Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 44

  Henry felt a sudden premonition. Before he could confirm his suspicions, the door banged open and his sons Richard and Geoffrey entered the hall. They started toward him, looking far more pleased to be at Winchester than Hal. But Joanna was faster. With a gleeful cry of “Richard!” she met him in mid-hall. Henry could only watch as the scene played itself out to its inevitable conclusion.

  “Maman is here!” Joanna gasped, so excited she was almost hyperventilating. “Here in Winchester!”

  Hal looked dumbfounded, Geoffrey no less surprised. Richard grasped Joanna’s arm, demanding, “Where? Show me!”

  “Come on,” she said, and they headed for the door. Hal and Geoffrey caught up with them in a few strides. Acutely aware of the utter silence in the hall, Henry followed after them, halting in the doorway. Richard and Hal and Joanna were strung out across the bailey, running as if their very lives depended upon speed. Geoffrey trailed in the rear, his a more measured pace. And as he watched them, Henry could hear again, with haunting clarity, his wife’s bitter taunt. You’ve already lost what you value almost as much as your kingdom. You’ve lost your sons.


  April 1176

  Winchester, England

  IN HER GIRLHOOD, Eleanor had learned to play the harp, for that was considered a social requisite for young women of high birth. She had not continued with the lessons, though, and so she was quite pleased to learn that Amaria was an accomplished harpist. After a word to Joanna, a harp was delivered to her chamber, and she was watching intently as Amaria played a plaintive melody.

  “Wait, let me see you play that chord again,” she said, for she’d determined to revive her rusty musical skills during this enforced idleness. Amaria was complying when the door was thrust open without warning and her sons burst into the chamber.

  “Splendor of God,” she whispered, not believing her own senses until she was being embraced by Richard and then Hal, then Richard again, as Geoffrey and Joanna waited impatiently for their turn, and Amaria, who had a secret sentimental vein she’d so far hidden from Eleanor, smiled through tears as she watched her lady’s reunion with her sons.

  WITH THE INNOCENT SELF-ABSORPTION of the young, they’d asked few questions so far about their mother’s confinement. Instead, Richard and Hal were vying for her attention, each one seeking to impress her with his exploits and adventures in these past two years. Richard had the advantage here, for he had military deeds to brag about, and Hal had only accounts of forest court sessions and diplomatic missions, which even he would concede lacked the panache or verve of castle sieges and raids. That did not stop him from seeking to regain control of the conversation every time Richard paused for breath. Joanna was just as rapt an audience as Eleanor, but Amaria noticed that Geoffrey had soon stopped competing with his brothers and was slouched in the window-seat, conceding them center stage.

  Feeling Amaria’s gaze upon him, he smiled and said softly, “Rather like watching two dogs fighting over a bone, no?” That so eerily echoed her own thoughts that she gave him a surprised smile, although later she would think the comment was too cynical for a lad of seventeen.

  Richard was dwelling again upon his triumph at Castillon, assuring his mother that “Arnald de Bonville sang a very different tune the day he surrendered than when the siege began. He’d claimed it could hold out till Judgment Day, but that came much sooner than he’d expected!”

  Hal heaved an audible sigh, and shifted in his seat, stretching his legs out so Joanna could lean against him. He wondered how long his brother was going to hold forth about the capture of one paltry castle; he made it sound like the most significant military accomplishment since the days of Caesar. He suddenly remembered, then, that he had news of a sensational nature to share, news Richard wasn’t likely to have heard yet, and he wasted no time in cutting Richard off in mid-sentence.

  “I have astonishing news, Maman, concerning that Clifford harlot. She has withdrawn from court and our father’s bed and entered the nunnery at Godstow!”

  As he’d hoped, that ended any interest in his younger brother’s boasting. They were all staring at him, exclaiming in surprise; even Richard looked interested in this dramatic revelation.

  “Are you sure, Hal?” Eleanor asked doubtfully, for that did not seem very likely to her.

  “I swear it is so, Maman. Last month Papa escorted her from his manor at Woodstock to Godstow, where he made a generous contribution to the nunnery. It has been the talk of the court ever since. No one seems to know why, though. Some think Papa was growing tired of her, others that she was ailing. I’ve heard people insist that she was stricken with guilt and wanted to repent for sinning as Papa’s concubine. But I’ve also heard it claimed that she is with child, and hopes to have the babe in secret. The truth is that no one knows the real reason, for no one has been brave enough to ask our father. And yes,” he conceded with a wry grin, “that includes me, too!”

  “Has she taken vows?” And when Hal admitted he did not know, Eleanor fell silent to ponder this amazing bit of news. She did not have any great animosity toward the girl, for she knew how beguiling her husband could be when he put his mind to it. She knew, too, that it would be no easy thing to refuse the king. Her anger had always been aimed more at Henry than Rosamund, not for the infidelity itself but for the emotional attachment that she’d seen as a betrayal far more than any sins of the flesh. It was then that she remembered the strange way he’d reacted to her barb about Rosamund earlier in the week. Whatever the reason for Rosamund’s nunnery retreat, it was not because Harry had tired of her. A man does not grieve for a woman who no longer holds his affections.

  Just then a timid knock announced a servant with a message for the “young lords.” He’d been sent by the steward, he explained, to remind them that the hour was growing short and the Easter Eve feast was soon to start. Eleanor’s sons rose reluctantly, surprised when she remained seated. It was left to Joanna to tell them that she’d been eating her meals here in her own chamber, not in the hall with their highborn guests.

  “That is absurd!” Hal said indignantly, as Richard snatched up his mother’s mantle and held it out. Eleanor took it without hesitation, and then linked her arm in Hal’s as he made a gallant’s bow. Richard glowered at Hal, but recovered quickly and made Joanna laugh when he asked for the honor of escorting her in the exaggerated, courtly style made popular by jongleurs and troubadours. That left Geoffrey to offer his arm to Amaria, which he did with that quick smile of secret amusement.

  Amaria was nervous, though, as they emerged into the bailey and headed for the great hall. She’d heard so many stories of the king’s notorious tempers, had no wish to witness one firsthand. The odd intimacy of their circumstances had encouraged a bonding that would not normally take place between a queen and her attendants. In the few months since she’d entered Eleanor’s service, Amaria had come to see them as allies, even friends, and she had no desire to return to the Welsh court of the discontented Lady Emma and her unscrupulous braggart of a husband. But it occurred to her that King Henry might well look around for safer targets for his rage, turn upon her the fury he could not turn upon his queen.

  Catching the hesitation in her step, Geoffrey gave her a curious glance, and she decided to take him into her confidence, saying quietly, “My lord, we both know the king will like it not when the queen enters with the young king. Do you think he will react with anger or make a scene?”

  “No, Dame Amaria, I do not,” Geoffrey said at once. “Most likely he suspects this will happen. But even if he is truly taken by surprise, he will save face by acting as if this were planned. To do otherwise would be to admit before all his bishops and barons that my mother outwitted him.” He seemed to read her mind then, for he added, “Nor will he dismiss you in disgrace. In fairness to him, he has never been one to chase after scapegoats, prefers to hunt more challenging quarry.”

  “You’ve eased my mind, kind sir,” Amaria said playfully, and hoped tha
t he knew his father better than Henry seemed to know his sons.

  Their arrival stopped all conversation, created just the sort of commotion that they’d hoped it would. As the highborn guests forgot their dignity and crowded closer to gape at Henry’s rebel queen, Henry himself seemed to take Eleanor’s dramatic appearance in stride, and came down the steps of the dais to meet her.

  “Madame,” he said composedly, kissing her hand and then taking her arm to escort her to the high table. Eleanor played her part with no less aplomb, pausing to acknowledge the greetings of her husband’s guests as they made their way toward the dais. Henry’s self-control never faltered, but the arm she held was as hard and unyielding as granite. Once she was seated beside him, she did her best to hide her jubilation behind a demure demeanor. But after their wineglasses had been filled, she could not resist a gentle gibe.

  Raising her cup, she favored Henry with her most loving smile, as she murmured, “I trust I’ve no need of a food taster?”

  The smile he gave her in return was not in the least loving. “Poison is your weapon of choice, not mine, Madame,” he shot back, just as softly. “Though it is true that you prefer to poison minds rather than wine.”

  Her smile did not waver, and she clicked her cup lightly against his as all eyes in the hall fastened avidly upon them. But she had the uncomfortable feeling that he’d gotten the last word in that exchange.

  THE TAVERN WAS LOCATED in Goldstret in the goldsmiths’ quarter, close by St Clement’s Church. Richard had been waiting long enough for his simmering impatience to reach the boiling point. He was fidgeting restlessly, drumming his fingers on the scarred, wax-splattered table, waving away a serving maid who’d approached to see if he wanted more wine. Finally the door was shoved open and his brothers swaggered in. Geoffrey was accompanied only by a squire, but Hal had his usual entourage of household knights, and they made such a noisy entrance that all heads turned in their direction.

  “What took you so long?” Richard demanded as soon as they approached his table. “I told you by Compline!”

  “Blame Sir Bountiful here,” Geoffrey said, pointing his thumb at Hal. “He had to stop and give alms to every beggar within a half-mile of the castle, even chasing one across the street to press coins upon him.”

  “Charity is a virtue,” Hal responded, jostling Geoffrey good-naturedly, “but then you’d not know much about virtues, would you?”

  “Sit down,” Richard said quickly, before Geoffrey could retort in kind. “We need to talk.” Hal’s knights were milling about nearby, and he added, “Alone,” with a pointed glance toward the other men.

  Hal dismissed them with an airy “You heard my little brother. Go off and debauch yourselves. I’ll pay for your wine, but not for your whores. There you’re on your own.” As they grinned and obeyed, he looked around at the other tavern patrons and said, “Ah, why not? I’ll buy drinks for everyone!”

  His generosity won him enthusiastic cheers from all but his brothers and the tavern keeper. Richard saw Hal’s magnanimous gesture as shameless grandstanding, and Geoffrey laughed out loud at the look of horror on the tavern owner’s face. Pulling up a stool to the table, he said, “The poor sot knows he has a better chance of sprouting wings than collecting so much as a farthing.”

  “That is not so,” Hal protested. “I always pay my debts…eventually.” He and Geoffrey both laughed, and looked vexed when Richard waved the serving maid away again.

  “I did not ask you here to drink this swill. We need to talk about Fontevrault Abbey. Maman says that—”

  “I already know all about it,” Hal interrupted, with a hint of smugness. “Papa told me last night.”

  “Well, no one bothered to enlighten me,” Geoffrey said testily, “so suppose one of you lets me in on the secret.”

  Richard looked around to make sure the other customers had gone back to their drinking and gambling. “He wants Maman to agree to an annulment and then retire to Fontevrault Abbey—as its abbess.”

  “As bribes go, that is not a bad one,” Geoffrey allowed, and Hal grinned, saying that was his thinking, too.

  Richard glared at his brothers. “She does not want to enter a nunnery!”

  Hal shrugged. “Is she sure of that? It is a generous offer, would give her far more influence than she is enjoying these days. Maman could make of it what she wanted. We’re not talking about life as a recluse or an anchoress, for pity’s sake. She’d be abbess of Fontevrault, and there are queens who might well envy that.”

  “Is your hearing faulty? I said she does not want to do it, Hal!”

  Hal returned Richard’s scowl in full measure, and Geoffrey could see another of their squabbles brewing. Before Hal could respond, he said sharply, “Enough!”

  They looked at him in surprise, and he glanced over his shoulder to see if they’d attracted attention. “As usual, Hal, you see only what is right in front of your nose. As for you, Richard, even when you’re right, you’re right for all the wrong reasons. Neither one of you has fully considered the consequences of this annulment.”

  Temporarily united in their irritation with Geoffrey, they launched a joint attack, Hal insisting that he understood the situation quite well and Richard wanting to know what he meant by the “wrong reasons.”

  “Keep your voices down,” Geoffrey warned. “Tell me this. How old is Papa?”

  “I do not know,” Richard said snappishly. “Forty-two?”

  “No, forty-three,” Hal corrected, remembering Chinon and his father’s March birthday. “What of it?”

  “To us, that seems as old as God. But it is not. He could easily wed again and have sons with his new queen. Think about that for a moment.”

  Hal was already shaking his head. “He would never disinherit me!”

  Richard did not look so sure. “You truly think we could be put at risk, Geoff?”

  “I do not know,” Geoffrey admitted. “But I am not willing to take that chance. Are you? Look how he has begun to dote upon Johnny, even giving him the earldom of his uncle Rainald. I am just saying that if he had a few more sons, we could become superfluous. At the very least, it would give him a formidable club to hold over our heads. Now if you both have utter faith in his good will, there is no cause for concern. So…do you?”

  Neither Hal nor Richard answered him, but words were not needed. They regarded one another in silence, in a rare moment of mutual understanding and total accord.

  HENRY GLANCED TOWARD HIS SCRIBE. “Are you ready, Simon? Write as follows:

  “To William, by the Grace of God, the illustrious King of Sicily, the Duke of Apulia, and the Prince of Capua, Henry, by the same grace, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and Count of Anjou, greetings and the enjoyment of health. Inasmuch as we expect that—”

  He got no further, for it was then that his sons sought admittance to his bedchamber. Henry immediately gave them permission to enter and dismissed his scribe, telling him they’d resume on the morrow. When they asked if they could speak with him alone, he readily agreed, surprised to see them together, for he was unhappily aware that they rarely sought out one another’s company.

  As soon as the other men had exited the chamber, Henry bade his sons help themselves to the flagon of night wine on a side table, saying with a smile, “It is good that you are all here, for I have plans to share with you. Richard, you requested further aid in subduing the Poitevin rebels, and you wanted the same for Brittany, Geoffrey. Your requests are granted. You will be provided with the funds that you need ere you depart Winchester.” His gaze shifted then to his eldest son. “I know you have been restless of late, Hal. I daresay that was behind your sudden desire to go on pilgrimage. So I am sending you back to Poitou with Richard, to assist him in restoring peace in that troublesome land.”

  Hal was very pleased, Richard less so, for he’d wanted men and money, not to be saddled with his brother. He joined Hal in expressing his gratitude, though, thinking that Hal would soon lose intere
st in the drudgery and tedium of a siege and go off in pursuit of pleasure. Hal was reconsidering the timing of their mission, not wanting to jeopardize his new command, and as soon as Henry’s back was turned, he mouthed a message to his brothers that they ought to delay discussing Fontevrault.

  Richard and Geoffrey would have none of that, though, neither one trusting Hal to remain resolute if their father’s inducements were sweetened enough. “We have come to talk with you about our mother and your intent to make her abbess of Fontevrault,” Richard said, so abruptly that his brothers both winced. “It is only fair that I tell you at the outset that I am adamantly opposed to this scheme.”

  Henry had been about to pour wine. At that, he swung about with a frown. Before he could speak, Geoffrey hastily interceded. “Actually, it is a sound plan, fair to both you and Maman, and if she were willing, I’d gladly support it. Alas, she is not, as you know. And since it concerns her most directly, we have to be guided by her wishes in this.”

  Henry studied his younger sons, and then looked toward Hal. “What of you, Hal? Do your brothers speak for you, too?”

  Hal bridled. “I can speak for myself. But I happen to agree with them.”

  “Do you? Passing strange, for you seemed much more receptive to the idea when we discussed it last night.”

  “Yes, that is true. But once I had a chance to think about it, I changed my mind.” Hal smiled snidely. “The way you changed your mind about the forest laws.”

  Henry was quiet for so long that his sons began to shift uneasily. “I understand,” he said at last, “and I will give your opinions the consideration they merit.”

  ELEANOR WAS HOLDING UP A MIRROR while Amaria brushed her hair. Even in the candlelight, she could see the sprinkling of silver, and she grimaced, remembering how she’d once taken her beauty for granted, not realizing what a potent weapon it had been until it was slipping from her grasp. “Should I bother to hide the grey?” she wondered aloud, and Amaria at once volunteered to go into Winchester to purchase the needed ingredients.