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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 33


  “I will not keep you, Papa,” she said dutifully. “I know you have much to do these days. May I tell Johnny that you will be in to bid him good night?” When he nodded, she smiled and slid off his lap, heading for the door. There she paused, as if having an afterthought. “I almost forgot to tell you about the kitten, Papa. She was going to be drowned by one of the stable grooms, but I stopped him. I know cats are not often kept as pets, but I did not want the kitten to die. So I gave her to Maman.” And with a farewell wave, she slipped out the door.

  Henry glanced up to find both Ranulf and Willem watching him, and raised a hand in warning. “Do not say a word, either of you. I know very well that we have just performed a puppet show, with me playing the role of puppet.”

  “And a fine puppet show it was, too,” Ranulf said, with as much cheer as he could muster. “If the Almighty had meant us to be able to resist the coaxing of our daughters, He’d not have made them so irresistible…now would He?”

  Willem laughed and Henry smiled. But it seemed to Ranulf that he could see a glimmer of tears behind his nephew’s lashes, and he felt a sorrowful rage that Harry was being hurt so badly by his heedless, selfish sons and his false, coldhearted queen.

  ELEANOR WAS HAVING the most restful nights she’d had in months, lulled to sleep by the reassuring rhythms of the storm, each blast of wind and torrent of rain giving promise of yet another day with her daughter. She was not prepared, therefore, when she was awakened at dawn on the Monday after her arrival by an apologetic guard, who told her that she must make ready to depart as the king was sailing that morn.

  ELEANOR COULD SEE NOTHING but chaos. The bailey was crowded with men and horses. Servants were dragging large coffers toward the carts, routiers carrying food from the great hall to eat on the run, dogs barking madly and getting underfoot. Whips cracked the air as horses struggled to move carts mired in mud. A stallion reared suddenly, unseating his rider and nearly trampling those who tried to grab the dangling reins. Men were cursing and shoving, shouting commands that went unheeded. A priest was berating a castle page, while a woman shrieked as her mule shied away when she was being assisted into the saddle. The Earls of Leicester and Chester were being prodded toward their waiting mounts, while Peronelle lagged behind, complaining loudly to anyone within earshot. Trying to shelter herself from the rain with the hood of her mantle, Eleanor halted on the steps of the great hall, looking about frantically. But she could not find Joanna, John, or Marguerite. Nor was there any sign of Henry.

  When her guard nervously urged her on, she turned on him in fury. “I told you I am not going anywhere until I speak with the king. See to it, damn you, see to it!”

  “Madame, I…I cannot do that!” he stammered. “Our orders were to escort you to the harbor!” Much to his relief, then, he spotted Barfleur’s castellan and let out a yell, pushing his way toward the man. Momentarily abandoned, Eleanor resumed her search for Henry or her children, to no avail. And when her guard returned with the castellan, that harried individual refused to listen to her protests.

  “You may want to see the king, Madame,” he snapped, “but I very much doubt that he wants to see you!” Ordering the guard to follow his orders, he moved on. The guard and Eleanor looked at each other in mutual frustration. Clearing his throat, he was imploring her not to get him into trouble when she finally caught sight of a familiar figure.

  “Tell Lord Ranulf I want to speak with him,” she directed the unhappy guard. “Now, man, now!” As she watched tensely, he did as she bade, hurrying over to intercept Ranulf. Henry’s uncle had an easily read face, his dismay and reluctance all too evident. She’d expected as much; if Henry’s officials found it awkward to deal with her, how much more uncomfortable it must be for his kinsmen. But she was relying upon Ranulf’s innate good manners, and she was not disappointed. Holding his mantle tightly against the gusting wind, he strode toward her, the guard following closely on his heels.

  “Ranulf, thank God you’re here! You can get through to Harry if any man can. You must convince him that it is too dangerous to sail in this storm.”

  “I cannot do that.”

  She stared at him in disbelief. “You want to die? I cannot believe you’ve forgotten the fate of the White Ship!”

  “Of course I have not forgotten,” he said testily. “But I have already talked to Harry and I could not get him to change his mind. The winds have shifted, are coming now from the west, and he is determined to sail ere they shift again.”

  “This is madness,” she said, “utter madness. Let Harry go to the Devil and drown for all I care! But I’ll not have him risk my children’s lives!”

  “I doubt that you are in a position to do anything about it,” he said, so coldly that she was suddenly reminded that he was a king’s son, and the blood of the autocratic William the Bastard flowed in his veins as it did in Henry’s.

  Abruptly changing her tactics, she laid her hand on his arm and said in a calmer voice, “I know you are loyal to Harry. I know, too, that you are angry with me. But you are a fair man, Ranulf, and a sensible one. Surely you do not want to sail in such vile weather. Speak to Harry again. Not for me. Do it for Joanna and John and Rhiannon, who does not want to become a widow this day.”

  Ranulf looked at her for a moment, wanting to turn away but unable to do so. Whatever her other crimes, she was still a mother. Seeing him hesitate, she said, “Harry will listen to you. I know he will.”

  Making up his mind, then, he grasped her arm and steered her back toward the steps. They were like a small island in a sea of bodies, as people surged past them on all sides, not even glancing their way. “I have already tried to convince Harry to wait. So have Willem and the ship’s master. He told us that if his safe arrival in England will bring peace to his realm, the Almighty will guide him safely into port. But if God has turned away His Face and His Favor, may he never reach the shore.”

  Eleanor was stunned. “I do not believe you. I do not believe Harry said that. He is reckless, yes, but not foolhardy. And he has never deferred to anyone’s will but his own, not even the Almighty’s. Most of the time he thinks they are one and the same.”

  Ranulf’s mouth tightened. “If you knew Harry half as well as you think you do, you could never have betrayed him,” he said, and stalked away, leaving her standing alone on the steps of the hall, with her guard hovering nearby.

  ELEANOR HAD SAILED in storms before. But nothing had prepared her for what awaited them as soon as their ships rounded Barfleur Point and headed out into open water.

  The rain was being blown sideways by the force of the wind, and the Channel was churned into white-water froth. Canvas tents had been set up to shelter the passengers, and the stench was soon overpowering, for even the most experienced travelers were fighting seasickness. As Eleanor’s ship sank down in a trough and then battled its way up, people were flung about like children’s toys, crashing into coffers and gunwale, screaming as they slid along the wet deck. All around her, she could hear men praying with the fervor of the doomed, entreating Nicholas of Bari, the patron saint of sailors, to save them from the perils of the sea. She was too angry to pray, though, and chose to spend her last hours damning her husband to Hell Everlasting.

  When she could endure the stifling, stinking tent no longer, Eleanor got up and lurched toward the open flap. Two of her guards at once staggered after her, crying out in alarm. Stumbling out into the storm, she grabbed at one of the windlass posts for support. As the ship’s master screamed, “Hard on the helm!” the helmsman jerked the tiller to the left, and the deck dropped under her feet. The guards were beside her now, panting and cursing, but still loath to lay hands upon the queen. “Go back inside,” they implored her, petrified that she might be washed overboard, leaving them alive to face the king’s wrath.

  Eleanor ignored them, never even heard them. A searing bolt of lightning cast an eerie greenish light upon the slanting deck, silhouetting sailors as they fought to tighten one of the shrouds,
giving her a terrifying glimpse of that heaving, black sea. The rain and clouds obscured the masthead lanterns of the other ships in their fleet. They were alone in this Devil’s cauldron, the skills of these frantic seamen pitted against the savagery of the storm, and she shuddered, thinking of Joanna and John out there in the darkness, sick and wet and scared.

  After a particularly rough Channel crossing with his brother Hamelin, Henry had confided to her that a king’s chess games were played with the lives of other people. It was a great and fearful power, he admitted, and did not bear close inspection, for otherwise it could never be invoked. She did not know how to reconcile that man with the one who was gambling with God’s Favor, if Ranulf could be believed. What madness had infected Harry, that he’d offer up their children’s lives as stakes in this accursed wager with the Almighty?

  THE PREVAILING WESTERLY WINDS drove Henry’s battered fleet across the Channel in record time, and they anchored safely in Southampton harbor that night. The weary passengers and crewmen sought lodgings in the castle and the town, and slept like the dead. Ranulf was so tired that he could easily have stayed abed till noon. That luxury was to be denied him, though, as he was rousted out of bed at daybreak with the unwelcome word that the king would be departing Southampton within the hour.

  THE RAIN HAD FINALLY stopped, but the sky was still overcast, a foreboding shade of grey. Ranulf paused long enough to search the bailey for Henry, and then hastened into the crowded great hall, where he ran into a yawning, rumpled Earl of Essex.

  “What is happening?” he asked, helping himself to bread smeared with honey.

  Willem broke off a chunk of goat cheese and swallowed it in two bites. “We’re all on the move this morn. Leicester and Chester are being taken to Porchester, the Lady Marguerite, the Lady Joanna, John, and the other lasses are to be escorted to Devizes Castle, and the queen…the queen is to go to Sarum.”

  Ranulf conjured up a mental image of that bleak, moorland fortress. It would not be a happy homecoming for Eleanor. “What about us? Where does Harry mean to head first? I do hope he’ll set a reasonable pace. The Scots border is a long, long ride from here.”

  “He is not going to confront the Scots king…at least not yet.”

  “Where, then?” Ranulf asked and, to his surprise, Willem shook his head.

  “Better you hear it from Harry himself,” he said cryptically. “I am not sure you’d believe it otherwise.”

  Puzzled, Ranulf pushed away from the table and went to find his nephew. Henry was giving instructions to a man clad in mail, his hard visage and guarded eyes giving testimony to years in royal service. When he made a terse query about “shackles,” Henry nodded grimly, and Ranulf blinked, wondering if that order could possibly be meant for Eleanor. But then the knight mentioned “Porchester,” and he realized the command was aimed at the unhappy rebel earls, Leicester and Chester. As soon as the man moved away he stepped forward to attract Henry’s attention.

  Even Henry’s inexhaustible well of energy seemed to have run dry. His eyes were dull, and there was such a hectic color burning across his cheekbones that Ranulf suspected he was running a fever. Taking advantage of his status as one of the king’s intimates, Ranulf said with troubled candor, “Jesu, you look dreadful this morn. Surely we can afford to rest a day longer in Southampton?”

  Henry didn’t answer, and Ranulf yielded in a battle he’d never expected to win. “And you’ll not listen to me, I know. You never do. Willem would not tell me where we are going. I hope you’ll be more forthcoming?”

  Henry gave him an odd look, one that Ranulf could not interpret. “Canterbury,” he said, and walked away without waiting for a response.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  July 1174

  Westminster Palace, England

  RANULF AND WILLEM were admitted to the king’s antechamber, but when they asked to see Henry, they had to wait while his chamberlain got permission for their entry. He soon emerged from the royal bedchamber, but not with the word they wanted. He was sorry, he reported, the king had retired for the night. Although they doubted that, they had no choice but to withdraw. Outside in the gardens, they paused to review their options.

  “What now?” Willem sounded disheartened, and Ranulf couldn’t blame him. Since leaving Southampton, they’d tried repeatedly to talk with Henry about his intent to do penance at Becket’s tomb, to no avail. They’d initially been disquieted by his plan simply because it seemed so wildly out of character for him. But they’d soon had other reasons for concern. He’d been fasting on bread and water while pushing his body to the utmost, riding as if racing his troubles, and they’d begun watching him with the alarm of men trying to catch up with a runaway wagon.

  “I do not know,” Ranulf admitted. “There is not much we can do, is there? No man can be forced to share what is in his heart, least of all a king.”

  Willem acknowledged the truth of that by bidding Ranulf good night. “You’d best get some sleep,” he warned, “for he will want to depart at first light.”

  Ranulf remained in the gardens after Willem went off to find a bed for the night. Although he was only fifteen years Henry’s senior, he’d always had a fatherly, protective love for his sister’s son, and he felt that he was somehow letting Henry down in his time of greatest need. The rain had stopped and the air was cool. He had just seated himself upon a wooden bench when he saw the Bishop of London and his attendants coming toward him. Rising, he greeted Gilbert Foliot courteously, but he felt obligated to advise the bishop that if he hoped to see the king that evening, he would be disappointed.

  Gilbert blinked in surprise. “But the king summoned me, sending a messenger to tell me that he’d arrived at Westminster and wanted to see me straightaway.”

  Ranulf apologized and then, on impulse, fell in step beside the bishop. In the antechamber, the chamberlain had obviously been briefed, for he ushered the bishop into Henry’s bedchamber without first announcing him. Figuring he had nothing to lose, Ranulf entered with Gilbert. Henry was still dressed, although he’d removed his boots. He gave Ranulf a sharp glance, but he did not order him from the chamber, and Ranulf took that as tacit permission to remain.

  Interrupting the bishop’s pleased speech of welcome, Henry said bluntly, “I have need of your aid, my lord bishop. On the morrow I am going to Canterbury to do penance for my part in the archbishop’s death. I would like you to accompany me, and speak on my behalf to the monks of Christ Church priory.”

  “My liege, I would be honored!” Gilbert’s eyes shone; he seemed about to embrace Henry before thinking better of it; the fact that Henry had called him by his title rather than the more intimate “Gilbert” indicated the king’s wish to observe the formalities this night, and Gilbert was shrewd enough to catch it. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure.”

  “Good. We shall be departing at dawn, so it might be easier for you if you spend the night at the palace. My chamberlain will see to your needs.”

  Gilbert seemed reluctant to leave, obviously eager to discuss Henry’s spiritual epiphany, but he’d been dismissed. Murmuring his good wishes, he withdrew, leaving Henry alone in the chamber with his uncle. Ranulf was expecting to be dismissed, too, but it did not come. “Where are your squires?” he asked, not sure how to ease into such an intrusive conversation, for what could be more meddlesome than an inquiry into the state of a man’s soul?

  “I sent them off to the hall to eat,” Henry said, inadvertently giving Ranulf the opening he sought.

  “Are you still fasting?” Getting a brief nod, he said carefully, “Would it not be better to wait until you reach Canterbury ere you fast? If you deprive yourself too severely, you risk becoming ill.”

  “I thought the purpose of penance was to mortify the flesh,” Henry said, with a twisted smile. “Have you forgotten that Thomas not only wore a hairshirt and braies infested with vermin, but he subjected himself to a daily scourging? Do you think he’d be impressed just because I missed a few mea
ls?”

  “Is that what you want, Harry…to impress Thomas?”

  “I want…” Henry began, but then he stopped, and shook his head, like a man weary of talking. After a few moments of silence, he said, “Did you notice that Gilbert asked no questions? Nor did he assure me there was no need for such a pilgrimage. It would seem that he considers my penance at Avranches as flawed as Roger does.”

  “Why does Roger think that?” Ranulf asked, even though he already knew the answer.

  “My cousin, the esteemed Bishop of Worcester, thinks that the Almighty has looked into my heart and found that I repented of Thomas’s death for all the wrong reasons.”

  “And what do you think?”

  Henry’s shoulders twitched, in what was almost a shrug. He’d dropped down into a window-seat, and Ranulf crossed the chamber, knelt in the floor rushes by his side. “Harry, are you sure you want to do this?”

  Henry rubbed his fingers against his aching temples. “I suppose I could wait for more explicit signs of divine displeasure, wait until the Thames turns to blood or a plague of locusts comes up and covers the land.”

  “You are not Pharaoh.”

  Henry raised his head, looking Ranulf full in the face for the first time. “Can you honestly tell me, Uncle, that you have not wondered if this rebellion was God’s punishment for Thomas Becket’s murder? If not, you are most likely the only one in Christendom who has not entertained that thought.”

  “What I think does not matter. Nor does it matter what Roger or Gilbert Foliot think. We are not the ones who must do public penance at Canterbury Cathedral.” Reaching out, Ranulf put his hand on Henry’s arm. “You are a proud man. You are a king. I know that we are told there is no greater glory than to humble ourselves before the Almighty. But that is easier for some than others. If, as I suspect, you mean to abase yourself utterly in atonement, you must be sure that this is what you truly want to do. Otherwise, I fear you will not gain what you seek—peace of mind.”