Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter 6


Minerve
June 1210

 Bert was babbling cheerfully about this and that, but Hughes found it impossible to concentrate on what he was saying. His senses were preoccupied with the throbbing pain in his leg, the aching stiffness of his other muscles as he stirred, and the nauseous feeling of his stomach. Guy must have laced the wine with powerful herbs, he noted fighting the queasiness. Probably that was why the cauterizing  had seemed less vicious than he had remembered from the last wound he'd had. Certainly he had fallen asleep faster. He must have slept for a long time, judging by the stiffness of his muscles.
He had no desire to wake, but he had to adjust his position, and at once Bert's voice was nearer. "Ah ha! I thought you were just faking it, sir. Come on. Father Guy said to give you this as soon as you woke up."
Hughes could feel Bert leaning over him. He squinted up at the youth reluctantly and scowling. "I don't want any more of Father Guy's―" He stopped as he saw Bert was holding out not a goblet, but a slice of toasted bread. It looked good.
He reached out his hand for it, squinting against the light that hurt his eyes.
"That's right," Bert approved like the best nanny.
"You weren't looking so cheerful last time I saw you." Hughes reminded his squire unkindly. The youth had gone chalk white and nearly been sick as he assisted Guy during the cauteriz­ing. At once Hughes regretted his maliciousness. Bert, being highly sensitive about his general lack of experience in warfare, looked mortified at the memory. As he stumbled to find an answer, Hughes waved vaguely with his hand. "Forget it. You should have seen me, the first time I had to help amputate a hand." He sought the memory with effort. "It was one of Jean de Brienne's knights and we were in Normandy, too far from a castle or monastery to seek profession­al help. Jean de Brienne insisted on performing the operation himself and told me to hold the man's shoulders. I ended up closing my eyes." Hughes admitted. Bert grinned briefly in thanks for the confidence, but continued to look embarrassed.
It was necessary to deal with wounds before they became poisoned, Hughes reflected sinking back onto the pillows, and even if certain doctors claimed it was possible to prevent the flesh from festering by the application of certain herbs, fighting men rarely had time for such experiments. It was more important to become proficient at both amputation and cauteriza­tion. Still he felt nostalgia for lost innocence as he saw Bert fussing beside him with averted eyes. If he had not brought Bert with him, he might have lived out his entire life without ever having to watch glowing iron being applied to a man's flesh.
"Do you have any more toast? I could stand it." Hughes sought to distract Bert's thoughts, and the squire at once jumped up eagerly. Hughes’ eyes followed him, registering that he was back in his own tent and the sun was quite low in the west. He must have slept well over 12 hours. The whiney of a horse and voices drew his attention to the door-flap. The next minute the entry-way was blocked by Charles ducking through, followed by Norbert.
The faces of both men were pale and drawn, and though Charles managed a smile, when he realized Hughes was awake, Norbert continued to look worried. "Well?" Charles inquired as he helped himself to a stool and drew it beside Hughes’s pallet. "Are you going to survive?"
"Most likely. Did you doubt it?"
"Let's just say you looked less cheery last time we met."
Bert brought Hughes the requested toast and then disingenuously turned to the visitors with hands clasped behind his back and asked, "Can I get you anything, sirs?"
Hughes told himself for the umpteenth time that he must make a greater effort to teach the country-bumpkin manners. Fortunately, Sir Charles was too affable to take offence, and Sir Norbert seemed distracted, hardly noticing the squire.
"Ah, well, a glass of wine wouldn't be amiss." Sir Charles answered, and Sir Norbert nodded agreement absently.
"Sit down, Norbert." Hughes invited, indicating another stool, and the tall knight obediently dragged it over and folded up to sit like a huge bird on a tiny perch.
"Are you feeling better?" Norbert asked with a tense face that touched Hughes with the extent of his apparent concern. If he had been asked yesterday, if any of his companions cared much about his health, Hughes would have denied it.
"Yes, I'm fine. I should be up and about in a day or two. Let's hope Minerve holds out that long. I don't feel much like riding yet."
They both nodded, and Charles took it upon himself to say. "No sign of any change on that front."
"Is something else bothering you?" Hughes was convinced that they couldn't truly be this upset about his wound; certainly not now that it was already on its way to healing.
His visitors exchanged a look. Then Bert came up with the wine. "Sorry I can't serve you in the silver goblets, sirs, but somehow I've misplaced them." It was said in jest. Hughes and Emilie owned only three such goblets between them, and they had been very consciously left under lock and key at Betz. Hughes wished his squire had not drawn attention to the fact that his goblets were of tin, but to reproach him would only make things worse.
"What's the matter?" Hughes persisted. "Something de Montfort has done?"
Charles drew a deep breath and stared into his wine. Norbert answered. "He's punished Pierre."
Hughes let de Montfort's threats run through his mind again. "He didn't really accuse him of treason?"
"No, just neglect, incompetence, drunkenness, manslaugh­ter, stupidity ― did I leave anything out?" Charles asked Norbert.     
Norbert shook his head. "Nothing important."
"Hardly fair." Hughes observed dryly.
"That's not the worst of it." Charles warned. Taking a deep breath, he added, "He had him flogged in front of the entire army and put in the stocks."
"Pierre is a knight!" Norbert belaboured the obvious, his outrage finding its voice.
Hughes glanced from one to the other.
"We all know that Pierre isn't exactly the most effective knight, and he does bare his share of the blame for what happened last night." Charles was saying in a reasonable voice. "But I personally think this is going too far. None of our soldiers will respect him after this!"
"De Montfort says he'll never be allowed to command soldiers again." Norbert added.
"That's not for de Montfort to say." Hughes retorted shortly. "Pierre Amiel will now be forced to seek service with another lord, and that is probably for the best. I've said for some time now that he is not suited to this kind of warfare, which does not mean he can't do another job perfectly well."
Charles shrugged and nodded. "I agree, but who is going to give him a chance after a public disgrace like this?"
The prospects were slight, but Hughes refused to  believe that there was no place in all France, where Pierre could find an honourable, if less demanding, position.
"I've always disliked Pierre." Norbert admitted, with the gravity of youth. "it’s unfair for de Montfort to humiliate him like this! He should have just dismissed him."
"That wouldn't have shocked the rest of us." Charles countered. "He had to do something public, but he went too far."
"Did anyone protest?" Hughes asked weakly. He knew the answer before the others shook their heads.
"It wouldn't have done any good," Charles rationalized, while Norbert explained defensively. "He was in the worst mood I've seen yet. Even Arnaud-Amaury caught the rough side of his tongue. He would have flogged any man, who so much as looked disapproving!"
"Good that I wasn't there." Hughes murmured. It was not that he would have risked humiliation for another man's honour, but he was glad that he did not have to live with himself after letting another man be so disgraced.

Guy des Vaux tried to look nonchalant as he wandered idly among the tents. The sun was down now, and most of the mercenaries were collected around the canteen wagons, either queuing for their porridge or eating it. In clusters they stood about swilling watered wine and exchanging rude stories or rumours. They paid no particular heed to the Benedictine, though they invariably made way for him politely, if they noticed him. Mercenaries were not always so deferen­tial to priests, Guy knew, but de Montfort insisted upon it and could enforce his will.
A glance at the unshaved, unwashed men spearing the chunks of meat in the stew with their daggers made Guy shudder. They shovelled bread into their mouths with dirty hands on which the fingernails stood out black with grime. They laughed and spoke with their mouths full, and picked at the food stuck between crooked, broken teeth with the tips of their knives. They reeked of onion and garlic-laden sweat and chain mail oil. On their faces, necks and hands were the scars of old wounds. Their mismatched clothes, armor and weapons recorded their history of haphazard plundering. But de Montfort had no trouble keeping this rabble under control, Guy reflected, was it any wonder that he, a mere scholar, could not find the courage to defy him?
These were men, who faced the risk of death laughing. Men who could hack off their own hand with no more than a sigh of regret, if need be. These were men who could slaughter women and children, without apparent emotion one moment, and risk their own lives to rescue an old man from a burning building the next. They might share a woman with one another one night, and, on the next kill, each other in a drunken squabble. If men such as these were as docile as sheep when de Montfort roared, why should he reproach himself for his own cowardice?
Ah, but they were wolves and wolves always followed their leader, whereas he had, up to now, prided himself on being a man. Man had the spark of divine inspiration, did he not? He had the choice between his base animal instincts and spiritual elevation. A man could strive toward perfection. A priest was, indeed, committed to following the example of Our Lord.
Guy felt his stomach turn over, and he swallowed compulsively. The palms of his hands sweated, and his sides were soaked with perspiration, all because he was planning to defy de Mont­fort's orders and perform a simple act of kindness for a friend. Inside his wide sleeves, he clutched at the wine-skin as he glanced guiltily over his shoulders.
It was darker now. Men were dispersing about the camp as the cooks scraped the cauldron's empty, offering seconds to those who lingered. From the horse-lines came the contented snorting of the steeds and pack-animals as the hay was distributed. The tents of the knights started to glow luminously, as lamps were lit inside.
Guy glanced surreptitiously toward de Montfort's tent. It was brightly lit, and he could see shadows moving about inside. Abbot Arnaud-Amaury, Alain de Roucy and Lambert de Thury were gathered, as so often, for a small "council" meeting. Squires served them wine and food.
Guy started toward his destination, conscious of a desire to urinate. His body always responded to fear with this primeval urge. He ignored it, knowing it was not real. Daniel had entered the lion's den itself, he reminded himself. He did not need to go so far. The stocks were set up in front of de Montfort’s tent.
He paused behind the canteen wagon to collect his courage. His heart was pounding, and the air seemed too heavy to draw into his laboring lungs. Christ, for Your Sake, make me strong, he pleaded silently -- and keep him in his tent.
He inched out of the protective shadow of the canteen wagon, across the barren open space before the tent. The stocks loomed up dark against the fading sky. Guy consciously imagined Calvary. They had given Him only vinegar.
It was 12 hours since Pierre Amiel had been flogged and placed in the stocks. The blood had dried upon his lacerated back. His body slumped as if unconscious, held in place only by the wooden clamps around ankles and wrists. Pierre's head hung on his chest. But then, even before Guy reached him, Pierre shifted slightly in a hopeless attempt to make himself more comfortable. Guy heard the low groan of pervasive pain and hopelessness, and it stiffened his resolve. He lifted his head and advanced more resolutely. He could feel the ominous shadow of de Montfort at his back, but he knew that Christ was with him.
He reached the stocks and, to keep from speaking, touched his fingers gently to Pierre's shoulder. The knight flinched away with a cry of terror that twisted instantly into a groan of pain. The sudden motion had wrenched his cramped muscles and torn open the barely crusted wounds on his back. "Pierre!" Guy whispered close to his ear. "It's me. Guy. I've brought you some wine. It will help."
"Nothing can help." Pierre whimpered, but he lifted his head so Guy could tip the wine-skin to his cracked and swollen lips.
Guy had only managed a couple of swallows before he burst into a fit a coughing. He shook his head, refusing any more wine.      
"Please." Guy urged. "It will ease your pain."
Pierre shook his head. It wasn't the pain that was killing him, it was the disgrace. He could still feel the stares of the knights and soldiers crawling across his exposed body. He kept his eyes closed even now, unable to endure looking at Guy. He had been there like all the rest. He could not face any of them ever again. He would never be able to look any of them in the face, without seeing the contempt or amusement or pity that had been in their faces this morning, as they watched him being stripped and flogged and put on display.
Pierre hated de Montfort that he wanted to kill him. He imagined a thousand tortures for him. He wished he could spit in his face.
"Please drink a little more. I can't risk coming back again." Guy pleaded urgently.
Pierre did not want Guy's pity. Pierre craved respect not pity. If only one person would treat him like he was someone worth knowing!
De Montfort had. He reminded himself, unconsciously accepting the offered wine. When he had presented himself to de Montfort, de Montfort had asked him about himself. He had stumbled over his father's name and de Montfort had interrupted him in a matter-of-fact tone. "I don't give a damn, if you are a bastard or a Turk. All that matters to me is that you’re loyal to me above all else. Is that clear?" He had asked the question with a smile, holding out his hand as he got to his feet, welcoming, accept­ing....
Pierre had kept his part of the bargain. No one, not even Arnaud-Amaury, was more loyal. Arnaud-Amaury was using de Montfort for his own purposes, and de Montfort was a fool, if he thought Alain and Lambert were loyal to him! Pierre was indignant at the thought. They were nothing but self-serving sycophants! How could a man as clever as de Montfort be taken in by them?! Why couldn't de Montfort see that all the others were loyal not out of love for him, but only for what he could give them. They were greedy, unscrupulous men, who would turn their backs on him the moment he suffered a setback. Why didn't de Montfort understand?!
"Who's there?" It was the bellow of de Montfort's voice. "What are you doing lurking about the stocks?! Get over here!"
Pierre could feel Guy stiffen.
"Get over here this instant or I'll make you eat shit!"
Guy had no choice.
"What were you doing over there--give me that! Wine? For Amiel? Just because you're a c*** -s*** priest, do you think you can defy my orders!" De Montfort was roaring, if Guy managed any kind of an answer, it was inaudible.
"Get out of my sight, you little fart!" There was a dull sound that might have been a kick or a blow. Guy gave a stifled grunt. Pierre could hear no more, but he could feel the earth shaking as de Montfort approached.
Pierre's throat closed on itself. His terror made him squirm and writhe in the stocks senselessly. The pain at least distracted him from the paralyzing terror. He could feel de Montfort staring at him, but Pierre kept his eyes closed tight. He would not look at de Montfort. He would not meet his eyes. He did not want to see what was written in them.
 "GUARD!" From somewhere to the left came a clatter and curse, as someone sprang to answer de Montfort's summons. "Unlock the stocks!"
"My lord?"
"HOW OFTEN DO I HAVE TO GIVE AN ORDER?!"
"At once!" The man could be heard running for the keys. When he returned panting, the keys clanked and turned in the lock. The upper bar was lifted and Guy fell helplessly onto the ground with a gasping groan as his lacerated skin hit the dusty, stony ground.
"Well, don't just stand there staring! Help him!" De Montfort roared. "If he were my comrade-in-arms I wouldn't have let my commander flog him in the first place! I would have defended him with my sword, if need be! But you ass-lickers don't have any sense of comradeship! All you f****s think about is your own purses!"
Alain and Lambert were now hovering over Pierre, trying to lift him up off the ground.
"Take him to my tent!" De Montfort ordered, and strode off ahead of them.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                 

July 1210
"The Viscount Guillaume de Minerve came personally." Bert told Hughes excitedly, as he helped him dress. Guy had just changed the bandages and they were white and neat above his knee. Hughes sat on a stool while Bert knelt before him. "The gates opened completely unexpectedly, and he rode straight out with a huge white banner and made straight for de Montfort's tent. His horse must have gone for days without water! It was listless and stumbled, and then it scented the water from our horse-lines and went wild. It all but threw the Viscount, and he lost control of it as it went straight through our troops like an arrow! Men jumped left and right to get out of its way. All right?" He asked as he slipped Hughes’ hose over the wound.
Hughes nodded. "Tell me about the Viscount not his horse. What sort of man is he?"
"Old ― well, completely grey. He wasn't even wearing armor. He wore a long robe with loose sleeves like a doctor or some­thing, except that there were bands of bright embroidery at the neck and cuffs. And he wore parti-colored hose and low shoes all painted and a funny hat. He looked ridiculous really." Bert decided.
"Did he kneel to de Montfort?"
"No. Should he have?"
Hughes smiled mirthlessly. "No. They are equals in rank. How did de Montfort respond?"
Bert shrugged. "He invited him into his tent and sent for Arnaud-Amaury."
       

Arnaud-Amaury was scratching his chin thoughtfully but his eyes were hard and betrayed no indecision to match his fretful hands. "I do not understand, my lord. Why here, of all places, where we lost over two-dozen of our men, do you want to show mercy?"
De Montfort shrugged his massive shoulders and one could hear the faint, chinking of chainmail rings colliding. De Montfort was alone in his tent with Arnaud-Amaury; the Viscount of Minerve had been sent out to await de Montfort's decision. "You don't understand terror, my lord abbot." De Montfort told the Cistercian. "It works best when people do not know what to expect."
"I'm not interested in terror." The abbot retorted. "I am interested in serving His Holiness, Pope Innocent III, by eliminat­ing a poisonous heresy that seeks to discredit and undermine the authority of the Church and the Pope. This town is a viper’s nest. That is why we attacked it. Literally dozens of depraved heretics have been harbored by that godless old man. He protects even the priests of their vile dogma. They deny that Our Saviour ever lived and reject all the sacraments of Holy Church."
"Most especially the ordination of priests and the right of the clergy to grant or deny absolution,” de Montfort added. “I'm perfectly aware of what the Cathars teach." De Montfort had no patience for Arnaud-Amaury's preaching. He could see perfectly well that the Cathars were a threat to the power of Rome because they denied the authority of the Church and encouraged their followers to scorn it. As a consequence neither tithes nor other fees were paid, and the Pope had lost most of his influence and ― more important  ― his revenues in this vast, rich area. De Montfort was perfectly willing to support the Pope in his campaign to regain his power because de Montfort expected to profit from his efforts materially ― and he had.
"I want the Cathars in this town to be an example to the world," Abbot Arnaud-Amaury insisted.
"Bram wasn't enough for you?"
"Bram was a step in the right direction, but I told you then that I wanted them dead."
"You had 20,000 dead at Beziers, and it didn't have much of an effect." De Montfort reminded him acidly.
"I made a fatal mistake at Beziers. I should never have allowed the murder of good ― or even pretend ― Catholics. Particu­larly not the priests."
"Humpf!" De Montfort was both surprised and gratified to hear Arnaud-Amaury admit this. He’d thought the decision had been wrong at the time, but had allowed himself to be swayed by the abbot's fanaticism.
"We must make a clear distinction between Catholics and heretics." The papal legate continued. "We must punish the Catholics for harboring and tolerat­ing heretics, but we must also forcefully and impressively demonstrate that the sins of the faithful can be forgiven -- after sufficient penance has been done. Heresy, in contrast, can never be forgiven, because a heretic is beyond the mercy of the Church."
"What do you propose?"
"If we blind the heretics, they become beggars, a burden on society, who not only litter the towns and roadsides but are also objects of pity." Ignoring de Montfort's look of impatience, Arnaud-Amaury continued self-righteously. "People forget that they earned their fate by the blindness of their souls and see in them only unfortunate victims of a cruel justice. The fate of the heretics must henceforth be a reminder of the fate of all heretics in the hereafter. The souls of heretics will burn for all eternity in the fires of hell. I think their neighbors and relatives ― all those who have been polluted by close contact with them ― should be reminded of what that means."
De Montfort gazed at him steadily for a long moment. "You want me to burn them alive."
"Yes."
They gazed at one another for a moment, than de Montfort strode to the door of the tent and ordered the guards to fetch Sirs Alain and Lambert. Then, as an afterthought, he added, "And Father Guy des Vaux."
When the others were collected, de Montfort told them of the Viscount's offer of surrender. Guillaume de Minerve requested a safe-conduct for all residents. He had offered, in a quavering voice, to abandon the town and castle in exchange for the lives and limbs of all the residents.
Now, leaning back against a table with his arms and legs crossed, de Montfort listened alertly, but calmly, as his lieutenants argued. Lambert and Alain were both adamant and relative­ly hot-tempered in rejecting any surrender that was not uncondi­tional, and not particularly enthusiastic about Arnaud-Amaury's suggestion either.
Lambert pointed out that with the Viscount in their hands, they could quickly force him to order the surrender, and then things would be over by the next day. "As for burning the here­tics," he shrugged, "see if I care, but you won't have much of a fire! They'll all pretend to convert to avoid that!" Lambert scoffed.
"And so go free to preach their heresy the moment we turn our backs!" Alain seconded him in a tone of disgust. He had never heard such a stupid idea out of the mouth of Arnaud-Amaury before.
"I don't think so." Arnaud-Amaury replied calmly, picking at a scab on his chin methodically. "First of all, heretics that abjure their faith will not just be set free, but put under Church supervision and required to do penance. Secondly, I don't think many of these fanatics will abjure their faith. They would rather die because they mistakenly believe that Hell is here on earth. They will only learn the truth after death. Their relatives and neighbors, in contrast, may yet be rescued, by being reminded of what hell means."
"And what about the garrison and faydits that gave them protec­tion?" Alain wanted to know angrily. He was less concerned with a handful of heretics, who were not fighting men, than their militarily trained protectors, who would continue to make life difficult for the occupation forces, if they were allowed to go free.
"Damn it!" Lambert joined in hotly, "it wasn't just these so called ‘perfects’ that have defied us for five weeks and, by God, it was no ‘perfect’ who attacked the siege engine! Every God-damned citizen of this town has consciously given refuge to your enemies, my lord, and thumbed their nose at your authority. If they're trying to bargain with us now, it won't be long until they collapse completely. I say wait it out, and then give the troops a free hand, or we pressure the Viscount into surrendering unconditionally at once. Once we have possession of the town, the survivors can be blinded or castrated or burned for all I care!"
"Alain?" De Montfort asked calmly.
"I agree, my lord. This bastide openly invited the heretics to come here, explicitly offered them refuge and protection. They should learn what that means. No quarter for any of them."
Guy felt very much out of place in this inner-circle of de Montfort's intimates ― especially after the incident with Pierre. True, after the initial outburst of rage, de Montfort seemed to have completely forgotten it. He had released Pierre from the stocks and attached him directly to his own household, while he treated Guy as if nothing had happened.
But the absence of punishment for defying orders only confused him. He was more nervous in de Montfort's presence than ever before. He listened with only half-an-ear to the exchange, because he was trying to figure out why de Montfort had included him.
Too soon, de Montfort turned to him. "Well, Father," (he made the title sound like a pet-name) "what do you think we should do?"
Guy moved nervously from one foot to the other.
"If you need a pee, hurry up about it." De Montfort suggested good-humoredly, and the others laughed.
Guy hated de Montfort for the effect he had, for knowing that he had that effect, and drawing attention to it. He ignored the crude joke, and answered primly, “you will do what is best, my lord."
"I know I will, but I want to know what you think." De Montfort countered. "Come on, Father," he coaxed. "You're a learned and thinking man. I want to hear your opinion."
"It's a difficult question, my lord."
De Montfort was losing his patience, but with effort he retained a friendly tone. "We all know that, Father. That's why we are giving it so much thought. Now, I want to hear what you think we should do."
Guy sensed the annoyance simmering beneath de Montfort's feigned patience. In that split second, he had to decide between support­ing the opinions of de Montfort's favorites and his real opinion. Why would de Montfort have sent for him if he just wanted to hear what Alain and Lambert could tell him? "My lord, no one doubts that you can destroy Minerve and other towns ― no one in these parts has forgotten Beziers. You can gain more by showing that there is a way out for those who submit to your mercy."
"He let the Catholics at Bram off with nothing but a fine!" Lambert de Thury reminded them in an exasperated tone.
"The image of the blinded tied together and stumbling across the countryside to Cabaret-Lastours was much more evocative than the fate of the others." Guy pointed out. He was committed now and drew courage from this fact. "Furthermore, many heretics abjured their faith, when they realized what punish­ment they faced, but we did not let them return to God. Are we not therefore responsible for their damna­tion? Will God not call us to account for taking from Him souls that He desperately loved?"
De Montfort raised an eyebrow in evident approval. He turned to look at Lambert and Alain, who dismissed this in a tone of impatience and contempt, but Arnaud-Amaury, still picking thought­fully at his chin, snapped: "Father Guy is right. We have to give them a chance to reject their false beliefs, and we have to welcome them back to the bosom of the Church, if they sincerely repent."
"There is nothing sincere about repenting just to avoid burning alive!" Alain retorted, irritated by Arnaud-Amaury's religious fervor. The more enemy killed, the more land could be distributed, and the richer he could become.
"I tell you they won't do that." Arnaud-Amaury stated unequivocally, staring defiantly at Lambert.
The fighting man gave an exasperated shrug. "See if I give a damn!"
"Then we'll do as the Abbot says." De Montfort decided uncrossing his legs and shoving himself upwards from the table he'd been leaning against. "We'll agree to spare the life, limb and property of every soul in Minerve – as long as they vow adherence to the Holy Catholic Church, and are prepared to put themselves at her mercy. Those who do not, will be deemed heretics and burnt at the stake."

Hughes could only hobble awkwardly, but it was good to be on his feet again, good to get out of the tent into the sunlight. Bert hovered beside him solicitously.
"Let me guess,” Hughes remarked, “you have laid wagers on whether I can stay on my feet from here to the latrine and want to make sure you win?"
Bert blushed, but answered quickly. "No, I bet you would trip over the gully here, and―"
"And thought you'd give me a little help. Very good." Hughes nodded as he stepped cautiously down into the dip and up again. Concentrating on his footing he did not notice Pierre Amiel coming over to him.
"Sir Hughes! It's good to see you on your feet again!" The warmth of Pierre´s greeting was genuine. Hughes was the only knight, who had not witnessed Pierre's flogging, and Pierre needed his friend­ship to replace all the illusions of fellowship that had been shattered that morning six days ago. "My lord asked me to seek you out, and inquire whether you will be able to ride with him, when he accepts the surrender of the town?"
Hughes looked up startled. "They've already come to terms?"
Pierre nodded vigorously. "My lord agreed to spare everyone, who accepts the True Faith ― life, limb and property. Only those who refuse to adjure their heresy will be harmed." Pierre spoke with the kind of wondering approval that baffled Hughes. Hughes had not forgotten the alacrity with which Pierre had advocated the immediate blinding of the heretics of Bram. But then he reminded himself that Pierre approved of any decision de Montfort made, whether it was brutal or merciful. Apparently he even approved the treatment he had himself received….
"Guillaume de Minerve has returned to the town, and has promised to open the gates at nones. My lord would like you to accompany him when he takes possession."
"You mean all of us."
"Yes, but you personally. He says you earned the honor of riding directly behind him and Arnaud Amaury."
Hughes was flattered and pleased, but he tried not to show it. He also reminded himself that it was not always an advantage to be within close range of de Montfort's tongue. Still it was undoubtedly an honor, and the first step to greater opportunities and rewards ― provided he did not disappoint or offend him.
"Pierre...."
"Yes?" Pierre sensed the softening of his tone, and felt a tension grasp him that was the dangerous prelude to vulnerability. He wanted Hughes to be his friend.
"There's something I don't understand."
Pierre waited encouragingly, and Hughes looked toward Bert, who was standing almost in his shadow listening to every word with the same eagerness with which a dog watches for scraps. "Bert."
"Sir?" He leaned even nearer.
Hughes waved his hand at him. "Sir Pierre and I have things to discuss which are not for your tender ears."
"Oh, my ears aren't tender any more, Sir. They've gotten tough as leather." He pulled at one.
"Clear off!" Hughes ordered.
"Sir!"
As soon as Bert was out of hearing, Hughes turned back to Pierre, who at once offered him the support of his arm. Hughes looked side-long at the slender man beside him. He noted the dark circles under his eyes, the straggly beard and hunched shoulders. He looked exhausted and nervous, but his offer of assistance had been spontaneous and genuine. "I've got an excellent ointment," he was saying, "It will help ease the stiffness of your wound."
"You're a good man, Pierre."
Pierre flushed.
"You deserve better than what de Montfort has given you."
Pierre stiffened and the answered defensively. "I don't know what you mean."
Hughes considered him, but Pierre refused to meet his eyes.
"It's an honor to serve him personally," Pierre persisted.
Hughes nodded. "Yes. But Simon de Montfort is not the only lord in Christendom. You could find favor with many another man."
"De Montfort is the most famous."
Hughes didn't deny it. He merely thought it sad that Pierre was willing to accept humiliations and ill-treatment for the sake of basking in de Montfort's glory. He had, by accepting the position as household knight, squandered all the sympathy he had gained as a victim of de Montfort's excessive punishment. Didn't he realize how the others made fun of him behind his back? Hughes could still hear Alain's biting remark about "once an ass-kisser always an ass-kisser" echoing in his ears. Charles had shrugged and asked: "If he places so little value on his own dignity, why should we care what de Montfort does to him?"
"It's your decision, Pierre, but I couldn't serve a man who had done to me what de Montfort did to you ― not even had it been the king himself."
Pierre's face closed. He sensed that Hughes meant well and part of him was grateful, but he felt a huge gulf between them. Hughes had been born a wealthy, nobleman's son ― pampered and loved and spoilt. What did he know of the humiliations a bastard faced? Who was he to judge what a man should accept?
And for all Hughes’s pedigree, he had not risen to Viscount either! Who was he to judge de Montfort? Of course de Montfort was sometimes hot-tempered, over-hasty and unfair. Pierre still burned at the humiliation of the flogging, but he knew that he bore the responsibility for his troops and they had been slaughtered. And who else but de Montfort had ever given him a chance? And not one chance, but two?
"You might have options, but I don't." He told Hughes bitterly.
Hughes could sense the barrier Pierre had erected, and he sighed. "I'd be willing to recommend you."
"To the king?" Pierre probed and saw Hughes flinch.
"No, not Phillip ― that would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But I could recommend you to the Bishop of Poitiers. My wife knows him well --"
Pierre shook his head and his lips were a tight line. "Thanks, but no thanks. I am not a charity case!"
Hughes sighed inwardly. "Tell de Montfort that I'll be mounted by nones."
Pierre nodded, and let go of his arm, hurrying away officious­ly. Bert rejoined Hughes instantly. "Did you manage to offend de Montfort's door-mat?"
"What?"
"Didn't you know? That's what all the troops call him. The door-mat!" Bert giggled at the joke, but Hughes didn't find it funny. He glanced back toward Pierre and felt profoundly sorry for him. Not least because he was, in his own way, intensely proud.

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter 5

Minerve
June 26, 1210

Lighted by torches and candles, the canvas of de Montfort's command tent seemed luminous against the darkness, and the shadows cast by the occupants were large and distorted. From inside came the unmistakable sound of voices and laughter, the clatter of cutlery and fragments of music. When servants entered or left, briefly opening the flap-door, the scent of heavily spiced meat escaped. The soldiers of de Montfort's army glanced occasionally toward the tent from their own camp-fires, and although some were envious of the better rations afforded their betters, most were content to hear their leader in such good humour. De Montfort's booming laugh could be distin­guished easily above all the others.
Seated in the centre of the trestle table, de Montfort threw back his head and guffawed with delight at the jokes Alain and Lambert fed him from his left side. Arnaud-Armaury, seated as always on his right, leaned forward straining to partake in the repartee. Squires squeezed along behind the table, sweating from the effort of keeping the wine flowing in sufficient quantities.
Since he had joined de Montfort, this was not the first such feast he had witnessed, and Hughes had long since learned to hate them. De Montfort could easily drink all of his knights under the table, and he enjoyed proving his superior­ity at this no less than his superiori­ty at everything else. Whereas Hughes admired de Montfort's military skills, Hughes saw nothing particu­larly admirable about being able to consume gallons of wine without feeling the effects. What was worse, de Montfort's "hospitality" would leave the bulk of his guests ill and unfit for the next 24 hours. It all seemed such a waste. They would probably consume more wine this night than he and Emilie had in their cellars.
The thought of Emilie depressed Hughes and made him restless. Her last letter spoke of bleeding and spasmodic pain. He could read her fear in the crossed out sentences, in the attempts at self-ridicule and bravado. She was terrified and she wanted him with her, and he was sitting here guzzling expensive wine and gorging himself on over-spiced meat. All for the sake of a silver mark a week. If only they didn't need that silver mark so desperately!
"Well?" a hand clapped down on his shoulder. "Something not to your liking?" The tone was friendly, and Charles climbed over the bench to sit beside Hughes. "Our gallant leader doesn't like anyone to be glum when he had decided to distribute good cheer."
"Did he send you over?" Hughes asked, glancing toward de Montfort suspiciously. Before Bram, de Montfort had taken no note of him at all, now his attentions seemed entirely disapproving; Hughes was acutely aware of how dangerous that could be.
"Nay, but I heard him remark sourly to Alain that you were sitting over here and pouting like a sullen child."
"Kind of him to notice." Hughes remarked sharply, offended by the insult and angry with himself for caring what de Montfort thought.
"You've got to get up and dance on the table." Guy joined in the conversation, clambering over the bench on Hughes's other side. "Ever since Sir Lambert did that last year, he has been in great favour."
Hughes looked over at the Benedictine, uncertain if this was meant in earnest or jest. "And I thought it was because he was so good at mutilation."
"Now, now. Don't be unfair." Guy warned. "Mutilation would not be welcomed tonight. Tonight he has decreed we are to be carelessly happy. And by God you had better be merry and uninhibited, or he'll make sure you regret it!" Guy had brought his own wine-cup with him and clomped it on the table to emphasize his words.
"Does he really think he can order merriment in the same way he does obedience?" Hughes inquired with a tinge of contempt. No one, not even a king, could command another man’s feelings.
"Hasn't he succeeded?" Charles pointed out with a sweeping gesture.
The tent was full of laughing, singing, drinking knights. Even as he looked, a pair got up and started dancing together to roars of approval from de Montfort. Even Norbert, otherwise quite diffident and restrained, had lost all his inhibitions and now clambered over the bench to join the dancing. De Montfort started clapping to give the dancers the pace, and then took up a tune to keep them dancing. The other knights joined in: singing, clapping or stamping their feet in time with de Montfort. Sir Charles and Guy both joined in, swaying in rhythm to the music.
Hughes felt the gulf of alienation yawning around him. Guy slipped his arm through Hughes' and nudged him until he swayed with them on the bench. Smiling and nodding, Guy induced Hughes to join in the singing. But that did not make Hughes feel less alien inside.
De Montfort started clapping faster and faster. The dancers were forced to pick up the pace. The singers, catching on to the game, sang louder and faster. The dancers were red and sweating from the exertion. Montfort stood up and even clapped faster until one of the knights tripped and sprawled face first onto the packed dirt of the floor. De Montfort flung back his head and laughed, but then he called the three dancing knights up to his table and flung his arm around Norbert's shoulders as he shared his own goblet with them each in turn.
Hughes could see the way Norbert flushed under de Montfort's attentions, flattered. He noted that Pierre Amiel was as usual trying to draw de Montfort's attention to himself, this time with a new attempt at dancing. De Montfort only scowled in irritation. He made some remark that Hughes did not catch. He saw Pierre Amiel wince visibly and draw back, red and smouldering with shame. A moment later he was reaching for a wine jug.
Since Pierre had urged de Montfort to the atrocity at Bram, Hughes had pointedly distanced himself from Pierre, coldly rejecting his renewed attempts at friendliness. Now he found himself asking in a mixture of disgust and incomprehension "Why does Pierre try so hard for de Montfort's approval? The Viscount would respect him more if he grovelled less." Hughes directed his remark to Guy, who was humming happily in tipsy contentment.
"Ah, Pierre. Pierre is a bastard, you know."
"What?"
"Yes. His mother was the daughter of one of his father's vassals. He got her pregnant, and to appease her angry father, he agreed to recognize and knight the son she'd borne him. Pierre feels a desperate need to prove worthy of that knighting, but" Guy shrugged eloquent­ly "he doesn't have a natural aptitude."
Hughes looked back at Pierre in a new light. It was not easy to be born illegitimate in a world in which one’s entire status in life revolved around one’s birth.  It was hard enough being a younger son, but older brothers could die, mothers had dower lands to pass on to younger sons, and heiresses could occasionally be won by sufficient good blood and connections. But all that was denied a bastard. Usually they ended up serving their more fortunate legitimate kin as stewards, clerks or purveyors – all things, Hughes reflected, that Pierre would have been far better suited to doing than fighting. Pierre had no natural aptitude for fighting; he was too slight of build and singularly uncoordi­nated.
It was not Pierre's fault that he had not been granted the athletic agility and physical strength to make him a good knight, but Hughes blamed him for trying to make up for his natural inadequacies by proving that he could at least drink as much as his commander. Every thing Pierre did, he did for de Montfort´s approval, Hughes registered. Indeed, on reflection, Pierre was a good man in every respect -- except that he obsessively sought to please de Montfort. "Pierre would be perfectly suited to garrison duty or, God knows, serving in the household of some bishop or abbot. Why, in the Name of God, does he feel he has to prove himself under a man like de Montfort?"
"Because, I believe, de Montfort was the first man to give him a chance," Guy answered sleepy with wine.
Hughes gaped at Guy in startled dismay as he grasped the implications.
"Forgive me for saying this, sir," Guy continued, the wine freeing his tongue more than normal, "but you and Sir Charles and the others are only dependent upon de Montfort for fame and fortune. Pierre is dependent upon him for his very identi­ty. Regardless of what you all think of him, he is still one of de Montfort´s commanders. Without de Montfort, he is only a bas­tard."
Norbert, meanwhile, had left de Montfort's table and came over to address Hughes. "My lord wants to know what is bothering you. He says you’re spoiling the whole feast."
"I'm flattered," Hughes retorted sarcastically, "that he credits me with so much influence."
"What's the point in offending him in something so minor?"
"I don't trust a man whose changes in mood are so rapid. Yesterday he was ready to have us all decapitated for some ridiculous, not to say imagined, imperfection in the siege lines, and today we are supposed to laugh and joke with him as if he were benevolence incarnate."
Norbert shrugged. "It was his behaviour yesterday - not today - that I find offensive. I don't see anything wrong in a lord being jovial and generous with his household. Isn't the king like this?"
"Never." Hughes answered, and then at the thought of miserly, sour-tempered King Philip ever entertaining his household knights lavishly, he broke out laughing. "He's too cheap."
The others were tipsy enough to enjoy hearing such a candid de­scription of their monarch and hooted with delighted laughter.
"Somehow, I don't think that is the proper term of respect to our august and devout king." Sir Charles admonished, pretending reproach.
"King Philip is about as devout as a priest's concubine." Hughes returned, thinking of the absolute indifference with which the King had reacted to his excommunication at the time of his unfortunate marriage with Princess Ingeborg. He lived outside the Church for years, and it had taken an interdict against all of France before he agreed to acknowledge as the Danish princess, who had displeased him in a single night, as his queen.
The others laughed even harder; they had never heard anyone speak so forthrightly about their king. Charles remarked, "I'm beginning to understand, why you aren't still in royal service."
Hughes shrugged. "Philip wouldn't have been offended by what I said. He doesn't consider devoutness a virtue ― seeing how his devout father was routinely trounced and mocked by the irreverent Henry Plantagent. It might surprise Abbot Arnaud-Amaury, but the king used to remark that the relationship between power and piety is inverse."
"Are you saying power is all that matters?" It was the deep voice of de Montfort himself as he suddenly leaned over them. The hastily shifted away from Hughes, instinc­tively seeking to distance themselves from the target of de Montfort's disapproval.
"If a king is to keep his kingdom, yes." Hughes answered without flinching. He was no more anxious to be target of de Montfort displeasure than the others, but he knew that evasion would evoke de Montfort's contempt as well as his anger.
"That's not the answer I would have expected from you ― not after the squeamishness you showed at Bram."
"Brutality and power are not synonymous."
"Quite right!" De Montfort agreed, snapping his fingers and pointing at Hughes. "But you still have to learn that from a position of weakness calculated brutality is a weapon one can't afford to scorn. Only the already powerful can afford mercy. So," He raised his goblet to Hughes, who was obliged to stand and raise his own in answer. "To power!" De Montfort threw back his head and guzzled the wine down with loud gulps, signalling Hughes to do the same imperi­ously.

Tired and over-fed, the wine blurring his senses, Hughes made his way back from the command tent. In the light of the rising moon, he could clearly see the bastide of Minerva perched upon a narrow ridge formed by the Cesse Gorge. It was pale in the darkness, an arid island high above a parched river-bed. Hughes did not know if water ever flowed in the gorge. Certainly there was no water at this time of year. There had been no rain in months, and the scrub-growth and cultivated fields were coated with white dust. Any movement sent corresponding clouds of white power into the air where it hung, waiting to be breathed in. Hughes craved a deep drink of spring water, and he pitied the villagers, now cut off from their only water source.
The well at Minerve, located at the base of the town, could only be reached by a narrow, covered stair-case. De Montfort, who had learned of the location of the well and staircase from an local enemy of the Viscount of Minerve, had targeted the base of the stairway and after a week of incessant bombardment by their largest siege-engine, the base of the stairs and the well-head had been shattered, cutting the besieged town off from their only source of water. Since then, Hughes had observed the several, increasingly frantic, efforts of Minerve's men to bridge the gap between the end of the stairway and the well. Eventually, a couple of men had managed to lower themselves on ropes to the well-head –only to discover the well was blocked with rubble, the water no longer accessible.
That had been three days ago, and Hughes reckoned other liquids must be getting scarce by now. It would not be long before the town surren­dered. Maybe he could make it home to Betz in time for Emilie´s confinement after all, he hoped.
 A weary voice challenged him as he approached, and then apologised. "Sorry, sir. I didn't recognize you at first."
"Is everything quiet?" Hughes asked the sergeant of the watch.
"Too quiet." 
With a conscious effort, Hughes dragged his thoughts out of the fumes of alcohol and focused upon the sergeant. "What do you mean?"
"The crickets went still a while back and I've heard nothing from that sector of the line for at least ten minutes." He pointed to the sector of the siege ring held by Pierre Amiel's troops. "If you listen, you can usually hear low voices. Tonight, they were quite loud at first, then settled down, but then ― abruptly ― all went deathly silent. Not like them at all." The man broke off with a shrug.
"We better go over and investigate." Hughes decided, increas­ingly alert. "Don't raise the alarm yet. I'll send someone back if it's necessary. Stay at your post." Moving into the camp around his own tent, Hughes bent and shook men from their sleep as quietly as possible, signalling them to bring their arms and follow him. He would be making a perfect fool of himself, if there was nothing wrong in the adjacent sector, but better that, than to make no response and find out something had happened.
Pierre Amiel did not have the respect of most of his troops, Hughes reflected, wondering if they too knew he was born a bastard. Probably. Mercenaries were quick to hear and share any rumours about their leaders, and with so many men from so many different parts of France, there was always someone who knew someone who had served with someone else…. He sighed, picturing the way his own men must talk about his poverty, his elderly wife, his lost inheritance behind his back.
In Pierre's case the rumours of his base birth would be particularly dangerous because they would compound the difficulties his incompetence brought with them. A king might be forgiven his incompetence and an effective commander forgiven his illegitimacy, but a base-born man of average military skills was doomed to face the contempt and insolence of mercenaries. Hughes could well imagine that Pierre's troops ignored his orders, particularly when they were inconvenient. No doubt they had been drinking heavily. Probably they had failed to set a proper watch.
To his right, a man gasped and then cursed. "Sir Hughes!" The moon was higher and even before Hughes reached the man who had called, he could make out the corpse on the chalky earth. Looking closer, he noted that the corpse's throat had been cut literally from ear to ear. The head hung to one side awkwardly, the face already waxy, but the body was still warm, the blood still running.
Hughes did not have to give the order. Around him, swords rasped from their scabbards. He signalled only for the men to spread out a bit more, and they advanced in a ragged line across the gullied and rock-strew landscape. From the cooking fires, the embers still glowed faintly, and the men around them appeared to be sleeping soundly, wrapped in their blankets. Nothing seemed amiss. Hughes glanced at Pierre Amiel's tent, and saw a flickering light within. The shadows leapt and danced as the canvass shivered in a light breeze. Pierre was being undressed by his squire.
Hughes and his men had reached the campfires of Pierre Amiel’s men, but Hughes felt no shock when he discovered they were all dead. Around him, his own men were cursing and exclaiming with increasing anger as they went from man to man, from fire-to-fire, but Hughes’s mind raced ahead. Had it been a group of men from Minerve breaking out of the encirclement for freedom ― or relief forces coming in from outside? The Bastide of Minerva was held by the Viscount himself and he was brother-in-law to Raymond der Termes. Termes had a large following of so-called faydits, disinherited knights and lords, who he might have ―
It was the peculiar smell of fire that cut through his thoughts.  In the same instant, his brain made the right associa­tion. Behind the camp the silent silhouette of Pierre Amiel's siege engine waited ominously. And there, along the base, Hughes could make out moving shadows and now a lurid, flickering light. The enemy was trying to set fire to the engine.
Hughes grabbed the man nearest him and hissed. "Get word back to de Montfort!" With his sword he pointed to the siege engine.
The man stared blankly for a moment before he grasped what Hughes was pointing at and talking about.  Then he cursed under his breath and spun about to run back toward their own camp. Growling at his men as best he could without making too much noise, Hughes drew them together and led them up the slope toward the siege engine where at most a dozen men were struggling to set a fire. Only when they were paces away did Hughes shout "A Montfort!" and his men took up the cry.
The enemy assaulting the siege engine only had time only to turn around, surprise still on their faces, then Hughes's men were on top of them. They defended themselves, but most proved to be no serious match for the veterans with Hughes, and they were outnumbered by more than two to one.
At the siege engine itself, one man ignored the attackers and taking an axe tried frantically to sabotage it. Hughes advanced directly at him, aware in the ever brighter moonlight that this man was in a suit of chain mail and wore a surcoat with heraldic arms. Hughes surmised he was the leader of the band of attackers. "Yield! Your men are dead!"
The knight looked over his shoulder at Hughes. He was a lanky, young man with a long face. His eyes took in the slaughter of his followers, then shifted to Hughes sword, and with an inarticulate cry he flung his axe. If he hadn't seen the other man’s eyes shift, the axe might have taken Hughes by surprise. As it was, it forced him to duck and spring to one side, giving the stranger time to draw his sword. He faced Hughes with his sword circling slowly, his eyes alert.
"We can over-power you easily." Hughes pointed out, hearing his panting men coming up behind him one by one, after they finished off the others.
"Then do it," answered Hughes’ adversary in heavily accented French.
"Why not yield instead?"
"And have my eyes put out?"
"Are you a heretic?"
"Do you care? You murdered a thousand men, women and children, who had taken refuge in St Mary Magadelen in Beziers! You even butchered the priests holding the Eucharist before the alter!"
"Shall we take him, Sir?" The voice was eager in Hughes’s ear.
Hughes shook his head, and stepped forward. His opponent had the siege engine at his back and he could not afford to take his eyes off his numerous enemies to watch his footing. He tried to manoeuvre to the left, but Hughes's men had started to spread out, calling mockingly to their quarry.
"What are you afraid of? If we kill you, you get born again, don't you?" The mercenaries laughed.
"Maybe next time, you'll have more luck and will be born French."
"Or a woman."
"More likely he'll be born an ass." The mercenaries shouted with laughter at their own jokes.
The knight lunged at Hughes. Hughes had anticipat­ed the move and parried the thrust. Neither had shields and so they grasped their swords two-handed. For several minutes they strug­gled, the clang of the blades and their own rasping breath the only sounds that registered in Hughes’s brain. He did not even realize his own men cheering and jeering.
After the excesses of de Montfort's feast, Hughes was sweating profusely. He smelt the garlic and wine on his sweat with repul­sion. His opponent seemed dry, but his breath was rank from too little food. As they came together, Hughes could see the split and swollen lips of a man suffering from thirst. Hughes knew the effects of extreme thirst, he had experienced them in Palestine.
Distracted, he responded a fraction too late to a new thrust. He sprang back, but not quite fast enough. He felt the sting of the sword as it cut through his chain mail just above his knee. Later it would hurt, but for the moment it caused him only alarm. Too late, he realized that he was at a severe disadvantage because he did not want to die, whereas his opponent's only goal was to take as many men as possible with him to his death.
"Let us take him!" Hughes's men urged him, enraged that the southerner had drawn blood.
The Toulousan, meanwhile, sensed Hughes' surprise and hesitation. He pressed his attack harder, his face contorted with effort, thirst and hatred. He had no breath left for curses or cries, but he eyes spoke eloquently. Hughes was frightened, and dropped sharply on his wounded knee. His opponent loomed over him, the sword flashed in the moonlight, and all around the invaders were shouting hoarsely, furious, anxious to rescue Hughes.
Hughes brought his own sword upward, piercing silk, mail, leather and skin. Too late the Toulousan knight realized that Hughes had tricked him with feigned weakness. His face cleared of hatred long enough to register surprise, almost approval, and then his strength gushed out of him with his blood and innards and he fell upon the sword that had killed him so that it went clean through him as it bore his murderer onto the chalky earth.
Hughes went over backward under the other's dead weight and for a moment they lay entwined together like lovers.  Then Hughes started struggling to free himself from the weight of the dying man and pull his sword free. For a second, Hughes paused to catch his breath and his gaze fell on the Toulousan knight lying on his belly his face turned to one side. His eyes were closed, but his lips moved. Hughes leaned forward and caught a whisper in the langue d'oc that he could not decipher ― except he thought he heard the words "Christ" and "Julienne."
"How badly are you hurt?" It was the rough bellow of de Montfort himself, and the next thing Hughes knew his commander had his massive hand under his arm and was helping him to his feet. Behind him a stallion snorted and pranced in discomfort at the smell of blood. Behind the horse were a dozen mounted knights.
"Most of the blood is his. I’m not badly hurt." Hughes answered embarrassed.
De Montfort still had hold of him firmly. "Are you sure? I can't afford to lose you. You'll return with me to my tent and have your wounded tended to properly."
"It's--"
"You'll do as I say! Where's Sir Pierre?"
Hughes felt his stomach tense. He had never even thought to send for Pierre - not given the condition he had been in on leaving de Montfort's tent. Only now did it occur to him that this had been unfair. "I didn't have time to send for him. I--"
De Montfort raised his head and roared. "AMIEL!" The shout cut through the night as all the men, who had been excitedly talking among themselves fell silent in the face of de Montfort's bellow of fury. "A-M-I-E-L!"
"It's not his--"
"Shut up!" De Montfort snarled. "Sir Pierre has to answer for himself." Then to one of the mounted men he ordered. "Fetch Sir Pierre Amiel from his tent and bring him here at once."
The man spurred away. De Montfort turned back to Hughes and lectured in a stern almost abusive tone. "Next time, I don't want any heroics! You let your men come to your assistance, is that clear? You aren't at some royal tournament! You are fighting a bloody war. You can be sure he--" he pointed to the Toulousan knight who was now dead "would not have given you the same courtesy of a fair fight. And I can't afford to have my knights wounded ― there are too bloody few of you as it is. Otherwise, you did a good job. I'm impressed."
Praise from de Montfort was so rare that Hughes found himself glowing with pride, even though his knee was now starting to throb and ache painfully.  De Montfort's approval was the first step to gaining more than his meagre pay. Vague but tempting visions of castles, bastides and lordships formed in the night air.
And then Sir Pierre could be seen running towards them from his tent. He was wearing only his shirt and trying to pull his hauberk on as he scampered on tender bare feet across the rocky ground. Watching him come, Hughes's joy over de Montfort's praise drained out of him. Pierre's men had been murdered and his siege engine attacked, and all the while he had been in his tent and never noticed a thing.
"My lord, I was―" Pierre started before he reached de Montfort. Then he saw de Montfort holding Hughes, saw the dark, still glistening smear of blood across Hughes entire chest and could not know it was not his. He blanched in genuine horror. "Hughes!" Then he saw the corpse behind him. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened. "What - what --"
"Well you might ask!" De Montfort let Hughes go and strode toward Pierre Amiel. He struck out with his fist, smashing the small, thin knight over backwards with a single blow to his face. Blood gushed down from Pierre's nose and he reeled as he tried to lift himself. He stuttered something and coughed up blood.          
"All your men slaughtered in their sleep! Your siege engine attacked, and the whole time you did nothing but puke in your tent!" De Montfort bent over the Pierre, and grabbing him by the collar of his shirt he started shaking him violently back and forth. "I could have you hanged for neglect of duty! For the murder of your men!" As he raged de Montfort's voice grew louder and harsher and more uncontrolled. "Or for treason!"
"We can't afford to do that." Arnaud-Amaury remarked in his distinct, cold voice. He sat astride a tall, lean horse and looked down at commander and victim with an expressionless round face. "We have lost enough men this night already."
De Montfort in his rage turned upon the abbot and pointing at him shouted. "I don’t tell you how to read Mass, and you don't tell me what to do with my own men! If I want to hang Sir Pierre by his balls until his worthless brains rot, I'll do it!"
Hughes swallowed, but his throat was dry. He found himself praying that Arnaud-Amaury or someone else would have the courage he did not have to intervene on Pierre's part.
But the Abbot, offended by de Montfort's tone, chose to turn his horse around and ride away in protest.
"Bind him and bring him to the command tent!" De Montfort ordered Hughes’s troops, and then turning back and ordered Hughes to mount on his own horse.
Hughes, numb, limped over to the great bay stallion, and the next thing he knew de Montfort had lifted him off the ground with startling ease. He had only to fling his leg over the saddle, and then de Montfort sprang up behind him. "Set a watch and then clear the dead away." De Montfort ordered Sir Alain, who was among the men who had escorted him. "These," he indicated the knight and men from the besieged town, "you can roll down into the gorge for the vultures. Our own men need a Christian burial."
Hughes crossed himself, and silently said a prayer for the man he'd killed. "Jesus, Maria, have mercy on his soul." After a moment he added, "and mine."


Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader