It began with a shipwreck
on a bitter-cold November eve in God's Year 1120. The English king Henry, son
of William the Bastard, conqueror of England, lost his only lawfully begotten
son in the sinking of the White Ship. In his despair, he named his daughter
Maude, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir. But his lords balked at
being governed by a woman, and when the old king died, Maude's cousin Stephen
seized the throne.
Stephen was not feared by his lords, who dismissed him as a mild man, gentle
and good, who did no justice. When the Empress Maude and her bastard brother
Robert, the Earl of Gloucester, led an army onto English shores, many
rallied to her cause. Even more served only themselves or the Devil. Outlaws
roamed the roads and barons became bandits, raising up stone castles by forced
labor, emerging from these wolf lairs to raid towns and plunder the countryside.
Women, pilgrims, priests -- none were spared by the lawless and the damned.
Because men feared to venture into the fields, the earth was not tilled, crops
did not grow, and hunger stalked the land. In this wretched way did nineteen
years pass, years of suffering and anarchy, and people said openly that Christ
and his saints slept.
The Empress Maude failed in her attempt to reclaim her stolen crown. But by
her marriage to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, she had given birth to a son who vowed
to recover his lost birthright. He called himself Henry Fitz Empress and men
began to hope that he might deliver them from their misery. It was said that
he was Fortune's favorite; when that was reported to him, he said a man makes
his own luck and some thought that was blasphemy. He was only nineteen when
he stunned Christendom by wedding Eleanor, the beautiful and headstrong Duchess
of Aquitaine, less than two months after she'd been freed from her marriage
to the King of France. He then turned his gaze upon Stephen's unhappy realm.
Within a twelvemonth, he had forced Stephen to recognize him as the rightful
heir, and it was agreed that Stephen would rule for the rest of his days and
then Henry would be king. In less than a year, it came to pass. He was but one
and twenty when he was crowned as the second Henry to rule England since the
Conquest, and the people rejoiced, for he promised them justice and peace.
As the King of England
crossed the inner bailey of Chinon Castle, his brother watched from an upper
story window and wished fervently that God would smite him dead. Geoffrey
understood perfectly why Cain had slain Abel, the best-beloved. Like Cain,
Harry was the firstborn, too. There were just fifteen months between them,
fifteen miserable months, but because of them, Harry had gotten it all-->England
and Anjou and Normandy--and Geoffrey had naught but regrets and resentments
and three wretched castles, castles he was now about to forfeit.
He'd rebelled again,
and again he'd failed. He was here at Chinon to submit to his
brother, but he was not contrite, nor was he cowed. His heart sore, his
spirit still rebellious, he began to stalk the chamber, feeling more wronged with
every stride. Why should Harry have the whole loaf and he only crumbs? What had
Harry ever been denied? Duke of Normandy at seventeen, Count
of Anjou upon their father's sudden death the following year, King of
England at one and twenty, and, as if that were not more than enough for any
mortal man, he was wed to a celebrated beauty, the Duchess of Aquitaine and
former Queen of France.
Had any other woman ever
worn the crowns of both England and France? History had never interested
Geoffrey much, but he doubted it. Eleanor always seemed to be defying
the natural boundaries of womanhood, a royal rebel who was too clever by half
and as willful as any man. But her vast domains and her seductive smile
more than made up for any defects of character, and after her divorce from the
French king, Geoffrey had attempted to claim this glittering prize, laying an
ambush for her as she journeyed back to Aquitaine. It was not uncommon
to abduct an heiress, then force her into marriage, and Geoffrey had been confident
of success, sure, too, that he'd be able to tame her wild nature and make
her into a proper wife, dutiful and submissive.
It was not to be. Eleanor had evaded his ambush, reached safety in her
own lands, and soon thereafter, shocked all of Christendom by marrying Geoffrey's
brother. Geoffrey had been bitterly disappointed by his failure to capture
a queen. But it well nigh drove him crazy to think of her belonging to
his brother, sharing her bed and her wealth with Harry-- and of her own
free will. Where was the justice or fairness in that?
Geoffrey was more uneasy about facing his brother than he'd ever admit,
and he spun around at the sound of the opening door. But it was not Harry.
Their younger brother, Will, entered, followed by Thomas Becket, the king's
Geoffrey frowned at the sight of them. As far back as he could remember,
Will had been Harry's lapdog, always taking his side. As for Becket,
Geoffrey saw him as an outright enemy, the king's chancellor and closest
confidant. He could expect no support from them, and well he knew it. "I
suppose you're here to gloat, Will, as Harry rubs my nose in it."
"No, I'm here to do you a favor--if you've the wits to
heed me." The most cursory of glances revealed their kinship; all
three brothers had the same high coloring and sturdy, muscular build. Will's hair was
redder and he had far more freckles, but otherwise, he
and Geoffrey were mirror images of each other. Even their scowls were
the same. "Harry's nerves are on the raw these days, and he's in no mood
to put up with your blustering. So for your own sake, Geoff, watch your
"Poor Harry, my heart bleeds for his ‘raw nerves,' in truth,
it does! Do you never tire of licking his arse, Little Brother? Or have
you acquired a taste for it by now?'
Color seared Will's face. "You're enough to make me believe those tales of babes
switched at birth, for
how could we ever have come from the same womb?"
"Let him be, lad." Thomas Becket was regarding Geoffrey with
chill distaste. "'As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool
returneth to his folly.'"
"You stay out of this, priest! But then," Geoffrey said with
a sneer, "you are not a priest, are you? You hold the chancellorship,
yet you balk at taking your holy vows . . . now why is that?"
"I serve both my God and my king," Becket said evenly,
all my heart. But you, Geoffrey Fitz Empress, serve only Satan, even if
you know it not."
Geoffrey had no chance to retort, for the door was opening again. A foreigner
unfamiliar with England would not have taken the man in the doorway for the
English king, for he scorned the trappings of kingship, the rich silks and gemstones
and furred mantles that set men of rank apart from their less fortunate
brethren. Henry Fitz Empress preferred comfort to style: simple, unadorned tunics and
high cowhide boots and mantles so short that he'd earned himself the nickname
"Curtmantle."Equally indifferent to fashion's
dictates and the opinions of others, Henry dressed to please himself, and usually
looked more like the king's chief huntsman than the king.
To Geoffrey, who spent
huge sums on his clothes, this peculiarity of his brother's was just further
proof of his unfitness to be king. Henry looked even more rumpled than
usual today, his short, copper-colored hair tousled and windblown, his eyes
slate-dark, hollowed and bloodshot. Mayhap there was something to Will's
blathering about Harry's "raw nerves" after all, Geoffrey conceded. Not
that he cared what was weighing Harry down. A pity it was not an anchor.
What did trouble Geoffrey, though, was his brother's silence. The
young king was notorious for his scorching temper, but those who knew Henry
best knew, too, that these spectacular fits of royal rage were more calculated
than most people suspected, deliberately daunting. His anger was far
more dangerous when it was iced over, cold and con-trolled and unforgiving,
and Geoffrey was soon squirming under that unblinking, implacable gaze. When he could
stand the suspense no longer, he snapped, "What are you waiting
for? Let's get it over with, Harry!"
"Need I remind you that
you won, Harry? It seems odd indeed for you to bemoan your losses when I'm
the one who is yielding up my castles."
"You think I care about
your accursed castles?" Henry moved forward into the chamber so swiftly
that Geoffrey took an instinctive backward step. "Had I not been forced to
lay siege to them, I'd have been back in England months ago, long ere Eleanor's
lying-in was nigh."
Geoffrey knew Eleanor was pregnant again, for Henry had announced it at their
Christmas court. Divorced by the French king for her failure to give him
a male heir, Eleanor had then borne Henry two sons in their first three years
of marriage. To Geoffrey, her latest pregnancy had been another drop
of poison in an already noxious drink, and he could muster up no sympathy now
for Henry's complaint.
"What of it? You'd
not have been allowed in the birthing chamber, for men never are."
"No . . . but I'd have been
there to bury my son."
Geoffrey's mouth dropped
open. "Your son?"
"He died on Whitsunday,"
Henry said, softly and precisely, the measured cadence of his tones utterly at
variance with what Geoffrey could read in his eyes. "Eleanor kept vigil by
his bedside as the doctors and priests tried to save him. She stayed with
him until he died, and then she made the funeral arrangements, accompanied his
body to Reading for burial. He was not yet three, Geoff, for his birthday
was not till August, the seventeenth, it would have been--"
"Harry, I . . . I am sorry
about your son. But it was not my fault! Blame God if you must, not
"But I do blame you,
Geoff. I blame you for your treachery, your betrayals, your willingness to
ally yourself with my enemies . . . again and again. I blame you for my wife's
ordeal, which she need not have faced alone. And I blame you for denying
me the chance to be at my son's deathbed."
"What do you want me to
say? It was not my fault! You cannot blame me because the boy was
sickly--" Geoffrey's breath caught in his throat as Henry lunged forward. Twisting
his fist in the neck of his brother's tunic, Henry shoved him roughly
against the wall.
has a name, damn you--William! I suppose you'd forgotten, for blood-kin
means nothing to you, does it? Well, you might remember his name better
once you have time and solitude to think upon it!"
Geoffrey blanched. "You . . . you cannot mean to imprison
Henry slowly unclenched
his fist, stepped back. "There are men waiting outside the door to escort
you to a chamber in the tower."
"Harry, what are you
going to do? Tell me!"
Henry turned aside without answering, moved to the door and jerked it open. Geoffrey
stiffened, eyes darting in disbelief from the men-at-arms to this
stranger in his brother's skin. Clutching at the shreds of his pride,
he stumbled across the chamber, determined not to plead, but betraying himself,
nonetheless, by a panicked, involuntary glance of entreaty as the door closed.
Will untangled himself
from the settle, ambled over to the door and slid the bolt into place. "Harry . . .
do you truly mean to imprison him? God knows, he deserves it . .
." He trailed off uncertainly, for his was an open, affable nature,
with shadings or ambiguities, and it troubled him that his feelings for his
brother could not be clear-cut and uncomplicated.
Henry crossed to the settle and took the seat Will had vacated. "If
I had my way, I'd cast him into Chinon's deepest dungeon, leave him there till
"But you will not,"
Becket predicted, smiling faintly as he rose to pour them all cups of wine.
"No," Henry admitted,
accepting his cup with a wry smile of his own. "There would be two
prisoners in that dungeon--Geoff and our mother. She says he deserves
whatever punishment I choose to mete out, but that is her head talking, not her
heart." After two swallows, he set the cup aside, for he drank as
sparingly as he ate; Henry's hungers of the flesh were not for food or wine.
"I'm going to try to scare some sense into Geoff. But since he has
less sense than God gave a sheep, I do not have high hopes of success."
"Just do not give him his
castles back this time," Will chided, in a tactless reminder of Henry's earlier,
misplaced leniency. "It would serve him right if he had to beg his bread
by the roadside."
"Sorry, lad, but
Scriptures forbid it. Thomas can doubtless cite you chapter and verse,"
Henry gibed, "but I am sure it says somewhere that brothers of kings cannot be
"I thought it said that
brothers of beggars cannot be kings." Becket tasted the wine, then
grimaced. "Are your servants trying to poison you with this swill,
Harry? Someone ought to tell them that hemlock would be quicker and more
"This is why men would
rather dine with my lord chancellor than with me," Henry told Will. "He'd
drink blood ere he quaffed English wine. Whereas for me, it is enough if
it is wet!" Becket's riposte was cut off by a sudden knock. Henry,
the closest to the door, got to his feet; he was never one to stand on ceremony. But his
amusement faded when a weary, travel-stained messenger was ushered into
the chamber, for the man's disheveled appearance conveyed a message of its own:
that his news was urgent.
Snatching up the
proffered letter, Henry stared at the familiar seal, then looked over at Will. "It
is from our mother," he said, moving toward the nearest lamp. Will and
Becket were both on their feet by now, watching intently as he read. "I
have to go to Rouen," he said, "straightaway."
Will paled. "Not
Mama . . .?"
"No, lad, no. She
is not ailing. She has written to let me know that Eleanor is in Rouen."
* * *
If the English king's
wife had a remarkable history, so, too, did his mother. Sent to Germany as
a child to wed the Holy Roman Emperor, Maude had been summoned back to England
by her father, the king, after her husband's death. Forced into a
miserable marriage with the Count of Anjou, Maude had sought comfort in their
sons and in her hopes of succeeding to the English throne. But her crown
was usurped by her cousin Stephen, and she'd fought a long and bloody civil war
to reclaim it, fought and failed. She would never be England's queen, and
that was a grievance she'd take to her grave. But she'd lived to see her
son avenge her loss, and she took consolation in his kingship, a bitter-sweet
satisfaction in his victory, one that had been denied her.
Maude had continued to make use of the regal title of empress even after her
marriage to Count Geoffrey of Anjou, and she still did so, although she no longer
lived in a regal style. The woman who'd sought a throne with such
single-minded intensity had chosen to pass her twilight years in the cloistered
quiet of Notre-Dame-du-Pre, dwelling in the guest quarters of the priory on
the outskirts of Rouen. But upon her grieving daughter-in-law's
arrival from England, she'd made haste to join Eleanor in residence at
A summer storm had
drenched the city at dusk and rain still fell hours later. Maude had
ordered a fire built in the great hall's center hearth, and she was stitching an
elegant altar cloth by the light of the flickering flames; needlework was the
lot of all women, even queens. She was not surprised when a servant
announced that her son had ridden into the bailey, for Henry never let the
weather interfere with his plans; he'd sailed in a winter gale to claim
Within moments, he'd
swept into the hall, and as always, her spirits soared at the sight of him. Flinging off
his sodden mantle, he gave her a damp hug and she resisted the
impulse to urge him closer to the fire. He'd just laugh and remind her
that he was twenty-three, nigh on two years a king, no longer a stripling in
need of a mother's coddling.
Maude suppressed a sigh.
Henry had reached manhood years ago, but she doubted if Geoffrey would ever
cross the border into that adult domain. She very much feared that he'd be
as irresponsible and immature at forty as he'd been at sixteen, as he was now at
two and twenty. "I do hope you brought an escort," she said,
half-seriously, for Henry was known for traveling fast and light.
"Only those who could keep up with me." Henry strode over
to greet Minna, the elderly German widow who'd been his mother's
companion since her girlhood at the imperial court. Minna beamed and blushed
when he kissed her cheek; in her eyes, Henry could do no wrong. Even when
he'd hired mercenaries and sailed for England to help his mother in her
war against Stephen--at the ripe age of fourteen--Minna had found excuses for his reckless
folly. Maude rarely joked, but she sometimes
teased Minna that if she saw Henry slit a man's throat, she'd claim
it was just a very close shave.
Beckoning Henry away from Minna, Maude touched her hand gently to his face and
then said, low-voiced, "What mean you to do with Geoffrey?"
"I would to God I knew . . ." He found a smile for her, hoping
it might give her the reassurance that his words could not. But then Geoffrey
was forgotten and he was striding hastily toward the woman just entering the
hall. She was a sight to draw most male eyes, a slim, dark-haired daughter
of the South, the Lady Petronilla, widowed Countess of Vermandois, his sister
"How is she, Petra?"
"How do you think? Hurting." Petronilla's green
eyes were coolly appraising. He supposed she blamed him for not being
with Eleanor when she'd most needed him and he resented the injustice
of that, but not enough to stay and argue with her. Instead, he went to
find his wife.
* * *
Cresset lamps still
burned in the nursery. A young wet-nurse was drowsing by the fire, a
swaddled baby suckling hungrily at an ample breast. The infant paid no
heed to Henry's entry, but the woman jumped to her feet, flustered and
stammering as she sought to cover herself. Henry ordinarily had an
appreciative eye for female charms. Now, though, he hardly glanced at the
girl's exposed bosom. "Let me see my daughter," he said and she hastily
The baby wailed in
protest as her meal was interrupted, showing she had a healthy set of lungs. Her hair
was wispy and soft, as bright as the flames licking at the hearth log,
and her tiny face was reddening, puckered up into a fretful pout. Henry
stroked her cheek with his forefinger and then handed her back to the nurse.
There were two cradles,
but there ought to have been three. That missing bed cut at Henry's heart
like the thrust of a sword. His eyes stinging, he halted by one of the
cradles, gazing down at his second son and namesake. Hal was sucking on
his thumb, the firelight gleaming on his cap of curly fair hair, and even in
sleep, his resemblance to his dead brother was wrenching. Henry was
tempted to wake him up. He was afraid, though, that the little boy would
not remember him. He'd been gone for the past six of the child's sixteen
months on earth.
Will would have known
him. But he'd been away so often in Will's pitifully brief life, too.
He'd meant to be a good father, to forge a bond with his sons that could never
be broken. His own childhood had been a turbulent one, he and his brothers
held hostage upon the battlefield that his parents had made of their marriage. He'd
wanted to do better by his children, and when the duties of kingship
relegated them to the outer edges of his life, he told himself that it could not
be helped, that there would be time later to make amends for these lost, early
years. But for Will, there would be no more time, no more chances. For Will, it was
too late -- for them both, too late.
* * *
Eleanor had not yet
undressed, but she'd unbound her hair and it cascaded down her back in dark
swirls and spirals, flowing toward her hips. Henry's pulse still quickened
at the sight of her, even after four years of marriage. She'd
obviously been told of his arrival, for she showed no surprise. They'd
often been separated for months at a time, had been apart for more than a year
when he'd been fighting in England to regain his stolen birthright. Their
reunions had always been incendiary; Henry could remember days when they'd never
even left their bed. This was the first time that no passion flared
between them. Crossing the chamber, he kissed her gently on the corner of
her mouth, and they stood for several moments in a wordless embrace.
"I am sorry," he said
softly, "that I was not there . . ."
"So was I." Eleanor's
hazel eyes had darkened. "It was dreadful, Harry. Once the fever
took him, those fool doctors were useless. You know Will, he was never
quiet, never still for a moment. And to see him lying in that bed, getting
weaker and weaker . . . It was like watching a candle burn out, and there was nothing
I could do." Her mouth twisted. "Nothing!"
constricted. His only defense against such pain was to push it away. "Do you want
some wine?" She shook her head, but he went over to the table
and poured a cupful from the flagon, nonetheless. "I saw the baby.
She looks like you."
"No, she does not,"
Eleanor said, so sharply that he swung away from the table, the wine sloshing
over the rim of the cup. "I do not want to talk about the baby, Harry, not
now. Tell me . . . did you weep for Will?"
"Of course I did!"
"Did anyone see you shed
those tears?" When he frowned, she said, "No . . . I thought
"What is this about,
Eleanor? You blame me for not being there? Petra clearly does, but I
expected better of you. Christ Jesus, woman, I was putting down a
rebellion in Anjou, not roistering in the bawdy-houses of Paris!"
"I do not blame you for
not being with me then, Harry. I blame you for not being with me now!"
"I damned near killed my
horse getting here!"
"That is not enough, not
"What do you want from
"We could not bury our
child together. But I thought that at least we could grieve for him
"You dare to say I do not
mourn our son?"
She did not flinch from
his anger. "No, I know you do. But I need you to mourn with me." She
looked at him and then slowly shook her head. "You cannot do that, can
you? You trust no one enough to let down your guard, not even me."
"This serves for naught,"
he said tautly. He was still holding the dripping wine cup and fought back
an impulse to fling it against the wall. Setting it down, very
deliberately, upon the table, he strode toward the door. He slid the bolt
back, but then his fingers clenched on the latch. After a long moment, he
turned reluctantly to face his wife.
"Do you truly want to
quarrel with me, Eleanor?"
Her shoulders sagged. "No," she said bleakly, "no, I do not . .
Coming back into the
room, he stopped before her and held out his hand. Her eyes flicked to the
jagged scar that tracked across his palm toward his thumb. "How did you do
"I was hearing Mass when
they brought me word of Will's death. I put my fist through a
She ran her fingers
lightly over the scar, and when he took her into his arms, she shuddered, then
clung fast. "Come on, love," he said, "let's go to bed."
She nodded, letting him
lead her toward the bed. Kicking off her shoes, she started to remove her
stockings, then gave him an oblique glance through her lashes. "Do you
want to help?"
His surprise was obvious.
"It is not too soon?"
"Maude was born on the second Wednesday after Whitsun,
and today is the twenty-third. That makes six weeks by my count."
"Two days short," Henry
said; he'd always been good at math.
Eleanor lay back against
the pillows. "Would you rather wait?"
"I've never been one for
waiting," he said and kissed her, softly at first, until her arms went up around
his neck. When he spoke again, his voice was husky and he sounded
out-of-breath. "You were wrong about my not trusting anyone. I may
be wary of the rest of mankind, but I do trust you, my mother, and Thomas
Eleanor's eyes shone in
the firelight, golden and cat-like. "Not necessarily in that order," she
murmured, and after that, they had no further need of words, finding in their
lovemaking a familiar pleasure and even a small measure of solace.
CopyrightęSharon Kay Penman