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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 17


  Rotrou was not alone, accompanied by Arnulf, Bishop of Lisieux, Henry’s brother Hamelin, Maurice de Craon, an Angevin baron and longtime friend, and Willem, still in his muddied hunting garb. Henry knew at once that Rotrou did not bring welcome tidings. He was an elderly man, but he seemed to have aged a decade in the fortnight since Henry had last seen him. Hamelin’s face was a mirror, reflecting utter misery, and while Willem looked impassive, his very presence was ominous, for Rotrou would not have needed his support unless his news was dire indeed. But what sent a prickle of unease along Henry’s spine was a memory, triggered by the sight of Rotrou and Arnulf together. They had been the ones who’d come to tell him of Becket’s murder.

  “Welcome back, my lord archbishop.”

  Henry gestured toward a chair, but Rotrou shook his head, fearing that if he sat down, he’d not be able to get up again. Never had he dreaded anything as he dreaded telling the king what he’d learned in Paris. As terrible as it had been to bring word of Becket’s murder, this was worse. There was no way to soften the blow and so he did not try.

  “When I met with the French king and demanded that the young king be sent back to your court so you might resolve your differences, he interrupted to ask me who sent such a message. I replied, of course, ‘The King of England.’ And he said that was impossible since the King of England was there with him and had no need to send ambassadors. He went on to claim that your son’s coronation established him as the true king, the only king.”

  Henry’s jaw clenched and hot color surged into his face and throat. The anger he’d felt toward Hal was submerged in the scalding rage now directed at the French king. His son was an idiot, but the true guilt was Louis Capet’s. He’d taken advantage of Hal’s credulous nature, poisoned his mind against his own blood, and made of him a cat’s paw, a dupe of the French Crown.

  With an effort, Henry found a strained smile for the aged cleric. “I ask your pardon, my lord archbishop, for sending you on a fool’s errand. It was a cruel waste of your time. Little wonder you look so bone-weary.”

  “My lord king…there is more. I would give anything if I did not have to tell you this. The young king was not alone at the French court. His brothers Richard and Geoffrey are there with him.”

  “No, that is not possible. You must be mistaken.”

  “My liege, I saw them with my own eyes. I spoke to them.”

  Henry continued to shake his head. “That makes no sense. Even if Hal somehow bedazzled them with promises and bribes, Eleanor would not have let them join in his folly. She would never have allowed them to follow him to the French court.”

  The archbishop no longer met Henry’s eyes. “She sent them to Paris, my lord. She has been conspiring with your enemies against you. I…I cannot explain how she could have so forgotten the loyalty and obedience she owes you as your wife and queen. It is almost as if the French king has cast a spell upon your entire family. But there is no doubt of her participation in this odious, unholy plot. Your sons admitted it, nay, they boasted of it.”

  A suffocating silence fell. When the men realized that Henry was not going to speak, they quietly withdrew, for even Hamelin understood that there was no comfort they could offer, no balm for a wound so deep.

  HENRY HAD LOST TRACK of time. It could have been hours, it could have been days since the archbishop had told him that he’d lost his sons and had been betrayed by his own queen. He was not in pain, not yet. He was numb, so stunned that nothing seemed real. When he’d learned of Becket’s murder, he’d been plunged into an emotional cauldron, overwhelmed with grief, anger, shock, guilt, and fear, feelings so intense that it was as if he were drowning in them. Now…now there was only a void, a vast emptiness filling his head and his heart.

  He did not hear the knocking at first, and when he did, he could not rouse himself to respond. He did not even turn his head when the door opened, continuing to stare into the hearth’s shooting flames, mesmerized by that white-gold blaze of heat and light and sheer, raw energy. Passing strange, how fire could be both a blessing and a scourge, saving life and taking it, keeping winter at bay even as it devoured the damned, the sinners condemned to the deepest pits of Hell-Everlasting.

  “My liege…Harry.”

  He looked up unwillingly, saw Willem standing beside him, with Geoff hovering by the door. “We brought you some food,” the earl said softly, “should you get hungry later.”

  A stray thought surfaced, the realization that this was the first time the other man had ever called him by his given name. He nodded in acknowledgment and waited for them to go away. But when he turned his eyes from the fire, they were still there, and after a prolonged pause, Willem began to speak.

  “I was eleven when my father died. Being so far away made it harder for me, as I’d not yet come to think of Flanders as home. I’d never truly known him, not the man he really was. But I loved the man I thought he was, and I grieved for him. When I learned the truth—that he was accursed, with the Mark of Cain upon him—I fought against believing it as long as I could. As young as I was, I understood that I was losing far more than my father. I was losing my past. My memories could no longer comfort me, for they were false…”

  Henry had never heard Willem speak of his father; he’d not so much as mentioned his name. Those echoes of that young boy’s pain penetrated his haze, and he looked intently into the other man’s face. “And once you did believe it, Willem…what then? How did you learn to live with a loss like that?”

  “I tried to find answers. How could he have been so kind to my brothers and me and yet capable of such unforgivable cruelty? I well-nigh drove myself mad, looking for reasons, for justifications, for any glimmer of light.”

  Henry’s eyes caught his and held. “And did you? Find the answers you sought?”

  “No, I did not. Sometimes there are no answers to be found, Harry…and that was the hardest lesson of all.” Willem was still holding the platter of food. Setting it down on the table, he said, “We’ll leave you now. God keep you, my liege.”

  Henry got to his feet as he heard the door close behind Willem. The aroma of roasted venison wafted off the trencher, but he was not tempted; his gorge rose in his throat at the very sight of the sliced meat. He could not imagine ever taking pleasure in a meal again. Ever taking pleasure in anything. As he turned away, he saw that his son had not gone with Willem. Geoff still stood by the door, clutching a wine flask to his chest, looking so young and wretched that Henry’s frozen heart felt the first thawing. He did not welcome it, did not want to feel again.

  “You need not stay, lad.”

  Geoff hesitated, but he stood his ground, and then he found his tongue and his words came tumbling out in a desperate rush. “I brought you wine, Papa. I thought…thought it might help. Getting drunk, I mean.”

  Much to his surprise, a ghost of a smile flitted across Henry’s lips. “Believe it or not, Geoff, I’ve never gotten drunk.”

  “I have,” Geoff said earnestly, “and it does chase the hurt away.” Venturing farther into the chamber, he held the wine flask out to Henry, and inhaled audibly when his father took it. Geoff was still in shock, too. He’d always liked the queen, for she’d been good to him. Her kindness had puzzled him at first, but he decided she did not mind his father’s straying since it occurred whilst they’d been long apart, during those sixteen months when he’d been in England fighting to claim the crown that was rightfully his. But she was now Jezebel in his eyes, one with Delilah and Bathsheba, all the wicked women of Scriptures, and he harbored a savage hope that she, too, would end her days as Jezebel did, in ignominy and shame, carrion for hungry dogs.

  “At least now you know why Hal and his brothers were so easily led astray,” he said, and then tensed, afraid he’d overstepped his bounds. But his father showed no anger and he was emboldened to continue. “She turned them against you, Papa. They would never have heeded the French king’s blandishments if she had not urged them on.”

  As unw
elcome as it was, that was the first logical explanation offered for why his sons had become his enemies. Hal’s defection to the French court was a festering wound, one he suspected he’d take to his grave, for it could never heal if he could not understand why it had happened. Richard and Geoffrey’s treachery was even more incomprehensible to him. But if it were all Eleanor’s doing, it suddenly made dreadful sense. She had stolen his sons away, turned them into weapons to use against him. And fool that he was, he’d never seen it coming, never suspected for even a moment that she was capable of such a vile, unforgivable betrayal.

  “Papa…do you want me to go?”

  Henry looked at his son and then slowly shook his head. “No, lad, I want you to stay.”

  THEY’D NOT TALKED, passing the wine flask back and forth as they watched the hearth log burn away into ashes and cinders and glowing embers. Eventually Geoff had fallen asleep in the floor rushes, not stirring even as Henry tucked a blanket around his shoulders. A pale grey light was trickling through the cracks in the shutters, and Henry guessed that dawn must be nigh. He’d not slept. Nor had he been able to follow Geoff’s advice and drown his sorrows in spiced red wine. He’d passed the longest night of his life locked in mortal combat with his ghosts, calling up and then disavowing twenty years of memories. He would banish that bitch from his heart if it meant cutting her out with his own dagger. And when at last he allowed himself to grieve, he did so silently and unwillingly, his tears hidden by the darkness, his rage congealing into a core of ice.

  Geoff was awakening, yawning and stretching, blinking in bewilderment to find himself on the floor. Remembrance soon came flooding back, and he jerked upright, his eyes frantically roaming the chamber in search of his father. “Papa? Papa…are you all right?” He immediately cursed his clumsy tongue. How could a man be all right with a knife thrust into his back?

  But when Henry answered, his voice was level and measured, revealing nothing of the night’s turmoil. “I am well enough, Geoff,” he said, rising from the window-seat and moving to the hearth, where he sought in vain to revive a few sparks. “I have need of you this morning, lad.”

  “Anything, Papa, anything at all!”

  “First, I want you to fetch my squires. Then find Willem and tell him that I shall be holding a council meeting this afternoon. Lastly, I want you to go to a house on St Catherine’s Mount, close by the church of St Paul. I shall give you a letter to deliver to the lady dwelling there. Tell her to start packing her belongings, that I will be sending a cart. I want her moved into the castle by nightfall.”

  CHAPTER NINE

  July 1173

  Rouen, Normandy

  LETTER FROM ROTROU, Archbishop of Rouen, to Eleanor, Queen of England:

  Greetings in the search for peace.

  Marriage is a firm and indissoluble union…. Truly, whoever separates a married couple becomes a transgressor of the divine commandment. So the woman is at fault who leaves her husband and fails to keep the trust of this social bond…. A woman who is not under the headship of the husband violates the condition of nature, the mandate of the Apostle, and the law of Scripture: “The head of the woman is the man.” She is created from him, and she is subject to his power.

  We deplore publicly and regretfully that, while you are a most prudent woman, you have left your husband…. You have opened the way for the lordking’s, and your own, children to rise up against the father.

  We know that unless you return to your husband, you will be the cause of widespread disaster. While you alone are now the delinquent one, your actions will result in ruin for everyone in the kingdom. Therefore, illustrious queen, return to your husband and our king. In your reconciliation, peace will be restored from distress, and in your return, joy may return to all. If our pleadings do not move you to this, at least let the affliction of the people, the imminent pressure of the church and the desolation of the kingdom stir you. For either truth deceives, or “every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed.”…

  And so, before this matter reaches a bad end, you should return with your sons to your husband, whom you have promised to obey and live with. Turn back so that neither you nor your sons become suspect. We are certain that he will show you every possible kindness and the surest guarantee of safety….

  Truly, you are our parishioner as much as your husband. We cannot fall short in justice: Either you will return to your husband or we must call upon canon law and use ecclesiastic censures against you. We say this reluctantly, but unless you come back to your senses, with sorrow and tears, we will do so.

  Eleanor did not reply.

  THE BISHOP OF WORCESTER’S ship approached the Norman coast at dusk and anchored in the Seine estuary. Two days later, Roger disembarked at the Rouen docks, and he was admitted to the king’s riverside castle as the noonday sun reached its zenith. As usual, he traveled with only a small retinue, and they were quickly settled in. Roger then went in search of his cousin the king.

  He soon learned that Henry was absent, off hunting in the Roumare Forest. The great hall was empty, the inner bailey all but deserted. He assumed that the barons with Henry were part of the hunting party, and Archbishop Rotrou would be found in his own palace close by the great cathedral. But there was something eerie about the silence, the lack of the customary hustle and bustle and organized disorder that heralded the king’s presence. Not wanting to go back to his cramped, stifling chamber, he found himself wandering aimlessly about the castle grounds, as if movement could keep his troubled thoughts at bay.

  Had Fortune’s Wheel ever spun so wildly? His cousin had begun the year as the most powerful king in all of Christendom, only to be struck down by one calamity after another. The betrayal by his queen and sons had opened the floodgates, inundating him in wave after wave of defections and desertions. Anjou and Maine were, for the most part, loyal, but Brittany, England, and Normandy were in peril, and Roger could not help wondering if Henry was being punished for the death of the Church’s newest saint, Thomas of Blessed Memory.

  Roger’s own nephew, the Earl of Chester, had joined the Breton rebels. The Earl of Leicester, son of Henry’s former justiciar, was with Hal, as was his cousin, the Count of Meulan. The Chamberlain of Normandy had treacherously gone over to the enemy, bringing with him more than one hundred armed knights. The Earls of Derby and Norfolk had thrown in their lot with the rebels, and other English lords were under suspicion, including Roger’s elder brother William, Earl of Gloucester. For the most sinister aspect of rebellion was that the king’s vassals need not openly declare for Hal to do Henry harm; they need only do nothing. And that was what many of them were choosing to do, waiting to see who was likely to prevail, father or son.

  England was rife with rumors and speculation, fed by the news coming out of Normandy. In June a two-pronged assault had begun upon the eastern border. Philip d’Alsace, the Count of Flanders, and his brother Matthew, the Count of Boulogne, were laying siege to Driencourt while Louis led a French army against Verneuil. Should these two fortresses fall, the road to Rouen would be open to them. As alarming as that was, Henry’s English supporters were alarmed, too, by his apparent inactivity. He’d been at Rouen for more than three months, the longest he’d ever been in one place during his entire reign, and by all accounts, he’d been passing most of his days hunting deer, not rebels.

  Concern for Henry’s mental state had been one of the reasons for Roger’s trip to Rouen; the other was the cloud of suspicion hanging over his older brother. He did not want William to be tarred with Hugh’s brush, nor did he want his sister, Maud, to be banished from royal favor. It was not her fault that her son had turned to treason, and he hoped to make Henry understand that.

  The sun was high overhead, radiating heat rarely felt in England, and Roger was heading back to the great hall when a shout echoed from the battlements: riders coming in. He halted, hoping it might be Henry returning from the hunt. It wasn’t, but the new arrival was a welcome one: William de Mandevill
e, the Earl of Essex.

  Once they’d exchanged greetings, Willem turned his horse’s reins over to his squire, smiling when Roger asked why he’d not gone hunting with the king. He’d been meeting with some of the routiers, he explained, as a new contingent had just arrived from Brabant.

  Roger was not surprised to hear that, for he knew such mercenaries were the backbone of his cousin’s army. Rather than relying upon the grudging military service given by his vassals, Henry preferred to hire professional soldiers, and such men were always easy to find. Despite the disapproval of the Church, routiers from Brabant and Flanders and even Wales were available for those lords with enough money to engage them. Debating that point with Roger, Henry had insisted that routiers made superior fighters because they could be mobilized at once, they would serve as long as they were paid, their desire for plunder gave them enthusiasm for their work, and their fearsome reputation often weakened enemy morale. Roger had not been convinced by his cousin’s arguments, for he still thought it immoral for a man to earn his living by killing fellow Christians. But now he felt a flicker of relief, so worried was he about Henry’s plight. At least he’d have routiers on hand for the defense of Rouen should it come to that.

  “I hope you are bringing good news about the siege of Leicester,” Willem said, and Roger was pleased to reply in the affirmative. Henry’s justiciar, Richard de Lucy, and his uncles, Rainald and Ranulf, had been besieging the city and castle of the rebel Earl of Leicester since early July, and Roger was now able to tell Willem that the townspeople had surrendered. The castle still held out and a truce had been struck till Michaelmas. Roger’s other news was not as encouraging, though. De Lucy had ended the siege of Leicester Castle in order to hurry north, where the Scots king had been staging bloody border raids.