Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 24

  “I have a right to defend my honor!” But as he glanced around, Leicester saw this was a cock that wouldn’t fight. He’d managed to do the well-nigh impossible—temporarily unite them all in a common cause, for there could be no greater crime in their world than to kill a man who was the christus domini, the Anointed of the Lord. Jamming his sword back into its scabbard, Leicester shouted defiantly at Henry, “This is not over! When we next meet, it will be on the battlefield in England!” Whirling then, he shoved his way through the press of men, yelling for his men and horses.

  The Archbishop of Rouen had taken it upon himself to lecture them all on the sin of spilling blood during God’s Truce, and Louis’s brother, the Archbishop of Rheims, added his moral authority to Rotrou’s, both men uneasily aware of how contagious violence could be. With that same thought in mind, Henry’s men had brought over his stallion. Swinging up into the saddle, he paused to stare down at his sons and the French king.

  “You wanted war?” he said. “Then by God, that is what you’ll get!”

  THE LADY BEATRIZ, one of Eleanor’s attendants, halted in surprise as she entered the queen’s bedchamber, for it was dusk but the hearth had not been lit and no lamps burned on the table. Glad that she’d brought a candle, she hastened over to light the oil wicks, intending to have some harsh words with the servants for being so neglectful. As an oil lamp sputtered and ignited, she caught movement from the corner of her eye, turned, and then recoiled in surprise.

  “Oh, my lady, how you startled me! I had no idea you were here.” Moving toward the silent figure in the window-seat, she gasped as her candle illuminated the queen’s face. “Madame, are you ailing? Shall I fetch a doctor?”

  “I am well, Beatriz,” Eleanor said, but the girl was not convinced, for the older woman was ashen. Her gaze darting from Eleanor’s hollow eyes to the parchment crumpled in her lap, Beatriz dropped to her knees, stretching out a hand in mute entreaty. “My lady…forgive me if I have overstepped my bounds, but you look so troubled. Something is wrong, I can tell. Is there nothing I can do?”

  Eleanor looked down at the kneeling girl. Most of her ladies-in-waiting did not serve her for long, eager to find husbands at the royal court. But Beatriz, a young widow and distant cousin on her mother’s side, had been with her for more than four years. Her uncle Raoul had recommended Beatriz, and at first Eleanor had wondered if he’d put the girl in her household to spy upon her. But Beatriz had passed every test she’d set for her, and Eleanor had no doubts about her loyalty or her love. She’d only had two female confidantes in her life, though, her sister Petronilla and Maud, the Countess of Chester, and she was not about to confess her heart’s pain to a sweet child young enough to be one of her daughters. Yet Beatriz was right. She was in great need of solace, in need of one she could truly trust.

  “There is something you can do for me, Beatriz,” she said, and managed a flickering smile. “Fetch my constable.”

  AS HE’D AGED, Saldebreuil de Sanzay’s eyes had begun to fail him, and his vision was tolerable only at a distance these days. It did not help that the letter was in Raoul de Faye’s own hand, for his scrawl was not as legible as a scribe’s uniform script. He was too proud to ask Eleanor to read it to him, though, and she was too distracted to notice his difficulties. He eventually solved the problem by holding the letter out at arm’s length. When he looked up, there was an expression upon his face that she’d rarely seen before, one of fear—for Richard, for Aquitaine, above all, for her.

  Fear. She’d not often had to deal with it, for hers had been a privileged life. She’d been insulated from fear by her high birth, her crown, and her headstrong nature. In her forty-nine years on God’s Earth, she could honestly say that she’d rarely been afraid. Even during those times when she’d been placed in physical peril—the assault by the Saracens in the Holy Land, the capture of her galley by pirates in the pay of the Byzantine Emperor, the ambush by the de Lusignans—there’d been no time to dwell upon the danger until it was over, and then there was no need. Now…now there was nothing but time, and as she’d sat in her darkened bedchamber after reading Raoul’s letter, she’d thought of the unforgiving wrath of the man she’d married and could not deny that she was afraid of what the future might hold, afraid that she may have made the greatest mistake of her life.

  “You were not told of this peace conference, then?” Saldebreuil asked quietly, and she shook her head.

  “I knew nothing of it until Raoul’s letter arrived.” She gazed down at her clasped hands, noticing the golden glimmer of her wedding ring. Why was she still wearing it? “I expected the Count of Flanders to take charge of the rebellion. Had I thought the reins would be left in Louis’s hands, I’d never have risked it.”

  He nodded bleakly. “It has gone wrong from the first, my lady. If Hal had not fled from Chinon when he did, we’d have had the time we needed to complete our plans, to coordinate our strategy. They ought to have attacked all at once, on multiple fronts. The assault upon Normandy began promisingly enough, but it all fell apart when the Count of Boulogne was slain, and gave your husband the chance to quell the rising in Brittany. If the Scots king had only persevered, if they’d invaded England at the same time…” His words trailed off, for he recognized his complaint for what it was, a soldier’s lament for lost opportunities and bungled choices.

  “Raoul thinks I ought to have gone to Paris with him and my sons. But how could I do that? How could I leave Aquitaine? What sort of a message would that have sent to my lords and vassals if I’d run away like…like a flighty, fainthearted woman?”

  “In all honesty, Madame, I doubt that your presence in Paris would have changed things much. You have more common sense than any man I’ve ever known, and more courage. But we both know they’d not have heeded you. You’re crippled by your skirts, and your lads by their years. Had he only been older, Richard could have…”

  Again, he left the thought unfinished, for he was too much of a realist to embrace those most frivolous of regrets, the ones rooted in the barren soil of What If and If Only. Instead, he said briskly, “Well, at least we’ve been granted a second chance. I think it likely the Count of Flanders will soon rejoin the hunt, for he is not a man to mourn for long, not when all of Kent can be his for the taking. And when he does, the French king’s mishaps will not matter as much. We must remember, too, that the Scots king is still a player in this game. And whilst he may not be your husband’s equal on the field, he has something the other rebels do not—the resources of a kingdom to draw upon.”

  “Yes,” she said, “but so does Harry. Our spies tell us he has enough to hire twice as many Brabançon routiers as he has now in his pay.” As she’d spoken, she was tugging at her wedding band until it slid from her finger. Clenching it tightly in her fist, she said morosely, “I wonder how long it will be ere they come calling into Aquitaine.”

  Saldebreuil had no answer for her, but then she’d not expected one, and after that, they sat for a time in silence as the shadows lengthened and night came on.


  October 1173

  St Edmundsbury, England

  UPON LEARNING THAT the Earl of Leicester had sailed from Wissant on September 29 with a large contingent of Flemish mercenaries, the Earl of Arundel set out in pursuit, landing at Walton on the coast of Suffolk. There he learned that Leicester had joined forces with the Earl of Norfolk at Framlingham, and that the king’s justiciar and constable, Richard de Lucy and Humphrey de Bohun, had hastily signed a truce with the Scots king so they could return to deal with this new threat.

  THE ABBEY OF ST EDMUND’S was a celebrated pilgrim shrine, for it held the holy bones of the martyred Saxon king Edmund. Geoff hoped that he’d have time to do honor to the saint, but for now he could think only of the coming bloodshed. He had persuaded Henry to allow him to accompany the Earl of Arundel, but he was uncomfortably aware of his lack of military experience and was desperately determined that he not blunder and bring sham
e upon his father.

  They were greeted cordially by Abbot Hugh, who promised that his guest-master would somehow find lodgings for their men, no mean feat under the circumstances; the justiciar and constable had gotten support from Henry’s cousin, the Earl of Gloucester, and his uncles, Rainald and Ranulf, so the abbey and town were already overflowing with knights and foot soldiers. The earl soon excused himself, candidly admitting that his “old bones” were in need of a rest; having reached his biblical three score years and ten, he no longer felt the need for bravado. Left to his own devices, Geoff gladly accepted the offer of a young novice monk to show him around.

  His guide introduced himself as Jocelin of Brakelond and took Geoff into the nave of the church to see the saint’s shrine located behind the High Altar. Pilgrims came from all over England, Brother Jocelin said proudly, although honesty compelled him to admit that the crowds had fallen off in the past two years as more and more people chose to make pilgrimages to St Thomas at Canterbury. In recent weeks, most of the visitors had been local townspeople, he confided, praying that their saint would save them from the Earl of Leicester’s Flemings and praying, too, that the warfare would not keep them from holding their great fair in November. Geoff bit his tongue to keep himself from reminding the young monk that there was more at stake than lost fair revenues. If they did not succeed in quelling Leicester’s rebellion, England itself could be lost to the rebels.

  After leaving the church, Jocelin escorted Geoff through the cellarer’s gate into the great courtyard and then to the abbot’s hall rather than the guest hall, for he knew that his abbot was a shrewd politician as well as a churchman and he’d want to be sure that the king’s son was treated as a privileged guest. Geoff hesitated in the doorway, for he was shy with strangers. To his relief, he soon spotted two familiar faces: his father’s uncles, Rainald of Cornwall and Lord Ranulf of Wales. He did not know either man very well, but they shared a common bond—illegitimacy—and he headed in their direction.

  To his delight, they welcomed him with genuine enthusiasm, squeezing over to make room for him at their table. They had spent the past three months fighting beside the justiciar, Richard de Lucy, first laying siege to the town and castle of Leicester and then pursuing the Scots king back across the border, and Geoff felt a surge of gratitude that these two men, so loyal to their sister the Empress Maude, were proving to be no less loyal to her son.

  Rainald would happily have entertained Geoff for hours with stories of their Scots campaign, but Ranulf deftly steered the conversation toward more urgent matters—the threat posed by the Earl of Leicester and his ally, Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk. Geoff was familiar with Bigod’s history, for he was notorious for his double-dealing. He’d begun his career by committing perjury on Stephen’s behalf, falsely swearing that Maude’s father had repudiated her upon his deathbed; Stephen had rewarded him with the earldom of Norfolk. But he’d soon proved that Stephen could trust him no more than Maude could, and his unbridled ambition had even led him to join the infamous Geoffrey de Mandeville. De Mandeville had paid for his treachery with death, dishonor, and eternal damnation. But Bigod had somehow escaped retribution, and seemed as indifferent to the passage of time as he was to the voice of conscience. He’d rebelled against Stephen, Maude, and then Henry, had been excommunicated by Thomas Becket for usurping the lands of a Norfolk monastery, and now, at the vast age of eighty, he was still actively engaging in his favorite pursuits—insurrection, perfidy, and marauding. Geoff thought that an alliance between Bigod and the Earl of Leicester was inevitable, the damned seeking out the damned.

  “After he landed at Walton, that snake Leicester slithered off to join Bigod in his burrow at Framlingham,” Rainald reported, grimacing as if he’d tasted something foul. “But he soon wore out his welcome. His Flemings thought they could take anything that caught their eye—food, livestock, women. And his countess had her nose so far up in the air that she’d have drowned if it began to rain. Bigod’s wife decided she’d rather entertain starving wolves as guests, and there was so much tension that Leicester and his wife—who fancies herself his chief military advisor—decided that they’d march west to Leicester Castle.”

  “We have to stop them!” Geoff exclaimed, with such intensity that the older men smiled and Rainald could not resist teasing him a bit.

  “Are you planning to ride with us, lad? I thought Harry meant to make you a prince of the Church. As a priest, your choice of weapons is somewhat limited. I guess you could always put the curse of God upon Leicester. He deserves it if any man does!”

  Geoff tensed, hurt and offended. But then he caught Ranulf’s wink and relaxed, reassured that Rainald’s maladroit humor was not meant to wound. “I am not a priest yet,” he said, adding ruefully, “and in no hurry to take holy vows. My father believes that I’d make a far better cleric than I do, but he did agree to let me receive a knight’s training. I bloodied my sword when the French army fled Verneuil, so I am not such a novice as you think, Granduncle Rainald.”

  “Jesu, lad, do not call me that! That makes me sound downright ancient, like a holy relic or one of those churchyard yew trees. Uncle Rainald will do just fine.”

  “And we will stop them, Geoff,” Ranulf said. “You need not fret about that. Three days ago they took Haughley Castle. They ransomed the knights, but they burned the village to the ground. Haughley is just twelve miles east of St Edmundsbury. Leicester will not dare an attack upon the town, though, and he’ll try to circle around us. Once he does, we’ll strike.”

  “And with God’s Blessings,” Geoff said emphatically, although his nerves throbbed with the realization that a battle could be looming within days. “I’d risk the surety of my soul to see Leicester called to account for his sins. At Gisors, he actually dared to draw his sword on my father!”

  “So that really happened? We heard the story,” Ranulf said, shaking his head in bemusement, “but could scarce believe it.”

  “And it is not as if Leicester has youth as an excuse,” Rainald pointed out, “not like my niece Maud’s idiot son Hugh, doing penance these days in a Falaise dungeon. Leicester was born the year after the sinking of the White Ship, which makes him more than fifty!”

  “I suppose Leicester could plead madness,” Geoff commented acerbically, “for nothing less than lunacy can explain his actions. But what of his wife? If Peronelle is not welcome at Framlingham, where will she go when he heads for Leicester?”

  “She’ll go with him,” Ranulf said with absolute certainty. “On the march to Framlingham, she rode at his side, wearing chain mail and bearing a lance and shield.”

  Geoff was dumbstruck, but before he could respond, Rainald gave a short bark of laughter. “That must have been a sight to behold. Ranulf says there is a Greek myth about women warriors, and I suppose Peronelle thinks she is one of those…Amazons, was it, Ranulf? Not even Eleanor ever dared to arm herself as if she were a man!”

  Eleanor’s name sank like a stone in the conversational waters and an awkward silence fell, for Henry’s uncles understood her conduct no more than he did. Rainald had been impressed by her beauty and her willingness to swap bawdy stories with him, and she’d won Ranulf over by befriending his wife, Rhiannon. She was now the enemy, though, for her glamour and past kindnesses counted for little against a betrayal of such magnitude. It was Ranulf who gave voice to their bitterness. “Raimon St Gilles warned Harry at Toulouse that he was ‘nurturing a viper in his nest.’ He did not believe it, of course. What man would believe that of his own wife?”

  “No man would,” Rainald concurred. “Poor Harry. That Clifford chit is said to be a pretty little thing, but was there ever so costly a piece of tail? Not Harry’s fault, though. How could he have known Eleanor’s jealousy would turn her into a madwoman?”

  Geoff could not defend Rosamund, for in the eyes of the Church, she was a wanton. Having met her, he did not like to hear her described so crudely, though, and since he did not feel comfortable taking Raina
ld to task for it, he chose to change the subject. “Is it true that the Earl of Gloucester is here with you?”

  Ranulf nodded and Rainald explained cheerfully that Gloucester did not seem happy about it, but he had no choice. “He knows Harry thinks he is weak-willed, and since he is wed to Leicester’s sister, Harry would naturally wonder how susceptible he’d be to the earl’s blandishments. So he is here to prove that he is not as daft as his nephew Hugh.”

  Geoff did not like the Earl of Gloucester, thought he was pompous and just as feckless as Henry suspected. But he felt an unwelcome prick of pity for the earl now; it did not seem fair that he should be tainted by his wife’s Beaumont blood. He was thinking that civil wars were the cruelest of all wars when a man stopped by their table. He was of medium height with closely clipped brown hair and beard, and looked to Geoff to be in his mid-twenties. His familiarity with Rainald and Ranulf indicated to Geoff that he was someone of substance, but he was taken aback when the introductions were made, for the newcomer bore a well-known name: Sir Roger Bigod.

  “Bigod? Are you kin to the Earl of Norfolk?”

  His query might have been tactless, but it was not ill-intentioned. He’d never outgrown his boyhood habit of speaking his mind. But Sir Roger bristled at the question. “The earl is my father,” he said defiantly. “What of it? Are you suggesting that we are trying to keep a foot in both camps and that is why I am supporting the king?”

  Geoff blinked. “Good Lord, no! The thought never entered my head. I’d be the last man in Christendom to cast aspersions upon another man’s family loyalties. Look at mine. My half brothers could put Judas to shame, and whilst my lord father is willing to forgive them, I doubt that I ever can.”

  Roger was disarmed by his candor and regarded Geoff with amused approval. “A few friends and I are going into town to get something to eat. You want to come along? Afterward we’ll show you the sights—taverns, alehouses, and mayhap a nunnery.”