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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 61


  “I do not know what you are talking about, Marshal,” he said sharply, “and I will not have my household disrupted with petty personal quarrels. There will be no trial by combat. Now let that be an end to it.”

  Will looked at him gravely, and to Hal’s discomfort, he felt heat rising in his face under that unblinking regard. Pushing back his chair, he got to his feet, and that seemed to break the spell. But instead of withdrawing, Will turned and knelt before Henry.

  “Sire, I can no longer remain at court. I beg you to grant me safe conduct through your domains.” Henry was glad to do so, wishing he could rid himself of all of Hal’s knights, and Will bowed stiffly, then departed the hall, holding his head high and paying no heed to the buzz of questions and conjecture that swirled in his wake.

  WILL MARSHAL’S ACTIONS had created a furor, and for the rest of the evening, there was no other topic of conversation, for Will was a star on the tournament circuit, and all thought it odd that Hal would have parted with such a redoubtable knight. Most of the men did not know what Will had been accused of, for the rumors had not spread much beyond Hal’s household. Shaken by Will’s challenge, for none of them wanted to meet him on the field, the conspirators kept quiet, doing their best not to call attention to themselves. The paucity of facts did not discourage gossip, though, and it seemed to Hal that there was not a soul in Caen who did not have a theory about Will’s fall from favor, and every last one of them was eager to expound upon it at great length.

  Hal discovered now that there was a drawback to the sort of popularity he’d long enjoyed. He was well liked by virtually everyone and greatly admired for his tournament successes, but men felt free to approach him with a familiarity they’d not have dared to show his father or Richard. Much to his annoyance, he found himself having to deflect obtrusive questions, avid curiosity, and speculation that he considered both unseemly and presumptuous. Pride kept him from making an early departure from the hall, but when he was finally able to withdraw to his own chambers, he was weary and thoroughly out of sorts.

  But in his bedchamber, Hal found that an unpleasant evening was about to get much worse. Marguerite had excused herself after they’d eaten, pleading a headache, but she was still fully dressed, and her face was so pale and drawn that he felt a pang of guilt, for he’d been so consumed with his own troubles that he’d not had a thought to spare for her.

  “Sweetheart, you do not look well at all. Shall I send Benoit to summon a doctor?” Glancing around the chamber, he noticed for the first time that neither his squires nor Marguerite’s ladies were in attendance. “Where did the lads wander off to?”

  “I dismissed them.” Marguerite startled Hal by crossing the chamber and sliding the bolt into place. She stayed by the door, arms folded tightly across her breasts. “I must know, Hal. Do you believe that gossip about Will Marshal and me?”

  Hal was shocked. “Jesu, you heard that?”

  “Agace came to me, believing—correctly—that I needed to know. It did not occur to me that you credited it, though—not until today.”

  “Sweetheart, of course I do not believe it!” He moved swiftly to her side, but when he put his arm around her, her body remained rigid in his embrace. “Never for a moment did I think there might be any truth to it. I swear that to you, Marguerite, upon the soul of our dead son, may God assoil him.”

  He could feel some of the tension go out of her shoulders, but when she gazed up into his face, her blue eyes were still shadowed with anxiety and uncertainty. “You do believe, though, that Will made improper advances to me. And he did not, Hal, that I swear, too, upon our son.”

  “Marguerite, there is no need for this. I know Will would never betray me like that.”

  Then why did you let him leave your court in disgrace? Marguerite did not voice the question, even though it burned on her tongue. Instead, she allowed herself to take a moment of comfort in her husband’s arms, clinging to him as her refuge in a world gone mad.

  Hal kissed the tear tracks on her cheeks, murmuring love words and endearments. But after a time, he said, “Sweetheart, why did you not come to me about this? I never dreamed that you’d heard these vile rumors. Why did you not tell me?”

  “Because I know you’ve been troubled and uneasy in your mind about something and I did not want to add to your worries,” she said, surprising herself by how readily the lie came to her lips. In truth, she’d been waiting for him to take action, to banish the culprits from his court, and she still did not understand why he’d not done that.

  “Hal…if you believe Will to be innocent of these charges, why are you still so displeased with him? What has he done that you cannot forgive?”

  “It is not important,” he insisted, and he sought to stop further questions with kisses. But for once, she was not as compliant. Stepping back, she searched his face intently and then repeated her question. Hal was momentarily at a loss. He did not like lying outright to her, considered that a more serious marital offense than lies of omission.

  “Tell me,” she pleaded. “We promised there’d be no secrets between us, not like your parents. It has long been obvious to me that something is wrong, and I’ve been waiting for you to confide in me. I can wait no longer, Hal. I want to know now, tonight.”

  He was both surprised and amused by her sudden assertiveness. But he was touched, too, and he realized that he did need to talk about his concerns. At least with Marguerite, he could rely upon her utter loyalty. Leading her over to the bed, he sat down with her, and after a brief hesitation, he began to speak. There was a relief in being able to speak candidly about his ambivalence, and he ended up telling her more than he’d initially intended. By the time he was done, she knew it all—the conspiracy with the lords of the Limousin and Poitou, the dazzling prospects offered by the capture of Aquitaine, his overtures to Geoffrey and her brother, Philippe, his temptations and his misgivings, even his chapel altercation with Richard.

  “So,” he concluded, “now you know.” He waited expectantly, but she stayed silent, and her head was lowered, hiding her face from him. “Marguerite?”

  “What do you want me to say?” When she glanced up at last, her eyes reminded him of the way Will had gazed at him in the hall, the silent reproach of a dog unable to understand why it had just been kicked. “Why, Hal, why must you risk so much?”

  “Because there is so much to gain!” He was on his feet now, needing to move as he sought to deal with his disappointment. “You sound just like Will, but I expected better of you, Marguerite. You’re my wife, and if I cannot rely upon your heartfelt support, then I am truly alone midst my enemies!”

  “Of course I support you! It is just that…that I fear for you, too, beloved.”

  Her eyes were shimmering with tears, and he was quick to take her in his arms. They clung together with an urgency that revealed their shared misery more than words could have done, for they’d failed each other and on some level, they both understood that—Hal let down by her tepid response, Marguerite horrified by his intrigues and planned betrayals. Hastily shedding their clothes, they fell into bed. Their lovemaking was intense, ironically given an impassioned edginess by the very fears they were trying to escape. Afterward, Hal had no trouble sliding into an exhausted, sated sleep. Marguerite was not so lucky.

  She lost track of the time, but she heard Hal’s squires enter and bed down, heard church bells pealing in the distance, heard dogs barking, all the familiar sounds of night. But there was nothing familiar about her world, not anymore. She gently stroked Hal’s tousled fair hair, and he murmured her name in his sleep, instinctively reaching out for her warmth and softness. Her throat was so tight that it hurt, for she was determined to choke back her tears. Oh, my beautiful boy, what have you done? She had no memories of a life without Hal. She still loved him dearly, would love him until she drew her last breath. But it was as if their roles had reversed, for she suddenly felt so much older and wiser than he. Watching him sleep, she found herself wonderi
ng if the Almighty, in His Infinite Wisdom, had taken her son because her husband would always be as he was now, a charming child adrift upon stormy seas.

  A PALLID WINTER DAWN had not yet dispersed the night shadows, and a few stars still glimmered along the horizon. Because it was so early, the castle was not yet astir, and Will’s leavetaking was witnessed only by a small group of friends and a few sleepy-eyed guards. Baldwin de Bethune and Simon de Morisco were doing their best to act hearty and jovial, making bad jokes and pretending that this morn was no different from any number of past departures. Will appreciated the effort, just as he appreciated their attempts to reassure him that his future still shone brightly, that Christendom was full of lords eager to snap him up like a starving trout. The practical part of his nature knew that they were right; he’d have no trouble finding a place in another great household. But that knowledge did not blunt the sharp edges of his newfound awareness—that he was thirty-five years old, with no lands or wife, cast aside by the man who’d been his friend, his liege lord, his lodestar.

  He was not going alone, accompanied by his squire, Eustace de Bertrimont, and a few fellow knights who’d pledged themselves to his banner when it was flying high and were unwilling to abandon him now that his luck had soured. As he looked about at these loyal men, he could not help remembering how proud he’d been the first time he’d fought in a tournament as a knight banneret, leading his own company of men. That had been at Lagny, the tourney held after the young French king’s coronation. Was that truly only two years past? It felt like a lifetime ago.

  When his eyes began to burn, he awkwardly embraced his friends, submitted to their equally clumsy hugs, and swung up into the saddle. With their farewells echoing in his ears, he and his small party rode toward the gatehouse and out onto the drawbridge. The dawn continued to lighten, and a brisk wind sent clouds scudding across the sky. It would be a good day for travel. Spurring his stallion, he settled into an easy canter, not allowing himself to look back, keeping his eyes on the road ahead.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

  January 1183

  Le Mans, Anjou

  HAL NO LONGER HAD QUALMS about going ahead with the conspiracy. When he’d asked the Almighty for a divine sign, he’d not expected what he’d gotten. But the wrathful chapel altercation with his brother had dispelled his doubts. Aquitaine was worth fighting for, and Richard deserved to be defeated and shamed if any man did. Their father had to believe that Richard was the one in the wrong, though, if they hoped to keep him out of it, and so Hal was grateful for his brother’s fiery, impulsive nature. If Richard had been more calculating, he’d have said nothing until he’d assembled his proof and then set up an ambush. As it was, Hal had the opportunity to plan his own response, and by the time the confrontation came, he was ready for it.

  Summoned to Henry’s bedchamber, he found his father and Richard waiting for him. Richard was leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest, looking both defiant and expectant. Henry shared none of his son’s anticipation; he looked tired and troubled. “Come in, Hal,” he said. “Your brother has made some grave accusations against you. For all our sakes, I hope he is mistaken. These charges are too serious, though, to be dismissed out of hand. I thought it best that we discuss this matter in private. But if there is truth to his claims…”

  Richard shot Henry a resentful glance. Could the old man make it any plainer how eager he was to believe Hal’s denials? “Hal has been conspiring with my vassals against me,” he said coldly, for he was determined to be matter-of-fact, not to let Hal bait him into losing his temper. “I do not know who was the instigator, whether he came to them with honeyed promises of a lenient lordship or whether they sought him out first. It does not really matter, does it? What does is that they have engaged in treason, scheming to depose me as Duke of Aquitaine and put Hal in my stead.”

  Hal regarded him calmly. “Have you any proof of this, Richard?”

  “Yes, I do have proof,” Richard said, with a smile like an unsheathed dagger. “I have a witness, one of the household knights of Viscount Aimar of Limoges. He is willing to testify that his lord met with you on numerous occasions, that you have been conspiring together to stir up a rebellion against me, and that you have involved others in your plot—including Joffroi de Lusignan, and those habitual rebels, the Taillefer brothers. So…deny it if you dare!”

  After Richard accosted him in the chapel at Caen, Hal had been dreading this moment of reckoning. But now he found that he was actually enjoying himself, so confident was he of the stratagem he’d devised during those bleak days at the Christmas Court. “You are right, Papa. These are indeed serious charges, and I welcome the chance to respond to them. But not here. I want it done in public, before witnesses of unimpeachable probity, so that Richard cannot twist my words to suit his own ends.”

  Hal stifled a smile, gratified by the startled reactions of his father and brother. Sounding highly skeptical, Richard demanded to know when this would take place, and Hal did grin openly then, thinking that if suspicions were fuel, Richard would be a flaming torch. “The sooner the better,” he said agreeably. “This afternoon, if it pleases you.”

  “It pleases me,” Richard said grimly, and Henry looked from one to the other in utter dismay, singed by the heat of the hostility burning between them.

  THE CASTLE’S GREAT HALL was the site for the drama Hal was about to stage. The royal family and the most honored of their guests had been ushered onto the dais. Henry was flanked by the Archbishops of Canterbury and Dublin. Geoffrey, Constance, Richard, Marguerite, Heinrich, and Tilda were seated nearby, and behind them stood Henry’s natural son and chancellor, Geoff, the Bishop of Le Mans, and several of Henry’s trusted advisors, including Willem and Maurice de Craon.

  Catching Marguerite’s eye, Hal winked, and she smiled, if rather wanly. He was amused to see that his father and brothers had retreated behind their inscrutable court masks, a clear indication that they were curious and uneasy, unsure of his intentions. That was exactly how he wanted them to be—slightly off balance. He was sorry that he’d not been able to warn Geoffrey beforehand, but it could not be helped. Glancing about the hall, he let the suspense build until all eyes were upon him, and then he raised his hand for silence.

  He felt that rush of excitement that he imagined a player must feel the first time he stepped onto a stage and took command; he’d always thought that acting must be great fun. “Those who wish me ill have been spreading rumors about my loyalties.” Ostensibly speaking to Henry, he was also playing to the audience, and many of them noticed that his eyes had lingered upon his brother Richard when he spoke of “those who wish me ill.” Richard certainly did, and his mouth set in a hard, thin line.

  “These accusations are baseless,” Hal declared. “I would not have you harbor any doubts about that, sire.” Taking the cue, his chaplain came forward, knelt before him, and held out a book bound in fine calfskin, beautifully illuminated in gold leaf, borrowed that day from the Bishop of Le Mans. Putting his hand upon the book, Hal said solemnly, “I swear upon the Holy Gospels that my fidelity to you is as true and steadfast as my faith in Christ the Redeemer. I further vow that I will be loyal to you, my liege, for all the days of my life, and show you the honor and obedience due you as my father and my king.”

  It was hard for Hal to read his father’s expression, but the scornful twist of Richard’s mouth needed no translation. Let him smirk; the hellspawn was about to get the surprise of his life. “I realize that oaths can be broken,” he continued, thinking that his father had broken more than his share of them. “But I want there to be perfect trust between us from now on, and to prove my sincerity, I shall be utterly honest with you, my lord father. My brother Richard has accused me of plotting with his liegemen against him. I do not deny it. I did indeed enter into a pact with the disaffected barons of Poitou and the Limousin.”

  The stunned expression on Richard’s face was quickly followed by one of triumphant warin
ess. Geoffrey simply looked horrified. But Henry had blanched, like a man bleeding from an internal wound. Hal ignored the murmur sweeping through the audience, and kept his eyes upon his father’s face.

  “I am sure that none here are surprised by the anger and resolve of the lord duke’s barons. They have chafed for years under his heavy-handed rule, charging that he tramples their cherished traditions into the dust, that he makes free with their women, and imposes his will by force and violence. How could I not sympathize with legitimate grievances like that? But it was not sympathy that drove me into this conspiracy. It was his treachery. He has fortified a castle at Clairvaux, which lies within the holdings of the Count of Anjou—and all know it. Can you imagine his outrage, my lord father, if I’d intruded into Poitou and dared to put up a castle in his domains? It was this threat to the sovereignty of Anjou that stirred me to action, for I would not willingly cede so much as a shovelful of Angevin dirt to the Duke of Aquitaine!”

  There was so much commotion in the hall now that Hal had to raise his voice to be heard over the clamor. “My only regret is that I did not come to you first, my liege, as soon as I learned of his perfidy. I ask you now to take the castle at Clairvaux from my brother and keep it in your own hands, so that peace may be restored to our family.”