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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 27


  Eleanor said nothing. Nicholas de Chauvigny glanced in her direction, then scowled at de Maingot and Porteclie de Mauzé. “I fear it is too late,” he said. “Better our lady should seek shelter with Geoffrey de Rançon at Taillebourg. It will not fall to the English king; there is no more formidable stronghold in all of Poitou.”

  Both men began to argue with him, insisting Eleanor’s only chance lay in flight. She appeared to be listening, but it was a pose; her thoughts had begun to wander, for she knew how meaningless their argument was. Nicholas was right; she had waited too long. But she did not think Taillebourg was the sanctuary that Nicholas did. Yes, it was said to be impregnable, but she’d lost track of the impregnable castles taken by her husband over the years. Once he learned where she was—and he would, for she did not doubt his agents had her under surveillance—he would descend upon Taillebourg like the Wrath of God Almighty. Her chances were better on the back roads of Poitou. If she could slip undetected from Poitiers, she ought to be able to reach safety in French territory. It would be a stroke of incredibly bad luck to run into Harry’s men, and luck had always been on her side. But she did not want to flee. Not to the French court, never there.

  “I will give you my decision on the morrow,” she said, pleasing no one, indifferent to their disapproval. They withdrew with obvious reluctance; only Saldebreuil de Sanzay dared to remain—as she’d known he would.

  “I understand why you are loath to leave. Poitiers is your capital city, the very heartbeat of your realm. Yours has been a life in exile, my lady. Now that you’ve finally come home, it is only to be expected that you do not want to turn your back upon it.”

  Eleanor turned, regarding him with the shadow of a smile. “You know me, Saldebreuil, mayhap too well. Scriptures say that the heart of kings should be unsearchable.”

  “I know, too, Madame, that more than love of your homeland holds you here. Pride binds you as tightly as any chains could.”

  Her eyes narrowed, taking on a warning glint of green. “Choose your words with care, my old friend. Even you can misspeak.”

  “By speaking the truth?” he asked gently, and she was the first to look away, unable to deny the abiding affection in that quiet query. “I understand why you do not want to seek refuge at the French king’s court. Louis will make you welcome, and his smile will be so smug that you might well choke on it. It will be no easy thing to ask for his protection; I know that. But you must ask yourself what you have greater cause to fear: Louis Capet’s condescension or Harry Fitz Empress’s wrath.”

  Eleanor did not reply. He had his answer, though, in the slumping of her shoulders, in her silence. “I will make the necessary arrangements for your departure,” he said, and if she could not bring herself to acquiesce, neither could she gainsay him. She did not move, listening to the familiar sound of his footsteps as he limped toward the door. Only after he’d gone did she sit down wearily upon the closest coffer.

  “Damn you, Harry,” she whispered, “and damn you, Louis. Damn you both to Hell Everlasting.”

  CONSTANCE HAD BEGUN to drum her fingers on the table, but it did nothing to stir Alys into action. She continued to stare down at the chessboard, her brow furrowing. When she finally reached out, Constance gave an exasperated sigh. “You cannot do that, Alys. A queen can only move diagonally.”

  Alys was unfazed by her error. “Sorry,” she said, pulling her queen back. “I forgot. I’d rather play queek or tables, anyway. Chess is boring.”

  “Chess makes you think.” Since Constance believed that Alys thought as little as possible, she was not surprised that the other girl should find the game so unappealing. She kept the sarcasm to herself, though. She was only twelve, but she’d learned at an early age that candor was an indulgence she could ill afford.

  Alys resumed her interminable study of the chessboard, and Constance sighed again. But the wait proved worth it, as Alys’s eventual move placed her queen in peril. Constance hid a smile, was making ready to pounce when the door opened and the flesh-and-blood queen entered.

  Alys jumped up and ran to greet Eleanor. Fawning over her, Constance thought tartly, as she rose and dropped a perfunctory curtsy. Eleanor came forward into the chamber, her gaze sweeping past the girls to search the shadows. “I was hoping that Joanna would be here,” she said, sounding disappointed. “No one has been able to find her all afternoon. Do either of you know where she might have gone?”

  Constance shook her head, but Alys was more helpful. “Try the gardens.”

  “The gardens have already been searched.”

  Alys smiled. “Did they search the yew tree? Joanna likes to climb into it and hide from the world.”

  Eleanor smiled, too, for she’d climbed her share of trees in her own childhood. Constance watched in disapproval as she thanked Alys and departed. Alys reclaimed her seat at the chessboard, then glanced up and saw the other girl’s face. “What? Why are you glaring at me like that?”

  “Why did you give away Joanna’s secret hideaway?”

  Alys looked at the other girl in surprise. “Since when are you such friends with Joanna? You always say she is a pest, too young to bother with.”

  Constance shrugged. Adults were the enemy, and children had so little power that their secrets were to be safeguarded at all costs. But she did not expect Alys to understand that. “It is my move,” she said, and captured Alys’s queen.

  Alys did not seem to notice. She was regarding Constance with curiosity. “You do not like the queen, do you?” she said unexpectedly. “Why not? She’s always been kind to you.”

  Constance’s temper flared and she had to bite her lip to keep the angry words from escaping. Kind? Only a fool like Alys would think she should be grateful to the people who’d stolen her birthright. Eleanor’s whoreson husband had made a puppet of her father, Duke Conan, then forced Conan to abdicate in her favor so she could be betrothed to his son Geoffrey. They meant to make Brittany an Angevin fief, staking their claims in her marriage bed. There was nothing she could do about it, but by the Rood, she did not have to like it.

  Alys was still staring at her. “You do not like any of them, do you?” When Constance did not reply, she smiled. “Such a pity then, that you must marry Geoffrey, is it not?”

  Constance stared back, for there was unmistakable malice in the other girl’s sugared sympathy, and she suddenly realized that Alys did not like her any more than she liked Alys.

  A NOVEMBER GARDEN was often a bleak place, but the Poitevin winter had been mild so far and there were still splashes of color, flowers still blooming in defiance of the season. Eleanor moved quietly along the pathway, one of her greyhounds trailing at her heels. The yew tree had been young when her grandfather had ruled in Poitou, and reached proudly toward the heavens; she had to tilt her head to see its top branches. Feeling a twinge of pride that her daughter dared to scale such heights, she gazed up into the cloud of evergreen and said, “Joanna? It is your mother. Climb down so we may talk.”

  There was a moment of silence, and she began to doubt Alys’s information. But then Joanna’s head poked out, framed by lush greenery. She was twenty feet off the ground. She showed no unease, though, and nimbly scrambled down to lower branches, landing on her feet like a cat. Her coppery curls were dusted with needles and there was a dirt smear across her nose, another on her chin. Her eyes looked very green in the fading light as they searched her mother’s face. “Am I in trouble, Maman?”

  Eleanor supposed she should be disciplined for risking broken bones and ripping her skirt, but she hadn’t the heart to scold the girl. Why should she be punished for having a boy’s spirit and daring? “No, lass. You do remember, though, that yew tree seeds are poisonous?”

  “I know that,” Joanna said, and Eleanor stifled a smile, for that confident young voice could have been hers, forty years ago. Leading the child toward a nearby bench, she hesitated, for she’d been loath to have this conversation, had been putting it off as long as possible.
r />  “I wanted to tell you, Joanna, that I will be going away for a while.”

  “Where?”

  “Paris.” Adding casually, “I want to see your brothers,” as if this would be a pleasure trip.

  Joanna was not deceived, though. Keeping those green eyes on her mother’s face, she said, “You are running away from Papa.”

  Eleanor was momentarily at a loss. She’d tried to shield Joanna from her involvement in the plot against Henry, warning servants and attendants and even Constance and Alys to guard their conversation in the child’s hearing. She’d known it was unrealistic to expect her daughter to remain in ignorance, but she’d been stung by Maud’s accusations that she’d turned their sons against Henry, and was determined that no such accusation could be made about Joanna. But even before she saw the reproach in Joanna’s eyes, she knew she’d made the wrong decision.

  “I am sorry, Joanna, for trying to keep the truth from you. I ought to have been candid with you from the first, but you are so young—”

  “I am eight now, Maman!”

  “Yes, you are. But I know you love your father, and I did not want you to feel that you had to choose between us. You are very dear to us both, and nothing will change that.”

  “I know Hal and Richard have been unhappy with Papa for a long time. Richard says he never listens, that he is as stubborn as a balky mule.” Joanna ducked her head, staring down at her lap, and Eleanor resisted the impulse to brush the yew needles from her hair. “So you…you took their side, Maman?”

  “Yes, Joanna, I did. But your father has led an army into Poitou, and my council has advised me to leave Poitiers for now.”

  The girl looked up, then. “Would Papa hurt you?” She met Eleanor’s eyes steadily, but there was a quaver in her voice, and Eleanor reached out, covered her daughter’s hand with her own.

  “No, he would not,” she said, choosing her words with care. “But he is very angry with me because I supported our sons in their quarrel, and I prefer not to have a confrontation just yet. We think it is for the best that I join your brothers in Paris. But I do not expect to be gone for long. I will be back here ere you know it, lass.”

  Joanna had a disconcertingly direct gaze. “What will happen after that?”

  “I expect that the French king and your brothers will prevail and your father will come to terms with them.” Eleanor studied Joanna closely, unable to tell if she believed it. But, then, Eleanor was not sure if she believed it herself.

  “WELL?” ELEANOR ASKED. “What do you think?” She turned in a circle and Saldebreuil smiled at her transformation. She was dressed as a knight, complete with sword and scabbard, her hair pinned up under a cowled hood.

  “I’d not have recognized you,” he assured her, thinking that she still had very shapely legs, revealed now in close-fitting bright blue hose.

  Eleanor was looking admiringly at her soft leather ankle boots. “We had trouble finding a man’s boots small enough to fit my feet until I tried on an old pair of Geoffrey’s.” She liked the freedom of her new clothes. It was much easier to move unhampered by long skirts. She would have to get used to the unaccustomed heft of the sword at her hip, but she would be spared the weight of chain mail since most knights did not wear their hauberks while on the road.

  Saldebreuil’s smile had faded and his dark eyes were somber. Trying to reassure him, she evoked a smile of her own, saying playfully, “I think I make a rather handsome man, do I not? And this ought to be a foolproof way to sneak out of the city undetected by Harry’s spies. They’ll never expect me to don male disguise, after all.”

  “Indeed not,” he affirmed, striving to sound hearty and confident. He did think her ruse would enable her to escape her husband’s agents. He wished she would have more men with her, though. They’d decided that it would be better to travel with a small escort in order to pass as ordinary travelers, and he agreed that made sense. But he would not be going with her, as his joint evil had flared up again, making riding painful, and he knew he would worry and fret until he received word of her safe arrival in Paris.

  Eleanor picked up a mirror to check her camouflage one last time. Satisfied, she turned back to him with a smile, and he said softly, “Go with God, Madame.”

  They looked at each other and then Eleanor said, “Propriety be damned” and gave him a quick hug before heading for the door. Saldebreuil went to the window, thrusting open the shutters. The dawn sky was the shade of soft pearl, a few night stars still glimmering to the west. The air was chill but dry; it would be a good day for travel. Eleanor’s escort was below in the bailey, waiting for her. She soon emerged, pausing to give her palfrey an affectionate pat on the nose before using a horse block to swing into the saddle. Glancing up toward the window, she gave Saldebreuil a jaunty wave. He waved back, but with a sense of foreboding, and he remained at his post long after she’d ridden out. His vigil had begun.

  ELEANOR WAS ACCOMPANIED by Nicholas de Chauvigny and two of her household knights. The rest of her bodyguards were Porteclie de Mauzé’s men, as he had claimed the honor of escorting her to Paris. Their pace was too swift for conversation, but Eleanor could see that they were nervous, casting frequent glances over their shoulders, measuring the progress of the sun on its westward arc, swiveling their heads at every rustling in the underbrush. She did not share their unease, confident that the greatest danger was already past. Once they’d evaded her husband’s spies and slipped out of Poitiers, the odds were very much in her favor that she’d reach safety in French territory.

  It was not the journey that troubled her; it was the destination. She loathed the very thought of being indebted to Louis, and she knew all too well how it would gratify him to give her refuge at his court. For she had no illusions about their dubious partnership. Hers were allies of expediency, and as eager as they’d been to join forces with the Duchess of Aquitaine, they were likely now to see her as a frightened woman fleeing her husband’s just rage.

  BY LATE AFTERNOON, they were deep in Touraine. Eleanor’s men were showing signs of increasing strain, for this was a land congested with castles, most of them under Henry’s control, and these fortresses must be given a wide berth. Going downstream to avoid Bridoré Castle, they forded the River Indre in late afternoon, and were soon swallowed up by the vast forest of Loches.

  They were not far now from their destination, planning to pass the night at Sainte-Trinité de Grandmont Villiers, a small priory hidden away in the midst of Loches Forest. They’d chosen it for its isolation, but Eleanor derived a secret satisfaction from that choice, for the priory had been founded by Henry. He’d always favored the austere Order of Grandmont, a partiality Eleanor did not share. The Grandmontines scorned females as sinful daughters of Eve, reluctant even to allow them to enter their churches, and Eleanor took malicious amusement in the knowledge that she would be sheltering at this male sanctuary, outwitting both her husband and his women-hating monks.

  As soon as they entered the woods, they lost the light. Although many trees had been stripped bare, a heavy growth of evergreens, brush, and entwined branches formed a canopy that the wan November sun could not penetrate, and they rode into an early dusk. The path was narrow and their horses’ hooves crunched upon a carpeting of brittle, brown leaves. Squirrels darted along overhanging boughs, and once they startled a fox as they rounded a bend in the road; they caught just a blur of red fur as it faded back into the shadows. Men were usually skittish about such dark forest trails, for many believed that demons, ghosts, and revenants lurked in the gloom, and all knew that outlaws did. But Eleanor’s knights welcomed the camouflage, feeling more vulnerable out on the king’s roads, knowing that Henry’s army was on the prowl. They were less enthusiastic about their stay at the Grandmontine priory, for the order was renowned for its asceticism and self-denial, even forbidding the possession of livestock, and the men knew that meant a meager meal awaited them.

  Listening to their glum speculation about that paltry supper, Elea
nor had to smile. She did not begrudge them their grumbling; both men had—like Nicholas—been in her service for years and had volunteered for this high-risk mission. The monks’ hospitality would likely be an even greater privation for her, accustomed as she was to the best their world had to offer, but she did not care if they were fed bread and water, wanting only to stretch out on a bed in the guest hall and ease her aching muscles. She’d ridden astride occasionally in the past, but never for such a lengthy journey, and although she would never have admitted it to Nicholas or Porteclie, she was very tired.

  “God’s Legs!” Riding at Eleanor’s side, Porteclie de Mauzé swore suddenly and then signaled for a halt. “My horse has gone lame,” he exclaimed. “What wretched luck, with us so close to the priory.” Swinging from the saddle, he began to examine his stallion’s right foreleg as the other men drew rein, milling about on the pathway until he told them to dismount. Suppressing a sigh, Eleanor slid from the saddle, too, not waiting for Nicholas’s assistance.

  They’d stopped at a crossroads, another winding trail snaking off to their left. In a nearby copse of trees was a small thatched hut. Pointing it out to Eleanor, Nicholas said that a celebrated recluse dwelled there, an ancient known as Bernard the Hermit. He’d once earned his keep by guiding travelers through the forest, although he was now too old to venture far from his hut. But he was admired for his piety and godly way of life, and local people saw to it that he didn’t starve.

  Eleanor glanced over at that shabby little hut, unable to comprehend why anyone of sound mind would deliberately choose to live like that, alone and impoverished. But when Nicholas started toward the cottage, she followed, welcoming a chance to walk off her stiffness. The door was ajar and after calling out politely, Nicholas pushed it open. He came back out almost at once. “There is no one inside,” he reported, sounding disappointed. “I hope he has not died.”