Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 8

  As he watched his wife, the corner of his mouth curved and pleasurable warmth began to spread throughout his body, centering in his groin. Their night’s lovemaking had left him sated, scratched, and wondering how he could have stayed away from her bed for so long. In his thirty-nine years, he’d had women beyond counting or remembering, but none had ever stirred his lust so easily as the one he’d wed. He’d often joked that she could kindle a flame quicker than summer lightning and last night she’d done just that, radiating so much heat that he’d half-expected to find scorch marks on the sheets.

  In some ways, she was still an enigma to him: strong-willed, passionate, stubborn, worldly, too clever by half, infuriating, seductive, prideful, daring, even reckless. Tallying up her vices and virtues, he was amused to realize he could not be sure which were which. But on this Christmas Eve at Chinon Castle, he was more than willing to give her the benefit of every doubt, for he missed their easy intimacy, the mutual, instinctive understanding that had been theirs since that rainy afternoon in a Paris garden. It had been a long time since he’d felt that they were in such natural harmony.

  Beckoning to a servant, he instructed the man to fetch his queen and then, on impulse, his uncle. He’d planned to give Ranulf his surprise on Christmas morn, but he saw no reason to wait. Ranulf hastened over, shepherding his wife and young son Morgan up onto the dais. Henry ordered chairs to be brought out for them, watching from the corner of his eye as his servant caught Eleanor’s attention. She would not come at once, for she was not a woman to be summoned; she would wait just long enough to make it seem as if she were obeying a whim of her own. Stifling a smile, for he was pleased that he could still read her so well, he began to exchange the usual courtesies with Ranulf and Rhiannon.

  As always, Henry was intrigued by Rhiannon’s ability to follow the sound of his voice; her head tilted, she turned her brown eyes toward him so unerringly that few would have suspected her blindness. After he’d inquired after their other children, a recently wed daughter and a grown son, he directed his attention to Morgan, asking his age and grinning at the boy’s answer, “Eight years, ten months,” for he could remember when he, too, had marked birthdays as milestones.

  In accordance with custom, boys of good birth were sent to live in a lord’s household to receive their education, and Henry was surprised that no such provisions had been made for Morgan. When Ranulf admitted that they had not yet chosen a lord to supervise his son’s instruction, Henry suggested that Morgan join the royal household. Ranulf was momentarily at a loss, both honored and conflicted by the offer. He was well aware what a great opportunity this would be for the boy. But it was complicated by Morgan’s Welsh-Norman blood. His elder son had chosen Rhiannon’s world over Ranulf’s, even changing his baptismal name of Gilbert to the Welsh Bleddyn, and he’d chosen, too, to remain in Wales. With Gilbert’s example in mind, Ranulf was not sure what was best for Morgan.

  For Rhiannon, it was much simpler. She did not want to be separated from her son, yet she knew it was inevitable. Sons were sent away at an early age; in Wales, too, that was the practice. Because she’d steeled herself for just such a moment, she kept silent, waiting with outward composure for Ranulf to decide their son’s future; only the tightening of her hand on Morgan’s shoulder revealed her inner turmoil.

  Ranulf opened his mouth, still not sure what he would say. But Morgan was quicker. He’d overheard his parents discussing his education on several occasions, knew that they were deciding between the households of the Earl of Cornwall, the Earl of Chester, and a Welsh lord named Cynan ab Owain. Glancing from his father to his cousin the king, he made his own choice. “Say yes, Papa,” he entreated, “say yes.”

  Ranulf knelt so they were at eye level, his eyes searching the boy’s face. “Are you sure?” And when Morgan nodded, he said, “Well, Harry, it seems to be settled.”

  “Good. I’ll keep an eye on the lad, never fear. Now we have another matter to discuss. I’ve had an interesting offer recently from a Welsh prince you love not—Davydd ab Owain.” Henry broke off then as Eleanor drifted over to the dais, and invited her to join them. Once she was seated beside him, he said, “You are just in time, love. We were talking about a prince of North Wales, Davydd ab Owain.”

  “The one who banished Ranulf?”

  “The very one. I never understood, Uncle, just why he was so out of sorts with you. What did you do to earn his disfavor?”

  “I was a friend of the man he killed, the man who ought to have been ruling Gwynedd in his stead.”

  “Ah, yes, Hywel…the poet prince. A good man, a far better one than Davydd.” Henry shifted in his seat, turning toward Eleanor. “I am not sure if you remember, love, but Hywel and Davydd were both sons of Owain Gwynedd, Hywel being the eldest, the most capable, and the best-loved. But Davydd and another brother Rhodri lay in wait for Hywel after Owain’s death, and he was slain in their ambush. Owain’s surviving sons then divided up his lands. Davydd is no longer content with his share of the pie, though, is casting a covetous eye upon his brother Maelgwn’s portion, the isle of Anglesey. So in order to war upon Maelgwn, he wants to make peace with England, having figured out that only a fool would fight battles on two fronts.”

  “That sounds like Davydd.” Ranulf shook his head in disgust. “Make him pay dear for his peace, Harry.”

  “I did,” Henry assured him. “He must truly be hungry for Maelgwn’s lands, as he agreed to all my terms without argument. I think you’ll be particularly interested in one of his concessions, Uncle. You are welcome to reside again in his domains, welcome to return to your manor at…Trefriw, was it?”

  “Truly?” Ranulf stared at Henry incredulously. “He agreed to this?”

  Rhiannon’s French was quite serviceable by now, for she’d been wed to Ranulf for more than twenty years. But she was suddenly unsure of her mastery of his language, afraid to believe what she thought she’d heard. “We can go home?” she asked doubtfully, and when Henry confirmed it, she buried her face in Ranulf’s shoulder and wept for joy. Ranulf was blinking back tears himself, holding her in an embrace that was oddly private in such a public setting; for that moment they were oblivious to the crowded hall, the curious stares, even their wide-eyed young son.

  Watching with a smile, Henry brushed aside their euphoric expressions of gratitude, joking that he feared they’d misunderstood him. It was Wales they’d be going back to, not Eden. Eleanor, who was fond of both Ranulf and Rhiannon, leaned over and murmured an approving “Well done.” But then she said, “Harry,” in a very different tone.

  Glancing toward her, he saw that she was looking across the hall at a new arrival, a tall figure still clad in traveling clothes, a mud-splattered hooded mantle. Even at a distance, Henry recognized him at once—William Marshal, his son Hal’s sworn man—and fear caught at his heart. His injured ankle forgotten, he was on his feet by the time William Marshal reached the dais. He knelt, saying “My liege, my lady” in a low voice.

  “My son…” Henry swallowed, for his mouth was suddenly dry. “What have you come to tell us, Will?”

  The younger man’s head came up sharply. “Ah, no, my liege! Your son is well, I swear it!”

  Relief rendered Henry speechless for a moment. “What did you expect me to think?” he said angrily, for anger was an emotion he could acknowledge. “You arrive in our midst like the Grim Reaper’s henchman, looking as if you bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. Christ Jesus, Will, I’ve seen happier men about to be hanged!”

  “I am indeed sorry, my lord king, to have alarmed you for naught.” Although Henry gestured impatiently for him to rise, Will stayed on his knees. “If I seem troubled, it is because I am loath to deliver this message. Your son…he bade me inform you that he will not be attending your Christmas Court at Chinon. He is holding his own court at Bonneville.”

  “I FEAR,” HENRY SAID, “that I could not get out of this bed if the castle caught fire. Jesu, woman, are you seeking to kill me?
My very bones feel like melted wax.”

  Eleanor cocked a skeptical brow. “If lust could kill, Harry, you’d have been dead years ago.”

  “I never claimed to be a monk, love. That was your first husband, as I recall.”

  Amused in spite of herself, she hid her smile in the crook of his arm. “Mock him if you will, but poor Louis has you beaten in one race at least—his sprint toward sainthood.”

  “I grant you that,” he conceded. “But unlike Louis, I never wanted a halo, only a crown.” Propping himself up on an elbow, he entwined his fingers in the dark river of her hair. He loved it flowing loose like this, his mind still filled with erotic images from their lovemaking: her long tresses tickling his chest, a silken rope looped around his throat, whipping wildly about her face when she tossed her head from side to side. “You realize,” he said, “that we’ve likely scandalized the court, disappearing in the middle of the afternoon for a daylight tryst.”

  “What truly scandalized the court is that you were off bedding your wife and not your concubine. What sort of example is that to set for your barons?”

  Henry was instantly alert, not sure if she was being sarcastic or playful or finally throwing down the gauntlet about Rosamund. He felt a prickle of resentment, for it was very unsporting to ambush a man in the aftermath of sex. “What concubine?” he asked warily, trying not to sound defensive.

  “‘What concubine?’” she echoed mockingly. “Come now, Harry, you do not expect me to believe that you’ve been sleeping alone these two years past. I think it is safe to assume that you found a bedmate or two or three in the course of your travels.”

  His first reaction was relief that this was not about Rosamund, after all. She was gazing up at him serenely, with just the suggestion of a smile. But those greenish-gold eyes had never looked more catlike, utterly inscrutable, and he found himself thinking of the way cats played with their prey before moving in for the kill. “I plead guilty,” he said. “I did occasionally take a woman to warm my bed. But surely you would not fault me for that, Eleanor? You might as well blame a man for eating when he’s hungry.”

  “I could not agree more. You need not fret, Harry. I know full well what matters and what does not.” It was interesting to see that she could so easily make him squirm over his little trifle, but she had no intention of pursuing it further. That ship had sailed.

  Henry chose to take her words at face value, for that allowed him to preserve their marital peace without paying too high a price for it. “I do not say it as often as I ought, but you hold my heart,” he said and then grinned. “And any other body parts you care to claim…as long as you give me a chance to get my strength back first.”

  “A most tempting offer, my lord husband, but one best deferred till tonight.” Sitting up, she shook her hair back, and then, because she’d always faced her fears head-on, she added, with studied nonchalance, “In truth, Harry, you’ve worn me out. I am not as young as I once was, after all.”

  Henry yawned, his gaze lazily tracking the curves of her body, so familiar and still so pleasing to the eye. “Surely you know, love, that fruit is sweeter once it has ripened,” he said, thinking that the female body must surely be one of God’s greatest works, a treasure trove that never lost its allure, no matter how often he explored its riches.

  Eleanor studied his face. It was true he could play fast and loose with the truth when it served his purposes, but he’d never been gallant, never been one for courtship compliments. He’d once admitted that he could see no reason for lavish flattery, for if a woman was beautiful, she already knew it, and if she were not, she’d know he lied. So when he said he still found her desirable, she did not doubt him. Of course he had no notion of the effort it took to keep the years at bay, or that she’d come to see time as the enemy.

  Yawning again, Henry swung his legs over the side of the bed. His mellow mood notwithstanding, Eleanor had not expected him to remain abed with her, not with so many daylight hours remaining; to keep him idle, he’d need to be shackled to the bedpost. Not bothering to summon a servant, he’d begun to collect the clothing they’d discarded in such haste. Wrapping her arms around her knees, she remembered how much she’d liked to watch him naked, for unlike her first husband, he’d always been quite comfortable in his own skin. She still enjoyed the sight of his nudity, for his constant activity had kept him fit. Deep chested, with well-muscled arms and the bowed legs of one who’d spent much of his life on horseback, he was, she thought, a fine figure of a man. She’d missed having him in her bed.

  Of the secrets she kept from him, none of them involved their lovemaking. She’d never had to feign pleasure with him. If her satisfaction was bittersweet, it was because she’d felt the need to compete with his little sugar-sop, to prove she knew his body and his wants far better than Rosamund Clifford ever could. It shamed her that she could not dismiss the Clifford chit as easily as she had the other sluts he’d bedded. But as well as she lied to others, she could not lie to herself, and she’d become acutely aware of their age difference. In the beginning, it had not troubled her at all that she was nine years older. That was no longer true, not since he’d taken up with a girl young enough to be her daughter. Watching as he shrugged into his shirt and pulled his braies up over his hips, she was angry with herself for her lack of pride and angry with him for his lack of loyalty. She could forgive his physical infidelity. His emotional infidelity, she could not.

  Gathering up her gown, chemise, and silken hose, he deposited them within reach, at the foot of the bed. “Shall I call for one of your ladies, love?”

  She’d need help taming her tousled, tangled hair, but she was not ready to rejoin the world waiting beyond that bedchamber door; there were matters still to discuss, matters more important than desires of the flesh. “What mean you to do about Hal’s latest defiance?”

  Henry was pulling his tunic over his head and his voice was muffled in its folds. Once he was free, he said ruefully, “I was hoping you’d have some suggestions, Eleanor. What ails the boy? He is a king, for the love of Christ! Why is that not enough for him?”

  “He wants more than privileges and prestige, Harry. He wants to exercise power. Can you truly blame him? At his age, you’d have demanded no less.”

  “At his age, I’d been fighting for two years to claim the crown stolen from my mother. He keeps throwing that at me—the fact that I was younger than he is now when I took command of Normandy. But we both know that is a false comparison. For all the love I bear him, Hal is not ready to rule on his own. When left to his own devices, he passes his time playing those damnable tourney games, carousing with dubious companions, and spending money like a drunken sailor. If one of those coxcombs who cluster around him like bees to honey expresses admiration for his new mantle, like as not, he’ll strip it off and hand it over. Whilst he was in England, the Exchequer could not keep track of all the bills submitted by merchants for his rash expenditures. Look at that foolishness at Bonneville last month. He threw a feast restricted to knights named William, for the love of God! They came out in droves, too, more than a hundred of them eager to wallow at the trough, eating and drinking enough to feed an entire town for a week.”

  Eleanor could not keep from smiling. “And you see no humor at all in that?”

  “No, I do not,” he insisted, but the corner of his mouth was twitching, and after a moment, he conceded, “Well, some…but I’d find it much more amusing if I were not paying the bills!” He was scanning the floor rushes for his leather belt and dagger sheath. “After Christmas, I go to Auvergne to meet with the Count of Maurienne.”

  “I know,” she responded, irked by his sudden change of subject. She was familiar with his newest scheme—to secure a future for their youngest nestling by marriage to the count’s daughter and heiress. The arrangements had been made months ago. He would journey to Auvergne, meet the count while mediating a dispute between the King of Aragon and her personal bête noire, Count Raimon of Toulouse, and th
en he’d escort the count and his young daughter to Limoges where the marriage contract would be sealed. But it was Hal she wanted to discuss, not John, and she was about to steer the conversation back to their eldest son when Henry’s next words showed his mention of Auvergne was not a digression, after all.

  “We’d agreed that you’d continue on to Limoges with our sons and await my arrival. But there has been a change of plans. Hal comes with me to Auvergne, like it or not. I sent word to him this morn, a command, not an invitation. I mean to keep him on a short leash until he proves he can be trusted off-lead.”

  Eleanor exhaled a soft breath, almost a sigh. He still did not understand what a sharp sword he’d given his enemies by crowning Hal. He’d claimed he was merely following the custom of his continental domains, and it was indeed traditionally done in France; she did not doubt Louis would crown his son Philippe in due time. But she knew that there was more to Henry’s controversial decision to crown Hal, never before done by an English king. He’d seen his mother cheated of her queenship by her cousin Stephen, had seen the suffering that resulted from Stephen’s usurpation and the resulting horrors of civil war, a time so wretched that the people had whispered that Christ and his saints must surely be asleep. He’d had to fight fiercely for his own inheritance, both in Normandy and England, and such a turbulent childhood had left scars. He was bound and determined to spare his sons what he’d endured, and that was his true reason for insisting upon crowning Hal in his own lifetime—to make sure that there’d be no doubts about the legitimacy of his heir’s claim to the English crown.

  But in acting to protect Hal, he’d made himself dangerously vulnerable. The future would always exert a more potent pull than the past, and Hal now represented the glowing promise of tomorrow, while Henry was reduced in the eyes of many to the status of a caretaker king. The risk he’d taken would not have been so great had he not such a multitude of enemies, men eager to use the weapon he’d unknowingly given them. As she watched him moving about their bedchamber, Eleanor felt an unwanted surge of sadness at the terrible irony of it all. Before she could think better of it, she resolved to make one final attempt to reach him, to make him understand that if he did not learn the art of compromise and conciliation, he was courting his own ruin.