Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 47

  “You are not nervous, Maud?”

  “Now why ever would I be nervous?” she said tartly.

  “Well, I can understand your unease,” he commiserated, “especially after the dire fate of the Poitevin rebels.”

  Maud came to an abrupt halt. “‘Dire fate’? I thought Harry pardoned them!” Realizing then that she was the victim of brotherly humor, she jabbed Roger in the ribs with her elbow. “Very amusing.”

  “I thought so,” he said cheerfully. “You are being foolish to worry, Sister. Harry has been remarkably merciful to rebels, forbearing to charge them with treason as he well could have done. Instead, he chose to follow the teachings of Our Saviour and offer forgiveness.”

  Not to Eleanor, Maud thought, knowing that the queen was celebrating Christmas alone at Winchester. Her anger toward her former friend had cooled, mitigated by her son’s reprieve and her sense of fair play; she did not think it right that Eleanor alone should be the one to suffer for that ill-advised rebellion. She said nothing, though, knowing that Roger did not share her sympathies, and followed him into the hall.

  It was overflowing with highborn guests and princes of the Church, all eager to display their loyalty and enjoy the splendors of the king’s Christmas Court. Henry was upon the dais, but not seated, a hardship on his less energetic subjects since they could not sit unless he did. He turned as Roger ushered Maud toward him, and for an uneasy moment, she could not tell what her reception would be. But then he said, “Welcome, Cousin Maud,” and gathered her into a quick embrace.

  Maud had not feared being penalized for her son’s treason, for Roger had been able to convince Henry that she’d played no part in it. She had feared, though, that their friendship might have been irretrievably damaged, and she was greatly relieved to find it was not so. “I wanted to thank you again,” she said warmly, “for the kindness you’ve shown Hugh. He told me that he has been fully restored to favor, and you even plan to entrust him with a mission to Ireland in the spring.”

  “Some people might argue that sending a man to Ireland is hardly a mark of royal favor,” Henry said dryly. “You owe me no thanks, Cousin. What’s past is past.”

  Maud didn’t agree, but she knew he did not like profuse expressions of gratitude and after a few moments of idle talk, she graciously excused herself so that she could discover where she and her ladies were being lodged. Roger stayed on the dais with Henry, asking who else was expected at Nottingham.

  “The Bishop of Norwich is due any day now from Sicily: I’d sent him ahead of Joanna to convey gifts and good will to William. I got word this week that she will be celebrating Christmas in Naples, for the poor lass was so seasick during the voyage that it was decided she needed time ashore to regain her strength.” Henry, who was never seasick, sounded both sympathetic and bemused. “Once she feels up to it, they will resume the journey to Sicily, but they’ll be traveling by land to make it easier for her.”

  Henry waved away a servant who was offering wine, but Roger snared a cup. “Willem is here, though not for long. He has taken the cross and plans to accompany the Count of Flanders to the Holy Land come the spring. Hamelin is here, and Johnny, of course, and Geoffrey, too. But Richard is in Bordeaux, and Hal and Marguerite are holding their Christmas Court in Normandy at Argentan. Oh, and Geoff just arrived yesterday,” Henry said, and when Roger asked how Geoff’s studies were progressing in Tours, he grinned. “Well enough, he says. I can only hope he is spending more time in the university library than in the town taverns!”

  Roger grinned, too; he’d done his own studies at Tours and he remembered the secular attractions quite vividly. Seeing that they were relatively alone, none within immediate earshot, he said quietly, “How is the Lady Rosamund faring?”

  “I have not seen her since October, when I stopped at Godstow on my way from Windsor to meet the Scots king at Feckenham. She looked very frail to me, Roger, although she insists she is well and in good spirits.” Henry paused. “It is not easy to admit, but she seems content there, at peace.”

  “I am glad to hear that,” Roger said; he’d spared more than a few prayers in the past nine months for the soul of Rosamund Clifford, a sinner who’d repented before it was too late. “I hear you are holding a council at Northampton next month. Shall I attend?”

  “I think you’ll want to, Cousin. Amongst other matters, I plan to restore their lands to your nephew Hugh and his irksome ally, the Earl of Leicester. Saving a few strategic castles, of course.”

  “That is good news, indeed! Maud will be delighted. Why did you not tell her that earlier?”

  Henry shrugged. “You know how women are. She’d have squealed and kissed me. You are not going to do that, are you?”

  “No, although of course I’d want to,” Roger said gravely, paying Henry back in his own coin, which he acknowledged with another grin. Roger was debating whether he ought to make any mention of Hal and his outrageous treatment of a man of God when Henry was informed that a messenger had just ridden in from the nunnery at Godstow.

  “Send him in,” Henry ordered, before saying to Roger, “How is that for timing, Cousin?” He recognized the man being escorted toward the dais, one of Prioress Edith’s servants who’d delivered letters from Rosamund in the past. He’d always had an excellent memory for names and faces and it stood him in good stead now, recalling that the courier was called Edwin.

  “You need not hurry back to Godstow, Edwin,” he said expansively. “You might as well linger for a few days and enjoy the festivities. I expect that—”

  He cut himself off so abruptly that Roger turned in his direction. Henry read faces well and the man approaching was a study in utter misery. Kneeling before Henry, he mutely held out his letter, never meeting the king’s eyes. Henry glanced down at the seal; it was not Rosamund’s, belonged to the prioress. He froze, making no attempt to take the letter.

  Roger glanced from one to the other and then reached for it himself. Surprised by the depth of sadness he felt, he looked at his cousin in silent sympathy, waiting until Henry could bring himself to take that letter and get confirmation of what he already knew.

  SO FAR HIS STAY at Nottingham had been a great disappointment to John. He’d been looking forward to it eagerly, for his tenth birthday would occur two days after Christmas. Best of all, his father had told him that Nottingham Castle was his.

  He hadn’t been sure what to expect, but it seemed to him that the Lord of Nottingham would be the center of attention, or at least the object of more deference than he usually received. That did not happen. His father remained the focal point of all eyes, and any leftover honors were claimed by his brother Geoffrey, newly returned from a successful campaign in Brittany. Once more John was overlooked, forgotten.

  Worse was to come. Yesterday his father had gotten bad news. John did not know what it was, for he’d not dared to ask. He’d tried to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, thinking they might know, but they would fall silent as soon as they caught sight of him. He feared that his father would not be in the mood for celebrating the Christmas revelries, much less his birthday. He’d been promised a surprise, but now he wondered if his father would even remember.

  Nottingham had been a huge letdown. What he found most disquieting, though, was his father’s withdrawal. He’d made few public appearances and when he did, he was remote and aloof. John’s world had suffered such dramatic upheavals in the past three years that he often felt as if he were a leaf borne on the wind. He’d not liked the abbey of Fontevrault very much, but at least it was familiar and there he felt safe. John never felt safe anymore. Too much had changed, too fast. His mother and father had gone to war, his brothers all siding with her. After that, she was in disgrace, a prisoner whom he’d not seen in more than three years. If a queen could fall so far, anyone could. She’d been a glamorous stranger to him, but he’d been proud that she was his mother, and he missed her even though he did not understand how he could miss someone he’d seen so infreq

  He did not miss Richard and Geoffrey; he’d not spent much time with them and when he did, they’d teased him mercilessly. Hal had been kind to him once, on those rare occasions when they met, tousling his hair and calling him “Sprout” but not in a mean way; a few times he’d even played with John. That had all changed since his fight with their father. Now when he saw Hal, his brother was brusque, dismissive like Geoffrey and Richard. Hal seemed angry with him, but he did not know what he’d done.

  Joanna had been more than his companion at Fontevrault. She’d been his rock, but now she’d gone away and he might never see her again. Without Joanna, he had only his father, and ever since his father had gotten his bad news, he’d been there and yet he was not there. John could not explain it, could only sense it, and it frightened him. His feelings for his father were complicated. He was very proud to be the son of Henry Fitz Empress. But he never felt that comfortable with Henry. He’d watched his father’s fits of rage, watched other men cower before him. He’d never yelled at John, but John was always afraid that he would. Joanna was the only member of his family with whom he felt completely at ease, and he missed her very much.

  He’d been wandering about all morning like a lost soul, trying to find some way to entertain himself. In late morning, he’d ventured up to his father’s chamber in a tower of the inner bailey, but he’d lost his nerve at the last moment and started back down the stairs. It was dark and the stone steps were slick, well worn by countless feet, for this part of the castle was over a hundred years old. John was carefully making his way down when he heard the voices below him. It was a man and a woman, and he caught his breath when he recognized the male voice. It was his brother Geoffrey. He could guess what they were doing by the way they were laughing, but he had no idea who the woman was. She could be a serving maid of the castle or a maid servant of one of the guests or a lady’s handmaiden or even a lady, he supposed; most of the barons had brought their wives and they’d all brought large entourages. He hesitated, not sure what to do next. If Geoffrey caught him, he’d get his ears boxed for certes. But the temptation to eavesdrop was irresistible, a chance to learn more about the things men did with women and mayhap even their father’s bad news, for Geoffrey must surely know.

  The girl giggled, saying breathlessly that they must stop, for someone could come along at any moment. Geoffrey murmured something too softly for John to hear, then suggested they go to his chamber where they could be assured of privacy. She protested that she could not risk it, startling John when she mentioned her husband. It had to be someplace safe, she insisted, and after mentioning several places and then rejecting them as too dangerous, she announced in triumphant tones that she knew where they could meet—in the stables when the grooms went to their midday meal in the hall. Geoffrey seemed less than enthusiastic, pointing out that it would be colder than a witch’s teat and he’d likely freeze the body part she was most interested in, but she laughed huskily and murmured she’d warm him up soon enough. There was more laughing, low and intimate, and then John heard their footsteps descending, fading away. He’d sank down upon the steps, but now he came quietly to his feet, his eyes shining, for an idea had come to him, a daring idea that was as appealing as it was scary.

  BEFORE HE COULD THINK BETTER OF IT, John trudged through the snow of the outer bailey to the stables and waited until no grooms were about to clamber up the ladder into the loft. There he burrowed deep into the hay, making himself a secure, hidden nest. He thought it most likely that Geoffrey and the girl would choose to come up into the loft, too, but even if they stayed below in one of the empty stalls, he’d still be able to watch. He knew what a risk he was taking, shivered to think of his brother’s anger if he were found spying on them. But he could not resist this chance to watch while they did it, whatever it was that men and women did. He had a fairly good idea, having watched dogs humping, but imagining was not the same as actually seeing for himself. The thought even crossed his mind that this might be something to hold over his brother’s head, that if ever Geoffrey threatened to give him a thrashing, he could make a threat of his own, mentioning the girl Geoffrey had been groping in the stairwell, the one with a husband.

  It was warmer beneath the hay than he’d expected, and he began to feel so comfortable that he was soon yawning. The night’s storm had awakened him well before daybreak and he’d been unable to go back to sleep, listening to the eerie wailing of the wind and thinking it sounded like a pack of hungry wolves. Curling up like a cat, he yawned again, feeling drowsy. He hoped they’d come soon.

  He must have fallen asleep after that, for he awoke with a start, not remembering for a moment where he was. It all came back to him, though, when he heard their voices. Peering from his hideaway, he could barely make out their figures, for the loft was filled with shadows, as dark as night in the far corners. As he listened, he realized that they’d already done it, and he felt a sharp pang of disappointment, angry with himself for sleeping through it. He could not go anywhere, though, until they did, so he settled down to wait, consoling himself with the thought that they might do it again.

  “See…this was not such a bad idea,” the girl murmured, and Geoffrey agreed that she’d more than kept her word, had kindled enough heat to burn the barn down. She giggled and they talked for a while of matters that John found very boring, mainly of people he did not know. He was dozing again when he heard the girl mention “the queen” and his eyes snapped open.

  “Is she as beautiful as men say?”

  “Well,” Geoffrey said, sounding as if he were yawning, “now she is old, of course. But yes, when she was young, she was very beautiful. I remember her coming into the nursery to bid us good night. Her skirts would rustle and she always smelled so good, even better than fresh-baked bread.”

  “Were you often with her when you were young?”

  “A fair amount of the time. Boys stay in their mother’s care only till they are seven or so, and after that, we did not see her as much, of course. Obviously she could not travel with all of us, but she usually had a couple of us wherever she went. God knows, we saw more of her than our father.”

  “Fathers are never underfoot, are they? Mine only noticed his children when one of us got into trouble, and then he would roar and rant, but he never hit me or my sisters. My brothers now—that was another story. He would thrash them till they were as raw as uncooked beef. And my mother was just as strict; she had the makings of a fine lady abbess, God’s truth. Were your parents strict with you and your brothers, Geoffrey?”

  He laughed softly. “Lord, no! We got away with holy hell. Our father was rarely around and when he was, he could always be coaxed into giving us whatever we wanted. I suppose he was loath to discipline us when he saw us so seldom. Our mother was not as easy to fool, but she did not care much if we got up to mischief. Oh, she’d scold us if we were caught in the act, but her heart was not in it, we could tell. What I most remember is that she was fun. She’d chase fireflies in the garden with us or let us bring our dogs into bed at night and when we fell out of trees, she would shrug and say it was lucky she had sons to spare, could afford to lose one or two. No, she was not like other mothers.”

  He laughed again. “I remember one time when Richard and I found a snake. We were trying to decide what to do with it, and I do not recall which one of us had the idea, but we ended up smuggling it into our mother’s bed. Then we hid outside her chamber that night, waiting to hear all the shrieking and carrying on. We were not sure she’d scream, but we figured her ladies would. We heard nothing at all, though, and crept back to our bed, very disappointed. Not a word was said about it the next day, either, so we decided the snake must have escaped. We’d forgotten all about it by that night—until we climbed into bed and found something warm and slick and slithery under the covers with us!”

  The girl joined in his laughter. John stifled a laugh himself, thinking of his brothers yelling and bolting from the bed in panic. Geoffrey was tel
ling her that they decided to play her game and say nothing about it the next day, but as soon as they’d met her eyes, all three of them had begun to laugh helplessly, while everyone else watched in bafflement, not knowing what the joke was. But after a while, it no longer seemed as funny to John. It occurred to him that he did not have any memories to match Richard’s and Geoffrey’s, no recollections of playing games with their mother or sharing jests or having her sit up with him at night after he’d caught poison oak, as Geoffrey was relating now. Why not? Why was it different for him?

  When Geoffrey and the girl finally departed, John waited till it was safe to venture out and scrambled down the ladder just as two of the grooms sauntered into the stables. They looked surprised and he knew they wanted to ask what he was doing up there, but he raised his chin and, reminding himself that this was his loft, he walked past them as if he’d not seen them. He was at a loss what to do next. He’d missed dinner, and he wondered if anyone had noticed his absence. Once he was back in the middle bailey, he decided to go to the kitchen and get something to tide him over till supper that evening. But then he happened to glance across the bailey toward the chapel and he had another idea, even better than his notion to spy on Geoffrey.

  Last night he’d heard his cousin Morgan and two other boys in the royal household discussing the magical properties of holy water. According to them, it was supposed to burn sinners if it was splashed upon them, and they were eager to make the test. They’d decided to try it out upon a culprit in the town’s pillory, but their scheme had been thwarted when a priest caught them trying to dip water out of the chapel font. If he could obtain a vial of holy water, they’d be sure to be impressed. They were all several years older than he was, so that would be quite a coup. Darting into the kitchen, he snatched a clay cup when no one was watching, then hurried toward the chapel.