Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Final Chapter

Poitiers
November 1210

Just short of Poitiers, the elder of Hughes' stallions pulled up lame. Hughes had to dismount and transfer to the younger horse. Even so, the increasingly pronounced limping of the stallion slowed their pace. Reaching Poitiers mid-afternoon, Hughes somewhat reluctantly made the decision to halt. They entered the fortified town by the new bridge and made their way past the the 4th Century Church of the Baptism and continued past the still unfinished Cathedral to the heart of the city. In the university sector, near the Palace of the Counts of Poitiou, there was a hospice run by the Hospitallers.
Hughes left his few belongings with the Hospitaller-Sergeant in charge of the hospice and arranged for his stallion to remain in the stables until he could send for it later. Then he and Bert made their way to the public baths housed in the alley behind Notre Dame le Grande.
The following morning, they broke their fast with the other travellers at the hospice before heading north. As they crossed the river Creuse at Descartes, Hughes started to note the landmarks, and Bert could not stop talking about all the things he was going to tell his mother and half-brothers. It was Bert more than Hughes, recognized the changes: the tree split by lighting, the new cottage in Neuilly, the expanded fish ponds at Chatelier. At Ferriere-Larcon, Hughes drew up before the church and told Bert to ride ahead with the word of his impending arrival. He had not had time write, after all, and they would not be expecting him. Besides, Bert's constant chatter was getting on his nerves. He needed peace so he could think.
Bert put spurs to his horse and, with a hoot of youthful exuberance, set off to cover the last three miles. Hughes dismount­ed, tied his stallion outside, and entered the village church. The bells were ringing vespers and a handful of old women were making their way from their cottages to the church. Hughes went in with them and took his place at the front of the nave. He could hear the old gossips whispering behind his back excitedly. They had probably recognized him.
He was at once conscious of how shabby his armour was, the chausses and hauberk were torn and crudely patched with wire. His surcoat, despite the washing Bert had given it, was stained, faded, patched and darned. His cloak was torn at the hem and the fur lining was matted and bald in places. He looked, he realized, much poorer than when he had departed. He had not been paid until the day of his departure, and the gold Louis hung still at his belt, waiting for employment.
He would need to refit himself entirely, he reflected, and he would need at least one destrier to replace his broken stallion. Whether the aging horse ever recovered from his lameness or not, Hughes resolved to retire him.
Why was he thinking of his stallion? Why was he here while Bert was probably already in Betz?
He tried to conjure up the image of Betz, and remembered the first day he had laid eyes upon it ― crouching humbly among the blooming fields, surrounded by the shimmering of blossoming orchards. It had been a pretty sight, and he had been instantly enchanted ― most of all by the thought that it would be his. The image of Termes came to mind, brooding and defiant. Termes too he had coveted. He wondered if Bernard had managed to get his sick brother to safety. Safety? Montfort had put a price on their heads. De Roucy, he claimed, would never be safe until the heirs of Raymond de Termes, whom he had imprisoned in the same tower as Trencavel, were brought to bay.
Hughes knelt automatically in subconscious response to the Mass that was being read, but he paid no attention to the litany. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eye sockets. He didn't want to think about Termes or de Montfort or any of them. He wanted to concentrate upon Emilie, and the daughter she had christened Yvonne. Why couldn't he keep his thoughts focused?
The bell clanged over-head as the bread was turned into the Body of Christ. That was something the Cathars did not believe. Hughes felt his anger against them pulsing up from his throbbing thigh. The wound was nearly healed, but it was not used to the hard riding of the past week. The months of siege had made his legs weak, he noted, before focusing upon the Blood of Christ held high by the priest. The Cathers denied that Christ had lived or died for man's sins. They refused to accept the very concept of confession and absolu­tion, leaving men to wallow in their own misdeeds without even the hope of forgiveness and salvation. Only a life of perfect virtue could free a man from the hell of perpetual rebirth into a world filled with disease, famine and war.
The thought of living without any hope of mercy or salvation, made Hughes shiver violently. The sins that weighed upon his conscience were too heavy to bear alone. If Guy had not been prepared to grant him absolu­tion, he thought he would have broken under the burden. Wasn't it the sense of having sinned beyond redemption that made many men more brutal and more degenerate than they otherwise would have been? And who would give him absolution now that Guy had left de Montfort's service? The thought of confessing to Arnaud-Amaury made his blood run cold. The image of Arnaud-Amaury at the whore-house merged with the picture of him presiding over the human bon-fire at Termes. The cold blue eyes stared without mercy as the victims writhed in unspeakable agony...
Why was he thinking about such things now? Why was he afraid of going home?
Home? He grasped for the fading, worn memories of Palestine: the terraced olive orchard, planted, so they claimed, by King David, the running spring in the shade of the pistachio trees where St Joseph and the Virgin had refreshed themselves on their flight out of Egypt…. It took an effort to conjure up the images, and Hughes did not know what the Saladin’s troops and his successors had done to Hebron. It would certainly no longer be as it had been in his childhood. It was gone. Lost forever. But Betz was just three miles away. And Emilie.
Mass was over. A barefoot acolyte was dousing the candles and the women were no longer bothering to whisper as they left the church. Hughes got to his feet stiffly and returned outside to collect his stallion.
He rode at a walk between the hedgerows. Pigs and calves that had not been slaughtered and smoked for the coming winter rooted amidst the mud and stubble of the harvested fields, trampling the last standing stalks. The ploughing and harrowing of fields for the winter wheat was completed, Hughes noted with approval as the land-lord, and he wondered if the rents too had been collected and what they amounted to this year. With his wages from de Montfort, it was not as important as it had been other years, but much of what he had earned must be reinvested in equipment and should go for the extras they had never been able to afford before. Maybe they could at last glaze the windows of the hall....
Betz lay low as ever, grey on grey in the gathering gloom of winter dusk, and it seemed almost to sink into the muddy country­side. Smoke from the great-hall and kitchen fires smudged the air over-head. Seeing it like this, it was hardly any wonder that he fought so hard to win a better fief, a fief that lay warm and sun-soaked and open to the breeze, rather than huddling unhappily, shuttered against the wind and cold.
The chapel bell started to clang as Hughes approached the gate-house, and on the stubby flag-pole over the keep his banner went fluttering up to flap white and blue against the grey sky. Hughes smiled at that, knowing that Bert would have organized it. Collected in the cramped ward, the household waited excitedly to welcome him home with a cheer that surprised him because it seemed heart-felt. No sooner had he emerged from the gate, than his hounds rushed him and started yelping and springing up getting underfoot of his stallion in a frenzy of welcome. At the top of the stone steps up to the first-floor hall, Emilie stood with Father Francois and Bert, who was grinning with self-satisfaction, taking full credit for the reception. Emilie was wearing the fur-lined, burgundy cloak he had bought her last Christmas, and she descended the stairs quickly as he drew up at the foot. He dismounted and while a groom took his stallion from him, he bent to greet his hounds before they knocked him down in their exuberance. Finally, he fought them off to smile at Emilie. She held out a silver goblet brimming with hot, spiced wine. "Welcome home, my lord."
Hughes took the offered goblet and drank as expected. He lifted the goblet high in a toast to all assembled, and they gave him a new cheer. Then he bent to kiss Emilie, but she fell into a curtsey before him, bowing her head so all he could see was the silk veils of her wimple, splotched with damp from her hair. She must have rushed to bathe herself before receiving him, he registered. But she was evidently intent upon a formal recep­tion here in public, so Hughes raised her up and took her arm through his to lead her back up the stairs.
"I have ordered a feast made ready for you, my lord." She explained, her eyes averted. "It will be ready shortly."
"You needn't have bothered." Hughes told her. "I could have done with something cold." He was studying her beloved face, noting with pleasure that she looked fresh and rested. She had taken the trouble to rouge her lips and cheeks and her lashes were long and dark. But she would not meet his eyes, intent instead upon drawing his attention to the porter's new wife and the boys she had hired to help in the kitchen.
They reached the landing. Hughes nodded to Father Francois, who looked at him with a curiously hostile expression, and then Bert was chattering about all that he had already taken care of and asking if he could be spared for a couple of days.
"By all means. Go home for a week or two."
Hughes entered the hall with Emilie. It was dark because the windows were sealed with hide and shuttered against the cold. It was also smoky from the fire thundering in the central hearth. The rushes were freshly laid, however, and the sweet smell of hay mixed with the scent of fresh-hewed logs waiting by the fire. The warmth, the fire, and the neatly laid trestle tables awaiting the welcoming feast were homely, but pleasantly welcoming and cosy too. The high-table was draped in stiffly pressed white linen and the three silver goblets waited beside the polished pewter plates for himself, Emilie and Father Francois. Emily had laid out the best she had.
The household, except for the cook and his minions, followed them into the hall, eager for the extra feast, still chattering excitedly about their lord's unexpected return. Emilie removed her cloak and spread it over her chair carefully. Hughes noted she was wearing a new deep-blue velvet surcoat wonderfully embroidered with little silver crosslets and golden rings - a play upon their respective arms. The linings of her sleeves were silver satin with the devices embroidered in reverse in blue. Beneath was a gown of burnished yellow silk. She had gone to great trouble for this occasion, and great expense. "The surcoat is new." Hughes commented approvingly.
"I made it from my old cloak." Emilie told him honestly, indicating the spots where the velvet was squashed or worn.
"We can ride down to Poitiers next week for new material. I need to order many things." This was ridiculous! Talking about shopping, as if they had nothing important to say after so long. He had not even seen his daughter. "We have time for me to meet Yvonne before we eat, don't we?" Hughes asked.
Emilie lifted her face to him with a look of such boundless wonder that it was almost painful, and then something shaded her joy and she answered uncertainly. "Of course ― I ― had her taken to Babette's chamber." They left the dais by the door into the keep beyond. "I'll take you up." Emilie offered unnecessarily, disengaging his arm to take hold of her skirts as she started up the stairs.
By the time Hughes gained the chamber on his stiff and tired legs, Emilie was already bending over a wooden cradle. He watched her as she gazed down with a look of wrapt tenderness at her child. In that moment, Hughes noted with wonder, Emily looked younger than the day they’d met. She lifted a white-swathed bundle out of the cradle and held it at eye level to smile at a baby that gurgled in contentment and waved its arms as if trying to embrace her. Emilie settled their daughter in the crook of her left arm, and as she bent to kiss kissed her on the forehead, and the baby grabbed hold of her wimple in its tiny fist and tugged. Emilie gently freed the little fingers and lifted her head to look at Hughes with an expression of open anxiety, he had no time to notice.
The little girl Emilie was holding had the white-blond hair of his childhood. For some reason he had always assumed that Yvonne would have her mother's colouring, but she was as fair as his sisters had been. His daughter thus had a halo of white-blond silk around an alert face dominated by two huge, brown eyes. "She's beautiful!" Hughes exclaimed in sheer astonishment. He strode across the room to close the distance between them and held out his hands. "May I hold her?"
Emilie broke into a smile made all the more poignant by the wounded look in her eyes. She held up his daughter to him, and he took the child very gingerly, as if afraid she would break.
Yvonne frowned at once, seemed to consider bawling in complaint and then was distracted by his beard. He reached out and fastened her warm moist fingers around the edge of his chin and tugged. Her fingers were too weak to inflict pain upon him, but their perfection and the determination with which she tried to get hold of something made Hughes laugh.
Emilie found herself laughing with him, and the pain in her chest was almost unbearable. How could he do it? She asked herself. Why was she so weak and helpless against him? He had only to ride into the courtyard and smile at her, and she was enslaved again. As on the first day he'd come to claim her, he had only to laugh and the whole world seemed to light up. She found herself staring at him, devouring his features as if they were food for the starved. She was awed by the depth of his tan and distressed by the depth of the wrinkles that fanned out from his eyes and ran down his cheeks. He has lost weight, she noted with concern bordering on alarm, his sword-belt had been notched tighter and his chainmail hung upon him loosely where once it had fit his broad chest like an outer skin. He finally tore his eyes away from his daughter to cast her a smile, and at once Emilie dropped her eyes, afraid that he could read her thoughts in them.
Hughes saw her look down and noticed the flush beneath her rouge. The awkwardness between them that had so briefly been bridged by Yvonne seemed to be increasing rather than diminishing. He fought against it. "We'll have to take great care of our little girl to see that she comes to no harm. She promises to be too pretty by half for her own good."
Emilie looked up again, still unable to believe that he was so pleased with the child that must have been such a dreadful disappointment. "You aren't sorry she wasn't ...." She stopped herself. Why reopen old wounds?
"Didn't you get my letter? I told you that the only thing that mattered was your health. I never counted on having such a beautiful daughter as well." He was looking at the baby again, as if he meant every word he said.
Yvonne made a new grasp for his beard and Hughes caught her hand and kissed it gallantly. "I am your first conquest, my lady." He told the child. "And I will be intensely jealous of any other man who dares to kiss you." And then he bent to kiss her properly.   
The beard, fascinating as it was from a distance, shocked Yvonne for being stiff and bristly and she let out a squeal of outrage. Horrified, Emilie leapt to take her from a father, certain he would be offended, but Hughes laughed more heartily still. He willing turned the baby back over to her mother, however, certain that Emilie would be better equipped to calm her. Emilie’s old serving woman, Babette, who had been waiting discretely in the background, rushed to take Yvonne from Emilie, admonishing, "I'll take her, my lady. You must attend to your lord husband."
"Don't you have a nurse?" Hughes asked as Emilie turned the child over to the old serving woman.
"Yes, of course. She'll be in the hall waiting to meet you." Emilie turned back toward the stairway and started down. Hughes lingered a moment longer, watching Babette bounce his daughter up and down in her arms as she walked about the chamber humming soothingly. Babette looked up and met his gaze. She smiled. "You're a good man, my lord. I kept telling her that, but she had it in her head you would be home for the birth. I couldn't get her to see that what men promise and what men keep are very rarely one and the same." The old woman shrugged as she winked at him knowingly, and added, "Go make it up to her now."
Hughes hastened after Emilie, but was met at the foot of the stairs by Father Francois. The young priest caught his arm. "May I have a word with you, my lord?" He asked urgently.
"Now?" Hughes demanded irritated, with a glance into the great hall where the entire household was loudly collected and the first jugs of wine were being brought in.
"I think it is important." The priest insisted intently, indicating the solar with a jerk of his head.
With a suppressed sigh, Hughes stepped through the archway into the solar. The fire here had been banked carefully to burn only gently, and the room was consequently still chilly. Hughes moved to the centre and waited, neither sitting nor offering Father Francois a seat. "Well?"
The young priest looked acutely distressed for a moment, and then he took his heart in his hands and declared. "My lord, I think you should know that your wife nearly died giving birth to your daughter. We all thought we had lost her. She took the last rites ― and every time she came to herself, she asked if you'd arrived. She couldn't believe you wouldn't keep your word ― until your letter arrived, saying you wouldn't come at all. That was a fortnight after Yvonne was christened, and my lady was still too weak to leave her bed.   She swore she would never forgive you, my lord."
They stared at one another. Hughes opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again. He was not about to justify himself to this low-born man who took his pay ―  even if he was an anointed priest. The Cathars were right to think that no ceremony could change a man into something better than he was, he thought angrily. It was Emilie he had to explain himself to. But he had written her. He had explained it to her. "Very well." He said out loud. "Anything else?"
"Anything else? Isn't that enough? Do you care so little for her?" The passion that blazed in the priest’s black eyes surprised Hughes for a moment, and then he smiled coldly. The young man was evidently in love with Emilie. The jealousy that gripped him was fierce. "You will return at dawn to your abbey, Father. I will send a letter with you requesting a replacement." The young man's mouth dropped in astonishment, and Hughes left him standing.
Emilie was standing behind the table waiting for him with a big-breasted, flat-faced peasant girl beside her. Emilie glanced up nervously as he stepped up beside her, and she quailed at the sight of his face. "Is something wrong?"
"You tell me." He snapped.
"What do you mean?"
"We'll talk later." Hughes indicated with his head the girl listening with a gapping mouth. Emilie hastened to introduce Berthe, the wet-nurse she had found for Yvonne. Berthe curtseyed awkwardly, and then announced rather disingenuously, "I sleep with the baby, my lord, in the chamber just below you."
Hughes nodded absently and dismissed her with a wave of his hand. "See that my daughter lacks for nothing. Go to her now, so that Babette can rest."
A tray laden with brazed hens was being carried to the side-board to the welcoming cheers of the more unruly youths at the lower tables. The cook’s chief assistant followed with a carving knife that he sharpened loudly as he advanced. The kitchen boys waited with outstretched platters to take the carvings up to the head table. Another boy was standing beside Hughes, holding a battered brass bowl full of lukewarm water for washing his hands. Hughes dipped his hands into the water, rubbed them and then splashed his face with the water before drying hands and face on the proffered towel. The boy moved on to the priest, who had slipped in from the solar to take up his place on Hughes’s other side.
A loaf of bread was set before Hughes, followed by the first platter of carved meat. Bert was behind him, pouring the wine. Hughes took it gratefully and offered it to Emilie. "Will you drink to my return, my lady?"
She looked up frightened and met his eyes. "What did Father Francois say?" She pitched her voice so low it was hardly audible, and her eyes flickered to the priest sitting red-faced and stiff beyond her husband.
"Have you something to hide?"
"No, my lord." She met his eyes bravely. He searched her face, and saw a trembling defiance and a profound hurt that simmered somewhere deep inside her. It was Hughes, who broke eye-contact first to sip of the wine himself. He was angry. Angry at Francois for his impertinence and angry at Emilie for not understanding him. It was for her sake as much as his that he had taken service with de Montfort. It was so he could afford glass for her damned, old hall, and frescoes for her sooty, cramped chamber, and silks for her aging body! It was so they could have something worth leaving to little Yvonne that he had risked his life and limb and ― damn it ― very nearly lost both. Vividly he remembered the hate in the eyes of his enemies, their determination to kill him if they could, and he had not forgotten what the cauterizing of his first wound felt like or what it was like to have a spear thrust into his thigh by a man on a galloping horse! Damn it! Did she think he'd kept away out of self-indulgence!
Remembering his manners, he offered her the goblet again, but the gesture was so uninviting that Emilie could only shake her head and swallow down her fear.
Emilie turned her gaze to Father Francois. She knew that Hughes had not been angry before talking to the priest. He had been truly delighted with Yvonne. But she could not believe Father Francois would betray the secrets of the confessional. And what if he had? Then Hughes would know how angry she was. How hurt and furious and betrayed she had felt. But why should that make him angry?
"Father Francois will be leaving us tomorrow." Hughes announced without looking at her.
"Leaving us? Why?" She asked confused.
Hughes looked at her intently. She seemed bewildered but not unduly grieved.
"Because he is in love with you."
"What?!" Her disbelief was not feigned, Hughes decided, and at once he relaxed slightly. "Did he say that?" She asked under her breath trying again to look past Hughes to the culprit.
"He didn't have to. I think it is dangerous for his soul ― not to mention his skin ― for him to remain here."
"I ― Hughes ― you don't ― you can't think―" She cut herself off staring at him in boundless horror. The room seemed to be spinning around her. She caught at the edge of the table. She had never looked at Father Francois as a man. He was a priest, and young enough to be her son on top of that. "He's a priest." She stuttered at last.
Hughes broke into a laugh, but it was so mirthless it sent chills down her spine. "Do you want to hear about the abbots I've seen with whores."
The blood drained from her face. Hughes had never used such language in her presence before. Never.
Hughes heard his own laughter, and his words echoed back at him. He felt Father Francois flinch beside him and saw Emilie go pale. My God, what has become of me? Hughes asked, and his horror was greater than his anger. He caught at Emilie's hand and grasped it, when she tried to pull away. "I'm sorry. Truly, I am. I believe you." He glanced at Father Francois. "I know Father Francois is no Abbot Arnaud-Amaury. But he has to go. It is better, if he is not tortured by his feelings. Please drink to my safe return." He offered her the goblet a third time, pleading with her for forgiveness with his eyes.
She reached for it and sipped timidly. She could not decide if she was more angry or frightened or shocked. She knew that she was all those things and yet when his finger brushed hers as she handed the goblet back, it was not revulsion that she felt. She looked at him again, watched him as he drank. He was not just tanned and thinned, he was harder, rougher, tenser than ever she had seen him. Where was the young man, who had made her laugh with such ease? Where was the loving, attentive husband who had never failed to treat her like a queen?
At length the long feast ended. The jollity at the lower table was rising in volume. Hughes called the porter and senior groom over, both older more sober men, and ordered them to see that no more wine was distributed and everyone returned to their duties or slept off their wine in peace.
"Will you being hearing Mass this evening, my lord?" Father Francois managed to croak out as Hughes shoved back his chair and stood.
"I heard Vespers at Ferriers." Hughes answered simply. "Emilie?"
"Whatever you wish, my lord."
"Then I think we can wait until prime." Hughes held out his hand to Emilie, and she took it very lightly. He led her back into the solar behind the hall.
Hughes had become re-accustomed to the warmer climate of the Languedoc and found the chill in the solar uncomfortable. He made straight for the fireplace and grabbed one of the waiting logs to fling it onto the glowing coals. Blowing, he tried to fan the coal into flame.
"Shall I send for someone to--"
"NO!" Hughes told her forcefully. Then seeing the way she winced at his tone, he left the fire and came back to her. He took her shoulders in his hands and when she dropped her face, he lifted her chin with his fingers and made her look at him. "Emilie, we need to talk ― alone."
Her eyes were the colour of dark honey and she looked at him with an expression that seemed as transient and variable as sunlight in a forest. She was torn between her undeniably strong attraction for him and her undiminished fury at his betrayal of her. She wanted his love so much that she could not endure the thought that he had been unfaithful to her. And she could not believe that he had stayed away so long except for another woman. She did not understand what he expected of her? Was she just to pretend that the past year had never been? How could she ignore it, when he was not the man he had been before? And hadn't she behaved with perfect courtesy? She had made no reproach. She had even had to listen to him accuse her of infidelity with poor Father Francois! "What do you want of me, my lord?"
"Want?!" He let his hands drop in astonishment and exaspera­tion. "For the last ten months I've been fighting the bitterest and filthiest war of my life so that you and our children can have a decent home and a secure future, and all I want is to be welcomed home! To be treated like a husband! What do you think I want?!"
Emilie stared at him. "As if nothing has happened?" She asked at last, a tone of resentment no longer suppressible.
"Happened? Nothing has happened that we did not plan! You knew I would be gone the better part of the year! Alright, I said I'd try to be back for the birth, but you must have known that wasn't going to be easy. I did try, and I had my head chewed off in front of half the army for it! It cost me a lot of respect, which I could only win back with difficulty ― and blood! You don't seem to have any appreciation of what it is like serving Simon de Montfort!" Suddenly Hughes was pacing about the room, and his experiences of the last year were spilling out of him in a rush of breathless words.
Emilie stood, leaning against a table, her eyes following him while she listened intently to what he told her. She could not understand it all. There were too many names and places that meant nothing to her. She could not picture the landscapes he described, had never suffered heat or draught, much less taken part in battle. But she did not need to understand it all. She was intuitive enough to sense that the tension which expressed itself in Hughes' pacing and in his torrent of speech was profound. It was not the individual events that were important, it was the entire web of relationships and contradictions which oppressed him.
As she listened, she began to grasp that her jealousy and bitterness were not only unfounded but petty. Hughes' tirade was not the tirade of a guilty husband trying to deny his sins. He did not even seem to suspect her suspicions. A guilty man might protest his innocence, but Hughes was talking of completely different things altogether.
Emilie started to feel ever more ashamed of her feminine jealousies. Increasingly she realized how insignifi­cant her grievances were. She had been at home, surrounded by her loyal household, attended by a good mid-wife, served by her old nurse and the devoted Father Francois. Hughes could not have made the birth easier, could not have saved her if God had intended her to die. She had no cause for complaint, not when she heard how other women were subjected to siege and typhus and death by fire. She too pictured Yvonne when he told her of the girl Julienne, whose father had died at his hand, and whose mother had preferred death at the stake. She thought no less of Yvonne, when he told of the orphaned girl who welcomed whoredom as a means of being paid for the repeated rape that was in any case her fate. Being a woman and a mother, her sympathy was entirely for the victims of her husband's war.
Gradually Hughes's anger burned itself out and his flood of words fell to a trickle. He stood rigid and distant, staring into the fire, not seeing it, and he spoke of a certain Bernard de Termes and his brother. Emilie did not know who they were, but it didn't matter. She moved from her table and slipped her arm through his. Hughes' thoughts were so far away, that he started at her touch.
She leaned against him, trying to sooth him with the length of her entire body. "Hughes, forgive me. I didn't know. Truly I didn't know. How could I know? I'm a country-girl, who has never seen anything of the world. If I had known it would be like that, I would never have let to go. I would rather be poor than have you lose your body or your soul in such a war. We can make do with what we have. Truly we can."
Hughes gazed down at her as if she spoke a foreign language that he only barely understood. Her body more than her words conveyed the depth of her enveloping love, and it was a comfort as great as warmth on a freezing night. He let out his breath slowly, raggedly, and felt some of the tension ease from him.
Slowly her words reached his brain, and he tried to grasp what they meant. They meant he did not have to return to Montfort’s army, that he could turn his back upon the whole wretched business. He need never again attend an auto-dafĂ©. He need never again be afraid to help two sick youths.
He looked down at Emilie again, filled with wonder at his good fortune. How many women were prepared to make do with less, indeed to go without all the luxuries of their class, just to spare their husbands the unpleasantness of war? With his hand he stroked the side of Emilie's face. It was incredibly soft and he automatically turned over his hand so that the back rather than the calloused and guilty palm touched her innocent skin. "Thank you, Emilie. I can't tell you how much that means to me. But ― have you really thought what you are saying? I have my pay, and we'll be able to do one or two things with it, but if I don't return there will never be another fief, never any chance of improving our lot. We'll have no dowry for Yvonne except Betz itself, and what if we have another child? A son?"
"You must do what you think is right." Emilie told him solemnly. "But not for my sake. Not even for Yvonne. You are more important to both of us. Not just your body, but your soul as well. Don't act against the dictates of your conscience, Hughes. No wealth is worth your soul."
She turned toward him and slipped her arms around his waist. Instantly he enclosed her in a fierce embrace, pressing her tightly to his chest. He felt her warmth, her softness, her yielding flesh and her fluttering heart. He was physically excited by her and spiritually soothed by her. He dropped his head and she lifted hers to meet him in a kiss that ended only after they had made love on the floor of the solar.
After so much self-generated heat, however, the increasingly chilly chamber brought goose-bumps to their skin, and Hughes stood somewhat unsteadily to put another log on the fire. He returned with wine and their cloaks and they wrapped themselves naked in the fur-lined velvet and sat side-by-side gazing into the fire.
Emilie waited for Hughes to speak first. He was looking so intently into the fire, that she knew his thoughts were again miles and miles away, but his face remained gentler than before. She could not know if it was still the after-effects of their love-making or if the subject of his distant thoughts was milder. She wished she could share them with him and she leaned her head against his arm in an effort to come closer to him.
At once Hughes smiled at her and pulled her inside his own cloak. She cuddled in the crook of his arm gratefully.
"Emilie," he ventured very cautiously, "I know you love Betz, but what if there was another way to break out of poverty?"
She looked up at him with frightened eyes. "You wouldn't sell it? It is my birth right! What else does Yvonne have?"
"No," Hughes shook his head decisively, "but...They say King Jean of Jerusalem is desperate for men. So many settlers, even lords, have abandoned Palestine, now that there is a Latin Emperor in Constantinople offering fiefs. The military orders have bought up many estates, of course, but King Jean still has the right to dispose over the others...."
Emilie lifted her head slowly. She had stopped breathing. "You wish to return to Palestine?" It came out almost soundlessly, so great was her horror.
"Is it that horrible?" He asked, seeing her widened eyes and the splotches of red building on her cheeks as she tried to fight down her sobs.
"But - but I - when - would you ever come back?" She managed to ask.
"I don't know. We would have to find someone, who we trusted, to administer Betz, while we were away, but even a trusted man needs to be controlled now and again. And, of course, if things don't work out in Palestine, we will have no choice but to return. But surely it is worth the try?"
"You said ‘we.’" She whispered so tense she was almost trembling.
Hughes frowned in puzzlement, trying to remember his own words. "We will have to find a steward, yes. Or we could leave Father Francois together with a second man. That might be best. We'll have no trouble finding a chaplain in Palestine, and he knows his way around now, could help a new steward."
"You mean you want me ― and Yvonne ― to come with you?" Emilie asked, still unsure.
"I know it sounds frightening, but I have my pay from Montfort and can afford passage on a good, reputable ship. I'll keep something in reserve for the return, if things don't work out. I promise, you will not be brought lower than you are now." Too late, he remembered that he had failed to keep the last promise he had made to her, and found himself remembering again the humiliating interview with Montfort in Lagrasse. "Emilie, please believe me, I will find some way to gain land and security for you and Yvonne. I can't promise anything specific. I don't even know if King Jean remembers me, but my father and older brother are still in Palestine. It isn't as if we have no place to go. I will--"
Emilie had her arms around him and smothered his words with a kiss. Then she drew back and looked him solemnly, directly in the eye. "Hughes, it's alright. I know you will do your best. We cannot know what God intends for us. All I ask is that we stay together."
Hughes took her into his arms again and held her against his chest gratefully. He kissed the top of her head and then rested his cheek on it, closing his eyes to the dingy room with its penetrat­ing chill, picturing again the chalky hills of Palestine. Home. He would take Emilie and Yvonne home.


Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader

 

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