Settings
Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 4


  Below them, men were riding into the castle’s inner bailey. There was no need to point out the young king. Everything about him—the spirited grey stallion and ornamented saddle, the costly mantle of fine scarlet wool, the white calfskin gloves studded with pearls, the stylish pointed cap with a turned-up brim embroidered in gold thread, the gilded spurs attached to his boots with red leather straps—proclaimed him to be of high birth and one of God’s favorites. He’d been blessed, too, with uncommonly good looks, tall and well formed, with vivid blue eyes and gleaming golden hair, cut short around his ears, one lock allowed to curl fashionably onto his forehead. Catching sight of his father up on the battlements, he doffed his cap in a gesture both graceful and dramatic, and Henry grinned.

  Staring down at this handsome youth, Abbot Robert blurted out, “If he is not the very image of Count Geoffrey!”

  “He has my father’s coloring for certes,” Henry agreed, “and his sense of style. He has my father’s ready wit, too. Did you hear, Rob, what he said at his coronation feast? To honor him, I myself carried the great boar’s head dish to his table. The Archbishop of York commented that it was not every prince who was served by a king. And Hal said, quick as a flash, ‘Yes, but it can be no condescension for the son of a count to serve the son of a king.’”

  Abbot Robert did not see the humor in that flippant remark, but he laughed dutifully because Henry was laughing. As he had been no admirer of Count Geoffrey of Anjou, though, he hoped that Hal had inherited nothing from his grandsire but his striking good looks.

  SWINGING EASILY FROM THE SADDLE, Hal soon joined his father up on the battlements, choosing to climb a wooden ladder rather than gaining access to the ramparts by entering the keep. Spotting William Marshal, the head of Hal’s household knights, Henry beckoned for him to come up, too, and then gathered his son into a welcoming embrace. After exchanging hugs with his kinsmen, Hal courteously greeted the justiciar and Abbot Robert, who gave him credit for having much better manners than Count Geoffrey.

  “Tell him, Brother,” Hamelin prompted, nudging Henry in the ribs, and Hal was instantly alert.

  “Tell me what?”

  Henry feigned a scowl at Hamelin’s impatience, but he was not one for waiting, either. “I have a surprise for you, lad.”

  Hal had retained a child’s love of surprises, but some of his father’s surprises had seemed more like ambushes. Moreover, he did not like to be called “lad” now that he was a man grown and an anointed king. “What?” he asked, with more wariness than anticipation.

  “Marguerite is here.”

  Hal blinked in disappointment. He’d known Marguerite for most of his life; they’d been wed when he was five and she was two and a half. He tended to think of her as a little sister, when he thought of her at all. “Oh?” he said politely, wondering what he was supposed to say.

  “Well, her presence is but half of the surprise. It is my intention to have her crowned this summer at Winchester. Archbishop Rotrou will preside and your cousin Roger has agreed to take part, too,” Henry said, with a playful smile at Roger. “And because of the furor that Becket caused about your coronation, I have decided that you will be crowned again—a gesture of good will toward the Church.”

  Hal’s interest was now fully engaged; he loved pageantry and rituals and revelries. His first thought was that they could hold a tournament afterward, but he decided not to share that idea with his father, knowing that Henry disapproved of tourneys as frivolous, wasteful, and a threat to the public order. His next thought was even better: the realisation that his coronation would be the ideal opportunity to achieve a long-delayed desire.

  “And I could be knighted, too!”

  Henry was already shaking his head. “No, lad, not yet. You know I think Louis ought to be the one to knight you. That would mean a great deal to him and go far toward mending the breach between us.”

  “But I do not care who knights me! All that truly matters is that it is done. I am already seventeen; how much longer must I wait?”

  “Some events are worth waiting for,” Henry said, giving his son a reassuring pat on the arm. “You are still young for such an accolade. How old were you, Will, when you were knighted?”

  Caught off balance, William Marshal stiffened; the last thing he wanted was to be pulled into this ongoing squabble between father and son. “Twenty and one,” he said reluctantly, feeling that he’d somehow let Hal down by speaking the truth.

  Hal was not easily discouraged, though. “And how old were you?’ he demanded of Henry, providing the answer himself, a triumphant “Sixteen!”

  Not for the first time, Henry wondered how he could have sired such obstinate offspring, for Hal’s brother Richard was even more headstrong and mulish, and thirteen-year-old Geoffrey was already showing signs of the same willfulness. Only little John and his Joanna were biddable and easily pleased. But a man wanted his sons to show pluck and spirit, and so he did not deny Hal outright, promising vaguely to give his request serious consideration.

  Hal had heard this before, for they’d been having this same argument since Henry’s return from Ireland last month. He was coming to the conclusion that his father’s promises were counterfeit coin; they looked genuine, but they could not be spent. He was opening his mouth to protest further when Roger intervened.

  “Hal,” he said quietly, “I believe that is Marguerite coming out of the hall. You’d best go down and greet her, lad, ere she feels slighted. You know how sensitive lasses can be.”

  Hal almost asked Roger how he knew that, what with him becoming a priest at such a young age. But he was angry with his father, not his cousin, and his sense of fairness stifled the gibe. Nor did he want to hurt Marguerite, and he nodded grudgingly. Turning toward the ladder, his gaze came to rest upon the girl below in the bailey and he came to an abrupt halt.

  “That cannot be Marguerite!”

  At the sound of her name, she glanced upward. Hal had not seen her in more than a year; she’d left England in April of 1171 and had spent most of her time since then at her father’s court. He’d remembered to send her gifts for New Year’s and her saint’s day, but she’d always been on the periphery of his life, the child-wife who’d eventually share his throne and bear his children—one day far in the future. Until then, he would not lack for female company; girls had been chasing after him since he was thirteen and he usually let them catch him. Now he gazed down at the heart-shaped face framed in a linen barbette, the chin-strap made newly fashionable by his mother, her fair hair covered by a gauzy veil of saffron silk, and he was stunned by the changes in her. She was so stylish of a sudden, slim and curvy where she’d been skinny and flat, so…so womanly.

  He sketched a bow, she responded with a graceful curtsy, and he pantomimed that he’d be down straightaway. When he looked back at the men, they were all grinning. He was too amazed to take offense. “She is lovely,” he marveled, counting surreptitiously on his fingers.

  Henry spared him the trouble. “She is fourteen now, lad, and as you say, very lovely, indeed.”

  Hal hesitated. “Um…is she old enough to—?” He flushed slightly, but grinned, too, and his father laughed.

  “Um…I would say so. But if you have doubts, you can always ask her.”

  Hal usually did not mind being teased, could give as good as he got. “I will,” he said, winked, and headed for the ladder, descending to the bailey so rapidly that they half-expected him to land in a heap at Marguerite’s feet. Instead, he sprang lightly to the ground and was soon gallantly kissing his wife’s hand as she blushed prettily and cast him adoring looks through fluttering lashes.

  “Well,” Henry said, “I do believe the lass is answering him without even being asked,” and they shared smiles, remembering what it was like to be young and bedazzled by a come-hither look, a neatly turned ankle. For Henry, memory took him back to a rain-spangled garden in Paris, an afternoon encounter with Louis’s queen that would change lives and history. He could still re
member how breathtakingly beautiful Eleanor was that day. He’d have been content to gaze into her eyes for hours, trying to decide if they were green with gold flecks or gold with green flecks. She had high, finely sculpted cheekbones, soft, flawless skin he’d burned to touch, and lustrous dark braids entwined with gold-thread ribbons he yearned to unfasten; he’d have bartered his chances of salvation to bury his face in that glossy, perfumed hair, to wind it around his throat and see it spread out on his pillow. He’d watched, mesmerized, as a crystal raindrop trickled toward the sultry curve of her mouth and wanted nothing in his life so much, before or since, as he wanted her.

  She’d known that Louis was heeding his council’s advice, planning to divorce her, and then compel her to wed a man of their choosing, a pliable puppet who’d keep her domains under the control of the French Crown. In that soaked summer garden she’d taken her destiny into her own hands, offering him Aquitaine and herself, and he was so besotted that he could not say which mattered more to him, the richest duchy in Europe or the woman in his arms.

  They’d agreed to wait, though, for she shared his pragmatism as well as his passion, and they both knew even a glimmer of suspicion and Louis would never set her free. Nine months later, they were wed in her capital city of Poitiers. Never had he been happier, not even on the day he became England’s king. Lying entangled in the sheets on their wedding night, she’d confided that their lovemaking had been like falling into a fire and somehow emerging unscathed, laughing huskily when he showed he was not yet sated and murmuring, “My lord duke, tonight all of Aquitaine is yours for the taking.”

  Henry returned to reality with a start, staring blankly at Roger as he realized he’d not heard a word of his cousin’s question. Eleanor’s alluring ghost receded into the past, leaving him with a sense of wonder that twenty years could have passed since that torrid May night. He also felt an odd sense of loss, although he wasn’t sure why.

  “I want to talk with you, Will,” he said abruptly, and the young knight, who’d been sidling toward the ladder, straightened his shoulders and braced himself for what he knew was coming. “I’ve been warned,” Henry continued, “that my son has been consorting with the wrong company. I cannot do much about his association with Raoul de Faye as he is the queen’s uncle. But Hal has gathered around him a band of youths who are rakehells and idlers, light-minded, callow malcontents. Several of them accompanied him to Avranches: Juhel de Mayenne, Simon de Marisco, Adam d’Yquebeuf, and Hasculf de St Hilaire. You know them for what they are, Will, know that barnacles clinging to a ship’s hull can slow it down, even render it unseaworthy. Why did you not alert me that he was being led astray?”

  “My lord king…” Will was miserable, knowing that whatever he said, he was sure to be in the wrong, either with his young lord or his sovereign.

  “Why do you think I chose you to tutor my son in the arts of war and chivalry? Because you sit a horse well and can wield a sword? There is no shortage of knights with those skills. I chose you because you are steadfast and honest, because you have more mother-wit than most men, because I thought I could rely upon you to watch over my son, to keep him safe.”

  “I would give my life for the young king,” Will said simply, with such sincerity that none of those listening could doubt him. “I do watch over him, my liege. I’ve done my best to teach him what he must know, and I am proud of his prowess, for he is an expert rider and has mastered both sword and lance with admirable ease. But I cannot spy on him, not even for you, my lord king. I am his sworn man, and my first loyalty must be to him. To do less would be a betrayal he would not forgive. Nor could I forgive myself.”

  The silence that followed was stifling. Girding himself to bear the king’s wrath, Will raised his head and met Henry’s gaze. The king’s eyes were the color of smoke, his mouth tightly drawn, as if to stop angry words from escaping. “Keep him from harm, Will,” he said at last. “Do not let me down.”

  Will swallowed, knelt hastily, and then retreated just as hastily, vastly relieved by his reprieve but not fully understanding it. Rainald did not understand, either. “The impudence of the man! Why were you so forbearing with him? Had he dared talk to me like that, I’d have dismissed him straightaway.”

  “If I did that,” Henry said, “Hal would lose the one trustworthy and honorable man in his service, the one man who’d be loyal to his last breath. How would that benefit my son, Rainald? Do you not know how rare such men are? Men who put loyalty above ambition and greed and royal favor?” And even Rainald realized that Henry was speaking not only of William Marshal, but of Thomas Becket, the false friend who’d betrayed him for reasons he could never comprehend.

  PEOPLE HAD BEGUN TO GATHER at dawn before the Cathedral church of St Andrew the Apostle, not wanting to miss the spectacle of a king brought low, forced to do penance like all mortal men. They were to be disappointed. Henry arrived with the papal legates and barons and bishops beyond counting. They’d all gone into the cathedral, where Henry swore upon the Holy Gospels that he’d neither commanded nor desired that the Archbishop of Canterbury be slain, and that when he was told of the crime, he was horrified and truly grieved for the death of Thomas of blessed memory. He admitted, though, that the killing was the result of his heedless, angry words, and he pledged to honor the commitments made to Holy Church on this, the last Sunday before Ascension in God’s Year 1172, the eighteenth year of his reign. His son the young king then took an oath to honor all those commitments that did not relate only to Henry. But all of this was done out of sight and sound of the waiting crowds.

  When Henry finally emerged from the church, the spectators were disappointed anew, for he was not bareheaded and barefoot and clad only in his shirt. A few men explained knowingly that he was spared the usual mortification because he’d not been excommunicated, but most of the bystanders took a more cynical view, that kings were always accorded special treatment, even by the Almighty. Henry knelt upon the paving stones, only then removing his cap, and received public absolution by the Cardinals Albert and Theodwin. When he rose, the cardinals and the Bishop of Avranches led him back into the cathedral, a symbolic act of reconciliation with the Church and the Almighty.

  The dissatisfied onlookers dispersed when they realized the show was over. Roger, Bishop of Worcester, stood alone for a moment before slowly reentering the church, for he had been close enough to Henry to hear him say softly after the absolution: “Check, Thomas, and mate.”

  CHAPTER THREE

  June 1172

  Poitiers, Poitou

  FROM AN OPEN WINDOW of the queen’s solar in the Mauber-geonne Tower, Maud, Countess of Chester, looked down upon a garden vibrant with summer flowers and echoing with youthful high spirits. Eleanor’s son Geoffrey was playing quoits with two friends, a game that was by its very nature boisterous and somewhat hazardous. When the players were youngsters of thirteen and fourteen, it was guaranteed that the horseshoes would be flung about with abandon, missing the targeted hob more often than not, scarring the grassy mead and scaring songbirds from budding fruit trees and overhanging willows. The shouts of the boys and the barking of their dogs had drawn an audience of giggling girls, all of them highborn and destined for the marriage beds of princes.

  The oldest of the girls was Maud’s daughter-in-law, Bertrada, who’d wed her son Hugh three years ago, becoming at thirteen countess of one of England’s richest earldoms, the Honour of Chester. The prettiest was Geoffrey’s sister Joanna, only in her seventh year but already showing signs that she’d inherited her mother’s fabled beauty. Eleven-year-old Constance, dark-haired and whip-thin, was a great heiress in her own right; betrothed to Geoffrey in early childhood, she would bring to him the Duchy of Brittany. And Alys, also eleven, was a daughter of the French king, plight-trothed to Geoffrey’s older brother Richard, one day to rule with him over the vast, lush domains of Eleanor’s Aquitaine.

  Eleanor and Aquitaine. Maud always thought of her friend in those terms, for it was Aquitaine th
at had defined Eleanor, that had conferred upon her the queenships of France and then England. Few brides had ever brought such a dowry as Aquitaine to their husbands. Eleanor’s duchy comprised the counties of Poitou, Berry, Saintonge, Angoulême, Périgord, the Limousin, La Marche, the Auvergne, the Agenais, and Gascony. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Massif Central and the Rhone Valley, from the Pyrenees to the River Loire, it encompassed much of southwestern France, dwarfing the lands controlled by the French king, and it had been blessed by nature and God with a mild climate, fertile soil, deep river valleys, ancient oak forests, and some of the best vineyards in Christendom. By taking Eleanor as his queen, Louis had gained greatly in stature and the French coffers had overflowed with the riches of Aquitaine. Maud thought that her cousin Harry might not even have won his crown had he not wed Eleanor as soon as she was free. Aquitaine had been his stepping-stone to the English throne.

  Maud’s friendship with Eleanor had endured for almost twenty years, but she’d never spent that much time in the other woman’s domains, for neither had Eleanor. For much of her married life, she’d been traveling with Henry or acting on his behalf in Normandy and England or occupied with her many pregnancies. It was only four years ago that she’d taken up residence again in Aquitaine, holding her own court at Poitiers and gathering the reins of government into her own hands.

  Turning away from the window, Maud wandered restlessly about the chamber. Eleanor had excused herself to confer with Saldebreuil de Sanzay, her constable in Poitou, and Maud was growing bored with her own company. Several charters were spread across a trestle table and she scanned the top one briefly. It was a routine act of patronage, remitting taxes for a citizen of La Rochelle in exchange for his agreement to pay rent to the abbey of Fontevrault. What caught Maud’s attention was the change in the form of address. Instead of the usual Fidelibus Regis et suis, it read: Fidelibus suis.