Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 29

  Marguerite began to giggle until he stopped her laughter with his mouth. They were too absorbed in each other to pay any heed to the sounds beyond their bed: footsteps, an opening door, a murmur of voices, and then a smothered protest, “My lord, you cannot come in—” But they were rudely brought back to reality when the bed hangings were suddenly jerked open.

  Marguerite gave a squeak and dived under the covers. Hal sat up, his temper flaring at the sight of his least-loved brother. “Hellfire and damnation! Get out of here, Richard!”

  “He’s taken her!”

  Some of Hal’s annoyance ebbed in the face of Richard’s agitation. “Who? What are you talking about?”

  “Our mother! She has fallen into his hands, is being held prisoner in one of his Angevin strongholds.”

  Hal blinked, staring at his brother in disbelief. That could not be true. The Lord God would never let that happen. He was suddenly sorry he’d quaffed so much wine the night before, for his thinking was muddled. “That cannot be right. You must have heard a rumor, gossip—”

  “Use your head, Hal. Why else would I be in your bedchamber at such an hour? For the pleasure of your company?”

  Hal found himself at a loss for words, and Marguerite re-emerged from the blankets, pulling them modestly up to her chin even as she put her arm around his shoulders. “I am so sorry, sweetheart. But you must not despair. My father will move heaven and earth to rescue her.”

  Richard rolled his eyes, thinking that they were a well matched pair, both as simpleminded as sheep. Hal knew that Marguerite was only trying to comfort him. He did not have as much faith in her father, though, as he’d had before Verneuil. He was still confused, for he’d been torn from his wife’s arms into a waking nightmare without any warning. It was not fair. Men should have time to come to terms with such calamitous happenings.

  His brother was waiting impatiently, and he threw the covers back, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. But then he paused. “Richard…what can we do?”

  It was a moment of odd role reversal, as if he were the younger brother, not the elder. Richard usually had answers for everything. But not this time. He hesitated, and Hal felt a chill, realizing that Richard did not know what to do any more than he did.

  THEY’D GATHERED IN the French king’s palace, were awaiting him in a private chamber overlooking the River Seine. Raoul de Faye had wandered restlessly to a window, and when he opened the shutters, he looked out upon a scene as bleak and cheerless as his mood. The city seemed painted in shades of grey, with looming storm clouds, a sky darkening with an early dusk, the river a dull, leaden color, its choppy surface pelted with icy rain drops. He’d let a blast of cold air into the room, and when the others began to complain, he closed the shutters and returned to his seat.

  He was familiar with every man in the chamber, for they were all pillars of the French king’s court. Seated closest to the hearth was the elderly Maurice de Sully, Bishop of Paris. Beside him sat Louis’s younger brother, the Archbishop of Rheims, while the youngest of the brothers, the perpetually discontented Robert, Count of Dreux, was sprawled on a bench by himself. The king’s two sons-in-law, Henri, Count of Champagne, and Thibault, Count of Blois, were whispering together across the table, while their younger sibling, Étienne, Count of Sancerre, was slouched low in his seat, looking bored. Simon de Montfort, Count of Évreux, was amusing himself by flipping a coin in the air and trying to coax Raoul’s brother Hugh into wagering upon the outcome. Since de Montfort was known for his sharp dealings, Hugh was prudently refusing his blandishments. And sitting on a cushioned settle were Raoul’s three great-nephews, the ones most affected by the momentous news out of Poitou.

  Raoul’s gaze focused thoughtfully upon them. Geoffrey’s face was unrevealing; he was strangely guarded for one so young, and Raoul realized that he never knew what Geoffrey was thinking. That was certainly not true with Hal, whose face served as a mirror to his soul. His dismay was evident to anyone with eyes to see. And Richard was smoldering, a fire that had burned down but not out. He kept casting aggrieved glances toward the door, as if willing Louis to make his appearance.

  Louis finally swept into the room, flanked by his clerk and chaplain. Waving the others back to their seats as they rose, he stopped by Eleanor’s sons and squeezed Hal’s shoulder in an affectionate gesture of support. Taking a chair at the head of the table, he sighed audibly, like a man with too many burdens to bear, and then looked toward Raoul.

  “This is indeed sorrowful tidings. What do we know for certes and what is just conjecture?”

  “The queen’s constable sent a courier to me late last night. On the Friday before Advent, she left Poitiers, heading for Chartres and then Paris. She was waylaid near Loches and taken into custody by the king’s men. She was being escorted by one of her Poitevin barons, Porteclie de Mauzé, and what we know comes from him. He told Saldebreuil that they were ambushed in the forest, that they were taken by surprise and so greatly outnumbered that they could not resist. So he says.” Raoul’s mouth twitched in a mirthless smile that conveyed without words both his own skepticism and Saldebreuil’s.

  Richard was more forthright. “I think his story stinks like three-day-old mackerel. He told Saldebreuil that my mother must have been betrayed and even suggested a few likely suspects. But in any hunt for the Judas, we’d do well to start with him. He lets his liege lady be taken without lifting a finger to stop it, and then he and all his men are set free to continue on their way? Does he take us for utter fools?”

  “A great pity,” Louis said somberly. “May the Almighty keep her safe in her time of travail.”

  “I am sure the Almighty will look after her, my lord king.” Raoul leaned forward, his eyes locking upon the French king’s face. “But prayers will not set her free. We need to make plans, to decide how best to accomplish that.”

  Louis glanced around at his nobles, as if seeking a consensus. Finding what he sought on their faces, he looked at Raoul and slowly, sadly, shook his head. “Alas,” he said, “there is nothing we can do.”

  Raoul felt no real surprise, just a surge of outrage. Richard and Hal shared it. The former sprang to his feet as the latter cried out incredulously, “What are you saying, that we leave her to rot in one of his dungeons?”

  “I very much doubt that she is in a dungeon, lad. Your father is not a brute, is not likely to maltreat the mother of his children.”

  Raoul was not impressed by Louis’s reassurances, saw that neither were his young kinsmen. But none of Eleanor’s allies were going to rescue her. Most men, even those who’d been bedazzled by her beauty, did not approve of her. He’d long known that to be true. He suspected that Eleanor knew it, too. She’d never cared, though, what others thought. She’d never had to…until now.

  “I know this is not what you want to hear,” the Count of Champagne said quietly, and with enough sincere sympathy in his voice to still their protests. “I was sorely distressed to hear of her capture, for I know how it will grieve my wife. It is true she has not seen the queen since childhood, but she would never want to see her mother in such dire straits. Yet there truly is nothing we can do. We do not even know where she is being held. She could be at Loches, or have been moved to Chinon by now. She could even be on her way to England.”

  Louis did not appreciate the reminder that his daughter Marie was also Eleanor’s flesh and blood, or the suggestion that she might feel some emotional attachment to her mother, for he’d done his best to obliterate Eleanor’s memories from Marie and Alix’s lives. He’d been willing to marry Marguerite to Eleanor’s son if that would make her Queen of England one day, but that was statecraft. This was personal, and it hurt to learn that Marie was still under Eleanor’s infernal spell. He welcomed Count Henri’s support, though, and he said quickly: “The count speaks true. I would like nothing more than to ride to your mother’s rescue, would that it were possible. It is not.”

  Hal looked as if he’d been slapped in the face. ?
??I cannot accept that,” he cried, “I cannot!” And then he turned, as they all did, to stare at his brother, for Richard was stalking toward the door.

  He jerked it open, and then swung around when Louis called out his name sharply, demanding to know what he meant to do. “I mean,” he said, “to return to Poitiers and take command of the rebellion. There may be nothing you can do, my lord king,” and in his mouth, that respectful term of address sounded like the foulest of insults. “But I am going to win this war and free my mother.” And without waiting for the king’s response, much less his permission, he slammed out of the chamber.

  Hal had started to rise, then slumped back on the settle. Geoffrey kept silent, watching them all with alert blue-grey eyes that gave away nothing. Color was staining Louis’s cheeks, but he made an effort to conceal his anger. “Lord save us from the foolishness of the very young,” he said, with what he hoped was a wry, indulgent smile, and the other men began to murmur their agreement. All but Raoul, who decided it was time to burn his bridges.

  Getting to his feet without haste, he looked directly at the man once wed to his niece. “Manhood is not measured in years, my liege. Some reach it at an early age, whilst others…others never reach it at all.” And he turned then on his heel, followed after Richard without looking back.

  ELEANOR HAD PASSED only two days at Loches before being taken to Chinon. There she was lodged in an upper chamber of the Tour du Moulin instead of the royal apartments along the south wall. Her gaolers had apparently decided that she was to be denied luxuries but not comfort until they heard otherwise from the king. Soon after her arrival at Chinon, Maurice de Craon had ridden away, presumably to consult with Henry about her fate. She half expected her husband to return with the Angevin baron, and was relieved when he did not. But she was soon on the move again, riding northwest under heavy guard. She refused to ask Maurice any questions, just as she refused to complain about the rapid pace and long hours in the saddle. From Chinon to Angers, the next day on to Laval, then north to the great fortress of Domfront where she’d given birth to her daughter and namesake, Leonora, twelve years earlier.

  They were covering more than forty miles a day, which was a considerable distance for winter travel, and she suffered from blisters and saddle sores and cramped muscles, all of which she endured in stubborn silence. By now she thought she knew where they were heading: either to Falaise or to the port of Barfleur. The latter destination would mean that she was being taken to England, and if that were so, she could only cry aloud with Job, “Where is now my hope?” Falaise was preferable to England, but not by much. Chinon had been the repository of good memories, happier times, and it was less than forty miles from Poitiers. Falaise was deep in the heart of Normandy, a royal castle but also a royal prison, a fortress of war in a windswept, inhospitable land where she’d find few friends. Falaise, too, was not a place where hope could flourish.

  From Domfront they headed northeast, and by dusk, they were within sight of the towering twin keeps of the ancient stronghold of Falaise, looking as if it had been carved from the steep cliffs that overshadowed the marshes and ravines of the River Ante. As thankful as she was to have reached the end of her journey, Eleanor could not suppress a shiver as she gazed up at those grim, foreboding walls.

  AT FALAISE, she was once more treated with courtesy, not deference. She was being held in a small chamber in the keep, lit only by a single shuttered window, heated by a charcoal brazier. It was not suitable accommodations for the Queen of England, but she suspected it was preferable to the lodgings of the other royal prisoner, the hapless Earl of Chester. She was neither hungry nor cold. She was isolated, though, cut off from the normal rhythms and routines of castle life, her only contacts with the servants who brought her meals and tidied up her room. Never before had she been deprived of women attendants to assist her in dressing and to keep her company. She missed her dogs, missed her books, missed the music that had echoed throughout the halls of her Poitiers palace. She was left alone with her own thoughts, and they were not pleasant ones.

  At Loches and Chinon, she had retreated behind her court mask, showing her gaolers the queen, never the woman. Aloof and remote, she’d dared them to breach the invisible wall she’d erected around herself, clothed in pride as men rode off to war in chain mail. But at Falaise, she changed her tactics, for now that the shock of her seizure was wearing off, she realized that her self-imposed solitude was not serving her interests.

  In her youth, she’d been an accomplished flirt. Her mirror had not yet become her enemy, but she was no longer young. After studying her guards with care, she finally selected a lanky, gangling boy not much older than her sons. It had taken little effort to gain Perrin’s good will, required no more than a few smiles and the light, teasing tone that she used with Richard.

  Perrin was soon her unwitting accomplice and her conduit, sharing with her his news, gossip, and rumors. From Perrin, she learned that on the day of her capture, her husband had entered the city of Vendôme in triumph, having restored the count to power and vanquished his rebellious son. She learned that the Earl of Leicester and his rebel countess had been sent from England and were now sharing her confinement at Falaise. But Perrin could tell her nothing of what was happening in her own domains. What had that whoreson Porteclie told them? Did her Poitevins know that she had been seized by Harry’s men? Did they think she was dead? Or had she just vanished, her disappearance cloaked in mystery, her fate unknown?

  FIVE DAYS AFTER her arrival at Falaise, Eleanor awoke to find winter had laid claim to Normandy during the night. Opening the shutters, she stood at the window, gazing down upon the snow-coated roofs and steep, icy streets of the village. The air was cold, colder than in Poitiers, and the wind carried the damp chill of the sea, for they were less than thirty miles from the coast.

  She was still at the window when a deferential knock sounded and Perrin entered with a tray—bread, cheese, and wine to break her fast. She closed the shutters, smiling to see a small branch of holly beside her wine cup. The day before, the boy had brought a fragrant sprig of winter marjoram, doubtless stolen from the castle herb gardens. The holly was a dark shade of emerald, festooned with bright red berries, a vivid flash of color midst the drabness of her confinement. But her smile faded as she glanced over at Perrin, for he was visibly perturbed.

  “My lady…” He hesitated and then blurted out, “One of the sergeants told me that the king will be holding his Christmas Court at Caen.”

  “I see…” As their eyes met, they shared the same understanding. Caen was twenty miles north of Falaise. Her day of reckoning was coming sooner than she expected.

  AFTER PERRIN HAD DEPARTED, Eleanor went back to bed. Propping a pillow behind her, she shut her eyes and tried to think calmly, objectively. She truly did not know what to expect. Her husband had been remarkably lenient with rebels in the past, for he never seemed to take it personally. Because he saw their rebellions in political terms, his detachment allowed him to forgive his adversaries in the interest of the greater good, a stable, peaceful kingdom. The clemency he’d accorded the Breton lords was not unusual for him; unlike most men, he could be dispassionate about treachery. The only time he’d shown himself to be vengeful or vindictive was the one time that he’d seen the betrayal as personal—with Thomas Becket. Eleanor had rarely been so cold; she could feel goose bumps rising on her skin, even after she’d burrowed under the blankets. Few betrayals could be more personal than that of a wife and a queen.

  She did not think her life was in danger. It was true that one of Henry’s more notorious ancestors, the brutal Fulk Nerra, had burned his wife at the stake for the crime of adultery. That had occurred almost two hundred years ago, though, and the unfortunate woman had not been a ruler in her own right. As Henry’s wife, she was at his mercy. Errant or unwanted wives could be banished to nunneries, shut up in remote castles, meet untimely, convenient deaths, and few would protest. But the Duchess of Aquitaine could not just dis
appear. Her vassals, her lords and barons would demand answers. So would her sons.

  Logic told her that the worst she had to fear was imprisonment, and judging by the conditions at Falaise, it would not be a harsh confinement. When Maurice de Craon had returned to Chinon and escorted her to Falaise, he was obviously acting under Henry’s orders. If he’d wanted her cast into a dungeon, it would have been done already.

  Logic also told her that she need not fear the violence that so many women must suffer in silence. Theirs was a world in which both Church and society sanctioned a husband’s right to discipline his wayward wife. A woman who is not under the headship of the husband violates the condition of nature, the mandate of the Apostle, and the law of Scripture. The Archbishop of Rouen’s bitter rebuke had been a blunt summary of a woman’s subordinate role in the eyes of the Almighty. And she was wed to a king, a man known for his fiery temper. But in more than twenty years of marriage, he had never raised his hand to her.

  She’d long ago concluded that she owed Henry’s forbearance to his family history. His parents’ marriage had been as turbulent as it was wretched. It had been doomed from the first, for Maude was twenty-five, the beautiful and imperious widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Geoffrey was fifteen, a spirited, spoiled youth used to getting his own way. She had not wanted the marriage, but her father had given her no choice. After being an empress, Maude felt it was demeaning to be a mere countess, and she was outraged to find herself yoked to a headstrong boy. Geoffrey was accustomed to females who were compliant and adoring, for he was wealthy, highborn, and so handsome that he was called Geoffrey le Bel. He was not prepared for a wife who was worldly, alluring, and disdainful, and he’d soon begun lashing out with his fists. When he decided that he’d had enough and sent her home to her father, she’d found no sympathy at the English court. The old English king cared nothing for her bruises and humiliation, blamed her for her marital woes, and persuaded Geoffrey to take her back. They’d eventually reached a tenuous truce, but Henry’s earliest memories were of turmoil and discord, and those memories had left their mark.