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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 7


  “That was our intent,” Hal admitted, hesitating before confirming what Louis already knew. “But my lord father summoned me to return to Normandy.” Adding, after another, longer pause, “And of course I obeyed.”

  But not willingly, Louis thought, not willingly at all. “Marguerite told me that you came to Gisors straightaway from the harbor at Barfleur. How long shall I have the pleasure of your company ere you must seek out your lord father?”

  Hal’s shoulders twitched in a half shrug. “In truth,” he said, “I am in no hurry to see my father.” Finding a smile, he said wryly, “The Church holds that fighting during Christmastide is a sin, a violation of the Truce of God.”

  “Are you so sure that you and your father will quarrel once you are together?” Louis asked, and Hal raised his head, his eyes searching his father-in-law’s face. He seemed to be making up his mind how much to confide, and Marguerite leaned over, whispered something in his ear too softly for Louis to hear.

  “Am I sure that we will quarrel?” Hal said at last. “No…it need not be. I have only to defer to my father in all matters, stifle my complaints, accept his judgment without question or qualm, and we will be in perfect accord.”

  Louis was faintly surprised that the wound had already begun to fester. The lad was like his father in one way if no other—their mutual lack of patience. “If you were to defer to Henry in all matters,” he said mildly, “you would be a puppet prince, not an anointed king.”

  Hal stood up suddenly, began to pace. “If you see that so clearly, why cannot my father?”

  “Well, we shall have to make him see.” Turning then to his daughter, Louis suggested that she make sure that her little brother Philippe did not get into any mischief whilst he and her husband continued their discussion.

  Marguerite had been taught that obedience was a woman’s duty, and she did not object to being dismissed so summarily. As she exited the garden, she glanced back and smiled at the sight meeting her eyes—Hal and her father talking quietly together, their heads almost touching, their faces intent. He has found an ally in Papa, she thought, and with a light step, she went to find Philippe.

  NORMANDY WAS A LAND honeycombed with castles, but none were as formidable as the cliff-top stronghold overlooking the River Ante. Beneath the walls of Falaise, the village straggled down the steep slope, its narrow street deserted in the chill November twilight. From a window in the upper chamber of the castle’s great keep, Meliora looked in vain for signs of life. The villagers were huddled by their hearths, secure in the shadow of the royal fortress as night descended over the Norman countryside.

  Meliora pulled the shutters into place with a shiver, went to stand by the chamber’s sole source of heat, a brazier heaped with charcoal. She knew her mistress did not like Falaise and she understood why. The castle had dominated the valley for one hundred years, and had been designed for defense. The towering rectangular keep was impregnable, but not particularly comfortable. Rosamund Clifford’s chamber was neither spacious nor well lighted, although the wall hangings were made of costly Lincoln wool and the canopied bed was piled high with plush coverlets. Since Henry was so rarely there to keep her warm at night, he at least saw to it that she did not lack for fur-lined blankets.

  Rosamund was seated before a wooden frame, working upon an altar cloth of finely woven Spanish linen. She was an accomplished needlewoman and passed much of her free time embroidering church vestments. She had recently finished a beautiful cross-stitched chasuble for the priest at Godstow priory, and Meliora supposed that the altar cloth was meant for Godstow, too, as Rosamund was very generous to the nunnery where she’d been educated. She looked up with a quick smile as Meliora drew near and the older woman smiled back, wishing that Rosamund did not look so pale, so fragile.

  When the king had engaged her for Rosamund, she had accepted eagerly, for she was a widow twice over with grown children and she preferred life on a larger stage than her home village back in Cornwall. She’d assumed that the king wanted her to act as a shepherd, keeping his little lamb safe from wolves. She’d not expected, though, that his lamb would become so dear to her.

  Nor had she expected that her employment would last so long. Far more pragmatic than the convent-reared Rosamund, she’d assumed that the king’s passion for the girl would soon flame out. But seven years later the fire still burned, although she wondered cynically if their frequent separations played a role in that. She often thought Rosamund must be the most neglected concubine of all time, for her royal lover practically lived in the saddle, patrolling the length and breadth of his empire with a speed that seemed to defy the laws of nature. When the French king had remarked sourly that he could almost believe Henry had learned how to fly, he was speaking for legions of frustrated adversaries and thwarted rebels. But to Meliora, Henry’s remarkable mobility meant only that most of Rosamund’s nights were lonely ones.

  “I do not suppose,” she said, “that the king told you how long our stay at Falaise will last?”

  Rosamund shook her head. “I doubt that he knows himself. He expects to be in Normandy for the rest of the year, and so it makes sense for me to be here. Falaise is conveniently located, accessible from most areas of the duchy.”

  Meliora agreed that Falaise was well situated, but she suspected that Henry’s choice had also been influenced by the fact that it was not a castle favored by his queen; he would not want to risk another awkward Woodstock encounter. Given Falaise’s history, Meliora found it rather ironic that he should have tucked his mistress away here of all places, where one of Christendom’s most notorious liaisons had begun. From these castle battlements, a Duke of Normandy had noticed a young girl washing laundry in the village stream below. Bedazzled by her beauty, he took her as his bedmate, and the following year she gave birth to a son. Marriage was out of the question for Arlette was only a tanner’s daughter, but the duke recognized their son as his, and when he later took the cross, he named William as his heir. Against all odds, the boy known as William the Bastard would lay claim to the duchy and end his days as King of England. As for Arlette, she’d married well after her lover’s death, and this tanner’s daughter would be remembered as the mother of a king, a bishop, and a count.

  During these past weeks at Falaise, Meliora found herself thinking often of Arlette, her duke, and their bastard-born son who would become the great-grandfather of England’s current king. She wanted to believe that Rosamund would be as lucky as Arlette, but she did not think it likely. Arlette had been strong enough to defy the world, prideful enough to ride through the main gate of the castle when the duke summoned her; no back alleys for her. Whereas Rosamund reminded Meliora of a flower set down in alien soil; she was too tender, too delicate to thrive at the royal court. The two women were unlike in another way, too; Arlette had been fertile, while Rosamund was barren.

  Meliora supposed that it was not entirely accurate to apply that cruel term to Rosamund, for twice she’d gotten with child, only to miscarry in the early weeks of the pregnancy. What saddened Meliora the most was Rosamund’s lack of hope. As much as she yearned for children, even children born out of wedlock, she had no expectations of motherhood. She loved Henry enough to live in sin with him, but she never forgot that they were sinning, and she saw her failure to conceive as God’s punishment for those sins.

  Rosamund’s head was bent over the altar cloth, and Meliora reached out, brushed aside the long, blond braid dangling across the embroidery frame. She was not usually given to whimsical notions, but it seemed to her that she could sense Arlette’s bold spirit in the chamber with them, a ghostly presence watching over Rosamund with that most condescending of emotions—pity.

  ROSAMUND’S BREATHING had quickened, coming in audible gasps, and she was clutching at the sheets like one grasping for a lifeline. When Henry gently shook her shoulder, she jerked upright, eyes wide and unfocused, and he said soothingly, “It was but a bad dream, love, no more than that.”

  She rolled ov
er into his arms, clinging with such urgency that he gazed down at her in surprise. “You truly are disquieted. What did you dream to give you such a fright?”

  “I do not remember,” she lied. In truth, she remembered all too well, for this was a recurrent nightmare, one that troubled her sleep several times a year. It was always the same: she was lost in the woods, alone and afraid as darkness came on. “It matters for naught,” she assured him, “just a silly dream. I am so sorry, beloved, for awakening you!”

  “I was not asleep,” he admitted, and she strained to make out his features in the shadows. A faint glimmer of lamplight filtered through the slit in the bed hangings, not enough to illuminate his face. He’d arrived long after nightfall, as usual without warning, and wasted no time in carrying her off to bed, so the only conversation they’d had so far was carnal in nature.

  “What chases away your sleep?” she asked, so solicitously that he brushed her mouth with a quick kiss.

  “My eldest son.” Sitting up, he shoved a pillow behind his shoulders. “Hal came back from the French court with a head full of foolish notions and saddle bags stuffed with laments. The lad has begun to collect grievances like a miser hoarding coins.”

  “I cannot imagine what grievances he might have with you. You made him a king!”

  “Well, he now sees that as an empty honor. He complains that I have not provided him with income adequate to his rank, that I have given him naught but promises, that I continue to delay his knighthood and to refuse to allow tournaments in my domains, and above all, that I treat him like a raw stripling instead of a man grown.”

  Rosamund was not deceived by his matter-of-fact recital of Hal’s complaints. “I think,” she said indignantly, “that he owes you more gratitude than this.”

  Henry’s mouth tightened. “Hal insists that he be given the governance of either England or Normandy, and I know full well who planted that baneful seed. The lad has always paid heed to the wrong people, and when he opens his mouth these days, the French king’s words come tumbling out.”

  “You refused him, of course.”

  “Of course. He is far too young to govern on his own. Nor can his judgment yet be trusted. His susceptibility to Louis’s blandishments proves that all too well.”

  “What happened when you denied his demand?”

  “He went off in a rage, is sulking with the little Marguerite at Bonneville.” Henry was both angered and hurt by Hal’s willfulness, and with Rosamund, he had the luxury of candor. “I had no choice but to refuse him, Rosamund. He is not ready for such responsibilities. After his coronation, I’d instructed him to meet with the Canterbury monks. It is past time for the archbishopric to be filled again. But the monks have balked at accepting my nominee, the Bishop of Bayeux, and I’d hoped that Hal might make them see reason. He met with them only briefly at Windsor, showed little interest in resolving the dispute. It grieves me to say it, but he seems more intent upon the pursuit of pleasure than in learning the duties of kingship.”

  She did not need to see his face now. She could hear the unhappiness in his voice, and she wanted desperately to offer comfort. It was her private opinion that Hal was flighty, spoiled, and immature, but she saw no reason to share it with Henry. “He is very young,” she ventured, and as she’d hoped, Henry seized upon that.

  “Aye, that he is. He kept reminding me that I was just seventeen when my father turned Normandy over to me. But I doubt that I was ever as young as Hal.” He sounded more bemused now than irate. “It is not his fault. Life has been so much easier for him. I had to fight for my kingship, and Hal…well, Hal has always known he would be king after me. Mayhap it is not so surprising that he’d take longer to reach manhood.”

  “Not surprising at all,” she said, knowing that was what he needed to hear, and when he slid an arm around her shoulders, she could feel that some of the tension had ebbed; his muscles were no longer so tightly corded.

  “He’s a good lad, you know, a son to be proud of. He is too easily influenced, but that is a fault of youth and inexperience. He’ll learn better. He has the makings of a fine king, Rosamund. He does not lack for courage or wit, and he is amiable, spirited, and very generous…too much so.”

  Although she could not see his face, it sounded as if he was smiling. “It is expected that a lord be open-handed and bountiful. Next to valor, that is the most admired of virtues. But Hal’s generosity is rapidly becoming the stuff of legend. He bestows his largesse upon his followers as if he were Midas, one reason why he has attracted so many drones, idlers, and parasites. But he ought not to be blamed for the greed of others. It is commendable that he wants to take care of his household knights. I only wish he were not quite so lavish, since the money he’s spending is mine!”

  He laughed softly. “But it is his nature to share, and I doubt that will ever change. Last year he was out hunting with some friends and they stopped at a pond to water their horses and eat a meal. When Hal discovered that he did not have enough wine for them all, he emptied it into the pond so they all could have a taste!”

  Laughing again, he gave Rosamund an affectionate hug. “Say what you will, the lad has a knack for the grand gesture! As king, that will stand him in good stead. He just needs seasoning, needs time.”

  She murmured agreement, grateful that she’d been able to ease his mind. What harm did it do if he made allowances for his son’s bad behavior? If he was right and Hal’s shortcomings were those of youth, time would remedy them. And tonight at least, his sleep would be untroubled.

  THE WELSH LOVE of their homeland ran deep and they often sickened when uprooted from Welsh soil. They had a word for this heartfelt longing—hiraeth—which expressed the sorrow of exile, the sadness for what had been lost, a yearning for what could have been. Two years after their banishment from Gwynedd by a vengeful Welsh prince, Rhiannon and Ranulf had found little contentment in England.

  Rhiannon’s pain was keener, for her husband was only half-Welsh, and he’d not adopted her country as his own until he was grown. Rhiannon had never known another world. Trefriw called to her in her nighttime dreams and in her daylight reveries. Her aged father was there, as was her younger sister and her newly married daughter. Her mother was buried in the tiny graveyard at Llanrhychwyn, the chapel in the hills above Trefriw where she and Ranulf had been wed. She’d gone blind in childhood, and the few memories she had of sight were visions of Gwynedd. England was an alien land, would never be hers.

  But her love for her husband was greater than her love for Wales. When he’d told her that he was loath to tear her away from the only life she’d known, she had quoted Scriptures to him: Entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people will be my people and thy God my God. If she had not been able to make his people hers, as she had pledged, she never regretted her decision to follow him into English exile. And because she knew how restless he was, how dispirited, she had not objected when he wanted to answer the English king’s summons. Even though it meant venturing into a world more foreign to her than England, she agreed to accompany him to his nephew’s Christmas Court at Chinon Castle in Touraine.

  HENRY HAD FALLEN IN LOVE with Chinon as a young boy, and his affection for the castle had only deepened over the years. He liked its location—rising up against the sky on a high hill overlooking the River Vienne. He appreciated its ancient history, for the site had once been occupied by a Roman fort. He valued its formidable defenses, protected on three sides by steep cliffs and blocked on the fourth side by a chasm of his making. He’d spent considerable sums on Chinon; the round Tour du Moulin was his work, as was the square Tour du Tresor, where Crown revenues were stored, and he’d renovated the royal residence and great hall along the south side of the castle bailey. When it had come time to choose where to hold his Christmas Court, his decision had been an easy one.

  On the day before Christmas, the great hall echoed with the clamor of laughter and music. After
a lavish midday meal, guests were dancing that popular favorite, the carol, while others preferred a less energetic activity, engaging in conversation enlivened by the region’s excellent wines. From his seat upon the dais, Henry watched the pageantry, a vibrant panorama of color and sound and motion. He was playing a rare role for him, that of a bystander, for he’d twisted his ankle spearing the wild boar that would grace his Christmas table, and he’d propped his injured leg upon a footstool, reluctantly acquiescing with his doctor’s orders, at least for a day or two. He did not mind missing the carol, for dancing was not one of his passions. But he did mind the enforced idleness; even during Mass, he was restless, impatient, known to pick his priests for the brevity of their sermons.

  Hobbled now by a strained ankle, he could only occupy himself with mental musings. It puzzled him that he’d not found more pleasure at Chinon. It had been several years since he’d had so many of his family under one roof: his queen, his sons Richard, Geoffrey, and John; his daughter, Joanna; his uncles Rainald and Ranulf, his half brother and half sister, Hamlin and Emma; his cousins Roger and Maud. Only his eldest son was absent, expected daily to arrive from Normandy. Virtually all of his English and Norman and Angevin barons were there, most of his bishops, even many of Eleanor’s lawless Poitevin lords. His Christmas Court was a resplendent success, a dazzling reflection of his power and prestige, tangible proof of his status as the greatest king in Christendom. So why was he not better pleased by it?

  His gaze swept the hall, coming to rest upon the regal, elegant figure of his wife. They’d often been apart during their two decades of marriage, but never so long as this last separation, nigh on two years. He hadn’t been sure what to expect, but so far their reunion had gone well enough. No woman could act the queen more impressively than Eleanor; even after all these years, he was still proud to enter a hall with her on his arm.