Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 43

  “Papa rarely says nay to me,” she admitted. “And he is being even more generous now, for the King of Sicily is sending envoys to the court this spring, and if all goes as planned, I could sail for Sicily ere the year is done.”

  “So that is why I am at Winchester?”

  Joanna nodded. “I told him that nothing mattered more to me than having you with me ere I wed. I explained,” she added with a grin, “that a girl needs her mother at such a time.”

  She was a confident, clever child, but a child, nonetheless, only in her eleventh year, and soon to be a wife. Eleanor had accepted the practice, for it was all she knew. Confinement had caused her to question many of the tenets she’d once taken for granted, though, and regret caught at her heart now as she thought of sending Joanna off to an alien land, an unknown husband, a fate to be determined by factors beyond her parents’ control.

  Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Joanna had lured the cat into her lap, pronouncing herself satisfied with the name Eleanor had chosen, Cleopatra, in recognition of the little creature’s haughty elegance and queenly will. “Did I tell you, Maman, that I got my first letter?” She sounded so proud, as if this were a milestone toward adulthood, and Eleanor felt another protective pang, wishing she could keep this fledgling in the nest for a little longer.

  “It was from Tilda,” Joanna revealed, obviously flattered that her elder sister had thought she was old enough to receive her own correspondence. “She wrote to Papa, too. She had another baby, a second son, who has been named Lothair.” The sound of that odd German name sent her into a fit of giggles, but she soon grew serious again. “Tilda is distraught by what has happened to our family, Maman. She says she does not understand. I do not know what to tell her, for I do not understand, either.”

  “Ah, child…” Eleanor sat beside her on the bed, put an arm around the girl’s shoulders. It occurred to her, then, that Joanna had yet to mention Hal, an odd omission unless he was no longer at his father’s court. “What of your brother? Will Hal be permitted to see me, too?”

  “Hal is gone, Maman. He has been very restless of late and none too happy. He decided he wanted to go on pilgrimage to the shrine at Santiago de Compostela. Papa was loath to consent, did not seem to think that was a good idea at all. But Hal persisted; he can be very stubborn, you know. And at last Papa compromised, agreed to let him go to Normandy for a time. Hal and Marguerite left a few days ago for Porchester. Such a shame you missed him, for I know how dearly he’d have loved to see you.”

  “Indeed, a shame,” Eleanor said, very dryly. If Joanna thought Hal’s absence was due to coincidence, well and good. She knew better.

  JOANNA APPEARED IN ELEANOR’S BEDCHAMBER early the next morning, reluctantly leaving later only for dinner in the great hall. Eleanor was served her meal in her own chamber, although she had to admit the quality of the Lenten food was no less than what was being served at the high table in the hall. It was clear to her that Henry did not want to give Joanna any cause for complaint about her mother’s treatment, and she grudgingly gave him credit for putting their daughter’s wishes above his own. She’d dressed that morning in the best of her gowns, for she was anticipating a royal summons, and it was not long in coming. Once dinner was done, the castellan came to escort her to the king.

  THE SOLAR WAS STILL SHUTTERED, for the day held none of the longed-for warmth of spring. It was well lit, though, with oil lamps and a large iron candelabrum. Henry was alone, walking back and forth before the fireplace. This was the first time she’d seen him in almost two years, and she was startled by the change in his appearance. Although his ceaseless activity had kept him fit, he’d always had a powerful, stocky build. He was noticeably thinner now, his face so drawn that it almost looked gaunt, and his closely cropped reddish hair was showing traces of grey. She suspected that these past months had been no kinder to her, but the fashionable wimple framed her face in a flattering way, concealing any signs of aging, and her own grey hairs were covered by the graceful folds of her veil.

  They regarded each other in silence for a few moments, Eleanor content to let him set the pace. “If you’ll have a seat,” he said coolly, “we have matters to discuss.”

  Eleanor sat in the chair he’d indicated, noting that he’d provided wine for them both; so this was to be a duel conducted with civility. As he took a seat across the table from her, she said, as if they were resuming an interrupted conversation, “So will you accept the King of Sicily for our Joanna?”

  Taken by surprise, he said, “Yes, I think so. I’ll put his proposal before my council in London, but I do not expect any objections to be raised. It will be a good match for her, one she seems content with.”

  “Yes, she does,” Eleanor agreed, claiming a small victory by compelling him to acknowledge that she still had the right to voice her opinions about their daughter’s future. “What dowry is he proposing to give her?”

  “The same that was discussed when the issue of marriage was first raised. He will grant her the county of St Angelo, the cities of Liponti and Viesta, and various castles and towns.” Henry was not comfortable with the direction their discussion had taken; this could have been any idle, intimate conversation between husband and wife. “We need to talk about the future,” he said abruptly, retreating into his public persona—the dispassionate king, detached and distant.

  That was a part Eleanor had often played herself, but she had no intention now of submerging the woman in the queen. Whether he liked it or not, he’d have to deal with his wife. Smiling, she raised her cup and took a sip of wine. “How is the annulment progressing?”

  She had to admire his control; only the narrowing of his eyes told her that her thrust had hit home. “I expect,” he said, very evenly, “that you are as eager as I am to end this mockery of a marriage. If only for the sake of our children, we need a resolution, a way to put the past behind us and move on.”

  “I am certainly in favor of that,” Eleanor said lightly; to her surprise, she was beginning to enjoy herself. “But there is that awkward little problem—Aquitaine. We both want it, and I actually have a blood right to it, a right the French king would be only too happy to recognize. If you set me free, I can promise to be guided by you in all matters of importance, to be good.” Her smile came and went so fast that he could not be sure he’d seen it. “Could you trust me, though?”

  Henry took the bait. “I’d sooner trust in the honor of the lowest Southwark whore,” he snapped. He at once regretted the flare of temper; he’d sworn that he’d not let her provoke him, not like that wretched morning at Falaise. “You want your freedom, and I am willing to grant it to you—under certain conditions. Do you care to hear them?”

  “I am waiting breathlessly,” she assured him. “What is the price I must pay?”

  “I will never let you loose in Aquitaine again. That big a fool I am not.”

  “That was not one of Louis’s better decisions, was it? Even if it did rebound to your benefit. So what do you propose, then? Do not leave me in suspense, I entreat you.”

  “You agree to the annulment. You agree, too, to relinquish your rights to Aquitaine.”

  “And what do I get from that Devil’s deal? I am free to do what…to beg my bread by the side of the road? You’ll have to do better than that, my lord husband.”

  “You did not let me finish,” he said coldly. “You take the veil and enter Fontevrault abbey—as its abbess. It is one of the most renowned abbeys in Christendom, one of the few where the abbess rules over monks as well as nuns. You could have a very comfortable life, with enough authority and influence to satisfy even a former duchess. I would retain my overlordship over the duchy, but Richard’s status as heir would not be affected. He would still be recognized as the Count of Poitou and eventual ruler of Aquitaine. I think it is a reasonable solution, far more than you deserve if truth be told. You get your freedom and enormous prestige as the abbess of a great abbey. I get peace of mind. And Richard still gets Aquitain
e, which is what you always wanted.”

  Eleanor leaned back in her chair. For a moment, her face was noncommittal; he had no idea what she was thinking. And then she startled him by clapping aloud. “Ah, well done, Harry! I knew you’d find a way once you put your mind to it. An ideal solution, for certes. You no longer need fear that I am becoming too friendly with Louis or Philip of Flanders. You can still meddle in Aquitaine whenever you get the urge, and you can continue to spend my money, of course, whilst keeping Richard on a tight rein, for an heir and a duke are not quite one and the same—as you learned to your cost with Hal. Best of all, Fontevrault is in Anjou, so you can make sure that I’d not do more plotting than praying.”

  Henry found her flippancy very irritating. There was too much at stake to yield to it, though. “As I said, it will be beneficial to us both. Moreover, it will please our children if we reach an accord. Do you need time to consider this? I would think the advantages would be too obvious to require much thought, but if you—”

  “No, that is kind of you, but quite unnecessary. I do not need any time to consider. My answer is no.”

  Henry was on his feet so fast that his chair toppled over into the floor rushes. “May I ask why?” he said, measuring each word with deadly calm.

  Eleanor smiled. “I do not think I have the vocation for the religious life, Harry. I’d not make a very good nun.”

  “I was doing you a courtesy by asking, Madame. Your consent is but a formality.”

  “That is not what the Church says. You cannot force me to take holy vows.”

  “Do you care to wager your freedom on that? I offered to make you the abbess of the richest abbey in my domains. It can just as easily be an impoverished Irish convent, so remote and secluded that not even God could find you!”

  “Do you truly think it would be as easy as that to make me disappear? I am not just your unwanted wife. I am the Duchess of Aquitaine.” She stood now, too, took her time in positioning her mantle about her shoulders. “You need not see me out, dearest. I am sorry to disappoint your little trifle, but surely she could not have been so stupid to think you’d marry her once you were rid of me.” She was taken aback when he went ashen. She’d intended only a glancing blow, had not meant to hit a vital organ.

  “Get out,” he said tonelessly, and the very lack of emotion in his voice was what she found most disquieting. She moved toward the door, keeping her eyes upon him all the while, pausing outside in the pentise to catch her breath. The silence from the solar was ominous. It was with relief, therefore, that she heard the sudden, sharp thud, the sound of his wine cup striking the door behind her. Only then did she walk away, a faint smile playing about her mouth.

  IT TOOK WILLEM some time to track Henry down, finally finding him in the stable, examining his new white palfrey. Henry had told him he’d be broaching the subject of Fontevrault Abbey with Eleanor that afternoon, and he wanted to make sure it had gone well. He could not imagine why it would not, but if all women were capricious, creatures of impulse, Harry’s disgraced queen was downright perverse and, even as a prisoner, dangerous. One look at Henry’s grim profile was enough to give him his answer.

  “She balked?” he asked in astonishment.

  “She said she does not think she’d make a very good nun.” Hours later, Henry was still seething. “The bitch all but dared me to force her into a nunnery. As God is my witness, Willem, I swear I—”

  “My liege,” Willem said warningly, for he’d seen what Henry had not, the appearance of Joanna in the doorway of the stable.

  “There you are, Papa. I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she chided, hurrying toward the stall, where she paused to admire his new stallion. “He is a beauty, Papa. May I name him for you?”

  Henry did not think that was a good idea; he’d heard some of the names that Joanna bestowed upon her pets. But he found it almost impossible to deny her anything these days; she’d become even more precious now that he was so close to losing her. “If you insist, lass,” he said, making an effort to swallow his anger. “Do not embarrass him, though, by giving him a name better suited to a mare.”

  “Horses are not embarrassed…are they?” Momentarily distracted, she pondered that for a moment. “You are just teasing me. Papa…did you speak with Maman yet about becoming the abbess of Fontevrault?”

  “I did, Joanna. She refused the offer.”

  Willem blinked; he hadn’t known that Henry had discussed this with his daughter. But when he saw the look of disappointment that crossed her face, he understood. That was shrewd, he thought, getting the lass on Harry’s side. It was to be expected that she’d like the idea. From a child’s perspective, it must seem like the perfect solution. Her mother would no longer be a prisoner; instead would rule an important abbey. It would have to be easier for the girl to leave England for her new life in Sicily if she could believe that her mother was beginning a new life, too.

  “I’ll talk to her,” Joanna said. “Mayhap I can get her to change her mind…” She frowned, lost in thought, and then smiled. “I know who could persuade her, Papa! Hal could.”

  “Hal is most likely in Normandy by now,” Henry reminded her, but she was shaking her head.

  “No, he is still at Porchester. I heard men talking in the hall at dinner. They said the winds were still blowing the wrong way, allowing ships to sail from Normandy but keeping Porchester’s ships in port. Hal is very unhappy with Maman’s confinement. I think it would ease his mind greatly if she became the abbess. And he can be most convincing when he wants to be, Papa.”

  Willem stayed silent, curious to see how Henry got out of the trap. But to his surprise, Henry seemed to be giving it consideration, telling Joanna that she might be right. He restrained himself until after the little girl had gotten bored and wandered off, and then said, “Are you serious about summoning Hal back to talk to the queen?”

  “It is not a bad notion,” Henry conceded. “I cannot keep them apart forever, however much I’d like to, Willem. He has asked me twice if he may visit her, and sooner or later I must agree or he’ll not forgive me. Jesu, how that lad can cherish a grievance! And I think Joanna is right. He probably would favor the idea.”

  “Yes,” Willem said, “he probably would.” Leaving unsaid the rest of his thought: that Hal was always one for the easy way. He’d likely be relieved if he did not have to fret about his mother’s welfare. He glanced at Henry as the other man reached for a brush and began to curry his horse, wondering if he’d also seen that flaw in his son’s character. Most likely he had; that would explain why he so often watched Hal with such troubled eyes.

  BY THE FIRST SATURDAY IN APRIL, Winchester was overflowing with highborn guests, barons and princes of the Church come to pay honor to their king and the King of Kings upon the solemn festival of Easter. With the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishops of Winchester, Exeter, Bath, and Ely present, the castle cooks were already anticipating the end of Lent, planning the great feast they would serve the king and his guests once Eastertide began.

  Henry was enjoying a frank political discussion with the Bishops of Ely and Bath, for he need not weigh his words with either man; Geoffrey Ridel and Reginald Fitz Jocelin had been his agents before being rewarded for their loyalty with mitres. From the corner of his eye, he saw that his daughter had sidled up onto the dais and seated herself in his high-backed chair, obviously practicing for the day when she, too, would wear a crown, and he felt a surge of affectionate pride soured by anxiety. Ten suddenly seemed such a tender age, and Sicily at the back of beyond. Seeing the direction of his gaze, the bishops smiled, willing to indulge the father until the king turned his attention back to them. It was then that the steward hastened into the hall, headed straight for Henry.

  “My liege, the young king has just ridden in,” he announced. He hesitated then, and decided to let Lord Hal be the one to tell him the rest of the news, for he suspected the king would not be pleased; this development could only complicate his tenuous
truce with the queen.

  Hal had never learned the royal skill of dissembling in public, and as he strode into the hall, he seemed to trail storm clouds in his wake. Henry had known he’d be disgruntled at being summoned back to Winchester like this, for he’d fear that his Normandy jaunt was imperiled. He knew, too, that once Hal learned the reason for his return, he’d be flattered that his father had sought his aid and delighted to see his mother. But as he looked at his son’s handsome, sullen face, Henry could not suppress a sigh. Why did he have to work so hard to keep the lad in a good humor? As a boy, Hal had been sunny-natured and full of fun, given to pranks but not tantrums. How had he changed so much in such a few short years?

  “My lord king,” Hal said, giving a formal salutation appropriate to their distinguished audience. But then Joanna squeezed through the encircling guests to greet him with a pert “Brother, you’re back!” Hal abandoned protocol and gathered her into a fond embrace; Joanna’s brothers had always vied with one another to see who could spoil her the most.

  “Where is Marguerite?” Henry asked, coming forward to welcome his son.

  “She stayed behind at Porchester. That made more sense, as I assumed I would not be long at Winchester,” Hal said, delivering a veiled warning as well as an explanation, letting his father know that he was still set upon departing England. “You once told me you were stranded at Barfleur for six weeks, awaiting favorable winds, my lord father. I do not know how you endured the wait; we’ve been bored unto death in Porchester!”

  “You’ll want to send for her,” Joanna predicted, “when you hear the reason for your return. We have a special surprise for you!”

  “Do you now, imp?” Hal grinned down at his little sister. “As it happens, I have a surprise, too. Guess who landed yesterday at Southampton?”