Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 72

  Hal was no stronger on Monday, still could not eat without becoming nauseous, and although he now had a constant thirst, he could only keep water down. But he was quite lucid and his men took heart from that, assuring themselves that he’d soon be on the mend. Will was not so sure and began to harbor doubts. Hal was young and had been robust and vigorous. Shouldn’t he have begun to regain some of his strength by now? It frightened Will to see how feeble he was; the man able to wield a ten-foot lance with lethal skill could not even hold a cup to his blistered lips.

  Because of his own disquiet, Will soon picked up on the doctor’s unease and nerved himself to demand the truth. He was not prepared, though, for the grim response he got from the physician. Once they were safely away from eavesdroppers, the doctor seemed relieved to share his fears. It was not just that the young king was showing no signs of improvement. His new symptoms were troubling, too. His skin and mouth were very dry, and his thirst could not be quenched. His eyes were sunken back in his head, and despite all the water he was drinking, his urine was scant and when it did come, it was a dark yellow. Had Sir William noticed that he was no longer sweating? Will had not, and when he asked what that meant, the doctor muttered evasively that it was never a good sign.

  “Are you…are you saying that he will not recover?”

  The physician no longer met his eyes. “That is in God’s Hands, and not for me to say.” Will stared at him in horror, understanding that he’d just pronounced a death sentence upon the young king.

  HAL WAS FRUSTRATED that he was making so little progress. This was Tuesday morn; ought he not to be regaining strength by now? He’d been dozing since dawn, and each time he awoke, Will and Rob and Baldwin and Benoit were keeping watch by his bed, standing guard against night demons and, quite likely, the routiers. When he’d emerged from his delirium, Hal had been surprised to find an unfamiliar emerald ring upon his hand. Emeralds were said to have the power to vanquish fevers, they reminded him, and the Duke of Burgundy had kindly offered his own ring. It was a valuable piece of jewelry and Hal had jested with his knights, wondering how much they could sell it for. But he’d begun to fret that a routier might sneak into his chamber and steal it, and he decided that, if only for his peace of mind, they ought to return it to Hugh. He did not need it anymore, after all, for his fever had not spiked again, was more like a smoldering peat fire now than a roaring conflagration.

  He watched his friends for several moments before they noticed he was awake. “If you are not a sad-looking lot,” he mocked. “You’d think I was on my deathbed or that Richard had Martel under siege and we were running out of wine…”

  He’d meant it as a joke, but there was nothing amusing about the reaction he got. His jape was met with a stricken silence, and suddenly they were looking everywhere but at his face. He stared at them incredulously. “I am not dying…am I?”

  This time they responded with a flurry of frenzied denials, assuring him that of course he was not dying, what a foolish notion, he’d be up and about in no time at all. Hal was stunned, for he could see they were lying. Will alone had kept silent, but now he cried out sharply, “Enough! He deserves the truth.”

  When they would have protested, Will stared them down. “He has the right to know,” he insisted. “He needs to know whilst there is still time to make amends.”

  They could see the pulse thudding in Hal’s throat, hear the ragged edge to his breathing. “But…but I was getting better…You all said so…”

  Will knew that Hal had always preferred an oblique approach to unpleasant truths. But he had no choice now, had to face it head-on. “We hoped you were, my liege. But you’ve been growing weaker and…and the doctor says your recovery is now in God’s Hands.”

  Hal looked at him mutely and then turned his head away from them. “Go,” he said hoarsely, “leave me be…”

  They did not argue and fled in unseemly haste, none of them knowing what to say or how to comfort him. Will did not go far, though, for he knew that Hal, of all men, would never find solace in solitude. He waited what he hoped was a decent interval, time enough for Hal to absorb the blow, then knocked on the door and came back into the chamber.

  “I will go if you wish it,” he said, and when Hal didn’t object, he approached the bed, dreading what he would see. Hal’s spectacular tournament successes had overshadowed the fact that he was not as gifted a battle commander as Richard, or Geoffrey either, for that matter. He did not seem to have a head for strategy, to be able to anticipate the unforeseen or to adopt long-range plans. No one had ever questioned his courage, though. If he did not have Richard’s reckless daring, few men did. Will had never seen him display fear, either at castle sieges or in the wild mêlées of the tourney, which could be as dangerous as battle skirmishes. But he’d never seen Hal look as he did now—eyes wide and staring, pupils so dilated that much of the blue had been swallowed up, filled with utter panic.

  When he spoke, his voice was unsteady, almost inaudible. “God is punishing me for my sins, Will.”

  “Yes,” Will said softly. “I fear he is, lad.”

  “I ought to have heeded the monks. They tried to warn me, but I would not listen. And now it is too late. Lucifer is here, waiting to claim my soul…Can you feel his presence, too?” Hal shivered. “I am damned and it is my own fault, Will—”

  “Hal, no!” Will had to fight the urge to glance over his shoulder, half expecting to see diabolic red eyes glowing in the shadows. “It is not too late. The Almighty has not forsaken you, has given you a great mercy—time to repent and seek forgiveness.”

  Hal had a heartbeat of hope, but no more than that. “No…” he whispered. “They’d not forgive me. How could they?”

  Will was momentarily puzzled, not sure who “they” were. But then he understood. Hal was speaking of his Divine Father in Heaven and his earthly father at Limoges. “Of course they’d forgive you, Hal. The mercy of the Almighty is everlasting and endureth forever. And the lord king has never ceased to love you. Why do you think he spared you from excommunication? Or granted me a safe conduct to come to you? Are those the actions of an unloving father?”

  Hal desperately wanted to believe him. “But my sins are so grievous…”

  “That does not matter, not if you are truly contrite.” As complete as Will’s education had been in military matters and the tenets of chivalry, he’d not learned to read or write. He’d never regretted that lack, not until now when he yearned to quote Scriptures that could assuage Hal’s fear. Fortunately, even though he’d never been able to read the Holy Writ, he did have an excellent memory and could remember enough to paraphrase with reasonable accuracy. “The Lord God will not turn His Face away from you if you return to Him.” Will forced a smile. “Holy Writ says there is great joy in Heaven over even one sinner who repents.”

  Tears welled in Hal’s eyes. “When I thought that salvation would be denied me and that it was all my doing…” He shuddered, but he no longer sounded like a man sure he was doomed. “Fetch me a priest, Will, so I may be shriven.”

  Will managed another smile even as his own eyes filled with tears. “You need not settle for a priest, lad. You have a bishop at your beck and call. Bishop Gerald of Cahors rode in an hour ago. Shall I summon him now?”

  “Please.” Hal was suddenly terrified that he might die before he could confess his sins. But he still called Will back as he reached the door. “Will…I must see my father ere I die, must tell him how sorry I am…”

  Will doubted that Henry would come, not after being shot at twice under flags of truce. But he was not going to rob Hal of the smallest sliver of hope, and he said, as confidently as he could, “We shall send a man to Limoges straightaway.” Once he was out in the stairwell, though, he sagged against the wall, feeling as if his bones were suddenly made of sawdust, incapable of supporting his weight, much less his grief.

  ALFONSO, the young king of Aragon, had arrived to assist Richard and Henry in fighting the Limousin rebels a
nd his personal bête noire, the Count of Toulouse. Daylight held sway well into the evening on summer nights, and Richard took Alfonso to see Aixe, the castle now garrisoned by rebels.

  “We’ll lay siege to it on the morrow,” he said, “and if they balk at surrender, God may pardon their sins, but I will not.”

  Alfonso smiled, thinking that Richard had changed little since their first meeting at Limoges, ten long years ago. He was still as decisive and confident as ever. “I can see,” he joked, “why your men call you Richard Yea or Nay, for you’re never one to dither at crossroads, are you?”

  Richard glanced at him in surprise; he’d not known he’d been given that nickname. He was not displeased, though, thinking there were far worse things a man could be called. He’d begun to suggest unflattering nicknames for his elder brother—Sir Spendthrift and Lord Lies a Lot among the least insulting—when a scout sounded the alarm.

  “A horseman is coming, my lord, riding like he’s escaping from Hell!”

  To Alfonso’s amusement, Richard at once swung onto his stallion and rode out to intercept this mystery rider. He mounted with less haste and followed after his friend. By now the horseman was within recognition range and after a moment, Alfonso identified him as the old king’s chancellor and natural son, whom he’d met just hours ago at the cité. Pebbles and dirt flew everywhere as Geoff reined in his mount. The animal was streaked with lather and Alfonso braced for bad news, knowing that Richard’s brother would not push a horse like this unless the message he bore was urgent.

  Richard had reached the same conclusion. “What has happened now?” he asked warily, for lately the war had not been going well. He’d chased Geoffrey’s routiers out of Poitou into Brittany, but his duchy was still infested with these vermin, some hired by the French king and the rebel lords, others freelancing, and the arrival of the Duke of Burgundy and the Count of Toulouse threatened to tip the balance in their favor.

  “You’ll not believe Hal’s latest knavery!” Richard was accustomed to Geoff waxing indignant about their brother, but he’d never seen him so outraged; he was literally shaking with the intensity of his emotions. “He sent a man to our father tonight, claiming that he is dying and pleading that Papa come to Martel and forgive him ere he does!”

  Richard’s jaw dropped, and his indrawn breath was audible enough for Alfonso to hear. Many considered it shocking and even sacrilegious that Henry dared to swear upon the Almighty, God’s Bones being one of his favorite oaths. The holy body part that Richard now blurted out was so scandalous that Alfonso did not know whether to laugh or move out of range. It was obvious, though, that Richard’s blasphemy was involuntary; he looked as if he’d been pole-axed.

  “Every time I think that whoreson has gone as low as he can,” Richard spat, “he finds a shovel and keeps digging!”

  “You have not heard the worst of it yet. Papa wants to go to Martel!”

  “Then he is not just in his dotage, he is stark, raving mad!”

  Richard wasted no more time questioning his father’s sanity, took off in a cloud of dust, with Geoff right behind him. By now Alfonso’s men had caught up with him; they’d been alarmed to have their lord and the duke ride off like that. They were further puzzled to see Richard already disappearing in the distance, with his own knights scrambling to keep pace, but their king did not appear to be perturbed by these odd events. When they reined in and asked him if all was well, Alfonso assured them it was and then grinned.

  “It seems we are returning to Limoges,” he said. “It should be an interesting evening.”

  RICHARD FOUND THE SITUATION at the Bishop of Limoges’s palace was not as dire as he’d feared, for he did not lack for allies. In fact, the one without allies was Henry; he was facing unanimous opposition from kinsmen, friends, barons, and bishops. Ranulf, Richard, and Geoff presented a united family front. Willem and Maurice de Craon and Rotrou, Count of Perche, were adamantly opposed to his going to Martel, too. The newly arrived Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Angers and Agen were also lined up against Henry. The only one holding his peace was Sebran Chabot, their host; he’d been embroiled in a contentious dispute with Henry and Richard upon his election to the bishopric of Limoges several years ago and thought the iced-over breach with his duke and king was too fragile to test.

  As was his wont, Richard seized control and launched into a passionate assault upon Hal’s tattered credibility. He demanded to hear this “dunghill of lies” with his own ears and Robert de Tresgoz was ushered back into the bishop’s great hall. At the very sight of the Norman knight, Richard burst out into scornful laughter.

  “Well, well, if it is not one of Hal’s pet lapdogs! They’d have done better to send a priest, but after the raids on St Martial’s, Grandmont, and Rocamadour, even Hal’s own chaplain has likely taken to his heels.”

  Rob was enraged to be dismissed so disdainfully, but his anger was muted by exhaustion, for he’d covered more than seventy-five miles in less than two days. “I am speaking God’s Truth,” he insisted. “The young king was stricken with the bloody flux, and he is not expected to recover.” But to his despair, he saw that his words were echoing into a void; no one was paying him any heed and he was ushered out again, knowing that he had failed Hal in his moment of greatest need.

  Henry had lapsed into silence as the argument raged around him, no longer attempting to rebut the objections coming fast and furious from his two sons; with fine teamwork, Richard and Geoff were taking turns reminding him of that arrow deflected by his hauberk, the death of his stallion outside the walls of the ville, the ambush upon Maurice de Craon, the treacherous assault upon his envoys by Geoffrey’s men, the lies, the betrayals, the numerous breaches of trust.

  It was Henry’s uncharacteristic reticence that attracted Ranulf’s attention. When had Harry ever been passive in the face of defiance? Why was he even bothering to hear them out if he was set upon trusting his faithless son yet again? And then Ranulf understood. Harry was not free of doubts, either. Once more he found his head warring with his heart. And with that realization, Ranulf saw a path opening up through this maze.

  “My liege, may I have a moment alone with you?” he asked, and while Richard and Geoff seemed reluctant to trust Henry out of their sight, the others took hope from this, for all knew that if any man could get through to the king, it would be his uncle. Henry seized upon the opportunity to escape his sons’ hectoring and led Ranulf out into the garth.

  Twilight was laying claim to the cité, and the sky was a deepening shade of lavender, spangled with stars and fleecy clouds the color of plums. It was such a beautiful summer evening that Ranulf and Henry walked in silence for several moments, as if reluctant to sully this hallowed peace with the feuding and bad faith of mortal men. Without speaking, they crossed the garth and, by common consent, entered a side door of the cathedral. It was empty save for a lone canon, who discreetly disappeared when Henry frowned in his direction. Pacing up the nave, they halted at last in front of the high altar, and only then did Henry look challengingly at the older man.

  “You cannot tell me, Uncle, that you would not go to Morgan if you received such a message.”

  “Yes, I would go,” Ranulf admitted, but refrained from pointing out that Morgan had never given him reason to distrust his word, for he knew that his nephew was painfully aware of his son’s failings. “If you do go to Martel, we may have to sneak out in the middle of the night,” he said, only half joking, for he could see Richard and Geoff locking Henry in his chamber rather than let him risk his life and his kingdom on Hal’s word of honor.

  “We? Take care with your pronouns, Ranulf, lest you find yourself accompanying me to Martel,” Henry said dryly, and was surprised when his uncle smiled.

  “I will go with you, Harry—if you answer one question. Can you honestly tell me that you have no doubts or suspicions about the truth of Hal’s story?”

  Several tall candles burned on the high altar, and Ranulf thought he caught
the glimmer of tears in his nephew’s eyes. Henry did not reply, and they both knew that was an answer in and of itself.

  RANULF HAD GONE BACK to the bishop’s hall to tell the others that Henry would not be taking Hal’s bait, not this time. Henry was never to know how long he remained alone in the church. Until this June evening at Limoges, he would have said that the most despairing, desperate moment of his life had been passed at Canterbury, kneeling before Thomas Becket’s tomb. Now he knew better. Eventually one of the canons appeared, coming to a sudden stop as soon as he saw the motionless figure of the king. Before he could retreat, Henry beckoned him forward, giving a terse one-sentence command that sent the man hastening out into the night.

  The Bishop of Agen did not keep Henry waiting long. “Sire? How may I be of service? Is it your wish that we pray together?”

  Henry doubted that he had God’s Ear these days, but he kept that blasphemous thought to himself. “I have another mission in mind for you, my lord bishop. I want you to ride to Martel at first light, see for yourself if my son is ailing. And if you find…if you find that it is true, tell him for me that he has my forgiveness, that he has my love.”

  The bishop inclined his head, feeling so much pity for the English king that he was momentarily mute. Henry didn’t notice. Tugging at a ring on his finger, he pulled it free and pressed it into the bishop’s hand. “Give him this. It was my grandfather’s, passed on to me by my mother when I was invested as Duke of Normandy. Hal will recognize it as mine.”

  “It will be done, my lord king,” the bishop said quietly. But as he withdrew, he was struck by a disconcerting thought. Whatever he found in Martel, he would be bringing grievous news back to the king. What would be worse—that Hal was truly on his deathbed or that once again he’d taken shameless advantage of his father’s trust, exploiting his love to lure him into a lethal trap?