Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 9

  “Hal is not entirely in the wrong, you know,” she said quietly. “You do not give him sufficient income to maintain a royal household, which makes it inevitable that he should go so deeply into debt. And there is something to be said, too, for his other grievances.”

  He turned toward her, his surprise evident upon his face. “And what would that be, pray tell?”

  She ignored his sarcasm, choosing her words with care. “You keep saying Hal is too young, too callow to rule in his own right. I do not deny that he may well make mistakes. But how else will he learn, Harry?”

  “Do not make it sound as if I am fretting over the usual mishaps of youth—tavern brawls, getting a village girl with child, playing the fool with his friends. The stakes are far higher for Hal, and you well know it.”

  “It is rather late to complain about that, is it not? The truth is that this is a coil of your own making. Hal is a king because you would have it so. You cannot change what is done, can only learn to live with it.”

  “I could do that…if he were not taking his lessons at the French king’s knee!”

  “You’ve forfeited the right to bemoan that, too. If you did not want Louis to have a say in Hal’s life, you ought not to have married him off to Louis’s daughter. Instead of deploring Louis’s malign influence, you need to do what he does—listen to the lad.”

  “I do listen to him, Eleanor. The trouble is that I like not what I hear. I love him as my life, but I cannot trust him to rule on his own—not yet.”

  “And when will that day come? When he reaches twenty and one? Thirty? Every apprenticeship has a set term. How many years do you mean to keep him a king in training?”

  “I cannot answer that,” he said, so abruptly that she saw his temper was catching fire. “How can I? I know not what the morrow holds.”

  I do, she thought, no less angry now than he was. If he were blessed to reach Scripture’s three score years and ten, Hal would still be on that “short leash.” Even on Harry’s deathbed, he’d be figuring out a way to rule from the grave. He had ever to keep his hand on the reins, which meant that Hal would be doomed to ride pillion behind him. And how much freedom would he permit Richard? She knew well the answer to that, too. She had never been allowed to be more than his surrogate in her own domains. It would be no different for Richard. Just as Hal was a shadow king, Richard would be a shadow duke, answerable to Harry, always to Harry.

  Henry’s anger was cooling as fast as it had sparked. He supposed it was only natural that she’d come to Hal’s defense; all knew how protective a lioness was of her cubs. He did wish she could be more understanding of his plight, more like…well, like Rosamund. But if a man wanted comforting or cosseting, he’d need to look elsewhere. Those soft curves of hers hid some very sharp edges. He did not want to tarnish the afterglow of their lovemaking, though; this had been one of the best afternoons they’d had in a long while.

  “Let’s not quarrel, love. We both want the same for Hal, differ only in how to achieve it. I daresay the lad and I will be working well in tandem long ere Louis goes to God.”

  He’d touched unwittingly upon Eleanor’s greatest fear—that her sons would not be well settled in their own lands by the time they would face a more formidable foe than Louis. By all accounts, his Philippe was a sickly little lad and might not reach manhood. The boy’s death would pass the French crown to one of his sisters, the main reason that Henry had angled to wed Hal to Marguerite. But Marguerite had two older sisters, Eleanor’s daughters by her marriage to Louis, and they were both wed to highly competent, ambitious men, the Counts of Champagne and Blois. Eleanor had discussed this with Henry on several occasions, but there’d been no meeting of their minds. Henry thought the best way to counter the French threat was to keep power consolidated in his hands, a strategy that would work, she thought tartly, only if he did not intend ever to die. She said nothing, though, for why waste her breath?

  Fully dressed now, he crossed the chamber and gave her a lingering kiss. “I shall see you, love, at supper, I trust?” He’d taken a few steps before turning back toward the bed. “I almost forgot to tell you. I’ve settled upon a successor for the Archbishop of Bordeaux: William, the abbot of Reading. I thought we could have him consecrated during our stay at Limoges.”

  She drew a sharp breath. “I thought I told you,” she said, “that I favored the abbot of Tournay for that position.”

  “Did you? It must have slipped my mind. But I daresay you’ll be well pleased with William, for he is a good man, pious and well educated.”

  And English. She almost spat the words out, somehow held them back. This was not the first time he’d preempted her choice of prelates; the recently deceased Archbishop of Bordeaux and the Bishop of Poitiers were both his men. But her tolerance was no longer what it once had been, and slights like this stung more than they had in the past. Seething in silence, she was even more affronted that he seemed unaware of her outrage. Grasping for any weapon at hand, she asked him with poisoned politeness if he’d made any plans for the morrow.

  Henry paused at the door, glancing over his shoulder. “No…why?”

  “I thought you’d want to have a Requiem Mass said for his soul. Surely you have not forgotten, Harry? Tomorrow will be the second anniversary of Thomas Becket’s murder.”

  He was very still for a moment, staring at her as if she were a stranger. “No,” he said tersely, “I have not forgotten.”

  She knew she’d wounded him when he’d least expected it, and her satisfaction lasted until the door had closed behind him. Once he was gone, it ebbed away along with her anger, leaving her with naught but the ashes and embers of a dying hearth fire.


  February 1173

  Near Limoges, Aquitaine

  ELEANOR’S EYES INTENTLY SEARCHED the sky. It was the blanched, faded blue of midwinter, leached of color and utterly empty barren of clouds and her missing peregrine. Her vexation was all the sharperbecause the hunt had begun with such promise. When a heron had been flushed from the rushes along the river, she’d detached the leash and the falcon launched itself from its perch on her leather glove, soaring up into the sun as it sought to gain height over its prey. And then it was diving down upon the heron, faster than any arrow, a dark angel bearing death in its talons. But the heron veered abruptly and the falcon missed. As it hurtled past, the heron turned upon its attacker, and suddenly the falcon was the one in flight, fleeing before the larger bird’s thrusting beak. The triumphant heron checked its pursuit and flew toward the safety of its river refuge, while Eleanor’s thwarted peregrine disappeared over the horizon.

  Her falconer had repeatedly issued the recall and swung the lure up into the air, to no avail. A quarter hour had passed by now, with no sign of the errant falcon, but Eleanor continued to probe the sky, as if she could compel its return by sheer force of will, all the while muttering some of the most colorful, creative obscenities that the Countess of Chester had ever heard.

  Moving her mare in closer, Maud looked at the queen with mock horror. “What language, my lady! Luckily my brother the bishop is not within earshot. Does your lord husband know you have such a command of curses?” she teased, and Eleanor tore her gaze away from the sky long enough to give Maud a look that was more impatient than amused.

  “Who do you think I learned them from?” Her falconer had come back into view, shaking his head in defeat, and she swore again, as angry with herself as with the lost bird. “She was not ready,” she admitted, “needed more training. But I only brought two from Chinon and the other falcon is ailing with a catarrh.”

  “Then you had no choice,” Maud pointed out, “for your royal guest was keen to go hawking. And he seems well pleased, so the day has not been a total loss.”

  Following Maud’s gaze, Eleanor saw that the King of Navarre was indeed in a jovial mood, bantering with their host, the Viscount of Limoges, and Maud’s brother. Roger had taken no active part in the hunt, one of the few bish
ops who obeyed the Church’s ban on hawking for those in holy orders, and Sancho was joking about his abstention with the heavy-handed humor permitted to kings. Feeling the women’s eyes upon him, Roger sent a smile winging their way, and then turned back to deflecting the royal gibes.

  “He does look content,” Eleanor conceded, and that was no small achievement, for the Navarrese king had been growing restless and irritable as the days passed and Henry did not arrive.

  “Madame!” Aimar, the Viscount of Limoges, was guiding his stallion in her direction. “I am so sorry about the loss of your falcon,” he said, unhappy that the day’s success would be marred by this setback. “I took pains that all would go well, had my chaplain begin the hunt with a prayer that the birds would not stray. But I can assure you that she will be found. Each time I’ve been unlucky enough to lose one of my falcons, it has always been retrieved by the local villagers.”

  Eleanor knew he was probably right. Any peasant spotting a belled hawk with leather jesses would know at once that it was a lord’s bird and worth a goodly reward. But she could not shake off her chagrin, for she never willingly relinquished something that was hers.

  With an effort, she brought her attention back to the conversation. Viscount Aimar was telling them what he’d just learned from King Sancho: that the Saracens were as avid hunters as Christians, and even though they were infidels, they’d come up with a most intriguing means of controlling their hawks—by covering their heads with leather hoods until they were ready to be set upon their prey. Eleanor was no less interested in this new method than Aimar, and made a mental note to mention it to Henry, whose passion for hawking bordered on obsession. Aimar’s servants had begun to unload the wagons, setting up trestle tables and unpacking stools so the hunting party could take refreshments in comfort, and Eleanor did her best to dismiss her wayward falcon, holding out her hand so the viscount could help her dismount.

  Rainald assisted his daughter from her mare, and then hastened over to do the same for his niece, wanting to know if Maud would be journeying with him, Ranulf, and Rhiannon when they returned to England. To his surprise, she refused, and with his usual tactlessness, he blurted out, “Why? You’ve been here for months. Are you not ready to go home yet?”

  “The queen has kindly extended an invitation to remain at her court, Uncle, and I was glad to accept. Why not? I am a widow with grown children, and Bertrada is old enough now to act as Hugh’s lady, does not need a mother-in-law to dog her steps. Besides,” Maud added, with a grin that belied her years and any claims to matronly dignity, “what fool would prefer Chester to Poitiers?”

  Rainald still looked baffled, but Maud and Eleanor traded smiles, both well content with the role that the Countess of Chester had chosen to play: a surrogate sister for the queen who still grieved for her blood sister. Viscount Aimar was hovering close by, waiting to escort her to the table, and Eleanor was turning toward him when her uncle stepped between them, murmuring a deferential “A moment, if I may, my lady.”

  Eleanor allowed Raoul to draw her aside, and as soon as they were out of the viscount’s hearing, he said, “Harry and Hal are likely to be arriving any day now, and we may not have many opportunities for private conversation. Do you think this time together has served to mend the rift between them?”

  “No, I do not.”

  “A pity,” Raoul said, because convention seemed to demand it; a father’s estrangement from his son would be considered tragic by most people. For him, it would be a blessing, a God-given chance that might never come again. His loathing for his niece’s Angevin husband was not personal. He’d not liked her French husband either. He wanted Aquitaine to be ruled by their own, wanted no more foreigners over them.

  Eleanor was regarding him with a sardonic half smile. “You really ought to get Harry to teach you how to mask your thoughts, Uncle. If you were any more eager to see the breach widen between them, you’d be panting like yonder greyhounds.”

  He shrugged. “I’ve never lied to you, lass. You know what I want and why I want it.”

  She was the first to look away. “I just wish,” she said, so softly he barely heard her, “that you were not quite so happy watching the death throes of my marriage.”

  It was then that the bearers shouted and a grey heron broke cover near the river, powerful wings taking it up into the sky over their heads. Most of the hunting party had already relinquished their falcons and were moving toward the tables. But Richard’s bird of prey still perched upon his leather glove. His reaction was instantaneous and his gyrfalcon exploded into the air with breathtaking speed. Like the peregrine, it rose rapidly, and then it was plunging earthward, its sleek white body blurring into a streak of light as it caught up with its quarry. They collided in midair and then plummeted to the ground, out of sight in the marsh grass.

  “Release the dogs!” Richard yelled, but the greyhounds were already in motion, racing to subdue the heron before it could escape from the much smaller gyrfalcon. Richard had slid from his saddle and was running toward the death-struggle. When he and the bearers finally emerged from the reeds, he had the bloody heart of the heron in one hand and his beautiful, lethal hawk in the other. Eleanor had never seen him so excited, and she felt a surge of fierce pride as he headed straight for her, eager to share his triumph.

  “Did you see her stoop, Maman? That was so fine a kill, well-nigh perfect!”

  “Indeed it was, dearest,” she agreed, her own disappointment dispelled by Richard’s jubilation. Others were gathering around them, and Richard basked in the attention, feeding the heart to the gyrfalcon as he accepted their plaudits, whistling for the greyhounds so they could get their well-earned praise, too. Only Geoffrey stood apart, watching with an expression surprisingly jaundiced for a youngster of fourteen.

  The men were as willing as Eleanor to prolong the moment, remembering the pride of their first kills. It was only with the arrival of a messenger for the Viscount of Limoges that they began to disperse, turning toward the tables now laid out with wine and food. Eleanor stayed where she was, though, flanked by her uncle and her son, for the expression on Aimar’s face was not that of a man who’d just received welcome news. After conferring briefly with the messenger, he moved hastily in her direction.

  “Madame, I’ve just gotten word that King Henry has ridden into Limoges.”

  That was no surprise, for Henry had sent word that he would reach Aimar’s city within a day or two of the start of Lent and this was Shrove Tuesday. Eleanor inclined her head, waiting for him to reveal what had disquieted him about her husband’s arrival.

  “Your son the young king is with him, of course, as are the King of Aragon, the Count of Maurienne, and his daughter.” Aimar paused, obviously unhappy with what he would say next. “He is accompanied, as well, by the Count of Toulouse.”

  No one spoke. Eleanor could see her suspicions mirrored on the faces of Richard and Raoul. She would sooner have broken bread with Lucifer than with Raimon St Gilles, and her husband well knew it. So why had he brought the count to Limoges?

  HENRY, COUNT RAIMON, and the young King of Aragon had been ushered to the castle chambers set aside for them and were washing away the grime of the road. But Hal had remained in the great hall. His hair was tousled, there was a smear of dirt on his cheek, and his clothes and boots were mud-splattered, yet he still looked like one of the heroes in a troubadour’s song or geste, the handsome, dashing young knight who was without peer and existed only in a storyteller’s imagination. He was surrounded by those guests who’d not gone hawking, commanding their attention so completely that few at first noticed the hunting party had returned.

  Following in Eleanor’s footsteps, Marguerite forgot etiquette and brushed past the queen in her haste to welcome her husband. At the sound of her voice, Hal sprang to his feet and swept her into a close embrace, a display of public affection that would have been considered unseemly in others but earned Hal indulgent smiles from even the most judgmental.

  Hal showed more decorum in greeting his mother, his host, and their companions, but wasted no time in drawing Eleanor aside for a more private conversation. “I had an inspired idea,” he confided, “but I will need your help to bring it about, Maman. How often do so many of high birth gather together like this? We have no less than four kings, two queens, and a multitude of counts, earls, barons, and their ladies. What better setting could we have for a knighting ceremony? And what better time? We could do it next Wednesday…my eighteenth birthday,” he explained, as if Eleanor had been elsewhere on that auspicious occasion and needed reminding. “Will you talk to him, Maman? Will you make him see how perfect it would be to do it here, to do it now?”

  As usual, Hal’s enthusiasm was contagious, and Eleanor found herself agreeing even though she did not think Henry would heed her. She knew she should remind Hal of his father’s stubborn insistence upon having him knighted by the French king, but she hadn’t the heart to interject reality into his dream. It was her son’s strength and his weakness that he could not conceive of defeat.

  Having gotten what he wanted—his mother’s backing in this coming clash of wills with his father—Hal announced that he was greatly in need of a bath, and he and Marguerite exited the hall with an eagerness rarely shown for bathing. Eleanor turned to find her constable, Saldebreuil de Sanzay, at her side.