Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 25

  Geoff grinned, for he knew “nunnery” was slang for a bawdy-house, and knew, too, that this was Roger’s way of apologizing for his flare of temper. “What are we waiting for?” he asked, pushing away from the table.

  Roger grinned, too, but then his gaze fell upon Ranulf and Rainald. “You are also welcome to come,” he said, politely but not very enthusiastically.

  Ranulf declined with a smile, and watched as Geoff and Roger headed for the door. Rainald watched, too, saying indignantly, “They think we are too old and decrepit for a night of drinking and whoring!”

  “Well,” Ranulf said, “we are,” and after a moment, Rainald sighed.

  “Yes, I suppose we are,” he agreed, somewhat sadly. But then he brightened. “At least we are not too old to fight!”

  Ranulf thought that was debatable, for Rainald was sixty-three and he was just weeks away from his fifty-fifth birthday. He’d much rather have spent these past months back in Wales with Rhiannon, savoring their homecoming. But his nephew’s need must come first. There had been a time when he’d briefly been estranged from his eldest son, and he still remembered the pain of it. How much greater must Harry’s pain be, betrayed by his own blood, by those he had most reason to trust.

  “We have a saying in Wales, ‘Dangos y cam a’i faddau yw’r dial tostaf ar elyn.’ It translates as ‘To disclose the wrong and forgive it is the severest revenge upon an enemy.’ But when it comes to those involved in this rebellion, Rainald, I find myself agreeing with Geoff, that there can be no forgiveness.”

  Rainald signaled to a passing servant, snared two cups of ale, and passed one to his brother. “Let’s drink,” he said, “first to victory and then to retribution.”

  THEY WERE MAKING THEIR WAY up Churchgate Street, having been warned by the Watch that curfew had rung, but in no hurry to return to the restrictive environs of the abbey. Geoff was in good spirits, for he’d enjoyed his outing with Roger Bigod and his friends. He’d had enough ale to feel mellow but not enough to suffer from it on the morrow, and he’d had a very satisfactory encounter with a young whore named Eve, was already looking forward to a return visit. When he said as much, though, Roger laughed.

  “I’d not count on that, Geoff. Chances are that we’ll be leaving St Edmundsbury in the dust within a day or two at most.”

  Geoff turned to look at the other man. “You think it will be as soon as that?”

  “I do. Our scouts are keeping a sharp eye on Leicester. Once we know which road he means to take, we can move to intercept him and—What was that?”

  Geoff had heard it, too, a muffled shout. Fulk de Barnham, one of Roger’s household knights, pointed off to his left. “It came from that alley.” Crossing the street, they peered into the alley, hands on sword hilts. Raising his lantern, Geoff saw enough to draw his weapon. He did not know the rights or wrongs of the fight, but he did not like the odds—three to one. As he moved forward, Roger and his companions followed; they might not share Geoff’s strong sense of chivalry, but they were not at all averse to ending the night with a brawl.

  A young man had been backed against the wall. Bleeding and bruised, he was defending himself with a wooden stick, and getting the worst of it. But his assailants broke off the attack as soon as they realized they were no longer alone. One glance at the drawn swords and they fled toward the other end of the alley, disappearing into the night. Their victim slowly sank to his knees, gasping for breath. All Geoff could see of him was a thatch of bright hair, as yellow as primroses. “Are you hurt?” he asked, leaning over to touch the other’s shoulder. When he raised his head, Geoff saw that he was little more than a boy, fifteen, sixteen at most. His words came out in a rush, and Geoff guessed they were being thanked, but he had trouble understanding all that was being said, for he had a rudimentary grasp of English, and the boy’s East Anglican accent rendered his speech all but indecipherable.

  Roger and his knights were far more fluent in English than Geoff, and they soon had the youth’s story. “He says his name is Ailwin,” Roger related, “and he was set upon by those cutthroats as he left the alehouse up the street. They saw him as easy prey, I suppose, a lad alone, fresh from the country. Look what he was using to fend them off.”

  Geoff shone his lantern upon a long wooden handle with a shorter, stouter stick attached at the end by a leather thong. It seemed vaguely familiar to him, and after a moment he recognized it as a flail, a farming implement used to thresh wheat. “Why would he be wandering around St Edmundsbury with a flail? The last time I looked, there were no crops to be harvested in the center of town!”

  Ailwin was struggling to get to his feet and Fulk gave him a hand, while Roger put a few more questions to him. “He says he came here to fight the Flemings. The flail was the only weapon he had.”

  Geoff almost laughed at the notion of this green farm lad going off to war with a flail, but stifled it in time, not wanting to hurt the boy’s feelings. Roger was speaking again to Ailwin and when he glanced over at Geoff, his face was bleak. “Leicester’s Flemings burned his village and killed his family.”

  They looked at one another and then at Ailwin. “We cannot leave him bleeding here in the alley,” Geoff said finally. “Tell him to come with us back to the abbey. At least he’ll have a bed for the night.”

  “The shire is full of Ailwins,” Roger said. “Leicester has much to answer for.” He did not add the words “as does my father.” But the unspoken thought seemed to hang in the air between them, and Geoff could only hope that the day of reckoning would soon be coming—for all their sakes.

  GEOFF COULD NOT DISMISS Ailwin from his mind, though, and the next morning while breaking his fast with his granduncles and the Earl of Gloucester, he told them about the boy’s rash quest. “I cannot blame him for wanting to strike back at the men who killed his family,” he concluded. “But God help him if he should actually run into some of the Flemish routiers!”

  Gloucester looked at Geoff blankly, unable to understand why they were wasting time discussing the fate of a runaway peasant, but Ranulf and Rainald were intrigued by the image he’d conjured up—a country ceorl wielding his flail in the interest of justice.

  “There’s no use trying to talk the lad out of it,” Rainald asserted, spearing a large piece of sausage with his knife. “Better he tags along after the army than to go roaming off on his own. There’s safety in numbers, after all.”

  “Rainald is right.” Ranulf helped himself to a chunk of freshly baked bread. “If he is set upon vengeance, he’ll not be discouraged by anything you say. He has a just grievance, after all, and—”

  “‘A just grievance,’” Gloucester echoed in astonishment. “You are talking about a lowborn villein, a drudge, a…” He paused, groping for words, and finally settled upon “nithing,” an English term of contempt. “He is no more capable of understanding the concept of honor or a blood-debt than my favorite lymer hound! What you should have done, Geoff, was report him to the sheriff, for if he is bound to the land, he has no right to run off like this and ought to be punished.”

  Rainald and Ranulf looked at the younger man, marveling that their beloved brother Robert could have sired such a son. Geoff had neither their patience nor their long experience in dealing with Gloucester’s bad manners, and he set down his ale cup so abruptly that liquid sloshed over the rim. “That makes perfect sense,” he said, with enough sarcasm to have done his father proud. “We are facing a rebel army that is far larger than ours, an army made up of Flemish routiers eager to turn all of England into a charnel house. So of course our first priority ought to be tracking down and disciplining a lad who may or may not be a runaway villein.”

  Gloucester scowled, but when Geoff showed no signs of being intimidated by his disapproval, he decided it was not worth his while to engage in a public quarrel with this insolent stripling. Getting to his feet, he made what he hoped was a dignified departure, ruing the day that a king’s sinful spawn must be treated as if he were lawfully begotte
n, on equal footing with those born in holy wedlock. And his contempt for Geoff was not in the least diluted by the fact that his own father had been a royal bastard, for Gloucester had never been one to let his reasoning be undermined by facts.

  As he walked away, Rainald leaned over and punched Geoff playfully on the arm. “Well done, lad. Now we can enjoy our meal in peace. Our prospects are not as dire, though, as you made out. It is true Leicester has three thousand Flemings under his command, but they are more like a pack of hungry dogs than a true army.”

  “But routiers are feared the length and breadth of Christendom,” Geoff protested. “Look how easily my father’s Brabançons overcame the Breton rebels.”

  “Fortunately for us,” Ranulf said, “Leicester’s routiers are not as battle-seasoned as Harry’s soldiers. He hired them on the cheap, taking any men willing to sign on, and he was in such a rush that he had no time to separate the wheat from the chaff. A goodly number of his so-called routiers were weavers, bedazzled by the prospects of rich plunder in England. They’ve been stealing anything that was not nailed down on their marches, singing a cheery little ditty, ‘Hop, hop, Wilekin, England is mine and thine.’ But they’ve not yet been battle-tested, and it remains to be seen how they’ll respond when they are.”

  Although he would not have admitted it, Geoff had been troubled by the disparity in size between the two armies, and he was heartened now to think Leicester’s Flemings were not as formidable as people feared. “We’ve been lucky, too,” he commented, “in the quality of the battle commanders we’ve been facing. The French king and Leicester: who’d fear either of those stout-hearts on the field?”

  Ranulf and Rainald were expressing their amused agreement when there was a stir across the hall. As they turned toward the sound, they saw Roger Bigod hastening in their direction. “Our scouts have just ridden in,” he reported breathlessly. “Leicester is on the move. He is making ready to ford the River Lark north of the town!”

  ROGER BIGOD HAD BEEN GIVEN the honor of bearing the standard of St Edmund, and as they rode out of the town’s Northgate, Geoff’s eyes kept returning to that sacred banner, flaring as the wind swirled it, proclaiming to all that they were marching under the saint’s protection. The sky above them was a brilliant blue, a harvest sky, and the October sun spangled the countryside in dazzling golden light, burnishing the autumn foliage so that the trees seemed on fire, ablaze with leafy flames of yellow and scarlet. Geoff had never been so aware of the physical world around him, so grateful for the beauty that the Almighty had bestowed upon them. But if his senses had been honed as sharp as his sword, his emotions were soaring like St Edmund’s banner. He was caught up in the surging thrill of the hunt, eager to test his prowess and his courage, to make his father proud and see the rebel earl brought low. His nerves were vibrating like Welsh harp strings, but there was no fear in him, not yet. On such a day, defeat was impossible to imagine.

  The Earl of Leicester had made a fateful decision to cross the River Lark at the hamlet of Fornham St Genevieve just four miles from the royal army at St Edmundsbury. Henry’s commanders could not understand why he’d chosen to take such a risk, could only be grateful for it. They’d been ready to move as soon as they received confirmation from their scouts of the earl’s whereabouts, and they raced north with the stirring words of the aged Earl of Arundel ringing in their ears, “Let us strike them for the honor of God and St Edmund!”

  When they were within sight of the rebel force, not a man among them doubted that the Almighty was on their side. They’d caught Leicester in the very act of fording the river, and while his knights had already reached the west bank, his Flemish foot soldiers were still massing on the east bank, his army split in two by the rushing waters of the Lark.

  THE ATTACK BEGAN as a trot, with lances held upright, trumpets blaring and pennons fluttering in the breeze, and the war cry of the English royal House erupting from countless throats, “Dex aie!” It seemed to Geoff that his heart was pounding in rhythm with his stallion’s thudding hooves. This was the way combat was meant to be, not the ugliness at Verneuil, the broken faith and slaughter of innocents. This was a fight between equals, knights trained in war, matching skills and valor. Leveling his lance, couched under his right arm so it was held steady against his chest, he urged his destrier into a gallop as the enemy knights charged to meet them.

  His target was a knight on a roan stallion. As the distance narrowed between them, he braced himself for the impact, still more excited than afraid, instinctively putting into practice the lessons learned in years of tiltyard drills. His foe struck first, but his lance hit the edge of Geoff’s shield, sliding off harmlessly. Geoff’s aim was better. He was rocked back against his saddle cantle as his lance shattered upon his opponent’s shield, and then he gave a triumphant shout, for the force of his blow had unseated the other knight.

  He hesitated then, not sure what to do next. It never occurred to him to kill the man sprawled in the trampled grass; it would be dishonorable to slay a defenseless knight, and foolish, too, for he’d be forfeiting a profitable ransom. But the battle still raged around him. Shouldn’t he seek out another foe? His dilemma was solved by Fulk de Barnham. As he galloped past, he yelled, “What are you waiting for? Take him prisoner or someone else will!”

  The enemy knight was struggling to sit up, holding his arm at such an odd angle that Geoff guessed he’d broken a bone in his fall. Casting aside his damaged lance, Geoff unsheathed his sword. “Do you yield?”

  The man’s eyes locked onto that lethal, naked blade. “I do,” he said hoarsely. “I am your prisoner, sir.”

  Geoff frowned down into that pale, tense face. He’d heard it argued that it would now be his responsibility to escort his captive to a place of safety, but clearly that was impossible under the circumstances. He had no intention of leaving the battle, and he decided he had no choice but to trust to his enemy’s honor. “You have pledged yourself to Geoffrey Fitz Roy,” he declared, and spurred his stallion away without waiting for a response.

  He soon found another adversary, a knight on a lathered chestnut. They exchanged inconclusive blows, but when he circled back to strike again, he was shocked to see the other man had ridden on. Glancing around, he saw that this was occurring all over the field. Men were down, riderless horses milling about in confusion. Leicester’s line was wavering, his knights, outnumbered and hard-pressed, giving ground before the onslaught. And then the line was breaking, and the survivors were in flight, seeking only to save themselves.

  “Leicester is getting away!” A knight galloped by Geoff, gesturing and shouting. Catching a glimpse of a streaming checkered banner in the distance, he recognized it as the earl’s device and joined the chase, urging his stallion to greater speed.

  “Treacherous swine! Swaggering, misbegotten whoreson! We’ll follow you into Hell if need be!” No one could hear him, of course, but Geoff continued to yell threats, so outraged was he that Leicester would try to save his craven skin by bolting the field, leaving his men to die.

  The rebel knights were being overtaken, one by one, for they were fleeing across marshland and they were soon blundering into bogs and sloughs. A ditch loomed ahead, but Geoff’s destrier did not break stride. Gathering itself, it soared up and over, and Geoff gave a shaken laugh, for there was a second horse down in the ditch, one that had not been so lucky, floundering on three legs. He drew rein to catch his breath and heap praise upon his stallion, caught movement from the corner of his eye just in time. A man darted forward, muddied and desperate, and snatched at his reins. Geoff’s stallion was well trained in the maneuvers of the battlefield—Henry had seen to that—and it reared up, dragging the man off his feet. He’d come in from the left, so Geoff could not make use of his sword. Instead, he bashed the knight with his shield, and watched with satisfaction as his assailant reeled backward, plunging down into the ditch with a resounding splash.

  A horseman was approaching, very fast, and he spurred his st
allion forward. He was confident that this was not one of Leicester’s fleeing knights, for he was going in the wrong direction, and by now the rider was close enough for him to recognize the device on his shield—the insignia of the constable, Humphrey de Bohun.

  The man reined in a few feet away. He was splattered with blood, whether his own or not, Geoff could not tell, and his chest was heaving, his face streaked with sweat and dirt. “Do you have a wineskin?” he wanted to know, and when Geoff unhooked it from his pommel and tossed it over, he drank in gulps, then removed his helmet and poured the remaining liquid over his head. “God Above, it is hot!”

  It was a cool autumn day, but Geoff agreed with him; between his mail and his exertions, he felt downright feverish. “What is happening?”

  He’d assumed de Bohun’s knight was acting as a courier and the man confirmed it now with a flash of white teeth as he replaced his helmet. “We caught Leicester, and as easy as snaring a rabbit it was, too. He did not even try to fight us off, the milk-livered, mewling pisspot! My lord sent me to get word to the Earls of Cornwall and Gloucester.”

  His last words floated back on the wind to Geoff, for he was already galloping off. Geoff was tempted to continue on, so greatly did he want to witness Leicester’s capture and humiliation. But common sense reasserted itself, and turning his horse around, he rode after the courier. The battle was not yet won, for there were still Leicester’s three thousand Flemish routiers to deal with.

  He’d not gone far, though, before he saw several horsemen gathered beside a water-filled trench. What drew his attention was their laughter, not something he’d expect to hear upon a battlefield. They turned as he rode up; one of them was a knight in Roger Bigod’s household, and he assured the others that Geoff was on their side. It occurred to Geoff that warfare would be easier if all the combatants wore identifying colors or devices. A baron or lord’s knights would bear his insignia on their shields, but not always, and in the heat of battle, mistakes could be made, and sometimes were. That was what had most surprised Geoff about combat: the chaos and confusion.