Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 30

  So she should feel confident about facing him. Why, then, did she feel such unease? Because this was uncharted territory. When had a king ever been defied by his own queen? Who could predict what he would do? It was possible he did not even know that himself. Eleanor nestled deeper in the bed, vowing to stop torturing herself with conjecture and supposition that served for naught. She’d know soon enough. Despite her determination, though, she could not sleep.

  TWO DAYS LATER, Perrin alerted her that a rider had been sent ahead to prepare for the king’s arrival. The next day, though, he was absent from his duties. Another man brought her meals, and served her with a swagger, a jarring familiarity she’d not encountered before. After years of dealing with prideful Poitevin barons, she had no difficulty in putting him in his place, and he gave her no further cause for complaint. But when he delivered her dinner that afternoon, he watched her from the corner of his eye with a smug smile, and she knew then that her husband was expected at any time.

  For the rest of the day she did nothing but pace and keep vigil at the window. Darkness fell, but she continued to watch, and not long after the village churches rang for Compline, she saw the flare of torches in the distance. She left the shutters open just enough to give her a view of the bailey without being seen herself, and watched as the castle was caught up in the inevitable chaos and excitement that heralded the king’s coming. Henry was astride one of his favorite stallions, a big-boned grey with silver mane and tail. Riding at his side were William de Mandeville and his brother Hamelin. But Eleanor’s attention was riveted upon the slender figure of a woman, clad in a fur-lined mantle of fine scarlet. She’d known that Harry had been living openly with Rosamund Clifford since he’d been told of her part in the rebellion, but it had not occurred to her that he’d flaunt his concubine at his Christmas Court. Stepping away from the window, she closed the shutters upon her husband and his harlot.

  ELEANOR BOLTED UPRIGHT in the bed, her breath coming in ragged gulps, her pulse racing. The dream had been terrifying. She’d heard muffled screaming, and when she opened the window, she saw flames engulfing the buildings in the bailey. She’d pounded on the door and shouted till she was hoarse, but no one came to let her out. She’d been forgotten.

  The dream still seemed so vivid, so real that she shuddered. But that was all it was, a bad dream. Memory came back in a rush, the long hours waiting for her husband, waiting in vain. She’d not settled herself in bed until after midnight, and she’d stayed fully dressed, but eventually she’d fallen asleep. Throwing back the blankets, she went to the window, was startled to see that the night was gone.

  A loud rapping spun her toward the door, but almost at once she realized that Henry was not likely to knock for admittance. “Enter,” she said, and felt a throb of disappointment at sight of the guard, for it was the same churl from the preceding day. Where was Perrin? He kept his gaze down as he placed her tray on the table, but he smirked when he saw that last night’s meal had gone virtually untouched. Eleanor ignored him, and as he picked up the second tray, she reached for the wine cup, took several deep swallows. Her back was now to the door, and so she did not see Henry come into the room as the servant departed. When she finally turned and found him standing in the doorway, she gasped and her hand jerked, wine splashing onto the sleeve of her gown.

  Henry closed the door and leaned back against it. “Your nerves are on the raw this morn.”

  So that was how he wanted to play it. Eleanor raised the cup in a mock salute. “I’d offer you some wine but the castellan has given me only one cup. He does not seem to think I’ll be doing much entertaining.”

  He was still leaning against the door, his pose deceptively casual, for he seemed as taut to her as a drawn bowstring. “You are looking wan and careworn these days.”

  “So are you,” she shot back, and it was true; his eyes were hollowed and bloodshot. She’d assumed that he’d delayed their meeting to torment her, but now she wondered if he could have been as loath as she to have this confrontation. Setting the cup down, she said, “I am glad you are here. We need to talk.”

  “I daresay we do,” he said laconically. But she noticed that he was clenching and unclenching one of his fists at his side, evidence that his nerves were on the raw, too.

  “Sir Nicholas de Chauvigny and two of my knights are being held at Loches by your provost. I would hope that as a matter of fairness, you will order their release. They have done nothing to deserve such harsh treatment.”

  “Nothing at all, aside from treason and rebellion.”

  “They are loyal to me, Harry. How can you blame them for that?”

  “And you know so much about loyalty.” And without warning, the ice cracked, giving her a disquieting glimpse of the profound rage just beneath his surface composure. When he moved, it was so fast that she took an involuntary step backward.

  “I’d always heard that women could become fickle and flighty once they’re too old to breed, but I never truly believed it—until now.”

  Although she tried to hide it, she knew he could see that his words had wounded. They were the most dangerous of adversaries, intimate enemies who knew each other’s vulnerabilities, knew how to draw the most blood. She said nothing, though, watching him warily as he strode toward her.

  “Did you truly hate Rosamund as much as that? Enough to tear our family apart because I strayed?”

  “You think this was because of Rosamund Clifford?” She shook her head incredulously and then startled him by laughing. “You are good in bed, Harry, but not that good!”

  The expression on his face was one of disbelief. “What grievance could you possibly have other than Rosamund?”

  “Aquitaine! Richard and Aquitaine!”

  “For the love of Christ, Eleanor! I’ve heard enough of that foolish babbling from our sons, do not need to hear more of it now from you!”

  “You may have heard, but you did not listen. You never do. Dear God, Harry, you think you’re an easy man to live with? You suck all the air out of a chamber, leave none for the rest of us to breathe!”

  He’d begun to move and she moved with him, holding her ground, so that they seemed to be engaged in an odd, deadly dance. “So you rebelled because I was not a good listener?” he jeered. “My sons are too young to know better, but there is no excuse for your betrayal. You were one of the very few people on God’s Earth whom I truly trusted! Raimon St Gilles came to me at Limoges, warned that you were intriguing against me, and I would not believe him. I was furious that he dared to accuse you of such base treachery—more fool I!” He drew an uneven, audible breath. “But if I was a fool, what does that make you, my lady duchess? It makes you my prisoner, for as long as I choose to hold you. And all for what?”

  “Yes, I have lost,” she said, raising her chin and meeting his eyes without flinching. “But so have you. You just do not know it yet.”

  “Indeed? And who is going to defeat me? That quivering mound of valor, Louis Capet? Our disgruntled fledglings?”

  “You may prevail on the field. You probably will. But it matters for naught. You can win battles, not the war. You’ve already lost what you value almost as much as your kingdom. You’ve lost your sons.”

  A muscle twitched in his cheek, and his lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl. “That may be so, but you’ll not be able to enjoy it. Whatever happens with my sons, you’ll get no more chances to poison their minds against me. I will never forgive you,” he spat, “never. You could beg for your freedom on your knees for all the good it will do you!”

  “I’d rather die!”

  “That could be arranged.”

  “Yes, I suppose it could. You need only return to the great hall, throw one of your celebrated fits of temper, and demand to know why your lords and barons let you be mocked and defied by your troublesome wife. Ah, wait…you did that already with Thomas Becket. And it did not work out so well for you, did it?”

  It may have been a trick of the light, or his p
upils may have dilated, but suddenly his eyes looked black to her, and she feared she’d pushed him too far. He grabbed her wrist in an iron grip, and she felt a jolt of purely physical fear. She’d known that she was subject to his power, but this was different, this chilling realization that she could not hope to match his strength, that he could do whatever he wanted with her in this chamber and she’d not be able to stop him.

  He was forcing her toward the window, ignoring her struggles to break free. Holding her with one hand, with the other he jerked the shutters open. Pain was shooting up her arm. Their faces were so close now that they both could feel the other’s hot breath on their skin. There had been this passion between them from their very first meeting. In the past it had always ended in bed, but she wondered now if it would end in the grave. Determined not to let him see her fear, she managed a taunting smile. “What are you going to do, Harry? Push me out the window?”

  “Do not tempt me,” he said through gritted teeth. Pulling her even closer, he said, “Look out at the sky. Look upon the sun, for as God is my witness, you’ll not be seeing it again.”

  She was still trying to free herself, and when he suddenly released her, she reeled backward, would have fallen if she hadn’t grabbed the table for support. By the time she’d regained her balance, he’d gone. Feeling as if her knees would no longer support her, she sank down upon her coffer. Her mouth was so dry that she could not swallow, but her hands were trembling too much to pour any wine. Jesus God, how had they ever gotten to this day?

  HENRY PLUNGED INTO the stairwell so rapidly that he tripped and almost tumbled down the steps headfirst. Slumping against the wall, he sought to catch his breath, his chest heaving. His fabled temper was much more calculated than most people realized, one more weapon in a king’s arsenal. But what had just happened in Eleanor’s chamber was different. He’d come so close to losing control that it frightened him, for he’d always prided himself on being in command, scorning those men who could not master their own passions. A king at the mercy of his emotions did not deserve to be one.

  He’d not been prepared for this, neither his own blind fury nor her defiance. Just as he’d expected his sons to accept his olive branch at Gisors, he’d expected Eleanor to seek his forgiveness, for what defense could she offer? His breathing had steadied, yet his sense of unreality remained. How had his life gone so dreadfully wrong? What sins had he committed that his own family would turn upon him like this? He slammed his fist suddenly into the wall above his head, again and again, stopping only when he saw a smear of blood on the stones. He felt no pain, but he brought his injured hand to his mouth, sucked the blood from his scraped knuckles. And then he straightened his shoulders, adjusted his mantle, and, raising his head high, emerged out into the pale winter sunlight of the bailey.


  May 1174

  Poitiers, Poitou

  WARS WERE NOT usually fought during the winter months, but on January 1, Hal and the Counts of Blois, Perche, and Alençon struck deep into Normandy, launching a surprise assault upon the town of Sées. If Sées had been captured, Falaise would have been at risk and Henry’s road south into Anjou would have been blocked. But the citizens of Sées fought back fiercely and repulsed the attack. Louis then negotiated a truce with Henry to last until the end of March and a similar truce was struck in England with the Scots king. Both sides set about preparing for the resumption of hostilities in the spring.

  AFTER EASTER THE SCOTS KING crossed the border and laid waste to Northumberland. The Pope sent two legates to Paris, hoping that they could persuade the French king to reconcile Henry and his sons, but they had no luck. The Count of Flanders showed interest in rejoining the rebel alliance. And on April 30, Henry left Normandy for the city of his birth, Le Mans. From there he headed into Anjou and then into the lands of his captive queen. He met little opposition and on Whitsunday Eve, he was admitted without resistance into Eleanor’s capital city of Poitiers.

  TORCHES FLARED in the night, casting wavering shadows as the English king and his men dismounted in the bailey. Eleanor’s steward hastened down the steps of the great hall to bid them welcome. “Sir Hervé,” Henry said brusquely, cutting off the man’s obsequious greeting. The steward had been secretly in his pay since the previous summer, one of several Poitevin lords who’d put self-interest before fidelity to their duchess, and while he made use of them all, Henry had no respect for a man whose loyalty was for sale to the highest bidder.

  Not taking the hint, the steward continued to fawn and flatter, so unctuously that Henry was hard put to maintain even a semblance of civility. Seeing the royal temper beginning to kindle, the Earl of Essex intervened, declaring that the king was eager to see his daughter, and when Sir Hervé assured them that Joanna was waiting within the great hall, Henry pushed past the man and took the steps two at a time. The steward hurried after him, saying something about “a surprise guest,” but Henry was no longer listening. His half sister Emma was standing in the doorway, with a smile so like his eldest son’s that he felt a pang. And then he came to a startled halt, gazing over Emma’s shoulder into the hall.

  “Marguerite?” As he strode forward, the girl hastily made a deep, submissive curtsy, but he quickly raised her up. “What are you doing here, lass?”

  “I…I came to take my sister and Constance back with me to Paris,” she said, almost inaudibly.

  Noting her pallor and the tears brimming behind her lashes, he smiled quizzically. “You do know that I am not going to cast you into a dungeon?”

  “Yes,” she whispered, “I know. But I also know that you will not let me go.”

  “No,” he admitted, “I cannot do that—not until Hal and I have made our peace.” She asked when that would be, but since he had no answer for her, he preferred to pretend he hadn’t heard the question. His younger sons’ future wives were standing nearby and he moved to greet them. Neither Alys nor Constance shared Marguerite’s misery. The former knew that she had nothing to fear from him and the latter was indifferent to this sudden change in her circumstances, for she considered herself to be a hostage whether she dwelled in Eleanor’s duchy or Henry’s domains.

  John’s plight-trothed, little Alice of Maurienne, was sitting on the steps of the dais, clutching her favorite felt puppet. As she yawned, blinking sleepily up at him, Henry instructed her nurse to put her to bed, and then glanced around the hall. “Where is Joanna?”

  Emma had followed him inside. “Over there,” she said, “in the window-seat.”

  The hall was so deep in shadows that Henry had not noticed his daughter. Smiling, he started toward her, holding out his arms. But he stopped abruptly when Joanna drew back at his approach, staring at her in disbelief. “Surely you are not afraid of me, child?”

  That stung her pride. “Afraid? No! But I am not happy with you, Papa.”

  Henry could only marvel at the damage wrought by the snake in his Eden. “What in God’s Name did your mother tell you?”

  “That you are angry with her, but it has naught to do with me. That you love me as she does. That I do not have to choose between you.”

  The words themselves were not objectionable. They were, in fact, so fair and impartial that Henry could find no fault with them, and that vexed him all the more. Joanna had always held a special place in his heart, for he’d imagined that she was much like Eleanor had been as a child. Now, as troubled as he was by her recalcitrance, he could not help admiring her spirit. Moving forward, he sat down beside her in the window-seat.

  “Why are you ‘not happy’ with me, Joanna?”

  Joanna gave him the look that children bestow upon adults who are being deliberately obtuse. “You are holding Maman as a prisoner!”

  “Yes, I am. But she gave me no choice, lass. She plotted with my enemies against me. You do know that?”

  “Yesss,” she said, drawing the word out reluctantly. “But I heard…I was told that you are not treating her kindly.”

I daresay you were,” he said grimly, raking the hall with accusing eyes. None of Eleanor’s retainers met that ice-grey gaze, doing their best to become invisible, or at least inconspicuous. “They were lying to you, Joanna. Your mother is being treated as a highborn hostage, not a rebel. She is being held in a comfortable bedchamber, not a dungeon. You have my sworn word on that.”

  She stared down into her lap, twisting her fingers together. He saw that she’d begun biting her nails again, a habit he thought she’d outgrown. “Where is Maman?” she asked at last. This was a question being asked throughout most of Christendom, and he heard the murmur that swept the hall, knew that every ear was turned their way.

  “I will tell you,” he said, “but only you.” And leaning over, he whispered in her ear.

  Joanna looked intently into his face. “Maman has never liked it there,” she said, but she was honored that he should entrust her with so great a secret. “May I see her?”

  Not in this lifetime or the next, Henry vowed silently. But those sea-green eyes were watching him so hopefully that he could not bring himself to hurt her with the truth. “Yes,” he said, “once the war is over,” and that seemed to satisfy her, for when he put his arm around her shoulders, she did not pull away.

  “What now, Papa? Do you want me to stay here?”

  “No, lass, I do not,” he said, thinking that he’d sooner see her thrust into a snake pit. “You and the other girls will be going to live in Rouen for now. I was thinking of having Johnny leave Fontevrault and join you there. Would you like that?” Sweeping up the fragments of his broken family, he thought bitterly, but Joanna looked pleased.