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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 26


  He started to ask the knights what was going on, but by then he was close enough to see for himself. A slight figure in chain mail was struggling in the water, while on the bank one of the knights was removing his helmet and sword before sliding down into the trench. It made sense to Geoff that they’d attempt a rescue; why not get wet for the chance of a goodly ransom? He was puzzled, though, that the would-be rescuer’s companions were so amused by his efforts, and even more puzzled now when the trapped knight lurched away, refusing to take his outstretched hand.

  “What…he’d prefer drowning to capture?” he asked incredulously and, oddly, that sent the other men into further paroxysms of mirth.

  “Not ‘he,’” one managed to gasp. “She!”

  Geoff’s jaw dropped. Once he understood what they were saying, he swung from the saddle and hastened toward the ditch, eager to see the Earl of Leicester’s notorious Amazon countess. The other knights were still laughing, cheering the Good Samaritan on with cries of “Go, Simon, go!”

  So far, Simon was not having much luck. “Come on, my lady,” he said coaxingly. “You’re getting in over your head. Surely you do not want to drown in a ditch like a dog!”

  “Yes,” she hissed, “I would rather drown than let you put your hands on me, you lumpish, poxy lout!”

  This sent Simon’s comrades into hysterics; one almost unseated himself, he was laughing so hard. The countess had gone under, came up sputtering and coughing, and when she did, Simon lunged forward. But she was as slippery as an eel and slid out of his grasp. “This is crazy, my lady,” he insisted, edging closer to make another grab. “So you’ve lost. War is always a question of losing and winning. But if you kill yourself, you’ll burn in Hell for all eternity!”

  For the first time, she seemed to be listening to him, to hear what he was saying. She looked from him to the watching men, and there was such despair on her face that their laughter momentarily stilled. When Simon stretched out his hand, she hesitated, then began to splash toward him, and he’d soon pulled her to safety. But when he was about to boost her up the bank, she suddenly began to resist again. Tugging frantically at the jeweled rings adorning her fingers, she slipped them off before he realized what she was doing and flung the rings out into the depths of the ditch.

  “There!” she cried triumphantly. “I’d rather the fish get them!”

  With that, Simon lost all patience. “Bitch!” he growled, shoving her up onto dry ground before plunging into the ditch again, where he dove repeatedly into the murky water, seeking in vain to recover the countess’s rings.

  Geoff understood Simon’s frustration, for there’d be no ransom for the Countess of Leicester. It did not matter how much she might offer for her freedom; she would be a prisoner of the Crown, not released until and if his father willed it. Peronelle had flung back the hood of her hauberk, removing her sodden linen coif to reveal thick braids coiled neatly at the nape of her neck. She was not at all what Geoff had expected. He’d heard such stories of the influence she wielded over Leicester that he’d envisioned her as a Jezebel, thinking theirs was the classic case of an older man doting upon a young and beautiful wife. But Peronelle de Grandmesnil was not a young woman, not a new wife. Geoff guessed she might be as old as forty, which meant that she was the mother of Leicester’s four children, and indeed she did look more maternal than seductive, even allowing for her present bedraggled state.

  She caught him studying her, and thrust her chin out, glaring at him with a defiance that he found both admirable and exasperating. “What are you staring at, knave?” she snapped, and Geoff felt a twinge of pity for her children; with this shrew and Leicester as their parents, they were truly doomed by their own blood.

  “I was wondering,” he said coldly, “if you were curious about the fate of your lord husband. Mayhap not, since he apparently was more concerned with saving himself than seeing to your safety.”

  It was hard to tell for sure, but he thought that she blanched beneath her coating of mud. “You know what befell my husband?”

  Geoff surprised himself by wishing he could tell her Leicester was dead; he hadn’t known he had such a streak of malice. “He is safe enough,” he said, adding ominously, “for now,” even though he knew—and she surely did, too—that Leicester was too highborn to pay the ultimate price for his treason. He was coming to realize that the guiltiest ones—the French king and his half brothers—were likely to escape any real punishment, leaving their supporters to suffer for their sins. There was only one of the conspirators who might eventually be held to account—his father’s queen.

  GEOFF FOUND HIS GRANDUNCLES on the bank of the River Lark. He’d not needed to worry about the Flemish routiers, they assured him. Trapped on the wrong side of the river, the Flemings had watched helplessly as Leicester’s knights were ridden down, and when the royal forces began to ford the river, they’d confirmed Rainald’s scornful belief that they were better weavers than routiers, and panicked. They had sought to save themselves by fleeing into the marshy meadowlands beyond the tiny chapel of Fornham St Genevieve, and what followed, Rainald reported gleefully, was a slaughter.

  “It was over in less than an hour,” he told Geoff. “We captured virtually all of Leicester’s knights, including the lordly turd himself, and his French cousin, Hugh de Chastel. As for his greedy Flemings, they’ll get some English land out of this—enough to be buried in.”

  Geoff laughed aloud, amused by his kinsman’s flair for creative cursing; from now on, he knew he’d think of Leicester as “the lordly turd.” “The Flemings did not try to surrender? They died fighting?”

  “No,” Ranulf said, “they died running. And they were not offered a chance to surrender.”

  Geoff knew that the chivalric code did not apply to lowborn routiers, and he could not muster up much sympathy for the slain Flemings, not when he remembered young Ailwin, trying to avenge the slaughter of his family with a farmer’s flail. “So we killed them all, then,” he said, but to his surprise, Ranulf shook his head.

  “No, not us, lad. The local people did it, the peasants and ceorls. They pursued the Flemings with hayforks and clubs and flails, whatever weapons they could find, and when they caught one, they wasted no time dispatching him to Hell. Many of the routiers drowned, too, either in the river or in the ditches that cross these meadowlands. We’ll be digging grave pits for some time to come.”

  Geoff whistled silently, and then, remembering that the slain routiers were still fellow Christians, he dutifully made the sign of the cross. But Roger Bigod’s words were echoing in his ears. The shire is full of Ailwins. The ways of the Almighty were indeed mysterious at times. Who’d have expected Him to make use of villeins and ceorls as the instruments of Divine Justice?

  “The Earl of Norfolk will be quaking in his boots once he hears about Leicester’s defeat,” he said happily. But before he could dwell upon the earl’s discomfort, men were pushing forward, pointing and shouting. Turning, he saw the cause of their excitement. The king’s constable, Humphrey de Bohun, was returning to St Edmundsbury in triumph. But the bystanders had eyes only for his captives—Hugh de Chastel, who bore the lofty title Count of Châteauneuf-en-Thimerais, and his cousin, Robert Beaumont, Earl of Leicester. What struck Geoff first was that the linen surcoat Leicester wore over his mail was still clean, unstained by blood or dirt or mud. He wondered uncharitably if the earl had even bothered to draw his sword, thinking that his countess had put up more of a fight than her heroic husband. Leicester appeared oblivious to the jeers and catcalls of the spectators. He was livid, slumped in the saddle as if his spine no longer had the strength to hold him erect, his the stunned disbelief of a man who could not understand how his God and his luck could have so forsaken him.

  Geoff suspected that the wily old Earl of Norfolk would have shown more spirit. But he suspected, too, that Norfolk would find a way to escape a reckoning, as he’d so often done in the past. “At least it is over,” he said. “Thank God Almighty for
that!”

  Ranulf gave him a searching look, but refrained from commenting even though he knew better. It was not over, would not be over as long as the French king and the King of the Scots and their allies were still free to continue the war. For they would, he had no doubts of that. For now, though, he let Geoff enjoy their triumph. It was worth savoring, after all, the victory they’d won this October day at Fornham St Genevieve.

  AN UNSEASONABLE THUNDERSTORM had rolled through Rouen earlier in the evening, and Rosamund still heard occasional rumblings of thunder in the distance. She’d been embroidering another altar cloth for Godstow Priory while waiting for Henry to come to bed, but she was smothering yawns and finally laid the sewing aside. She was tired all the time these days, for Henry was sleeping even less than usual. She’d always been awed by his vigor, his ability to go to bed so late and rise so early and yet seem so invigorated, so energetic. Lately, though, his sleep habits had gotten much worse, and Rosamund was often kept awake herself by his restlessness. He would not admit it, but she was sure she knew the reason for his current unease. There had been no word from England, only a foreboding silence.

  Rosamund was confident that Leicester’s rebellion would be quelled, for her faith in Henry was as deep as her faith in the Almighty, and if that was blasphemous, so be it. But she sensed that Henry was beset with doubts, for perhaps the first time in his life, and she did not know how to help, just as she did not know how to heal the festering wounds caused by his family’s betrayal.

  She curled up in the middle of the bed and was soon joined by a kitten the color of saffron. Cats were not usually kept as pets, except occasionally by nuns, but Rosamund had a fondness for them. It was only recently that she’d confided this partiality to Henry, and much to her delight, he was willing to indulge her in it, joking that he wished he’d known earlier that she could be satisfied with stable cats rather than costly jewels. Now, when the kitten settled down on the pillow beside her, she was soon lulled to sleep by its soft, melodic purring.

  She was not sure how long she’d slept, jarred back to awareness by a loud thud. At first she thought it was another clap of thunder, but then she heard Henry’s voice calling her name. A moment later he pulled the bed hangings aside and enfolded her in an exuberant embrace.

  “Wake up, lass. This is no time to sleep, not when we have so much to celebrate!”

  “You’ve heard from your justiciar!” she cried, and he nodded, grinning.

  “The rebellion in England is over. That whoreson Leicester is now a prisoner of the Crown, his knights pleading to be ransomed, his Flemings rotting in Suffolk graves. It was a brilliant victory, love, about as good as it gets.” He hugged her again, then gave her a passionate kiss that took her breath away, in part because he was holding her so tightly.

  “Beloved, that is such wonderful news!”

  When Henry told her that the battle had been fought near St Edmundsbury, she resolved to make sure that its abbey benefited, too, from royal largesse. Henry was not as open-handed in his giving as she or the Church would have liked, but she knew she could coax him into showing greater generosity in the wake of such a blessed victory.

  Henry was pouring them wine and she sat up in the bed to watch, unable to remember the last time she’d seen him so happy. “What of the Earl of Norfolk, Harry? Did he take the field with Leicester?”

  “Of course not. That sly old fox prefers to let others do his hunting for him. But he was alarmed enough by Leicester’s defeat to agree to a truce and even to dismiss his own Flemish routiers. There will be no further outbreaks of violence in England, at least not this year.”

  Taking the cup he was offering, she gave him a radiant smile. “What will you do with the Earl of Leicester? He is a wicked, loathsome man, Harry, ought to be punished severely for his treachery.”

  Henry was amused and touched that the soft-hearted Rosamund was so fierce when it came to the rebel earl; she’d been utterly unforgiving from the moment she’d learned of his behavior at Gisors. “Richard de Lucy dispatched Leicester and his quarrelsome countess to Southampton, and from there they’ll be sent to keep Hugh of Chester company at Falaise.”

  “When we return to England, it would be a godly act to make a pilgrimage to St Edmundsbury,” she murmured, for she’d just remembered that the Suffolk saint was known to show favor to barren wives.

  “If you like,” he said absently, joining her on the bed where he set about unfastening her long blond braids. Rosamund leaned back against him with a contented sigh, thinking that this would be their first Christmas together. She’d always passed them alone, watching from afar as he celebrated his Christmas Court with his queen.

  “Harry…St Edmundsbury is not the only pilgrimage we can make,” she ventured, and he paused in the act of running his fingers through her hair to say dryly that he hoped she was not going to suggest Canterbury. “I was thinking of Mont St Michel.” She looked at him hopefully, for she’d long yearned to visit the celebrated island abbey. “Now would be the perfect time for such a pilgrimage, beloved. The Breton rebels have been subdued and there’ll be no fighting elsewhere until the spring…”

  She stopped in mid-sentence, feeling the sudden tension in the arm encircling her waist. When he sat up, she searched his face intently, worrying that she’d somehow offended. “Of course by next spring, I am sure peace will be restored and your sons will have come to their senses,” she said hastily. “I did not mean to imply that this wretched war will drag on into the new year.”

  Henry did not seem to be listening, and when he rose and began to move restlessly around the chamber, she watched him in growing dismay. She’d always found his sudden mood swings to be disconcerting, and never more so than now, for his elation over Leicester’s defeat seemed to be vanishing before her very eyes.

  “Harry…have I said something wrong?” she asked timidly. “If I did, it was not meant…”

  He’d begun to stir the hearth logs with an iron poker. Straightening up, he was surprised to see tears welling in her eyes. “Ah, no, love, you did nothing wrong. But I cannot take you to Mont St Michel now. My war is not yet done for the year.”

  She was reassured by his use of an endearment, proof that he was not angry with her as she’d feared. She was baffled, though, by what he’d just said. She knew little of military matters, but even she knew that fighting ordinarily ended with the first frost, not to be resumed until the return of mild weather. “You mean to continue your campaign?”

  “I was waiting till I got word from England, but I am free now to move south into Anjou. The Count of Vendôme has been overthrown by his own son, who then threw in his lot with Hal and the French king, doubtless hoping that they’d help him hold on to his ill-gotten gains. I mean to reinstate the count and bring his ungrateful whelp to heel.”

  Rosamund could understand why he’d feel so strongly about putting down a son’s outlaw rebellion; that was so obvious that it needed no discussion. She could understand, too, his determination to restore order in Anjou, for insurrection in the land of his birth had to be particularly galling. The tone of his voice, though, alerted her that there was more at stake than the Count of Vendôme’s plight, and when he glanced in her direction, she was disquieted by the expression upon his face. His eyes were the color of smoke and yet cold enough to send a chill up her spine, reminding her that ice could burn.

  “And then?” She whispered, shaken, even though she knew that this smoldering, implacable anger was not meant for her.

  “And then,” Henry said grimly, “I think it is time I paid a visit to my loving wife.”

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  November 1173

  Poitiers, Poitou

  MADAME, you are in grave peril. The English king’s army is poised like a dagger at the heart of Poitou. By week’s end, he could be at the very gates of the city and we will not be able to hold out against him.”

  William de Maingot was Lord of Sugeres, brother by marriage of the powerf
ul Geoffrey de Rançon, and one of Eleanor’s most trusted vassals. At the moment, though, she was hard pressed to be civil to the man. She expected such dramatic posturing from traveling players, not from one of her counselors. Nor was she impressed by his overwrought, portentous warning. Did he truly think she was unaware of her danger?

  They’d all had their say by now—William de Maingot, Porteclie de Mauzé, Guillaume de Parthenay, her steward, Hervé le Panetier, and Sir Nicholas de Chauvigny, the head of her household knights. Only Saldebrueil had held his peace, knowing that she would never be bullied into making a decision. They were a pitifully small group, but this war of attrition had scattered her lords to the four winds. Her uncles were in Paris with her sons. Geoffrey de Rançon and the Count of Angoulême were making ready to defend their own lands from her husband’s routiers, as were the wily de Lusignan clan. Others, like the Viscount of Limoges, had deliberately stayed out of the fray, doubtless watching to see who’d prevail before committing themselves. Her inner circle was shrinking, as was her margin of safety.

  “Madame, he is right,” Porteclie de Mauzé exclaimed as soon as William de Maingot had stopped speaking. “Your husband has taken the castles of La Haye, Preuilly, and Champigny—”

  “And your uncle’s castle at Faye Le Vineuse!” De Maingot made such a sweeping, theatrical gesture that he almost overturned his wine cup in Nicholas de Chauvigny’s lap; fortunately the knight had good reflexes and caught the cup just in time. Oblivious, de Maingot slammed his fist down upon the table. “He razed it to the ground, my lady, left nothing but smoldering ruins. We must be thankful that Raoul is in Paris. I would to God that you were, too, Madame! But it is not too late. There is still time to find safety at the French court.”