Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 60

  It was not until his friends came to him on a rain-sodden December night at Caen that Will learned what was being said behind his back—that he was guilty of far worse than arrogance or pride, that he was seeking to cuckold his lord, to seduce Hal’s lovely young queen. Accustomed as he was to the spite and jealousy that thrived in the artificial atmosphere of a royal court, he was dumbfounded by such baneful rancor, for he was being accused of the greatest crime a man could commit against his liege lord.

  Baldwin de Bethune, Simon de Marisco, and Peter de Preaux had agonized over warning him of the stories being circulated, at last deciding that it was more dangerous for him not to know. They watched Will now with sympathetic eyes, bracing themselves for the questions to come.

  “How did you find this out?” he asked at last, and they explained that the conspirators had tried to win over one of Hal’s friends, Raoul de Hamars, hoping that he’d take the tale to Hal. But Raoul had scoffed at the story, and instead of warning Hal, he’d chosen to warn Will’s friends.

  “At least all are not willing to believe the worst of me. Who are these men who slander me so foully?”

  They were reluctant to say, fearing an even greater scandal, but Will was insistent and they were forced to reveal that the ringleaders were Adam d’Yquebeuf and Sir Thomas de Coulonces. Just as they’d feared, Will at once announced his intention of challenging them to combat, vowing to clear his name—and the queen’s—with the power of his strong right arm.

  “You cannot do that, Will! If you proclaim yourself innocent of adultery, you’d be spreading the scandal even farther, making sure that all who’d not heard the rumors now know of them. That would do you no good, would shame the queen—and the king.”

  Will’s shoulders slumped, for he realized Baldwin was right. Surely Hal could not know of this. If he had, would he not have acted? Would he not have punished the men who’d dared to slander his queen? But Will discovered that he still had to ask. Looking from one face to the other, he finally blurted it out. “Does Lord Hal know of these rumors?”

  None of them seemed in a hurry to answer him. “We are not sure,” Simon admitted. “Raoul de Hamars agreed to find out more, and reported that after he’d refused to pass the story on, they got one of Lord Hal’s pages drunk and convinced him it was his duty to tell the king. Supposedly Hal laughed it off, forcing them to take more drastic action, and they then came to him, swearing on their honor that it was so.”

  Seeing Will’s look of dismay, Baldwin said hastily, “We do not know if that truly happened. It is only what Raoul was told when he went out drinking with Thomas de Coulonces.”

  Will fell silent. He’d assumed that Hal’s coldness was due to their quarrel, to his disapproval of Hal’s grand schemes for claiming Aquitaine. But what if he’d been wrong? What if Hal had heard these vile accusations and believed them?

  “What will you do?” Simon asked, and Will could only shrug.

  “I do not know…yet.”

  THE CASTLE CHAPLAIN accompanied Hal into the church of St George, and Hal feared that he’d continue to hover, but he excused himself at once, promising to make sure the king would not be disturbed during his prayers.

  “Thank you, Father Matthew,” Hal said with a smile, sighing with relief when he was finally alone, for that was a rarity in his life; even more than his father, he seemed to be a magnet for all eyes. Usually he enjoyed such attention, but this Christmas Court at Caen was different and he longed to escape the constant scrutiny, to have time to himself without any demands being made upon him. Realizing that a church ought to be a good place to find solitude, he’d decided to take refuge there, although he did intend to pray, too; he was in God’s House, after all.

  Hal had always loved Christmas. Not this year. Part of the reason for his discontent was being thrown into such close proximity with Richard. His brother’s glowering presence made it impossible for him to ignore his misgivings, reminding him that he had to make a decision soon. Did he commit himself irrevocably to the rebels in Aquitaine or did he step back from the cliff’s edge? The trouble was that he did not truly know what he wanted to do. Well, he knew he wanted Aquitaine, but he was not sure he wanted to fight to the death for it. And after his talk with Geoffrey, he’d realized how naïve he’d been, how shortsighted. How could he have been so certain that their father would stand aside whilst two of his sons destroyed the third?

  For that was what it would come to—Richard’s destruction. Only death could make his brother accept the loss of Aquitaine. And would Maman forgive him for that? She’d always had an inexplicable fondness for Richard. No, it would not be as easy as he’d first thought. He did not want to alienate or hurt his mother, nor did he want to fight his father again. But how could he walk away from such an opportunity? If he held Aquitaine, he’d no longer be answerable to his father for every denier he spent; he’d finally have enough money to reward his liegemen, to attract the best knights to his banner, to buy a stallion without fretting about Papa’s dour disapproval, to indulge Marguerite as she deserved.

  That was why he’d again asked his father for Normandy, for it would be the perfect solution to his dilemma, giving him his own duchy without any of the risks that taking Aquitaine entailed. But of course Papa had balked. When had he ever listened to reason? And now the vultures were circling for certes. Aimar of Limoges had turned up in Caen, ostensibly to prove he was honoring the summer’s peace, but in reality, to remind Hal of his commitment to the rebels. He’d even brought news that Richard had obligingly given them the ideal excuse for attacking Aquitaine; he’d begun to build a castle at Clairvaux, in an area that was under the sway of the Counts of Anjou. Hal was not surprised that Richard should be poaching in his woods. He was surprised, though, that he was not better pleased about it, for, as Aimar had been quick to point out, he was now the wronged one, justified in protecting his own domains. But because Richard had given him a legitimate grievance, he felt even more pressured to take action. Soon all of Christendom would know of Richard’s encroachment into Anjou, thanks to that impudent poet. According to Geoff, Bertran de Born had written one of his mocking verses about Clairvaux, claiming it shone so brightly that the young king could not help but see it.

  It seemed to Hal that the fates were conspiring to force him into making a decision ere he was ready, and he yearned for another opinion, one dispassionate and dependable. But he, who’d always had friends beyond counting, had no trusted confidant when he most needed one. He could not consult Geoff, for his brother would be scornful of his inability to make up his mind. In that, Geoff was like Richard, both of them strangers to doubts or forebodings. None of his knights could be relied upon, either. They’d tell him what they thought he wanted to hear or they’d be unable to keep such a secret and blab it all over creation.

  Nor could he turn to the two people he most trusted, his wife and Will Marshal. He’d hinted to Marguerite of his intentions, and mere hints had been enough to alarm her greatly. No, he could not confide in Marguerite and that created problems, too, for she wanted him to take her to the holy shrine of Our Lady at Rocamadour in southern Aquitaine once the winter weather broke. She’d learned that barren women often conceived after making a pilgrimage to Rocamadour, and she’d been both hurt and bewildered by his refusal. Nor could he explain that Aquitaine might well be at war by the spring.

  And Will had let him down badly, acting for all the world as if he were about to commit high treason in attacking Richard. At the time that he most needed Will’s support, the knight had lectured him about his duty to his father and liege lord, droned on about fidelity and sworn vows and nonsense like that. It was particularly infuriating because Will knew how shabbily Papa treated him, knew, too, what a swine Richard could be. Hal’s tempers rarely lasted long; he’d never been one for holding grudges. But so great was his disappointment that he’d found it difficult to forgive Will. Then, just when he’d decided to let Will back into his good graces, those idiots had come to him
with their absurd accusations.

  He had been outraged, both by their suspicions and the terrible timing. Here he was about to make the most important decision of his entire life, and he was supposed to deal with tawdry gossip like this? He’d ordered them from his chamber after warning them not to repeat such vile rumors. But somehow he found himself blaming Will, too, for his unwitting part in this farce. All he wanted was enough time to consider all his options without being dragged into his household’s petty squabbles or being nagged by his wife about that damnable pilgrimage. Was that so much to ask?

  Apparently so, for he’d yet to find a peaceful moment at Caen, not with Marguerite sulking and Aimar lurking and Will acting put-upon and Geoff wanting to lay plans and Richard strutting around as if he were the incarnation of Roland and poor Tilda grieving over Maman’s absence and his father refusing to heed any voice but his own. He was sorry he’d let himself be talked out of going to the Holy Land. At least there it would be simple enough—fight the infidels and protect the sacred city of Jerusalem from Saladin and his Saracen hordes.

  By now Hal had convinced himself that few men had suffered the burdens he was expected to bear. A pity he could not stay here in the hushed quiet of the church, for it seemed a world away from the chaos and turmoil of his life. It occurred to him then to ask the Almighty for guidance, and he wondered why he hadn’t thought of that before. Feeling more cheerful, he approached the high altar, knelt, and prayed for a sign, for some manifestation of God’s Will, so that he would know what the Lord wanted him to do. He was just getting to his feet when a clamor erupted outside, the door slammed, and his brother Richard stalked into the church, trailed by the flustered priest.

  “My liege, I am sorry!” the priest stammered. “I told the lord duke that you were at your prayers, but he would not wait.”

  “Do not distress yourself, Father Matthew. The lord duke is not known for his good manners. In fact, they are so deplorable that some suspect he was raised by wolves.”

  “Whereas you are the veritable soul of courtesy,” Richard jeered. “You’d be sure to ask ere you borrowed a man’s dagger to stab him in the back, and I daresay you’d wipe it clean afterward.”

  “What are you babbling about now, Richard?”

  “Did you think I would not find out? I know about your treacherous double-dealing with my vassals, know about your visit to Limoges this summer. You gave the monks a banner for their abbey, one with Henricus Rex inscribed in gold thread. What else did you give them, Hal—a promise that you’d be a far more benevolent liege lord than me?”

  “I’d hardly have to tell them that,” Hal said coolly, “as anyone with eyes to see knows it already. I’ve even heard it said that Fulk Nerra would have been a more benevolent lord than you. Is this what you are whining about, my visit to Limoges? Need I remind you that Limoges is on the way to Péreigueux? You might as well complain that I stopped in St-Denis on a journey to Paris!”

  “My lords…” the priest began timidly, but they ignored him utterly, glaring at each other with such hostility that he was thankful swords were not worn at the Christmas Court.

  “Your conspicuous sojourn in Limoges was only the beginning of the trail,” Richard snapped. “I assumed that you’d conspire as carelessly as you do everything else and, indeed, you covered your tracks very sloppily. You’ve been meeting with malcontent lords from the Limousin and Poitou for some time now, offering a sympathetic ear for their complaints and—”

  “That is my great crime—feeling sorry for your ill-used barons? I freely admit to it. I feel sorry for anyone who has to suffer your foul tempers, Little Brother. But that hardly constitutes proof of conspiracy and rebellion.”

  “Ere I’m done, I’ll have enough proof to convince even your wife. And when I do, I’ll make a formal protest to our father. If he gives me no satisfaction—and I rather hope he does not—I will deal with you myself, and you’ll not find me as forgiving as he is. You can wager the surety of your soul on that.”

  “As entertaining as your rants always are, I have no more time to waste with you.” Hal started to brush past his brother, but Richard grabbed his arm.

  “We are not done here!”

  Hal swung around and brought the stiffened edge of his hand down upon Richard’s wrist, breaking his brother’s hold. Richard lunged forward just as the priest desperately flung himself between them. Both of the king’s sons were much taller than he, and he found himself crushed between them, his nose buried in Richard’s mantle, unable to see their faces but feeling such tension in their bodies that he was terrified there’d be blood shed in his church, for he’d remembered that they’d be carrying eating knives.

  “My lords, please…” he pleaded, but they were exchanging curses, calling each other names so vile that he doubted they’d even heard him. They did hear, though, the astonished exclamation from the direction of the door, and they stepped back, allowing Father Matthew to breathe again as they confronted two of their father’s most distinguished guests, the Archbishops of Canterbury and Dublin.

  The Archbishop of Canterbury was a mild-mannered individual, utterly unlike his predecessor, the fiery Thomas Becket, not one who’d be eager to rebuke the king’s sons. Fortunately for Father Matthew, the Archbishop of Dublin was made of sterner stuff. “What sort of outrageous behavior is this?” he demanded, striding down the nave so swiftly that his cope billowed out behind him, giving him the appearance of a ship under full sail. “Would you spill blood in God’s House? For shame, my lords, for shame!”

  Hal recovered his poise first, patting the priest apologetically on the shoulder as he moved to greet the prelates. “You are quite right, my lord archbishop. There is no excuse for our bad behavior, and I beg your pardon. I will be sure to confess this transgression to my chaplain so that he may impose a suitable penance.”

  Watching as his brother pacified the archbishops, Richard shook his head in disgust. He knew he should keep silent, but he’d been watching Hal perform these conjuring tricks as long as he could remember, and as Hal started up the aisle with the clerics, his bitterness spilled over. “You could rob a man blind in broad daylight and then somehow make it seem as if he were the one at fault. But if you meddle again in Aquitaine, all your smiles and pretty compliments will not save you. Nothing will!”

  Hal could recognize an opportunity when he was presented with one, and he paused at the door, then turned without haste, and looked back at his furious brother. “You put me in mind, Richard, of a cuckolded husband bewailing his wife’s infidelity, when he is the one who drove her into another man’s arms.” And confident that he’d gotten the last word, he departed the church with the archbishops, leaving Richard standing by the high altar, fuming, but vowing that Hal would not get away with his treachery, not this time.

  ON THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS, Henry was obliged to hold a hearing to adjudicate a bizarre incident that had happened during the Christmas feast. As a silver basin of scented water was borne to the king’s table so that he and his guests might wash their hands before the meal began, William de Tancarville, a highborn Norman baron, had rushed forward, forcibly seized the basin, and insisted upon carrying it to Henry himself, refusing afterward to surrender the basin to Henry’s indignant chamberlain. De Tancarville did not lack for enemies, and protests were made, resulting in the next day’s session. Henry had no liking for de Tancarville, for the baron had been one of the first to defect to Hal in the rebellion of 1173, but he accepted the man’s passionate defense: that as the hereditary chamberlain of Normandy, it was his sole privilege to attend his duke on ceremonial occasions.

  While Hal had been amused by the fracas in the hall, he was fidgeting and squirming in his seat as he listened to de Tancarville proclaim his right to retain custody of the silver basin, for it had occurred to him that Richard might see this as the ideal forum to charge him with subverting his rule in Aquitaine. He was reasonably confident that Richard did not have convincing evidence yet, but his broth
er might well choose to make a public scene after their confrontation in St George’s chapel. He was relieved, therefore, when the proceedings were finally concluded, and Richard’s window of opportunity slammed shut. But before Henry or any of the lords could withdraw, Will Marshal strode toward the center of the hall and declared, “My lord king” in a clear, carrying voice.

  Henry sat down again reluctantly, wondering why he could not enjoy one peaceful Christmas without any drama or strife. But then he saw that the king being approached was Hal, and he settled back to watch, as did the rest of the men in the hall.

  “Sire, hear me.” Will was very nervous, more uneasy than he’d ever been before a tournament or a battle, but when he spoke, his voice revealed none of his inner turmoil. “I have been unjustly accused of a vicious and vile act of treason. I am here to defend myself before you and your noble father and these assembled lords and barons. Have the men who accused me come forward and agree to meet me in combat. I will fight three of them in turn, and if I am defeated in any contest, I am willing to forfeit my life, for I would not want to live if I could not clear my name.”

  As soon as Will stopped speaking, the hall was utterly still. Hal could feel every eye upon him, and he felt a sudden flare of anger, resentment that Will should pick this inopportune moment to make his overwrought, theatrical challenge. Will made it sound as if he were not in control of his own household knights. His father was watching him with an enigmatic expression, and Geoffrey looked puzzled, but Richard was smiling faintly, and that smile was enough to arouse all of Hal’s suspicions. Had Richard put Will up to this? They’d always been too friendly for his liking. For that matter, Will was de Tancarville’s cousin. Could that odd event have been deliberately staged to give Will this chance to appear before the king’s court? If he allowed the trial by combat, this would drag on for three days, delaying their departure from Caen. Was that what Richard had in mind? Was he seeking time to produce witnesses, a Poitevin baron that he’d coerced into making a confession?