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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 2


  Gerald de Barri’s voice floated back upon the damp morning air. A natural-born talker, he was not going to let a bit of fog muzzle him, and he continued to engage Rainald in conversation, not at all discouraged by the earl’s taciturn, distracted responses. Ranulf listened, amused, for Gerald was an entertaining traveling companion, if somewhat self-serving. The nephew of the Bishop of St David’s, he was returning to England after years of study in Paris, and he reminded Ranulf of Thomas Becket, another worldly clerk blessed with great talents and even greater ambitions.

  Becket had been a superb chancellor, wielding enormous influence because of his close friendship with the king. What a pity it was, Ranulf thought, that Harry had taken it into his head to elevate Becket to the archbishopric. But who could ever have expected the man to undergo such a dramatic transformation? He wasn’t even a priest, had hastily to take holy vows just days before his investiture. But once he was Canterbury’s archbishop, he’d devoted himself to God with all of the zeal he’d once shown on behalf of England’s king. Henry hadn’t been the only one discomfited by Becket’s newfound fervor. His fellow bishops had often been exasperated by his provocations, his refusal to compromise, his self-righteous piety. Even His Holiness the Pope had been confounded at times by Becket’s intransigence.

  All that had changed, of course, as he bled to death on the floor of his own cathedral, and when the monks had discovered their slain archbishop’s vermin-infested hair-shirt under his blood-soaked garments, none had doubted they were in the presence of sainthood. Acclaimed as a holy martyr in death, even by those who’d considered him to be a vexation and an enigma in life, Thomas Becket was sure to be anointed as the Church’s next saint. Already people flocked to his tomb at Canterbury, seeking healing cures and buying little vials of his blood as precious relics. More than fifteen months after Becket’s death, Ranulf still marveled at it all. Was Becket truly a saint?

  He smiled wryly, then, remembering his last meeting with his nephew the king, just before Henry’s departure for Ireland. Over a late-night flagon of wine, Henry had challenged him, wanting to know if he believed Becket was a saint. He still recalled his reply. “I cannot answer your question, Harry, doubt that anyone can. I do know, though, that saints are not judged like ordinary men. That is, after all, what makes them saints.” Henry had reflected upon that in silence, then said, sounding both skeptical and regretful, “Saint or not, Thomas got the last word for certes.”

  MENEVIA WAS THE NAME GIVEN to the small settlement that had sprung up around the cathedral of St David. Its houses were outnumbered by shabby inns, stables, taverns, and a few cook-shops, for the shrine of the Welsh saint was a popular choice for pilgrimages. Because of its remoteness and the difficulty of travel in Wales, the Holy See had decreed that two pilgrimages to St David’s were the equivalent of one to St Peter’s in Rome. The cathedral itself was situated just west of the village in a secluded hollow, out of sight of the sea raiders and Norsemen who had pillaged the coast in bygone times.

  The men expected to be accosted by villagers proclaiming the comforts of their inns, the superiority of their wines and mead, the bargain prices of their pilgrim badges. To their surprise, the streets appeared deserted. Advancing uneasily, they finally encountered an elderly man in a doorway, leaning heavily upon a wooden crutch.

  “Where have all the folk gone?” Rainald called out, and when he got only a blank stare in response, Ranulf repeated the question in Welsh, to better effect.

  “To the harbor,” the ancient replied, hobbling forward a few steps. “Sails were spied and when word spread, people went to see. Most pilgrims come on foot, but we do get some who sail from Normandy and Flanders, even a few Frenchmen who lack the ballocks to brave Welsh roads.” He grinned, showing a surprising mouthful of teeth for one so old, but Ranulf knew the Welsh were particular about tooth care, cleaning them with green hazel shoots and polishing them with woolen cloth.

  Flipping him a coin for his trouble, Ranulf interpreted for the others, translating the old man’s “Frenchmen” into “English” to avoid confusion. It was not always easy to live in lands with so many spoken tongues. To many of the Welsh, the invaders from England were French, for that was the language they spoke. To the French, those who dwelled on the rain-swept island were English. But those descendants of the men who’d followed William the Bastard to victory in God’s Year 1066 thought of themselves as Norman, and his nephew Henry was Angevin to the core.

  Having no interest in incoming ships, they continued on toward the cathedral, where they received the welcome worthy of an earl, although Gerald de Barri was disappointed to learn that the bishop, his uncle, was away. They were escorted to the guest hall and were washing off the grime of the road when they heard shouting out in the close. Ranulf and Rainald hastened to the window, looking down at a man sprinting toward the bishop’s palace. As several canons hurried to meet him, he sank to his knees, chest heaving.

  “The king…” He gasped, struggling for breath. “The king is coming! His ships have dropped anchor in the harbor!”

  BY THE TIME their party reached the beach, Henry and his companions had come ashore and were surrounded by a large crowd: villagers, pilgrims, and the local Welsh. It always amazed Ranulf to watch his nephew with his subjects, for he had not enough patience to fill a thimble and yet he showed remarkable forbearance when mobbed by supplicants, even those of low-birth. Ranulf had seen many people undone by the lure of power, so many that he’d long ago concluded it was a sickness in and of itself, one as dangerous in its way as the spotted pox or consumption. Harry, he thought, had come the closest to the mastery of it…so far.

  “Your Grace!” Rainald bellowed, loudly enough to hurt nearby eardrums. Henry turned toward the sound, for at thirty-nine, he still had the keen hearing of a fox. He beckoned them forward and they made the public obeisance due his rank and then were enfolded into welcoming embraces, for Henry had never been one for ceremony.

  Henry showed no surprise at their appearance upon this remote, rocky shore. “My fleet anchored safely at Pembroke,” he said with satisfaction. “But how did you guess that I’d be landing at St David’s?”

  Rainald looked puzzled, but Ranulf joked, “All know I have second sight,” before admitting that they’d not passed through Pembroke, knew nothing of the landing of the king’s fleet, and their meeting upon this westernmost tip of Wales was pure happenchance.

  “Well, it is an auspicious omen, nonetheless,” Henry declared, “getting my homecoming off to a good start.” Several canons from the cathedral had arrived by now and Henry allowed them to lead the way from the beach, explaining piously that he’d sent his fleet on ahead yesterday, but had refrained from traveling himself on the holy day of the Lord Christ’s Resurrection. The canons murmured approvingly at such proof of their sovereign’s reverence. Ranulf and Rainald, who knew their nephew far better than these credulous clerics, exchanged amused grins. Henry’s campaign to placate the Church had already begun.

  St David’s was only a mile distant, but their progress was slow because of the crowds pressing in upon them. Henry did not seem to mind; leaning upon a pilgrim’s staff, he turned their trek into a procession, good-naturedly acknowledging the greetings of the villagers, even bantering with a few of the bolder ones. But the friendly, relaxed atmosphere changed abruptly when they reached the cathedral close.

  More of the canons were clustered at the gate, making ready to welcome the king. A muddy stream grandiosely known as the River Alun bordered the northern side of the churchyard, bridged by a large marble stone, its surface polished and worn by the tread of countless pilgrim feet. As Henry approached, an elderly woman stepped forward and cried out in a hoarse, strident voice.

  Henry had a good ear for languages, but Welsh had always eluded him, and he turned to the canons for enlightenment. Obviously flustered, they sought to ignore the woman’s ranting, insisting she was babbling nonsense and not to be heeded. Henry knew better; one glance at the s
pectators told him that. Some looked horrified, others embarrassed, and a few—those with the dark coloring of the Welsh—eagerly expectant.

  “What did she say, Ranulf?” he demanded of the one man he could trust to give him an honest answer.

  Ranulf answered reluctantly, yet truthfully. “She called upon Lechlaver to revenge the Welsh upon you.”

  Henry scowled. “Who the Devil is Lechlaver? Some heathen Welsh god?”

  “No…it is the name of yonder rock.” Realizing how bizarre that sounded, Ranulf had no choice but to tell Henry the rest. “Local legend has it that Merlin made a prophecy about Lechlaver. He foretold that a ruddy-faced English king, the conqueror of Ireland, would die upon that rock.”

  It was suddenly very still. The crowd scarcely seemed to be breathing, and more than a few surreptitiously made the sign of the cross. Some of Henry’s own companions cautiously edged away, in case Merlin’s prophecy involved a celestial thunderbolt. Rainald reached out as if to keep Henry from advancing any farther. Ranulf did not consider himself to be particularly superstitious, but even he did not want his nephew to set foot on that slick marble stone.

  Henry looked from one tense face to another and then, slowly and very deliberately, strode forward. Leaping nimbly onto the rock, he crossed without a misstep. Turning back to face the spectators, he said in a voice pitched loudly for all to hear, “Who will believe that liar Merlin now?”

  There was a collective sigh as breathing resumed and the world of shadows receded before Henry’s scorn and certainty. Beaming, Rainald made haste to follow, as did the others. People trooped over Lechlaver, the depths of their unease revealed now by the intensity of their relief. Only the Welsh bystanders stayed on the other side of the shallow river, their disappointment etched in the down-turned mouths, the averted eyes. One youth could not endure to see Merlin shamed before these arrogant foreigners and called out in heavily accented French:

  “You are not the king in Merlin’s prophecy, for you are not the conqueror of Ireland!”

  Henry swung around to confront the young Welshman, and for a suspenseful moment, his audience wondered if they were to see his notorious Angevin temper take fire. But then Henry laughed. “If your Merlin thought anyone could truly conquer Ireland, lad, he was a poor prophet, indeed!” Adding under his breath to Ranulf as they resumed their progress toward the cathedral, “How do you defeat a people who lack the common sense to know when they’re beaten?”

  Ranulf smiled, knowing that Henry was speaking, too, of the Welsh and his disastrous campaign of six years past. His ambitious plans to bring the rebellious Welsh lords to heel had come to naught, thwarted by the erratic weather, the rugged mountainous terrain, and phantom foes who refused to take the field, preferring hit-and-run raids, evasive maneuvers, and nightfall forays that recognized their weaknesses and played to their strengths. Faced with a rare military defeat, Henry had withdrawn his army back across the border and changed his tactics, forging an alliance with Rhys ap Gruffydd, the most powerful of the Welsh princes. So far this stratagem had proven successful; Wales was more peaceful than it had been in years.

  Glancing over at Henry, Ranulf hoped that his nephew would apply the lessons he’d learned from the Welsh in his current battle with His Holiness the Pope and the mighty Roman Church. But it was just that—a hope—for he of all men knew how dangerously stubborn Henry Fitz Empress could be. There were faint bloodstains upon the tiles in Canterbury Cathedral testifying to that.

  CHAPTER TWO

  May 1172

  Savigny Abbey, Normandy

  IT WAS DUSK WHEN the Bishop of Worcester rode through the gatehouse of the Cistercian abbey of Our Lady. Although a prince of the Church, Roger traveled without an entourage—only a servant, his clerk, and four men-at-arms, their presence required on the outlaw-infested roads. He did not think an ostentatious display was appropriate, for he was living in exile, having left England in protest over the English king’s contest of wills with Thomas Becket. Few had emerged unscathed from that cataclysmic conflict between Church and Crown, but Roger’s loyalties had been shredded to the bone. Becket was more than a fellow prelate and the head of the English Church; he was also a close friend. And Henry Fitz Empress was more than Roger’s sovereign; the two men were first cousins and companions since childhood.

  Roger had been one of the few men who’d dared to tell the king the truth in the turbulent aftermath of Becket’s murder: that Henry might not be guilty of the actual deed, but neither was he innocent. But he had also been one of the bishops sent to Rome to plead Henry’s case before the Pope, denying that the archbishop had died at his order. Now he was once more thrust into the role of peacemaker, riding to Savigny’s great abbey to bear witness to this meeting between two papal legates and his cousin the king, knowing full well how high the stakes were for all concerned.

  In addition to the two cardinals, a number of Norman and Breton bishops would also be present. By Roger’s reckoning, at least eight were men who could be expected to support the king. In truth, many of Becket’s fellow bishops had been less than enthusiastic soldiers in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s crusade to vanquish the English king, feeling that he’d been needlessly provocative and acrimonious, always scorning compromise in favor of confrontation. Until his ungodly murder had transformed him from often-irksome zealot to blessed holy martyr, Becket had found his strongest advocates among the bishops of France, his warmest welcome at the court of Louis Capet, the French king. Two of his most steadfast allies had been the Bishop of Rheims, Louis’s brother, and the Archbishop of Sens, who’d laid Henry’s continental lands under Interdict, and whose sister was Louis’s queen.

  It did not surprise Roger that neither of these prelates would be present at the Savigny council, for he knew Pope Alexander wanted—nay, needed—to mend this dangerous rift with the most powerful monarch in Christendom, just as Henry needed to make peace with the Holy See. It would be a great pity, he thought, if Harry’s foolhardy pride thwarted that rapprochement.

  Roger was surprised, though, by the absence of John des Bellesmains, the Bishop of Poitiers. He would have expected John to be there, come what may, for his friendship with Thomas Becket had gone back many years, begun in their youth as clerks in the household of the Archbishop Theobald. But Poitiers was the capital of Poitou, the domains of the Lady Eleanor, Henry’s controversial queen and Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right. Roger wondered now if Eleanor had deliberately kept Bishop John away from Savigny, knowing his sympathies lay firmly with the slain archbishop. If she had, then mayhap the rumors of her estrangement from Harry were not true.

  But with Eleanor, there could be other reasons, other motives as yet undiscovered. Even though his sister Maud, the Countess of Chester, was one of Eleanor’s intimates, Roger had always been rather wary of his cousin’s queen, a woman who dared to meddle in those matters of state best left to men. And if Harry spun webs to make a spider proud, Eleanor could entangle archangels in her snares. Roger suspected that she intrigued even in her sleep.

  The hosteller was waiting to welcome Roger, and grooms had materialized to lead their horses to the stables. After an exchange of courtesies, Roger was turning to follow the monk toward the abbey guest hall when his attention was drawn by a flash of color. Unlike the unbleached white habits worn by the Cistercian monks moving about the abbey garth, this man was garbed in a cope of bright blue silk, decorated with wide embroidered borders, and a matching blue mitre, the points ornamented with scarlet thread. The processional cope and mitre proclaimed him to be a prelate of Holy Church, and the fleshy, ruddy face was vaguely familiar to Roger, but to his embarrassment, the name eluded him.

  Fortunately, his gaze then fell upon the bishop’s companion, a slightly built man, no longer young, starkly clad in the black cowl and habit of the Benedictines, abbot of one of Christendom’s great jewels, the island monastery of Mont St Michel, and a friend of long standing, both to Roger and his cousin the king. And as he warmly retu
rned Abbot Robert de Torigny’s greeting, Roger recalled the identity of the mystery bishop: the abbot’s neighbor, prelate of the city across the bay, Richard of Avranches.

  Bishop Richard wasted no time in breaking the bad news. “I fear your journey has been for naught, my lord bishop,” he declared dolefully, his sorrowful visage almost but not quite disguising the relish that people invariably take in being the bearer of evil tidings. “The king met this afternoon with the Holy Father’s legates, but it did not go well. King Henry balked at renouncing his Constitutions of Clarendon, and when no progress could be made on this contentious issue, he stalked out in a rage, saying he had matters to tend to back in Ireland.”

  By now others had gathered around them. Roger recognized the abbot of Savigny, utterly dismayed that this disaster should occur on his watch. He was flanked by the equally flustered Bishops of Bayeux, Sées, and Le Mans, theirs the doomed expressions of men trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, owing their allegiance to Henry, and their obedience to Pope Alexander. Bishop William of Le Mans felt a flicker of hope, though, with Roger’s arrival, and at once entreated him to seek out his cousin the king.

  “His Grace will heed you, my lord, for he has great respect for your good judgment. Surely you can convince him of the folly of abandoning the talks with the Holy Father’s legates?”

  Roger was past the first flush of youth, and a day in the saddle had taken its toll; his back ached and his muscles were sore and cramped. He’d been looking forward to a bath and a nap before he changed his travel-stained clothing and presented himself to the cardinals and the king. Suppressing a sigh, he looked at the circle of expectant faces and agreed to do all in his power to keep his cousin from returning to Ireland.