Queen Without A Country
By Rachel Bard
Berengaria stood at
the narrow window, wearing only her long white shift. Her tousled hair
fell loosely to her shoulders. She shivered a little. But though it was
December--Christmas Day!--it was remarkably mild. The sun was barely
risen. She leaned forward through the window embrasure in the thick wall
to look out. She saw gauzy mists floating, dissolving and reforming over
the green fields that had been carved out of the oak forest in the valley
Looking up, she saw
a pair of hawks tracing graceful arcs against the pale blue sky.
Berengaria felt weightless, as though she too could soar heavenward. For
the first time in her life she knew what it was to feel fulfilled as a
Behind her in the
bed Richard stretched, yawned with a bray like a donkey and turned over as
though to go back to sleep, then opened his eyes. He leaped up and walked
across the room to stand beside her. He put an arm around her and with his
other hand turned her face up to his.
"Why did you never
tell me you knew so well how to please a man?" he asked quite seriously.
But with newborn confidence she replied as seriously, "Why did you never
take the trouble to teach me how to love until now?"
For indeed, he had
been nothing like the hasty, selfish lover of their wedding night or the
cool, emotionless performer of the one other occasion he had come to her
bed. No--he had lain beside her, guided her hands and her timid lips over
his body while he explored every inch of hers. Then, as she held him
tighter and her trembling grew, he had gently, slowly, slowly, brought
them both to the moment of exquisite climax.
Remembering it now,
Berengaria smiled a woman's secret smile and clung to him--her husband at
last. But why was he looking so solemn?
"There is something
I must talk to you about, Berengaria. You said last evening that you had
heard I had been ill. I sensed that you also knew that I had been
admonished by Brother Jerome for licentious behavior in the eyes of God
So those vague
tales of the hermit in the woods were true. She had not been surprised
when she heard them and she was not surprised now. She had, she thought,
come to terms with Richard's untrammeled lusts, his disregard for public
opinion or disapproval by the church.
"Yes, I heard
something of the sort," she said, uncomfortable with the subject and
trying to dismiss it. "So the holy hermit came upon you in the forest and
threatened you with God's vengeance unless you foreswore your evil
companions? We need not talk about it if you do not wish to."
"I do wish to, I
must. And you are very close to the mark. But Brother Jerome was even
harsher than you suggest." He
grimaced with distaste at the
memory. "He told me sodomy was a grievous sin against God's design for the
world. He described hellfire in horrible terms, not to mention the agonies
of my death that would precede my descent to the inferno."
shuddered and moved closer into his arms. Absently he stroked her hair.
"So," she asked, "he ordered you to repent, and you have repented?"
"Yes, both publicly
and now privately--last night."
"That was repentance? Oh Richard, I thought it was lovemaking. But if you
wish to call it repentance, why let us repent every night of our lives."
She looked at him, her eyes full of love and mischief, searching for an
answering gleam in his. But he did not return her look.
"There is more," he
said. He seemed determined to tell all, and in a strange way she was not
displeased--that is what a wife is for, she thought: to hear her husband's
confidences, things he can tell no one else.
told me that not only must I give up my wicked habits; I must return to my
queen and live with her as God intends man and wife to live, in order to
produce the heir to the throne that the kingdom needs. When I told him
that I had already done my best in that regard, to no avail, he told me
that I had not done my best; that I must have failed to treat my wife with
loving consideration, as we are told to do when we enter into holy
I am beginning to
like this Brother Jerome, Berengaria thought. He seems to have seen
through Richard perfectly. But she said nothing.
"Then I fell ill of
the fever, and came so close to death that I knew this was a sign from God
of the truth of the hermit's lesson. I knew I must swear to do as he had
bidden me and pray God to spare me. After my sacred oath, the fever began
to leave me. Then when I told my mother of his admonitions, she too urged
me to come back to you and try again to father a child; for her dearest
wish is to see the succession secured."
For the first time
Berengaria felt a twinge of uneasiness. She resented Eleanor's intrusion
into this private drama. She already knew that her mother-in-law saw her
only as a means of producing Richard's heir. But was that Richard's view
too? She put the question aside. She was far too filled with her new state
of bliss to let such silly possibilities bother her.
The next few days
passed quickly, yet she knew she would always remember every minute. They
were still blessedly alone; Lady Héloise had suddenly remembered some
urgent business in Angers. Richard was busy during the daylight hours
seeing to repairs to the castle. Restoring it became an obsession.
"This castle has
been in the Angevin fold for close to two centuries," he told Berengaria,
"and I still remember my father telling me, when it came into my
possession, that it was sadly in need of repair but that in years past it
had performed nobly. He said we had the Romans to thank for it--they built
here first, and had the sense to put their fortress on this hill, where
they could see in all directions, and were close to the main road along
They were still at
table, finishing their evening meal. The sun was just going down. Richard
sat with his back to the window, and Berengaria thought his head seemed to
wear a golden halo. She loved listening to him when he was caught up in a
subject like this; and she knew if there was anything the Lionheart
understood, it was castles and fortifications. He had seen and studied the
best and the worst, in Europe and the Holy Land.
She heard and
agreed with him about Beaufort's virtues, but thought to herself that she
had quite different reasons for liking the castle. It was less pretentious
than the ducal palace at Poitiers, it had no associations with Eleanor,
and it was her own.
Richard was still
discoursing on history. "Then my own ancestor, Foulkes Nerra, was just as
wise as the Romans, and built the first Angevin fort on top of the Roman
ruins. I have dug down to his foundations and they are are as solid as
they ever were. If Philip should take a notion to come after us down here,
let him look out!"
So he plunged into
the task of making Beaufort the fairest little citadel in the valley of
the Loire. Berengaria was glad she had taken such pains to soften its
walls with tapestries, to put cushions in the window embrasures and
carpets on the cold stone floors. Though Richard professed to care little
for such refinements, she could see that after a day of laboring on the
moat and the parapets he was glad to come in to comfort and warmth.
For a while each
night was a repetition of the first, with variations. Berengaria surprised
herself and Richard with her growing adeptness in the arts of love. Now it
was often she who tenderly, skillfully aroused Richard rather than the
other way around. Every morning she woke in astonishment that the
pleasures of the night had not been a dream.
However, after a
time it seemed that Richard's lovemaking became more perfunctory, or he
would fall into bed and instantly go to sleep. She tried to persuade
herself she was imagining things, yet she agonized--had she ceased to
please him so soon? He was more absent-minded at meals too.
Finally, with the
help of Carlos and stonemasons from the village, he had completed the
repairs to his satisfaction. That night he was especially tender to her
and she told herself she was a fool to have worried so.
In the morning he
rose quickly the moment he was fully awake, as was his custom. Berengaria
lay in bed, lazily watching him as he dressed, admiring his long, strong
limbs, his handsome, serious face--more serious than usual. And why was he
putting on a leather doublet and a woolen cloak? Was he planning to go
out before the morning meal?
Buckling his broad
belt and swiftly placing his other garments in a capacious saddlebag, he
looked around to see if he had forgotten anything. Berengaria felt frozen,
unable to say a word or ask a question. At last he turned to her and
spoke, not unkindly but matter-of-factly, as though remarking that he was
going out to take a turn around the bailey to inspect the new ramparts.
"Now the time has
come for me to leave, my little queen. My work here is finished. The
castle is in good repair, and as for my other work--it too is finished. It
has been as pleasant a task as any in my life. I thank you for proving
such a willing partner. If we have not made a son, after these weeks of
trying, the fault will not be mine."
desperate, she sat up in bed, pulled the coverlet up to her chin and
stared at him. She forced herself to speak, trying to keep her voice
steady. "But where are you going? When will you return?"
"I am going north,
into Normandy, where King Philip is likely to attack, and soon. I cannot
delay in strengthening my defenses along the Seine. And I have it in mind
to build a new fortress above the river, strong enough to withstand
whatever he brings against it."
In spirit he had
already left her, his thoughts leaping northward to a brave new castle a
hundred leagues away.
"As for when I
shall return--that will I gladly, as soon as you send word that you are
unbelieving, still clutching the coverlet. Hot tears filled her eyes as
she watched while he gathered his belongings and strode toward the door.
Too proud to beg, too hurt to speak, she could do nothing but watch him
leave, without another word between them.