Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 83

  Alys seemed distressed. “Can the Holy Land survive without a new Christian quest, though?”

  “God Willing,” Maud murmured, wondering what else she could discuss with Alys. Surely personal news would be safe enough? “I am happy to report that your brother’s queen is on the mend after her miscarriage.” She saw at once that this was a mistake, that Alys had known neither that Isabelle was pregnant nor that she’d lost the baby. Did anyone even write to this girl? “I believe you asked about the Duchess of Saxony’s daughter. It is true that Richenza—Matilda, I mean—will remain behind when her parents depart, but that is because she has a crown in her future. The Scots king has asked King Henry for her hand in marriage. They are distant cousins, so must receive a dispensation from His Holiness first, but the king has already sent a delegation to Rome to procure one. So it was for the best that she changed her name, for Richenza would not do at all for the Queen of Scotland!”

  So far, so good, she thought. As long as they steered clear of any mention of Richard, the conversation should be smooth sailing. “Did you hear about Lord John? He was very disappointed when the king turned down the crown of Jerusalem on his behalf, and mayhap to make up for that, the king knighted him and put him in command of that long-planned expedition to Ireland. So it seems a crown is in the offing for him, too.”

  Alys did not show much interest in John’s prospects, and Maud wondered if she even knew that Henry and Philippe had agreed after Hal’s death that she should be wed to “whichever of the king’s sons that he shall choose.” Most likely not. Why should they bother to inform her that she might become John’s bride rather than Richard’s? Maud had always prided herself upon her pragmatic streak, knowing that if she’d been more sentimental, more of a starry-eyed romantic, she might have been unable to endure marriage to the Earl of Chester, a man surely burning in Hell Everlasting these thirty years past. She reminded herself now that Alys was none of her concern, but it was no longer that easy, for her sense of justice was offended by the young Frenchwoman’s plight.

  Alys was glancing around nervously, worried that they could be interrupted at any moment, robbing her of her one chance to learn the truth. Worried, too, that her resolve might weaken, she leaned closer to Maud and blurted out in one great gasp, “Lady Maud, is it true that Richard is to wed the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor?”

  Maud had somehow known it would get to this. “Where did you hear that?” she temporized, wondering how to make such a bitter brew taste tolerable, and then she thought, No, by God. The girl deserves the truth if nothing else.

  “One of my ladies overheard people gossiping about it and she came to me straightaway, of course. Is it true?”

  “I am sorry you had to learn of it that way; you ought to have been told. A plight-troth was agreed upon, but the marriage will not take place. As much as it pleased the king and the emperor, it did not please God. The girl sickened soon after, and died ere the year was out.”

  Alys closed her eyes, her lips moving. It was the faintest of whispers, meant for no ears but those of the Almighty. Maud caught it, though, “Deo gratias,” most likely the only Latin Alys knew, and she felt a sharp pang of pity, but no surprise. Richard was a hero out of a minstrel’s tale, highborn and handsome and courageous and dashing, a king in the making. Of course Alys wanted to marry him. What girl would not?

  Alys soon excused herself, looking as if she’d been given a great gift. Maud knew better. Marriage was never easy, but she suspected that marriage to Richard would be more difficult than most. Men like Richard did not make good husbands; a wife would never be more than incidental, relegated to the outer edges of a life given over to war, duty, honor, and the pursuit of power. Sitting back in the window-seat, Maud considered approaching Henry on Alys’s behalf. There was no deliberate cruelty in his nature; surely he could be made to see how unfairly he was treating Alys. But she was deluding herself and she knew it. There was a time when she could have taken her royal cousin to task for his transgressions and he would have heard her out, mayhap even heeded her. But that time had passed. She gazed around the hall, her eyes coming to rest upon the still elegant figure of her friend, the English queen. They’d all lost so much, Harry most of all.

  ELEANOR SHOULD HAVE BEEN better pleased by Henry’s summons, instructing her, Tilda, Heinrich, and their children to take ship at Southampton and join him in Normandy as soon as possible; she’d like nothing better than to turn her back on England, the land she usually referred to as “that wet, wretched, and godforsaken isle.” But instincts honed both by years of marriage and captivity alerted her to danger of some sort.

  Nor was she reassured by the welcome they received upon their arrival at Bayeux. Henry had been as angry as she’d ever seen him when he’d learned of Richard’s raiding into Brittany. But if he was still wroth, he no longer showed it, seemed to be in good spirits, teasing his granddaughter about needing to learn to speak Gaelic, shrugging off Tilda and Heinrich’s effusive expressions of gratitude for ending their exile, even joking about the stern lecture he’d gotten from Patriarch Heraclius. His apparent equanimity merely served as further fuel for Eleanor’s suspicions.

  Unable to endure the suspense any longer, she cornered him in the great hall after a lavish meal in honor of the new archbishop of Rouen; Henry had not been won over by the campaigning of Rotrou’s ambitious nephew and saw to it that his own choice was elected to the prestigious post, Walter de Coutances. When Henry amiably allowed her to steer him toward the relative privacy of a window-seat, Eleanor was utterly sure that he was up to something.

  “You are looking much too smug for my peace of mind,” she said bluntly. “If you were a cat, there’d be cream dripping from your whiskers. What are you plotting now, Harry? Why am I here?”

  “Would you believe me if I said for the pleasure of your company?” he asked, fighting back a smile when she scowled. “Why are you here? A fair question. Your presence is required for upcoming events. As you never tire of reminding me, you are the Duchess of Aquitaine, after all.”

  Despite the warm spring night, Eleanor felt a sudden chill. “What are you going to do?”

  He leaned back in the window-seat, regarding her with a smile that never reached his eyes. “I am going to answer all your prayers, love. I am going to restore your inheritance to you.”

  RICO FITZ RAINALD did not realize how much he’d had to drink until it was too late. Upon learning that Richard had no need of them that evening, he and André de Chauvigny had ventured into one of the more disreputable quarters of Poitiers in search of wine and whores. They found the first at several shabby taverns outside the old Roman walls and the second at a bawdy-house popular with the duke’s soldiers. Their thirst slaked and their lust sated, they headed back toward the palace after curfew had rung, relying upon their prestige as the duke’s knights should they have the bad luck to run into the Watch. Jesting and bantering and singing a ribald ditty about a lustful monk, they saved time by cutting through the ruins of the ancient Roman amphitheater, eerily bathed in May moonlight. André had drunk enough wine to become fanciful, and he launched into a disjointed tribute to all the men who’d died in this unholy arena, drawing heavily upon what Richard had told him of Roman blood-sports.

  “A pity we do not have any more wine,” he declared, “for we could drink to the memories of those brave men who fought and died on this very ground!”

  “They were pagans, you fool!” Rico hooted, reaching out to steady André as he clambered onto a broken pillar.

  “Brave men, nonetheless,” André insisted hazily, “at least the gladiators were. Richard says they executed common criminals in the arena, too—” He stopped so abruptly that Rico took a quick step forward, thinking he’d lost his balance again. But he was staring over Rico’s shoulder into the shadows behind them. “We have company,” he said in a low voice that sounded as if he were beginning to sober up fast.

  Rico spun around to see the men converging on them. They m
oved without haste, fanning out to cover any escape routes. “Cagar,” Rico muttered, for Richard had recently begun to teach him to swear in the lengua romana of his duchy.

  “Whatever you just said, I echo it,” André said grimly, jumping from the pillar to the ground and unsheathing his sword. Rico’s weapon had already cleared its leather scabbard. He did not like the odds, four against two, nor did he like the looks of these intruders, for they moved without haste, theirs a cockiness that bespoke an easy familiarity with violence and sudden death. Two of them had swords drawn; the other two wielding clubs studded with iron. They were close enough now for Rico to recognize one of them, a strapping, broad-chested brute with a close-cropped head. Rico had seen the man at two of the riverside taverns, and he cursed himself now for having drunk so much, for walking into this trap like a lamb to the slaughter. It never occurred to either knight to yield, though, for there would be great shame in letting themselves be robbed by these lowborn knaves.

  “Give us your money and your rings and fine leather boots and we may spare your lives, young lordlings!”

  “Come and get them,” André challenged, as he and Rico braced themselves for the onslaught.

  It didn’t happen. The men were turning, looking off to the right. Risking a quick glance in case this was a trick, Rico saw what had attracted their attention—a glowing light that was moving steadily toward them. Holding a lantern aloft, a man was approaching, as casually as if encountering outlaws in a deserted, dark locale was a commonplace occurrence. “Is this a private game?” he asked. “Or can anyone play?”

  The bandits regarded him with a mixture of surprise and scorn. “Oh, you can play, friend.” The man who was apparently their leader took a menacing step in the newcomer’s direction. “You can start by tossing your money pouch on the ground and then kneeling. If you beg for your life sweetly enough, we might spare it…or not. You’ll have to wait and see.”

  His companions laughed, but the stranger continued to advance. He’d made no move to unsheathe his sword, though, and the bandit swaggered toward him, his naked blade leveled at the man’s chest. “That is far enough, fool, unless you’re truly eager to die.”

  Rico and André exchanged glances, agreeing that this might be as good a chance as they’d get. Before they could move, though, the lead outlaw lost patience and lunged at the newcomer. Rico had never seen anyone move as fast as the other man did. In one unbroken motion, he thrust the lantern into the bandit’s face and stepped in as the outlaw recoiled from the flames. For the length of a breath, the two seemed frozen in an odd embrace, and then the brigand staggered back, sinking to his knees with a guttural cry. It was only then that they saw the bloodied dagger in the stranger’s hand.

  The stricken man’s companions gaped at him as if they could not believe the evidence of their own eyes. They were no strangers to killings, but had never seen one done so swiftly, smoothly, and economically as this, and they hesitated, That brief instant of uncertainty was to prove decisive, for their new foe did not share it. He flung his dagger at the nearest of the men and then drew his sword while it was still in the air. The thrown knife missed its target, but not by much, and the man spun around, fled into the darkness. That was enough for the other outlaws; they, too, took to their heels.

  Rico and André had yet to move, transfixed by the ease of the stranger’s victory. They were not easily impressed by prowess, for they’d seen Richard on the battlefield, fought at his side as they’d grown to manhood. But as they looked at each other now, the same thought was in both their minds. This man was a master of the art of death. Then he moved within recognition range and they understood.

  Mercadier and his band of routiers had been hired by Richard the past autumn, and he’d quickly earned the young duke’s favor, for he was as fearless as Richard himself. Not all men were comfortable with him, though, for there was something unsettling about his very presence. He had the dark hair of a son of the south, but his eyes were so light they were almost colorless and utterly opaque, impossible to read. A jagged scar angled from the corner of one eye to his chin, leaving a bare patch of skin where his beard could not grow, and men accustomed to battle disfigurements nonetheless found themselves unwilling to look too long at Mercadier’s sinister scar or those odd, pale eyes.

  André and Rico felt awkward now that they knew the identity of their benefactor. Nevertheless, they could not deny they were now deeply in his debt, and lucky indeed that he’d happened to be passing by. When Rico said as much, he thought he caught the trace of a smile, but it was hard to tell for sure; the corner of Mercadier’s mouth had been twisted awry as that fearsome facial wound had healed.

  “I was not just ‘passing by,’” he said. “I’d been looking for you both since Compline. You are wanted back at the palace, for the duke has need of you.”

  “Why? What happened?” André said warily, for neither he nor Rico could envision Mercadier as the bearer of good tidings. “What is wrong?”

  “The duke got a message from his father. He has been ordered to surrender Aquitaine at once to its rightful ruler, the Duchess Eleanor, and if he balks, the old king threatens to send her into Poitou with an army, ravaging the land with fire and sword until he yields up the duchy to her.”

  They stared at him, dumbstruck. André was the first one to recover, lashing out bitterly against Richard’s father, declaring that Henry Fitz Empress was truly the spawn of Satan. Rico was loath to say so aloud, for the same blood flowed in their veins, but he found himself in hearty agreement with André’s emotional outburst. The old king was too clever by half, for how could Richard take up arms against his mother?

  “How…how did the duke react?” he asked, and Mercadier’s shoulders twitched in a half shrug.

  “His face flamed, then he went white as chalk, and withdrew to his own chamber. It was his seneschal who sent me to find you, saying ‘Go fetch his cousins,’ hoping you two might be able to help. How, I do not know,” Mercadier said candidly.

  Rico and André did not know either. But they had to try, and when Mercadier turned to go, they were about to follow when a groan drew their attention back to the wounded bandit. Blood was soaking his tunic, and Rico flinched when he realized that it was coming from the man’s groin. Sweet Jesus, no wonder the poor sod shrieked like a gutted weasel. “What about him?”

  Mercadier glanced back over his shoulder. “Leave him. If he’s lucky, his friends might come back for him. If not, there are plenty of stray dogs roaming the town, on the lookout for a meal.”

  That was not an image the young knights cared to dwell upon for long, and they hastened to catch up with Mercadier, leaving the outlaw sprawled in the ancient arena where so many others had fought and died.

  THERE WERE ONLY A FEW TIMES when Eleanor’s anger with Henry had burned so hotly that it had been indistinguishable from hatred. There was the afternoon she’d stood in the great hall at Limoges Castle and watched as the Count of Toulouse did homage to Hal. There were days of despairing rage in the early months of her captivity and the Michaelmas eve when he’d demanded that Richard yield Aquitaine to John. But this latest clash of wills was different. Nothing he’d ever done was as demeaning and unfair as this—using her as a weapon against her own son. Never had she felt as helpless as she had on that night at Bayeux, listening in stunned silence as he told her what he meant to do, utterly oblivious to the damage that might be done to her relationship with Richard. No, she could forgive him for making her his prisoner, but never his pawn.

  Once she’d calmed down, though, she could see that there actually might be some benefits to his scheme. This was proof that he’d abandoned any hope of replacing Richard with John, for he knew she’d never agree to disinherit Richard. Richard would still be the heir to the duchy. Moreover, the transfer of authority would not be as hollow as Henry undoubtedly hoped. She had no illusions, knew he’d never trust her with real power. But the acknowledgment of her suzerainty was significant in and of itself. By
recognizing her legal rights, he was bringing her from the shadows back into the light, restoring her identity in the eyes of the world. He’d not find it so easy to make her disappear again. And after eleven years of invisibility, she was eager for any taste of freedom, however circumscribed it might be.

  The Duchess of Aquitaine had resources that a disgraced wife did not. She would be better able to protect herself, for she was a vassal of the French king. Most important of all, she’d be able to protect Richard’s inheritance. As long as she drew breath, his succession was assured. And since she was sure her husband had considered that, too, she could only conclude it did not matter to him, further proof that he now knew he’d never coax or bully Richard into submission. It was enough for him to have the semblance of victory, to appear to have prevailed over his rebellious son. And if this man seemed utterly unlike the one she’d married, there was no surprise in that realization and only a little regret.

  Her greatest fear was that Richard would not understand, that he’d be too outraged to see this Devil’s deal was not such a one-sided bargain after all. What if he defied his father? If it came to war? If he blamed her, too, if he saw her as Harry’s accomplice? In the days that followed, she told herself repeatedly that she was being foolish, that Richard knew she’d never put her own interests above his. But the truth was that she could not be sure. She’d been separated from her sons for so long, just as they came to manhood. She loved Richard dearly. But how well did she really know him?

  ALTHOUGH IT WOULD HAVE GIVEN ELEANOR little consolation, Henry shared her unease as they awaited Richard’s response. He thought he’d come up with a face-saving solution to an increasingly dangerous problem. He could not allow Richard to defy him so openly; no king could. By offering Richard a way to back down while still salvaging his pride, Henry hoped to resolve the impasse and restore peace to his family and realm. But he’d been bluffing, for he never had any intention of sending an army into Aquitaine. As a father, he found that prospect abhorrent, and as a king, sheer lunacy. So as time passed without word from Richard, he found himself confronting an unpleasant truth. Bluffing was an invaluable part of a ruler’s arsenal, an integral aspect of statecraft, with one great flaw. If the bluff failed, what then?