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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 81


  Constance frowned, but Geoffrey had been expecting an answer like this. “Did you, lad? Who do you have in mind to accompany us? Some of my knights and routiers hired with Breton gold?”

  “You have the money; I do not,” John said matter-of-factly. But then his eagerness surged to the surface. “He told us to do it, Geoffrey, said Aquitaine was mine if I could take it. So why not? I’ll make it worth your while; will give you all the Poitevin castles that Hal promised you. And it is in your interests to overthrow Richard, for I’d make a far better neighbor, would not be constantly testing the borders between Brittany and Poitou. Nor would we lack for allies. Richard’s barons loathe him, so why would they not rally to me as they did to Hal?”

  “Hal was a king,” Constance pointed out, “so they could claim they were not truly in rebellion.”

  “From what I’ve heard of lords like Viscount Aimar and the de Lusignans,” John countered, “I doubt that any of them lose sleep at night about legal niceties like that,” and Geoffrey began to laugh.

  “Bless you, Johnny, you’re proof that blood breeds true,” he declared, and Constance felt a prickle of foreboding.

  “Then we have a deal?”

  “Not so fast, lad. I’ll give it some thought, but I’m not ready to commit myself to another war just yet. Why not go back to the great hall and see if my steward has gotten your chamber ready for you?” Getting to his feet, Geoffrey deftly steered his brother toward the door, and once he was alone with his wife, he said playfully, “What is the name of the maidservant with the red hair and freckles? I doubt that Johnny will want to sleep alone tonight and that lusty little wench would like nothing better than to warm a prince’s bed.”

  Constance had no interest in her brother-in-law’s sleeping arrangements. “You are going to do it,” she said slowly. “Good God, Geoffrey, why? Do you hate Richard so much?”

  “There is no love lost between us,” he conceded, “but can you truly see me fighting a war merely to settle a grudge?”

  “No, I cannot. So why do it?”

  “Darling, what else can I do? When opportunity falls into a man’s lap like a ripe peach, he’d be a fool not to taste it. It is not as if I am corrupting an innocent, after all. Johnny came to me.”

  “That begs the question. What do you gain by joining with him against Richard?”

  He could tell from her tone that she was fast losing patience and, no longer teasing, he crossed to her side, gently propelling her to her feet. “I think we’d have a good chance of winning. Richard’s barons are not vanquished, are merely biding their time. I think Johnny is right and they would join with us against Richard. And who would you rather have as a neighbor, my little brother or Thor, the pagan god of war? By Richard’s calculations, we owe him a blood debt and it is just a matter of time until he seeks to collect it. So it makes sense to strike first, does it not?”

  “And what of your father? What do you expect him to do whilst you invade Aquitaine? Do you truly think he’d forgive two rebellions in less than a twelvemonth?”

  “Ah, but this time I believe he’d stay out of it, Constance. When he told Johnny to ‘take’ Aquitaine, I think he meant it. He may not admit it, even to himself, but that was a cry from the heart. I think he’d secretly be relieved if we could get Aquitaine away from Richard. He loved Hal to distraction and seems genuinely fond of Johnny, but he knows full well that Richard loves him not, and he knows, too, that as long as Richard holds Aquitaine, his defiance will continue. So why would he not welcome our efforts to give him what he wants—the duchy for Johnny?”

  “But what if you’re wrong?”

  He shrugged. “It seems a risk worth taking.”

  “That is what I do not understand, Geoffrey. I do not see what we gain from this, unless you have it in mind to then claim Aquitaine from Johnny?”

  “No, that would indeed bring Papa into the fray,” he said with a wry smile. “I’ll settle for some Poitevin castles, a more peaceful border region, and the chance for future benefits.”

  “Ah, I knew it! Tell me about these ‘future benefits.’ What scheme are you hatching now?”

  “No scheme, Constance. I merely want to give my father the chance to consider all of his options. It has to have occurred to him that I’d make a better king than Richard. I’ve proven myself to be an able battle commander, and I’ve done in Brittany what Richard has failed to do in Aquitaine—I’ve reconciled the barons to my rule. But he cannot disinherit Richard as long as he holds Aquitaine, for he knows it would mean unending rebellion. Richard would never accept it, not if he had the means of waging war. If he loses his duchy, he loses, too, his income to hire routiers and wreak havoc.” He slid his fingers under her chin, tilted her face up to his as he murmured, “Tell me, darling, that a kingdom is not worth the risk.”

  She could not, of course. She wanted him to be the English king as much as he did. She wanted the power and security that only a crown could bestow, wanted it for Geoffrey and herself, for her Breton homeland, and above all, for Aenor and their children not yet born.

  CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

  September 1184

  Winchester, England

  YOUR SON IS SO SWEET, Tilda. May I hold him?”

  “Of course, Alys,” Tilda said with a smile and surrendered her baby to the younger woman. She was making a special effort to be friendly because of her discomfort in Alys’s presence. She felt that her father and Richard had treated the French princess rather shabbily, cold-bloodedly using her as a pawn in their high-stakes diplomatic maneuvering. Her mother’s attitude seemed callous to Tilda, too. Eleanor was obviously in no position to influence Alys’s fate, but she’d shown a marked lack of sympathy for the girl in her conversations with Tilda, her only concern how Alys’s fortunes affected Richard. Tilda’s husband liked to tease her that she was too tenderhearted for her own good, and she supposed there was truth in that. She could not help pitying Alys, though.

  As she glanced from Alys to her twelve-year-old daughter, Tilda found herself worrying what the future held in store for Richenza. Alys was not the only highborn bride to be treated as a commodity, after all. Alys’s half sister Agnes had found only grief in Byzantium. And then there was the still-grieving Marguerite, being used by her brother for bait as he fished for allies.

  Tilda had heard people claim that a nuptial curse hung over the French House of Capet. Louis had certainly been shipwrecked in matrimonial seas, surviving a turbulent union to Eleanor, losing his second wife in childbirth, and not gaining the son he so desperately wanted until he’d sired four daughters and given up all hope. His sister Constance had been unhappily wed to two abusive husbands, and his nineteen-year-old son, Philippe, had already weathered one marital crisis.

  Earlier in the year Philippe had attempted to repudiate Isabelle of Hainaut, the niece of his onetime ally turned enemy, the Count of Flanders, claiming that she had failed to give him an heir, an unfair accusation in light of her extreme youth; she’d been ten at the time of their marriage and was now only fourteen. Isabelle had outmaneuvered him, though, taking to the streets of Senlis as a penitent.

  Barefoot and clad only in her chemise, she’d made a pilgrimage from church to church, attracting huge, sympathetic crowds as she prayed aloud to God to forgive her sins and protect her from the king’s evil counselors. The citizens had rioted in her favor, and when the flustered Philippe offered to find her a highborn second husband, she had responded, “Sire, it does not please God for a mortal man to lie in the bed in which you have lain.” Facing the disapproval of his subjects and the likely opposition of the Church, his pride assuaged by his young wife’s artful flattery, Philippe had relented and agreed to take her back. But Tilda still felt sorry for Isabelle, and hoped when her daughter was wed that she’d be treated more kindly than Philippe’s queen.

  Alys laughed, not at all disturbed when Tilda’s infant son burped and spit up on the bodice of her gown. “You are so lucky,” she said wistfully. “He is suc
h a beautiful baby.” Glancing over the child’s head toward Tilda, she hesitated before saying, “I was sorry to hear that your husband had no success during his trip to Germany.”

  “It was a disappointment,” Tilda conceded. “But we remain hopeful. My father met the Archbishop of Cologne at Canterbury last month and entertained him lavishly in London. The archbishop had long been one of my husband’s fiercest foes, but my father got them together during the archbishop’s visit and brought about their reconciliation.”

  The archbishop had suggested that Henry send an embassy to the Pope and ask him to mediate on Heinrich’s behalf with the emperor, but Tilda was not about to reveal something so politically sensitive to Alys. Nor was she going to tell Alys the real reason for the archbishop’s presence in England. His had been a diplomatic mission disguised as a pilgrimage; talks were under way for a marriage between Richard and the emperor’s daughter Agnes. Tilda hoped that the marriage would come to pass, for at least that would free Alys from her political purgatory. But she did not know Alys at all, and it could be that the young woman really wanted to wed Richard, especially now that he was a future king, so it seemed wisest to say nothing.

  Tilda’s daughter was cooing over her baby brother with a motherly air that brought a smile to Tilda’s lips. Richenza—Tilda found it hard to remember that she was now called Matilda—and Alys were taking turns extolling little Wilhelm’s manifold virtues when Eleanor’s abrupt entrance put a halt to their cheery conversation. Her greeting to Alys was so curt that the younger woman flushed and Tilda felt a prickle of resentment on her behalf. But then she took a closer look at her mother’s ashen face.

  “Alys, would you mind taking Wilhelm back to the nursery? My daughter will show you the way.” Catching the eye of Gertrud, her attendant, Tilda nodded her head and the woman rose and followed the others out. Turning back to her mother, then, Tilda was alarmed to find that Eleanor had sank down upon a coffer, almost as if she no longer had the strength to hold herself erect. “Maman…what is it? What is wrong?”

  “It is happening all over again.”

  Tilda had never heard her mother sound so vulnerable, so…old. “What is happening? I do not understand.”

  “Your brothers are at war with one another. Only this time it is Geoffrey and John against Richard.”

  “God in Heaven!” Tilda stared at Eleanor in horror. “You mean…they took Papa’s angry words seriously?”

  “So it would seem.” Eleanor rubbed her temples with her fingers; she had a throbbing headache, and when she closed her eyes, she could see white light pulsing against her lids. “I am so tired,” she confessed, “so very tired of all this, Tilda. It never seems to end…”

  Tilda leaped to her feet, much too swiftly for a woman who’d given birth so recently. Crossing to Eleanor’s side, she sat down beside her on the coffer and reached for her hand. “Maman, I know how painful this must be for you…” Her voice faltered, for in truth, she did not. She could not even imagine a world in which her own sons were set upon destroying one another. Could there be any worse grief for a parent than that? “You must not despair, Maman. Papa will not let this happen. He will stop the bloodshed, find a way to end their lunatic rivalry and make peace between them. He’ll make this right, you’ll see.”

  What if he does not want to make it right? The words hovered on Eleanor’s lips, but she bit them back. She was not about to burden Tilda with her fears. If she could keep from voicing them, though, she could not keep them from taking root, could not banish them from the back of her brain. What if Harry’s “angry words” had come from the heart? What if he meant what he said?

  GEOFF WAS IN LONDON when he heard of his family’s latest crisis. He was soon in the saddle, riding for Windsor in such haste that he covered the thirty-five miles at a pace one of Henry’s royal couriers might have envied and reached the riverside castle that evening. Admitted into the middle bailey, he ran into Willem, who grimly confirmed that the rumors were true. “Thank God you’re here, Geoff. You’ll know how to comfort him.”

  Once he was escorted up to his father’s chamber, though, Geoff was not so sure of that. Henry was seated by the hearth, staring into the flames as his squires tiptoed around in nervous silence. Recognizing his son’s footsteps, he glanced over his shoulder. “You heard, then.”

  Geoff found a stool and brought it over to sit beside his father. “For a long time, I’ve suspected that my brothers are possessed.”

  “I would that it were true,” Henry said, his voice so low that Geoff barely heard him. “At least then I’d have an answer for this family madness.” They sat in silence for a time, the only sound the crackling in the hearth. Henry stretched his feet toward the fire, wondering why he was so much more sensitive to the cold as he aged. For most of his life, he’d never paid any heed to the weather, but in the past few years he’d begun to see his own body as the enemy, for on any given day he had more random pains and aches than he used to suffer in the course of a year. He did not want to think of fifty-one as old, though his muscles, bones, and sinew seemed to be telling him otherwise. Looking at Geoff from the corner of his eye, he said reluctantly, “I may have played a part in this latest outbreak.”

  “What do you mean, Papa?”

  Henry sighed heavily. “During one of our quarrels at my Easter Court, I lost my temper and told Johnny that Aquitaine was his if he could take it from Richard. Do you think that…that they could have taken me seriously? Surely they must have known that I did not mean it?”

  This was the first that Geoff had heard of his father’s rash outburst, and he blinked in surprise. But he did not hesitate, saying stoutly, “Of course they knew you did not mean it, Papa! Anyone with half a brain would have known you were just speaking out of frustration. You must not blame yourself for their folly.”

  “I expected better of Johnny, though. Of course he is still young…” Henry said, with another sigh.

  Geoff did not think John’s age was an excuse, for he was just three months from his eighteenth birthday. But if his father wanted to harbor these comforting delusions about his youngest, then Geoff would not be the one to gainsay him. “What will you do?”

  “I am going to order them to cease hostilities and summon them to England to answer for themselves.”

  “What will you do if they defy you?” Geoff asked, for he considered that a distinct possibility, but he was taken aback by the raw candor of his father’s reply.

  “I do not want to think about that,” Henry admitted, for he found none of his choices palatable. If he stood aside and did nothing, his sons could tear his empire apart. He had limited control over Richard and Geoffrey, neither of whom were financially dependent upon him as Hal had been. But as angry as he was with them, he did not want to make war against his own flesh and blood. He’d already lost his eldest, his best-loved son. How much more would the Almighty ask of him?

  A LIGHT NOVEMBER SNOW was falling as Eleanor, her daughter, and her son-in-law reached the palace at Westminster. The journey had not been a long one, for they’d been staying at Berkhampstead, which was much closer to London than Winchester. Eleanor was still very tired, and thoroughly chilled, too, for the day had been one of blustery winds. She did not summon servants to prepare her bath yet, as eager as she was to soak in warm, scented water. Henry had greeted them briefly upon their arrival, but she was expecting him to pay her a private visit.

  He did not keep her waiting. Watching impatiently as servants stoked the fire in the hearth and piled fur-lined coverlets upon the bed, he seized his first opportunity to dismiss them, including Amaria. As soon as they were alone, he crossed the chamber to face Eleanor; she could not help noticing that he was favoring his bad leg again.

  “I have summoned our sons to London. Johnny has already landed at Dover and Richard and Geoffrey ought to arrive by week’s end. I intend to reconcile them, to put an end to this infernal rivalry once and for all, and I expect you to assist me in this endeavor.”
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  “Of course.”

  “You are not always so biddable,” he said suspiciously, and she gave him a tight smile.

  “When our interests converge, I am always ‘biddable,’ Harry, and I want to end this strife as much as you do.”

  “See that you keep that in mind,” he said brusquely and turned toward the door.

  Eleanor waited until he’d reached it before she spoke again. “I will do all I can to make peace between them, however hollow it may be. But I will do nothing, Harry, to help you take Aquitaine away from Richard, and you forget that at your cost.”

  He’d paused and was regarding her impassively, but his eyes were as frigid and foreboding as the slate-colored November sky. “I can only put out one fire at a time,” he said and left without waiting for her response.

  IN ADDITION TO HIS DAUGHTER AND SON-IN-LAW, Henry was entertaining the Count of Flanders and numerous English bishops, having convened a council to discuss the selection of a new archbishop of Canterbury. But his first priority that November was bringing his rebellious sons back into the fold. With that in mind, he waited until all three of them had arrived at Westminster and then summoned them to a private reckoning at the Tower of London.

  GEOFFREY WAS THE LAST TO ARRIVE, and he took his time climbing the stairs to the upper floor of the White Tower, knowing the coming confrontation would be an unpleasant one. As he was ushered into the great hall, he at once became the avid object of all eyes. To his relief, he was directed toward the private royal chamber that adjoined the hall; at least this was not going to be a public ordeal.

  They were waiting for him: his parents and his brothers, Richard, John, and Geoff. Richard shot him a look that would have been deadly had it been launched from a bow, Geoff was glaring, and John seemed relieved to see him. Eleanor’s expression was unrevealing, warning Geoffrey that he was facing the queen, not the mother. Henry’s court mask was in place, too, but he seethed with restless, edgy energy, unable to stay still for long, not understanding why he, who’d always found the mastery of other men so easy, should be so hobbled when it came to controlling his own sons.