Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

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, March 9, 2013

The Devil's Knight: Chapter 8

Lagrasse
August 1210

"I'm warning you," Arnaud-Amaury stared directly at Hughes and spoke slowly but deliberately, "if you insist on speaking with him, you will regret it. It would be far wiser to return at once to Termes and resume your duties."
"We've taken the village, and I participated in the successful assault on the Termenet Bastion, but now there is nothing more to be achieved by bombard­ment or assault. Only starvation or thirst will cause the citadel to fall. De Montfort himself expects the siege to last for months!"
The papal legate just stared at him, and then growing impatient he asked, "So?"
"As I said: I want leave to visit my wife. She is due any day. I want to be near her."
"Then you shouldn't have taken service with Simon de Montfort."
"Christ God! I've been in continuous service since January! All I'm asking for is a fortnight to be with my wife at the birth of our first child!"
The Abbot shrugged. "I know of no other knight who has made a similar request. Sir Charles didn't."
"It was not his wife's first child, and besides that is his affair." Hughes could feel himself being put on the defensive, and it only made him angrier. He felt his request ought to be treated on its merits ― on his merits ― and not compared to the behaviour of other knights. If it came to that, however, he felt his performance over the last months could be compared favourably to Sir Charles'.
The Abbot now shrugged. "If you insist, I'll tell him you're here."
"Thank-you."
Arnaud-Amaury gave him a last, almost pitying look, and then passed through the doorway leading back into the abbey. De Montfort had been slightly wounded during the assault on the Termenet Bastion. He had retreated to the Abbey of Lagrasse to recover, leaving Alain de Roucy in command of the siege. Hughes had requested leave to go to his wife, and Alain had refused to take responsibility for the decision, sending him to de Montfort instead. Aside from finding it cowardly not to make such a minor decision on his own, Hughes resented wasting time, when he ought to be riding hard for home.
Arnaud-Amaury returned. "He'll see you now." He held the door open for Hughes.
De Montfort was housed in the Abbot's luxurious guest house. The chamber overlooked the river Orbieu and sun-light and fresh air flooded in through two double-light windows. The floor was paved with glazed tiles bearing the symbols of the evangelists. The plastered walls were painted with frescoes depicting the life of various saints. De Montfort lay in a great, canopied bed on a raised platform. White bandages swathed his bulky neck and shoulder where he had taken a cross-bow quarrel. The wound was unsettlingly reminis­cent of the one that had killed the Lionheart, and so it had distressed all of de Montfort's inti­mates.
Pierre Amiel hovered beside the bed, arranging the flasks of medicine, wine and water. As Hughes approached the bed, de Montfort turned to Pierre and bellowed at him to "stop fussing about like an old woman and get out!" Pierre looked up in disbelief, as always stunned to discover that his good intentions won no recognition from his master, and then his face went rigid as he fled from the chamber, resentful and hurt. Hughes felt his own heart quaver as he recognized de Montfort's ill temper. "What the hell are you doing here?" De Montfort turned on Hughes. "Arnaud-Amaury mumbled some nonsense about wanting leave!"
"Yes, my lord. I wish a fortnight's leave to--"
"Are you mad?! We're in the middle of a siege!"
"I requested leave after the fall of Minerve, and you asked me to help establish the siege at Termes first. I've done that, and since my wife's time is now come. I can delay no--"
"What kind of rubbish is this about your wife's time?!" De Montfort shouted. "I've never been confronted with such a ridiculous request in all my life! I didn't hire a mid-wife!" His voice carried out the windows and through the door. Hughes felt the humiliation burning him up, consuming him. "Either you fight or you go home to your wife ― but don't come back if you do! I have no use for men, who have to run off home every few months!"
"My lord, that's not fair--"
De Montfort shouted him down. "If I'd thought you were like this, I wouldn't have hired you! I thought you were more ambitious! You, of all people, who can't afford a decent remount and go around in tattered chainmail, like some mercenary!"
Hughes had never been ashamed of his poverty before. He had not dreamt that either his horses or his chainmail were of such poor quality that they attracted contempt. He now knew better, and what was worse he knew that everyone within hearing would not forget de Montfort's opinion.
"If I'd been paid for the last 7 months, maybe I could do something about--"
"If you expect to be paid before we've finished what we came for, you should not have come here!"
"It could take years to achieve your objectives!"
"Then it could be years before you get paid! No one else has come whining to me about wanting their pay in the middle of the campaign!"
“Nor have I come whining to you, my lord. I came here--"
"Get out! Either I find you in Termes, when I return on Monday, or I never want to see you again!"
Hughes, chocking on his rage, humiliation and frustra­tion, could find no answer. His bowed and retreated. In the antechamber, Arnaud-Amaury cast him a cool, faintly pitying look. "I warned you," he reminded Hughes unnecessarily. Hughes looked at him, but he had no answer for the abbot either. He nodded and continued out the door and down the stairs.

In the fresh air and sun-light of the outer courtyard he paused. From the great abbey church came the chanting of the monks. The courtyard itself was quiet and empty except for Bert holding the horses. Hughes glanced up at the arched windows of the upper story, and he blushed to realize that Bert too would have heard every word of de Montfort's outburst.
For a moment he considered defying de Montfort. He would go home to Emilie and de Montfort be damned. But how could he return empty handed? with not even his pay in his pocket? Dismissed in disgrace! A nice legacy for his heir! Or should he try to get to Tourranine and back by Monday?  He did not finish the absurd thought. It was physically impossible, even if he never stopped to rest and killed three horses trying. So what choice did he have?
But if de Montfort did not intend to pay him until they had secured all of the Languedoc, what was the point of staying? Except that wasn't credible. It couldn't be. Roucy and Thury had been paid more than once since joining de Montfort. It was possible that de Montfort meant he would not pay them until the end of the campaign season in November. Hughes would have to wait that long.
Which meant that Emilie would be alone at the birth of their child. He thought of her in agony, calling for him, and he wasn't there. Again, he was tempted to go to her, regardless of the financial consequenc­es.
But what if she was already dead? a cruel voice whispered in his brain. The last letter from her was dated two weeks ago. Much could happen in two weeks. She was over-due now, if he were honest with himself. And even if first children often came late, she was very likely already brought to childbed. He had been deceiving himself that he could still get to her in time. The fact was, either she had survived or she had died alone.
He started when he felt someone stop beside him and heard a voice close at hand. "He'll get over it." It was Arnaud-Amaury.
Hughes stared at the abbot in blank confusion. At that instant, he didn't give a damn about Simon de Montfort, but he was not so stupid as to admit this to the papal legate. He forced his thoughts back to the scene in de Montfort's sick room, and then looked more closely at Arnaud-Amaury.
"Come on. I know an excellent tavern." The abbot indicated the town of Lagrasse across the river from the abbey. "Pierre, Guy and I have often spent a pleasant evening there after putting up with his tongue and temper tantrums all day." There could be no mistaking Arnaud-Amaury's friendly intentions -- and it was the first time Hughes had ever heard Arnaud-Amaury admit that de Montfort could be difficult and unreasonable.
For a moment, Hughes was still tempted to indulge his pride by rejecting the offer. Then his common sense got the better of him. He realized that he was not going to defy de Montfort. He was not going to jeopardize both the wages he’d already earned and the chance of being granted land in the future. He couldn't risk all that for the sake of a fortnight at home that might already come too late. He managed a weak, imitation of a smile. "Thank you."
Arnaud-Amaury started toward the gateway, and Hughes asked him to wait while he crossed over to Bert and told him they would be returning to Termes in the morning. The alacrity with which Bert hastened to assure Hughes that he would see to the horses only underlined the extent to which he was feeling sorry for his lord. Hughes couldn't bear the youngster's pity, and told him, more harshly than necessary, that he would not be needed for the rest of the evening.
"Can't I come whoring with you, sir?" Bert asked with his unique combination of impudence and pleading.
"NO!" Hughes told him irritably. "Go whoring alone. I don't intend to." Hughes turned his back on the youth and strode angrily back to Arnaud-Amaury.
Meanwhile, Father Guy and Pierre Amiel had also escaped de Montfort and joined Arnaud-Amaury. Together, the four men left the abbey grounds and followed the river to the fortified bridge that joined the abbey to the town. The river was shallow at this time of year. The bed of loose, chalky rocks was exposed. It would have been easy to cross the narrow bands of water without use of a bridge.
It was not a market day and the square itself was empty of stands, but the arcaded facades lining the square were crammed with shop-stalls. Idly, the two knights and their clerical companions sauntered past, occasionally stopping for a closer look at the offered goods: pickled olives, goats and sheep’s cheese, unglazed pottery, horse-hair brushes, wooden combs and spoons - all local products of little value.
Hughes was briefly reminded of the great bazaar at Tyre with its glass-ware and filigree silver, the turquoise relief-tiles and the rich-coloured carpets. Would he never again be able to afford something of true beauty and fine craftsmanship? Would he never be able to buy Emilie golden filigree earrings as his mother had worn? or embroidered slippers? or bright-coloured silks?
"He is particularly bad-tempered when he is ill." Pierre explained. Hughes looked over, exasperated that all Pierre could think and talk about was de Montfort. Did he have no other interests? For an unholy moment, he wondered if Pierre's feelings for their commander were founded in something more illicit than mere admiration and gratitude. It would explain his peculiar ability to suffer almost any humiliation and still come crawling back for more. But de Montfort was the last man, Hughes decided, who would tolerate any sexual perversion in his vicinity.
"Have you no wife or family, Pierre?"
"How should I marry? I am landless." Pierre's answer was defensive, and Hughes decided he should not probe into his wounds.
They entered the tavern. It was located on the ground floor of a house on the market. The only window was at the front, under the arcade, and so the front room was dark even at the height of day. Arnaud-Amaury led them through this front room, crowded with empty tables and benches, and past the stairway that led down into the wine and salt cellars. They followed a narrow corridor past the kitchens, smelling heavily of smoke, fat and garlic, and passed an exit to a cramped inner courtyard. Arnaud-Amaury led them deeper into the house, until they reached a small corner room with a low, beamed ceiling. The windowless room was occupied by a single table. Benches had been built directly into the crude panelling of the wall so that one could sit at one head and along one side of the table. Arnaud-Amaury took his accustomed place at the head of the table and the other three men seated themselves along the side.
Their presence had not escaped the notice of the inn-keeper, and he appeared with a pewter tray already laden with glazed pottery jugs of chilled wine and water. "Will you be wanting a meal, my lords?"
"Something light." Arnaud-Amaury answered for all of them, before remembering himself and asking the others with raised eyebrows if this was alright. Guy and Pierre at once assured him that they too only wanted something light. Hughes was feeling rebellious, and insisted on inquiring what the tavern had to offer. Shortly thereafter a heavy woman appeared with another tray laden with bread, lard, and steaming pottage.
As he helped himself to the meal, Hughes found himself wondering what Arnaud-Amaury found so appealing about this particular tavern. The food and wine were decent, but simple and hearty rather than fine. The food at the Abbot's table in Lagrasse would certainly be more varied and the wine lighter. Furthermore, the simplicity of the surround­ings, the pottery and wooden utensils should have offended a man, who was used to dining on silver.
Then the second door opened, and Hughes began to understand. Three girls, none older than 14 or 15 and wearing painted faces and gowns of gossamer and gauze, entered. They wore their hair uncovered, but looped up off their necks and clipped to their heads in great bundles of unkempt hair - like women who had just risen from their beds. Their perfume enveloped them like an invisible cloak. They laughed and giggled as they entered, chattering among themselves in the langue d'oc. After what seemed like a friendly scuffle, one of the girls took her place beside Arnaud-Amaury, looped her arm through his and brazenly raised her face for a kiss. Arnaud-Amaury willingly obliged.
Meanwhile, one of the other girls had seated herself on the edge of the bench beside Hughes and the third hiked up her skirts and plunged under the table to remerge demanding a place between Guy and Pierre.
"You haven't been here before." The girl beside Hughes announced looking up at him curiously.
"No." He glanced toward Arnaud-Amaury. Arnaud-Amaury was whispering in the ear of the girl beside him and nuzzling her neck. She giggled and squirmed, but clung to his arm no less firmly. Pierre too was preoccupied with the girl, who leaned against him, but Guy met Hughes’s eyes; he shrugged apologetically.
"What's your name?" The girl was demanding of Hughes.
He turned back to her and studied her carefully. She had glossy, brown hair, brown eyes and a snub nose in an oval face. She would have been pretty, Hughes thought, without the make-up that made her face older and impersonal. She was too young for wrinkles and blessed with unblemished skin, so that the make-up created a perfect doll's face. She wore a white gauze gown with loose open sleeves and over this a sleeveless blue surcoat of such loose weave that it was transparent. Both the gown and the surcoat clung to her body as if they or she were slightly damp, and so he could easily decipher her somewhat underdeveloped but broad breasts, over a still plump waist. "What's your name?" He asked in the langue d'oc.
Her eyes widened with surprise and delight, and she answered him in a flood of sounds, which he could not separate into words. He shook his head and reverted to French. "I'm sorry. I cannot speak langue d’oc. What is your name?"
"Annie."
"How old are you?"
"15." He did not believe her, and it showed. "Well, I’ll turn 15 before the Feast of St. John next." She admitted.
"How did you come here?" Hughes asked Annie.
"Monsieur Jacques brought me here."
"Who is Monsieur Jacques? Where were you before?"
"I grew up in Mirepoix. My parents were weavers there. Cathers. My father still is, I suppose, but I don't where he is now ― somewhere with the heretic bishop. My mother killed herself when the crusaders came."
Hughes stiffened and the anger against these fanatics returned with sudden violence. He thought of the girl Julienne, and glanced at Guy. How could he save one girl and then come here to use another?
"You don't have to worry. I'm not a heretic. We're all good Catholics here." She crossed herself and muttered an Ave for good measure.
"Your parents abandoned you?"
Annie shrugged, but she wouldn't look at him. "My father took the Consolamentum, when I was still a little girl and after that he travelled around to preach. My mother ran our shop alone until it got burned down."
"And then?"
She shrugged without looking at him. "She hung herself afterwards."
Their conversation was interrupted by the bellowing of the landlord overhead, followed by a loud smack, a thump and an outraged female squeal. Hughes looked to the ceiling whence the noise came in alarm, but the three girls all started laughing. Annie hid behind her hand as she giggled, while Arnaud-Amaury's girl threw back her head and kicked her feet in delight. The third girl explained. "That's Louise! She said she was too tired to come down, and stayed in bed. We warned her Monsieur Jacques would be angry, but she thinks she's so pretty that she can do whatever she likes." Clearly the others took profound satisfac­tion in having their arrogant rival put in her place.
A few minutes later, a fourth girl made a belated, red-faced appearance. She had a cascade of blond hair, which she shook back from her face with a toss of her head as she stepped through the door. The white, naked body, tantalizingly revealed through a dark-gauze gown, was slender and delecta­ble. She wore no surcoat and no sandals. She was without doubt the prettiest of the four girls, and a couple of years older as well.
She went self-confidently toward Arnaud-Amaury, but the other girl clung more tightly to him and lifted her chin defiantly. Arnaud-Amaury was clearly amused by the rivalry, and slipping his arm around the waist beside him, he teased the other with a remark about early birds catching the worms. The late-comer tossed her head. "If you want to make do with second best...." Her eyes swept the bench, until her eyes found Hughes. She smiled knowingly and approached the table to lean across it in his direction. "Who are you, my lord?"
Hughes smiled, but he shook his head. "I'm no lord. Just a simple knight." This girl, he noted, spoke French without a southern accent. "Where do you come from?"
"Rouen. I'm not one of these local girls. They­'re all frigid really. All of our soldiers and priests come back to me after trying the others."
"What brought you so far from home?" Hughes inquired.
"I joined the crusade, you might say." She smiled across the table at him. "I'm a true daughter of the Church, aren't I, Arnaud?"
"Hm." Arnaud-Amaury confirmed, but his attention was focused upon the first girl, who was determined not to lose the advantage she had gained, and was now sitting astride his lap. The sight of the papal legate in the robes of a Cisterican abbot with a whore in his lap disgusted Hughes.
He stood, and addressing the Norman whore announced, "You picked the wrong target. I'm too poor for your price."
"But you don't know what it is yet? I might give you a discount ― if you're nice to me."
He shook his head and shoved Annie away from him too.
Pierre beckened to the disappointed Louise, asking, "What about me? Will you give me a discount?"
Hughes started for what appeared to be the back door.  Annie jumped up off the bench and rushed after him. He found himself in a cramped entryway. A wooden stairway led up to the left, turning back on itself in a dark landing, and, by the smell, the stables were straight ahead. To his right the courtyard opened.
"You want to go up to my room?" Annie asked anxiously, tugging gently at his hand.
"No, I want to go back to the abbey."
"But you have to come up!" Annie insisted almost whining. "Monsieur Jacques will beat me if you don't!" Her voice was clogged with frightened tears, the voice of a little girl pleading, almost whining. Her painted face was puckering up about to cry, and her stubby hands were damp with sweat. "Please come up," she pleaded, adding with a guilty glance over her shoulder, "Monsieur Jacques says, if I don't earn my keep he'll kick me out, and then it'll be like before."
Hughes glanced at the dingy stairs and then down into her pleading face. "What was before?" Hughes asked, thinking that there could hardly be anything worse than a brothel.
"I nearly died before Monsieur Jacques took me in. I had no place to sleep, and most of the soldiers wouldn't pay me. I was lucky when they shared some of their food. But now Monsieur Jacques makes them pay or they get thrown out. And the food is good here ― all I can eat, and pretty clothes." She indicated her thin gowns proudly. She did not understand why Hughes just continued to stare at her so blankly. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing." Hughes shook his head wearily. "Nothing." How petty his own problems seemed.
"Please come up stairs!" She pleaded again squeezing his hand. Hughes untied his purse from his belt and loosened the draw string. He had little money left, because he had expected to get paid long before this, but with a sigh he said. "There's no need to go upstairs. I'll pay your price here and now."
"For nothing?" She asked incredulously.
"Call it an indemnity."
She did not know what the word meant and she did not under­stand him. Part of her even felt insulted ― except that he had rejected Louise too. She decided he must be one of the men who only liked boys. She told him her price and held out her hand for it. 

In the morning, as Hughes and Bert saddled their horses to return to the siege at Termes, Guy sought Hughes out in the stables. Hughes nodded a greeting, but continued to concentrate on tightening the girth and securing his saddle-bags. Guy waited patiently, the early breeze fluttering his robes. "You were shocked by last night," he said at last.
"Why should I be shocked? Everyone, particularly in these parts, knows Catholic priests and abbots don't take their vows of chastity seriously."
"For Christ's sake watch you tongue!" Guy hissed, rushing forward to grab Hughes' wrist urgently. He was not angry, only horrified at the risk Hughes had taken. In a breathless undertone he asked urgently: "Do you want to be accused of sympathizing with the heretics? Do you know what Arnaud-Amaury would do--"
"Do you want to know what I think of Arnaud-Amaury?!" Hughes spat back.
Guy clasped Hughes’ wrist in his claw-like hand so fiercely that he all but cut off the circulation to it. "Stop it! He is dangerous! Much more so that de Montfort! De Montfort roars and bites, but you know where you stand with him. Arnaud-Amaury is a snake."
Hughes met Guy's eyes, and he knew that Guy was genuinely afraid for him. He nodded, registering both the truth of what Guy said, and the effect it had on all of them.
"God pity us." He murmured and plunged out of the stables into the blinding sunlight of the courtyard.

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader

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