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Actions & Adventure
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Sharon Kay Penman
Devil s Brood 97
In desperation, he tried to ward off the lance with his arm, shouting out, “God’s Legs, Marshal, do not kill me! I am unarmed!” They were close enough now for him to see the grim expression on the other man’s face, to anticipate the lance driving into his chest with all the force of the Marshal’s body behind it. But at the last possible moment, Will shifted his aim and plunged the weapon into Richard’s stallion. Death was instantaneous and as the animal fell, Richard was thrown to the ground. Gasping from the impact, struggling for breath, he looked up at the knight, who’d reined in only a few feet away.
“Let the Devil be the one to kill you,” Will said, and he then spurred his horse, rode to catch up with his king.
By now several of Richard’s knights had reached him and were dismounting in haste to make sure he was unharmed. Waving their helping hands aside, Richard insisted upon struggling to his feet by himself. More shaken than he’d ever admit, he stood watching as Marshal disappeared into the distance, suddenly able to appreciate the kind of courage that was not fearless, that owed nothing to bravado or daredevil abandon, but was the pure product of the will.
“No,” he said, when they asked if they should resume the pursuit. “It is done.”
THEIR FLIGHT FROM LE MANS was a hellish journey for Henry and his knights. They were never out of danger, for they had to pass several of the castles that had been seized by the French. Men and horses collapsed in the scorching heat, as they dared not slacken their pace. By the time they reached Fresnay-sur-Sarthe that evening, Henry was in such pain that he could barely stay in the saddle. Geoff and Willem would have preferred to press on to Alençon, for Fresnay was a small castle, unable to accommodate hundreds of knights. But they knew Henry could go no farther.
Fresnay was one of the castles of the Viscount Beaumont; in happier days Henry had played host to the wedding of his daughter to the Scots king. He was with Henry’s army at Alençon, but his castellan did all he could to make them welcome, turning over the best bedchamber to Henry, offering to feed as many as he could, and suggesting that some of their men could lodge in the town’s three priories. Henry needed Geoff’s help to climb the stairs, for that hard ride had inflamed his old leg injury. Sinking down on the bed, he stirred only when Geoff would have departed, saying he meant to pass the night in the town, keeping vigil in case the French found them.
“No,” Henry whispered, “stay here, stay with me…” Not closing his eyes until Geoff promised he would remain.
Henry’s young squire, Hugh de Sandford, had shown the presence of mind to bring along a sumpter horse and Geoff gladly accepted a change of clothing, for he’d left everything behind in Le Mans. Henry did not have the energy to remove his dusty tunic and sweat-soaked shirt, so Geoff covered him with his own mantle, then settled down in a nearby chair to keep watch while he slept.
Awakening the next morning, Geoff was so stiff and sore that he could not move without wincing. To his relief, Henry still slept, and after instructing Hugh to let him sleep, he stumbled downstairs. The great hall had been used as a bedchamber by some of Henry’s knights. They were up by now, though, consuming bread, cheese, and wine, talking and even laughing among themselves, for their spirits had risen with the sun. Geoff shared their sense of rejuvenation, for they were less than ten miles from the Norman border and safety. He wished that he could convince his father to return to England to recover, but he knew that was a lost cause, and so contented himself that at least Henry would find security and time to convalesce in Rouen.
Morgan was also feeling much more cheerful, for he was still young enough to be restored by a good night’s sleep and a meal. He and several of his friends were prodding Will Marshal to tell them again about his clash with Richard, and Will, who had no false modesty when it came to his knightly skills, was happy to oblige. He soon had a large and enthusiastic audience, but their laughter had a nervous edge, for Richard was not known for his forgiving nature and few doubted that he would be king one day.
When Henry entered the hall, a sudden silence fell, for the past day’s ordeal was writ plainly in his face for all to see; his complexion was livid, his eyes sunken, his mouth tightly clamped. Morgan was so shocked by the king’s haggard appearance that he soon fled the hall, feeling as if he were reliving a nightmare, thrust back in time to those wretched days at Lagny, forced to stand by and watch helplessly as Geoffrey’s life ebbed away.
In his misery, he turned to the Almighty and headed for the chapel on the far side of the bailey. There he offered up a fervent prayer for his cousin the king and then lingered to talk with the chaplain. The chapel priory was a cell of the abbey of St Aubin in Angers, and the young priest was passionately loyal to the Count of Anjou; with him, as with so many Angevins, the fact that their count was also England’s king was an interesting irrelevancy. Morgan found it comforting to speak to another one of Henry’s partisans, and it was some time before he emerged from the church.
He was immediately hailed by two of his friends and fellow knights, Peter Fitz Guy and Robert de Tresgoz. “Morgan! We’ve been looking all over for you!” As soon as he joined them, they both blurted out their news at once. “You’ll not believe what happened!” Peter exclaimed while Rob declared that he feared the king’s wits had been affected. They paused for breath, and this time Rob deferred to Peter. “The king is not going on to Alençon, Morgan. He is sending his son and the Earl of Essex into Normandy with our men, but he says he is going back into Anjou!”
Morgan was staggered. “But that makes no sense!”
“We know! You should have heard the others when he told them that. I thought Geoff would go as mad as the king. They all decried it, speaking more frankly than he is accustomed to hear, first arguing and then pleading, to no avail. He told them this was not open for debate and in the end, he got his own way, as he usually does. He made the Earl of Essex promise not to turn any of his castles in Normandy over to anyone but Count John and insisted that Geoff continue on to Alençon. Geoff was so distraught, though, that the king did agree he could join him in Anjou after leading our men to Alençon.”
Morgan did not understand Henry’s rash decision any more than his friends did, and he remained silent as they told him that Will Marshal had begged to come, but the king was adamant. “You see why I wonder if he is in his right senses?” Rob said unhappily. “He escapes Le Mans by a hairbreadth and God’s Grace, and now he wants to go right back into Hell!”
Morgan didn’t reply, for he’d just spotted Geoff and Willem leaving the hall. Geoff at once swerved in their direction, with Willem following. Giving Morgan no chance to speak, Geoff reached out and grasped the younger man’s arm, hard enough to hurt. “You heard?” When Morgan nodded solemnly, Geoff’s grip tightened. “You must promise me, Cousin Morgan, promise that you’ll not leave him. He will not let me come with him, so it is up to you. To all of you,” he added, his gaze now including Peter and Rob. “You were steadfast in your loyalty to Geoffrey, and you two were just as faithful to Hal. I want you to swear to me, on the surety of your souls, that you will give the king the same devotion you gave his sons.”
Wide-eyed, they all pledged their fidelity to the king, vowed not to abandon him. Morgan then took advantage of his kinship to the chancellor and confessed, “Cousin, we do not understand. Why is the king doing this?”
Geoff looked at him mutely and then turned away, but not before they saw his despair. They watched him stride toward the chapel, and then glanced imploringly at the Earl of Essex. Willem did not reply at once. “He is going home to Anjou,” he said at last, his voice muffled, “going home to die.”
FOR THE REST OF HIS LIFE, Morgan would remember that harrowing journey through lands now occupied by the French army. They had to swing well to the west of Le Mans, passed two nights at the small hilltop castle of Sainte-Suzanne, and then, avoiding the main roads and enemy patrols, ventured on into Anjo
u. Much of the time they had to traverse narrow forest paths where Henry had hunted since his youth, and there were a few nights when they’d had to camp out in the woods, which Henry had done before, but never when he was feverish and in constant pain. It was easy for Morgan to imagine them as a small band of outlaws on the run from the law, an astonishing image for one of the most powerful rulers in Christendom.
The handful of young knights who were accompanying their king were impressed by his knowledge of the back roads and byways of Anjou, for he was often the one acting as their guide, and impressed, too, by his stoic endurance of his suffering. They were greatly relieved when they got safely to Angers, but after a brief stay to husband his waning strength, Henry insisted upon continuing on toward Saumur. Geoff caught up with them at Savigny, for he’d remained at Alençon only long enough to select one hundred handpicked knights and then set out after Henry. They finally reached Chinon in late June. As the crow flies, their journey was over a hundred miles, but they’d had to detour and sidetrack and veer off so often that they agreed they’d probably ridden twice that distance. A man famed for the speed of his travels, a man who’d once covered two hundred miles in four days, Henry had taken fully a fortnight to get home to the Loire Valley.
AT THE END OF JUNE, William Marshal and his household knights arrived at Chinon, in response to Henry’s summons. The Angevin baron Maurice de Craon also joined them. But the royal army remained at Alençon, for many of the Norman barons were loath to fight for a king who might be dying against the man most likely to succeed him.
HENRY HAD BEEN RUNNING a high fever for days. He was propped up with pillows, not having the strength to get out of bed, but he was lucid and determined to do this, to express his gratitude to the men gathered in his bedchamber. “Have you heard, Will, what has happened? My city of Tours has fallen to the French.”
“Yes, sire, I know.”
“And my barons and vassals are cravenly keeping away, fearful of offending a rebel duke and the false, shameless whelp who sits on the French throne. But you did come, Will.” Henry had to pause, overcome with gratitude and affection for these loyal, courageous, honorable men. “I am grateful beyond words to you,” he said huskily, “above all to you, my dearest son. I pray that the Almighty grants me enough time to reward you as you deserve, with the archbishopric of York.” His cracked lips twitched in what was almost a smile. “Even though I know you have never burned to take holy orders.”
“I want only your return to health and prosperity, my lord father,” Geoff managed to get out before his throat closed up.
“At least I can reward the rest of you,” Henry murmured, “and nothing has given me greater pleasure than what I do now.” A scribe had been standing off to the side, ready to capture the king’s words with pen and ink. One by one, Henry called upon the young knights who’d shared such adversity with him, and made grants and conferred wardships and heiresses upon them. He bestowed the castle and forest of Lillebonne upon Renaud de Dammartin, rendering that cocksure young man speechless for once. He gave a Marcher castle to his Welsh cousin Morgan. He rewarded Peter Fitz Guy and the other knights who’d stayed with Hal at Martel. And then he shocked them all by giving to Baldwin de Bethune the rich heiress Denise de Deols, whom he’d once promised to Will.
“No, Will, I am not growing forgetful in my old age,” he said, smiling at the dumbfounded expression on the Marshal’s face. “I have another highborn lady in mind for you.”
Will had quickly recovered his aplomb, for he was courtier as well as soldier, and he assured Henry that he asked no more than to enjoy the king’s favor, a courteous and blatant falsehood that amused them all, including Henry. But he was growing very tired, and so he did not tease Will by dragging out the suspense. “It is my great joy to bestow upon the Marshal the hand of Isabella de Clare, heiress of Richard Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke and Lord of Striguil and Leinster.”
Will gasped and his friends forgot for a moment that they were at a king’s sickbed. They cheered and thumped him boisterously on the back, excited by his great good fortune, for Isabella de Clare was the richest heiress in England, would bring Will vast estates in England, Normandy, Wales, and Ireland. They soon subsided, though, realizing the insensitivity of celebrating Will’s bright prospects when the king’s were so bleak. Will had begun to stammer his thanks, but Henry stopped him.
“You served my son well,” he said softly, “just as you’ve served me. Hal would have wanted me to do this for you.” And Will had to swallow a sudden lump in his throat, for Henry’s words had conjured up a beguiling ghost, his manifest flaws expunged by death, handsome and dashing and forever young.
ON THE FIRST OF JULY, the Archbishop of Tours arrived to give Henry an eyewitness account of the capture of his city. He was also able to tell them what had happened in Le Mans after they’d fled. It had not been sacked, most likely due to the duke’s orders, he reported diffidently, nervous at having to say anything complimentary about Richard under the circumstances. All of Henry’s Welsh routiers had been massacred, save only those who’d retreated into the castle and withstood a three-day siege. The fire damage was not as great as first feared, he said, hoping that might give Henry some comfort, but seeing that it did not.
Geoff and Will begged Henry to let the archbishop shrive him of his sins, for they greatly feared that he might die before he could atone for his blasphemy on the hill overlooking Le Mans. But Henry refused, for he was not yet ready, either to forgive the Almighty or to ask His forgiveness. As his fever continued to spike, he found himself drifting back in time, although his memories were fragmented and random, flashes of his boyhood and his garden courtship of the beautiful French queen, whispers of past triumphs and echoes of unhealed sorrows. His father and Eleanor and Hal wandered through his dreams, as did Thomas Becket, miraculously young again, the king’s chancellor and loyal friend, laughing and telling him that the lucky man was one who died without regrets. Upon awakening, Henry found that his face was wet with tears, for he had regrets beyond counting. One of his greatest was that he’d not have the chance to explain to John why he’d never taken any measures to secure the crown for him. You could not have held it, lad, not against Richard, and your kingship would be as brief as it was bloody. He’d wanted to spare his son’s pride, but now he wished he’d been more forthright, sought to make John understand. He was beginning to worry about him, for John’s whereabouts were still unknown nigh on three weeks after the retreat from Le Mans. Geoff and Will had not seen him at Alençon, and while Henry thought he was likely safe in Normandy, the silence was one more burden to take to his grave.
THE NEXT DAY HENRY HAD MORE VISITORS, the Count of Flanders, the Archbishop of Rheims, and the Count of Blois riding in under a flag of truce. “Do you wish to see them, Papa?” Geoff asked. “Shall I bring them up to your chamber?”
“No,” Henry said and only when he tried to rise did his son realize he was not refusing to see the men, but unwilling to see them at his sickbed. Geoff argued against it in vain, insisting Henry did not have to do this. By now Henry had managed to swing his legs over the side of the bed. “Yes, Geoff, I do,” he said, and beckoned for Hugh to help him dress.
Henry felt no surprise when they seemed so taken aback as he limped into the hall; by now he was used to having people react to his appearance with poorly concealed shock. “I know,” he said, sinking down into the chair that Will was holding out for him. “I look like a corpse that is overdue for burial. So spare me the solicitous queries about my health and tell me why you are here.”
Thibault of Blois and the archbishop seemed disconcerted by such candor, but Philip of Flanders gave Henry a grimly approving smile. “Fair enough,” he said and leaned across the table. “We never wanted this war, Cousin. We ought to have been halfway to Jerusalem by now, but Philippe has the bit between his teeth. I fear he’s in danger of getting drunk on battlefield glory, blissfully unaware that he is drinking from Richard’s cup. We have been urging
him to make peace, without success. And yes, I know I seem like an unlikely peacemaker. But my vow to take the cross apparently means more to me than his does to Philippe. And it is not in any of our interests to have the balance of power turned on its head like this. An overly mighty French king is no improvement over an overly mighty English one.”
Henry could believe them, for all three men had been involved in rebellions against Philippe during the early years of his reign, years in which he’d come to the boy’s rescue time and time again. No one ought ever to doubt that the Almighty had a sense of humor. “Then if you bring no peace offers, what exactly do you have for me, Cousin?”
Once Philip would have relished this moment, but he discovered now that he could take no pleasure in Henry’s defeat and humiliation. “Philippe and Richard wish you to come to Colombières the day after tomorrow,” he said, doing his best to transform a command into a request.
Henry was not misled, knew full well that this was no invitation. “Tell the French king and the Duke of Aquitaine that I will be there.”
THEY’D BROUGHT OUT A STOOL to assist Henry in mounting, for he’d adamantly refused to use a horse litter. His squires stood by, as it was obvious to them that he’d still need help in getting securely into the saddle. Geoff waved them aside, though.
“Let me lend a hand, Papa,” he said, and then, “I am such a coward, for I cannot bear to accompany you to Colombières, cannot watch as you must humble yourself before men not worthy of your spit. I am sorry to fail you like this, so sorry…”