Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 18

  “Now it is your turn, Willem. The last we heard in England, the sieges of Driencourt and Verneuil were still continuing. Tell me they have not fallen.”

  “I would that I could. Driencourt fell to the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne last week, and they moved on to Arques. The siege of Verneuil still goes on. The town is composed of three wards, called burghs, each with its own walls and ditch. The French have taken the first two, but the third and the castle still hold out.”

  Roger stared at the other man. “Jesu, how can you sound so calm? Arques is less than twenty miles from Rouen!”

  “First of all, Rouen is well defended, no easy prize for the taking. Secondly, the Flemings suffered a great reversal at Arques. The Count of Boulogne took an arrow in the knee, and the wound has festered. His brother was so distraught that he halted their advance whilst Matthew’s injury is treated.”

  Roger did not see that as such a “great reversal.” He’d met the Count of Flanders, and he thought Philip was the most formidable foe that Henry was facing, far more ruthless than Louis. How long would his brotherly concern last?

  “I do not understand why Harry has taken no action! Why does he linger here at Rouen, doing nothing? Why did he not try to relieve the sieges of Verneuil or Driencourt?”

  Willem’s smile was one of patronizing patience; he was wryly amused that people were always so quick to make uninformed judgments about military matters. As clever as Roger was, had he ever led an army, planned a campaign? “The king was wise enough to see that he had to wait for his foes to move first. Beset on so many sides, he has to fight a defensive war, and he understood from the first that Normandy must be protected at whatever cost. If he were to lose Normandy, many of his English barons with lands on this side of the Channel would join the rebellion to save those estates. Moreover, he’d be forced to choose between England and Anjou if Normandy was taken.

  “Trust me, Roger, it has not been easy for him to wait like this. He is a man accustomed to seizing the initiative. Trust me, too, that he has not been ‘doing nothing.’ He fortified all his border castles, often using his hunting as a means of sending confidential messages or holding clandestine meetings. He has more than five thousand Brabançon routiers at his command, and he made a swift, secret trip to England this spring to bring back money from the royal treasuries at Winchester and Northampton, so he can hire more if need be. When the time is right, he’ll strike back, and when he does, I have no doubt that he will prevail.”

  “From your lips to God’s Ears,” Roger said lightly, but he was greatly reassured by Willem’s cool certainty, for he respected the earl’s grasp of strategy and battle lore. “Tell me, Willem. How is Harry coping…truly?”

  Willem shrugged. “It is hard to say. He has never been one for confiding, has he? I am guessing that he draws strength from his anger, at least during the daylight hours. How he fares alone at night is between him and the Almighty.” The sun was hot upon his face and he touched Roger’s arm, saying, “Let’s find some shade in the gardens, and you can tell me about the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s thwarted consecration.”

  Roger grimaced. “That was a disaster. All was in readiness for the ceremony and on that very day we got a letter from Hal, claiming that the archbishop’s election was invalid because he’d not given his approval and warning us that he’d made an appeal to the Holy Father. So we still lack an archbishop until we hear from Rome, which is most unfortunate—although I’ll admit that I thought the monks had made a poor choice in Prior Richard. Oh, the man is laudably inoffensive, with the virtue of realizing his limitations, but he is hardly a worthy successor to St Thomas.”

  Willem thought that Prior Richard’s appeal might have been the fact that he was so very different from the volatile, intense, martyred archbishop, but he was too tactful to say so to Roger, knowing he and Becket had been friends. Opening the gate into the gardens, he asked if there was any chance that Hal’s ploy could succeed and the Pope take his side.

  Roger shook his head. “I see Louis’s fine hand in this appeal to Rome. He was outraged that Harry was able to reconcile with the Church so easily, and he’d like nothing better than to stir up more trouble between Harry and the Holy See. But the Pope thought it was in the Church’s best interests to make peace with so powerful a king and he—”

  Roger stopped in mid-sentence, distracted by the sight meeting his eyes. Five boys were racing around the gardens, laughing and shrieking. The object of their amusement was a young blindfolded woman, laughing, too, as she stretched her arms out, trying to catch them as they danced around her. Both men smiled, for they’d often played Hoodman Blind themselves in their youth. Roger assumed that the children were some of the sons of the nobility being educated in the king’s household, and as he drew closer, he recognized one of them from Henry’s Christmas Court at Chinon: his uncle Ranulf’s youngest son, Morgan.

  Morgan recognized him, too, and ended the game by crying out, “Cousin Roger!” As he dashed over to embrace his kinsman, the other children began to back away, seeing that the fun was over. The woman removed her blindfold, and at once dropped down in a deep curtsy. She was very pretty, with blue eyes and fair skin, too well dressed to be a nursemaid. She was obviously known to Willem, though, for he strode forward and gallantly kissed her hand, then glanced back at Roger with a glint of mischief.

  “My lord bishop, may I present the Lady Rosamund Clifford? My lady, this is the king’s cousin, the Bishop of Worcester.”

  Rosamund flushed as she and Roger exchanged stilted greetings, and she quickly made her excuses, her withdrawal from the gardens so hasty that it was practically an escape, the boys trailing in her wake. Roger gazed after her, taken aback. So this was the infamous Rosamund Clifford.

  Reading his thoughts, Willem grinned. “She is not as you expected, is she?”

  “No, she is not,” Roger conceded. “I thought she’d be more…more sultry,” he said. “Eleanor was a great beauty, after all, when she was younger. I suppose I imagined Rosamund to be cast in the same mold.”

  “I know. The lass is comely enough, but she is no Cleopatra. She is soothing, though, and mayhap that has its own charm.” Willem laughed softly. “Much has been said of the queen, but I daresay none have ever called her ‘soothing,’ have they?”

  “Indeed not,” Roger agreed. He’d heard that Henry was now openly living in sin with Rosamund, and while he deplored adultery, of course, he could understand why the king had taken such a defiant stance in light of the queen’s betrayal. “Well, at least there is one who is benefiting from these tragic events.”

  “You mean Rosamund? I doubt it. The world is full of women eager to be the king’s concubine, but Rosamund does not seem comfortable in that role.”

  “That is to her credit,” Roger said, thinking sadly that there were no winners in this wretched family war then, only losers…and with the worst still to come.

  ROGER WENT TO BED early that evening, and had just fallen asleep when he was awakened with a summons from Henry, who was having a late supper with the hunting party. By the time he’d dressed and gone to the great hall, the meal was done, for Henry was never one to linger at the table. He impatiently cut short Roger’s formal greeting, saying, “Come with me, Cousin.”

  Roger did, following him out into the inner bailey. The day’s heat had faded and the sky was a deep twilight turquoise, stars glimmering like scattered shards of crystal. It was a beautiful evening but Henry seemed oblivious to his surroundings. Even after they’d entered the gardens, he paid no heed to the fragrant roses, the scent of honeysuckle and thyme, or the soft bubbling of the fountain. Roger wondered if he remembered that the garden was Eleanor’s creation, hoped he did not.

  “So,” Henry said, “have you brought me any good news from England? Or more bad tidings?”

  The edge in his voice put Roger in mind of a finely honed sword blade, and he was grateful that he did have “good news” to offer. “I learned ere I sailed that the
Scots king was retreating back across the border after failing to take Carlisle. The royal army was in close pursuit and burned Berwick in retaliation for the Scots ravages in Northumberland.”

  He could not tell if Henry had heard that already; his expression gave away nothing. “The Scots king is a two-legged viper,” Henry said, after a long silence. “He offered to aid me in putting down the rebellion, providing at his own cost a thousand armed knights if I’d recognize his claim to Northumbria. I said no, but Hal was willing to promise that and more. From what I hear, he has been so open-handed with his new allies that if I died tomorrow and he had his victory, there’d be little left to govern.”

  “All the more reason, then,” Roger said quietly, “to make sure that he does not win,” and Henry gave him a sharp, searching look.

  “It gladdens me to hear you say that, Cousin. I would that all of your family shared the sentiment.”

  Roger did not shrink from the challenge. “We are deeply shamed by my nephew Hugh’s treachery. But he is an aberration, Harry, a foolish youth easily seduced to folly. The rest of us remain loyal to the true king, to you.”

  “I never doubted your loyalty, Roger. But what of your brother? Can you speak for him?”

  “Yes, I can.” Roger moved closer so that light from the rising moon fell across Henry’s face. “My father was a great man, loyal to your mother and you until his last breath. It would not be too much to say that you might not have won your crown if not for his unwavering support.”

  “I’ll grant you that,” Henry said. “But we were not speaking of my uncle Robert, may God assoil him. We were speaking of your brother William.”

  “No one would call William a great man. If truth be told, I have always thought him to be a bit of a fool. But he is no traitor, Cousin. He is your liegeman and only yours. I bear a letter from him, assuring you of that.” Reaching into his tunic, Roger held a sealed parchment out and after a barely perceptible pause, Henry took it, tucking it away in his belt. “I have a message, too, from my sister. Maud would have you know that she was deeply grieved when Hugh joined the rebellion. It broke her heart.”

  Henry wanted to believe Roger, for he’d always been very fond of Maud. But belief did not come easily to him these days. “I am sure you will understand if I have doubts about that, Cousin.”

  “Because of the friendship between Maud and your queen? That was one more casualty of this accursed rebellion.” He decided not to push further. “Do you know where they are…your sons?”

  Henry’s mouth curved down. “Hal has had a busy summer with the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne at the siege at Driencourt. The last I heard, Richard and Geoffrey were still in Paris, supposedly being looked after by Raoul de Faye—hardly the ideal choice for a guardian—so God only knows how they are abusing their newfound freedom. And my devoted queen continues to spin her webs from Poitiers.”

  Roger sighed, having no words to assuage such bitterness. He chose, instead, to return to the conversation he’d had earlier that day with the Earl of Essex, for he needed to know that Henry shared Willem’s confidence. “Willem told me that the Count of Flanders has halted his march upon Rouen whilst his brother recovers from his wound. It surprised me that Philip should show such family feeling, for I always thought the man had ice water in his veins.”

  “You are forgetting that Matthew is more than Philip’s brother. He is his heir, too.”

  Roger had indeed forgotten that the Count of Flanders’s marriage was childless. Passing strange, he thought, that Philip and Matthew were both wed to nieces of Eleanor, the daughters of her dead sister, Petronilla. Harry was right about the queen’s webs; they covered half of Christendom. “Philip is a two-legged viper, too,” he said acidly, “for all that he poses as a champion of chivalry and knightly honor.”

  “You do not know the half of it, Roger. Louis was stricken with his usual eleventh-hour misgivings, and when he realized that war was actually at hand, he began to waver like a reed in a high wind. My agents at the French court told me that it was Philip who bolstered Louis’s quavering resolve.”

  “Harry…what happens if Verneuil falls to the French? Willem seems to think that Rouen could still hold out, but I’d rather not see England’s king trapped in a town under siege.”

  “Neither would I,” Henry said dryly, “but Verneuil is not going to be taken. I recalled Hugh de Lacy from Ireland and sent him to Verneuil ere the siege began. If need be, he’ll hold the castle till Hell freezes over. But it will not come to that, not with Louis in command.”

  Roger sensed that Henry was talking about more than the fate of Verneuil. “You expect to win this war, then,” he said, and Henry gave a short, harsh laugh.

  “Should the day ever come when I cannot outwit or outfight Louis Capet, I’ll willingly abdicate.” Henry had begun to pace, crunching the gravel underfoot, for he still wore his hunting boots. “Archbishop Rotrou said he could almost believe Louis had cast a malevolent spell upon my family. That gives Louis too much credit. If he ever took up the Black Arts, he’d bewitch himself, as likely as not. I suppose the argument might be made that my sons are feeble-minded, and that could certainly apply to Hal, but I’ve seen no evidence that Richard and Geoffrey share his absurd faith in French honor.”

  Roger hesitated, but the answer Henry was groping for seemed so obvious to him that he could not hold his tongue. “If you are searching for the sinister force behind this rebellion, Harry, you need look no farther than Poitiers.”

  “My beloved wife, the Circe of Aquitaine.” Henry laughed again, and to Roger, it was like the sound of shattering glass. “Instead of turning men into swine, she turns my sons into rebels. But it was so damnably easy for her, Roger. That is what I do not understand. Why were they so susceptible to her poison?”

  Roger did not know, and another silence fell as he watched Henry stride back and forth on the narrow garden walkway. He was somewhat surprised that the other man was willing to discuss his family’s treachery, but he was flattered, too, that Henry had chosen him as a confidant.

  “Cousin…my confessor has another explanation for my recent trials and tribulations. He thinks that God is punishing me for Thomas Becket’s death.”

  Roger’s jaw dropped. Almost at once he dismissed the claim that this “explanation” had come from Henry’s confessor, sure that he’d never have dared to suggest that to the king. He’d given up hope of ever hearing these words from his cousin’s lips, but now that he had, he was quick to seize this rare, precious chance to save a soul. “That same thought has occurred to me, too, Harry.”

  That was not the answer Henry wanted. “Why?” he demanded. “That would make my penance at Avranches rather pointless, would it not?”

  “How honest do you want me to be, Cousin?”

  Henry frowned. “I asked you,” he said at last, “because you are a man of God and because you were the only one with the courage to tell me that you blamed me for Becket’s murder, that if I were not guilty, neither was I innocent. So, yes…I want you to be honest.”

  “Very well. I do not think you are truly contrite, Harry. Oh, you said all the right things to the bishops and papal legates. But your actions send another message. Look at the bishops you recently selected to fill those vacant sees. Four of the six were men either actively hostile to Thomas or kin to those who were.”

  Henry’s face had hardened, but he said tersely, “Go on.”

  “This rebellion you are facing…it is inexplicable in so many ways. You yourself questioned how Eleanor could so easily have subverted your lads. And then there is her involvement. I am a student of history, Harry, and there is no shortage of tales of rebellious sons. But I know of no other queen who dared to rebel against her lord husband. So I have wondered how it came to pass, and I have wondered, too, if the Almighty has looked into your heart and saw that you have not truly atoned for your part in Thomas’s death.”

  “Do not be shy, Roger. Hold nothing back.”

Roger ignored the sarcasm. “You asked what I thought, Harry. You are the only one who knows if I am right. But I would urge you to search your conscience, and if you do indeed repent Thomas’s death for all the wrong reasons, you must come to terms with that.”

  “Do you know what I am thinking now? That I am very glad you are not my confessor.” Henry picked a rose from a nearby bush, idly tore off the petals and dropped them onto the grass at his feet. “There is one problem with your theory of divine retribution, Roger. If I accepted it, that would cast Eleanor as the instrument of the Almighty.”

  Roger smiled, not at all discouraged, for he was accustomed to his cousin’s gallows humor. He’d planted a seed, one that might, God Willing, take root, and for now, he was content with that.

  Henry had halted, head cocked to the side, and then Roger heard it, too, a familiar voice calling out, “My lord king!” They were turning toward the sound as Willem hastened into the gardens. “A messenger has just ridden in,” he said breathlessly. “The Count of Boulogne is dead!”

  THEY CROWDED AROUND HENRY as he read rapidly by torchlight. When he looked up, it was with a chilling smile. “Count Philip was so stricken by his brother’s death that he has ended the campaign, is leading his army back into Flanders. It seems his chaplain and other churchmen told him that this was God’s punishment for stirring sons to rebellion against their father.”

  There was a stunned silence and then the great hall erupted in cheers and laughter. Taking advantage of the turmoil, Roger slipped away. The castle chapel was empty, although candles still flickered and the scent of incense hung in the air. Approaching the altar, he knelt and prayed for the kingdom and for his cousin’s troubled family.

  HAL MIGHT HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN for thinking that war was good sport, as his initial foray was a highly successful one. He’d captured the castle of one of his father’s vassals, Hugh de Gornai, and had taken prisoner the baron himself and eighty of his knights. This was the first time that he’d bloodied his sword and it had been an exhilarating experience. After that, he joined the army of the Counts of Flanders and Boulogne, and that, too, was exciting, for he had great respect for Count Philip, who was widely known as a preudomme, a man of prowess, the highest compliment that could be paid in their world. When Driencourt Castle surrendered after a two-week siege, it only confirmed Hal’s giddy certainty that victory would soon be within their grasp.