Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 21

  Henry stood with the Earls of Essex and Pembroke, Richard du Hommet, the constable of Normandy, and his cousin William, the hero of Dol. They were watching with grim satisfaction as the castle drawbridge was lowered and forlorn figures trudged out, bearing a white flag of truce. The Earl of Chester was in the lead, followed by Raoul de Fougères, his son Juhel and his brother, Guillaume. The Bretons were stoical, but Henry was gratified to see that his cousin was as white as a corpse candle.

  Approaching Henry, Hugh sank to his knees in the dusty street, and the others did the same. “We surrender ourselves and the castle of Dol into your hands, my lord king,” he said hoarsely. “We know we have grievously offended you, violated our oaths of fealty and homage, and we are truly repentant and remorseful. We humbly beg your pardon and…and pray that you will show mercy even if we do not deserve it.”

  Henry looked at them without speaking, and when Hugh could stand the suspense no longer, he blurted out a plaintive “Cousin” that he at once regretted, for Henry turned upon him the full force of those glittering grey eyes. “You would do better at this moment,” he said, “not to remind me of our kinship.” And when he added “Cousin,” he invested that simple word with so much raw emotion—reproach and rage—that despite the hot August sun, Hugh began to shiver.

  LEAVING THE FRENCH KING’S palace on the isle known as the Île de la Cité, Will Marshal threaded his way through the maze of crooked streets until he reached the Grand Pont. It was the finest bridge he’d ever seen, nigh on twenty feet wide, and made of stone at a time when even London’s bridge was wooden. Booths and stalls lined both sides of the bridge, most of them occupied by moneychangers. Since Will’s pouch was already filled with deniers parisis, he shouldered his way past the foreigners and travelers crowding around the booths to change their money, and was soon sauntering along the right bank of the Seine, heading for the Grève, site of the weekly Paris market.

  There he had no trouble finding what he sought: a small glass mirror with a lead backing. It was a great improvement over the more common mirrors of metal, and he was sure Barbe would be pleased with the gift. Stopping to buy a loaf of bread and a pork pie from a vendor, he ducked into the nearest tavern to eat it, washing it down with a henap of raisin wine, for he still had the robust appetite that had earned him the nickname of Scoff-food during his days as a squire. Once his hunger was satisfied, he fed the leftover bread to a skinny stray dog and started back toward the Grand Pont, good-naturedly rejecting the overtures of several street whores, attracted by his confident demeanor, his height, and the sword on his hip, a good indication that he could afford their services.

  Returning to the Île de la Cité, he did not head for the palace, instead turned onto the Rue de la Draperie, the street of the Parisian drapers. Barbe’s shop was doing brisk business, with customers admiring a new shipment of silks from Sicily, but when Will entered, she turned the trade over to her assistant, and he accompanied her above-stairs to her private chamber, where she expressed delight over her new mirror and wasted no time in showing her gratitude in bed.

  Will had never been keen on relieving his male needs with whores, and knew better than to seduce virgin maidens. He preferred lusty young widows like Barbe, and because he was personable, generous, and blessed with a fine physique, he’d rarely had trouble finding worldly, accommodating bedmates. Barbe was one of the best he’d had, and he knew he’d miss her once his stay in Paris was done.

  Their bedsport had left them both drenched in sweat, and she soon rose, padded barefoot to the window and opened the shutters, wrinkling her nose at the rank smell of the river. Coming back to the bed, she noticed for the first time the ripe bruise spreading across his ribs, and was at once solicitous, insisting upon rummaging around in a coffer until she found a goose-grease salve. “What did you do, dearest…get caught up in a tavern brawl?”

  Will grinned, shifting so she could better apply the salve. “Worse…I agreed to some sword-play with my lord’s brother Richard. He wanted to practice parrying an enemy’s blow, but his enthusiasm left my old bones battered and bruised.”

  Barbe put the salve down in the floor rushes and climbed back into bed beside him. She loved it when he talked about court life, for that was a world beyond her ken, exotic and alien. “I thought you told me that your lord’s knights did not mingle with Duke Richard’s men?”

  “As a rule, they do not, sharing their lords’ rivalry. But my position is somewhat different, for I once served in the queen’s household and spent many hours teaching Richard how to wield a sword and aim a lance. We remained on friendly terms even after the old king asked me to instruct Lord Hal.”

  “They are both fine-looking lads,” Barbe said, “but even I can see how unlike they are. Lord Hal always stops to wave and acknowledge the cheers when he rides through the streets, and Lord Richard does not even seem to hear them. I was talking with some of the neighborhood women last week and we agreed we’d rather have Lord Hal as a lover, for he never passes a beggar without flipping him a coin. A man so open-handed would likely keep his leman draped in silks and pearls! But which do you think would make the better king, Will?”

  Will had indeed pondered that question. He loved Hal, respected Richard. A pity Hal did not have Richard’s iron will, or Richard Hal’s generosity of spirit. His stay in Paris had given him a chance to study the third brother, too, and he’d decided that Geoffrey might be the cleverest of the three. He’d always admired the old king’s ability to remain dispassionate in the face of adversity. Only with St Thomas had his sangfroid failed him, with disastrous consequences. He doubted that either Hal or Richard had inherited any of their sire’s uncanny self-possession; their emotions ran close to the surface, quick to spill over. If one of the king’s sons had his coolly calculating brain, it was likely to be Geoffrey. Of course he was just shy of fifteen, so only time would tell.

  Will knew Barbe would have been fascinated by his musings about King Henry’s sons, but discretion was both a habit and a natural inclination. A man would not prosper at the royal court if he’d not learned to govern his tongue. So not even with his bedmate would he drop his guard, and he began to speak instead of a subject that he knew she’d find of interest: a recent feast given for the king by the Bishop of Paris in honor of their victory at Verneuil.

  Even as he delighted Barbe by describing the rich menu and fine gowns of the French queen, Adele, and the English queen, Marguerite, Will marveled that Louis could celebrate such a shameful episode. They’d done their best to put a favorable cast upon it, bragging how they’d outwitted the English king and left Verneuil in ruins. But word had trickled out, and Will was soon hearing the rumors discussed in Paris taverns. The citizens of Paris showed a surprising sympathy for their counterparts at Verneuil, but Will realized that they were putting themselves in the places of the Norman burghers, imagining their own shops looted and their houses burned.

  Will had not often considered the suffering of citizens in war, having been taught that civilian casualties were both unfortunate and unavoidable. That was the way wars were waged, with chevauchées that served a twofold purpose by devastating an enemy’s countryside: denying his army much-needed provisions and demonstrating to his people that he was failing a lord’s first duty, unable to protect his subjects from harm. What had appalled Will about Verneuil was the deliberate violation of Louis’s sworn oath, both to Henry and the townspeople, and his refusal to honor his own truce. Will firmly believed that the world would descend into chaos and hellish turmoil if men did not obey those laws meant to govern their behavior and tame their more shameful impulses, laws set forth by the Holy Church, by the Crown, and now by the chivalric canons. Chivalry was the foundation stone of his life, offering more than a code of conduct, offering a map which would enable men of good faith to avoid those sinful temptations that might jeopardize their chances of salvation.

  Will was thankful that Hal shared this conviction, for it would have been very hard to follow a l
ord who did not. He just wished Hal had been strong enough to defy the French king and his evil advisors, strong enough to have prevailed. But Hal was young. He had time to develop that steel in his soul, Will assured himself. So far he had resolutely refused to listen to the seditious inner voice whispering that age was no excuse, that had King Henry been faced with a Verneuil at eighteen, he would never have allowed it to happen.

  With duskfall, the day’s heat slowly began to ebb. They could hear the sounds downstairs as Barbe’s assistant ushered out the last customers and closed up the shop. The noise from the street continued to waft through the open window, though, for people would not retire to their homes until curfew rang. Will and Barbe made love again, and then she fetched some cold chicken, cheese, and fruit for a bedside supper. They were just finishing their apples when a muffled thumping sounded below.

  Will cocked his head. “Is someone knocking at the door?”

  Barbe paused to listen, too. “Whoever it is will go away.”

  But the pounding continued. And then a voice shouted loudly, “Will Marshal! If you’re up there, come to the window!”

  “Ignore him,” Barbe urged.

  But Will recognized the voice. Swinging his legs over the bed, he crossed to the window and peered down into the street, where Simon de Morisco was standing, hands on hips, getting ready to shout again. At the sight of Will, he heaved a sigh of relief.

  “Thank God! I was sent to find you straightaway and did not know where else to look. Hurry and dress, Will. You have been summoned back to the palace.”

  ENTERING THE PALACE’S GREAT HALL, Will was surprised to see Hal and Richard seated together, for they did not often seek out each other’s company. Clearly the news from Brittany must be grave, indeed. All Simon could tell him was that a messenger had arrived with word of a calamity, but no more than that. Hal and Richard were sitting with Raoul de Faye, Marguerite, the Count of Leicester, Robert Beaumont, and his wife, Peronelle. As Will approached, Richard and Hal slid over on the bench to make room for him beside them. He took his seat, ignoring the disgruntled looks he was getting from several of Hal’s knights; he well knew that some were jealous of his privileged status and since he could do nothing about it, he did his best not to let it bother him.

  “Simon said there was a setback in Brittany?”

  Hal nodded, and Richard gave a short laugh that sounded uncannily like Henry’s. “To call it a ‘setback’ is like calling the Expulsion from Eden a minor misunderstanding. It was a disaster, Will. Last Thursday Hugh and Raoul de Fougères and all their knights surrendered Dol Castle to my father. The rebellion in Brittany is over.”

  “Sweet Jesu,” Will breathed, for this was far worse than he’d expected. “I did not even know King Henry was in Brittany, thought he’d returned to Rouen after…after Verneuil.”

  “He did,” Hal said glumly, “but as soon as he learned Hugh and the Bretons were trapped in Dol, he hastened west, and once he arrived on the scene, they panicked and ran up a white flag.”

  “A disgrace,” the Earl of Leicester muttered, shaking his head in disgust, and Hal, Richard, and Will exchanged glances, all of them sharing the same thought: that Leicester had abandoned his castle at Breteuil and ran for his life as soon as he’d gotten word of Henry’s approach. None of them voiced that thought, though. It would never occur to Will to do so, and the brothers were learning some hard lessons in diplomacy; Leicester was a valued ally, even if they both thought he was a horse’s arse.

  Will diplomatically ended the silence that had followed Leicester’s accusation, asking, “What happened to them after they surrendered?”

  It was Raoul de Faye who answered him. “Actually, they were treated rather leniently under the circumstances. Harry let most of them go once they’d sworn homage to him again and promised not to take part in further rebellions. He even freed Raoul de Fougères after he’d offered up his sons as hostages for his good behavior, and did not declare any of their estates forfeit to the Crown…at least not yet.”

  Raoul did not sound particularly happy about the Bretons’ good fortune, and Will understood why. Word of Henry’s forbearance would quickly spread, reassuring other rebels that they could submit to the Crown without fearing they’d lose their lands or their lives. It was a shrewd tactic for a man fighting a civil war. “What of the Earl of Chester?”

  “He was not as lucky.” Hal frowned, for he was fond of Hugh. “My father sent him under guard to Falaise Castle, where he’ll be held prisoner…”

  His words trailed off, but Will knew the phrase he was reluctant to say. “At the king’s pleasure.” Hugh of Chester could be freed if Henry won the rebellion. He could also be held for the rest of his earthly days. And for one as high-strung as Hugh, the uncertainty would gnaw at his nerves his every waking hour. Glancing at Henry’s sons, Will wondered if they feared their father might treat them as harshly as he had Hugh. He certainly did, feared for Queen Eleanor, too, since Hugh’s imprisonment showed that Henry could not forgive family betrayal as easily as he could the disloyalty of vassals and liegemen.

  “Poor Hugh,” Hal said softly, “and poor Bertrada and Cousin Maud. I cannot give them such sad news. You do it for me, Uncle Raoul. But when you write, offer them hope for his early release. Women are not meant to bear such heavy burdens.”

  Will did not understand how Queen Eleanor’s son could make such a nonsensical statement and, judging from the expressions on the faces of Raoul de Faye and Richard, neither did they. But as Will glanced over at Marguerite, whose hand was tightly clasped in Hal’s, he decided that Hal was being protective of his young wife; Marguerite was just fifteen, after all.

  “Louis was badly shaken by the news,” Hal said, looking somberly at Will. “And who can blame him? In just a month, our great alliance has fallen apart. The Scots king has fled back across the border. The Count of Flanders has gone home, too. Our invasion of Normandy came to naught, and now the Breton rebellion has been quelled, and so easily. Little wonder Louis told me that he has begun to fear the Almighty is no longer on our side.”

  That was such a tactless admission that Will winced. It was bad enough that the French king was having such dangerous doubts without Hal letting others know of his misgivings. Another strained silence fell, this one broken by Richard. “The Almighty,” he said, “is usually on the side of the best battle commander.” Hal scowled at his brother, for that sounded almost sacrilegious to him. But before he could respond, the Countess of Leicester spoke up. She’d been listening with obvious impatience, and now took advantage of the break in the conversation to voice her opinion.

  “The French king ought not to mourn the loss of the Bretons. They always make unreliable allies, skulk back to their own lands as soon as things start to go wrong, and so do the Scots. England is the key to victory. If we’d invaded it as my husband advised, we could have taken London by now.”

  Will was offended by her meddling in these military matters. It was one thing for a woman to express her opinions to her husband in the privacy of their bedchamber, quite another for her to speak out so boldly in public. He had no trouble reconciling his traditional views of the female sex with his admiration for the highly untraditional Queen Eleanor, for in Will’s eyes, she was unique, not to be judged by the same standards that applied to lesser women. Glancing around the table, he saw that Peronelle’s views had not gone down well with the others, either. Richard, Raoul, Hal, and Marguerite were all regarding her with disapproval. Her husband was smiling at her, though, confirming Will’s suspicions that Peronelle was the master in that marriage. He knew she was a great heiress, but he did not like her any the better for it; if arrogance was a male failing, it was even more unseemly and unappealing in a woman.

  “We must hope that the Count of Flanders reconsiders his rash decision to abandon our alliance,” Hal was saying when the door was flung open and the French king entered the hall.

  They all jumped to their feet at his approach, but he waved the
m back into their seats. He looked surprisingly calm and peaceful for a man who’d gotten dire news such a short time ago. “I know what must be done,” he told them, with a certainty he rarely showed. “I have prayed for answers, and the Almighty has shown me the way.”

  HENRY HAD CALLED A COUNCIL MEETING on such short notice that he’d begun to think it would be dawn until they all straggled in. But they were finally seated around a trestle table, looking at him expectantly, some smothering yawns, for not all men kept Henry’s late hours and several had been roused from their beds by his summons. Henry waited until they’d been served a good quality Gascon wine, and then broke his news.

  “I have received a remarkable communication from the French king. It seems that he now sees himself as a peacemaker and has generously offered to reconcile me with my sons.”

  As he’d expected, their response was explosive and incredulous. He let them vent, but when Willem called Louis the greatest hypocrite in Christendom, Henry demurred. “No, I think not. Louis has a rare gift; he is able to entertain any number of contrary thoughts at one time. Moreover, he has the dubious talent of believing whatever he wants to be true at any given moment, and should I be churlish enough to remind him that he was the cause of this estrangement he is now eager to heal, he’d be deeply wounded by my ingratitude.”

  They did not dispute his sardonic assessment of the French king, for most of them had experiences with Louis stretching back more than two decades. “What will your answer be, my liege?” the Archbishop of Rouen asked, although he was confident he already knew what Henry would answer.

  “I shall accept his invitation, agree to attend his peace conference.”

  Some of the men seemed surprised, but most of them weren’t. Regarding the king pensively over the rim of his wine cup, Willem said, “What are your terms for peace?”