Roccamolten Castle, La Marche
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 sparking 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…’
‘… 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?’
* * *
Almodis: The Peaceweaver is published by Impress Books in September 2011 http://www.impress-books.co.uk/
It is available to order through Amazon, Waterstones and other sites and bookshops.
Dia’s songs are quotations from the female troubadours translated by Meg Bogin in Bogin, Meg, The Female Troubadours (New York/London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1980), reproduced by kind permission of the author and publisher: ‘Now we are come to the cold time …’ by Azalais de Porcairages (Bogin, p.95).
I am grateful to Abbey Santander for a Scholarship to pursue my research in Spain.