Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 23

  Henri smiled then, signaling that the lesson was over. “We’d best go down to the hall whilst there is still time to change Louis’s mind. I will be interested to see if you can put my advice into action.”

  UPON HIS RETURN to the great hall, Raoul joined his brother, who whispered that Robert had just stormed out after a particularly acrimonious exchange with Louis. The French lords were gathered around the dais, save for the Count of Évreux, who had withdrawn to a window-seat, watching the proceedings with the detached amusement of one being entertained by minstrels or jongleurs. Louis was seated upon the dais, and a chair had been provided for Hal, but he’d not remained in it for long and was fidgeting like a horse about to bolt, although he kept his gaze fastened upon the French king and his brother all the while.

  Richard was standing on the dais steps, looking at Louis with a hawk’s unblinking intensity. “You still have not answered me, my liege. How would my lady mother fare under this ‘peace’ of yours?”

  Raoul silently blessed Richard for putting the question so bluntly, for going right to the heart of the matter. But as he glanced around the hall, he could find little sympathy for Eleanor’s plight, and with a chill, he realized that the only one standing between Eleanor and disaster was her sixteen-year-old son.

  Louis was finding it harder and harder to maintain a civil tone with this prideful young lordling, who seemed to have inherited the worst qualities of both his parents. “I understand your concern for your mother, lad, but you must trust me that—”

  For Richard, the French king’s patronizing smile was the spark that set his smoldering temper ablaze. “I am the Duke of Aquitaine, not your lad! And I do not give my trust freely. It must be earned.”

  Louis saw no further reason to humor this impudent brat. “You need to be reminded, Richard, that you came to me as a supplicant, and you and your brothers promised to be guided by my advice and that of my council.”

  Richard’s upper lip curled. “But not all promises are kept, my liege…are they?”

  This not-so-subtle reference to Verneuil hit its target, and Louis’s face twitched as if he’d been struck. “You are a foolish boy, and you’ve said more than enough!”

  “Not nearly enough! Hear me on this—all of you.” Richard swung around, his eyes raking the hall. “I will have no part of this so-called peace.”

  Louis had half risen from his chair. “Then you will stand alone!”

  “No,” Hal said suddenly, “he will not.” Coming down the steps of the dais, he stood beside Richard and looked at his father-in-law, head high. “My brother and I do not often see eye-to-eye, but he has convinced me that he is right and it would be folly to accept our father’s offer.”

  Richard and Louis were staring at Hal, the former with gratified surprise, the latter with angry disappointment. When Hal shot a meaningful glance toward Geoffrey, he hesitated briefly and then sauntered over to join them. “I will not be accepting the offer either.”

  “And how do you expect to fight your father without French help?” Louis demanded scornfully. “You’ll find that your words ring as hollow as your titles!”

  “They’ll have my help!” Heads turned toward the Count of Dreux, standing in the open doorway of the hall. Once he was sure that all eyes were upon him, Robert swaggered forward to stand beside Henry’s sons. “And they ought to have yours, for they have sworn allegiance to you for Normandy and Aquitaine, so you owe them a liege-lord’s protection!”

  “What would you know about a king’s duties and obligations? You’ve never worn a crown, and that is your true grievance with me, Robert—jealousy, pure and simple!”

  Paying no attention to Robert’s enraged reply, Raoul shoved his way over to the window-seat where Simon de Montfort was lounging. “I need your help. I know how to get Louis to change his mind, but he’ll not heed Eleanor’s uncle. You have to be the one to tell him.”

  “I’d like nothing better than to continue the war, but Louis will not heed me, either.”

  “He listened to you at Verneuil!”

  “Yes…and soon regretted it. Have you not noticed how coldly he has treated me since then? It is a wonder I have not gotten frostbite by now. No, you need someone else, someone he truly trusts…and that has never been me.”

  Raoul turned away, searching the hall frantically for the right face, one whom the French king “truly trusts.” For a moment, his eyes rested upon the Count of Champagne. Henri had nothing to gain, though, nor to lose, whether it be peace or war. But his brother…his brother had long lusted after Amboise Castle, and a premature peace would take that glittering prize from his grasp. Within moments, Raoul had drawn Thibault of Blois aside, speaking quietly and urgently in the count’s ear, and then he held his breath as Thibault strode toward the dais.

  “I am astonished,” he declared, “that our sovereign lord should be spoken to so disrespectfully. The Duke of Aquitaine must be forgiven, for he is young and has not yet learned to govern his temper or his tongue. But you, my lord Count of Dreux, have no such excuse.”

  Robert was quite willing to aim his rage at a new target, but Thibault did not give him a chance to retaliate. “May I speak to the council, my liege?” Mollified by his deference, Louis graciously gave his permission, and Thibault mounted the steps of the dais.

  “We can all agree that the English king’s offer was surprisingly generous, and this from a man not known for spending with wild abandon.” There were some chuckles at that, and even Louis smiled. “We need to consider what that means, my lords. Henry Fitz Empress proclaimed his willingness to welcome his sons back with open arms, as if their rebellion had never been, and then to reward them lavishly for that very rebellion. What does that tell us? That he is desperate to make peace with his sons. Think about that, my liege, my lords, think about the leverage that gives us. If Henry will offer so much in his opening gambit, how much more will he concede if only we hold firm!”

  Thibault paused, saw with satisfaction that Louis was listening intently. “This is a rare opportunity, my lord king. We have something that the English king very badly wants. I say we take advantage of that, deny him his peace until he is willing to pay the price we set upon it. And he will pay it, for as he said himself this morn, nothing is more important than blood, than his sons.”

  A hushed silence greeted Thibault’s words; even Robert had the sense to keep quiet. Louis leaned back in his chair, and then nodded gravely. “As always, you are the voice of reason, my lord count, the only one in the hall. We would be fools, indeed, if we let this chance go by. On the morrow, we shall tell the English king that he will have to do better, much better.”

  Raoul’s first reaction was the exhausted relief that so often marked the end of a bloody battle. Too weary to celebrate, he found an empty window-seat and slumped down upon the cushions, closing his eyes, not looking up until his brother was standing beside him, asking if this was his doing.

  “Indeed, yes,” he said proudly, and began to laugh. “How I love the way Fortune’s Wheel tilts when we least expect it. I daresay you remember what almost befell Eleanor when her marriage to Louis was dissolved and she was seeking to reach safety in her own lands.”

  “Of course I remember. Twice she was almost abducted by overly eager grooms.”

  “And one of them was Count Thibault, who was sorely disappointed when she was warned that he’d planned to seize her in Blois and force her to wed him. I always thought it ironic that Louis would then marry her daughter to him. But it is even more ironic,” Raoul said with a grin, “that Thibault, of all men, should now be her unwitting savior!”

  AS THEY RODE from Gisors to the meeting place under that venerable elm, Henry was in good spirits, listening as Willem boasted to Geoff about their capture of Louis’s castle at Chaumont-en-Vexin six years ago. “It was a great triumph for your lord father, brilliantly executed.”

  “He says that because he was one of my commanders,” Henry interjected and Willem grinned.

>  “Modesty has never been one of my failings. Whilst your father tempted the garrison to rush out and engage him, Geoff, his Welsh routiers swam the river and got into the town. The garrison was soon put to flight by our men and when they tried to retreat back into the town, they found it was in flames. Chaumont was where Louis was keeping his army’s provisions, so he was greatly grieved by its fall.”

  “Staying at Chaumont last night must have given him a bad dream or two, then,” Geoff said gleefully and Henry turned in the saddle to smile at him.

  “I hope so, lad, I surely hope so!”

  Ahead they saw the towering branches of the elm, and beneath its vast shadow, the French had gathered. Henry was amused that they’d claimed the shade, for that much he was willing to concede to them. His sons were standing together at a distance from Louis, and he took that as a good sign, although he did not feel much need to look for favorable omens, so sure was he that their answer would be the one he wanted. How could it not be? He was offering forgiveness and substantial revenues and more independence than they’d ever had before, and he was offering it despite the collapse of their rebellion. What greater proof of his sincerity could there be than that?

  Upon dismounting, he gave Louis a terse greeting, for it would be years, if ever, before he’d forgive the French king for Verneuil, and then walked over to his sons. “You’ve had the night to think it over. What is your answer?”

  Hal seemed to have been designated as their spokesman, for he was the one to step forward. “Our answer is no. We cannot accept.”

  This was one of the few times in Henry’s life when he was caught utterly off balance, and his intake of breath was audible to Hal. He looked at this stranger who was his son and he could not understand how it had ever come to this. “Out of curiosity,” he said at last, “would you mind telling me why?”

  Hal was making a disquieting discovery, that it was easier to defy Henry when he was enraged and hurling threats. For just a moment he’d seen his father’s vulnerability, seen his hurt, and somewhat to his surprise, he found he could take no pleasure in it. “It…” Clearing his throat, he said simply and with no hostility, “It is not enough.”

  “Not enough,” Henry echoed incredulously. “Again, out of curiosity, you understand, just how much money will it take to buy back your allegiance?”

  Stung, Hal cried out that was not what he meant, but it was Richard who now drew Henry’s attention. “We are not talking about money.”

  Henry regarded his second son, looking intently into grey eyes very like his own. “What, then?”

  “You gave us no assurances that Hal will have any say in the governance of England or Normandy. Nor have you said that I will be able to rule Aquitaine as is my right.”

  Henry’s anger was diluted by a vast weariness, for he’d had this very argument so often with Hal. “As I’ve told your brother more times than I can begin to count, that is because of your youth and inexperience. Why do you lads find this so hard to grasp? An aspiring goldsmith does not expect to become one overnight; he knows he must first serve an apprenticeship. Why should it be any different for young princes?”

  “You did not serve an apprenticeship,” Richard pointed out coolly, “before your father turned Normandy over to you.”

  “And you were just seventeen,” Hal chimed in, “fully a year younger than I am now!”

  Henry wanted nothing so much at that moment than to grab them both and shake some sense into them. “That happened because I had proved myself by then, and my father knew my judgment could be trusted.”

  “Yes, but you will not give us the chance to prove ourselves!”

  This was an old and familiar argument of Hal’s, but before Henry could respond to it, Richard stepped in front of his brother. “There is more. Even if you agree to give us a share in the governing of Aquitaine and England or Normandy, there is another obstacle in our path to peace. You said you were willing to forgive us.”

  “I said it and I meant it.” Henry glanced from one to the other; Geoffrey, as usual, was forgotten. “I will forgive you, I swear it upon all I hold sacred.”

  Richard raised his chin, met his father’s eyes challengingly. “Can you also forgive our mother?”

  Henry stiffened and, as he looked at his sons, never had the gap between them seemed so wide to him, so impossible to bridge. “So be it,” he said flatly. “We are done here.”

  As Henry started to turn away, there were startled murmurs from the French, and he marveled wearily at their surprise, for he’d warned them from the first that he’d not come to bargain with his sons. He’d only taken a few steps toward his horse, though, before Louis hastened after him.

  “You are a fool, Harry Fitz Empress!” The French king’s voice shook with fury as he confronted the man he blamed for most of his life’s disappointments. “Do you not see what you are throwing away? You are losing your sons! Do you truly value your pride more than you do them?”

  “They were not lost,” Henry snarled, more than willing to turn upon Louis the anger he’d not wanted to let loose upon his sons. “They were lured away, and if there is any justice in this world, you’ll answer to the Almighty for it. You may not even have to wait till Judgment Day to atone for this particular sin. You have a son, too. Who knows—one day he might grow restless under your tutelage, look elsewhere for advice and support. If so, I will most gladly return the favor.”

  “You can rant and threaten all you want, blame me, your queen, blame everyone but yourself. It changes nothing. You had a chance today to win your boys back, and you trampled upon it. It is not a chance that will come again. Do you know how we celebrated your son Richard’s sixteenth birthday? I knighted him, Harry. I knighted him, not you!”

  Louis’s taunt drew blood. Henry looked at the other man with loathing, and then turned accusing eyes upon his second son. “My congratulations, Richard,” he said scathingly. “What an honor for you, to be knighted by the victor of Verneuil.”

  Richard’s reaction was unexpected; he grinned. But then Henry realized why; Richard had not been at Verneuil, felt none of the shame. And as their eyes met, they shared a moment of odd understanding, one of mutual contempt for the French king.

  It was very different, though, for Louis and Hal. Louis turned beet-red and spun on his heel. Hal flushed darkly, too, and cried out that Verneuil was not his doing.

  Henry turned back toward his son. “Yes, it was your doing, Hal. All of this is your doing. Part of being a man is taking responsibility for your actions. I hope you learn that one day. But based upon what I’ve so far seen, I doubt that you will.”

  Hal went white. Humiliated, hurt, indignant, he glared at his father, sure in that moment that he hated Henry, that he would always hate him. “It will be war then,” he warned, his voice hoarse and none-too-steady. “And you may be certain of this—that I will never offer you terms as generous as those you offered me! If you want peace, you will have to beg for it on your knees!”

  Henry’s eyes glittered. “What do you know of war, boy? It is not dressing up in scarlet boots and wearing a sword on your hip, or promising half your kingdom to the Scots and the Flemings, or swaggering about like the hero in a minstrel’s chanson. You want to know about war, you ask the Count of Boulogne, the Earl of Chester, and the burghers of Verneuil. But you cannot, can you? The Count of Boulogne is rotting in his grave, the Earl of Chester is rotting in one of my prisons, and the citizens of Verneuil are too busy grieving for their dead and the French king’s lost honor.”

  Hal started to protest again that he was not responsible for Verneuil, realized just in time that he’d only be proving Henry’s point, as Henry continued remorselessly. “I suppose you could ask the allies you have left, but they are dwindling rapidly in case you’ve not noticed. The Count of Flanders and the Scots king have cut you loose. So have the Breton rebels, who were only too happy to surrender to me at Dol. So who does that leave? Your brothers, who’ve yet to bloody their swords? Yo
ur formidable father-in-law? The fearsome Earl of Leicester? Indeed, Hal, I am shaking in my boots at the very thought of facing such worthy adversaries!”

  That provoked a choked cry of utter outrage, but it did not come from Hal. Thrusting aside the French lords in his way, the Earl of Leicester strode over to confront Henry. “Are you calling me a coward?”

  Henry found it remarkable that his late justiciar, a man of honor and integrity, could ever have spawned such a worthless whelp as this. “I’d say your conduct at Breteuil speaks for itself,” he said contemptuously.

  The look Leicester gave him was murderous. “I retreated in good order when I saw that I could not hold the castle!”

  That was so preposterous a claim that Henry laughed in his face. “You bolted at the first sight of my banners. I daresay I could have sent our camp laundresses to take the castle and you’d still have run like a spooked sheep.”

  Leicester saw Henry through a red mist of rage. “I am not running now, you Angevin son of a whore!” he shouted and drew his sword.

  There was instant pandemonium. Amazed, Henry dropped his hand to his own sword hilt, making ready to defend himself. But his men were already in motion. Willem’s blade caught the sun as it slid from its scabbard, and Geoff, not as experienced but just as eager, unsheathed his weapon almost as swiftly. The others were no less quick to react, though. Hal and Richard were yelling at Leicester, the Count of Champagne had darted forward to get between Henry and the earl, and Will Marshal, appearing from nowhere, was there, too. But the French king was the most horrified of all.

  “Have you gone mad?” He was staring incredulously at Leicester, as if the earl had suddenly sprouted horns and a tail. “How dare you draw your sword upon a king?”