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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 32


  At Falaise, she’d asked the Almighty to let her sons win this war, knowing that nothing less would gain her release. But as summer bloomed and her hopes withered, she’d begun to offer up a more desperate prayer, beseeching God to end her confinement any way He chose, for she’d also begun to fear that in such utter despair lay madness.

  JULY DAWNED WITH STORMS AND HIGH WINDS. Eleanor closed the shutters against the rain and spent much of her time trying to sleep, the only means of escape available to her. And so she was in bed on a wet, dreary afternoon when she heard footsteps out in the stairwell. It was pride rather than curiosity that induced her to sit up and straighten her clothing, for she did not expect this to be a visitor she wanted to see. It had been more than a fortnight since Perrin had waited upon her. A fellow guard had complained that he was unduly friendly with the royal prisoner, and duties had been found for him elsewhere. Losing her only link to the outside world was the final straw, and soon afterward she’d spiraled down into a deep depression.

  She’d gotten to her feet by the time a brusque knock sounded and the door was pushed open to admit Maurice de Craon. She greeted him coolly, hoping she’d managed to conceal her unease; she very much doubted that his arrival heralded good news.

  “Madame,” he said formally. “As a courtesy, I am informing you that you should make ready to depart on the morrow. We will be leaving at first light.”

  Eleanor abandoned her attempt at studied indifference. “Where,” she said sharply, “will we be going?”

  The Angevin baron regarded her in silence for a long moment, his dark eyes alight with grim satisfaction. “Barfleur,” he said, “where you will be taking ship for England.”

  ELEANOR WAS SURPRISED to find that she’d have company on her journey to Barfleur: her fellow prisoners, the Earl and Countess of Leicester and Hugh of Chester. They were just as startled to see her, apparently unaware that she was sharing their confinement, and she spared a grateful thought for her chatty young source, Perrin. Of the three, imprisonment seemed to have left the lightest mark upon Peronelle, which made sense, for she’d known that as a woman, she’d have the best chance of regaining her freedom. Her husband appeared to have aged, to have lost some of his bluster. But the one most affected by captivity was the Earl of Chester. Hugh was thin and pallid. Always high-strung, he looked almost haunted now, and Eleanor glanced away, hearing Maud’s accusing words echoing on the wind: It is not enough you’ve poisoned your own well. No, you must poison mine, too!

  It took nearly three days to reach Barfleur, for the downpour continued and the roads were deep in mud. Barfleur was the primary port for Channel crossings and the largest town on that rock-hewn peninsula. But the royal castle was a few miles to the south, and it was there that Eleanor expected to pass her last night on French soil. She was to get a shock, though, as the castle walls came into sight, for a familiar red and gold banner flew from the keep—signaling that the King of England was in residence.

  Eleanor’s tired body tensed; it had never occurred to her that she’d be sailing back to England with Henry. The other prisoners had seen the royal standard, too, much to their dismay. They exchanged nervous looks as they were escorted into the bailey, for they were no more eager than Eleanor to confront the king. Despite the chill dampness of the dusk, sweat mingled with rain drops upon the Earl of Leicester’s ruddy face as he remembered his last meeting with Henry, remembered with appalling clarity that he’d drawn his sword upon his sovereign. The nasty weather notwithstanding, the bailey was crowded with spectators, nudging and jostling one another as they sought to get a good look at the new arrivals.

  Eleanor knew she was the true attraction. They were there to gape at the captive queen. Well, if they wanted a show, by God she’d given them one. “My lord de Craon,” she said imperiously, waving aside a groom and waiting for the baron himself to assist her in dismounting. He did, with poor grace, scowling as she took time to adjust the hood of her mantle and straighten the cuffs of her gloves. He gestured toward a corner tower, but just then the door to the great hall burst open and Joanna came flying out. Heedless of the rain and mud, she splashed across the bailey to fling herself into Eleanor’s arms.

  Eleanor’s hood fell back, and she was soon as wet as her daughter, but she did not care, and they clung together in a wordless embrace that ended only when she glanced up and saw her husband standing in the doorway of the hall. Hugh and Leicester at once dropped submissively to their knees, but Henry never took his eyes from his wife, and she shivered, for if looks were lethal, she’d have died then and there in the bailey of Barfleur Castle.

  ELEANOR WAS ESCORTED to a small bedchamber on the upper story of the keep. Her reunion with Joanna had been a brief one, cut short when Henry sent someone out to retrieve the girl, using the bad weather as a pretext. Eleanor had assured her daughter that they’d meet again, although she did not know if that were true or not. It seemed the ultimate irony to her that she could lose her children twice in one lifetime, and while she damned both Louis and Henry, she cursed, too, a society in which fathers were given so much power and mothers so little.

  After realizing that she’d not heard a key turning in the lock, she dared to open the door, only to discover an armed guard. He saluted her politely, as if he were posted there for her protection, and she puzzled him by laughing shrilly. She forced herself to eat some of the meal brought by a silent servant, but she kept listening for the sounds of footsteps in the stairwell. When she finally heard a murmur of voices, she watched the door open, with mingled hope and dread, not knowing if it would be her daughter or her enraged husband.

  “It’s me, Maman!” Joanna’s pronouncement was superfluous, her smile joyful. Eleanor had just gathered the girl into her arms when she added happily, “I brought you another visitor!” And to Eleanor’s amazement, her daughter-in-law stepped, smiling, into the room.

  THAT WAS THE BEST evening Eleanor had known in months. The girls were as delighted to see her as she was to see them, eager to share their news, to tell her of the fall of Poitiers and Marguerite’s ill-fated visit, the capture of Saintes, and the return of the Count of Flanders to the rebel coalition. They’d been living in Rouen, they explained, until they were urgently summoned to Barfleur by Henry, and they would all be going with him to England as soon as the weather cleared. And as she listened, Eleanor felt hope beginning to spark midst the ashes of a dead fire. This sudden change of plans could only mean that the war was going badly for Henry in England.

  JOANNA AND MARGUERITE had kept their visit short, understanding that they’d lose the privilege if they abused it, promising to return upon the morrow. Joanna had seemed surprised when asked how they’d managed to get permission, saying airily that “I asked Papa,” as if his consent had never been in doubt. Eleanor knew better, and grudgingly gave Henry credit where due; he could easily have kept Joanna away, just as Louis had done with their daughters. But once he’d agreed, it would not be that easy to change his mind, which meant that she’d be able to see Joanna and Marguerite again. There would be opportunities, for it was not uncommon to wait days, even weeks, for a favorable wind.

  They’d been stranded in Barfleur for almost a month as they’d waited to cross the Channel for Henry’s coronation, finally sailing in heavy seas when his patience ran out. That was not a memory to give Eleanor comfort; it was painful to remember the jubilant woman she’d been on that November eve twenty years ago, willing to depart in a gale because she was so sure that God was on their side, so confident that she and Henry were masters of their own fate, destined to rule over the greatest court in Christendom and not to drown like those poor doomed souls on the White Ship.

  The next day was even more rain-sodden and windy, and Eleanor’s faith was rewarded in mid-afternoon when Joanna and Marguerite were ushered into her chamber. Joanna brought wilted flowers from the castle gardens and Marguerite, with surprising practicality, had herb packets: agrimony for fever, pennyroyal for cramps, and chamomile for
headaches. Adding shyly that chamomile was also said to be useful for melancholy. She had apologies to offer, too. Alys had wanted to come, she explained, but she had lost her nerve at the last moment.

  “She said she did not know what to say to you. I told her that did not matter, but she still balked, saying she’d come next time.”

  “You cannot blame the lass,” Eleanor said dryly. “Her lessons in manners never included one on captive queens.” Glancing over at Joanna, she said, “What of John? Did your father forbid him to come?”

  Joanna looked uncomfortable. “No…Johnny would not come with us. He said Papa would not be happy with him if he visited you.”

  Eleanor looked away, saying nothing. She had no qualms about her older sons, feeling that they’d been old enough to make up their own minds. Her conscience was not so clear when it came to her youngest two. She’d hoped that she’d be able to keep John and Joanna out of the fray, and it was only after her capture that she’d admitted what a frail reed that hope was. She was sorry that John had felt the need to choose between them, but it stung that he’d chosen his father, for Henry had spent even less time with the boy than she had.

  Joanna picked up a wafer uneaten from Eleanor’s dinner, and when Eleanor nodded, she crammed half of it into her mouth. “I have a surprise for you, Maman,” she announced. “I am going to fetch it now, will be back soon.” And before Eleanor could object, she’d darted out the door.

  Past experience had taught Eleanor that Joanna’s “surprises” ought to be approached with caution. But she welcomed this opportunity to speak alone with Marguerite. Neither of them felt comfortable speaking too candidly in front of Joanna, whose loyalties were already bruised and bleeding. As soon as the door closed, Eleanor leaned forward and touched her daughter-in-law’s hand in a gesture of encouragement. “How did you and Joanna win Harry over? I truly would not have expected him to let Joanna see me.”

  “I could see that he was not happy about it,” Marguerite confided. “Once he decided he must return to England, he dared not leave any of us behind. I suppose he hoped that Joanna would not find out you were sailing with us, that she’d hear no one gossiping about your presence at Barfleur. Of course someone told her,” she said, sounding so slyly satisfied that Eleanor realized she’d been that “someone,” and she gave her daughter-in-law a look of startled approval; until now she’d seen only the sweet side of Marguerite’s nature, had not known the girl had spirit, too.

  “Once she was alerted, she kept vigil for you,” Marguerite continued. “And when she looked up at her father with pleading eyes and quivering lips, he could not bring himself to deny him. But…but he agreed only for Joanna’s sake.”

  “And not mine,” Eleanor said flatly, bitter that Henry could declare forfeit all her rights as a mother. “What of you, lass? Has Harry been kind to you?”

  “Oh, yes,” Marguerite said without hesitation. “He was not long in Poitiers, though, as he sent us on to Rouen whilst he chased Richard out of Saintes. We did not see him again until he summoned us to Barfleur in such haste.”

  “The threat to England must be dire if he thinks he needs to take command himself. I would love to know what happened to force his hand.”

  “I think I do know,” Marguerite said surprisingly. “Hal and the Count of Flanders are at Gravelines, waiting for favorable weather so they can invade England.”

  Eleanor felt a surge of excitement, for she had far more confidence in Philip of Flanders’s military skills than she did in Louis’s. If they could gain a decisive victory, her chances of being freed would improve dramatically. She well knew Louis and Philip would not bestir themselves much on her behalf, but Richard and Hal would never abandon her, and an English triumph would give them the leverage they needed. “There is a question I would ask you ere Joanna returns. Does Rosamund Clifford sail with us?”

  Marguerite was flattered that her mother-in-law would speak to her like this, woman to woman. “No,” she said emphatically, “I think not. He has been very open about their liaison since last summer, so I do not think he’d have her hidden away here.” Shaking her head indignantly, she said, “I think it is shameful that men cannot be faithful to their wives. But if they must sin, they ought to have the decency to do it in secret.”

  Eleanor was taken aback, for she’d not realized that Marguerite thought she’d rebelled because of Rosamund Clifford. She wondered suddenly if her sons were equally ill-informed. She felt confident that Richard knew better, for he understood her love for Aquitaine if anyone did. But what of Hal and Geoffrey? “Marguerite, why does Hal think I joined the rebellion?”

  “He knows you did it for him, for his kingship. He has often said how lucky he is to have a mother who would sacrifice so much for his sake.” Marguerite did not doubt, though, that Eleanor’s jealousy of Henry’s leman had played a part, too, and she searched now for words of comfort, saying haltingly, “I’ve spoken to people who’ve seen the Clifford wench, and they say she is not even that pretty. For certes, not as beautiful as you, my lady mother.”

  Eleanor was both touched and vexed by the girl’s attempt to offer balm to a grieving wife. She opened her mouth to assure Marguerite that it was only her pride that had been wounded, not her heart. But it was then that the door opened and Joanna rushed in again.

  Her cheeks were bright with wind-whipped color, her mantle splattered with mud. She was clutching a woven basket to her chest, looking so pleased with herself that Eleanor suspected she’d been up to mischief of some sort. “I have a present for you, Maman,” she said, and carried the basket across the chamber to deposit it beside Eleanor on the bed. It was covered with a white cloth that looked like a napkin, and Eleanor reached out, expecting fruit or cheese. To her surprise, she found herself looking at a tiny kitten.

  “One of the stable cats had a litter, but then she disappeared.” Joanna leaned over, tickling the kitten under its chin. “This is the only one who survived. I heard a groom saying he was going to drown her because she was too young to fend for herself and would likely starve. So I had a wonderful idea—to give you the kitten, Maman.”

  Eleanor looked dubiously at the kitten, which fit easily into the palm of her hand. It was a pretty little creature, dove-grey with gold eyes, but she’d never had a cat as a pet before. “I do not know, Joanna,” she said. “I doubt your father will agree.”

  Joanna smiled. “He will,” she predicted confidently. “You’ll see.”

  HENRY HAD JUST RETURNED from a trip to the harbor, where he’d had another frustrating talk with the ship’s captain, who dolefully concluded that the weather was still too foul to risk sailing. Henry knew the man was right, but his nerves were shredding under the strain. Common sense told him that if he could not sail, neither could Hal or Philip. But he was heeding other voices than logic these days.

  A fire had been lit in the hearth, for the relentless rain was making a mockery of the summer calendar. After he’d changed into a dry tunic and chausses, Henry tried to distract himself by playing a game of chess with Willem, but he soon abandoned the effort, unable to keep his thoughts away from the darker corners of his mind. Willem and Ranulf were watching him pace back and forth in sympathetic silence when one of his squires hastened over to answer a knock on the door. He at once opened it wide, for only two people had unrestricted access to the king at Barfleur: his son and daughter.

  Joanna was clad in a silk dress that seemed inappropriate for everyday use, and her hair was neatly brushed for once, hanging down her back in two reddish-blond braids. She looked very appealing, but very solemn, and after greeting the men politely, she asked Henry if she could speak with him about a “serious matter.”

  “Of course, lass,” he said, guiding her toward the settle. “What do you want to buy now? Did you find another carved horse or spinning top in the marketplace?”

  “This is more important than playthings, Papa. Did you know that Maman does not have a lady to attend to her? At first I thought she??
?d been left behind at Falaise. But then I learned that she’d not had a handmaiden at all!”

  Sounding shocked, Joanna looked earnestly into her father’s face. “We have to do something about this, Papa. Men do not understand how much a lady needs help with dressing. Long hair like Maman’s is not easy to brush or wash or braid. It is hard, too, to lace up a gown in the back. I was going to ask you if I could go to stay with Maman once we get to England so I could be of help.”

  Henry stiffened, but Joanna did not seem to notice and continued on guilelessly. “But after I thought about it, I knew you’d not want me to do that, not whilst you and Maman are still quarreling. So we need to get Maman a handmaiden, Papa. Will you see to it? I know you are too busy now, but mayhap later, when you have more time?”

  She was regarding Henry so trustingly that he felt a rush of emotion, love for this innocent child of his flesh warring with his need to punish her treacherous mother. “Yes, Joanna,” he said at last. “I will see that it is done.”

  “Thank you, Papa, thank you!” She threw herself into his arms, hugging him gratefully. “I will not worry about Maman so much if she is not alone.”

  As she embraced her father, her face was not visible to him. But it was to Willem, and he caught her triumphant grin. Why, the little vixen, he thought, and when their eyes met, he gave her a mock scowl that caused her to look at him in dismay. He winked, then, and Joanna relaxed, giggled, and winked back.