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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 48


  At least it was not as dark here as up in the loft, for candles burned in wall sconces and on the High Altar. Best of all, there was no sign of the chaplain. Hoping that his luck had changed for the better, John approached the stone font and filled the cup to the brim. But then he paused. What if they did not believe this was holy water? It was John’s experience that the world was not a trusting place and they were likely to be skeptical of his claim, especially since he’d succeeded where they’d failed. After pondering the problem, he moved quietly up the aisle toward the High Altar. There were two silver chalices upon it. If he put the holy water in one of them, they could not doubt him. But taking a church chalice was not the same as filching a kitchen cup. What if there was a hue and cry over its disappearance? Well, he could return it afterward. Anyway, how could it be stealing if it was his to begin with?

  He poured the water from the cup into one of the chalices and smiled, pleased with his handiwork. It was then that the door to the chapel swung open. He ducked down behind the High Altar, holding his breath. Footsteps were echoing up the aisle of the nave; risking a glance, he caught a glimpse of a priest’s cassock. To his relief, the footsteps soon receded, but he decided to stay where he was until he was sure the priest was not loitering outside.

  Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he stuck his finger in the chalice, relieved when the water did not burn. A pity he could not figure out a way to spill it on Geoffrey. He was surely a sinner, guilty of adultery and fornication this very day. To John, those were the least of his sins. Having brothers so much older than he had been a trial, for when they were not ignoring him, they were amusing themselves by playing pranks on him and making him feel foolish. His most vivid Christmas memory was of such an episode. He’d been very young, four, he thought. It was one of those rare times when he’d been summoned from Fontevrault with Joanna to his father’s Christmas Court at Bures. It was only a hunting lodge and there was not enough room to accommodate so many people. Both of his parents were short-tempered and edgy, not showing any taste for the revelries; years later, he would realize that this was the infamous Christmas Court when his father flew into such a rage and doomed Thomas Becket with a few ill-chosen words. At the time, though, he’d known only that no one seemed to be paying him much mind.

  He had dim memories of playing with Joanna in the great hall, chasing each other around and being scolded by their mother. But the memory he’d have liked to forget continued to burn brightly in the back of his brain. He’d been disappointed to find that Hal was in England. He was still drawn to Richard and Geoffrey, though, for at thirteen and twelve, they seemed very grown-up to him, and so he’d trailed after them, much to their annoyance. One day he’d followed them into the village cemetery, where he’d fallen into an open grave and was trapped there for what had seemed like hours. They’d later sworn that they’d not heard him crying for help, but he had never believed them. After that, he no longer tried to be included, avoided them whenever he could.

  He’d just risen, intent upon sneaking out, when the door opened again. He dropped down again, so hastily that he spilled some of the holy water upon his mantle. The priest was back. He did not enter, though, saying, “I will remain outside, my lord, make sure that you are not disturbed.” Footsteps now sounded, a heavier tread than the priest’s, and John peeked from behind the altar cloth, saw to his horror that it was his father.

  Henry moved toward the High Altar, and John shivered, for they were now separated only by a length of embroidered cloth. His father had knelt, began to pray. John caught random words, but not enough to make sense, for his Latin studies were not that advanced. He stayed very still, hoping Henry would soon go away. He made no move to leave, though, murmured a name, “Rosamund,” and John stiffened, for he knew that was his father’s leman. He risked another look, saw that Henry had buried his head in his hands, and was stunned to realize that his father was weeping. The sight frightened him. He’d never imagined grown men cried, and for certes, not his father, not the king. Knowing that this was a scene no one was supposed to see, he panicked and decided to creep toward the sacristy, where there were more places to hide. If he were very quiet, his father ought not to hear him. But his fear made him clumsy, and as he rose to a half-crouch, the chalice slipped from his grasp, tumbled onto the tiles with a sound loud enough to be heard in Heaven.

  Henry’s head came up sharply. Outraged that even here in God’s House he could not have privacy to grieve for Rosamund, he got swiftly to his feet and strode toward the High Altar. “Who is there? How dare you spy upon me!”

  He was shocked to find his youngest son huddled behind the altar, his eyes enormous in the white blur of his face, Eleanor’s eyes, although he’d never seen in them what he now saw in John’s—sheer terror. “Johnny?”

  “I am sorry,” the boy mumbled, “so sorry…I was not spying, I was not!”

  “I know, Johnny, I know. It is all right, lad. I am not angry, not with you. You just took me by surprise.” Henry was appalled to see how the boy was trembling. Christ Jesus, was he afraid of his own father? Kneeling so that he could look into John’s eyes, he said, “I am sorry I yelled at you, lad.”

  John did not know what to say, so he kept silent, for he’d learned silence was usually the safest way.

  “I had grievous news yesterday,” Henry said softly. “One very dear to me has died. I’d been deluding myself, refusing to admit how ill she really was. Grown men ought to know better, but we can be as foolish as children that way. As if denying what we fear will somehow make it any less true…”

  John had not thought his father feared anything on God’s Earth. “I am sorry,” he said again, feeling as if the very ground were shifting under his feet.

  “There is nothing to be sorry for, Johnny. I am glad that you are here.”

  John blinked. “You are?”

  “Yes,” Henry said, and gathered the boy into his arms. “I was feeling very alone today. I needed to be reminded that it is not so, that I have you, I still have a son…”

  John did not move, even though his father was holding him so tightly that it hurt. His cheek was scratched by Henry’s beard, and he inhaled the scent of wine and sweat and horses. He still did not know what to say, but his father did not seem to require any words. Getting to his feet, he held out his hand. John took it and followed him from the chapel.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  June 1177

  Paris, France

  MARGUERITE’S BEDCHAMBER was shadowed and still, although outside the morning sun was bathing Paris in blinding white light. As Hal entered, one of his wife’s attendants rose from her seat by the bed and came to meet him. Most of her ladies were high-spirited, pretty girls, but Agace was well into her forties, for she’d been with the young queen since the latter’s childhood, and they often seemed like mother and daughter to Hal. He was thankful that she’d been with Marguerite during her delivery, and he was heartened now by her vigil, sure that no evil would befall Marguerite as long as the formidable Agace was on guard.

  “How is she this morn?” he asked softly, and smiled when she assured him that Marguerite had passed a peaceful night. “Our lad,” he said, “is doing well, too. His wet-nurse said she got him to take a little more milk, and that is surely a good sign, no?”

  Agace regarded him somberly, wondering if he was truly so oblivious of his son’s danger. Marguerite’s labor had been long and difficult and at one point, they’d been terrified that her life was bleeding away. She’d finally given birth to one of the smallest babies Agace had ever seen, his skin so red he seemed badly sunburned. She’d been so sure he was stillborn that she burst into tears. The midwife had breathed life into his little lungs, but she was not sanguine about his chances of survival, telling Agace privately that the baby had many battles ahead of him. Three days had passed since his birth, and Agace saw no great improvement in his condition. No one had told Marguerite of their fears, but Agace knew she shared them. Each time she cradle
d her son, she seemed spellbound by his every breath, mesmerized by the feeble sound of his heartbeat.

  The midwife had been far more candid with Hal than Marguerite. To no avail, Agace now realized. He could not face the fact that his son might die, and so it was not going to happen. Hal’s reality was whatever he wanted it to be. She felt honor-bound to warn him, nonetheless, that he ought to be braced for the worst, as it was not for mortal men to understand the mysterious workings of the Almighty. “My lord, the midwife said that babies born early are—”

  “Hal?” Marguerite’s voice came sleepily from the bed, and he hastened to her side, Agace and her forebodings forgotten.

  “I am right here, my heart.” Leaning over, he kissed her gently. “I have something for the new mother,” he said, producing an object swathed in silk. Marguerite unwrapped it to reveal an ivory box and, inside, a delicate opal ring set in gold filigree. Sliding it onto her finger, Hal kissed her again. “Opals are said to be lucky.”

  She smiled, praying that he was right, for their son needed all the luck he could get. “How is he this morn?”

  “Fine. All agree he is a handsome little lad, bearing a strong resemblance to his father. Except that he is as bald as an egg, of course!”

  “Go and fetch him for me, Agace,” Marguerite said, and the older woman was happy to obey. She did not have far to go, for Marguerite had insisted that the baby’s cradle be placed in the antechamber; she would have had it beside her bed if Hal and Agace had not objected, fearing that a newborn’s wailing would rob her of the sleep she so desperately needed. She had reluctantly acquiesced, but now she said resolutely, “I am going to keep him with me tonight. I feel much stronger, Hal, and it will ease my mind to have him close at hand.”

  Through the open doorway, they heard Agace’s voice and the answering murmur of the wet-nurse. “If you insist,” Hal agreed, pretending to admire her new ring so he could press a kiss into the palm of her hand. “He does not cry much, is a very good baby so far, no trouble at all…once again taking after his sire.”

  The scream was like the slash of a sword, splintering their last moment of peace into an infinity of pain. It was followed at once by another choked cry and then, weeping. Hal swung toward the sound, his expression one of denial and disbelief. But Marguerite knew better, and she began to sob.

  ELEANOR AND AMARIA WERE PLAYING a desultory game of chess, for it was too hot to concentrate. They’d opened the windows of their bedchamber in hopes of attracting an evening breeze, but the air still simmered with the day’s heat, offering no relief. Muted sounds came drifting in, the arrival of late riders, a barking dog, the tolling of distant church bells. Eleanor glanced again at the chessboard and then sat back with a sigh. “Let’s keep this till the morrow, Amaria.”

  Smothering a yawn, Amaria rose and stretched. “Shall I pour you some wine, Madame?” Eleanor nodded and then they both turned, hearing the sounds of footsteps in the stairwell. There was a soft knock and the door swung open, almost simultaneously.

  “Harry?” Eleanor stared at her husband in surprise. “What are you doing back in Winchester?”

  As Henry stepped forward into the circle of light cast by the candles, Eleanor frowned, thinking he looked exhausted, shadows lurking like bruises under his eyes, his mouth so tautly drawn that she could not imagine those lips ever curving in a smile. “Dame Amaria,” he said politely, “I need to speak with my wife in private.” And Eleanor was suddenly frightened.

  Once Amaria had departed, Henry moved toward Eleanor and seated himself across the table from her. He seemed to be favoring his left leg, and she said, “You’ve hurt yourself.”

  “It’s nothing, an old injury that has flared up again.” He did not speak for several moments, but she did not urge him, sure that she did not want to hear whatever he’d come to tell her. “There is no easy way to say this,” he said at last. “On June 19 in Paris, Marguerite gave birth to a son. The baby came before his time, was too frail. He only lived for three days.”

  Eleanor’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Harry…those poor children. A wound like that will never heal…”

  “I know.”

  She dried her cheeks with the back of her hand. “I will want to write to them.”

  He nodded, and for a time there was only silence. When he got to his feet, he moved as slowly as an old man, and she realized that his pain was physical, too; his limp was much more pronounced now. “Thank you for telling me,” she said, and he nodded again.

  He hobbled to the door, and then paused, searching for words of comfort even though he knew there were none. “He was baptized ere he died. At least there is that. They’ll know his innocent soul has gone straight to God’s embrace.”

  “What was he named?”

  He seemed reluctant to answer, and when he finally murmured, “William,” she understood why. That had been the name of their firstborn, the son who’d died two months before his third birthday. Their eyes met and held, and for an anguished moment, they were grieving—not for the grandson they’d never seen—but for the son whose death had left such a ragged, gaping hole in their lives, the son whose death seemed even more tragic as the years went by and Hal’s follies mounted. What if their Will had lived, if he and not Hal had been the heir? That was not a question either of them had ever asked aloud, but it was one that occurred to them both on those nights when sleep wouldn’t come and they lay awake in the dark, trying to understand how things had gone so terribly wrong for their family.

  AFTER LEAVING WINCHESTER, Henry passed a week at Stanstede in Sussex, waiting for a favorable wind to cross to Normandy. During this time, he gave the church at Wicumbe to the Godstow nunnery in Rosamund’s memory, and he learned that the French king had gotten a papal legate to threaten an Interdict against his domains unless he stopped delaying the marriage of his son Richard to Louis’s daughter Alys. But his leg injury was not healing as he’d hoped, and he returned to Winchester until his health improved.

  THE SUMMER HEAT WAVE CONTINUED; August was even hotter than July. Eleanor and Amaria had taken a wooden embroidery frame out into a secluded corner of the gardens, and they were frowning over their handiwork. “Let me show you again how to make a couched stitch, Madame,” Amaria said, hiding her surprise that the queen handled a needle so clumsily; she had assumed that everything came easily to Eleanor.

  “Let me try.” Eleanor knotted a length of silk thread, did her best to imitate Amaria, and stabbed her thumb with the needle. “Damnation!”

  Neither one had heard the soft footsteps and they were startled now by laughter. Amaria turned to find they were being watched by a slender woman about Eleanor’s age, fashionably dressed in a sapphire-colored bliaut, girdled at the hip with a jeweled belt. Her dark eyes agleam with amusement, she sauntered forward, saying, “I never thought I’d see Eleanor of Aquitaine with a needle in her hand.”

  Amaria was startled by the familiarity, but when she glanced at Eleanor, she saw that while the queen was surprised by this stranger’s appearance, she was also pleased. “Shall I fetch a thimble, my lady?” she said, assuming that if Eleanor did not want time alone with the other woman, she’d say so. When she didn’t, Amaria made a tactful withdrawal.

  “Do sit down,” Eleanor said, gesturing toward the other end of the bench. “What are you doing here, Maud?”

  Maud sat. “I was disquieted to hear that Harry had delayed his return to Normandy. I’d never known him even to acknowledge a physical infirmity, much less change his plans because of one, and I feared that he must be at death’s door.”

  “No, but he has been in enough pain to make him loath to ride a horse, much less make a Channel crossing.”

  “What ails him?”

  “He did not tell you?”

  “You know how difficult it is to pry an answer out of Harry. He muttered some foolishness about taking one misstep too many. Did he have an accident and if so, why did I not hear about it?”

  “Because,” Eleanor sa
id, “it happened three years ago, when he was kicked in the thigh by an unruly horse.”

  “Ah, yes, I remember that.” Maud was not surprised that Henry should be troubled by an old wound, for that often happened in their world. Poor Harry, she thought. It must be an infection of the bone. “I am so sorry about Hal’s baby, Eleanor.”

  “Thank you,” Eleanor said simply, acknowledging Maud’s sympathy at the same time that she indicated the hurt was still too fresh to probe. “Does Harry know you are here with me?” she asked, with just the hint of a challenge.

  Maud took it up without hesitation. “Yes, he does. I got his permission ere I sought you out.” Answering the question that Eleanor had not asked, she said, “Had he refused, I would have respected his wishes.”

  That was a diplomatic declaration of loyalty, a discreet warning that she would not be putting herself or her family at risk for Eleanor’s sake. Eleanor did not blame her, though. “I am gladdened to see you, Maud,” she said, and smiled. “You’ve always had an ear for choice gossip, and I hope you’ve a scandal or two to share.”

  “A few. But you must be hungry for word of your children. Shall I begin with them?”

  “Actually, Harry has been good this past year about keeping me informed of family matters. He notified me when Joanna came ashore at Naples, and when she reached Palermo at Candlemas, he sent me an account of her spectacular entry into the city. It was night and there were so many torches flaring that the city seemed on fire. Joanna was mounted on a white palfrey, clad in her best robes, with her hair loose about her shoulders, a magnet for every eye. She and William were wed less than a fortnight after her arrival, and that same day she was crowned by the Archbishop of Palermo.”

  Maud knew her own daughter would have been overwhelmed by such splendor and ceremony, but Joanna was made of stronger stuff and she suspected that Eleanor’s daughter would have enjoyed being the center of attention, the brightest star in the firmament. She hoped that the fates would be kind to Joanna, that she would find contentment in her new life and her new island home.