Read an Excerpt
Paris, August 1151
Please God, let me not betray myself, Queen Eleanor prayed inwardly as she seated herself gracefully on the carved wooden throne next to her husband, King Louis. The royal court of France had assembled in the gloomy, cavernous hall in the Palace of the Cité, which commanded one half of the Île de la Cité on the River Seine, facing the great cathedral of Notre Dame.
Eleanor had always hated this palace, with its grim, crumbling stone tower and dark, chilly rooms. She had tried to lighten the oppressive hall with expensive tapestries from Bourges, but it still had a stark, somber aspect, for all the summer sunshine piercing the narrow windows. Oh, how she longed for the graceful castles of her native Aquitaine, built of light mellow stone on lushly wooded hilltops! How she longed to be in Aquitaine itself, and that other world in the sun- baked south that she had been obliged to leave behind all those years ago. But she had schooled her thoughts not to stray in that direction. If they did, she feared, she might go mad. Instead, she must fix her attention on the ceremony that was about to begin, and play her queenly role as best she could. She had failed Louis, and France, in so many ways—more than anyone could know—so she could at least contrive to look suitably decorative. Before the King and Queen were gathered the chief lords and vassals of France, a motley band in their scarlets, russets, and furs, and a bevy of tonsured churchmen, all—save for one—resplendent in voluminous, rustling robes. They were waiting to witness the ending of a war.
Louis looked drawn and tired, his cheeks still flushed with the fever that had laid him low for some weeks now, but at least, thought Eleanor, he had risen from his bed. Of course, Bernard of Clairvaux, that meddlesome abbot standing apart in his unbleached linen tunic, had told him to, and when Bernard spoke, Louis, and nearly everyone else in Christendom, invariably jumped.
She did not love Louis, but she would have done much, especially at this time when he was low in body and spirits, to spare him any hurt— and herself the shame and the fearful consequences of exposure. She had thought herself safe, that her great sin was a secret she would take with her to her grave, but now the one person who might, by a chance look or gesture, betray her and imperil her very existence was about to walk through the great doors at the end of the hall: Geoffrey, Count of Anjou—whom men called “Plantagenet,” on account of the broom flower he customarily wore in his hat.
Really, though, she thought resentfully, Louis could hardly blame her for what she had done. It was he, or rather the churchmen who dominated his life, who had condemned her to live out her miserable existence as an exile in this forbidding northern kingdom with its gray skies and dour people; and to follow a suffocating, almost monastic régime, cloistered from the world with only her ladies for company. For fourteen long years now, her life had been mostly barren of excitement and pleasure—and it was only in a few stolen moments that she had briefly known another existence. With Marcabru; with Geoffrey; and, later, with Raymond. Sweet sins that must never be disclosed outside the confessional, and certainly not to Louis, her husband. She was his queen and Geoffrey his vassal, and both had betrayed their sacred oaths. Thus ran the Queen’s tumultuous thoughts as she sat with the King on their high thrones, waiting for Geoffrey and his son Henry to arrive, so that Louis could exchange with them the kiss of peace and receive Henry’s formal homage. The war was thus to be neatly concluded— except there could be no neat conclusion to Eleanor’s inner turmoil. For this was to be the first time she had set eyes on Geoffrey since that blissful, sinful autumn in Poitou, five years before.
It had not been love, and it had not lasted. But she had never been able to erase from her mind the erotic memory of herself and Geoffrey coupling gloriously between silken sheets, the candlelight a golden glow on their entwined bodies. Their coming together had been a revelation after the fumbling embarrassment of the marriage bed and the crude awakening afforded her by Marcabru; she had never dreamed that a man could give her such prolonged pleasure. It had surged again and again until she cried out with the joy of it, and it had made her aware, as never before, what was lacking in her union with Louis. Yet she had forced herself to forget, because Louis must never know. One suspected betrayal was enough, and that had hurt him so deeply his heart could never be mended. Things had not been the same between them since, and all she was praying for now was the best way out of the ruins of their marriage.
And now Geoffrey was in Paris, in this very palace, and she was terrified in case either of them unwittingly gave Louis or anyone else—the all- seeing Abbot Bernard in particular—cause to wonder what had passed between them. In France they did terrible things to queens who were found guilty of adultery. Who had not heard the dreadful old tale of Brunhilde, the wife of King Clotaire, who had been falsely accused of infidelity and murder, and torn to death by wild horses tethered to her hair, hands, and feet? Eleanor shuddered whenever she thought of it. Would Louis be so merciless if he found out that she had betrayed him? She did not think so, but neither did she want to put him to the test. He must never, ever know that she had lain with Geoffrey.
Even so, fearful though she was, she could not but remember how it had been between them, and how wondrously she had been awakened to the pleasures of love . . .
No, don’t think of it! she admonished herself. That way lies the danger of exposure. She even began to wonder if that wondrous pleasure had been worth the risk . . .
The trumpets were sounding. They were coming now. At any moment Geoffrey would walk through the great door. And there he was: tall, flame- haired, and intense, strength and purpose in his chiseled features, controlled vitality in his long stride. He had not changed. He was advancing toward the dais, his eyes fixed on Louis. He did not look her way. She forced herself to lift her chin and stare ahead. Virtuous ladies kept custody of their eyes, Grandmère Dangerosa had counseled her long ago; but Dangerosa herself had been no saint, and in her time used her eyes to very good effect, to snare Eleanor’s grandfather, the lusty troubadour Duke of Aquitaine. Eleanor had learned very early in life that women could wield a strange power over men, even as she did over Louis, although, God help them both, it had never been sufficient to stir his suppressed and shrinking little member to action very often.
Eleanor tried not to think of her frustration, but that was difficult when the man who had shown her how different things could be was only feet away from her, and accompanied by his eighteen- year- old son. His son! Suddenly, her eyes were no longer in custody but running amok. Henry of Anjou was slightly shorter than his father, but he more than made up for that in presence. He was magnificent, a young, redheaded lion, with a face upon which one might gaze a thousand times yet still wish to look again and feast on the gray eyes, which outdid his father’s in intensity. His lips were blatantly sensual, his chest broad, his body muscular and toned from years in the saddle and the field of battle. Despite his rugged masculinity, Henry moved with a feline grace and suppressed energy that hinted at a deep and powerful sexuality. His youthful maleness was irresistible, glorious. Eleanor took one look at him—and saw Geoffrey no more.
There was no doubt at all that her interest was returned, for, as Louis rose and embraced Geoffrey, Henry’s appreciative gaze never left Eleanor: his eyes were dark with desire, mischievous with intent. Lust knifed through her. She could barely control herself. Never had she reacted so violently to any man.
With an effort, she dragged her eyes—those treacherous eyes—back to the homage that was being performed, then watched Henry, in the wake of his father, falling to his knees and placing his hands between those of the King.
“By the Lord,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice, “I will to you be true and faithful, and love all that you love, and shun all that you shun. Nor will I ever, by will or action, through word or deed, do anything which is unpleasing to you, on condition that you will hold to me as I shall deserve, so help me God.”
Eleanor was captivated. She wanted this man. Watching him, she knew—she could not have said how—that he was destined to be hers, and that she could have him at the click of her fingers. Her resolve to end her marriage quickened.
She caught Geoffrey looking at her, but found herself staring straight through him, barely noticing the faint frown that darkened his brows as he watched her. She was thinking of how she was bound by invisible ties to the three men standing before her, that each was unaware of that fact, and that two of those ties must now be loosed. Forgetting Geoffrey would be easy: she saw with sharp clarity that she had fed off that fantasy for too long, of necessity. It had been lust, no more, embellished in her mind with the fantasies born of frustration. And she had waited for years to be free of poor Louis. The only question now was how to accomplish it.
“In the name of God, I formally invest you with the dukedom of Normandy,” Louis was intoning to Henry, then bent forward and kissed the young man on both cheeks. The young duke rose to his feet and stepped backward to join his father, and both men bowed.
“We have much to thank Abbot Bernard for,” the King murmured to Eleanor, his handsome features relaxing into the sweet smile that he reserved only for his beautiful wife. “This peace with Count Geoffrey and his son was of his making.”
More likely it was some wily strategy invented by Geoffrey, Eleanor thought, but she forbore to say anything. Even the unworldly Louis had accounted it odd that the crafty Count of Anjou had made this sudden about- turn after blaspheming in the face of the saintly Bernard, who had dared to castigate Geoffrey for backing his son, Henry FitzEmpress. Stubbornly, Henry FitzEmpress had for a long time refused to perform homage to his overlord, King Louis for the dukedom of Normandy. Even Eleanor had been shocked.
“That boy is arrogant!” Louis had fumed. “I hear he has a temper on him that would make a saint quail. Someone needs to bridle him before he gets out of control, and his father cannot be trusted to do it, whatever fair words he speaks for my benefit.
“I can’t believe that Geoffrey was lackwitted enough to cede his duchy to that cocky young stripling,” Louis muttered now, the smile fixed on his face.
Eleanor was finding it difficult to say anything in reply, so smitten was she with Henry.
“Even now, I do not trust either of them, and neither does Abbot Bernard. Whatever anyone says, I was right to refuse initially to recognize Henry as duke. Why God in His wisdom struck me down with illness just as I was about to march on them I will never understand.”
Louis was working himself up into one of his rare but deadly furies, and Eleanor, despite herself, knew that she had to make him calm down. People were looking . . .
Louis was gripping the painted arms of his throne with white knuckles. She laid a cool hand on his.
“We must thank God for Abbot Bernard’s intervention,” she murmured soothingly, recalling how Bernard had stepped in and, ignoring Geoffrey’s customary swearing and bluster—God, the man had a temper on him—had in the end performed little less than a miracle in averting war.
“Aye, it was a fair bargain,” Louis conceded, his irritation subsiding.
“No one else could have extracted such terms from the Angevins.”
Eleanor could only agree that Henry’s offer of the Vexin, that muchdisputed Norman borderland, in return for the King’s acknowledgment of him as Duke of Normandy, was a masterful solution to the dispute.
“Come, my lord,” she said, “they are all waiting. Let us entertain our visitors.”
As wine and sweetmeats were brought and served, the King and Queen and their important guests mingled with the courtiers in that vast, dismal hall. Searching for Duke Henry in the throng, hoping for the thrill of even a few words with him, just to hear once more the sound of his voice, Eleanor unwillingly found herself face- to- face with the saintly Abbot Bernard, who seemed equally dismayed by the encounter. He did not like women, it was well known, and she was convinced he was terrified of the effect they might have on him. Heavens, he even disapproved of his sister, simply because she enjoyed being married to a rich man. Eleanor had always hated Bernard, that disapproving old misery— the antipathy was mutual, of course—but now courtesy demanded that she force herself to acknowledge him. The odor of sanctity that clung to him—Odor indeed! she thought—was not conducive to social conversation. Bernard’s stern, ascetic face gazed down at her. His features were emaciated, his skin stretched thin over his skull. All the world knew how greatly he fasted through love of Our Lord. There was barely anything of him.
“My lady,” he said, bowing slightly, and was about to make his escape and move on when it suddenly struck Eleanor that he might be of use to her in her present turmoil.
“Father Abbot,” she detained him, putting on her most beseeching look, “I am in need of your counsel.”
He stood looking silently at her, never a man to waste words. She could sense his antipathy and mistrust; he had never liked her, and had made no secret of his opinion that she was interfering and overworldly. “It is a matter on which I have spoken to you before,” she said in a low voice. “It is about my marriage to the King. You know how empty and bitter my life has been, and that during all my fourteen years of living with Louis, I have borne him but two daughters. I despair of ever bearing him a son and heir, although I have prayed many times to the Virgin to grant my wish, yet I fear that God has turned His face from me.” Her voice broke in a well- timed sob as she went on, “You yourself have questioned the validity of the marriage, and I have long doubted it too. We are too close in blood, Louis and I. We had no dispensation. Tell me, Father Abbot, what can I do to avert God’s displeasure?”
“Many share your concerns, my daughter,” Bernard replied, his voice pained, as if it hurt him to have to agree with her for once. “The barons themselves have urged the King to seek an annulment, but he is loath to lose your great domains. And, God help him, he loves you.” His lip curled.
“Love?” Eleanor retorted. “Louis is like a child! He is an innocent, and afraid of love. He rarely comes to my bed. In faith, I married a monk, not a king!”
“That is of less consequence than your unlawful wedlock,” Bernard flared. “Must you always be thinking of fleshly things?”
“It is fleshly things that lead to the begetting of heirs!” Eleanor snapped. “My daughters are prevented by their sex from inheriting the crown, and if the King dies without an heir, France would be plunged into war. He should be free to remarry and father sons.”
“I will speak to him again,” Bernard said, visibly controlling his irritation.
“There are indeed many good reasons why this marriage should be dissolved.” Eleanor bit her lip, determined not to acknowledge the implied insult. Then she espied Henry of Anjou through a gap in the crowd, quaffing wine as he conversed with his father, Geoffrey, and her heart missed a beat.
Bernard saw him too, and sniffed.
“I distrust those Angevins,” he said darkly. “From the Devil they came, and to the Devil they will return. They are a cursed race. Count Geoffrey is as slippery as an eel, and I have never liked him. By his blasphemy, to my very face, he has revealed his true self. But the vengeance will be God’s alone. Mark you, my lady, Count Geoffrey will be dead within the month!”
Eleanor was struck by a fleeting chill at the abbot’s words, but she told herself that they had been born only of outrage. Then she realized that Bernard was now frowning at Henry.
“When I first saw the son, I knew a moment of terrible foreboding,” he said.
“May I ask why?” Eleanor inquired, startled.
“He is the true descendant of that diabolical woman, Melusine, the wife of the first Count of Anjou. I will tell you the story. The foolish man married her, being seduced by her beauty, and she bore him children, but she would never attend mass. One day, he forced her to, having his knights hold fast to her cloak, but when it came to the elevation of the Host, she broke free with supernatural strength and flew shrieking out of a window and was never seen again. There can be no doubt that she was the Devil’s own daughter, who could not bear to look upon the Body of Christ.”
Eleanor smiled wryly. She had heard the tale before. “That’s just an old legend, Father Abbot. Surely you don’t believe it?”
“Count Geoffrey and his son believe it,” Bernard retorted. “They mention it often. It seems they are even proud of it.” He winced in disgust. “I think they might have been having a joke at your expense,” she told him, remembering Geoffrey’s wicked sense of humor. God only knew, he’d needed it, married to that harridan, Matilda the Empress, who never ceased reminding him that her father had been King of England and her first husband the Holy Roman Emperor himself! And that she was wasted on a mere count!
“One should never joke about such things,” Bernard said stiffly. “And now, my lady, I must speak with the King.” He backed away, nodding his obeisance, evidently relieved to be quitting her company. She shrugged. Kings and princes might quail before him, but to her, Bernard of Clairvaux was just a pathetic, meddlesome, obsessive old man. And why should she waste her thoughts on him when Henry FitzEmpress was coming purposefully toward her.
What was it about a certain arrangement of features and expression that gave one person such appeal for another, she wondered, unable to tear her eyes from the young duke’s face.
“Madame the Queen, I see that the many reports of your beauty do not lie,” Henry addressed her, sketching a quick bow. Eleanor felt the lust rising again in her. God, he was beddable! What she wouldn’t give for one night between the sheets with him!
“Welcome to Paris, my Lord Duke,” she said lightly. “I am glad you have reached an accord with the King.”
“It will save a lot of bloodshed,” Henry said. She was to learn that he spoke candidly and to the point. His eyes, however, were raking up and down her body, taking in every luscious curve beneath the clinging silk gown, with its fitted corsage and double belt, which emphasized the slenderness of her waist and the swell of her hips.
“I trust you had a good journey?” Eleanor inquired, feeling a little faint with desire.
“Why don’t we forget the pleasantries?” Henry said abruptly. It was rude of him, but his words excited her. His gaze bore into hers. “We both know what this is all about, so why waste time, when we could be getting better acquainted?”
Eleanor was about to ask him what he could possibly mean, or reprimand him for his unforgivable familiarity to the Queen of France, but what was the point? She wanted him as much as he clearly wanted her. Why deny it?
“I should like to get to know you too,” she murmured, smiling at him boldly, and forgetting all that nonsense about custody of the eyes. “You must forgive me if I do not know how to respond.”
“From what I’ve heard, you’ve not had much chance,” Henry said.
“King Louis is known for his, shall we say, saintliness. Apart, of course, from when he is leading armies or burning towns. It is odd that such a pious man should be capable of such violence.”
Eleanor shuddered. All these years later, she could not bear to think of what happened at Vitry. It had changed Louis forever.
“My marriage has not been easy,” she admitted, glad to do so. Let Henry not think she was in love with her husband. Once she had been, in a girlish, romantic way, but that was long years ago.
“You need a real man in your bed,” Henry told her bluntly, his eyes never leaving hers, his lips curling in a suggestive smile.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell Abbot Bernard,” Eleanor said mischievously.
“Him? The watchdog of Christendom? He’d never understand.” Henry laughed. “Do you know that when he was young, and got his first erection from looking at a pretty girl, he jumped into an icy pond to cure himself !”
Eleanor felt herself flush with excitement at his words. So soon had they progressed to speaking of such intimate matters, it was unreal— and extremely stimulating.
“You are very self- assured for such a boy,” she said provocatively. “Are you really only eighteen?”
“I am a man in all things that count,” Henry assured her meaningfully, slightly offended at her words.
“Are you going to prove it to me?” she invited.
“When?” he asked, his expression intent.
“I will send a message to you by one of my women,” she told him without hesitation. “I will let you know when and where it is safe for us to be alone together.”
“Is Louis a jealous husband?” Henry inquired.
“No, he never comes to me these days,” Eleanor revealed, her tone bitter, “and he rarely ever did in the past. He should have entered a monastery, for he has no use for women.”
“I have heard it said that he truly loves you,” Henry probed.
“Oh, yes, I have no doubt that he does, but only in a spiritual way. He feels no need to possess me physically.”
“Then he is a fool,” Henry muttered. “I cannot wait.”
“I’m afraid you might have to,” Eleanor said lightly. “I have enemies at this court. The French have always hated me. Everything I do is wrong. I feel I am in a prison, there are so many restrictions on what I do, and they watch me, constantly. So I must be careful, or my reputation will be dragged further in the dust.”
Henry raised his eyebrows. “Further?”
“Maybe you have heard the tales they tell of me,” Eleanor said lightly.
“I have heard one or two things that made me sit up and take notice.” He grinned. “Or stand up and take notice, if you want the bare truth! But I have been no angel myself. We are two of a kind, my queen.” “I only know that I have never felt like this,” Eleanor whispered, catching her breath.
“Hush, madame,” Henry warned. “People are looking. We have talked too long together. I will wait to hear from you.” He raised her hand and kissed it. The touch of his lips, his flesh, was like a jolt to her system.