Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 74

  After a few moments, he indicated he wanted Will to remove the cloak. “Will…I entreat you…pay my debt to God…take it to the Holy Sepulcher for me…”

  He’d just asked Will to make a pilgrimage on his behalf to Jerusalem, but the knight did not hesitate. “I would be honored, my liege, and shall do it gladly.”

  A smile flitted across Hal’s lips. Summoning up the last of his strength, he moved his hand so that he could see the sapphire ring upon his finger, blessed token of his father’s forgiveness. “Remember me…” he said, as softly as a breath, and after that he did not speak again.

  THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KNOWN to history as the young king died at twilight on Saturday, the eleventh of June, on the festival of the blessed St Barnabas the Apostle. But the drama surrounding his death was just beginning.


  June 1183

  Martel, Limousin

  WILL STUMBLED DOWN TO the great hall the next morning feeling as if he was coming off a three-day drunk. He’d slept badly, could not get rid of a sour taste in his mouth, and for once his celebrated appetite was flagging. He forced himself to eat some cheese and bread, though, for he knew it would be a long, difficult day. When the other knights came over to join him, he saw that they looked no better than he felt—their eyes bloodshot and bleary, their faces either abnormally pallid or oddly flushed—and it occurred to him that men could indeed get drunk on grief.

  He was not surprised when they told him that the Bishop of Agen and Count Rotrou had departed, for a king’s death was like a sunset, and even his most loyal subjects would instinctively have their eyes already on the eastern horizon, anticipating the coming dawn. He was sorry to hear it, though, for he suspected they were in dire need of money, and they could have asked the bishop or the count for a loan. Peter and Rob soon confirmed his suspicions, reporting that Couraban had stolen the last of the spoils taken from Rocamadour, and they’d be lucky if they could scrape up enough to distribute the traditional alms expected when a highborn lord died.

  Will could not regret the loss, for to use such ill-gotten gains for a noble purpose was still sacrilege in his uncompromising eyes. “We need to make plans,” he said, knowing that the burden of dealing with Hal’s death was going to fall squarely upon his shoulders. “I think we ought to take Hal to the monks at Grandmont. They can make his body ready for burial. After the king is notified, we can then take him to Rouen as he wished.”

  It made sense to turn to the monks, and if they took a grim satisfaction in undertaking funeral preparations for the man who’d plundered their monastery, they’d earned that right. The knights were looking at Will with puzzlement, though, voiced by Simon when he repeated, “Notify the king? Surely the Bishop of Agen will do that?”

  Will marveled at the naïveté of the question, and Baldwin gave a derisive snort, saying, “Oh, yes, I am sure he’ll not spare his horse to be the first to tell the king. ‘Sire, I know I did my best to convince you that your son was lying, but it seems I was mistaken. Sorry, he really was ill, after all. And…well, he died.’”

  Baldwin had just made a very effective argument for the bishop’s taking as long as possible to reach Limoges. No one volunteered to bear the news to the old king, though, and Will sighed. He was no more eager than any of them to face Henry, but he feared this duty would end up in his lap, too.

  “Master de Fabri will know who can best do what…what must be done ere we leave Martel,” he said bleakly. He did not even want to think about the mutilation of Hal’s body—the removal of his eyes, brains, and entrails, the use of salt and spices to delay putrefaction long enough to reach Rouen. He knew the Church dwelt upon the corrupt nature of mortal flesh so that all good Christians would remember that nothing mattered but their eternal souls. That body above-stairs looked too much like the young king he’d served, though, for him to view it as just a husk to be discarded now that it was no longer needed.

  Wishing fervently for enough wine to drown all memories of this week of horrors, Will got slowly to his feet, saying, “We’d best see about—” He stopped abruptly, then, at the sight of the men swaggering into the hall. Why were Sancho de Savannac and his cutthroats still here? That made no sense, and he did not like it, did not like it at all.

  “Good morrow,” Sancho said cheerfully. He was accompanied by his chief henchmen, but as he approached, Will saw more of the routiers entering the hall behind him. Will had hung his scabbard on the back of a chair, and a quick scrutiny of his companions showed that most of them were not armed yet, either.

  Acknowledging the outlaw tersely, Will started to move past him, saying that he had much to do. He was not surprised when Sancho barred his way. “You can spare a few moments for me, Sir William. We have a pressing matter to discuss. The young king, may God assoil him, died deeply in debt, alas, owing us a large sum of money.”

  “You profited handsomely from your service to the king,” Rob said harshly. From the corner of his eye, Will saw that he and Baldwin were on their feet, too. Several of ´

  Etienne de Fabri’s servants had been moving about the hall, but they now showed the heightened awareness of prey animals and made an inconspicuous, speedy withdrawal.

  “Not as handsomely as we were promised.” In answering Rob, Sancho kept his gaze unblinkingly upon Will. “But I am a reasonable man, do not want to add to your burdens in the midst of your mourning. I am willing to settle for a smaller amount. Pay us one hundred marks and we’ll consider the debt paid in full.”

  There were indignant exclamations from the knights. Will shrugged. “You might as well ask for a thousand marks. We do not even have the money between us to pay for a Requiem Mass.”

  “That is a pity,” Sancho said, shaking his head in feigned regret. “I suppose there is only one fair way to handle this, then. You will remain as our guest, Sir William, whilst your friends raise the money. Once it is paid, off you go with our blessings.”

  Will studied the routiers with narrowed eyes, not liking the odds. Sancho’s cousin Ander and his lackeys Jago, Pere, and Gerhart had begun to fan out purposefully, hands on sword hilts. Even more troubling, other routiers had continued to saunter into the hall. Simon, always hot-headed, did not help matters then by calling Sancho a “lowborn churl” and declaring that they’d never agree to such brazen extortion.

  Sancho’s smile was toothy, mocking, and sharp with menace. “Now, lad, let’s not be hasty. We know that you’re all redoubtable knights, celebrated on the tournament circuit. You ought to keep in mind, though, that we’ve bloodied our swords a time or two ourselves. And you might want to do a head count whilst you’re at it.”

  Will was glad to see Baldwin and Roger were restraining Simon from doing anything mad. He’d made a quick assessment of their chances, concluding that resistance was not an option. They’d have to bluff Sancho into backing down.

  “How does it serve your purposes,” he said coolly, “if we all end up dead?”

  Sancho seemed amused by his challenge and Will realized that this was not a man who acted rashly or impulsively; he’d given careful thought to this ambush. “That would make it difficult to collect a ransom from you,” he agreed. “So we came up with a second plan should you balk at cooperating. If we cannot claim the renowned Marshal as surety for this debt, we will have to look elsewhere. Fortunately for us, there is always the royal corpse.”

  The rest of his words were drowned out in an enraged roar of defiance coming from virtually every knight’s throat. Sancho seemed unperturbed by their fury, continuing as if he’d not been interrupted. “I daresay the old king will pay dear to get his beloved son’s body back for a proper burial. He might even offer more than a hundred marks.”

  Will waited until he was sure his fury was under control. “Yes, he’d pay…and then he’d track you down to the ends of the earth, into the gates of Hell if need be.”

  Sancho’s smile did not waver. “Yes, he’d likely hold a grudge. That is why I’d rather do this
the easier way—by offering you our hospitality, Sir William. It is up to you, of course. But you’d best make up your mind soon. It is a hot summer’s day and it will not be long ere the royal corpse is too ripe to travel anywhere.”

  Will glanced toward his friends, saw that Baldwin and Peter had reached the same grim conclusion that he had. “My first duty is to the young king,” he said, the calm voice belied by the fists tightly clenched at his sides. “I must escort his body to the monks at Grandmont. I will agree, though, to return and offer myself up as your hostage once this has been done. You have my sworn word on that.”

  Ander, Jago, and Gerhart howled with laughter, their mirth stopping abruptly when Sancho nodded. “As I said, I am a reasonable man. And you are known to be an honorable one. We have a deal.”

  The other knights gathered around Will, appalled, yet understanding they had no choice; even Simon could see that. But Sancho’s men were now the ones to be incredulous and angry. Lapsing into their thieves’ cant, a jumble of the lengua romana of Aquitaine seasoned with Basque and Catalan that enabled them to communicate privately in public, they began to protest vociferously. Sancho shouted them down.

  “Enough! When have I not known what I was doing? I admit there are precious few men I’d trust to keep such a promise. The Marshal is one of them, mayhap the only one. This is a man who values his honor more than his life. Now you can argue whether that is an admirable virtue or a fatal character flaw,” he said with a grin. “But what matters is that it gets us our hundred marks. Who knows, I might even be willing to spare a few deniers to buy candles for the royal whelp’s soul!”

  HENRY HAD NEVER SUFFERED from ragged nerves, had always been at his best in a crisis. In the days following Hal’s message, though, he felt as if he were unraveling. He had more trouble than usual sleeping, had no interest in food, and most troubling of all, he was finding it difficult to concentrate. His thoughts were as skittish as unbroken horses, darting hither and yon as if he no longer had control of his own brain. Ostensibly, he was laying siege to the ville; in reality, his mind was roaming far afield.

  Why had he not heard from Bishop Bertrand or Rotrou by now? They’d had more than enough time to get to Martel and then return to Limoges. What did their ominous silence mean? That Hal was truly ailing? Or had they ridden into a trap? Were they being held prisoner whilst Hal waited to see if the bait would be taken?

  “My liege!” Geoff was bearing down upon him again and Henry strove for patience; who knew that sons could be worse than mothers? For certes, he’d never gotten such wearisome, constant solicitude from his other lads.

  “You are hovering again, Geoff,” he warned, and Geoff acknowledged the truth of the charge with an abashed grin.

  “I am being a pest, I know,” he conceded, for he’d already been chiding Henry about venturing within arrow range and nagging him about taking a midday meal. “I was just going to suggest that you seek shelter from the sun. Your nose is turning red!”

  “So is yours,” Henry pointed out, for Geoff had inherited his fair, freckled skin. Actually he was amenable to the idea, for the heat was unrelenting. By the Rood, how he loathed the Limousin! The spring had been miserably wet and cold, and now the summer was hellishly hot. So when Geoff gestured toward a nearby peasant’s hut, he followed willingly, ducking through the low doorway into a small, gloomy cottage that reeked of onions and cabbage and sweat. Straightening up, he found himself face-to-face with the fearful occupants, a bony, spare man of indeterminate years and his toilworn wife.

  Henry had a rudimentary knowledge of Eleanor’s lengua romana, for he’d always had an excellent ear for languages; only Welsh had proved to be impenetrable. He summoned up enough of it now to assure the frightened couple that they’d not be harmed, and his gentle words and the promise of a few coins did much to allay their unease. He sat cross-legged, then, on the hard dirt floor, his body admitting what his pride could not—that he was tired down to the very marrow of his bones.

  Ranulf soon joined them; he was another mother hen, Henry thought wryly. But he did not come empty-handed. He had several wineskins, giving Henry the one diluted with water and tossing the other to Geoff.

  “Make yourself comfortable,” Henry invited, and Ranulf accepted the invitation, lowering himself stiffly to the floor beside his nephew, muttering that he’d likely need help getting up again. There were times when Henry felt that his fifty years were weighing him down like an anchor, but he was a stripling next to his uncle, for Ranulf would be sixty-five that November. Because he did not see the older man that often, the changes wrought by aging were more noticeable to him; Ranulf’s hair was now pure silver and his shoulders were stooped, his stride slowed by a touch of the joint evil. The essential core of the man was still intact, though—the impish humor and courage and awkward habit of truth-telling—qualities that Henry appreciated even more now than in his youth.

  “Is Bleddyn still balking at returning to Wales without you?” he asked, and Ranulf nodded, with a grimace that was part vexation and part pride.

  “He is missing his wife and bairns, but he still insists that he’ll wait so we can return together. He is a stubborn one, is Bleddyn. And though he’ll not admit it, his real reason for staying is that he thinks I’m too feeble and aged to get home safely by myself!”

  Henry cocked a brow in Geoff’s direction, and his eldest had the grace to blush. Just then Willem entered the hut, saying, “So this is where you’ve all gotten off to! A monk from Grandmont has arrived, my liege, is asking to see you. Shall I send him into your audience chamber here?”

  “I’ll see him,” Henry said, thinking that the monk had likely come about their stolen pyx; to their great relief, he’d promised that he’d replace it. Of all Hal’s outrages in recent weeks, the plundering of Grandmont was the one that rankled the most, for Henry had taken it just as his son had intended—as a personal affront.

  He was getting to his feet when a brown-clad form blocked the light from the door. As the man stooped to enter and then straightened up, Henry was startled to see a familiar face. “Guillaume…is that you?” And the heat of high summer notwithstanding, he went cold, for the prior of Grandmont would not be the one to bear a mundane message. His presence here was a message in and of itself. Henry’s mouth was suddenly so dry that he did not even have enough saliva to spit. “All of you,” he managed to croak, “out!”

  They obeyed at once, Ranulf halting only long enough to shepherd the peasants ahead of him. He thought, too, to close the door behind them, and the hut was plunged into darkness. Henry welcomed it, for instincts honed as sharp as any sword blade were warning that he’d have need of its camouflaging kindness. The prior took several steps forward, would have knelt if Henry had not stopped him. “I do not bring good news, sire,” he said softly.

  Henry closed his eyes, never wanted to have to open them again. “My son…” he whispered, but he could go no further, struck by superstitious dread that to say it aloud would banish any splinters of hope, would indeed make it so.

  “The young king is dead, my liege, stricken by fever and the bloody flux.” The prior knew those were just symptoms of Hal’s death; the real cause was the Vengeance of God for his wanton acts of sacrilege. He saw no need to salt the king’s wounds by saying so, though, and instead continued quietly, telling Henry that Hal’s knights had arrived at Grandmont that morn, bearing the body of their lord and the sorrowful story of his last days. After a few moments, he realized that Henry was not listening. “Shall I go, sire?”

  Henry nodded, but cried out as the prior reached the door. “Wait! Wh…when?”

  “On Saturday eve, my lord,” the prior said sadly, and Henry shut his eyes again. On Saturday. There had been time. If only he’d believed, he could have been at Hal’s deathbed. If he’d not given in to his damnable doubts and suspicions, he’d have been there when his son needed him the most. The sound of a closing door told him that he was alone, and he sank to his knees, but prayers wou
ld not come. He prostrated himself on the floor of the hut, just as he’d once done upon the cold tiles before Becket’s tomb, pressing his cheek into the dirt, hearing no other sound in the world but the wild hammering of his heart.

  AS WORD SPREAD, men began to gather near the hut. It was a subdued crowd, conversing only in hushed murmurs, and since Henry was not in sight, they were watching his advisors and confidants, for it was well known that the king would have gone to Martel if his counselors had not talked him out of it. But the latter were oblivious to the stares and speculation, for they could focus upon nothing except the man in that cottage.

  Geoff, Ranulf, Willem, and Maurice de Craon were standing together, not speaking, each one alone with his regrets. After the prior had emerged from the hut, they’d heard only one cry, a lament that raised the hairs on the back of their necks, for it was a wail of pure pain and utter despair. After that, though, there had been silence, and somehow they found that more chilling than weeping or cursing or raging would have been.

  RICHARD WAS TRYING OUT a relatively new siege engine at Aixe. Called a trebuchet, it had a long arm pivoting on an axle. The shorter end of the arm held the counterweight, and the longer end, called the verge, was being winched down to the ground so they could load heavy stones into its sling. Once it was ready, the engineers waited for the duke’s signal and then released the trigger. As the counterweight plummeted down, the verge shot upward and rocks rained down upon the walls of the castle. The soldiers let out a cheer, and Richard turned to Alfonso with a delighted grin, looking like a boy who’d just been given a surprise present.