Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 75

  “It has a much greater range than the mangonels,” he marveled, “and is more accurate, too. If those fools don’t surrender soon, we’ll bring the castle walls down about their ears!”

  Alfonso agreed, equally impressed with the deadly potential of this new weapon. Thinking he’d love to test it against the Count of Toulouse, he followed after Richard as the duke paced around the trebuchet, inspecting it from every angle.

  “Good work, Guy,” he told a soldier, who beamed at the praise. Men were scurrying about, making ready to reload, and Richard watched intently, his brow furrowed in thought. When Alfonso caught up with him, he murmured, almost as if talking to himself, “I wonder…if we shortened the sling, would that increase the arc of the stone’s flight? If so, it would cover greater distance, might even hit the keep itself.”

  When he looked questioningly at Alfonso, the Aragonese king smiled and agreed, although he had no clear idea what Richard was talking about. It was enough for him that the trebuchet worked; unlike Richard, he felt no need to understand how and why it did. But if Richard thought so, he was probably correct; at twenty-five, the duke was well on the way to becoming a master of the art of war.

  “Are we within crossbow range?” Alfonso asked suddenly, for he’d noticed that Richard seemed remarkably casual about matters of personal safety. When his friend mocked his caution, he reminded Richard amiably that his son and heir was only nine years old, too young to rule in his own right. “So if I were killed at Aixe, it would cause no end of trouble in Aragon. Whereas if you, my lord duke, were to take a fatal arrow in the chest, your brother the young king would be happy to step into your shoes.”

  Richard’s knights were taken aback, but Richard was amused, not offended, by Alfonso’s irreverence, and laughed. “Dukes may be expendable in Aragon, but here in Aquitaine, the duke’s death matters more than the loss of any king. As for the ‘young king,’ he’ll never see the day dawn when he…” He stopped in mid-sentence, and Alfonso, following his gaze, saw that riders were being escorted into the encampment.

  “Is that not your brother, the chancellor?”

  Richard nodded. “And to judge by the doleful look on his face, he is bringing yet more bad news. I am beginning to think my father ought to have christened him Jonah rather than Geoffrey.”

  Geoff and his men had dismounted by the time Richard and Alfonso reached them. At close range, Geoff’s agitation was even more obvious and Richard braced himself for yet more bad news. He greeted his brother brusquely, then said, “Well, what have you come to tell me that I will not want to hear?”

  “It is not bad news for you. It might even be good news for England, too, but it is the worst possible news our father could have gotten.”

  Richard stared at him. “Are you saying…You mean Hal was actually telling the truth for once?”

  “Yes, he was. He died on Saturday at Martel.”

  There were gasps and exclamations from those who’d heard. Alfonso made the sign of the cross. Richard was dumbfounded, for he’d had no doubts whatsoever that Hal had been lying through his teeth. He took a moment to absorb it, and then scowled. “Splendor of God! We’re all in the soup, then, and me most of all. When he starts doling out blame, I’m likely to get the lion’s share.”

  Geoff glared at him. “You have never understood our father, have you? He is not a man to seek scapegoats. When we tried to apologize for giving him such faulty advice, he would not hear it, saying ‘I am not Louis Capet.’ He has taken all the blame upon himself for not going to Martel, and when we argued that it was the only decision under the circumstances, he just looked at us with hollow, empty eyes.”

  Alfonso was becoming aware of an undercurrent of excitement surging through the camp. As word passed from one man to another, they were elated, understanding what this would mean for their duke. They were struggling to act sober and respectful, knowing it was not seemly to gloat over Hal’s death, but most could not contain their glee. Glancing at Richard, Alfonso saw that the full implications of Hal’s death had not yet registered with him; he’d reacted instinctively as a son and a brother. He kept his eyes upon his friend’s face, and he would later tell his queen that he’d seen the exact moment when Richard realized that not only had he won his war, he was now the heir to the English crown. Geoff was still chiding him on Henry’s behalf; he was no longer listening. His expression gave away nothing, but Alfonso was close enough to catch the hint of a smile curving the corners of his mouth.

  HENRY HAD LEARNED OF his son’s death on Tuesday afternoon. It was now Wednesday night and he was utterly exhausted, for he’d slept no more than four or five hours in that time. And when he had fallen asleep, he’d been tormented by remorseful dreams of Hal that gave him neither peace nor rest. As the hours dragged on, he’d told his squires to go to bed; in the shadowed chamber, he could barely make them out, sprawled on pallets in the corner. As tired as he was, he was not yet ready to plunge into the nightmare cauldron of his dreams, and he remained sitting in a window-seat, doing his best to keep the past at bay.

  When a discreet knock sounded, he chose to answer the door himself, much to the surprise of the bishop’s servant. He blinked and then said, speaking in the overly solicitous voice that people used to address the mortally ill, “My lord…Sir William Marshal has just ridden in. Since you are still awake, do you wish to see him? Or shall I tell him to wait till the morrow?”

  Henry had known this moment would come, when he’d have to listen to a first-person account of his son’s suffering. “I will see him,” he said and tried to brace himself for the ordeal.

  WILL’S MUSCLES WERE CRAMPING, and he was grateful when Henry gestured for him to rise and told him to find a seat. Fetching a stool, he sat down beside the king, keeping his gaze lowered, for it seemed somehow indecent to look upon another man’s raw, naked pain. He had been dreading this meeting as much as Henry, but it had to be done. A reckoning had to be made. After waiting several moments for questions that did not come, he realized the reason for Henry’s reticence—fear that he was about to hear a story that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Who could blame him for assuming Hal had died as fecklessly and carelessly as he’d lived?

  “You may be proud of his last days, my liege,” he said firmly, “for he showed courage, dignity, and grace, dying as a good Christian, as a great lord ought to die, setting an example for us all.”

  Henry searched his face intently, but he did not think Marshal would lie to him. “Tell me,” he said, and Will did, thankful that he’d not joined Hal until the last week of his life and need not speak of those rash actions that the young king had so regretted at the end. He related, instead, the story of the reckless, selfish boy who’d not become a man until it was almost too late. He had to stop occasionally to collect himself, for he was finding that retelling it was like reliving it, and he was not surprised to see tears silently streaking Henry’s face as he listened. How much worse it could have been, though, if Hal had not repented and been shriven whilst there was still time!

  “We did not know what to do with your ring, sire,” he concluded, “at last decided we ought to return it to you. But it was remarkable, for none of us could remove it from your son’s finger. It was as if even in death he could not bear to part with it.”

  Henry swallowed with difficulty. “May God grant him salvation,” he whispered, but it no longer seemed such a forlorn hope, not after what he’d just heard about Hal’s remorse, regrets, and contrition. “There is one last duty you can perform for him, Marshal. I want you to escort his funeral cortege to Rouen.”

  “My liege…I would that I could, but that is not possible.” And when Henry frowned, Will hastily told him of Hal’s final debts and the pledge he’d been forced to make to the Basque routier, Sancho de Savannac.

  “My son cost me greatly,” Henry said when he was done, “but I would that he’d lived to cost me more. This is not your debt, Marshal. I will take care of it.”

k you, sire.” Will reached then for the pouch dangling from his belt and drew forth Hal’s deathbed letter. “This is for you, my lord king, dictated by your son to the Bishop of Agen.”

  Henry stared at that rolled parchment with dread. Will understood. As painful as it would be to read his son’s last words, it might help to cauterize the wound, though. He waited patiently until Henry took the letter, assuming their conversation was over then. But Henry made no move to dismiss him.

  Henry was gazing down at the unbroken seal, recognizing it as Hal’s. He’d also used the sapphire ring to seal the letter, and that brought a lump to Henry’s throat. Looking up after a long silence, he said, “I wronged you, Marshal, blaming you unfairly for his mistakes and his sins. I see now that yours was the only level head in his mesnie. Once you were gone, he foundered like a ship without a rudder. I thank you for returning to him when you did, for I do not doubt that you helped to steer him back onto the path to deliverance.”

  “I could not have done so if you’d not granted me that safe conduct, sire,” Will said and rose, taking this as his cue to depart.

  “After you take my son to Rouen, come back to me, Will. You are a good and honorable man, and I would have you join my household knights.”

  Will gasped. He’d hoped that Henry would offer to assume responsibility for Hal’s debt to Sancho, but his expectations had gone no further than that. He’d resigned himself to the loss of royal favor, to a far different life from the one he’d enjoyed during his years with Hal. “My liege, you do me great honor. I would gladly serve you as I served your son. There is yet one more trust that I must discharge on his behalf, though. He felt great shame for having taken the cross so lightly, and he asked me to act in his stead, to deliver his crusader’s cloak to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.”

  “And you agreed, of course,” Henry said, with a faint smile, his first in more than a week. “Go, then, with my blessings. Tell my chancellor how much you will need for your pilgrimage and he will issue letters of credit. And upon your return, a place will be waiting for you.”

  “Thank you, my liege.” Will waited, sensing that there was something still to be said.

  “I would rather my son had triumphed over me than Death had triumphed over him,” Henry said, very softly, and Will did not doubt him. They regarded each other without need of words, two very different men united in their shared sorrow for the king’s son.

  CONSTANCE HAD BEEN BACK at the ducal castle in Rennes for only two days and she was still busy cataloguing all the damage done when Roland de Dinan had seized it on behalf of the English king. Trailed by a scribe clutching a wax tablet and bone stylus, she was inspecting the storerooms. As she tallied up their losses, she was seething, infuriated that so much would have to be replaced. Their flour was gone, as were the salted herring, cod, and mackerel, the dried figs and dates, even the five bushels of salt she’d purchased that spring.

  “They were like a swarm of God-cursed locusts!” she fumed. “They stripped the hall and bedchambers bare, stole our grey fur coverlet that had been a wedding gift from the Bishop of Rennes, even looted several pounds of wax. I’m surprised they did not steal the grease used for cartwheel axles.”

  Her butler murmured his agreement, and the clerk scribbled hastily to keep up with her torrent of words. Her ladies, Juvette and Blanche, exchanged knowing looks, for they understood that her foul mood was not explained entirely by the sorry state of the castle. Duke Geoffrey had returned to the war after recovering Rennes and staging punitive raids into Roland de Dinan’s lands at Becherel, and Constance had hoped that he’d left her with child. This morning she’d found out it was not so, much to her disappointment.

  The butler now led the way toward the buttery, where Constance knew their greatest losses lay. Any of the tuns of wine not drained dry by de Dinan’s men would have been carried off when he’d retreated, leaving a garrison behind to guard his prize. She’d heard that they had not put up much resistance when Geoffrey had besieged the castle, loath to fight against their duke. Constance could take some solace from that, yet more proof of Geoffrey’s acceptance by her Breton lords. He’d managed to overcome a huge liability—that he was the English king’s son—with uncanny ease. Of course she knew his campaign to win them over had begun well before their marriage; he’d laid the groundwork during those years when he was acting as his father’s deputy in Brittany, forging bonds with men like Raoul de Fougères and Reginald de Boterel that would stand him in good stead once he no longer relied upon Henry for his standing in Brittany.

  Constance still marveled at the vast difference between the reality of her marriage and her bleak expectations. She would have scoffed at the romantic idea of soul mates. Nevertheless, they had reached a remarkable understanding with surprising speed, discovering that they shared the same aspirations and ambitions, the same innate skepticism and gambler’s instincts, with, as an added bonus, the pleasure they found in their marriage bed. They’d be wed two years in August, with only one serious quarrel in all that time. Geoffrey had been furious to learn that she had countermanded him and returned to Brittany instead of seeking safety at the French court. Constance had been forced to apologize, which did not come easily to her, but Geoffrey had right on his side—she had indeed been put at risk by the seizure of the ducal castle, and she’d had to concede that her capture would have been disastrous.

  The buttery was a total loss; they’d even taken the keg of verjuice. “I hope my lord husband burned de Dinan’s manor to the ground,” she said angrily. “If it were up to me, I’d have sown salt into his fields, the Judas.”

  Her butler thought that was not entirely fair to Roland de Dinan, who’d been given the stark choice of offending his patron, the English king, or his duke and duchess. He was not crazed enough to offer a defense of the disgraced baron, though, and sought to console Constance by revealing that some of the wine had no longer been drinkable; wine rarely remained potable for more than a year, for if it was exposed to the air, it developed an acid, unpleasant taste.

  That did cheer Constance somewhat; she hoped that the marauders had ended up as sick as dogs. She was turning to check the details on her scribe’s tablet when Juvette rushed into the buttery. “Madame! The lord duke has just ridden into the bailey!”

  Constance froze. Geoffrey’s unexpected return could only mean something had gone very wrong. Had he gotten word of a coming attack upon Brittany? “He is not injured?”

  “Oh, no, Madame. I could see no signs that he’s been wounded. But…he and his men look very grim. I fear he brings bad news.”

  So did Constance. Normally she would have hastened out to greet him, but she decided now that a private reunion might be better and she said abruptly, “Leave me, all of you. Tell the duke that I await him in the buttery.”

  It seemed like forever to her before Geoffrey came through the doorway. Even in such subdued lighting, she could see that he was bone-white, the skin tightly drawn around his eyes, his mouth set in a thin, taut line. He closed the door, then leaned back against it. “Hal is dead.”

  “Dear God!” Constance’s shock held her motionless for a moment and then she moved swiftly toward him. “How? Surely not even Richard would dare to kill a king!”

  “It was not Richard’s doing. He…he died at Martel of the bloody flux.” Geoffrey sounded numb and she could easily understand why, for when they’d attempted to envision all the possible drawbacks to this war, it had never occurred to either of them that Hal might die. He was twenty-eight, in excellent health, and shielded from the ordinary dangers of the battlefield by his highborn status. Who could have imagined he’d be struck down by an infection of the bowels?

  “Was he shriven ere he died?”

  “Yes, thank God for that mercy. He made a very good end, for certes a dramatic one.” Geoffrey meant to sound sardonic, sounded sad, instead. They’d never been very close, and his boyhood admiration for the dashing elder brother had faded once he’d begun to asses
s Hal with adult eyes. But he’d discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that he mourned Hal both as a brother and as an ally. “If I had not agreed to join him, he might still be alive. His war was made possible by Breton money—”

  “No, Geoffrey! You did not coax Hal into rebellion. I’ll not let you blame yourself. In his entire life, Hal never did anything that he did not want to do. Even if we had stayed out of it, it would have changed nothing. Aimar and the other barons were set upon rebellion and Hal…well, he could resist anything but temptation. He would still have—” She got no further, for Geoffrey kissed her.

  “Thank you for that, darling.”

  “For what?” she asked, puzzled but pleased.

  “For your use of pronouns.” Seeing her lack of comprehension, he kissed her again. “For saying ‘we.’ I thought you might blame me for this, for entangling Brittany in a war we can no longer win.”

  “We made the decision together, Geoffrey. If we lose, we’ll do that together, too.”

  Geoffrey was touched by this display of loyalty. He and Constance were still learning about each other, and he had not been sure how she’d react. He had no qualms about lying if it furthered his own interests. He did not want to lie to Constance, though, and he needed to be sure she understood what they were facing. “Fortune’s Wheel has spun with a vengeance, Constance. It is not just that the rebellion is lost and we have no choice but to submit to my father and hope he is in a forgiving mood. It is—”

  She reached up, stopped his words by putting her fingers to his lips. “I am not a child, Geoffrey. I understand what Hal’s death means for England and for Brittany. But whatever comes, we will deal with it. What other choice do we have?”

  He slid his arm around her waist, drew her in against him. “Have I ever told you,” he murmured, “that I consider myself a lucky man?”