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by Marion Meade
Category: Historical Fiction/Romance
Description: The beginning of the thirteenth century is a peaceful time in the Languedoc region of southern France. Poetry and the scent of lavender fill the air; sun dapples the rolling hills of vineyards; and religious tolerance is the norm. But, a holy war is sweeping across France, razing cities and forever destroying the peaceful lives of its "heretics." Sybille d'Astarac, the youngest child of the Toulouse family, is born to pampered luxury. One of a few trobairitz (a female troubadour), her youthful poetry speaks of love and tradition. However, her poems grow dark as the Albigensian crusade seeks to eradicate the Cathars, a popular religious sect whose views clash with the Catholic Church. How can art adapt in the face of massacre? Will Sybille survive the coming Inquisition? Will her poems? A work of stunning historical fiction, SYBILLE displays biographer Marion Meade's pitch-perfect understanding of strong women facing the harsh realities of life in medieval times. As Robin Morgan, author of THE ANATOMY OF FREEDOM writes, this book is "an inspiration for women? and an illumination for all readers."
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-reads,
eBookwise Release Date: July 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [758 KB]
Reading time: 481-674 min.
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"Stop jabbering, child. You're giving me an earache."
The small girl halted midsentence and clamped her lips. Her eyes closed, and she began to rock unsteadily from side to side, each swing of her body releasing a cataract of restlessness.
"Sybille." Again the silken voice sighed. "Please try to be still for once."
She struggled to hold back her tears and cast a wounded gaze down at the marble tiles, then up at the tapestry showing the Resurrection. When deprived of all other alternatives, she could express mood with her chin: chin defiant, chin meditative, although the latter was rarely to be seen. Now she muscled an apologetic chin, as if to say, "Forgive me, Lady Mother." But Douce d'Astarac's attention had moved on already.
Some hours earlier the child had tottered into her mother's bedchamber and planted herself, belly down. It was cool and sweet there on the rug. She lay still and watched the cat sleeping. Soon the door would open and her mother would glide in on waves of lavender. At her heels would tramp a servingwoman, arms lumped with bundles, the harvest of a morning's shopping in the bazaars of Rue de la Pourpointerie. "No need to visit Damascus or Constantinople," Douce would say. "The best comes to Toulouse." Douce knew about the best.
The bells of Saint-Sernin signaled noon. Within the child's head there was a silence ticking. After a while she began to hear sounds, not real words but a pulse that seemed more solid to her than words. Fast- slow, fast-slow. There was almost a kind of trot to them, she discovered. Forgetting her mother's absence, she played with the silence, with the sounds that were not yet words, and then at last with the words themselves. She thought:
Think of a word
to go with
Maybe strong and valiant.
Two brave Charlemagnes
Three valiant courtly Tristrams.
A Roland calling Olivier.
Ardit e poissan.
Then, quite excited, she added a dragon. Very large, very ugly, and he breathed fire. But when she tried saying that line aloud, it was too long and she ran out of breath. The sounds inside her head did not match those on her tongue, alas. And then Douce returned, and the child rattled out her poem, which grew longer and more meaningless until she found herself yawing in a labyrinth of words. At last her mother had silenced her.
From her place on the floor, Sybille could see nothing but her mother's feet. The rest of her had vanished among the cushions on the big featherbed. The servingwoman took away Douce's gloves and alms purse; she returned to tug off the riding boots, which she replaced with a pair of brocade slippers.
Precious objects abounded in her mother's room. Sybille knew each one of them: the prie-dieu with its crucifix of gilded brass in which the figure of Christ had been inlaid, the crystal scent boxes with their lids of gold and rubies, the chased goblet made by a goldsmith monk of Limoges. Nearby hung the cittern, its wood spangled by bars of sunlight. Every object was extraordinary. Like my mama, Sybille thought.
"Wine, Na Douce?" the servant was murmuring.
Familiar sounds moved like psalms above Sybille's head. She could hear the tinkle of the goblet, the swooshing of ostrich feathers as the woman fanned her mistress.
"Mama," Sybille called out hoarsely. "May I come up?"
"Don't be silly. When did I ever say you couldn't? You won't believe the splendid things I found."
With a running leap she catapulted herself onto the bed and plopped headfirst into a cave of grass-green silk. The bed was mounded with silks, brocades, and taffetas in shades that would shame a rainbow. Her mother held up the green cloth. "From Persia," she crowed. Along its edges shimmered bands of gold embroidery, worked with violet silk into a vine pattern of nightingales and griffins. Douce had never heard of the word "simplicity"; but then nobody had ever brought it to her attention.
"Was it costly?"
Douce shrugged her shoulders. "Costly? Everything is costly. Look at this one." She unfurled a length of white samite interwoven with gold and silver threads. "From the shores of the Nile. Or so that pig of a Genoan told me."
Beside her, Sybille leaned on one elbow. She had discovered a bag of crystal buttons and began lining them in rows.
"Now tell me what my baby did today," Douce said, yawning.
"I'm not a baby."
"Nonsense." Douce pinned her down until she shrieked with laughter, and then she moistened her mouth and neck with splinters of little kisses. "My fat little girl." A hailstorm of buttons rattled to the floor. "My baby cake, sweet as new butter."
"Mama, stop!" She squealed and thrashed her legs, full of pleasure. "It tickles." After a while Douce tired of the game, and Sybille butted gently against her side, breathing in the fragrance of lavender. I want to stay here all day, she thought. Seconds later she was bouncing on her knees. "I made a poem while you were gone."
"Very nice. Make another tomorrow."
"But Mama, don't you remember? It displeased you."
"What an idea. It was charming. But Sybille, my dear, it rambled a bit. Verse must be tidy and fall sweetly upon the ear."
Sybille opened her mouth to offer excuses but grunted instead. The only person who took her compositions seriously was her mother, but then Douce was the only one who mattered anyway. She was acknowledged as an authority on poetical literature. Not that she herself wrote, indeed she had difficulty spelling her name, nor did she read. But shortly after the birth of her second son, at a tournament near Albi, she had caught the eye of a famous troubadour, who had composed a three-stanza tribute to her beauty.
This Folquet de Marseille, of course, had honored a score of ladies with similar impromptu ditties, a fact Douce had no trouble ignoring; she had wrapped the manuscript in silk and given it a place of honor on her chest. Occasionally Sybille was allowed to approach this shrine and view the parchment, but never actually to touch it. It made no difference that Folquet had abandoned poetry, and the fashionable ladies who had inspired it, to enter the monastery of Le Thoronet. The honor, bloated by now into the status of family mythology, could not be disputed.
That Douce would bother to discuss poetry with a child never ceased to amaze and thrill Sybille. "When I grow up," she told her mother, "I'll be a troubadour and write cansos like La Comtessa de Dia."
"Trobairitz," Douce corrected her. "Not troubadour. Use the feminine. Now, what was I just saying? Oh, yes. The last words of lines must rhyme. I think I've mentioned that. Surely I said that before. Rhyme your lines."
"It's the sounds of the words that matter. And don't forget adjectives. You want plenty of adjectives."
"God's teeth," Sybille broke in loudly. "You told me."
"Shh. Don't shout in my ear." She turned her head away and closed her eyes. "A love song without adjectives is like a sky without stars."
Sybille said quietly, like an adult, "But I don't like adjectives."
"Of course you do," Douce insisted. Her voice washed out to a mumble.
"They're stupid." To tell the truth, she was angry because she had more or less forgotten what an adjective was. From somewhere below came a racket of high-pitched voices and then the cook, shouting. Her brothers must have thieved something from the oven. Sybille studied her mother's face. "Mama?"
Just when she decided her mother was asleep, Douce murmured, "I bought you something. In my purse."
Sybille jiggled down and went to find the purse. There were a few coins and a length of pale-blue ribbon embroidered with seed pearls the color of clouds. She turned to the bed and said politely, "Mama, thank you." She couldn't help thinking the ribbon was pretty but not the nicest she had ever seen. No matter what God or Douce gave her, she always wanted more.
She lingered on the floor, feeling the smoothness of the pearls with her fingertips, until her sister came and took her down to the courtyard. It was hot and noisy, the sun hobbling high up in the sky like a double-yolked egg. They stopped in a vein of shade under the wall where the cobbles were coolest, and sat with their legs stretched out as stiff as sticks. Sybille thought her sister might feel bad because their lady mother had brought her nothing, but her sister said she did not care, truly, about ribbons. She had a box of them. Sybille knew that was true.
Her sister was watching their brothers chip at each other's shoulders with wooden swords.
"Listen to my canso." She hunched up her knees and spread the ribbon across them. "It's about a frightful battle up in the mountains. This brave knight has a magic sword. He and his friend kill a whole bunch of infidels at Roncevaux. All by themselves."
Fabrisse rolled up her eyes.
"Listen, they both die at the end. Isn't that wonderful?"
"I've heard it." Fabrisse smiled in her superior way. "It's called Chanson de Roland."
That was true. "No," she said stubbornly. "I made it up this morning, so help me God."
"Hush," Fabrisse said. "It's wicked to tell lies."
She searched for a persuasive detail. "They chopped off everybody's heads. A hundred thousand bloody heads."
"Why won't you believe me? Why?" She laced grimy fingers around the ribbon. 'There was so much blood it ran down the sides of the mountain and drowned a whole village. I swear it." She smiled, delighted with herself.
"You really are revolting." Fabrisse grimaced. "If I were you, I'd make a song about something beautiful."
But you're not me, Sybille thought. Out loud, she said, "Like what?" Half turning, she tried to lock her arm through Fabrisse's.
Her sister wrenched away. "Look," she said, jerking her arm toward the corner of the yard. "There."
Blinking, Sybille followed the direction of Fabrisse's arm. All she could see was the sunlight lifting out of a rosebush. They were only flowers. "A rose is nothing," she protested.
She fell silent then, picking at the pearls with her thumbnail. Across the yard Pierre and Mathieu sprawled under an olive tree. They looked sweaty and out of breath. She tried to imagine her brothers with their heads chopped off and shivered. She thought of petals of every rose on every bush in the world, petals without number bleeding into the earth; of every woman and every man who had breathed, or would breathe, and then had stopped breathing. She began to cry, because living was ugly and beautiful, because each thing lived only to die, because she would die. It was the one promise never broken.
She squeezed shut her eyes and asked Our Lady to make her a good person, like Fabrisse. For several minutes she sat there praying in the fiery blear behind her eyelids, before her chin thumped on her chest and the blue ribbon slipped down into a muddy crack between two cobblestones. She pretended to be asleep until she slept.
This day, in the spring of 1198, would remain her earliest memory. Later, when all those voices were stilled forever, she would sift her recollections in bursts of frustration. Surely her beginnings were marked by something more consequential than hair ribbons and squabbles with Fabrisse; events of importance must have taken place, if only she could remember them. But time had scrubbed memory clean, the way a tearing stream grinds smooth a boulder. It would eventually occur to her that the days of her childhood had been stained by a sameness and that this absence of turbulence was what is called peace.