Captive Queen by Alison Weir


  “Never!” she retorted furiously. “I will go to England and stay there until this child is born. I will not be witness to an act that effectively disinherits Richard. Instead, I will help Matilda to prepare for her wedding journey next year.” She had decided all this on impulse, in the heat of the moment, and was wondering, even as she said it, if she would come to regret it, for going to England would mean that she would certainly not see Henry again for months. Was it wise to leave him to his own devices at a time when relations between them were so distant? She knew she might be sentencing herself to a lengthy period of emotional turmoil—but it was too late to retract. The words were now said, and she could not unsay them. Besides, she knew she had right on her side.

  Henry was frowning, but he was immovable.

  “You may go where you will,” he said. “I will make the arrangements.”

  34

  Woodstock and Oxford, 1166

  It was cold in the wilds of Oxfordshire, and there was a promise of snow in the leaden air. The sky was lowering, the skeletal trees bending before the icy wind. Eleanor sat huddled in her litter, her swollen body swathed in furs, aware that she should find some place of shelter soon, for it could not be long now before this babe was ready to greet the world.

  Poor child, she thought: it had been conceived in sorrow and would be born in bitterness, for Henry had let her go without a protest, and she’d had no word from him since. He was angry at her defiance, of that there could be no doubt, but she still maintained adamantly that she had a just grievance: the thought of Young Henry having Richard’s inheritance was an open wound that would not heal.

  She was weary of the ceaseless jostling with Henry for autonomy in her own lands, enraged with him for slighting her adored boy, and tortured by the crumbling of their marriage. It was a relief to be away from him, and yet … and yet, for all that, she missed him, wanted him, needed him … The pain was relentless. She tortured herself with speculation about the possibility that she had been supplanted by another woman. There was no proof, nothing at all, but what else could have caused such a change in his manner toward her? Had he simply ceased to care for her?

  She rested her head back on the pillows. It was no good tormenting herself with these disturbing thoughts—it was not beneficial for her, in her condition. She must think of her coming child.

  They had been making for Oxford, hoping to get there by dusk, before the snow fell, but their battle with the elements delayed them, and the Queen now had no choice but to order that they divert to Woodstock for the night. The royal hunting lodge was a favorite residence of Eleanor’s; she had a suite of rooms there, and was hoping the steward would have kept them in a habitable condition. She did not think she could face freezing chambers, an unaired bed, or damp sheets; what she needed right now was a roaring fire, warming broth, a feather bed, and the ministrations of her women. She was weary to her bones.

  At last the litter was trundled across the drawbridge, the men-at-arms clip-clopping on either side. As the little procession drew to a standstill, Eleanor parted the leather curtains of her litter, allowed her attendants to assist her to her feet—and then gaped in astonishment. For she saw that Woodstock now boasted a new, fair tower of the finest yellow stone. It was perhaps only to be expected, for Henry had been indefatigable in improving or rebuilding the royal residences, and he had spent much time doing so not long ago. What was surprising was what lay before it, nestling within the curtain walls. It was some kind of enclosed garden—indeed, the most curious of pleasaunces—and it certainly had not been here when she last visited. She walked heavily toward it, almost in a daze. Henry had been here for much of last winter and spring, she remembered. Had he gone to the trouble of ordering it planted for her, for some future visit? And that tower? Was that for her too?

  She soon saw that the pleasaunce was in fact a labyrinth, laid out in a circular design with young yews and briars; a paved path disappearing into its depths could be glimpsed at the entrance. The maze was not large, but it looked enticing, even magical—and not a little sinister—in the light of the torches carried by her people against the deepening dusk. Had Henry gone to the trouble of having this intricate thing laid out just for her? How strange! He had had no idea that she would come here in the foreseeable future.

  There was a grassy path skirting the labyrinth; one branch of it led to the tower, the other to the older hall with the King’s and Queen’s solars above, but Eleanor walked past that one. She had noticed a light in the tower, at one of the upper windows; it was flickering behind grisaille glass, such as that usually found only in great churches. Could some personage of importance be lodging here? Or, more likely, was some servant about his or her duties? That would account for the light.

  Suddenly, a door opened and the steward materialized breathlessly out of the gathering darkness. His face was red, his manner flustered.

  “My lady, welcome, welcome!” he cried, bowing hastily. “We had no idea you were coming. I will make all ready. I pray you, come in and get warm.” He indicated that Eleanor should go before him into the large room at the base of the solar block, but she swept on.

  “In a moment, I thank you. But first, I have a mind to see that impressive new tower,” she told him.

  His face blanched. “Madame, I should not advise it. It is, er, unfinished, and may not be safe.”

  “Someone is up there!” Eleanor pointed, and strode in ungainly fashion toward the studded wooden door at the base of the tower.

  “My lady!” the steward protested, but she ignored him.

  “Open the door!” she commanded. Unhappily, he did as he was bidden, and the Queen brushed past him and began climbing the spiral stairs. She was out of breath by the time she reached the first-floor chamber and had to stop for a few moments, her hand resting on her swollen belly. Clearly, there was no one on this story, and the steward had spoken the truth: the tower was as yet unfinished. Half-completed murals adorned the lime-washed walls; the wooden floor was stacked with ladders, crocks of paint, brushes, and stained rags.

  When she had rested a bit, she took the stairs to the next level, a vaulted storeroom containing several iron-bound chests, some stools, and very little else. No one here either. Determined to satisfy her curiosity, she dragged herself up to the topmost story, panting determinedly, and found herself outside a narrow wooden door. Light streamed from beneath it.

  Eleanor took a deep breath and depressed the latch. The door swung open to reveal a pretty domestic scene. The room was warm, heated by the coals in a glowing brazier. An exquisitely beautiful young girl was sitting before a basin of chased silver, humming as she washed herself with a fine holland cloth by the dancing light of many wax candles. She wore only a white chemise, draped around her waist, exposing her upper body. In the instant before the startled nymph gasped and covered herself, Eleanor’s shrewd eyes took in the small, pink-tipped breasts, the long, straw-colored tresses, the firm, slender arms, and the damp, rose-petal skin.

  “Who are you?” she asked, aghast, already dreading the answer.

  “I am Rosamund de Clifford, madame,” the girl said, her expression guarded. She had no idea who this intruder was; the woman was bundled up in a thick cloak, and the white wimple beneath it, although fine, was of a type worn by many middle-and upper-class matrons.

  “And what is your business here?” Eleanor could not help her hectoring tone. She had to know who—and what—this young female was.

  “I live here by order of my Lord the King,” Rosamund answered, a touch defensively. “May I ask who it is who wishes to know?”

  Eleanor could not speak. Her heart was racing in horror. Was this child—for she could be no more than that—the reason for Henry’s strange, distant behavior? Had he installed her here as his mistress? Or—her mind raced on—was this Rosamund some bastard child of his?

  “I am Queen Eleanor,” she said, her voice sounding far more confident than she felt, and was gratified to see the girl gathe
r her shift about her and drop hurriedly into an obeisance.

  “My lady, forgive me,” she bleated.

  Keeping her on her knees, Eleanor placed one finger under Rosaimund’s chin and tilted it upward, daring her to meet her eye, but the young chit would not look directly at her.

  “I will not beat about the bush,” the Queen said. “Tell me the truth. Are you his mistress?”

  Rosamund began trembling like a frightened animal.

  “Are you?” Eleanor repeated sharply.

  “My lady, forgive me!” burst out the girl, beginning to cry. Eleanor withdrew her hand as if it were scalded. She thought she would die, right then and there, she felt so sick to her stomach. He had betrayed her with this little whore. This beautiful little whore. Her hand flew protectively to the infant under her thudding heart.

  “Do you realize that this is his child?” she cried accusingly.

  Rosamund did not answer; she was sobbing helplessly now.

  “Tears will avail you nothing,” Eleanor said coldly, wishing she too could indulge in the luxury of weeping, and marveling that her emotions had not betrayed her further. But it was anger that was keeping her from collapsing in grief.

  “Do you know what I could do to you?” Her eyes narrowed as she moved—menacingly, she hoped—closer toward the sniveling creature kneeling before her. She was filled with hatred. She wanted this girl to suffer, as she herself was suffering. “I could have you whipped! If I had a mind to, I could call for a dagger and stab you, or have your food poisoned. Yes, Rosamund de Clifford, it would give me great pleasure to think of you, every time they bring you those choice dainties that my husband has no doubt ordered for you, wondering if your next mouthful might be your last!”

  “My lady, please, spare me!” the girl cried out. “I did not ask for this.” But Eleanor was beside herself with rage.

  “I suppose you are going to tell me that you went to him unwillingly, that he raped you,” she spat.

  “No, no, it was not like that!”

  “Then what was it like?” She did not want to—could not bear to—hear the details, but she had to know.

  “My lady will know that one does not refuse the King,” Rosamund said in a low, shaking voice. “But”—and now Eleanor could detect a faint note of defiance—“I did love him, and what I gave I gave willingly.”

  Her words were like knives twisting in the older woman’s heart.

  “You loved him? How touching!”

  “I did—I still do. And he loves me. He told me.”

  “You are a fool!” Eleanor’s voice cracked as she spat out the words. “And you won’t be the first trollop to be seduced by a man’s fair speech.”

  Rosamund raised wet eyes to her, eyes that now held a challenge. “But, madame,” she said quietly, “he does love me. He stayed here with me all last autumn, winter, and spring. He built me this tower, and a labyrinth for my pleasure. And he has commanded me to stay here and await his return.”

  Eleanor was speechless. Her wrath had suddenly evaporated, swept away by shock and grief, and she knew she was about to break down. She must not do so in front of this insolent girl, must not let her see how deeply those cruel barbs had wounded her, far more than her empty threats could have frightened her adversary. Like an animal with a mortal hurt, she wanted to retreat to a dark place and die.

  There were voices drifting up from the stairwell; her attendants would be wondering what was going on, were no doubt coming to find her. She must not let them see her here, a betrayed wife with her younger rival.

  “Never let me set eyes on you again!” she hissed at Rosamund, then turned her back on the girl, glided from the room with as much dignity as she could muster, closing the door firmly behind her, and descended the stairs.

  “The sewing women are up there,” she announced to the ladies who were climbing the stairs in search of her. “I was admiring their skill.” She was surprised at her own composure. “It seems that the steward was right, that many works are being carried out here. This place is wholly unfit for habitation. Like it or not, we must make for Oxford.” She knew she had to get away from Woodstock as quickly as possible. She could not endure to share a roof with Rosamund de Clifford, or even breathe the same air. She must go somewhere she could lick her wounds in peace.

  “Now?” echoed her women. “Madame, you should rest before we attempt to move on.”

  “There will be an inn on the road,” Eleanor said firmly.

  The King’s House at Oxford was a vast complex of buildings surrounded by a strong stone wall; it looked like a fortress, but was in fact a splendid residence adorned with wall paintings in bright hues and richly appointed suites for the King and Queen. Here, in happier days long past, Eleanor’s beloved Richard had been born, slipping eagerly into the world with the minimum of fuss. But this latest babe, unlike its older siblings, did not seem to want to be born, and small wonder it was, Eleanor thought, when the world was such a cruel place.

  She had no heart for this labor. She pushed and she strained, but to little effect. It had been hours now, and the midwife was shaking her head in concern. It had been a great honor, being summoned at short notice to order the Queen’s confinement, but the good woman was fearful for her future—and her high reputation in the town—for if mother or child were lost, almost certainly the King would point the finger of blame at her.

  Petronilla, tipsy as usual, for she had resorted to the wine flagon to banish her demons, was seated by the bed, holding Eleanor’s hand and looking tragic, as the other ladies bustled around with ewers of hot water and clean, bleached towels. Petronilla knew she would be devastated if her sister died in childbed; she adored Eleanor, relied on her for so many things, and knew her life would be bleak without her. No one else understood why Petronilla had to drink herself into oblivion. Other people looked askance and were censorious, but not Eleanor. Eleanor had also known the pain of losing her children. She too had suffered that cruel sundering, had learned to live with empty arms and an aching heart. Petronilla knew, as few did, how Eleanor had kept on writing to those French daughters of hers, hoping to reseal a bond that had long ago been severed. She knew too that there had been no reply, apart from on one occasion, when hope had sprung briefly in her sister’s breast; but evidently, the young Countess Marie had not thought it worth establishing a correspondence—and Petronilla supposed that one could hardly blame her.

  Yes, Eleanor too had her crosses to bear—and probably more than she would admit to. Something odd had happened at Woodstock, Petronilla was sure of it. Before that, Eleanor seemed strong and resolute, a fighter ready to take on all challengers. Now she appeared to have lost the will to live. It was incomprehensible, the change in her—and terrifying. Gulping back another sob, Petronilla reached again for her goblet.

  Eleanor lay in a twilight world, enduring the ever more frequent onslaughts of pain as her contractions grew stronger, then retreating to a place where no one could reach her. She almost welcomed the agony of childbirth: it was far preferable to the agony that Henry and his whore had inflicted on her. He had inflicted this ordeal on her too, yet she would have welcomed it a thousand times had it been the result of an unsullied love between them. But that was all finished. He had betrayed her, and she was done with him. This would indeed be her last child. She knew it.

  The ordeal went on for hours. They brought her holy relics to kiss, slid knives under the bed to cut the pain. None of it did any good, and, had Death come for her, she would have welcomed him. It was not until the dawn, on Christmas Eve, that the infant who was the cause—and the fruit—of her agony finally came sniveling into the world, a tragic bundle of bloodied limbs and dark red hair.

  “A boy, my lady!” the midwife announced jubilantly, breathless with relief.

  Eleanor turned her face away.

  “Will you not look at him?” Petronilla asked, her heart-shaped face bleary with wine, yet full of concern.

  Eleanor made herself look. The
infant, wiped and swathed in a soft fleece, had been laid on the bed next to her. She contemplated its crumpled, angry little face and watched dispassionately as it broke into mewling cries of outrage at being cast adrift into the wicked world. She wanted to feel something for it, the sad little mite; after all, it was not this babe’s fault that she herself was in such misery. Yet it seemed she had nothing left to give, no spark of loving kindness or maternal feeling. She felt dead inside. Nevertheless, this was her child, she reminded herself sternly. She must do something for it. Hesitantly, she touched the tiny, downy cheek and gave her son her blessing.

  “What is he to be called?” Petronilla asked.

  “What day is it?” Eleanor asked wanly.

  “Christmas Eve. Even now they are bringing in the Yule log.”

  “St. Stephen’s Day is two days hence,” the Queen said wearily, “but I can hardly call him after the martyr, for the English do not hold King Stephen in much repute. I mind me that the Feast of St. John the Apostle and St. John the Evangelist is in three days’ time. I shall call him John.”

  Petronilla gazed down at her new nephew.

  “I pray God send you a long and happy life, my Lord John,” she said, aware that what should have been a happy occasion was, for some reason beyond her comprehension, a very sad one.

  35

  Argentan, Normandy, 1167

  “Welcome, my lady,” Henry said formally, bending over his queen’s hand. Their eyes met coldly as she rose from her curtsey. He had put on weight in the fourteen months since she’d seen him, Eleanor thought, and his curly red hair was silvered with gray; that came as a shock, and an unwelcome reminder that they were neither of them getting any younger. Henry looked ragged at the edges, as indeed he was, for he was worn down by the cares of state, his interminable quarrel with Becket—and the recent death of his mother.

 
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