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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 39

She was sitting in the window-seat, watching a small bird flit from bush to bush in the courtyard below, morosely trying to make sense of Bishop Reginald’s story of her husband’s dramatic mea culpa at Becket’s tomb. That sounded so unlike Harry that it baffled her. Whatever had possessed him to humble himself like that? Her first impulse had been to assume it was a cynical, political ploy, a way to gain the Church’s good will and keep the rebels from appropriating Becket for their own ends. But he already had the support of the Pope and the English bishops. And he could easily have performed a public penance that did not involve baring his back to the lash. Could he truly have been that desperate? If so, mayhap Ranulf was right; mayhap she did not know him as well as she’d thought she had.

  Her musings were interrupted by the arrival in her lap of a small whirlwind. As she started, the kitten leaped down and scampered away, but soon returned and began to stalk the hem of her gown. Eleanor could not help smiling at its antics. She’d not really expected to take the cat with her into English exile. But Joanna was very single-minded; she’d carried the kitten onboard ship with her, and presented it to her mother in a travel basket as Eleanor made ready to depart for Salisbury. Eleanor was still dubious, assuming it would run away or her new gaoler would confiscate it once she reached Sarum. The constable had not even lifted an eyebrow, though, at the sight of the cat, and had ordered a servant to provide the queen with a box of dirt as if that was an everyday occurrence. Nor had the kitten absconded. To the contrary, it seemed quite content to share Eleanor’s confinement, and within a fortnight, Eleanor was startled to realize how much this little ball of fur had begun to matter to her.

  She was luring the kitten closer with the fringed end of her belt when a knock sounded and Sir Ralph Fitz Stephen entered. He greeted her courteously, explaining that he’d returned to Sarum the preceding night, too late to pay his respects. “I wanted to ask if there is anything you need, Madame?”

  Eleanor did her best to conceal her surprise, for in nigh on a year, no one had asked that before. With nothing to lose, she said nonchalantly, “As a matter of fact, there is, Sir Ralph. Bishop Jocelin is known to have an excellent library. Time hangs heavy on my hands these days. Would it be possible for me to borrow some of his books?”

  To her astonishment, he agreed at once. “I am sure he will be pleased to be of service. I will send a man to the bishop’s palace this very afternoon.”

  “Thank you,” she murmured, not wanting him to see how much that meant to her. Books! They would be such a blessing, a way to maintain her sanity. Rolling the dice again, she wondered aloud if the bishop would mind if she made some specific requests, and once again, she won.

  “I cannot imagine why he would object, Madame.”

  “You are very kind, Sir Ralph.” Very kind, indeed. Why? As best she could see it, he had nothing to gain and quite a bit to lose by coddling his royal prisoner. Why would he risk angering Harry?

  “I have received a message from the lord king,” he said, almost as if he’d read her mind. “He has instructed me to provide you with a handmaiden, Madame. If it meets with your approval, I thought I would see if I could find someone suitable in the village.”

  “God in Heaven,” she whispered. “He has won. That is it. He has won and so he can afford to spare me a few crumbs from his table.” When he did not answer, she said, with sudden vehemence, “Tell me the truth! I am entitled to that much, surely.”

  “Yes, my lady, you are right. The king has prevailed over his enemies, won a great victory. After he routed the French from Rouen, they sought a truce. Both sides met near Tours and signed a peace treaty at Michaelmas. The king was very magnanimous to the rebels, Madame, forbore to punish them as severely as he could have done. He provided most generously for the lord princes, your sons, and they have fully reconciled. The young king is to get a stipend of fifteen thousand Angevin pounds a year. Lord Richard is to be given half the revenues of Poitou, and Lord Geoffrey may draw upon the resources of Brittany. The king also issued a general pardon for all the rebels, save only the Scots king, the Earls of Chester and Leicester, and a Breton lord, Raoul de Fougères.”

  Eleanor’s mouth had gone dry. “And what of me?”

  She had her answer in the look he gave her now, one of unmistakable pity. “I am sorry, Madame,” he said, “but there was no mention made of you in the treaty.”

  “I see…” Her voice sounded strange even to her own ears, flat and toneless. He must have said something before he withdrew, but she did not hear it. Once she was alone, she moved like one sleepwalking to the bed, sank down upon it. I’ll never forgive you, never. Look upon the sun. You’ll not be seeing it again. The king provided generously for your sons and they have fully reconciled. I’ll never forgive you. Never.

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  February 1175

  Le Mans, Anjou

  ON THE DAY AFTER CANDLEMAS, Richard and Geoffrey once again did homage to their father; Hal was still exempted because of his status as a crowned king. Afterward a lavish feast was planned, but before the meal and the entertainment began, Henry summoned his sons to the castle solar. They entered to find him already waiting for them.

  “Come in, lads,” he said cheerfully. “Ere we go back to the great hall, I want to tell you of my plans for this coming year.”

  They exchanged guarded glances, for experience had taught them that they were not always in accord with his plans. He was standing by the hearth and they quickly joined him by the fire, for the chamber was chill and damp, with drafts seeking entry at the shuttered windows and winter cold seeping in from every crack and fissure.

  “It is time you started to earn your keep,” Henry said with a smile. “No more lolling about like pampered princelings.” His gaze lingered fondly for a moment on his second son, for Richard had come to full manhood in the past year; at seventeen, he was taller than most grown men, even taller now than Hal. “Come the morrow, you’re off to Poitou. My scouts tell me that the Poitevin barons are champing at the bit again. I want you to rein them in.”

  To Richard, that sounded almost too good to be true. “I’ll have a free hand to restore order?” he asked warily, and when Henry said that he would, he grinned. “Do I have to wait till the morrow? I could be ready to leave within two hours.”

  Henry grinned, too, remembering how eager he’d been at Richard’s age to prove himself. “Tomorrow will be soon enough.” He turned then toward Geoffrey, saying, “And you’re to go into Brittany, lad, to deal with Eudo de Porhoët and the rest of those Breton bandits. Roland de Dinan will accompany you. I know his loyalty has been suspect in the past, but that is only to be expected of a Breton lord; they play at rebellion the way other men play at dice. He has been steadfast for the past nine years, which counts as an eternity in Brittany. I can trust him with your safety, and you’ll learn much from him.”

  Geoffrey glanced from Henry to Richard, back to his father. “Why do I need a wet-nurse if Richard does not?”

  “I’d not call Roland a wet-nurse to his face, lad; he’d not like it. And the reason you need more guidance than Richard is simple. He’s a twelvemonth older than you and passed much of last year on his own in Poitou, where by all accounts he acquitted himself well.”

  Richard’s face flushed with pleasure, but almost at once he felt a twinge of guilt. How could he take pride in his father’s praise as long as his mother remained entombed at Sarum?

  Geoffrey was not satisfied with his father’s response, but unlike his brothers, he never wasted time or energy in arguments he was sure to lose, and he subsided with a shrug and a neutral “As you wish.”

  Hal had been a silent observer until now. No longer able to conceal his impatience, he interrupted when Henry began to expand upon the unreliability of the Bretons. “What of me?”

  “You may be sure I’ve not forgotten you, lad,” Henry assured him. “You’ll be spending the coming year as a king in training. I have to venture into Anjou, but I expect to be back in Norman
dy within a few weeks. Then we will take ship for England, you and I.”

  Hal struggled to hide his dismay. “Together?” he said glumly, his hopes dashed. He’d known that his father was planning to return to England and, when he listened as Richard and Geoffrey were given authority and commands, his own expectations had soared. Why should he not be entrusted with Normandy? Or at the least, Anjou. Instead, he was to be his father’s shadow, at his beck and call day and night, with no more independence than an indentured apprentice. Where was the fairness in that?

  “This time together will give us a chance for a new beginning, Hal, whilst being a learning experience for you,” Henry said, with such enthusiasm that Hal mustered up an unconvincing smile, and tried to ignore his brothers, who were laughing at him behind Henry’s back. Let them mock all they wanted, for the last laugh would still be his. He was the one who was king, even if it did seem like an empty honor more often than not.

  THE EARL OF ESSEX reached the coastal city of Caen in late March, and headed for the ducal castle. He was at once ushered into the king’s solar, where Henry was occupied in confirming to Montebourg Abbey the chapel of St Maglorius on the Isle of Sark. He looked up with a smile as Willem entered, then reached for his great seal. A number of men had gathered to witness the charter, but once it was done, they exited the chamber, leaving Henry with a handful of his most trusted inner circle: the Archbishop of Rouen; Maurice de Craon, his English justiciar; Richard de Lucy, his Norman constable; Richard du Hommet; the abbot of Mont St Michel; his natural son Geoff; and the newly arrived Willem, returning from a diplomatic mission to the court of the Count of Flanders.

  Willem had just begun his report, though, when they were interrupted by a message from Henry’s eldest son, presently at Rouen. Henry at once ordered the man to be admitted, explaining to Willem that he and Hal would soon be sailing for England. He was somewhat surprised by the identity of the messenger, for Hal’s letter was delivered by his vice-chancellor, Adam de Churchedune, not the sort of errand normally undertaken by men of rank.

  “Take a seat, Adam,” he said, for the cleric was not a young man, and then broke Hal’s seal, began to read his missive. Almost at once, he looked up, his expression so blank that the other men knew at once something was very wrong. “Hal refuses to accompany me to England,” he said, and he sounded so shocked that the normally even-tempered Earl of Essex felt a stab of hot rage, fury that the king’s ungrateful whelp was once more giving his father grief.

  “I do not understand,” Henry confessed. “When we parted last month, all was well between us. What new grudge can he be nursing now?”

  “Does it matter?” Willem said. “You’ve been more than patient with him, my liege. If it were me, I’d command him to come to Caen straightaway and nip this nonsense in the bud.” As Willem glanced around, he saw that his words were well received by the other men; several were nodding in agreement and Geoff was muttering under his breath, too outraged by his brother’s antics for circumspection. But Hal’s chancellor was shaking his head emphatically.

  “My lord king, that would be a great mistake.” Leaning forward, he said earnestly, “I offered to take Lord Hal’s message myself so that I might speak with you in confidence.”

  None of the others were surprised by this revelation; they’d taken it for granted that Henry would have put men he could trust in Hal’s household, men whose loyalty would be to the sire, not the son. Henry looked down again at Hal’s letter, so terse and succinct, so brusque and defiant. Glancing up at the chancellor, he said, “I hope to God you can explain this, Adam,” too shaken to pretend he was not angry, perplexed, and hurt by Hal’s latest transgression. “I thought we’d put all this lunacy behind us last September.”

  “My liege…it grieves me to say this, but the young king, your son, is as constant as wax. I do not doubt that he has a good heart. He is easily swayed, though, swings like a weathercock in a high wind, and of late he has been listening to the wrong men again, to those who wish you ill. They have planted a poisonous seed in his mind, warning him that you want to lure him to England so that you may then imprison him like the queen.”

  Henry was stunned. “And he believed that?”

  Adam nodded somberly. “Alas, he did, my lord. They played skillfully upon his doubts, his resentments, and stirred up his fears by suggesting that there was something sinister in your decision not to demand homage from him. They argued that homage is an act of mutual obligation, claimed that you did not want to accept his homage because you did not want to be held accountable as his liege lord, proof that you must be plotting treachery once he was in England and utterly in your power.”

  “That is ludicrous! I waived homage to honor Hal.”

  “I know that, my liege. But now you see why I say it would be a mistake to command his presence at Caen. That would only confirm his suspicions, convince him that his so-called friends had spoken true.”

  Henry slumped down in his seat, suddenly as weary as if he’d spent a full day on the hunt. “What would you suggest?” he said at last, and when the chancellor urged gentle persuasion, words of reassurance rather than rage, he agreed to take that approach. But he felt defeated even before he began. Christ on the Cross, were they to start the madness all over again?

  WOLVES WERE USUALLY HUNTED only from September’s Nativity of Our Lady to March’s Annunciation. But upon Henry’s arrival at his hunting lodge, the villagers of Bures asked him to track down and slay a lone wolf that had been killing their sheep. He set out early the next morning. His lymer hounds had no luck in picking up the rogue wolf’s scent, though, and men, horses, and dogs returned tired and disappointed at day’s end, where he found Hal and Marguerite were waiting for him.

  Hal greeted him effusively, apologized for the “misunderstanding,” and announced that they were ready to depart for England whenever he wished. Greatly relieved that Adam’s “gentle persuasion” had worked, Henry welcomed his son and daughter-in-law warmly, thankful that they’d avoided a confrontation. The lodge was neither large nor spacious, ill suited to accommodate the retinues of two kings and a queen, but Henry’s servants did their best to provide a more elaborate meal than Henry would otherwise have expected, and after the dining was done, Hal held court in the great hall, laughing and jesting and charming with his usual ease, basking in the attention he was attracting. He did not notice when his father withdrew, ceding him center stage.

  Henry slipped out of a side door, stood for a time staring up at the starlit April sky. His initial pleasure had slowly ebbed away as the evening wore on, leaving him with an edgy sense of unease. Was this to be the pattern for years to come? Hal would balk, be coaxed into compliance, and all would be well—until the next time he took offense. How could the thinking of his own son be so alien to him? How had they ever gotten to this road that led nowhere?

  It was a mild night and others were outside, too. As he was recognized, several men would have approached him, but he waved them off impatiently. But then he saw one man he did want to speak with, and he moved to intercept William Marshal as he ambled from the direction of the latrines.

  “Marshal,” he said, stepping from the shadows into the knight’s path. Beckoning, he led the younger man away from their audience of eager eavesdroppers. Will followed, but his stiff posture and ducked head conveyed his discomfort as clearly as words could have done. He showed no surprise when Henry launched into a low-voiced, angry reprimand, for he’d been anticipating his sovereign’s displeasure.

  “I expected better from you, Will. You are one of the few men of Hal’s household who has a grain of common sense and a speaking acquaintance with honor. Why have you failed so dismally to protect my son?”

  “My liege…what would you have me say? I told you at Avranches that I could not spy upon him.”

  “I am not asking that of you,” Henry snapped. “But I do expect you to give him the benefit of your maturity and your good judgment, and I see precious little evidence of tha
t. When his legion of lackeys and drones and leeches seek to poison his mind against me, what do you do? Do you stay silent? Or do you join in with the rest of the baying hounds?”

  “Sire, that is not fair! I would never speak against you to the young king. I have always encouraged him to mend this rift between you. But mine is not the only voice he heeds.”

  That was not what Henry wanted to hear. He needed to believe there was at least one rational voice to counsel his son, for his own words seemed to be falling upon deaf ears. “Then what good are you to me?” he said harshly, and turned on his heel before Will could respond, heading back toward the great hall. Will trailed unhappily after him, but knew better than to try to plead his case when the king was in one of his tempers.

  Hal was encircled by his knights, and they were applauding and cheering so enthusiastically that Henry wondered sardonically if he’d just ordered another wine-keg broken open. Gesturing to Will, he said, “Tell the ‘young king’ that the old one wants to speak with him upon the dais.”

  Hal soon sauntered in his direction, an arm draped around Marguerite’s waist, his face flushed with wine, his eyes bright with laughter. “You wanted me, Papa?”

  “I am going to my own chamber, will leave the festivities to your keeping. Enjoy yourselves, but remember that men bed down in the hall at night, so if you carouse till dawn, they’ll get no sleep.”

  Hal promised to keep that in mind, then turned as one of his knights approached, fervently expressing his eternal gratitude and loyalty. Hal sent him off with a laugh and a quip, then explained for Henry’s benefit that Giles had suffered a stroke of bad luck; his palfrey had gone lame on the ride to Bures and the village farrier had given a dread diagnosis, that the horse had foundered and must be put down. “Giles has barely two deniers to rub together, and a tightfisted father who’d see him mounted on a goat ere he’d help out. So I offered him one of the horses in my stable. He’s a good lad, is Giles, so why not?”