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Sharon Kay Penman
Devil s Brood 35
He’d begun by alternating pleas to God and St Thomas, but after a while he’d stopped praying to Thomas, for he felt as if his words were falling into a void. The archbishop did not seem to be listening. His fatigue was beginning to affect his thinking; when he recited the Litany of the Saints, he found himself unable to remember who came first, the patriarchs and prophets or the apostles.
After Vespers, the tide of pilgrims slowed to a trickle. But a new monk had taken up the vigil and he was a talker. Introducing himself as Brother Benedict, he informed Henry that he was collecting accounts of St Thomas’s miracles so that they might be saved for posterity. Pointing to a pile of crutches stacked in a corner, he explained that they had been abandoned by cripples who’d been healed by the saint’s mercy. With his own eyes, he’d seen people cured of leprosy, blindness, the palsy. A canon of Oseney was cured of the falling sickness, and a Templar from Chester was healed of a bowel ailment. But he only included those miracles that could be verified, he assured Henry. He did not intend to report one of his favorite stories, alas, for he could find no witnesses to confirm its accuracy. He then proceeded to tell Henry a preposterous tale of a starling that had been taught to recite a prayer to the Blessed Martyr. The bird had been attacked by a hawk—a kite, he believed it was—and invoked the prayer as it was caught in the kite’s talons. The hawk was at once struck dead, he recounted breathlessly.
Henry did his best to block out that droning voice, unwilling to give way to anger during his time of penance. Brother Benedict was not making it easy, however. As the night wore on, his body ailments were becoming more and more difficult to ignore. His lacerated back was throbbing; so was his head. His gashed feet had begun to bleed again, and his bladder felt full to bursting. Although he’d eaten nothing but bread for almost a week, he was not hungry. But his thirst was well-nigh intolerable. He’d put his shirt on again; it did little to shield him, though, from the damp chill of the crypt. With a flicker of very grim humor, he recalled Ranulf’s warning and entertained himself by imagining the great scandal should he be found dead on the morrow.
With an effort, he came back to the here and now, troubled that his thoughts were wandering like this. He ought to be thinking only of his sins. His muscles were cramping and stiffening, so that he had to pull himself upright by holding on to the marble top of the sarcophagus. Brother Benedict was still chattering on, describing the drowning of a little boy of Rochester; he’d fallen into the River Medway in mid-afternoon, had not been dragged out till Vespers had rung. But his mother refused to despair and measured his body with a thread and promised St Thomas a silver thread of the same length if he saved her son. And lo and behold, the child moaned and stirred and vomited up a barrel full of river water, even though they’d first hung him by his feet and not a drop did he spit out.
“Not that the Blessed Martyr is one to be trifled with. There have been sinners who sought his aid, and then did not fulfill their vows as promised, and retribution was always swift. I myself witnessed a sad case where a lame boy fell asleep with his head on the tomb. He had a vision of St Thomas, who rebuked him for his disrespect, and said, ‘Go hence, I will do nothing for you.’ His parents pleaded, but our saint would not relent.”
Henry began to recite the Pater Noster, the first prayer to come to mind, in hope of drowning the monk out. “Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra,” he murmured, the words coming from memory as his thoughts began to stray again. Was there a way to murder Brother Benedict and make it seem as if he’d been smitten by the wrath of the unforgiving Thomas? A vengeful saint was surely a contradiction in terms, but he alone seemed to think so. He was no longer shivering, and when he put his hand to his forehead, it felt hot. He’d been running a fever intermittently for days now, and he supposed neither the drenching nor the hours spent on his knees had done his aching body any good. Focusing again upon prayer, he began to repeat the Litany, almost at random. “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.”
And to his great relief, the Son of God heard his plea and showed mercy, for Brother Benedict rose from his post and excused himself, saying that there would be no more pilgrims that night and he hoped to get a few hours sleep before Matins. Gathering up his offerings, he politely wished Henry God’s Peace and shuffled off to bed, leaving Henry alone in the crypt with the dead and the ghost of the murdered archbishop.
At least, it seemed that way to Henry. He had not been able to invoke the saint’s presence, but it was easier to imagine Thomas’s earthly spirit lurking in the shadows, watching his abasement with sardonic amusement. For Thomas had once had a quick wit, a playful humor, a droll sense of mockery. He’d lost that humor, though, as soon as he’d put the sacred pallium about his neck, yet another mystery that Henry could not fathom. Had the man he’d known and trusted and loved ever truly existed? Or had he been a fiction from the very first, a chimera conjured up out of cobwebs and moonbeams? Henry desperately wanted to know the answer, an answer only Thomas Becket could give him.
“It is just the two of us now, Thomas. No one else can hear our secrets, so why not talk to pass the time? We have hours to go till dawn, time enough for honesty if nothing else.”
Pushing himself away from the tomb, he walked toward the center of the crypt, noting with bemusement that he left a trail of blood and mud. “Ranulf said something once that I’ve never forgotten. He thought that his Welsh friend Hywel—you remember the poet-prince—saw you with the clearest eye, saying that you reminded him of a chameleon, changing your color to reflect your surroundings. The perfect clerk. The perfect royal chancellor. And then the perfect archbishop. Was he right, Thomas?”
He cocked his head, hearing only the silence of the grave. “I suppose you’d rather talk about the killing. Fair enough. I never wanted your death. I swear this to you upon the lives of my children. But you know that already. Why am I so sure? Because Roger showed me a letter written by your subdeacon, William Fitz Stephen. I’ve restored him to royal favor, by the way. In fact, he and his brother Ralph are co-sheriffs of Gloucestershire now. Life goes on.
“What was I saying? Ah, yes, the letter. Fitz Stephen wrote that you told the killers that you did not believe they came from the king, from me. So there really is no reason to swear my innocence upon holy relics, is there? You know the truth. Of course Roger knew the truth, too, and was the one man with the ballocks to say it straight out to my face. I may not be guilty, he pointed out, but neither am I innocent. I daresay you agree with him, no?”
He waited, heaving a sigh that echoed in the stillness. “Come, Thomas, hold up your part of the conversation. You need not do anything dramatic, like loosing a thunderbolt or performing one of your miracles. But at the least, you could extinguish a few candles to show me you are paying attention. Surely that is not too much to ask?”
He was feeling light-headed again, and sank down upon the floor, slumping back against one of the pillars. “I sound like a drunkard or a madman…mayhap both. But just between you and me, talking to a ghost makes as much sense as talking to a saint. What else do you want to know, Thomas? Did I grieve for you? No, I did not. My grief was for myself, for I knew at once that you’d trapped me well and truly. For you are not innocent either, my lord archbishop. You sought your martyrdom, you craved it, even lusted after it for all I know. You could have escaped, Thomas, had so many opportunities to evade your killers. But you did not, did you? You had to confront them, had to taunt them. Was it true that you called Fitz Urse a pimp?”
Henry laughed unsteadily, ending in a cough. “They went unpunished, you know. You insisted that only the Church could punish its own, so I could do nothing to them, and the Pope could only send them off on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a stern warning to mend their evil ways. Christ Almighty, Thomas, surely you see the irony of that? The lunacy? For I will not lie to gain your pardon. I was right to want to try degraded priests in my courts. Your way turned justice into a farce, and I will never understand why you coul
d not see that.”
Henry leaned forward, rested his head upon his drawn-up knees. He was either burning up with fever or losing his mind. “Sancte Thoma,” he mumbled, “requiescat in pace.” But there was as much pain as mockery in his voice, and when he looked up, he saw the crypt through a haze of hot tears. “Do you know why I did not grieve for you when you died, Thomas? Because I’d already done my grieving. I trusted you, I had faith in you, I loved you more than my own brother. And then you turned on me. But it need not have been that way. You could have served both me and the Almighty, and what a partnership we could have forged, what we could not have done together!”
Getting to his feet with difficulty, he had to hold on to the pillar, for his head was spinning. “When I told you that I would raise you up to the archbishopric, you said you would not want to put our friendship at risk. And I assured you that it would not happen, that I was not so prideful that I saw God as a rival. Do you remember what I said? That the Almighty and I would not be in contention for your immortal soul. Why could you not believe me, Thomas?”
His tears were falling faster now, but there was no one to see them. “I am truly and grievously sorry that our path led us to this place, this night. I do mourn you, Thomas. But do I think you are a saint? God’s truth, I do not know. You are the only one who can answer that question, my lord archbishop. We both know you could never resist a challenge. So take it up. Prove my doubts are unfounded. Prove me wrong.”
Dropping to his knees, he winced at the pain that action caused his fevered, battered body. “St Thomas,” he said in a low, husky voice, “guard my realm.”
HENRY HEARD MASS at daybreak the next morning, warned the citizens of Canterbury that there was danger of a Flemish invasion, and advised them to move their goods beyond the River Medway. He set out for London then, reaching the city the following day, where he was welcomed enthusiastically by the citizens, who escorted him through the streets to his palace at Westminster. By this time he was running a high fever, and utterly exhausted, body and soul, he took to his bed.
HENRY HAD BEEN BLED by his physician earlier in the day and advised to rest until he regained his strength. But even when he was ill, he found it hard to stay abed, and by the afternoon, he was up and dressed, conferring with his court officials and getting reports from his scouts, who were watching for the Flemish fleet. The soles of his feet had been badly bruised and cut by the Canterbury cobblestones, and so he made one concession to his body’s needs and remained on the settle in his bedchamber while he conducted affairs of state. He was still awaiting word from the North, where the Scots king was menacing the royal castle at Alnwick, but he was finding it difficult to recapture his sense of urgency. He felt numb, depleted of all his reserves, as if he’d gambled everything on one roll of the dice and lost.
Soon after Vespers, the arrival of the Bishop of Worcester was announced. Roger swept into the chamber like a summer wind, dark eyes glowing, as elated as Henry had ever seen him. Striding forward, he engulfed Henry in an exuberant embrace, behavior so unlike Roger that Henry voiced no complaints, although his cousin’s hug was pressing painfully against his injured back. Releasing him at last, Roger sank to his knees and kissed Henry’s hand.
“I have never been so proud of you, Cousin,” he said. “I know what courage it took to humble yourself like that. Whatever else you may accomplish in this life, I truly believe Friday was your finest hour.”
“So you are saying that from now on, it is all downhill?” Henry’s attempt at humor could not disguise the pleasure that Roger’s words had given him; his cousin had never been one for lavish, effusive, or fawning praise. Retaking his seat, he gestured for the other man to join him on the settle, and signaled for wine.
Roger had fully intended to discuss Henry’s penance at length, wanting to hear all the details of this blessed reconciliation. But as he looked more closely at his cousin, he was startled into blurting out tactlessly, “Jesu, you look like you’ve been camping at death’s door! I’d heard you were ailing, but I did not realize how ill you truly were. You have seen a doctor, I trust?”
When Henry brushed off his concern with predictable impatience, that reassured Roger somewhat. “I’ll not stay long,” he said, “for you ought to be in bed. Ere I go, though, what is the news from the North? Has Alnwick fallen yet?” He realized at once how pessimistic that sounded, as if he expected defeat, but it was too late to call his words back. To his surprise, though, Henry did not react, and he did not take that to be a good sign.
“The last I heard,” Henry said, “William de Vesci is still holding out at Alnwick. I suppose you know that the rebels have seized Norwich, Northampton, and Nottingham. You may not know that my son and the Count of Flanders have been waiting at Gravelines, intending to launch their invasion once the weather clears. For all I know, they could be landing on English beaches even as we speak.”
He delivered this alarming news with an eerie lack of emotion, almost as if he were relating another man’s troubles, and Roger felt a chill that seemed oddly out of place on a summer evening. When had Harry ever sounded listless or fatalistic? “I’ll go now,” he said, “so you may get some rest. But I’ll be back in the morning.”
Henry had not meant to ask. But as Roger reached the door, he heard himself saying suddenly, “Roger…do you think Thomas forgave me?”
Roger turned, with a surprised smile. “I know he did,” he said, and Henry, who’d never had reason to envy other men, felt a sharp pang, wishing that he shared Roger’s utter certainty, his steadfast faith, and his serene acceptance of God’s Will.
HENRY WAS STRETCHED OUT upon the settle, dozing. One of his squires was sitting in the floor rushes beside the settle, gently rubbing ointment into the wounds on his king’s feet. Others moved quietly around the chamber, making as little noise as possible. It was still early for one who kept night-owl hours, but Henry’s weary body was asserting itself after days of abuse and neglect. As he drifted down into sleep, the last sound he heard was the distant chiming of church bells.
When he awakened, he had no idea how much time had elapsed. Candles still burned, and Warin was still tending to his injured feet. He propped himself up on an elbow, and it was then that he heard the voices, the clamor that had chased away his sleep. “What is it?”
“Someone wanted to see you, my liege,” Warin explained, “and when the chamberlain said you were sleeping and he must wait till the morrow, he began to argue. I am so sorry that you were disturbed.”
“Who is it?” Henry called out, and the chamberlain came into his line of sight.
“It is a messenger, my lord, from the North. I told him to come back, but he is most insistent. He says you know him—Brien, one of Sir Ralf de Glanville’s men.”
“Let him enter,” Henry commanded, his voice even more raspy than usual. Sitting up, he swung his legs over the side of the settle, but Warin was close enough to see that he’d lost color; his feverish flush fading into an ashen pallor as he watched the door.
The man ushered into the chamber was indeed known to him. He looked as haggard and gaunt as his king, and he dropped to his knees like one thankful for a moment’s rest. “Forgive me, sire, but I’ve scarcely eaten or slept these four days gone, so urgent was my news.”
Henry closed his eyes for a heartbeat. “Tell me,” he said grimly. “Hold nothing back.”
Brien had been given a wine cup and drained the contents in several swallows. When he lowered the cup and looked at Henry, there was such blazing joy upon his face that Henry caught his breath. “My liege, I bring you wondrous news, as good as you could wish. The Scots king has been taken captive by my lord de Glanville, and with him all his barons.”
One of Henry’s squires let out a jubilant shout, and the other men in the chamber began to exclaim and praise God. Henry was not yet ready to believe, though. “Is this true, Brien? Swear to me it is so!”
“Yes, sire, by my faith, it is so! Soon after dawn on Saturday, we s
urprised the Scots king in the meadows before the walls of Alnwick Castle. My lord de Glanville and the sheriff of Yorkshire met William de Vesci at Newcastle on Friday last, where he’d gone to seek aid for Alnwick. He told us that the Scots king had sent the bulk of his army off to ravage Northumbria, and he had remained behind with only sixty knights. We set out at once, had ridden more than twenty miles before the sun had risen. A thick fog settled in during the night, but we continued on, sure that God was with us. When we emerged from the mists, we saw the Scots king breaking his fast with his knights. At first he thought we were his own men returning, and by the time he realized the truth, it was too late.”
“God’s Bones,” Henry breathed. “What proof have you of this?”
Brien grinned. “My lord knew that was the first question you’d ask, my liege. I bear a letter from Sir Ralf, attesting to all that I’ve told you. And on the morrow you ought to receive further confirmation from the Archbishop of York, for he was dispatching a messenger, too. He was not as fast a rider as me, though!”
Henry snatched up the letter Brien was holding out, but he made no attempt to read it. “Tell me the rest,” he said, and Brien needed no urging.
“I have to admit, sire, that he fought valiantly, spurred his stallion into our midst once he realized he was trapped between us and the castle. But one of our men speared his fine grey destrier, and the king’s legs were pinned when the beast fell. He surrendered to my lord de Glanville, and was taken under guard back to Newcastle and then, on to Richmond. That traitor Roger de Mowbray fled like a hare before hounds, but none of the Scots knights would abandon their liege lord, and surrendered when he did.” Brien was not happy at having to compliment his Scots foes, but he was a fair man, and he added, “They acquitted themselves well, my liege, brave men all.”
He was being offered more wine, which he accepted happily. “You are indeed favored by God, my lord king. I am honored to be the one to bring you such glad tidings.”