Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 94

  The chancellor was dumbfounded and suddenly fearful, feeling as if he were teetering upon the edge of a cliff where the slightest movement might send him plunging into a fatal fall. He’d not have thought the discord between the king and the duke could get any worse…until now. Adding a woman to the mix would do it, though. But how was he supposed to react to such news? What did Richard want him to say?

  “My lord, I…” Should he express outrage? Horror at the king’s depravity? But what if Richard did not believe the story? What if he did want to marry the girl? He could find no clues in Richard’s face. If he erred, there would be no recovery. Oh, the duke might not dismiss him, but the wrong answer was bound to affect his prospects, to impair his credibility. He took several deep breaths to steady his nerves, and then made the only choice he could. Since he did not know the “right answer” to this deadly riddle, all he could do was speak the truth. “I have my doubts about that, my lord.”

  Richard showed no reaction. “Why is that?”

  Longchamp knotted his fingers together in his lap. “If I may speak candidly, my lord duke? From what I’ve heard said of the English king, he is a man given to sins of the flesh. He has violated his marriage vows time and time again. I would not find it easy to defend his sense of honor. But I have never heard him called a fool. And to have taken your betrothed, the sister of the French king, as his concubine would be an act beyond foolhardy. It would be quite mad.”

  He could feel sweat trickling down his ribs, could taste it on his upper lip. He even imagined his thudding heartbeat must be audible to Richard in the endless silence that greeted his words. When he could endure it no longer, he said hoarsely, “If I have offended you, my lord…”

  “You have not,” Richard said composedly. As their eyes met, Longchamp saw that he had guessed right, and he went limp with relief, understanding just how much had been at stake. Richard agreed with him, did not credit this malicious rumor. But more important, this had been a test, both of his judgment and of his willingness to speak honestly, to tell the duke what he really thought. And he had passed it, had proven himself worthy of the duke’s trust.

  Richard sat down in a high-backed chair, stretching his long legs toward the warmth of the hearth. “Your logic is impeccable, Guillaume,” he said approvingly. “My father is, as you say, ‘given to sins of the flesh.’ But he has never been one for thinking with his cock. And Alys Capet is no Helen of Troy. Philippe ought to have known better.”

  Longchamp had no interest whatsoever in the French princess; he neither liked nor trusted women. But he said now what he thought was expected of a man of God and shook his head disapprovingly. “It is indeed shameful that the French king would besmirch his own sister’s honor for political gain.”

  “Shameful, indeed,” Richard echoed, so dryly that Longchamp realized the duke was not taken in by his sham indignation, knew it was feigned and did not care in the least. “It is not as if Philippe has ever been the soul of sentiment. And I do not think he has even seen Alys since she was handed over to my parents at the time of our betrothal, when he was all of four, five at the most. It would not surprise me, though, if my cousin Philip was the one to suggest the idea to Philippe. That is how Philip got control of his wife’s inheritance, after all, by accusing her of adultery.”

  “We are dealing with some very unscrupulous men, my lord.”

  “Yes, the gathering at Bonsmoulins ought to be a most interesting encounter. It is all such hypocrisy, Guillaume. Any peace between my father and Philippe would last as long as ice on a summer’s day, for there is not enough trust between them to fill a walnut shell. The both of them are born liars, but I will do whatever I must to patch up a peace, for without it, I dare not leave for the Holy Land. So I will let the French king think that he is using me. I will even overlook the fact that he clearly believes me to be as easily duped as my brother Hal. I’ll admit I was somewhat insulted at first by that. But then I realized what a convenient excuse he has given me for refusing to wed his sister. He wants that wedding, you see, for the same reason that my father does not want it: Hal’s sorry example. But I have no intention of taking Alys as my wife. I do not need her to hold on to the Vexin, and I can do better for England. The marriage would not turn Philippe into an ally. It could be revealed that he is really one of my father’s bastards and he’d still hate the Angevins.”

  Richard debated telling his chancellor that he was thinking of a marital alliance with Navarre, which made a great deal of strategic sense, but he decided he’d shared enough of his secrets with the cleric this day. “So,” he concluded, “should Philippe ever attempt to compel me to honor the plight-troth with Alys, I would be quite indignant. How could he expect me, after all, to wed my father’s bedmate?”

  “I think the English and French kings are going to find you are more than a match for either one of them,” Longchamp said admiringly. What a formidable team they were going to make. And since Richard’s future held the promise of a crown, mayhap he could dare to dream of a bishop’s miter.

  Longchamp had learned that Richard’s moods were mercurial, and like his father, he was as changeable as the winds. He was not surprised now when Richard’s acerbic amusement gave way without warning to a far grimmer humor. “I am not going to let him win, Guillaume,” he said. “Not this time. I could not keep him from making my mother pay the price for our failed rebellion. Fifteen years she has been his prisoner, fifteen years! And she is his prisoner, for all that she no longer wants for a queen’s comforts. I have had to submit to his demands and subject myself to his whims and endure the indignity of having him brandish the crown before me as he would tease a dog with a bone. But no more. I will not let him rob me of my birthright, and I will not let him keep me from honoring my vow to defend the Holy Land. I do think he is behind that very opportune rebellion in my duchy, and I would not put it past him to be conniving with the Count of Toulouse, either. And if by chance, he did not, it is only because he did not think of it. No, a reckoning is long overdue, and we will have it at Bonsmoulins.”

  THE PEACE CONFERENCE at Bonsmoulins would prove to be one of the worst experiences of Henry’s life. His suspicions were immediately ignited when Richard and the French king arrived together, not believing for a moment Richard’s nonchalant claim that they’d just happened to meet on the way. Still brooding over the offer Richard had made at Châtillon-sur-Indre, declaring that he was willing to submit his dispute with the Count of Toulouse to the judgment of the French court if that would end the hostilities, Henry needed little to convince himself that they were secretly in league against him, for Eleanor’s charge had been right. He did not trust his eldest son.

  The first day had gone well enough, with all parties maintaining civility. By the second day, tempers had begun to fray, and by the third day, negotiations had become so heated that Henry and Philippe’s knights were keeping their hands on their sword hilts. As was customary, they were meeting in an open field not far from Bonsmoulins Castle, and the blustery November weather only added to the general sense of discontent and distrust. But even Henry’s bleak expectations had not prepared him for what was to come.

  The cold and the damp seemed to have penetrated to the very marrow of his bones and his bad leg was aching, but Henry would not show weakness by requesting a chair. His physical discomfort was just one more aggravation on a day of many. So far little progress had been made, despite the best efforts of the Norman and French bishops, who feared that their holy crusade might be doomed before it even began. And by mid-afternoon, Henry’s patience had run out.

  “This is a waste of all our time,” he said curtly. “For three days we have been wrangling like barn cats, and what have we accomplished? We’ve agreed on a truce to last till St Hilary’s Day! Unless you have a new proposal to make, my lord king of the French, I suggest we put an end to this trumpery, resume once you are truly interested in reaching terms.”

  “We can settle our differences here and now,” Phi
lippe said coolly. “We have but two demands to make and are willing to overlook all our other grievances if you are prepared to concede on these two points.”

  Henry’s eyes turned accusingly toward Richard. “Does he speak for you now?”

  “In this, he does.” Before Philippe could continue, though, Richard stepped forward. “But first I would have a private word with you, my lord father.”

  This was the first time that Richard had even acknowledged their blood bond, and Henry nodded his agreement. They walked away from the others, coming to a stop under a gnarled oak, stripped bare by the winter winds. “I want to caution you,” Richard said bluntly, “to think carefully ere you answer us. There is no room for compromise here, and more rides upon your response than you could ever know.”

  Henry scowled. “Is this why you took me aside—to threaten me?”

  Richard started to speak, stopped himself. “So be it,” he said, and turned on his heel, leaving his father to return on his own to the waiting circle.

  “I am willing to make a true and lasting peace with England,” Philippe demanded, “and to return all of the lands I’ve claimed in this past year. But in return, my lord king, you must at once hand over the Lady Alys to our keeping so that we may make arrangements for her marriage to the Duke of Aquitaine. And you must also order your barons and vassals to swear an oath of fealty to the duke, as your heir and king-to-be. Do this and we will be content.”

  “I daresay you would be content,” Henry jeered, “and why not? You would be dictating terms to another king, meddling in English internal matters, and using the threat of war to gain your own way. I would be a poor king indeed if I yielded to French extortion or allowed you to crown my heir apparent. I’d sooner abdicate than betray my coronation oath and the promises I made to preserve and protect the English kingdom.”

  Before Philippe could respond, Richard strode over to confront his father. “Are you denying that I am your rightful heir?”

  “I am saying that I will not be coerced or compelled. Any declarations I might make today would be suspect and bring shame to me and to my subjects, for it would seem as if I were not acting of my own free will.”

  For a long moment, they stared at each other, and then Richard slowly shook his head. “Now at last I must believe what I had always thought was impossible.” Turning his back upon his father, he unfastened his mantle, let it slip to the ground, removed his hat, and unbuckled his scabbard, handing his sword to the closest of his men. He then crossed to the French king and knelt before him.

  “My lord king and liege lord. As Duke of Aquitaine and rightful heir to the English throne, I do willingly enter into your homage and faith and become your sworn man for the Duchy of Aquitaine, the Duchy of Normandy, for Anjou, Maine, Berry, Toulouse, and all my other fiefs on this side of the sea, saving only the fealty that I owe to my lord father, the English king.”

  Philippe had listened with the glimmer of a smile. “We do promise you, my vassal and liegeman, that we and our heirs will guarantee to you and your heirs those lands that you now hold of us, against all others. And we do hereby promise to return to your keeping those lands we’d taken in Berry and to assure your possession of those lands you now hold in Toulouse.”

  Rising, Richard accepted the kiss of peace from his new liege lord and then reclaimed his sword. “We are done here, then,” he said, and walked away without once looking back at his father.

  MORGAN’S FAMILY WAS NOT PLEASED by his belated decision to accept Henry’s offer. His mother had been very happy to have him home again, his brother could not imagine why he’d want to leave Wales, and his father was wary of him becoming entangled in the political turmoil roiling the Angevin Empire. When it became apparent that he was determined, though, Ranulf insisted upon giving him a letter for the English king, pointing out that Henry may have forgotten all about his young Welsh cousin by now in light of the ongoing crisis. “But I’ve always been his favorite uncle,” he said, “and if I ask it of him, he’ll be sure to find a place for you.” Morgan accepted the letter with thanks, but he doubted that he’d have to use it. He was convinced that he needed no other credentials than his link to Henry’s son.

  And when he finally caught up with the king, holding his Christmas Court at Saumur in Anjou, his confidence was justified by the warmth of his welcome. Henry seemed genuinely pleased to see him, so much so that some of the other knights looked askance at this newcomer thrust into their midst. Morgan had always heard that royal courts were breeding grounds for intrigue, envy, and rivalry, and those stories seemed confirmed by the coolness of the king’s household mesnie. His first few days were lonely ones, and he began to wonder if he’d made a mistake. But he’d grown bored in Wales, missing the energy and excitement of the Breton court. In truth, he’d been tempted from the first by Henry’s offer. He could not in good conscience join the king’s service, though, until he was sure Henry would not be making war on Geoffrey’s lady. When word had finally trickled into Wales that Constance had thrown her lot in with Henry rather than Philippe, he felt free then to offer his services to Geoffrey’s father.

  He’d not expected to be treated like an interloper. Outgoing and sociable, he was accustomed to making friends easily. The rules seemed different at the royal court, though. It was shaping up, he thought, to be a bleak Christmas indeed, for the king’s anxieties naturally filtered down to his followers. But things changed for the better with the arrival of William Marshal, returning from a diplomatic mission to the Flemish court. To Morgan’s surprised pleasure, the celebrated older knight greeted him as if they were comrades of long standing and his approval was enough to win acceptance for the king’s newest knight.

  Morgan was very flattered by Will’s friendliness because the older man had risen in the world since their last meeting. He’d always been acclaimed for his battle and tourney skills, but now he was a man of substance, too. Henry had given him the wardship of an heiress and the manor of Cartmel in northern England upon his return from fulfilling Hal’s pilgrimage pledge in the Holy Land. But that past July, Henry had bestowed upon him a far greater prize, Denise de Deols, the heiress who would bring Will the Honour of Châteauroux. The castle itself had fallen to Philippe that summer, but Denise was safe in England, lodged with Richard’s unhappy betrothed Alys and John’s bride-to-be, Avisa of Gloucester. She was too young for marriage yet, Will explained to Morgan, but his future was now assured, and all agreed he’d done remarkably well for a younger son with no lands of his own.

  As Christmas drew nigh, the weather took a nasty turn, and on this Friday evening, snow was falling thickly upon the ancient castle perched high above the River Loire. The night’s fish meal had been a modest one by royal standards, for Henry was ailing again and his cooks were taking advantage of his failing appetite to slack off. At least that was the view of the knights gathered around the hall’s center hearth. Hours later, they were still complaining about the inferior quality of the fish that had been served, grumbling that the sauce had been too salty and the bread hard enough to pound nails. Will and Morgan and several of the Marshal’s friends were listening to these laments with amusement, for soldiers had griped about such matters since the dawn of time.

  “In one breath they’ll be claiming the wine tastes like goat’s piss and in the next breath asking for more,” Will said with a wry smile. “Though it is true that this was a meager meal to serve at a king’s table. I’ve talked to the steward about it, but he insists the cooks and kitchen servants are doing the best they can, pointing out that they’d not expected the king to celebrate Christmas at Saumur when Chinon is so close at hand.”

  “I once knew a traveling player, and he told me one of the tricks of their trade. When they arrived in a town, they liked to give their performances in as crowded a site as possible to make it look as if they’d drawn twice the audience they actually did.”

  Morgan looked curiously at the speaker, for this was not the first time that he’d heard com
ments about the poor turnout for a royal Christmas Court. The king’s son John was present as was his other son, the chancellor, the steadfast Earl of Essex and his wife, Maurice de Craon, and some Norman barons and bishops. But many more were conspicuous by their absence, either keeping to their own hearths or paying court to Henry’s rebel son Richard.

  Morgan had been stunned to learn that Richard had done homage to the French king, for he’d not realized how serious their rupture was until his arrival at Saumur. The king had gone “white as death,” Will told him sadly, and since then not a one of them had heard him so much as mention Richard’s name. Unlike many of the king’s knights, Morgan was not personally hostile toward Richard. If Geoffrey’s rebellion was understandable, then in fairness he could not hold Richard to a higher standard of accountability, for he had genuine grievances, too. Still, he regretted Richard’s public repudiation of his father, for that seemed like such a drastic step to take.

  The other knights were still discussing the lords and barons who’d chosen to stay away from Saumur. The more he listened, the more unsettled Morgan became. “You make it sound,” he protested, “as if the king will not be able to rely upon his own vassals. Surely that is not so?”

  There was a telling silence, and then Will said stoutly, “Men of honor will stand by the king.”

  “And the others will wait to see who is likely to win, the king or his son. Anyone want to wager that the second band far outnumbers the first?”

  This was the same man who’d implied that Henry had chosen Saumur over Chinon to make the disappointing attendance at his Christmas Court less noticeable. Renaud was one of the sons of the Count of Dammartin, a young man with a sardonic tongue, a swagger, and a disconcerting habit of saying what was on his mind.