  Ginnet snorted and lipped at Alienor’s cloak, seeking more tidbits. ‘Papa doesn’t have to go all the way to Compostela,’ she told the mare. ‘Why can’t he stay at home with us and pray? I hate it when he goes away.’ 
            She jumped and hot with guilt, faced her father, seeing immediately from his expression that he had overheard her.
            He was tall and long limbed, his brown hair patched with grey at ears and temples. Deep creases fanned from his eye corners and there were hollows beneath his well defined cheekbones. ‘You are early awake daughter.’ He gently tugged her thick braid of tawny hair. ‘Where is Petronella?’
             ‘Still abed papa.  I left her to sleep.’
            He gave her a grave look. ‘You know that a pilgrimage is a serious commitment to God.  This is no foolish jaunt made on a whim.’
             ‘Yes, papa,’ she said stiffly. She knew the pilgrimage was important to him, indeed necessary for the good of his soul, but she still did not want him to go. He had been different of late; reserved and more obviously burdened, and she did not understand why.
            He tilted her chin on his forefinger. ‘You are my heir, Alienor, and you must behave as befits the daughter of the Duke of Aquitaine, not a sulky child.’
            Feeling indignant, she pulled away. She was thirteen years old, a year past the age of consent, and considered herself grown up, even while she still craved the security of her father’s love and presence.
            ‘I see you understand me.’ His brow creased. ‘While I am gone, you are the ruler of Aquitaine. Our vassals have sworn to uphold you as my successor and you must honour their faith.’ 
Alienor bit her lip.  ‘I am afraid you will not come back.’ Her voice shook. ‘- that I shall not see you again.’
            ‘Oh, child!  If God wills it, of course I shall come back.’  He kissed her forehead tenderly.  ‘Besides, you have me for a little while yet.’
            A groom arrived to see to Ginnet and Morello and her father drew her into the courtyard where the pale grey of first light was yielding to warmer tints and colours. ‘Go now and wake your sister.  It will be a fine thing to say you have walked part of the way along the pilgrim route of Saint James.’
            Alienor gave him a long look, before walking away, her back straight and her steps measured.  His eldest daughter was swiftly becoming a woman.  Already tall, she had grown considerably in the past year, and developed light curves at breast and hip.  She was exquisite; just looking at her, intensified his pain. She was too young for what was coming, God help them all.
            Petronella was awake when AliĆ©nor returned to their chamber and was busy putting her favourite trinkets into a large cloth bag ready for the journey.  Floreta, their nurse and chaperone, had braided Petronella’s shiny dark hair with blue ribbons and tied it back from her heart-shaped face, revealing the downy curve of her cheek in profile.
            ‘Where did you go?’ Petronella demanded.
            ‘Nowhere, just a walk.  You were still asleep.’ 
            Petronella closed the drawstring on the bag and waggled the tassels at the end of the ties. ‘Papa says he’ll bring us blessed crosses from the shrine of St James.’
            As if blessed crosses were any sort of compensation for their father’s forthcoming absence, Alienor thought, but she held her tongue. Petronella was eleven, but still so much the child. Despite their closeness, the two years between them was often a gulf. Alienor fulfilled the role of their missing mother to Petronella as often as she did sister.
            ‘And when he comes back after Easter, we’ll have a big celebration, won’t we?’  Petronella’s wide brown gaze sought reassurance.  ‘Won’t we?’
            Alienor nodded. ‘Of course we will,’ she said and hugged Petronella, and found comfort in their mutual embrace.

            It was mid-morning by the time the ducal party set out for Bordeaux following a mass celebrated in the pilgrim church of St. Hilaire, its walls blazoned with the eagle device of the lords of Aquitaine.
 Ragged patches of pale blue peeped between the clouds and sudden swift spangles of sunlight flashed on horse harnesses and belt fittings. The entourage unravelled along the road like a fine thread, woven with the silver of armour, the rich hues of expensive gowns, crimson, violet and gold,  and muted blends of  tawny and grey belonging to servants and carters.   Everyone set out on foot, not just Duke William.  This first day, all would walk the twenty miles to the overnight stop at St Sauvant. 
            Alienor paced out, holding Petronella’s hand one side, and lifting her gown the other so that it would not trail in the dirt.  Now and again, Petronella gave a hop and a skip. A jongleur started to sing to the accompaniment of a small harp and Alienor recognised the words of her grandfather, William the ninth Duke of Aquitaine who had revelled in a notorious reputation.  Many of his songs were sexual in content, unsettling in their rawness and unfit for the bower, but this particular one was plangent and haunting, and sent a shiver down Alienor’s spine.
I know not when I am asleep or awake
Unless someone tells me
My heart is nearly bursting with a deep sorrow,
But I care not a fig about it
By St. Martial!
Her father kept company with her and Petronella for a while, but his stride was longer than theirs, and gradually he drew ahead and left them in the company of the household women.  Alienor watched him walk away, and fixed her gaze on his hand where it gripped his pilgrim staff.  The sapphire ring of his ducal authority glittered at her like a dark eye.  She wanted him to turn and look at her, but he continued to focus on the road ahead,  and she felt as if he were deliberately distancing himself, and that in a while he would be gone completely, leaving only the dust of his footsteps to follow.
She was not even cheered when her father’ constable Geoffrey de Rancon joined her and Petronella.  He was in his late twenties with rich brown hair, deep-set green eyes, and a ready smile. She had known him since she was born because he was one of her father’s close friends and confidantes.  He had lost his wife two years ago, and had not yet sought to remarry, but his need for heirs was not pressing because he had two daughters and a son from the match.  ‘Why so glum?’ He peered round into her face.  ‘You’ll make the clouds come back scowling like that.’
Petronella giggled and Geoffrey winked at her.
‘Don’t be foolish,’ Alienor lifted her chin and strode out.
Geoffrey matched her pace. ‘Then tell me what is wrong.’
‘Nothing,’ she said.  ‘Nothing is wrong.  ‘Why should there be?’
He pursed his lips. ‘Because your father is going to Compostela and leaving you in Bordeaux?’
Alienor’s throat tightened.  Geoffrey saw too much. ‘Of course not,’ she snapped.
He gave her a thoughtful look. ‘I am sorry. You are right, I am foolish, but will you forgive me and let me walk with you a while?’
Alienor gave a grudging nod. Geoffrey clasped her hand in his and took Petronella’s on his other side. 
After a while and almost without her knowing, the frown cleared from Alienor’s brow.  Geoffrey was no substitute for her father, but his presence was a reassuring comfort and enabled her to go forward with renewed courage.

Chapter 2
Bordeaux, February 1137

Sitting in his chamber of the Ombrieres palace in Bordeaux, William the tenth Duke of Aquitaine looked down at the documents the scribe had left for him to read.  He picked up the top one and studied its contents while rubbing his side.
‘Sire, you are still set on this journey?’
He glanced across the hearth at the cleric standing before the fire clad in heavy fur-lined robes.  Geoffrey de Louroux was the Archbishop of Bordeaux and despite occasional clashes of opinion, they were friends of longstanding. William had appointed Geoffrey as tutor to his two daughters. ‘I am,’ he replied......

Thursday 26 May 2011

Bonus extract from LADY OF THE ENGLISH

March 5th 2013 celebrates the 880th anniversary of Henry II's birth, so I thought I'd post the scene from Lady of the English where Henry enters the world.

Geoffrey’s servant knocked again.  Matilda closed her eyes and endured the contractions, pushing down with her all her might, grunting and straining.  Vaguely she heard the midwife’s attendant telling the man that the babe was almost born.  Within the hour, if all continued well.
            Matilda gave a humourless laugh.  ‘He is afraid I will birth a girl child,’ she gasped.  ‘Before I entered my confinement he was constantly worrying at the possibility like a dog with fleas.  He says I would do such a thing just to spite him and my father because I am contrary.  It would serve them both right if I bore a daughter.’ She bit back a cry as the next contraction started to build. ‘The books say that a woman is a vessel in which the man plants his seed, so how can a woman be to blame for the sex of a child?’
            ‘Sometimes a woman’s seed is stronger than the man’s, and then the baby is a girl,’ said the senior midwife.  ‘That is the lore.’
            ‘In that case, all my children will be daughters!’ Matilda panted.  
            On the next contraction the baby’s head crowned at the entrance to the birth passage and emerged, followed by slippery little shoulders and crossed arms. Matilda closed her eyes, pushed again and felt a warm, wet slither between her parted thighs.
            ‘A boy!’ The midwife, beamed from ear to ear.  ‘Madam, you have a son, and he’s perfect.’
            An infant’s thready wail filled the chamber as the woman lifted up the bawling, mucus-streaked baby for his mother to see.  Matilda felt no immediate burst of maternal love, but there was satisfaction at a task accomplished, and enormous relief that she had borne a living baby this time, whole of limb and wailing with lusty lungs.  That was what brought a sob to her throat.
            Two women cut the cord and took the infant aside to bathe him in a bowl of warm water, while two more stayed with Matilda to attend to the delivery of the afterbirth.  She was so tired that it was difficult to raise the strength to expel the dark, liverish mass, but she managed. The women made her comfortable, removing the soiled bedstraw on which she had laboured, binding soft linen rags between her thighs to absorb the bleeding, and making up the bed with clean linen sheets.  Matilda drank a small cup of hot wine infused with fortifying herbs and closed her eyes.  She heard the soft splash of water as the women bathed the newborn in a large brass bowl, and the senior midwife cooing to him as she wrapped him in swaddling bands. 
            The peace of the moment was broken by a commotion at the door and Geoffrey burst into the room like a storm. ‘Where is the child?’ he demanded. ‘Let me see him. Where is my son?’
            The midwives gasped and clucked at the unseemly intrusion, but Geoffrey ignored them and strode over to the freshly swaddled baby lying on his fire-warmed blanket. ‘Unwrap him,’ he commanded. ‘Let me see that he is a boy with my own eyes.          
            Through her exhaustion, Matilda was filled with amused scorn and indignation.  ‘Where would be the advantage in lying to you?’ she said. ‘Do you really think we would say you have a son if it was a daughter?’
            ‘I would put nothing past you,’ he growled, his complexion high.
            ‘I have laboured long to bring him into the world,’ she said.  ‘And before that, I carried him inside my body. I am glad to have borne a boy because he will have an immediate advantage in this world.  Why should I bear a girl to spite you, when I would be spiting her too because of her very sex?’
            Geoffrey looked at the unwrapped baby, taking in the evidence with his own eyes.  He reached a forefinger and touched his son’s soft cheek.  The infant turned his head in a rooting motion that made him smile. ‘I own him as mine,’ he said. ‘He is indeed a fine boy. Now we can begin to make real plans for the future.  Name him Henry.’  With a brief nod in Matilda’s direction, he left the room as briskly as he had arrived.
            Matilda slumped against the pillows and fought not to cry as a maid closed the door behind him.  ‘Bring my son to me,’ she said. ‘Let me see him.’
            The midwife re-wrapped the baby in his swaddling and carried him gently to Matilda.  She rested him in the crook of her arm and gazed down at this child whom she had not wanted to conceive because of fear, because of anger, because her life was a battleground over which she had so little control.  Now the field had changed.  Her fight was for him now, and she felt as if a part of her that had been hollow and hungry for a long, long time was full and warm and satisfied.  You have done well little one,’ she whispered to him. ‘Henry.’   Although Geoffrey had spoken as if  the naming was his sole prerogative, their son could have been called no other, and she was content.’ You will be a great king one day,’ she said.  ‘Greater even than your grandsire.’  


Here are a couple of extracts from Lady of the English.  
The first features Matilda and Adeliza.  The second, the young Henry II

To set the scene.  Empress Matilda's father King Henry I has told her she must marry a youth called Geoffrey of Anjou.  Matilda, widow of the German Emperor and in her mid 20's has refused and after a volatile argument has retired to her chamber.

Matilda was roused by the sound of Adeliza talking to her maids, and the waft of savoury food smells. Moments later, the bed curtains parted and Adeliza stood in the space between them with a tray bearing a bowl of broth, steam curling on its surface, a small crusty loaf and a portion of saffron-glazed chicken. The maids bustled about, lighting candles and closing the shutters against a lavender spring dusk. As Matilda sat up, Adeliza set down the tray on the coffer. She had brought a folded napkin and a small fingerbowl of scented water.

            ‘I am sorry to hear you are unwell,’ Adeliza said softly.

            ‘Did my father send you?’ Matilda snapped.

            Adeliza gave her a reproachful look. ‘Of course not. When I told him I was coming to speak with you and bring you food, he was exasperated with me.’ She gave Matilda a woman-to-woman look. ‘He said you didn’t deserve to eat and that a spot of starvation would help put your mind in order, but he did not gainsay me when I insisted.’

            Matilda glared at the beautifully arranged tray. ‘Indeed, I would rather starve,’ she hissed. ‘And I’m not hungry.’

            ‘I do not believe that!’ Adeliza remonstrated. ‘You have a good appetite and you will need your strength.’

            Matilda continued to scowl. She truly did not feel like eating, but it was another way of defying her father since he had not wanted Adeliza to bring her food. ‘You are right, I suppose I will,’ she said and reached for the bread.

            Adeliza poured wine for both of them and sat down at the bedside. ‘Ask yourself what good this is doing you. Where will you go from here if you defy your father?’

            Matilda tore the bread into small pieces. ‘You agree with him then.’ She gave Adeliza a bitter look. ‘You are taking his part like everyone else?’

            Adeliza shook her head. ‘I am concerned for both of you. I know how difficult this is for you. You have lost a good husband and your position at the heart of the imperial court. But you must look to the future and think about the long term. Here, drink and be consoled.’

            Matilda thrust away the wine, making it slop over the edge of the cup. ‘You think I will find consolation in wine? Is that what I should do? She laughed scornfully. ‘Drink myself into oblivion?’

            Adeliza mopped up the spillage with her napkin and gazed sorrowfully at the red stain. ‘I think you will find consolation in the Church, and in your children in the fullness of time.’

            ‘I may find strength in God, but no comfort, and certainly no consolation from men of God,’ Matilda spat and felt both triumphant and guilty as her young stepmother recoiled. ‘As to children – I had no such consolation from my marriage with my Heinrich, and neither have you with my father. Why should I put my faith in the solace of being a mother?’ Her voice strained and almost cracked. ‘I bore Heinrich a child, and buried him on the same day.’

            ‘I’m sorry.’ Distress filled Adeliza’s gaze. She reached out to Matilda in sympathy, but Matilda drew back. Adeliza lowered her arm and smoothed the bedclothes instead until there was no sign of a crease. She said hesitantly, ‘Perhaps a man only has so much good seed in his body. A younger one . . .’ Her cheeks reddened. ‘I am not being disloyal to your first husband or your father, but I say to you as one woman to another that your womb may more easily quicken this time.’

            Matilda gave Adeliza a long look. ‘Would you change places with me?’

            Adeliza’s blush brightened her entire face. ‘I would think on my duty to those who desired me to make the match. I would think on the good things that might come of it. That I might bear children and grow to love a young husband as he became a man. The difference in age between us would soon close up and matter less.’ She set her lips. ‘You learn to live with what you cannot alter and find ways to thank God for what you do have. In truth, what are your alternatives? Your father will not change his mind once it is set. If you refuse, he will make one of his Blois nephews his heir and consign you to a convent. You came home from Germany rather than become a nun. Would you choose the cloister now?’

            Matilda blinked tears from her eyes, furious that she was crying. ‘Just for once . . .’ she said hoarsely, ‘just for once, I want him to see me, but he never will except as a tool.’

            ‘Ah no, never think that!’ Adeliza looked shocked. ‘He is proud of you – very proud, and that is why he is unyielding. He knows your potential and he wants the best for you.’

            ‘The best,’ Matilda gave a caustic laugh. ‘Geoffrey of Anjou is the best? God save me from the worst!’

            ‘Look,’ Adeliza said patiently. ‘I know this betrothal has come as a shock, but it will work out, you will see.’ She leaned over and kissed Matilda’s cheek. ‘I will leave you to think on it.’

            ‘You mean my father will be wondering why you have been gone for so long?’

            ‘The King has other matters to attend to, tonight.’ Adeliza’s voice was careful and her body taut, so that Matilda knew her father must be engaged with one of the many court concubines – probably riding her as viciously as he did his hunting horse when he was in a temper. ‘There is no more I can say to you. Now you must think on this for yourself.’

            When Adeliza had gone, Matilda resisted the urge to close the bed curtains again and retreat into her shell. Adeliza’s actions had reminded her that she had a position in the world to uphold, and responsibilities. As she ate her supper, she pondered the matter. She was backed into a corner and her only recourse was to agree to the marriage as her father desired. He said it was an honourable thing, and, viewed with a superficial eye it was, but deep down, at the core of the matter, she knew it was shameful.  
end of extract 1


Extract 2 

Henry FitzEmpress, almost eight years old, was testing the paces of his new mount Denier.  The dam’s Spanish breeding had given the little chestnut fire in his feet. Henry loved the feel of the wind streaming past his face, even though it was cold enough to sting his eyes, because it gave him a feeling of speed. On a swift horse, he was invincible.
His father had started taking him hunting, and Henry had also begun his military training, fighting with a shield made to suit his size, and a wooden sword. He loved every minute. Indeed, the only thing he ever found difficult was staying still. It was always a trial when he was in church and expected not to fidget in the presence of God. By contrast, flying on a horse was easy.
His father was waiting in the stable yard to greet him when he returned from his ride, his groom following several paces behind. Henry showed off by drawing rein in a dramatic slide of hooves, and leaped from the saddle almost before the pony had stopped. He flashed his father a broad smile, exposing gaps at the front where new teeth were growing in.
Geoffrey’s lips twitched. ‘That was fine riding, my son.’ He plucked a burr out of Henry’s cloak.
Henry flushed with pleasure. ‘Yes, sire.’ Much as he was enthralled by the swiftness and grace of Denier, what he really wanted to ride was a destrier like his father. His new pony was just another point on the road towards that accomplishment. ‘I could have made him go faster, but Alain wouldn’t let me.’ He scowled over his shoulder at the groom.
‘Alain was wise, you should listen to him,’ Geoffrey said. ‘And to your horse. Always be bold; never be heedless.’
Henry pursed his lips and said nothing.
His father folded his arms. ‘I have been waiting for you because I have received some great news from England, from your mother. Stephen the usurper has been defeated in battle and captured by your uncle Robert and others of your mother’s kin and allies. Your mother is to become Queen.’
Henry stared at his father while his stomach gave the same kind of swoop that it had done while he was galloping Denier. He had not seen his mother in almost a year and a half and memory of her features had blurred at the edges, but she wrote to him often and sent him things from England: a writing tablet with an interlaced design on the ivory cover, and a fine penknife. Things she had sewn, which held her scent. Bells for his harness. Numerous books. And always the promise that one day he would be a king because England was his.
‘Can we go there?’ He was suddenly consumed with eager impatience. Had a ship been present in the courtyard, he would have boarded it there and then.
‘No, no, no,’ his father laughed. ‘Rein back your horse a little. It is early days yet. Your mother will send for you when it is time.’
‘But when will that be?’
‘Soon,’ his father said. ‘But not quite yet.’ He ruffled Henry’s hair. ‘One battle does not a victory make, even when the enemy has been captured. Once your mother has been crowned, she will send for you.’
Henry frowned and wondered how close ‘soon’ actually was. When adults said such things, it was usually simply to pacify – and it was always a long time. He did not see why he could not go immediately. He knew he could help, and it was his destiny.
His father said, ‘My first task now your mother has succeeded is to go into Normandy and secure the duchy. Many barons will want to pay homage to the winning side.’ He looked at Henry. ‘And no, you cannot come there either for the time being. Your task is to stay safe and learn and become a man.’
Henry grimaced, but knew better than to protest. As far as he was concerned, he was a man, and years were only numbers.