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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 12


  His words and his delivery were too theatrical for Henry’s taste. “What have you come to tell me?”

  “You are in peril, my lord. A conspiracy is forming against you, and the conspirators are very highborn and very dangerous. It is a plot that crosses borders, involving the King of France, the Counts of Flanders, Boulogne, Champagne, and Blois. They are casting a wide net, my liege, are seeking to draw in the King of Scotland, too.”

  “What you call a ‘conspiracy,’ my lord count, they most likely would call ‘statecraft.’ So they are forging another alliance, hoping to protect their interests. How is this any different than what they’ve done in the past?”

  “Because in the past, they did not have a rival claimant for the English crown.”

  Henry’s eyes narrowed. “Go on,” he said coldly.

  “I am sorry, my lord, but your son, the young king, is an eager participant in the plot against you. The French king and the Count of Flanders have played skillfully upon his lack of experience and his poor judgment, convincing him that he can gain power only by rebellion. He has been persuaded that there is no other way to claim his just due.”

  Henry opened his mouth to deny St Gilles’s accusation, to insist that his son would never betray him like that. But he could not, for there was a chilling plausibility about the count’s revelation. “How do you know all this?”

  “I have many enemies, my liege, so I try to make sure that I am rarely surprised. I am sure you have spies at the French court, just as Louis has spies at yours. Mine are better informed, for they are better paid.”

  Until now, Roger and Ranulf had kept silent. But Ranulf could no longer restrain himself, his suspicions feeding upon his inherent dislike of Raimon St Gilles. “You have made a most serious accusation, my lord count. I do not doubt that the French king is scheming with others to thwart the king at every turn. But I do not believe that Hal would ever connive to harm his father, and if that is what you are alleging, you will need more convincing proof than the whispers and conjectures of paid spies and informers.”

  Raimon would have ignored Ranulf’s challenge had Roger not chimed in, too, saying skeptically, “I agree with Lord Ranulf. What proof can you offer?”

  “To you, my lord bishop—nothing. I care not if you doubt what I say. My concern is for you, my lord king,” he said, swinging back to Henry. “I do not know the ultimate aim of their conspiracy. It may well be that the young king intends only to compel you to give him a share of your domains. Rumor has it that he has demanded you turn over England or Normandy to him. And I doubt that the French king wants to see you dethroned. That would set a fearful precedent, after all. As for the others, I daresay they have less interest in preserving the sacred inviolability of kingship.”

  He paused then, for dramatic effect, well aware of the impact that his next words would have. “Alas, my liege, I have not told you all of it. You are nurturing vipers in your own nest. The young king is not the only one to heed the blandishments of your enemies. Your sons Richard and Geoffrey are implicated as well, doubtless swayed by their mother. For as much as it pains me to say it, your queen is involved in the conspiracy, too, doing all she can to turn your sons against you and stir up rebellion in her lands.”

  Ranulf choked on his wine, began to cough so violently that he sounded as if he were strangling. Roger had long cultivated the polished persona of a prince of the Church, rarely giving others a glimpse of his inner self. Now he gaped at Raimon, too stunned to hide his dismay. Gratified by their reactions, the count glanced toward Henry, but here he met with disappointment, for the king’s face was utterly impassive, an inscrutable mask that revealed nothing of his thoughts.

  “Is there more?” Henry asked, and his voice, too, was dispassionate. When Raimon shook his head, he said, “I will remember what you have done, my lord. Never doubt that.”

  This was not the response the count had been expecting, but he’d obviously been dismissed and he withdrew reluctantly, disquieted and dissatisfied. Henry strode toward the door, slid the bolt into place with a loud thud. Only then did he turn back toward the other men, who were watching him mutely, no more able to read his expression than the Count of Toulouse.

  “Well,” he said, “now we know where the snake went after it was thrust out of Eden.”

  “Never have I heard such poison spewed from a man’s mouth,” Ranulf said indignantly. “Thank God you were not taken in by his malice, Harry!”

  “I daresay there is some truth in what he said,” Roger cautioned, anxious lest his cousin dismiss the count’s warning out of hand because he’d gilded it with lies. “I do not doubt his claim that a conspiracy exists. Nor do I doubt that St Gilles has seized upon it to settle a few grudges of his own.”

  “Eleanor warned me that he had an evil heart and a corrupt soul. I ought to have paid her more heed.” Henry had begun to pace, too angry and agitated to keep still. “I knew he hated her, of course, but it never occurred to me that he would dare to strike out at a queen, my queen. And he was not content with that, he must malign my sons, lads of fourteen and fifteen. A wonder he did not think to throw Johnny into the fire, too!”

  Ranulf and Roger traded glances, for they both caught the omission—no mention of Hal.

  Henry’s shock was giving way to rage. “I swear by the Rood that St Gilles will rue this day. I can only deal with one enemy at a time, but his reprieve will not be for long. That, too, I swear upon the Holy Cross.”

  “What will you do, Harry?”

  Henry had stopped before the hearth, standing so close he was in danger of being singed by the leaping flames. “On the morrow, Uncle, I shall go hunting,” he said, and at another time, he would have been amused by their bewilderment. “All know how I love the chase, so that will arouse no suspicions. Whilst I am off ‘hunting,’ I will send word to the castellans of my border castles, instructing them to lay in supplies, enough to withstand a siege, and to strengthen their garrisons. When Louis moves against me, he will find that we are expecting him.”

  As Roger’s eyes met Ranulf’s again, he saw that they shared the same concern. And because he knew his uncle was too kindhearted for utter candor, Roger realized that it would be up to him. “Only a madman would credit St Gilles’s venomous accusations against your queen and younger sons. But I very much fear that there is some truth in his charges against Hal.”

  Henry was silent for so long that they thought he was not going to answer. When he finally turned away from the fire, they saw there was no need for words; his answer was plainly writ in the anguished slash of his mouth, the glimmering grey eyes, the first time that either man had seen him on the verge of tears.

  “I know,” he said huskily. “God help us both, I know.”

  ELEANOR’S DREAM WAS UNRAVELING, besieged by an undercurrent of noise and flashes of light. She came back to reality with reluctance, instinctively aware that these were still the hours of night, the hours of sleep. As soon as she moved, she winced, for her thigh muscles were sore. Memory came flooding back—her husband’s return from his hunting trip, long after dark, after she’d gone to bed. She’d awakened to his embrace, his mouth hot upon hers, his beard scratching her throat. His lovemaking had been impassioned, intense, and yet oddly impersonal, for she suspected that any soft female body would have satisfied his need. His side of the bed was empty, but still warm, and she jerked the bed hangings aside, blinking in the glare of torchlight.

  A quick glance at a notched wax candle confirmed her suspicion that it was much too early to be awake. Henry was already dressed, though. Sitting on a coffer, he was pulling his boots on, and she wondered if he meant another day’s hunting. “Why are you up at such a God-forsaken hour?” He glanced over his shoulder at the sound of her voice, but offered no explanation, and she sat up with a sigh, knowing sleep was lost to her now, too.

  A servant had fetched wine and bread to break their fast, and Henry poured a cup, carried it across the room, and handed it to Eleanor. “I
want you to take Geoffrey with you when you go back to Poitiers,” he said, and she looked up at him in surprise.

  “I thought he was accompanying you into Brittany. Has there been a change of plans?”

  “Yes.” But he did not elaborate, instead began to buckle his scabbard belt, further proof that he had a journey in mind. Eleanor tugged at her hair, finding it caught under her hip; she’d braided it before going to bed, but Henry had unfastened it during the night. Drinking her wine, she wondered where he meant to go if not into Brittany.

  The festivities at Limoges were over. The Kings of Aragon and Navarre had departed for their own lands, as had many of the attending barons and their ladies. John had been sent back to Fontevrault Abbey to resume his studies; his little bride-to-be would accompany Eleanor to Poitiers, there to be raised with Constance and Alys and Joanna. Only the Count of Toulouse still lingered, uncaring that none wanted him there, putting Eleanor in mind of a vulture hovering over carrion, awaiting his chance to swoop down to feed. She was sure he was up to no good, and she was glad she would soon be seeing the last of Limoges, glad she would be going home to Poitiers, favored of all her cities. Watching Henry as he moved around the chamber, she was jolted to realize that this might well have been the last time she’d share his bed.

  “Where do you go from here, Harry?”

  Before he could respond, the door swung open and Hal entered. “Why did you summon me so early, Maman?” he complained, yawning. “I’d hoped to remain abed for—” He stopped abruptly as Henry moved into his line of vision. His eyes cut from his father to his mother in the rumpled bed, and to Eleanor’s surprise, he flushed deeply. She was astonished; surely he could not be embarrassed by this proof that she’d spent the night with Harry? And then, as he gave her a look of silent reproach, she understood. To Hal, she’d been sleeping with the enemy.

  “The summons was mine,” Henry said, regarding his son with a lack of emotion that Eleanor found troubling. “I am returning to Normandy this morn, and you are coming with me.”

  Hal was still off balance, but he tried now to regain his footing by saying emphatically, “I think not.”

  “You are not being given a choice.” Henry’s voice was toneless, and to Hal, his gaze was as piercing and predatory as those Iceland gyrfalcons he’d promised but would never deliver. Hal glanced back at Eleanor, seeking guidance. But this woman seemed like a stranger to him, clutching blankets to cover her nudity, her hair tumbling about her shoulders in wanton disarray, utterly unlike the coolly poised, elegant mother who was his lodestar and mentor. As their gazes crossed, she shook her head, almost imperceptibly, signaling that she did not know what his father intended.

  “You need not look to your mother for assistance,” Henry said, still in that matter-of-fact manner that Hal found more disturbing than outright anger would have been. “It is only natural that a mother bird should protect her chicks, but when it is time for a fledgling to leave the nest, he is on his own.”

  Hal was quick to seize his father’s metaphor and turn it back against him. “But that fledgling cannot learn to fly if his wings are clipped.”

  “Clever lad,” Henry said softly, and it was not a compliment. “Lest you’ve forgotten, I warned you that you’d be on a short leash until you prove it is no longer needed. So for the foreseeable future, you’ll be closer than my own shadow. And since you’ve been keeping dubious company of late, I am dismissing those self-seekers and sycophants who are leading you astray, men such as Hasculf de St Hilaire, Adam d’Yquebeuf, and Juhel de Mayenne.”

  Hal’s outraged gasp was audible to both his parents. “You cannot do that!”

  “It is done,” Henry said tersely, and his son whirled to face his mother, an involuntary, stunned cry of “Maman!” escaping his lips.

  Eleanor’s eyes locked with his, sending a message that was both reassurance and warning. “I understand your reluctance, Hal,” she said, “but you are not in a position to resist. You must do as your father commands.”

  NORMALLY A KING’S LEAVE-TAKING was a chaotic, noisy event, but those who’d gathered in the inner castle bailey to watch Henry’s departure were subdued and somber. Some of Hal’s knights lurked in the shadows, unwilling to call the king’s attention to themselves, but William Marshal strode out into the chilly March sunlight, a silent affirmation of loyalty to his unhappy young lord. Eleanor noted the gesture and approved. Marguerite and Hal were embracing; he brushed tears from her cheeks with his fingers before taking his stallion’s reins. His defiant gaze raked the bailey, finding sympathy from most of the onlookers, for this was Aquitaine; these were his mother’s vassals. Only the Count of Toulouse looked satisfied with his disgrace. As their eyes met, Hal leaned from the saddle and spat.

  Seeing that they were about to depart, Eleanor moved forward, trailed by her uncle, constable, and Viscount Aimar. “My lord husband,” she said, “go with God,” and Henry acknowledged her farewell with a formal “Madame,” brushing his lips to her outstretched hand. Searching for his other sons, he found them standing on the steps of the great hall, and gave them a grave salute, then signaled his men to move out.

  Hal had recovered his aplomb by now and he blew kisses to his wife, winked at his cousin Maud, and smiled at his mother before putting the spurs to his stallion. The last glance he cast over his shoulder, though, was a long, meaningful look aimed at William Marshal.

  Marguerite had begun to sob in earnest, and Maud put a supportive arm around the girl’s shaking shoulders. But it was then that her eyes came to rest upon Henry’s queen. Eleanor was standing with her uncle Raoul and her son Richard, and as Maud looked at them, it seemed to her as if their faces were carved from stone. She instinctively made the sign of the cross to ward off a superstitious sense of foreboding, and then turned back to console Hal’s weeping young wife.

  CHAPTER SIX

  March 1173

  Chinon Castle, Touraine

  THE DAY WAS OVERCAST and, at first sight, Chinon Castle seemed under siege by encroaching clouds. Gazing up at its mist-shrouded towers, Henry felt a weary sense of relief. He was back in his own domains now, back in the land of his birth and, as always, returning to Chinon was a homecoming.

  As they approached the village, people crowded into the streets to watch, although theirs was a meager royal procession, disappointing for those yearning for spectacle or pageantry: travel-begrimed household knights, three solemn earls, and two troubled kings who’d barely spoken a word since leaving Limoges. Reining in before the stone bridge that spanned the River Vienne, Henry glanced at his son’s averted face. Hal had withdrawn into a cocoon of sullen silence. When compelled to acknowledge Henry’s existence, he did so with exaggerated deference, addressing his father as “my liege” in a voice dripping with sarcasm. Henry’s half brother Hamelin had done his best to restore family harmony, but his lectures on filial duty had fallen on deaf ears and Hal was soon treating his uncle with the same mocking courtesy he offered his father.

  Henry was fond of Hamelin, but he’d never valued his brother’s advice, and so it was no surprise when Hal did not, either. He had more respect for the Earl of Essex’s judgment, and as they crossed the bridge, he debated asking the other man to try his hand at peacemaking. Essex was a renowned knight and Hal might pay more heed to his counsel. As difficult as it was for Henry to ask for help, he was realizing that with Hal, he needed all the help he could get.

  Once they’d ridden up the limestone cliff to the castle, Henry hastened to his bedchamber. He’d gotten wet while fording a stream earlier in the day and his chausses were clinging clammily to his skin. Stripping them off, he rubbed his legs briskly with a towel while Fulke, one of his squires, rooted around in a coffer for dry clothing. His other squire, Warin, was supervising servants as they lugged a second bed up the stairs, for Henry trusted his son so little now that he insisted they sleep in the same chamber, thus guaranteeing that their nights would be as disquieting as their days.

  An older ma
n had just entered, bearing Henry’s favorite falcon on his outstretched arm, and Henry smiled, his mood momentarily lightening. “See that a chicken is fresh-killed for her meal,” he instructed the falconer, making up his mind to fly her on the morrow. The season was ending, but he’d still have a few more afternoons to rejoice in the pure joy of the open air, the boundless sky, and poetry on the wing. He was tempted to ask Hal to join him, but that was a fool’s fantasy. It would take more than a shared love of hawking to bridge the chasm yawning between them.

  He was pulling on a dry tunic when the Earl of Essex sought entry. Henry waved him in without ceremony, for Essex was more than a loyal vassal. Eleanor had once compared Henry to a well-defended castle, claiming that he let some people into his outer bailey, very few into the inner bailey, and none at all into the keep. For whatever reason, he remembered that now, and acknowledged that Essex had earned access to the inner bailey. Somehow managing to circumvent those barriers set up after Thomas Becket’s betrayal, Essex had become a friend.

  There was comfort in that realization, and surprise, too, for Essex was surely an unlikely candidate to become a king’s confidant. In so many ways, he was an anomaly. Tall and slender and fair-haired, he looked more like a court fop than a warrior, but his languorous manner could not be more deceiving; he wielded a sword with lethal skill, and was one of Henry’s most capable battle commanders. He held an English earldom, but he’d been raised in Flanders, growing to manhood at the court of the Flemish count, Philip. In the six years since he’d inherited his brother’s title and returned to England, he’d been besieged by ambitious mothers hoping to snare him for their marriageable daughters, but he’d shown no interest in taking a highborn bride. Only Henry knew that he’d given his heart to a Flemish mistress he could never wed, and doted upon an illegitimate daughter who could not inherit his lands. And he’d gained a well-deserved reputation for loyalty, despite being the son of one of the most treacherous, disloyal barons ever to draw breath, the worst of the lawless lords who’d ravaged England during those wretched years when King Stephen had fought with Henry’s mother, the Empress Maude, for the English crown.