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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 66


  He’d just accepted a wineskin from one of his squires when a sudden, urgent shout turned all heads. One of their sentries was galloping toward the camp, yelling that riders were fast approaching. Knowing this seasoned soldier would not have been alarmed unless the riders posed a threat, Aimar whirled and ran for his horse, snatching up his helmet. Jamming it down upon his head, he fumbled with the chin cord as he swung up into the saddle. All around him, men were running and shouting, scrambling for weapons and horses. Whores almost inevitably turned up at an army encampment, and some of these women were screaming shrilly even before the riders came into view—clad in chain mail, swords drawn and lances leveled, mounted on horses caked in lather and dust. One glimpse was enough to tell Aimar that they were in for a fierce fight.

  One of the lead knights drew Aimar’s attention, for he was spurring ahead of his companions. Encountering a campfire, he jumped his stallion neatly over the flames instead of swerving around it, an act of horsemanship that the viscount could not help admiring, even at a moment like this. The knight had caught Arnald’s eye, too. Darting forward, quick as a snake, he grabbed for the other man’s leg. It was a daring maneuver, but if successful, was guaranteed to unhorse a man. Aimar had seen Arnald drag more than one foe from the saddle this way, for the routier was a big man, as well-muscled as a blacksmith.

  What happened next stopped Aimar in his tracks. The knight under attack did not pull back as men usually did; instead he leaned in, and suddenly blood was spurting everywhere, a red haze before Aimar’s eyes. Arnald reeled backward, his face contorted as he stared in shock at the stump where his hand had been. The knight’s sword was already sweeping down again, a powerful blow that all but decapitated the routier.

  Aimar heard the command to retreat and was surprised that the order was coming from his throat, for he’d not made a conscious decision to withdraw. But by then he’d recognized the knight bloodied with Arnald’s blood, and his instincts for self-preservation had taken over. The awareness that they were facing Richard himself banished any desire for battle. He was no coward, but Richard was a lunatic. Would he be mad enough to execute a man of Aimar’s rank? The viscount found that hard to believe, but he knew that men could get drunk on bloodlust and he preferred not to put Richard’s sobriety to the test. Followed by those of his men lucky enough to have reached their horses, he spurred his mount toward the Limoges road, all of them riding as if the Devil were on their tails.

  BY THE TIME RICHARD RODE back into Gorre, the trapped knights had ventured out and were quenching their thirst at the village well, easing their hunger with the meal intended for their foes. Not all of Richard’s men had followed him in pursuit of Aimar, and they’d rounded up close to a hundred prisoners, the rest of the routiers having been slain or escaped. André de Chauvigny grinned at the sight of his duke; he had a wineskin in one hand and bread in the other, and he waved the loaf over his head in a jubilant, joyful salute.

  “I won a right goodly sum on you, my lord,” he laughed. “I wagered two marks that you’d arrive in time.”

  That was indeed a handsome sum, for knights rarely earned more than a shilling a day. “How could you lose?” Richard pointed out. “You’d either win or you’d die, and in neither case would you have to pay the wager.”

  André laughed again. “Fortunately Alan is as thick as a plank, and he never worked that out.” Coming forward as Richard slid from the saddle, he hovered by the younger man’s side, overwhelmed by the intensity of his gratitude, but not knowing how to express it, for banter and mockery were the most common coins of their realm. “Your men said you’d ridden for nigh on two days and nights to reach us.” Not having the words, he playfully offered the purloined wineskin and loaf, joking that all he had was at his lord duke’s disposal.

  Richard appreciated his cousin’s insouciance, for he’d not have been comfortable with earnest protestations or lavish praise, not from André. “You look like you’ve been wallowing in a pigsty after an all-night carouse,” he said, which was as near as he’d come to acknowledging the harrowing ordeal André and the others had endured—hungry, thirsty, and fearing they were doomed. “I came so close to overtaking that whoreson, André,” he burst out, “so bloody close! I would have caught him, too, if my horse was not so winded and worn down…”

  Some of the other rescued men had gathered around them by now, were beginning to offer their thanks with none of André’s nonchalance, and Richard was glad to be interrupted by one of his knights. “My lord duke, what is your wish regarding the prisoners?”

  Richard looked over at the routiers huddled on the ground, bound to one another by ropes, subdued and silent, all their bravado gone. He glanced around at the skeletal remains of Gorre, and his eyes took on the winter chill of the February sky. “We will take them with us to Aixe,” he said, “where other brigands will learn from their sorry fate what befalls those who ravage my lands and my people.”

  UPON REACHING HIS CASTLE at Aixe, Richard made good on his promise to make an example of the captured routiers. Some were drowned in the River Vienne, others had their throats cut, and eighty men were blinded. Unlike his beheading of Geoffrey’s knights, this ruthless, effective means of denying the routiers’ future services to the rebel lords occasioned little comment. The prior of Vigeois Abbey even noted approvingly of the treatment meted out to these “sons of darkness.”

  ENTERING THE GREAT HALL at Aixe, André de Chauvigny soon spotted his duke and headed in Richard’s direction. Richard was conferring quietly with one of his most trusted men, a grizzled serjeant who’d been in his service since he’d been invested with the duchy at age fourteen. He smiled as André approached, and once they were alone, he surprised his friend by confiding that he’d instructed the serjeant to escort his young son to Poitiers for safety’s sake.

  André knew Richard had an illegitimate son, but he knew nothing whatsoever about the child and even less about the child’s mother; Richard was as close-mouthed as a clam about such matters. Agreeing that it was wise to bring the boy to Poitiers, he confessed then that “I do not even know the lad’s name. What was he christened?”

  “Philip.” Richard hesitated and then offered up another rare nugget of private information, saying, “She wanted to name him after her father.” His shoulders twitched in a why-not shrug. “I was not about to name him after mine.”

  André knew better than to pursue that further; Richard’s troubled relationship with his father was as fraught with peril for the unwary as a walk across a thinly iced lake. He asked instead if the rumors were true that the Viscount of Turenne was bringing more routiers to join Aimar and the young king at Limoges. Richard confirmed it, and they began an intense discussion of the rebellion and Hal’s prospects until they were interrupted by the arrival of one of Richard’s knights, just back from a scouting foray.

  He was not alone; his men were dragging a prisoner into the hall, a glum-looking man of middle years who was shoved forward to kneel at Richard’s feet. “We saw him galloping along the Limoges road,” the young knight explained breathlessly, “and I was curious why he was in such a tearing hurry. Most men who race the wind are either outlaws on the run or they’re bearing urgent messages. So we stopped him, searched him, and discovered the reason for his haste. He is a courier for the French king, carrying a letter for your brother, the young king.”

  He beamed at Richard, his face aglow with triumph and pride, for all knew their duke put a high value upon men who were resourceful and quick-witted. Nor was he disappointed, for Richard responded with heartfelt praise. Delighted that he’d earned his lord’s favor, he produced the royal letter with a flourish. “I did not think it was my place to read it. But I recognized the seal as King Philippe’s, and after a little persuasion, our friend here admitted he was delivering it to your brother.”

  “Well done, Ancel.” Richard quickly broke the seal and held the letter under a smoking rush-light. When he glanced up, his face was utterly without expressi
on, as blank as a sepulcher’s graven image, and André felt a frisson of disquiet shoot up his spine. “Summon my seneschal and the other members of my council,” he instructed André in a voice that was toneless, so dispassionate that the other man’s unease flamed into outright alarm.

  RICHARD HAD NEVER SPENT much time at Aixe, a castle he’d taken from Viscount Aimar several years ago, and he’d expended little money on its upkeep. Lacking a solar, they had to gather in his bedchamber. Richard stood by the hearth, his eyes moving from face to face as if taking inventory of the men he trusted.

  Robert de Montmirail was his new Seneschal of Poitou. Eleanor’s uncles were not present, for Hugh had died seven years ago and Raoul de Faye was in ailing health. But Raoul’s eldest son and namesake was there, as was Ourse de Freteval, his son-in-law. The Chauvignys were represented by André and his cousin Nicholas, who’d served Eleanor with such loyalty; as soon as he’d been released from his imprisonment at Loches, Nicholas had transferred his allegiance to Richard. Guillaume de Forz was, like André, a friend since boyhood, and Richard’s cousin Rico had recently earned the accolade of knighthood.

  After briefly telling them how he’d come into possession of the French king’s letter, Richard wasted no time in breaking the bad news. “Philippe writes that he regrets he cannot come to fight alongside Hal in person. But he has sent a large band of Brabançon routiers to Limoges. Moreover, he assures Hal that his cousin Hugh, the Duke of Burgundy, is showing considerable interest in joining their alliance. And he claims that the Count of Toulouse is another one who is likely to throw in his lot with them, unable to resist this opportunity to bring me down.”

  There was a prolonged silence when he was done. As the men looked around at one another, it was obvious that they were sharing the same thoughts. Richard was already facing a formidable coalition: his brother the young king, his other brother the Duke of Brittany, Viscount Aimar, the Taillefer brothers of Angoulême, several de Lusignans, Elias, the Count of Périgord, the viscounts of Ventadour, Comborn, Turenne, and Castillon, the latter’s brother Oliver, the castellan of Chalus, and Fulcand, Lord of Archiae, as well as several lesser lords who could, nevertheless, contribute men and money. Even with the Archangel Michael himself fighting on Richard’s side, he could not hope to defeat so many rebel lords if they were backed by the French king, the Duke of Burgundy, and the Count of Toulouse. All of Richard’s battlefield brilliance would avail him little against an army of that size.

  But if they were in agreement as to what must be done, none of them were eager to try to convince Richard. The burden should have fallen upon his seneschal, but Robert de Montmirail had only recently been appointed to his post, and he prudently held his tongue. Neither Richard’s friends nor his kinsmen wanted to risk their rapport with their young duke. It was finally Nicholas de Chauvigny who spoke up, as forthrightly as he’d done on the day he’d defied Porteclie de Mauzé for Eleanor’s sake.

  “My lord, you must seek the aid of your lord father, the king.”

  Richard’s failure to flare up at the mere suggestion showed them that he’d already had the same thought, and his common sense was warring with his pride. They waited uneasily for his response, for with Richard, they could never be sure which one would prevail. “I do not see how I can do that,” he admitted after a long silence. “My father and I are hardly on good terms these days. I left his court without his consent, and have ignored all the messages he’s sent since then. And I would rather go down honorably in defeat than grovel and plead for his help.”

  André cleared his throat. “My lord, send me to the king,” he said, utterly earnest for once. “I will not grovel on your behalf. You have my sworn word upon that. I will simply relate the facts, let the king make up his own mind. There is no dishonor in that.”

  Richard looked intently into his face, and then away. “Go, then,” he said in a low voice. “Be sure you take a strong escort, though, for the roads to Angers are swarming with bandits, rebels, routiers, and masterless men seeking to take advantage of the unrest.” His mouth twisted down. “Such is the evil that my brothers have let loose upon my duchy.”

  THE ENGLISH KING’S newest bedmate had raised some eyebrows, for she had a curly mane of flame-red hair, which had been thought unlucky since the time of Judas, and a crop of unfashionable freckles. But she also had an earthy sensuality, a merry laugh, and a good-natured tranquility that Henry found soothing. There was so little serenity in his life these days that he sought it out wherever he could find it.

  She’d fallen asleep while waiting for him, awakening only when she’d reached out drowsily for his warmth and found his side of the bed cold and empty. Pulling the bed hangings aside, she sighed when she saw him seated by the hearth, still fully dressed, his sleepy squires struggling to stay awake should he have need of them. “My lord, are you never coming to bed?”

  Henry glanced up at the sound of her voice. “Soon, Belle. Go back to sleep,” he said, knowing that, bless her, she would. She was easily contented, utterly lacking in undercurrents, and he found that a strong part of her appeal. Rubbing his eyes, he looked down blearily at the pile of petitions in his lap. He was bone-tired, but he knew he’d not be able to sleep. His nights were always the same now. He’d lie awake for hours, unable to silence his inner voices, unsettled thoughts ricocheting around his brain until it was almost dawn, until his body’s exhaustion would finally triumph over his mind’s disquiet.

  Rifling through the petitions randomly, he tried to focus upon the multitude of requests. The castellan at Loches had written to tell him of storm damage. His lazar house at Caen was also seeking aid. He’d always had a deep, visceral sympathy for lepers, had founded hospitals at Caen, Rouen, Le Mans, and now Angers, and it seemed that they all had unexpected expenses he must bear—roofs to be repaired, cisterns to be dug, fences to be mended. Even one of his proudest accomplishments—the great levee he’d built along a thirty-mile stretch in the Loire Valley to prevent seasonal flooding—was showing its age, in need of shoring up at Bourgueil. It was almost as if all of his life’s work was crumbling at the same time.

  Jesu! That last thought had him shaking his head in disgust. It was bad enough that he was wallowing in self-pity like this; must he be maudlin, too? Thrusting the petitions aside, he found himself staring into the dying fire. Why had he not heard from Hal by now? An eerie silence seemed to have settled over the Limousin; his scouts had little to report. When he got to his feet, his squires stirred, looking hopeful that he might be ready for bed. But he’d heard what they had not—a soft knock at the door.

  It was his chamberlain, explaining apologetically that a courier had arrived with an urgent message from his son, and he’d reluctantly agreed to see if the king was still awake, warning the man that if not, he’d have to wait till morning.

  Henry felt a vast, weary surge of relief. But his hopes were soon dashed, for the man being ushered in was one of Richard’s household knights, not one of Hal’s. Brushing his disappointment aside, he took solace that at least he was hearing from one of his recalcitrant sons. “André de Chauvigny, is it not?” he asked, in an impressive display of the memory that had always served him so well. “Are you kin to the Nicholas de Chauvigny who was one of my queen’s men?”

  “Indeed, sire. We are cousins.” André came forward and sank to his knees in the floor rushes, as much to ease his aching body as to show proper reverence to the king, for he’d spared neither himself nor his horse in his haste to reach Angers. “My liege, there are matters that you need to know about.” As concisely as possible, for he knew Henry had no more patience than his duke, he related what they’d learned from the French king’s letter, revealed the magnitude of the conspiracy confronting Richard.

  Henry listened without interrupting, and when he was done, said only: “Are you so sure, then, that the young king is allied with the rebels?”

  André paused, recognizing a pitfall when he saw one. “We have no reason to think otherwise, s
ire,” he said cautiously.

  Henry’s expression was not easily read. Beckoning to the chamberlain, he said, “See that Sir André gets a bed for the night and whatever else he needs.”

  Realizing he’d just been dismissed, André got reluctantly to his feet. It took all of his self-control to do as he was bade, not to argue further on Richard’s behalf. His discipline took him as far as the door, and there he could not help blurting out in despair, “My lord king…what will you do?”

  “What do you think?” Henry said brusquely. “I am going to put out this fire ere it engulfs us all.”

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

  February 1183

  Winchester, England

  SOME OF THE PREROGATIVES of queenship had been restored to Eleanor in recent years, and she now had her own household, her own servants. When her chamberlain informed her that Lord Ranulf Fitz Roy and his son were asking if she’d see them, her brows arched in surprise. Was Ranulf finally thawing? But when he was ushered into her chamber, he greeted her with such brittle courtesy that she knew this wasn’t the case. So what had brought him here?

  “This is my eldest son, Bleddyn,” Ranulf said, and Bleddyn bent over Eleanor’s hand as if he were a polished courtier, welcoming the chance to study this controversial queen at such close range. Ranulf did not waste time in social pleasantries, at once revealed the reason for their unexpected presence at Winchester.