Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 73

  HAL CONTINUED TO GROW WEAKER, but his knights were convinced he would cling to life until he could make peace with his father, for now that he no longer feared eternal damnation, he was obsessed with righting the wrongs he’d done, especially to Henry. In a way, this was a mercy, for he was so concerned with making amends and making a “good death” that he’d not had time to mourn all that he was losing. A man who’d lived utterly for the pleasures of today with nary a thought for the morrow was now consumed with regrets, able to focus only upon his yearnings for salvation and forgiveness, and his friends prayed fervently that he would obtain both.

  Will was not alone in thinking it unlikely that Henry would come, and as the hours slid by, they were finding it harder and harder to maintain a cheerful pose in Hal’s presence, to keep his hopes alive even as his body wasted away. He was displaying a single-minded resolve that he’d never shown before; he’d worked out in his mind how long it should take Rob to reach Limoges and then to return with Henry, and when Friday dawned, his eagerness was painful for the other men to watch.

  Rob arrived as Vespers was chiming in the town churches. So guilt-stricken did he feel that he’d been tempted to take his time on his return trip, rationalizing that he’d be sparing Hal great pain as well as himself. Was it not better for Hal to die still hoping for reconciliation than to know his father had not believed him? But he continued to spur his horse onward, driven by a sense of duty that was stronger even than his sorrow. When he dismounted before the Fabri manor, he was mobbed by the other knights. But after one look at his haggard face, they asked no questions. The king would not be coming. Did it matter why?

  To their surprise and relief, Hal seemed to take the news better than they did. He listened without speaking as Rob stammered and stuttered and tried to put the best possible face upon Henry’s refusal, and then he said softly, “It would have taken Merlin to make it happen, Rob. Do not blame yourself.”

  Will was not fooled, though, by Hal’s composure, and when Hal then whispered for his ears alone, “I did not deserve his forgiveness,” the older man could not bear it and, excusing himself, started for the stables, determined to ride to Limoges himself. When Baldwin and Peter learned of his intent, though, they were able to talk him out of it by pointing out that it was too late. Even if Will could somehow convince the king, Hal would be dead long before they could get back to Martel. For Will, it was the worst moment of a wretched week. He was naturally a man of action, and he was finding it intolerable to watch helplessly as the young king’s earthly hours trickled away like sands in an hourglass. But he must be at Hal’s deathbed, for it was the last service he could perform for his lord.

  HAL HAD BEEN SINCERE when he said he did not deserve forgiveness; there could be few epiphanies as dramatic as one brought about by the awareness of impending death. But no matter how often he told himself that his punishment was just and fitting, he was anguished by his father’s rejection. If the man he’d finally become in the last week of his life could try to accept Henry’s judgment, the boy he’d always been cried out for mercy, needing his father to bring light into the encroaching darkness of his world, to say he understood and the slate of his misdeeds was wiped clean—just as he’d done time and time again.

  When Will burst into the chamber and saw Hal lying so still, his eyes flew to the dying man’s chest, holding his own breath until he reassured himself that Hal still breathed. Baldwin and Peter were keeping watch, and they started to warn him to be quiet, grateful that Hal seemed to be sleeping at last. Will ignored them and leaned over the bed. “My liege, a messenger has just ridden in, sent by your lord father!”

  Hal’s lashes flickered. “Truly?”

  “It is Bertrand de Berceyras, the Bishop of Agen, and his escort, the Count of Perche.” Will glanced at Simon and jerked his head toward the door. The knight hurried to open it and ushered the men into the chamber. They both came to an abrupt halt when Will shifted, giving them their first look at Hal. That was all it took to banish their suspicions, doubts, and misgivings.

  Rotrou of Perche was particularly remorseful, for he’d been one of Hal’s allies during the first rebellion, and when his eyes met Hal’s, he flushed. Hal acknowledged their past with a wan smile. “Who’d have thought, Rotrou, that I’d get to Hell ere you did?” As the bishop approached, he said hastily, “That was a joke, my lord…and a bad one. Have…have you really come from my father?”

  “Indeed, my liege.” Bishop Bertrand was so shaken by Hal’s shocking decline that he unfastened his own paternoster from his belt and placed it on the pillow next to Hal, then reached out and took the young king’s hot, dry hand in his. “King Henry bade me tell you that he freely and gladly grants you full forgiveness for your sins, and that he has never ceased to love you.”

  Hal’s lashes swept down, shadowing his cheeks like fans as tears seeped from the corners of his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispered, although the bishop was not sure if it was meant for him, for Henry, or for the Almighty.

  “I bring more than words,” he said and, taking a small leather pouch from around his neck, he shook out a sapphire ring set in beaten gold. He started to tell Hal that this was Henry’s ring, but saw there was no need, for Hal could not have shown more reverence if he’d produced a holy relic.

  “He does forgive me, then!” he cried and gave the bishop such a dazzling smile that for a moment the ravages of his illness were forgotten and they could almost believe this was the young king of cherished memory, the golden boy more beautiful than a fallen angel, able to ensnare hearts with such dangerous ease. Then the illusion passed and they were looking at a man gaunt, hollow-eyed, suffering, and all too mortal. Too weak to do it himself, Hal looked entreatingly at the bishop, saying, “Please…”

  When the bishop slid the ring onto his finger, he smiled again and closed his eyes. A hush settled over the chamber. The bishop directed an urgent low-voiced question to Will, and sighed with relief when Will assured him that Hal had been shriven by the Bishop of Cahors and that he’d made his last testament, for that was every Christian’s duty.

  Death seemed very close to them at that moment. But then Hal opened his eyes and said faintly, “I would send a letter…my father…” And that spurred them all into action. Within moments, pen, ink, and parchment had been found, and the bishop insisted upon taking them himself. “I’ve never had so exalted a scribe…” Hal whispered, and as the bishop bent forward to hear him, he tried to tell Bertrand what he wanted to say, but the words would not come and he looked at the older man imploringly.

  “We could begin with a quote from Scriptures,” the bishop suggested, and when Hal nodded, he paused to think of an appropriate verse. “Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions. What would you say then, my lord?”

  Will was holding a cup to Hal’s lips. He swallowed with an effort, saying, “Tell him that I am so sorry for letting him down…that I was a bad son and a bad king…” Will tilted the cup for him again, and his voice steadied somewhat. “Tell him of my love. Entreat him to forgive my mother, not to blame her for my sins…Marguerite, ask him to provide liberally for my wife…And to pardon my allies, to blame no one but me…my brother, Viscount Aimar, and the good people of Limoges…I beg him to make restitution to the abbeys I plundered…I stole from God, am so sorry…ask him to provide for my knights…to make right my wrongs…”

  Doubting that he had the strength to continue, the bishop said soothingly, “Very well done, my liege. I have it all, every word. It wants only your seal. I can say with certainty that your lord father will be proud you have shown such heartfelt repentance for your sins.”

  Hal was not through. “I want to be buried…at the Church of the Blessed Mary in Rouen. If only my father could pay my debts…” They thought he was done speaking then, but he added, so softly he could barely be heard, “So many regrets, so many…”

  The bishop’s vision was blurring with tears, and as he looked up, he saw that the other men were
weeping, too. Will leaned over and gently pressed his lips to Hal’s feverish forehead. At the touch, Hal’s eyes opened again. “Will,” he said drowsily, “so glad you came…” He seemed at peace for the first time, and Will sought to console himself with that. But then Hal’s breath hissed through his teeth. “Jesu! Durandal…”

  Will and Baldwin exchanged bewildered looks, having no idea what he was talking about. Peter did, though, and he said swiftly, “You need not fret, my lord king. We will see that it is returned, I promise.”

  Hal’s lips twitched in what was almost a smile. “Good lad…I’d not want the Lord Roland to think me a thief…” His voice trailed off, his lashes fluttering down again, and after that there was quiet in the chamber, his knights wiping away their tears as they watched the shallow rise and fall of his chest, counting the breaths that were so tenuous each one seemed likely to be his last.

  SATURDAY WAS MARKET DAY in Martel, and Amand’s tavern would usually be doing a brisk business. Not this Saturday. The locals were staying at home behind locked doors, almost as if the town had been invaded by a pack of hungry wolves. Amand supposed that, in a way, they had, for the young king’s routiers were always on the prowl for prey. He had just decided to lock up and go home when the door banged open and some of those God-cursed coterels swaggered in. His stomach, delicate in the best of circumstances, lurched and he had to swallow the aftertaste of his morning’s breakfast, but he managed a sickly smile and gave Modette a push when she did not move.

  Glaring at him resentfully, she waited till Sancho and his companions seated themselves at a trestle table facing the door. When they ordered wine, Amand hurried over to pour from one of the large casks and sent the reluctant Modette back with four full henaps, praying that these dangerous customers would drink and depart without smashing up the place, maltreating Modette, and stealing his meager profits, but not expecting to be so lucky.

  “Thank you, sweetheart,” Sancho told the sullen serving maid, for flirting was an ingrained habit with him, even when he was in a sour mood, as he definitely was this noon. It was bad enough that the royal whelp was dying, but he was dying deeply in debt, and some of those deniers ought to have been theirs. Not only were they not going to be paid, but the war would likely sputter to a halt now that the rebels no longer had Hal to rally around. It had occurred to Sancho that with the dying king’s knights so busy mourning his approaching death, it would be an opportune time to help himself to whatever was left of their Rocamadour booty. But that had occurred to Couraban, too, and the hellspawn had beaten him to it, riding off yesterday with the last of their abbey plunder.

  The men with him were his trusted lieutenants, forming the core of a band he’d led for several years, and he could be more candid with them than with the rest of their company, so they were aware of their financial woes. They did not appear overly concerned, though, for they had confidence in Sancho’s cunning and were sure he’d come up with something.

  When Pere said as much, Sancho shrugged off the compliment, but he never took their support for granted. They were a motley lot, he supposed, for they did not even have a shared language. He and his cousin Ander were Basques, Pere was a Catalan, Gerhard a Fleming, and Jago…God alone knew what mongrel blood ran in that one’s veins; most likely his own mother had not known. But what they had in common was stronger than their differences, for they were Ishmaels, condemned to live on the fringes of society, scorned even by the same lords who paid for their services. This hostility had forged a strong sense of solidarity, an us-versus-them mentality that often stood them in good stead. Sancho knew, though, that their loyalty depended upon his ability to produce, to keep their ventures profitable, and Hal’s death was undeniably a setback.

  A squeal from Modette interrupted his brooding. She’d brought more wine to their table and Gerhard’s arm now snaked around her waist, pulling her down onto his lap. The other men paid her no heed as she squirmed to free herself, her eyes narrowing to slits when his hand groped under her skirt. Just then Ander entered the tavern, though, and she took advantage of Gerhard’s momentary distraction to slip from his grasp, hastily putting distance between them as Amand looked on in dismay, fearing she’d expect him to speak up for her. Modette knew better, though, than to depend upon that frail reed, and impaling him with a contemptuous look, she began to back toward the door leading into their storeroom.

  She had some good fortune then, in a life that had been singularly lacking in it. Ander brought news they found so interesting that she was forgotten, even by Gerhard. Pulling up a stool, Ander yelled to Amand for wine before saying, “Well, you missed quite a show, mates. I am surprised they did not charge admission, it was that good.”

  “I take it the royal whelp is not dead yet?”

  “He is still clinging to life like a barnacle to a ship’s hull. But to give the lad credit, he is going out in a blaze of glory. He began by confessing again, first in private to the bishops and then in public to anyone who cared to listen. I sidled in at the back, having never heard a royal confession. I have to say it was a great disappointment. He seems to have lived a very dull life, for he had no truly interesting sins to disavow, mainly boring misdeeds like betraying his old man and harrying monks and the like.”

  “You’re being too hard on him, Ander,” Jago protested. “Naturally you’d find his transgressions tiresome when compared to yours. You’ll never find a priest corrupt enough or drunk enough to absolve you of your sins, but the rest of us do what we can.”

  Ander dug Jago in the ribs with his elbow, but Sancho put a stop to the horseplay before it could escalate. “That does not sound like much of a ‘show’ to me—a dying man confessing to tedious sins.”

  “Ah, but he was only getting started. Next he insisted that they garb him in a hair-shirt. Damned if I know where they found one. That bunch does not seem likely to carry hairshirts in their saddle bags, do they?”

  “They must have borrowed Gerhard’s,” Pere gibed, and the Fleming kicked him under the table, but missed and got Ander instead.

  “Swine,” Ander said, without heat. “I am not done yet, you cocksuckers. The fool then had them put a noose around his neck and pull him from his bed onto the floor and over to a bed of ashes he’d ordered them to make.”

  This was met with exclamations and expressions of disbelief, but Sancho came to his cousin’s defense. “I believe it,” he said. “Our young princeling has quite a liking for high drama. It would not be enough for him to repent. He’d have to be the most remorseful penitent since Cain wailed that his punishment was more than he could bear.”

  Gossip had it that Sancho was a renegade cleric and although he’d never confirmed it, the rumors persisted. This display of familiarity with Scriptures was too tempting an opportunity to resist and they began to heckle him with cries of “Father Sancho,” while Ander appropriated Pere’s henap and drained it in several gulps.

  “Oh, and the Duke of Burgundy is making ready to depart,” he said casually, for he knew this was hardly newsworthy. The Count of Toulouse had ridden off the day before, and they’d known it was only a matter of time before Burgundy abandoned the sinking ship, too.

  But for Sancho, this information was quite interesting. He’d been playing around with an idea, not sure if it was feasible. But it would require Burgundy’s departure for it to work. He wondered if he ought to confide in the others, then decided no, not yet. He’d take a little more time to think it over and then give them the good news that their prospects were not quite as bleak as they thought.

  HAL’S FRIENDS KNEW he must be in acute discomfort, lying on the hard floor in a bed of ashes and cinders, and they were both awed and proud of him for making such a spectacular gesture of atonement. As the hours dragged by, he dozed fitfully, occasionally murmuring in his sleep. Once Will thought he said his wife’s name, but he couldn’t be sure. He was sitting cross-legged in the floor rushes by Hal’s side, with Peter and Rob keeping vigil nearby. Baldwin was slumped in the
window-seat and Simon was trying vainly to console Benoit; the boy was huddled in Hal’s bed, his eyes so swollen with tears that he could barely see. Étienne de Fabri appeared from time to time, offering drinks and food that the knights always refused, for it did not seem right that they should enjoy what Hal was denying himself.

  Hal stirred when bells chimed for None somewhere in the town, and Will at once leaned over to dribble a few drops of water upon his lips, the only liquid Hal would accept. As their eyes met, the corner of Hal’s mouth curved. “Sorry…” he whispered, “to take so scandalously…long to die. Geoff would say I’d be late…for my own funeral…”

  That was too much for Rob and, choking back a sob, he fled. The others were ashamed to admit they, too, yearned to bolt, for the very air seemed oppressive, so saturated with sorrow that they felt as if they were breathing in tears. Seeing that Hal wanted to speak again, Will moved closer to catch his words.

  “So much to regret…especially that I am…am making Richard king.” Hal tried to smile. “Could say it…it is killing me…”

  “That is a very bad joke,” Will said thickly. Hal’s death would have repercussions that would echo from one end of the Angevin empire to the other, but he was not ready to think about that yet. For now the world had shrunk to the confines of this bedchamber, and time could be measured only by the faint beats of Hal’s heart.

  When Hal drew a ragged breath, Will braced himself for the death rattle. But the younger man’s eyes were suddenly filled with urgency. “Cloak…” he mumbled, “fetch it…”

  The men looked at one another in confusion. It was only when Hal said “cross” that they understood. Peter and Baldwin rooted around frantically in a coffer of his clothes until they found what he wanted, the mantle sewn with a blood-red crusader’s cross. They handed it to Will and he knelt, draped it around Hal like a blanket. Hal’s eyes traced the outlines of that crimson cross and he felt a surge of shame. He’d taken the cross so lightly, had sworn to go to the Holy Land more to vex his father than to honor the Almighty, and it seemed symbolic to him of a misspent life, yet another regret to take to his grave.