Devil's Brood

Devil's Brood

Devil s Brood 96

  THERE WERE TWO ROYAL RESIDENCES in Le Mans, the ancient castle near the cathedral of St Julien and the palace in the Place St Pierre, where Henry was lodging. Willem was standing on the town walls, looking down at the sprawling suburb that had grown up around the city. Sheltered on two sides by the rivers Sarthe and Huisne, Le Mans had an ancient past and its walls dated back to the time when it had been a Roman outpost. It had long been the heart of Anjou, but Willem was scrutinizing it now with a soldier’s eye, his only concern the defenses it offered against assault. He would have been more content had the city not held such a great prize—the king himself.

  It was that ephemeral hour between day and night, clouds still tinted with the red hues of sunset, the sky taking on the deepening haze of a summer twilight. Willem was too tense, too preoccupied to appreciate the quiet beauty of a country eventide, and he started visibly at the sound of his name. Turning, he saw Henry’s youngest son approaching along the battlement walkway, not a welcome sight, for he was sure John was seeking reassurance he could not in all honesty provide.

  John’s greeting was perfunctory, and he wasted no time in social amenities. “I have just come from my father, and he is still balking at withdrawing into Normandy. I do not understand him at all anymore, Willem. How can he be so lethargic in the face of such danger? He has always been acclaimed for the speed of his campaigns, and yet now he does nothing!”

  “What would you have him do, John? He does not want to make war upon his son.”

  “The choice is no longer his,” John pointed out impatiently. “Surely he means to defend himself? He showed no such reticence during the first rebellion, nor when Hal and Geoffrey sought to overthrow Richard. I know he is older now, but even so…”

  “He is fifty and six, which is hardly doddering.” Part of Willem’s annoyance was due to the fact that he and Henry were born in the same year. But he was also thoroughly disillusioned with the ingratitude of the king’s sons. After years of witnessing Henry’s strife with Hal and Geoffrey and Richard, he’d decided that a fertile queen might well pose a greater danger than a barren one. And so far he’d seen nothing in John to soften that harsh judgment, for Henry’s youngest seemed like a typical spoiled and callow young princeling to him, not likely to be the staff of his father’s old age.

  “Has it never occurred to you, John, that heart-wounds can be more dangerous than those inflicted with lance or sword? Especially now…”

  “What do you mean by ‘especially now’?”

  Willem stared at him. How could he not know? “I am talking of your lord father’s failing health, of course.”

  John frowned. “I know he is troubled by that recurring leg injury. And he suffered greatly this spring from an abscess in his groin. But as painful as they are, they are not mortal ailments. He always gets better, does he not?”

  Willem’s hesitation was brief. John was not a child, after all. He was a man grown of twenty and two. It was time for him to look at the world with a man’s eyes, time to realize how greatly his father needed him. “He is loath to speak openly of his ills, but he has been troubled for months by an ulcer and he has a wound in his heel that is not healing as it ought. Constant pain saps a man’s strength, all the more so when he must endure one family crisis after another.”

  John was silent for a time. “Then this is why so many of his barons are deserting him? They fear he might die?”

  “They fear he cannot win this war, and for a king, death and defeat are one and the same. I do not mean to alarm you, unduly, John. But I felt you had the right to know how serious your father’s maladies are.”

  “Thank you,” John said softly, “for telling me the truth.” Willem patted him on the shoulder and then moved on, heading for the ladder. John remained where he was, gazing over the walls at the deceptively tranquil scene below. Candles had begun to glow through the open windows of the houses, and bobbing beacons appeared on the streets as lanterns were struck. But these cheerful flickers of light were soon swallowed up by the encroaching dark.

  DURING THE NIGHT, thick fog drifted into the valley, and when Will and his companions set out, they could barely see more than a few yards ahead of them. They almost ran into an advance party of French scouts, but since they were not armed for combat, they let the French riders pass by in peace. Will led the way toward the River Huisne, and there he found that Henry’s caution had been well warranted. Using the fog as camouflage, the French and Poitevins had stealthily advanced as far as the river and were now encamped on the other bank, with the obvious intent of laying siege to Le Mans.

  ENTERING THE GREAT HALL, John made his way toward the dais, where Henry was talking quietly and intently with Will Marshal and several of his knights. “You sent for me, my lord?”

  Henry nodded, said “Come with me,” and led the way behind the oaken partition that screened off one end of the hall. “The French army is gathering for an attack upon Le Mans. I have given orders to break down the Pontlieu bridge over the River Huisne, to place stakes in the places where the river can be forded, and to scatter caltrops and sharpened stones in the riverbed. We are deepening the ditches and pulling down those houses closest to the city gates.”

  John nodded; he’d already heard about the French army’s advance, for rumors were sweeping the city. “What do you want me to do?”

  Henry hesitated, then reached out and placed his hands on his son’s shoulders. “I want you to go, Johnny. I expect to be able to withstand the siege long enough for my army to reach us. But it would be foolish for both of us to be trapped in Le Mans, so I want you safely away from here.”

  John caught his breath. “Papa…are you sure?”

  Henry felt a vast relief, for he’d feared that John would balk. Nothing ever came easily if one of his sons was involved. Thank God Almighty that Johnny could be reasoned with, unlike Richard. “Very sure, lad. It makes the most sense to have you in Normandy to take charge of the army and lead them back to lift the siege.”

  “I’d rather not leave you,” John said slowly, “but if that is your wish, I will obey.”

  Henry pretended to reel back in shock. “That is a word I never thought to hear from the lips of a son of mine,” he joked. “Bless you, lad, for not arguing with me.” Keeping his arm around John’s shoulders, he steered the young man toward the door. “Take your household knights, Johnny, and go at once.”

  The sooner his son was on the road to safety, the sooner he could draw an easy breath. He was not about to admit that, though, knowing that too much fatherly concern would sting John’s pride, make him more likely to insist upon staying. So he continued to banter with John, bidding him farewell as nonchalantly as if this were a routine separation, and only once did they acknowledge more was at stake. John had turned to go, then came back and gave Henry a quick hug.

  Henry’s eyes misted, but he then gave his son a playful push. “Be off with you, Johnny. And try not to get lost!”

  THE NEXT MORNING Henry decided to venture out to reconnoiter the French camp. Confident that there’d be no immediate assault since he’d had the bridge destroyed, neither he nor any of the men with him wore their hauberks. Only Will Marshal was insistent upon fully arming himself, and Henry was both amused and irked by the knight’s stubbornness. Exiting the city through a postern gate between the palace and the church of St Pierre de la Coeur, they rode through the suburb known as Bourg Dom Guy. The streets were eerily empty now as the residents had taken refuge within the city walls. Even the Maison Dieu de Coeffort, the hospital Henry had founded nine years ago, had been evacuated, a sight so mournful that he had to avert his eyes as they passed.

  They had agreed that if the French did attack, the suburb would have to be set on fire, and the knowledge that these poor people might lose all they had only dragged Henry’s spirits down further. When he’d first learned that Richard and Philippe meant to attack the city of his birth, Henry had been sustained by the intensity of his rage. But it had not continued to burn
at white heat, and this morning he felt numb and exhausted after another sleepless night and uncomfortably aware of his body’s aches and pains with every step his stallion took.

  “My lords!” One of the scouts they’d sent ahead was racing toward them, spurring his mount without mercy. “They have found a ford, are making ready to cross!”

  When Henry galloped past him, several of his companions cried out in protest. But he had to see for himself. French knights had ridden out into the River Huisne, using their lances to test its depth, and discovered a ford by the remains of Pontlieu Bridge. They were already lining up to cross, and Henry thought he caught a glimpse of Richard, mounted on a favorite roan stallion, not yet armed, but shouting commands, making order of chaos.

  “Papa!” Geoff had reined in beside him, swinging his mount around as if to block Henry from view. “We have to get back into the city! None of us are armed, so we cannot engage them, and if they see you, they’ll be on us like a hawk on a thrush!”

  Indeed, no sooner were the words out of his mouth than they heard shouts and men were pointing in their direction. As the first French knights splashed into the river, Henry and his men wheeled their horses about and raced for safety.

  WILL MARSHAL HAD BEEN LEFT BEHIND to guard the postern gate, and as it opened to admit the king and his knights, Will charged toward the pursuing riders, for he knew that Taillebourg had fallen when Richard had gotten into the city with the fleeing garrison. At first he was alone, but men on the parapet began shouting, “Over here, for God and the Marshal!” and some of Will’s knights came galloping through the gate to fight at his side. Soon a number of Henry’s men, now armed, joined the fray and before long a sharp battle was taking place in the streets under the city walls.

  One of Will’s knights, Hugh de Malanny, was struck with such force that his horse lost its footing and rider and animal both toppled into the marshy moat. Will promptly shattered his own lance on the French knight’s shield and the man also splashed into the moat. Casting aside his lance, Will soon spotted another worthy foe and spurred his stallion toward André de Chauvigny.

  Will was famed in tournaments for his ability to capture knights by seizing their bridles, using his own considerable strength and his horse’s momentum to drag his helpless opponents off the field. The maneuver worked perfectly now with Richard’s knight. To his horror, André suddenly found himself being towed toward the gate, faced with several choices, all of them unpalatable. He could try to cut his mount’s bridle, which would give him no way to control the animal. He could fling himself from a galloping horse. Or he could become the Marshal’s prisoner.

  Drawing his dagger, André leaned forward in an attempt to slash the reins before they reached the gate. Men up on the parapet were heaving large rocks down upon the French, and one of them hit André’s arm while another stone struck his mount in the head. The horse reared, screaming, and suddenly Will found himself holding the bridle, while André found himself clinging desperately to his saddle as his stallion bolted back toward the river. By now he was in such pain that he knew his arm was broken and he felt a surge of fear, for he’d not be able to halt the panicked animal. But hoof-beats were thudding behind him and from the corner of his eye, he saw Rico ranging up alongside.

  André took no time to consider, kicked his feet free of his stirrups, and leaped. This was a maneuver he’d often practiced in the tiltyard, but he’d never tried it with an injured arm, and sprawled awkwardly across the destrier’s rump. For several terrifying seconds, he hung there, holding on for dear life until Rico, displaying fine horsemanship, managed to halt his stallion. André slid to the ground and sank down in the grass. He was chalk-white, in such agony that he was on the verge of blacking out. But he was alive, and so had no complaints.

  At the gate, Will looked for new quarry and, in quick succession, he used his bridle trick upon two other knights, but both men preferred runaway horses to captivity and cut themselves free. Will’s third foe was not so lucky and was hauled through the city gate where he was quickly disarmed and turned over to Will’s excited squire. Will then switched horses with his prisoner, for his own stallion had been lamed after stepping on a broken lance. Returning to the combat, he led a charge that soon had the French in flight toward the river.

  By now Will was drenched in sweat and finding it hard to catch his breath, for the Seneschal of Anjou had set fire to the suburbs and smoke and flames were adding to the dangers of the battlefield. “I think we’ve beaten them back for now,” Will panted, looking at his comrades with pride, for Baldwin de Bethune and Renaud de Dammartin and Morgan Fitz Ranulf and Peter Fitz Guy were men he was honored to fight with, even to die with if need be.

  The French had retreated across the river, but Henry’s knights knew they’d soon be trying again, and they turned their mounts back toward the city. It was an exceedingly hot and humid day, and they were all exhausted, winded, and badly bruised from deflected blows. But they were triumphant, too, for the first onslaught had been a victory for the English. They’d almost reached the gate when Morgan gave a sudden shout of alarm.

  “Jesu, look! The wind is shifting!” And as they watched, appalled, sparks and cinders and burning embers were caught by the wind, sent spiraling up into the sky. Many of them came down within the city, and screams warned the men of Le Mans’s peril even before they saw the smoke.

  NOT FINDING HENRY AT THE PALACE, Will was heading for the castle when he heard a woman crying for help. One of the flying embers had set her roof afire, and she was frantically trying to drag her belongings from the house before it went up in flames. Will at once dismounted, and he and his squires came to her aid. She wept with gratitude as they were able to recover a table and bed-frame and a coffer chest of her family’s clothing. Carrying out a smoldering feather quilt, Will found himself choking on the acrid fumes coming from the bedding and after dropping it into a horse trough, he knelt, pulled off his helmet, and splashed water on his face. He could tell from the noise that the citizens were doing their best to put out the fires, but he could see smoke staining the sky in several quarters of the city and he feared that Le Mans was doomed.

  Riders were coming up the street, and he recognized the Earl of Essex in the lead. When Willem reined in his horse, Will felt as if he were looking at a stranger, for the normally imperturbable earl was as alarmed as Will had ever seen him. “The French crossed the Sarthe downstream and circled around to the west. They have taken the Perrin bridge and will soon be in the city. We must get the king away whilst we still can!”

  “NO!” Henry looked defiantly from Willem to Geoff, but there was more despair in his voice than anger. “I have never run from a fight in my life, am not about to start now.”

  Geoff grasped Henry’s arm, desperate enough to try to take his father from the city by force if need be. “Papa, you cannot stay!”

  “You must make a choice, Harry.” Willem took advantage of years of friendship to speak bluntly now, no longer as subject to sovereign, but as one battle commander to another. “We cannot hold the city, cannot fight the fire and the French, too. So you must retreat…or you must surrender to the French king and your son. And you’ve precious little time to make up your mind.”

  Henry turned away. He, who had always prided himself upon his swift response to a crisis, now found himself crippled by indecision, by a paralyzing sense of unreality. How could it have come to this? How could he lose Le Mans, the city dearest to his heart?

  “We will retreat,” he agreed at last, and they sprang into action, not wanting to give him a chance to reconsider.

  With the French forcing their way into the city through the west gate and the body of their army just an arrow’s flight to the south, the only escape still open to Henry was through the north gate, out onto the road to Alençon. Having shed their hauberks and helmets so they could make better speed, they galloped out of the city, heading north. But Henry was already having second thoughts. How could he abandon the townsm
en, always so steadfast and loyal? How could he let himself be chased away by that paltry French stripling and his wretched ingrate of a son?

  To the dismay of his men, he insisted on drawing rein upon the crest of a hill, and as he looked back at the burning city, his anguish gave way to a wild, unholy rage. “O God, since You have taken away from me the city that I loved most on earth, the city where I was born and bred, the city where my father is buried, I will repay You as best I can. I will deny You what You love best in me, my soul!”

  His listeners shivered in horror, hastily making the sign of the cross to distance themselves from Henry’s bitter, blasphemous rant. Geoff pleaded with him to ride on, but it was only when they saw the horsemen galloping after them that he let himself be pulled away from the sight of the smoke-shrouded city.

  RICHARD HAD NOT TAKEN a personal role in the assault upon Le Mans, feeling it would be unseemly to lead an attack upon his own father. He was not clad in armor, therefore, when he entered the city and learned that Henry and his knights had fled. Without stopping to think it through, Richard at once led his men in pursuit. His was an instinctive response, wanting to put an end to this once and for all, wanting the satisfaction of being the one to take his father prisoner, and perhaps sensing, too, that it would be better if he caught up with Henry rather than the men of the French king.

  Not burdened with hauberk, helmet, or shield, wearing only an iron cap—a cervellier—he rapidly gained ground on them, was soon in sight of the retreating rearguard. One of Henry’s knights had once been a friend, and when he saw him jousting with a Poitevin knight, Richard could not resist jeering as he swept by. “You are foolish to waste your time with tournament tactics, des Roches, would do better to put on a bit of speed!”

  At the sound of Richard’s voice, another knight turned back and charged straight at him. Richard was suddenly acutely aware of his vulnerability, for the man riding at him with lance leveled at his chest was one of the best of their age, his mentor who now seemed likely to be his nemesis. His mouth went dry, as for the first time he experienced the purely physical fear of death.