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.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter 3

January 1210

Simon de Montfort, Viscomte of Beziers and Carcassonne, strode into the barrel vaulted "donjon room," where his knights awaited him. He was a big man, over six feet tall and weighing 230 pounds with not an ounce of fat. He wore his hair and his beard unfashion­ably close-cropped, so much so that the beard looked rather like he had forgotten to shave for three days. His face was fleshy and flat with black eyes and a short nose. His neck was short and so his head seemed to sit directly upon his massive shoulders.
His chain mail sat upon him like the scales of a great dragon from his spurred feet to his neck, only his head and hands were bare, the coif of his hauberk hanging down his back and his chain mail mittens removed from the sleeves. Over his mail armor, he wore a calf-length, flowing surcoat with the de Montfort arms: a white lion rampant on red. The surcoat rippled and fluttered around his massive thighs as he stomped into the chamber.
Lambert de Thury caught sight of his lord just as he ducked through the doorway and with a shout called the company to order. The three knights-banneret and two score knights-bachelor stopped talking among themselves or lounging against the walls and turned to look alertly at their commander.
Montfort was followed by a stocky priest in the white robes of a Cistercian Abbot. The priest was as fair as Montfort was dark, the blond fringe of hair around his tonsure and his cropped beard were sun-bleached almost white. He had pale blue eyes in his round face and moved with the same vigour as the viscount. Hughes presumed that the Abbot was the controversial Armand-Amaury.
Montfort let his eyes sweep across the men assembled in front of him with narrowed, critical eyes, and Hughes fol­lowed the slow sweeping gaze of the Viscount curiously. De Roucy and de Thury were standing together, lounging against the wall, and nodded to the Viscount with obvious confi­dence. A number of younger knights seemed to be trying to make themselves incon­spicu­ous at the back of the room, half taking cover in the deep window. Sir Pierre Amiel, by contrast, waited eagerly at the front.
De Montfort´s gaze focused upon the three new-comers, the knights his wife had recruited in the north and sent down to him with several hundred mercenaries.  Hughes found himself the target of long, intense scrutiny before de Montfort barked: "My lord Abbot, a bless­ing."
Arnaud-Amaury cleared his throat and rattled through a prayer in Latin that only the better educated of the knights could understand. He ended by crossing himself. The fighting men followed dutifully, muttering ‘Amen.’
"Alright," Montfort took over, "we wish to welcome three knew comrades. Des Vaux!" He snapped his fingers irritably, and to Hughes’s astonishment his acquaintance of the evening before rushed forward alacritously to hand de Montfort a slip of paper from his sleeve. "Sir Charles de Neauphle?" The burly man with a pock-marked face nodded and took an uncertain step forward. Montfort noted with obvious disapproval the banneret’s amble girth and somewhat ruddy features. "You'll lose that belly here, sir." He remarked, harvest­ing a laugh from the others in the room. Sir Charles stiffened offended. "What have you to say for yourself?" de Montfort asked.
"My lord?"
"Say something about yourself."
"I'm 36 years old, was born at Neauphle, the eldest son of the Lord of Neauphle and  --"
"Not your family history! Where have you served? How many knights are under your banner?"
Sir Charles shot an eye-brow upwards and his face expressed his displeasure at such rude handling, but he answered calmly. "I have served with the king in his wars against the Plantagenet, and have brought 15 lances."
"Good." Montfort looked at his list. "Norbert de Mauvoi­sin?"
The knight stepped forward and nodded politely. He was tall and thin with a long face, long blond hair and sparse beard. De Montfort grimaced openly. "Where did my lady wife dredge you up? from the nursery?"
The knight blushed. "No, my lord. I was knighted this last year by my liege and uncle the Count of Champagne."
"Your uncle is he?" Such a connection was exalted enough to cause a slight commotion as the other knights murmured among themselves and tried to get a better view of Sir Norbert. Montfort frowned at the noise, but turned to Arnaud-Amaury and remarked in an aside that was loud enough for all to hear. "His Holiness ought to keep an eye on Champagne, my lord abbot. He refused to take part in the Crusade. To send us a whelp like this instead is very close to mockery."
"His Holiness is well aware of Champagne's ambivalence." Arnaud-Amaury replied pointedly, casting the discomfited young knight a hard, cold look. His tone implied that the wrath of God would not linger far behind Papal displeasure.
Turning back to the young knight, Montfort dismissed him with a wave of his hand and the commentary, "No fighting experience and no lances. Hughes de Hebron? Is that Hebron in the Holy Land?"
"Yes." Hughes answered steadily, and for a moment he and de Montfort measured one another. Montfort put the next question. "You look too young to have been on Crusade."
"I was 10 when Saladin took Hebron, and 14 when King Philip arrived in Palestine. My father and elder brother fought alongside the crusaders at Acre, Ascalon and Jaffa, but I was only body-squire to King Philip and returned with him to France."
Montfort considered him with dark, narrowed eyes. "Only" was not the usual modifier for being made a body-squire to a king. He was quick to guess that Hughes’s father must have been a powerful lord ― even if one without a lordship ― to have secured such a position for his younger son. "You've fought since?"
"Almost constantly."
"Why haven't you brought more than your own sword?"
"I can't afford it."
Montfort nodded, and for him the issue was closed. Regardless of how powerful Hughes family might once have been, it was now impoverished and this knight a mere younger son. He'd come south to make his fortune as they all had. He turned to the room at large.
"I hope you are all recovered from your Christmas revels because we have our work cut out for us. Since the departure of my lords of Burgundy, St. Pol and Nevers, along with the rest of the better noblemen," he said the word ‘better’ with contemptuous sarcasm, while glowering at the discomfited Sir Norbert "the entire region is simmering with unrest."
"If I may, my lord?" Arnaud-Amaury leaned forward to de Montfort to request the permission to speak. De Montfort looked annoyed, but bowed to the primacy of the Church.
"We have reports," the Abbot addressed the assembled knights in a tone of sharp indigna­tion, "of heretics openly preaching in dozens of towns including Mirepoix, Bram, Avignonet, Hauptpol and Capestang. These so-called "Perfects" have labelled all of you the spawn of the Devil." He waited for the grumble of displeasure to die down.
"Heretics calling themselves bishops have compared His Holiness to the Anti-Christ and tell their misguided followers that it is a sin to pay any tithe to the Church. In various towns, preaching friars have been shouted down, roughly handled and chased away. Despite the example we set at Beziers and here in Carcasson­ne, the poison sits so deep in the souls of the corrupted that they cannot see the light of God even when it blinds them. Until heresy is completely up-rooted and purged from this region, our work is not done." His tone was impassioned, but as far as Hughes could tell it left the knights in the room unmoved. They believed in the justice of their cause, but it was not religious fervour that inspired them any more than it did Hughes himself.
"Quite." Montfort took over again. Hughes guessed that he found Arnaud-Amaury a useful ally and he valued his sharp brain, but he also found him long-winded. "The towns of Castres, Lombers, Montréal and Bram are in open rebellion, defying my officers and insisting they owe allegiance only to Trencavel. The bastide of Minerve and the castles of Termes and Lastours are held by excommunicated and disinherited knights and lords, and give refuge to large communi­ties of heretics. It is our task, as soon as the weather clears, to subdue each and every one of these towns and castles.
"We are greatly out-numbered by the local knights, and our only advantage is cohesion and ruthlessness. With the arrest of Trencavel, we decapitated their most courageous and effective leader. At the moment, they are confused, dazed and licking their wounds separately. We have to strike before they have a chance to come to their senses and start banding together under a new leader.
"For each of you," he paused to seek eye-contact with one man after another, "there is the opportunity to make yourselves lords. The lands of excommunicates and rebels are forfeit. These lands are rich and fertile. If you serve me well and without reservation, you will be rewarded from the lands of the Church's enemies."
Most of the men in the room responded with smiles, and Hughes looked around himself with a vague sense of unease. He had known that the competition for reward was going to be bitterly intense, but the appearance of several the knights in the room made him ashamed of the company he was keeping. Then he reminded himself that one should not be over-hasty in judging a man by his external appearance, and ended his reflections on the cynical note that he was in any case no better than the rest of them. He too was here purely for the material gain.
"But let there be no mistake about this." Montfort's voice became louder and harsher, putting an end to Hughes’s reverie. "I expect absolute and unquestioning obedience at all times. I expect you to fight until you are ready to drop and then keep on fighting and fighting and fighting! You are here to conquer a county that has been lost to the enemies of Holy Church, and you will not rest until that task is achieved. If I give a town free to plunder and rape, which I will do when I deem it appropriate, that applies only the common soldiers. Any of you, who engage in such abuses, will be hanged. Do I make myself understood?"
Most of the men maintained an impassive expression while others nodded faintly. The King, Hughes noted to himself, had never admitted to condoning excesses, even if he had on occasion been lax about enforcing his prohibitions. De Montfort's words indicated that the war here would be characterized by the kind of brutality and mercilessness that Hughes had known only in Pales­tine.
"Does that mean you want us to oversee the plundering of towns without getting drunk or touching the women?" Sir Pierre Amiel asked attentively. 
"Isn't that what I just said?!" De Montfort retorted in exasperation, adding in a familiar tone, "You aren't going to win my praise by parroting back to me my own words."
Though the rebuke was deserved, Hughes found himself feeling sorry for the over-eager Pierre. Mean­while, de Montfort turned back to the assembled company and lifted his voice. "I said I expect absolute and unquestioning obedience, but that does not mean I want you to stop thinking for yourselves. I expect my knights to use the brains God gave them and to have the courage to say what they think ― to my face and not behind my back. I cannot abide men who are two-faced!" He spoke emphatically, barking out at them in apparent anger. "If you've got a problem come to me directly. Do you understand?"
Again there were nods or grunted affirmatives.
Montfort switched tone abruptly and spoke in a relaxed and almost off-hand manner. "I've established a duty roster and laid down a training program for the next four weeks. You will note that it begins with tilting at the quintain at 6 am ―" There was a faint groan and rustle of displeasure at that, but the knights who knew de Montfort best remained scrupulously impassive as he quickly let his eyes scan the room for any men too lazy to approve of his plans. He noted those, who made a grimace or rolled their eyes, and Hughes suspected he stored the information away.
"Each and every one of you will joust against all of your companions and myself. There will be no exceptions, regardless of how apparently mismatched. Saturdays we will hold a tournament for a small prize. You are, of course, all expected to attend Mass at Prime and Compline daily. No excuses accepted. You will confess daily as we never know when we will be called to God. Father Guy and Abbot Arnaud-Amaury are both at your service and will also accompany us on campaign. I think that's it for today." He looked to Arnaud-Amaury questioningly.
"The new-comers should be warned about the brothels and --"
"Quite right. The brothels of Carcassonne are strictly off limits. Two of our men have been murdered while visiting them. It is also strictly forbidden for knights of this household to approach the so-called Saracen Tower ― that is the narrow, tall square tower in the southwest. Any one found attempting entry to the tower will be assumed a spy and traitor.
"Until tomorrow at six in the tiltyard. Good day." Montfort turned and left the chamber with the same pounding stride by which he had entered. Arnaud-Amaury followed him on silent shoes, his white robes fluttering about him.
The knights at once started talking among themselves and dispersing. Most were in a hurry to enjoy what was left of the day since de Montfort clearly intended to keep them out of the city for the next month.
Hughes found himself standing somewhat stunned in the centre of the chamber as they others pushed past him. There could be no denying that de Montfort had a powerful and dynamic personality. He was, Hughes thought, more charismatic than the king, who would never have spoken so candidly and bluntly to his troops. Indeed, King Phillip generally avoided any direct contact with his knights, preferring to rely upon his marshals and constables to communicate his will.
In many ways, de Montfort reminded Hughes of the English King, Richard called the Lionhearted, who he had seen occasionally as a boy and youth. Richard Plantage­net had shared de Montfort´s height and burly strength, and he had also been a man of direct speech, great ambition and unsentimental views of the world. 
"It is said to depict Roland." A voice said close beside him, startling Hughes from his thoughts. Confused, he turned and found Guy des Vaux standing beside him and gazing at a fresco on the ceiling. Hughes had been unconsciously gazing at it as he considered his commander. Now that his attention had been drawn to the painting, he took note of it. It depicted a Frankish knight jousting with a Saracen. The priest was continuing. "But it might just as well be one of Trencavel´s ancestors. This area was held by the Moors for over a hundred years and was liberated by the local lords, including the Trencavels." As on the evening before, Guy spoke in a soft cultivated voice lacking the fanaticism so evident in the Abbot's ― and his words were an almost treasonous tribute to the man de Montfort had deposed and displaced. Hughes looked at the priest with new interest, and then back at the mural.
Hughes was struck by the high quality of the art and remarked: "I have not seen such a beautiful painting since I had left home, left Palestine. Not even at Philip Augustus' court were there frescoes of compara­tive quality."
Guy des Vaux nodded, looking at the mural as he spoke. "I am no expert in these things, but I was told that it was done by a local artist sometime in the last century. Certainly it is the Tren­cavel's, who commissioned the work."
Hughes found it disturbing that the "enemy" should be the supporters of the family that had sponsored such a work of art.
"Well?" He felt a heavy hand clap him on the shoulder in a friendly gesture. "Do you want to join us in a look at the town?" It was Charles de Neauphle, who spoke while Pierre Amiel and Norbert de Mauvoisin hovered in the background. All the other knights had already departed, taking no interest in the new-comers. Cynically, Hughes registered that the rivalry for de Mont­fort´s favour must make the others resentful of the new-comers, and he wondered why Pierre should be an exception, since it was evidently Pierre, who was eagerly offering to show the new-comers the town.
"Yes." Hughes decided, recognizing the necessity of forming friendships among his new comrades. Then he glanced at Guy de Vaux, who far more than Pierre had won his respect. "Will you join us, father?"
"I'd be happy to ― if it wouldn't interfere with your plans...."
Charles shrugged. "You've just heard the brothels are off limits anyway, but I trust we are allowed to drink the local wine."
They passed through the long hall and down into the courtyard of the castle, heading toward the gate opening to the town. There were no less than nine towers to the castle, and it was the youthful Sir Norbert who asked somewhat anxiously. "Which is the Saracen tower, Sir Pierre?"
Pierre officiously turned to point to the peculiar, tall, thin tower in the inner-ward which had seemed to cast such an ominous shadow the evening before.
"Why is it off limits?" Charles wanted to know.
"It is where Raymond-Roger Trencavel is held prisoner."
"Trencavel is held prisoner in his own castle?" Norbert gasped in disbelief.
"He is lucky to be alive!" Pierre told him indignantly, but Guy sighed and shrugged. "Does it matter where he is confined? A dungeon remains a dungeon."
"Have you met him?" Sir Charles asked with open curiosity.
Pierre shook his head sharply. "Don’t you remember what the Viscount said? The tower is strictly off limits."
But Guy admit­ted, "I serve as his confessor."
Charles' eyebrows shot up, and one could see him mentally upgrading Guy's importance. "And is he a heretic?" Charles asked.
"Of course!" Pierre told them frowning angrily. "Who else would offer refuge to heretics and impudently defy the Holy Father!"
Guy smiled faintly and shook his head. "When you have been here in the Languedoc a little longer, you will come to understand that these are a people who love the grand-gesture as much as romance and music and laughter. They consider well worded exaggera­tion and bravado something to admire, not scorn. One must also remember that Raymond-Roger came into his inheritance as a youth and so had never had limits placed upon his power. When he provoked the wrath of His Holiness by declaring that he offered ‘a town, a roof, bread and his sword to all the outlaws that would soon be wandering about Provence’ he did not embrace the heresy itself. His gesture was one of independence and largess and tolerance. Tolerance is a creed in these parts, no less cherished than honour and courage."
"It was a courageous gesture." Sir Norbert admitted, reflect­ing on what Guy had said seriously, impressed that a priest could speak with so much apparent understanding for a man who had defied the Church so impudently.
"And stupid." Sir Charles grunted with evident contempt.
Hughes gazed toward the implacable stone of the cramped prison tower until, realizing that the others were looking at him, he broke off staring at the tower and said with a sad smile, "My father always said that faith without tolerance is bigotry."
Sir Charles eyebrows shot up in disapproval, and Pierre protested, "Surely he did not mean that we should tolerate heresy?"
Hughes was alert to the danger, and so he shrugged and shook his head with deliberate ambiguity.
They started again for the gate, but Hughes's thoughts re­mained with the prisoner. Jerusalem was sacred to the Jews and to the Muslims no less than to Christians. It was the bigots and fanatics of all three religions, who ― by insisting upon imposing their own faith ― had sowed intolerance and reaped bloodshed. He remembered his father's anger and frustration, when confronted with Christian bigotry, and his remembered his mother's terror of Muslim fanati­cism. He knew that both his parents had Jewish and Greek friends and insisted that one must distinguish between the various Muslim factions and sects, seeking to make a pact among the moderates against the fundamental­ists of all religions. He knew that the developments of the last 20 years represented the destruction of his father's world of tolerance. It was discomfiting to think he was now fighting on the side of the fanatics against the forces of tolerance.

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader

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