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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 52


  “Can my lads have their sport now?” he asked, and when Richard nodded, he raised his arm high, signaling to one of his sergeants that the town was theirs for the taking. His men jubilantly claimed their reward; plunder was mother’s milk to the battle-seasoned routiers who lived and died by the sword. Smoke was soon spiraling up from the narrow, unpaved streets, and the sounds of their city’s suffering were not long in reaching the miserable men trapped within the dark, sweltering keep, reminding them what their fate would be if they tried to hold out. A town or castle taken by storm was fair game, for by their stubborn resistance, the besieged forfeited the right to be treated with leniency and could be slain without violating chivalric codes of honor.

  Squires were not supposed to take part in actual fighting, and it took Rico a while to make his way into the town. He found he had to step over bodies in the street, had to keep jumping aside to avoid being trampled by celebrating bands of routiers as they surged from looted taverns in search of more wine. Men bumped into him as they emerged from ransacked shops and houses, their arms filled with booty, while others were on the prowl for bedmates, willing or otherwise. Again and again he heard a dog’s barking become shrill yipping and then, silence. Goods were raining down from open windows, caught by laughing passersby. Whores, painted and powdered, had emerged from their bolt holes to mingle with the soldiers in the streets. Rico saw sights that shocked him to the marrow of his bones, had to watch his footing lest he step into puddles of congealing blood. But by the time he reached the castle, he was no longer flinching every time he heard a screaming woman or a wailing child.

  Richard was conferring with several of his knights as they appraised the keep defenses. Rico waited patiently till his lord had time for him, noting that his sword needed a good cleaning and so did the tunic he’d worn over his hauberk, for it was soiled and torn; even his lord’s boots had bloodstains on them. He’d have much to do.

  Noticing the boy at last, Richard beckoned him over. “You are looking a little greensick, Cousin,” he joked. “If you are going to spew, try not to aim in my direction.”

  He was surprised when Rico did not laugh or at least acknowledge the jest. Rico had proven to be an excellent squire, in great part because he was so eager to please, but also because he was so invariably cheerful. But now Rico was looking at him very somberly, like a sinner about to confess to his priest.

  “I have never seen a captured town before,” he confided hesitantly. “I guess…guess I did not know how bloody war can be, my lord.”

  Richard considered what the boy had said, and then nodded in agreement. “Yes, war can be bloody and brutal and disquieting, Rico. But there is also a…a kind of glory in it.”

  Rico did not understand, but he nodded, too, for if Richard said it, it must be so.

  HENRY HAD SENT WILLEM to the Flemish court for negotiations with the Count of Flanders, and he was unable to return until June. Taking ship at Wissant, he landed at Dover, and then began the tedious task of chasing down the king. He finally found Henry at his Woodstock manor.

  As he entered the great hall, Willem saw that most of the men and some of the women were clustered at one end. He knew Hal was spending some time at his father’s court, and he assumed that the young king was the attraction. He was surprised, therefore, to notice Hal standing on the dais, his arms folded across his chest. Wondering who was stealing Hal’s thunder, Willem took a closer look and when he caught a glimpse of a reddish-gold head, he understood, both the commotion and Hal’s obvious discontent. The hero of Taillebourg was here, and Hal’s tournament victories had been put in the shade by Richard’s dramatic capture of a castle said to be impregnable.

  Joining Henry upon the dais, he was warmly welcomed by the king and courteously by Hal. Henry was beaming every time he looked over at Richard, and wasted no time in bragging of his exploits, telling Willem that Geoffrey de Rançon had surrendered two days after Richard took the town. “He also yielded Pons, and ten days later, Count Vulgrin ended his rebellion and surrendered his castles at Angoulême and Montignac. A number of our highborn rebels were so shaken by Richard’s conquests that they have taken the cross, and are making plans to leave for the Holy Land as soon as they can get away.” Henry grinned. “Aquitaine has not been so peaceful in years!”

  Seeing how much pleasure Richard’s triumph was giving his father, Willem was happy to indulge his paternal pride, and began to ask questions, thus giving Henry the opportunity to discuss the fall of Taillebourg at length. He was still in mid-cry when Hal quietly withdrew, first from the dais and then from the hall, but few noticed.

  “It was an amazing feat, Willem,” Henry concluded enthusiastically. “I do not know anyone who could have done better, even me! And the lad is only twenty-one; think what a commander he’ll make once he gains more experience.” Willem agreed, finding it easy to echo Henry’s praise, for no soldier could fail to be impressed by Richard’s triumph. Henry added that Geoffrey had been successful in Brittany, too, if not quite on such a spectacular scale, forcing that habitual rebel, Guihomar de Léon, to surrender all his strongholds. But he soon returned to praising Richard, and when Willem asked how he planned to reward the young man, he laughed.

  “I am giving him Aquitaine. God knows he earned it.”

  Willem was impressed, knowing how reluctant Henry was to relinquish authority. “He must have been overwhelmed,” he said, and Henry’s pleasure lost some of its luster.

  “He was not as joyful as I would have expected,” he admitted. “When I told him that from now on, he could govern the duchy as he chose, he thanked me as calmly as if I’d just offered him a new saddle.” His eyes rested for a mystified moment upon the tall figure of his second son. “I confess, Willem,” he said quietly, “that I do not understand the lad, never have if truth be told. He keeps his own counsel, has learned to guard his thoughts. As his king, I find that commendable, for no ruler should be as easily read as…well, as Hal is. But as his father, I do wish he were more forthcoming, at least with me.”

  After a moment, though, he shook his head, and began to question Willem about his mission to the Flemish court. Willem had just begun his report when there was a sudden stir in the hall. Curious, he paused, and was taken aback to see the queen coming through the open doorway.

  Henry caught his questioning look and shrugged. “Richard wanted her here,” he said simply, and Willem thought it was encouraging that the king was learning to pick his battles with his sons. But then Henry said, “Actually, what he’d asked for was her freedom, and there is no way I could have granted that wish. So it would have been churlish to deny him her presence at revelries in his honor. I’ve tried to be a good sport about it, Willem, even bought her a gilded scarlet saddle and new robes for the occasion. I cannot say, though, that I am pleased to have her here.”

  Willem understood why. The change in Richard’s demeanor was startling. Where before he’d been detached, even aloof, he was now displaying considerable animation as he conversed and laughed with his mother. Henry made no comment, but he kept his eyes upon them even as Willem completed his account of his meeting with Count Philip. By then Richard had noticed Willem’s presence and was heading in their direction, his mother pacing serenely beside him, her hand resting lightly but possessively upon his arm.

  Once greetings had been exchanged, Willem made ready to hear Richard’s firsthand account of Taillebourg’s fall. Richard had other matters upon his mind, though. “I’ve not had a chance to talk with you since your return from the Holy Land, and I am eager to hear all about your experiences there. You were one of the victors at Ramlah, no? Is it true that your siege of Harenc was interrupted by the arrival of Saladin himself? What do you think of his military prowess? Did you get to Jerusalem—”

  Willem flung up his hand in mock surrender, and let Richard lead him away to continue his interrogation. Henry and Eleanor found themselves alone for the first time since her arrival at Woodstock. After an awkward moment, Henry too
k refuge in courtesy and escorted her toward their chairs upon the dais. Richard and Willem had moved to a window-seat to continue their discussion of Holy Land warfare, and they were soon surrounded by a large throng, for Richard was exercising the sort of magnetic appeal that had previously been Hal’s alone. Henry watched his son for a few moments more, wishing that Richard could be like that with him—enthused and unguarded. Glancing toward his wife, he said, “What were you saying that Richard found so amusing?”

  His brusque tone made it sound more like an accusation than an inquiry. Eleanor ignored the undercurrents and said composedly, “Ah, that. I told Richard that I was particularly gratified to see Taillebourg Castle reduced to rubble, for Louis and I spent the first night of our marriage there.”

  Henry gave her a sharp look, but decided he did not want to talk of wedding nights with Eleanor; that was too intimate for his liking. It vexed him that she insisted upon displaying a wife’s familiarity instead of a rebel’s contrition. “You like to accuse me of never learning from my mistakes,” he said. “But Louis does not even learn from other men’s mistakes. Did you hear that he is planning to have Philippe crowned in August on Ascension Day?”

  “No, I had not heard that,” Eleanor said. “I cannot say it surprises me, though. Louis always had a talent for taking a bad situation and making it worse.”

  “To be fair, he did have some misgivings about the idea after observing how well it worked with Hal. But he has decided to go ahead with it, mayhap because he has been ailing this past year. It will be interesting to see how it goes,” Henry commented, in a masterly understatement.

  Eleanor regarded him pensively. “I saw Hal out in the bailey,” she said. “He looked out of sorts and, sad to say, was making no attempt to hide his discontent. I fear that he is not handling Richard’s newfound fame very well.”

  “No, he is not,” Henry said, and sighed. “Hal and Richard show all the good will of Cain and Abel. And for that matter, Richard and Geoffrey are not much better.”

  Eleanor’s eyes narrowed; was he saying the dissention between their sons was Richard’s fault? But as he continued, she saw that was not what he was implying. “I confess to being baffled by their constant squabbling and strife, Eleanor. It is true I never got along with my brother Geoff, but that was mainly his doing. Will and I were always very close.”

  “I know,” she said, remembering how grief-stricken he’d been by Will’s sudden death at twenty-seven. “I was only six when my brother died, so I do not have many memories of him. I probably considered him a pest, as big sisters are wont to do. But Petronilla and I were confidantes and allies—even partners in crime—as far back as I can remember. Somehow, though, our sons have managed to reach manhood without any true sense of brotherly affection or loyalty, and I do not know what to do about it.”

  “Neither do I,” Henry admitted, frowning as he saw the corners of her mouth curving upward. “What possible amusement can you find in this?”

  “Not amusement exactly. It just occurred to me that we have finally found some common ground to agree upon, Harry, and what is it? Our failings as parents!”

  Henry shared her sense of the ridiculous and when their eyes met, they were soon both laughing, laughter that stopped abruptly when they realized that this was the first time they’d laughed together in more than seven years.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  August 1179

  Woods near Compiègne, France

  AT FIRST PHILIPPE WAS ANGRY—with his horse for bolting and with his companions for taking so long to find him. He’d been calling out until his voice was hoarse, but the only sounds he heard were the normal noises of the forest. He was getting hungry and tired and, as the afternoon wore on, increasingly uneasy. The prospect of being lost in the woods at night was a daunting one. This was the first time in Philippe’s fourteen years that he’d ever been utterly alone, and he liked it not at all.

  He was scratched from brambles and overhanging branches, bothered by swarms of gnats and other insects, as miserable as he’d ever been in his entire life. When his mount suddenly shied and he banged his elbow painfully against a gnarled oak, he lost his temper altogether. He did not enjoy riding, had always viewed horses with dislike and distrust, and this particular horse was to blame for all of his troubles today. Giving in to his rage, he jabbed it in the sides with his spurs at the same time that he brought his whip down upon its withers. The gelding snorted and reared up suddenly. Philippe dropped his spear and clung to the mane as he tried to maintain his seat. But the horse began to buck, and the boy lost his grip and his stirrups, went sailing over its head into a wild blackberry bush.

  Like his father, Philippe rarely cursed; the strongest oath he normally used was “By the Lance of St James!” But as he sought to extricate himself, he was muttering an obscenity, one that could have come from the mouth of the English king or any of his sons. When he finally fought free of the thorns and briars and saw that the wretched horse was nowhere in sight, he had to bite his lip to keep further profanities from spewing out into the humid August air. As bad as being lost was, being lost and on foot was far worse.

  Philippe rooted around in the undergrowth until he’d recovered his spear. They’d been hunting boar and had not seen one all day. But now it seemed to him that boars lurked in every thicket, behind every felled tree, and he gripped the weapon so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He shouted again, listened in vain for a response and then, hunching his shoulders, began to trudge along the path.

  The tree branches intertwined, forming an opaque, green canopy over his head, and he went for long stretches without seeing the sky. He was slow to realize, therefore, that the light was ebbing. With the awareness that the sun would soon be setting, he suffered his first surge of fear. His second came when he tripped over an exposed root and nearly landed on a snake, and his next when he heard an owl’s prey in its death throes, unseen in the twilight dusk. But it was the distant howl of a wolf that sent him into panicked flight. He ran until he stumbled and fell flat, hitting the ground with enough force to bruise his ribs and drive all the breath from his lungs. The shock of it enabled him to regain control of himself. Realizing it was madness to keep racing around in the darkness, he crawled over to the closest tree, curled up next to its trunk, and prepared to endure an interminable night.

  He was sure he’d never be able to sleep, but he finally dozed, and jerked upright just before sunrise. During the night, fog had drifted in and the trees were wreathed in patches of pale vapor, blotting out the sun. Shivering in the damp dawn air, he struggled to his feet, every muscle in his body cramping in protest, took a deep breath, and yelled for help. He thought he heard an answering shout, but he did not trust his own senses. His next cry brought another echo, though, louder this time.

  “I am here! Over here!” He could hear running footsteps now, and then a huge, hulking figure was looming out of the mist, a giant with bare, muscled arms, hands like hams, a blackened, smudged face, and an axe dangling by his side, the ogre of Philippe’s boyhood night terrors. Shrinking back against the tree, he gasped, “Stay away from me! I am Philippe Capet, the king’s son! Keep away!”

  HENRY WAS BACK AT WOODSTOCK; it had always been one of his favorite manors and it gave him comfort to visit the nearby nunnery of Godstow, where he lavished largesse upon the priory and prayed for Rosamund’s soul. He’d held a council meeting that afternoon, a productive session in which they discussed a wide range of topics: the coming Christmas visit of the King of Scotland, the feasibility of issuing a new coinage, a report upon his recent judicial reform in which he’d divided the realm into four circuits, and the need to fill the justiciarship now that Richard de Lucy had resigned the post because of ill health. The council was done but Henry and a few others still lingered in the solar.

  As all of them were men who stood high in Henry’s favor, the talk was more relaxed and informal; they’d been idly discussing the Lateran Council held in Rome that spring.
One of the canons had banned “those abominable jousts and fairs, which are commonly called tournaments,” but Henry and his companions agreed that the Church prohibition would not likely be heeded. Nor did they expect the Lateran Council’s excommunication of routiers to discourage rulers from hiring them.

  Henry candidly admitted that he’d continue to make use of routiers when the need arose. “Though it could be argued that routiers are actually more dangerous when they are not employed. My son Richard kept his routiers under tight rein, but once he came to England in June and they were no longer being paid, they sacked Bordeaux.”

  Getting to his feet and beginning to pace, Henry stopped the others from rising, too, for Gilbert Foliot and the Bishop of Winchester were no longer young. “I received two interesting communications from the French court this week,” he said, and these men knew him well enough to understand that there was something highly unusual about those “interesting communications.”

  “One came from the French king,” Henry continued, “and the other from…well, let’s just say a well-placed source at Louis’s court. Louis has had to postpone his son’s coronation. Philippe was hunting in the royal forest near Compiègne and somehow he became separated from his companions. He spent the night alone in the woods and was finally found the next morning by a charcoal burner. But my ‘source’ tells me that the charcoal burner must have had a fearsome visage for his appearance scared Philippe so badly that he took ill soon after his rescue.”

  The men exchanged grins and several laughed outright. Henry shared their amusement; royal heirs were not supposed to be so delicate. “At that age, any of my hellions would have considered a night alone in the woods a grand adventure. But we know Philippe is as high-strung as a lass. The humor of his mishap soon soured, though, for within a day he was burning up with fever, and they are now fearing for his life.”