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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 68

“It is only to be expected that you’d have some regrets,” Geoffrey said, in the reassuring, sympathetic tone that had coaxed any number of skittish women into his bed. “But you cannot dwell upon these regrets, Hal. It is too late. That ship has sailed.”

  Roger and Joffroi had no idea what he was talking about, but Hal did, and he mustered up a wry smile. “You mean ‘That ark has sailed,’ do you not?” The shared memory was a bracing one, though, reminding him that they were in this together. “You need not fret,” he assured his brother. “I am not losing heart. I just wish there’d been another way.”

  “So do I,” Geoffrey said, with utter sincerity. Exchanging glances with the other men, Geoffrey saw that they agreed with him; the crisis had passed. He started to talk, then, about military matters—how many men they could expect from the French king, how long it would take them to finish replacing the city walls that Richard had destroyed, whether the Count of Toulouse could be lured into joining their alliance.

  Hal stretched his long legs toward the fire, accepting a wine cup from his squire. In better spirits now, he told them about his ugly exchange with Richard. “I would barter the surety of my soul to bring that bastard down,” he confessed, and when he glanced up, he was heartened to see that they were all united in their loathing for his arrogant churl of a brother.

  Geoffrey had been hoping for such an opening. “Actually, there is something you can do, Hal, to make victory more likely. You can call William Marshal back into your service. For the life of me, I do not understand why you let so able a knight go. His battlefield judgment is solid, his courage unquestioned, and he handles a sword as well as any man I’ve ever seen. We need all the Marshals we can get.”

  Roger de Gaugi had been waiting for this chance, too, and quickly added his voice to Geoffrey’s, urging Hal to bring Will Marshal back. Hal was not surprised by his praise, for he knew Roger and Will were good friends and had often partnered in tournaments. He took more notice when Joffroi de Lusignan also argued for the Marshal’s recall, as there had long been bad blood between Will and the de Lusignans.

  Acknowledging that now, the knight said bluntly that he knew Marshal loved him not. “He has always blamed me for the death of his uncle in that ambush, and I was never able to convince him that we’d wanted very much to take Salisbury alive. Our differences notwithstanding, I would be the first to welcome him back.”

  In truth, Hal wanted Will back, too. He’d begun to miss him almost as soon as Will had ridden off, and he’d toyed with the idea of recalling him. His pride had kept him from doing it, though, for he was not willing to risk the humiliation if Marshal balked at coming. The other men were presenting him with an opportunity now to reach out to Will while still saving his pride; if Will refused, he could always say that he’d never truly wanted him back, that he’d agreed only because his brother and friends had asked it of him.

  “Very well,” he said graciously, “if it means that much to you all, I’ll take him back.” And he did not object when Geoffrey at once sent for his chamberlain, not wanting Hal to change his mind during the night. When the man entered, Hal instructed him to go in search of Will Marshal and tell Will that “I am summoning him in good faith, confident that he’ll not fail me.”

  CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

  March 1183

  Limoges, Limousin

  HENRY AND HIS MEN drew rein, gazing at the newly fortified walls of the ville. So their scout had been right when he’d reported that they had torn down more than half a dozen churches to get timber for the walls. Henry’s mouth tightened; this was hardly an indication of the peaceful intentions Hal had avowed. No one spoke; he knew he’d been the only one to have doubted the scout’s story, insisting upon seeing for himself.

  “My lord king?” Maurice de Craon nudged his mount closer to Henry’s. “Shall we continue on to the cité?”

  Henry found himself torn between amusement and exasperation, for he well knew what Maurice was really saying. They’d been greatly relieved when he’d agreed to enter the cité rather than the ville, and they were worrying now that he might have changed his mind. “You need not fret, old friend,” he said, with just a touch of sarcasm. “I daresay we’ll get a warmer welcome at the bishop’s palace than the viscount’s castle.”

  The words were no sooner out of his mouth than it happened. His stallion was shifting restlessly and tossed its head up just in time to take an arrow in the neck, which pierced the carotid artery. Blood spurted wildly, all over Henry, the horse, and even Maurice de Craon. Henry’s years of horsemanship now stood him in good stead, and as the animal’s legs began to buckle, he flung himself from the saddle to escape the fate of the Scots king, who’d been pinned by his own mount when it was slain at Alnwick. His horrified men moved hastily to get between their blood-splattered king and the unseen bowman on the town walls, holding up their shields to deflect any more arrows. None came. There was only silence from the ville as Henry got to his feet, wiping blood from his face, and stared down at his dying mount.

  RICHARD WAS EXHAUSTED and angry by the time he got back to Aixe that evening. He’d ridden south to investigate a report that routiers had been seen near Pierre-Buffière and found it was even worse than he’d feared. A large band of men led by one of the most notorious of the routier captains, a Basque known as Sancho of Savannac, had seized control of the citadel at Pierre-Buffière. This was another of Viscount Aimar’s castles that had been taken away from him by Richard, and it was now back in rebel hands, for Richard knew that Sancho was in the hire of Aimar and the Viscount of Turenne. He’d not had enough men to challenge their occupation, could only watch from a safe distance and fume.

  He was dismounting in the bailey at Aixe when he saw Geoff coming toward him. The look on his half brother’s face warned him that he was not about to hear good news, and he listened grimly as Geoff gave him a succinct account of the latest attack upon their father. “He was not hurt, though?”

  Geoff shook his head. “But that was by God’s Grace, for if the stallion had not raised his head at that very moment, Papa would have taken the arrow in his chest.”

  Richard had not expected them to be so brazen, to make another attempt on Henry’s life. But mayhap it was for the best if this latest treachery had opened his father’s eyes to the truth. “What did he say about it? Surely he must know by now that Hal is less trustworthy than a hungry weasel.”

  “He has not spoken much about it, except to express his sorrow at losing such a fine horse. So I cannot say if he is still deluding himself or not. But you have not heard all of it, Richard. Who do you think just rode in, bold as you please? And this time Hal brought along his partner in crime!”

  Richard swore, making use of one of Henry’s favorite oaths. “Where are they?” And when Geoff said that Henry had taken them up to his bedchamber, he flung the reins of his stallion at the closest of his knights and headed for the keep.

  Geoff hurried to keep pace. “What are you going to do?”

  “I’d not miss this performance for all the gold in Montpellier!”

  Reaching Henry’s bedchamber, Geoff was about to knock on the door when Richard shoved it open, with enough force to slam it into the wall. “I hope the mummery has not started yet?”

  Hal scowled at the sight of the intruders. It was Geoffrey, though, who seemed most eager for a confrontation. “You are looking surprisingly well, Richard. You must have found a very strong soap to wash all that blood off your hands.”

  “I make no apologies for what I did, and I will do it again if the need arises. When men invade my lands, they will pay with their lives, be they lowborn routiers or Breton knights. My only regret is that the truly guilty ones are likely to escape the reckoning they so richly deserve!”

  Richard was easily the taller of the two, but Geoffrey stood his ground, and the look that passed between them was so virulent that both Henry and Geoff acted instinctively and stepped forward in case they needed to intercede physically. Henry had reached
a milestone—his fiftieth birthday—that week, and he looked every single one of those years at the moment.

  “Enough!” Henry said wearily. “I told Hal and Geoffrey that I’d hear them out. You are welcome to remain, Richard, and you, too, Geoff, but only if you keep your mouths shut. If you cannot do that, go.”

  A brief silence settled over the room, a truce that they all knew was not likely to last. Hal was the first to speak. Ignoring Richard and Geoff, he looked intently into Henry’s face. “As we told you, Papa, I had no luck in finding the man who shot that arrow. None of them are willing to own up to it. Not surprising, I suppose. He’s afraid and with good reason. I am so sorry, for this ought never to have happened. As soon as we learned of it, we came straightaway to assure you that it was mischance, no more than that.” He glanced then toward his brother.

  Geoffrey tore his gaze away from Richard, made a visible effort to focus himself. “Hal speaks true, Papa. That bowman was not acting on our orders.”

  Henry would have expected Richard to be the one to erupt first. Instead, it was Geoff. “Well, whose orders was he acting on?” he snapped. “You cannot convince me that he’d have dared to act on his own. So who told him to shoot the king?”

  Henry started to speak, then stopped, for he wanted the answer to that question himself. Geoff took advantage of his father’s hesitation and glared accusingly at his brothers. “Well?” he demanded. “Can either of you tell us in all honesty that none of your honorable allies would have given that command?”

  “Yes, I can,” Hal said with certainty at the same time that Geoffrey admitted, “No, I cannot.” Hal stared at his younger brother in surprise.

  “How can we?” Geoffrey gave Hal an impatient look. “The fact is that Papa’s death would be very advantageous to a number of men. I make no accusations, have no reason to suspect any particular one of the lords now in Limoges. But neither can I say with utter certainty that such an order could not have been given.”

  “Well, I can,” Hal repeated. “None of them would sully their honor with a crime like regicide. It was an accident, no more than that.”

  “The most convenient accident since William Rufus was slain in the hunting mishap that made his brother king,” Richard muttered, and Hal glared at him before turning his attention back to Henry.

  “Neither one of us would ever have done this, Papa. Surely you know that?”

  Henry was not sure what he knew. “Is that why you came, Geoffrey? To tell me this was none of your doing?” And when his son inclined his head, he reached out suddenly and grasped the younger man’s arm. Geoffrey stiffened, but did not pull away. Nor did he avert his gaze, meeting Henry’s eyes unflinchingly.

  “What of the rebellion? Hal says he has been seeking to win you back to your family, your natural loyalties. Have you heeded him? Are you willing to renounce this accursed alliance?”

  “I have been thinking about it,” Geoffrey said. “But I cannot abandon my allies without a backward glance. I would need to know that their grievances will be heard.”

  “I am willing to do that,” Henry said, letting his hand slip from Geoffrey’s arm.

  Richard drew an audible breath. “Well, I am not!”

  “They want to meet with the king, not with you,” Geoffrey said disdainfully, and for a moment, his eyes rested upon his brother’s flushed face, silently promising Richard that there would indeed be a reckoning. “I will talk to Aimar and the others, tell them that you agree to a truce whilst they consider their choices,” he told Henry, and startled them all, then, even Hal, when he made ready to depart.

  “That is it?” Henry stared at his son. “That is all you have to say?”

  Geoffrey paused, his hand on the door. “What would you have me say?”

  “I would have you explain yourself! I would have you tell me why you would betray me like this, why you—”

  “How could you possibly not know?”

  “I do not,” Henry insisted, and Geoffrey’s control cracked.

  “That you do not know, Papa, says it all,” he said sharply, and left before Henry could respond.

  Henry’s frustration found expression in anger. “What is he talking about? What grievance could he have that justifies his betrayal?”

  “You truly do not know, do you?” Hal marveled. “It is because of Richmond and Nantes, Papa. Geoffrey and Constance feel that you cheated them out of two-thirds of her inheritance.”

  “That is the reason he rebelled? How could he be so foolish? I’ve always told him that I’d give him Nantes and Richmond when the time was right. He had only to be patient!”

  Hal and Richard were looking at him with an oddly similar expression, one of amazement, for it was obvious to them that Henry was quite sincere, that he did not understand why Geoffrey might not trust his promises or be willing to wait indefinitely. Even Geoff was uncomfortable with his sire’s inability to see any viewpoint but his own.

  “I’d best catch up with Geoffrey ere he takes all our men and leaves me stranded here,” Hal said with a quick smile. “But I think I know a way, Papa, to reassure you that Aimar and the townspeople are not utterly set on war. Suppose they offer up hostages for their good faith?”

  When Henry agreed, Hal made his departure, too, making an ostentatious display of ignoring his brothers as he walked past them to the door. Richard at once started to follow, halting with obvious reluctance when Henry ordered him to wait there until Hal and Geoffrey had gone.

  “Whilst you were ducking arrows at Limoges, my lord king,” Richard said coolly, “some of Aimar’s routiers retook the castle at Pierre-Buffière. Unless you want us to be trapped in Aixe under siege, we need to take action, and take it now.”

  “I have sent into Normandy and Anjou for my levies and for the routiers who’ve served me well in the past. They are better trained and better disciplined than the brigands hired by Aimar and Geoffrey, who’re like to riot and go wild the first chance they get.”

  Richard agreed that his father’s and his own routiers were superior soldiers to the men in the rebels’ employ. He was heartened, too, that Henry was at last reacting as a king and not a foolish, overly fond father. “It is about time,” he said, gruffly approving, and went off, then, in search of a late supper. Geoff would have lingered, but Henry clearly did not want him there, and so he, too, departed.

  Alone at last, Henry slumped down in his seat and closed his eyes. Whenever he’d faced a crisis in the past, he’d known what he must do to prevail. Even when he was imperiled by the Becket scandal and then his family’s first rebellion, he’d seen a way clear, a route that would lead him out of the morass and back onto solid ground. Now he saw no such escape. The best he could hope for would be to lure Geoffrey back to the fold and reconcile Richard with his angry barons. But that would be a short-term solution, slapping a bandage upon an ulcerating wound, one that oozed blood and pus and could prove mortal if it were allowed to fester.

  RANULF AND BLEDDYN had been stuck in Southampton for several weeks, waiting for favorable winds. Then there had been a further delay as they tried to find men going south into a war zone, for it was too dangerous to venture into the lawless lands of Aquitaine without a good-sized escort. They did not reach Aixe, therefore, until late in Lent. Before they could seek Henry out, though, they were waylaid by Richard and Geoff and borne off to the great hall.

  “I’ve ordered food for you,” Geoff said as soon as they were seated. “But we need to talk with you ere you see our father. Your arrival is a blessing, Uncle Ranulf, for you’re one of the few men that Papa may be willing to heed. You must convince him that Hal and Geoffrey cannot be trusted, that they are playing him for a fool.”

  “It would help if I knew what is going on,” Ranulf said, somewhat testily, for these past weeks had been highly stressful. He’d not expected to be making urgent journeys like this at his age. “Where is Morgan? At the castle with Geoffrey?”

  “The last we heard, Geoffrey is still in Limoges,??
? Richard confirmed, “and I assume Morgan is with him. You’re right to fear for the lad, Uncle, for he has fallen in with men who are no better than outlaws and cutthroats.”

  That was hardly what Ranulf had hoped to hear. But before he could press for more information, they were interrupted by the arrival of their food, an unappetizing Lenten meal of salted herring supplemented by a tastier dish of hulled wheat boiled in almond milk, commonly known as frumenty. Bleddyn was very hungry and tucked in, but Ranulf lost his appetite once Richard and Geoff satisfied his need to know “what is going on.” He was shocked by Henry’s two narrow escapes, although he was not as certain as they seemed to be that Henry had been deliberately targeted; it would take a bold man to strike down a king.

  He was deeply troubled, too, to hear how Hal and Geoffrey had been taking advantage of Henry’s trust; even allowing for Richard’s bias, it sounded to him as if his nephew was indeed being “played for a fool.” He prodded his knife into his herring without enthusiasm, thinking that none of this boded well for Morgan.

  “You’ve not even heard the worst of it yet.” Richard leaned forward, no longer remembering to keep his voice low. “Hal promised that they’d offer up hostages, and when Maurice de Craon went to fetch them, he and his men were fired upon! Then Hal had the gall to come back and once again avow that this was another of their many ‘mishaps.’”

  “Did Harry believe him?”

  Geoff shrugged. “Who knows? He’ll not even talk to us about it anymore. But the mere fact that he is still willing to listen to their lies is more than I can comprehend!”

  “Geoff is right,” Richard declared, loudly enough to turn heads in their direction. “I tell you, Uncle, it shames me to see him being duped like this. He’s usually quick to suspect the worst, for certes where my mother is concerned. But now he keeps giving those double-dealing hellspawns the benefit of every doubt! It is enough to make me wonder if he is slipping into his dotage.”