Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 19

  But then Count Matthew was wounded at Arques, and within a few days, he was dead. That was a shock to Hal, for he’d genuinely liked the count, a cousin as well as an ally. Even more stunning was Count Philip’s sudden decision to end the campaign and withdraw to his own lands. Shaken and bereft, Hal had ridden south to Verneuil, in need of his father-in-law’s solace.

  There he soon regained his emotional equilibrium. Louis had greeted him with flattering warmth, assured him that Count Philip would rejoin the campaign once he’d had time to grieve, and predicted that Verneuil was on the verge of collapse. Only the castle and one of the burghs held out and hunger was prowling the streets of the beleaguered town. It was just a matter of time, Louis said, until Verneuil was theirs.

  That time seemed to have come on August 6, when a delegation of citizens ventured out under a flag of truce. Admitting that their people were woefully short of food, they asked Louis for a truce so that they could warn the English king that they must surrender if he could not raise the siege. This was normal practice, and Louis was compelled by the chivalric code to grant their request. He gave them only three days, though, an unusually brief respite. On August 9, the town must yield if Henry had not come to their rescue by then, and Louis in turn promised that their surrender would be on honorable terms, with no harm to the townspeople or their chattels or the hostages they offered up as proof of good faith.

  Hal’s spirits soared with yet another triumph within reach, and the next two days passed quite pleasantly, for with military operations suspended, he and his knights amused themselves with bohorts, informal tourney games. As the sky streaked with the vivid colors of sunset, Baldwin de Bethune borrowed some dice and they cleared a space so they could gamble by firelight. Hal ordered a keg of wine to be brought out, declaring that a celebration was in order, for on the morrow the town would surrender and the castle would soon be forced to seek terms, too. He did not have a chance to enjoy his impromptu festivities, though, for it was then that he was summoned to the French king’s command tent.

  As soon as he ducked under the canvas tent flap, Hal knew that something was wrong. The men were somber, their expressions troubled, and Louis was as white as newly skimmed milk. “He is here!” he blurted out, and Hal caught his breath.

  “My father? I thought he was in Rouen!”

  “He was,” the king’s brother Robert said testily, “but now he is at Conches with an army and he has sent us an ultimatum—that we either end the siege and withdraw or we do battle on the morrow.”

  Hal’s stomach lurched, for he did not want to face his father on the battlefield. Louis had assured him that it would never come to that. As he looked at his father-in-law, it was obvious that Louis did not want to fight his father, either. A quick glance around the tent told him that few of the men did. Hal knew pitched battles were rare, for most lords and kings preferred skirmishing and sieges to risking all on one throw of the dice. But he sensed that there was more at work here than the usual military caution. His father cast a long shadow.

  Louis was standing by an oaken trestle table. Reaching for a silver cup, he drained the wine in several deep gulps; Hal was startled to see that his hand was none too steady. “How did he get here in time?” Louis asked. “Blessed Lady, I only gave them three days!”

  “How does he ever do it?” Robert snapped, for he was always ready to blame Louis when their plans went awry. “For twenty years he has been doing what mortal man cannot; you ought to be used to it by now.” He could feel Verneuil slipping away even as he spoke; he doubted that his brother had the backbone for a bloody confrontation, for the war without quarter that the English king would wage on the morrow.

  “Be that as it may,” the Count of Blois said coolly, having little patience for Robert’s rancid jealousy in the best of times, “we must decide now how we shall respond to his challenge. It is not as if we have many options. Either we retreat or we fight.”

  “Not necessarily.” Heads turned toward the speaker as the Count of Évreux stepped from the shadows into the light of Louis’s candelabra. Hal did not know Simon de Montfort all that well. A tall, balding, saturnine figure with piercing black eyes and a tongue like a whip, he was respected for his courage, but disliked for his arrogance and his slyness. Once he was sure that he had their attention, he said, “There is a third choice. Are you interested in hearing it, my liege?”

  Louis did not like the count and did not trust him, either. But after a moment, he nodded. “Tell us,” he said, and de Montfort did.

  WHEN HAL EXITED the tent, he was surrounded by his knights, for rumors were spreading that the English king was at Conches and a battle was looming. They began to pelt him with questions, wanting to know if it was true. Hal brushed them aside. “Where is Will Marshal? Find him for me—now!”

  THEY WERE ALONE in Hal’s tent, for he’d barred the others from entering. “Are the rumors true, my lord? Has your father come to the defense of Verneuil?”

  “Yes, he is here.”

  Will thought he was braced for it, but he still flinched, for this was his greatest fear. Hal was his liege lord, but so was Henry. To fight against the king’s men was not the same as drawing his sword against the king himself, the christus domini who’d been consecrated with the sacred chrism. Scriptures spoke quite clearly on that matter. For who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless? “So we fight on the morrow,” he said bleakly.

  “No…there will be no battle.”

  Will blinked. “We are retreating, then?”

  “No.” Hal’s throat was tight; he swallowed with difficulty. “The Count of Évreux reminded Louis that the townspeople do not yet know of their reprieve. He said we could take advantage of their ignorance, insist that they surrender as agreed upon.”

  “That makes no sense. Do they expect King Henry to watch placidly as this takes place?”

  “They…” Hal swallowed again, aware of a sour taste in his mouth. “The Bishop of Sens and the Counts of Blois and Champagne are going to my father tonight, asking for a day’s truce, and promising that Louis will meet with him on the morrow to negotiate an end to the siege. They will then summon the townsmen, tell them that their time has expired and they must surrender the town or their hostages will be hanged. My father’s army is encamped at Conches, about ten miles north of here, so by the time he learns that he has been deceived, it will be too late. The town will be ours.”

  Will’s was an easy face to read, and Hal’s fair skin reddened. “Do not look at me that way. This was not my doing!”

  “Did you protest?”

  “Yes…” Hal ducked his head in embarrassment. “They laughed at me, Will. Louis’s brother and Simon de Montfort told me that I was still learning the lessons of war, that I was not seasoned enough to understand. They pointed out that guile is always an acceptable tactic, that ambushes are not dishonorable, that if the enemy can be tricked, so much the better. They reminded me that the first tenet of warfare is to lay waste the land, to burn the crops in the fields and torch the villages, to starve the enemy into submission. They said this was merely another stratagem…”

  “And did you believe them?”

  “No,” Hal confessed, “I did not. What they mean to do…it is not honorable, is it, Will?”

  He looked so unhappy and vulnerable at that moment that Will felt a protective pang. Hal was his king, his companion, his comrade in arms, but there were times when he seemed like a younger brother, too, one in need of guidance and counsel. The answer he gave Hal, though, was utterly uncompromising, brutally honest.

  “It is more than dishonorable. It is despicable and cowardly, and the French king will carry the shame of it to his grave.”

  THE EARL OF LEICESTER had a castle at Breteuil, midway between Conches and Verneuil, but he’d fled at the approach of Henry’s army and Henry ordered the castle razed to the ground. He chose Breteuil as the site for his meeting with the French king, meaning to use the smoldering
rubble to convey a message in and of itself. But the morning dragged on, and Louis still had not arrived.

  Henry was stalking back and forth, casting frequent glances up at the sun, almost directly overhead by now. Willem and the Earl of Pembroke had just made a wager as to how much longer Henry would be willing to wait. Sauntering over to the king, he joked, “Seems like Louis overslept. I’d be willing to fetch a mangonel from Conches if you want to give him a wakeup he’ll not soon forget.”

  “Do not tempt me, Willem.” Henry waved aside a wineskin being offered by one of his squires and shaded his eyes for another look at the sun. “Louis is prone to inconvenient attacks of conscience and remorse. Mayhap he is suffering from one this morn and is ashamed to face me after—Jesus God!”

  Willem spun around, his eyes following Henry’s gaze. Billowing black clouds of smoke were spiraling up into the sky, coming from the south, from Verneuil.

  GEOFF HAD NEVER SEEN a sight as sorrowful as the town of Verneuil. Much of it had been destroyed in the siege, and the one surviving ward was in flames. A few men were trying to drag tables and bedding to safety, and a few others had formed a bucket brigade in a futile attempt to fight the rapidly spreading fires. But most had gathered in small groups, watching in stunned silence as their homes and shops were consumed. Geoff was close enough now to see bodies lying in the street, and nearby a woman with a torn, bloodied skirt knelt in the dirt, weeping as she clung to a small, terrified child. The stench of death overhung the town, a sickening, rank smell of blood, urine, fear, and burning flesh, and Geoff would later mark this August Thursday in God’s Year 1173 as the day when he’d forever surrendered any youthful illusions about the glory and majesty of war.

  The arrival of armed men in their midst panicked some of the townspeople, but others were too dazed to react, staring at Henry and his knights with hollow, empty eyes. But as the wind caught the king’s red and gold banner, one man stumbled forward to clutch at Henry’s stirrup. Gazing down into that upturned face, streaked with smoke and tears, Henry recognized him as the mercer who’d carried to Rouen the town’s plea for rescue, and he swung from the saddle.

  “I tried to stop them, my liege, from opening the gates. I kept telling them that you’d sworn you were coming to our aid. But they feared for our hostages and they thought they could save themselves by surrender.” The man’s mouth had begun to tremble. “We did what the French demanded, but it availed us naught. They’d promised we’d not be harmed. Then their soldiers swarmed into the town like mad dogs, stealing whatever they could carry away. We’d not hidden our women, thinking they’d be safe. The hellspawn paid no heed to the pleading of respectable wives and mothers, dragged them from their houses into the street as if they were whores, and when their men tried to protect them, they were slain. And then they set the fires, so many that there was no hope of putting them out. Why did they do that, sire? Why did the French king not keep his word?”

  Henry shook his head, so angry he could not trust himself to speak.

  Willem had joined them, not wanting to interrupt the mercer’s anguished account of his town’s betrayal, but now he touched Henry’s arm, gesturing toward the castle. “The drawbridge is coming down.” As they watched, the gates were swung open and men came racing out, with the castellan, Hugh de Lacy, in the lead.

  “Thank God you are here, my liege!” Gasping for breath, de Lacy fell to his knees before Henry, as much an act of exhaustion as one of obeisance. “But if only you’d come a few hours sooner. We could do nothing, had to watch from the battlements as the townsmen surrendered and that treacherous French Judas turned the town over to his soldiers for their sport. But we were dumbfounded when we saw what was happening in the French camp. They were pulling out, leaving behind tents, carts, livestock, even their mangonels and other siege engines. We’d expected them to launch another attack on the castle, and instead they were retreating!”

  Getting stiffly to his feet, de Lacy winced, for he’d incurred several minor wounds in the defense of the castle. “It makes sense now, though. They saw your banners, my liege, and fled like rabbits, the craven whoresons. They’ll never get over the shame of this—”

  De Lacy broke off, for his king had whirled and was running for his horse. The other knights were quick to follow. Watching as they galloped away from the burning ruins of Verneuil, the castellan shouted after them, “Catch the bastards! Make them pay!”

  THEY DID NOT RETURN to Verneuil until nightfall. The castle garrison came out to greet them, but asked no questions. The torch-fire playing upon the weary, grim faces told them all they needed to know. “We’ve run out of most of our provisions,” de Lacy said to Henry, “but what we have is yours, my liege. We would be honored to give you shelter tonight.”

  “That is kind of you, Sir Hugh,” Willem interjected, “but we will continue on to Conches where we left our supply wagons.” He wanted to get Henry away from Verneuil, knowing the sight of the town’s charred remains would only salt his wounds, but Henry gave him a quelling look and shook his head.

  “No,” he said curtly. “We stay here tonight.”

  Willem knew better than to argue. Taking de Lacy aside, he told him that they’d overtaken the French army’s rearguard and killed those they’d caught. But Louis and his knights had gotten across the border to safety. “For now,” Willem added coldly, and then told the castellan of the day’s treachery. De Lacy was outraged. If the town had been taken by storm, the French would have been justified in pillaging, raping, even burning it to the ground. But once they’d made a truce, they were honor-bound to keep it. And the deceit they’d practiced upon Henry was such a flagrant violation of the conventions of war that it threatened the very foundations of their society. Sworn agreements of respite and truce were like the Peace of God, ways that the Church and kings sought to avoid guerre à outrance—war to the extreme, to the death.

  When men heard of the French king’s shameless duplicity, de Lacy snarled, they would not be willing to serve such a lord. Willem hoped that was so, but he had a more jaundiced view of his fellow men and their flexible concept of honor. “This,” he said tiredly, “will be remembered as a day of infamy.” And he went in search of Henry.

  He found the king walking with Geoff through the wreckage of Verneuil, and fell in step beside them. They passed the blackened shells of houses and shops, an occasional body draped in cloth and awaiting burial. The flames had been extinguished but the wind still swept embers up into the air and they glowed in the dark like scorched fireflies. The night was hot and still. Now and then there came to them muffled wailing, muted sobs, the sounds of mourning. They walked for what seemed like hours to Willem, and in that time, Henry spoke only once, saying in a flat, tight monotone that went beyond anger, “I want this town’s walls rebuilt. Find men to see to it, Willem.”

  “I will, my liege,” Willem said, and they continued on in silence.

  FROM THE TWELFTH-CENTURY Annals of Roger de Hoveden:

  The King of France neither restored to the burghers their hostages nor preserved the peace as he had promised, but entering the town, made the burghers prisoners, carried off their property, set fire to the burgh, and then, taking to flight, carried away with him the burghers before-mentioned into France. When word was brought of this to the King of England, he pursued them with the edge of the sword, slew many of them, and took considerable numbers…. But in order that these events may be kept in memory, it is as well to know that this flight of the King of France took place on the fifth day before the ides of August, being the fifth day of the week, upon the vigil of Saint Lawrence, to the praise and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, who by punishing the crime of perfidy, so speedily avenged the indignity done to his Martyr.


  August 1173

  Rouen, Normandy

  GILBERT FOLIOT, Bishop of London, was pleased, but not surprised, to be given such a warm welcome by the king. Of all England’s clerics, he had been the most steadfast in hi
s support of Henry and the most critical of Thomas Becket during their acrimonious clash between Church and Crown. He’d been twice excommunicated by Becket, the second time for taking part in the coronation of Henry’s son, and this ecclesiastical censure had set off Henry’s fateful rage, leading to Becket’s bloody murder upon the floor of his own cathedral. Gilbert had been absolved by Rome seven months after Becket’s death, but had been restored to his bishopric only that past May, for his hostility to the martyred archbishop was a stain upon a previously unblemished reputation. Once widely admired for his austerity, his estimable intellect, and masterly knowledge of canon law, he would now go to his grave known as the bishop who’d defied a saint, and for a proud man like Gilbert Foliot, that was not easy to accept.

  It was some consolation, though, that he stood so high in the king’s favor, and he gratefully accepted a seat beside Henry upon the dais in the great hall. Sipping a cup of spiced red wine, he listened with enormous satisfaction as Henry related the flight of the French king from Verneuil. He was equally pleased to hear that Henry had sent a detachment of Norman knights and Brabançon routiers into Brittany to deal with the Breton rebels, for his desire to see the king triumph was greater than his disapproval of hired mercenaries.

  Henry turned the conversation then to the bishoprics still vacant because of Hal’s appeal to Rome, and Gilbert was happy to reassure him that he could rely upon the backing of the Church. He did not doubt that His Holiness the Pope would approve the elections, pointing out that the papal legates had instructed the electors to choose men who would preserve “the peace of the realm” and reminding Henry that the only prelate to cast his lot in with the rebels was that perpetual malcontent, the Bishop of Durham.