Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 10

  “You ought to have heard the lad, Madame,” he said, with the fond familiarity of one who’d known Hal all his life. “He was telling us some highly entertaining, if rather improbable, tales about past hunts. He claimed that one time he’d set a young gyrfalcon upon a crane, but the bird had a large fish in its beak and dropped it as the gyrfalcon began its stoop. His hawk shot right by the crane and went after the fish!”

  The constable laughed so heartily that he began to wheeze, and Eleanor felt a pang, for this man had been her rock, her mainstay since her days as Queen of France. He’d always refused to reveal his exact age, and he’d gone to war against time with the same valor and fortitude he’d mustered against other foes, but it was a battle he was doomed to lose, and she was coming to understand that it would be sooner than either of them had anticipated. As their eyes met, his smile faded away.

  “Have you heard, my lady? The Count of Toulouse rode in with your lord husband, the king. Do you know why he would bring the count here?”

  “No,” she said grimly. “But I intend to find out.”

  HENRY HAD ALREADY BATHED and changed his clothes and was getting his hair and beard trimmed when Eleanor entered his bedchamber. “Ah, there you are, love,” he said cheerfully. “How was the hawking? I’d wager your hunting was nowhere near as successful as mine.”

  Eleanor felt a prickle of foreboding, for he sounded much too smug for her liking. She gestured in dismissal and the servants emptying the bathing tub abandoned their buckets and withdrew. The barber hesitated, scissors poised in midair. When Henry nodded, he quickly retreated, flustered by his queen’s icy demeanor. Henry showed no such misgivings, though, holding the scissors out to Eleanor with a grin.

  “If you are chasing my barber away, you’ll need to finish the task he began. I assume you want a private conversation, although I’d not be adverse if you intend to jump my bones.” When she reached for the scissors, he surprised her by catching her hand and pressing his mouth to her palm. Past experience had taught her to suspect such high spirits, a reliable indication that he was up to something, and as she began to clip the curly bright hair at the base of his neck, she stared at the back of his head, wishing she had the power to see into his skull, into the serpentine, convoluted byways of his brain. It was surely one of God’s inexplicable jests that she’d taken both a lamb and a fox to her marriage bed.

  “Did you meet the Count of Maurienne yet? He’s a likable man, amiable and quite reasonable. We struck a very advantageous deal for Johnny. If Count Humbert dies without a male heir, Johnny and his daughter…Adela, I think, no, Alice…will inherit Maurienne and Savoy. If the count does manage to sire a son, then he’ll settle the principality of Rousillon upon our lad. So whatever the outcome, there’ll be no more talk of John Lackland.” Henry swung around in the chair, so abruptly that Eleanor nearly sliced his ear. “Maurienne controls the Alpine passes, the trade routes into Italy. We’re gaining so much for so little, Eleanor…just four thousand silver marks and the pledge of alliance.”

  “I am familiar with the marriage terms, Harry, and with your ambitions in Italy. The count is not the guest I’ve come to discuss, and you well know it.”

  Henry’s mouth twitched as he suppressed a smile. “Ah, you mean the King of Aragon. A fine lad, although I do wish he were not so young. Once Hal discovered that Alfonso will be able to rule on his own when he turns sixteen next month, he pounced upon that like a starving hound upon a bone, and gave me no peace. I will say this of our son, he does not lack for perseverance!”

  “I do not give a besan for the King of Aragon! Why did you not warn me that you’d be bringing that weasel St Gilles back with you?”

  Not at all put out by her flare of temper, Henry turned in his seat so they were face-to-face. “If it is any consolation, Count Raimon is no happier to be here than you are to have him.”

  “Need I remind you, Harry, that I have a weapon in my hand? If you do not speak soon, I will not be responsible for what I do.”

  Laughing openly now, he claimed the scissors, tossing them into the floor rushes. “I’d not want to lead you into temptation.” Without warning, he snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her down onto his lap. “Thirteen years ago, I made you a promise that I was not able to keep. Now I grant you that I rarely lose sleep over broken promises, but this is one wrong I am delighted to right.”

  “Just what are you saying?”

  “What happened thirteen years ago, love?”

  “You went to war against Raimon St Gilles, asserting my claim to Toulouse. And you failed…” Her voice trailed off, her eyes widening. “You cannot mean that he has agreed to do homage for Toulouse?”

  She was staring at him incredulously, and it occurred to Henry that he’d never before seen her at such a loss for words. “That is exactly what I mean, Eleanor. Now you understand why I said Count Raimon is not overjoyed to be here.”

  “What I do not understand, Harry, is how you did it. I’d not have thought even Merlin could have wrought such a miracle!”

  “Actually, love, it was not so difficult. For all his vices, Raimon is no fool and is quite capable of reading a map. On one side lie the lands of King Alfonso, my young ally who loves Raimon not, and with good cause. On his other, lie the lands of Count Humbert, soon to be my kin by marriage. These alliances had begun to pinch Raimon in his most vulnerable male parts, for he was becoming convinced that I was aiming to encircle and isolate him, with God knows what mischief in mind.”

  Henry laughed again. “I had no intention of waging war, but Raimon expects others to be as false and treacherous as he is. And he could not rely upon the French king to pull his chestnuts from the fire this time, since he is no longer wed to Louis’s sister. So he decided that homage was a cheaper price to pay than blood, and he—”

  He got no further, for Eleanor stopped his words with a passionate kiss. “You ought to have told me,” she chided, “but I forgive you.” She could forgive a lot for Toulouse. It had long been the litany of her House that the St Gilles family had stolen Toulouse, disregarding her grandmother’s rightful claim, and she’d persuaded both husbands to assert her title to the county. Neither had succeeded and Maud had given her some mordant, incisive advice: resign herself to its loss unless she meant to try again with a third husband. But Toulouse was not just her inheritance, it was Richard’s.

  She kissed Henry again and then slid off his lap. “You may just have made amends for giving Gascony away.”

  “Gascony?” Henry was genuinely puzzled. “I did not give Gascony away. It was our daughter’s marriage portion, and I specified that it would not happen whilst you still lived.”

  “I know.” He had taken care to preserve her rights, but what of Richard’s? Passing strange, but he’d never understood that the succession to Aquitaine mattered no less to her than the succession to the English Crown did to him. She’d wanted a generous dowry for her daughter in far-off Castile, just not at Richard’s expense. But Gascony was yesterday, Toulouse was today.

  “I’d best find Richard and let him know.” At the door she paused to favor him with the sort of smile he’d not gotten from her in several years—utterly spontaneous, admiring, and affectionate. “I’d given up hope that the day would ever come when I’d see Raimon kneel to do homage to me,” she admitted. “I only wish my father were alive to witness it, for he died thinking that Toulouse was lost to us.”

  Henry started to say something, then stopped. But his expression was suddenly so guarded that Eleanor froze, her hand on the door latch. “Harry?”

  It was not so much a question as a demand, and he acknowledged it by exhaling a pent-up breath. “Well…the truth is that he has not agreed to do homage to you, Eleanor.”

  “I see.” She leaned back against the door, regarding him in silence that threatened to stretch into infinity. “He does homage to you, but not to me. What about Richard?”

  Henry was thankful that he could reassure her on that point, hoping
it would allay her disappointment. “Of course he’ll do homage to Richard.”

  After another uncomfortable silence, she said, “It gladdens me to hear it.” But once she was out in the stairwell, she sank down on the stone steps, not wanting to face others until she was sure her rage was under control. It did not surprise her that Raimon St Gilles would dare to insult her like this. He was not a man to humble his pride before a woman, not unless forced to it. But Harry had not done that. He’d chosen to accommodate the Count of Toulouse because it was easier that way, easier for him.

  Standing up, she brushed the dust from her skirts. When Maud had urged her to relinquish her hopes of claiming Toulouse, she’d offered other advice as well, no less pragmatic and unsentimental. You cannot change a man, Harry least of all. You will always come second with him, for his kingship will come first. And there in the stairwell of the Viscount of Limoges’s castle, Eleanor could hear her own response echoing down through the years, and Maud’s uncompromising reply: So you are saying, then, that I must accept Harry as he is. But what if I cannot? Then learn to love him less.

  THE VISCOUNT OF LIMOGES had given Maud a tour of his kennels, where his favorite greyhound bitch had recently whelped. As he escorted her across the bailey afterward, he offered her the pick of the litter once the puppies were old enough to be weaned. When Maud demurred, he insisted, saying with a smile, “You have been a Godsend to my wife. Sarah’s nerves were on the raw at the prospect of entertaining so many highborn guests, and you and our duchess have gone out of your way to put her at ease, doing what you could to make sure that nothing went amiss.”

  Maud thanked him, thinking that only in Aquitaine would a duchess outrank a queen. They were passing the open doors of the stables, and she came to a sudden halt, having caught sight of a familiar figure standing by one of the stalls. Excusing herself, she stepped into the shadows of the barn.

  Hal was currying a beautiful white stallion, so occupied in his task that he did not hear Maud’s approach. He swung around in surprise when she spoke his name, and then smiled in recognition. “Cousin Maud! Come take a look at my new palfrey. Shield your eyes, though,” he added with a grin, “lest you be dazzled by his radiance.”

  His jest was not far off the mark; the horse was as perfect a specimen as Maud had ever seen. Hal had begun to comb out its silky mane, saying that it was as soft as his wife’s hair, playfully begging her not to repeat that to Marguerite, and then declaring that he’d settled upon a name: Morel.

  Maud was not surprised by his choice; that was a popular name for knightly steeds in chansons de geste. “Dare I ask how you could afford such a magnificent beast? Have you taken to banditry in your spare time?”

  Hal laughed. “Do not think I have not been tempted, Cousin. But Morel did not cost me even a denier. He is the product of a benign conspiracy between my mother and King Alfonso. He’d visited her at Poitiers last summer to discuss their mutual enemy, Count Raimon, and she arranged for him to bring Morel to Limoges. Spanish horses are the best in Christendom,” he said happily, “so she could not have given me a finer birthday present!”

  “Indeed,” Maud agreed, reaching out to pat the palfrey’s muzzle. “You made mention only of your mother. Was Morel not a gift from both your parents?” She hoped that was so, for separate gift-giving was not an augury of a healthy marriage, but he was already shaking his head.

  “No, Morel was my mother’s present. My father promised me four Iceland gyrfalcons when one of his agents next goes to Norway.”

  Iceland gyrfalcons were quite literally worth a king’s ransom, so that was a very lavish expenditure from a man not noted for extravagant spending. “That was a most generous gift,” Maud said, feeling suddenly sad although she wasn’t quite sure why.

  “Yes.” The terseness of his response made it seem incomplete, and Hal appeared to sense that. Raising his head, he met Maud’s eyes over the stallion’s back. “Assuming that he remembers,” he said, but without malice; she thought he sounded sad, too.

  “Hal…” Maud was not sure if she should venture onto such unstable ground, but she’d begun to realize that there was no one to speak on her cousin Harry’s behalf; the only voices Hal heard these days were those hostile to his father. “I know you are disappointed that Harry refused to knight you.”

  “I am disappointed that the weather did not allow us to go hawking today. I am disappointed that I lost three straight games of hazard to Hasculf de St Hilaire yesterday. But when my father denies me the rite of passage to manhood, I think a stronger term is needed than ‘disappointment,’ Cousin Maud.”

  “He does not mean it that way, Hal, truly he does not. His intent is not to slight or demean you, nor to cause you pain. He has it in his mind that you need to be knighted by the French king, for that would do honor to you both. Limoges cannot hold a candle to Paris, lad. Surely it is worth waiting for a splendid ceremony at the French court?”

  “No,” he said, “it is not worth the wait, not to me.” He’d not raised his voice, not showed any anger, but there was a finality in his words that discouraged Maud from persisting. Father and son were more alike than they knew, and that was not a thought to give her any comfort.

  THE COUNT OF TOULOUSE made such an exaggerated obeisance before Eleanor that it bordered upon mockery. “My deepest sympathies, Madame,” he said blandly. “I can only imagine how disappointed you must be.”

  Eleanor’s son was standing so close that their shoulders were touching, and she could feel the jolt of tension that shot through Richard’s body. Putting her hand casually on his arm, she gazed coolly at her adversary. “And why would I be disappointed, my lord count?”

  Count Raimon’s eyebrows rose in feigned surprise. “Why because of the loss of your falcon, of course. I heard about your ill-fated hunt. Very bad luck, indeed.”

  “Not at all. My falcon was found two days ago, none the worse for her mishap. You are not as well informed as you think, my lord count.”

  Bending over her hand again, he said, “I rejoice in your good fortune, my lady.” He had oddly colored eyes, a pale golden-brown with yellowish glints. Wolf eyes, Eleanor thought, and as the count sauntered away, she said as much aloud.

  Richard looked startled, and then laughed. “Great minds think alike, Maman. Alfonso calls him el lobo loco. The crazed wolf.”

  Eleanor smiled. “El lobo loco…I like that.” It was no surprise that Richard and King Alfonso had struck up an easy friendship, for they were of an age—fifteen—with many interests in common—a shared love of hunting and horses, a mutual loathing for Raimon St Gilles. Their rapport pleased Eleanor, for friendships of youth often forged the alliances of manhood.

  “Alfonso has been teaching me how to swear in his language,” Richard confided. “Spanish curses are very satisfying, for they roll right off the tongue. Alfonso has a number of colorful names for el lobo loco: cabrón, huevón, and my own favorite, hijo de mil putas.”

  Eleanor had an inkling of its meaning, but she did not want to deny Richard the pleasure of instructing her. “Dare I ask you to translate or is it too crude for my maidenly ears to hear?”

  That amused Richard greatly. “You could teach a soldier to swear, Maman! It means ‘son of a thousand whores.’”

  “Amen,” she said, and Richard grinned, making the sign of the cross. It was then that her uncles, Raoul and Hugh, reached them, with Saldebreuil de Sanzay a few steps behind. She was touched by their loyalty; they’d seen her talking with Raimon St Gilles and hastened over to offer their support. Viscount Aimar was also making his way toward her. She’d decided not to join Henry upon the dais while Raimon swore homage, not wanting to see his smirk, his silent gloating. But she was warmed now by the hatred filling the hall, all of it aimed at Raimon’s arrogant, dark head. And at least she would get to watch el lobo loco humble himself before her son; at least she would have that satisfaction.

  A sudden stir indicated Henry’s entrance. Wasting no time with preliminaries, h
e took his seat upon the dais. Hal followed, looking very regal and very unhappy. Richard gave his tunic a quick tug, and hastened to join them. A silence settled over the crowded hall as the Count of Toulouse began his walk toward the dais.

  Eleanor knew he must be dreading the ceremony to come, but no emotion showed in his face. Mounting the steps of the dais, he removed his sword, knelt before Henry, and placed his hands together, palm to palm in the universal gesture of submission. “My lord king and liege lord, I, Raimon St Gilles, Count of Toulouse, do willingly enter into your homage and faith and become your sworn man, and to you faithfully will I bear body, chattels, and earthly worship, and I will keep faith and loyalty to you against all others.”

  Henry was as impassive as Raimon. “We do promise to you, as my vassal and liegeman, that we and our heirs will guarantee to you and your heirs the lands you hold of us, against all others, that you may hold said lands in peace.”

  Rising then, he raised Raimon to his feet and gave him the ritual kiss of peace. Richard’s gaze briefly caught his mother’s, and he made a comic grimace, for he’d been complaining, only half in jest, that he’d sooner kiss a badger than his new vassal. But when Raimon glanced his way, he was appropriately solemn, showing the gravity that the occasion required.

  What happened next, however, took him utterly by surprise. Instead of kneeling to him, Raimon moved toward his brother, knelt, and swore homage to Hal. Richard’s mouth dropped open; he looked bewildered and, then, enraged. When Raimon finally did homage to him, he made no effort to hide his fury, slurring his words in his haste to get his oath said, giving his kiss of peace with the distaste of one embracing a leper.

  Eleanor was utterly still, heedless of the turmoil swirling around her. Her kinsmen and her vassals had watched in disbelief, and now they were turning to her, dismayed and angry.

  “Eleanor!” Raoul was so close she could feel his breath on her cheek. “What in hellfire just happened?” He’d been outraged that St Gilles would be swearing homage to a man who was Duke of Aquitaine only by marriage, while ignoring the woman who was Duchess of Aquitaine by blood right and the anointing of the Almighty. He’d consoled himself that St Gilles would be accepting Richard as his liege lord, but he’d never expected that homage would be done to Hal, too. There was no legal basis for it: Hal had been crowned as King of England, Duke of Normandy, and Count of Anjou. He had no claim to Aquitaine, no claim to Toulouse—until now.