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Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 86


  Morgan had just helped his squire to roll a wooden barrel up a slight incline, and was watching as Josse then rolled it back down, taking care not to let it get away from him. “You need to be quicker, lad, for it almost ran over your foot!” he joked, and then noticed that he had company. A small boy about six or seven was at his side, watching, too.

  “What is he doing?”

  “He is cleaning my hauberk. The best way to remove rust and dirt from mail is to shake it in a barrel of sand.”

  The boy’s eyes fastened upon Morgan with flattering attention. “Are you going to fight in the tournament, Sir Knight?”

  “I am.” Because he believed the best knights were not braggarts, Morgan added frankly, “It will be my first. But that works to my advantage since I can take part in the jousting, which is reserved for newly made knights, and then fight in the mêlée, too.”

  Encouraged by Morgan’s affability, the boy edged closer. “This will be my first tournament, too,” he confided. “My mama thought I was too young in the past. But my brother is taking part in this one, and he spoke up for me. We’ll be over there,” he said, pointing across the field toward the wooden stands. “Will we be able to see everything?”

  “Well, you’ll be able to see the Vespers jousting tonight for those too eager to wait, and on the morrow you’ll get to watch me joust, lucky lad,” Morgan said, with a grin that the boy returned. “And you’ll have a good view of the charge that will begin the mêlée. Both teams will try to stay together as long as possible, for that is the best strategy. But they’ll eventually split up into smaller groups, and the fighting can range over several miles. This field will stretch between Lagny and the town of Torcy, and ere the day is done, you’ll have knights laying ambushes in the woods and taking refuge in barns and chasing one another right into villages.”

  Seeing the look of disappointment on the child’s face, Morgan said reassuringly, “You’ll still get to see all the jousting and the lance charge and the start of the mêlée, and afterward, when the prize is awarded to the knight who was the most valiant, you’ll be able to watch that, too. I’ve been told it is a fine Greenland falcon.”

  “My brother will win it. But I hope you do well, too.”

  “Thank you,” Morgan said gravely, and when the boy continued to interrogate him, he answered readily enough, for he genuinely liked children and looked forward to the day when he’d have sons of his own. “The main rule is that there are no rules. Well, mayhap a few. You see that staked enclosure off to your right? That is the recet for our team; the one for our opponents is located near Torcy, since that is their base. If a knight is hard-pressed, he can take refuge in his recet, and there’ll be men-at-arms to guard it and make sure the other side stays out. When a knight breaks his lance during the charge, he can ride over and get another one from his squires. But once the mêlée begins, lances are of no use in such close quarters and men rely upon swords and maces.”

  “How can you tell friend from foe?” the boy blurted out and then flushed. “That is a foolish question…”

  “No, it is a very good one. Each lord will have his own banner and his knights will have his coat of arms emblazoned on their shields. And we all have our own battle cries, too. The French shout ‘Montjoie’ and the English cry ‘Dex aie,’ which means ‘God our help.’ The young king always used that one. My lord’s men will be yelling ‘Saint Malo,’ a favorite Breton saint.”

  “You saw the young king fight?” the boy asked in awe. “My brother says he was a sight to behold.”

  Morgan thought that Geoffrey was as adept at arms as Hal, but it seemed mean-spirited to deny a dead man his due, and so he said, “Indeed he was, lad. One of his most celebrated fights was right here at Lagny. He’d become separated from his men, which is highly dangerous for a great lord. His foes swarmed him, eager for a king’s ransom, and he was so hard pressed that his helmet was torn from his head. Fortunately his best knight, Will Marshal, was close by and he and another of the king’s men rode to his rescue.”

  The child’s eyes were as round as coins. “Do men die in tournaments?”

  “Of course. Their weapons are not blunted and—” Morgan caught himself, remembering that the boy had a brother fighting on the morrow. “But any deaths would be by pure chance,” he said hastily, “for that is not the goal. The idea is to capture your foe and his horse, hold him for a goodly ransom.”

  “Lord Thibault!” A plump, pink-cheeked woman was hastening toward them. “I have been looking everywhere for you!” Arms akimbo, she frowned down at the child, who scowled back, unrepentant.

  Morgan gallantly came to Thibault’s defense. “It is my fault, too, Dame,” he said, with his most charming smile. “We were talking about the tournament and lost track of time.” He kissed her hand then with a flourish. “I am Sir Morgan Fitz Ranulf, one of the mesnie of the Duke of Brittany.”

  Thibault’s nurse was thawing quickly, soothed by the mention of Geoffrey’s name. It had an immediate affect upon Thibault, too. “He is my uncle!” he exclaimed, looking up at Morgan with a pleased grin.

  Morgan had known Thibault was from the upper classes; his clothing and speech and even his self-confidence all proclaimed him one of fortune’s favorites. He’d not expected the boy to be quite so highly placed, though. If he was Geoffrey’s nephew, he must be one of the sons of Geoffrey’s half sister, Marie. That made perfect sense, for Lagny was on the border of Champagne. “Then your brother is Henri, Count of Champagne!”

  Thibault nodded proudly but then bridled when his nurse sought to lead him away. Morgan again played the good knight and offered to escort them to Thibault’s mother. That not only satisfied them both, but it would give Morgan a welcome chance to meet one of Christendom’s great beauties, for all of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughters were as physically blessed as she had been.

  THIBAULT’S MOTHER was at that moment standing in the top tier of the spectator stands, checking out the view and bedeviling Geoffrey. “I recently discovered one of your dark secrets,” she teased, “thanks to Gaucelm Faidit. He was performing at my court last month and he let it slip that you and he had composed an erotic tenso, with you singing in French and Gaucelm responding in the lengua romana. Naturally I had to hear it!”

  “Oh, Lord…I was drunk at the time, Marie, I swear!”

  “Actually it was rather good,” she said, giving him a sidelong smile. “Richard is an occasional poet, too. Have you heard any of his songs?”

  “Richard and I are more likely to share insults and threats than poetry.”

  “That is a pity,” she said and meant it. She’d first met her mother’s sons thirteen years ago, at the time of their first rebellion, and she’d become quite fond of all three of them; John, she’d yet to meet. She’d grieved for Hal and she was sorry that Richard and Geoffrey acted more like blood foes than blood brothers. Nor did she approve of Geoffrey’s new rapport with her other half brother. Although she’d been compelled by the political realities of her world to make peace with Philippe, she neither liked nor trusted him, and she was sure that no good could come of his sudden friendship with Geoffrey.

  Since no others were within hearing range, she took advantage of her status as Geoffrey’s elder sister to speak her mind. “I find it curious that you and your men are fighting with the French instead of the Normans and Angevins.”

  “Merely a courtesy to my host,” he said, and she gave him a skeptical glance that made her look uncannily like the mother she’d not seen since childhood.

  “I am going to tell you a story, Geoffrey, about my father. Papa would often wander off by himself, and one time my brother-in-law Thibault found him dozing under a tree. When Thibault chided him for it, he said calmly, ‘I may sleep alone quite safely for no one bears me any ill will.’”

  “I know that story,” Geoffrey said, grinning as he remembered how it had vexed his father, who found Louis’s sanctimony hard to swallow. “I also heard about the time he said that the
English king had men and horses and gold but in France they had only ‘bread and wine and gaiety.’ My parents called him ‘Louis, Lamb of God’ for some time after that one!”

  “And did you hear what Philippe answered when he’d seemed lost in thought during a council? This is soon after he’d been crowned, so he was all of fourteen. He said that he’d been wondering if he’d be able to make France great again, as it had been in the days of Charlemagne.”

  “No, I had not heard that, but it does sound like Philippe. What is your point, Marie?”

  “I am trying to warn you that Philippe might well be a changeling, for he could not be more unlike our father. I do not know what the two of you are up to, but I hope you take heed, Geoffrey. Despite his youth, Philippe is a clever, dangerous man.”

  “I agree with you. But you seem to have forgotten that I am a clever, dangerous man, too.”

  Marie rolled her eyes, but when Geoffrey laughed, she could not help laughing with him. “Very well. I’ve done my best, will say no more on it,” she promised, and proved it by changing the subject. “Why did Constance not come with you? I would have liked to meet her.”

  “Come to our Christmas Court this year,” Geoffrey said expansively, “and we’ll show you that Breton hospitality is second to none. Constance had been suffering morning queasiness and she thought it best to remain in Rennes in case she might be pregnant. I keep telling her that all happens in God’s Time, but she is impatient to give me a son.”

  “It’s passing strange that you are the only one of the English king’s sons to produce heirs so far.”

  He shrugged. “Well, Richard might get around to wedding poor Alys one of these days now that she will bring him the Vexin, and Johnny is keen to marry the Gloucester heiress. I wish him luck, for the last thing my father wants is to allow him to have incomes and lands of his own.”

  He sounded so bitter that she gave him a quick, searching look. “Far be it from me to offer a defense of Henry Fitz Empress, but you might keep this in mind. At least he has permitted contact with your mother, and that is more than my father did. Once their marriage was over, he did his best to exorcise her from my life and memories—”

  She stopped then, having caught sight of the small boy running across the field, trailed by his nurse and a young knight. Leaning over the railing, she waved to Thibault and smiled. She loved all four of her children dearly, but she had a special fondness for Thibault, her youngest, and as she watched him race toward her, she felt a maternal pang, thinking that they grew up so fast, thankful that Thibault was only seven, years away from the time when he’d risk his life and honor in tournaments and war like her elder son, Henri, and her brothers Geoffrey and Richard.

  GEOFFREY WAS WATCHING with amusement as his men teased, tormented, and chaffed his cousin Morgan, an initiation of sorts into the ranks of knighthood. Morgan bore it in good humor, fending off the jests and gibes with a becoming modesty that was belied by his wide grin and dancing dark eyes. Geoffrey knew his cousin would remember for the rest of his life that moment when his lance had unhorsed his foe; a knight never forgot his first joust.

  Heralds were parading up and down, crying out “Helmets on!” Geoffrey adjusted his own helmet and then mounted his favorite destrier, a Spanish stallion he’d called Tempestad in recognition of the horse’s silvery-grey coat and stormy temperament. Reaching for the lance that his squire was holding out, he playfully tapped the boy on the shoulder with it, a lighthearted reminder that Mikael might one day be dubbed a knight, too. The estor—the grand charge—was eagerly awaited by spectators and participants alike, and Geoffrey’s breath quickened. This was the moment he most loved about tourneying, that first glorious sortie with banners streaming, trumpets blaring, and the earth atremble with pounding hooves as hundreds of knights came together in a spectacular clash of sound and fury.

  They were close enough now to couch their lances under their arms, to home in upon targets. Geoffrey selected a knight on a rangy bay stallion. Unhorsing an opponent was as much an act of skill as it was luck, required steady nerves and perfect timing. As they closed with each other, Geoffrey veered at the last minute, just enough for his foe’s lance to glance off his shield. He would then lean back in, hoping the Almighty would keep his own aim true. It was a maneuver he’d performed times beyond counting, both in tournaments and war, and indeed, the other knight’s lance did not hit his shield full-on. But against all logic, the blow still slammed him back against the saddle cantle, with such force that he lost his balance and, unable to catch himself, crashed heavily to the ground.

  The fall drove the breath from his lungs, but he reacted instinctively, rolling away from his horse’s thrashing legs. His sense of danger was strong enough to override his body’s pain, and by the time his foe turned his mount and circled back, Geoffrey had managed to get to his feet.

  “Surrender!” the other knight cried out, flinging away his shattered lance and raising his sword menacingly over his head.

  Geoffrey’s shield had been ripped from his shoulder and his lance sent spinning out of reach. Hastily unsheathing his own sword, he spat out one of his father’s favorite Angevin oaths and made his refusal even more emphatic by slashing at the other man’s leg. His defiance was unthinking, dictated by pride. A knight unhorsed was in grave peril, and he was a particularly tempting target; his opponents would soon be trampling one another in their eagerness to capture the Duke of Brittany. He knew, though, that he need not hold out for long. A knight’s first duty was to protect his liege lord and his Bretons would race to his rescue as soon as they noticed his plight. It was just a question who would arrive first, friends or foes.

  Sparks flew as he parried the other man’s sword thrust and then jumped back, forcing the knight to rein in his mount. “Do not be a fool,” the man panted. “Yield and if you give me your parole, I’ll free you to rejoin the mêlée!” He swore bitterly then, not at Geoffrey, but at the riders coming up fast. “Stay back! He’s mine, to me!”

  “You always were a greedy sod, Ancel,” one of the new arrivals laughed. “A duke’s ransom is too much for one man!”

  Geoffrey had seized his opportunity and snatched up his shield. Spurning Ancel’s repeated demands to surrender, he swung his sword in a sweeping arc to keep the horses at bay, taking a blow on his shield that staggered him. Facing down three knights, he despaired when he saw others galloping toward them. But then he heard the sweetest sound this side of Heaven’s golden harps. “Saint Malo! Saint Malo!” The battle cry of the Bretons.

  His attackers were turning to meet this new threat. Geoffrey recognized Gérard de Fournival in the lead, with Matthew de Goulaine and his cousin Morgan only a few strides behind him. More and more of his men were turning away from the mêlée, too, starting to ride in his direction, and Geoffrey saw salvation was at hand. He had no time to savor his reprieve, though. Gérard’s destrier, screaming like a banshee, smashed into the closest of its foes, and the other animal reared to meet the attack, unseating its rider. All was chaos, shouting men and slashing swords and maddened horses. Acutely aware of his danger, Geoffrey darted for the closest open space. But before he could break free, the riderless stallion bolted and he was brushed by its haunches as it turned, knocking him off his feet. Blinded by the clouds of dust being churned up, he never saw the flailing hooves above his head.

  “I THINK HE’S COMING AROUND!”

  The voice seemed to echo from a great distance, and when Geoffrey opened his eyes, he saw nothing but sky. The sun was so bright that he squeezed his eyes shut again as he sought to orient himself, to understand why he was lying on the ground, feeling as if every bone in his body was broken.

  “Geoffrey…my lord!” This voice was familiar and so urgent that he tried to filter the glare through his lashes, enabling him to focus upon the circle of worried faces clustered around him. He was not surprised to see Gérard and Morgan, but he was puzzled by the presence of his sister. Although he did not remember what had hap
pened, he sensed that she ought not to be here.

  Seeing his confusion, Gérard knelt and leaned over so Geoffrey could hear. “You are in the recet. You were unhorsed and trampled…do you not remember? We drove them off and carried you to safety. The men-at-arms are guarding us, making sure none of those knaves make another try at capturing you.”

  It alarmed Geoffrey that he remembered none of this. He did not even remember the estor, the start of the tournament. “How…?”

  “Ancel de Vernon cheated!” Morgan came back into Geoffrey’s line of vision. “That whoreson did not couch his lance, kept it in the fautré. He denied it, but he’s done it in the past.”

  Geoffrey understood what Morgan was saying; it just did not seem very important at the moment. Marie obviously did not understand, though. “‘In the fautré’? What does that mean, Morgan?”

  “The fautré is a spear rest, my lady, attached to the front of a man’s saddle, enabling him to balance the lance upright whilst riding. He ought to have braced the lance under his arm when he charged. By leaving it in the fautré, he gave his thrust much more power. That is why he was able to knock the duke from his horse even though the lance did not strike my cousin’s shield a direct blow.”

  One of the knights produced a wineskin, and Marie took it from him, tilting it to her brother’s lips. Geoffrey swallowed gratefully. “You ought…not to be here…” he mumbled, surprised that his words sounded so slurred.

  “I should have remained in the stands and watched the estor? When I did not know if you lived or not?”

  Marie frowned down at him, and Geoffrey thought hazily that she looked like his mother, sounded like her, too. He was touched that they’d all been so concerned for him and he wanted to reassure them that his greatest injury was to his pride. “Are…are we winning?” he asked, and they burst out laughing, taking his question as proof that the legendary luck of the English king held true for his son, too.