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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 51


  Eleanor glanced from one woman to the other. “And…?”

  Rhiannon looked so unhappy that Maud realized it was up to her. “Rhiannon is loath to speak frankly. Fortunately, I’ve never had that problem. The truth, Eleanor, is that Ranulf and Rhiannon are not sure that this is best for their son. Morgan is at an impressionable age and easily influenced, especially by someone as charming and beguiling as Hal. See for yourself,” she said, jerking her head toward Morgan.

  Eleanor’s gaze came to rest upon Rhiannon’s son. He was a handsome youngster, with his father’s dark eyes and his mother’s thick chestnut hair, and he was listening to his cousin Hal as raptly as a young novice monk eager to pledge himself to the greater glory of God.

  “I see,” Eleanor said. Her first reaction was displeasure, a mother’s indignation that Maud and Rhiannon should dare to disparage her son, to imply that Hal’s flaws were a cause for concern. But it soon passed. She owed Rhiannon a great deal, for the Welshwoman had given her support when she most needed it. She owed her an honest answer, and as much as it grieved her to admit it, she knew in her heart that her eldest son was not the best role model for a lad like Morgan. She loved Hal, but she was not blind to his faults. He was good-hearted, generous, engaging, and dashing. He was also irresponsible, impulsive, fickle, and malleable.

  “It might not be for the best,” she said at last, “to place Morgan in Hal’s household. He is not likely to give Morgan the supervision a lad of his tender years needs. What a pity Richard is not here. He took Rico, Rainald’s natural son, as one of his squires last year, and I am sure he’d have been willing to take Morgan under his wing, too.”

  No one spoke, for Rhiannon was dismayed that Eleanor had confirmed her misgivings; she’d hoped for reassurance. And Maud had the heretical thought that Morgan would be no better off with Richard than he would with Hal. No one would ever accuse Richard of being flighty or irresolute. But he was gaining a reputation for recklessness, for the sort of mad courage that other men found so irresistible and mothers of squires found so alarming. She was not about to say that to Eleanor, though, and so she said instead that her son Hugh would be happy to accept Morgan into his household, but she feared that the lad was so bedazzled by Hal that he’d see the Earl of Chester as a great letdown.

  Eleanor considered the problem, and then smiled. “I have the solution. I’ll ask Geoffrey to accept Morgan as one of his squires. He takes part in enough tournaments to satisfy Morgan’s craving for excitement, and he’s proving himself to be a capable commander in his campaigns against the Breton rebels.”

  Rhiannon was vastly relieved. “That would be so good of you, my lady! How can I ever thank you?”

  “It is my pleasure,” Eleanor said, and indeed it was, for this was the first time in five years that she’d been able to do a favor for a friend, to dispense the patronage and largesse that was expected of those who wielded royal authority.

  Rhiannon soon excused herself, and a few moments later, she had joined Ranulf and was murmuring in his ear. Eleanor smiled when Ranulf glanced in her direction. While Rhiannon and Maud had embraced her warmly during this Christmas Court, she’d gotten only cool civility from Ranulf and Roger. She knew Ranulf would feel honor-bound to thank her for placing his son in Geoffrey’s household, and she was looking forward to gaining the upper hand, however petty it might be. Maud had remained by her side, but now she gave an audible sigh, and Eleanor saw that her gaze had fastened upon her son Hugh, in animated discussion with Willem, who’d recently returned from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

  “I’d better rein him in ere he gets sloppy drunk and makes a fool of himself,” Maud said grimly, and Eleanor realized that Hugh had been drinking a lot since his arrival at Winchester.

  “Is he developing too much of a fondness for wine?” she asked quietly, and Maud shook her head.

  “Only when he’s in the king’s presence. You’ve not noticed that he gets as nervous as a treed cat around Harry?”

  As the countess went off to take charge of her wayward son, Eleanor felt an envious itch, wishing that she could be as pragmatic about motherhood as Maud. The other woman had long ago made a clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment of her eldest son, accepting his weaknesses but loving him wholeheartedly anyway. That was no easy feat, for affection and expectations invariably colored most parental appraisals of their offspring. Eleanor hoped she was able to see her sons as they truly were, but all she could be sure of was that she saw them more realistically than her husband did.

  Some of her earlier high spirits had faded, and she suspected it was because she’d been forced to pass a judgment upon her eldest son, weighing Hal in the balance and finding him wanting. As her eyes lingered upon his golden head, she sought to assure herself that it was not too late for him. Jesu, he was not yet twenty-four. Surely he had time to sort himself out.

  She was intending to speak to Geoffrey about his cousin Morgan when her eye was caught by a movement in one of the window-seats. With casual nonchalance, she began her approach, not wanting to scare her quarry off, and she slid into the window-seat beside her son before John could retreat.

  “I have not seen much of you this week, John.” Thinking that was an understatement; her youngest had been as elusive as a ghost during the Christmas Court so far.

  The boy sprang to his feet, reluctantly reclaiming his seat only when she gestured for him to sit. “Madame.”

  Eleanor took this opportunity to study him. He was just a few days from his twelfth birthday, but looked younger, for he was undersized. Henry was of average height, although he’d always appeared larger due to his powerful build. Both Hal and Richard were taller than he, Geoffrey shorter. Unless he sprouted up like a weed in the next few years, she thought John would likely be closer to Geoffrey’s height than his other brothers. It was disconcerting to see her own eyes in that thin little face. This was a child of her womb, so why did he seem like such a stranger?

  She decided not to waste time with superficial chatter, for such a chance might not come again. “It occurred to me,” she said, “that you and I have never talked about the rebellion or my part in it.” When he did not respond, she prodded gently. “Surely you’ve talked about it with your father.”

  “Yes…he said it was all your fault,” he said, slanting her an oblique glance through surprisingly thick lashes, and she thought she caught a glimmer of humor.

  “Most of Christendom agrees with him,” she conceded lightly. “But I thought you might have questions that only I could answer. Ask whatever you want, John, and I will try to be as honest as I can.”

  John gnawed his lower lip, and she saw his eyes dart across the solar, where his father was talking with Hal and Marguerite. “I do have a question,” he said, just when she was about to give up hope of cracking that turtle’s shell. “Did you…did you really put a snake in Richard and Geoffrey’s bed?”

  Eleanor blinked in surprise. “I was not expecting that query,” she confessed. “So they told you about that, did they? Alas, I must plead guilty. In my defense, I can say only that your brothers were born hellions. Lord, the trouble they could get into!” Smiling at John, she said, “I will make a deal with you, lad. If I tell you about some of their more hair-raising mischief-making, will you promise not to try any of these tricks yourself?”

  John ducked his head, his face hidden by a tumble of unruly dark hair. But then he shot from his seat as if fired from a crossbow. “I am sorry, Madame. I think my lord father has need of me.” And before she could protest, he fled.

  Eleanor watched as he threaded his way among their guests, finally surfacing at Henry’s side. Henry stopped in mid-sentence, slipped an affectionate arm around the boy’s shoulders before he resumed his conversation with Hal. Marguerite also gave John a welcoming smile. But Eleanor could not help noticing how brusquely Hal treated his younger brother, barely according John a nod, and she frowned. It was true that John’s castles in England and Normandy had come at Hal’s exp
ense, but it was not fair to blame the lad for that. It was not John’s fault that his mere presence conjured up unpleasant memories for Hal.

  Her frown deepened, for she was suddenly thinking of her own unpleasant memories, those connected with John’s birth. Warned by her sister, she’d made a foolhardy winter crossing of the Channel, stubbornly set upon determining if the gossip was true, if Harry had really dared to install Rosamund Clifford openly at their Woodstock manor. She’d been feeling ungainly and clumsy in the late stages of a difficult pregnancy, feeling every one of her forty-two years, only to come face-to-face with a radiant young girl, young enough to be her daughter. She’d told herself it was her pride that was bruised, not her heart, and during those pain-filled hours as she struggled to give birth, she’d vowed that she would not die so Harry’s child might live. John had finally been brought into the world as the midnight hour drew nigh, a small, feeble shadow of the robust, sun-kissed children who’d come before him.

  “Eleanor?” She was so focused upon the awful night of John’s birth that she started at the sound of Maud’s voice, and the other woman said with a smile, “I did not mean to startle you so. You have such an odd look upon your face. Are you all right?”

  “I was just thinking that you may have been right, Maud.”

  “Must you sound so surprised by that? I am always right. About what?”

  Shaking off the past, Eleanor returned Maud’s smile. “That I may have changed, after all.”

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

  May 1179

  Taillebourg, Aquitaine

  PERCHED ON A STEEP CRAG overlooking the River Charente, the castle of Taillebourg seemed to be scraping the clouds, so high above the valley was it. Protected on three sides by sheer cliffs, its one accessible approach was so well defended that none had ever dared to lay siege to it, for its fortifications boasted no less than three deep ditches and triple walls. Within those bastions nestled a small town, now filled with the inhabitants of the nearby villages, who’d taken shelter there as word spread of an advancing army. Despite the crowding, their mood was calm, for the town and castle were well provisioned with enough supplies to endure a long siege.

  The castle garrison was even more confident than the townspeople and villagers, for more than a thousand men patrolled those battlements and ramparts, answerable to one of the greatest barons of Aquitaine, Geoffrey de Rançon, and none doubted that their lord was more than a match for the Angevin king’s cub. Richard had laid siege to de Rançon’s stronghold at Pons early in the new year, and made so little progress that after three months, he’d given up and gone looking for easier prey. He’d had better luck than he had at Pons, taking five castles in less than a month. But Pons still held out defiantly and Taillebourg was even more formidable, so safe that de Rançon himself had chosen to defy Richard from within its redoubtable defenses. Upon being told by his scouts of Richard’s approach, Geoffrey de Rançon had laughed and his knights began to wager how long it would be until the foolhardy stripling crept away with his tail between his legs.

  RICHARD HAD RIDDEN AHEAD of his army with a handful of his household knights, and as they gazed upon the rebel lord’s rock-hewn citadel, their spirits plummeted and their cockiness ebbed away. As they exchanged glances, the same thought was in all their minds: that Taillebourg made Pons seem as exposed as a nunnery. Only Richard and his young squire Rico were not disheartened, for Rico was convinced that Richard could walk on water if he put his mind to it, and Richard would not admit that failure was possible, not even to himself. He knew he’d been damaged by his inability to take Pons, and he knew, too, that he needed a dramatic victory if he hoped to prevail over de Rançon and the Count of Angoulême and their allies. There was no way on God’s green earth that he would slink back to England and confess defeat to his father. No, if he could not take Taillebourg, then better he die in the attempt. At least there was honor in that.

  Noticing that his squire had drawn up beside him, he glanced at the youth with a sidelong smile. “Well, what do you say, Rico? Shall we give it a go?”

  Rico’s eyes were shining. “Indeed, my lord!” The past year had been the best one of Rico’s young life. He knew his half sisters and their husbands were embittered by the king’s refusal to let them lay claim to Rainald’s earldom, but Rico had always known it would never pass to him, the son born out of wedlock, and so he’d been indifferent to its disposition. He’d jumped at the chance to learn the arts of war from Richard, and reality had exceeded all of his expectations. He was utterly convinced that his twenty-one-year-old cousin was the most valiant man ever to draw breath and would soon bring these disloyal, contemptible rebels to heel.

  While the knights shared Rico’s appreciation of Richard’s courage, they did not have his starry-eyed faith, and could muster up no enthusiasm for an assault upon Taillebourg. They would not be getting a vote, though, and so they girded themselves for the worst as Richard turned back toward them.

  Glancing at Théodore Chabot, the captain of his routiers, Richard wasted no time declaring what he wanted done. “Send men out to forage,” he instructed Chabot. “Check every barn and chicken roost and be sure to search the woods, for that’s where the peasants will have hidden their livestock.”

  “It will be done, my lord,” Chabot said matter-of-factly; the knights thought he’d have sounded as imperturbable if Richard had ordered him to make a lone assault upon the castle walls. Guillaume de Forz and André de Chauvigny were young Poitevin lords who’d been with Richard since his ill-fated rebellion, and it never occurred to either of them to question his decision, for it had long been a joke between them that it would be easier to teach Richard to fly than it would to get him to back down once he’d made up his mind. They’d expected his order to forage, for armies lived off the land. It was what came next that troubled them. How could Taillebourg be taken?

  “After we gather whatever food we can find,” André said, with a brave attempt to sound as nonchalant as if they were discussing a day’s hawking, “what then?”

  Richard knew they were uneasy, but he did not fault them for it. Although he did not understand the fear that surged through other men’s veins, he asked only that they not give in to it, for he’d come to realize that few shared his utter contempt for danger or death. “Then,” he said, “we show them what Hell is like.”

  CHEVAUCHÉE WAS THE TERM USED for the most common tactic of warfare—the ravaging of an enemy’s lands. But the people of Taillebourg had never seen a raid as deadly or destructive as the one launched by Richard that May. Church bells sounded the alarm as his routiers spread out across the countryside. Those who’d not already taken refuge in Taillebourg fled in panic; the slow and the old and the ill were cut down like sheaves of wheat. The sky was soon smudged with dense black clouds as villages, barns, and manors were put to the torch. Cattle were butchered for Richard’s men, and those not needed were still slaughtered to deny them to his enemies. Oxen were slain and ploughs broken. Fruit trees were uprooted and crops were burned in the field. Vineyards were trampled. Wells were salted. Horses were taken, sheep gutted, chickens either eaten or killed. The horrified townsmen and villagers watched helplessly as their world went up in flames.

  THE FIRES WERE STILL BURNING when Richard brought up his siege engines and began to bombard the town. Mangonels launched heavy rocks and stones and even the carcasses of dead animals, the men working in eight-hour shifts so that the assault continued both day and night. From the castle battlements, Geoffrey de Rançon and his men seethed with rage, vowing vengeance, but panic was spreading in the town as people realized that withstanding the siege would not bring victory. When Richard gave up and retreated, nothing would be left to them but scorched fields, the bloated bodies of their slain livestock, and the fearful specter of famine.

  Richard had set up their camp so close to the town that dust from the battered walls was soon coating their tents, and when his knights grumbled that the nonstop bombardment was robbing
them of sleep, he smiled grimly. “It will not be long,” he assured them, “until they take the bait.”

  On May 8, the castle garrison sallied forth in a dawn attack. Such surprise assaults were often successful, but Richard had been expecting this one, sure that de Rançon would not be able to resist their tempting proximity. The fighting that followed was brutal, with Richard in the very thick of it, and his men were so inspired and emboldened by his utter fearlessness that they soon had the garrison retreating back toward the town.

  This was the moment Richard had been waiting for. “Now!” he shouted. “After them!” And as de Rançon’s knights plunged through the town gates, Richard and his men fought their way in, too. A wild melee broke out as the garrison fled for the safety of the castle. Geoffrey de Rançon and many of his knights were able to reach it, but Richard and his men were hot on their heels, and they saw at once that they’d never be able to hold the bailey. They raced for their last refuge, the stone keep, flinging a torch onto the wooden stairs just as their pursuers got there, and tumbled, bruised and bleeding, into the hall. All of the windows were tightly shuttered, so they were half blinded as they escaped from sunlight into shadows. Blinking owlishly in the semi-gloom of the hall, they slumped against the walls, collapsed in the floor rushes, and for a time the only sound was the harsh gasping of men fighting to get enough air into their laboring lungs. Stunned by how swiftly the tide had turned against them, de Rançon buried his head in his hands and wept.

  The soldiers who had not made it into the keep were quickly struck down, and Richard dispatched men to patrol the castle ramparts and the town walls. Leaning against the inner bailey well to catch his breath, he gratefully accepted a bucket from a grinning routier, yanked off his helmet, and poured it over his head. The water quickly turned pink as it splattered onto the ground, but none of the blood was his. It was here that Theobald Chabot found him.