Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 78

  In the past, he’d been as elusive as a wood sprite. She was surprised, therefore, when he came toward her instead of retreating back into the shadows. “Madame,” he said formally, showing he’d mastered his lessons in courtesy and manners. But then he flashed a sudden, impish grin. “I am John, your son.”

  He had eyes like a fox, Eleanor thought, golden and alert and wary. “I am not likely to forget you, John,” she said dryly. “I was present at your birth, after all. If I looked surprised, it is because I thought you were still in England.”

  “I reached Rouen three days ago. My father did not mention that he’d summoned me?” He still smiled, but she saw that it rankled to think he’d been forgotten.

  “I only arrived this afternoon, so Harry has not had time to tell me much of anything. I did not even unpack yet, wanted to come here first.”

  They’d been speaking quietly, so as not to disturb Geoffrey’s prayers. But he’d still heard the murmur of voices and turned toward the sound. At the sight of his mother, conflicting emotions chased across his face—both pleasure and unease.

  John glanced from Eleanor to Geoffrey, back to Eleanor again. “I am sure I can find some mischief to get into,” he said, and headed for the stairs. Pleasantly surprised by his sensitivity, Eleanor thanked him and then approached Geoffrey.

  “Maman…it gladdens me to see you. I suppose you cannot say the same, though.”

  “I’ll not deny that I was wroth with you and Hal. I thought the pair of you had more sense than to get entangled with Aimar and my malcontent barons.”

  Geoffrey was running his hand over the cold marble of his brother’s sepulcher. “I am truly sorry, Maman.”

  “Sorry that you rebelled, Geoffrey? Or that you lost?”

  “Both,” he admitted, and was taken aback when she smiled.

  “I was remembering,” she said, “that when your father asked me that question, I gave that very same answer.”

  Geoffrey expelled his breath slowly. “I was afraid you’d blame me for Hal’s death.”

  “It is enough that we answer for our own sins without being held to account for the sins of others. I understand your frustration over Harry’s refusal to grant you Richmond and Nantes, I truly do. But your grievance was with your father, not with Richard. What you and Hal did was no better than banditry.”

  Geoffrey looked down at Hal’s tomb. “I would gladly undo it if only I could, Maman.”

  “I know,” she said and she did, for who knew more about vain regrets than she? Crossing the space between them, she held out her hand. He was quick to grasp it and she drew him to her. Holding him close, she found her eyes stinging. If only she could have embraced Hal like this, too!

  Geoffrey kissed her on the cheek, then stepped back, looking past her toward the stairs. “Shall we speak louder for your benefit, Johnny?”

  John looked abashed at being caught eavesdropping so openly. “I guess you would not believe I’d stopped to remove a pebble from my shoe?”

  This time, with their eyes unwaveringly upon him, he really did depart. Once she was sure he had gone, Eleanor said pensively, “Passing strange that I must admit this about my own son, but I do not know John at all.”

  “None of us do, Maman, and that includes Papa. He cherishes this image of Johnny as his only loyal son, obedient and affectionate and trustworthy. Whether that is the real Johnny or not remains to be seen.”

  Eleanor was struck by Geoffrey’s perception—and by his cynicism. Had she and Harry taught him that? Most likely they had. Kissing her hand with a playful flourish, Geoffrey said, “I’d best keep an eye on Johnny. I will await you up in the nave, Maman.”

  Grateful that he was giving her this time alone with Hal, she crossed to his tomb and, kneeling upon the hard tile floor, she began to pray for the soul of her son.

  WHEN HE WAS UPSET OR ANGRY, Richard paced like Henry, and as he strode up and down her chamber, Eleanor thought she could have been looking at her husband in his youth. Richard was taller, but otherwise they had the same powerful build, the same vibrant coloring, and for certes, the same fiery temper. So far Richard had turned their reunion into a recital of his paternal grievances, and she was disappointed but not entirely surprised. She’d hoped that fighting the rebels together might have brought them closer, although without any real expectations of it being so, for they were too much alike to dwell in harmony for long. She thought it was a blessing that Richard would have his own sphere of power in Aquitaine, that unlike Hal, he’d not be dependent upon his father’s largesse. Belatedly becoming aware that Richard had stopped speaking, she looked up to find her son regarding her reproachfully.

  “Are you even listening to me, Maman?”

  “Of course I am,” she assured him, not altogether truthfully. “You were telling me about the troubadour, Bertran de Born.”

  “As I was saying, Bertran boasted that his castle at Autafort was impregnable, but Alfonso and I took it in just seven days. I then gave it to his brother and sent him to my father for judgment, where he beguiled Papa by professing great sorrow over Hal’s death and writing a planh lamenting his loss. So what does Papa do? He not only pardons the man, but he restores Autafort Castle to him!”

  He sounded so indignant that Eleanor hid a smile. “You must bear in mind, Richard, that your father’s wound is still raw and bleeding. Is it truly so surprising that he’d show mercy to a man who shares his grief?”

  Richard would never be able to fathom the widespread mourning over Hal’s death, seeing it as one last trick that his brother had managed to play on him from the grave. Resisting the temptation to remind his mother that the “grief-stricken” troubadour had once dubbed Hal the “Little King of Lesser Land,” he said, “I do not deny that Papa is still grieving. But how do you explain his action in demanding that I return control of my Poitevin castles to him?”

  “That is indeed another matter,” she conceded, “and I intend to speak with him about it. I may not be able to get him to change his mind, but at least I can learn what his reasoning was.”

  Richard was sure he already knew the answer—that his father did not trust him. He’d debated sharing his suspicions with his mother, not wanting to cast a shadow over her release. But he saw now that she needed to know the truth, and he crossed to her side, kneeling so he could look intently into her face.

  “Has Papa told you that he has forgiven you because Hal asked it of him?” When she shook her head, he warned, “He will. And when he does, Maman, do not believe it. The real reason he has sent for you is to thwart the French king. In addition to demanding that Papa return the French Vexin to him, Philippe is claiming that Hal assigned certain other lands to Marguerite as her dowry. Papa denied it, insisting that these lands were yours and as you’d assigned them to Hal only for his lifetime, they now revert back to you, not Marguerite. So you see, Maman, he has an ulterior motive in—” He stopped in astonishment, for his mother had begun to laugh.

  “Dearest, I have been married to that man for more than thirty years. Do you truly think I do not know all the twists and turns of that formidable brain of his? Of course he has an ulterior motive. He always has an ulterior motive, usually two or three. Why did he summon me from England? I daresay you’re right about Marguerite’s dower lands. But he likely did it, too, because Hal asked it of him, and to please Tilda, and possibly even to please you.” Eleanor laughed again, thinking how shocked he’d be if she were to confide that she’d always found her husband’s sharp, subtle intelligence to be as much of an aphrodisiac as his muscular strength or boundless energy.

  Richard had gotten to his feet and was studying her in obvious bafflement. “How can you be so tolerant of his intrigues and scheming? He has taken away ten years of your life, Maman, yet you do not talk about him as if he is your enemy, and I do not understand why.”

  “Because he is also my husband, Richard, and that complicates matters more than you know. We are both encumbered by our history and by all that we??
?ve shared over the years, good and bad.” It occurred to Eleanor that this was the first time she and Richard were having a conversation that was adult to adult, not mother to son. “This means that we can never truly be free of each other, however much we may wish it.”

  “You make marriage sound like a mysterious malady that has no cure, Maman. If that is so, I am glad I’ve been spared it.”

  “Well, eventually you’ll have to risk it,” she said with a grin, “for you’ll need an heir for your duchy and your kingdom.” He grinned, too, and she realized that he was still coming to terms with the momentous change wrought by Hal’s death. “Speaking of marriage,” she continued, “I gather you have no great desire to marry the French king’s sister Alys?”

  He shrugged. “What would I gain by it? The girl has no marriage portion to speak of. If Papa were one for getting in his cups, I’d wonder if he’d been sober the day he made that deal with Louis, for it was a poor bargain indeed.”

  “His primary concern then was in getting the French to recognize Hal as his heir and you and Geoffrey as the future rulers of Aquitaine and Brittany. But if it is not to be Alys, you ought to be considering other matches, dearest. Have you discussed this with Harry?”

  “We’ve been rather busy in recent months, Maman. He did once mention the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. A pity Alfonso has no eligible female relatives. Of course he is already an ally, so it would make more sense to look further afield, mayhap to Navarre.”

  Eleanor looked at him fondly, very pleased to see the drift of his thoughts. If he was considering Aragon or Navarre, both Houses hostile to Count Raimon, that meant he was thinking ahead to the day when he could reassert their claim to Toulouse. “Yes, Navarre is certainly a possibility,” she agreed, as she settled down to enjoy a simple pleasure other mothers could take for granted, but one which had been long denied her—mulling over potential brides for her son.

  HENRY HAD GATHERED HIS FAMILY together on Michaelmas Eve, and there was an air of anticipation, for all expected him to reveal when he would formally recognize Richard as his heir. There should have been no suspense in such a straightforward announcement. But knowing Henry’s penchant for eleventh-hour surprises, both Eleanor and Richard were on edge, and as the queen glanced around the chamber, she thought that Geoffrey and Constance seemed rather tense, too. Only Geoff, Heinrich, and Tilda appeared utterly at ease. Remembering John then, she located him in one of the window-seats, sipping wine as he watched the others, and she felt a small dart of regret that he seemed so solitary, always on the outside looking in. She’d concluded years ago that she and Henry had made some great mistakes with their older sons, failing to foster any sense of solidarity or family unity, and she could not help thinking now that they’d gone astray with John, too. It was too late for Hal, but was there time to repair the damage done with the others?

  Sensing that his audience was growing restive, Henry moved to the center of the solar. He’d not been looking forward to this, sure that he’d encounter initial opposition from Richard and Eleanor. Now, though, he realized that his reluctance had deeper roots, that he was loath to bestow upon another what had always been Hal’s. He recognized the illogic of it, for he knew that Richard would be a better king than Hal. At least his brain knew it, but his heart was another matter. There was an awful finality about the declaration, as if he were throwing one last shovel of dirt upon his son’s grave.

  He’d never had much patience for sentimentality, though, especially his own. “I am sure that what I am about to say will come as no surprise,” he said, determined to get this over with as quickly as possible. “I intend to convene a great council and announce to the lords of the realm that Richard will be king upon my death.”

  Richard was not sure what response was expected of him, and he wondered why things always had to be so awkward with his father. To say “Thank you” seemed inappropriate, but it also seemed ungracious to say nothing at all. “I will do my best to meet your expectations. I’ll not let you or my mother down,” he said, sending a smile winging Eleanor’s way. She smiled back, and he was grateful that she could be here for this moment.

  “I am sure that you will be a good king,” Henry said, with a smile of his own. “It is a bittersweet bequest I am giving you, though. You’ll have a vast, unquiet empire to rule. Aquitaine alone would be enough for any man, for your mother’s barons are as perverse and faithless a lot as can be found in all of Christendom. But you’ll also have to govern an island kingdom, as well as Normandy, Anjou, Touraine, and Maine.”

  “Enough to keep me busy for certes,” Richard agreed, not sure where his father was going with this. Neither was Eleanor, and she was watching Henry with a small frown creasing her forehead.

  “After giving the matter much thought,” Henry continued, “I think I have come up with a way to ease your burdens whilst still safeguarding your borders. I fear that Aquitaine is going to take up so much of your time and energy that you’ll run the risk of neglecting your other domains. You’ll have a far more successful reign if you relinquish the governance of Aquitaine to your brother Johnny.”

  For Richard, the shock was so intense that the impact was actually physical. Feeling as if he’d just been punched in the stomach, he found himself struggling for breath. Why did Maman not warn me? But one glance at his mother, white-faced and stunned, told him that she’d been ambushed, too. He cut his gaze sharply then toward Geoffrey, suspecting his brother’s fine hand in this duplicity. Geoffrey and Constance were obviously dumbfounded, though. As Richard’s eyes met Eleanor’s again, she sent him a mute, urgent message, shaking her head almost imperceptibly. He understood her warning, but he was not sure he was capable of responding as she wanted, so great was his outrage.

  He got help then from an unexpected source, his youngest brother. John had been caught by surprise, too, inhaling the wine he’d been about to swallow, which brought on a sudden coughing fit. Henry crossed to his side and thumped him helpfully on the back, joking, “It is not as bad as all that, lad. It could be worse—I could be sending you to Ireland!”

  John was flushed, partly from his coughing and partly from embarrassment. But his eyes were glowing as he looked up at his father. “Aquitaine for me? Truly?”

  “Truly,” Henry said with a smile and then looked expectantly at his eldest son.

  By now Richard was in control of himself again. “I must differ with you, Papa,” he murmured, “for I’d say this most definitely qualifies as a surprise!”

  Henry was encouraged by that wry response, for he’d not been sure how Richard would take the proposal. As little as he liked to admit it, the workings of this son’s brain were a mystery to him. “It will change nothing,” he said swiftly, “other than sparing you the vexation of daily dealings with those lunatic southerners. You will still be the liege lord of the duchy, and Johnny will, of course, do homage to you for it, just as Geoffrey will do homage to you for Brittany once you are king.”

  So far this was going better than Henry had expected, for there’d been no overt protests from Eleanor either. But he knew she was clever enough to see that Aquitaine’s importance had diminished considerably with Hal’s death. To a man about to inherit an empire, her duchy was merely one demesne amongst many, a part of Richard’s legacy instead of the whole. Richard must expand his horizons, and his mother could help him greatly in making that transition, in learning to think like a king, not a duke.

  “I do not want to do anything rash,” Richard said, “so I will need time to consider it. You have opened my eyes tonight, though, for the idea had never occurred to me before. I will have to consult with my barons, of course, the sooner the better. News like this cannot be kept secret for long, and they need to hear it from me, not from rumors or gossip.”

  Henry glanced over at John’s rapt, upturned face. Richard was right; there was not a sixteen-year-old boy alive who could keep news like this to himself. “Do you think your barons will be receptive to the idea?”

  “I think they are likely to respond favorably.” Why wouldn’t they? Exchanging a battle-seasoned soldier for a green stripling who’s never even bloodied his sword? God’s Legs, they’d not be able to believe their good luck! And the old man knows it, too, damn him. He knows full well that they’d thank God fasting for a chance like this. Does he think I am as big a fool as his precious Hal?

  Richard met his father’s eyes, his gaze steady. “They might balk, though, if they felt that we were trying to shove this down their throats. They have to believe they have the right to say yea or nay, whether they do or not.”

  Henry could not fault his son’s reasoning; none were touchier about their honor than those mulish, overweening troublemakers who kept Aquitaine in a constant state of turmoil. He would have liked to resolve it here and now, but he was pragmatic enough to see that it had to be done Richard’s way. No more than his vassals, Richard could not think this was being shoved down his throat. As it was, his son was being more responsive than Henry had dared hope, confirming his suspicions that Richard might welcome being unyoked from that seditious, querulous land now that he no longer needed it. And for the first time in years, Henry let himself think that they truly could restore their fragmented family harmony. They’d always see the mended cracks, of course, but what did that matter if the center held?

  He turned his gaze, then, upon his wife, his eyes locking challengingly with hers. “Have you nothing to say about this, Eleanor? It would truly be a historic event to find you at a loss for words.”

  “Richard is quite capable of speaking for himself,” she said coolly. “If he is content with this, then so am I. After all, John is my son, too.”

  For the first time since Hal’s death, Henry experienced a surge of genuine joy. His spirits soaring, he ushered the others from the solar, declaring that they had reason for celebration. Geoffrey and Constance were the last to follow him. Geoffrey was feeling almost light-headed, dazzled by how fast Fortune’s Wheel could spin. This was not yet the time to discuss the evening’s events with Constance, but as his eyes met hers, he saw his own excitement reflected in their dark depths, and he marveled how well they understood each other, for the same thought was in both their minds. This changes everything!