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."
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!"
"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.
* * * * * *
"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."
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.
"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.
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."
"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?"
"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