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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 57


  “Why?” she whispered. They were lying together in the bed now, and she was faintly surprised to find that her arms had slipped up around his neck, that she was holding on to him as if he alone could anchor her to the earth.

  “As I told you, darling, because I seek allies wherever I can find them.”

  Constance had never felt so relaxed, so comfortable in her own body. If this was what wine did, she’d been missing out on a lot. “I would suggest, then, that you begin looking in your bed.”

  “An excellent suggestion,” he said, and raised up on his elbow to shed his braies.

  She moved over to make it easier for him. “Why did you not take all your clothes off ere this?”

  “We were interrupted by that brawl,” he reminded her. “And then I thought it best to wait after that, not wanting to overwhelm you with my male magnificence right away.” When she laughed, he said, “Thank God, you do have a sense of humor!”

  “Of course I do!” she said, but her indignation was soon forgotten, for he’d begun to kiss her throat. Her inhibitions and her wariness had been dramatically diminished by the excellent wine of Aquitaine and Geoffrey’s intriguing candor, and she delighted him by proving to be an apt pupil, quite unlike the bride he’d feared to be burdened with, the indifferent, inert virgin passively resigned to her fate. This woman was warm and willing and eager to follow his guidance, and he experienced far more pleasure than he’d expected to find in her bed. Afterward, he assured her drowsily that it would get better, but she said she had no complaints and then gave him a promising sign that their marriage would be a successful one, for she showed no inclination to talk as so many of his other bedmates did. Instead, she curled up against his back and went to sleep.

  She awoke the next morning just before dawn, with a dull headache, a dry mouth, and total recall of the extraordinary events of her wedding night. Propping herself up on her elbow, she studied the man beside her. He looked younger in his sleep, less guarded, and she realized that the flighty Enora was right, after all; her new husband was easy on the eye. Best of all, he was quick-witted and clever and ambitious. We will make effective partners. We will be good for Brittany and good for each other, and who would ever have imagined it?

  The sheet had slipped, only partially covering him, and she smiled at the sight of his early-morning erection, then slid over until their bodies were touching. Still half-asleep, he responded at once to the soft female curves nestled against him, and they were soon entwined together in a carnal embrace. She suspected that he’d begun making love to her without fully realizing who she was, but she was not bothered by that. She may have gone to her marriage bed a maiden, but she was no wide-eyed, convent-bred innocent. She fully expected Geoffrey to stray, for that was the way of their world. She felt confident, though, that he would never shame her by flaunting a concubine the way his father had flaunted Rosamund Clifford. He was too shrewd to make a mistake like that. And as she gave herself up to the moment, to the sheer physical sensations that he was stirring with hot kisses and intimate caresses, she discovered that he’d been right; it did get better.

  HENRY HAD SAILED FOR ENGLAND in the belief that he’d patched up a peace between Philip of Flanders and the young French king. It was to be short-lived. Adèle and her brother the Archbishop of Rheims had been reconciled with Philippe because of Henry’s efforts, but her other brothers, Thibault of Blois and Étienne, Count of Sancerre, were still disaffected. In an act of utter cynicism, they allied themselves with their former enemy, Philip, against their nephew. They were soon joined by the Count of Burgundy, the Counts of Hainault and Namur, and Philippe’s half sister Marie, regent for her fifteen-year-old son, the new Count of Champagne. Étienne was the first to strike, occupying Saint-Brisson-sur-Loire and then doing homage for it to the Flemish count. The hostile coalition was soon threatening Philippe’s precarious hold on power, and he appealed urgently to the English king for help. Once again Henry proved to be Philippe’s salvation, providing military aid under the command of his own sons.

  ELEANOR WAS JUBILANT when she learned that Henry would be holding his Christmas Court that year at Winchester, for her last two Christmases had been lonely ones, with the royal court at Nottingham and then Angers. But Henry was back in England after more than fifteen months on the other side of the Channel, and her spirits soared at the prospect of seeing one or more of her sons. She was to be disappointed, though. Richard had remained in Poitou, Hal and Marguerite were visiting her brother the French king, and Geoffrey and Constance were holding their first Christmas Court in Rennes.

  Henry’s son Geoff had accompanied him, as had John, but Geoff could barely bring himself to be civil to Eleanor, and John was her phantom son, vanishing with breathtaking speed every time she got within ten feet of him. Somewhat to her surprise, though, Henry was on his best behavior, so attentive that she did not have time to dwell upon her discontent. They enjoyed a pleasant supper as Henry told her what he knew of Constance and Geoffrey’s wedding, revealed that Geoff had resigned as Bishop-elect of Lincoln, confessing that he did not think himself fit for such a high office, and was now Henry’s chancellor, and disclosed that Richard’s betrothed, Alys, would soon be residing at Winchester, as she’d complained life was too lonely and dull at Devizes Castle.

  Henry also reported that Richard had a tumultuous summer. He’d angered the citizens of Limoges by insisting that the city walls be torn down, and then found himself embroiled in strife with the brothers of the Count of Angoulême. Count Vulgrin had died unexpectedly in June, leaving only a small daughter, and Richard claimed her wardship and then announced that she would inherit Angoulême, which did not sit well with the count’s kinsmen.

  “I would think not!” Eleanor was taken aback, for primogeniture was not the custom in Aquitaine and Vulgrin’s brothers would have expected to share his inheritance. It sounded as if Richard had poked a stick into a hive, not the best way to obtain honey.

  “Richard chased them out of Angoulême, and they took refuge with their half brother Aimar in Limoges. They’ve been joined by the Count of Périgord and several of his neighbors and will be plotting mischief in the coming year. This is why Richard did not join us in Winchester, for I know he wanted to see you.”

  Eleanor looked at him with surprise and some misgivings. Why was he being so kind to her tonight? When he proceeded to do his best to reassure her about the fledgling rebellion Richard was facing, lavishly praising their son’s military skills, she began to feel more and more uneasy. It had been a long time since he’d shown such solicitude for her peace of mind. What was he up to now? “Is it true that you sent our sons to Philippe’s aid last month?”

  He smiled slightly. “So you heard about that, did you? Philip’s Flemings sacked Noyon, captured Clermont and Senlis, and actually got within fifteen miles of Paris. By then I was back in England, so I dispatched Hal and Richard and Geoffrey, and they were quite successful, soon had Philip and his allies on the run.”

  Eleanor gazed at him in bemusement. Three times he’d acted to salvage Philippe’s budding kingship, twice intervening personally to stave off disaster, and now this latest rescue. Name of God, Harry, why can you not be as generous to your own sons as you are to Louis’s son? The question never left her lips, though. She knew it would only destroy their newfound camaraderie, for hers would be the last voice that he’d ever heed when it came to their children.

  Henry stayed by her side after the meal was done, chatting so easily that she saw they were being watched—and gossiped about—by virtually every guest in the hall, gossip that doubtless reached spectacular levels when Henry accompanied her once she was ready to leave the festivities.

  Ice crunched underfoot as they walked across the bailey. Eleanor glanced over her shoulder at their footprints in the snow, not sure how he’d come to be escorting her back to her chamber. She let Henry keep up the conversation, for her mind was racing as she tried to anticipate him, to guess what his latest scheme was. W
hen Henry actually offered an offhand apology for Geoff’s rudeness, she was convinced that something was in the wind, and decided to put her suspicions to the test.

  “I am not troubled by Geoff’s ill will, Harry. I would be grateful, though, if you had a word with John on my behalf. I tried all evening to speak with him, to no avail. Can you assure him that the sky will not collapse if he exchanges a few civil words with me?”

  “I suppose I could. But you have our other lads dancing to your tune quite happily. Surely you can spare me one son, Eleanor?”

  She stopped abruptly and studied him. There was just enough moonlight to catch the glimmer of a smile. “I think we need to talk. Let’s go into the garden where we can be alone.” He didn’t object and they crossed the bailey in silence, opened the wicker gate, and entered the gardens.

  As she’d expected, none were about at that hour. Stopping by a bench, Henry cleared snow from it with the corner of his mantle, for he only wore gloves when hunting. He stayed on his feet, though, after seating Eleanor. “You are right,” he said in a low voice. “We do need to talk.”

  She’d thought that he had political intrigue in mind and needed her cooperation. Now, though, she felt a chill go up her spine, utterly unrelated to the winter weather. “Is this about one of our children? It is not good, is it?”

  “No, it is not. You know that there has long been tension and suspicion between the Holy Roman Emperor and our Tilda’s husband. It has now gotten much worse. Heinrich has been banished in disgrace, compelled to leave Germany. As soon as I learned about this, I sent Willem to the emperor to argue on Heinrich’s behalf. The most he could gain, though, was the reduction of Heinrich’s exile from seven years to three. So he will be taking refuge at my court in the coming year, and Tilda and their children will accompany him.”

  “That is indeed sad,” Eleanor agreed, but in truth, she was somewhat relieved, for she’d feared more grievous news than that. At least Tilda and Heinrich were well, in no physical danger. “It is good that they have a shelter from this storm, a place where they will be safe and welcome until the emperor can be placated and coaxed into ending the banishment. And I confess that it will be wonderful to have Tilda back, and to see our grandchildren at last.” When he did not reply, she said sharply, “I will be able to see them, Harry?”

  “Of course.”

  For the first time, Eleanor realized how cold it was in the garden. Rising, she shook snow from her mantle, smiling as a memory suddenly surfaced. “Do you remember the time we were pelting each other with snowballs, and your mother caught us at it? She was horrified that we were acting in such an unseemly way. Where was that…Rouen or Caen?”

  “Rouen, I think.” He sounded distracted, as if he had other matters on his mind, and she decided it was time to bring this surprising evening to an end while they were still on such amicable terms. But when she suggested that they go indoors, he made no move to leave. “Eleanor…there is more. I ought to have told you at once, but I was too craven, wanted to put it off as long as I could…”

  “You are the least craven man in Christendom,” she said, but her voice was no longer steady, for her fear had come flooding back. “What…what is it?”

  “I had grievous news this week from Sicily. Joanna gave birth to a son, but he came too early. He only lived long enough to be baptized.”

  “Oh, no, no…” This was not the first time that Death had claimed a grandchild. Marguerite and Hal were still mourning for their infant son, and just that autumn, Eleanor had learned that the baby born earlier in the year to her daughter Leonora had been found dead in his cradle. But Joanna’s heartbreak was harder for her to bear. Joanna was just sixteen. Why had God done this to her?

  Turning away blindly, she would have stumbled and fallen if Henry had not reached out swiftly to catch her. Putting his arm around her shaking shoulders, he drew her to him, and she wept against his chest, wept for Joanna and her baby son, wept for herself, too, for her husband and their sons, for their accursed ill luck and their deplorable blunders, for all the evil that had overtaken their family.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

  May 1182

  Winchester, England

  THE SPRING HAD BEEN ONE of incessant rains and unrelenting bad news. It began when Eleanor learned that her sister Petronilla’s elder daughter had died just before Easter. Eleanor had told Amaria about Isabelle’s sad story. She’d been wed to Philip of Flanders at a very young age and their marriage had soured when she’d been unable to give him an heir. Six years ago Philip had accused her of adultery, had her suspected lover beaten to death, and compelled her to give him control of her inheritance—the French province of Vermandois.

  Isabelle’s untimely death had greater significance, therefore, than merely the end of her misery, for neither Eleanor nor Amaria doubted that Philip had made her life a living hell. Now that she was dead, Vermandois should have passed to her younger sister, Alienor. But Alienor’s rights were ignored as Vermandois became one more bone of contention between the Count of Flanders and the young French king, both of whom claimed that rich county. Eleanor was infuriated that her niece had been treated so shabbily. She could not help Alienor, though, and that only added to her discontent.

  Eleanor was still fuming over her impotence when news came from Poitou that Richard was facing a formidable coalition of rebel lords—the disinherited Taillefer brothers of Angoulême, their half brother Aimar, Viscount of Limoges, the Count of Périgord, and the Viscounts of Ventadour, Comborn, and Turenne. Richard had, as usual, chosen to strike first and attacked the Count of Périgord’s castle of Puy-St-Front in Périgueux, but he did not have enough men with him to hold it, and to Amaria’s troubled eyes, Eleanor seemed to age years in the span of days, her face pallid and drawn, her appetite gone, her sleep sporadic. If Amaria had doubted Eleanor’s partiality for her second son, those doubts were dispelled as she witnessed the depths of the queen’s fear. For better or worse, Richard was closest to Eleanor’s heart, and now she could do nothing as he faced the most serious threat yet to his authority in Aquitaine.

  That morning they learned that Ralf de Glanville had ridden in the night before, and Eleanor made haste to seek him out, for the justiciar had accompanied Henry to Normandy and he would be likely to have the latest word about the rebellion. As she waited for Eleanor to return, Amaria paced nervously, unable to sit still for long. To distract herself, she even tried to pet the cat, and she’d never cared for felines, considering them to be vexing, odd creatures. But Cleo haughtily rebuffed her overtures, and she resumed her pacing, wondering how she could comfort Eleanor if evil had befallen her favorite son.

  When Eleanor finally came back to their chamber, though, Amaria knew at once that the news was good. For the first time in weeks, there was color in the queen’s cheeks and her eyes had lost that glazed, inward look. After instructing Amaria to pour them some wine, she sat down in the window-seat and shared what she’d learned.

  “Would you believe that Harry is still acting as Philippe’s guardian angel?” she marveled. “Ralf said he met Philip and Philippe at Senlis and patched up yet another peace between Flanders and France. He then headed south, summoning the rebels to meet him at the abbey of Grandmont in Whitsun week. He told Ralf that if he could not end their rebellion by peaceful means, he would then take the field with Richard against them. Richard actually requested his support, which shows how precarious his position had become; my son does not easily ask for help. Harry told Ralf to assure me that there was no further need for concern. He’d summoned Geoffrey to Grandmont, too, and he said that if the war continued, Hal would also join them in punishing the rebels.”

  “Madame, that is wonderful news!”

  “Yes, Amaria, it is. It was a long time coming, but at last the men in my family will be fighting on the same side!”

  THE COUNT OF PÉRIGORD had retaken his castle at Puy-St-Front after Richard’s April seizure of the fortress, and in June, Richard, his father, and h
is brother Geoffrey set about recapturing it. The siege was going so well that Richard expected the count would soon surrender. But as of the first day of July, Hal had yet to put in an appearance.

  RICHARD AND THEOBALD CHABOT, one of his mercenary captains, were inspecting Puy-St-Front’s defenses for weaknesses, venturing so close to the castle walls that his knights and his squire Rico were alarmed, for he was now within range of Count Élie’s bowmen. Richard was disdainful of the danger, studying the battlements intently. “If we were to shift the mangonels,” he said, “aim them at this corner tower—”

  “My lord duke!” One of his soldiers was approaching at a run, for Richard’s men knew that he expected his commands to be carried out with dispatch; in that, he was truly his father’s son. “The young king has just ridden into camp, and with a goodly force of knights and men-at-arms.”

  “Has he, indeed?” Not for the first time, Richard found himself thinking that Hal had an uncanny talent for arriving just as a siege was winding down. “I suppose, then, that I ought to bid him welcome.”

  Hal and his knights had already dismounted, and he was conversing easily with their father and Geoffrey, looking immaculate and well groomed and rested in the midst of the begrimed, sweaty, weary men who’d been besieging the castle for nigh on a month. As Richard shouldered his way toward Hal, the throng parted to let him pass, and Henry turned with a smile, pleased that his sons had come together like this, the first time that all three of them had gone to war under his command.