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Devil s Brood 40
“Why not, indeed?” Henry agreed dryly, for he knew that he’d end up getting the bill for the stallion Hal would buy to replace the one he’d so magnanimously bestowed on Giles. But he reminded himself that generosity was a virtue, lauded in a prince, and he asked Hal if he’d like to join the hunt on the morrow for the elusive, sheep-killing wolf.
“I’d like nothing better! I’d ask a favor of you, though—that I be given the wolf’s pelt to make a mantle.”
Henry blinked in surprise. “Why? You know how difficult it is to get rid of the stink of wolf.”
Hal grinned and dropped his voice conspiratorially. “You know Adam d’Yquebeuf,” he said, naming one of the most sycophantic and fawning of his knights. “He’s not a bad sort, but sometimes I think that if my boots got muddied, he’d offer to lick them clean.”
Henry understood, for that was always a risk of kingship; a crown too often drew the servile and obsequious as well as the capable and confident. “So you are going to give that poor sod a fur cloak that is likely to reek to high heaven,” he said, “knowing he’d wear it day and night if it came from you.” Hal laughed and Marguerite giggled even as she pretended to disapprove of his mischief-making, but Hal looked thoughtful when Henry then pointed out that since d’Yquebeuf was so often in his company, he’d be exposed to the rank wolf smell, too. Before bidding them good night, he offered Hal one final boon, seeking to ease his mind by removing any doubts about the dual obligations of homage, and told his son that he would receive Hal’s homage ere they sailed for England. But he was taken aback by his son’s reaction. Hal’s face shadowed and he glanced away, no longer meeting his father’s eyes.
A PILE OF CORRESPONDENCE had been heaped on the table in his bedchamber, and Henry had planned to tackle it before he went to bed. But he was too restless to concentrate, and instead of summoning his scribe, he began to root through a coffer for something to read; the recipient of an excellent education, he never traveled without books. The first one he picked up was Wace’s Roman de Brut, a history in verse of the English people. Wace had dedicated it to Eleanor, though, and that reminder was enough for him to put it aside. He flipped through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae next, a mythic history of the English kings and the legend of King Arthur, and eventually settled upon Commentarii de Bello Gallico. But even Caesar’s own account of the conquest of Gaul could not long hold his attention, and he sent one of his squires to fetch his son.
HAL DID NOT LOOK PLEASED to be dragged away from the revelries in the hall, and did not seem reassured when Henry dismissed his squires so they could speak in private. “Help yourself to wine,” Henry said, and Hal quickly drained a cup, almost as if he needed to fortify himself for this interview. For a fleeting moment, Henry was assailed by a treacherous memory from his past, the day he’d awakened his wine-besotted father to confide that he would be marrying Eleanor as soon as she could shed the French king.
Geoffrey had cursed him freely and loudly for this unwelcome invasion of his bedchamber, and when Henry had laughed and said he had a great favor to ask, he’d grumbled, “Quit whilst you’re ahead, Harry, whilst you’re still in my will.” Henry’s news had sobered him, of course, and he was soon marveling that “Marriage to Eleanor could make you master of Europe one day…Christ Jesus, Harry, Caesar might well envy you!” He’d later warned Henry, though, that he should save his passion for his concubines, not his wife, offering the cynical counsel that “the best marriages are those based upon detached good will or benign indifference. But unfortunately for you, the one emotion you will never feel for Eleanor of Aquitaine is indifference.”
The memory was troubling. Any remembrance of Eleanor was painful, especially recollections of those early years. But recalling the easy camaraderie and barbed banter he’d enjoyed with his father, he also felt a deep sense of loss, of regret and bafflement that he did not have the same close relationship with his own sons. Where had he gone wrong?
“Papa?” Hal was regarding him in perplexity. “Why did you summon me? You pulled me away from a game of hazard when I was winning!”
“Hal…I know that others sought to convince you I had a nefarious motive in not demanding homage from you as I did your brothers. You need not look so surprised, lad; nothing travels faster than gossip. I daresay at least half of these boon companions of yours are in the pay of the French king, and I expected no better from them. But I never imagined that you’d be taken in by such slander. Jesu, lad, how could you believe that of me?”
Hal had stiffened, but by the time Henry was done speaking, he’d been disarmed by the naked pain in his father’s voice. Hal hated discord and quarrels, could not understand people like his brother Richard, who seemed to thrive on strife and controversy. He truly wanted to be at peace with his father, truly regretted their constant clashes of will. “I am sorry, Papa,” he said, as contritely as he could. “I ought not to have doubted you. It will not happen again.”
“Hal, words are cheap and easily offered. Actions are what count. And when I told you tonight that you’d do homage after all, I saw the expression on your face. You liked it not. Whatever I do, it seems to displease you. If I do not demand homage, you see that as some sort of devious scheme. If I do, your royal dignity is affronted. God’s Bones, lad, what do you want from me?”
Hal looked at him unhappily. “I guess I…I want your respect.”
“Respect cannot be demanded or given, Hal. It must be earned. There are wounds still to be healed. But this I can assure you, that I love you as my life. Surely you believe that?”
“Yes…I do. And I love you, too,” Hal added quickly, even though there were times when he was no longer sure that was true.
“Then why…why in Christ’s Name are we always at odds like this? Why can you not come to me when you have a grievance instead of letting it fester? Why do you pay more heed to that fool on the French throne than your own father?”
“Louis listened to me, said what I needed to hear. I ought not to have had such faith in his good will. I know that now; things were never the same after that shameful trick he pulled at Verneuil. But…” Hal hesitated, pinioning his lower lip with even, white teeth. “How honest can I be, Papa?”
“Speak your mind,” Henry said. “I’ll not get angry.”
Hal smiled faintly. “Can I have that in writing?” He rose suddenly, went to the table to pour another cup of wine, and finished half of it before he could nerve himself to take his father at his word. “I said I love you, Papa. But…but I am not sure I can trust you.”
Henry drew a sharp breath. This from the stripling who’d played him for such a fool at Chinon! That betrayal lay between them like an imperfectly healed scar, for they’d never discussed it, prevented first by circumstances and then by caution. But he’d promised to hold his temper and so he said only, “Why not?”
“Because…because I know the king will always prevail over the man, over the father.”
Henry started to speak, stopped himself. “That may be true,” he said at last. “But all that I am doing, I do for you, Hal! I want only to secure for you a peaceful and prosperous kingdom. Nothing matters more to me than that. Why must we be at cross-purposes about this? Our interests are one and the same. Why can you not see that?”
Hal had never been one for the unexpressed thought, rarely curbed a jest in the interest of prudence or even good manners. He almost made a dark joke now about the flaw in his father’s grand scheme—that the only way two kings could contentedly share power was if one of them was dead. But he sensed that Henry would find no humor in the gibe, for there was too much truth in it for comfort. He studied Henry’s face intently, wondering how honest he could be. Dare he confess his resentment that his father meant to bestow his English castles upon that unwanted afterthought, Johnny? When there were sons to spare in most great families, one would be destined for the Church. Why would Papa not pack the little tadpole off to a monastery? Or if he was bound and determined to rew
ard the boy beyond his station in life, let him look to Richard’s lands or Geoffrey’s.
All of this remained unsaid, though, for he was not a fool, knew better than to trust his father’s assurance that there’d be no anger, no recriminations. If he dared to defy Papa’s will, he’d be tossing a torch into a hayrick. It had always been so. Nothing had changed.
“In the future,” he promised, “I will come to you first with my grievances,” and the evening ended upon a note that satisfied neither father nor son.
THAT YEAR WAS NOT A GOOD ONE for England. The weather was severe, and there were outbreaks of plague and famine in the outlying areas. The summer was hot and dry, withering crops in the field, and autumn was cold and rain-sodden. November had been a month of gale-force winds and black ice, and winter was promising to be particularly harsh on the exposed marshlands of Salisbury Plain.
Eleanor was curled up on the settle with a book and a blanket. She was not reading, though, her thoughts wandering far from the page open on her lap. Edith, her maid, was sitting by the hearth as she mended one of Eleanor’s gowns, humming a cheerful little song as she stitched. Cleo, her cat, was stalking prey in the floor rushes; Eleanor preferred not to know what was being hunted. The rain had ceased earlier in the day, but the wind still sought entry at the shuttered windows, rattling the latches and testing the hinges. Although it was not yet midday, the chamber held enough shadows for night, poorly lit by an oil lamp and several tallow candles that sputtered and filled the air with smoke and the pungent odor of burning fat. Eleanor had never used any candles but the expensive ones made of beeswax, and she wrinkled her nose at the smell, wondering how the queen’s allowance of a penny a day for lamp oil was being spent now.
The cat froze in the rushes, ears flattening, and then darted under the bed. Eleanor had learned to take her cues from the little creature, and listened for the sound of footsteps approaching her door. There was soon a discreet knock, and she said, “Enter,” grimly amused by the charade they enacted every day. Her door was no longer locked as at Falaise, but it was mockery to pretend she still retained the right to refuse admittance to her chamber. It was too early for dinner, and she closed her book, hoping it would not be that tiresome Father Ivo, the castle chaplain. She’d have been more amenable to his attempts to save her soul if he’d been a better source for news, but either he knew nothing of the world beyond his chapel or he was that rarity, a man of God who truly knew how to practice the cardinal virtue of prudence. At least when Bishop Jocelin had finally gotten around to paying a call, he’d spiced up his sermon with a dose of gossip.
“Madame.” An elderly servant poked his head into the room. “You have a visitor,” he announced lugubriously; Eleanor was convinced that if he ever smiled, his face would crack. But when he stepped aside to admit her guest, she jumped to her feet so swiftly that the book fell, forgotten, to the floor.
“Rhiannon! Is it truly you?” In two quick steps, she was at the Welshwoman’s side, taking her arm to guide her into the room. “There is a coffer just to your right, but the settle is straight ahead.” Once they were safely seated, she leaned back to marvel at this unexpected appearance of Ranulf’s wife. “You are my first visitor who has not taken holy vows,” she said, and laughed. “How did you gain entry? Ah, of course, Ranulf. They’d not gainsay the king’s uncle.”
Rhiannon started to remove her mantle, then changed her mind when she realized how chilly it was in the chamber. “No, Ranulf did not accompany me. It was actually Emma who got me permission to see you.” And she launched into a surprisingly accurate impression of Emma at her most imperious. “‘I am the sister of the king, consort of the Prince of Gwynedd. How dare you question my authority?’ In no time at all, they were wilting before her like flowers in the noonday sun.”
Eleanor was thoroughly confused by now. “Emma? Harry’s sister? What in the world—”
“You do not know?” Rhiannon exclaimed, as always turning her head unerringly toward the sound of Eleanor’s voice. “But how could you? The king married Emma off to Prince Davydd last year. Ranulf and I are attending the king’s Christmas Court at Windsor, and when she learned of our plan, Emma asked to accompany us. It is a bit awkward, what with her husband and mine loathing each other! But we could hardly refuse her, for she is Ranulf’s niece, after all. And it turned out to be bread cast upon the waters, for when we reached Clarendon and I found out it was only four miles from Sarum, she was willing to come with me after Ranulf…”
She let the words trail off, but Eleanor had no trouble finishing the sentence for her. “After Ranulf refused,” she said, and smiled to show it did not matter before remembering that smiles were wasted upon Rhiannon. “That was kind of Emma, for I am delighted to see you. But…but why are you this far south? If Harry is holding his Christmas Court at Windsor, why are you so deep in Wiltshire?”
Rhiannon did not answer right away, alerting Eleanor that the answer would not be welcome. “The king is at Winchester now,” she said. “We will be catching up with him there, and then going on together to Windsor.”
Eleanor fell silent. Sarum was only about twenty-five miles from Winchester. Bishop Jocelin had told her that Hal had returned with Henry to England, so this was the closest she’d been to one of her sons in more than two years. Why had Hal not tried to see her? Richard would have, even if it meant scaling the castle walls in the dead of night. Rhiannon was looking troubled, and she roused herself, saying lightly, “Of course you are not really riding all the way from Wales to visit with Harry, are you? Your son Morgan is still in his household, no?”
Rhiannon laughed. “You’ve caught us out,” she admitted. “Morgan is the lure—” She stopped suddenly, head cocked to the side. “What was that noise? Are we alone?”
“No, not exactly. That was Edith, my maid. We can speak freely in front of her, for she speaks no French, only English.” Eleanor’s smile was wry. “She is useful at times, but as a companion, she leaves much to be desired. I have wine, Rhiannon. Would you…” Getting a polite refusal, she leaned over and covered the other woman’s hand with her own. “Tell me of my children.”
Rhiannon did. Joanna was still at Devizes with Constance and Alys, but she was sure the girl would be at Windsor for the Christmas Court, and so would John. Hal and Marguerite would be there, too, of course. Richard and Geoffrey would be holding their own courts, in Poitou and Brittany. They had both enjoyed considerable success in the field, she reported, knowing how proud Eleanor would be. Richard had captured the rebel stronghold of Castillon-sur-Agen that past August after a two-month siege, and the Countess of Chester had written to Ranulf that Geoffrey had Eudo de Porhoët on the run.
“The Countess of Chester,” Eleanor said softly. “Is she well?” And when Rhiannon affirmed it, she forced herself to ask, even though she dreaded the answer. “What of her son? Is Hugh still being held prisoner?”
“No,” Rhiannon said. “He was freed last year, in October, I believe, although his lands have not been restored to him yet.”
“Gratia Dei,” Eleanor whispered, closing her eyes for a moment, and Rhiannon, who was as perceptive as her husband, squeezed her hand affectionately.
“I do have some sad news, though,” she said. “Ranulf’s brother died in July.”
“Rainald? I am sorry to hear that,” Eleanor said, and she was; she’d always had a liking for Henry’s cheery, brash uncle. “Was he long ill?”
“No, it was sudden. He’d been with the king at Woodstock a fortnight earlier, and seemed quite well. He was no longer young, of course.”
“None of us are,” Eleanor said with a sigh. “So…my sons have truly been forgiven, are back in Harry’s good graces?” And she felt both relief and a prickling of resentment when Rhiannon assured her that family peace had indeed been restored. “Rhiannon, I will never forget your kindness in coming to see me, especially since you had
to defy Ranulf to do it. I hope to God I have not caused harm to your marriage.”
“You need not worry, my lady,” Rhiannon said with a quick smile. “It is true that Ranulf was not pleased with me. But he knows full well that Welshwomen are not as submissive and docile as our English sisters. We have minds of our own. And I was not going to let him stop me from visiting you. You spoke of my ‘kindness.’ Well, I am only repaying yours to me, during those months when I was stranded at your court whilst our husbands were chasing about France.”
“Ah, yes,” Eleanor said. “I remember. I was with child—Geoffrey—so that was seventeen years ago. When we got word that Harry’s brother Geoff had died of a sudden, Harry and Ranulf hastened over to Rouen to comfort Maude. They were supposed to return within a fortnight, but it was nigh on four months ere Ranulf came back to England and another month after that ere I was reunited with Harry for our Christmas Court…”
She was quiet for a time, remembering. The men had trooped into the solar at Winchester Castle, muddied and boisterous and jubilant after a day’s good hunting. For a moment, she thought she could actually hear echoes of their raucous laughter on the wind. Henry had pulled her into his lap as he told Ranulf of Thomas Becket’s recent, spectacular entry into Paris, vastly amused by his chancellor’s flair for the dramatic. When she’d asked for a cushion for her aching back, he’d obliged with a grin, saying to the others, “Imagine how she’d order me around if I were not a king.”
Rhiannon was sorry she’d reminded the queen of a time when her marriage was a source of joy, not misery. Hoping to distract Eleanor from memories that served only to hurt, she said hastily, “I was so homesick for Wales, missing Ranulf and feeling like a stranger in an alien land. If you’d not been so good to me, I truly do not know how I would have endured those wretched months.”