It is, I think numbly, rather cold. That would probably be due to the open window in the stone wall, letting in the unseasonably icy April air. I had forgotten to shutter the window last night. Or it could be because my freezing body is responding to my heart, and Richard the Lionheart is dead.
I am an old woman now, seventy-seven, and no longer the Eleanor who darted amongst the powers of the day with a gay laugh and a mocking twirl of the skirts. Nor am I the sedate queen who supported Richard, and then gracefully retired when he no longer needed me.
I am Eleanor, not any more of Aquitaine but now of Fontevrault, thrust into the seat of power I no longer desire, and it is I who hold the fate of princes in my hand.
Angevin is the whole of England and several fiefdoms in France - which makes the King of England the vassal of the King of France. And now I must place a king on the throne who will resist the French king, Philip.
I muse, as I move about my small room, upon who would make a better king. My decision was made a scant seven days ago, when I persuaded a dying Richard to appoint John his successor, but I constantly doubt my choice. It is my grandson Arthur who has a better claim to the throne, but I rather think John's rule is to be preferred. He hates the French rule, and he will not succumb to Philip for anything less than brute force. Then, too, he will know more to respect me, better than that impish grandson of mine. Neither of them is as good a choice as Richard, but John is the lesser of two evils.
Why must I choose the new king of the Angevins?
Richard, my Richard, why was it you who died?
I move away from the window I have just finished shuttering, and smile a little at the young novice who is standing in my doorway, holding a wooden tray. "Come in, child." I remember hating it when others called me that. I must have grown old.
Her severe black clothes do not suit her, I think absently. Her face is white, her eyes pale blue, and her white-blonde hair has hardly more color than my own white head. Then I wonder how I look, standing there in the same simple garb. "Come in," I say again, when she makes no move to enter.
Shyly, the girl places her tray on the table. "My lady requested for food to be brought this morning," she says, but it sounds more like a question. It is against the rules of the Benedictines to eat before the ninth hour of the day, but then, I am not quite a nun. Today of all days, I have neither the time nor the patience to eat at None, and I have always found a certain amount of pleasure in flaunting rules. It is oddly comforting to know that some things have not changed.
"Thank you," I reassure her.
She has turned to go when she startles, remembering, and says, "Oh! My Lord the King also wishes to see you at your earliest convenience."
"Thank you," I say again. I wonder whether John bothered to couch his missive in such polite language, or merely demanded my presence, and the translation occurred somewhere along the way.
She nods quickly, birdlike, and leaves me alone again with my thoughts and a small tray of breakfast.
It is just bread and wine. The bread is cold and a little tough, clearly baked yesterday, but I take a test sip of the wine and discover it is quite strong, so I add more water than usual to it.
By the time I finish the light meal and the morning prayers, a second novice has appeared, bearing more summons from John.
"Tell my son that I shall be with him once I have made my attire suitable," I say. I can already anticipate the string of messengers he will send to me this morning, and I pity the poor girls, who must be terrified that either I shall be angered at them if they word their messages too strongly, or John will be mad at them if I fail to appear.
"Yes, my lady," she says.
For John, I change out of my simple black habit. Long ago, when Richard was still alive, I came to Fontevrault to retire. Being a nun did not suit me, but the simple peace soothed part of my restless soul, so I remained their guest, wearing clothes of their kind and eating food of their kind, as is proper in someone else's house. Now, out of respect for the Abbey, I put on only a plain black dress, but it is edged and embroidered with silver, and more tailored than the habits.
Before I go to John, I open the window once again, and look questioningly at the sky outside. The windy sky is cold, and the north horizon is cloudy and overcast. It is not what I want to see.
I shut the window, and go to find my son, the King of the Angevins.
When I arrive at the rooms loaned to John for his few days at Fontevrault, he is absent. A monk in the corridor informs me that he has gone to find food. Gluttonous boy.
It was extraordinarily forgiving of the Abbey to allow John to stay here, considering how he behaved at Richard's funeral mass. Then I realize it is Richard's funeral I am thinking about, and try to think of something else. It is a simple and yet infinitely complex mind game I am forced to play with myself, in which I must consciously distract myself from Richard's death, which of course leads me right back to it.
John's behavior at the Mass; I can concentrate on that.
He interrupted the Bishop not once, not twice, but three times. For what reason? To ask if the service was done yet, as he was hungry. Always John thinks of his belly before his head.
Close after his stomach comes his pocketbook. During the offering, he remarked that that a few days ago, he should not have given to the church his coins, but rather kept them for himself. I shudder to think of when he is king, and will have access to every purse in the Angevin lands. I must impress upon him the importance of low taxes and reduced tariffs in gaining the support of the people.
Miserly fool. Speaking of whom, he is coming now.
"Lady Eleanor," he says flippantly. I begin to wonder whether my grandson Arthur would not have been the better choice after all. "Do come in. I have been waiting for you," he says, as though he has been patiently biding inside his rooms instead of going looting the Abbey for food.
"I know what you did for Richard," he starts, and that is a bad beginning. "You bribed the people, made speeches, made him popular."
"It is not quite so simple," I tell him.
"How hard can it be?" he demands. "Just do the same for me."
"Richard was magnificent," I say quietly. "He was distant, yes, but unquestionably the king."
"I am the king!" John cries.
"My son," I say. "You are reviled throughout the land. Even your claim to the throne is in question. Your own nephew has a better inheritance to the crown than you."
"So make me popular among the commoners!" he says. "That is your job."
"It is not so simple," I repeat. "I can only make you beloved if the people are willing to love you, and they are not." A bitter truth, but it must be said.
"Fine," he snaps, "fine. Very well. If they refuse to do anything for me, I can rule without the people's support."
"It is always a wise thing to have," I say. "Were I you, I would plan a tour of your lands, distributing gifts and making yourself known. And I would take care not to offend them."
He nods, appeased by my counsel. It is peculiar that John is less surly and rebellious as usual. In fact, he almost appears to be taking me seriously.
"Perhaps, mother dear," he says, "You can do it for me."
I hesitate for a fraction of a second. It is risky to refuse John anything, and to be known once more as the Queen is not a bad thing. All the same, I am reluctant to leave Fontevrault, the abbey that has been my home for so many years. "If that is what you wish," I concede at last.
Before we can move on, there is a rapping at the door, and an unfamiliar man enters.
"My lord," he says, "word of Arthur of Brittany, your nephew."
"I know he is my nephew," John snaps, and I wince.
The messenger looks offended. "He has acceded to King Philip," he says stiffly. "They plan to attack you should you be crowned king."
John glances at me, and I cut in. "Thank you. Is that all?"
"Yes, my lady," he says.
"I would invite you to refresh yourself," I say lightly, "but it is not mine to offer. However, I am sure the monks are available if you desire anything."
He bows. "My thanks," he says, and then he leaves.
"Arthur," John says, once the messenger is gone. "Well under Philip's thumb, then. That is a grave danger."
I nod. "I shall make arrangements to see Philip as soon as possible. Aquitaine is a French fief — if I bow before him in fealty, he will be bound to me by ancient laws." The laws are not precisely ancient, but it does have a grand ring to it. And their grandeur will help John overcome his bitter hatred of Philip, which he must do now to protect his kingdom.
"And the tours," John says also. "The support of the commoners will help secure my position."
"We will delay the coronation," I say, already forming plans. It seems I have missed this plotting, after all. "Arthur will not attack unless he is certain he will not be appointed king lawfully. But not too long; your place as king must be unquestionable to your subjects. Two months' delay, at most, the coronation can be no later than May."
"I will leave it to you," he says, and the familiar words bring a sudden ache to my throat. How many times did Richard say that to me?
"How much of a right to the Angevin throne has Arthur?" John says suddenly.
I look at him. "Through the law of primogeniture, Arthur has every right. He is the eldest son of King Gerald, who was your father's eldest son."
"Gerald was not the oldest," John protests.
"The eldest with issue," I amend myself. "The kingdom is Arthur's inheritance from his father. But it is not a well-established rule, and it may be flaunted for a while yet."
"Can he be removed?" John says, quite evenly, and his tone scares me.
"He is your nephew," I prevaricate.
"He challenges my power," John responds coldly, "and he has given himself to Philip. Can he be removed?"
"I do not think it would be possible, not yet," I say. I would like to think that it is the truth that Arthur's death is truly beyond us, but I am aware that my judgment is doubtless tainted by my affection. He is still my grandson, all said. But I am less frightened by Arthur's death, precisely, than by the fact that my son is willing to kill without remorse any who is a threat to his power.
"Hm," he says, discontented. Oh my son, I think. I have always known power corrupts, but I thought you could withstand it, at least a little. Was I wrong?
Then he dispels all my hopes by saying, "I must crush my enemies, mother, before they destroy me, and the worst adversaries come from within."
"Your intent?" I say numbly.
"I will kill Arthur if every there is a chance." As Esau swore to kill his brother, as Cain killed Abel. And they all fell, did they not, cursed by God. "After all, mother," he adds, "I am the king."
I should not have made you king, but it is much too late now.
Oh, Richard, you balanced power and depravity so well, and you only make your brother seem yet worse.
"I intend to go to the Château de Chinon tomorrow," John says, "and receive it from Robert of Thornham. Possession of the king's castle will help confirm my kingship."
"Yes, John," I say distractedly, "Shall I go with you?" I am deep within my own calculations. Can John be removed? Can I take some power from him? Would a king under Philip's sway be any better? And at last I come to the conclusion that none of it is possible. John has had a taste of power, and he will never now give it up.
I am too old and set in my ways to purposely weaken his reign; it would be too great of a danger to the empire.
I will make you great, John, but it is not for you, but rather for Angevin that I will do it.
"Yes, do come, Mother," John is saying, but I am not listening to him any more.
I have gone to look out of the window, and I can see in the north the storm that is coming.