Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 13

  Geoffrey de Mandeville could have taught Judas about betrayal and Herod about cruelty. He had abandoned King Stephen for the Empress Maude, deserted Maude to pledge his allegiance again to Stephen, and was contemplating yet another breach of faith when Stephen struck first, stripping him of his base of power, the Tower of London. As always, though, Stephen’s punishment was halfhearted and he’d allowed the earl to remain at liberty. He’d promptly rebelled and unleashed hell upon the innocent and the defenseless. Burning, pillaging, raping, his men devastated towns and churches alike, inspiring such fear that it was said the grass withered where he walked. He’d died assaulting one of Stephen’s castles, not long after he’d been excommunicated for seizing Ramsey Abbey. Since he could not be buried in hallowed ground, the Knights Templar had hung his coffin in a tree so as not to pollute the earth.

  His son and namesake was allowed to inherit the earldom once Henry ascended the English throne, serving Henry faithfully till his death, when his title and lands passed to his younger brother, William. Geoffrey de Mandeville rested today in consecrated ground, the Pope having granted a posthumous absolution at his family’s behest, but his reputation could never be restored, and his name was still a byword for treachery and betrayal. Yet this same man had sired two sons of honor and integrity. Henry did not understand it, any more than he’d understood how John Marshal could have begotten a worthy son like Will. He could only be thankful for it.

  “If you’d hoped for an idle afternoon, my liege, those hopes are about to be dashed.” Essex’s smile was wryly sympathetic. “Word of the king’s arrival invariably spreads faster than a summer brushfire, and the great hall is already filling with petitioners, claimants, plaintiffs, supplicants, and self-seekers of every stripe. Some have cases pending before your Curia Regis, others want you to resolve local disputes, and all of them are entreating that they be heard.”

  Henry sighed, but he was accustomed to this, for a king’s time was almost as valued as his favor. “I’ll grant audiences this afternoon and hold court on the morrow,” he said, casting a regretful look in his falcon’s direction.

  “The priest of St Maurice’s has asked to see you, too.” Knowing that Henry had paid for the construction of the church, Essex guessed that he’d take a personal interest in its progress. “Do you want to see him first?” When Henry nodded, the earl started for the door, then paused. “Shall I ask your son to join you in the hall?”

  Henry hesitated. He knew that the earl was trying, in a more subtle fashion than Hamelin, to reconcile father and son. Would Hal be pleased by the invitation? But when had he ever shown interest in the more mundane duties of kingship?

  “No, Willem,” he said, using the playful nickname he’d bestowed upon the earl in affectionate acknowledgment of the other man’s boyhood in Flanders—“Willem” being Flemish for “William.” “More likely than not, I’d have to command his presence, and that would defeat the purpose, would it not?”

  Willem took his candor for what it was—a declaration of trust—and made a discreet departure, for he was wiser than Hamelin, knew better than to push. When the king was ready to talk about his son’s wayward behavior, he would pick the time and place.

  Henry’s squires had been quietly conferring, for they were constantly engaged in a losing battle to make their lord look more regal, and they offered him now a choice of two short cloaks called rhenos, one lined with sable, the other with miniver. Henry cared only for staying warm in the great hall, and selected at random, then fended off their efforts to get him to change his plain green tunic for a more fashionable one with a diagonal neckline. When a knock sounded on the door, he seized the opportunity to escape their ministrations and strode over to answer it himself. He was expecting Willem and the priest of St Maurice’s. He was not expecting to see his son.

  “May I come in?”

  Henry stepped aside to let Hal enter, and his squires at once dived for the door, murmuring vague excuses as they fled. “Passing strange—people usually enjoy watching bloodshed.” Hal’s joke was a lame one, but it was a joke, nonetheless, and Henry’s initial surprise gave way to astonishment. They’d not been on speaking terms for days, and suddenly the lad was making jests? After considering his possible responses, he chose silence, waiting warily for Hal to reveal his intent.

  Hal seemed ill at ease. Wandering about the chamber, he lavished attention upon Henry’s falcon before picking up one of the discarded cloaks. “May I borrow this sometime?”

  “I thought you were aiming higher than a cloak,” Henry said coolly, and Hal let the garment slip through his fingers onto the floor.

  “I hate this,” he blurted out, for the first time meeting Henry’s eyes.

  “What do you hate, Hal? That we are estranged? Or that you were dragged away from Limoges against your will?”

  “Both,” Hal admitted, with a flickering smile. “I have the right of it in our quarrel, Papa. But it serves for naught to fight like this. Even if we cannot agree, we need not turn words into weapons. I have said things in anger that I now regret, and I hope that is true for you, too.”

  “This is a remarkable change of mood. Just a few hours ago, you were acting as if I were the Antichrist. If you have experienced a divine revelation, like St Paul on the road to Damascus, I will be most interested to hear about it.” Henry’s sarcasm was so sharp because he’d been affected in spite of himself by his son’s use of “Papa,” an echo of simpler, happier times.

  Color rose in Hal’s face, but he did not look away. “I suppose I deserve that,” he conceded. “I ought to have found a better way to express my objections to the marriage contract. For that, I am indeed sorry.” Continuing quickly, “I do not want you to misunderstand what I am saying, though. I am apologizing for my bad manners, not for my protest. As for what caused my ‘remarkable change of mood,’ the credit—or blame—for that must go to Uncle Hamelin.”

  At Henry’s obvious surprise, Hal could not help grinning. “I know how unlikely that sounds. But even a blind pig finds an acorn occasionally.”

  “And what acorn did Hamelin dig up?”

  “He reminded me of the date. Today is the fifth of March…your birthday.”

  Henry was taken aback. “So it is,” he said, for he’d indeed been born on this day forty years ago at Le Mans. “It had entirely slipped my mind…”

  “Mine, too…until Uncle Hamelin spoke up.” Hal was looking discomfited again. “He made me see that I owe you better than this,” he said in a low voice. “I hope that you can forgive my public rudeness. I promise you that it will not happen again.”

  Henry wanted very much to believe him. “Yes, I can forgive you,” he said cautiously. “But you must understand, Hal, that nothing has changed and nothing will change until you prove to me that you can be trusted.”

  “I know that. And I’ll not mislead you, Papa. Nothing has changed for me, either. I am never going to agree to the loss of Chinon and the other two castles. Nor am I going to stop demanding my just due as an anointed king. But in the future I will try to keep our quarrels private and I will accord you the respect you deserve as my father and my king.” Hal paused before saying hopefully, “Fair enough?”

  Henry nodded slowly. “Fair enough.”

  Hal’s relief was palpable. “I was afraid,” he said, “that you’d not believe me.” They regarded each other in silence for a few moments, neither knowing what to say next, fearful of taking a misstep onto such very thin ice. Reaching down, Hal retrieved the cloak from the floor rushes and fastened it around his shoulders. “Since we just agreed to a truce,” he said cheerfully, “that must mean that I can borrow your clothes, no? Now I’d best get down to the hall and find Uncle Hamelin. I am going to make him very happy by telling him that he single-handedly brought about our reconciliation!”

  At the door, he halted. “There is one more thing, Papa. I need to request a favor.”

  Henry said nothing, all his suspicions flaring up again. Hal did not seem t
o read anything ominous in his silence, though, for his smile did not waver. “It was not just my anger that has kept me so quiet since we left Limoges. I’ve been coping with a wretched toothache. It comes and goes, but is worse when I eat or drink.”

  Henry’s response was skeptical, not sympathetic. “And I suppose you want to go into the village in search of a barber who’ll pull it.”

  Again, Hal surprised him. “Good God, no! I’d not let a barber get within a mile of me with a pair of pincers.” He gave a shudder of mock horror. “I would like you to send for an apothecary. Surely there must be herbs that I can take to ease the pain?”

  So Hal had not been conniving to leave the castle. Henry had rarely been so happy to be proven wrong. “Yes…cloves might help. I will tell the steward to fetch the village apothecary straightaway.”

  Hal looked pleased. “Thank you. For this fine cloak, too.” He ran his fingers admiringly over the softly woven material. “I suppose you’ll want it back…eventually.” This time his smile was full of mischief, and it called up memories Henry had been seeking to suppress, memories of the boy who’d been so quick to laugh, to tease, so proud to be a crowned king, not yet corrupted by the siren songs of the French court.

  Henry stood motionless for a time after Hal’s departure, deliberately calling up echoes of the Count of Toulouse’s warning. They have played skillfully upon his lack of experience and his poor judgment. He’d spoken a harsh truth when he’d told Hal that nothing had changed. But he could not deny that the faintest of sparks had been kindled, a feeble glimmer of hope in the dark that had descended upon his world at Limoges.

  DINNER, normally scheduled at noon, had been shifted to a later hour as part of the Lenten abstinence and was not served until after Vespers had rung. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise for Henry’s household knights and the castle garrison, who’d been anticipating gloom and bleak silence. Instead, the meal that evening was informal, enjoyable, and raucous in the absence of women. Hal was in high spirits, and had the men laughing uproariously over his extravagant account of what he called the Saga of the Royal Tooth. He claimed that Chinon’s barber, hearing of his malady, had stalked him relentlessly all afternoon, urging him to have the tooth extracted.

  “He vowed that he need not use the pincers if I was skittish about them, that there were other ways. Only these ‘other ways’ made the pincers sound better and better. One method was to coat the ailing tooth with the ashes of earthworms. Another was to mix up a powder of ants and their eggs and blow it through a quill onto the tooth. Or smear on a concoction of newts and fen beetles. When I questioned where he’d find newts or ant eggs, he assured me that all the necessary ingredients were at hand. By then I realized that he and Master Gervase, the apothecary, were partners in crime, and I began to fear the worst!”

  Chinon’s castellan, blinking back tears of mirth, offered to send to the nearest city, Tours or Angers, to find a surgeon who made his living by pulling teeth. Hal hastily made the sign of the cross, as if to ward off evil. “Jesu forfend, Sir Robert! My new friend, the barber, told me more than any man would want to know about their methods. He described a ‘popular procedure’ in which they cauterize the skin behind the victim’s ear, then heat henbane and leek seeds over hot coals and have him inhale the smoke through a funnel. Since I know henbane is a poison, I assume the next step in the process would be to hide my body afterward!”

  Several knights chimed in with horror stories of their own, but Hal was not ready to yield center stage, and it occurred to his amused father that he’d have made a fine minstrel or player. Adroitly recapturing control of the conversation, Hal launched into the next chapter of his narrative: his meeting with Master Gervase, the apothecary.

  “He said they think pain is caused by worms breeding in the tooth. That reassured me greatly, of course. He explained that the worms could be driven out by lighting a candle made of mutton fat and burning it as close to the ailing tooth as I could endure. Meanwhile, he’d hold a basin of cold water under my jaw and the worms would seek to escape the heat and fall into the water. I considered it, but then I started to wonder how we could be sure that the worms could not swim,” Hal said, with such tongue-in-cheek seriousness that the hall erupted into hilarity again.

  When the laughter subsided, Hamelin provided more fuel for the fire by asking Hal what treatment he’d finally settled upon. Hal grimaced and shook his head ruefully. “By that point, Uncle, I’d begun to fear that the only choice open to me was to drown the worms—and my sorrows—in drink. But when he saw that his sale was in danger, Master Gervase offered a few recommendations more tolerable than ant eggs or powdered newts. At first he suggested that I rub the oil of the box tree on the afflicted tooth, and I was tempted. But then he let slip that this remedy also cured piles, which I found right curious. Did I really want to put a potion meant for the arse into my mouth?”

  With an actor’s innate sense of timing, Hal paused for the audience to react and was not disappointed. “Seeing that I was not keen on the box tree oil, Master Gervase advised me to rub the tooth and gum with betony or cloves—which was what my lord father had suggested hours ago!” Slanting a facetious glance toward Henry, he said, “So if you ever tire of governing, my liege, you can always earn a living as an apothecary.”

  This time his sally was met with cautious silence, his audience waiting to see how Henry would react, for under the circumstances, that could have been a harmless jest or a barbed gibe. It was only after Henry smiled that the other men felt free to laugh, and he realized that some of their merriment was due to sheer relief that father and son seemed to have made peace.

  Hal continued to amuse with his comic commentary, expressing his doubts about the draught that the apothecary had eventually prescribed to ease his pain and help him sleep, a blend of henbane, black poppy, and bryony root, for they were all poisons. He wondered, too, why the martyred maiden Apollonia was the patron saint for toothaches when she’d had all of her own teeth cruelly extracted by her pagan tormentors. Wasn’t that, he mused, rather like picking a virgin as the patron saint for whores or a miser as the patron saint for spendthrifts?

  Henry enjoyed watching Hal’s performance; it had been a long time since he’d seen his son so lighthearted, so carefree. This meal was in such stark contrast to the tense, unpalatable dinners they’d endured since leaving Limoges that he found himself savoring the bland Lenten fare, even eating a few mouthfuls of salted herring, a despised dish that rarely appeared on a royal table. Chinon’s cooks had offered up a particularly mediocre menu, confident that Henry was not likely to notice. The final course was a soupy pudding made with almond milk and dried figs. But before the men could push away from the tables, Hal rose and banged on his wine cup with a knife to attract attention.

  “I want to end dinner with a salute to my lord father,” he announced, and on cue, a servant entered with a flagon and two silver wine cups. Reaching for one, Hal handed the other to Henry. Puzzled, he followed his son’s lead and leaned over so Hal could ceremoniously clink their cups together. Taking a swallow, he looked at Hal in surprise, for the vessels were filled with hippocras, a costly spiced wine that was served only upon special occasions even by the wealthy and highborn.

  Looking pleased with himself, Hal lifted his cup high. “You may not all know that this is a special day…my lord father the king’s birthday. I would have you drink to his health and good fortune!”

  The men raised their own cups and the hall resounded with cries of “To the king!” Glancing back at Henry with a sly grin, Hal signaled for silence. “I am grateful to my uncle, the Earl of Surrey, for reminding me, as this is not a birthday to go unmarked. It is not every day, after all, that a man reaches the venerable age of fifty.”

  Henry inhaled the wine he’d been about to swallow and began to cough. Again the audience quieted, watching Henry to see if he was amused or annoyed by his son’s jape. Getting his breath back, he laughed, and the men burst into applause an
d cheers, so grateful were they that the rift between their lord and his son was on the mend. None wanted to be forced to choose between them, for how could a man weigh the present against the future?

  Rising, Henry lifted his cup as Hal had done. “Let’s drink now to my son, who has every attribute of kingship except the ability to count.” Midst the laughter, his gaze came to rest affectionately upon his beaming brother. Hamelin had given him a birthday gift more valuable than gold, silver, or myrrh: a new beginning.

  HENRY DID NOT LINGER long in the great hall, for his hours in the saddle had caught up with him, and he felt unusually tired. After joking with Willem that his son’s jest had been on target, for tonight he felt far closer to fifty than forty, he withdrew to his bedchamber in the keep. Hal had already retired, losing much of his earlier animation once his tooth began to pain him again, and when Henry entered the chamber, his son was sound asleep, an empty vial of the apothecary’s draught in the floor rushes by his bed. Henry’s squires were awaiting him, yawning behind their hands as they drowsily assisted him to undress. Glancing from their drooping eyelids to the flagon of night wine on a nearby table, Henry smiled, guessing that Hal had shared it liberally with them. None had ever faulted his son’s generosity. It was his good heart that had gotten him into trouble; he was too trusting, a troubling flaw in a king. He would have to be taught the lessons Henry had learned at an early age.

  THE BEDCHAMBER WAS LIT only by the flickering flames of the dying hearth and there was no sound but the even breathing of Hal’s father and his squires. It was difficult to lie still, to wait. Too much was at stake, though, for impatience, and Hal did not fling back the bedcovers until he was sure that the other occupants of the chamber were asleep. He was fully dressed, save for his boots, and he hastily pulled them on, fastened his belt, and slid his sword into its leather scabbard, as silently as a ghost. He held his breath as he raised the door latch, stifling a triumphant laugh when none of them stirred as he slipped out into the stairwell.