Settings
Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 14


  His father preferred to sleep in the keep rather than in the royal apartments he’d built along the south wall. Emerging into the bailey, Hal stood motionless for a moment, his eyes searching the darkness, but he could detect no lights, no signs of life. A few men might still be awake in the great hall, though, and he quickened his pace until he’d gotten past it. Ahead of him lay the gatehouse, flanked on each side by stone towers. There he found the guards, sharing a flask and throwing dice.

  They sprang to their feet in alarm as he entered, for gambling during sentry duty could bring the wrath of the castellan down upon them. But their dismay lessened once they recognized Hal, as he was not known to be a disciplinarian.

  “How may we serve you, my lord?”

  Hal had a good memory for faces, and he’d been at Chinon often enough in the past to become acquainted with the garrison. He called them by their given names now, a familiarity that he knew they’d find flattering. “Giles, Daniel, and Mauger, is it not? I could not sleep.” He pointed at his jaw, knowing that even if they’d not been in the great hall during dinner, they’d have heard by now of his afternoon encounter with the barber and apothecary. “It seems that not even poppy and bryony root are strong enough to vanquish a toothache. I was wandering about the bailey like a lost soul, and then I saw the light from the gatehouse window.”

  Giles was their spokesman and he said expansively, “We would be honored to keep you company, my liege. Alas, we lack those comforts that a king has every right to expect.” With a wave of his hand, he took in the barren, dimly lit guard chamber. “We’ve not even a stool to offer you, and the only wine we have tastes like verjuice.”

  “If you can take my mind off this wretched toothache, Giles, that will matter more to me than all the luxuries of Constantinople. As for the wine…” With a grin, Hal reached under his mantle and produced a wineskin. “Now,” he said, glancing down at the dice, “what game are we playing? Hazard or raffle?”

  The hour that followed was one the guards would never forget. They could scarcely believe that they were gambling with the young king, sharing his wineskin and bantering with him as if he were one of their own. Hal lost more than he won and joked that he had worse luck than a cuckolded husband. He asked them about their families and their bedmates, for they were too young to afford wives, and told them stories of hunts and tournaments, giving them glimpses of a world that was as fascinating to them as it was foreign. And when Mauger complained of his father’s strict ways and heavy-handed discipline, Hal offered him sympathy and the knowing smile of one who’d walked in Mauger’s shoes. They were sorry, therefore, when he stretched and got to his feet, for they were not yet ready to return to reality.

  “I’ve kept you from your duties long enough,” he said, wincing as he gingerly touched his sore jaw. “You are good lads, the lot of you. Seek me out on the morrow and I’ll find a way to show my appreciation.”

  They thanked him profusely, dazzled by visions of silver coin and fine wine and a king’s favor, and assured him that it had been their pleasure to be of service. Hal smiled, tossed his wineskin to Mauger, and took a step toward the door before pausing. “There is something else you could do for me,” he said, and they vowed that he need only name it.

  “I’ll not be able to sleep tonight. It is not just this accursed tooth. In truth, I’ve an itch that only a woman can scratch.”

  They grinned, for that was an itch they well knew, and suggested that any maid servant in the castle would be honored to swive him. “I suppose so,” he said, with becoming modesty. “But I have a particular lass in mind, one who lives down in the village, the young widow of the blacksmith.” Lowering his voice, he winked. “I am depending upon your discretion, for she’d not like to have her name bandied about the garrison. But I can assure you that no man sharing her bed will have any thoughts to spare for teeth!”

  They were quiet, looking at him in consternation, and Hal hid a smile, for he read their faces and their minds as easily as a monk could read his Psalter. They wanted to please him, were eager to be part of this benign conspiracy, knowing they could dine out on this story for the rest of their lives. They’d heard the whispers of his disgrace, the rumors that he and his father were feuding. But he’d certainly seemed to be on good terms with the king during dinner. And he was famed for his generosity, not one to forget a favor.

  It was Giles who found the solution. “We can lower the drawbridge for you, my lord. But you’ll have to go on foot.” Hoping he’d come up with a compromise that accommodated the young king whilst protecting themselves, he waited anxiously to see if it was acceptable to Hal.

  To his great relief, Hal laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Why would I need a horse? Her house is but a stone’s throw from the bottom of the hill.” And it was as easy as that to escape from his father’s formidable castle at Chinon.

  THE NIGHT WAS COLD, but the day’s clouds had been swept from the sky by a brisk west wind and the darkness was lit by stars beyond counting. Hal supposed he should be nervous, yet all he felt was excitement. It had been hard to wait calmly as the guards manned the chains and winches, first raising the iron portcullis and then lowering the drawbridge, for the noise seemed loud enough to awaken the dead. But no one came out to investigate, and Hal was soon standing on the causeway, waving jauntily at his unwitting accomplices. He hoped they’d not pay too high a price for their misplaced trust. But to his father’s credit, he did not make scapegoats of those who could not defend themselves. No, his anger would not be turned upon the hapless guards. There would be one person he’d blame, and only one.

  At the bottom of the hill, he hesitated, then decided to head for the Grand-Carroi, the village crossroads. He could only hope he had not long to wait. What he would do if his wait were in vain, he refused to contemplate. The village street was deserted; even the dogs were asleep. Hal had just passed the silhouette of St Maurice’s church when figures stepped from the shadows into his path.

  Hal felt no surprise as the moonlight revealed their identities: Peter Fitz Guy, Simon de Marisco, and, of course, William Marshal. These men were far more than members of his retinue; they were good friends, and he embraced them like brothers. Peter and Simon shared his jubilation, but Will was somber, his expression showing both resolve and recognition of the great risk they were taking. Hal knew the older man was conflicted, for unlike the others, he still saw Henry as his king, not his enemy. But his loyalty to his liege lord had proved stronger than his misgivings, and Hal was deeply touched by his steadfast devotion. Flinging his arm around Will’s shoulders, he hugged the knight again, and privately vowed that Will would be well rewarded for his staunch, unwavering allegiance.

  “I knew you’d be here,” he exulted, “I knew it!”

  Simon and Peter grinned and began to tell him of the troubles they’d had in their race to reach Chinon before the king, interrupting each other freely as they complained happily about taking lesser-known roads and getting little sleep and having to hide in the nearby woods as they kept the castle under surveillance. It was Will who cut their premature celebrating short, reminding them tersely that time was of the essence.

  They knew he was right and followed him hastily back into the safety of the shadows, explaining to Hal that the others were waiting in a copse of trees on the edge of the village. “What about fresh mounts?” Hal wanted to know. “We’re going to need them, for we’ll not be able to spare our horses.”

  “I sent a man ahead to Alençon,” Will said, “so they’ll be ready for us when we get there.”

  That had been Hal’s main concern, for he knew how fast his father traveled under ordinary circumstances; in times of need, he’d shown an uncanny ability to put wings to his horse’s hooves. “Bless you, Will,” he exclaimed, rejoicing that a few whispered words to Marguerite could have set in motion such a perfect plan. He’d not doubted, though, that Will would understand the cryptic message she’d borne—one simple word, “Chinon.” How could h
e fail when he had right and God and such valiant knights on his side?

  When they wanted to know how he’d gotten out of the castle, he grinned and promised to tell them all about his ruse as soon as they were safely away. He was eager to share, for not many men could claim to have outwitted his father with such ease. Will’s concern about delay was justified, though, and it would have to wait.

  He liked the looks of the stallion they’d chosen for him; it was pawing the grass, eager to run. So was Hal and he swung up into the saddle with a laugh of pure pleasure. His eyes moving from face to face, he felt such a surge of affection for these men that his throat tightened and his eyes misted. “Songs will be sung and tales told of the events of this night. We’ll soon have my father’s hounds on our trail. But this is one fox that will not be caught!” He put spurs to his horse, then, the wind carrying echoes of his laughter back through the silent streets of the sleeping village.

  “MY LORD! WAKE UP, MY LORD!”

  Henry opened his eyes, quickly closed them to shut out the glare of torchlight. His head was throbbing and he wanted only to spiral down into sleep again. But the voices were insistent. Filtering the light through his lashes, he saw tense faces floating above him.

  “Harry!” This was his brother’s voice, and he guessed that it was Hamelin’s hand clamped upon his shoulder. Opening his eyes again, he gazed blearily at the men hovering around the bed. What was the matter with him? His head felt as if it were stuffed with cobwebs.

  “My lord king, you must get up.” Willem was standing beside Hamelin. “Your son is gone. He has fled the castle.”

  Henry blinked, his gaze sweeping the chamber. Nearby, his squires lay on their pallets, snoring peacefully. But Hal’s bed was empty. “What do you mean he is gone? What time is it?”

  “Nigh on dawn, my liege.”

  Sitting up with an effort, Henry saw that his castellan was in the chamber, too. Why was he having so much trouble making sense of this? He’d always awakened like a cat, instantly on the alert. “Fetch that basin,” he ordered and when Hamelin brought it to the bed, he splashed water onto his face. It was frigid, a thin sheen of ice coating the surface, and the shock chased away the last of his grogginess.

  “What are you saying? How could Hal have gotten out of the castle?”

  “These dolts lowered the drawbridge for him.” Glaring over his shoulder, the castellan gestured and three terrified young men were shoved forward. Shrinking back, they stared mutely at the king as the castellan gave Henry an angry summary of the night’s events. “So they stood there, grinning like jackanapes, and waved him on his way,” he concluded caustically. “And it took half the night ere they realized that he was not coming back, and then another hour or so until they mustered the courage to summon me.”

  One of the youths stumbled forward and fell to his knees by the bed. “Forgive us, my liege,” he pleaded. “He wanted to tumble a wench, and we could see no harm in it. We did not let him take a horse.” He swallowed, looking up at Henry with silent tears streaking his face. “He played us for fools, sire…I am so sorry!”

  “He played us all for fools,” Henry said, but he was still struggling with disbelief. Could Hal have truly done this? Could he have been so cunning, so false? So heartless? “I am a light sleeper,” he said. “How could he have been sure that I’d not awaken…” And then he caught his breath, comprehension coming like a blow. His eyes moved from the flagon of night wine on the table to his squires, still sleeping in the midst of turmoil, and for a fleeting moment, he saw, too, a silver wine cup filled with hippocras.

  “He put it in the wine,” he whispered. They looked at him blankly, and he said it again, needing to hear the words spoken aloud, for only then could he believe them. “The sleeping draught.” Sweet Mary, Mother of God. “The sleeping draught for that convenient toothache of his.”

  “My lord king…” Willem reached out, clasped his hand in a warm, firm grip. “What would you have us do?”

  Henry’s head came up. “Saddle the horses.”

  The castellan at once headed for the door. Hamelin was trying to awaken the squires, without any luck. Willem, glancing toward the forgotten guards, dismissed them with an abrupt gesture. They fled the chamber, not daring to look back, and Willem began to gather up clothing for the king. Henry was already on his feet. Grabbing garments from the earl, he dressed quickly and silently. Willem waited, wisely saying nothing, but Hamelin could not hold his tongue.

  “How could he do this? I would never have thought him capable of such treachery.” Moving toward his brother, he came to a hesitant halt, not sure what to do next. “Harry…Harry, I am so sorry!”

  Henry looked at him. “So am I,” he said at last, and then added in a voice that sent chills along Hamelin’s spine, “but not as sorry as that traitorous whelp will be.”

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  March 1173

  Poitiers, Poitou

  THE WINDOW-SEAT WAS CUSHIONED, and sunlight was filtering into the solar over Maud’s shoulder, for they were double windows and covered with thin sheets of horn, which admitted more light than the usual linen screens. A blazing hearth and woolen wall hangings shut out the chill, and the fireplace had a feature that Maud had not seen before: a stone hood that kept the smoke from escaping into the chamber by funneling it up the chimney. The floor rushes were fresh and fragrant; Maud had been impressed to learn that they were changed weekly, for she knew some English barons who’d consider it extravagant to replace them more than once a year. One of Eleanor’s musicians was strumming a plaintive melody on his gittern, two of her ladies were embroidering pillow covers, and her favorite greyhound was sprawled, belly-up, before the fire. A third attendant was reading aloud for their entertainment the sorrowful tale of star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult. It was a pleasant, peaceful scene, and Maud thought again that they knew how to live well in Aquitaine. Little wonder Eleanor had yearned for her homeland during her years of marital exile, for neither Paris nor London could match the splendors—or the comforts—of Poitiers.

  Eleanor was not stitching as her ladies were, and Maud realized that she’d never seen her friend with a needle in her hand. Her aunt, the Empress Maude, had not been one for embroidery either. Maud supposed it was a small but subtle form of rebellion, for even queens were expected to do needlework, to occupy themselves with womanly tasks.

  As for herself, Maud did not object to this particular domestic duty. She was a skilled seamstress and enjoyed exercising her imagination with needle and thread. Her current project was an elegant chrysom cloth of fine linen. In four years of marriage, her daughter-in-law Bertrada had already given birth to three children, and so Maud thought it only logical that there’d be a need again for christening attire in the coming twelvemonth. She was sorry Bertrada was not with her at Poitiers, for she’d become quite fond of the girl, but her daughter-by-marriage had insisted upon returning to England with Ranulf, Rhiannon, and Rainald.

  She’d been surprised that Hugh had not taken Bertrada when he’d departed on pilgrimage after Christmas to the holy Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Their separation might be for the best, though, giving Bertrada time to recover from her last confinement. She knew of no woman who’d want to face the birthing chamber every year, much less a lass who was barely seventeen.

  Thinking of difficult deliveries called John’s birth to mind, and she glanced toward the queen. Eleanor was seated at a table, occupied with pen and parchment, which aroused Maud’s always-lively curiosity; a letter must be very private indeed if it could not be entrusted to a scribe. She was amusing herself by speculating about the nature of her friend’s confidential message when the door suddenly banged open, with enough force to startle them all.

  Richard swept into the chamber like a whirlwind; that was the only way Maud could describe his dramatic entrance. He was so flushed that he seemed to be feverish, and he looked eerily like his father in his rage. He was followed by Raoul de Faye and a third man
who was a stranger to Maud. Slamming the door behind him, Richard strode toward his mother, paying no heed to the others in the solar.

  “You’ll not believe what that damned fool has done, Maman! He fled from Chinon Castle and has taken refuge at the French court!”

  Eleanor rose so swiftly that her chair toppled over into the floor rushes. One glance toward her attendants was all it took; rising, they quickly departed the chamber. So did the musician. It never occurred to Maud that the queen’s dismissal applied to her, too, and even if it had, she’d not have stirred from the window-seat. Nothing short of a direct command would have sufficed, given Richard’s remarkable revelation about Hal. God help him, what had that reckless lad done now? And why was Richard so distraught over his brother’s disgrace? From what she’d observed, there was little love lost between them.

  “How do you know this, Richard?”

  “He was with me when the message came from…Well, better we mention no names.” Raoul gazed coolly in Maud’s direction, seeing her not as his niece’s friend but as the king’s cousin. “It is true. Hal has bolted and the cat is amongst the pigeons for certes.” Spotting a flagon and cups, he moved to the table and began to pour for them, saying, “Wine will not make the news go down any easier, but it cannot hurt.” Glancing over his shoulder, he beckoned his messenger to come forward. “Tell the queen what you told us.”