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Authors: Tracey Warr

Almodis

BOOK: Almodis
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ALMODIS

The Peaceweaver

Tracey Warr

CONTENTS

Title Page

Maps

Prologue

 

Part One Aquitaine 1026–1040

 

1 Easter 1026

2 Easter 1032

3 November 1036

4 Easter 1037

5 The Mews

6 November 1037

7 Bernadette: A Parisienne in Roccamolten

8 Hugh the Fair

9 May 1038

10 Morgengebe

11 Bernadette: Lusignan

12 The Season Turning, October 1038

13 Bernadette: Confessional

14 Consanguinity

15 February 1040

 

Part Two Toulouse 1040–1052

 

16 Bernadette: Toulousienne

17 Easter 1040

18 Bernadette: Breaking Fast

19 A Tour of Toulouse

20 Bernadette: Thwarted Men

21 Christmas 1040

22 Candlemas to Lammas 1041

23 Bernadette: My Lady’s Ideas

24 Bernadette: Midsummer 1044

25 Easter 1047

26 Easter 1050

27 Bernadette: Breaking Oath

28 Midsummer 1052

29 Moissac 1052

30 Lammas 1052

31 Flight from a Window

 

Part Three Barcelona 1052–1071

 

32 Michaelmas 1052

33 Correspondence

34 Christmas 1052

35 Bernadette: Reunion

36 Martinmas 1054

37 All Hallows 1057

38 Thaw 1060

39 New Lords

40 Under the Ground

41 Bernadette: The Great Round of Life

42 Pentecost 1066

43 The Crisis of Carcassonne 1067

44 Autumn

45 17 November 1071

Epilogue

 

Almodis De La Marche Genealogy

Aquitaine Genealogy

Carcassonne/Barcelona Genealogy

Historical Note

Selected Bibliography

Acknowledgements

Copyright

Medieval Europe at the time of Almodis

Occitania south of the River Loire

I stand on the precipice wrapped in bulky grey and silver furs. My eyes are trained, like a hawk at hunt, on the steep road snaking up the mountain towards me. I feel the bitter cold of the granite ledge through the thin leather of my shoes, and I slide my feet forward inch by inch towards the edge, to get a better view. I turn my head to the faint sound of men’s voices wafting up through the clear air and the sudden shift in my balance makes my foot begin to slip on ice. Fumbling desperately for a hold on the rock, I wrench my wrist as I pull myself back from the drop. I take two fast breaths and unclench my teeth. Fear and adrenaline taste of metal in my mouth. My hot breath billows in a white cloud around my frozen cheeks and nose. Perhaps I imagined the voices. I can still see nothing on the road. I am waiting for the arrival of the man who will be my husband. I am looking out for the arrival of my independence.

Winter has come so fast this year. Only a few weeks ago I was swimming in the river with my sister and a lukewarm autumn sun touched our goosebumps. The sunlight danced between the surface of the water and the trees’ fabulous display of orange, red, brown, green, gold. The harvest doesn’t seem long ago, when the peasants gave me the honour of being the maiden who would cut the last stand of corn. Now, over to my left, I see sunlight sparkling on vast sheets of ice where the water trickles down the mountainside for most of the year. In places it is frozen in enormous stalactite shafts, poised over the sheer
drop like giant glass lances waiting to fall on the heads of any travellers risking the road. I shiver and wrap my furs around myself more tightly. Holding my hands inside my cloak, I touch my bruised wrist and grazed fingertips, run my index finger up and down between the knuckles of my left hand, feeling the slight bumps of three old star-shaped scars. I trace the gold and garnets of the betrothal ring on my little finger and twist the ring around and around.

The female troubadour’s song that I heard in Toulouse last Easter runs through my head:

Now we are come to the cold time

when the ice and the snow and the mud

and the birds’ beaks are mute

(for not one inclines to sing);

and the hedge-branches are dry –

no leaf nor bud sprouts up,

nor cries the nightingale

whose song awakens me in May.

 

My heart is so disordered

That I’m rude to everyone …

 ‘Almodis! Come away from that edge! Why did you come out without me?’ My twin sister’s voice is close behind me.

I step back from the precipice and turn to take Raingarde’s hands affectionately in my own. I look into my sister’s face, the same face that I see myself in the smooth surface of the summer river. The same long tumble of dark gold hair. The same dark green eyes.

* * *

The aged female troubadour, Dia, breaks off her story
momentarily
, sets her harp down across her knees, and takes a sip of wine. She looks to her patron, Lady Melisende, who is the chatelaine of this Castle of Parthenay. It is the last night of the old century,
31st December 1099, and Dia has finally agreed to tell the whole story.

‘I can see your mother, Almodis, and your father, Hugh, in your face,’ Dia says. ‘This part of the story that I have just told you …’

Melisende nods.

‘… when your father came to claim his bride. That took place in the blood month of November, and in the year 1037, after the Great Famine, at the Castle of Roccamolten, in the county of La Marche in northern Occitania, not so far from here. The
troubadours
, or
trobairitz
, as we female storytellers are rightly called, we are both historians and poets. We find
and
make our songs and stories.’

Melisende nods again.

Dia picks up her harp and positions her fingers on the strings. ‘But where to begin,’ she says, ‘since we are always in the middle apart from when we are at the beginning and the end and even then we may be in the middle?’ 

If I try to cast my mind back to my earliest memories I am always caught screaming silently at the burning when I was six years old. There must be other memories before that, memories of my
family
in Bellacum and Roccamolten, memories of my sister, before I became a child hostage at my grandfather’s court in Aquitaine. But every time I try to remember I am always thrust there – to the execution ground of Lady Elisabeth and I cannot think back beyond that one raw memory. Before the burning there is only blankness. So I don’t like to remember at all but I must begin and that day at the Easter Assembly, at the Castle of Montreuil-Bonnin, is the beginning for me.

My eyes are screwed tightly shut and my small hand is being crushed in Geoffrey’s grip, but I can still see, seared onto my
eyeballs
, his mother’s terrified and agonised face as the flames leap around her and the charring tatters of her wedding dress. The awful inhuman screeching has stopped now and my heart is
starting
to slow down but I think I will hear the echo of her screams resonating in my ears forever. How can birds still sing now? Hot tears squeeze out and filter through my eyelashes, running coldly down my cheeks. I open one eye slightly, enough so that I know how far to turn my head in order to avoid a peripheral view of Elisabeth’s charred remains hanging off the stake. I look instead up at Geoffrey. His eyes are wide open, staring at his mother’s grisly corpse. His jaw muscles clenching and unclenching are the only mobile feature in his whole face and body. That, and
the hand that seems to be systematically crunching the bones of my hand. His nostrils are flared and I realise that the air smells and tastes like burnt pig. Geoffrey looks down at me with dark blank eyes and I glance in supplication at his fist. He lets go of my hand abruptly, as if it were burning him. A black plume of smoke dirties the pale blue of the spring sky. How can the blossom trees still wave pink in the breeze?

I want to turn my back on the execution site and fall to the ground weeping. I want to drag Geoffrey away and comfort him as he comforts me when I skin my knee or graze the palms of my hands falling in the courtyard. Instead we stand rooted here, he staring ahead unflinching, and I staring at the view of the ground and my feet swimming in tears, my nose running.

‘Come with me now, Geoffrey, Almodis.’ My grandfather’s voice is gentle and low and I feel a wave of merciful relief as he turns Geoffrey around by the shoulders and I happily turn with him. Geoffrey staggers a little as if unable to bend his knees. I put my uncrushed hand into Grandfather’s and we walk away, passing Geoffrey’s father, Fulk the Black, Count of Anjou, who still stands, consuming the sight of his adulterous wife’s charred body.

We reach the door to Geoffrey’s chamber and
Grandfather
tells him that he can have time off from his studies today. Geoffrey nods mutely and closes the chamber door quietly behind him. What tempests might occur behind that door? If I were Geoffrey, would I be most furious with my mother, for her adultery, if it is true. Or would I be most furious with my father, and his pretty mistress, Hildegarde, who might now become the new countess?

Grandfather and I stand on the threshold of his Great Library. This collection of books and manuscripts is one of the
splendours
of all Europe. Even the monks in Cluny are sitting
envious
, dreaming of our books here, my grandfather says. Not long after I had arrived in Montreuil-Bonnin, he had shown me to the library. ‘Might I live here, Grandfather?’ I asked him earnestly, in love with the promise of the books and hopeful that I might escape his wife Agnes’ unkind surveillance. ‘I could place my bed under this desk here.’ Grandfather roared with laughter at me, but
he pointed out the books that were my own, that Grandmother Adalmode had left to me in her testament. Today as I step into the room with its high ceiling and see the shelves of parchments and scrolls rising up around me and the glint of sunlight on the polished wood of the reading table and on the golden and
jewelled
covers of the books, I do not feel my usual excitement as if I have stepped into a magical world. I just feel sick and sad and angry.

‘I don’t think I can do any reading today, Grandfather,’ I whisper.

‘Then I will read to you and heal your heart, darling,’ he says, tipping my chin up towards his face. I focus my eyes on the soft white curls of his beard. I don’t want to look into his eyes. After all he, the Duke of Aquitaine, could have stopped it if he wanted to.

‘This is a very hard thing that you have seen today Almodis. Men go into battle, but this can be a dangerous world for
princesses
too.’

I already know that. Duke Guillaume isn’t after all my real grandfather. He is my step-grandfather, since he married my grandmother by force after killing her first husband, Count Audebert of La Marche, who
was
my real grandfather. But I love the duke nevertheless. And I know it is a dangerous world for women. Haven’t I just seen the Duke’s third wife, Agnes,
screaming
in labour as she gave birth to their new daughter as I ran in and out of the room with clean water and cloths? My stomach lurches at the idea that I might myself one day face what
Elisabeth
of Vendôme has just suffered. My mind races for defences. Elisabeth left herself open to the charge of adultery even if it were not true. She was openly fond of a man who has also died a grisly death. She was not adequately protected by her kin against Fulk. I would ask my father or my brother for help if I were ever threatened so, and they would rescue me. Perhaps. I think again of Geoffrey’s feelings now about his mother and his father, but it is hard for me to imagine that. I can barely remember the faces of my own parents, or of my two brothers, Audebert and Eudes. Only my twin sister Raingarde’s face can remain clear in my head, far away, but growing day by day the same as my own. I look up
at my grandfather to show him what I think about his story of battles and princesses.

‘Do not accuse me so with those big green eyes, Almodis. I know you are thinking I should have prevented this. Could have. But Fulk must do what he will with his own wife. I am his
overlord
, yes. He gives me fealty and must do my bidding but
sometimes
a lord has to judge what he must not ask for, else his closest ally may become his bitterest enemy.’

It is a pretty speech and, of course, Fulk would be an enemy to fear but I am not distracted from my accusation. Alas, for the first time I see something I do not like in my beloved grandfather. For the first time I see that I am ranged on another side, separate from him, on the side of women.

‘Come and look at this, sweetheart.’ Duke Guillaume is
sitting
at the reading table with Bede’s history of St Cuthbert open before him. He beckons me and I climb up onto his knees but I cannot look with my usual delight at the tumble of blue and
yellow
flowers and the green tendrils travelling down the margins of the page. I wind a tendril of my tumbling gold hair around and around my finger, let it spring out of its tight knot, and then begin the twirling again. Grandfather turns the pages slowly and I give a little of my attention to him and the book, but everything is changed. Our shared delight in the stories and word-hoard of the library, our game that they wait patiently ranged on the shelves for us to choose them today and voice them together, seems crumbled to dust. I can still taste ash and smoke in my mouth and smell it in my hair. I look quickly and fearfully at
grandfather’s
precious parchments in case they should crumble or burn because I am imagining that in my anger.

My grandfather loves me undoubtedly. I lean back against the warmth of his chest and roll my head back and forth against the soft blue velvet of his tunic, as my pony snuggles against me when I have an apple for him. I imagine the Duke’s smile at my gesture. He would never burn me at a stake, no matter what I did. His wife, Agnes, however, my foster-mother, yes she would like to throw me on the kitchen fire anytime. She hates me because I am the granddaughter of Duke Guillaume’s first wife, Adalmode. Adalmode’s son, my uncle, is the heir to Aquitaine standing in
the way of Agnes’ own children. The Duke makes no secret that Adalmode was his great love and that he sees his two subsequent wives as mere heir breeders. He says so often, in front of Agnes, keeping her in her place. A man can’t have enough sons he always says. Agnes passes her fury onto me, treating me as if I am a servant girl rather than the daughter of a count and an honoured hostage at the court, the granddaughter of the Duke’s only love, the niece of the heir.

Next time my betrothed husband, Hugh of Lusignan, comes to court I will take a good look at him and see if he is the kind of man, like Fulk, who might take a mistress and burn his wife. I shudder and Guillaume pats my hand, turning the pages on Bede’s words. I stare at the dust suspended in a shaft of sunlight, unable, today, to give my attention to the worlds conjured by the books.

BOOK: Almodis
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