Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 80

  “Wait,” she protested when he tugged at her belt. “You have not heard my news yet.”

  “Tell me, then, woman, and quickly, for my attention is beginning to wander.”

  “So are your hands,” she chided. Sitting up again, she regarded him with a smile that was confident, serene, and triumphant, all in one. “I am with child, Geoffrey.”

  She was not disappointed by his response. He drew a sharp, audible breath, his eyes filling with light, and this time when he kissed her, it was with a tenderness he’d not shown before. Her mother had often told her that there was a special bond between a man and a woman who brought a child together into the world, and as she gave herself up to his lovemaking, her last coherent thought was, Maman was right. As they lay entwined together afterward, they both were sure their future was blessed, and it would never have occurred to them that Henry and Eleanor had once believed that, too.

  IN DECEMBER, Henry met the young French king at Gisors. Philippe relinquished his claim to Marguerite’s dowry in exchange for Henry’s promise to pay her two thousand seven hundred Angevin pounds annually for the rest of her life. Gisors and the Norman Vexin were to become Alys’s marriage portion, and it was further agreed that she’d wed whichever of Henry’s sons whom he chose, a not-so-subtle warning to Richard that he was not an only child. In return, Henry finally did homage to the French king for “all his holdings across the water.”


  April 1184

  Le Mans, Anjou

  GEOFFREY WAS NOT a willing guest at his father’s Easter Court. He’d rather have been back at Rennes with Constance, for he was more excited about the coming birth of their child than he’d expected. Naturally the birth of an heir would elevate his status in Brittany. But he was not dwelling upon the political ramifications; more and more he found himself thinking of matters that were purely personal. He was concerned about Constance’s health, although her pregnancy had been uneventful so far. He spent a lot of time thinking about baby names. And he vowed that he’d be a better father than his own.

  A light rain was falling as he crossed the inner bailey of the royal palace. Two of Richard’s knights were loitering by the stables, and they gave him an unfriendly stare as he passed by. It was some consolation to Geoffrey that, as discontented as he was to be here, Richard must be even more miserable. He’d love to know how their father had lured Richard to Le Mans, suspecting that his brother had asked for an insulting pledge of safe conduct. However it had been done, it was an exercise in futility. The tension between the two of them was combustible enough to burst into flame at any moment, and their animosity had spilled over to infect the rest of the Easter Court. Geoffrey had broken up two fights between his men and Richard’s, and he’d even seen evidence of bad blood between Richard’s knights and their brother John’s household.

  Since he was not directly involved in this clash of wills, Geoffrey might have sat back and enjoyed the drama—had it not been for his mother and sister. It was obvious to him that Eleanor and Tilda were deeply troubled by this latest family contretemps, and their unhappiness bothered him, for he could see no quick resolution. He could see no resolution at all.

  As Geoffrey entered the great hall, he noticed a boisterous dice game over by the center hearth. Several of his knights were playing, and when Gérard de Fournival waved and beckoned, he started in that direction. But he halted when he saw his youngest brother sitting alone in a window-seat and, on impulse, he veered toward John instead.

  “You look even more bored than me,” he said. “You want to join the dice game?” When John hesitated, he wondered if the boy had enough money to play. He had a title now—Count of Mortain—but Geoffrey was sure he had no income of his own yet. Geoffrey himself had not gained financial independence until he was finally allowed to wed Constance. John was betrothed to a rich heiress, his cousin Avisa of Gloucester, and the Earl of Gloucester’s unexpected death just four months ago made the girl an even greater marital prize. Geoffrey was sure, though, that Henry would not let John claim that prize until cobwebs were collecting on the marriage contract. Their father could be lavish with his gifts, generous with his largesse. But it was a golden yoke, for it kept them beholden, always on a tight leash.

  “If you’re short, Johnny, I can make you a loan,” he offered, and John’s hazel eyes darkened with suspicion.

  “Why would you want to do that?”

  “Why not?”

  “Why are you being so friendly of a sudden, Geoffrey? Since when are you willing to do me favors?”

  “Ah…I see. You are nursing a grudge for my past sins.”

  He sounded amused, and John did not like it. “I do not have a single pleasant childhood memory of you or Richard, not even one!” His outburst was unplanned, but he found satisfaction now in being able to speak up for his younger self, at long last.

  “How could you? We had to adhere to the code, after all.”

  “What code?”

  “The one that sets out the rules for treating little brothers, of course. They are to be bedeviled without mercy, made the butt of every joke. It was just your bad luck that you had no one younger to pick on, in turn.”

  “My bad luck, indeed,” John said coolly, remembering those hours he’d spent in that open grave, remembering his pleas for help that Geoffrey and Richard had claimed never to have heard.

  Geoffrey was regarding him pensively. “Now that I look back upon it, all those jokes and pranks that we played on you…” He paused significantly. “I have to tell you, Johnny, they were fun.”

  Lulled into expecting an apology, John stiffened in surprise, but after a moment, he could not help laughing. “Come on, lad,” Geoffrey said with a grin. “Let’s go shoot some dice.” They had just started across the hall, though, when John stopped suddenly, directing Geoffrey’s attention toward the door behind the dais.

  Tilda saw her brothers at the same time and came toward them, so hastily that they knew something was amiss. “Geoffrey, thank God you’re here! Richard and Papa are having a terrible argument, their worst one yet, and if it is not stopped, I fear they may even come to blows!”

  “I’d pay to see that,” Geoffrey said before he could think better of it, and his sister stared at him in disbelief.

  “I am beginning to think all of you have gone stark, raving mad! Maman and I could hear their shouting, and she went in to make peace. But by the sound of it, she’s had no luck. Now are you going to help me or not?”

  Geoffrey was not keen about getting into the crossfire, especially since he was sure his intervention would be meaningless. He did not have the heart to disappoint Tilda, though, for not only had her husband gone back to Mainz in hopes of obtaining a pardon from the Holy Roman Emperor, but she’d recently revealed that she was pregnant. “Of course I will help,” he said, with far more confidence than he was feeling, and then glanced over at John, who’d once more been overlooked. Having spent much of his own life overshadowed by Hal and Richard, Geoffrey was motivated to say, “Come on, Johnny. I’ll likely need all the help I can get.”

  “I would not miss it for the world,” John said, with utter sincerity. He did not understand why Henry could not just order Richard to yield up Aquitaine, for he was the king, after all. He’d initially been sure it would be quickly resolved, but during the course of the Easter Court, he’d begun to fear that Henry might be the one to back down, not Richard. He’d never taken his father’s talk of an Irish kingdom for him very seriously, for he could not envision himself ruling over that strange, wild isle on the western edge of the world. But Aquitaine was different; it was real, one of the richest duchies in Christendom, a land of milk and honey. He’d not even dreamed it might be his, not until that Michaelmas Eve in Rouen, but now he could not bear to think it might be snatched away. Richard was to be king, no longer needed it. Why was he being so selfish?

  They found that Tilda had not exaggerated, hearing the angry voices while they were still in the sta
irwell. Geoffrey did not bother knocking, shoved the door open, with Tilda and John at his heels. Henry and Richard were confining themselves to verbal violence, at least so far. If Eleanor had interceded in hopes of mediating, she’d soon become a combatant herself, to judge from the way she was berating Henry. He and Richard were stalking each other like the big cats Geoffrey had once seen at the Tower of London, and he found himself thinking that this scene was true to form for his family, with everyone shouting and no one listening. Eleanor glanced in their direction, but the men were so intent upon their confrontation that they never even noticed the new arrivals—not until Geoffrey turned and slammed the door resoundingly.

  “They can hear all the cursing and bellowing down in the hall,” he said, “and they’ve started to wager which one of you will draw first blood. I came up to see whom I should put my money on.”

  That was not the sort of help Tilda had in mind, and she frowned at Geoffrey’s levity. But it worked, for neither Richard nor Henry liked the idea of entertaining others with their quarrel.

  “We are done here,” Henry said, glaring at his eldest son, before adding an ominous warning, “for now.”

  Not at all intimidated, Richard glowered back, and started for the door. But then he stopped, unwilling to be dismissed so curtly. “I’ll gladly go,” he said defiantly, “and I’ll not be coming back. The next time you want to threaten and rant, you can come to me in Aquitaine.”

  John, watching in dismay, saw his great chance slipping through his fingers, and he swung around to demand of his father, “Papa, does this mean Richard has bested you and Aquitaine is lost?”

  Eleanor winced, Geoffrey rolled his eyes, and Henry gave his youngest a look John had never gotten from him before. “My life would have been much more peaceful if I’d had only daughters,” he snapped. “As for Aquitaine, it is yours if you can take it.”

  Richard had halted when John protested. Now he looked the youth up and down very deliberately, and then he laughed. Geoffrey was astonished that his father had actually said that, for surely one Becket moment was enough for any man’s lifetime. Clearly, Eleanor’s thoughts had taken the same track, for she said scathingly, “Very good, Harry. It is always heartening to see that you’ve learned from your past mistakes.”

  But it was Tilda’s reaction that overrode the others, for she cried, “Stop it!” in such pain that all heads turned in her direction. “I cannot bear any more, cannot watch my family being torn apart like this!”

  There was a sudden, abashed silence and then alarm as Tilda seemed to falter. She looked so stricken that Geoffrey hastily grabbed her arm so he could hold her upright if necessary. Eleanor and Henry were immediately at her side, united, for that moment at least, in their concern for their distraught, pregnant daughter. She let them guide her toward the closest chair and the next few moments were hectic as Henry and Eleanor hovered over her, Richard hurried to get her wine, and Geoffrey asked if he could fetch one of her women. He was feeling remorseful, sorry he had not spared her this stressful scene by insisting she remain below in the hall, and his relief was considerable when she turned so the others could not see and winked. He at once entered cheerfully into the conspiracy, lamenting how pale and shaken she seemed and doing all he could to keep the focus upon Tilda, and away from their latest family conflagration.

  John alone had not gone to Tilda’s aid. He stood apart, as if he were watching a play, hearing only the echoes of Richard’s scornful laughter and his father’s dismissive words. It is yours if you can take it.

  JUNE HAD BEEN A COOL, rainy month, but with the approach of July, the Breton summer finally put in an appearance. Constance had spent the morning dealing with tedious correspondence, and felt she deserved a respite for her diligence, so after dismissing her scribe, she headed for the nursery. Hearing the murmur of voices, she paused in the doorway, smiling at the sight meeting her eyes: her husband and Morna, the wet-nurse, hanging over the cradle, agreeing that they’d never seen a more beautiful baby.

  “You just say that because she looks like you, Geoffrey,” she said, and he glanced up with a grin.

  “I do not deny I’m a handsome devil,” he said, “but I think she looks more like you. She has your eyes.”

  Morna giggled at that, for she’d already explained to Geoffrey that it was too early to tell the baby’s eye color. The infant had begun to whimper, and she reached for the child, but Geoffrey forestalled her.

  “No, let me,” he insisted and showed some skill in gathering his daughter up into his arms.

  As Morna discreetly withdrew to give them some private time with their infant, Constance joined Geoffrey by the cradle. She loved her child with a fierce intensity that she’d not expected, but she’d still been greatly disappointed that their firstborn was not a son, and she had been both relieved and surprised that Geoffrey seemed so content with a daughter. It was true that females could inherit the duchy, as she herself had done. She’d observed, though, that most men were set upon sons. Watching as he rocked their baby, she could not help asking, yet again, “You truly were not letdown that I birthed a girl?”

  “Look at her eyelashes,” he marveled, “just like golden fans. I am beginning to think I’ll have to swear a blood oath to satisfy you. How could any man be disappointed in this perfect little pearl? I’ll not deny that I might become concerned if you give me four or five girls in a row, but I am not going to fret until then. We have time on our side, after all, and if it means I must pay more visits to your bed, well, I am willing to make the sacrifice.”

  “How noble,” she said dryly, but once again he’d said what she needed to hear. He was right, for at twenty-three and twenty-five, they had all the time in the world. “I’m not sure I’d want to visit the birthing chamber as often as your mother, though,” she confided. “Two with Louis and then eight with your father—the woman is truly a force of nature!”

  “She definitely had a surfeit of sons,” he agreed. The baby had begun to fuss, so he handed her over to Constance; he liked to watch as his pragmatic, commonsense wife melted as soon as she held that tiny bundle in her arms. Sitting down, Constance cradled their daughter, calling her “Aenor,” the Breton form of Eleanor.

  “I have to confess,” Geoffrey said, “that I was surprised when you were so willing to name her after my mother. I’d thought for certes that I’d have to coax you into it.”

  Constance thought it was more than a fair trade-off, a reward he’d earned after responding so graciously to the birth of a daughter. “Well, I’ll admit that I have never had any great interest in pleasing your mother,” she allowed, “but I’ve always had a very healthy interest in vexing your father and calling our daughter Eleanor was virtually assured to do that.”

  As their eyes met over Aenor’s head, they both laughed. Just then a knock sounded on the door and a servant entered to announce the arrival of Geoffrey’s brother.

  Geoffrey was taken aback. “Does he have an army with him?” When the puzzled servant said no, he glanced over at Constance with a shrug. “Then it cannot be Richard.” He did not think that John or Geoff were likely to come all the way to Brittany for a family visit, either, and he wondered if his father had a bastard they didn’t know about. The servant had departed before he could ask the identity of this mystery visitor, and he and Constance were unable to satisfy their curiosity until John was eventually ushered into the nursery.

  Geoffrey stepped forward to bid him welcome, unable to resist joking, “In the neighborhood, were you?”

  John smiled as if there was nothing out of the ordinary about his visit, and greeted his sister-in-law with his newfound gallantry, complimenting both her and Aenor lavishly even though he thought all babies looked the same. Some of his urbanity slipped, however, when Geoffrey mischievously asked if he’d like to hold his niece. Reacting like the typical adolescent, he hastily shook his head. “No, I might drop her.”

  Almost as if she were reacting to his rejection, Aenor startled John
by beginning to wail, making a surprising amount of noise for such a small creature. Morna hastened back into the chamber, took the baby from Constance, and retreated across the nursery to satisfy her hungry little charge. Much to Geoffrey’s amusement, John seemed unable to take his eyes off Morna’s exposed white bosom. Remembering what it was like to be seventeen and utterly obsessed with the female body, he took pity on his bedazzled young brother and suggested that Morna continue feeding Aenor in the antechamber. Feeling very benevolent at the moment, he even refrained from teasing John about his obvious distraction, instead asked for the latest family news.

  As it happened, John had quite a bit of news to relate. Their mother was in England again, sent back by their father after his Easter Court. Henry had spent the spring seeking to bring about a truce between the French king Philippe and the Count of Flanders, and once he succeeded, he sailed for England in mid-June. Tilda and her children soon followed. Upon their arrival, he’d made his customary visit to the shrine of St Thomas at Canterbury, while Tilda continued on to Winchester as she wanted Eleanor with her in the birthing chamber.

  “Maman was very pleased that you named your daughter after her,” he reported, “but Papa not so much.”

  “Really?” Geoffrey said blandly, managing to sound surprised. His curiosity was getting the better of him by now, though, and he decided to nudge the conversation in the right direction. “Why did you not accompany Papa to England, Johnny?”

  “I told him that I wanted to visit my estates in Mortain.” John leaned forward, keeping his eyes intently upon his brother’s face. “If you have some free time this summer, Geoffrey, I thought we might pay a visit to Richard in Poitou.”