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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 42


  “And you have no wish to try matrimony a fourth time?” Eleanor queried, both curious and wanting to be sure Amaria could be content in the seclusion of Sarum.

  “It would take a brave man to take me to wife, given my sad marital history. To be widowed twice is not so out of the ordinary, but when you lose a third husband, people start to take notice,” Amaria said, so matter-of-factly that Eleanor almost missed it, the faintest gleam of very dry humor.

  “And you have no close kin?”

  “Yes…I do, Madame,” Amaria corrected, sounding surprised. “I have several brothers and a sister who is a nun at Fontevrault Abbey, and of course, my Laval cousins.”

  “I must have misheard the Lady Emma,” Eleanor said, “for I thought she said that you had no children or family back in Normandy.”

  “The Lady Emma misspoke. I bore my second husband two babes, one who died when we overlay her in our bed and one who was stillborn. And the Laval cousins I mentioned are kin to Lady Emma’s late husband.”

  Eleanor was quiet for a moment, assessing what she’d so far learned. This was a strong woman, strong enough to have buried two children and three husbands and survived. Yet there was something that did not ring true about the entire matter. Emma was not particularly interested in the personal lives of others, and may well have forgotten that Amaria had lost two babies in infancy, assuming that she’d even known. But how could she have forgotten that Amaria was kin to her husband?

  “You are wondering what pieces are missing from this puzzle,” Amaria said unexpectedly. “May I speak candidly, Madame?”

  “I wish you would.”

  “The truth is that the Lady Emma had her own reasons for her offer to you. I have been with her for a year and a half now, and I think I have worn out my welcome. But I am her late husband’s cousin, and so she would not want to dismiss me out of hand. If I entered your service, my lady, my family back in Laval would feel that she’d done right by me. It is true you are in disgrace, but you are still the Queen of England, and that would not fail to impress my brothers.”

  “What have you done to displease Emma?” Eleanor asked, although she thought she already knew the answer to that.

  “I have my share of failings, Madame, as do we all. But the one that seems to vex the Lady Emma the most is my unfortunate habit of speaking my mind too forthrightly. I’ve never learned the art of dissembling, and it seems that is highly valued in a lady’s maid. Apparently too much candor can become tedious, or so Lady Emma tells me.”

  “I suspected as much,” Eleanor said, suppressing a smile. Any woman who’d tell a queen to her face that she was “in disgrace” would not flourish in the artificial, mannered society of the highborn. The “art of dissembling” was more than a virtue in the corridors of power; it was a survival skill.

  Amaria was watching her intently. “I suppose I’ve ruined my chances,” she said, sounding resigned but not apologetic. “I did not think it was likely you’d take me on, in truth. Thank you, my lady.”

  As she started to rise, Eleanor waved her back. “You are too hasty, Lady Amaria. As it happens, I think you’ll do very well.”

  “Truly?” Amaria hid neither her surprise nor her pleasure. “I’d never have wagered on that outcome, my lady!” she said and grinned. “If my outspokenness did not put you off, I feared you might be suspicious, wondering if this was not a plot concocted by Lady Emma and the king to place a spy in your household.”

  Eleanor laughed outright. “The thought did cross my mind. But I could see no profit in it. You see, Amaria, the victor rarely bothers to spy upon the vanquished.” She rose then, indicating the interview was over. “You may tell the Lady Emma that I will be pleased to have you join my household, such as it is.”

  Amaria had gotten to her feet as soon as Eleanor rose. “You will not be sorry, my lady. Well, at least I hope not,” she amended and curtsied before moving toward the door. There she paused. “Madame…I would not pretend to know the king’s mind, have only seen him briefly. But at Windsor he seemed surprisingly tense and troubled for a man you call the ‘victor.’” And then, fearing she’d overstepped her bounds before she’d even entered Eleanor’s service, she curtsied again and backed out the door.

  Eleanor sat down again on the settle. There was some satisfaction in the image conjured up by Amaria’s words. As wretched as she was, she wanted Harry to be miserable, too. And yet, she was aware of an underlying sense of sadness. Theirs may have been the first war in which there were no winners, only losers.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  February 1176

  Woodstock, England

  MELIORA WATCHED FROM a distance as the king emerged into the manor bailey. He did not look happy, and her spirits sank; it must not have gone well with Rosamund. She waited until he’d entered the great hall before making her way to the royal bedchamber. There she found Rosamund huddled on the bed, weeping as if she’d never stop.

  “Ah, lamb…” Scrambling up onto the bed, she gathered the younger woman into her arms. “The king would not agree, then?”

  “No…” Rosamund looked up, blue eyes swollen to slits, her face streaked with tears. “I tried so hard to make him understand, Meliora. I told him how much I wanted to retire to the nunnery at Godstow, that I could no longer live in a state of sin. But he became very distraught. He asked if I still loved him, and of course, I had to say that I did and I do. He insisted that was what mattered, and we could find a way to ease my mind. He said he could not bear to lose me—”

  She sobbed again, seemed to have so much trouble catching her breath that an alarmed Meliora slid off the bed and brought her a cup of wine, urging her to drink. Rosamund obediently took a swallow, and then wiped her face with her sleeve. “Tell me what to do, Meliora. I cannot bear to cause him such pain, but this is the kindest way…I know that. If I cannot convince him of this, though…”

  Meliora found herself blinking back tears of her own. “You may have to tell him the truth, lamb,” she said softly. But as she expected, Rosamund shook her head vehemently.

  “No! I will not do that to him. I will not make him watch me die!”

  Meliora did not know what to say, and rocked Rosamund in her arms until her sobs subsided and eventually she fell into an exhausted sleep. Only then did she get her mantle and leave the chamber.

  Outside, she halted in confusion, unsure what to do next. She considered the idea of going to the king herself, but not for long. She could not betray Rosamund’s confidence. Nor had she the courage to confront the king, to argue without the one weapon that might sway him. Who in Christendom did?

  An icy rain had fallen earlier in the day. It was dry now, but the bailey was still muddy and windswept as she started toward the chapel, intending to beseech the Almighty to aid His daughter Rosamund in her time of travail. She’d only gone a few steps, though, before she came to an abrupt halt, staring at the man who’d just exited the great hall. The Lord God had answered her prayers, for there was one at Woodstock with the courage to tell the king what he did not want to hear, and the moral authority to prevail without revealing Rosamund’s illness.

  “My lord bishop!” As Roger turned, she hastened toward him, would have sunk to her knees in the mud before him had he not stopped her. “I am Dame Meliora, Your Grace, handmaiden to the Lady Rosamund. Can you spare a few moments for me? It is a matter of the greatest urgency—the state of my lady’s immortal soul.”

  “WHY DID YOU INSIST upon dragging me out to the springs, Roger?” Henry cast a pessimistic glance at the overcast sky. “We’re likely to have to swim back to the manor.”

  Roger decided they’d come far enough and slowed his steps. “I wanted to speak with you in privacy,” he said, “with no fear of prying eyes or pricked ears.”

  “About what?”

  “Sin.”

  Henry’s brows shot upward. “You do remember, Cousin, that you are not my confessor?”

  “I am not jesting, Harry. This is too grave a
matter for that. I need to speak with you about the Lady Rosamund Clifford.”

  “Indeed?” Henry’s voice had hardened; Roger could see the tightening of the muscles along his jaw. “Rosamund is none of your concern, my lord bishop.”

  “Harry…you must let her go.”

  “She spoke to you about this…about Godstow?” Henry sounded incredulous and then, defiant. “As I said, this is none of your concern. Let it be, Roger.”

  “I cannot do that, my lord king, for the stakes are too high. If you love her—and I think you do—that is why you must let her withdraw to the nunnery at Godstow priory.”

  “I do love her,” Henry said, “and that is why I will not let her go. This is but a whim of hers, a fancy that will pass. I know her, Roger. You do not.”

  Roger was silent, marshaling his arguments, regretting his promise to Meliora that he’d say nothing of Rosamund’s suspicions, the recurring pain in her breast. Henry was scowling, but Roger took heart from the fact that he’d not stalked away in a royal rage. He hoped that meant his cousin was not as free of misgivings as he claimed. “I am willing to risk your anger,” he said quietly, “for royal favor means little when balanced against eternal damnation. It is my concern for her immortal soul that bids me be so bold with you. She gave up much for your sake, Cousin…her maidenhead, her honor, marriage, and motherhood. Would you have her give up her chances of salvation, too?”

  “Damn you,” Henry said, low voiced. He’d backed against a nearby oak, a massive tree barren of leaves, gnarled and ancient. “Damn you,” he said again, even as his shoulders slumped and the color drained from his face.

  THE BENEDICTINE NUNNERY of St Mary and St John the Baptist had been founded in the year of Henry’s birth. Situated on an island between two streams of the River Thames just north of Oxford, it had always been a haven for Rosamund; she’d been educated there and still had a deep and abiding love for the convent and the nuns who’d schooled her in her youth. Standing in the familiar priory precincts to bid farewell to the king, Rosamund experienced a sense of utter unreality. Was this a dream or had her long love affair with Harry been one?

  They had exchanged their private farewell the night before at Woodstock, and so they were formal now in the presence of Prioress Edith and the other nuns. Henry kissed her hand and she made a respectful curtsy, even though she knew that the nuns were well aware of their scandalous liaison.

  “I have to attend a great council with the papal legate next month in London,” Henry murmured, too softly for any ears but Rosamund’s, “and then I’ll be holding my Easter Court at Winchester. I will stop to see you on the way.”

  “Go with God, my lord,” she whispered, seeing him through a blur of tears.

  “COME,” Prioress Edith said briskly as soon as Henry and his men had departed. “We have prepared a guest house for you.”

  Rosamund was honored that the prioress herself had chosen to escort them. She’d known they would make her welcome; the king’s favor would be a great blessing for the priory. But she was touched to find so many of the nuns waiting for her at her new lodgings. As her anxiety about her reception had increased, the pragmatic Meliora had pointed out that she’d been very generous with the convent since becoming the king’s mistress. To Rosamund, that counted for little against the shame of adultery. So far, though, she’d encountered no hostility or disdain, neither overt nor implied. Nuns who had taught her in her youth greeted her warmly as a former pupil, not as a wanton seeking redemption.

  Seeing the exhaustion etched into Rosamund’s face and posture, the prioress sent the other nuns off to their duties, leaving Rosamund alone with Meliora. The older woman hovered nearby, not wanting to smother her with too much attention, too much solicitude. It was not easy, though, for she’d learned to love Rosamund as one of her own daughters.

  “You will consult with the infirmarian this afternoon, dearest?”

  “I will, Meliora,” Rosamund promised dutifully. She sat on the bed, watching as Meliora set about unpacking their coffers, still feeling as if she were sleepwalking. She could feel the tears welling up in her eyes again as she thought of her last night with Henry. His pain was so much harder to bear than her own. Rising abruptly, she announced she was going for a walk, slipping out before Meliora could protest.

  Prioress Edith had said dinner was served in the guest hall, and the position of the sun told her that noon was nigh. There were several widows living at the nunnery, and she could imagine they’d be avidly curious about the king’s concubine. She had no appetite, was never hungry these days, and she decided to forgo the meal, not yet ready to face an audience. Instead, she headed for the church.

  Inside, all was serene, shadowed, and still. Nothing had changed; it was like going back in time. Moving into the nave, she approached the high altar. Kneeling, she began to pray for her royal lover, that he would not grieve for her too much. She’d expected to fall apart once she was alone, giving way then to the heartbreak she’d been stifling for his sake. But her tears soon dried, and as she prayed, she realized that some of her sorrow was easing. There was comfort in these familiar surroundings; there was comfort in the invocations of childhood. This was the first time in years that she’d been able to bare her soul to the Almighty without being in a state of sin. Her confessor had never been able to absolve her, for they both knew she’d continue sleeping with the king. Now she could repent without reservations. She could accept the penance laid upon her, could atone for her transgressions, and die in a state of grace. And kneeling there in the church of Godstow priory, she rediscovered what she’d long ago lost and thought forever denied her—the promise of inner peace.

  A KEEN MARCH WIND was gusting and winter’s chill still lingered, even though Easter was less than a fortnight away. Eleanor did not mind the mercurial weather, though, so pleased was she to be riding in the open air under a sky the color of bluebells. Her mare seemed to have been infected with her high spirits and was fighting the bit, eager to run. Glancing over at Amaria, mounted on a more docile gelding, Eleanor was tempted to challenge her to race. Thinking of Sir Ralph’s panicked reaction should his royal prisoner suddenly gallop off into the distance, she laughed aloud.

  Amaria smiled at the sound of that laughter. She did not know what awaited them. Sir Ralph had told them only that he’d received orders to move the queen from Sarum to Winchester. But it was enough for her that the queen was so happy on the journey, however it ended. Amaria was convinced that the queen found confinement so oppressive because she’d always enjoyed far more freedom than most women. She was a wild bird caught in a net, unlike her tamer sisters bred in captivity. At the very least, Winchester would offer novelty, a change from the predictable dreariness of days that were indistinguishable one from the other.

  It was dusk before they saw the walls of Winchester in the distance. As they approached the Westgate, Amaria glanced toward the adjoining castle and cried out at the sight of the banner flapping in the March wind. “My lady, look! The king is here!”

  Eleanor did not share Amaria’s surprise. She’d quickly concluded that this trek to Winchester was connected to her husband’s annulment plans. Why else would Sir Ralph have said she’d not be returning to Sarum? What was Harry up to now? Well, she’d soon see. She was not as nervous about this meeting as she’d been before their confrontation at Falaise, for she had more than two years of experience as his prisoner to draw upon now, knew where he’d set the boundaries for himself. She need not fear physical punishment or abuse, or even deprivation to any great extent. He might even free her for the sake of their children if he could find a way to clip her wings or blunt her talons. That was such a mixed metaphor that she could not help laughing again, but it was as apt as it was incongruous. If she saw herself as a caged dove, Harry saw her in far more predatory terms, as a bird of prey.

  By the time they passed into the outer bailey of Winchester’s great castle, the sky was the shade of lavender. Dismounting first, Sir Ralph has
tened over to assist Eleanor from her mare, and she hoped her next gaoler would be as conscientious. She’d learned that courtesy mattered the most to those with no right to demand it.

  “Maman!” The cry rang out across the bailey, as clear as a harp chord. Eleanor spun around at the sound, just in time to catch her daughter to her in a close embrace. Joanna was hugging her so tightly that her mantle brooch was being pressed into her skin, but she did not care, any more than she’d cared about the driving rain when they’d been reunited at Barfleur. This reunion was different from the first one, though, for it was not being held under her husband’s glowering, baleful gaze. Henry was nowhere to be seen.

  ELEANOR NOTED WITH IRONIC AMUSEMENT that she had not been put in the Queen’s Chamber, but she had no complaints about her lodgings. The room was freshly painted, hung with decorative wall hangings to shut out the cold, the floor covered with fragrant rushes, and the candles were made of costly beeswax, not the malodorous tallow. “Thank you, dearest,” she said warmly, for she was sure this was Joanna’s doing. “The chamber is a fine one.”

  Joanna was sprawled on the bed, playing with her mother’s cat as it cautiously ventured from its travel basket. She glanced over her shoulder with a smile. “Tell me what else you want, Maman, and I will persuade Papa to get it for you.”

  “You sound very sure of yourself, Regina,” Eleanor teased, with a smile of her own, and Joanna’s throat constricted, for it had been a long time since she’d heard that affectionate pet name, bestowed upon her by her brothers when talk had first begun of marriage to the King of Sicily. She could no longer remember who had first used it, Hal or Richard, but it brought back memories of those days when her parents were not at war with each other and her family was still intact.