Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 20

  “And the Bishop of Lisieux, may God damn his treacherous soul to Hell,” Henry said bitterly, for that was still a fresh wound.

  Gilbert had never liked Arnulf of Lisieux, considering him to be a self-server and far too devious and cynical for his own good, but he was surprised, nevertheless, that Arnulf should have made such a major miscalculation, concluding that the bishop was most likely trying to keep a foot in both camps. He was even more surprised by what Henry said next, asking if it was true that he’d founded a hospital in honor of Thomas Becket, for the slain archbishop was usually a topic that Henry assiduously avoided.

  “No, my liege. The hospital of Holy Trinity at Southwark was founded by Thomas himself. After his canonization, we changed the name to St Thomas the Martyr and I offered sinners a remittance of thirty days of penance if they contribute to the hospital.” Since the king had been the one to bring the subject up, Gilbert now felt free to mention a recent action of Henry’s. “I heard, my liege, that you have named Thomas’s sister Mary as Abbess of Barking.”

  That was a signal honor, for abbesses of Barking were normally daughters of kings, but Henry shrugged it off, saying that he was merely righting a wrong. “I ought not to have sent Becket’s family into exile,” he admitted. “It was done in anger and was unjust to hold them to account for his transgressions.”

  This was the first time that the king had confessed to making mistakes of his own in his war of wills with Becket. “It is a generous gesture, nonetheless,” Gilbert said.

  Henry shrugged again. It had not escaped him that Gilbert no longer made use of the slain archbishop’s surname. Thomas had always been thin-skinned about his family’s merchant origins, preferring to call himself “Thomas of London” rather than the more pedestrian “Thomas Becket,” a sensitivity his enemies had been quick to seize upon. He’d always been “Thomas” to Henry until their falling-out; after that, he’d managed to make “Becket” sound like an epithet.

  “You never liked him, did you, Gilbert?”

  “No, my lord king, I did not.”

  “In fact, when I chose him as archbishop, you said that I’d performed a veritable miracle, turning a worldly courtier and soldier into a man of God.”

  Gilbert blinked; he’d not known that his angry sarcasm had reached Henry’s ears. “I am sorry, my lord—”

  “For what? You were right.” Henry’s smile was rueful. “You can hardly be blamed for disliking him. He had a tongue like an adder, calling you ‘a hapless Judas and a rotten limb,’ calling your fellow bishops ‘priests of Bael and sons of false prophets.’”

  “He was never one for forgiving his enemies,” Gilbert agreed, wondering where Henry was going with this.

  “You of all men know how vengeful he could be, how prideful and stubborn. Most of those who are so certain of his sanctity never even laid eyes upon him. But you’re in a unique position to judge, Gilbert. Can you truly accept the Church’s canonization of him as a saint?”

  That was a question Gilbert has often asked himself in the months after Becket’s murder. “Yes, my liege,” he said quietly. “I can.”

  “Why?” Henry asked, but he sounded more curious than skeptical.

  “It is true that Thomas’s life was not a holy one. But none can deny he died a martyr’s death.”

  “And is that enough to confer sainthood upon him?”

  “His martyrdom…and the miracles that have been reported at his tomb and elsewhere in the months since his murder.”

  “Miracles can be faked, as you well know, for reasons of politics and profit. How can you be sure they are genuine?”

  “I daresay some of them are not. But there have been too many to discount, my liege. You may be sure I investigated these reports with great care, for if truth be told, I did not want to believe in them. Even when Thomas cured my fever, I continued to doubt.”

  Henry had heard of Gilbert’s own miracle. Eight months after Becket’s murder, he’d fallen gravely ill, lay near death until his friend and fellow bishop, Jocelin of Salisbury, prayed to Thomas for his recovery. “So what convinced you, then?”

  “The manner of his death could not be dismissed out of hand. Nor could the discovery that he’d worn a hairshirt and braies under his garments, infested with vermin and lice that had burrowed into his groin, or the revelation of his confessor that he’d mortified his flesh with daily penitential whippings. I was told that his back was scarred with the marks of past scourging. Can there have been more painful proof of sanctity?”

  Henry could not argue with that. “I admit I thought he was a hypocrite until I learned that he’d worn those filthy, lice-ridden braies next to his private parts. After that I did not doubt his sincerity, however misguided it was.”

  Gilbert nodded his agreement. “And then there are the miracles. They began almost as soon as he drew his last breath. The wife of a Sussex knight was cured of her blindness after praying to Thomas. Eight days after the martyrdom, Father William de Capella, a London priest who’d been stricken with palsy was cured after drinking water mixed with the saint’s holy blood. I spoke with Father William myself, could find no other explanation for the recovery of his speech. A local woman’s palsy was healed after her husband applied rags dipped in the martyr’s blood to her afflicted legs. People are said to have been cured of lameness, deafness, withered limbs, and deadly fevers.”

  Gilbert leaned forward, so caught up in the intensity of his recital that he did not notice as wine splashed from his cup. “Even the brother of one of the men implicated in the murder was cured after drinking the ‘waters of St Thomas’!”

  “Water mixed with his blood? Remarkable that he bled enough to keep filling those little tin phials that the monks pass out to those who make offerings,” Henry said dryly. “That is almost a miracle in itself.”

  “Surely you do not doubt the existence of miracles, my lord king?”

  “Of course not. But it cheapens them to be accepted too readily. Is it true that Thomas punishes those who fail to keep promises they make to him?” And when Gilbert confirmed it, Henry said with a crooked smile, “Now that sounds more like the Becket I remember.”

  Gilbert was not deceived by the flippancy; it was obvious that Henry had been paying closer attention to the martyr’s miracles than he was willing to admit. Before he could respond, though, there was a stir at the other end of the hall. Henry’s steward was pushing his way toward the dais. “My liege, a messenger has just arrived from Brittany.”

  “Have him come forward,” Henry commanded, and a disheveled youth, muddied and bedraggled, soon approached the dais. Kneeling, he looked up at Henry with a gleeful grin that conveyed his message better than any words could have done. “I bring you glad tidings, Your Grace. My lord, William du Hommet, bade me ride to Rouen as if my horse’s tail were on fire, and by God, I did. We engaged the Breton rebels yesterday morn in open country near the town and castle of Dol, which they’d taken by bribery. It was a total triumph, my lord. We captured seventeen of their knights and killed most of their men-at-arms. Some got away, but Lord Raoul de Fougères and the Earl of Chester and sixty or so knights retreated back into Dol Castle. Lord du Hommet said to tell you that they are penned up like lambs for the slaughter, but he lacks the siege engines to take the castle and urges you to come straightaway.”

  By now the man was surrounded by Henry’s lords and knights, and as soon as he was done speaking, he was barraged with congratulations and praise for his amazingly swift ride. Even allowing for Henry’s posting of fresh horses at his castles and abbeys for the use of royal couriers, his was a remarkable achievement; Dol was more than one hundred fifty miles from Rouen.

  Henry was delighted. Ordering wine for the messenger and promising a generous reward, he broke the seal on William du Hommet’s letter and began to read rapidly. Geoff had entered the hall after the courier’s arrival and he was shoving his way through the crowd, eager to learn what had happened. Catching sight of the Earl of Essex and the el
derly Earl of Arundel, he veered in their direction, and when they told him that the Earl of Chester and the Breton rebels were trapped in Dol, he gave a jubilant shout that was more often heard on the hunting field.

  “This accursed rebellion is in its death throes,” he predicted joyfully. “First the Count of Boulogne is struck down, then the French flee from Verneuil like thieves in the night, and now Hugh of Chester is caught in a snare of his own making!”

  The men smiled at the enthusiasm of youth. “Well, not yet,” Willem said. “But I’d wager he’ll be shut up in a royal castle by week’s end.”

  “You mean by next week, do you not? We will not even reach Dol till then, and if the siege lasts—” Geoff paused in surprise, for the two men were laughing at him.

  “Clearly you have never ridden with your lord father when he is in a hurry to get somewhere,” Willem said with a grin, and when Geoff conceded he had not, they laughed again.

  “Ah, you are in for a treat.” Arundel was grinning, too. “Fortunately for these old bones, I’ll be left behind, for the king knows that I could never keep up with him. As you’ll soon see, lad, it is the closest that men can get to flying. I remember when—” He broke off then, for Henry was shouting for silence.

  “Why are we wasting time?” he demanded, and Willem jabbed Geoff playfully in the ribs before asking innocently when the king wanted to depart. Henry looked at him as if he’d lost his wits. “When do you think, man? Now!”

  THE YOUNG EARL of Chester was baffled and heart-sore that his luck could have soured so fast. At first all had gone according to plan. Joining Raoul de Fougères, they’d launched a highly successful chevauchée, burning and pillaging the lands of those Bretons who’d remained loyal to Henry. Hugh had enjoyed himself enormously, finding that his first taste of war was even more fun than a tournament. But it had not lasted. Warned that the king’s routiers were on the prowl, they’d decided upon a direct challenge, and both sides met on the battlefield on August 20. The experience taught Hugh why prudent commanders avoided pitched battles when at all possible, for it turned into a debacle. Their lines broke, and because men were never so vulnerable as when in flight, the slaughter that followed was terrible. Retreating in confusion, Hugh and the Breton lords found their only escape route blocked by the routiers and they had no choice but to withdraw back into Dol.

  The three days that followed were utterly wretched. They’d watched helplessly from the battlements as the townsmen surrendered their city to Henry’s commander, Lord du Hommet, and to add insult to injury, they then had to watch as other Bretons joined in the siege, for they’d alienated much of the countryside with their raiding and plundering. Hugh became so disheartened that Raoul de Fougères had turned upon him in anger, berating him for his lack of fortitude. The siege would soon be lifted, he’d insisted. Those lowborn routiers were little better than bandits. They knew nothing of true warfare, lacked even the most rudimentary siege engines. It would not be long until they’d lose interest and move on, seeking easier prey. Hugh very much wanted to believe him, but he was not encouraged when Raoul then put the knights and garrison on half-rations. If the siege was not going to drag on, why did they need to worry about running out of supplies? Wishing that Hal were there to bolster his sagging spirits, Hugh tried to ignore his growing chorus of regrets by getting thoroughly drunk.

  He awoke the next morning feeling feverish, queasy, and utterly out of sorts. As he stirred and groaned, the bedcovers beside him rippled and a girl’s head popped out. Hugh looked at her blankly, having no idea who she was. He swallowed with a grimace, becoming aware that his mouth tasted like vinegar. The girl was gazing at him curiously. “Do you want me to answer that, my lord?” she asked, and only then did he realize that the thudding noise in his head was actually a pounding on the door. When he nodded, she slid from the bed, hastily pulling a chemise over her head. He recognized her now as one of the castle kitchen maids, although he did not remember her name. Concluding that he was still half drunk, he lay back against the pillow.

  “Hugh, wake up!”

  Grudgingly opening his eyes to slits, he saw Raoul de Fougères’s son Juhel standing by the bed. “Go away,” he mumbled, and felt a dulled throb of indignation when Juhel would not. “Damn you to hell, leave me be…” And then he gasped and shot bolt upright in bed, for Juhel had poured a basin of washing water over his head. Sputtering and cursing, he lurched from the bed, seeking to bury his fist in Juhel’s belly. He never even came close; the other man sidestepped easily.

  “Stop it, you fool! Are you going to face Judgment Day as a drunken sot?”

  “What are you babbling about?”

  “I am trying to tell you that the English king is in the city, making ready to assault the castle!”

  Hugh decided that Juhel must be mad. “I think you’re the one who’s drunk. We fought on Monday and this is only Thursday. There is no way in the world that he could get here that fast.”

  “No? Suppose you tell him that.” Juhel grabbed Hugh’s arm and, before he could protest, propelled him across the chamber toward the window. Fumbling with the shutters, he flung them open and pointed. “See for yourself!”

  Hugh squinted against the sudden blaze of painful light, his eyes focusing blearily upon the banner flying from the enemy encampment, a gold lion emblazoned across a background of crimson. “Holy Mother of God!”

  RAOUL DE FOUGÈRES awaited Hugh in the great hall. Taking in the younger man’s pallor, he said coldly, “I hope you can sober up by noon. You’ll make a better impression if your eyes are not so bloodshot and your hands are not shaking as if you have the ague.”

  Hugh was secretly intimidated by the Breton lord, who’d never shown him the deference he was accustomed to receive from his English vassals. Making an attempt at dignity, he said, “I assure you, my lord, that I am quite sober. What happens at noon?”

  “We are surrendering the castle to your cousin, the king.”

  Hugh’s mouth dropped open. “We cannot do that! If I fall into his hands, I am doomed, for he’ll never forgive me!”

  Oliver de Roche, Raoul’s seneschal, gave a harsh laugh, and raised his cup in a mock salute; clearly Hugh was not the only one who’d been sampling the wine kegs. “If he puts rebels to death, there’d not be a lord alive in all of Brittany,” he said in a slurred voice. “For us, rebellion is a sport. What man in this hall has not risen up against the English king more than once?”

  Hugh glared at de Roche, who was not as formidable a figure as Lord Raoul. “It is different for me,” he snapped. “He forgives vassals because he thinks it is wise to do so, keeping men from fearing they have nothing to lose and fighting to the death. But I am his cousin, his blood-kin. He’ll not forgive me.”

  “He will forgive you,” Raoul asserted, “as long as we surrender. But if he takes the castle by force, he can do with us as he pleases. King Stephen once hanged the entire garrison of Shrewsbury Castle.”

  “Harry has never done anything like that!”

  “Has he ever faced a rebellion by his own sons? How do you know what he’ll do if we give him the excuse to seek vengeance? You do not know, my lord earl, and that is my point. It is not a risk we are willing to take.”

  Hugh shook his head stubbornly, for at that moment, he feared nothing so much as the thought of facing his cousin at noon. “You talk as if the castle’s fall is inevitable. I say we hold out, that we fight instead of shamefully surrendering!”

  There was a low, angry murmuring, and as he looked around, Hugh saw that the others agreed with Raoul; even his own knights seemed ready to surrender. Raoul was regarding him with unfriendly eyes, and suddenly Hugh was acutely aware of the great gap between them. The Bretons were like the Welsh; they did not truly trust those not of their own blood.

  Raoul was not known for his patience, but he tried now to remind himself that this English earl’s rank deserved respect, even if the man did not. God save him from these callow youths who knew as much abo
ut war as a nun did about whoring. “As Oliver said, we Bretons are well seasoned in rebellion. We know when to fight and we know when to cut our losses, which is why we have survived so long. Henry Fitz Empress is the most dangerous foe I’ve ever faced. He never adheres to the conventions of warfare. Instead of laying waste to his enemies’ lands, he strikes fast and hard at their castles.

  “Need I remind you of the strongholds he’s taken over the years? Chinon from his rebel brother, Chaumont-sur-Epte from the French king, and Chaumont-sur-Loire from the Count of Blois. Thourars was said to be impregnable; he took it in three days. Castillon-sur-Agen fell in less than a week. The tally is even more impressive here in Brittany. He razed my great castle at Fougères to the ground, captured Josselin and Auray from Eudo de Porhoët, seized Bécherel Castle from Roland de Dinan, and just two years ago, he descended upon the Viscount of Léon like a thunderbolt, reduced all of his castles to rubble…all of them. So when you tell me we ought to hold out at Dol, I do not find that a convincing argument.”

  Hugh was suddenly overcome with fatigue; feeling as if his legs would no longer support him, he sank down onto the closest bench. “There has to be another way beside surrender.”

  Raoul de Fougères regarded him unblinkingly. “You have until noon to think of one.”

  THE TOWNSPEOPLE HAD GATHERED to watch the surrender and there was almost a festive atmosphere, for they were thankful they’d been spared the horrors of a siege, thankful the war was over for Brittany. Most of them cared little for who ruled over them as long as they were left to live in peace, and they were milling about in front of the castle, laughing and gossiping, buying fruit-filled wafers from street vendors, ducking into nearby taverns to quench their thirst, and staring with unabashed curiosity at the English king and his lords.