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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 49


  “Harry has also informed me whenever Richard or Geoffrey have won a victory over Poitevin or Breton rebels,” Eleanor continued, “and he even kept me apprised of John’s prospects, telling me that he plans to make John Lord of Ireland, and letting me know last summer when he plight-trothed John to your brother William’s daughter Avisa.”

  “So you know of that, too? Harry is certainly determined to make sure that none ever call John ‘Lackland’ again.” The proposed marriage could make John Earl of Gloucester one day since William did not have any male heirs. But the earl did have two other daughters, and Maud knew their husbands were very disgruntled by the marriage settlement, for under normal circumstances, the earldom would have been divided between all three daughters. The Viscount of Limoges had been so outraged when Henry refused to allow Rainald’s earldom of Cornwall to pass to his wife and her sisters that he’d been in rebellion ever since. Maud hoped that the earldom of Gloucester would not prove to be as disruptive. She hoped, too, that John appreciated how lucky he was; few youngest sons were so lavishly provided for.

  “Well,” she said lightly, “I did promise you some good gossip. I’m sure you’ve heard that Hugh Bigod died on pilgrimage—proof that the Almighty has a sense of humor—and his son Roger is feuding fiercely with his stepmother, Hugh’s widow. There are rumors that Louis is considering wedding his youngest daughter, Agnes, to the Emperor of Byzantium’s son. The Earl of Essex is in the Holy Land with the Count of Flanders, and Harry’s sister Emma is in Wales with child.”

  Eleanor wondered if Emma had welcomed the news of her pregnancy. The pressure to produce a male heir could be intense, as she well remembered from her years with Louis. But a child also sealed her fate; a barren wife could hope for the dissolution of her marriage. “All that is interesting, Maud, but hardly scandalous or shocking.”

  “This next story is both. One of your vassals, the Count of La Marche, suspected his wife of infidelity. He repudiated her and had her supposed lover put to death, on Easter, of all holy days. But his only son died suddenly soon thereafter, and he is said to be in despair, stricken as much by guilt as by grief. It seems his ‘proof’ of adultery was not as conclusive as he first thought, and now he fears that God took his son as punishment for executing an innocent man.” She paused then, almost imperceptibly. “And Rosamund Clifford died last December at Godstow nunnery.”

  “Ah,” Eleanor said, “I see.” That explained the mystery, then, why she’d withdrawn from the court. “Harry has not been very lucky of late, has he?”

  “I’d say not,” Maud agreed. Noting Eleanor’s apparent indifference to Rosamund, she wondered if she should make any mention of Harry’s latest leman, and decided to be circumspect for once.

  Eleanor seemed to have read her mind, though. “So tell me, Maud…who is Harry swiving these days? Somehow I doubt that he’s been living like a monk just because Rosamund wanted to live her last days as a nun.”

  Maud grinned. “No, not Harry. He’s had bedmates, of course, this past year. And I’ve heard talk that he’s taken up with the daughter of the Lord of Conches, but her name escapes me at the moment.”

  “Most likely it escapes Harry, too,” Eleanor said, but she sounded cynically amused, not bitter.

  Maud studied the other woman thoughtfully. “I must say that you seem to be faring much better than I’d have expected.”

  “Better than I’d have expected, too,” Eleanor admitted. “The first two years were the hardest, and not just because I was so cut off from the rest of the world. I still had hope, then, you see, and hope can be both a blessing and a curse. But it has been much easier for me at Winchester. It helped greatly to be able to spend so much time with Joanna last summer, and to see my sons again, of course. And, as you can tell, Harry is a more gentle gaoler these days. We had one dreadful storm at Falaise and several lesser tempests after that, but lately the weather has been almost peaceful…almost.”

  “Yes, I can see that Harry’s wounds are not quite as raw. But neither are yours, and that surprises me. You are still his prisoner, after all.”

  “Good of you to point that out,” Eleanor said dryly. “Trust me, I am not likely to forget.” Rising, she said, “Come, walk with me.” They moved from the sun into the shade, halting under the spreading branches of a medlar tree. “When Emma came to visit me,” Eleanor said after a silence, “she expressed surprise that I seemed to have been examining my conscience, and I told her that it helped to pass the time. Time is a prisoner’s worst enemy, Maud. Suddenly there are so many empty hours to fill, endless days to get through. So, yes, I have been thinking a great deal about my past and my future. I even came to understand why Harry and I misunderstood each other so fatally.”

  “And what did you decide?”

  “Harry has always seen me, first and foremost, as his wife. But I have always seen myself, first and foremost, as the Duchess of Aquitaine.”

  Maud had reached that same conclusion, but she hadn’t expected Eleanor to see it, too. “So if you had it to do over again…?”

  “I would have paid more heed to your sound advice,” Eleanor said with a slight smile. “And I would have listened more to the mother, less to the duchess. I did not realize how grievously Joanna would be hurt, and I should have. Nor is Joanna the only one to suffer for our family mistakes and misjudgments. I am sure my older daughters have been sorely troubled, too.”

  “And John,” Maud said, thinking of the wary little boy she’d seen at the Nottingham Christmas Court.

  “Yes, and John,” Eleanor agreed. “Say what you will of us, Maud, Harry and I do nothing by halves. I still think that I was in the right and he was in the wrong. You cannot treat a mettlesome destrier the way you would a plodding sumpter horse, not without goading it to defiance or utterly breaking its spirit, and I fear that the mistakes he has made and continues to make with our sons will haunt him till the end of his days. But when I look back upon the scorched, barren battlefield that our marriage has become, I can take no pride in being right.”

  Maud had cocked her head, regarding Eleanor with something almost like awe. “By God,” she said, “you truly have changed!”

  “No…not yet,” Eleanor said, with another ghostly smile. “But I am trying.”

  ELEANOR WAS SURPRISED when Henry did not appear for dinner in the great hall, for it was filled with highborn guests, including three bishops. Taking his steward aside after the meal, she got from him a reluctant admission that the king’s leg was worse. As she and Amaria made their way back to her chamber, she came to a sudden halt, sent Amaria on ahead, and impulsively headed for Henry’s bedchamber.

  The antechamber was crowded, as always, but Henry’s brother Hamelin was guarding access to the inner sanctum, and he reacted to Eleanor’s entrance with outrage, barring the door with his own body.

  “Oh, for the love of God, Hamelin,” Eleanor snapped, “stop acting like a damned fool and let me by.”

  “Indeed, I will not. The king is ailing, and he does not need to be vexed by unwelcome visitors, especially those who might prove injurious to his health!”

  “I do not have time for this nonsense!” Over Hamelin’s shoulder, she could catch a glimpse of her husband, and called out, “Harry, will you tell this dolt to admit me?”

  To her annoyance, he took his time in thinking it over. “Let her pass, Hamelin,” he said at last. “I promise to be on my guard.”

  When Hamelin grudgingly gave way, she swept by him disdainfully, then slammed the door in his face. “Thank you, my lord husband,” she said, with sarcasm that Henry pretended to take at face value.

  “Glad to be of service. You must miss being able to order men around.” Moving to the table, he poured wine for himself. “Why are you here, Eleanor?”

  “I want to talk to you.”

  “My lucky day,” he muttered, but he poured a second cup for her.

  “If I promise to be on my best behavior,” she said, “can we conduct this conversation si
tting down?” When he hesitated, she scowled at him, a scowl he’d seen hundreds of times over the years. “Jesu, Harry, must you be so stubborn? Does your doctor have to tie you to a chair to get you off that bad leg?”

  He threw up his hands in mock surrender. “No, he just has to set you on me.” Limping across the chamber, he sat down heavily upon his bed.

  Eleanor followed with their wine cups. Pulling a chair closer to the bed, she studied him critically. “Your fever has returned, else you’d not look so flushed. Harry, how do you expect to heal if you will not get the rest you need?”

  “Enough,” he said impatiently. She noticed, though, that he settled back against the pillows with a sigh of relief. “So…what do you want to talk about?”

  “I heard something very interesting in the hall today—that you and Louis are locking horns again, this time over Richard’s marriage to Alys. And no, it was not Maud who told me; I overheard your justiciar talking with Ralf de Glanville. Is it true that you are facing the threat of an Interdict?”

  “Not a serious one. Louis complained last year to the Pope that I was unduly delaying the marriage. To placate him, the Pope agreed to send a legate with a papal bull that would lay my lands under Interdict, but he gave the legate no instructions to publish it, for the Holy See does not want another breach with England. Louis has been making such a pest of himself, though, that the legate insisted that I meet with them to discuss the matter—which I’ll gladly do if this blasted leg ever heals.”

  “When you meet them, what then? I know you’re not keen on the marriage.”

  “Why should I be? You think I want to hand another son over to Louis, trussed up like a Martinmas stoat? That worked out so well with Hal, after all. And the girl brings no marriage portion to speak of. I must have been mad to agree to the betrothal.”

  Eleanor knew why he had, of course. He’d been eager to get Louis to acknowledge his sons as his heirs, Hal for England and Normandy and Anjou, Richard for Aquitaine, and Geoffrey for Brittany. She’d often thought it was ironic that one of his purest impulses—his desire to protect the succession for Hal—had been such an unmitigated disaster. “So what will you tell Louis and the legate?”

  “That I am quite willing to have the marriage take place—once Louis fulfills his side of the bargain and turns over the dowries he promised—the French Vexin for Marguerite and the city of Bourges for Alys.”

  Eleanor’s eyes widened at the sheer audacity of the demand. “Harry, Louis did turn over the Norman Vexin to you, and we both know he never promised Bourges for Alys.”

  “The Norman Vexin was mine by rights; why would I settle for that? And I am sure Louis would have offered Bourges if it had occurred to him at the time. What father would want his daughter to go to her marriage bed as a pauper?”

  “Louis would sooner give you every drop of blood in his body ere he’d surrender Bourges. So what are you really after?”

  He shrugged. “You tell me.”

  “Very well. Clearly, you are seeking to put Louis on the defensive. If he backs off from insisting upon the marriage, you are then free to look for a more profitable bride for Richard. If he agrees to provide a dowry, you still win. My guess is that you are simply trying to make the problem go away, mayhap beguile Louis into making a peace that will allow you to meddle in the Auvergne and Berry, where you and the French have competing claims.”

  Henry had forgotten how sharp she could be, had forgotten how much he’d once enjoyed talking to her about the stratagems, subterfuges, and feints that were such an important part of a king’s arsenal. Reluctant to admit that she’d read him so easily, he did not reply.

  Eleanor sipped her wine while she mulled over the implications of this latest clash between Henry and Louis. “What does Richard think of all this? Since Alys is his betrothed, I assume you did mention it to him?”

  He surprised her then by saying, “As it happens, I did. We talked about this ere he returned to Poitou last summer. He showed very little interest in the subject, was much more interested in discussing the aid I’d provide against the Poitevin rebels.”

  That rang true to Eleanor. She knew Richard had never indicated the slightest desire to wed Alys; she doubted that he’d ever given much thought to the girl at all. “So you are saying that Richard is indifferent, cares little whether he weds her or not.”

  “That sums it up rather well. For certes, he is not burning to take a wife. Unlike Geoffrey, who keeps dropping hints heavier than anvils, reminding me that he is in his nineteenth year now and Constance is sixteen, more than old enough for the holy state of matrimony.”

  That rang true, too, for Richard had nothing to gain by wedding Alys and Geoffrey had a great deal to gain by wedding Constance. Their marriage would validate his claim to Brittany, and he’d no longer be dependent upon Henry’s good will, would have power of his own. Eleanor suspected that the very reasons which made the marriage so attracttive to Geoffrey were why Henry seemed in no hurry for it to happen. But that was a worry for a later time, and more Geoffrey’s concern than hers. The hardest part of confinement was accepting the fact that she could no longer influence the course of events or even the interactions in her own family.

  “It sounds,” she said, “as if you have the situation well in hand.”

  He shot her a suspicious look. “And that sounds as if you are actually supporting me in this.”

  “Why would I not? I agree that we can do better for Richard than Alys, and I’d like nothing better than to see Louis discomfited and humbled. He proved to be an even worse ally than he was a husband.”

  “As you ought to have known,” he pointed out, and she acknowledged the truth of that with a rueful smile. He had propped himself up on his elbow and was regarding her so impassively that she realized she had not the slightest idea what he was thinking. “So,” he said, after a brief silence, “you’d raise no objections if I disavowed the plight-troth. But what if Richard truly wanted to wed the girl?”

  “In that case, I would fight for the marriage till my last breath,” she murmured and saw that she’d finally managed to startle him.

  “Your honesty is commendable, if rather reckless, for you’ve hardly reassured me of your good faith should I set you free.”

  “Could you ever trust me again, Harry?”

  He did not even pause for breath. “No, never.”

  “Exactly,” she said. “So what would be the point of telling you what I thought you’d want to hear? I know marriage is not usually fertile ground for the truth, but mayhap a little truth-telling might have helped us avoid some of the grief of recent years.”

  He was openly skeptical. “Are you saying that you’re going to forswear lies from now on, speak only God’s truth? I’ll believe that when unicorns roam the English countryside.”

  “Go ahead,” she challenged, “ask me a question, then. But I ought to warn you that the rules of the game apply to you, too.”

  He considered it, but she knew he was never one to refuse a challenge. “Very well. Do you regret the rebellion?”

  “You can do better than that, Harry. Of course I do. Ask me something less obvious.”

  “What do you regret? That you set my sons against me? Or that you lost?”

  “Better,” she conceded. “Both. Now…your turn. Answer me honestly. If I’d demanded that you put Rosamund Clifford aside, would you have done so?”

  “No.”

  “And if I’d asked it of you?”

  That gave him pause. “I am not sure,” he admitted. “I just do not know, Eleanor.”

  “Fair enough. Your turn.”

  She’d expected a question about Rosamund, for she knew he still thought jealousy was at the root of their estrangement. But what he asked was far more dangerous. “That day at Falaise…why did you not seek my forgiveness?”

  She exhaled a soft breath. “Ah, Harry, we are getting into deep waters here.”

  “An honest answer. Your rules, remember.”

>  “Very well. I did not want your forgiveness, not then.”

  “And now?”

  “Yes, I would ask your forgiveness now. But only if you asked mine in return.”

  “Are we back to Rosamund again?” he said wearily. “So if I said I was sorry for taking her to my bed, that would have satisfied you? That would have been enough?”

  “Indeed not! If you truly think I would rebel because you had a sugar-sop on the side, you do not know me at all and you never have.”

  He frowned, but kept to the rules of the game, saying honestly, “Then I do not understand. But whatever answer you offer for your betrayal, it can neither explain nor justify your treachery. You were my wife. You owed loyalty to me above all others.”

  “Obviously I did not see it like that,” she said coolly. “And if you’d wanted a meek little dormouse for a wife, you ought to have married your Rosamund. You cannot have it both ways, Harry. You wanted Aquitaine, enough to overlook that I was nine years older than you and had not given Louis a son and had a reputation that was frayed around the edges. You used my lands as a stepping-stone to the English throne. It seems hypocritical to bemoan the fact that I was not and would never be a docile, gentle creature without an independent thought in her head. You knew what you were getting with me. I was never one for sailing under false colors.”

  “Yes, I wanted Aquitaine. But I also wanted you, and you know it. Do not make our marriage sound like such a one-sided bargain. You got what you wanted, too, Madame. I gave you a crown, and a better life than ever you’d had with Louis Capet. And you repaid me with the worst sort of betrayal. My sons would never have rebelled against me if not for you!”

  “And you wonder why I did not seek your forgiveness? Because you blamed me for all and yourself for nothing! The mistakes were always mine, never yours. And nothing has changed, has it? You still see yourself as the innocent one, the victim. Well, I have just one last question for you, my lord husband. Come December, it will begin my fifth year as your prisoner. When you are forced to face the fact that our sons are still chafing under your stranglehold, what then? Who will you blame when they rebel again, Harry? And they will, for you seem utterly unable to learn from your mistakes!”