Sharon Penman: Devil's brood

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Sharon Penman Devil's brood
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    Devil's brood
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Sharon Kay Penman


Devil's Brood

PROLOGUE

He would be remembered long after his death, one of those rare men recognized as great even by those who hated him. He was a king at twenty-one, wed to a woman as legendary as Helen of Troy, ruler of an empire that stretched from the Scots border to the Mediterranean Sea, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Wales, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, liege lord of Brittany. But in God’s Year 1171, Henry Fitz Empress, second of that name to rule England since the Conquest, was more concerned with the judgment of the Church than History’s verdict.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury was slain in his own cathedral by men who believed they were acting on the king’s behalf, their bloodied swords might well have dealt Henry a mortal blow, too. All of Christendom was enraged by Thomas Becket’s murder and few were willing to heed Henry’s impassioned denials of blame. His continental lands were laid under Interdict and his multitude of enemies were emboldened, like wolves on the trail of wounded prey. The beleaguered king chose to make a strategic retreat, and in October, he sailed for Ireland. There he soon established his lordship over the feuding Irish kings and secured oaths of fealty from the Irish bishops. The winter was so stormy that Ireland truly seemed to be at the western edge of the world, the turbulent Irish Sea insulating Henry from the continuing outcry over the archbishop’s death.

But in the spring, the winds abated and contact was established once more with the outside world. Henry learned that papal legates had arrived in Normandy. And he was warned that his restless eldest son was once more chafing at the bit. In accordance with continental custom, he had been crowned in his father’s lifetime. But the young king was dissatisfied with his lot in life, having the trappings of shared kingship but none of the power, and Henry’s agents were reporting that Hal was brooding about his plight, listening to the wrong men. Henry Fitz Empress decided it was time to go home.

CHAPTER ONE

April 1172

Dyved, South Wales

Soon after leaving Haverford, they were ambushed by the fog. Ranulf had long ago learned that Welsh weather gave no fair warning, honored no flags of truce, and scorned all rules of warfare. But even he was taken aback by the suddenness of the assault. Rounding a bend in the road, they found themselves riding into oblivion. The sky was blotted out, the earth disappearing under their horses’ hooves, all sound muffled in this opaque, smothering mist, as blinding as wood-smoke and pungent with the raw, salt-tang of the sea.

Drawing rein, Ranulf’s brother Rainald hastily called for a halt. “Mother of God, it is the Devil’s doing!”

Ranulf had a healthy respect for Lucifer’s malevolence, but he was far more familiar than Rainald with the vagaries of the Welsh climate. “It is just an early-morning fog, Rainald,” he said soothingly.

“I can smell the brimstone on his breath,” Rainald insisted, “can hear his cackling on the wind. Listen and you’ll hear it, too.”

Ranulf cocked his head, hearing only the slapping of waves against the rocks below them. Rainald was already shifting in the saddle, telling their men that they were turning back. Before Ranulf could protest, he discovered he had an ally in Gerald de Barri, the young clerk and scholar who’d joined their party after a stopover at Llawhaden Castle. Kicking his mule forward, Gerald assured Rainald that such sudden patches of fog were quite common along the coast. They’d soon be out of it, he promised, and offered to lead them, for this was a road he well knew.

Pressed, too, by Ranulf, Rainald reluctantly agreed and they ventured on, slowly and very warily. “Now I know what it’s like for your wife,” Rainald grumbled, glancing over his shoulder at his brother. “Poor lass, cursed to live all her days bat-blind and helpless as a newborn babe.”

Ranulf’s wife, Rhiannon, was indeed blind, but far from helpless. Ranulf took no offense, though; Rainald’s tactlessness was legendary in their family. Slowing his mount, he dropped back to ride beside Rainald’s young son. The boy’s dark coloring had earned him his nickname, Rico, for upon viewing him for the first time, Rainald had joked that he was more an Enrico than a Henry, swarthy as a Sicilian. Rico’s olive skin was now a ghostly shade of grey, and Ranulf reached over to pat him reassuringly upon the arm. “Horses do not fancy going over cliffs any more than men do, and Welsh ponies are as sure-footed as mountain goats.”

Rico did not seem comforted. “Yes, but Whirlwind is Cornish, not Welsh!”

Ranulf camouflaged a smile, for the placid hackney hardly merited such a spirited name. “They breed sure-footed horses in Cornwall, too, lad.” To take his nephew’s mind off their precarious path, he began to tell Rico of some mischief-making by his youngest son, Morgan, and soon had Rico laughing.

He missed Morgan, missed his elder son, Bleddyn, and daughter, Mallt, above all missed Rhiannon. But he’d agreed to accompany Rainald to the holy well of St Non, even knowing that he’d be away for weeks, for he knew the real reason for Rainald’s pilgrimage. Rainald had claimed he wanted to pray for his wife’s soul. But Beatrice had been ailing for many years, hers a malady of the mind that only death had healed. Rainald’s true concern was for his other son, Nicholas, who had not been blessed with Rico’s robust good health. Frail and sickly, Nicholas was not likely to live long enough to succeed to his father’s earldom, as evidenced by Rainald’s desperate decision to seek aid from saints, not doctors.

Rainald’s pain was all the greater because Nicholas was his only male heir. Rico was born out of wedlock, and thus barred by Church law from inheriting any of his father’s estates-even though Rainald himself was bastard-born. The irony of that was lost upon Rainald, who was the least introspective of men. It was not lost upon Ranulf, who shared Rainald’s tainted birth, both of them natural sons of the old King Henry. Neither of them had suffered from the stigma of illegitimacy, though. As a king’s son, Rainald had been judged worthy to wed the heiress of the earldom of Cornwall, and Ranulf had long been the favorite uncle of the current king, Henry Fitz Empress. Henry would gladly have bestowed an earldom upon him, too, but Ranulf, who was half-Welsh, had chosen to settle in Wales where he’d wed his Welsh cousin and raised his family-until forced into English exile by a Welsh prince’s enmity.

His Welsh lands were forfeit and his English manors were meager in comparison to Rainald’s vast holdings in Cornwell, but Ranulf had no regrets about turning down a title. He was at peace with his yesterdays, and he’d lived long enough to understand how few men could say that. For certes, Rainald could not. Nor could the king, his nephew, absent these many months in Ireland, where he’d gone to evade Holy Church’s fury over the slaying of Thomas Becket.

Gerald de Barri’s voice floated back upon the damp morning air. A natural-born talker, he was not going to let a bit of fog muzzle him, and he continued to engage Rainald in conversation, not at all discouraged by the earl’s taciturn, distracted responses. Ranulf listened, amused, for Gerald was an entertaining traveling companion, if somewhat self-serving. The nephew of the Bishop of St David’s, he was returning to England after years of study in Paris, and he reminded Ranulf of Thomas Becket, another worldly clerk blessed with great talents and even greater ambitions.

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