Captive Queen by Alison Weir

  She did not want to go there, to that place with its painful, unhallowed memories, but had little choice in the matter. The King had sent orders, and that was that. She wondered if he had done it to spite her. At least she was not required to sleep in Rosamund’s tower—that was now locked up and deserted—but in the Queen’s chambers in the hunting lodge itself. Her high window looked out upon the labyrinth—now an overgrown wilderness abandoned to Dame Nature.

  She would have liked to ignore it, but it drew her, remorselessly, almost supernaturally, and one early June evening, bored by the tedium of her dreary leisure hours, she felt an urgent need to take the air, and found her steps tracing the bracken-strewn paving stones that led to the entrance of the maze. She had to untangle some branches to get in, and tore her veil on a briar, but soon she was through, and able to make her way along the weed-infested paths. Fortunately, whoever designed the labyrinth had laid them out broadly, so the encroaching foliage did not impede her progress too much. Soon, by keeping her wits about her, she found the wide arbor at the core—which was actually, although she did not realize it, to one side—and sank down thankfully on a lichen-covered stone bench.

  So this was where the gossip had her hunting out her rival, following the thread of silk to the forbidden door. The things people were prepared to believe! If only they knew … Yes, she had been deeply hurt to hear Henry say he loved Rosamund; yes, she had rejoiced, God forgive her, to learn of the young woman’s early death. But that she would have stooped to violence to rid herself of her—Heaven forbid! Rosamund had been beneath her notice: a queen had her dignity to preserve, and she’d fought many battles with herself to do just that.

  She wondered if Rosamund, that pretty, arrogant little whore, had taken much pleasure in her labyrinth; if she walked here often. It had been the most touching gift from a besotted king, so surely she cherished it?

  The sun was setting in a golden glow behind the black silhouette of the castle walls, leaving the skies a brilliant clear pink-tinged azure in the dying rays of the light. The shadows were lengthening. As the glow dimmed, the labyrinth began to seem a different, darker place. Eleanor shivered, aware of old, primeval forces at work. Here, Dame Nature was alive and hard at work, having reclaimed her kingdom; the soft rustlings and crackles from the stirring bracken made it easy to believe in all those ancient tales of the Green Man, which the English loved to tell. He was one of the “old ones” they spoke of, and he went by many names—Robin Goodfellow and Jack i’ the Wood were two that she had heard from Amaria. He was a fertility god or a monster, whichever story one believed, and his power had never been bridled by Church or state. In the twilight, it was easy to imagine his cunning face peering out eerily from the foliage.

  As the Queen sat there, feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the gathering gloom, and bracing herself to retrace her steps—she thought she knew which way to go—she heard what sounded like a soft footfall. Crunch. There it went again, to her left; someone stepping on bracken! It might be a squirrel or a fox, she told herself sternly, but nevertheless, she stood up and hastened along the path back to civilization, negotiating her way between the high hedges.

  Crunch. It was behind her now. Crunch. Again! Someone was in the labyrinth, someone who was approaching by stealth and had not thought fit to announce their presence by calling out to her. She was almost running now, scared to look behind her, her spine tingling with fear, expecting at any moment to feel a hand clamp itself on her shoulder or—horror of horrors—a stab of pain as a dagger pierced her back. If Henry really did mean to marry Alys, her removal would be all too convenient. Yet she could not, even in extremis, imagine Henry being the kind of man who would send an assassin to kill her. Yet Henry, she knew, was prone to saying violent things in his ungovernable rages, things he did not mean—look what happened with Becket! Supposing he had said something similar of her: “Who will rid me of this turbulent queen?”

  She was lost and desperate to get out but had to pause for breath or she would collapse. She came to a halt at a corner, her chest heaving, and looked both ways. Nothing stirred. There was only the sibilant rustling of leaves and the occasional twitter of a tiny bird. Then she heard it again. Crunch, this time followed by a faint cry that could almost have been a sob. Ahead of her. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Did the person stalking her know where they were going?

  She would not run this time. She would tread silently, and keep her wits about her. She crept furtively along the paths, steeling herself to take her time and breathing shallowly. Then, turning another corner, she glimpsed, ahead of her, the trail of a gray gown disappearing into the briars. And that cry again, faint but distinct, and definitely a sob. A woman, then! But what woman? Her fear abated a little. She was equal to besting a woman! It was the brute strength of a man she had feared.

  Eleanor followed carefully, keeping her distance, noticing that she was very near to the edge of the maze, for beyond stood the high wall of the hunting lodge. Crunch. It was behind her again, on the path she had just walked—but how could that be? She would have had to pass whoever it was, surely?

  She was becoming a little weary of this game of cat and mouse, and increasingly chilled in body and soul. The light was fading fast, the moon rising, and all she wanted was to get back to her bower and the down-to-earth common sense of Amaria, so it was with enormous relief that she suddenly espied the entrance to the maze ahead of her. Yet, once through it, she did not immediately hurry back to the hunting lodge. She could see the two guards who always trailed her standing at attention by the garden door, so, taking courage from their presence, she concealed herself behind a straggling mulberry tree to watch for her pursuer emerging from the labyrinth—for without doubt they must soon do so. There was no other way out, and they could not remain there all night.

  She waited, in increasing puzzlement, for nigh on half an hour, but no one appeared. Nor did she hear any more footfalls or other noises that might betray the presence of someone in the maze. The night was quiet, its peace unbroken. Then, just as she was deciding to go indoors, her attention was captured by the dim but unmistakable flicker of a candle in the upper room of Rosamund’s tower. She caught her breath. Someone was indeed playing games with her! Were they deliberately trying to frighten her? Tomorrow, she vowed, she would get to the bottom of this, and that person would be made to account for their purpose in disturbing the Queen!

  Once back in the safety of her bower, she told a surprised Amaria and a skeptical Ralph FitzStephen of her experiences. FitzStephen had the maze searched, and the tower unlocked and inspected, but found nothing to account for what Eleanor had heard and seen. It was not until two mornings later that she was given a less than satisfactory explanation for what had happened, when Amaria brought the local laundry woman to see her. They had fallen to chatting on the banks of the River Glyne, as the woman washed sheets, and Amaria told her of the Queen’s fright in the labyrinth.

  The laundress was nervous of speaking to so great a lady, but determined to tell Eleanor what she knew.

  “That baint no ‘uman soul in that there maze,” she declared. “She walks. Some has heard her, heard her footsteps. They be all around, no rhyme or reason to them.”

  “Who walks?” Eleanor asked gently. The laundress’s words had chilled her.

  “Why, the Fair Rosamund, o’ course, lady, her as people say was murd—” She stopped in mid-flight, remembering to whom she spoke. “Begging your pardon, lady, it’s only what fools say. But she walks, no doubt about it. And she’ve been seen up in that tower. She weeps for her sins! And another thing, young Matt, the miller’s boy, he’s seen her, in the maze! Well, not her, so to speak of—but he caught a glimpse of her gown; it were gray!”

  Eleanor froze. She had not mentioned that detail.

  She still did not quite know if she believed what the laundress had said when permission arrived for her to remove to Winchester so she could be present at Matilda’s confinement. If the tale was tru
e, then why should Rosamund appear to her rival, Eleanor, the woman she had wronged in life?

  “Stop thinking about it,” Amaria counseled in her blunt way. “It’s just gossip.”

  “I’m not so sure,” Eleanor said thoughtfully. “It was a nightmarish experience, but I did not dream it. Can malice survive the grave? I can hardly believe Rosamund was trying to seek my forgiveness—it was an odd way to go about it, scaring me half to death like that.”

  “It’s all nonsense!” Amaria snorted.

  “I know what I heard, and saw,” Eleanor insisted. “You were not there. But we will say no more of it.”

  “Mayhap, my lady,” interrupted FitzStephen, staggering into the bower with a pile of cloth-wrapped bundles in his arms, “there is no reasoning behind the appearances of spirits, and it means nothing at all—or you were mistaken in what you heard and saw; it could have been a shadow, or some small creatures of the night. Now, here are some parcels for you from the Lord King.”

  Eleanor temporarily forgot her puzzlement as she unwrapped the gifts and exclaimed delightedly over the bold scarlet bliaut lined with gray miniver that she found in the first, the saddle worked with gold and trimmed with fur in the second, and the embroidered cushions in the third. Nor had Henry omitted to send gifts to Amaria, of whom he soundly approved: for her, there were fine linen headrails and an amethyst brooch.

  Peace offerings, Eleanor told herself. He won’t admit that he has again treated me—and our sons—unjustly, so he sends presents instead. Her spirits lifted and she had to smile. It was so typical of Henry—and it augured well for a happy resolution to all the quarreling.

  As for that strange Rosamund business, she knew she would never convince herself entirely that it had not been a supernatural experience. And the appalling thought occurred to her that Rosamund had not yet found the eternal peace that is every Christian soul’s hope and desire, and that her shade was condemned to a relentless earthly purgatory in expiation of her sins. The notion chilled her immeasurably, for she herself was no longer young, and Divine Judgment could not be far off! Might she too be condemned to walk this Earth for eternity, at Poitiers, the place where she had plotted her husband’s betrayal—or, worse still, in the grim keep of Sarum? Heaven forbid! She had best start ensuring that she lived wisely and virtuously from now on. That would make a change, she thought, with the hint of a darkly humorous smile playing on her lips.

  Matilda, with the minimum of fuss, had a healthy little boy, to Eleanor’s joy, and called him William in honor of the Conqueror and the Queen’s father. Eleanor had arrived at Winchester just in time to greet her new grandchild as he emerged from his mother’s womb, and she was thrilled to be able to spend the following weeks in her daughter’s company, taking pleasure in the infant’s progress.

  This happy interlude was marred by the arrival one morning of two more packages, both of identical size.

  “For the Queen!” announced the steward, placing them on the chest. “A gift from the Lord King.”

  Henry was trying to make amends! Eleanor smiled and unwrapped the first package. It contained more rich items of clothing: a lightweight summer cloak and hood of the deepest blue samite, and a good few yards of colorfully embroidered trimming for edging garments. Suitable peace offerings! It was gratifying to know that Henry was thinking of her and that her good opinion counted for something with him; and, of course, such gifts might well signal that she was soon to be set at liberty again.

  She opened the second bundle to find, to her astonishment, that it contained exactly the same items. Why would Henry send two of everything, and in separate packages? Then her eye was drawn to a tiny scroll of parchment that lay on the floor; it must have fallen out of one of the bundles. She picked it up and saw that it was a receipt of sorts, written by some clerk who had obviously intended to file it away in the royal accounts but mistakenly wrapped it with the gifts. He would be looking for it, no doubt. But what was it that he had scribed? “£55.17s. for the clothes of the Queen and of Bellebelle, for the King’s use.”

  Who was Bellebelle, and why had she been provided with exactly the same gifts of clothing as herself? Looking at the final phrase, her heart sinking, Eleanor suddenly knew the answer. The garments could not be for the King’s use, of course—but the mysterious Bellebelle obviously was.

  Her mind disquieted, she made it her business, while at Winchester, to seek out Alys, Richard’s betrothed, telling herself firmly that any plan of Henry’s to divorce her and take Alys as his wife in her place could not have been Alys’s fault. But when she saw Alys, now a beautiful, buxom young woman in her early twenties, she was not so sure.

  Alys’s welcome was muted; Eleanor supposed that she was permitted few visitors, since Henry was still keeping her under guard, no doubt fearing that Richard might descend on the castle and spirit her off to the altar, thereby depriving his father of a valuable bargaining tool in his tortuous power games with Philip. And of course the poor girl had suffered so many turns of fortune that she’d probably given up all hope of ever getting married. No doubt she anticipated that the Queen had come with news of yet another unwelcome development, or simply to gloat at her luckless rival; hence her understandable wariness.

  She found Alys hard work. All her questions met with monosyllabic replies, and in the end Eleanor almost gave up. Clearly, Alys bore a deep resentment toward her, and small wonder, she thought grimly: but for herself, Alys would have been Queen of England these nine years. Instead, she was shut away here, wasting her youth to no purpose.

  Had Alys actually loved Henry? Did she love him still? Eleanor had to know. She needed to reassure herself that this had not been the kind of grand passion that Henry shared with the ill-fated Rosamund, that Alys was no real threat to her.

  “Your life cannot have been easy, child,” she ventured. “You should have been married to Richard years ago, and become the mother of a fine brood by now.”

  Alys flinched. Her recoil was unmistakable.

  “I should have been married years ago,” she said pointedly.

  “You can forget about that,” Eleanor retorted. “My marriage is valid. The Pope would not countenance its annulment.”

  “You could have retired gracefully to Fontevrault!” It was an accusation.

  “For which I have no vocation,” Eleanor replied calmly, although her ire was rising like bile in her throat. “It was all a ruse by Henry to gain possession of my domains.”

  “It was far more than that!” Alys countered, her eyes flashing fire. They were green, like a cat’s, and full of venom. “You just didn’t want to lose your husband to another woman—a younger woman. You couldn’t accept that it was me he wanted for a wife, not you.”

  “Next you’ll be telling me that he loved you!” Eleanor said scornfully. “Well, let me assure you I have heard it all before, with Rosamund.”

  “He did love me—he loves me still!” Alys cried.

  “How sweet!” Eleanor sneered, resolutely ignoring the flicker of fear that the girl’s words had ignited in her. “My, you are an innocent! Love indeed! What does that have to do with royal marriages made for profit and politics? Do you think, you foolish child, that love ever dictated Henry’s policy? I thought you would have more sense.”

  Alys jumped to her feet, and as she did so, the folds of her bliaut rippled over her figure. She was, quite obviously, pregnant. Eleanor stared at her in horror.

  “Is this not the fruit of love?” the princess cried triumphantly, smoothing her hands over her swollen belly.

  “Any trollop can get a man to bed her,” Eleanor observed tartly, but her voice came out hoarsely through dry lips. “Love rarely comes into it. I suppose you are going to tell me that that is the King’s.”

  “It is!” Alys insisted.

  “Tell me, how could you so dishonor Richard, the man to whom you are betrothed?” Eleanor cried, rising, scandalized beyond measure. That Henry had not scrupled to take his son’s betrothed! She could h
ardly believe it, even of him, with his voracious appetites. “Shame on you for a harlot!”

  Alys was weeping now. “He loves me! You will not stand aside and let us marry. It’s your fault!”

  Eleanor ignored that. The desire to wound her rival was strong in her, and she could not resist it. “Did you know he has another mistress?” she taunted.

  The barb went home. Alys gaped at her. “You’re lying—to spite me. I will not believe it.”

  “Nor did I until yesterday afternoon,” Eleanor said, “and if it wasn’t for some clerk’s silly mistake, I would be in happy ignorance now. But how I found out is neither here nor there. Her name is Bellebelle. She sounds like a harlot. But you would know, of course. And you would know too that Henry is incapable of staying faithful.”

  As Alys collapsed in tears, Eleanor looked down on her with distaste. “What matters most in all this is that my son, your betrothed, is spared any hurt,” she hissed. “If he knew of your shame, he would surely kill you—and his father too, and the world would applaud him for it.”

  “He does know,” sobbed Alys, a note of defiance creeping back into her voice. “He does not care. He wishes only to wed me to spite his father and deprive him of the person he loves most. And he means, through me, to ally himself with my brother.”

  Her words took Eleanor’s breath away. Richard knew. Of course he did. She remembered that strange look he had given Henry.

  She left the girl weeping and stumbled blindly back to her apartments, her thoughts in turmoil. What have we come to, as a family, that Henry and Richard should effectively collude in such vile, underhand dealings? she asked herself. Was there no honor left in the world? And what of the silly, deluded girl—a princess of France, no less—who had been the unwilling pawn in it all? Philip would declare war if he heard of it!

  But maybe, just maybe, he did know. He was capable of dissembling with the best of them, and maybe he was playing them at their own game, meaning to have the last laugh.

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