Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “Or maybe he gave Henry the kind of companionship that I could not,” Eleanor added bitterly.

  “I don’t think it has anything to do with you,” Raoul comforted her.

  “Oh, yes, it does! As soon as Becket came on the scene, I was second in importance to Henry. Before that everything had been wonderful between us. We were a formidable partnership. That all finished with Becket. There are moments when it’s there again, just within my grasp, but not for long. Always that man intrudes. And another thing. My Lord Bishop of Poitiers is here. I expect that this matter he wishes to discuss with me concerns him too. Raoul, I am going to give him an audience in a few minutes. I want you to be there when he comes.”

  “You know I will,” Raoul said, gently touching her cheek.

  “Raoul!” she reproved. “You know there can be nothing between us.”

  “Ah, but I may live in hope, like a true troubadour,” he said, and smiled sadly.

  Eleanor received Jean aux Bellesmains, Bishop of Poitiers, in her solar. She was seated in her high-backed chair, her yellow samite skirts fanned out at her feet, a gold coronet on her snowy veil. Behind her stood Raoul, his hand grasping the finial on her chair back.

  The bishop bustled in self-importantly. Eleanor remembered that he had been with Becket in Archbishop Theobald’s household, that they became friends, and that, even though he owed his bishopric to Henry, Jean aux Bellesmains had stayed staunchly loyal to Becket. She sensed that this interview wasn’t going to be easy, but sat smiling pleasantly, asking how she could be of service.

  “Madame the Duchess, I come on behalf of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury,” the bishop said grandly, almost as if he were throwing down a gauntlet. “He sends his duty and affection to you, his dear daughter in Christ, and begs you most earnestly to intervene on his behalf in this quarrel with the King your husband.”

  As Eleanor caught Raoul’s sharp intake of breath, she quickly collected her wits. She had not expected Becket to approach her, of all people.

  “I am flattered that His Grace believes I could help him,” she answered, “but he cannot but be cognizant of the fact that, since he and my husband became such good friends, my influence has declined.”

  Before she could say anything further, Raoul interrupted. “The Archbishop, of all people, should know that a wife’s first duty is to her husband, and that to him she owes obedience. How, then, could she intervene on behalf of the man who has deliberately defied him and made himself his enemy?”

  Eleanor’s face briefly registered amused surprise. Not an hour before, Raoul had been doing his best to make her forget her duty to her husband!

  The bishop flushed with anger. “Surely one’s first duty is to God, my Lord of Faye?”

  “Let’s leave God out of this,” Raoul retorted. “This is about one man’s vanity.”

  “It is about far more than that, and you know it!” Jean aux Bellesmains turned to Eleanor. “Madame, I did not come here hoping for much. But if you would consent only to act as a messenger—”

  “No! How can you ask that of her?” Raoul interrupted.

  The bishop glared at him. “Can you not let Madame the Duchess answer for herself, my lord?”

  “Yes, Raoul, please allow me to speak,” Eleanor insisted. “My Lord Bishop, it is my greatest desire to see my husband at peace with all his subjects. But as my lord here has said, it would not be appropriate for me to become involved in this quarrel. All I can do is pray every day for its happy resolution.”

  The bishop shot her a withering look.

  “In truth, I am not surprised, madame. I myself told His Grace that he could hope for neither aid nor counsel from you, and John of Salisbury said the same. He shares Becket’s exile, you know, and his many privations. But I see you have put all your faith in my lord here, and that he is hostile to His Grace.”

  “How dare you speak to me like that!” Eleanor flared. “You are impertinent, my Lord Bishop. You would not address me thus if the duke were here, or so insult his deputy.”

  Jean aux Bellesmains bristled with outrage, which loosened his tongue.

  “Maybe you have not heard what people are saying, madame, and maybe I would be doing you both a kindness by informing you. There are conjectures that grow day by day in regard to the influence that my Lord of Faye here appears to wield over you. Some say they deserve credence. I say, have a care to your reputation.”

  Eleanor stood up, quivering with rage. “I have never in my life been so insulted!” she hissed. “You will quit my presence right now, my Lord Bishop, and never return until you have abased yourself and craved my pardon for the baseless accusations you have made. Rest assured, my lord shall hear of them. He will not be pleased. In fact, if I were you, I would make sure I was not in Poitiers when he returns there.”

  The bishop stared at her, aghast.

  “Madame, in my disappointment, I forgot myself,” he babbled. “I apologize unreservedly! I make a thousand apologies! I lay myself at your feet—”

  “That will not be necessary,” Eleanor said coldly; privately, she would have loved to see this pompous fool groveling on his knees. “I accept your apologies—and I will hear no more of these calumnies, you understand?”

  When he had backed out of the room, assuring her of his love, loyalty, and discretion, Eleanor turned to Raoul.

  “You heard what he said, my uncle.” Her face was serious. “I pray you, keep a wise distance. And please don’t speak for me in future!”

  “Eleanor, I would die to serve you!” Raoul protested.

  “You might well, if Henry gets word of this!” she told him with a grim smile.

  27

  Bredelais Castle, the Welsh Border, 1165

  Henry slowed his horse to a trot. He had far outgalloped his companions, who were some way behind with the huntsmen, carrying with them the game they had caught that day. Ahead, in the distance, loomed the castle of Bredelais, the home of their host, Sir Walter de Clifford, whose services in the so far unsuccessful campaign had nevertheless been admirable. But the tide seemed to be turning, thank God, and, flushed with success, both in the field of battle and in the chase, Henry was in a holiday mood, looking forward to a merry supper with his genial host and his lordly companions.

  Behind him, he could hear faint shouts and guffaws. Close by, a cuckoo called. It was the early evening of a glorious summer day, with the sun sinking to the west in a blaze of gold and roseate hues. God, but it was warm. He had long since stripped off his tunic and stuffed it in his saddle bag, and wore only his shirt and hose. He trotted along whistling, feeling as if he had not a care in the world. He even thought he might ask for a bath to be prepared on his return. That should set them scuttling!

  He steered his mount through some woodland, keeping the castle always in his view through the trees, and emerged onto a grassy meadow, a vast green expanse that swept up to the moat. There was a girl there, kneeling in the long grass, her tight-laced dress a vivid blue against the emerald sward. She had her back to him, so he could not see her face. Long fair tresses rippled unbound and uncovered over her shoulders, proclaiming her a maiden as yet untouched, and her fine raiment bore testament to her gentle birth. She was gathering flowers, and made, in all, a pretty, fetching sight.

  His eye roving on the slender lines of her body and hips, Henry felt the familiar upsurge of lust. He had not been so aroused by a woman in a long time. Rohese he had abandoned months before, tired to satiety of her all too familiar charms. Eleanor was in Angers, pestering him with demands for aid against some rebellious vassals, and no doubt bitching about Becket to anyone who would listen. Try as he might, he could not recapture the happiness he had once shared with her. There had been a fleeting resurgence of it, back in the spring, but it had as briefly waned, at least on his part. He could not forgive Eleanor her hostility to Thomas, her searching questions, her neediness. He loved her still, and knew he always would, but not in the way she wanted. It grieved him, but there
it was. Something that had died could not be brought to life again.

  He was thirty-two, a man in his prime, even if he was putting on a bit of weight, and naturally there had been women, plenty of them, conquered, used, then as quickly forgotten. But now that he had seen this exquisite young girl, it came to him in a blinding instant that something precious had long been absent from his life, and that he needed far more than a quick roll in the hay with any easy trollop.

  But this was no hoyden to be pursued for his gratification: this, he guessed, must be one of the daughters of his host, who had a large brood that included five strapping sons. He wondered why he hadn’t seen her the night before, when Lady Clifford presented her family to her king.

  The girl had heard his horse approaching. She turned around suddenly, and the flowers spilled from her lap, scattering in a riot of delicate colors over her gown and the grass. She was utterly enchanting. Her skin was like cream, her lips full and round like dark cherries, her cheeks flushed with surprise, her eyes the blue of cornflowers. As she rose, her gown settled becomingly; the jeweled girdle wound around her waist and hips revealed a slim figure, the low, scooped neckline and tight bodice accentuated small, high breasts. Henry felt his erection harden. He must have her, God, he must have her!

  Of course, she would have no idea who he was. She had not met him the night before. As he slowed his horse to a standstill, she was already backing away, the flowers forgotten.

  “Fair maiden, have no fear!” he called gently. “I am your king, and your father’s guest. I wish you no harm.” I wish you in my bed. That was what he really wanted to say to her.

  The girl looked flustered. Her creamy cheeks blushed strawberry red, and she sank into a curtsey. “Sire, I beg your pardon!” Her voice was low and melodious, with a delightful Welsh accent. Henry heard it and was utterly lost.

  “Up!” he instructed, with a winning smile, dismounting beside her. “No need to stand on ceremony, fair maiden. What is your name?”

  “I am Rosamund,” she told him. “Rosamund de Clifford.”

  “Rosamund,” he repeated. “Rosa mundi. The rose of the world. A beautiful name, in English or Latin.”

  She said nothing, but just kept on blushing. Henry held out his arm to her and, leading his horse by the reins, proceeded to walk with her toward the castle drawbridge, where the sentries could be seen dozing at their posts in the heat. The touch of her small hand on his skin was heaven.

  “Tell me, Rosamund, why were you not here to greet me last night?” Henry probed.

  “Lord King, I returned only this day from the good nuns of Godstow, with whom I have lived these past three years.”

  Henry was intrigued. “Am I to understand that your parents intended to make a nun of you?”

  “No, Lord King, they wished me to receive a virtuous education that would serve me well when God sees fit to send me a husband.”

  “Very wise, very wise. You are far too pretty to spend your life in a cloister!” Rosamund blushed becomingly again.

  “How old are you, my little nun?” Henry teased.

  “I am fourteen, Lord King.”

  “And have you come home to be married?”

  “I know not, sire.”

  Henry was captivated—and dismayed. He had lusted before after virgins from good families, and it always ended badly, with irate fathers summarily shoving their daughters into convents or hastily marrying them off. Most of the women he had bedded over the years were either married women, or whores—or his wife. He knew very well that Rosamund was virtually beyond his reach—unless he proved himself the monster he always claimed jokingly not to be. He knew very well that no decent man worthy of his knighthood—or his kingship—would so dishonor a maiden of noble birth, for that would irrevocably ruin her chances in the marriage market and sully her reputation forever. Men who were not as decent might not scruple to do so, but Henry now had daughters of his own, and would have cheerfully run through any bastard who ventured to compromise their honor. He told himself he could not do such a thing to sweet Rosamund, or to her father, his loyal and likable host.

  But just then he glimpsed Rosamund peeping coyly at him from under her lashes. Her artless look betrayed her. She found him attractive, he would swear to it! She might well be amenable … In which case he would not, could not, feel so guilty about robbing her of her maidenhead. He realized—for he was, as he liked to boast, a plain man, always brutally honest with himself—that, dismally soon, all his chivalrous scruples were falling by the wayside. It could only be Rosamund’s fault: with that shy glance, she had disarmed him. By the eyes of God, he wanted her!

  Of course, he had to relinquish her arm when he brought her to her father’s castle, and let her lady mother—gushingly grateful to her king for escorting the girl home safely—cart Rosamund off to her chamber so she could wash and change her clothes for the feast that was planned for the evening. It was painful for him to let her go, but he murmured a few gracious words, then retired to submit to the attentions of his valet.

  Later, seated at the place of honor at the high table, he selected a chicken leg from a proffered platter, gnawed upon it absentmindedly, then turned to Sir Walter.

  “I met your daughter Rosamund today,” he said, striving to make himself heard above the chatter and laughter. “I thought her a most virtuous young lady.”

  Sir Walter looked along the board, beyond his great, strapping sons, to where Rosamund sat with her sisters. Henry’s eyes followed; they had been straying in that direction all evening. The girl’s eyes were modestly downcast as she ate her food daintily, but her golden tresses fanned over her shoulders and breast like a burnished cape, and her lips were ripe for kissing. She looked a picture of beauty, and Henry found himself aching with desire—yet again.

  “Aye, sire,” Sir Walter said complacently. “She’s a good girl. The nuns have done well with her. I’ll have to find her a husband soon.”

  “She is not yet spoken for?” Not that it made much difference. She soon would be. Any man worthy of the name would snap her up in a trice.

  “No, sire. I have many children to settle in matrimony.”

  “I know all about that!” Henry smiled. “I have many of my own.” But the recall of them did not act as a deterrent, and he paused for a moment, plotting frantically. “How would it be if Rosamund came to court to wait upon the Queen? She would be well looked after, and I myself would take an interest in finding a suitable match for her.” Never a truer word had been spoken, he mused.

  “Lord King, I would be honored!” effused a surprised Sir Walter. “And my daughter too, depend on it.”

  “Queen Eleanor is in Anjou just now,” Henry said, “but some of her English ladies are at Woodstock, awaiting her return. I myself am bound for there when my Welsh rebels have been taught some respect.” It was a lie, but Sir Walter was not to know that. “I and my men would happily escort your daughter to Woodstock, or you could arrange for her to travel in the company of your own men-at-arms later on.”

  As Henry had anticipated, the proud, ambitious father jumped at his offer, and so it was decided that Rosamund should go to Woodstock.

  It had been that easy.

  That night, Henry lay awake, aware that what he was about to do was a great sin and an even greater wrong. Yet he was unable to help himself: he could not resist the allure of Rosamund. He had to have her—he was mad to have her. His penis throbbed insistently at the very thought of her. He could think of nothing else.

  A little voice at the back of his mind warned him there would be a reckoning. He did not doubt it, but he did not care. The devil in him, that diabolical legacy of his heritage, was driving him on, urging him to take what he wanted. He would defy the world, if need be, to have this girl. It was as bad as that.

  When the time came to leave for Woodstock, early in September, there were no tearful good-byes, unlike three years before, when Rosamund had first gone to Godstow; she had now grown used to being apart fro
m her family. Like a lamb borne to the proverbial slaughter, she went meekly with Henry, her manner trusting and respectful. If she suspected there was more to this than her going to serve the Queen, she gave no sign.

  28

  Woodstock Palace, 1165

  Rosamund looked around the sunny, whitewashed stone bower with delight. It occupied the top floor of a turret, and at the bottom of the spiral stair a low wooden door opened onto a pretty pleasaunce, or garden, made colorful with violets, columbines, and roses around a lush greensward, shaded with hornbeam, hazel, and ash trees. She had beheld that with wonder, and when she saw the chamber that had been prepared for her, her cornflower-blue eyes widened even farther. This was a bower fit for a queen. In fact, although she was not to know it, it was the Queen’s. The bed had silken drapes, bleached cotton sheets, and a bright checkered coverlet. There was a window seat cut into the thickness of the wall, a chest supporting great golden candlesticks of an intricate design, a fine oak chair and two stools on the tiled floor, and carved pegs on the wall for her gowns.

  Henry watched with pleasure from the doorway as his desired one exclaimed at her good fortune.

  “Lord King, do all the Queen’s ladies live in such luxury?” she asked. Her manner toward him was always deferential. His gaze lingered on her.

  “No,” he said at length. “This is especially for you, because you are beautiful.”

  “But what will the other ladies say?” She looked frightened.

  “Nothing, my sweet. There are no other ladies!” He grinned at her.

  “I don’t understand.” She looked at him in puzzlement.

  Henry hesitated. One false move now and all might be lost. Was it best to be honest with her? Or to keep up the charade a little longer, and give her feelings for him more time to grow and flourish?

  He did not think he could wait that long. Already, people were looking askance at them both and whispering. On the way here his retinue had apparently assumed that he was escorting her back to Godstow—or so he had gathered from remarks he overheard. There had been genuine astonishment, followed by dark and disapproving looks, when he brought her to Woodstock. But he was beyond caring. He was the King, and his actions were not to be questioned.

 
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