Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 41

  “Your visit today eclipses any kindnesses I may have shown you,” Eleanor assured her. “Rhiannon…may I ask you about your blindness? But if you’d rather not talk about it—”

  “Other people are the ones who have difficulty speaking of it, not me.”

  “You were not born blind, were you?” Eleanor asked, hoping that her memory was not playing her false.

  “No, I was not. I lost the sight in one eye when I was eight after I was hit by an ice-encrusted snowball. But within a year, I lost the sight in my other eye, too. My father consulted every physician in Wales, and they all said the same. They did not know why my other eye should also fail, but it was often the case with such injuries, and nothing could be done. My mother would have wrapped me in soft wool, coddled me till her last breath, but my father, bless him, would have none of that. He insisted that I ‘defy the dark,’ live my life as if I were still sighted. I learned to play a harp, to sew and do household chores, even to ride a horse, finding ways to compensate for my lack of sight. It was not easy, but I was so lucky, my lady, that my father was so stubborn!” A fleeting smile touched her lips. “The blind are often hidden away from the world, as if they are a cause for shame.”

  Eleanor had listened intently, and was quiet for a few moments. “I’ve met few people as calm, as contented as you, Rhiannon. You always seemed to me like a serene small island in a turbulent sea. I often wondered how you’d achieved that sense of peace, given how severely you’d been tested by the Almighty.”

  By now Rhiannon had grasped which way the wind was blowing. “Acceptance of life’s setbacks is never easy, my lady. For me, the hardest time came when I reached marriageable age, when I realized that few men would be willing to take a blind wife. But my father never let me wallow in self-pity, and his own life was so beset with tragedy that he’d earned the right to speak on the subject.”

  Eleanor knew very little of Rhiannon’s father, save that he’d been crippled some years ago when he’d been trampled by a runaway horse. “What losses did your father suffer?”

  “His brothers and sisters had all died ere their time. He found great contentment in marriage to my mother, but he lost her, too, and of the six children she’d borne him, three were stillborn or died in the cradle. Only my brother Cadell, my sister Eleri, and I survived childhood. Cadell died at twenty, thrown from his horse, and when my father wed again, his new wife proved barren, but he was too fond of her to put her aside, even though he no longer had a male heir and his lands could have been forfeit to his prince when he died.”

  Eleanor agreed that Rhodri ap Rhys had been visited far more than he ought by the Grim Reaper. Thinking the man might better have been named Job than Rhodri, she said, “So how did he cope?”

  “He dealt with his disappointments as he’d dealt with his blind daughter, by seeking to change what could be changed and accepting what could not. He taught me to acknowledge my mistakes, to learn from them, and then put them aside. He never let me forget that the morrow might bring greater glory than yesterday’s ills, for none of us know the Divine Plan of Our Saviour. In that, we are all blind, and see through a glass, darkly.”

  Rhiannon smiled again, a smile that spilled sunlight into the dimly lit chamber. “And indeed, good did come with the bad. Ranulf came back to us, filling the hole left in our hearts by Cadell’s death. When we least expected it, my father found a male heir to save his lands and I found joy beyond imagining. And Ranulf…he found what he most needed, a way to heal, to escape a past weighted down with regrets and remorse and guilt. Not a day passes that I do not thank the Almighty for His Blessings, but not a day passes that I do not thank my father, too, for teaching me that there is a time for every purpose under the heaven and the greatest gift we can offer Our Lord God is to pray with a loving, humble heart, ‘Not what I will, but what Thou wilt.’”

  Eleanor’s eyes searched the other woman’s face, but she felt letdown, hoping for more than that. “You make it sound so simple,” she said, and Rhiannon shook her head so vehemently that her veil swung from side to side.

  “Oh, no,” she said. “It is not simple at all. Indeed, it may be the most difficult task you ever undertake in this life, my lady. But think upon this. What other choices have you?”

  IF ELEANOR HAD BEEN SURPRISED by Rhiannon’s unexpected visit, she was dumbfounded by the identity of her next visitor. On a cold, overcast day in late December, that same mournful servant announced the arrival of the Lady Emma, sister of the English king.

  EMMA HAD TAKEN one disapproving glance at Eleanor’s accommodations and sent the plump, moon-faced Edith to the great hall. “The wench does understand the word for ‘wine’?” she asked, seating herself beside Eleanor with a rustle of silken skirts. “Or is she likely to come back with verjuice or buttermilk?”

  “No, ‘wine’ was one of the first words I taught her,” Eleanor said with a smile. “Whatever are you doing here in Wiltshire, Emma? Rhiannon said you were attending Harry’s Christmas Court at Windsor.”

  “I was, but I chose to leave earlier than I’d first planned. It was not as entertaining as I’d hoped.”

  Eleanor studied her sister-in-law with curious, speculative eyes. They’d always gotten along well enough, although they’d never been confidantes; the twenty-five-year gap in their ages had not been conducive to greater intimacy. She’d always thought Emma was one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen; like Hal, she’d inherited Geoffrey le Bel’s striking good looks. She was fashionably fair, with cornflower-blue eyes and sunlit flaxen hair hidden now by wimple and veil, blessed with good bones, deep dimples, and an ethereal, delicate appearance that led people, especially men, to miss the steel in her spine. Now she busied herself in placing a cushion behind her back before saying nonchalantly,

  “I brought you a New Year’s gift, a tame magpie in a wicker cage. Alas, though, a clumsy servant let it escape.”

  “I thank you for the thought,” Eleanor said, although she was not disappointed, for she did not fancy keeping a captive bird as a pet, unable to soar into the sky as God intended. “But if you are returning to Wales, surely Sarum is greatly out of your way?”

  “It would be, if I were going back to Wales. But I intend to take ship at Southampton by week’s end, assuming the winds are favorable. I want to visit my son.”

  Eleanor remembered that Emma had a small son, born of her first marriage. As the young Lord of Laval, he’d not been able to accompany her into Wales, yet another reason for Emma to begrudge her marriage to Davydd ab Owain. “I am gladdened to see you,” she said, “but I’ll admit to some surprise. Most people seem to fear that the king’s disfavor is contagious.”

  Emma’s shoulders twitched in a graceful shrug. “I doubt that Rhiannon had much gossip to share with you, whereas I have enough scandals and rumors and idle talk to entertain you for months to come. Consider it my good deed for the year.”

  They were interrupted then by Edith’s return, carefully balancing a tray with wine cups and wafers. She was a good-hearted girl, and beamed when Eleanor thanked her in her own tongue. Motivated as much by boredom as anything else, Eleanor had begun to learn a few phrases of English; on her bad days, she feared that she might be fluent in English by the time her captivity ended, either by release or death.

  “I am assuming that you are as innocent of recent happenings as a cloistered nun,” Emma declared, taking a swallow of wine and grimacing at the taste. “Harry’s son Geoff is now the Bishop of Lincoln, as the Holy Father approved his election, and he was formally welcomed into his city in August. But Harry then decided that he should continue with his schooling ere he is actually consecrated and will be sending him to Tours for further study, much to Geoff’s relief.”

  Eleanor had always had a good relationship with Geoff, but she was sure that was one more casualty of the rebellion, as badly ruptured as her friendship with Ranulf. She thought it a pity that her husband had not found a destiny for his son that was a more comfortable fit,
but she refrained from commenting, not wanting to risk alienating Emma with criticism of her brother.

  “I imagine Rhiannon told you of Rainald’s death, and that Richard and Geoffrey had some success against rebels in Poitou and Brittany. It looks as if marriage negotiations for Joanna are on again, and the King of Sicily is sending envoys to the English court in the spring.”

  Eleanor frowned, saying nothing. She’d approved of the match, which would give Joanna a crown and a husband likely to treat her well, but now she could think only that if her daughter were sent off to Sicily, she might never see the girl again.

  “As for the Clifford slut, Harry makes no secret that she shares his bed, but he has so far refrained from flaunting her at court. When he needs a woman to grace his table or act as hostess, he relies upon Marguerite, most likely in a vain attempt to mollify Hal.”

  Rosamund Clifford was the least of Eleanor’s troubles. “‘A vain attempt,’” she echoed. “Are you saying that Harry and Hal are at odds again? It was my understanding that they’d made peace and all was well between them.”

  “On the surface, it is,” Emma said, pausing to sip more wine. “They were together day and night this year past, riding the length and breadth of England as they dealt with the duties of kingship. They made a pilgrimage to Canterbury to give thanks to St Thomas, held forest courts in Nottingham and York, forced the Earl of Gloucester to yield Bristol Castle, met with the Welsh princes this summer, then traveled north to receive the allegiance of the Scots king and his barons. I suspect Harry is trying to keep Hal so busy that he does not have time to collect new grievances, but if so, it is not working as well as he’d hoped.”

  Eleanor thought it interesting that Emma had dismissed her husband with that casual phrase, “the Welsh princes,” but she was far more intrigued by the possibility of dissention between father and son. “What are Hal’s grievances?”

  “The usual complaints—not enough money, not enough time to himself, not enough authority of his own. As long as they are yoked together, Hal is going to be utterly overshadowed by his sire, and he likes it not. Lately he seems to be looking for reasons to disagree with his father, although he does have the right of it in their squabble about the forest courts. But I find it hard to believe that he is truly so concerned with the injustice of it, think he is just using the issue as a way to assert his independence.”

  “What do you mean, ‘the injustice of it’?” Eleanor asked, and Emma smiled, thinking that she sounded more like the prideful Duchess of Aquitaine at that moment than a royal prisoner resigned to her fate.

  “During the rebellion, Harry had proclaimed free hunting in the royal forests. But he’s had a change of heart, and he is now amercing stiff fines against those who took him at his word. Even his justiciar protested, producing the royal writ authorizing such trespasses. Harry would not be dissuaded, though, and ordered both barons and clerics into his court as he traveled around the country. Not a popular move for certes, one that has stirred up resentment against him.”

  “He must be in great need of money,” Eleanor said thoughtfully, “to resort to such drastic measures. The cost of putting down the rebellion must have been higher than he’d anticipated.”

  “I daresay you’re right,” Emma agreed. “But I think he also sees it as a way to reassert the authority of the Crown, reminding his subjects and vassals that the lax days of the past are gone for good. He has always been strong-willed, but he is less amenable to compromise now than he once was, less concerned about the fairness of his decisions. His seizure of the earldom of Cornwall is a good example of that.”

  “Rainald’s earldom?” Eleanor paused for a moment to recall the late earl’s family circumstances. He’d claimed the vast earldom through his wife, a great heiress who’d also been unstable of mind. They’d had three daughters and a sickly son, who’d not survived his father, leaving him with a natural son, Rico, who was barred from inheritance by his out-of-wedlock birth. But even lacking a male heir, the earldom should have been divided among his daughters and their husbands.

  “That does not sound like Harry,” she said. “God knows, he could be stubborn once he made up his mind, but he was rarely arbitrary, and the only time he was truly unjust was when he exiled Becket’s kin and household in a fit of fury.”

  Emma shrugged again. “Well, if he has indeed changed for the worse, you must bear some of the responsibility for that, no?”

  She’d half-expected Eleanor to flare up, and was surprised when the other woman nodded. “Yes, I suppose I must.”

  “Good heavens,” she said, faintly mocking but without real malice, “has captivity caused you to examine your conscience, Sister?”

  This time it was Eleanor’s turn to shrug. “It helps to pass the time,” she said composedly and, as their eyes met, Emma was suddenly glad that she’d followed this inexplicable impulse and detoured to Sarum.

  “I promised you scandal, too,” she said. “But alas, it is not one you’ll take pleasure in, for it involves your niece, your sister Petronilla’s elder daughter.”

  “Isabelle? What has happened?”

  “It seems she took those troubadours’ tales about courtly love too much to heart, or at least her husband thought so. Flanders was apparently not fertile ground for notions of romance and besotted swains and unrequited love. Philip caught Isabelle with one of his knights in compromising circumstances. She swore that they were not lovers, as did the man, but Philip was not convinced. He ordered the knight to be beaten nigh onto death with a mace, then hung by his heels over a cesspit until he suffocated.”

  “Jesu,” Eleanor breathed. “What did he do to Isabelle?”

  “Well, he would not end the marriage, for then he’d lose her inheritance, Vermandois. So he somehow ‘persuaded’ her to assign her rights to him.” Emma dropped all pretense of insouciance and said, with a hard edge now to her voice, “Better we not know how he managed that.”

  “Indeed,” Eleanor said, just as grimly. “God help the girl. It does not matter if she was guilty of adultery or not, does it? The mere appearance of impropriety was enough to damn her.”

  Emma nodded, and they both fell silent for a time, contemplating the bleak future of Isabelle of Vermandois and the sad fate of her alleged lover. “I never thought I’d say this,” Eleanor said finally, “but I am glad that my sister is dead. She’d be half mad with fear for her daughter, whilst knowing there was little she could do.”

  Emma decided to overlook the unsatisfactory quality of the wine and drained her cup. “There is something else you need to know, Eleanor. Last month, Harry met with Cardinal Ugo Pierleoni, a papal legate he’d invited to England.”

  “Harry sought the cardinal out?” Eleanor was astonished, for no papal legate had set foot on English soil during the twenty-one years of her husband’s reign. It did not take her long to guess why Henry wanted to consult a papal legate, and she said, with a thin smile, “So he wants to see if the Pope would be agreeable to the dissolution of his marriage.”

  “Well, ostensibly the cardinal’s mission was to settle the interminable feuding between the Sees of York and Canterbury, but I think you can safely assume that the question of your marriage came up in conversation.”

  “He’d have no trouble finding grounds for annulment,” Eleanor conceded. “Louis and I made use of that reliable pretext, consanguinity, and Harry could invoke it, too, for we are actually more closely related by blood than Louis and I were. Or if he wanted to break new ground, I suppose he could raise the specter of treason. But then he’d find himself in the very same predicament that faced Louis. Once our marriage was ended, he’d lose any claim to Aquitaine. Somehow I cannot envision Harry being quite as trusting as Louis, bidding me farewell to return to my own duchy, knowing how happy the French king would be to come to my defense, how eager to fulfill his obligations as my liege lord.”

  “I agree,” Emma said. “However much Harry might want to rid himself of you, he’d not be willing
to yield up Aquitaine, either to you or Richard. It is a tangled coil for certes, a Gordian knot. But this I know. If there is a man capable of escaping that maze, it is my brother.”

  “Yes,” Eleanor said reluctantly, “you may well be right. At least I will not be taken by surprise now. Thank you, Emma, for the warning.”

  “You are welcome.” Emma rose without haste, smoothing her skirt and adjusting her wimple. “There is one more matter,” she said, “one more good deed I can do for you. Rhiannon told me about the milkmaid.” Her gaze flicked toward the oblivious Edith, an expression of disdain turning down that lovely mouth. “I think I can do us both a good turn, for one of my ladies-in-waiting has been pining away in Wales. I’d send her back to Normandy, but she has no family there. She’s thrice a widow, but barren, and she is too proud to impose upon cousins. Why not speak with her? If she suits you, I’ll be spared her sulks and complaints, and at the least, you’ll have an attendant who speaks French.”

  “Would she be willing? It could be argued that serving me is a form of captivity in and of itself. Since she’s not taken vows, I assume the quiet of the cloister holds no appeal for her.”

  Emma’s smile was dismissive. “Trust me, she’ll thank God fasting for the chance to escape from Wales.”

  Eleanor let her reach the door before she spoke again. “Emma…I have to ask, if only out of curiosity. Why did you come to see me? Why did you warn me that Harry is pondering an annulment?”

  Emma paused, silent for so long that Eleanor decided she was not going to answer. “Let’s just say,” she said, “that it was a gesture of good will, one unhappy wife to another.”

  AMARIA DE TORIGNY was a still-handsome woman in her forties, with wide-set dark eyes, strong but comely features, and more curves than were fashionable. She bore Eleanor’s scrutiny with equanimity, and answered readily enough when she was asked of her history. Yes, she was indeed kin to the abbot of Mont St Michel, a second cousin, she believed. And yes, she had been wed three times and thrice widowed, first as a lass to a neighbor old enough to be her grandfather, then to a Norman knight, and lastly to the steward of the Breton lord, André de Vitré, adding that she’d entered the service of the Lady Emma after her last husband’s death.