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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 50


  Henry started to swing off the bed, grimaced in pain, and fell back against the pillows. “I want you gone from this chamber, would to God I could have you gone from my life!”

  Infuriated at being dismissed as if she were a servant, Eleanor got to her feet without haste, defiantly taking her time. “I never thought I’d be saying this, but you are a fool, Harry Fitz Empress, as much of a fool as Louis. You are the one who is alienating our sons, not me. I said you could not learn from your mistakes. Worse than that, you cannot even acknowledge them!”

  “I’ll acknowledge one mistake right now. I ought to have pressured the Pope to annul our marriage, ought to have insisted that I would no longer tolerate you as my wife or queen. Had I done that, you’d be cloistered in some remote Irish nunnery today and I’d be rid of you for good!”

  Eleanor strode to the door, then turned back to face him. “You are not only blind to the truth about our sons. You are equally blind to the truth about us. We’ve been wed for twenty-five years, have shared a bed for more than twenty of those years. I bore you eight children and we buried one together. We’ve schemed and fought and loved until we are so entangled in hearts and minds that there is no way to set us free. God help us both, Harry, for we will never be rid of each other. Not even death will do that.” And confident that she’d had the final word for once, she walked out and closed the door quietly behind her.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  August 1178

  Winchester, England

  ELEANOR WAS PLAYING THE HARP and Amaria working on her embroidery when Turold sought admittance to their chamber. Surprised by his appearance, for it was not mealtime, Eleanor gave him an encouraging smile. Although the youth had been at the castle only a fortnight, she felt confident that she could mold him into another Perrin, for he was cheerful, innocently cheeky, and always eager to please.

  Turold was panting; he’d taken the stairs three at a time. “Madame,” he gasped, “men just rode into the bailey, and a groom said one of them is your son!”

  Eleanor came hastily to her feet. “Which one?”

  Turold flushed. “I forgot to ask,” he said. “I wanted to tell you straight away…”

  He looked so crestfallen that Eleanor hid a smile. “It does not matter, Turold. I’ll know soon enough.”

  Reassured, Turold promised to find out more, and bolted from the chamber. Amaria lay down her sewing and moved to Eleanor’s side. “Who do you think it might be, my lady?”

  “I am not sure, Amaria. As far as I know, John is the only one presently in England, and we can safely say it will not be him.”

  They did not have long to wait. Soon there were footsteps, followed by a perfunctory knock, and then Eleanor’s third son entered. “Geoffrey!” Eleanor came quickly toward him, the warmth of her greeting fueled by a twinge of guilt; her initial reaction had been a muted sense of disappointment that it was not Richard.

  “Sorry,” Geoffrey murmured, “it is only me,” and she gave him a startled look of appraisal; did he have second sight?

  “You are more than enough,” she insisted and embraced him affectionately. “This is a delightful surprise. I had no idea that you were back in England.”

  Geoffrey kissed her on the cheek and then sauntered over to kiss Amaria’s hand with a gallant flourish that would have done Hal credit. “Papa and I crossed from Normandy last month,” he explained as he moved to the table and poured wine for them. “He knighted me on Sunday at Woodstock.”

  Accepting a cup, Eleanor studied him carefully. “You do not seem all that pleased about it.”

  “A man hungering for meat is not likely to be satisfied with bread.” Geoffrey sprawled in the window-seat with the boneless abandon of youth. “I asked him again to let me wed Constance. Instead, he gave me a knighthood.”

  She was clearly being invited to join in his criticism, but she resisted the temptation; it would serve none of their interests to prolong their family’s strife. “Well…I grant you that a knighthood is not worth a duchy. But you’ve the right to half the revenues of Brittany, no?”

  “No, not the ‘right,’” Geoffrey corrected her quickly, “the privilege. And privileges, as we know, Maman, can be revoked at any time.” He paused expectantly, and when his mother did not comment, he heaved a theatrical sigh. “Hal and I have a wager going; how many more years can he postpone the wedding? I just hope that when he finally relents, I am not too old to totter to the altar.”

  Eleanor decided it would be best to change the subject, for she truly did not want to worsen Henry’s estrangement from his sons. Winchester’s castellan had kept her informed about much of the political happenings in Henry’s domains, for he’d assumed that her greater visibility meant she was no longer in such deep disgrace. She knew, therefore, that Henry and Louis had forged another tentative truce when they’d met with the papal legate; both kings had pledged to take the cross, and Henry had grudgingly agreed that Richard and Alys would eventually be wed, although he’d refused to commit himself to a specific date. But she’d not seen Henry for almost a year, and she took the opportunity now to interrogate Geoffrey about family matters.

  “How is your father faring these days? Does his bad leg continue to pain him?”

  “He said nothing about it and is no longer limping, so I’d say he’s well enough. His temper is as quick to kindle as it ever was, though, and he is starting to go grey. I think he is beginning to feel his years, for he’s been fretting that his hair is thinning and he’s taken to cutting it even shorter than usual.”

  Geoffrey grinned at that, for he was still a month from his twentieth birthday and had a handsome head of luxuriant brownish-blond hair. Eleanor was not as amused, for she, too, was feeling her years. “And what of your brothers?”

  “I did not see John. Ralf de Glanville—the one who captured the Scots king, remember—has taken charge of his education. Richard is off spilling blood somewhere in Poitou, and Hal is chasing after glory on the tournament circuit. In fact, I will be joining him upon my return to Normandy, for why should he have all the fun? Brittany is reasonably quiet at the moment, so I might as well enjoy the peace whilst it lasts.”

  Eleanor knew, of course, about Hal’s abiding passion for tourneys. “I thought that he had not been very successful?”

  “At first, he was not. But Will Marshal noticed a ruse that the Count of Flanders was employing at tournaments. He would hold back from the first assault, wait until the other participants were milling about in small groups, wearied, battered, and bruised. Then he and his men would rush in and take advantage of the confusion, sweeping all before them. Marshal confided this to Hal, who adopted the same tactics, and since then, he has been winning more often than not.”

  “Then why was Harry grumbling so about the expenses of Hal’s tourneys? If he is winning, Hal must be reaping a goodly profit from the ransoms and captured horses.”

  Geoffrey laughed. “True enough, but Hal’s spending could put a drunken sailor to shame. He outfits his knights in the very best armor and weapons, using his largesse to lure skilled fighters into his service, and he buys the finest horses, of course, and he loves to lavish gifts upon Marguerite, and he never refuses a friend, and his alms-giving is open-handed, and—”

  Eleanor held up her hand, laughing, too. “Enough! Do you have any other family news for me?”

  “Indeed, I do. Tilda had another son last year. They named the poor lad Otto, but that is not as bad as the name they burdened his brother with—Lothair!”

  Eleanor felt a pang, remembering how Joanna had laughed, too, at Lothair’s name; the last she’d heard, Joanna was faring well in her new land and her new life, but Sicily seemed so far away.

  Geoffrey was regarding her with an enigmatic expression. “I am not sure if I ought to tell you this, Maman. Papa has sired another bastard. Ida de Tosny, the Lord of Conches’s daughter, gave birth to a son last year.”

  Eleanor’s shrug of unconcern was not feigned. “I am plea
sed to hear that he has acknowledged the child as his. Not all men do, sad to say. What name did Harry bestow on the baby?” But when he told her it was William, her indifference ebbed away, replaced by a prickle of resentful anger. Why must Harry choose the name of her dead son? Their Will had been cheated of so much—a long and healthy life, a king’s crown, love and lust and sons of his own. He ought not to have to share his name with one of Harry’s by-blows.

  Geoffrey got to his feet and stretched. “I am loath to go, Maman, but I hope to reach Southampton by dark. I’ve been told the winds are favorable, and I want to take advantage of them ere they shift. There is something else, though, that you need to know. It concerns your vassal, the Count of La Marche.”

  Eleanor already knew what he was about to tell her, for Maud had shared the story of the count’s scandal. Not wanting to deprive Geoffrey of the pleasure of relating such lurid gossip, she smiled innocently. “What has Audebert done now?”

  “He thought he had reason to suspect his wife of infidelity. With his usual rashness, he acted upon the suspicion without waiting for proof. The wife was cast off, and the unfortunate lover was put to death. But then his son and heir died of a sudden, and the count began to fear the Almighty was punishing him for slaying an innocent man. He plunged into a deep melancholy, vowing to do all he could to make amends and regain God’s Grace.”

  “Somehow I doubt that involved taking back his wronged wife,” Eleanor said tartly. “Has he taken to sackcloth and ashes, forsaken the world for the serenity of the cloister?”

  She was being sarcastic, but to her surprise, Geoffrey nodded. “Close, Maman, close. He decided to take the cross, to expiate his sins by a hallowed death in the Holy Land. But ere he departed on his pilgrimage of atonement, he sold the county of La Marche to Papa for fifteen thousand Angevin livres.”

  “He did what?”

  Eleanor had not raised her voice, but there was something in her tone that attracted the attention of Amaria, who’d retreated across the chamber to give them the semblance of privacy. One glance at the queen’s glittering green eyes, burning all the more brightly against the sudden pallor of her face, and Amaria jumped to her feet in alarm. “Madame, are you ill? What is wrong?”

  Eleanor did not appear to hear her. “Count Audebert,” Geoffrey said, “is the vassal of the Duchess of Aquitaine, liegeman of my lady mother and my brother Richard. At least he was until my father snatched La Marche from under their noses.”

  Eleanor was on her feet now, too, stalking to the window and back before whirling to face Geoffrey again in a flurry of silken skirts. “Does Richard know this?”

  “He knows. Papa struck this deal last December, boasted of it to Richard, Hal, and me when we gathered for his Christmas Court at Angers. He was right pleased with the bargain he’d made, and well he should be, for La Marche must be worth three times what he paid for it.”

  “His pleasure be damned! What did he say to Richard about his piracy?”

  “Oh, he explained it as too good a deal to pass up, and assured Richard that there was no need for concern, that he could still consider La Marche as part and parcel of Aquitaine.” Geoffrey had been fighting back a smile, but at that it broke free. “Richard found that very reassuring.”

  Eleanor said something under her breath, but Amaria did not catch it, for she did not speak the lengua romana of the queen’s homeland. She needed no translation, though, not after looking at the other woman’s face. “Might not the king have spoken the truth?” she ventured cautiously, wanting to offer comfort but well aware of the shakiness of her footing. “Mayhap he truly does mean to pass it on to Richard?”

  Again, it was left to Geoffrey to respond. “Mayhap he does, Dame Amaria. But just like my marriage to the Lady Constance, La Marche’s fate depends now upon my lord father’s whim, upon his mood at any given moment, and as we well know, his moods can shift faster than those Channel winds I need to catch.”

  Moving to his mother’s side, he kissed Eleanor in farewell. “I must be off, Maman. Have you any words of advice for me? Any suggestions how to stay in Papa’s good graces and mayhap even pry my bride from his talons?”

  “Yes,” Eleanor said, “as it happens, I do, Geoffrey. You need never doubt that your father loves you and your brothers. But never make the mistake of believing you can trust him.”

  “My thoughts exactly,” he said and, smiling, made his departure.

  TO ELEANOR’S JOYFUL AMAZEMENT, Henry chose to hold his Christmas Court that year at Winchester. Richard had remained in Poitou, where he was planning an unusual winter campaign, but Hal, Marguerite, Geoffrey, and John were there, as were Roger and Maud. Even Ranulf and Rhiannon had made the long trip from Wales in order to visit with Morgan. What followed was Eleanor’s best Christmas since Chinon six years ago.

  HENRY SHOOK HIS HEAD when he was offered more wine and then glanced inquiringly at his wife. “Madame?”

  “No, my lord, I have had enough,” she said blandly. They were sharing dishes as was customary, and Henry was conscientious about making sure that Eleanor received the best portions, for men were expected to look after their female dinner-mates. Good manners demanded as much, and Henry had taken care to treat Eleanor with impeccable courtesy at the Christmas Court. She in turn had been no less polite, showing deference and decorum whenever they met in public. There had been no private encounters, and she was content that there were not, for what would it serve to raise the issue of La Marche with him? If he’d not heeded her when their passion had burned at white-heat, he was not going to listen now that their marriage lay in smoldering ruins.

  ELEANOR HAD BEEN BOTHERED by a headache all afternoon, but she was determined not to miss any of the festivities. She’d taken an herbal remedy and was now returning to the solar, where an informal gathering was in progress; unlike the feasts held in the great hall, this one was confined to family and friends.

  When she re-entered the solar, she was not surprised to find that Hal was still the center of attention. Slipping into her chair next to Henry, she discovered that Hal was no longer passing on gossip from the French court, but was entertaining with some of his experiences on the tournament field.

  “The tourney was held this past spring along the Norman border between the towns of Anet and Sorel. Knights had come from all over, from Flanders and Brittany and Anjou and Poitou and Champagne. Even from England,” Hal added, with a mischievous look in his father’s direction, for Henry’s disapproval of tournaments was well known; he considered them a waste of time and a threat to public order.

  Hal had been talking so long that his throat had gone dry and he paused to accept a fresh wine cup from Will Marshal. “The tourney was held on the level ground by the River Eure. Two of the French companies had already clashed and were fighting when we came upon the scene. We hit them with such force that they soon gave way and then fled the field. Our men chased after them, so eagerly that they left me behind! Only Will stayed by my side,” Hal said, with a fond glance toward the knight, who smiled and sought to appear modest and unassuming, with limited success; he was understandably proud of his prowess.

  “Will and I followed after the others, riding downhill into Anet. The knights, both the hunted and the hunters, had already raced through the town, but the French lord, Simon de Neauphle, was still there, with three hundred foot soldiers he’d ordered to protect the lists. They saw us at the same time that we saw them, and Will, bless him, declared, ‘There is nothing for it but to charge them.’ And so we did.”

  That provoked an admiring murmur from his audience. Hal grinned disarmingly. “I know, we were quite mad. But damned if they did not scatter like a flock of chickens! I was glad enough just to avoid capture, but Will saw his chance and snatched the bridle of Simon de Neauphle’s horse—his favorite method of capturing enemy knights.

  “So we galloped through the town, towing Simon along behind us, for without his reins, he had no control of his mount. But then we happened to pass under a
low-hanging gutter and Simon grabbed it, as neat a trick as I’ve ever seen. Poor Will never looked back, so he did not know he’d lost his prisoner, not until it was too late.”

  “And of course you never thought to warn me,” Will complained mildly, and Hal grinned again.

  “Hellfire, Will, I was laughing too much to talk, laughing so much I damned near fell off my own horse!” Throwing an arm around the knight’s shoulders, he acknowledged that “Will was a good sport about it, though, laughed as heartily as any of us afterward.”

  Hal was about to launch into another tournament tale, but just then a servant entered with a platter of wafers, some filled with cheese, others with honey. Henry and Eleanor watched with amusement as Hal and Geoffrey and their friends pounced upon the platter and gobbled up the wafers like starving wolves. Rising, Eleanor crossed to her daughter-in-law and gave Marguerite a quick hug. The young woman smiled, but she seemed very fragile to Eleanor, as if she might be bruised by a breath, and Eleanor’s heart ached for her.

  Across the solar, Maud and Rhiannon were talking quietly together, and when Eleanor’s eyes caught Maud’s, the countess sent her a silent message. Curious, she strolled over to see what Maud wanted.

  “We need to talk to you,” Maud said, and steered Eleanor and Rhiannon toward a window-seat. “Rhiannon and Ranulf are fretful about their son. Morgan is old enough now for the next stage of his education, and Hal has kindly offered to take the lad into his household.”