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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 28


  Porteclie was still examining his horse’s hoof, and Eleanor moved in his direction, with Nicholas trailing behind. It was then that her palfrey lifted his head, ears pricking, and snorted. Gérard, the elder of Eleanor’s knights, was listening, too, quickly giving the alert. “Riders are coming,” he warned, gesturing toward the second road that angled off toward the west.

  They had not encountered many travelers on the road today; prudent people tried to keep to their own hearths during times of war. Eleanor tensed instinctively before common sense reasserted itself. Annoyed that she should be susceptible to such phantom fears, she nonetheless shifted so that she was half-hidden by her horse, for she knew that her disguise would not bear close inspection. Nicholas had tensed, too, his hand dropping to the hilt of his sword. As the riders approached, he glanced toward Porteclie, waiting for the older man to take charge. When Porteclie neither moved nor spoke, Nicholas shot him an aggrieved, reproachful look, and then stepped forward to greet them.

  “Good morrow.” His stomach muscles tightened as he saw how badly outnumbered they were by these new arrivals, but he forced a cheerful smile, saying as blandly as he could, “A fine day for travel, no? Have you come far?”

  “No, not far…from Loches.” The speaker was a dark-haired man in his early thirties, clad in a good wool mantle, with a quick smile and a relaxed manner. He looked eminently respectable and quite reassuring, but Nicholas’s queasy stomach lurched again, for Loches was one of Henry’s most formidable strongholds.

  “I am Sir Yves des Roches.” Plucking the names out of the air, Nicholas half-turned so that he could glare at Porteclie, who should have been their spokesman. “This is my lord, Porteclie de Mauzé. We’re on our way to the abbey at Cormery.”

  The stranger’s eyes flicked toward Porteclie, but without interest. His gaze moving from face to face, he did not pause until he found Eleanor. She’d drawn her hood forward to shadow her face, careful to keep on the far side of her palfrey, but he did not hesitate. “Welcome to Touraine, Madame.” He doffed his cap in a deferential gesture that somehow seemed sincere despite the incongruity of the circumstances. “I am Sir Hervé de Monbazon, the new provost of Loches. We have been awaiting your arrival since Nones rang, had begun to fear that you’d chosen another route.”

  Shock rendered Eleanor speechless, and then she swung around to confront Porteclie. Even as her eyes swept from the hermit’s hut to his supposedly lame stallion, her heart was unwilling to accept what her head was telling her, for Porteclie de Mauzé was one of her most steadfast barons, a distant cousin on her father’s side of the family. But as she looked into his face, she saw the ugly truth written in his ducked head, his averted eyes, and his silence.

  “You Judas!” Nicholas had reached the same appalled conclusion and lunged for Porteclie’s throat. As they crashed to the ground, Eleanor’s two knights drew their swords, urging her to flee. When she’d been ambushed by the de Lusignans five years ago, William Marshal and his uncle, the Earl of Salisbury, had done the same, offering up their lives for her safety. The earl had died and Will had been wounded and captured, but their blood had bought her the time she needed to escape. Now, though, there was nowhere to run, and even as she struggled with the enormity of this betrayal, she saw the futility of resistance.

  “No!” she cried sharply. “I’ll have no bloodshed, will have no men dying in vain! Lower your swords—now!”

  They hesitated and then slowly obeyed. Porteclie’s knights stood rooted, no one moving, not even to come to their lord’s aid. It was easy for Eleanor to tell which ones had been in the know and which had not, for the latter looked stunned and the former either grim or shame-faced. The provost had swiftly dismounted and ordered two of the men to separate Nicholas and Porteclie, who were rolling about in the dirt, locked in a death grip. When they were pulled apart, Porteclie stayed down, gulping for air, his throat scratched and bruised, already showing clear imprints of Nicholas’s clutching fingers. Nicholas was bleeding from a deep cut to his leg, slashed by one of Porteclie’s spurs. When Eleanor told him to surrender his sword, he looked at her in anguish, dark eyes glittering with blinked-back tears, but he did as she bade, offered his weapon to the provost before limping over to stand protectively at her side.

  Hervé de Monbazon passed Nicholas’s sword to one of his men. “If you will, Madame,” he said politely. It was a moment before she realized he wanted her own sword. Unbuckling the scabbard, she handed it to him. “Thank you. Now…may I help you to mount?” he asked, still so politely that she wanted to slap him. Did he think that his feigned courtesy could make this anything but what it was? He might act as if she was his queen, but she was his captive and they both knew it.

  But if he could pretend that this was a perfectly ordinary encounter, then by God, so could she. “Be sure to bring my sumpter horse,” she said, in the brusque tones of one who never doubted her orders would be obeyed. “It carries my clothes.” When he cupped his hands, she stepped into them and swung up into the saddle, inclining her head in aloof acknowledgment of his help. When he ordered her men to be bound before they mounted their horses, she voiced no protest, knowing it would be futile. When he snapped a leather lead upon her palfrey’s bridle, she kept silent, staring straight ahead as if his action was of no interest to her. And when they rode off, she never looked back at Porteclie de Mauzé, standing with his men by the side of the road.

  ELEANOR HAD NEVER LIKED Loches Castle. Situated upon a rocky outcrop far above the River Indre, its stark, rectangular shape was silhouetted ominously against the evening sky. Made of grey-white freestone, it reminded her of the Tower of London’s great keep, and she’d never liked that stronghold either. Loches’s ancient donjon—more than one hundred twenty feet high, with walls nine feet thick, its few windows not much bigger than arrow slits—proclaimed that this was a wartime fortress, not a royal residence. It had been built by one of Henry’s more infamous ancestors, Fulk Nerra, in the eleventh century, and she’d found it to be utterly lacking in comfort during her infrequent visits. But if it had always seemed primitive to her, there was something almost sinister about it now, looming out of the darkness like some hulking beast of prey.

  They entered the bailey through the Porte Royale gatehouse, were soon being ushered into the great hall that occupied the second story of the keep. Unlike the provost, the man standing by the smoking hearth was well known to Eleanor. Maurice de Craon was the same age as her husband. He was of average height like Henry, and like Henry, he gave the impression of being larger than he actually was, with a wrestler’s well-muscled build and stocky legs. Only in coloring did he differ from his sovereign, for he was as swarthy as Henry was fair. Eleanor’s heart sank at the sight of him, for Maurice de Craon was one of Henry’s intimates, a powerful Angevin baron and a battle commander of some note. His presence at Loches showed how important her capture was to her wrathful husband.

  Raising her chin, she moved toward him with all the hauteur at her command. “My lord de Craon.”

  “Madame.” If Eleanor’s voice had been coolly clipped, his dripped with icicles. His eyes were almost black; they took in her appearance with a disdain he did not bother to conceal. “I am surprised that Sir Hervé was able to recognize you. You could hardly look less queenly, could you?”

  When Nicholas bristled, Eleanor shook her head almost imperceptibly. “But I am the queen,” she said, “and you’d do well to remember that. One of my men has a wound in need of tending. I wish him to be seen by a doctor without delay.”

  “Do you, indeed? Well…if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Turning, he gestured toward two of his men. “Take these prisoners down to the dungeon.” Adding “without delay,” with a mocking glance over his shoulder at Eleanor.

  “I’d have thought you had better breeding than that, my lord. Only a churl would not know that men of Sir Nicholas’s rank are to be well treated until their ransoms can be arranged.”

  “Ransom?” he echoe
d and laughed. “What a droll wit you have, Madame. But if you are so fretful about their well-being, mayhap you should join them in the dungeon so that you can look after them yourself.”

  Eleanor caught her breath, quickly reached out to still Nicholas’s outraged protest. But it was easier to control Nicholas’s anger than her own temper, for she’d had little practice in biting back intemperate words. She opened her mouth to throw down a challenge that might well have gotten her incarcerated with her men. Before she could defy Maurice de Craon, though, Sir Hervé de Monbazon stepped between them.

  “May we have a few words in private, my lord?” he asked smoothly, favoring Maurice with the same disarming smile that he’d turned upon Eleanor. Maurice did not seem pleased by his intervention, but after a brief hesitation, he nodded and followed the provost toward the stairwell in the east wall.

  Eleanor gave Nicholas a critical scrutiny, her eyes flicking from his pallid face to his bloodstained chausses and boot. “Come with me,” she said, taking his arm and steering him toward the closest bench. “You, too,” she directed her other knights, Gérard and Guyon. Once the three men were seated, she glanced around the hall, finding what she sought when she noticed a plate of bread and cheese on a nearby trestle table. Bringing it back to them, she directed Nicholas to hold out his bound wrists and cut the rope with the bread knife, then did the same for Gérard and Guyon. She was watched all the while by the other men in the hall, but while some of them murmured among themselves, none attempted to stop her, and whenever she met an individual’s gaze, he quickly looked away.

  When the door opened, she stiffened warily, as did her knights. But the man emerging from the stairwell was not Maurice de Craon. The new arrival was an elderly priest, who stared at Eleanor with round eyes and open mouth. Like the others in the hall, he seemed hesitant, but after an irresolute moment, he gripped his cane firmly and hobbled toward her.

  “Madame, you are truly here! Do you remember me?”

  Like Henry, Eleanor had been blessed with a remarkable memory, and like him, she’d taken pains to cultivate the talent; for a prince, that was a survival skill. Now, as she studied the priest, it stood her in good stead. “Father Lucas,” she said and smiled. “Of course I remember you. You were very helpful when that baby was found abandoned on the Loches Road.”

  Pleased color rose in his cheeks. “It was my pleasure to serve you, my lady.”

  “I need your help again, Father Lucas. This is Sir Nicholas de Chauvigny, a knight of my household. As you can see, he has a leg injury that ought to be cleaned and treated as soon as possible. Will you take care of that for me?”

  He did not answer immediately, casting a revealing glance over his shoulder toward the stairwell. But then he straightened his shoulders and nodded emphatically. “Indeed, I will, Madame.”

  While he’d turned away to summon a servant, Eleanor snatched up the bread and cheese and passed it to her men. “Hide this in your tunics,” she said. “I rather doubt that Maurice de Craon will prove to be a generous, open-handed host.”

  The priest was soon back with a basin of water and a small jar of ointment. Nicholas was scandalized when Eleanor reached for the salve, and insisted that he could clean the wound by himself. Amused in spite of herself by his outraged sense of decorum, Eleanor turned the task over to Gérard. The priest’s unease was becoming more and more apparent, his gaze straying often to the stairwell.

  “Madame…” Lowering his voice until it was barely audible, he said hurriedly, “I was praying in the chapel, must have dosed off, for I was awakened of a sudden by voices. It was Lord Maurice and Sir Hervé. I suppose they’d sought out the chapel for privacy. They were arguing about you, my lady. The lord thought you ought to be treated as a rebel, but the provost insisted it was wiser to treat you as a highborn hostage. Lord Maurice said he’d been with the king at Rouen when he learned of your…your betrayal. His words, Madame, not mine! He said the king was grievously hurt by your actions, that he would want you punished, not coddled. Sir Hervé said that they must not forget how unpredictable the king could be, as changeable as the winds. He advised Lord Maurice to tread carefully on such unsteady ground.”

  His last words came in a rush, with another nervous look over his shoulder. “I do not know which of them will prevail, my lady. It will depend upon what they think the king wants done with you.”

  “Yes,” Eleanor said softly. “That is the question, is it not?” One not even she could answer, as well as she knew her husband. Now that she was in his power, what would Harry do?

  WHEN MAURICE DE CRAON led her toward the stairwell, Eleanor felt a surge of relief when they headed up, not down. So it was not to be the dungeon. For all her bravado, she did not want to be thrust into a damp, dark cell. When they reached the third floor, Maurice turned to the right, not the left, and a grim smile flickered across her lips. Maurice had deemed her unworthy of sleeping in the king’s bed; instead she was to be held in the smaller, more spartan guest chamber.

  They’d been preceded by servants, who made haste to light an oil lamp and pulled back the bed hangings. Sir Hervé soon followed, accompanied by another servant carrying Eleanor’s coffer. The sight of it was a welcome one, for she wanted her own clothes; she’d not liked the way the men in the hall had stared at her legs and ankles. But then Maurice made a snide comment about her male garb, saying that he’d had her coffer brought up so she could change straightaway out of her unseemly attire, and she immediately considered wearing her knight’s garments until they hung on her in rags.

  “Does my appearance disturb you, my lord? Alas, I am desolated by your disapproval,” she said, so sardonically that his mouth tightened and she could see the muscles clench along his jawline.

  Striding to the door, he paused, giving her a look of appraisal that was neither friendly nor flattering. “It is true you do not have to answer to me,” he said coldly. “But you are answerable to the lord king, your husband.” Not waiting for her response, he closed the door with a finality that was almost as disquieting as his words had been.

  A silence settled over the room. The servants quickly and self-consciously finished their tasks and fled, leaving Eleanor alone with the provost. He seemed to be debating whether to speak or not, at last said, almost apologetically, “Lord Maurice is plainspoken, but if he lacks the polished manners of a courtier, he is a good man for all that, my lady. I hope you will not hold his rudeness against him.”

  Eleanor was no longer so put off by his silken civility, not after exposure to the Angevin baron’s overt hostility. “As it happens,” she said, “I understand Maurice better than you think I do, Sir Hervé. He recently wed Isabel of Meulan, and she is a first cousin of Robert Beaumont, the rebel Earl of Leicester.”

  His engaging smile vanished. “You mean he feels the need to curry favor with the king now, to prove that his loyalty has not been infected by the Beaumont heresy? You are wrong, Madame. His outrage is bona fide and many share it.” He hesitated, as if to say more, instead bowed and made a discreet departure.

  After a few moments, Eleanor inspected the room. It lacked the fireplace and private latrine of the king’s chamber, but as prisons go, it was not so bad. They’d not provided a brazier for heat, but winters in the Loire Valley were not severe and there seemed to be an adequate pile of blankets on the bed. She wandered aimlessly from the bed to the small shuttered window, back again, and then started when a soft knock sounded at the door.

  “Come in,” she said resolutely, determined to keep up a bold front, and a young man entered with a wooden tray. He set the tray upon the trestle table, sketched an awkward obeisance, and hastily backed toward the door. Once he was gone, Eleanor moved to the table, looking at her meal. The food was plain, nothing fancy, not the sort of dishes to grace the royal table, but it was plentiful. She’d not go hungry, and she did not know if that would be true for Nicholas and her knights. Although she’d not eaten for many hours, she could muster up no appetite. Picking up
the wine cup, she took a tentative swallow, grimaced at the taste, and set it down.

  She froze then, having caught the shuffle of footsteps in the stairwell, holding her breath as she waited for the door to open. It didn’t. The footsteps paused, and then she heard the click of a key being turned in the lock. It was not loud, but it seemed to echo in the silence until there was no other sound in her world but that metallic clink and the thudding of her heart. It was only then that the full reality of her plight hit home. Slumping down on the bed, she buried her face in her hands and gave way to despair.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  December 1173

  Paris, France

  WHEN HAL’S LASHES FLICKERED, Marguerite leaned over and kissed his cheek, brushing his skin as lightly as a butterfly’s wings. Opening his eyes, he smiled drowsily. “Is it dawn yet?”

  “The sun has been up for hours. You are such a sluggard,” she chided fondly, “still in bed at this time of day…for shame.”

  “There are two of us in this bed,” he pointed out. “So you must be a sluggard, too.”

  “I could not get up,” she insisted. “You were sleeping on my hair!”

  Propping himself up on his elbow, Hal saw that her long, blond tresses had indeed been caught under his arm. “Well…I can think of several good reasons to remain abed despite the hour.” Sliding his hand up from her waist, he cupped her breast. “Here is one. Ah, and here is another…”

  Marguerite sighed with pleasure, but two could play that game. “I do believe you’re right,” she purred, reaching out to stroke his thigh. “I think I’ve found another one.”

  Hal’s eyes half closed. “By God, you have,” he said and rolled over on top of her just as a loud pounding began. Swearing, he called for his squire. “Thierry, tell whoever it is to go away, tell them I’m sleeping, tell them I’m dead…”