Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter 7

Minerve
July 12, 1210
          Smoke and ashes billowed up from the gorge and hung over the town like an evil smelling cloud, darkening the air and making it hard to breathe. The crackle of burning wood and the mixture of shouts, screams and groans that reached the town from the gorge below were muffled and indistinct, over-powered by the more immediate sounds.
            De Montfort had turned over the property of the heretics who refused to return to the Church to his angry troops as consolation for being denied the rest of the town. They were busy plunder­ing what they could and destroying the rest.
Since the rest of the citizens were being kept on the bridge where they could not defend their property, only the fear of de Montfort himself ensured the troops did not overstep the bounds set them, but as more and more of the heretics chose death rather than reconcilia­tion with the church, it looked like the troops would have little to complain about anyway.
Hughes guided his horse between the remnants of barrels, chests and cupboards which had been dragged out into the street by the plundering soldiers and hacked apart in a frenzy of destruc­tion. Shattered pottery littered the gutters along with the corpses of those dogs foolish enough to defend their master's goods. Here and there one of the soldiers sat quenching his thirst with wine, but it was too early for many of them to be truly drunk yet, and the supplies in the town were seriously depleted anyway. Now and again Hughes drew up and asked after Guy, but the soldiers generally shook their heads. At the cross-roads of two narrow alleys, he found Pierre guarding one of the houses that belonged to a Catholic citizen.
"I'm looking for Guy. Have you seen him?"
"I think he went up to the castle. All the heretics have been taken up there."
"I thought they were in the gorge?"
De Montfort had ordered stakes set up in the gorge just below the bridge so that the townspeople would all have an excellent view of the burnings.
“No. There aren't enough stakes. They are to go down in groups of twelve."
Hughes could not fathom the logic behind this decision. While the other villagers were kept on the bridge watching the burnings from start to finish, the heretics themselves were kept in the castle until their time came. But then he understood very little of the logic behind any of de Montfort's decisions, Hughes admitted with weary resignation.
Hughes continued to the narrow end of the bastides, where the castle blocked and guarded the only level access onto the plateau beyond. The banners of de Montfort and the pope flapped languidly over the keep. Norbert had the watch at the lowered draw-bridge of the postern gate, which gave access from the town.
"Is Guy inside?" Hughes asked, leaning forward and resting his elbow on the high pommel of his saddle. His leg wound was still extremely tender and he was more exhausted than usual.
“Yes, in the hall. That's where they've confined the heretics. Have you seen how many there are?" Norbert asked, clearly amazed. "I counted more than a hundred and twenty, and that after two dozen have been taken down into the gorge. Women as well as men. Only children under 12 are being spared."
Hughes nodded. He had not realized it was as many as that, but he felt as if nothing could shock him anymore.
 "Can they cling so hard to their heresy that they are prepared to die for it? to burn for it? I don’t understand." Norbert admitted, shaking his head. "I don’t understand."
Hughes shook his head again, this time to indicate that he didn't understand either.
"Guy has done everything to try to save them." Norbert continued. "He is frantic, and the harder he tries to persuade them to repent, the more smug Arnaud-Amaury looks, when they refuse! It is as if Arnaud-Amaury wants Guy to fail! As if he really prefers these poor souls to go to damnation, rather than accept Christ!"
Hughes refrained from comment. His own thoughts were too turbulent and murky.
"At least we aren't being forced to watch." Norbert murmured in a voice so low that there was no risk of being overheard.
Hughes leaned out of the saddle to lay a hand on Norbert's shoulder in sympathy and approval. Not all of them were so reluctant to be witnesses. To his dismay, Bert had actually asked permission to attend the executions. After nearly being sick while watching Hughes' wound cauterized, he was suddenly eager to see men and women slowly roasted alive. It made no sense to Hughes, who felt as Norbert did: relief that he did not have to be a witness. If he were to see people burning with his own eyes, the process would no longer be unimaginable.
He straightened abruptly in his saddle at the sight of de Montfort riding out of the castle gate. "What are you doing here?" De Montfort demanded sharply, suspicion glinting in his black eyes.
"I’m looking for Father Guy. Arnaud-Amaury has sent for him."
De Montfort jerked with his head back toward the castle. "He's in there." He started to ride past Hughes, and then drew up and ordered. "Try to make him see this as God's Will and stop taking things so personally." Then he rode on.
Hughes exchanged a look with Norbert, baffled by de Montfort's ability to make God responsible for his own actions.
"And something else!" De Montfort had stopped a second time. He twisted around in his saddle. "I don't want to ever hear of you meddling between Amiel and myself again! Your efforts to turn him against me make me seriously doubt your loyalty! Do you under­stand!?"
The question was rhetorical and already de Montfort was trotting away. Hughes stood gaping after him, too stunned to fully comprehend. He could only have learned about that talk with Pierre from Pierre himself.
"Don't blame Pierre." He heard Norbert saying. "He is wax in de Montfort's hands."
Hughes gave Norbert an impenetrable look, and rode on into the bailey of the castle.
Dismounting painfully and leaving his stallion in the shade, Hughes followed the muffled sound of voices up the spiral steps to the first floor hall of the castle. His wounded leg was now so stiff that he dragged it up behind him, one step at a time. He arrived at the landing sweating and paused to catch his breath. The scene spread out before him filled him with discomfort.
Those citizens who had refused to embrace the Catholic Church were kneeling in crude lines the length of the hall. Their hands and feet were bound. Sergeants patrolled the lines of heretics delivering the odd kick or cuff to keep them from talking to one another or making any attempt at escape. Not that any of them looked like they wanted to escape. Their expressions were too dazed or exhausted.
At the high table, Guillaume de Minerve sat with his wife and the village priest. They alone had been exempted from watching the executions. It had been a chivalrous gesture on de Montfort's part, but looking at the haggard grey man staring blindly down the hall, Hughes was certain that the Viscount felt no gratitude. His wife held his limp hands between her own fretful ones and her expression as she glanced toward the people on their knees, their tormentors and now to Hughes was openly frightened. 
The priest seated on the other side of the Viscount was helping himself to wine from a pottery jug. From the uncoordi­nated and uncertain movements of his hands, it was evident that he was already very drunk. Hughes remembered hearing that the priest had been drunk when they found him ― snoring in the sacristy of the church. Arnaud-Amaury had announced loudly that it was no wonder the town was full of heretics with this creature as a representa­tive of the Church. The drunken priest, evidently ignorant of Arnaud-Amaury's identity, spat back, "if the pompous Abbot had had the pleasure of trying to preach the Love of God to the pig-headed villagers" he would turned to drink himself. Arnaud-Amaury had walked away disdainfully, leaving the task of trying to save the souls ― and skins ― of the stubborn villagers to Guy.
Hughes at last caught sight of Guy, kneeling before an old woman, clasping her hands in his in a gesture of joint prayer. Hughes limped into the room, drawing unwanted attention from the damned and their guards. Only the Viscount seemed oblivious to his presence, staring in the same empty way as if he were spiritu­ally dead. The priest saluted him tipsily and up-ended the jug to drink the dregs from it directly.
Hughes halted beside Guy. He caught his breath at the sight of the young Benedictine. The lines on his face seemed drawn with ink, his eyes sunken and ringed in black. His voice rasped as if he had not had anything to drink for hours. "Please, please, give Him a chance. He loves you. He does not want to see you burn ― not now and not in hell. Please."
The old woman was shaking her head. "He ― He has killed everyone, who was dear to me. I do not want to live. I want to die. I want to join my children―"
"But not like this! Not burned alive!" Guy protested. Hughes was slightly shocked that Guy was openly appealing to fear rather than faith, but on second thought decided Guy's charity was admirable. Guy started coughing violently, and Hughes hastened to offer him a gulp of water from his own flask. Guy took it grateful­ly and at once offered the flask to the old woman. "Here. Please."
She shook her head. "Leave me be. I'm an old woman. I want to die. The flames are short ― living is Hell!"
Guy looked at her helplessly and then up at Hughes.
"Arnaud-Amaury has sent for you." Hughes replied, evading the real question and plea. "He has found some more ―" Hughes had been about to say heretics, but then he corrected himself and said simply "people."
Guy tried to stand, stepped on his own cassock and almost fell. Hughes caught him under the arm just in time. Guy was staring at him almost as blankly as the Viscount. "None of them." He murmured. "None of them will listen to me."
Hughes escorted Guy back to the house at the foot of the town where Arnaud-Amaury was waiting for them. Guy stared at the destruction of the town with wide, horrified eyes ― as if it were the first time he had seen a town plundered. Then at a solid, stone house where Arnaud-Amaury waited impatiently. He started to address Guy even before the Benedictine had been able to dismount.
"There are two women here, who have been heredicated and now claim to be ‘perfect’."
"They are hardly the only ones." Guy replied wearily, as he dropped down from his placid mule.
"These women are noble. If you can get them ― or even one of them ― to renounce her heresy, I will see that you are given the next available Abbey."
Guy stopped dead in his tracks, turned furious on Arnaud-Amaury and demanded. "Do you think earthly rewards will increase my ardour?!" But as quickly as his temper flared, it gave way to sadness, and Guy remarked, "How little you know me, Arnaud."
If Arnaud-Amaury had been ashamed for a fraction of a second, he recovered quickly. "If you have so little ambition, than forget I mentioned a reward. I want these women to abjure their heresy, do you understand?!" Hughes regis­tered that Arnaud-Amaury increasingly employed de Montfort's own turn of phrase and imitated his penchant for asking rhetorical questions. "It will not please His Holiness, if we have to burn noblewomen!"
"Then don't." Guy suggested, more to himself than to the Papal legate.
"I will burn every soul who denies Christ!" Arnaud-Amaury replied angrily. "And even if it is the Count of Toulouse him­self. I mean to eradicate this heresy. Is that clear?"
Guy just nodded and disappeared through the door of the house. Arnaud-Amaury looked up at Hughes, his pale blue eyes still glittered with fervour. "You best stay here and make sure that no harm comes to Father Guy from our troops."
Hughes nodded. It was a more agreeable task than being asked to escort the condemned to their barbarous executions. Arnaud-Amaury then mounted his white stallion ― an affectation that many made fun of behind his back ― and spurred up the street toward the castle.
Hughes sat for several minutes, undecided if he should guard the door mounted, or follow Guy into the house. The heat of the sun, the smoke and ashes in the air, and a certain curiosity induced him to dismount and enter the house. He tied his stallion outside the house, confident that his arms, prominently sewn upon the trapper, would protect the horse from theft or harm.
Ducking through the low, carved door-frame he entered a cool and darkened passage. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust from the glaring sun outside, and then he followed his ears down the passage to the tiny courtyard at the back of the house.
Once upon a time, a garden had bloomed here, but the lack of water had turned it into a desert, strewn with the corpses of dead plants. A Roman sarcophagus of dirty marble had served as a water trough at some time, but it was now dry as a bone. Beyond, a stairway supported by a blind arch led up to a second story, and a door way gave access into a kitchen, from which the murmur of voices emanated.
Hughes stepped down into the kitchen whose flagstone floor was almost two feet below the level of the garden. Two windows on the opposite wall gave him a view over the gorge to the chalky banks beyond where he had camped until two days ago. He could even make out his siege engine squatting amidst the scrub-brush, idle and abandoned now that Minerve had surrendered.
By the empty fire-place, a sick-bed had been set up, and here an old, toothless woman lay, attended by a young woman dressed in severe black. The old woman lay with her eyes closed apparently dozing fitfully, and the young woman knelt behind the bed looking at Guy, who bent over both them. As Hughes approached, the young woman shifted her gaze, and her eyes widened in terror at the sight of a knight. The insult hit him hard, until he remembered that she had every reason to assume he was her executioner.
She did not take her eyes from him as he approached, and stared up at him with parted lips as he stopped behind Guy. He could see her pulse palpitating at her temples and smell the sweat of terror on her unwashed body. At close range he noted that she was a conventionally pretty woman with smooth, rounded features, a small nose and full lips.
"Madame." He nodded to her.
"What ― what do you want?" She addressed Hughes, rather than Guy.
Hughes shook his head. "We want only to save you, Madame. Is this your mother?" He indicated the old woman.
She shook her head. "My mother-in-law. It was her wish to be heredicated. She begged me on the soul of my husband to bring the Good Man to her. She has taken the Consolamentum - and so have I." Her eyes flickered between Hughes and Guy as the words spilled out breath­lessly. "The ― the Abbot said we will be burned alive."
"Only if you persist in rejecting Christ, Madame!" Guy answered earnestly. "You need only embrace the Catholic Faith again. Agree to return to the Church that loves you. You made a mistake, but that is understandable ― after all the misery of the siege. Your mother-in-law mislead you in her senility. God does not blame you. He can forgive you, Madame. Come back to Him." Guy opened his arms to embrace her, but she shook her had like a frightened child, and drew back slightly.
"Don't be a fool, Madame." Hughes declared in exasperation. "What harm is there in saying you were confused and mislead? Let Father Guy take you to safety."
"But ― but" she looked from him to Guy to her mother-in-law, and then back to him. "I can't do that. If I do that I will be damned."
"No, no, no!" Guy cried out, his desperation made his voice crack, and Hughes glanced at him in concern. "If you don't let me save you, Madame, your body will be burned alive, and your soul will burn for all eternity."
Her eyes were wide and her body had started to tremble, but she shook her head vigorously. "No, my mother-in-law says we must not ― not now that we have taken the Consolamentum. Now we must welcome death--"
"Your mother-in-law is an old woman! She can welcome death easily." Hughes was annoyed by the woman's apparent stupidity, her inability to think for herself. "You are young. You ought to live. Your husband--"
"My husband is dead. He died for Minerve. He died for the Good Men! He died...."
Guy gave Hughes a sharp, reproachful look. The woman was obviously in mourning, after all, wearing even a black wimple. Hughes sighed, and Guy turned again to the woman. "Madame, I can see that you have lost your Faith. Too much evil has befallen you in these past weeks ― the siege, the death of your husband, the illness of your mother-in-law, and now the fall of the town and the ― the arrest of so many neighbours and friends. I know you are confused and you cling to the advice of those you have been taught to respect. But let me take you into my care, let me show you the Love Christ has for you!"
"Leave her be!" It was the protest of the old woman. She had opened her eyes and lifted her head from the pillow to glare furiously at Guy. "How dare you try to lay your bloody, hateful hands upon our souls! You know nothing of God ― you are the slave of the Roman Anti-Christ! You are blind! Corrupt! A tool of the Devil! You wish to hold us here, only because you cannot yourself go to God! Leave us alone!"
Her protest was so vehement that it made Guy recoil, as if he had been struck. Hughes was simply angered. He was perfectly willing to admit that many priests lived less than exemplary lives, and he was not so naive that he did not view the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops and Abbots as essentially secular lords with secular interests in power and wealth. But it was absurd to accuse Guy des Vaux of being an instrument of the Devil or to call him hateful.
          A banging sound and the violent shaking of the younger woman's head, made Hughes spin around before he could reply. At the far end of the room, a cupboard had opened and a young girl was scrambling down. Her fine, red hair hung in disordered strands from what had once been a braid. Her face, hands and skirts were dirty, as if she had been crawling about in the dust, but the dress had once been a pretty yellow cotton with green satin ribbons and silk embroidery around the neck and hem-line.
At the sight of her, the young woman called out something in the Languedoc and the girl stopped, looked from her mother to Hughes, and started to back toward the door.
Hughes, thinking of the rampaging mercenaries in the street, sprang to block the door-way and Guy cried out. "Madame! For your child's sake, you cannot throw your life and soul away! You must let me help you both!"
"Death is freedom!" Screeched the old woman before her daughter-in-law could reply. "The child should never have been born. They are the Devil's men, Bette! They are trying to seduce you with lies! If you do not resist them, they will keep you imprisoned in hell for all eternity. You will have to do their bidding, grovel before their idols and kiss their feet for all your lifetimes to come. Don't give into them, Bette. Think of God!"
“Are you still here?" It was Arnaud-Amaury's voice from behind Hughes. "De Montfort has lost patience with you, Guy. He says, if you can't convert even an old woman, you should stop wasting our time. He wants these women delivered to the castle at once."
The old woman started laughing hysterically. Arnaud-Amaury turned and signalled to two sergeants, who stepped down into the room. The sergeants, smelling of sweat and caked with smoke, their faces black with it, advanced toward the sick-bed, readying the rope as they advanced.
The younger woman started to back away from them. Guy was pleading with her, telling her she still had time. It wasn't too late. One word would suffice. But she was incapable even of this. One of the soldiers lifted the old woman and flung her over his shoulder like a sack of grain. She was still laughing and unresist­ing. The other sergeant backed the younger woman against the wall and then took her wrists in one hand and looped the rope around them deftly. He acted efficiently but without apparent maliciousness. He did not even seem to notice that she was pretty. He seemed completely numbed ― almost as empty as his victim, who limply followed him out of the kitchen without so much as a glance at her daughter cowering by the doorway.
Arnaud-Amaury levelled his glance at Guy, who sank against the chimney, shaking with exhaustion. "Don't let de Montfort see you like this," he advised. Then he swung back and looked at Hughes, at the girl, and at Hughes again. "You'd best get the girl out of here, before our troops find her." Then he was gone.
The girl started, tried to break free of him and follow her mother, but Hughes held her firmly, shaking his head. Guy pulled himself together and, ‘though pale, he suggested rationally. "Take her to the Hospitallers at Homps for now, and I'll write to the good sisters at Valmange. They'll care for her."
          Hughes nodded, and led the girl out, across the garden, and back to the front of the house. In the street, the smoke was much heavier, and he could hear men brawling somewhere. He lifted the girl up into his saddle and then clamping his teeth against the pain, hauled himself up behind her. He pulled the girl into his lap with one arm around her waist. She was trembling violently. "There's nothing to be afraid of." He tried to tell her, thinking that, indeed, the Hospitallers would provide for the girl until more permanent arrangements could be made. There was no point thinking of the other children, who were being orphaned today. He could not help them all.
He turned his horse away from the brawling soldiers, and guided it up the other street. Here the smoke was thicker, billowing up from the gorge to his left. It stank abominably, and shouting mixed with drawn out screams made his hair stand on end. The girl gasped and twisted in his arm, straining to look past him toward the bridge and the gorge. He tightened his hold, and forced her head against his chest so she could not see. "Be still. There is nothing you can do for your mother. You'll be safe with the Hospitallers. They won't let anything happen to you."
She said something in the langue 'doc, which he did not understand. He realized then that she could not understand him either, and somehow that made her fate seem worse. He wanted to ask her how old she was, she looked 9 or 10 ― the age he had been when Hebron and then Ascalon fell to Saladin. But at least he had fled with his mother, sisters and their faithful servants. He hadn't been alone and carried off by one of the enemy soldiers.
She spoke to him again, in a tone that was pleading and desperate. She was crying now as she looked up at him with golden eyes that reminded him of Emilie. If they had a daughter, she might one day look very much like this girl, Hughes thought, and he was conscious of how light and fragile she was in his arms. He was suddenly certain that he would never, never have allowed a daughter of his to be trapped in a town under siege. Hadn't his mother taken him from Hebron before the Saracens surrounded it, and taken him from Ascalon as soon as the siege began?
How could this girl's father have allowed her be trapped here? he asked angrily. How could her mother place her pseudo-religion ahead of her daugh­ter's welfare? What kind of mother would discard a child, a girl child, in a town full of rampaging soldiers? The woman's helplessness, her willingness to let her dying mother-in-law speak for her, her limp submission to the sergeants filled him with raging contempt. He could imagine the way his mother would have reacted, if Muslim soldiers had laid hands upon one of his sisters ― she would have torn their eyes out with her bare hands, or died trying.
For the first time since he had arrived in the Languedoc, Hughes hated the enemy. He was glad to be able to rescue this child, not only from the mercenaries, but from her own parents, who evidently cared so little for her.
He paused to wipe the tears from her face with the corner of his surcoat, and although he knew she could not understand his words, he tried to reassure her with his tone of voice and his gestures. "You're going to be alright. I won't let anyone harm you. I'm taking you to the Hospitallers. The Hospitallers are kind and then, when Father Guy has arranged it, the Sisters at Valmagne will give you a new home. You will be well cared for and safe. Valmagne is a beautiful abbey." Hughes had never been there, but it didn't matter. She couldn't understand him anyway. "We will ride all afternoon, but when we get to Homps, you can have a bath, and then, after a good meal with all the water you can drink, you'll sleep in a soft, clean bed."
She was gazing at him wide-eyed, trying to understand what he said.
He searched his memory for some phrases of the langue d'oc, and finally remembered how to ask her name. It was a question he had heard often enough during interrogations of captives.
To his own surprise the girl understood him, starting and widening her eyes in astonishment, before whispering timidly. "Julienne, Monsieur. Julienne de St. Jean."
In horror, Hughes recognized the name uttered by the Toulousan knight he'd killed.

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader

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