Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 15

The man removed his hat with a flourish, then knelt before Eleanor. “My lord dared not commit words to parchment, Madame, lest it fall into the wrong hands. But Lord Raoul knows his identity, as do you, my lady. He bade me come straightaway with the news of the events at Chinon. Your son, the young king, did indeed take flight. When King Henry learned of it, he rode after him in all haste. But the young king made great speed, covered more than a hundred miles in less than a day and night. And he had planned ahead, for fresh horses were awaiting him at Alençon. King Henry continued on, though, as far as Argentan. But he’d gained no ground, and at Argentan, he was told that Lord Hal had suddenly veered east. He gave up the chase, then, knowing further pursuit was futile, and the young king soon reached safety in the lands of the French king’s brother, the Count of Dreux.”

  “Hell and Furies!” Eleanor had begun to pace, her skirts swirling about her ankles. “What was he thinking?”

  “When does he ever think?” Richard straddled a chair and accepted a wine cup from Raoul. “If he were to sell his brain, he could claim it had never been used.”

  Eleanor did not seem to be listening. Reaching the hearth, she stopped suddenly. “Morel! Jesu, I ought to have seen this coming.” Seeing that they did not understand, she said, “He did not take his new stallion, left him behind with me at Limoges. He did not want to risk losing him, for he was planning his escape as early as that.”

  The messenger still knelt and Raoul reached out, helped the man to his feet. “You’ve done well, will be rewarded for your service. Go down to the great hall and get a meal, then tell the steward to find you a bed.” As the man withdrew, moving with the stiffness of one who’d spent many hours in the saddle, Raoul brought a wine cup over to Eleanor. Rather pointedly, he did not offer any to Maud, but she did not notice the snub. She was dismayed by Hal’s folly, but troubled, too, by the implications of this mystery messenger. Raoul de Faye had paid one of Henry’s lords or knights to spy upon him, and Eleanor had known about it—and approved.

  Eleanor looked at her wine cup, seemed about to drink, then set it down. “How did Hal manage to get away? It could not have been easy, not with Harry watching him like a hungry hawk.”

  “To give the lad credit where due, he was right clever about it. He got Harry to drop his guard by seeking his forgiveness, then feigned a toothache to be able to see an apothecary, and once he’d been given a sleeping draught, he put it in his father’s wine.” Raoul laughed, but Eleanor did not.

  “Does it matter how he did it?” Richard sounded impatient. “What matters is that he has put us entre la espada y la pared.” This was another Spanish expression he’d picked up from the young King of Aragon, one he obligingly translated for them now, saying it meant “between the sword and the wall.”

  Eleanor seemed lost in her own thoughts and did not respond. Stepping forward, Raoul put his hand on her arm. “The lad is right. Hal’s flight was a signed confession of his guilt and confirmed all of Harry’s suspicions of a conspiracy with the French. This means we no longer have time as our ally, Eleanor. Hal has flushed our quarry and whether we are ready or not, the hunt is on.”

  Eleanor frowned. “I am well aware of that, Uncle!”

  “My God…” Maud’s whispered words seemed to echo in the sudden silence. She was staring at Eleanor in disbelief. “You are conspiring against Harry?”

  Eleanor stiffened, for she’d not expected Maud to sound so horrified. “Leave us, Uncle,” she said, adding, “You, too, Richard,” when her son did not move. He did not look happy about it, but he followed Raoul from the solar.

  As soon as the door closed behind them, Maud rose and crossed the chamber, not stopping until she was close enough to look into Eleanor’s eyes. “Is it really true, then? You are part of this plot?”

  Eleanor could have said that she had not fully committed herself, for it was technically true, but that was a sophistry. The conspiracy might still be in its initial stages, but she’d known since Limoges that there’d be no turning back. “Yes,” she said, resisting the impulse to say more. She’d not have thought that she’d need to explain herself, not to Maud, but the other woman was regarding her now as if they were strangers.

  “Whatever grievances you have against Harry, I cannot believe you want him dead!”

  “Of course I do not,” Eleanor snapped. “Neither do my sons, nor Louis, either, for that matter. Can you imagine Louis, of all men, plotting regicide? I daresay he hopes to bleed away some of Harry’s strength, to keep him from expanding his empire at Louis’s expense. He hopes, too, that my sons will be easier to deal with than Harry. That may well be true for Hal, but not for Richard, as he’ll learn to his cost.”

  “You keep saying ‘my sons.’ But they are Harry’s sons, too. And however you think he has wronged you, Eleanor, nothing could justify turning a man’s children against him.”

  Eleanor was taken aback by the hostility in that accusation. “You think I did that? No, Harry handled that quite well all by himself. My sons love him not, and why should they? They barely know him. Richard and Geoffrey call him the Aquilon, a Norman name for the north wind. He sweeps into their lives, wreaking havoc, and then moves on, with nary a backward glance. And when he does pay them heed, it is only to make use of them in his various schemes and stratagems.”

  “That is what kings do. And can you truly say that you have not done it, too? That you are not using Richard to protect Aquitaine?”

  “Richard’s interests and Aquitaine’s interests are one and the same. There is no conflict there.”

  “And what of Hal? It seems to me that you are seizing upon his discontent to right your wrongs. How fair is that?”

  “You could not be more mistaken,” Eleanor said coldly. “Hal did not need me to prod him into rebellion. That was Harry’s doing, not mine. Hal is a crowned king, yet he has nothing to call his own. Harry denies him even the semblance of independence, much less any real authority. And when Hal has protested, Harry seeks to content him with empty promises. Let me tell you what Hal says of those promises—that they are counterfeit coin. And he is right.”

  “Harry may not be a perfect father. But he does love them, Eleanor. You know he does!”

  “Yes, I’ll grant you that. But he sees them as pawns on his imperial chessboard. He’ll never treat them as men grown, for in his eyes, they’ll always be children, children in need of his guidance and superior wisdom. He is convinced he is in the right and is utterly unwilling to compromise. Why should he? He is the puppeteer, after all, the one pulling the strings. But neither Hal nor Richard are puppets, as he is about to discover.”

  “I do not deny that Harry is stubborn or that he makes mistakes, some of them grievous. Certainly he has erred with Hal. But there had to be another way than this, Eleanor!”

  “I thought so, too—once. I talked myself hoarse trying to reach him, Maud, trying to make him see that he is the one sowing seeds of rebellion. But he’d not listen, not if it meant sharing power. I’ve told him that he governs as if he never intends to die, and it is no jest. You know what happens to saplings trapped in the shadow of a massive oak; their growth is stunted. Well, I am not going to let that happen, not to my sons. Harry made Hal a king and it is time he acknowledges him as one. As for Richard, he will rule Aquitaine with me until he grows to manhood, and then he will be accountable to the Almighty, not the King of England. And once Geoffrey weds Constance, he will—”

  “Geoffrey, too? But he is just fourteen!”

  “Need I remind you that when Harry was fourteen, he hired routiers and went off on his own to England, intending to help his mother fight Stephen.”

  “Yes, and when the routiers balked at his promises of payment and threatened to desert, leaving him stranded, he asked Stephen to lend him money to return to Normandy. Stephen was so amused by his sheer bravado that he did! Does that sound like your ordinary fourteen-year-old, Eleanor? For this is what it comes down to, does it not? How could you have forgotten the mettle o
f the man?”

  “I do not need you to lecture me about Harry’s capabilities. After twenty years of marriage, I’d say I know him far better than you do.”

  Maud shook her head slowly. “I am beginning to think that Harry is not the only blind one in your family. You once described Louis as ‘dithering at every royal crossroads.’ He is not going to defeat Henry Fitz Empress, not in this life or the next. Neither are striplings like Hal or Richard. Nor are you. Oh, I know you can match Harry in shrewdness and daring and ice-blooded resolve. But you cannot take the field against him, can you? Why do you think I am so distraught over this madness? Because this is a war you cannot hope to win!”

  Henry was facing a far more formidable coalition than just Louis and her sons, but Eleanor was not about to reveal that to Maud, for it was painfully apparent that she’d greatly misjudged the other woman. She said nothing, and after a moment, Maud moved, shivering, to the hearth, feeling cold to the very marrow of her bones. “Why did you let me stay in the solar? I would to God I’d never heard a word of all this, for what am I to do now with what I know?”

  Eleanor did not doubt the sincerity of her distress, but she had no sympathy to spare for Maud’s misery. “There is nothing you can do.”

  Maud’s nerves were so raw that it took very little to inflame her temper. “How can you be so sure of that?” she challenged. “How do you know that I’ll not tell Harry what I’ve learned?”

  “Because,” Eleanor said, “you love your son as much as I love mine.”

  To Maud, there was something ominous in that matter-of-fact statement. “What are you saying, Eleanor? That my son is to be held hostage for my good behavior?”

  Eleanor’s eyes narrowed, the only sign that she was now as angry as Maud. “No, I am saying that your son Hugh is one of Hal’s most enthusiastic allies. He has pledged his honor and the vast resources of Chester’s earldom to this rebellion. So you’d best hope that you are wrong about this being a war we cannot win.”

  Maud gasped, losing color so rapidly that she looked ill. “I…I do not believe you. Hugh is in Spain! Would he have gone on pilgrimage if he were conspiring against the Crown?”

  It was a feeble hope, though, and Eleanor was quick to snatch it away. “The rebellion was not to begin so soon. That is why Raoul and Richard were so vexed with Hal. Hugh expected to have plenty of time to make his pilgrimage, and I’d wager that he planned to pray at Santiago’s holy shrine for victory. Not that he shares your doubts about the outcome. He sees Hal as an anointed king, one he wants to serve, and there are many young lords who share his convictions.”

  Maud reached out, grasped the back of the closest chair for support. She had never been so frightened as she was at this moment. If Hugh was in rebellion, her daughter Beatrix’s husband might well be implicated, too, for he’d been bedazzled to be the brother-in-law of the Earl of Chester. “It is not enough that you’ve poisoned your own well,” she said bitterly. “No, you must poison mine, too!”

  “Jesus God, you sound just like Harry! He cannot admit that our sons have minds of their own, and it seems that neither can you. I did not subvert Hugh’s loyalty, did not lead him astray. I never even discussed Hal’s grievances with him. The choice was his.”

  “I love my son dearly, but I am not blind to his failings. He lacks the attributes of leadership, has always been easily influenced. It would not take much to convince him that he’d be embarking upon a great adventure. Hal would have been just as easily persuaded, and there’d be many at the French court eager to do the persuading. But you could have put a halt to it, Eleanor. If you’d warned Hal that this rash intrigue could be his ruination, he’d have listened to you. But you did not, and I’ll never forgive you for that.”

  She was turning toward the door when Eleanor spat, “You have not been dismissed yet, my lady countess.”

  Maud paused, then dropped a deep, mocking curtsy. At that moment, she wanted only to strike out, to make Eleanor hurt as much as she was hurting, and she had the weapon at hand. “What is there left to say, Madame? Unless you wish to discuss those rumors of your involvement in the conspiracy?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  Maud feigned surprise. “Harry did not tell you, then? The Count of Toulouse sought him out at Limoges and warned him that you were plotting with the French king against him.”

  Eleanor stared at her. “What sort of game are you playing, Maud? Why should I believe you? Even if that swine St Gilles did come to Harry with his suspicions, how would you have known about it?”

  “I know because my brother and my uncle were in Harry’s bedchamber when St Gilles brought his baneful offering. Roger held his tongue, of course, having had practice in keeping the confidences of the confessional. But Ranulf knew that I could be trusted with secrets, mayhap because I’d kept so many of his, and he told me what happened. Should you like to know Harry’s response? He was outraged that St Gilles should dare to malign you like that. Not for a heartbeat did he wonder if it could be true, as he proved by sending Richard and Geoffrey back with you to Poitiers.”

  Eleanor’s throat had tightened, but she was not about to let Maud see that her words had wounded. “That does not surprise me. His pride would keep him from believing it.”

  “Not pride,” Maud said, “trust.” And confident that she’d gotten the last word, she made her departure.

  Eleanor exhaled a ragged breath and sat down abruptly on the settle. She’d been shocked by Maud’s judgmental response, and she felt betrayed by a woman she’d long trusted. She was hurt and disappointed, but above all, she was angry, and there was no dearth of targets for her fury—Maud for her disloyalty, Hal for his foolhardy flight from Chinon, Raoul for taking pleasure in the wreckage of her family, Louis for simply being Louis, Raimon St Gilles for being even more treacherous than she’d realized, Harry for his obstinacy, his arrogance, and his faith in her. The remainder of her rage she spilled over onto herself—for caring about his pain, pain he’d brought upon himself. She swore aloud, using all of Henry’s favorite oaths, but it did not help, and when she was nudged by her greyhound, she gratefully accepted the dog’s silent sympathy. She invited the animal up onto the settle beside her, and was taking what comfort she could from the abiding, absolute loyalty shining from those slanted dark eyes when the door opened and Raoul entered the chamber.

  “I am guessing that you did not patch up the rift with our troublesome countess,” he said, “for when I passed her in the stairwell, she drew her skirts about her as if I were infected with the pox.”

  Eleanor hastily blinked back the tears that had begun to trickle from the corners of her eyes, knowing her uncle would see them as womanly weakness, for he constantly feared that her regrets might give way to remorse and, then, repudiation of their plans. “No, we did not ‘patch up the rift.’ She greatly disapproves of our intentions and was not shy about expressing that disapproval.”

  “Why in Our Lady’s Name did you allow her to remain in the solar, Eleanor?”

  “She asked me the same question,” Eleanor said, with a mirthless smile. “Because Maud is not a woman to be dismissed as if she were a maid servant.” She conveniently ignored the fact that she’d tried to do just that moments ago. “Because she would have to be told sooner or later, especially now that Hal has forced our hand. And because I thought she would understand…”

  “You ought to have known better. It was only to be expected that her kinship to the king would count for more than her friendship with you. Blood always wins out. What happens now? Will she try to warn Harry?”

  “No, she will not,” Eleanor said, with enough certainty to ease his qualms. “As you say, Uncle, blood will out. Her love for her son is greater than her loyalty to Harry.”

  DINNER WAS AN ELABORATE AFFAIR as Eleanor was entertaining William le Templier, the new Archbishop of Bordeaux, and John aux Bellesmains, the Bishop of Poitiers. The first course was being served when her steward was called aside, listene
d intently to the message being murmured in his ear, and, with apologies, hurried from the hall. He soon returned and hastened toward the high table. “Madame, the king is here! He has just ridden into the bailey.”

  Eleanor set her wine cup down with a thud. All along the length of the table, she saw her guests reacting to this startling news, none of them with pleasure. Raoul paled and Saldebreuil de Sanzay frowned and, for a brief moment, an expression of unease shadowed Richard’s face. Geoffrey, less practiced in concealing his emotions, looked downright alarmed. Although she maintained her public poise, Eleanor was shaken, too, for she was not ready to face her husband. What if she’d been wrong about Maud’s keeping quiet? She’d departed the morrow after their confrontation; could she have gone to Harry, after all?

  The steward glanced around the table, saw the tension, and began to laugh. “Ah, no, Madame, ’tis the young king, your son!”

  HAL’S UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL loosed chaos in the hall, for he had to be welcomed by the clerics and the other guests and apologies had to be made for interrupting the dinner. But at last they were gathered in the privacy of Eleanor’s solar, all family except for her venerable constable, Saldebreuil. Hal was lounging on the settle, with Marguerite sitting so close that she was practically in his lap. Geoffrey was hovering nearby, eager to begin bombarding his elder brother with questions. Raoul and Eleanor’s other uncle, Hugh, were also in high spirits, treating Hal as if he were returning from a battlefield triumph. Only Richard stood apart, and when their eyes met, Eleanor shot him a silent warning to mind his manners. She’d long been troubled by the strain between her two oldest sons, and she did not want Richard to spoil Hal’s homecoming by starting a quarrel; as young as he was, his sarcasm could be lethal, and she did not want him exercising it at Hal’s expense.

  Hal was relating the story of his escape from Chinon, with a flair for the dramatic that would have done justice to the Song of Roland. He was extravagantly complimented for his cleverness, and only his mother spared a thought, however reluctant, for the injury he’d inflicted upon his father. “I never doubted,” he concluded, “that I would get away, not for a moment. Just as I knew my knights would be there for me. I am indeed blessed to have such loyal men. And such a fair wife,” he added, laughing and dropping a kiss upon the tip of Marguerite’s nose.