Settings
Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 90


  The men thought it was a good omen that their duchess’s pangs had begun on so holy a day, but their edginess increased as the hours dragged by. As evening drew nigh, they sought to distract themselves with an intent discussion of the dangers facing the Holy Land. André de Vitré had passed two years in Outremer, and he’d returned to Brittany with compelling stories of the tragic Baldwin IV, the Leper King. André had great admiration for Baldwin’s courage and stoic acceptance of his affliction; he’d died at the age of twenty-three soon after André’s departure, naming his nine-year-old nephew as king. But the boy was sickly and he’d died not long afterward, leaving the fate of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the hands of his mother, Sybilla, and her much mistrusted husband, Guy, one of the notorious de Lusignan clan.

  André had stories to tell, too, of the man many considered to be Outremer’s most dangerous foe, Sultan Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to much of Christendom as Saladin. He’d been defeated by King Baldwin at Montgisard eight years ago, but had suffered few reverses since then, now ruled Syria as well as Egypt. He was one of those men about whom legends formed, and André was easily persuaded to recount the most famous of these tales, although he warned he could not vouch for its veracity.

  “Saladin launched an attack upon Kerak, the stronghold of his blood enemy, Raynald de Châtillon. As it happened, a wedding had just taken place—Raynald’s stepson and the young half sister of King Baldwin. The story goes that the groom’s mother sent out some of the wedding dishes for Saladin, and he asked where the wedding-night chamber was located. He then ordered his men not to turn their siege engines upon that part of the castle, not wanting to disturb the newlywed couple.”

  The men laughed and André continued, relating that the king’s army had arrived in time to lift the siege, with Baldwin too weak by then to ride, but insisting upon accompanying his men in a horse litter. “It is often thought that leprosy is the judgment of God,” he said somberly, “but none who knew Baldwin could believe that his suffering was the result of sin. He was a man of honor and had he only been spared the scourge of leprosy, the Holy Land would not be in such peril—”

  He stopped so abruptly that the others looked up in surprise. When he leaped to his feet, they followed his example, for they now saw what had drawn his attention: the woman just entering the hall. In recent hours, Clemencia and Matilde had made brief appearances to report on the progress of the birthing, assuring the men that all was going as it ought. But at the sight of Constance’s mother, a stir swept the hall, for surely her presence must mean the child had been born.

  Margaret’s visage gave away nothing of her thoughts; she looked tired yet composed. But then she favored them with a smile resplendent enough to light the hall. “My daughter,” she said, “has given birth to a fine, healthy son.” And after that, there was such chaos that the rest of her words were drowned out.

  MARGARET COULD STILL HEAR the clamor as she left the hall. By the sound of it, they’d be celebrating until dawn, she thought, and why not? God had been good to Brittany this Easter night, good to her daughter.

  But as soon as she reentered Constance’s chamber, she discovered there’d been a dramatic development. She’d left her daughter, exhausted and pale, smiling at her son. Now Constance was crumpled upon her bed, sobbing so despairingly that her entire body was trembling, while the other women clustered around her in dismay.

  “Madame!” Juvette greeted her with obvious relief. “She just began weeping of a sudden and we’ve been unable to console her.”

  Marveling that the girl sounded so surprised, Margaret took charge, soon had the chamber cleared of all but the midwife, who was bathing the baby. Skirting the overturned birthing stool, she sat on the bed and gathered her daughter into her arms. “You go ahead, dearest, and cry,” she said soothingly. “You’ve earned the right.”

  After a time, Constance’s shudders eased, her breathing no longer as ragged and choked. Raising her wet face from her mother’s lap, she regarded Margaret with swollen, dark eyes. “I was so happy, Maman, but then…” She swallowed with difficulty, hiccupped, and struggled to sit up. Margaret slid a supportive arm around her shoulders, helping her onto the pillows, before she rose and brought a wine cup back to the bed, watching as Constance obediently took a few sips.

  “I would have been astonished if you’d not given way to tears, Constance. As great as your joy is, how could it not be bittersweet? You have what you most wanted in this world—a son, a son that Geoffrey will never get to see or hold or protect. You cannot exalt in what you’ve gained without mourning what you’ve lost.”

  That made sense to Constance. “Yes…” she said huskily, wiping away the last of her tears with the corner of the sheet, and Margaret looked over at the midwife, standing a few feet away with the newly swaddled infant. When she nodded, the midwife approached the bed and gently handed him to Constance. Geoffrey had often called Aenor his “perfect little pearl,” and Constance thought now that their son was perfect, too, a warm, breathing blessing in her arms, a miraculous reprieve for her duchy.

  The midwife stepped back, beaming. “Have you chosen a name, Madame?”

  Constance smiled drowsily. “I was favoring Margaret for a daughter, Geoffrey for a son. But then my father-in-law the English king sent us word that if the baby was a boy, he would like him to be named Henry in his honor.”

  She glanced up briefly, finding it difficult to take her eyes away from her baby’s face. “After that, my lords and I knew there could be but one name for my son. We shall name him after a great Breton king. We shall call him Arthur.”

  THE FRENCH KING demanded the wardship of Arthur, as he had done with the infant duke’s sisters, and he insisted, too, that Henry stop Richard from making war upon his vassal, the Count of Toulouse. Philippe then ordered the arrest of any of Henry’s subjects found in his domains, and Henry responded by arresting the French king’s subjects. Skirmishing erupted in the Vexin, and an April meeting between the two kings resolved nothing. Both sides prepared for war. Henry divided up his army, giving separate commands to Richard, John, Geoff, and William de Mandeville. Philippe mustered his army at Bourges, and in June he invaded Berry, an ongoing source of contention between the French kings and the dukes of Aquitaine.

  JOHN HAD LONG KNOWN he was uncomfortable in small or enclosed spaces, but he discovered in June that the worst sort of confinement was to be trapped in a castle under siege. Sent south by Henry to counter the threat in Berry, he and Richard had set up command in the castle at Châteauroux, and soon found themselves fending off an assault by the French army.

  This was John’s first taste of a siege, and so far he didn’t care much for the experience. It bothered him more than he’d expected, to know he was a hostage of sorts; like a trout in a fish weir, he thought morosely. He was not truly worried that the castle might fall to Philippe, for they’d sent word to Henry of their plight. Richard would have been his last choice of company in a castle under siege, though. Moreover, he was soon utterly bored, for he did not share the pleasure Richard seemed to take in manning the castle’s defenses. He’d heard of sieges lasting for months. How had such beleaguered men not gone stark mad out of the sheer tedium of their days?

  He knew he should try to sleep, for with daybreak the bombardment would begin again. He was too restless to stay in his bedchamber, though, and eventually wandered over to the great hall, hoping that he might find some men still awake. A dice game seemed as good a way as any to pass the hours.

  The hall was crowded with knights and soldiers, sleeping on pallets and blankets, using their boots as pillows. Rush-lights still burned in wall sconces, casting a smoky pall over air already stale and sweltering because of the shuttered windows. But a handful of men were still up, shooting dice in a corner, albeit without much enthusiasm. John headed toward them, only to stop when he spotted his brother. Richard was by himself in a window-seat, softly plucking the strings of a small harp. “So you cannot sleep either,” he c
ommented, so amiably that John found himself pausing, for most of the time his older brother treated him with offhand indifference or outright condescension.

  “Why are you not abed?” he asked, for Richard had passed a very demanding day; when not up on the battlements, he was overseeing their mangonels, checking upon the wounded, handing out casual compliments to soldiers who acted—to John’s annoyance—as if his words were gold, prowling the castle like a sheepdog keeping a watchful eye out for predators, determined to keep the flock safe.

  “My body’s tired enough,” Richard acknowledged, “but my brain will not slow down. I keep thinking of possible weaknesses in our defenses or wondering how long our supplies will last or worrying that some of the sentries are too sleepy to stay alert.”

  “You think they might try a night assault?”

  “I would in Philippe’s place. But I doubt that he has the ballocks for it.”

  John sat down across from Richard in the window-seat, although he wasn’t sure why. “You think our father will get here soon?”

  Richard continued to strum the harp, but he gave John a curious look. “You are joking, right?”

  “No…why?”

  “Because you are trapped with me, of course. Now, if it were just me, he might be sorely tempted to take his time. But for you, he’ll be killing horses in his haste to get here.”

  He laughed, but John remembered that Geoffrey had occasionally told bald truths in the guise of humor and he wondered if that were true for Richard, too. He started to remind his brother that their father had often ridden to his rescue in the past, but the words that emerged from his mouth seemed to come of their own volition. “Do you hate me for that?”

  Richard blinked. “For what?’

  John had been as surprised as Richard by what he’d said. He was committed now, though, and had no choice but to continue. “For Papa favoring me over you.”

  Richard didn’t seem to have given the matter much thought before. He was quiet for a moment, considering. “No,” he finally said. “I cannot say I was overly fond of Hal or Geoffrey, but I hold no grudge against you, lad.”

  “Why not?” John demanded, feeling somehow insulted by his brother’s lack of rancor. “I did invade your duchy, after all!”

  Richard was starting to look amused. “Far be it from me to deny you the credit for that bit of treachery.”

  “You just assumed that it was all Geoffrey’s doing,” John said accusingly, “the way Papa did! As if I could not possibly have formed the intent upon my own, even after you mocked me like that!”

  “When did I mock you?”

  “That day at Le Mans. When Papa said Aquitaine was mine if I could take it, you looked me up and down and then laughed.”

  “Did I? I’ll take your word for it, Johnny. If it makes you feel better, though, I never imagined Geoffrey had dragged you along at knifepoint. The reason I am willing to let bygones be bygones is because you were all of…what? Sixteen? It was only to be expected that you’d act like a damned fool. God knows, I did at sixteen.”

  John did not share his amusement. “I was seventeen,” he said sullenly, in that moment realizing that he resented Richard’s indulgence more than his hostility. He also realized that he did not like to be called Johnny, not by Richard.

  Richard had gone back to his song, frowning as he tried several chords. When he was finally satisfied, he glanced up, saying, “How does that sound to you?” But John was gone.

  HENRY PROVED RICHARD RIGHT by reaching Châteauroux in record time. Philippe raised the siege, but to the surprise of all, he did not retreat, and with two armies separated only by the waters of the River Indre, it began to look as if a battle was inevitable. This was uncommon, for battles were usually a commander’s action of last resort. Sensible men were not eager to submit themselves to the Judgment of the Almighty, and a decisive battle seemed to prove that the victor had God on his side. Most people preferred not to put the Lord’s Favor to such a stringent, conclusive test. Nor were the barons of either army keen to fight with one another, for many had kin and friends in the opposing camps. These men did their best to persuade Henry and Philippe to resolve their differences by more reasonable means.

  So, too, did the numerous clerics and prelates accompanying both armies, for the Church did not want to see two such powerful Christian kings at war when the real enemy was to be found in the Holy Land. In this way, a fortnight dragged by, with highborn messengers shuttling back and forth between encampments with proposals and counterproposals. No real progress had been made, however, and the fate of many continued to depend upon the whims of two strong-willed, unpredictable kings.

  RICHARD HAD JUST RETURNED TO HIS TENT and his squire was helping him to remove his hauberk when he was informed that the Count of Flanders had ridden in under a flag of truce, asking to confer with him. Richard swore and then sighed, for by now he was thoroughly disgusted with the mummery masquerading as peace negotiations. He was tempted to tell Philip to go away, but he knew, of course, that he could not do that, and he directed that the count be brought to his tent.

  He was somewhat surprised when Philip had his men wait outside, and as soon as they were seated, he could not resist a sardonic gibe at the Flemish ruler’s expense. “Since you want to speak in private, should I assume, Cousin, that you are thinking of switching sides? There is little love lost between you and Philippe, after all.”

  Philip gave him a sharp look and then smiled, somewhat sourly. “True enough. My relationship with the French king is almost as stormy as yours with the English king.” Taking a taste of his wine, he nodded approvingly. “It would be a shame to see your Poitevin vineyards go up in flames when you can produce wines like this. Look, Richard, let’s speak plainly. Your interests are not being well served if this standoff results in a bloody battle. Despite your father’s games-playing, we both know England will eventually be yours. But so will Normandy and Anjou. Is it truly wise to make an enemy of the man who will be your liege lord?”

  “What would you suggest, instead? That I betray my father to court favor with Philippe? You’re losing your touch, Cousin, if this is your idea of subtlety. Shall I also renounce my Christian faith whilst I am at it?”

  Philip’s smile did not waver, even as he marveled to himself that the genial Hal and this man could have come from the same womb. “Sheathe your sarcasm, Cousin. I am asking only that you talk directly with the French king, see if you can persuade him he will gain little and risk much by taking to the battlefield. I in turn will do what I can to get your father to see reason.” Adding wryly, “And may God have mercy upon us both.”

  RICHARD HAD BEEN ACQUAINTED with Philippe Capet since the latter was four, but as he studied the French king, he realized that he did not really know the younger man. They had little in common. Philippe was stiff-necked and judgmental, disapproved of swearing, had shown little interest in those pleasures that other men enjoyed. He denounced tournaments, disapproved of gambling and minstrels and troubadours, and did not even hunt much because he disliked horses. To Richard, a superb rider and swordsman who loved music and swore like a sailor, Philippe seemed as alien as a Carthusian monk. But he knew Philip of Flanders was right; he would eventually have to deal with this man and so it made sense to find out more about him.

  So far they’d been dodging and weaving, using polite language and courtesy to guard their real thoughts, and Richard was growing tired of evasions and ambiguity. As he looked into the French king’s pale blue eyes, he saw what his brother Geoffrey had also seen—a cool, calculating intelligence. Making up his mind then, he said, “Let’s talk about my real reason for being here. You and my lord father are far from fools, so I assume you will eventually agree to a truce. How much longer must we wait?”

  “What makes you think I am bluffing?”

  Although Philippe’s tone was composed, Richard noticed that his hands had briefly clenched upon the arms of his chair. So the French king was sensitive to slights upon
his manhood. He marked that down as a useful fact to know and set his wine cup aside, leaning forward in his seat.

  “You are bluffing for the same reason that my father is bluffing, because neither one of you wants to risk all upon one throw of the dice. I am paying you a compliment, for no capable commander commits his men to a pitched battle unless he is confident he will win or he has no other choice. Hellfire, Philippe, even I do not want to fight at Châteauroux and you know what they say of me—that I get drunk on bloodlust the way other men do on wine!”

  Philippe looked taken aback, but when Richard grinned at him, he grinned back. “Let’s talk then,” he agreed, “about how your father and I save face and come away with enough to satisfy us both. And when this is done, I would like you to visit Paris…as my honored guest. I got to know both Hal and Geoffrey, would like to know you better, too.”

  I daresay you do, Richard thought, for what better weapons can you have against my father than his own sons? “I will give it serious consideration,” he promised, and as soon as he said it, he realized that he meant it.

  “SO IF I AGREE to let Philippe hold on to the castles he took at Issoudun and Freteval, he will agree to a two-year truce?” When Richard confirmed it, Henry regarded him skeptically. “And what do I get out of it?”

  “You get what you want,” Richard said impatiently, “a chance to defer your reckoning with Philippe. That is your favorite tactic, after all, Papa…delay and delay and delay again. It has served you well in the past; think how long you’ve managed to keep Philippe in suspense over Alys and the Vexin.”

  “Are you telling me that you now want to wed the girl? Or that you’re willing to hand over the Vexin?”