Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 67

  “My son and I are taking ship at Southampton, and as we approached Winchester, it occurred to me, Madame, that you might have the latest news from Aquitaine. It has been almost a fortnight since we got word of the rebellion, and much could have happened since—”

  “Rebellion? What are you talking about, Ranulf?”

  “You do not know?” he asked incredulously. This was a complication that he’d not foreseen. “The Lady Emma heard that war had broken out in the Limousin, and she was kind enough to pass word along to me, knowing that my son Morgan is serving as your son’s squire.”

  Eleanor had rarely been so bewildered. What did Geoffrey have to do with the Limousin? Unless he’d come to Richard’s aid? But that did not make sense, either, for why would that have sent Ranulf racing from Wales in such haste? “Did Viscount Aimar rebel again?” This was Harry’s fault, damn him. Aimar had been a faithful vassal until he’d been denied Rainald’s earldom.

  “It is far worse than that, Madame. Your sons are at war with one another. Hal and Geoffrey have joined forces with the rebel barons against Richard. They aim for nothing less than to make Hal the Duke of Aquitaine, and my son is caught up in the midst of this madness!”

  Eleanor stared at him blankly, as if she’d not been able to process what he’d just told her. It was the first time that Ranulf had ever seen her utterly at a loss. She swallowed with an effort, and her voice did not sound like Eleanor’s at all, barely audible, with a noticeable quaver. “What…what of Harry? What is he doing about this?”

  Ranulf shook his head. “I do not know. Emma’s message made no mention of him.”

  She turned away, blindly, and he instinctively put out a hand in case she needed his support. Amaria had also hastened to her side, her eyes wide with horror. But then Eleanor said, “Get my mantle,” in a very different tone, biting the command off so sharply that Amaria flinched away from the words as if they were weapons. Eleanor did not notice. She seemed to have forgotten Ranulf, too. Wrapping herself in her mantle, she moved swiftly toward the door, jerked it open, and plunged into the stairwell. Ranulf and his son exchanged glances, and then hurried after her.

  RALPH FITZ STEPHEN LOOKED utterly miserable. “My lady, it was not my doing. I would never have kept this from you if I’d not been ordered to do so by the king.”

  The pupils of Eleanor’s eyes had contracted to slits. “Did he, indeed?” she said softly. But the reckoning with Harry could wait. “Tell me what you know of this war between my sons.”

  He did, but he did not have much more information than Ranulf. The last he’d heard, Geoffrey had joined the rebels at Limoges, Hal had gone after him, and bloody fighting had broken out all across the duchy. He’d heard that the king was on his way, too, to Limoges, and there were rumors that the French king was coming to Hal’s support. He was confident, though, that the king would quell the rebellion and reconcile her sons.

  Eleanor dismissed his reassurances with an impatient shake of her head, and the rest of his words trickled away into the silence enveloping the hall. No one else ventured to speak, all eyes riveted upon the queen. “From now on,” she said, “you will let me know as soon as you hear anything from Aquitaine, Sir Ralph—anything at all. Is that understood?”

  He assured her that he understood, but over the years he’d grown protective of her, impressed by her courage. “Madame, if I may be so bold as to tell you what the lord king told me. He said that he meant to do all in his power to make peace between his sons, and that he hoped you would never need to know.”

  Eleanor was not mollified, saying icily, “He did not have the right to keep this from me.” This was Eleanor at her most imperious, and none dared to argue with her. But it was, oddly enough, at this moment that Ranulf finally forgave her, for his father’s fear had sharpened his perception and he saw beyond the queen’s camouflage to the anguish underneath.

  ANDRÉ DE CHAUVIGNY HAD BEEN EDGY and unsettled ever since they left Angers, for Henry had taken only his household knights, and André considered that an inadequate escort to ride into the lawless chaos that had descended upon Richard’s duchy. Henry had brushed aside his misgivings so curtly that he decided his king and his duke were more alike than either one wanted to admit. He was vexed, too, that so many of Henry’s men had elected not to wear their mail on the road. This was a common practice when speed was of the essence, and he was the only one clad in both hauberk and helmet.

  They traveled fast, pushing their mounts and making no allowances for the winter weather, but André was accustomed to that from years of riding with Richard. Despite his qualms, they encountered no troubles on the road, and at dusk on the fourth day, they were within sight of Limoges. André was not happy about their destination, either, but he’d failed to convince Henry that it made more sense to rendezvous with Richard at Aixe before attempting to contact the young king and the rebels. He could only wonder which contributed more to the royal family’s stubbornness—their Angevin blood or their high birth.

  The gates of the ville were closed tight, a sign that the city was on a war footing, and Henry was displeased to see how much progress had been made in restoring the walls torn down at Richard’s command two years ago. Aimar was becoming more than a nuisance, a burr under the saddle. His habitual rebellions were causing too much havoc in the Limousin. If there were any more intractable, troublesome vassals than Eleanor’s barons, he hoped to God he never encountered them. They made the Welsh seem downright tame and docile.

  As they approached, bells began to peal loudly. When one of Henry’s men demanded entrance in the name of the king, there was no indication that he’d been heard, although they could see men’s heads bobbing up in the embrasures. The church bells were still ringing, and they could hear men shouting, dogs barking. They drew closer, but before they could shout out again for admittance, they were met with a hail of arrows.

  In the confusion, two men were thrown from their horses. Henry saw one of his knights take an arrow in the shoulder, and then he was rocked back in the saddle, slamming into the cantle. He felt no pain, just the impact, but Geoff was pointing and shouting, and he glanced down, saw the arrow shaft protruding from his mantle. They were all in retreat by now, and as soon as they’d gotten out of arrow range, the men clustered around Henry, the wounded knight temporarily forgotten.

  “You’ve been hit,” Geoff gasped, the soldier totally submerged for the moment in the son. Henry had already pulled his mantle back, and they all stared at the arrow caught in the metal links of his hauberk.

  “I am not hurt,” Henry insisted. “The point did not penetrate the mail. I may have a bad bruise, but the royal hide is not even scratched.”

  His attempt to make light of the hit did not convince the other men, for they knew that mail had no magical properties that would always deflect arrows; injuries depended upon such variables as the size of the arrowhead and the angle of the shot and simple luck. Moreover, some of them remembered that Henry had wavered about wearing a hauberk on the journey, prudence finally prevailing over comfort. Henry remembered that, too, but he took it as a sign of Divine Favor. This was not his closest call; when he’d been ambushed in the deep forests of Wales, an arrow had almost grazed his cheek. Still, though, it was a shocking assault upon the person of the king, upon God’s Anointed, assuming it had been deliberate.

  When Willem and André de Chauvigny insisted they must ride for Aixe, Henry did not protest. After tending to the injured knight as best they could, they detoured widely around Limoges and headed south to ford the River Vienne. And as he rode, Henry refused to let himself dwell upon that near-miss, for then he’d have had to confront questions he was not ready to face, questions about the complicity of his sons in those arrows raining down upon his men. Had it been an accident? Or an assassination attempt?

  GEOFF HAD BEEN TAKEN ABACK by Richard’s outraged reaction to their father’s narrow escape. He found it difficult to dismiss his suspicions, though, and later could not resist comm
ending his brother sarcastically upon his sudden filial devotion.

  Richard liked Geoff no more than Geoff liked him, and he gave the older man a suspicious look of his own. “What did you expect—that I’d not be angry if some damned fool nearly kills the king? If his aim had been a little better, we might have found ourselves facing calamity. The surest sign of the coming Apocalypse will be the day Hal gets to call himself a king in fact and not in name only.” Catching the vexed expression on Geoff’s face, he frowned. “What?”

  “Our father was almost slain this afternoon, and you’re just thankful that Hal will not be king? I swear the lot of you make Absalom look like a dutiful, loving son!”

  “Why…because I spoke the truth? Sorry to disappoint you, but I am not a good liar. I could not hope to compete with Hal in that arena.”

  “I cannot argue with you there,” Geoff conceded grudgingly. “The truth is not an utterly alien tongue to you, as it is to our brothers.”

  “Praise like that will turn my head, Geoff,” Richard said, very dryly. “Hal is the worst offender, though. Geoffrey can lie as easily as he breathes, but at least he does not lie to himself. Hal usually gets entangled in his own webs, and that makes him truly dangerous.”

  Again, Geoff could find no fault with Richard’s assessment of their brothers. “Do you think they deliberately ordered—” he began, only to be halted in mid-sentence by the stunned look on Richard’s face. Following his gaze, Geoff turned and then he, too, gasped, for Hal had just entered the hall.

  Henry had been seated on the dais, paying little heed to the men clustering around him, friends and sycophants alike trying their best to distract his thoughts from the day’s troubling events. At the sight of his son, he jumped to his feet, although he remained where he was and let Hal come to him. Richard and Geoff were already in motion, too, and all three of them converged upon the dais at the same time.

  “Are you unhurt, my liege?” Hal stopped on the steps, looking up searchingly into Henry’s face. “I was horrified to hear of your mishap. It was an unfortunate misunderstanding. A fool watchman mistook your men for a raiding party from the cité and rang the alarm bell, crying out that the town was under attack. Thankfully one of my knights was on the castle walls and he recognized the royal banner. When I think what could have happened…” He grimaced, shaking his head. “You may be sure the bowman will be punished for his carelessness, and the watchman, too.”

  “I can spare you the trouble,” Richard said laconically. “Send them to Aixe and we’ll punish them for you.”

  Hal gave Richard a cool, dismissive glance. “How very kind of you to offer, Brother. But you’ve been known to discipline offenders with…an excess of zeal. I think it best that we deal with the culprits ourselves.”

  Richard dropped all pretense of civility and said with a snarl, “If you truly do punish that bowman, it will be because his aim was off!”

  Hal flushed, looking genuinely angry. “You dare to accuse me of seeking my father’s death?”

  “And you dare to come here and insult us with your talk of ‘accidents’ and ‘mishaps’? It is not wise to think all men are as dull-witted and foolhardy as you, Brother. Now I have another question for you. How do you plan to get back to your friends in Limoges?”

  The knights who’d accompanied Hal took that as the threat it was meant to be and moved closer to the young king, hands now on sword hilts. “I’d sooner trust the good faith of an infidel Turk than yours,” Hal jeered. “But I am here to speak with my lord father, and unlike you, he is a man of honor.”

  Now it was Richard’s turn to sneer. “What would you know of honor? You’re a joke, the King of Cockaigne, who’s done naught but spend his sire’s money and play the fool—”

  “Enough!” Henry said suddenly, up till now a stricken witness to his family’s fratricide. His eyes flicked from one to the other, and then, making up his mind, he beckoned to Hal. “I will hear what you have to say. Come with me,” he commanded, and people hastened to clear a path as he stepped from the dais and headed for the door. Hal gestured to his knights to remain in the hall and then followed after his father.

  Richard and Geoff watched them go. “That gibe about the ‘King of Cockaigne’ was clever,” Geoff said at last, thinking that Hal was indeed meant to reign over that fabled land of milk and honey, never one in the real world. Richard did not reply, but as their eyes met, they silently acknowledged the start of an unlikely alliance.

  THEY’D COME TO A HALT out in the bailey, snow crunching under their boots, chilled by a wind that had sprung up without warning, the damp, heavy air warning of rain before dawn.

  “Papa, surely you cannot believe that arrow shot was anything but mischance!”

  “What am I supposed to believe, Hal? You ask to be allowed to make peace with Geoffrey and the rebel barons, and then you disappear into blue smoke, with nary a word of your whereabouts or your intentions. When I reach Limoges, I find you dwelling comfortably in that den of thieves, and as I approach the gates, I come under attack. If you were not my flesh and blood—”

  “But I am, and that makes all the difference in the world! What greater crime could there be than patricide? Yes, I was at Limoges, because that is where Geoffrey and the others are to be found. I have not abandoned my hopes of mending this rift between you and Geoffrey. I think I’ve been making headway, too. But Aimar and his allies are naturally doing their best to keep Geoffrey’s resolve from wavering, so it may take more time. I’ve been assuring him that you are willing to forgive, will hold no grudges. That is true, is it not? I cannot act as your cat’s-paw, Papa, cannot make promises to Geoffrey and the others if you do not mean to keep them.”

  “Of course I mean to keep them,” Henry snapped, not sure how he’d ended up on the defensive. “I want no more strife in our family, Hal. But that peace must extend to you and your brothers. It is not enough that you all pledge fealty to me. You must somehow learn to live amicably with one another, however little love there is between you.”

  “Well, I get along with Geoffrey and Johnny. Two out of three is not so bad, is it?” Hal smiled then, saying quickly, “I ought not to be jesting about it, Papa, for I can see the pain it gives you. I know you are right. I just wish Brother Richard did not make it so damnably difficult!”

  Henry studied his son’s face, but the moon was obscured by clouds and the stars, too, were hidden. He’d always found it easy to detect lies and falsehoods, for all but the most practiced liars gave subtle signs that they were not telling the truth. It was a useful talent for a king, so why did it fail him when he needed it most? Why could he not tell when his sons were being truthful and when they were playing him false?

  Putting Hal’s veracity to the test, he demanded to know the identities of the other conspirators. Hal readily reeled off the names of prominent barons of the Limousin, including a few whose involvement had not been known to Henry. Raymond of Turenne was expected to arrive by next week, along with his son Boso and Bernart du Casnac, his son-in-law, he confided, and he wanted the chance to talk them out of throwing their lot in with Aimar, adding, “Now that you’re here, that should make my task easier, for their grievances are with Richard, not you.”

  “So you want more time?”

  “With so much at stake, Papa, I think it is worth my while to keep trying,” Hal said earnestly, and Henry released a breath as soft as a sigh, making his choice, the only one he could.

  “Go back, then,” he said. “I will await word from you here.”

  HAL RETURNED TO LIMOGES in a surly mood, tersely reported that he’d achieved his objective, allaying Henry’s suspicions and gaining them the time they needed to hire more routiers. But he’d then stalked off to his own quarters, and they could not help worrying that he was having second thoughts. Even Geoffrey was concerned, knowing how mercurial his brother could be, and after a hurried conference, they delegated several of their number to find out if Hal was indeed prey to misgivings.

p; In addition to Geoffrey, they selected one of Hal’s closest friends, the Fleming Roger de Gaugi, and a man known for his battle prowess and his iron will, the head of the rapacious House of Lusignan, the Lord Joffroi. Hal did not look pleased to see them at his door, but he let them enter and sent his squire down to the buttery for wine. He then sprawled in the chair closest to the hearth and stared broodingly into the flames as if oblivious of their presence. There was something so deliberately dramatic about his pose, though, that Geoffrey was sure he was playing to his audience and could be coaxed into revealing what was troubling him.

  And indeed, it only took a few probing questions to uncover the reason for Hal’s discontent—guilt. Not that he’d admit it, but when he grumbled about Henry’s trusting nature—a charge rarely if ever brought against the English king—Geoffrey found it easy enough to draw the natural conclusion. Hal felt remorseful that he’d taken advantage of their father’s desperate need to believe in his innocence. Geoffrey did not begrudge Hal a twinge or two of conscience; he’d occasionally had them himself. But he had to be sure Hal did not mean to act upon those regrets, and he drew up a stool next to his brother.

  “I know what you’re feeling, Hal,” he said, not altogether truthfully, for he was capable of unsentimental, pragmatic assessments that eluded his brother altogether. “You are not comfortable relying upon deception or guile. But we fight with what weapons we have at hand, and if we see an enemy’s weakness, we’d be fools not to make use of it.”

  “I know,” Hal admitted. His brother was right; he did not take naturally to deceit, preferred a more forthright, straightforward way. He was sorry he’d had to deceive his father, but why did he have to rush to Richard’s rescue? Why could he not have stayed out of it? Was that so much to ask?