Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

Helena is represented by Laurie Blum Guest at the Re-Naissance Agency.

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter 2

January 1210

 The sun had started to broaden and discolor as it sank toward the horizon and a breeze had sprung up heralding the chill of evening, when at last the walled city of Carcassonne came into view. It rose upon a low but steep hill just beyond the Aude, and the walls and towers of the castle rose even more imposing­ly above the stout walls of the city. Although they had passed through many great cities ― Poitiers, Limoges, Cahors and Toulouse ― on their journey south, the sight of Carcas­sonne made Hughes pull up.
After leaving Toulouse behind and entering the broad valley of the Aude, he found things in this strange land unsettlingly familiar. It was the milder air, he told himself, and the clear coloring of the sky. Or maybe the chalky earth, the groves of olive trees and the barren Pyranees lurking off to the the south. They all reminded him of home, of Pales­tine. But it was also the road-side chapels and the churches of the towns, solidly built upon Romanesque arches and decorated with fluid carvings of beasts and plants. Apparently the arrogant and artificial pointed arches had not yet become popular here, and the churches did not seem to strive to be taller, sharper and more extreme than their neighbors. They too were like the churches in which he had learned to pray.
Ignoring Bert´s chatter, Hughes continued, crossing the stone bridge below the town and started up the steep, winding road to the Aude gate of the city. Up close, he confirmed the impression he had gained from beyond the bridge. Pointing to the gate-house and the wall beyond, he told Bert “Roman walls."
"Roman?" Bert asked astonished. "How do you know?"
Hughes shrugged. "I’ve seen it often enough before ― and you’ll note the towers are not really round ― the backs are flat. Furthermore, they are set closer together than is common now-a-days since there was no cross-bow when they were built. Look at the windows under the roof as well."
Bert looked attentively at all these features, marveling that his lord was so well educated, but also wondering why he hadn’t noticed the distinctiveness of the towers on his own. A shout from the battlements demanded their names and business.
Hughes gave his name, but rather than being admitted he was ordered to wait.
"Not very hospitable." Bert remarked, as they sat on their tired horses in the gathering dusk.
Hughes shrugged, and studied first the walls and then the steep slope back down to the river. Although the country seemed peaceful, the walls were manned as if the garrison expected an attack. Looking to the surrounding countryside, he noticed a scattering of houses along the banks of the Aude to the south, a mill with a lazily turning wheel, and the charred ruins of what once have been other cottages.
At last the door in the iron-studded gate was opened and a knight ducked out. He was dressed in full armor, including mail leggings gartered at the knee, and his coif had been pulled up. Over this he wore an old-fashioned helm with nose-piece. He strode energetically toward Hughes. "Sir Hughes de Hebron?"
"You were expected days ago." The knight told him in a reproving tone. "The Viscount was beginning to wonder, if you were going to show up at all."
Hughes was momentarily taken off guard by the disapproving tone and unsettled at the thought there might have been some misunder­standing. It would not bode well for his future, if he started off in disfavor. "Why so? I was told to report by the feast of St. Sebastian ― which is tomorrow."
"You were told to report no later than the feast of St. Sebastian. Everyone else arrived earlier in the week."
As he was not yet over-due, Hughes found the tone of rebuke misplaced, especially from a man of no apparent significance. The knight before him was slight, short, and appeared at most a couple years older than he was himself. Nothing about his practical armor, much less his plain, cotton surcoat suggested that he was a man of importance. "May I ask who you are, Sir?"
"My name is Pierre Amiel. I´m one of the Viscount´s knights. The Viscount is in Narbonne. You will not be able to meet him until tomorrow. Follow me." The knight turned on heel and disappeared through the door, as if forgetting that Hughes was mounted and accompanied by a squire and three remounts. A moment later, however, the gate itself swung open and Hughes was allowed to ride in with Bert.
Pierre Amiel led them through a walled alley. A glance upwards confirmed that a wall-walk ran along the crest of both walls and soldiers with cross-bows sauntered along it, gazing down at the new-comers curiously. In an attack, they would have been able to slaughter any enemy unlucky enough to breach the gate and find himself in this passage. The alley ended in a wall, doubled back upon itself, and now one wall was formed by the city-walls proper. These too were manned. De Montfort was certainly taking no chances ― and sparing no expense ― to defend Carcassonne, Hughes noted.
At last they passed between the two close-set towers of the Aude gate into the city itself. Hughes and Bert were given no time to gain an impression of Carcassonne, however, because their guide bustled forward at an astonishing pace for a man on foot. He lead them through the castle barbican, and then across the draw-bridge into the castle ward, answering the challenges of the sentries imperi­ously.
The ward was spacious and rectangular. Along two sides, wooden sheds were built against the wall providing the usual work-shops for farrier, armorer, cooper, carpenter and the like. The stables stood just inside the door, and a number of horses were tethered outside, while grooms and squires tended them. The administrative tract stretched along the western wall and to the right, the residential block was built around an inner courtyard.
There was no evidence of a keep, which surprised Hughes. The castle’s builders had apparently placed so much faith in the efficacy of the city’s defenses and outer walls that they had foregone the safe-guard of a last refuge, preferring the luxury of well-lit, spacious apartments. The soldier Hughes had become since he’d left his home-land disapproved of such self-indulgence, but some half-forgotten part of him was charmed to think that people could feel so secure.
"You can sleep with me for tonight." Pierre Amiel announced. "As I don’t know where else there is room. I’ll take you up now, but I must get back to my post at once."
Hughes accepted Pierre Amiel’s offer with a polite murmur of thanks. So far, Pierre Amiel´s officiousness had not greatly endeared him to Hughes, but he was glad to have a place to bed down. He dismounted and left Bert to see to the horses, slinging his saddle-bags over his shoulder as he followed the impatient Pierre Amiel under the south wing and into the cramped inner ward.
Here a covered gallery ran along two sides, reminding Hughes of the gallery in his childhood castle at Hebron. But a window­less, narrow tower straining high above the rest of the roofs cast its shadow across the entire ward. It evidently came from another time, not so old as the Roman walls, but far older than the bulk of the castle with its batteries of double and triple-arched windows. This tower pointed sky-wards like an admonishing finger, without so much as an arrow-slit. Hughes shivered involuntarily.
 A monk in the black robes of the Benedictines emerged from the shadows, his head lowered as if in prayer and his hands tucked in his sleeves. "Father Guy!" Pierre Amiel called to him sharply.
The Benedictine lifted his head as if startled and looked about slightly bewildered. Then sighting the two knights crossing the courtyard, he ap­proached them.
"This is Sir Hughes de Hebron, just arrived to join us. Can you show him up to my chamber so I can return on duty?" Pierre Amiel ordered more than asked. The Benedictine smiled gently, and nodded to Hughes while Pierre Amiel hurried away.
"He doesn’t mean to be rude." Hughes heard the monk say, as if reading his thoughts as he gazed after Pierre Amiel. "He is simply afraid of being caught away from his post."
Hughes looked back at the monk. The Benedictine was no longer a young man, perhaps in his forties, with sharp, pointed features and wispy, brown hair. Although he watched Hughes intently, his expres­sion was benign. "Afraid?" Hughes asked skeptically.
"A poor choice of words, perhaps, for a knight. But the Viscount is a strict disciplinarian, as you will discover, and his captains are even more extreme in their efforts to please him."
Hughes registered this intelligence with mixed feelings. He approved of discipline, but he disliked excessive competition for a commander’s favor. As squire to the king, he had observed with increasing distaste the extremes to which some youths went to gain approval. He asked the monk, "Have you been with de Montfort long, Father?"
"Roughly a year. I am Guy des Vaux." He paused as if he expected the name to mean something, but Hughes could not remember having heard it before.
"You were with him throughout the campaign last year then." Hughes concluded.
The monk bowed his head in agreement. "I serve as confessor to the Viscount and his knights." With a gesture of his hand he indicated the direction they should take, and started to escort Hughes to Pierre Amiel´s chamber.
As Hughes fell in beside him, he found himself wondering if this mild man was the cleric who had reputedly urged the crusaders to slaughter the over one thousand men, women and children, who had taken refuge in the Church of Mary Magdelen at Beziers. It was an act that had appalled and scandalized half of Christendom, although it had been explicitly praised by the Pope as an example of ‘genuine’ crusading zeal. With the words, "Kill them all, God will recognize his own," the Papal legate had sent the blood-thirsty soldiers into the Church and not even the priests, holding the Host, were spared. But as he remembered the story, Hughes also remembered that the Papal Legate was a Cistercian Abbot not a mere Benedictine monk.
"You must know the Papal Legate...." The name would not come to him.
"Abbot Arnaud-Amaury. Yes. Of course." The Benedictine´s tone was very neutral, too neutral. They had reached the corner of the inner ward where the eastern and southern wings joined. The monk  led the way up a tight, spiral stair-case, and Hughes followed until they emerged on the top floor. Here the monk paused as if to catch his breath, looking over the ramparts to the last strip of orange on the western horizon. Below them the valley of the Aude was cast in gathering shadow and only small, dim lights indicated where cooking fires burned in the cottages. "Arnaud Amaury is a brilliant man, as you will see. And there is no one, not even de Montfort´s favorite captains de Thury and de Roucy, who have more influence upon him. If not for Arnaud-Amaury, Simon de Montfort would never have been named Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne."
"I thought the other noblemen refused the titles, seeing that Raymond-Roger Trencavel is still alive and has a male heir?"
"That is true, but His Holiness might have been persuaded to forgive Raymond-Roger or name his infant son to his titles had not Arnaud-Amaury argued so eloquently for the appointment of de Montfort. Arnaud-Amaury is indispensable to de Montfort´s success here ― as indispensable as the force of arms."
Hughes noted what was being said, but it did not escape him that Guy des Vaux’s tone was studiously dispassionate. He pressed the point. "You were at Béziers, Father?"
The monk flinched and crossed himself. "Yes. I was at Béziers...." Abruptly he turned away from the sunset and looked at Hughes with deep, haunted eyes. "I know that you knights see it different­ly ― military necessity and all that. But it was my first siege." With an apologetic smile he added. "Before the crusade last year, I taught at the Universi­ty of Montpel­lier."
Hughes was impressed. His father had always admired scholars greatly, and until his lands had been lost to Saladin, he had patronized men of learning. They had often been guests at the high table in Hebron ― astrologers and alche­mists, physicians and mathematicians. No gift had pleased his father more than a new book, and Hughes could still remember the beautiful library with frescoed walls that they had had in their castle at Hebron ― before they had lost every­thing to Saladin’s marauding army.
"What faculty?" Hughes asked, although Guy de Vaux had already turned to lead him along the wall-walk. The monk looked at the new-comer in open astonish­ment. No knight had ever shown the slightest interest in his scholarly activities before.
"Theology," he admitted, "’though I studied a little medicine as well."
"And you traded the University of Montpellier for a war against heretics?" Hughes found himself asking with such open incredulity that it sounded almost like criticism.
The monk stopped again, and his eyes studied Hughes hard. "You too have left something more pleasant and congenial for a war against heretics, and you risk life and limb, as I do not."
"I also took no vow of poverty and expect to profit from this war." Hughes told him bluntly.
"I took a vow of obedience as well as poverty." The Benedic­tine reminded him with a wan smile. "My superiors decide my fate. I was sent me here so I could write a chronicle of the crusade."
Hughes was suitably subdued. A man whose skills at writing were so great that he would be entrusted with such a task deserved respect in any circumstances, but Guy’s admission that he was here against his will made Hughes ashamed of his own mercenary objectives.
Meanwhile, Guy had led to the next tower and entered a chamber. The room was spartanly furnished with a large bed, a lone wooden chest and a three legged stool.
"If you want a bath, there are public baths just outside of the citadel, in the rue St. Sernin." Father Guy informed him. "Curfew is at compline and no one is admitted into the Citadel after that ― except de Montfort himself, of course."
Hughes nodded, dropping his saddle bags onto the chest. He could collect Bert from the stables and they could bathe and then settle in long before compline. "Can you tell me where we might find something to eat?" He asked.
"Supper is set up in the hall from vespers to compline. I would be happy to show you the way, if you like."
"Thank you, but I must collect my squire first. I left him at the stables with the horses. I’ll manage."
"Yes, I suspect you will. May I ask a question?"
"Of course."
"Pierre Amiel introduced you as Hughes de Hebron; is that Hebron in the Holy Land?"
"Yes, it is."
"How did you come by such a title?"
"I was born there." The answer was delivered sharply, almost impolitely, and the monk winced inwardly.
"I didn’t mean to pry, I simply thought....I always wanted to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I wanted to go with the king when he went on Crusade, but my superiors thought other­wise....Were you ever ― have you actually prayed at the Holy Sepulchre?"
"Yes. As a boy. I did me little good."
The monk flashed him a quick, almost impish smile. "Are you so sure?" Then, still smiling, he was gone.
Hughes was left standing in the strange chamber with a sense of confusion. Then he shrugged and started to rummage about in his saddle-bag, looking for his bathing kit.

Returning from the baths, Hughes ran into Pierre Amiel. "I’ve been looking all over for you!" The knight greeted him, but his tone was markedly different from earlier. Now he sounded solicitous as he continued: "Have you had something to eat? I’ll take you to the hall and introduce you around. I see you found the baths. There are a number of excellent taverns in town as well, which I can recommend, or we could go over together?" Pierre Amiel seemed so intent on making up for his earlier unfriendliness, that Hughes accepted the olive-branch, smiled and accepted, adding with a glance at Bert, "but first something to eat."
Together they made their way up to the first-floor hall. The dias was empty, the table covered only with a heavy, felt cloth and otherwise bare. Along the far wall, trestle tables had been set up and platters with bread, cheese, smoked eel, salted herring and cod were laid out. Behind the table, squires carved and poured wine for the men-at-arms, who milled about or sat astride the benches that they had dragged out. Hounds mixed freely among the men, looking hopefully for hand-outs or snatching what they could from the unwary.
Near the screens, some men were entertaining themselves by tossing tid-bits into the air and seeing which of the dogs jumped highest and surest or enjoying the ensuing fights. Whenever the dogs became too aggressive, they were kicked soundly away.
Nearer the high-table, where the knights clustered, the tone was only slightly more decorous. From the flush on men’s faces and the volume of laughter, the wine had been flowing freely for some time already. At the centre of attention here were two men, seated on the step to the dias. Pierre identified them as Alan de Roucy and Lambert de Thury.
Sir Lambert was a tall, lanky knight with curly black hair and a stubby, bulbous nose. He was flashily dressed in bronze-gilded mail and a sword belt that sagged under the weight of the jewels. Sir Alain was a short, bow-legged man with golden-blond hair and a bushy moustache. He wore a jeweled collar over his silk surcoat and rings flashed on every finger. 
The names meant nothing to Hughes, who remarked, "and who are they? I’ve never heard of them."
Pierre looked at him somewhat askance. "Lambert de Thury took Trencavel captive, and Roucy commanded the forces that took Mirepoix. De Montfort has made them his principal lieuten­ants."
Hughes nodded. So these were de Montfort’s most trusted captains. Thury looked much younger than he was himself and Roucy only slightly older. Hughes wondered why he had never heard of them before. "And where were they before they joined de Montfort?"
"They’ve both been with him since the 4th Crusade, where they first attracted his attention for their daring."
Hughes kept his opinion to himself. Undoubtedly a man could be daring even in a bad cause, but he still found it hard to respect a knight who had aided in the down-fall of the Byzantine Empire and thereby exposed the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem to even greater danger. "And how long have you been with de Montfort?" He asked Pierre.
"Three years now." Pierre was evidently proud of this fact, but it surprised Hughes. He had assumed that Pierre was another new-comer, whose earlier officiousness had been inspired by a misplaced desire to make a good first impression on his new lord. He studied the knight beside him again, looking for the rough self-assurance Thury and Roucy exuded. They, Hughes noted, looked the part of ruthless adventurers; Pierre did not.
"You were with him throughout the campaign last year?" He asked to confirm the improbable.
"Yes, from the very start." Pierre still sounded proud. He was evidently plagued by none of Guy de Vaux´s ambivalence regarding the massacre at Béziers.
They moved to the table and elbowed their way through the others to get their share. Bert excused himself to join the other squires, having already formed new friendships, while tending to the horses. Pierre pointed out a hefty man with ample girth. "That is Sir Charles de Neauphle, he is also a new-comer. He brought a dozen lances with him, if I remember correct­ly."
Hughes looked with a touch of envy toward the jovial-looking man, who could afford the luxury of hiring so many fighting men. It would give him a great advantage in gaining recognition to have so many knights under his banner to start with.
"And that tall young knight, Norbert de Mauvoisin, is like you a knight-bachelor recruited by Lady de Montfort." Hughes was not flattered by the comparison because this Norbert looked like a youth of maybe 18 or 19.
"Shall I get you some wine?" Pierre offered helpfully.
They sat together on a side bench, and Pierre willingly answered Hughes’s questions about de Montfort, his captains and the past campaign. In contrast to the Benedictine, there could be no question of Pierre’s unqualified admiration for their commander. Indignantly, he told how the senior noblemen refused to recognize de Montfort´s "genius" out of sheer jealousy, and “because they don’t like de Montfort’s style. As you’ll see tomorrow, he’s not one for pussy-footing around. He’s more likely to use the language of a brothel than the court. But that’s one of the reasons he can get the most out of our soldiers. Wait ‘till you see him in action!"
Hughes had to admit to himself that his curiosity about de Montfort was mounting. It occurred to him that he had served a king whose political acumen was unmatched, but King Philip was not known as a born battle captain. On the contrary, he relied on the services of men more competent than himself, precisely because he was self-critical enough to know what he could not do. If King Philip and Simon de Montfort were as different in temperament and style as it sounded, however, Hughes wondered if he would find favor with the man he had sworn to serve.

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader

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