Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “God, it’s so good to hold you again!” he cried, and then could say no more as passion overtook him. Eleanor’s desire was no less urgent, and as they lost control in unison, rolling between the sheets, grabbing and devouring each other, she thought she would die of the pleasure. Afterward, lying together in blissful euphoria, kissing gently and sensuously, they gazed at each other in wonder, shaken by the depth of their passion.

  “I pray you never have to leave me for so long again,” Eleanor said, touching Henry’s cheek.

  “I think I shall have to, if that’s what I’ll be coming home to!” he teased, grinning. “By the eyes of God, woman, you are a marvel! No one has ever made me feel like this.” He was being serious now.

  “And shall make you feel even better …” Eleanor promised, sliding sensuously down the bed. “How like you this, my dear heart? And this?”

  “Eleanor, you’re insatiable!” Henry groaned, stretching with pleasure, and chuckled. “Do you realize that for this you could end up doing penance for three years?”

  Eleanor momentarily stopped what she was doing. “If I confessed it,” she murmured, “but in truth, I consider it to be no sin.” She resumed where she had left off.

  “Then we shall burn together in Hell, and be damned!” Henry gasped.

  ——

  In the morning, the duke was up early, anxious to be out hunting. He would never lie late in bed, but was always restless to be gone.

  “He makes a martyrdom of the sport,” his mother complained. She had complied with Henry’s demand, and there was an unspoken if uneasy truce between her and Eleanor when they met in the chapel before breakfast and bowed warily to each other.

  “She had actually sent a message asking me if I wished to accompany her to mass,” Eleanor told Henry on his return.

  “And did you?”

  “Of course. She will never have cause to call me undutiful.” She set down the illuminated book she had been reading.

  “Henry—”

  “What’s that?” he interrupted, looking admiringly at the book with its bejeweled silver cover. He had an insatiable curiosity.

  “It is The Deeds of the Counts of Anjou,” Eleanor told him. “I am learning all about your forebears.”

  Henry sniffed. “It might put you off me for life! They were troublesome bastards, the lot of them.”

  “It does make for very interesting reading.” she smiled. “And it explains a lot of things!”

  “Hah!” cried Henry. “Don’t paint me with the same brush. Although if you listen to Abbot Bernard, I’m worse than all of them put together.”

  “So he told me!” She laughed, then her face grew serious. “Henry, how long are we to sojourn in Normandy?”

  “I’m not sure,” he said warily. “I wanted to talk to you.”

  “You said six weeks.” The prospect of a longer stay with her dragon of a mother-in-law was more than she could stomach.

  “I know, but I have just had news from Aquitaine. Some of your vassals are in rebellion. I want you to remain here while I go and teach them a lesson.”

  “Rebellion?” Eleanor echoed.

  “It seems they don’t like me,” Henry muttered, “but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”

  “I could quell them,” she told him. “They will listen to me.”

  “And that’s precisely why I am going in your stead, so that they learn to listen to me as well.”

  “Henry, I insist—”

  “Eleanor, my mind is made up. Don’t worry, my Lady Mother won’t eat you up while I’m gone. She’s got enough of the statesman in her to appreciate the folly of upsetting me, when her power here derives from me.”

  “But Henry, you need her to govern Normandy, and she knows it,” Eleanor protested. “That’s an empty threat. She has no need to fear you.”

  “Yes, but she has every need to fear you,” he retorted. “Normandy has a duchess now—why should she not rule it in my absence?”

  “And when we are summoned to England? I don’t want to stay here!”

  “I have many dependable Norman barons, my sweetheart. No, never fear, my mother will behave herself. And you have your ladies and young William to occupy you.”

  “You make it sound as if that should be enough to content me,” Eleanor complained. “Take me with you. Let us not be parted again.”

  “No,” Henry declared. “It will not be for long, and war is man’s work. Then we can look forward to another reunion.” He grinned at her suggestively.

  Again Eleanor experienced that hateful feeling of being trapped and helpless.

  “You just don’t understand, do you?” she fumed. “I am the Duchess of Aquitaine, and I am fit for higher things than the company of women and babies. When there is trouble in my domains, I should be with you, putting things right. We said we would do these things together, Henry! And, as you seem to have forgotten already, we have just been parted for sixteen months—sixteen months—yet you are going to leave me again. I can’t believe you would even think of that, not after last night.”

  Henry came to her and caught her roughly in his arms.

  “Do you think I want to leave you?” He sighed. “Ah, Eleanor, in an ideal world we would be together always, but I have vast domains to rule, and that means I must continually be on the move. Listen. I know you for an intelligent woman, and I do value your political ability, but I need to assert my authority in Aquitaine, and I need to do it alone. When those godforsaken vassals of yours have learned who’s in charge, we will rule the duchy as equals. In the meantime, all I ask is that you stay here in safety with our son.”

  “Very well then,” she conceded after a pause, still simmering, “but summon me as soon as you can.”

  “No, I will return to you here,” Henry said.

  “But why?” she asked in dismay.

  “There is news from England,” he said. “I have not yet had a chance to tell you or my mother. King Stephen is ill; it can now only be a matter of time. We must hold ourselves in readiness, and for that reason we should stay here in Normandy. It is only a short distance across the Channel from England.”

  “But you are going south,” Eleanor pointed out. “What if the summons comes while you are away?”

  “I shall ride like the wind and be here in ten minutes!” Henry chuckled. “And I’ll bring your rebellious vassals with me. The promise of rich pickings in England might make them like me more.”

  12

  Rouen, 1154

  It was late October. In the solar of the royal palace, the two richly garbed royal ladies sat sewing by a brazier. The wind was howling outside, and the colorful tapestries on the walls stirred in the draft from the slit windows.

  “Bring me more silks,” the Empress commanded, and her waiting woman scuttled away. Another appeared with goblets of cognac, which she placed on the table.

  “I wish there was news of Henry,” Eleanor said, taking a sip. “Oh, that’s warming.”

  “I expect the weather is as bad in the Vexin as it is here,” Matilda said. Her manner toward her daughter-in-law was still merely polite, but months of familiarity had eroded the sharp edge of the glacier. Thrown together by virtue of their rank, both women had had to make the best of it.

  “I worry about Henry. He is still not over his illness.” Eleanor shuddered as she recalled her beloved’s close brush with death the month before, after he had been laid low with a rampant, burning fever. Thanks to his vigorous constitution, and no thanks to his inept doctors, he pulled through, but not before his wife and his mother had suffered some searingly anxious moments.

  “I worry too, but it is imperative that he puts down this revolt,” Matilda said.

  “I know that, madame, but he was still suffering fits of the shivers the night before he left.” And he had been too fatigued to make love.

  “I know my son. He is strong, and a fighter. He will recover. But he hates being ill and, as you have no doubt discovered, he will never admit to any
weakness, nor will he be told what to do.” The Empress smiled dourly, then turned her gimlet gaze on the younger woman. “You have heard the news about your former husband, King Louis?”

  “That he has remarried—yes,” Eleanor said, rising to throw another log on the brazier. “I wish him nothing but happiness—and his bride nothing but fortitude.”

  “They are saying that this Castilian princess, Constance, won him by her modesty,” Matilda murmured, “and that his subjects think he is better married than he had been.”

  Eleanor ignored the barbs. She had grown too used to them. “More likely he was won by the prospect of a rich dowry from her father, King Alfonso,” she retorted. “At least he has now made peace with Henry and stopped calling himself Duke of Aquitaine. That really did irk me!”

  She shifted in her chair and rested her hands on her swollen belly. She was five months gone with child, and finding the waiting tedious. She longed to be back in the saddle, riding in the fresh air, her hawk on her glove.

  Mamille de Roucy burst into the room then, her rosy round face flushed with excitement. The Empress frowned at her deplorable lack of ceremony, but the damsel did not notice.

  “Mesdames, there is a messenger arrived from England, much travel-stained! He says he is come from Archbishop Theobald and must see the duke urgently.”

  Eleanor sat bolt upright. The Empress looked at her, and in the two pairs of eyes that met, hope was springing.

  “Did you tell him that Duke Henry is not here?” Eleanor asked.

  “I did, madame. He is asking to see you instead.”

  “Then send him in.”

  Eleanor rose, a proud and regal figure in her scarlet gown of fine wool with long hanging oversleeves. Her head was bare, her long hair plaited and bound around the slim gold filet that denoted her rank. Thus did the exhausted messenger see her when he was shown into her presence. His admiring glance paid tribute to the beauty of her face and the voluptuousness of her fecund body. He fell to his knees before her.

  “Lady, allow me to be the first to salute you as Queen of England!” he cried. “King Stephen, whom God assoil, has departed this life. He died on the twenty-fifth day of October.”

  “Praise be to God,” Matilda breathed exultantly, crossing herself. Eleanor did likewise, not being quite able to take in the glad tidings. She was a queen again, queen of that strange northern land beyond the sea, of which she had heard so many tales. Everything that she and Henry had schemed and hoped for had come to pass.

  “I thank you for bringing me this news,” she told the messenger, giving him her hand to kiss. “The duke—nay, the King!—must be informed at once. I pray you, refresh yourself in the kitchens, then make all haste to the Vexin to my lord, and bid him return without delay, so that he may hasten to take possession of his kingdom. God speed you!”

  When the man was gone, Eleanor turned to her mother-in-law, who had also risen to her feet. The Empress had a rapt expression on her handsome face.

  “So God has been just at last,” she said. “These nineteen long winters of the usurper’s rule I have prayed for this and beseeched Him to uphold my rights. Now He has spoken, and my son will wear the crown that I fought over so long and bitterly.” Her eyes were shining.

  “Madame, I rejoice in this happy ending to your struggle,” Eleanor said sincerely. In this moment of triumph, she could afford to be generous to her enemy. Impelled by a shared sense of jubilation, the two women embraced and kissed, each planting cool lips on the other’s cheek.

  “Come,” Eleanor said, taking the initiative. “We must assemble our little court and tell them the glad news. Then we shall gather a retinue and go to the cathedral and give thanks.” And she swept out of the chamber, her woolen skirts trailing regally behind her, and for the first time daring to take precedence before the Empress.

  There was much to be done while they waited for Henry. Letters to be sent, announcing his accession, provision made for the governance of Aquitaine in its rulers’ absence, and administrative matters to be dealt with, for the duchy of Normandy was to be left in Matilda’s capable hands. As a matter of courtesy, Eleanor had invited Matilda to come to England with her and Henry, but she had declined, much to her daughter-in-law’s relief.

  “I will never set foot there again,” the older woman had stoutly declared, “not after they insulted me so horribly, and drove me out—me, their rightful queen!”

  Eleanor had heard that it was Matilda’s insufferable haughtiness and arrogance that had driven the English to abandon her cause, but she said nothing of this.

  “If you change your mind, madame, or even if you come only for the coronation, you will be very welcome,” she said courteously, then turned to receive a travel-weary messenger who had just come from Henry.

  “Is my lord on his way?” she asked.

  “No, lady, he is besieging a castle.”

  “What?” Eleanor could not believe her ears.

  “Lady, he says he must teach his rebels a lesson, and will not be deterred from his purpose, neither by the news he is to be a king, nor by pleas for him to come quickly. And he sends also to say that, when he is victorious in the Vexin, he must put his affairs in order elsewhere before joining you.”

  “He speaks sense,” Matilda ventured to say. “There is no point in going to England and leaving unrest in Normandy. England can wait a bit. Archbishop Theobald is a sound man, and is keeping things in order. By all accounts, the English are pleased that Henry is now their king, so we can expect little trouble there.”

  “I just wish he were here with me, to share this triumph,” Eleanor said wistfully, rubbing her aching back. She turned back to the messenger. “Is my lord in good health?”

  “Never better, lady,” the messenger replied cheerily, and relief coursed through her. That was one blessing, at least. She dismissed the man, then summoned her seamstress.

  “You should rest, Eleanor,” Matilda said. “Remember your condition.”

  “Did you, madame?” Eleanor asked.

  The Empress had to smile.

  “No, I was not very good at heeding the advice of my women, or the midwives,” she admitted. “Pregnancy was a great trial to me. Once I had borne Geoffrey three sons, I told him that was it. No more.” Her tone grew cooler and faded. Saying Geoffrey’s name had reminded her of how Eleanor and Geoffrey betrayed her, and of the reason for it. She was sage and just enough to admit that it was partly her fault, but she found it hard to forgive. Geoffrey had been her husband, and they had both dishonored her by rutting together. Yet she had come to concede that Eleanor had dignity and intelligence, and she was aware of a grudging admiration for her. She had made Henry the greatest prince in Christendom, this errant daughter-in-law of hers, and she would make a fine queen. That was enough to earn Matilda’s acceptance. But she knew she would never, ever like Eleanor, or approve of her—that much was certain.

  When Henry did finally return, he found his wife, his mother, and the whole court immersed in a flurry of preparations for the journey to England.

  “What’s all this?” he asked, astonished, coming into Eleanor’s chamber at noon with a sore head, after a night spent celebrating his accession with his barons, then his joyful reunion with his lady. There, on the bed, on the table, on stools, and on every available surface, were heaped piles of clothes, fine garments of silk, linen, and wool, many of them richly embroidered, gowns, bliauts, cloaks, chemises … Red-cheeked damsels were hastening to and fro, stowing some of it away in chests or adding even more items to the piles.

  “We are packing.” Eleanor was swirling about before her mirror in a rich mantle lined with ermine. Henry looked at her admiringly as he came up behind her.

  “I see you are dressed like a queen already,” he complimented her, pulling her hair aside and kissing her on the neck. “We make a handsome couple, eh?” he added, looking at their joint reflection.

  “If you would take the trouble to dress a little more like a king, we’d
make a very handsome couple,” Eleanor said tartly as she swiveled out of his grasp, then put the mantle into the arms of Mamille. Henry looked down ruefully at his hunting clothes; he rarely wore anything else, and only donned state robes when it was necessary to impress on formal occasions. The riding gear was clean and of good cloth, but mended in places. He had wielded the needle himself, as Eleanor watched in astonishment. “Why can’t you ask your valet to do that for you?” she had asked. “That’s no job for the Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine!”

  “Why, when I can do it myself?” Henry had replied.

  She secretly applauded his lack of grandeur. It made him all the more approachable. You knew where you stood with him. There was no false facade.

  Henry threw himself on the bed, shoving aside a pile of veils, and began munching an apple.

  “Mind those veils!” Eleanor cried, and hastened to rescue them. “Torqueri spent a long time hemming and pressing these,” she reproved. “And get your muddy boots off the bed!”

  Crunching, Henry amiably complied.

  “Exactly how many veils are there?” he inquired, eyeing the great pile.

  “Too many to count,” Eleanor said, distracted. “Florine and Faydide, have you packed my shoes?”

  “All fourteen pairs,” Florine told her.

  “And the forty-two gowns,” Faydide added.

  “Forty-two?” Henry echoed. “You don’t need forty-two gowns.”

  “I must impress our new subjects,” she answered.

  “They’ll be accusing us of extravagance,” he muttered.

  “The warm undershirts, madame,” Torqueri said. Henry eyed them suspiciously. Eleanor caught his expression.

  “I have heard that it can be freezing cold in England,” she said. “These are to wear beneath my gowns, over my chemise.”

  “For one awful moment I thought you were going to wear them in bed!” Henry grinned. The ladies giggled.

 
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