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Actions & Adventure
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Sharon Kay Penman
Devil s Brood 31
“I would like that very much,” she said. “I’ve missed Johnny.” She missed her other brothers, too, though she knew better than to confide that to him. She wasn’t sure if she should forgive him for imprisoning her mother, but it was comforting to have him holding her like this, comforting to remember that she was not utterly alone. “Papa…” She ducked her head, leaning into his embrace. “Papa…I do not understand why this is happening.”
Henry’s jaw muscles tightened. “Neither do I, lass,” he said softly. “Neither do I.”
RICHARD STRODE INTO the nave of St Pierre’s Cathedral and beckoned to Sir Martin de Jarnac, one of his household knights. Martin hurried over, rather nervously, for he knew Richard had been meeting earlier in the day with the Bishop of Saintes and the bishop was increasingly unhappy with Richard’s occupation of his city. “My lord? How did it go?”
Richard shrugged. “The bishop had more complaints than a dog has fleas. He was particularly wroth that we’ve appropriated the cathedral for our own purposes.” Their constant carping was taking some of the bloom off his pleasure in gaining control of the town.
His first command had not begun auspiciously, for La Rochelle had closed its gates at his approach, refusing to allow him entry into the town, boldly declaring that they were loyal to the old king, not the young one. Richard had been mortified, vowing that those overweening, impudent churls would pay for that and pay dearly, but he could do nothing at the time except retreat, his ears burning with the echoes of their scornful laughter. His only consolation was that his brother Hal’s assault upon Sées had failed, too.
Fortunately, a fierce rivalry existed between La Rochelle and Saintes, and if the former turned Richard away, the latter was then keen to make him welcome. But the citizens of Saintes were soon having second thoughts about their hospitality. Richard’s men had lost no time in fortifying the town, throwing up a wooden castle to guard the Roman bridge and using the cathedral for their headquarters. As troubling as these developments were, even worse was to come. Word had reached Saintes that the English king was now encamped at Poitiers, only seventy miles to the north.
Richard was not as alarmed as the citizens by his father’s arrival, for he had confidence in the city walls, his new fortifications, and his own military instincts. Moreover, he meant to make good use of the time remaining to him. While Henry celebrated Whitsuntide in Poitiers, he’d dispatched riders to Geoffrey de Rançon, William de Maingot, and the Count of Angoulême, urging them to join him at Saintes without delay. They had a chance to force a decisive battle, to win a victory that would end the war and free his mother, and he meant to make the most of the opportunity.
“This morning I slipped out of the town and visited the ruins of the Roman amphitheater,” he confided to Martin. “It was an amazing sight, so much of it still intact after all that time.”
Martin was vaguely aware that Saintes had once been an important Roman town, for he’d seen the huge Arch of Germanicus at the bridge, supposedly built to honor a long-dead emperor. While he didn’t share Richard’s interest in the past, he was a firm believer in humoring the highborn, and he asked politely what this amphitheater was used for.
Richard was surprised by his ignorance. “That was where the Romans staged their games, where their gladiators fought and felons died. My lady mother would tell me the most wondrous stories about ancient Rome. When gladiators entered the arena, they faced the audience and proudly proclaimed, ‘Morituri te salutamus!’”
Martin had never learned Latin and looked so blank that Richard translated, “‘We who are about to die salute you.’ Did you not study history when you—” He got no further, having noticed the archdeacon hovering nearby, waiting for a word with him. Richard sighed, for he already knew what the cleric wanted to discuss. Saintes was on the route to the great Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela, and its citizens were worrying that pilgrims might stay away, fearing they’d be trapped in a siege. As much as he yearned to duck out a side door into the cloisters, Richard felt it was his duty to offer reassurances and, forcing a smile, he started toward the archdeacon just as all hell broke loose.
At least it seemed that way to Richard. Heads were turning toward the sudden clamor coming from outside the cathedral. Richard spun around and ran for the door, with his men at his heels. As he emerged into the dusk, he found a scene of utter chaos. People were running in different directions, cursing as they bumped into one another, putting him in mind of an overturned ant hill. He’d seen panic like this only once before, when a fire broke out in Rouen, and when he saw smoke billowing from the direction of the river, it confirmed his worst fears.
“Stop, you fools!” he yelled. “We need to get buckets and fight the fire!” None of the frightened citizens paid him any heed. He was shouting orders at his own men, directing them to find buckets and ropes and hooks so they could pull down endangered buildings if need be, when he heard his own name being called, rising above the din like the solitary cry of a seagull. The sight of Raoul was a welcome one, and he hastily started toward his kinsman, roughly shouldering his way through the crowds thronging the street.
“We’re under attack! We have to get out whilst we still can!”
Richard gaped at the older man. “What are you talking about? There is a fire—”
“Yes, and your father set it! He’s come calling with an army, Richard, and I do not want him to find us home!”
“That is not possible! How could he get here so fast?” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Richard regretted them. His enemies had been asking that question of his father for as long as he could remember, and in any case, it was irrelevant. “We can keep him out,” he insisted, “hold on until we get men from Taillebourg and—”
“No,” Raoul said sharply, “we cannot. His men have already taken the castle we put up by the bridge and are breaking down the city gates even as we speak. Our only chance is to get out now—”
“No!” Richard was indignant. “I’ll not run away—never!”
“Whilst we waste time arguing, Harry’s men will be swarming into the city! The whoreson caught us by surprise, Richard, and it is too late to do anything but retreat.” When Richard continued to shake his head stubbornly, Raoul swore under his breath. “Do you miss your mother so much that you want to join her at Chinon or Falaise?”
That got through to Richard, that and the changing timbre of the shouting. It was louder now, more urgent, and closer, coming from the city gates. Shaking off his shock, he said, with a composure that Raoul applauded, “Where do we go?”
“We can get out through a postern gate, then head downriver to Taillebourg. Harry was concerned about speed, not a long siege, and did not bring mangonels with him. We ought to be safe enough with de Rançon—if we can reach him.”
This was the first time that Richard had been personally confronted with the unpleasant realities of war—that it was not all glory and blaring trumpets and swirling banners. It was not a lesson he’d ever wanted to learn. Looking around for as many of his men as he could find, he said tersely, “Let’s go.”
RICHARD MANAGED TO ESCAPE from Saintes as his father was sweeping into the town. The rebels retreated into the cathedral, held out for a day, and then surrendered. Henry captured more than sixty knights and over four hundred archers, plus all their supplies, weapons, and horses. The cathedral of Saintes and many of the nearby houses were badly damaged, the acrid odor of smoke lingering over the town long after the fighting was done.
HENRY SPENT THE REMAINDER of the spring chasing rebels and fortifying his border strongholds. The news from England continued to be bad, as one after another of his castles fell to the ravaging Scots army. After taking and turning over the castle of Ancenis to Maurice de Craon, Henry summoned his lords and bishops to a great council in Normandy on the Nativity of St John the Baptist.
HENRY REACHED BONNEVILLE, the site of the council, on the evening of June 23. The castle was neither comfortable nor spa
cious, having been constructed in the eleventh century, and many of his barons had been compelled to seek lodgings in the nearby port of Toques. Henry was indifferent, as usual, to his surroundings, and was soon settled in his bedchamber. He was tired, for he’d been in the saddle since dawn, but these days his thoughts raced and ricocheted around his brain so wildly that sleep was becoming a luxury, one even a king could rarely afford.
“Stay for a while,” he said, and Willem smiled, took a seat on a nearby coffer as Henry dismissed his squires. The earl made easy conversation for a time, soon saw that Henry was not really listening, and fell silent, waiting. Henry walked back and forth, too edgy to sit still. He was already regretting asking Willem to remain, and he was about to tell the other man that he could go off to bed when one of his squires hurried back into the chamber.
“My liege, men have just ridden into the bailey, are seeking an audience with you straightaway. I told the steward that they should wait till the morrow, but when he told me who they were, I thought you’d want to see them. It is the Bishop-elect of Winchester and your uncle, the Lord Ranulf.”
Henry nodded. Richard of Ilchester was one of his most trusted officials. As Archdeacon of Poitiers, he’d supported Henry unwaveringly in the clash with Thomas Becket, even enduring excommunication at the archbishop’s hands. His reward for such loyal service was the bishopric of Winchester. And Ranulf was known to be very close to the king, bound as much by affection as by blood. Their presence here in Bonneville conveyed a message in and of itself, and it was not an encouraging one.
The two men were soon ushered into his chamber. They both looked exhausted, and as soon as greetings were exchanged, Henry told them to find seats, ordering his squire to fetch some wine. They waited until it had been served and they were alone again with Henry and Willem before revealing the urgency of their mission.
“My liege, we have been sent to entreat you to return to England as soon as possible.” The bishop sagged back in his chair, never taking his eyes from Henry’s face. “If you do not, you are in danger of losing your kingdom.”
Henry said nothing, his gaze flicking from the bishop to Ranulf, who took that as his cue to speak up. “My lord king, the bishop speaks true. We have not been able to keep the Scots from ravaging the border lands, and they’ve been raiding into England. They have taken castles at Appleby, Leddell, and Harbottle, and Robert de Vaux has been so hard pressed that he was forced to seek a truce, agreeing to surrender Carlisle if you cannot relieve him by Michaelmas. The Scots king then sacked Warkworth and slaughtered many of the townspeople.”
The bishop leaned forward, his fists clenching on his knees. “We have naught but dire news, my lord. The rebellion has flared up again in the Midlands. They attacked and burned Nottingham and the garrison at Leicester is still holding out, refusing to surrender. And bandits and masterless men are taking advantage of the unrest to commit crimes of their own. The king’s roads are no longer safe; it is as if we are back in the dreadful days when Stephen ruled. There was rioting in London, my liege—in London!”
Henry’s continuing silence was beginning to unnerve them, for they were accustomed to his taking command of a crisis, taking decisive action. Just when the stillness in the chamber was becoming intolerable, Henry turned and looked at the bishop as if he were seeing him for the first time. “You are half dead on your feet, Richard. Go to bed. You, too, Uncle.”
The bishop did, but Ranulf stayed, sensing that Henry’s need for comfort was greater than his own need for sleep. When he looked over at Willem, the earl raised his shoulders in a silent shrug, for he, too, was at a loss. They watched Henry in silence, neither one knowing what to say, and both started when he suddenly spoke out.
“Ranulf? Did you know that the Count of Flanders has sworn upon a fragment of the True Cross that he will invade England within a fortnight from tomorrow?”
“Yes,” Ranulf said, “I know.” He knew, too, that Count Philip had already dispatched an advance guard of three hundred knights, but he could not bring himself to say anything about it, not sure if Henry had heard, and not wanting to give him any more grief.
Henry was staring down at the ashes in the cold, empty hearth. “My French spies tell me that Louis and Philip and their lackeys hope to lure me to England so they can attack Normandy once I am gone.”
“That may well be true, Harry,” Ranulf said carefully. “But England is already in flames. Can you stand by whilst it burns?”
“I truly thought I’d won this accursed war last year with those victories at Dol and Fornham St Genevieve. But this rebellion is like a snake, shedding one skin only to grow another. Does it ever end?”
“You will prevail, Harry,” Willem declared. “I have no doubts whatsoever. I know Philip of Flanders well, and he is no match for you on the battlefield. As for that fool on the French throne, he is no more a leader than that beggar we passed on the road this noon. Men would not follow him out of a burning building. And your sons…” Here he paused, his voice trailing off, and Henry gave him a ghostly grimace of a smile.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “my sons, my loyal, loving sons.”
Ranulf sat up straight, remembering that he did have news that might give Henry comfort. “I can think of no better words to describe Geoff. Have you heard what he did, Harry? He called out the men of Lincoln as their bishop-elect and lay siege to Roger de Mowbray’s castle at Kinnardferry. He captured Roger’s son and razed the castle to the ground. He then joined forces with the Archbishop of York and took de Mowbray’s castle at Kirkby Malzeard.”
“Did he, by God?” This time Henry’s smile was more convincing. “He is a good lad, is Geoff.” He’d picked up his wine cup, but now set it down, untouched. “I thought I told you to go to bed, Uncle. You, too, Willem. I need you both alert and awake for the council on the morrow.”
Willem did as he was bid, but Ranulf still hesitated. “I am not tired,” he lied, “if you want to talk…”
“No,” Henry said, “I am going to bed myself.”
“Shall I summon your squires?”
“No…not yet. I want to be alone for a while.”
Ranulf looked searchingly into the younger man’s face. Priests often spoke of life as a “vale of tears,” warning that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit,” reminding their flocks that “man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble.” Yet he doubted that most Christians, sinners though they be, ever reached that dark, desolate place where hope withered on the vine and the voice of the Almighty was silent. But he had—he’d lost the woman he’d loved, a friend closer than a brother, and all sense of purpose. Stricken by grief and guilt, he’d wandered alone in the wilderness, caring for naught until he rediscovered divine mercy and his faith in a Welsh mountain valley. He had never forgotten, though, the pain of feeling forsaken by God, pain he saw reflected now in his nephew’s eyes.
“God’s Blessings upon you,” he said, but no more than that, for he knew Harry’s anguish was beyond his power to heal. He could only pray that the Almighty and Jesus, the Only Begotten Son, would take pity upon Harry, show him the path to salvation in his time of greatest need.
ELEANOR HAD NOT FULLY appreciated what a charmed life she led until it was taken away from her. From birth, she’d had the best that their world had to offer, never thinking to question her good fortune. She’d chaffed under the constraints imposed upon women by society and the Church, but she’d not wondered why she’d been so blessed. People were expected to accept their lot in life as God’s Will, which was easy to do for a woman born beautiful and a duke’s daughter.
In the months since her betrayal in Loches Forest, though, the reality she’d known had vanished, leaving her a stranger in an alien land. The most mundane tasks were now a challenge. For the first time, she faced the normal vexations and disappointments of daily life. She’d only brought a few gowns with her, and
she’d lost so much weight that they no longer fit all that well; moreover, they would eventually become threadbare and worn if she could not replace them. Accustomed to having servants who heated her baths, she now had to make do with a basin and cold water. Washing her long hair was a test of endurance. In the past, she had only to express a wish for a delicacy, however exotic, and it would appear upon her table as if by magic. Now the monotony of her meals had robbed her of her appetite, and she found herself craving oranges from Spain and wine from Gascony and spices from Cyprus and Sicily.
But her physical privations were tolerable. It was her emotional hardships that were scarring her soul. Theirs was a world in which only hermits and recluses scorned the company of others; until her captivity, she’d never slept alone in a chamber before. Her concept of privacy went no further than being snugly cocooned behind bed-hangings with her husband. Now there were days when she did not hear the sound of another human voice. She was not a woman to thrive in solitude, and the loneliness of her confinement was hard to bear.
So was the boredom. When she remembered how glibly she’d complained of the tedium of her life at the French court, she winced for the young, spoiled girl she’d once been. With nothing to occupy herself but her own thoughts, she was unable to escape the misery of her plight, reliving that harrowing confrontation with Henry and seething at her abandonment by her craven allies. At least anger provided its own energy. Far more frightening was what followed—the loss of hope as she reached two unwelcome milestones. June marked her sixth month as a prisoner. And in June, she’d observed her fiftieth birthday. As a child, that had seemed such a vast age to her. Now she saw it as a death sentence, for how likely was it that she’d outlive the husband who was nine years younger than she?
You’ll never see the sun again, he’d warned, and she had no reason to doubt him. In her time of greatest need, her deliverance depended upon a spiteful former husband and her callow young sons. How had she ever let it come to this? That was a question she could not face, and to avoid it, she’d turned to the Almighty for support and solace. Her religious faith had been the conventional kind, practiced but not pondered. She’d dutifully attended Mass, distributed alms, made generous donations to abbeys like Fontevrault, and felt that she’d kept up her end of the bargain. She’d rarely prayed for specific boons, except during those unhappy years when she’d been unable to give Louis a son, scorned by her critics as a barren queen, and those prayers had gone unanswered.