Reader's Guide

Queen Without A Country
By Rachel Bard

Chapter 18

Queen Berengaria of Navarre, Queen Without a Country 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 below.

            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 woman.

            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.

            Berengaria blushed. 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 and man."

            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."

            Berengaria 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."

            Berengaria laughed. "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.

            "Brother Jerome 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 matrimony."

            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 the Loire."

            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."

            Stunned but 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 with child."

            Berengaria sat 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.