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

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 15, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter 5

June 26, 1210

Lighted by torches and candles, the canvas of de Montfort's command tent seemed luminous against the darkness, and the shadows cast by the occupants were large and distorted. From inside came the unmistakable sound of voices and laughter, the clatter of cutlery and fragments of music. When servants entered or left, briefly opening the flap-door, the scent of heavily spiced meat escaped. The soldiers of de Montfort's army glanced occasionally toward the tent from their own camp-fires, and although some were envious of the better rations afforded their betters, most were content to hear their leader in such good humour. De Montfort's booming laugh could be distin­guished easily above all the others.
Seated in the centre of the trestle table, de Montfort threw back his head and guffawed with delight at the jokes Alain and Lambert fed him from his left side. Arnaud-Armaury, seated as always on his right, leaned forward straining to partake in the repartee. Squires squeezed along behind the table, sweating from the effort of keeping the wine flowing in sufficient quantities.
Since he had joined de Montfort, this was not the first such feast he had witnessed, and Hughes had long since learned to hate them. De Montfort could easily drink all of his knights under the table, and he enjoyed proving his superior­ity at this no less than his superiori­ty at everything else. Whereas Hughes admired de Montfort's military skills, Hughes saw nothing particu­larly admirable about being able to consume gallons of wine without feeling the effects. What was worse, de Montfort's "hospitality" would leave the bulk of his guests ill and unfit for the next 24 hours. It all seemed such a waste. They would probably consume more wine this night than he and Emilie had in their cellars.
The thought of Emilie depressed Hughes and made him restless. Her last letter spoke of bleeding and spasmodic pain. He could read her fear in the crossed out sentences, in the attempts at self-ridicule and bravado. She was terrified and she wanted him with her, and he was sitting here guzzling expensive wine and gorging himself on over-spiced meat. All for the sake of a silver mark a week. If only they didn't need that silver mark so desperately!
"Well?" a hand clapped down on his shoulder. "Something not to your liking?" The tone was friendly, and Charles climbed over the bench to sit beside Hughes. "Our gallant leader doesn't like anyone to be glum when he had decided to distribute good cheer."
"Did he send you over?" Hughes asked, glancing toward de Montfort suspiciously. Before Bram, de Montfort had taken no note of him at all, now his attentions seemed entirely disapproving; Hughes was acutely aware of how dangerous that could be.
"Nay, but I heard him remark sourly to Alain that you were sitting over here and pouting like a sullen child."
"Kind of him to notice." Hughes remarked sharply, offended by the insult and angry with himself for caring what de Montfort thought.
"You've got to get up and dance on the table." Guy joined in the conversation, clambering over the bench on Hughes's other side. "Ever since Sir Lambert did that last year, he has been in great favour."
Hughes looked over at the Benedictine, uncertain if this was meant in earnest or jest. "And I thought it was because he was so good at mutilation."
"Now, now. Don't be unfair." Guy warned. "Mutilation would not be welcomed tonight. Tonight he has decreed we are to be carelessly happy. And by God you had better be merry and uninhibited, or he'll make sure you regret it!" Guy had brought his own wine-cup with him and clomped it on the table to emphasize his words.
"Does he really think he can order merriment in the same way he does obedience?" Hughes inquired with a tinge of contempt. No one, not even a king, could command another man’s feelings.
"Hasn't he succeeded?" Charles pointed out with a sweeping gesture.
The tent was full of laughing, singing, drinking knights. Even as he looked, a pair got up and started dancing together to roars of approval from de Montfort. Even Norbert, otherwise quite diffident and restrained, had lost all his inhibitions and now clambered over the bench to join the dancing. De Montfort started clapping to give the dancers the pace, and then took up a tune to keep them dancing. The other knights joined in: singing, clapping or stamping their feet in time with de Montfort. Sir Charles and Guy both joined in, swaying in rhythm to the music.
Hughes felt the gulf of alienation yawning around him. Guy slipped his arm through Hughes' and nudged him until he swayed with them on the bench. Smiling and nodding, Guy induced Hughes to join in the singing. But that did not make Hughes feel less alien inside.
De Montfort started clapping faster and faster. The dancers were forced to pick up the pace. The singers, catching on to the game, sang louder and faster. The dancers were red and sweating from the exertion. Montfort stood up and even clapped faster until one of the knights tripped and sprawled face first onto the packed dirt of the floor. De Montfort flung back his head and laughed, but then he called the three dancing knights up to his table and flung his arm around Norbert's shoulders as he shared his own goblet with them each in turn.
Hughes could see the way Norbert flushed under de Montfort's attentions, flattered. He noted that Pierre Amiel was as usual trying to draw de Montfort's attention to himself, this time with a new attempt at dancing. De Montfort only scowled in irritation. He made some remark that Hughes did not catch. He saw Pierre Amiel wince visibly and draw back, red and smouldering with shame. A moment later he was reaching for a wine jug.
Since Pierre had urged de Montfort to the atrocity at Bram, Hughes had pointedly distanced himself from Pierre, coldly rejecting his renewed attempts at friendliness. Now he found himself asking in a mixture of disgust and incomprehension "Why does Pierre try so hard for de Montfort's approval? The Viscount would respect him more if he grovelled less." Hughes directed his remark to Guy, who was humming happily in tipsy contentment.
"Ah, Pierre. Pierre is a bastard, you know."
"Yes. His mother was the daughter of one of his father's vassals. He got her pregnant, and to appease her angry father, he agreed to recognize and knight the son she'd borne him. Pierre feels a desperate need to prove worthy of that knighting, but" Guy shrugged eloquent­ly "he doesn't have a natural aptitude."
Hughes looked back at Pierre in a new light. It was not easy to be born illegitimate in a world in which one’s entire status in life revolved around one’s birth.  It was hard enough being a younger son, but older brothers could die, mothers had dower lands to pass on to younger sons, and heiresses could occasionally be won by sufficient good blood and connections. But all that was denied a bastard. Usually they ended up serving their more fortunate legitimate kin as stewards, clerks or purveyors – all things, Hughes reflected, that Pierre would have been far better suited to doing than fighting. Pierre had no natural aptitude for fighting; he was too slight of build and singularly uncoordi­nated.
It was not Pierre's fault that he had not been granted the athletic agility and physical strength to make him a good knight, but Hughes blamed him for trying to make up for his natural inadequacies by proving that he could at least drink as much as his commander. Every thing Pierre did, he did for de Montfort´s approval, Hughes registered. Indeed, on reflection, Pierre was a good man in every respect -- except that he obsessively sought to please de Montfort. "Pierre would be perfectly suited to garrison duty or, God knows, serving in the household of some bishop or abbot. Why, in the Name of God, does he feel he has to prove himself under a man like de Montfort?"
"Because, I believe, de Montfort was the first man to give him a chance," Guy answered sleepy with wine.
Hughes gaped at Guy in startled dismay as he grasped the implications.
"Forgive me for saying this, sir," Guy continued, the wine freeing his tongue more than normal, "but you and Sir Charles and the others are only dependent upon de Montfort for fame and fortune. Pierre is dependent upon him for his very identi­ty. Regardless of what you all think of him, he is still one of de Montfort´s commanders. Without de Montfort, he is only a bas­tard."
Norbert, meanwhile, had left de Montfort's table and came over to address Hughes. "My lord wants to know what is bothering you. He says you’re spoiling the whole feast."
"I'm flattered," Hughes retorted sarcastically, "that he credits me with so much influence."
"What's the point in offending him in something so minor?"
"I don't trust a man whose changes in mood are so rapid. Yesterday he was ready to have us all decapitated for some ridiculous, not to say imagined, imperfection in the siege lines, and today we are supposed to laugh and joke with him as if he were benevolence incarnate."
Norbert shrugged. "It was his behaviour yesterday - not today - that I find offensive. I don't see anything wrong in a lord being jovial and generous with his household. Isn't the king like this?"
"Never." Hughes answered, and then at the thought of miserly, sour-tempered King Philip ever entertaining his household knights lavishly, he broke out laughing. "He's too cheap."
The others were tipsy enough to enjoy hearing such a candid de­scription of their monarch and hooted with delighted laughter.
"Somehow, I don't think that is the proper term of respect to our august and devout king." Sir Charles admonished, pretending reproach.
"King Philip is about as devout as a priest's concubine." Hughes returned, thinking of the absolute indifference with which the King had reacted to his excommunication at the time of his unfortunate marriage with Princess Ingeborg. He lived outside the Church for years, and it had taken an interdict against all of France before he agreed to acknowledge as the Danish princess, who had displeased him in a single night, as his queen.
The others laughed even harder; they had never heard anyone speak so forthrightly about their king. Charles remarked, "I'm beginning to understand, why you aren't still in royal service."
Hughes shrugged. "Philip wouldn't have been offended by what I said. He doesn't consider devoutness a virtue ― seeing how his devout father was routinely trounced and mocked by the irreverent Henry Plantagent. It might surprise Abbot Arnaud-Amaury, but the king used to remark that the relationship between power and piety is inverse."
"Are you saying power is all that matters?" It was the deep voice of de Montfort himself as he suddenly leaned over them. The hastily shifted away from Hughes, instinc­tively seeking to distance themselves from the target of de Montfort's disapproval.
"If a king is to keep his kingdom, yes." Hughes answered without flinching. He was no more anxious to be target of de Montfort displeasure than the others, but he knew that evasion would evoke de Montfort's contempt as well as his anger.
"That's not the answer I would have expected from you ― not after the squeamishness you showed at Bram."
"Brutality and power are not synonymous."
"Quite right!" De Montfort agreed, snapping his fingers and pointing at Hughes. "But you still have to learn that from a position of weakness calculated brutality is a weapon one can't afford to scorn. Only the already powerful can afford mercy. So," He raised his goblet to Hughes, who was obliged to stand and raise his own in answer. "To power!" De Montfort threw back his head and guzzled the wine down with loud gulps, signalling Hughes to do the same imperi­ously.

Tired and over-fed, the wine blurring his senses, Hughes made his way back from the command tent. In the light of the rising moon, he could clearly see the bastide of Minerva perched upon a narrow ridge formed by the Cesse Gorge. It was pale in the darkness, an arid island high above a parched river-bed. Hughes did not know if water ever flowed in the gorge. Certainly there was no water at this time of year. There had been no rain in months, and the scrub-growth and cultivated fields were coated with white dust. Any movement sent corresponding clouds of white power into the air where it hung, waiting to be breathed in. Hughes craved a deep drink of spring water, and he pitied the villagers, now cut off from their only water source.
The well at Minerve, located at the base of the town, could only be reached by a narrow, covered stair-case. De Montfort, who had learned of the location of the well and staircase from an local enemy of the Viscount of Minerve, had targeted the base of the stairway and after a week of incessant bombardment by their largest siege-engine, the base of the stairs and the well-head had been shattered, cutting the besieged town off from their only source of water. Since then, Hughes had observed the several, increasingly frantic, efforts of Minerve's men to bridge the gap between the end of the stairway and the well. Eventually, a couple of men had managed to lower themselves on ropes to the well-head –only to discover the well was blocked with rubble, the water no longer accessible.
That had been three days ago, and Hughes reckoned other liquids must be getting scarce by now. It would not be long before the town surren­dered. Maybe he could make it home to Betz in time for Emilie´s confinement after all, he hoped.
 A weary voice challenged him as he approached, and then apologised. "Sorry, sir. I didn't recognize you at first."
"Is everything quiet?" Hughes asked the sergeant of the watch.
"Too quiet." 
With a conscious effort, Hughes dragged his thoughts out of the fumes of alcohol and focused upon the sergeant. "What do you mean?"
"The crickets went still a while back and I've heard nothing from that sector of the line for at least ten minutes." He pointed to the sector of the siege ring held by Pierre Amiel's troops. "If you listen, you can usually hear low voices. Tonight, they were quite loud at first, then settled down, but then ― abruptly ― all went deathly silent. Not like them at all." The man broke off with a shrug.
"We better go over and investigate." Hughes decided, increas­ingly alert. "Don't raise the alarm yet. I'll send someone back if it's necessary. Stay at your post." Moving into the camp around his own tent, Hughes bent and shook men from their sleep as quietly as possible, signalling them to bring their arms and follow him. He would be making a perfect fool of himself, if there was nothing wrong in the adjacent sector, but better that, than to make no response and find out something had happened.
Pierre Amiel did not have the respect of most of his troops, Hughes reflected, wondering if they too knew he was born a bastard. Probably. Mercenaries were quick to hear and share any rumours about their leaders, and with so many men from so many different parts of France, there was always someone who knew someone who had served with someone else…. He sighed, picturing the way his own men must talk about his poverty, his elderly wife, his lost inheritance behind his back.
In Pierre's case the rumours of his base birth would be particularly dangerous because they would compound the difficulties his incompetence brought with them. A king might be forgiven his incompetence and an effective commander forgiven his illegitimacy, but a base-born man of average military skills was doomed to face the contempt and insolence of mercenaries. Hughes could well imagine that Pierre's troops ignored his orders, particularly when they were inconvenient. No doubt they had been drinking heavily. Probably they had failed to set a proper watch.
To his right, a man gasped and then cursed. "Sir Hughes!" The moon was higher and even before Hughes reached the man who had called, he could make out the corpse on the chalky earth. Looking closer, he noted that the corpse's throat had been cut literally from ear to ear. The head hung to one side awkwardly, the face already waxy, but the body was still warm, the blood still running.
Hughes did not have to give the order. Around him, swords rasped from their scabbards. He signalled only for the men to spread out a bit more, and they advanced in a ragged line across the gullied and rock-strew landscape. From the cooking fires, the embers still glowed faintly, and the men around them appeared to be sleeping soundly, wrapped in their blankets. Nothing seemed amiss. Hughes glanced at Pierre Amiel's tent, and saw a flickering light within. The shadows leapt and danced as the canvass shivered in a light breeze. Pierre was being undressed by his squire.
Hughes and his men had reached the campfires of Pierre Amiel’s men, but Hughes felt no shock when he discovered they were all dead. Around him, his own men were cursing and exclaiming with increasing anger as they went from man to man, from fire-to-fire, but Hughes’s mind raced ahead. Had it been a group of men from Minerve breaking out of the encirclement for freedom ― or relief forces coming in from outside? The Bastide of Minerva was held by the Viscount himself and he was brother-in-law to Raymond der Termes. Termes had a large following of so-called faydits, disinherited knights and lords, who he might have ―
It was the peculiar smell of fire that cut through his thoughts.  In the same instant, his brain made the right associa­tion. Behind the camp the silent silhouette of Pierre Amiel's siege engine waited ominously. And there, along the base, Hughes could make out moving shadows and now a lurid, flickering light. The enemy was trying to set fire to the engine.
Hughes grabbed the man nearest him and hissed. "Get word back to de Montfort!" With his sword he pointed to the siege engine.
The man stared blankly for a moment before he grasped what Hughes was pointing at and talking about.  Then he cursed under his breath and spun about to run back toward their own camp. Growling at his men as best he could without making too much noise, Hughes drew them together and led them up the slope toward the siege engine where at most a dozen men were struggling to set a fire. Only when they were paces away did Hughes shout "A Montfort!" and his men took up the cry.
The enemy assaulting the siege engine only had time only to turn around, surprise still on their faces, then Hughes's men were on top of them. They defended themselves, but most proved to be no serious match for the veterans with Hughes, and they were outnumbered by more than two to one.
At the siege engine itself, one man ignored the attackers and taking an axe tried frantically to sabotage it. Hughes advanced directly at him, aware in the ever brighter moonlight that this man was in a suit of chain mail and wore a surcoat with heraldic arms. Hughes surmised he was the leader of the band of attackers. "Yield! Your men are dead!"
The knight looked over his shoulder at Hughes. He was a lanky, young man with a long face. His eyes took in the slaughter of his followers, then shifted to Hughes sword, and with an inarticulate cry he flung his axe. If he hadn't seen the other man’s eyes shift, the axe might have taken Hughes by surprise. As it was, it forced him to duck and spring to one side, giving the stranger time to draw his sword. He faced Hughes with his sword circling slowly, his eyes alert.
"We can over-power you easily." Hughes pointed out, hearing his panting men coming up behind him one by one, after they finished off the others.
"Then do it," answered Hughes’ adversary in heavily accented French.
"Why not yield instead?"
"And have my eyes put out?"
"Are you a heretic?"
"Do you care? You murdered a thousand men, women and children, who had taken refuge in St Mary Magadelen in Beziers! You even butchered the priests holding the Eucharist before the alter!"
"Shall we take him, Sir?" The voice was eager in Hughes’s ear.
Hughes shook his head, and stepped forward. His opponent had the siege engine at his back and he could not afford to take his eyes off his numerous enemies to watch his footing. He tried to manoeuvre to the left, but Hughes's men had started to spread out, calling mockingly to their quarry.
"What are you afraid of? If we kill you, you get born again, don't you?" The mercenaries laughed.
"Maybe next time, you'll have more luck and will be born French."
"Or a woman."
"More likely he'll be born an ass." The mercenaries shouted with laughter at their own jokes.
The knight lunged at Hughes. Hughes had anticipat­ed the move and parried the thrust. Neither had shields and so they grasped their swords two-handed. For several minutes they strug­gled, the clang of the blades and their own rasping breath the only sounds that registered in Hughes’s brain. He did not even realize his own men cheering and jeering.
After the excesses of de Montfort's feast, Hughes was sweating profusely. He smelt the garlic and wine on his sweat with repul­sion. His opponent seemed dry, but his breath was rank from too little food. As they came together, Hughes could see the split and swollen lips of a man suffering from thirst. Hughes knew the effects of extreme thirst, he had experienced them in Palestine.
Distracted, he responded a fraction too late to a new thrust. He sprang back, but not quite fast enough. He felt the sting of the sword as it cut through his chain mail just above his knee. Later it would hurt, but for the moment it caused him only alarm. Too late, he realized that he was at a severe disadvantage because he did not want to die, whereas his opponent's only goal was to take as many men as possible with him to his death.
"Let us take him!" Hughes's men urged him, enraged that the southerner had drawn blood.
The Toulousan, meanwhile, sensed Hughes' surprise and hesitation. He pressed his attack harder, his face contorted with effort, thirst and hatred. He had no breath left for curses or cries, but he eyes spoke eloquently. Hughes was frightened, and dropped sharply on his wounded knee. His opponent loomed over him, the sword flashed in the moonlight, and all around the invaders were shouting hoarsely, furious, anxious to rescue Hughes.
Hughes brought his own sword upward, piercing silk, mail, leather and skin. Too late the Toulousan knight realized that Hughes had tricked him with feigned weakness. His face cleared of hatred long enough to register surprise, almost approval, and then his strength gushed out of him with his blood and innards and he fell upon the sword that had killed him so that it went clean through him as it bore his murderer onto the chalky earth.
Hughes went over backward under the other's dead weight and for a moment they lay entwined together like lovers.  Then Hughes started struggling to free himself from the weight of the dying man and pull his sword free. For a second, Hughes paused to catch his breath and his gaze fell on the Toulousan knight lying on his belly his face turned to one side. His eyes were closed, but his lips moved. Hughes leaned forward and caught a whisper in the langue d'oc that he could not decipher ― except he thought he heard the words "Christ" and "Julienne."
"How badly are you hurt?" It was the rough bellow of de Montfort himself, and the next thing Hughes knew his commander had his massive hand under his arm and was helping him to his feet. Behind him a stallion snorted and pranced in discomfort at the smell of blood. Behind the horse were a dozen mounted knights.
"Most of the blood is his. I’m not badly hurt." Hughes answered embarrassed.
De Montfort still had hold of him firmly. "Are you sure? I can't afford to lose you. You'll return with me to my tent and have your wounded tended to properly."
"You'll do as I say! Where's Sir Pierre?"
Hughes felt his stomach tense. He had never even thought to send for Pierre - not given the condition he had been in on leaving de Montfort's tent. Only now did it occur to him that this had been unfair. "I didn't have time to send for him. I--"
De Montfort raised his head and roared. "AMIEL!" The shout cut through the night as all the men, who had been excitedly talking among themselves fell silent in the face of de Montfort's bellow of fury. "A-M-I-E-L!"
"It's not his--"
"Shut up!" De Montfort snarled. "Sir Pierre has to answer for himself." Then to one of the mounted men he ordered. "Fetch Sir Pierre Amiel from his tent and bring him here at once."
The man spurred away. De Montfort turned back to Hughes and lectured in a stern almost abusive tone. "Next time, I don't want any heroics! You let your men come to your assistance, is that clear? You aren't at some royal tournament! You are fighting a bloody war. You can be sure he--" he pointed to the Toulousan knight who was now dead "would not have given you the same courtesy of a fair fight. And I can't afford to have my knights wounded ― there are too bloody few of you as it is. Otherwise, you did a good job. I'm impressed."
Praise from de Montfort was so rare that Hughes found himself glowing with pride, even though his knee was now starting to throb and ache painfully.  De Montfort's approval was the first step to gaining more than his meagre pay. Vague but tempting visions of castles, bastides and lordships formed in the night air.
And then Sir Pierre could be seen running towards them from his tent. He was wearing only his shirt and trying to pull his hauberk on as he scampered on tender bare feet across the rocky ground. Watching him come, Hughes's joy over de Montfort's praise drained out of him. Pierre's men had been murdered and his siege engine attacked, and all the while he had been in his tent and never noticed a thing.
"My lord, I was―" Pierre started before he reached de Montfort. Then he saw de Montfort holding Hughes, saw the dark, still glistening smear of blood across Hughes entire chest and could not know it was not his. He blanched in genuine horror. "Hughes!" Then he saw the corpse behind him. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened. "What - what --"
"Well you might ask!" De Montfort let Hughes go and strode toward Pierre Amiel. He struck out with his fist, smashing the small, thin knight over backwards with a single blow to his face. Blood gushed down from Pierre's nose and he reeled as he tried to lift himself. He stuttered something and coughed up blood.          
"All your men slaughtered in their sleep! Your siege engine attacked, and the whole time you did nothing but puke in your tent!" De Montfort bent over the Pierre, and grabbing him by the collar of his shirt he started shaking him violently back and forth. "I could have you hanged for neglect of duty! For the murder of your men!" As he raged de Montfort's voice grew louder and harsher and more uncontrolled. "Or for treason!"
"We can't afford to do that." Arnaud-Amaury remarked in his distinct, cold voice. He sat astride a tall, lean horse and looked down at commander and victim with an expressionless round face. "We have lost enough men this night already."
De Montfort in his rage turned upon the abbot and pointing at him shouted. "I don’t tell you how to read Mass, and you don't tell me what to do with my own men! If I want to hang Sir Pierre by his balls until his worthless brains rot, I'll do it!"
Hughes swallowed, but his throat was dry. He found himself praying that Arnaud-Amaury or someone else would have the courage he did not have to intervene on Pierre's part.
But the Abbot, offended by de Montfort's tone, chose to turn his horse around and ride away in protest.
"Bind him and bring him to the command tent!" De Montfort ordered Hughes’s troops, and then turning back and ordered Hughes to mount on his own horse.
Hughes, numb, limped over to the great bay stallion, and the next thing he knew de Montfort had lifted him off the ground with startling ease. He had only to fling his leg over the saddle, and then de Montfort sprang up behind him. "Set a watch and then clear the dead away." De Montfort ordered Sir Alain, who was among the men who had escorted him. "These," he indicated the knight and men from the besieged town, "you can roll down into the gorge for the vultures. Our own men need a Christian burial."
Hughes crossed himself, and silently said a prayer for the man he'd killed. "Jesus, Maria, have mercy on his soul." After a moment he added, "and mine."

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader

No comments:

Post a Comment