Santiago de Compostela, 1137
Saint James of Compostela looked down approvingly on the glitter of candles about his cathedral. It was Good Friday, a day of mourning, and the high altar was shrouded in black; but there were green branches strewn about the pavement, to remind men that death was only a passage to a fairer world, and there were candles and incense and the twinkle of gold and silver, jeweled reliquaries and gold-plated altar frontals and statues bright with new paint. All of which Saint James approved, for he was not only a Christian saint but also the Lord of the Far Country. Here at the western end of the world he presided over the land of the dead and the trail of stars where the new-dead souls set out on their journey. He loved lights, did Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the slayer of Moors, and, like most saints and spirits, he appreciated a proper show of respect from the mortals whom he had chosen to honor with his presence. William, duke of Aquitaine, was showing the right degree of respect by coming to die here, and Saint James intended personally to set his feet on the trail of stars when the man’s soul departed his body.
That would not be for some hours yet, however, and there were other worshippers to attend to. On this Good Friday of April 1137, the cathedral was crowded as usual with pilgrims of a dozen different nations, from sober English to peacock-gaudy Sicilians. From nearby there were mozarabs, Spanish Christians with Arab blood in their cheeks and Arabic words lisping through their prayers. From farther parts had come Poitevins, Auvergnats, Franks, Burgundians, Germans, and even a dozen dusty-footed Flemings who had walked, so they said, all the way from their northern homeland to celebrate Easter with Saint James. Presently they would march back the long road that led through fertile Galicia, up into the high passes of the Pyrenees where Roland died for Charlemagne, through the sandy wastes of southern Gascony and so on back along the pilgrim road, this time with scallop shells in their hats to show that they had made the long march to Compostela.
Just now, though, the Flemings were too caught up in the glorious display of the cathedral to think of shopping for souvenirs. Like all the other new arrivals of that day---all but one---they shuffled around, admiring the altar frontal of gold with its adornment of antique gems and cameos, praising the delightful lines of the eight Virtues figured as women who supported the base of the tabernacle, asking each other where one might go for the certificate of confession and where for the certificate of communion and who might be the great lord whose retinue was rudely crowding around him, taking up all the good space in front of the high altar?
“Get on with your business,” snapped the man of whom a Flemish pilgrim innocently made this last inquiry, “and leave my lord to his!”
“And what may that be?”
“Can’t you see? He’s dying.”
Guilhem de Herbert, chamberlain to the duchy of Aquitaine, turned his back on the curious pilgrims and knelt again beside his master. The duke of Aquitaine was dying more rapidly than a man of his size and vigor had any right to do. Only two nights past that fool of an innkeeper had been swearing the fish he served them was fresh-caught from the little stream that flowed through the Wood of the Lances. William of Aquitaine had been hungry enough to take him at his word. His followers, more prudent, made a sparing meal of bread and beans.
The night had been a demon’s holiday of retching and sighing and prayers for grace. There was no physician in the little village. Guilhem and the rest of the duke’s men could only watch helplessly through the next day and the next long night as their master turned from a strapping young giant, golden and untouchable as the sun, into this gray-faced man who clutched his belly and sweated like the river itself and whose body seemed to be rotting off his bones while the stars wheeled through the night sky.
With the dawn he surprised them all by demanding his horse. “I vowed to be at the shrine of Saint James by Easter, and so I will be.”
“My lord, the ride will kill you,” Guilhem had protested, knowing already it was in vain. When had his master forgone anything he’d set his will upon?
The duke of Aquitaine bared his teeth under the sweat-darkened hair that clung to his pallid face. “I’m dying anyway. I may as well do so where I can get the most forgiveness for my sins.”
It was, Guilhem later reflected, the most realistic thing he’d ever heard his master say.
Those last eight miles to Compostela had seemed a longer journey than the two months of travel that lay behind them. The duke had refused a litter; when he grew too weak to sit a horse, he’d walked, or rather stumbled, supported by two of his men, stopping every few paces when his death sickness overcame him. There were times, sweating and struggling along that last eight miles of the road, when Guilhem thought from the stench that his lord must already be dead, only that the spirit was too stubborn to leave his body until he had fulfilled his vow to Saint James.
And his earthly duties? He had no right to die like this, thought Guilhem, leaving his followers in a strange land, with only two girl children to inherit his realm. Aquitaine would shatter like the church window at Anjou when Fulk Nerra’s demon wife burst through it. Today a great dukedom, glorious as any of the windows of colored glass that spread their jewel-toned radiance over this cathedral; tomorrow a handful of glittering shards to be fought over by a dozen quarrelsome vassals. And God knew what would happen to those two girls---seized and married to the first of William’s vassals to get the news of his death, no doubt, as was the common lot of heiresses.
And the duke of Aquitaine was wasting his last moments listening to the Mass, instead of planning some disposition of the estates he’d neglected all his life!
“My lord, you must make your will,” Guilhem prompted him.
“Not now. Praying.” And the duke rolled his eyes back toward the altar, where the priest was going through the Great Litany of prayers for the church and the pope and the bishops and the deacons and all the holy people of God.
“Flectamus genua,” the priest commanded, and those of the faithful who had crowded around the high altar to hear the service sank to their knees. Guilhem knelt too. “To purge the world from all errors,” he followed the words of the prayer under his breath, “to take away diseases; to keep off famine; to open prisons; to loose chains; to grant to travelers return, to the sick health, to mariners a port of safety.” Amen! “And Lord, keep Aquitaine from falling apart after my lord dies,” he added quietly.
The next prayer also was one in which Guilhem could heartily join. “May the prayers of those that cry to thee in any tribulation reach thy ears . . .” There would be tribulation enough when his lord’s warring vassals tore Aquitaine and Poitou into a network of little, troublesome fiefdoms, with no law and no rule but that of the strong man in his castle.
Mechanically, Guilhem bent his knees and murmured the responses through the rest of the litany, while he brooded over the problem of what could possibly be done to safeguard the land he loved from the time of troubles he saw coming. He was so absorbed that he almost knelt during the obligatory prayer for the Jews, when the congregation was supposed to stand and refuse the priest’s command in memory of the Jews’ betrayal of Our Lord upon this day.
At last the prayers were over. Those who had listened to the Mass this far crowded in even closer for the Adoration of the Cross, some of them nearly trampling the sick man’s bier. The band of Flemings had grown bored and wandered away to inspect the saints’ altars some time previously; now, in a burst of religious enthusiasm, they broke into a spontaneous chorus of the marching song that had carried them all the way down the pilgrim road. The Latin verse was a low melodious background to the solemn ceremony, but when they reached the swinging chorus, their Flemish voices burst out in unrestrained exuberance, drowning out priest, people, and even the perpetual call of the verger who stood by the ark to solicit offerings.
“E ultreja, e sus eja!” bellowed the pilgrims.
“Zee larcha de lobra monse–or Samanin,” droned the verger in what he believed to be French.
“Popule meus, quid feci tibi?” chanted the deacons behind the cross in memory of Christ’s agonized question. “O my people, what have I done to thee? or in what way have I grieved thee? Because I led thee out of the land of Egypt, thou hast prepared a cross for thy Savior.”
“O my people, what have I done to thee?”
The duke clutched at Guilhem’s gown, and he knelt by his master’s side. “My people . . .” whispered the duke.
“Sanctu Deus. Sanctus fortis. Sanctus immortalis, miserere nobis.” The chanted response swept over the duke’s halting words.
Guilhem held his lord’s sweaty hands and tried not to think about the stench of death and illness that even the clouds of incense about them could not disguise. “Yes, my lord. You are ready to make your will?”
“Popule meus, quid feci tibi?”
“For my soul’s sake . . .”
He wanted land given to monasteries, endowments for clerks to pray after his death. Guilhem nodded, barely concealing his impatience, and the clerk scribbled frantically. Sometimes the dying man’s whisper was drowned out altogether by the chanting of the choir, the scuffling and gossiping of pilgrims, and the loud voices of the guides who showed them around the church. “Sanctus Deus. Sanctus fortis. Sanctus immortalis . . .”
“What happened to him?” a Lombard demanded.
“He ate the fish.”
“Ah! Warned not to do that, we were.”
The verger switched to his Italian voice. “O Micer Lombardo, questa larcha de la lavoree de Micer Sajocome.”
“To my younger daughter Petronilla, my lands in Burgundy.”
He didn’t hold much in Burgundy, barely a respectable dowry, but at least Petronilla would be safe from heiress hunters. “And to Eleanor . . .”
“Popule meus, quid feci tibi?”
“. . . Aquitaine and Poitou . . .”
“No, sirs, first you look at the ark, then you make your offerings at the altar.” A self-important guide pushed a party of English pilgrims around the bier where Duke William lay dying.
“Ate the fish, did he?” one of them asked incuriously in passing.
“My lord, you cannot leave your lands to the child! She’ll be seized by the first baron to hear of your death!” Guilhem protested involuntarily, as though he hadn’t feared just this from the moment when he realized that the duke wasn’t going to recover. Petronilla, the frail younger daughter, was Duke William’s petted darling, but his respect, even a little fear, went to Eleanor, whom he proudly said to have the brains of a man and the soul of a warrior. All of which might be true enough, but it wasn’t enough to enable a girl of fifteen to hold the richest dukedom in the Languedoc.
But William, tenth duke of Aquitaine, was rapidly passing beyond all worldly cares. His eyes were fixed on the blaze of candles about the altar; his breath came in shallow gasps, and he seemed not to hear his chamberlain’s protests or anything else that went on around him.
“Sanctus immortalis, miserere nobis.”
Guilhem made the sign of the cross.
The news of Duke William’s death was bound to spread outward from Santiago de Compostela like ripples on a pond, borne by returning pilgrims across the length and breadth of Europe. It would be Guilhem’s task to see that he outdistanced that news, to bring warning to Bordeaux that the girl in the archbishop’s palace was now the richest marriage prize in Europe, to be guarded against every one of her vassals and neighbors until someone chose a man for her. He wondered how many horses he would have to kill.
While the Mass ended and the solemn service of Tenebrae followed, while the pilgrims wandered out of the church in search of their dinners and the verger put up the relics, William Duke of Aquitaine panted out his last breaths, dying with the slow stubbornness that had characterized him in life. Toward the end, with the ritual extinguishing of candles that marked the close of the Good Friday services, he was no longer conscious, and some of the men who knelt around his deathbed were growing restive.
“Shouldn’t we go on?” whispered one of them to Guilhem. “Those who are to carry the news? We could start now. If we wait much longer, the light will be gone.”
Guilhem shook his head, too tired to explain his reasoning. It was important to make good speed, yes. But it was also important to be with the duke to the last. What if Saint James worked a miracle, and the duke recovered even now? What then would be done to the messengers who’d sped north with false assurances of the duke’s death?
And beyond that . . . he had not left his master in twelve years of service, and he would not leave him now to die alone in Galicia.
The last candle was extinguished, leaving the church in darkness, and the clerks who had sung the service closed their books all at once, with a thunderclap like the sound of Saint James himself galloping through the night sky to slay the enemies of Christendom. Duke William started up at the sound, then sank back. His open eyes reflected nothing but the green twilight glimmering in at the open doors.
“Now,” said Guilhem, rising to his feet and nodding to the two men he’d picked to accompany him. The rest could stay here to see the duke buried beneath the high altar, then make their way back at their own speed.
At the same time, though Guilhem and the rest of the duke’s men could not see him, Saint James himself cupped the duke’s soul in his two hands and set the wandering, naked soul on the trail of stars that it must follow to God’s feet. The memories of life fell away and became trivial before the shimmering immensity of the empty sky. With his last mortal thought, the duke prayed Saint James to have a care for the daughters he’d left behind in Bordeaux, and the saint answered his prayer in a wind that whipped through the hills of Galicia and up over the passes of the Pyrenees. Peasants startled and crossed themselves, murmuring that such a wind must surely portend the death of some great man, or the beginning of something equally great.
An hour later, before the sun had quite set, Guilhem and his companions were back at the inn from which they had set forth that morning, with the little stream running by the road and the shivering wood of trees sprung from the lances of men who died in battle against the Moors. Behind them the city of Santiago de Compostela lay all gray and lavender in the last light of evening, and in a meadow beside the stream a girl’s voice rose clear and pure in a shivering lament of love.
“Que farayu, o que serad de mibi, habibi?
Non te tolgas de mibi!”
What shall I do, what will become of me, beloved?
Don’t leave me!
Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Ball