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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 71


  He stopped, though, when Sancho called out, “Wait, my lord! Do you not want the sword of Roland?”

  Hal spun around. He’d forgotten that the sword reputed to have been wielded by the legendary French hero was kept at Rocamadour. Retracing his steps, he took the weapon from Sancho, his fingers lingering upon the blade as if it were a holy relic. “Durandal,” he said softly. “That is what he named it.”

  Sancho no more believed this was Roland’s sword than he believed in the bona fides of all those fragments of the True Cross; he’d once taken part in a scheme to dupe gullible pilgrims into making offerings at a manger said to contain some of the holy straw that had cradled the Christ Child. This experience had convinced him that people were as simple as sheep, and he included Hal in the flock. He was in good spirits, though, for they were all going to profit handsomely from their haul at Rocamadour, and in truth, he felt a little sorry for this pampered young lordling. If a man was going to follow the brigand’s road, he ought to enjoy it, and from what he could tell, Hal had less joy in his life than these shriveled, stiff-necked Black Monks.

  “Why not take it?” he suggested, seeing how Hal was caressing the sword with his eyes. The lad might as well be hung for a goat as a sheep, he thought, and managed to keep himself from slapping Hal on the back when the young king unsheathed his own weapon, then reverently slid the celebrated sword of Roland into his scabbard.

  THE WALLED TOWN OF MARTEL was only eight miles north of Rocamadour, and Hal heaved a sigh of relief when its seven towers finally came into view. His abdominal cramps had gotten more severe, and by the time they reached Martel, his bowels had become so loose that he’d had to make several quick stops by the side of the road. Colic and diarrhea were such common ailments, though, that the teasing he had to endure was offhand, and he was thankful for that; he’d always prided himself on his sense of humor, but this spring it had definitely begun to unravel around the edges.

  They were lodging in a fortified manor house in the center of town; known as the Maison Fabri, it was a substantial stone three-story building overlooking the marketplace. Once Étienne de Fabri had escorted Hal up to the best bedchamber, he wasted no time in stripping off his hauberk and soiled clothes, then ordered a bath. He felt a little better once he was clean, but his stomach roiled at the mere thought of food, and he settled instead for wine flavored with comfrey root, a reliable remedy for his malady. Lying back on the bed, he soon fell asleep.

  When he awoke, he was momentarily disoriented, not remembering where he was. “God help me,” he groaned, “if it is morning already,” and his squires responded with laughter.

  “Nay, my lord. Dawn is hours away. But you have a visitor.”

  Hal squinted up at them in disbelief. “There is only one person in the world I am that eager to see. So unless you’ve awakened me to welcome my queen, the pair of you will need to find a new lord on the morrow.”

  They greeted that sally with even louder laughter, and Hal sat up with another groan, thinking that he must teach his household to take his mock threats more seriously, but knowing he would not, for he’d realized very early in life that he’d much rather be loved than feared. “I am awake…I think. Just who is this distinguished guest worthy of disturbing my sleep?”

  “Sir Baldwin de Bethune and Sir Hugh de Hamelincourt, my liege.”

  Hal smiled, for both knights were friends as well as liegemen, and it pleased him greatly that they had responded so promptly to his summons. “Well, send them in,” he said and winked at his squire. “You’ve been reprieved, Benoit, need not seek a new lord, after all.”

  Benoit was beaming. “They were not traveling alone, my lord,” he said, and nodded to the other squire, who swung the door open wide.

  Hal caught his breath as Will Marshal entered the chamber, flanked by Baldwin and Hugh. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he started to get to his feet, and was startled when the room began to spin. He grabbed for the closest arm, and it was only after he’d straightened up that he saw it was Will’s. The other men had discreetly withdrawn, leaving them alone.

  “The sight of you gladdens my eyes,” Hal said huskily, “indeed it does.”

  “Sit back on the bed, my liege. I was told you’d been ailing?”

  “Nothing worth mentioning,” Hal assured him, but took Will’s advice and sat down again. “Germany must have agreed with you,” he joked, “for you are looking sleek and well fed.”

  Will could not return the compliment, for Hal had lost so much weight that his cheekbones stood out in sharp prominence, making him look almost gaunt, and his fair skin was splotched with hectic color. “Let me get you some wine,” he said and busied himself in pouring drinks for them both, using that time to disguise his concern.

  “So…” Hal said happily, “you decided you did not need that safe conduct after all.”

  Will blinked in surprise. “I have one, my liege. Your lord father was good enough to grant it.”

  Hal’s mouth dropped open. “You are serious? Jesus wept, if that is not just like my father! He has his bishops cast me out into eternal darkness and then he gives you permission to fight with me.”

  Will handed him a cup, his eyes searching Hal’s face. “You were not excommunicated. The old king instructed the bishops to pass sentence upon all the men who’d stirred up dissension between the two of you, but he told them not to include you in the damnation.”

  “For true, Will?” Hal had not realized how nervous he was until that fear was suddenly lifted. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said, and then grinned. “No, I guess now I will not! What about Geoffrey? Was he spared, too?”

  “I do not know,” Will admitted. Reaching into his tunic, he drew forth two sealed parchments. “The French king gave me this for you, my lord. And this one is from your lady, Queen Marguerite.” His eyes met Hal’s levelly, but Hal did not take up the challenge; he was the first to look away.

  Hal could feel heat rising in his face, heat that had nothing to do with his fever. An awkward silence fell. What did Will want? An apology? Fair enough if it would mend this rift between them. “I am sorry,” he said carefully, “for any misunderstandings we may have had. I want us to put the past behind us, Will, to start anew. Can we do that?”

  This was, Will realized, as close to an apology as he was going to get. “Yes, my liege,” he said quietly, “we can do that,” and was rewarded with a radiant smile, the smile of the young lord he’d loved and tutored and protected for so many years.

  Hal got to his feet again, somewhat unsteadily, and embraced the older man. “Welcome back, Will,” he said, and laughed joyfully. “Welcome home.”

  HAL HAD RELUCTANTLY AGREED to spend the next day in bed, but that night he insisted upon joining the others in the great hall. A hunting party had been successful, and they were able to feast on venison, washing it down with prodigious amounts of wine. Hal merely pushed the meat around on his trencher, but he drained his wine cup often and discovered that it was as effective a restorative as comfrey root. The other men were drinking freely, too, and the atmosphere in the hall soon became boisterous and rowdy.

  Will Marshal was one of the few who stayed completely sober. At Hal’s insistence, he’d eaten with them at the high table, but once the dishes were cleared off and the tables removed, he slipped away and sat down inconspicuously in a window-seat, where he was soon joined by Peter Fitz Guy and Baldwin de Bethune. Without speaking, they watched the antics upon the dais, where Hal was bantering with Duke Hugh and Count Raimon. Hal was very animated, laughing often, making such expansive gestures with his wine cup that he was in danger of dousing the knights crowding around him.

  “Is he drunk?” Baldwin sounded uncertain, for he could not remember ever seeing Hal totally in his cups.

  “I think it is the fever more than the wine,” Will said, low-voiced, and then frowned at a loud burst of profanity coming from a corner where the routiers were dicing.

  Seeing the direction of his
gaze, Peter dropped his voice, too. “We scraped the bottom of the barrel for that lot,” he said grimly. “I tell you, Will, it grieves me to say this, but these past weeks I’ve felt as if I were riding with an outlaw band.”

  Will looked at him intently. “Why have you stayed, then, Peter?”

  “For the same reason that you came back, old friend.” After a moment, Peter said softly, “God help us all.” Although he smiled, it was not a joke, and Will and Baldwin knew it.

  WILL WAS UP EARLY the next morning, breaking his fast with a plentiful helping of soft cheese and sops of bread soaked in wine. He was soon surrounded by friends, and they began to tease him about his ravenous appetite, doing their best to act as if things were as they’d once been, back in those halcyon days when they’d been so proud to serve the young king, so proud to be known as his knights, and the world seemed full of such shining promise.

  “My lord…” Hal’s squire materialized at Will’s elbow, asking for a private moment, and as soon as Will led him aside, Benoit blurted out that Hal had a bad night, not falling asleep until dawn was nigh.

  “The doctor said I must give him a potion of comfrey root and costmary every two hours, but I have been unable to rouse him, and I do not know what to do. Should I let him sleep?”

  Will knew what the boy really wanted—someone to assume a responsibility that was too heavy for such narrow shoulders. “I’ll come up to his chamber with you and see how the king is faring this morn,” he said, and Benoit’s face glowed with the intensity of his relief. As they mounted the stairs, Will assured the squire that Hal was on the mend, and he was convincing for he believed it himself. Hal was young and healthy and there was no reason to think he would not soon recover.

  The chamber was stifling, so hot that Will strode over to the window and flung the shutters wide. His nose wrinkling as he breathed in a fetid, rank odor, he crossed swiftly to the bed. The sheets were soaked in sweat and the stench grew stronger. “My lord, you must wake up,” Will said firmly. When he got no response from the man in the bed, he touched Hal’s shoulder and drew a sharp breath, for his skin was searing to the touch. “My liege…Hal!”

  Hal mumbled incoherently, turning his head away from the light, and Will reached for the sheet, pulled it back. Benoit had followed him to the bed, and cried out at the sight of the blood and feces, his face twisting in horror. Will swung around quickly and grasped his arm.

  “You must not panic, Benoit. I need you to keep your head. Do you understand me?” And when the boy nodded, he released his grip, saying as calmly as he could, “Good lad. Now I want you to fetch the doctor straightaway.”

  Benoit nodded again and fled. Will could hear the thudding of his feet on the stairs. Once he was sure that help was on the way, he leaned over the bed again. “The bloody flux,” he whispered. “Ah, Hal…” But his throat had constricted, making further speech impossible.

  CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

  June 1183

  Martel, Limousin

  HAL HAD BEEN BLESSED with bountiful good health as well as beauty and had only vague memories of childhood illnesses. He was dimly aware now that he was very sick. He’d drifted far from familiar shores, his dreams shot through with swirling hot colors and hazy forebodings. He wanted only to sleep, yet people would not let him alone. They kept poking and prodding him, swathing his body in cold compresses, trying to get him to swallow bitter-tasting liquids that he did not want to drink. He’d thrashed about in bed, seeking to evade these unwelcome ministrations, but they persevered and he was too weak to resist.

  Delirium was not unlike drowning, for he was caught up in a riptide carrying him farther and farther from reality. And when he finally regained consciousness, he had to fight his way back to the surface, gasping for breath as he broke free of the feverish currents dragging him down. The light was unbearably bright, even after he filtered it through his lashes. Gradually the room came into focus. Two of his friends, Robert de Tresgoz and Peter Fitz Guy, were slumped on a bench by the bed, and his squire Benoit was seated cross-legged in the floor rushes; he wondered why they all looked so miserable. When he opened his mouth to ask them, though, the words that emerged from his throat were so slurred that even he could not understand them.

  The sound was enough to jerk their heads up, and the next moment, they were gathered by the bed, all talking at once. They were not making much sense to Hal. Benoit kept murmuring “God’s Grace” as if he had no other words, and Peter seemed to be blinking back tears. But Robert was acting the most strangely, wanting to know if Hal could recognize him. Hal thought that was a very odd question, for he’d known the Norman knight for most of his life. He opened his mouth again, meaning to assure Rob that he was too ugly to forget, but he was surprised to discover that speaking demanded more energy than he could muster. When he flinched away from the sunlight flooding the bed, one of them hurried to close the shutters, and the chamber was soon a scene of joyous confusion as other men crowded in.

  Hal felt a great relief at the sight of Will, sure all would be well now that the Marshal was here. He was not as pleased to see the doctor, looming over the bed like an avenging angel, for he recognized the man as his chief tormentor, the one who’d kept pouring vile potions down his throat, who would not go away.

  “God be praised, the fever is down,” the doctor announced, but he sounded so triumphant that Hal thought he was claiming more credit than the Almighty for that benevolence. Doctors were like that, he knew. It was always their doing when a patient recovered and God’s Will when he did not. He could not summon up the effort to tease the physician, though; since when did talking tire a man out so? He was finding it hard to stay awake, but he was loath to slip back into those disquieting dreams, and when his eyes met Will’s, he silently entreated the older man to keep vigil whilst he slept. When Will brought a stool close to the bed and sat down, he smiled. Will had understood. Bless him, Will always understood.

  WHEN HAL AWOKE HOURS LATER, he was disappointed that he was still as weak as a newborn cub. He must have been at death’s door, for certes. He was astonished to learn that this was Sunday; he’d lost three full days of his life! He remembered some of it now—the sharp pains in his belly, the endless bouts of diarrhea, the nausea. No wonder he felt as flat as a loaf of unleavened bread. He’d have to be patient as he got his strength back, and patience came no easier to him than it did to the rest of his family.

  His stomach was not ready to cooperate, though, and when they tried to feed him egg yolks mixed with cumin and pepper, he promptly vomited them up. He could not even keep wine down, and the doctor had to settle for mixing galingale and yarrow in spring water, then feeding it to Hal one small spoonful at a time. At least he was no longer passing clotted blood, doubtless because he had nothing left to void. But he sounded like a croaking crow and looked like a corpse waiting to be sewn into his shroud, complaints his friends were happy to agree with. He thought they were much too eager to regale him with accounts of his suffering, gleefully describing how he had been “sweating like a Southwark cut-purse caught by the Watch” and “spewing your guts out” and “shitting a river of blood.”

  When the doctor made ready to bleed him, that brought back another unpleasant memory, and he grumbled that “I dreamed I was stabbed by a lunatic with a knife, but it was really a leech with a lancet!” The knights all laughed, but the doctor ignored his protests and deftly opened a vein in his arm, explaining needlessly that it was done to drain away the noxious humors that caused fever.

  Knowing full well that bloodletting was an approved method of treating numerous ailments, Hal thought the doctor sounded like a prideful buffoon, but it was probably not wise to vex a man with a blade in his hand and so he submitted grudgingly to the treatment, although he noticed that he seemed much more light-headed after the procedure.

  The men around his bed were members of his inner circle; most had been with him since his coronation at age fifteen. His gaze flickered from one familiar face to ano
ther. Will and Baldwin de Bethune and Simon de Marisco and Roger de Gaugi and Robert de Tresgoz and Peter Fitz Guy. A man could not ask for better friends. He’d been told that they’d rarely left his side during the worst of the crisis. He wished he could thank them for their devotion, but knew they’d be flustered and discomfited if he did, for banter and sarcasm were the only languages spoken in their realm.

  At the moment, they were harassing Rob, entertaining Hal with exaggerated accounts of Rob’s erratic behavior in the last few days. It seemed that he’d recalled some folklore that a fever could be cured by the liver of a beaver, and he’d been flailing around on the riverbank as long as there was light, trying to catch one. When Hal asked if this was true, Rob confirmed it with a sheepish grin, insisting that beaver liver, if fried with onions, could heal the worst fever. He would have elaborated upon this miracle remedy if Will had not seen the greensick look on Hal’s face and hastily cut him off.

  Hal could bring up only yellowish bile, for he’d not been able to eat for days. His friends were clustering around him, offering wine and putting wet compresses on his forehead and rushing off to see if the doctor thought he ought to be bled again. “Go away,” he groaned, “you’re worse than a mother abbess with one novice nun,” and they laughed uproariously, for these glimmers of humor were surely the best proof that the Almighty had heeded their prayers and not those of the vengeful monks.

  SUNDAY’S CELEBRATION CONTINUED into the next day, for Hal’s allies and routiers were just as pleased by his recovery as the knights who loved him. Will lost track of all the toasts drunk to Hal’s health, but he observed the hilarity with a jaundiced eye, well aware that these men had a vested interest in the young king’s well-being. The more he saw at Martel, the more he understood Peter’s bleak admission. How had Hal ever come to this—leading an outlaw band of cutthroats and bandits? And how was he going to convince Hal to renounce these false friends and return to his proper allegiance?