Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 58

  The smile left Henry’s face, though, with Richard’s first words. “Thank God Almighty, for now victory is assured. Once the rebels learn that the young king is here at last, they will surely be clamoring to surrender.”

  It could conceivably have been meant as a joke—if not for the razor-edged tone of Richard’s voice. Henry looked taken aback, Geoffrey interested, and Richard’s knights amused. Hal’s knights took it for what it was—a mortal insult—and angry murmurings swept through their ranks. But Hal appeared unperturbed. Smiling at his younger brother, he said pleasantly, “Given how heavy-handed you are with your liegemen, Little Brother, rebellions like this will be a common occurrence. Since we’ll have to be riding to your rescue so often in years to come, it seemed wiser to pace myself.”

  The glitter in Richard’s eyes did not bode well for a peaceful resolution, and Henry hastily stepped between them. “Enough,” he said, low-voiced. “Will you make a spectacle of yourselves in front of the entire camp?” Others came to his aid, then, seeking to draw Richard aside, offering to show Hal where his men would be setting up their tents, and the moment passed. Henry did not move, though, not until Willem came to his side. “God grant me patience,” he said softly, pitching his words for the earl’s ears only. “Whatever that was, it was not the usual brotherly rivalry. That I can understand. But this…this was lethal, Willem.”

  And since Willem agreed with Henry, he could think of nothing to say and they stood in silence for a time, watching as men sought to keep the king’s sons as far from each other as possible.

  REBELLIONS WERE NOT FOUGHT to the death, and when they realized that they’d been outmaneuvered and outfought, Viscount Aimar and Count Élie sued for peace. Aimar was compelled to offer two of his sons as hostages, and Henry, Hal, and Geoffrey accompanied Aimar to Limoges, where peace terms were sworn in St Augustine’s abbey. Richard remained in Périgueux to supervise the destruction of Puy-St-Front’s walls. With only Aimar’s Taillefer half brothers in Angoulême still in defiance of Richard, the revolt sputtered to an end.

  LIMOGES WAS, LIKE NOTTINGHAM, two separate cities, one clustered around the bishop’s palace by the River Vienne and the other spread out on the hillside around the viscount’s castle and the great abbey of St Martial, where Henry and his sons chose to stay.

  The day after the peace terms were accepted, Henry and his sons celebrated with a hunt in the viscount’s woods. By the time Geoffrey returned to his guest chamber, Compline was chiming. His squires, Morgan and Jehan, had just helped him to change his muddied hunting tunic when his brother Hal made an unexpected appearance. Both surprised and curious, Geoffrey sent his squires down to the guest hall so they could talk in privacy. He assumed Hal had a specific purpose in mind, for while they had never had a serious falling out, they were not confidants or even boon companions.

  Hal seemed in no hurry, though, to get to the point, and began to discuss the day’s hunt. But Geoffrey alone of his family had learned the art of patience, and he lounged at ease on the bed, sharing Hal’s wineskin as he waited for his brother to reveal his intent.

  “So…” Hal said, sprawling on the bed beside him as if they were still youngsters without a care in the world, “how do you like being married?”

  “Well enough.”

  Hal doubted that, for he’d always found Constance to be as prickly as a hedgehog. “I’d wager your lady is not as easy to content as my Marguerite. Take the advice of a seasoned husband; gifts do wonders for marital harmony, the more frequently the better!”

  “You may be right. Constance did seem quite pleased with the barony of Tréguier.” Taking note of his brother’s blank look, Geoffrey explained, “Tréguier was held by Constance’s father, but when he died, our father gave it to Conan’s uncle. The uncle died earlier this year, and I reclaimed it in Constance’s name.”

  Propped up on his elbow, Geoffrey grinned, saying his wife had been very grateful, and Hal regarded him in surprise, for that sly smile was easy enough to interpret. So the demure, dignified Constance was a hell-cat in bed! Who would ever have guessed it? Flipping the wineskin to Geoffrey, he said, “So…you’ve had no luck in getting Papa to hand over Richmond or Nantes?”

  “No,” Geoffrey said tersely, but then made an effort to sound more positive. “At least he has given me a free hand in governing the rest of Brittany.”

  Hal was looking at him pensively, no longer smiling. “I wonder,” he said, “if you and Richard realize how lucky you both are.”

  Geoffrey was in no mood for one of Hal’s self-pitying rants. “Need I remind you that a king takes precedence over a duke—even a king in waiting?”

  “Yes, but would either of you truly trade places with me? I think not. Anyway, that was not what I meant. You are lucky because the two of you are not as emotionally entangled with Papa as I am. It is easier for you.”

  Geoffrey sat upright on the bed. “What do you mean?”

  “Give me the wineskin back and I’ll tell you.” Making a deft one-handed catch, Hal took a swig before saying, “Let’s suppose that another Great Flood engulfs the world on the morrow, and the Almighty selects Richard to be the new Noah, only He tells Richard to fill his ark with family, not creatures of the earth. What would Richard do?”

  “How would I know?”

  “You know. The only person Richard loves is Maman. He’d take her onboard and leave the rest of us to drown.”

  “I’ll grant you that,” Geoffrey said, after a moment’s reflection, “though he might also take Joanna. But what of me? Are you saying my ark would be empty, too, except for Maman?”

  “No, you’d take us all along. Well, not Richard; he’d better hope he could swim. But you’d warn the rest of us of the coming Flood. We’d only have so many chances, though, to catch the ark. If one of us had used up his chances, you’d sail off without a backward glance. I cannot say for certes when you left Papa stranded on the shore, but most likely it happened last year when he kept control of Nantes and the Honour of Richmond.”

  Hal had not often surprised Geoffrey, but he’d done so now. He’d not thought Hal was that insightful. Looking at his brother through new eyes, he said, “And who would occupy your ark, Hal? Would you find room for Papa?”

  Hal shrugged and then sighed. “It depends on the day. That is why I say you and Richard are the lucky ones.”

  Geoffrey was finding this conversation intriguing, but he wasn’t sure it was wise to venture into such uncharted terrain. He’d never before talked openly about his own ambivalent feelings for their father. “As interesting as this is, Hal, I doubt that you sought me out to talk of arks. What really brought you here?”

  “You’re right. I do have something in mind. One reason I took so long to reach Puy-St-Front was that I was meeting with some of Richard’s rebellious barons. On St Martial’s feast day, I was in Limoges, where the viscount and the people welcomed me warmly and then—”

  “Save your breath, Brother. I am not interested in another rebellion against Papa. I did that once before, and it did not turn out so well.”

  “I agree with you, Geoff. Papa is not the target. Richard is.”

  Geoffrey rose, crossed the chamber, and slid the bolt into place. Coming back to the bed, he stood looking down at his brother. “What have you gotten yourself into now, Hal?”

  “Over the past few years, I’ve come to know quite a few of the Poitevin lords. If truth be told, they’ve sought me out. Richard has done the impossible—gotten that lot of mules and malcontents to unite in a common cause. They grudgingly respect his battle skills, but when he tried to change local laws of inheritance, that was too much for them to swallow. They do not want him as their duke, have promised to transfer their allegiance to me if I am willing to help them overthrow him. I thought you might be interested in joining us.”

  “What would I gain by that?”

  “Apart from the great satisfaction in seeing Richard brought down?” Hal’s grin was so contagious that Geoffrey c
ould not help returning it. “I’d make it worth your while, Geoff. One of these days I will actually become king, for not even Papa can live forever, and when I do, I’ll hand over Richmond and Nantes to you straightaway.”

  “Mayhap you would, but Papa could live another twenty years. Who’s to say that I cannot coax him into dealing with me fairly whilst he is still alive? He has never refused me outright, keeps saying that he’ll give them to me in time.”

  “If you still believe in Papa’s good faith, you probably believe in mermaids and dragons, too. I am willing to offer more than future gains. Once I am in control of Aquitaine, I’ll no longer be dependent upon Papa’s whims, his meager acts of charity. There will be lucrative wardships and marriages at my disposal, and who better to share them with than my brother? And Poitou is a land of many castles, a number of which are located close to the borders of Brittany. What would make more sense than to turn some of these castles over to you?”

  “I will not deny it is a tempting offer,” Geoffrey said slowly, “for I do not fancy having Richard as my neighbor, constantly watching Brittany with hungry eyes. But it is a risky proposal, too. Are you so sure we could bring Richard down?”

  “His delusions of grandeur notwithstanding, Richard is not Caesar or Charlemagne. Nor would we lack for allies. Virtually all of the barons of Aquitaine would come in with us, even the wily de Lusignans. They see this as a matter of their survival. And we could expect aid from my brother-in-law, too. After all that Papa had done for him, I was hesitant about broaching the subject with Philippe. I need not have worried, though. Indeed, I was surprised how willing he was to join us.”

  That did not surprise Geoffrey at all. “So you are saying you’d have the backing of all the lords of Aquitaine, and the backing, too, of the French king. Are you not forgetting someone?”

  “I do not think so. The Count of Toulouse would never be able to resist an opportunity like this, and mayhap even the—”

  “What about our father?”

  “What about him? We would be striking at Richard, not him.”

  “And you think he’d stand aside, do nothing as Richard went down?”

  “Why not? I know full well he loves me better than Richard. Papa might even be relieved to be rid of him. You cannot tell me that a man as full of ungodly suspicions as our father does not worry about Brother Richard’s trustworthiness. Surely he knows how much Richard resents him for keeping Maman captive all these years.” Hal got to his feet, too, reached out and put his hand on Geoffrey’s arm. “So…what say you?”

  “I will think about it.”

  “You can give me no better answer than that?”

  “As I said, I will think about it. But this you must bear in mind, Hal. This cannot be a halfhearted effort. There can be no eleventh-hour regrets. If you are serious about this, you must commit to it…and you must prepare for all possible consequences. In other words, you cannot take it for granted that Papa would not rush to Richard’s rescue. If you do this, you must be willing to fight Papa, too, if it comes to that.”

  Hal had no such misgivings, sure that if their father were forced to choose between him and Richard, he’d be the chosen one. He did not want to lose Geoffrey, though, by pushing too hard, too soon. Geoffrey would be an invaluable ally, for he had a cool head, was quick-witted, and could dip into the royal coffers of Brittany to hire the routiers they would need. “Fair enough,” he said. “Think about it. Just do not wait too long. Opportunities like this do not come along that often.”

  Geoffrey knew he was right. The trouble was that opportunities and pitfalls could not always be easily or clearly distinguished, one from the other. He would talk to Constance, he decided, although he already knew what she would say, for they were very much alike, born gamblers willing to take great risks if the rewards were equally great. And the rewards Hal was offering were very great, indeed.

  THE DUCHESS OF SAXONY AND BAVARIA was standing with her brothers on the battlements of Chinon Castle, where she discovered that they were right: the view was indeed breathtaking. Below them lay the narrow, crooked streets and blue slate roofs of the village, and beyond was the silvery expanse of the River Vienne, shimmering against a deep blue September sky.

  “How lovely,” Tilda said admiringly, and then laughed when Hal gallantly turned her comment into a compliment, pretending to think she was referring to herself. She was indeed ravishing, he assured her solemnly, but it was not seemly for her to call attention to her own beauty. Better she wait modestly until others noticed it, as they undoubtedly would.

  “You have not changed a whit,” she said, playfully and untruthfully, for nothing was as she’d remembered it. She’d last seen her father’s domains fifteen years ago, when she’d been sent off to wed the man known as Heinrich der Löwe—Henry the Lion. She’d been only eleven, twenty-seven years younger than her new husband, a man renowned for his courage, military prowess, temper, and lack of tact, but it was obvious to her brothers that there was genuine respect and affection between Heinrich and Tilda, and they were glad that she’d found contentment in Germany. They were still getting accustomed to the Tilda of today, for this poised young woman of twenty-six was very different from the fragile, shy sister who still flitted through their childhood memories of yesterday. They were surprised by how much she’d grown; she was almost tall enough to look Richard and Hal straight in the eye, noticeably taller than her husband, and the slender, sylphlike girl had ripened into a beauty, so much so that they felt uncomfortable taking notice of the voluptuous curves motherhood had given her.

  Tilda found their new selves to be no less startling. Hal had been twelve when they’d last met, Richard ten, and Geoffrey nine, and she had to make a conscious effort to associate those boisterous boys with these worldly, grown men of twenty-seven, twenty-five, and twenty-four. But she’d expected that she’d find strangers in their skins. What she’d not expected was to find her father was a stranger, too.

  She’d remembered him as a veritable whirlwind, remembered a hoarse, raspy voice that could shout down the heavens or purr intimately in her mother’s ear, remembered coppery curly hair and sunbursts of pure energy, a giant who towered above other mortal men, a force of nature as dazzling and daunting as heat lightning in a summer sky. What she found at Chinon was a man of forty-nine who was not aging well, a man not much taller than her husband, with too many grey hairs, a stiff leg that throbbed when the weather changed, and hooded eyes etched in wrinkles that no longer looked like laugh lines. Heinrich had cautioned her to tread with care, fearful that too many questions about her mother might jeopardize Henry’s favor, a risk they could not afford to take. But as she gazed into her father’s face, she’d realized that the story of his ruined marriage and betrayals was writ plain for all to see, and her heart ached for him, for the mother sequestered in England, and for the little girl she’d once been, the child secure in the innocent belief that their family was, and would always be, favored by God.

  A burst of laughter drew their eyes toward the middle bailey of the castle, where Henry and Heinrich were walking in the gardens. They’d just been joined by Tilda’s three children—Richenza, Otto, and Heinrich—and five-year-old Otto was shrieking with delight as Henry swung him up into the air. The sight of her father taking such joy in his grandchildren brought a smile to Tilda’s face, but it was tinged with sadness, for they’d been forced to leave their third son behind in Brunswick; Lothair’s health was too frail for him to make the difficult journey from Saxony to Normandy. No matter how often Tilda told herself that she’d had no choice but to put the needs of her husband and other children before Lothair’s, she continued to have dreams in which her absent son cried out for her at night. The separation was even harder because he was only eight, and she did not know if the emperor would keep his word and permit them to return in three years. Lothair could grow up without her. That fear gave her even greater sympathy for her mother, who’d been made to disappear from her children’s lives a
s if by some malign spell, one cast by her own husband.

  “Tell me the truth,” she said, blue eyes moving from face to face. “How is Maman truly faring in confinement?”

  Her brothers exchanged glances, and Hal said, lowering his voice instinctively even though they were not within their father’s hearing, “Surely you talked to Papa about her. What did he tell you?”

  “He insisted she was living in comfort and contentment, and then hastily changed the subject. He has spent more time discussing the French king’s expulsion of the Jews from his realm and telling me about the new outbreak of war in Jerusalem between King Baldwin and the Saracen prince Saladin than he has talking about Maman. And when I asked why she could not cross over to Normandy to be with us at his Christmas Court, I never did get an answer from him.”

  “And you will not,” Richard said sharply, “for the man is impossible to pin down even with a forked stick. If there is any justice, he will come back in his next life as a snake or an eel.”

  Hal looked at his brother with dislike he made no attempt to conceal. The three of them had agreed to put the best face upon their mother’s plight and to speak well of their father in Tilda’s hearing, not wanting to make her exile any harder than it already was. He should have known that Richard would not hold to the bargain. “Hopefully in your next life, you’ll come back as a mute!”

  Richard’s eyes narrowed. “A pity you were not born a woman in this life, Little King of Lesser Land, for you seek only to please and to be admired by all. You’d have made a right fine whore.”

  Tilda gasped. She did not understand why he’d called Hal “Little King of Lesser Land,” although she recognized it as a grave insult. Geoffrey did understand and bit back a grin; Richard was quoting from a song by the troubadour Bertran de Born, who’d mocked Hal for not displaying more martial fervor.

  Hal flushed, but he lashed back at once, saying with all the contempt at his command, “And a pity you were not lowborn in this life, that the blood of kings keeps you from following your heart’s desire. You are never happier than when you are up to your knees in blood and guts and gore. Clearly the Almighty meant you to be a butcher.”