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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 76


  She was dismayed to find herself blinking back tears, and she turned her face into his shoulder so he’d not see, saying briskly, “Of course you are lucky. You are the Duke of Brittany, after all.”

  After a few moments, he said, “I want to found a chaplaincy in Hal’s memory,” and she agreed that would be a good thing to do. By mutual consent, they did not speak of the future and what it held for them—when they’d be accountable, not to an indulgent father, but to a soldier king who bore them a deadly grudge.

  AGACE LOOKED UP as the door opened and Judith entered. Crossing the chamber, she murmured a few words in the older woman’s ear. Agace got stiffly to her feet and approached the bed. “My lamb?” There was no response. Bending over, she gently stroked the tumbled fair hair spilling over the pillow. “Your lord brother is here again, asking to see you. Do you feel up to it?”

  Marguerite shook her head.

  “Are you sure, dearest?”

  Marguerite kept her eyes tightly shut, but her lips moved and Agace leaned closer to catch the whispered words. “I do not want to see him…”

  Agace and Judith exchanged troubled glances. Their young queen could not hide forever from the world. Eventually she would have to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and accept her loss. But if she needed more time, Agace was going to see that she got it. “Rest now, my lamb. I will send him away,” she promised, and left Judith to watch over their mistress while she was gone. Judith sat down in the chair Agace had vacated, grateful that she would not be the one to deal with the French king. Philippe had always treated her with courtesy. He made her uneasy, though, for reasons she could not have articulated, and she understood why Marguerite did not turn to him for comfort. Her lady had a loving heart and a generous nature, whereas there was something bloodless and sly about her brother.

  AGACE DID NOT LIKE Philippe any more than Judith did, and as she looked into his pale blue eyes, so oddly ageless in such a young face, she felt a throb of despair, knowing that Marguerite’s fate was now in his hands. Hers had been a long and eventful life, though, and she knew better than to antagonize a king, especially this one. Greeting him with exaggerated deference, she told him regretfully that the queen had finally fallen asleep after yet another wakeful, wretched night. As she’d hoped, Philippe quickly told her not to disturb Marguerite, just to tell her of his visit.

  Philippe was grateful for the reprieve. A sense of duty compelled him to check on his sister, but he did not know how to comfort her and their few encounters since learning of Hal’s death had been awkward and uncomfortable. What was he supposed to say to a woman who’d done little but weep all week long?

  After returning to the great hall, he was too restless to stay and strode out into the royal gardens at the west end of the island. If the Île was the heart of Paris, home to both his palace and the great cathedral of Notre Dame, the Seine was its main artery, and even at dusk, the quays were still busy, ships from Rouen unloading below the Grand Pont and those coming downriver docking at the Grève, formerly the site of the weekly Paris market but now where local vintners sold their wares.

  This change was Philippe’s doing, for he had established a new market at a more convenient location and erected two large sheds so merchants could do their haggling indoors. While he’d denied Parisians the right to form a commune, he did have a keen interest in civic improvements, and ambitious plans that went far beyond the indoor market at Les Halles; he hoped in time to build a defensive wall around the city and to pave the main streets. He did not have the funds for such projects yet, but Philippe believed in long-range planning and he was willing to wait for what he wanted.

  Resting his elbows upon the stone garden wall, Philippe looked out upon his city as it was gradually cloaked in the soft shades of a summer eve. He was trying to be patient with Marguerite, but he feared that, if left to her own devices, she’d do nothing but weep and wallow in her grief. He wished there was some sensible female he could consult. But his mother had never shown any sympathy for the daughters of Louis’s earlier marriages, his own queen was a child of thirteen, and Marguerite’s mother was long dead, her sister Alys in England. He sighed, thinking that sisters were more trouble than they were worth.

  His half sisters Alix and Marie were strangers, and Marie had openly allied herself with the Count of Flanders against him. There was his full sister, Agnes, a child bride caught up in a bloody coup in Constantinople, her fate uncertain.

  And then there was the vexing problem that was his half sister Alys. She had been betrothed to Richard for fourteen years, and Philippe was offended that the wedding had not yet taken place. Henry kept offering excuses, but nothing changed—except that Alys got older. She was already twenty-two, for pity’s sake! Philippe knew Richard had never been keen to marry Alys, and he couldn’t really blame him since she had no marriage portion. He suspected that Henry and Richard were in collusion, looking elsewhere for a more profitable marital alliance while keeping Alys off the marriage market, thus preventing him from making any advantageous alliances by wedding Alys to someone else. It had been irksome, and was unfair to Alys, but Philippe had not seen it as a priority problem, for he’d assumed that Hal would become king sooner than later. From Philippe’s vantage point, Henry’s fifty years was a vast age, indeed; how much longer could he live? And once Hal was king, he’d have ordered Richard to marry Alys, whether he liked it or not.

  Philippe’s thoughts had come full circle, for he was back to Marguerite and the inopportune death of his brother-in-law. Hal’s loss was a great blow to Philippe, for he’d predicated his plans upon having an amiable, pleasure-loving prince on the English throne. Instead, he’d have to deal with Richard, who was as unlike Hal as any two men could be. How could he be so unlucky?

  Well, one step at a time. The immediate concern was recovering Marguerite’s marriage portion from the English king. Sure that Henry would sooner cut off his arm than return the Vexin, Philippe frowned thoughtfully. If Henry held on to the Vexin, that would make Philippe the laughingstock of Christendom, the boy-king who was no match for the wily veteran on the English throne. An idea was glimmering in the back of his brain and he waited for it to come into focus. What if he could make it worth Richard’s while to marry Alys? Suppose he offered the Vexin as Alys’s dowry? That would save face, and would also give him leverage, for he could make the agreement contingent upon the marriage. And who knows, it might even stir up discord between Henry and Richard.

  The wind had picked up and thunder echoed in the distance. Philippe considered it prudent to seek shelter, and he signaled to his waiting bodyguards. He must give this idea more thought, but it seemed promising. And as he exited the garden, he smiled, thinking that if he could marry Alys off to Richard, he could then concentrate upon finding a new husband for Marguerite. She was still of child-bearing age, with a pretty face and a docile nature, a queen with the blood of French kings in her veins. There’d be no shortage of princes interested in such a bargain bride.

  THE ENGLISH QUEEN WAS back at Sarum, and Amaria was pleased by the move, welcoming any change in the predictable ebb and flow of daily life. On this sun-splashed June afternoon, she was enjoying the hustle and bustle of market day, held on the open ground below the castle’s East Gate. Accompanied by a servant to tote her purchases, she’d spent several pleasant hours browsing among the booths, buying needles and thread, a vial of rosewater, scarlet ribbons, almond oil, the hazelnuts that her queen liked, and several jars of honey. It was wonderful to have enough money for impulse and luxury buys; Amaria was very appreciative of the queen’s rise in status. In good spirits, she bought candied quince from a vendor and included the delighted young servant in her generosity.

  Some of her cheer began to dissipate as they headed back toward the castle, for the queen’s chamber was no happy place these days. Eleanor had lost so much weight that her face looked drawn and pinched, and Amaria had to urge her to eat. Her days were long and her nights were worse. Amaria ac
hed, too, feeling her pain and fear, and sympathizing with her rage. Had she been free, she’d have sailed for her homeland weeks ago, recklessly plunging into the very midst of war as she sought to end this fratricidal strife between her sons. Because she remained tethered to her husband’s will, she unleashed much of her frustration and fury upon his absent head, speaking of him with more bitterness than Amaria had heard from her in years. Amaria did what she could, provided an audience for her rants and prayed earnestly that the king would soon restore peace to his domains and his family. Other than that, they could only wait for word from the Limousin.

  She paused to exchange greetings with some of the townsmen streaming back into the castle; she’d discovered, to her amusement, that she was a source of considerable interest to the inhabitants of Sarum—the person closest to that legendary being, Eleanor of Aquitaine. They soon parted ways, the villagers heading off toward the homes nestled under the castle walls and Amaria and her young helper continuing in the direction of the keep and royal palace.

  As soon as they passed through the gatehouse into the inner bailey, Amaria sensed that something was wrong. The courtyard was usually like a hive for humans, with servants and soldiers and visitors milling about in raucous confusion, dogs getting underfoot and chickens squawking and horses eager to reach the stables and their waiting feed. Now, though, an eerie silence greeted Amaria. A few people were out and about, but they were also acting oddly, clustered together in small knots and conversing in the hushed tones usually heard only in church.

  The boy felt it, too, glancing around uneasily as if he expected to find the castle under attack at any moment. Just then one of the maidservants spotted them. “Dame Amaria, we’ve been looking all over for you! It is just terrible…The queen’s son is dead! He was stricken—”

  But Amaria was no longer listening. Lifting up her skirts, she began to run.

  SHE ARRIVED, panting and flushed, in the queen’s chamber only to find it empty. For a moment, she stood, irresolute, and then realized that Eleanor might be in the chapel of St Nicholas. It was accessible from the royal apartments, but she paused for a moment before she entered, trying to collect her thoughts. She was not truly surprised, for she’d long feared that this would happen. Men might laud Duke Richard for his utter fearlessness, but not the women who loved him.

  As she’d expected, she found Eleanor in the chapel, standing by one of the windows. Her face was partly in shadow, one cheek dappled with the deep rose hues of the panes above her head for the sun was setting the stained glass afire. She turned at the sound of footsteps upon the tiles, and Amaria bit back a cry, for the queen could have been a stranger. She seemed to have aged years in just a few hours, and Amaria had never seen her look as she did now—vulnerable, frail, and defeated.

  “My lady, I am so sorry!” Amaria’s words ended in a stifled sob as she came to a halt, stretching out her hand in a tentative gesture of comfort that fell short, her fingers just brushing the sleeve of Eleanor’s gown.

  “I wanted to pray for his salvation,” Eleanor said dully, “but I do not think the Almighty is listening to me, not anymore…”

  Amaria was momentarily mute, for she’d never known such despair herself; even when she’d lost her own babies, she’d not lost her belief in God’s Mercy. She looked at the queen, her eyes blurring with tears. But she had to ask, had to know the worst if she had any hope of consoling this stricken woman. “Madame…was he shriven?” And when Eleanor nodded, she leaned against the wall, weak with relief. “God be praised! Surely that…that must be of some comfort, my lady. So often men die in battle without confessing their sins beforehand, and Duke Richard was…” She stopped then, for Eleanor was looking at her blankly.

  Eleanor felt as if her brain was no longer working as it ought, and it took a moment or so until she understood the meaning of Amaria’s words. “It is not Richard. It is Hal.”

  Amaria was astounded. Richard’s death would have made more sense, for he gambled with his own mortality on a daily basis. But Hal? He’d seemed to be one of Heaven’s favorites, blessed and beloved, not a man whose life would be cut short with such fearful finality. “H—how?”

  Eleanor shook her head, not yet able to talk about it, just as she was not ready to think about the political consequences, what Hal’s death would mean to Richard. For now she was a mother whose child had been cruelly taken from her and nothing else mattered. Her shoulders slumping, she leaned her forehead against the sun-burnished stained glass, closing her eyes against the glare.

  “My poor Hal,” she whispered. “He so wanted to be a king and he was never more than a pawn…”

  CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

  July 1183

  Sarum, England

  THE QUEEN’S NIGHTS had been so troubled that Amaria had gone to see the village apothecary, and after consulting him, purportedly for her own sleeplessness, she purchased a sleeping draught of henbane and black poppy. She returned to the castle with a lighter step, for it helped immeasurably to know the Countess of Chester was there. Maud was familiar with the blighted, desolate landscape of grief. She, too, had suffered the loss of a son. And she could be candid with the queen in a way that Amaria could not. Amaria thought she could already see an improvement in Eleanor’s spirits and she blessed the countess for being such a loyal friend.

  As she entered the queen’s chamber, she found Eleanor seated by the open window, reading a letter, and Maud playing with the cat. Maud smiled at Amaria, beckoned her over, and related that the queen had just gotten a letter from the Duchess of Saxony. “It is bound to comfort her,” she said softly, “hearing from her daughter.” Amaria was not so sure; what if Tilda had more bad news to disclose? Cleo was curled up contentedly in Maud’s lap and, lulled by her benign demeanor, Amaria ventured to pet her, only to have the feline flatten her ears and spit. Maud told her not to take it personally, explaining that cats were given to whims and unpredictable behavior, but to Amaria, she sounded faintly smug, the way people who never got seasick commiserated with those who did.

  Glancing up from the letter, Eleanor said, “My daughter writes that Viscount Aimar surrendered his castle a fortnight ago. Harry razed it to the ground and Aimar was compelled to forswear further revolts, but Tilda thinks he got off lightly. The other rebels have gone to ground, too.” For a moment, her eyes held Maud’s and the same thought was in both their minds: that the rebellion had died when Hal drew his last breath. Eleanor swallowed with a visible effort and lowered her gaze to the letter. But then she stiffened in disbelief. “God in Heaven!”

  When she looked up again, she was shaking her head in amazement. “Tilda says that as Will Marshal and Hal’s knights carried his bier north, crowds gathered by the roadside to watch, weeping and mourning. A leper and a woman suffering from hemorrhages claimed to be cured after touching his bier.” They were equally astonished, and she held up her hand to forestall questions. “Wait, there is more. When the funeral cortege halted at the monastery of St Savin, people said they could see a beam of light shining down upon the church. And as they approached Le Mans, a cross was seen in the sky and another beam of light enveloped the bier. The citizens of Le Mans were convinced they’d seen a miracle, and they seized Hal’s body, insisting that he be buried in their city. Will and the knights protested, to no avail, and he was interred in their cathedral next to Harry’s father.”

  The other women were dumbfounded. Naturally they believed in saints and miracles, but neither one could envision Hal as a saint. Could they say so forthrightly, though, to his mother?

  Eleanor had resumed reading, continuing to shake her head at the contents of the letter. “Tilda says the townspeople of Rouen were outraged, threatening war with Le Mans if Hal’s body were not re-interred and buried in their cathedral as he wished, and to keep the peace, Harry has had to order it done.” Looking up, she said with a sad smile, “Hal would have been amused by the furor, and even more amused to hear himself proclaimed a saint. His ambitions never ros
e higher than a kingship.”

  Amaria was emboldened to confess that she did not understand any of it. She got her answer from Maud as the countess said dryly, “Saints are valuable commodities, Dame Amaria. Holy relics attract pilgrims. And saints are even more useful for political purposes. Cousin Harry could contend with his rebellious archbishop, but he had no chance whatsoever against the Holy Martyr.”

  Turning her attention again to the letter, Eleanor drew a hissing breath. “Do you remember the Archdeacon of Welles, Maud? Harry sent him to me with word of Hal’s death, knowing that he had always been sympathetic to my plight. It seems the good archdeacon is one of those promoting Hal’s sanctity. According to him, I already knew of my son’s death, for I’d had a dream in which he wore two crowns, and I told Archdeacon Thomas that these dual crowns could only mean eternal bliss and everlasting joy. The archdeacon has been commending me in his sermons for ‘fathoming the mystery’ of my dream and for accepting Hal’s death with such discernment and strength.”

  Amaria was now thoroughly confused, but not Maud, who said with a frown, “You’d best write to Harry and assure him that the archdeacon has a vivid imagination. If you wish, I will write to him, too, and tell him that I was present when you first learned of the archdeacon’s claims.”

  “That is not needed, Maud, but I thank you. Harry will know without being told that I would not have said this.” Seeing Amaria’s bewilderment, Eleanor said, with a thin smile, “Harry’s foes learned well from Archbishop Thomas’s martyrdom. If they can convince people that Hal was a saint, that puts Harry in a very poor light, indeed. And whilst I admit that there have been times when that would have given me great satisfaction, if Harry is tarnished by this…this foolishness, then so is Richard. And Harry knows I would do nothing to undermine Richard’s authority in Aquitaine.” He has enough troubles there as it is. But this thought remained unspoken, for not even to Maud would Eleanor confess her misgivings about her second son’s heavy-handed rule over the turbulent, defiant barons of her duchy.