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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 5


  Maud gazed down thoughtfully at the parchment. Eleanor’s charters had always begun “To the king’s faithful followers and hers.” This one was addressed simply to “her faithful followers.” Did it matter? A careless mistake by her scribe? Or another feather in the wind, a subtle but significant indication that Eleanor was asserting her independence and her authority? Her right to govern in her own name?

  A sudden spate of cursing drew her back to the window. Geoffrey’s friends had begun to quarrel over a throw and before long, they were rolling around in the grass as Geoffrey and the girls cheered them on. Maud watched serenely; with two sons of her own, she knew how little such youthful squabbles meant.

  She didn’t hear the opening door, did not realize she was no longer alone until Eleanor joined her at the window. Eleanor, the mother of four sons, paid even less heed than Maud to the garden brawl. “Petronilla’s daughter has just ridden in,” she said, hazel eyes luminous with pleasure. “I was hoping she’d arrive in time to witness Richard’s investiture.”

  Maud jogged her memory. Isabelle was the elder of Petronilla’s two daughters, wed as a child to the Count of Flanders; Alienor, who’d wed Isabelle’s brother-in-law, the Count of Boulogne, a few years ago, was already here. As far as Maud knew, Eleanor had not spent much time with her sister’s children. That she had taken the trouble to make sure both girls were present in Poitiers showed Maud how much her friend missed Petronilla, whose death that past year had robbed Eleanor of her last living link to a sun-drenched, blissful childhood, to a time when she’d been indulged and pampered and cherished as her father’s favorite in this exotic land she so loved.

  Below in the garden, Joanna had decided the tussling had gone on long enough and, with an authority that would have done credit to a girl twice her age, she demanded that the boys stop fighting. They did, probably glad of an excuse to end their pummeling, but Maud was amused by the little girl’s aplomb, thinking that the young Eleanor must have been just as self-assured and poised. Smiling at Joanna’s mother, she said, “Are the rumors true about Joanna? That she may soon be plight-trothed to the King of Sicily?”

  “There have been talks,” Eleanor confirmed. “But we’re still in the preliminary stages of negotiation, so it is too soon to tell how it will go. There is no hurry, after all, for Joanna will only be seven in October. I see no reason for her to grow up in a foreign court,” she said, so emphatically that Maud thought of Joanna’s older sisters. Tilda had been the first to go, wed two years ago in far-off Saxony at the age of twelve. Then it was the turn of Eleanor’s namesake, known as Leonora, wed to the young King of Castile at the age of nine.

  The two women looked at each other, the same thought in both their minds. In their world, princesses were born to be bartered for foreign alliances, and although the Church officially disapproved of child marriages, it was a common occurrence. Henry’s mother had been sent to Germany at the age of eight. Marguerite had been wed to Hal before she was three. Eleanor had been thirteen when her father’s unexpected death set in motion the events that would give her the crown of France and a life in exile. Maud had been older than Eleanor, but not by much, when she’d been married to the Earl of Chester, a man utterly lacking in either honor or mercy, but one of the great lords of the realm. Because she was quick-witted and resilient and pragmatic, Maud had learned to live in relative peace with her savage, unstable husband, to take solace and joy in her children, and, eventually, to revel in the freedom of widowhood. But she had made sure that her daughter would be no child bride; Beatrix had not wed Ralph de Malpas until after she’d celebrated her nineteenth birthday.

  As the only daughter in a family of sons, Maud had often longed for a sister, and as she gazed at Eleanor now, it occurred to her that this woman was as close as any blood-sister could be. They had much in common, both beautiful in their youth, both strong-willed, proud, and confident in their powers to charm, both now within hailing distance of their fifth decade, for they would celebrate their forty-eighth birthdays that summer.

  “I had an interesting conversation this morn with your niece Alienor,” Maud commented, with a wry smile. “She wanted to know why I had never remarried after Randolph’s death.”

  “I hope you did not shatter all her illusions about marriage,” Eleanor said, no less wryly. “You must remember that her parents were that rarity, a couple who’d wed for love…or lust. And Alienor seems content enough with her own husband…so far.”

  “No, I was circumspect…for me. I said merely that my memories of Randolph were too vivid for me to contemplate taking another husband.”

  Eleanor laughed approvingly. “It is no easy feat for a wealthy widow to escape her legion of suitors. You must have been very fleet of foot, indeed, dearest.”

  “I made sure,” Maud acknowledged, “never to leave my lands without a sizable escort, one large enough to discourage any ambitious young lordlings with ambush and marriage on their minds.” Knowing that Eleanor had fended off two such attempts to force her into matrimony as she’d journeyed back to Aquitaine after her marriage to the French king had been annulled, she indulged her curiosity to ask: “If you could have been certain, Eleanor, that you need not fear being remarried against your will, would you have remained unwed?”

  Eleanor’s mouth tightened, almost imperceptibly. “You do not truly think that the French court would have permitted that? No sooner was the ink dry upon the annulment decree than Louis’s advisors were arguing amongst themselves, deciding which French puppet to place in my bed. Had they even suspected I’d so hastily wed a man of my own choosing, they’d never have allowed me to return to my own domains. But yours was a conjectural question, was it not? So in that spirit: ‘Be not entangled again in the yoke of bondage.’”

  Maud blinked, for Eleanor rarely let her bitterness show so nakedly. “Your interpretation of Scriptures is somewhat uncanonical,” she said dryly. “That is from St Paul, is it not? If my memory serves, he also said it was better to marry than to burn, hardly a rousing endorsement of wedlock.”

  “I have never understood,” Eleanor confessed, “why the Church sees lust as so great a sin. Why would the Almighty have made coupling so pleasurable if it were so wrong? But when I tried to argue that point with Louis, he was horrified that I dared to question the teachings of the Holy Fathers, and it convinced him that we were a depraved and wanton lot, we southerners. He could never forgive himself for the carnal pleasures he found in my bed. He was not much of a husband, or a king, either, for that matter, but by God, he’d have made a superb monk.”

  Eleanor’s face shadowed, for even now, memories of her marriage to the French king were not welcome ones. “He may well have been right, though, about the people of the south. We view lust as we do wine and food and laughter, as essential ingredients for a joyful life. My grandfather…ah, how he loved to vex his priests and distress his confessor! He wrote troubadour poetry, you know, and some of it would have made a harlot blush. He liked to joke that one day he’d establish his own nunnery and fill it with ladies of easy virtue. On our wedding night, I told Harry some of the more scandalous stories about my grandfather, and he laughed until he nearly choked, gasping that between us, we had a family tree rooted in Hell.”

  This last memory was both more pleasant and more painful than those from her marriage to Louis, and Eleanor fell silent for several moments. “I think,” she said at last, “that I would have wed Harry even if I were not threatened with a husband of the French court’s choosing. I wanted children, for I knew Louis would never let me see our two daughters, and indeed, he did not. I needed an heir for Aquitaine and I wanted to give Harry sons, to prove wrong those who’d dared to call me a barren queen. I always knew it was Louis’s failing, not mine. How could I conceive if I so often slept alone?”

  “And I am assuming that you had no trouble getting Harry into your bed?” Maud queried, so blandly that Eleanor could not help smiling.

  “You could safely say that,” she c
onceded, and Maud felt a surge of sadness that things had gone so wrong between her cousin and his queen. She remembered how it had once been, remembered the early years of their marriage, when they’d been so sure that the world, like the English crown, was theirs for the taking, lusting after empires and each other, striking such sparks with their quarreling and their lovemaking that the air around them always seemed charged, as if a storm were about to break.

  Eleanor’s attention was focused again upon the gardens. She was still a very handsome woman, but even queens were vulnerable to the passage of time. Now, though, her smile was dazzling, chasing away the years, cares, even regrets. Maud glanced over to see what she found so interesting.

  Another youth had sauntered into the garden, accompanied by a huge wolfhound. Maud guessed him to be about sixteen, for he was already taller than many grown men, and he moved with the athletic grace of one utterly comfortable in his own body. Maud knew how unusual it was for one so young to have such physical presence; both of her sons had been as clumsy and gangling as colts when they were this boy’s age. He had curly red-gold hair and a scattering of freckles, and she would later marvel that she had not known his identity at once, but it was not until Joanna gave a delighted squeal and flung herself into his arms that she realized she was looking at Eleanor’s second son, Richard, who would on the morrow be invested as Duke of Aquitaine.

  “Jesu, that is Richard!”

  “Indeed it is.” Eleanor glanced curiously at her friend. “Why do you sound so surprised?”

  “Because the last time I saw him, he was a boy, not a man. He looks older than his years, for he will not be fifteen until the autumn, no?”

  “September. He was born on the Nativity of Our Lady. The first and only time that Harry was present for one of my confinements.”

  Maud grinned at the memory, for she’d been present, too, at Richard’s birth. “I remember now. Harry’s brother Will later told me that they’d been hard put to keep him from bursting into the birthing chamber. Harry was never one for waiting.”

  Below in the garden, Richard was swinging Joanna in circles, making her shriek with laughter. The other girls had clustered around him, but Geoffrey and his friends did not seem as pleased by his arrival in their midst. Maud could not blame Geoffrey for his discomfort. Although only a twelvemonth separated the birthdays of the two boys, Geoffrey looked like a child next to his brother, his slightness of build and his lack of height cruelly accentuated by Richard’s adult appearance. Maud’s two sons had been allies from earliest childhood. She suspected that was not the case with Richard and Geoffrey.

  The sight of Eleanor’s sons reminded her that all of the royal brood was not accounted for. Hal and Marguerite were in Normandy with her brother Roger, making plans for their coronation at Winchester. But no mention had been made of Eleanor’s youngest nestling, John. The lastborn, the afterthought, the child jokingly dubbed John Lackland by his father.

  “Is John here, too?” she asked, and Eleanor shook her head.

  “He is with the nuns at Fontevrault,” she said, and while her words were matter-of-fact, her tone was dismissive.

  Maud was saddened but not surprised by the other woman’s indifference, for she had been there for John’s birth. She’d been summoned in haste by Eleanor’s sister; Petronilla had been panicked, fearing that Eleanor might die in childbirth. Her fears were understandable, for Eleanor was forty-two and the older a woman was, the greater the risks she faced in the birthing chamber. But the real reason for Petronilla’s alarm was guilt. She had made a grievous mistake. She had told Eleanor about Henry and Rosamund Clifford.

  Maud turned her head aside, not wanting Eleanor to read her thoughts. It was more than five years since Eleanor had suffered so to give John life, but to Maud, those grim memories would never fade. She knew Eleanor had not expected her husband to be faithful. She was worldly enough to know that a man with an itch would scratch it. But Rosamund Clifford had not been a passing fancy, a bedmate whose name he’d not remember come morning. The daughter of a Welsh Marcher lord, Rosamund had been favored with a pretty face, golden hair, and a gentle, docile nature. And to the surprise of all but her ambitious, conniving father, she had stirred in Henry more than lust.

  Maud supposed she should not have been so surprised by his liaison with this biddable girl-woman. But she’d expected better of her cousin. A man worthy of Eleanor of Aquitaine ought not to be susceptible to fluttering lashes, flattery, and bedazzled adoration.

  Be that as it may, he had taken Rosamund to his bed, a pardonable sin. But he’d then grown careless and indiscreet, so much so that their trysts were soon an open secret. Heedless of Eleanor’s pride, he had installed Rosamund at Woodstock, a favorite royal manor. And soon afterward, Petronilla had decided—for reasons known only to her and the Devil—to tell Eleanor, then in the seventh month of a difficult pregnancy, of her husband’s public infidelity. Eleanor had reacted as anyone but Petronilla could have predicted. Although it was the dead of winter, she took ship for England and headed straight to Woodstock.

  Maud had not been witness to the meeting between her cousin’s queen and his concubine. All she knew of it came from Petronilla, who had confided in baffled frustration that nothing had happened. Encountering the girl on the snow-covered path to the spring, Eleanor had spoken only four words. How old are you? And when Rosamund, as yet unaware of her identity, had said she was nineteen, Eleanor had said nothing else. She had, Petronilla reported indignantly, just turned and walked away!

  Maud had understood Eleanor’s response even if Petronilla had not. A woman heavy with child was at her most vulnerable, clumsy, and awkward in a stranger’s body. It would be adding insult to injury for an aggrieved wife to discover that her husband was smitten with a girl young enough to be her own daughter. Eleanor had refused to remain at Woodstock, retreating to her palace at Oxford, and it was there that she’d gone into labor weeks before the baby was due. The birth had been a hard one, and they had not been sure either mother or child would survive it. But eventually Eleanor’s last son was born, a small, dark creature who could not have been more unlike her other infants, so sun-kissed and robust and golden. John had been fretful from the first, almost as if he sensed his entry into the world had been unwelcome, and when the exhausted Eleanor had shown no interest, Maud had been the one to instruct the chaplain to baptize him for the saint whose day it was, St John the Evangelist. Maud had understood that John was a living reminder to Eleanor of pain and humiliation and betrayal. She had hoped that in time a mother’s instincts would prevail over a wronged wife’s resentment. She was no longer sure that would ever happen.

  In the years since John’s birth, Eleanor and Henry’s marriage had suffered. On the surface, all seemed well. But the telltale signs were there for those in the know. Eleanor had begun to pass most of her time in Aquitaine, ostensibly to soothe the rebellious inclinations of her restive, recalcitrant barons. Henry’s liaison with Rosamund Clifford continued, although he’d taken care to be much more discreet after his Woodstock blunder. Their separations stretched out for months at a time; it was no longer a certainty that they’d hold their Christmas and Easter Courts together. Most troubling for Maud, Eleanor had kept her distance in the aftermath of Thomas Becket’s murder, offering no comfort to Henry at a time when he desperately needed it. It was no surprise, therefore, that there was much gossip and speculation about their possible estrangement.

  When she’d learned from Eleanor that they had never discussed Rosamund or Woodstock, Maud feared that they had crossed their Rubicon. From what little Eleanor had confided and from all she’d left unsaid, Maud had concluded that there had been a communication breakdown of monumental proportions. Eleanor, proudest of the proud, had waited for her husband to broach the subject of Rosamund, to offer her an apology for flaunting his mistress so openly. But Henry had utterly misread her silence, vastly relieved that she had not given him an ultimatum, had not demanded that he banish Rosamund from
his bed and life. Not understanding that she was unwilling to risk the humiliation of a refusal, he’d assumed that his worldly, pragmatic wife did not see his infidelity as so great a sin. Grateful that she’d chosen to deal with the problem of Rosamund Clifford by not even acknowledging there was a problem, he’d eagerly entered into their conspiracy of silence, never once detecting the scent of burning bridges in the air.

  If her cousin Henry had allotted Rosamund Clifford too little significance, Maud’s other male kin had given her too much. Her uncles Rainald and Ranulf and her brother Roger were well aware that Henry’s relationship with his queen had taken a turn for the worse, but they blamed Rosamund for every fissure, every crack in the foundation of the royal marriage. Maud knew better, for she understood that it was far more complicated than a king’s careless adultery. Eleanor’s greatest grievance was not a simpering lass with flaxen hair and smooth skin. It was Aquitaine, always Aquitaine.

  It puzzled Maud that her male relatives could not see this. Was it that men could not believe a woman might share their ambitions, their need for power? Eleanor saw herself as more than Henry’s queen, mother of his children. First and foremost, she was Duchess of Aquitaine, never doubting that she could have ruled as well as any man and better than most. She knew the importance of the dowry she’d brought to each of her marriages. But the expectations she’d brought to those marriages were very different. She’d been given no say in her marriage to Louis, but in daring to wed Henry, she’d taken her destiny into her own hands. She had no intention to be subservient to her new husband. What she’d had in mind was a partnership.

  It had not come to pass, of course. She’d underestimated Henry’s strong will and overestimated the influence she could wield over him. It was not that he believed, as most men did, that women were, by their very natures, incapable of exercising power or acting without male guidance. No son of the Empress Maude could ever look upon women as mere broodmares, and Eleanor had counted upon that. She had not realized, though, that Henry was, by his very nature, unable to share power. He had occasionally allowed her to act as regent in his absence, but he always kept a firm hand on the reins. Nor did he accord her opinions the respect she felt they deserved, utterly ignoring her warnings against elevating Thomas Becket to the archbishopric of Canterbury. Too often, she’d found herself relegated to the sidelines or the birthing chamber, more and more aware of the ultimate irony—that the husband she’d discarded had paid her more heed than the one she’d chosen for herself.