Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 11

  “Christ on the Cross,” he sputtered. “What sort of double-dealing was that?” He already had his answer, though, sure that Eleanor’s hellspawn husband was seeking to add Toulouse to his own domains, to make it part of his Angevin empire. Glaring at his niece, he found himself wondering how much she’d known. But he dismissed that suspicion as soon as it surfaced, for all the color had drained from her face; even her lips were white.

  “Eleanor?” he said again, alarmed by her pallor and her continuing silence. Eleanor ignored him, ignored them all, never taking her eyes from the dais, from the husband who had betrayed her yet again.

  HENRY STARED AT HIS WIFE in exasperation. “It never occurred to me that you would object. It is but a formality, after all, and I thought it would please Hal.”

  “And did you spare even a thought as to how Richard would react?”

  “For the love of Christ, woman, sometimes you act as if Richard is the only child of your womb and the rest are foundlings!”

  “I am not speaking as Richard’s mother, but as Duchess of Aquitaine. Did you not see the reaction of my barons in the hall? You rekindled all of their suspicions, all of their mistrust in one grand gesture, Harry, and for what? If it is indeed an empty honor, as you allege, then why should Hal be pleased by it? And if it is not, better you tell me now if you have designs upon Toulouse. I have a right to know!”

  Henry shook his head in disgust. “I am beginning to wish I’d never heard of Toulouse! No, I do not harbor any great scheme to annex it. Not that I expect your ranting, rebel lords to believe me. Aquitaine is one large lunatic asylum, and you clearly have been spending too much time there, Eleanor, or you would not have needed to ask me such an insulting question.”

  “I would not have needed to ask you any questions at all if only you’d told me what you had in mind.”

  “More fool I, but I thought you’d want St Gilles to do homage to Hal as well as Richard—to honor both your sons.”

  More fool you. But the words never left her lips, for she knew now that the time for talking was done.

  LENT WAS ALWAYS the season of dread for cooks; not only was meat banned from every table, but so were eggs, milk, butter, and cheese. The cooks of the Viscount of Limoges had shown considerable ingenuity, though, offering up a seafood feast that pleased even the demanding palates of his royal and highborn guests. Only Henry took no enjoyment from the meal meant to celebrate the betrothal of his youngest son and the Count of Maurienne’s daughter.

  In truth, Henry had never displayed much interest in food, eating and drinking sparingly even in those months when the menu was not so restricted. But on this last Sunday in February, it was Henry’s sour mood that was spoiling the revelries for him. His eyes swept the high table, coming to rest morosely upon the Count of Toulouse. He was beginning to think the man was accursed. For certes, he’d brought naught but trouble to Limoges.

  Taking a swallow of wine without really tasting it, Henry tallied up the grievances he could lay at the count’s door. Richard had provoked a public quarrel with Hal over that ill-fated act of homage, and so now Hal was out of sorts, too. But instead of finding fault with Richard, Hal had concluded that his father was to blame for the botched affair. Henry was beginning to think that his eldest also held him accountable for the Great Flood and the Expulsion from Eden. In this at least, Hal and Richard were united, for Henry hadn’t gotten a civil word from his second son since the ceremony. It would seem, Henry thought, that Richard had inherited his share of the Angevin temper. The sad truth was that he did not know Richard well at all. He was Eleanor’s, had always been Eleanor’s.

  As for his queen, he had no illusions that they’d made peace. They were operating under a truce at present, no more than that. Her public pose notwithstanding, he knew she was still aggrieved, for reasons that made no sense whatsoever. He could almost believe there was something in the water or air of Aquitaine that caused people to act so moon-mad. It was just as well that he’d be going into Brittany in a few days whilst she returned to Poitiers. Some time apart would give both their tempers time to cool.

  The thought of Brittany diverted his attention to his third son. Mayhap he ought to take Geoffrey with him. It might be good to pass some time with the lad in the lands he’d one day rule. He did not know Geoffrey all that well, either, and he’d never meant it to be that way. He had wanted the same easy rapport with his sons that he’d enjoyed with his own father. Despite his best intentions, though, his children had been relegated to the outer edges of his life, unable to compete with the myriad duties and demands of kingship. But he’d remained confident that there would be time to make amends for those lost, early years, to forge a bond with his sons that could never be broken. He did not understand why it was now proving so difficult.

  Fidgeting restlessly in his seat, he shifted so he could see his youngest son. John had been permitted to sit at the high table next to his future father-in-law. He was a solemn child, the only one of their brood with Eleanor’s coloring, a stranger not only to Henry but to his family, for John had passed the first years of his life with the nuns at Fontevrault Abbey. Henry thought he looked ill at ease, doubtless overwhelmed by all the unaccustomed attention. There was something about this forlorn little boy that touched Henry’s heart, and he was glad he’d been able to arrange such a promising future for the lad. Too often a younger son was shunted aside, valued more cheaply than his older brothers.

  Henry’s gaze flicked from John, roaming the hall until he located William Marshal at one of the lower tables. The young knight was surely the ultimate example of the sorry fate that could befall a spare son. Will had been offered up by his father as a hostage, a pledge of John Marshal’s good faith. Marshal, a man of no scruples whatsoever, had promptly broken his oath, and when warned by King Stephen that his small son would pay the price for his treachery, his response had been so cold-blooded, so pitiless that it had soon passed into legend. Go ahead and hang Will, he’d told Stephen. He had the hammer and anvil with which to make other and better sons. Will’s life had been spared only because Stephen could not bring himself to hang a five-year-old child.

  It was a story Henry had never forgotten; he was not easily shocked, but that had shocked him profoundly. Once he’d chosen Will as one of Hal’s household knights, he’d wondered occasionally how Will had dealt with a memory like that, wondered if his ambition and steely sense of purpose could be rooted in that sad history. Turning his gaze back to John, he watched the child play with the food on his trencher and felt a surge of pride that he could provide so well for all his sons, thankful that Johnny would prosper in a world so often cruel to unwanted children.

  Once the meal was finished, servants began to clear away the trestle tables so there would be room for the entertainment Viscount Aimar had arranged: performances by troubadours, tumblers, and, he promised, an amazing act involving a dancing bear. Seats were positioned on the dais for all the royal guests, Count Humbert, and the Count of Toulouse. Henry stopped a nurse from ushering John off to bed, swooping the boy up onto his lap. “There you go, lad, the best seat in the hall,” he said fondly, and John, regarding him gravely with Eleanor’s enigmatic eyes, perched on the arm of his chair like a bird about to take flight. The little boy seemed more comfortable once Joanna joined them, for she’d often been with him at Fontevrault, and she was so outgoing and confident that Henry thought she could coax a turtle from its shell. Smiling into her upturned, laughing face, he wondered why sons could not be as easy to please as daughters.

  “My lord king?” Count Humbert had risen from his chair. Seeing that he wanted to talk, Henry rose, too, allowing Joanna and John to share his seat. The count made amiable, polite conversation for several moments before raising the one issue still to be settled between them. “We have agreed that your son and my daughter will inherit Maurienne and Savoy when I die. But we have not yet discussed what young John will bring to the marriage. What lands do you mean to confer upon him prior to th
e wedding?”

  Henry had anticipated this demand, knowing that he’d have to offer something of value since the marriage contract was weighted so heavily in his favor. “Of course,” he said affably. “It is my intention to endow John with three castles: Chinon, Loudun, and Mirebeau.”

  The count had spent time poring over maps of Henry’s domains, so he was familiar both with the castles and their strategic location, forming a triangle between Normandy and Aquitaine. “That is satisfactory,” he said, smiling.

  Henry had no time to savor the moment, though. Hal was on his feet, staring at them accusingly. “You cannot give those castles to John. They are mine!”

  Henry swore under his breath. “We shall discuss this later,” he said hastily, intent upon reining Hal in before the other guests took notice of their dispute. “It is true these castles are in Anjou, but you will not be the loser for it,” he assured his son. “I will make other provisions for you.”

  “Promises can be broken.” Hal glared at his father, fists clenched at his sides. “I was invested with Anjou and it cannot be partitioned without my consent—which I will never give!”

  Henry’s face flamed. “I told you this is neither the time nor the place. We will discuss this later!”

  “There is nothing to discuss.” And to Henry’s fury and frustration, his eldest son turned away, stalking down the steps of the dais and shoving his way through the suddenly silent crowd. Flushed with embarrassment, Henry could only watch. But Hal never looked back.

  HENRY PACED THE SOLAR as if it were a cage, his fury rising with each step. Eleanor had made herself comfortable in the window-seat, sipping from a wine cup as she watched her husband’s fuming. When Hal finally entered, Henry crossed the solar in three strides, slamming the door shut with enough violence to reverberate out into the stairwell.

  “How dare you shame me like that before the court!”

  Few men could stand up to Henry in one of his Angevin furies. Even kinsmen like Ranulf and Rainald feared getting scorched by those flames. Only his cousin Roger was not daunted by the royal rage; during their clashes over Thomas Becket, they’d once had a public shouting match that earned Roger a reputation as a man who was utterly fearless and utterly foolhardy. But Eleanor saw now that Roger had a rival in recklessness, for Hal did not flinch.

  “How dare you give away my castles!” he shot back. “And without even a word to me beforehand!”

  “I told you,” Henry snapped, “that I’d make sure you were compensated for their loss!”

  “I do not believe you,” Hal said flatly. “Why should I? You handle the truth carelessly, and your promises ebb and flow like the tides. I reach for one, and all I grasp is a handful of foam and sand.”

  Henry could not remember the last time anyone had dared to defy him like this…not since Thomas Becket. “I am done with making excuses for your rash, heedless behavior. For too long, you have been playing the fool instead of learning the duties of kingship. You have done nothing to earn my trust…or my respect. Until you do, you’ll be kept on a short leash, and that is a promise you can rely upon.”

  Hal flushed, hot color surging into his face and throat. “Say what you will. Your threats and insults and mockery will change nothing. I will never agree to relinquish those castles—never!” Blinking back tears of rage, he whirled then, fled the chamber before his emotion could overcome him, before Henry could stop him.

  With a powerful thrust of his arm, Henry cleared the table, sending wine cups, flagon, and candles flying. Eleanor rose without haste, tilted her cup and poured wine onto the smoldering floor rushes. “I think the viscount would rather we did not burn his castle down,” she said, and Henry gave her a look that all but ignited the air between them.

  “I suppose it was too much to hope that you’d be helpful,” he said scathingly.

  She did not respond at once, regarding him pensively. Hal had nothing of his own, neither castle nor crofter’s hut. Yet now he planned to give three valuable Angevin castles to six-year-old John and he did not think Hal would be resentful? How could he be so blind?

  “I could not take your side, Harry,” she said, “for I believe Hal is in the right. I would do all I could to mend this breach between you, I swear I would, if only you could see that…”

  “‘Hal is in the right’?” he echoed. But because there had been no anger in her voice, his own anger began to ebb away. “He is a credulous, idle spendthrift, and, God pity him, a lamb amongst wolves. How can you not see that, Eleanor? I will not let my son become a puppet for the French king, and if he blames me now, so be it. In time he will understand that I was acting in his best interests.”

  She was taken aback by the sadness that swept over her. It was both unexpected and unwelcome. She looked at him, this man who’d been husband, lover, partner for more than twenty years, and she felt such a confusing welter of emotions—regret, resentment, a painful sense of loss—that her words caught in her throat.

  “I am sorry, Harry,” she said, and there was such sincerity in her voice that he forgave her with a fleeting, mirthless smile.

  “So am I, love. Life would be far more peaceful if you’d given me only daughters as you did for Louis. Mayhap we could make a trade—Hal for Louis’s little Philippe. He seems like a docile, biddable lad.”

  Even now he could still make her smile. “‘A docile, biddable lad’ would drive you to drink, Harry. It would be like riding a timid, meek gelding who shied at every shadow.”

  “You’re right,” he admitted, wryly amused by how well she knew him. He did indeed prefer a mettlesome stallion, but he also wanted one that was broken to the saddle. Fortunately even the most spirited horse could be tamed with enough patience.

  A GALE WAS BREWING, and by dark, the winds had picked up, rattling shutters, tearing off shingles, and testing the castle walls for points of entry. A fire roared in the hearth of Henry’s bedchamber, but he could still hear the muted sounds of the storm, wailing into the night like the cries of the damned. That was an unusually morbid thought for him, but his confrontation with Hal had inflicted some deep wounds and he was still brooding about it hours later.

  “Your move, Harry,” his cousin prompted, and with an effort, he forced his attention back to the chessboard. His distraction had cost him; Roger, a skilled player, had maneuvered him into an untenable position. To gain time, he signaled for wine, and one of his squires hastened over with a flagon.

  Ranulf stood and stretched. He’d smothered several yawns and had begun to drop hints about the lateness of the hour. But Henry did not want him to leave, not yet. These two kinsmen of his could be relied upon to give sound advice, for Roger had a good head and Ranulf a good heart. Once he’d summoned them, though, he’d found himself reluctant to unburden himself, not wanting to start the bleeding again. His son’s defiance hurt more than he was willing to admit, and talking about it would change nothing.

  But if he did not want to confide in them, he still wanted them to stay, trusting them to keep his ghosts at bay. Pushing away abruptly from the table, he said, “I cannot keep my mind on this game tonight. Sit in for me, Uncle.”

  Taking the seat Henry had vacated, Ranulf studied the chessboard and whistled softly as he saw his predicament. “You are too kind,” he said dryly. “You could at least provide me with a flag of surrender.”

  “When did a Welshman ever roll over and play dead?” Henry perched on a corner of the table, but he was too restless to sit for long and soon he was wandering aimlessly about the chamber, picking up and discarding items at random. This was going to be a long night. He briefly considered going to Eleanor’s bedchamber, but if he was no longer wroth with her, he was still disappointed by her stubborn defense of the indefensible. A pity Rosamund was so far away. Tumbling a wench might make it easier to sleep. But he could not very well ask Aimar to find him a bedmate, not with his queen under the same roof. Jesu, she’d stab him with his own dagger, like as not!

  A soft knock at the
door drew all their attention, given the hour, and they watched as one of the squires hurried over to open it. After a brief exchange with someone out in the stairwell, he turned back toward Henry, frowning in perplexity.

  “The Count of Toulouse is without, Your Grace, seeking a few words with you. Shall I admit him?”

  Raimon St Gilles was the last man Henry had expected to see, the last one he wanted to see. His curiosity got the better of him, however, and he nodded. Entering the chamber with his usual swagger, the count made a perfunctory obeisance, then said brusquely, “I have urgent information for you, my lord king. But it is not meant for other ears, must be given in private.”

  Henry hesitated, but boredom won out. “Go down to the hall,” he told his squires, “and see if you can find some mischief to get into.” He stopped his kinsmen, though, as they started to rise. “The Bishop of Worcester and Lord Ranulf are staying. I would trust them with the surety of my soul.”

  “With all due deference, my liege, I do not,” Raimon objected.

  “With all due deference, my lord count, it is not open for debate.”

  Raimon scowled at Roger and Ranulf, who looked back at him coolly. “Very well. I shall rely upon your discretion and honor, my lord bishop, Lord Ranulf, for I am putting my life at risk by coming to the king.”

  As he’d expected, that riveted their attention upon him. “When I swore homage to you, my liege,” he said, “I vowed to keep faith with you until my last breath, and I am here to prove my sincerity.”