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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 37


  “Louis seems to go stark, raving mad in August,” Willem observed. “Last year it was Verneuil, and now this.”

  Henry nodded, but he was not fully listening. He opened his mouth, stopped, and then said abruptly, “What of my son? Did he approve this attack?”

  “No, my lord king. He was not happy with it, argued that it was dishonorable to violate their own truce. His knights were disapproving, too, especially Will Marshal. They truly believe in the chivalric code, may God pity their innocent young souls. But Lord Hal’s protest was brushed aside. They…they do not pay much heed to his opinions.”

  Henry scowled, taking umbrage that these men should dare to disrespect his son. The irrationality of it did not escape him, but that awareness did nothing to assuage his indignation. Hal had been ill served by those he had most reason to trust—his father-in-law, the French king, his maternal uncles, and his mother, above all, his mother.

  Rousing himself, he expressed his thanks to Luc, suggesting that the young spy might want to claim his reward now rather than continuing his clandestine activities. He was not surprised when Luc declined, insisting that he was not at risk, that he’d tell the French king he was captured by Henry’s men. Henry did not argue, for he’d encountered men like Luc before, men who thrived on danger, who needed it as others needed air and food. It was easier to understand the Porteclie de Mauzés, those who acted only out of self-interest. Going to a coffer, he drew out a pouch heavy with coins, and Luc smiled, tucking it safely away in his tunic before he accepted Willem’s offer to find him a meal and a bed.

  Henry bade them good night, pleased with Willem’s action. The other man had learned to read his moods well, sensing that he was distracted and wanted time alone. Once they’d departed, Henry dropped to his knees, ignoring the discomfort of his painful thigh. His thoughts of Hal had sent his spirits into a downward spiral, forcing him to dwell upon memories and regrets that served for naught. Just as he’d prayed at Canterbury, “St Thomas, guard my realm,” he lowered his head now, and whispered, “St Thomas, save my son.”

  THE FRENCH KING had suffered a restless, wakeful night, and stayed abed the next morning, exhausted and disquieted and reluctant to face the day. He’d finally fallen asleep, only to have his dream disturbed by an insistent voice crying out, “My lord king!” Opening his eyes, he saw one of his squires bending over the bed. “Forgive me, but you must wake up, my liege!”

  Louis sat up with a groan, smothering a yawn. Over his squire’s shoulder, he could see other men crowding into the tent, recognized his sons-in-law, the Count of Blois and Hal, and behind them, several bishops and Flemish lords. They all looked so somber that he yearned to go back to sleep, not wanting to deal with the troubles they were about to thrust upon him. “What is it?” he asked irritably. “I was not to be disturbed. And what is that infernal noise?”

  “Church bells,” the Archbishop of Sens said, sounding just as vexed as Louis. “Every church bell in Rouen is pealing, chiming to welcome the English king into the city.”

  “He’s here?” Louis rarely cursed, but those closest to the bed thought they heard him mutter something that sounded very much like an obscenity. Fully awake now, the French king winced at the joyful sound of the bells, knowing it was the death knell of his hopes to capture Rouen.

  THE DAY AFTER HE RODE INTO ROUEN, Henry sent his Welsh to harass the French supply lines. They were highly successful, capturing and destroying more than forty wagons loaded with food and wine. The following day, Henry took the offensive, opening the city gates and sending out men to fill in the defensive ditch that separated the foes, making it possible for a charge by his knights. When he led his army out of the city, the French scrambled to meet them, and in the clash that followed, the French took the worst of it; some were taken prisoner and the Count of Flanders saw another of his brothers struck down; Peter, who’d renounced the bishopric of Cambrai after Matthew’s death in order to become Count of Boulogne, was seriously wounded.

  That night Louis sent the Archbishop of Sens and the Count of Blois to Henry, seeking a truce so he could withdraw his army to Malaunay, promising to meet with the English on the morrow. When Henry agreed, Louis pretended to set up camp at Malaunay, but under cover of darkness, he fled for the safety of French territory. He then requested a conference at Gisors on September 8, and once more, Henry agreed.

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  September 1174

  Gisors, Norman Vexin

  WHEN HE REACHED THE CONFERENCE elm at Gisors, Henry saw that the French were already there. Louis was flanked by his bishops and barons, while the Count of Flanders was standing apart with his own men, and Henry wondered if there were cracks showing in their alliance. What interested him the most, though, was that Hal and Geoffrey had also distanced themselves from the French king. He reined in before Louis, who waited for him to dismount, and looked perplexed when he did not.

  “Welcome, my lord king,” Louis said once it was apparent that Henry was not going to speak first. “It is our hope that we may agree to a truce in order to put an end to this unfortunate war.”

  Henry was staring at the sons he’d not seen in a year. Hal looked no different, cutting a handsome figure in a crimson tunic decorated with gold thread and a fur-trimmed mantle casually thrown over his shoulder. He did not meet Henry’s eyes, glancing away when he realized his father was watching him. Geoffrey had experienced an impressive growth spurt, was taller than Henry remembered, but he was still some inches shorter than Hal and Richard. He was more composed than his elder brother, returning Henry’s gaze with a respectful nod of acknowledgment.

  Henry swung back to the French king. “Where is Richard?”

  Louis smiled sympathetically, one father to another. “Alas, Richard is balking at taking part in the council. When we summoned him, he refused to come. He is young and hotheaded, as were we all at his age.” Stepping forward, he gestured expansively. “Shall you dismount so that we may talk?”

  “If Richard is not here, what is there to talk about?”

  Louis did his best to ignore Henry’s brusque tone. “Whilst Richard’s absence is regrettable, it need not prevent us from reaching an accommodation. Come, and we shall discuss it further.”

  “I think not,” Henry said tersely, and the Count of Flanders strode over, casting Louis a glance of poorly concealed impatience.

  “We are willing to agree to a truce that specifically excludes Richard. You may deal with him as you see fit; that is no concern of ours.”

  “I see.” Henry looked from one to the other, then back at his sons. “I will grant you a truce of three weeks. We shall meet again at Michaelmas. I will notify you where the council is to be held.”

  When they realized that he was about to depart, Louis and Philip exchanged troubled looks, and the Fleming said sharply, “Wait, my lord! We need to talk over the terms of peace.”

  Henry pricked his stallion with his spurs and the animal leaped forward. As Philip jumped out of the way, he glanced over his shoulder. “You will learn my terms at Michaelmas.” His men followed, and Willem soon spurred his horse to ride at Henry’s side.

  “What now?” he asked. “Do we go into Poitou to rein Richard in?”

  “Yes.” Henry looked over at the other man, and then slowly shook his head. “Richard will long remember this birthday.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Today,” Henry said, “Richard turned seventeen.”

  RICHARD AND HIS MEN were encamped by the River Vienne southeast of Poitiers. Morale was low, for they’d been retreating steadily from the Angevin forces under Maurice de Craon; they did not have sufficient numbers to meet Henry’s commander on the field. Dusk was beginning to darken the sky as Raoul de Faye stormed out of Richard’s tent. The head of his household knights came quickly to his side, but when Raoul angrily shook his head, the man asked no questions.

  “Come and eat, my lord,” he said instead, gesturing toward an open fire, where a group of
men were clustered around a large pot. Raoul shook his head again, for his latest quarrel with Richard had taken away his appetite. But the air was redolent with the enticing aroma of venison stew, and he was about to change his mind when a sudden shout heralded the arrival of riders.

  To Raoul’s vast relief, the lead horseman was a familiar figure, and he hastened over to bid Saldebreuil de Sanzay welcome. Once greetings had been exchanged and Saldebreuil’s men sent off to share the supper, Raoul grasped the constable’s arm and drew him aside.

  “Thank God you are here! Mayhap you can talk some sense into Richard. I’ve been unable to convince him that we must surrender. We never recovered from our losses in Saintes, and our numbers have been dwindling daily. It was bad enough when we were running from de Craon. But our scouts report that the English king has now joined the hunt, too, is encamped less than ten miles away. Richard still refuses to yield, though. That boy could teach a mule about stubbornness!”

  “Take me to him,” Saldebreuil said, once Raoul had run out of breath. “I have news he needs to hear.” And he fell in step beside Raoul as the two men headed toward Richard’s tent.

  Richard was alone, staring down at a crudely drawn map of Poitou as he grimly plotted out lines of retreat. He glanced up with a surprised smile that quickly faded as he studied the constable’s face. “I am not going to like what you’ve come to tell me, am I?”

  “No, my lord Richard, you are not. I’d come to warn you that your lord father is on your trail. It seems you know that already. But you do not know what happened at Gisors a fortnight ago.”

  “That craven council of theirs?” Richard said scornfully. “What of it?”

  “Your brothers and the French king and the Count of Flanders have served you up as a scapegoat to the English king. They struck a truce with Henry that excludes you. In other words, lad, you are on your own, can expect no aid from your so-called allies.”

  Richard’s intake of breath was sharp enough to be audible. Raoul indulged in a flare of temper, calling Henry various colorful names that were not flattering, calling Louis even worse. Saldebreuil waited patiently until he was done, and then limped across the tent, coming to a halt in front of Eleanor’s son.

  “It is over, Richard,” he said softly. “It is time to go to your father and seek his forgiveness.”

  Richard reacted as if he’d been stung, recoiling violently. “No! I will not do that. I will never abandon my mother!”

  “Listen to us, Richard,” Raoul entreated. “Eleanor is my niece and I love her dearly. But there is nothing more you can do for her. The war is lost.”

  “No!”

  Saldebreuil reached out and caught Richard’s arm in a grip too tight to shake off. His voice, though, was kind, even gentle, as he said, “You can no longer hope to save your mother. Now you must save yourself. She would expect no less from you. Do you truly believe she’d want you to sacrifice yourself for her sake?”

  Richard’s mouth contorted, and he jerked free of the older man’s hold. “Rot in Hell!” he cried. “All of you can rot in Hell!”

  Raoul started after him as he plunged out of the tent, but halted when Saldebreuil said, “No, Raoul. He needs time. Let him go.”

  RICHARD’S FLIGHT FROM HIS TENT had not stopped there. So great was his need to get away that he did not even wait for his stallion to be saddled, instead took the horse of one of their scouts, leaving the man staring after him in astonishment. Once he was out of the camp, he gave the horse its head and urged it on, racing the wind and his own doubts. Common sense told him that Saldebreuil and Raoul were right, but he still saw surrender as shameful, as a betrayal of the person he loved most in the world. How could he do that to her? He knew she was relying upon him to gain her freedom. If he gave up, what hope would she have?

  He diverted some of his pain into rage, dredging up memories of the worst curses he’d ever heard his father utter. The French king was a fainthearted, misbegotten weasel, not worthy to wear a crown. The Count of Flanders was a self-seeker of the worst sort, one who’d pawn his honor for the mere promise of profit. The French lords were spineless lackeys, the Flemings no better. His brothers were beneath contempt, Hal a swaggering, empty-headed puppet and Geoffrey a backstabbing sneak. He could almost believe they were foundlings, for how else explain their treachery?

  And now what? He was cornered, trapped with no way out. He’d gone up against the Aquilon, the North Wind, and had been found wanting. What mercy could he expect from his father? He’d be publicly humiliated, shamed, tethered like a lady’s pet spaniel. He was a man grown, but his father would never see that. The years would go by and nothing would change. Aquitaine would not be his as long as his father drew breath. And his mother would grow old in an English prison, her exile ended only by death.

  Twilight had given way to full night, but he hadn’t noticed. It was not until he saw the glow of campfires in the distance that he realized how much time had passed and how far he’d ridden. Halting his mount, he gazed down at those flickering fires in his father’s camp. During the course of this wild, wretched ride, he’d swung back and forth between anger, defiance, and despair, spitting out curses and blinking back tears that he blamed on the wind’s edge, whispering prayers only God could hear. But he understood now where the Almighty had been leading him.

  For an endless time, he sat there, absently patting the neck of his lathered mount as he watched the soldiers move about below him. And then, before he could repent of it, he spurred the horse down the hill. Sentries rode out to block his advance, alarmed by the sudden appearance of this lone youth in their midst. Richard reined in his stallion before them. “I am Richard, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou,” he said in a loud, clear voice. “I am here to see my lord father, the king.”

  RICHARD WAS USHERED into Henry’s tent by startled guards. He had a quick glimpse of the men—his father, the Earl of Essex, Maurice de Craon, and Richard du Hommet, the constable of Normandy—all of them looking no less astonished than the guards. At the last moment, his courage failed him, and he looked away, not wanting to watch their triumphant faces as he humbled himself. Fumbling with the belt of his scabbard, he unbuckled his sword. It was his prized possession, a gift from his mother on that day two years ago when he’d been invested as Duke of Aquitaine, fashioned by the best bladesmith in Bordeaux, with a thirty-inch double-edged blade, an enameled pommel, inlaid with silver for that was thought to prevent blunting, engraved in Latin with the words In Nomine Domini, the ultimate symbol of knighthood. He’d called it Joyeuse, said to have been the name of Charlemagne’s celebrated sword, which flashed lighting in the heat of battle. He’d never expected to surrender it, and giving it up now was as painful as any physical wound.

  Coming forward, he carefully placed the sword and scabbard on the ground, then sank to his knees before his father. “I am here to seek your forgiveness, my liege,” he said hoarsely. “You may do with me as you will.” To his horror, tears filled his eyes, and he angrily swiped at them with the sleeve of his tunic before nerving himself to look up at Henry. To his amazement, he could see tears shimmering in his father’s eyes, too. Henry reached down, holding out his hand.

  “Of course you are forgiven,” he said, and when Richard took his hand, he was raised to his feet and then gathered to the older man in a tight embrace.

  RICHARD WAS NOT SURE what he’d expected, but not this warm welcome, this genuine and manifest joy. His father’s companions seemed to share it, too, treating him as if his was the return of the Prodigal Son, not the surrender of a beaten rebel. Wine was brought out, and then food, venison like the meal being served back in his own camp. Richard held his plate awkwardly, not sure if he could swallow a morsel. “I ought to send word to my men,” he said hesitantly. “Raoul de Faye and Saldebreuil de Sanzay are there, amongst others. Need I…need I fear that they will be punished for my sins?”

  Henry reached for another piece of bread, unable to remember when he’d been so hungry
. “No,” he said, “I mean to issue a general pardon for all who took part in the rebellion.”

  Richard’s shoulders slumped, so great was his relief. “Thank you,” he mumbled, for that seemed expected of him. All around him, the other men were laughing and talking, gesturing with their wine cups, and his sense of unreality grew ever stronger. Could it truly be this easy?

  “We will return to Poitiers on the morrow,” Henry declared, “and ride into the city together so that all may see peace has been restored. And at Michaelmas, we will meet your brothers and the French king, put all this foolishness behind us.” He shifted so that he could look directly into Richard’s face. “I mean to do right by you and your brothers. The provisions will not be as lavish as the terms I offered last year, but I think you will be pleased.”

  “Thank you,” Richard said again, the words coming automatically to his lips with a calm that belied his inner turmoil. He knew it would be wise to keep silent, to do nothing to threaten this rare moment of harmony. But he could not do that. “May I ask you a question?”

  Henry nodded. “Ask,” he said, with a slight smile, and Richard drew a deep, bracing breath.

  “You have forgiven me for taking up arms against you. You have said that you do not mean to imprison or disinherit the others who joined the rebellion. You have been more generous than I dared hope. But there is this I must know. Can you not find it in your heart to forgive my mother?”

  The mood in the tent was transformed as soon as the words had left his mouth. He saw the other men stiffen in the way he’d seen people react when caught out in a storm, listening uneasily to the rumble of thunder and scanning the skies as lightning flashed overhead.