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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 70

His disillusionment extended well beyond the routiers, though. He was annoyed with Geoffrey for racing off to defend Brittany. He’d argued that the struggle in the Limousin was critical to their success, but once Geoffrey got word that Henry’s agent, Roland de Dinan, had occupied the ducal castle at Rennes, he’d turned a deaf ear to Hal’s pleas, promising only that he’d return as soon as he could. Hal missed his brother more than he’d expected, aware that Geoffrey had a cooler head in a crisis than his own.

  He was not pleased with Aimar, either, for allowing the citizens of the ville to rebuff a king, and he was having some doubts about the reliability of his other allies. His brother-in-law Philippe’s routiers were wreaking havoc in the border regions, but he thought the French king ought to have put them under his command instead of turning them loose to ravage like mad dogs. He’d heard rumors that Joffroi de Lusignan’s brothers were gaining a foothold in La Marche and there were reports, too, that the Count of Toulouse’s son was raiding in Quercy and Cahors. Since the de Lusignans had vigorously opposed the sale of La Marche to Henry and Count Raimon had lost Cahors and Quercy during one of his wars with the English king, Hal could not help wondering if they were acting in his interests or their own.

  But his greatest grievance was with his father, for he was sure that his war would already have been won if only Henry had stayed out of it. He did not understand why Henry must meddle in a dispute that did not involve him directly. But it was obvious by now that Henry was backing Richard with the full power of the English Crown. After weeks of offering an olive branch, he’d unsheathed his sword, giving the command to ravage Geoffrey’s lands, calling upon his levies in Normandy and Anjou, bringing his mangonels and battering rams to Limoges in a far more serious siege of the ville. At Easter he’d ordered the arrest of the Earl and Countess of Leicester and other prominent participants in the rebellion of ’73; he’d even included the Earl of Gloucester in his net, although there’d never been proof of his participation. And rumor had it that he’d asked the Church to issue sanctions against the rebels. No, this was not the war Hal had expected to fight.

  ON MAY 23, Hal, his knights, and routiers seized control of Richard’s castle at Aixe. Afterward, the men celebrated raucously in the great hall, but Hal did not share their pleasure, for he knew it to have been a hollow victory. Richard had left only a token garrison at Aixe, and Hal could not take pride in such a lopsided win. This was new for him—this clear-eyed assessment of their accomplishments—and he did not welcome it, thinking morosely that life had been more fun before he’d discovered this hitherto hidden sense of realism.

  He had little appetite for their simple, soldiers’ meal, was even less inclined to join in the revelries, and when a tipsy Couraban lurched over to offer the services of a buxom, drunken whore with hair the shade of beet juice, Hal’s distaste was enough to drive him from the hall. As if he’d take a routier’s leavings! He’d decided that Couraban was even more disreputable than his partner in crime, Sancho, for he’d finally learned the meaning of Couraban’s odd name. He was, the brigand had boasted, a Saracen prince at the siege of Antioch. Hal could not begin to understand why a man would choose to call himself after a godless infidel. If he’d needed more proof that he was consorting with the dregs of their world, surely this was it.

  He’d claimed the bedchamber he hoped was Richard’s and flung himself down upon the bed without bothering to remove his muddied boots. He wished he’d thought to bring a flagon from the hall, but he could not muster the energy to go back for one and he had no idea where his squires were. It had not escaped his notice that his household knights had been making themselves scarce in recent days, waiting for his bad mood to pass. But the news he’d heard today was not likely to raise his spirits. One of their scouts had reported that Henry had summoned the Archbishop of Canterbury and numerous Norman bishops to Caen, where they were to pass sentence of excommunication upon the rebels.

  Hal was stunned that his father would put him at risk for eternal damnation. An excommunicate who died without making amends would burn for aye in Hell. No matter how often he reminded himself that these excommunications were purely political, he still found the prospect chilling. How could Papa even consider that? How had they ever come to this?

  His thoughts were so morbid and unpleasant that he welcomed a sudden rap on the door. Several of his knights trooped into the chamber, brandishing wine and dice, and Hal was touched by their attempt to cheer him up. At least he had good friends, by God. But he soon lapsed back into melancholy, for two of the men—Roger de Gaugi and Simon de Marisco—were also good friends of William Marshal, and of Hal’s many disappointments that May, Will’s betrayal was one of the sharpest.

  He supposed that betrayal was too harsh a word for the knight’s failure to answer his summons, but it hurt, nonetheless, that Will could let him down like this. For nigh on two months, he’d heard nothing from Ralph Fitz Godfrey, the man he’d sent after Will, and when he did get word, it was not encouraging. Fitz Godfrey reported that Will had accepted a position with the Count of Flanders and then left on pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Three Kings in Germany. Hal was stung that Will could so blithely offer his services to another lord, and this news did not endear Count Philip to him in the least; it was like poaching in a neighbor’s woods. Eventually he’d gotten a second message that Fitz Godfrey had finally caught up with Will and he’d agreed to return. But Hal’s jubilation soon soured once he read the rest of the letter. Will said he would come as soon as he could, but not before he obtained a safe conduct from Hal’s father, the lord king, and with that in mind, he planned to visit the French court and ask for recommendations from King Philippe and the French bishops, hoping their good words would sway Henry in his favor.

  To Hal, that meant he was not coming, for he was sure his father would never grant Will a safe conduct to fight against him. Why should he? No, this was a clever pretext, a way for Will to get credit for loyalty without putting himself at risk. But he was damned if he’d let Marshal cast a shadow over the rest of the night, and he called for wine, reached for the dice.

  They were soon interrupted again, and this time the visitor was not as welcome as Hal’s knights. He glanced up with a frown at the sight of Sancho of Savannac, offended that the routier should take the liberty of seeking him out in his own bedchamber. At least he’d left that drunken swine Couraban down in the hall.

  “A word with you, my lord king, if I may,” Sancho said, with a perfunctory politeness that grated on Hal’s nerves. “I’ve been giving thought to our next target, and I’ve come up with an idea I think you’ll fancy.”

  “You think so, do you?” Hal knew that not all routiers were lowborn; one of the usurper King Stephen’s most trusted captains had claimed to be the bastard son of a Count of Flanders. But he had no doubts that Sancho and Couraban came from the gutter, and he valued their advice accordingly. He paid these men to bleed for him, not to think for him.

  Sancho either did not notice his disapproval or was indifferent to it, for he sauntered forward without waiting to be asked. “I know you’re running out of money again,” he said, and Hal scowled. Whose fault was that? Every time he turned around, these accursed routiers had their palms out.

  “So,” Sancho continued, “why not pay a visit to Grandmont?”

  Grandmont was a penitential religious order greatly favored by Henry. Its monks, known as “bons hommes” or “good men,” lived lives of extreme austerity and deliberate poverty. Hal pointed that out now, asking sarcastically what the monks had that was worth taking?

  Sancho grinned, showing teeth that explained his foul breath. “That is what they all say. The Cistercians claim to be as piss-poor as leprous beggars, but believe me, I’ve carried off enough from the White Monks to go on a monthlong drunk. Monks always have riches hidden away. Did your sire not give Grandmont a pyx of solid gold? Who knows what other treasures they have?”

  “Yes, my lord father did give them such a pyx,” Hal ackno
wledged, stressing the proper way to refer to a king even though he knew it would go right over Sancho’s head. But he began to give serious consideration to the routier’s proposal. It was not just the appeal of ready money, although God knows, he needed it. His father was Grandmont’s most illustrious patron. He’d been very generous to the monks, even rebuilding their church, and had expressed the wish to be buried at their Mother House. Striking at Grandmont would be a dramatic way to strike at his father, too, sending a message that he was not intimidated by those threats of excommunication. He almost asked his knights what they thought, but decided against it, for he’d begun to see that most of them told him only what they thought he’d want to hear. A pity Geoffrey was not here, for his advice could be counted upon.

  They were all waiting, and Hal made up his mind, saying nonchalantly: “Why not? We’ll visit the good monks on the morrow.”

  THE PYX HENRY HAD GIVEN GRANDMONT was a thing of beauty, made of beaten gold crafted in the shape of a dove. Even in the subdued light of the church, it seemed to shimmer in the dark as Hal approached the high altar. He was irritated with his knights for balking at retrieving it, but they’d mumbled that it did contain the Host, after all, and it was obvious it would take a direct command to get one of them to fetch it. Sancho and Couraban were quite willing to do it, but Hal did not want the pyx to be sullied by their bloodied hands, and so he had no choice, had to get it himself. He felt a superstitious prickle along the back of his neck when he reached for it, and for a moment, it seemed as if the air itself had chilled. Telling himself his imagination was overwrought and the Almighty would understand, he carefully lifted the pyx and carried it from the church.

  There he was confronted by Guillaume de Trahinac, the outraged prior, and his equally indignant monks. Garbed in coarse brown tunics with scapulars and hoods, they looked like Old Testament prophets to the uneasy knights, and several glanced toward the sky, almost as if expecting the prior to call down celestial thunderbolts upon their heads.

  At the sight of the pyx, the prior stiffened, for he’d not really believed Hal would dare to take it. “Take heed,” he said hoarsely. “Do you think that the Almighty does not see what you do here? Nothing in creation can hide from Him, and if a man sin against the Lord, who shall entreat for him?”

  Hal hated the way churchmen were so quick to quote Scriptures, using God’s Words to make their own paltry opinions seem more than they were. He turned to glare at the prior and saw that one of the routiers was swaggering toward the monks, clearly eager to end the argument. Hal was tempted to let him, for he’d enjoy seeing the sanctimonious prior knocked on his skinny butt. But then he sighed and ordered the man to stop. “I just saved you from a beating, Prior Guillaume,” he said. “Look upon it as an act of unexpected mercy from an unrepentant sinner.” His men laughed, but the monks were not cowed and continued to shout out dire warnings as they rode off. Hal stirred laughter again by feigning dismay that men of God should use such unseemly language, but he was glad when they were out of hearing range and the angry voices no longer echoed on the wind.

  BY THURSDAY, MAY 26, Hal and his men were fifty miles to the south, approaching the town of Uzerche. Hal had no one riding at his side, for his nerves were still on the raw and his knights were avoiding him again. Their plundering of the monastery at Grandmont had left a bitter aftertaste, and he’d had unpleasant dreams about the self-righteous monks and their arrant threats. Even his body seemed to be out of sorts, for he’d awakened that morning with a queasy stomach and loose bowels. All in all, it had been a week he wanted only to forget.

  That changed, however, within an hour of their arrival at Uzerche. They’d stopped at the abbey of St Pierre, creating a panic until they convinced the monks that they meant only to pass the night there. Hal was so irked by the obvious anxiety of their hosts that he decided to forgo supper and withdrew to the abbot’s chamber, hoping that a night’s sleep would settle his stomach. But several of his knights soon burst into the chamber with the best news that he’d heard in weeks. His allies were here at long last. The Count of Toulouse and Hugh, the Duke of Burgundy, had just ridden into the abbey garth.

  HAL DID FEEL BETTER the next day, and took it as a sign that his luck had changed. With all the men brought by Raimon and Hugh, they would now outnumber the forces of his father and brother. While there was some discussion of heading north to lift Henry’s siege or hunt for Richard, no one was keen to fight a pitched battle, not even the routier captains, and they began drifting south, instead, raiding at random. In this almost aimless fashion, the first day of June found them approaching the famed abbey of Rocamadour.

  Hal had never been to Rocamadour before, and like all visitors, he was awed by his first glimpse of the celebrated shrine, perched on a limestone cliff five hundred feet above a deep river gorge. A hamlet had sprung up on the lower level of the ridge, shabby taverns and shops selling wine, ale, cider, food, and the ubiquitous pilgrim badges. Higher up was a hospice, the basilica of St Sauveur, and the chapels of St Michel and Notre Dame. It was the latter that drew the pious and the ailing to such a remote, inaccessible site, for Rocamadour was one of the most popular shrines dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and on this hot summer day, they could see a trail of pilgrims straggling up the steep hill in the hope that they’d be the ones deemed worthy of Our Lady’s miraculous cures.

  Later, Hal was not sure who’d first broached the subject, but it was probably in all their minds—the awareness that Rocamadour offered much more lucrative spoils than Grandmont, which had been a decided disappointment, aside from Henry’s gold pyx. The Duke of Burgundy quickly bowed out, joking that heights gave him nosebleeds, and when the Count of Toulouse also declined to participate, Rocamadour’s fate hung for a time in the balance. Hal was astonished by Count Raimon’s stance, for he had a reputation for being as grasping as any pirate and he’d certainly plundered his share of churches in the past. But when pressed, he argued that this was different, that Rocamadour was becoming renowned throughout Christendom.

  “Granted that it is not the same as sacking Mont St Michel or the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem,” he conceded. “But why stir up the Church needlessly? I have enough problems with them as it is.”

  Hal was envious of Duke Hugh and Count Raimon, men who had their own rich domains, their own resources, lords who were not impoverished kings, forced to such desperate measures by their humiliating lack of lands or money. Still, though, he was irresolute until Sancho and Couraban prodded him into action by implying that there was something shameful about his allies’ refusal and reminding him how deeply he was in debt.

  There was no question of taking horses up that imposing cliff; Hal doubted that even a mountain goat could have done it. The sun was scorching, and he was sweating and out of breath by the time they reached the summit, for his stomach ailment had not gone away, after all. Looking down at the serpentine windings of the river far below them, he felt suddenly light-headed and found himself wondering what strange path had led him to this place and this moment. By then the monks were hurrying toward them, looking to him like flapping crows in their black Benedictine garb, their faces so white and set that he knew they’d heard about St Martial’s and Grandmont.

  Rocamadour was different from the other plundered abbeys; here they had a larger audience than aggrieved monks. Throngs of pilgrims were staring at them in alarm, shrinking back when the routiers unsheathed swords. The monks blanched, too, at the sight of those naked blades, but they stood their ground, gathering around the man designated as their spokesman, a stooped, spare figure who leaned heavily upon a heavy, oaken cane. But the eyes sunken back in that furrowed, pockmarked face were blazing with an anger that was ageless.

  “Go no farther,” he declared, “if you value your immortal souls.”

  The routiers laughed at him and headed toward the church. But he was not ready to concede defeat and stepped boldly in front of Hal, holding up his hand as if to hold back the tides. “Thir
teen years ago,” he said in a surprisingly strong voice, “the English king came close to dying of a tertian fever. When he recovered, he and his queen made a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Rocamadour to express their gratitude for sparing his life. You are of their flesh; their blood courses through your veins. Should you dishonor them by this barbarous, evil deed, there can be no going back. Harken unto thy father that begat thee. Turn away from this unworthy undertaking ere you shame your noble father and bring down the awful wrath of God Almighty upon your head.”

  By now Hal was thoroughly tired of these dramatic, biblical scenes. Noble father? This withered old man had a droll sense of humor. “I will submit to divine judgment upon Dies Irae as all good Christians must, and when I face the Great Creator, at least it will not be with the blood of a martyred archbishop upon my hands,” he snapped and shoved past the monk.

  The chapel of Our Lady had been filled with pilgrims, but they were fleeing in panic before the routiers. Sancho grinned at Hal, holding up a hemp sack stuffed with silver plate, candlesticks, and chalices, all of which had proudly adorned the high altar. “We hit the mother lode this time,” he announced gleefully. “You’ll be able to hire a whole troop of routiers with what you’re getting today.”

  “Need I remind you that this is a loan, not a treasure trove?” Hal said truculently, and then came to a halt, his eyes locking upon the Black Virgin. Carved of dark walnut, it dominated the chapel, conveying none of the mercy and grace associated with the gentle Mary. This was a stark, severe image, almost primitive in its austerity, as if harkening back to a time long lost in the mists of memory. That was such an odd, irreverent thought that Hal felt a sudden chill, much as he’d experienced in the church at Grandmont, and he abruptly abandoned his intention to offer the Mother of God a prayer of apology and explanation. Turning on his heel, he started to leave the chapel, signaling one of his knights to keep a sharp eye upon the routiers; they were not going to benefit personally from their plunder if he could help it.