Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 69

  “It is not his brain that is leading him astray. It is his heart,” Ranulf said, with such heat that the younger men looked at him in surprise. “Do you truly find it so strange that he’d not want to believe his sons could be conniving at his death? If either of you had sons of your own, you’d not be so quick to pass judgment on him!”

  “I do have a son,” Richard protested, earning him curious glances from Geoff and Bleddyn. But Ranulf was not mollified.

  “And I’d wager he’s too young to give you any grief yet. Just wait until he’s old enough to balk, until he stops paying heed to a word you say, and then tell me that Harry is in his dotage!”

  Bleddyn had begun to look uncomfortable, not sure whether Ranulf was drawing upon painful memories of their own estrangement. Richard and Geoff merely looked baffled. “Are you saying, then, that you’ll not even try to talk some sense into him? For if you cannot convince him, Uncle, I do not know who can.”

  “Of course I will talk to him, Richard. I am simply saying that I understand, I understand all too well. But Harry is not my first concern. I am here to get my son Morgan out of this…this blood feud. Will the rebels honor a flag of truce?”

  Geoff and Richard exchanged glances and then nodded. Richard could not resist a flash of mordant humor, though, saying sardonically that “I hope, though, that you have better luck with your flag of truce than my father had with his.”

  RANULF STARED AT HIS SON in dismay. “You cannot stay here, Morgan! God only knows how this will all end, but I can safely say it will not end well. Your brother and I have come to take you back to Wales.”

  Morgan glanced toward his brother, his indignation showing clearly on his face. Bleddyn shrugged and gave him a sheepish smile, for unlike Ranulf, he’d been sure Morgan would refuse. He’d still chosen to accompany Ranulf on this perilous trip, if only to keep him safe. But he’d never expected them to succeed.

  “Morgan, you are not being given a choice! I am not going to leave you in the midst of a civil war.”

  Morgan began to bridle, but the anguished expression on his father’s face stilled his temper before it could fully ignite. “Papa,” he said gently, “I am no longer a child. I was nineteen in February. Need I remind you that in Wales a lad reaches his legal majority at fourteen? I am old enough to make my own choices, and my choice is to remain with Cousin Geoffrey. He has been very good to me, has even promised to knight me himself and has offered me a place in his own household. Moreover, he has a just grievance against his father. How can I abandon him at a time like this?”

  “Because he is fighting against his king, because that is treason, Morgan, and if you stay with him, it makes you guilty of treason, too.”

  Morgan felt as if they were speaking two different languages, neither one able to understand the other. “Papa…we do not see it like that. We are fighting for our king, fighting for Cousin Hal. He is God’s Anointed just as much as Cousin Harry. So how can that be treason?”

  Ranulf looked at his son in despair, seeing that he was not going to prevail. Making one last effort, he said, “I promised your mother that I’d bring you home. How am I supposed to tell her that you refused to come?”

  “That was a low blow,” Morgan said, sounding more reproachful than resentful, and Ranulf’s shoulders slumped in defeat.

  “I know,” he admitted, and after that, there seemed nothing more to say.

  ONE GLANCE AT RANULF’S FACE and Henry knew his mission had failed. Beckoning his uncle up onto the dais, he signaled to a passing servant for wine. “You look like a man greatly in need of a drink. It is one of the regrets of my life that I never learned how to drown my troubles in wine, but who knows? It might work for you.”

  Ranulf gratefully sank down in an empty chair. “I do not remember ever being so tired,” he confided. “I must be getting old…”

  “You are old,” Henry pointed out, with the glimmer of a smile. “Hell and damnation, Uncle, we’re both old, and getting older by the day.”

  Ranulf took a deep swallow of wine, then another. “Were we this stubborn and foolhardy when we were young?”

  Henry was gazing down into his wine cup, as if it held the answers they sought. “So Morgan is still beguiled by my sons, chose them over you. My sympathies, Uncle. I can say in all honesty that I know exactly what you are feeling right now.”

  “Harry…whilst I was at the ville, I heard men talking in the hall. They were saying that Viscount Aimar had summoned all the townspeople to the church of St Pierre, where they were instructed to swear fealty to Hal.” To Ranulf, this was the final nail in the coffin of Hal’s credibility, and he was taken aback when Henry continued calmly to sip his wine. “You do not seem surprised,” he said at last, and Henry regarded him in silence for a moment, then leaned over and clinked their wine cups together, with the saddest smile Ranulf had ever seen.

  “Shall we drink,” he said, “to the joys of fatherhood?”

  WHEN RALPH FITZ STEPHEN was admitted to her chamber, Eleanor’s eyes locked upon the letter in his hand. He did not keep her in suspense, hastened toward her and held it out. “This has just arrived for you, Madame, from your son.”

  Amaria wondered which son he meant, but Eleanor already knew even before she saw the familiar ducal seal of Aquitaine. It had been broken, of course, for her greater freedom did not include freedom from discreet surveillance. Snatching the letter, she moved toward an oil lamp and began to read.

  Ralph Fitz Stephen withdrew, and Amaria wondered if she should leave, too, not sure if Eleanor would want to be alone or not. It depended, she supposed, upon the contents of that letter.

  When Eleanor looked up, she eased the other woman’s uncertainty by saying, “This is from my son Richard. I am thankful that he thought to write to me, but all his news is bad, Amaria. He says the French king has sent routiers to aid the rebels and they have done widespread damage, burning the town of St-Léonard-de-Noblat after stripping it bare, killing the men and carrying off the women. Périgord, Angoumois, and the Saintonge have all been overrun by the rebels. He admits that they’d be in dire straits if the rebel lords could control their men and launch concerted attacks. But fortunately their routiers lack discipline and are more interested in plundering and looting than in fighting a real war.”

  It sounded to Amaria as if Richard and Henry were already in dire straits, and she suspected that Eleanor thought so, too. The queen had that glazed, faraway look in her eyes again. Deciding to take her cues from her lady, she asked no questions, waiting to see if Eleanor wanted to confide in her, and after a time, the older woman began to speak again, her tones brittle and taut, sounding as if the muscles in her throat had constricted so painfully that the words had to fight their way free.

  “Richard says that Hal and Geoffrey have done nothing but lie to Harry, that again and again he has offered them forgiveness, only to have them make a mockery of his trust. He says that Harry was twice shot at as he approached the city. That Hal promised hostages and then ambushed Harry’s men when they came to get them. That he claimed to have taken the cross and threatened to depart for the Holy Land, but let himself be persuaded when Harry entreated him not to go. That when Harry sent two envoys to Geoffrey, his men attacked them, stabbing one and throwing the other off the bridge into the river. Neither Geoffrey nor Hal took any measures to punish their men for these breaches of the truce.”

  Eleanor related this litany of her sons’ sins so matter-of-factly that Amaria found herself on the verge of tears, for she knew how much that dispassionate recital had cost the queen. She wanted to say how very sorry she was, but Eleanor’s wounds were beyond her power to heal. “What are the king and Lord Richard doing to defeat the rebels, my lady?”

  “Harry set up his camp at the cité and is besieging the ville, that part of Limoges controlled by the rebels. But Richard says it is not going well, that the weather has been wretched and they’ve been unable to seal off the ville completely. So Richard has gone south in pursui
t of the routier bands, and he says they have been unwilling to face him on the field, have been fleeing instead of giving battle.”

  Amaria seized upon this last statement, so eager was she to offer Eleanor some slivers of hope. “Surely it is a promising sign, Madame, that the routiers are afraid to fight the duke. The king and Lord Richard are such brilliant battle commanders that they will soon have the rebels on the run, will crush them like King David smote the Philistines.”

  Eleanor understood that Amaria was only trying to comfort her and so she did not point out that two of her sons would be leading those “crushed rebels.” Nor did she comment upon the eerie aptness of Amaria’s choice of biblical verse, for King David had been betrayed by his best-loved son, the beautiful, beguiling Absalom, who’d stolen the hearts of the men of Israel.

  “I want to go to the chapel,” she said, and Amaria hurried to find her mantle. An icy sleet was falling for it had been a cold, wet spring, and as she crossed the bailey, Eleanor no longer fought back her tears, let them mingle with the raindrops upon her skin. What could she ask the Almighty? No matter who won this accursed war, she and Harry would lose.


  April 1183

  Limoges, Limousin

  KNOWN TO BE A STALWART SUPPORTER of the Duke of Aquitaine, the abbot of St Martial’s had prudently taken refuge in a nearby town when Viscount Aimar rebelled again, leaving the abbey in the charge of his prior. That individual lacked the moral fortitude to deal with the latest crisis, and he’d gone in despair to one of their guests, Geoffroi de Breuil, for he was the prior of the abbey of Vigeois to the south of the city, had once been a monk himself at St Martial’s, and had the necessary steel in his spine to stand up to the scandalous demands of the young English king.

  Upon hearing the alarming news that Hal’s soldiers had entered the abbey grounds and were making off with the silver plate, chalices, and jeweled reliquaries of St Martial’s, Prior Geoffroi hastened to find the king, finally tracking Hal down in the cloisters. The scene that met his eyes was a dismal one: men joking and squabbling with one another, their arms full of booty, trailed by unhappy monks. Outraged by this violation of God’s House, Prior Geoffroi cried out to Hal and was taken aback by the warmth of the younger man’s welcome.

  “Ah, it is Prior…Geoffroi, is it not? I met you at the viscount’s castle last summer as I recall.” Hal smiled benevolently at the prior, pleased that he’d been able to remember the man’s name, and Prior Geoffroi gaped at him in amazement, unable to treat this banditry as a social occasion.

  “My lord king, may I speak with you in private? It is urgent, I assure you.”

  Hal’s smile faded. But he thought a refusal would be rude and reluctantly followed the prior toward the Chapter House, hoping this was not going to be a lecture. It was not as if Prior Geoffroi’s own abbey was being affected, after all.

  Prior Geoffroi’s trip to Limoges had been an impulsive one, motivated both by his fondness for his former abbey and his awareness that the prior would not be up to the challenge of keeping St Martial’s safe in the abbot’s absence. Now he realized why he was here; the Almighty had chosen him to stop this sacrilege.

  “My lord, you cannot do this. No matter how much you need money, there is no justification for stealing from God.”

  Hal had not expected such a direct assault, not after the prior’s timid, wavering protest. “I am not stealing from God!” he said indignantly. “Did Prior Gautier not tell you that I have promised to repay every last sou? This is a loan, no more than that, like the loan made to me by the good citizens of the ville.”

  Prior Geoffroi had heard about that “loan.” Hal had extorted twenty thousand sous from the burghers of Limoges, who were intimidated by the continuing presence in the ville of so many swaggering, brawling routiers. “That matter is between you and the townsmen, my lord. What you do here today is between you and the Almighty, and I urge you to reconsider. There is still time to remedy this sin.”

  “It is hardly a sin,” Hal said curtly, regretting the good manners that had gotten him into such an awkward predicament. “As I said, I have every intention of repaying the loan.”

  “It is not a ‘loan’ if it is not voluntary, my lord king. Moreover, your men are taking more than money. They are carrying off valuable chalices and reliquaries that cannot be replaced.”

  Hal yearned to escape back into the cloisters. But Prior Geoffroi had positioned himself before the door, and Hal was loath to shove the prior out of the way; he was an elderly man and frail for all his bold talk. “Look…Prior Geoffroi, it is like this,” he said, lowering his voice to increase the intimacy of his confession. “I do not want to do this, but I have no choice. Viscount Aimar and I agreed to hire all the routiers who sought us out, wanting to deny their services to my father and brother. But the cost has been higher than we expected. What can you do with a pack of hungry wolves except feed them?”

  The prior was unmoved by his plight. “Why cannot Viscount Aimar pay your routiers? Or the Viscount of Turenne or Joffroi de Lusignan?”

  “Because they do not have the money, either.” Hal heard the impatient note creeping into his voice and drew a deep breath. “If my brother the Duke of Brittany were still at Limoges, I could have turned to him for aid. But he has gone north to protect the Breton borders. So you see, Prior Geoffroi, I must borrow from the abbey. I took measures to make sure that none of the monks or abbey guests would be molested, and I even ordered men to protect your library, for I know that St Martial’s has a fine collection of books. And as I already said, I have sworn to repay the loan.”

  Hal could see no sign of softening in the chiseled granite of the older man’s face, but he’d exhausted the last of his patience. “I had a chirograph drawn up, setting forth my promise to repay the abbey, as proof of my good faith.” When Prior Geoffroi did not reach out for it, Hal thrust it into the prior’s hands, saying brusquely, “Here is the abbey’s half. Now I have no more time to spare for you, my lord prior. If you’ll step aside…”

  Prior Geoffroi hesitated, but then realized the foolishness of resistance, for Hal was half a foot taller and almost forty years younger. Grudgingly, he gave way, his fist tightening around the chirograph, for he knew its true worth. He could not help giving one final warning, though, as Hal brushed past him.

  “Look to your soul, king of the English, for you’ve just put it in grave peril!” But Hal did not bother to reply, and once he was alone, the aged prior sank down upon the closest bench, his eyes stinging with angry tears.

  HAL AND AIMAR’S TAILLEFER half brothers had captured Angoulême with surprising ease. Leaving them to hold the castle and town, Hal decided to return to Limoges, to share his triumph with Aimar and the other rebel barons. His success was proof that the Almighty understood why he’d had to take the silver plate and treasures of St Martial’s, and when his money started to run low, he made another forced “loan,” this one from the monks at La Couronne just west of Angoulême, securing enough funds to hire Sancho of Savannac and his equally notorious partner Couraban. They’d left the Viscount of Turenne’s service when he’d been unable to keep paying them, and Hal was looking forward to bedeviling Viscount Raymond—good-naturedly, of course—about it.

  They reached Limoges in late afternoon. The gates were closed, and they could see men standing guard on the walls. One of Hal’s knights rode up to demand entry in the name of the young king. To their surprise, the gates remained shut. When another shout for admittance brought no results, Hal spurred his stallion forward impatiently, identified himself to the sentries, and waited expectantly.

  The gates did not open, though. Instead a shower of rocks rained down upon them from the walls. Several men and horses were struck and Hal’s stallion reared up in fright and then bucked wildly; had he been a less skilled rider, he’d have gone sailing over its head. The hailstorm of stones continued, forcing them to retreat. And now Hal could hear the taunts and curses, the angry shouts of
“We will not have this man to rule over us!”

  HAL WAS GENUINELY SHOCKED to be turned away by the citizens of Limoges, and when Aimar sent out a messenger, he brought no words of comfort. The townspeople had been outraged by the plundering of St Martial’s Abbey, the man reported, and the viscount had been unable to calm them down. It would be best if Hal did not try to enter the city again.

  Hal and his men withdrew to Aimar’s newly recovered castle at Pierre-Buffière, and used it as a base to burn crops and launch raids on neighboring towns. But the insult he’d received at Limoges continued to rankle, and as May dragged on, he became more and more discontented. He’d truly expected the war to be of short duration, and now they seemed likely to face a prolonged struggle. Once the wretched weather improved, Henry resumed the siege of Limoges, and Richard was in deadly pursuit of the roving bands of routiers that had been terrorizing the Saintonge and Poitou. Hal still expected them to win, but he was beginning to realize that victory could come at a much higher price than he’d wanted to pay.

  He was soon thoroughly unhappy with his routier allies. They seemed far more interested in looting than in laying siege to castles, and he had little confidence in Sancho and Couraban’s ability to control them. He found the routier captains to be as irksome and offensive as their men. Until now he’d never had many dealings with mercenaries, and he did not enjoy their company. The routiers were scornful of the chivalric code that had governed Hal’s life and mocked the concept of knightly honor. They showed him none of the deference he was accustomed to receive from others, and he suspected that they did not respect him much either. Most vexing of all, they were draining his coffers, charging exorbitant fees for their services, and demanding to be compensated on a regular basis, unwilling to accept vouchers or promises of payment.