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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 65


  When Henry said nothing, Luc reached into his tunic and withdrew a rolled parchment. “You’ll recognize the lord duke’s seal, sire. He tells Raoul de Fougères to dispatch the routiers they’d hired, saying war is imminent and he expects Lord Richard to take the offensive and strike first, so the sooner the routiers can reach the Limousin, the better.”

  Henry was still silent, but when Luc held out the letter, he took it. Glancing down at the elegant, slanting handwriting, he recognized it at once as his son’s. Keeping his gaze upon that damning document, he said huskily, “You’ll be well rewarded for this service, Luc, but that can wait. For now, you’ll be wanting a meal. Tell my steward to see that you’re fed and then to find you a bed, and a wench, if you want one.”

  “Thank you, sire,” Luc murmured, and backed out of the solar. Geoff and Willem had sat frozen, finding it almost as hard as Henry to credit the spy’s revelation. They exchanged troubled glances, neither knowing what to say. But as the door closed behind Luc, Henry raised his head.

  “Find my son, Willem,” he said. “Fetch him here straightaway.”

  “SO YOU CLAIM YOU KNEW NOTHING of Geoffrey’s treachery?” Henry’s eyes bore into Hal’s, and there was such icy accusation in his voice that his eldest felt heat rising in his face.

  “Jesu, of course I did not!” Hal insisted, with all the indignation he could muster. “Had I suspected Geoffrey was so vulnerable to Aimar’s blandishments, I’d have come to you in private and argued against sending him to Limoges.”

  “How can I doubt you when you’ve always been so devoted to my interests?” Henry said, with sarcasm that cracked like a whip.

  “Papa, I understand that your nerves are on the raw after getting such news. But it is not fair to blame me for what Geoffrey has done. We’re not even that close. If he’d been planning this beforehand—and I doubt that he was—he’d hardly have confided in me, not when he was planning to usurp my place in the rebel plot. It is true that you addressed my grievance by taking Clairvaux from Richard.” Hal paused and then smiled wryly. “But in all honesty, any peace between Richard and me is likely to last as long as a whore’s chastity vow. Sooner or later, he’ll start lusting after Angevin lands again. When he does, I’d like to be able to rally his barons to my side, and what better way to do that than to put forward my own claim to Aquitaine?”

  There was a certain wayward logic in Hal’s argument, something persuasive in his candid admission that he’d not ruled out making another try for Aquitaine if circumstances warranted it. Seeing Henry’s hesitation, Hal swiftly pressed his advantage. “So why would I want to see Geoffrey as the new Duke of Aquitaine? If Geoffrey held both Brittany and Aquitaine, that would give him far too much power for my comfort. I trust Geoffrey more than Richard, but then I’d trust the Saracen chieftain Saladin more than Richard.”

  Henry turned to the table, poured a cup of wine, and let the liquid trickle down his throat. But he knew that all the wine in the world would not wash away the foul taste in his mouth. Sitting down in the closest chair, he looked from Geoff to Willem, then back to Hal. “Why do you think this was not premeditated?”

  “Because I know how persuasive Aimar can be, Papa. If he seduced women the way he seduces allies, he’d have sired enough bastards to populate an entire city. In fairness to Aimar, he has just cause for loathing life under Richard’s reign. It shows you how desperate they are that they turned to Geoffrey now that I am no longer available. And in fairness to Geoffrey, I daresay they bedazzled him with their promises; Aimar is good at that. He’d never expected more than Brittany, and that comes with a price—having to put up with Constance. How many younger sons would not have been tempted by the riches of Aquitaine?”

  “You make a curious defense of your brother, Hal, by pleading his weakness and greed.”

  “Who amongst us is without sin, Papa? As far as I am concerned, much of the blame rests with Richard, for Geoffrey would not have gotten himself entangled with Aimar if Richard had not pushed them into rebellion.” Hal was surprised to see how much his father seemed to have aged in a matter of hours, and he found himself wanting to offer some genuine consolation. Moving to Henry’s side, he knelt by him so their eyes were level and said earnestly, “You ought not to take this too much to heart, Papa. You are not the target here—Richard is. I hope you’ll bear that in mind and, for once, let him reap what he has sown.”

  Henry looked into Hal’s eyes, saw sincerity and sympathy and an utter inability to understand that Geoffrey’s double-dealing was putting their entire empire at risk. “I am glad we had this talk,” he said wearily. “I want you to tell my council and court that Geoffrey has gone over to the rebels. They’ll have to know…”

  “I will do it now,” Hal promised, getting lightly to his feet and letting his hand drop to Henry’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort. Glancing toward the other men, he said, “Willem, Geoff? Do you want to come with me?” Again, that rueful smile surfaced. “I know how tattered my credibility is in some eyes, and none would doubt either of you.”

  When Willem rose, Geoff had no choice but to rise, too. Wishing he had the power to see into his brother’s brain, he regarded Hal with poorly concealed antagonism. He was willing to admit that Hal’s performance had been convincing, but that was the trouble; he suspected it was a performance. Henry gave no indication of wanting him to stay, and so he followed the others to the door. But then he looked back, and what he saw caused him to catch his breath as if he’d taken a blow, for, thinking himself alone, Henry had leaned forward and buried his face in his hands.

  BY THE TIME HE FOUND WILLEM, Geoff was seething, so flushed and distraught that he looked as if he were at risk for an apoplectic fit. “Have you heard?” he demanded. “Hal has offered to go to Limoges to coax Geoffrey into abandoning the rebels, and my father has agreed to let him!”

  “I know,” Willem said morosely, “but for God’s sake, lower your voice, Geoff, or they’ll be able to hear you in Saumur.”

  “I think my father has lost his mind,” Geoff said, but in more circumspect tones. “How can he trust Hal on such a mission? Let’s assume he is not already in this plot up to his neck, though that takes more faith than I have. How is he supposed to bring Geoffrey back to the fold? He has as much backbone as a hemp rope, and like as not, Geoffrey will talk him into joining the rebellion!”

  “You do not have to convince me, Geoff. I agree with you.”

  “Then you must go to my father, make him see that this is a great mistake. I tried, but he’d not hear me. Mayhap if you voiced your concerns, too—”

  “I already have, to no avail. He would not heed me either.”

  Geoff’s breath hissed through his teeth, and his chest heaved as he sought to get his temper under control. “Why?” he asked simply, and Willem had no answer for him.

  “I do not know,” he confessed. “I remember the way Harry was ere he did penance at Canterbury. You were not with us, then, Geoff, but he sailed in a gale that the Devil himself would have shunned. It was almost as if he were leaving his fate up to the Almighty, leaving it to God to choose whether he prevailed or not. It may be that he is doing that again.” Willem shook his head and repeated, “I just do not know.”

  None of that made any sense to Geoff. “What can we do?”

  Willem’s shoulders slumped. “We can pray that his trust in Hal is justified.”

  HAL CROSSED THE CHAMBER and embraced his father, which he’d not done in years. “You will not be sorry, Papa. I’ll not let you down,” he promised. “When all this is done, you’ll have no reasons for regrets.”

  “Go with God, Hal,” Henry said softly, not moving until the young king had departed the chamber. He went, then, to the window, flung the shutters open and, heedless of the cold, gazed down into the castle bailey. Hal soon emerged and started toward his men, who were already mounted. Catching sight of Willem and Geoff, he veered in their direction. Henry could not hear what was being said; he assumed Hal was bidd
ing them farewell. Willem, ever the courtier, was responding courteously, but Geoff was glowering, looking rather like Richard in one of his rages. Henry knew they were distraught over his decision to let Hal go after Geoffrey. It was not something he could explain, though, for it was neither logical nor wise in light of Hal’s past history. It was not the king who was setting Hal loose; it was the father. His head and heart were at war, and he could no longer endure the uncertainty. He had to know if his eldest son could be trusted, and this was the only way to find out. If Hal let him down, it could not be more painful than Geoffrey’s betrayal, for he’d never seen that coming. At least there’d be no surprise if Hal confirmed his fears and betrayed him, too. Better he knew the worst, for then he could deal with it.

  Hal was mounted now on a prancing grey stallion. Glancing up, he saw Henry and waved jauntily before riding out. Henry stayed at the window, not moving until long after Hal was no longer in sight.

  FOR MONTHS, HAL’S EMOTIONS had been swinging back and forth like a pendulum in a high wind. Never had he felt so conflicted, so confused. Whenever Richard had the upper hand, he’d burned to bring his brother down, furious and frustrated that his chance for rebellion was slipping away. But whenever Richard had taken a misstep and fallen from their father’s favor, he’d been beset by doubts, feeling as if he was being pressured into making a decision ere he was ready. He’d departed Angers in high spirits, confident and eager for what lay ahead. The trip had been long enough, though, for misgivings to creep back in, and as he approached Limoges, he felt more like a hostage to fortune than the commander of his own fate.

  Limoges was actually two cities, the ville, which held the great abbey of St Martial and the viscount’s castle, and the cité, site of the bishop’s palace and cathedral. Each was enclosed within its own ramparts, and, as was so often the case, the rivalry between the ville and the cité was not good-natured. As they were coming from the north, Hal reached the ville first, and he drew rein once they neared the Montmeiller gate, saying a silent prayer that he’d made the right decision and asking the Almighty to send another sign that it was so.

  The gates were open and they were close enough now to see the people thronging the narrow streets, waving and cheering. Hal and his men rode into a warm welcome, found themselves acclaimed as heroes by people eager to throw off Duke Richard’s yoke. Hal was already popular in Limoges, for he’d always been generous with his spending and alms-giving, and now he was hailed as their savior, the man who would deliver them from Richard’s harsh rule.

  Hal’s spirits soared and he acknowledged the acclaim with grace and a shower of coins. This was clearly a good omen, a portent of success to come, and he forgot the qualms that had been nagging at him in recent days. He hadn’t been lying when he’d assured Henry that he’d have no reason for regrets, for he honestly believed that all of their problems would be resolved if only he could gain control of Aquitaine. The duchy’s deep coffers would allow him to support his household in kingly style, no longer dependent upon Henry’s miserly pension, and that would be bound to improve their relationship, eliminating the worst bone of contention between them. Once Richard was defeated, all would be well.

  Ahead lay the viscount’s castle, and he saw his brother and Aimar standing in the gateway, watching his triumphant procession. With banners streaming in the wind, escorted by the enthusiastic citizenry, Hal reined in before them, swung to the ground, and embraced Geoffrey, then Aimar.

  “An imaginative touch,” Geoffrey said dryly, looking to the conspicuous white flag of truce, and Hal grinned, sure that he was where he was meant to be, doing God’s Work and soon to have the power that a king ought to wield.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

  February 1183

  Gorre, Limousin

  THE VILLAGE WAS A SCENE of devastation. The houses that were not charred ruins had doors smashed in, their contents ransacked by men in search of booty. Some of the soldiers were sleeping in these cottages, finding them more comfortable than their tents, and the stench was rank, for routiers rarely bothered to dig latrines. A few bodies lay where they’d fallen, those villagers who’d not fled in time. Piles of entrails were strewn about, what was left of livestock butchered for food. The animals that were not needed by the camp cooks were dead, too, for one of the aims of a chevauchée was to wreak havoc upon an enemy’s lands. Even the cemetery had not been spared, some of the graves dug up by men hoping to find that the more prosperous burghers had been buried with rings or other valuables.

  Raymond Brunnus barely noticed the destruction, for it was too familiar a sight to register with him. In the two decades since he’d left his native Gascony in search of profit and adventure, he’d sold his sword to more lords than he could remember, taking naturally to the lawless life of a mercenary. When his nephew, William Arnald, had sent him a message that there were easy pickings in the Limousin and the Viscount of Limoges and the young English king were eager to hire routiers, he’d wasted no time in leading his men north. One of his scouts had reported that the viscount and his nephew’s routiers were besieging a church in the village of Gorre, and he’d headed there instead of the viscount’s city, arriving in mid-morning under an ashen February sky that warned of a coming storm.

  Welcomed boisterously by his nephew, he listened without great interest as Arnald related how some of the Duke of Aquitaine’s men had been ambushed, the survivors retreating into Gorre and taking shelter in the church. By the time they were discovered, they’d fortified the building, barricaded the windows and doors, and burned the external wooden stairway leading up into the bell tower. It was a substantial stone structure, could not be fired like the village houses, and they’d apparently gambled that the routiers would soon grow impatient and seek easier prey. That would have happened, too, Arnald admitted, had he not sent word to the viscount. Aimar had ridden the dozen miles from Limoges to see for himself, and once he learned these were Duke Richard’s knights, he’d set men to building a massive, iron-tipped battering ram.

  Raymond’s interest quickened, for Viscount Aimar’s personal involvement indicated rich ransoms were in the offing. “So there is someone inside whom Duke Richard will pay dearly to save, then?”

  Arnald shook his head. “There’ll be no ransoms.” Seeing his uncle’s lack of comprehension, he took it upon himself to inform the older man of recent developments in the war. “This is what happened. The Duke of Brittany sent for routiers he’d hired earlier in the year, and as they moved into Poitou, they burned and plundered on their way south. Duke Richard raced to head them off, and there have been numerous clashes. Whenever Richard caught any of his brother’s men, he beheaded them right then and there.”

  While mass executions were not the norm, they were not unheard of, either, for routiers were considered expendable by both sides, even by the men who hired them, and they could be slain without fear of Church censure and with the enthusiastic support of the people they’d been victimizing. Raymond had long ago become inured to the hypocrisy of his highborn employers, seeing it as an occupational hazard. “Well, from what I’ve heard of Duke Richard, I cannot say that surprises me much.”

  “Ah, but he did not just slay Lord Geoffrey’s routiers. He killed the knights, too.”

  “Whoa!” That was indeed a different kettle of fish. “The duke and viscount must have loved that.”

  “They were raving and ranting like madmen,” Arnald confirmed, and as their eyes met, they shared a moment of grim humor, taking some satisfaction that for once the highborn faced the same risks as their lowborn hirelings. “So…” Arnald continued, “as soon as the viscount heard that some of Richard’s knights were trapped in the church, he saw an opportunity for vengeance, though I daresay he’d put it more elegantly—as well-deserved retribution.” Slapping his uncle fondly on the shoulder, he said, “Come on over and meet your new patron.”

  Raymond did not move. “Why the viscount? I’d heard the young king was paying more.”

  ?
??Yes, he’s been putting out word that men can make their fortune in his service, but that one has not two coins of his own to rub together. You’d do better with his brother, but Duke Geoffrey is off raiding into Poitou. So between the king and the viscount, go with Lord Aimar. You’ll have a much better chance of collecting from him.”

  Nonpayment was not usually a problem for routiers; their lords knew that if they were cheated of their just due, they’d turn on their masters without qualm or compunction. Raymond believed, though, in keeping things as simple as possible, and he accepted his nephew’s advice, saying, “Lead on, lad. Any chance we can fill our bellies ere the assault begins?”

  Arnald cast an appraising eye toward the men working upon a huge tree trunk. “They do not have the wheels on it yet, so there ought to be time to eat. First things first, though. Let’s see how much money you can squeeze out of the viscount!”

  THE VISCOUNT OF LIMOGES had not always been at war with his Angevin overlords; he’d stayed neutral during the last rebellion of Henry’s sons. But that all changed when his father-in-law, the Earl of Cornwall, died and Henry cheated his wife, Sarah, of her inheritance. For that was how he saw it. Henry himself had arranged Aimar’s marriage, and that only exacerbated his grievance. As Rainald’s legitimate son was dead and Rico born out of wedlock, Aimar had expected the earldom to pass to the old earl’s daughters, with Sarah, the eldest, getting the lion’s share. When Henry chose to bestow the earldom upon his son John, he’d turned the hitherto loyal Aimar into an embittered rebel. Until now, Aimar’s animosity had been reserved for Henry and not his sons, but after Richard’s brutal execution of Geoffrey’s Breton knights, the viscount had sworn a blood-oath that this ruthless prince would never again rule over the Limousin.

  Casting an eye toward the leaden skies, he hoped they’d be able to launch the final assault while there was still light. He did not doubt that the battering ram would be able to smash through the church’s thick oaken door. It was likely, though, that the men would retreat up into the bell tower once that happened, and they could be difficult to dislodge from that refuge. He did not know what provisions they’d managed to bring in with them, but they had to be running low on food, for they’d been trapped in the church for nigh on a week. Well, if it came to that, they could always be starved into submission.