Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 56

  Morgan was genuinely bewildered. “I am glad of that. But what does this have to do with me?”

  “It is not easy for us, lad, to be stranded between two worlds. The sad truth is that we can never feel completely comfortable in either world. You are three-quarters Welsh and one-quarter Norman-French. I want you to be sure you are making the right choice, taking the road that is right for you, and I fear that you are letting yourself be borne along by the wind, your decisions made by chance or convenience. You need to think seriously about what you want from this life, not what Papa wants for you, what you want, Morgan.”

  Morgan was astonished. “Papa is not forcing me to this, Bleddyn. I like being at the English court, and I have never felt as if I were stranded between two worlds. That is your truth, not mine. I consider myself blessed to have both Norman and Welsh blood flowing through my veins, have never seen it as a burden.”

  Bleddyn was equally astonished, for it had not occurred to him that his brother might not share his confusion, his conflicted sense of identity. “Are you sure, lad?” And when Morgan swore he was, the older man could only shake his head in rueful bafflement. “Well, now I feel like a fool. Here I was, rushing off to save my little brother from pirates, only to find that he fancies being a pirate himself!”

  Morgan burst out laughing. “Our cousin Harry has been called many things in his life, but I think it is safe to say that you are the first to brand him as a pirate.” He set himself, then, to dispelling his brother’s discomfort, joking and teasing until Bleddyn was laughing, too. He was warmed by this dramatic display of family love and loyalty, and he found himself feeling sorry for his royal cousins, who knew nothing of brotherly solidarity. But afterward, when he marveled how he and Bleddyn could drink from the same cup and yet find the taste so very different, he finally began to understand why the king and his sons seemed unable to reach common ground, no matter how they tried.

  CONSTANCE’S WEDDING was just as unpleasant as she’d always expected it to be. In fact, it was even worse, for she’d never anticipated that her mother would not be in attendance. Widowed by the death of Constance’s father ten years ago, her mother Margaret had wed an English baron three years later. Constance had been glad of the remarriage, for it was so much easier to see her mother once they both dwelled on the English side of the Channel. But now Margaret’s English residency worked to her daughter’s disadvantage, for when Constance was summoned to Rouen on such short notice and told that she was to marry Geoffrey as soon as possible, there was no time for Margaret to make the trip, too.

  Constance had only one small consolation, that her wedding was not taking place in Normandy. When she learned that the English king was not going to ease his grasp on either Nantes or the Honour of Richmond, her long-smoldering resentment had flared into outright fury. She did not trust herself to sit beside Henry at her wedding feast, exchanging pleasantries with the man who’d ruined her father and now sought to rob her of her rightful inheritance, and the thought of him being present at the bedding-down revelries was even more distasteful to her. In desperation, she had asked Geoffrey if they could be married in Brittany, and to her amazement, he readily agreed. Even more surprising to her, so did his father. It was only later that she realized why they were willing to be so accommodating—because the wedding itself was meaningless to them. They cared only for the legal rights that Geoffrey would acquire once he made her his wife.

  She’d suggested that the wedding be held in the castle of one of her most loyal barons, André de Vitré, only to learn that André had recently left on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Before she could despair, though, Geoffrey brought her remarkable news: Raoul de Fougères was willing to act as host. Knowing that Raoul shared her loathing for the English Crown, she was morbidly curious as to how they’d compelled his cooperation.

  And so it was that Geoffrey and Constance exchanged vows on the porch of St Leonard’s Church in Fougères, for weddings were commonly held in public to guarantee as many witnesses as possible to the union. After they entered the church for the Mass conducted by the Bishop of Rennes, they were then escorted through the steep streets of the town and back to the great hall of the castle, which had only recently risen from the ashes of a crushing defeat; fifteen years earlier, Henry had captured the supposedly invincible stronghold and razed it to the ground.

  The day had been one of humid August heat, and even as twilight slowly trickled into the river valley, the sun’s warmth still lingered, turning the hall into a sweltering cauldron. Constance was pleased to find that it was essentially an all-Breton affair, for she’d been given no voice in the hasty preparations.

  André de Vitré was absent, of course, but his wife, Matilda de Mayenne, was present, as were the most prominent of the Breton barons. No less than three bishops were in attendance, as were the abbot of Holy Trinity and Robert de Torigny, the venerable abbot of Mont St Michel. Geoffrey’s mentor, Roland de Dinan, had been invited, as were a number of men who’d been familiar presences at Constance’s father’s court, and Constance was relieved that no needless slights had been offered, for her Breton lords were as touchy and high-tempered as their more notorious neighbors in Poitou. When she learned that the wedding guest list was Geoffrey’s doing, she grudgingly gave him credit where due, even though she was not inclined to look kindly upon her new husband. The most favorable thing she could say about him was that at least he was not Richard or Hal.

  However he’d been coerced into it, Raoul de Fougères had spared neither expense nor effort, and the great hall was richly decorated, with fresh rushes upon the floor, white linen tablecloths draped over the trestle tables, and cinnamon and cloves burned to combat the ripe smells of summer and sweat and spilled wine, for the wedding guests were happily doing their best to drain Raoul’s wine kegs dry. So was her groom; when he’d given her the kiss of peace at the conclusion of the Mass, Geoffrey had already tasted of wine, which was one more grievance to hold against him, for Constance did not dare to follow his example. Too much wine might loosen her tongue, and that was not a risk she was willing to take. She was yoked to this man for the rest of her earthly days, and it would be the height of folly to antagonize him from the very outset of their marriage.

  She did her best to play the role that had been forced upon her, smiling and accepting congratulations and demurely turning her cheek for the bridal kisses pressed upon her by the increasingly inebriated male guests. Afterward, there was dancing and entertainment by a rising young troubadour star, Bertran de Born, who interspersed his own songs with the bawdy poetry of Geoffrey’s great-grandfather, Count William of Aquitaine. The verses were explicit enough to cause the bishops some discomfort, but Constance kept a smile upon her face even as she felt her cheeks growing hot. She was not prudish, not easily shocked, but she still had the bedding-down revelries to get through, and was in no mood to appreciate ribald lyrics or the drunken cheering of the men who’d soon be crowding around her marriage bed.

  Eventually the interminable evening came to an end, and she and Geoffrey were escorted across the bailey to their bridal chamber in the northwest tower. They knelt by the bed for the bishop’s blessing, were sprinkled with holy water as he prayed that their marriage would be fruitful and find favor in the eyes of the Lord. Clerics often reminded newlyweds that they ought not to consummate their marriage that first night, spending it instead in prayer and meditation. But the Bishop of Rennes was a realist and omitted an admonishment that he knew was so rarely heeded. The men then trooped out noisily so that Constance could be made ready for her husband.

  The women guests clustered around the bride, helping her to undress, brushing out her long, dark hair, and dousing her in so much perfume that she had a coughing fit. At last they departed, leaving her alone with her two handmaidens, Juvette and Blanche, and Enora, her childhood nurse. This was not unusual; she knew that both Marguerite and Alys were still served by women who’d tended to them in their cradles. But she assumed that the French
king’s sisters were fond of their longtime companions, and she found Enora to be a vexing, foolish creature, prone to fluttering about and clucking like a mother hen. She’d promised herself that once she was the Duchess of Brittany, she’d send the old woman to live in her mother’s household, but for now she had to grit her teeth as Enora prattled on about how beautiful she looked and how lucky she was, for Lord Geoffrey was quite good-looking, even if not as spectacularly handsome as his brother, the young king. Constance thought that she was attractive enough, but she well knew she was not a great beauty. Nor did she much care if Geoffrey had a fair face. All that truly mattered was that he was the spawn of her enemy, the English king.

  Her women exited when the men returned, their arrival heralded by raucous singing and shouting and the lewd jests that were such an inevitable part of wedding festivities. Shielded behind the bed hangings, Constance lay very still. She refused to admit she was nervous, for she was no child. She was twenty, after all, and she knew what to expect in the marriage bed. But her breathing quickened as the humor grew cruder, jokes about castles under siege and broken blades and the best way to mount a skittish mare and ride her bareback. Rolling over, she clasped the pillow over her head, so tightly that she could no longer hear their laughter.

  She was startled, therefore, by a sudden burst of cursing, followed by thumping noises. Good God, were the fools brawling in her bedchamber? It certainly sounded like it, for voices were raised and there was a scuffling sound, more swearing. Sitting up, she scowled and reached for the bed curtains, her first instinct to give the culprits a right sharp scolding, but she thought better of it just in time. Geoffrey seemed to have the trouble well in hand, for it sounded as if he were ejecting the mischief-makers from the chamber, with some help from the more sober members of the wedding party. He got rid of them so fast, in fact, that she was taken by surprise when the bed hangings were suddenly yanked open.

  Her husband was standing there, clad only in his linen shirt and braies, holding out a brimming wine cup. When she realized he was offering it to her, she shook her head, saying primly, “No thank you. I am not thirsty.”

  He ignored her refusal and pressed the cup into her hand. “I’ve never seen a woman more in need of a drink, darling. This is a special wine I had brought in from my mother’s lands in Poitou. I think you’ll like it once you try it.”

  Constance was beginning to bristle, not caring for his flippant tone in the least. “Why would you think I need a drink? I assure you that it is not so. I am not at all nervous, am quite prepared to do my duty as your wife.”

  “I daresay you are. And nothing stirs a man’s lust more than the prospect of deflowering a woman resigned to ‘doing her duty.’ Who could resist a temptation like that?”

  Constance’s brows slanted down. She’d submit to his caresses, but if he thought she’d submit to his mockery, too, he was about to learn otherwise. “If your lust is lacking, there’s always greed. Just close your eyes and think of Brittany’s riches whilst you bed me.” She was sitting upright in the bed, her hands clutching the sheet as if it were a shield against his anger. But to her astonishment, he gave a shout of laughter, and her own anger was diluted now by bewilderment. She’d been betrothed to Geoffrey since she was five and he was eight. Nevertheless, she was realizing that this half-dressed man was a stranger; she did not know him at all.

  “Hellfire, I forgot to lock the door!” Careless of his near nudity, he strode across the room and slid the bolt into place. “Better safe than sorry. Sometimes drunken guests think it is a great joke to burst in upon the wedding couple at the most inopportune moment.”

  Constance took a sip of the wine, discovered that he was right; she did like it. “What was all that squabbling about earlier?”

  “Oh, that. Men playing the fool, which doubtless does not surprise you any, since you seem to hold such a high opinion of my sex. Juhel and Hervé got into a shoving match, but Gérard and I separated them ere any blood was shed.”

  She knew that Juhel was Raoul de Fougères’s son, and Hervé was one of the Breton knights in Geoffrey’s retinue. She’d been surprised to note that almost all of his household knights were Bretons like Hervé; the Frenchman Gérard de Fournival was one of the few exceptions. “I was pleased to see so many influential lords amongst our guests—Reginald Boterel, Roland de Dinan and his adopted son, Alan de Rohan, even the de Moulton twins. You forgot nary a one.”

  He’d moved to the table, was reaching for a small coffer. But at that, he gave her a lazy smile over his shoulder. “Must you sound so surprised? I’ve spent most of the last six years in Brittany. I’d have to be feeble-minded if I could not learn who mattered in all that time. Ah, here it is.”

  Coming back to the bed, he held out a small package. “Your bride’s gift, darling.”

  Constance undid the linen wrapping, and shook out an oval-shaped object of silver gilt. She recognized it at once, and thought that Geoffrey had not wasted any time in having his ducal seal made up. But as she held it up to the light, she saw that it bore the image of a female figure, mantled in a long cloak, holding a lily in one hand and a bird in the other. She stopped breathing for a moment, but she still did not believe it, not until she read the engraved legend: Constancia Dvccissa Britannie, Comitissa Richenvndie. “This is for me?”

  “Well, I’d hate to think the image looks like me. For mine, I used the same design as your father did, just changing the name. Would you believe I never had my own seal until now? My lord father did not think I had need of one.”

  Constance dampened down her rising excitement; did he think to win her over with an empty gesture? “So now I will have a seal to confirm your acts. How convenient.”

  The bed shifted as he sat down upon it. “And to validate your own acts. Governing Brittany is likely to be as great a challenge as taming those lunatics in Poitou, and it will take us both to keep your Breton barons from running roughshod over the chancery.”

  She was silent for several moments as she considered the implications of what he’d just said, absently sipping wine as she ran her fingers over the name carved into the seal mold. “What chancery?” she said cautiously. “It was abolished when my father abdicated.”

  “And I plan to restore it straightaway. In fact, I intend to revive the ducal government as it was under your father. Some of my father’s innovations are worth retaining, such as creating the office of seneschal for each of the Breton counties. But I know I can improve upon—”

  “Stop,” Constance begged, for the unreality of this conversation was affecting her as much as the wine. Did he mean any of this? But what did he have to gain by lying to her?

  He cocked his head, regarding her quizzically, and then he grinned. “I know, strange talk for our wedding night. It is just that I’ve been waiting so long, and now we can start putting all these ideas into practice—at long last!”

  Constance took another bracing swallow of wine, surprised to discover that her cup was almost empty. Geoffrey reached over, took the cup from her lax fingers, and padded barefoot over to the table to refill it. Watching as he came back to the bed, she said suspiciously, “Are you trying to get me drunk?”

  Settling down beside her again, he passed her the cup. “If I were?”

  “It would be a waste of wine. You do not have to seduce me, Geoffrey. I’m your wife now.”

  “Yes, you are,” he said amiably. “But what if I want more than that?”

  She drank some more wine to cover her confusion. “What?”

  “An ally.” He saw that she did not understand, and sighed. He rarely second-guessed himself, but he started to do so now, wondering if it would have been wiser to have waited until he’d won her trust. Her cup was tipping precariously and he grabbed it before she could spill wine over them both. “I think you’ve had enough, darling.”

  She thought so, too, for she was feeling light-headed. It was a strange sensation; she’d never even been tipsy before, never willing to relinq
uish control. “What did you mean about us being allies?”

  “I just think it would be a shame if we did not join forces, for we want the same things.”

  “Somehow I doubt that, Geoffrey.”

  “Shall I tell you what your priorities are, Constance? You want to keep Brittany strong and prosperous, and to protect it from your predatory neighbors—the French cub, my brother Richard, and my esteemed sire. Oh, yes, and to provide an heir, preferably two. Did I leave anything out?” When she slowly shook her head, he said, “Well, those are my priorities, too, which is why it makes sense for us to unite.”

  “I do not know that I can believe you,” she confessed, vaguely aware that the wine was subverting her sense of caution. “You seem to be saying that you’d put Brittany’s interests above those of your father, and why would you do that?”

  “Because our interests are not identical, even if he seems to think so. I am his third son, and Brittany is all I—we—have.”

  She wondered if it was the flickering candle flames, for his eyes seemed to change color, sometimes decidedly blue and at others very grey. “Prove it to me, then,” she challenged. “Tell me how you got Raoul de Fougères to agree to hold the wedding here.”

  “I am sorry, darling, but I have no sordid secrets to reveal. Raoul was quite willing to do it, needed no persuasion or extortion from me.”

  She felt a sharp throb of disappointment. She’d almost let herself be taken in by his honeyed tongue and easy smile. “I am not a fool, Geoffrey! Raoul hates the English king.”

  “I daresay he does,” he said calmly. “But I am the Duke of Brittany.” While she was thinking that over, he pulled his shirt over his head, and she found herself paying sudden rapt attention to his bare torso; the candlelight caught the golden glints in his chest hairs, played upon the ripple of muscles as he slid next to her. “I am going to tell you something that no one else knows yet,” he murmured, so close now that his breath was warm against her cheek. “I am going to dismiss Roland de Dinan, for he is my father’s man, not mine. Then I intend to create a new office—Seneschal of Brittany—and once I do, I am offering it to Raoul.”