Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  The first inkling Eleanor got that things were going to be different from now on was when the royal messenger was ushered into her presence. Normally, Ranulf Glanville or Ralph FitzStephen would convey whatever instructions they had received or news the King wanted her to hear. But now she was suddenly being accorded all the respect due to a queen.

  Her head spinning with speculation, she sat in her high-backed chair as the man, his clothes dusty from what had evidently been a long ride, knelt before her.

  “My lady,” he said, “I am commanded by the Lord King to request your presence in Normandy. He asks that you make ready with all possible haste, as we are to leave for Rouen without delay.”

  Henry was requesting? Asking? For the past ten years he’d just sent his commands to her custodians, and she was taken here and there without any deference to her own wishes.

  Could it be that grief over their mutual loss had brought him to his senses? Had he realized, as she had, that they were the ones best placed to help each other through their mourning for the life they had created together? Was his need for comfort as urgent as hers?

  “I will be ready within the hour,” she told the messenger, then effortlessly slipped back into her regal role and sent him off to the kitchens to find food and drink, as if she had never been prevented from extending such courtesies and the past decade had never been.

  Ranulf came to her as she and a beaming Amaria—who was much gratified to see that Henry had come to his senses at last—were hastily gathering their possessions.

  “Am I to travel under guard?” Eleanor asked him warily.

  “No, madame, with just the normal escort. I have come to tell you that you are no longer a prisoner.”

  So, at last, she was free. Free! It was what she had been praying for all through these long, weary years of her incarceration. She could not quite take it in, nor begin to conceive what it would mean to her. Had it happened at any time prior to that terrible day in June, she would have been shouting exultantly for joy, but now it was a bittersweet triumph. For it had taken the death of their son to bring Henry to this decision, and she would have traded her freedom for the Young King’s life any day, yea, even though she remained shut up here until the hour of her death.

  It was good, nevertheless, to be in the saddle again, clopping along the sun-dappled lanes of England, reveling in the soft late-summer breeze and the azure-blue sky. It was exhilarating to be on a ship once more, gliding in stately fashion across the smooth waters of the Channel, and then—joy of joys—to sight the coast of Normandy. From there it was only a few days’ ride to Aquitaine … and Richard!

  Ranulf Glanville watched Eleanor as she stood high on the forecastle, her cloak billowing out behind her, her profile straining toward the continent where lay her own lands, far to the south—and where the King her husband awaited her. Ranulf knew that Eleanor would find him sadly changed.

  He was going to miss her. He had become pleasantly accustomed to her charming company at dinner, to their long and lively conversations, the quicksilver agility of her mind and the ready mother wit of her tongue. He would miss those flashing eyes that invited conversation, and the grace and unconscious allure that even encroaching age could not dim. Imprisonment had not defeated Eleanor: she had emerged from it as vital and energetic as ever, and the weight she’d lost in recent weeks left her looking much younger, with her fine features as elegantly chiseled as if a master mason crafted them.

  Ranulf was aware—had been for a long time—that he’d come dangerously close to falling in love with his prisoner; that his infatuation had increased to the point where he’d been in peril of losing the objectivity that all conscientious gaolers need to maintain. Privately, he thought his king a fool. Eleanor was an intelligent woman, amenable to reason; a year in prison would have been enough to curb her rebellious spirit. And the situation had been far more complex than Henry would seem to have believed—anyone could see that.

  He pulled himself up, reminded himself that this woman had betrayed her lord and king, and that society justly condemned her for it. He reminded himself, as he had countless times, how he would feel if his faithful Bertha had done such a thing—but of course it would never enter her head, for she was as docile and biddable as a cow. And Eleanor was not Bertha—More’s the pity, said the treacherous little devil in his soul. But after the expiation of sins there must come forgiveness. It was sad that it had taken the Young King’s death to bring Henry to that point, but fitting that he should take his wife back unto himself. All the same, Ranulf knew he was going to miss her …

  Amaria was reveling in her mistress’s newfound liberty, but as they journeyed the roads of Normandy, passing apple orchards and lush swaths of fertile farmland, with here and there a stern castle, a bustling town, a soaring abbey or sleepy hamlet, her excitement was increasingly tempered by a festering anxiety. When the Queen was restored to her proper place, would she still want a peasant for a serving woman, when she could have the greatest ladies in the land to attend upon her?

  For the truth was, Amaria had grown to love Queen Eleanor. What began in disapproval and suspicion ended in deep affection and loyalty, for never once had Eleanor done anything to confirm Amaria’s earlier opinion of her. And she had suffered so much … and all for love of her children—that much was abundantly clear. Amaria knew what it was to love a child, and she knew too that if her Mark had ever been treated unjustly by his late lamented father, she would have sprung like a lioness to his defense.

  She had asked herself again and again if she dared question Eleanor about what was to become of her now, but the truth was, she feared to hear the answer. The Queen had made her a promise, but what if she now wished to forget the woman who had shared her long imprisonment? That would be wholly understandable, of course, but did loyalty and friendship count for nothing? And there had been friendship between mistress and maid—she had not imagined it; every day she had marveled that she, a humble miller’s daughter, should be the friend of the King’s own consort, the woman who, by rights, should be queening it over half of Christendom!

  Not long now to Rouen. She would be glad of a soft bed, after hours of jolting in an unfamiliar saddle—and she no horsewoman, by anybody’s reckoning! But what would happen when they got to Rouen? Amaria dreaded to think of that.

  Eleanor, riding beside her, turned and smiled.

  “Is it not wonderful to be away from that dreary castle!” she cried. “Cheer up, Amaria—we are free! There is no need to look so dismal. I promise you, when we get to Rouen, I will order us both some fine bliauts. I expect mine will have rotted away by now.” Most of her wardrobe had been left in Poitiers.

  “My lady, what use would I have for fine bliauts?” Amaria asked, but her heart was welling with excitement, for already she knew the answer.

  “For wearing at court, of course!” the Queen replied. “I cannot have my ladies attending me in plain woolen gowns and wimples. I had three chief damsels—Torqueri, Florine, and Mamille—and now I will have four, including you. I only hope that the others can come back to me—I know you will like them!”

  Amaria’s cup ran over.

  It was dark by the time they approached Rouen and clattered into the courtyard of the ducal palace beyond the city walls, and torches lit Eleanor’s way as she was escorted up the spiral stairs to the royal lodgings in the great tower. The King had dined alone, she was told, and would receive her in private. Her spirits lifted in relief. She had been dreading this moment more than she would even admit to herself, and was supremely thankful, much as she had been ten years earlier, that her reunion with Henry was not to take place in public with the whole court looking on.

  Through a window slit on the stairwell she briefly glimpsed the tower where she had first been held. If I had known then what lay ahead, I might have tried to kill myself in despair, she thought. Thank God we are not vouchsafed the knowledge of what is in store for us. She wondered, with hope and dread in her soul, what lay ah
ead now.

  The door opened into a barrel-vaulted chamber lit with candle sconces and hung with tapestries in vivid hues; above them she glimpsed painted friezes with scarlet and gold roundels, and at one end of the room there hung a majestic canopy embroidered with the lions of Anjou and Poitou. Beneath it stood a golden throne with its carved arms and back painted bright indigo. Evidently Henry lived in greater state these days than he used to. All this Eleanor took in with one glance before her eyes met those of the man who had risen from the long table in the center and come limping toward her.

  She was shocked to her core. This was not the Henry she remembered so vividly, but an old man. In the brief glimpse she had of him before she sank in a deep and graceful curtsey to the floor, she took in the iron-gray hair, the stocky, corpulent body, the bowed legs, no doubt made so by years of hard riding around his vast empire, and that painful limp. His face was lined and drawn with care and grief, his gray eyes wary and bloodshot—he did not look a well man. And he must be, what, fifty? He looked far older. She was astonished to find herself feeling pain—and another, deeper emotion—at the sight of him, which was incredible, indeed after all that he had done to her. All that we have done to each other, the voice of her conscience corrected her.

  Henry stepped forward, stretched out his hands—his familiar, callused hands, much rougher now than in former days—and raised Eleanor by the elbows. Then he let his hands fall and they stood there appraising each other, neither of them knowing quite what to say. What does one say to the wife one has kept a prisoner for so long? each was thinking.

  Henry had rehearsed this scene over and over again in his mind. He had resolved to be businesslike and tell Eleanor that her presence in Normandy was needed in order to counteract King Philip’s demands for the return of lands she had assigned for her lifetime to the Young King, but that Philip was now insisting belonged to Queen Marguerite in right of her late husband. But seeing his queen now, standing there before him, he could not say it. Those demands had been a pretext: he had known that all along, if he were honest with himself. The truth was that since the terrible news had come from Martel, he had felt differently about Eleanor. Instead of the archtraitress who had betrayed her lord and king, and who must be kept under lock and key for everyone’s safety, he could conjure up only images of her as a young mother, swinging Young Henry up in the air, happily arranging a birthday celebration for him, kissing his hurts better, Eleanor pleading with him, as the boy grew older, to give him what she’d called his rightful dues. Had she been so wrong to support her son? Had her shattering betrayal been motivated by nothing worse than motherly love?

  Yet she had hurt him, her husband, irrevocably, rocked his throne more dangerously even than had the murder of Thomas, and seemed to do it purposefully to bring him to ruin. But now all he could see was the woman who had borne him the child they had lost, the only one who really knew what he was suffering. And when he saw her, in the flesh, standing before him at last, after a decade of absence, there stirred in him, along with pity and the need for comfort, some vestiges of the feelings that he had long told himself were dead and buried—killed off brutally by her faithlessness.

  For still she was beautiful. He did a quick reckoning. Sixty-one? Impossible. But yes, she was eleven years older than he. Tall and dignified in her elegant mourning robes, with her gossamer-thin black veil falling from a black coif, her heart-shaped face was framed in the most flattering manner by the matching barbette that creased in linen folds under her chin. Her eyes were clear, if questioning, her skin smooth and pale as marble, her mouth bow-shaped yet. But it was the expression on her face that struck him most: there was a new serenity about her, the promise of hard-learned wisdom in those eyes, and an indefinable aura of spiritual peace. It occurred to him suddenly that this woman might no longer be a threat to him.

  “My lady,” he said at length. “Welcome. I trust you had a good journey.”

  “Wonderful,” she answered. “I cannot tell you how good it felt to be out in the world, enjoying God’s good fresh air again.”

  Was she baiting him already? He looked at her sharply, yet could detect no malice in her, and could only deduce that she had but spoken from the heart—as well she might, he conceded.

  “Pray sit down,” Henry invited, pulling out the nearer of the two carved chairs that stood at each end of the table. Bread, fish, and fowl had been laid out, along with a fruit tart and the good sweet wine of Anjou, but it looked as if Henry had barely touched the food.

  “Are you hungry? Have you eaten?” he asked.

  “Some wine would be welcome,” Eleanor said. She could not face food. All she could think of was that she was here, with Henry, her lord, after so long, and that his presence still had the power to move her, as it always had.

  Henry poured the wine, moved his chair next to hers and sat down. “I don’t want to shout down the table,” he jested, breaking the tension a little. “Now, I expect you are wondering why I asked you here.”

  “I was a little surprised to receive the invitation,” Eleanor returned. “Henry, please—I have to ask, before we go any further. They told me I was no longer a prisoner. Does that mean that I am forgiven?”

  He stared at her, nonplussed, then swallowed. “Yes,” he said hoarsely. “Yes, provided you behave yourself in the future.”

  “Oh, you can count on that,” she assured him, her tone light. “I am not likely to risk your walling me up for another decade. I am coming to the end of my natural span, and the years I have left are precious to me.”

  “I am relieved to have your assurance,” Henry declared, with the hint of a wry smile.

  Was that it? she asked herself. The subject, her long years of imprisonment, the breakdown of their marriage, disposed of in a few words? Am I forgiven? Yes, as long as you don’t do it again. No, I won’t. And yet, what else was there to say? Was she to dwell, in accusatory detail, on the miseries she had suffered? Henry must have some idea what he had put her through. Should they disinter and pore over the horrible conflict between them that should long since have been laid to rest? What was the point? What mattered was the present, and the future. They must move forward. If they dwelt too long and hard on how calamitously they had made mistakes and broken faith in the past, they would surely destroy each other.

  “You were going to tell me why you sent for me,” she said resolutely, reaching for her goblet.

  “Ah,” Henry responded, clearly relieved to be back on safer ground. “It concerns certain lands in Normandy that this young fox Philip is claiming were given to his sister Marguerite. He wants to lay his grubby hands on them, of course, but I reminded him that in fact they belonged to you, and that you had assigned them to Young Henry only for his lifetime, after which they were to revert to you.” At the mention of his dead son, his face tautened. For a heartbeat the mask slipped and it became clear that Henry was suffering greatly—just as she was. But she was not feeling quite ready to confront their common grief just yet. She had had too much to deal with already this day.

  “Yes, I suppose those domains will have reverted to me,” she said. “I fear I am long out of touch with my landed and financial interests.”

  “That’s neither here nor there,” Henry interrupted impatiently. “What matters is that I retain control of those properties that are rightfully mine, as your lord. Young Philip is dangerous; he has grandiose ideas about expanding the might of France. He has his eye on my empire. Were he to gain possession of these lands, we’d have French troops infiltrating Normandy and … well, you can imagine the rest. I have my hands full as it is, trying to keep my domains under control.”

  “I see your point,” Eleanor conceded. “It would indeed be foolhardy to give Philip what he wants. So what can I do for you?”

  Henry looked at her with admiration. She was actually willing and ready to cooperate with him, after long years of being bitterly at odds, fighting, quarreling, and worse. And Eleanor marveled that they were sitting
here discussing politics much as they had in the old days—the early days. This was surely one of the best aspects of her new freedom, this being restored to the center of affairs.

  “I want you to visit those domains, each in turn,” Henry said. “I want it to appear that you are reasserting your rights to them. Show yourself friendly to the local lords, grant charters and privileges, endow churches, found markets—you know the kind of thing that wins hearts.”

  “You want me to do all this?” she asked in wonderment. “I, who was so lately your prisoner? You trust me to do it?”

  “There is no one else who can,” Henry said, and grinned, and in that moment his guard fell. The grin faded and in its place there appeared on his care-worn features a look of such anguish that it nearly broke Eleanor to see it.

  He reached out his hand to her, the movement jerky and tentative. His face was a grimace of agony.

  “Help me, Eleanor!” he muttered, his voice strangled. She rose without hesitation and grasped that outstretched hand, pressing it to her lips, her ready tears salting it, her own need for consolation welling urgently. “I did not ask you here just to discuss Normandy,” Henry gasped. “I asked you because there is no one else I can turn to, no one else who loved him as I do.” And with that, he clasped his arms about her waist, buried his head in her belly, and howled like a baby.

  When the storm of weeping had passed, and Eleanor felt she had no more tears left in her, they were gentle with each other, sitting quietly in the candlelight, sipping the restorative wine and talking without rancor of the events that had led them both to this place.

  “Henry, I long to see our other children,” Eleanor said suddenly.

  He turned his ravaged face to hers and took her hand. “I knew you would want to,” he told her. “They are here. I summoned them for the purpose. Come, you will be reunited with them now.”

  As he led her downstairs to the lower chambers, Eleanor feared that she could not cope with so much grief and joy in such a short span of time. She was to see her children, at last, after so long! They were here—and Henry had bidden them come specially to see her. She felt a little light-headed with emotion and anticipation. Would they have changed? How would they react to seeing her? And—most crucial of all—did they still love her? She was in anguish to know.

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