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, March 22, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter Ten

October 1210

"You can't think they're serious." Charles protested, looking at Hughes as if he were a fool. They sat on their horses just out of range of the enemy archers, gazing up at the barbican from which a white-flag was being slowly but persistently waved.
Hughes stared at the flag, but his thoughts lingered with Sir Charles. Charles greatly resented the fact that de Montfort had named Hughes temporary commander at Termes while de Montfort, Roucy and Arnaud-Amaury rode to Carcassonne to meet with a delegation of Cardinals sent by Pope Innocent. Hughes understood Charles' resentment and secretly admitted he had done nothing to deserve the honour, but he was also acutely aware that this was his long sought opportunity to gain de Montfort's favour. It was an opportunity he could not afford to squander. If he were to receive the surrender of the impregnable fortress, maybe de Montfort would grant him the lordship of Termes.
Hughes twisted around in his saddle and untied his great helm from behind his saddle. "I'll see what they want."
"They'll kill you." Charles warned him.
"Then you get to take command."
Charles snorted and looked away. He could not disguise his jealousy, but he was man enough to be ashamed of it.
Hughes fitted first the padded, leather arming cap over his coif and tied it under his chin. Then he pulled his great-helm over his head. If the enemy were set on treachery, of course, they would simply use their cross-bows when he was within range and his helm would help him very little, but it gave him a greater sense of security nevertheless.
As he approached, the white flag went still and a man stepped into the embrasure and shouted. "We wish to negotiate a surrender. Who are you and are you empowered to speak for de Montfort?"
Hughes indicated his shield to identify himself and nodded in answer to the question. Imprisoned in the iron of his helmet, his voice would not have reached the ramparts. Nor was he sure he could trust his voice just yet. The prospect of gaining this unassailable stronghold was too tantalizing. It could mean the end of the gruesome campaigning, an end to being at de Montfort's daily mercy.
"I do not recognize your arms, Sir, but if you are empowered to negotiate then come to the gate. I am Raymond de Termes and upon the surety of my soul, I guarantee your safety within my castle."
Hughes turned to glance back at Sir Charles and Guy des Vaux, both waiting anxiously at the foot of the captured Termenès bastion with a growing collection of curious knights and soldiers. Hughes rode back toward them, told them of the offer and his intention to accept.
"You're crazy!" Charles tried again to stop him, but Hughes only smiled at him, certain that Charles would have acted no differently in his shoes.
Guy was free from envy, but his concern was no less patent. "Can't you insist on them sending someone out to negotiate?"
"After de Montfort clapped Trencavel in chains, when he came to negotiate? Who would ever trust us again?"
"They only want to return the compliment. If you insist on going through with this, you are throwing your life away!" Charles insisted angrily.
Hughes shook his head. "You can't compare me to Trencavel. I'm too insignificant. If they wanted revenge of that sort, they would seek a more important victim.""How are they to know you're so insignificant?" Charles asked.
"You'll tell them," Hughes replied, and then pulled his stallion's head back toward the castle and rode at a slow walk to the gate.
"By then it will be too late." Charles shouted after him, and Hughes had the odd pleasure of realizing that for all Charles' jealousy, he really did care what happened.
Before the gate, Hughes dismounted with deliberate calm, and waited. It was one of the longest moments of his life.
Then he heard the creaking of the portcullis wheel overhead and the iron grate started to lift inch by inch. The wooden gates beyond swung open to reveal a line of helmeted and armoured men with swords at ready. From the guardhouse to the left, a man emerged, bareheaded and unarmed. He stepped between the line of knights and the slowly rising portcullis.
"You represent de Montfort?"
"At the moment."
"Can you speak for him?"
"Yes." Hughes was conscious of a certain tightening of his chest as he gave the unequivocal answer. De Montfort had not explicitly included the power to negotiate since there had been no indication that the fortress was nearing the point of surrender.  Hughes knew that he was taking a risk to claim he could speak for de Montfort, but he knew that any other answer would close the gates to him again.
"Who are you? I do not recognize your arms."
"Hughes de Hebron, Lord of Betz en Tourainne. Formerly in the household of King Philip. Temporarily in command of de Montfort's forces here at Termes."
The portcullis reached the top with a clang. Bits of dirt and stone that had been carried upwards on the bars were shaken loose and pattered to the ground.
"Well, Sir, if you wish to discuss a surrender, come in."
Hughes stepped across the line of holes marking the portcullis' former position and into the darkness of the gatehouse. Behind him the portcullis rattled down so abruptly that his stallion spoofed and tried to rear up.
He stopped before Raymond de Termes, and shoved his helmet up off his face. "My lord."
They stared at one another. Hughes saw a man of middle-years with a tanned, sunken face and long, auburn hair. The hair was greasy and combed back from his face to hang in limp strands. He was dressed austerely in a dark surcoat that might once have been either black or purple, but was now an unevenly faded grey.
Raymond de Termes held out his hand to Hughes: long, bony fingers, a signet ring and smudges of ingrained dirt. As if reading Hughes thoughts, he remarked. "Do not scorn me for a barbarian, Sir. I was once wont to bathe thrice in the week and I washed my hands between each course at meals. But water for washing is a luxury in a castle more than three months under siege."
Hughes nodded, bowed his head over the offered hand, and then fell into stride beside his enemy/host. The knights parted for them, sheathing their swords and removing their helmets as Hughes passed between their ranks. Raymond de Termes indicated a wooden stairway that gave access to a first-floor doorway in the massive and ancient keep dominating the cramped courtyard. Hughes looked about for a place to tie his stallion, and one of Termes’ knights came up and held out his hand for the reins. Hughes hesitated.
"We won't harm him. He could not choose his master." The knight who spoke was young and gaunt, with shoulder-length hair and the sparse beard of youth.
Hughes turned over the reins, and mounted the stairs apprehen­sively. His host followed at his heels.
At the head of the stairs, Hughes hesitated a second time, the room before him was dark after the glaring sun outside, and it smelled of unchanged rushes, unwashed bodies and dog. But Raymond de Termes held out his arm to indicate they should enter, and Hughes stepped over the threshold into the circular hall.
The air, despite the unglazed and unshuttered windows, was stale. The heat of the summer, already fading in the surrounding countryside where the nights were refreshingly cool, seemed imprisoned here. The impression was compounded by the stench that hung in the air.
Advancing into the room, Hughes noted that there were at least two dozen people collected here, presumably Cathars who had sought refuge. In horror, he realized that several of the creatures squatting on the floor near the door had bandaged eyes.
"Are you so surprised to see them, sir? Where did you think they would go? Many, of course, remained with the good Pierre-Roger de Lastours-Cabaret--"
"The ‘good’ Pierre-Roger believes in more than an eye for an eye!" Hughes retorted more hotly than necessary, but the sight of the blinded men had shaken him. "He mutilated every one of the men he managed to capture in his raid last month. He not only gouged out their eyes, he had them castrated, and then hacked off their fingers and shattered their knee-caps."
"I'm sorry, sir, but you must understand: Pierre-Roger is still a Catholic." Raymond de Termes spoke sadly.
"And you are not?" Hughes asked startled. They had not yet encountered a nobleman, who admitted to being Cathar. The Cather's insistence on non-violence made their faith irreconcilable with a profession of arms.
Raymond fingered the medallion around his neck. "No. I have converted." Hughes now remembered that this man's brother called himself a "bishop" of the Cathar faith, and he glanced toward the table near the empty fire-place half expecting to see some mitred figure lurking there.
The shock he got was double. First, he noticed that there was a woman waiting by the table, tall and straight and ominous, and then he heard a harsh, young voice behind him. "My father may have converted, but I have not! So don't think we are about to walk into your damned auto-dafés like sheep to the slaughter!"
"Bernard, please. Sir Hughes is here at my invitation." Raymond de Termes admonished gently before introducing his son to Hughes. It was the young knight who had taken Hughes’s stallion from him. Behind him was an even younger youth, no more than 14 at the most, who Raymond introduced as his second son, Olivier. The youngster nodded his head curtly, so that a shock of red hair fell into his freckled face.
Then Raymond indicated the table and Hughes advanced toward the lady. The woman was dressed in a woollen gown with long tight sleeves and a white wimple that bound her face like a nun's. She wore neither rings, nor brooches. Her features were sharp, and her skin was splotched with age flecks and laced with lines. She stood so straight and her eyes were so alert that Hughes thought she might be no older than his host. He bowed his head to her. "My lady. I did not realize you were with your husband here."
"My lady died at Olivier's birth." Raymond de Termes correct­ed. "This is Adele de Rochefort." 
The name meant nothing to Hughes, but the woman insisted, "You will know my son, no doubt."
Hughes looked at her blankly.
"He is Bishop of Carcassone -- Catholic bishop of Carcassonne -- and I have been told he dines frequently with de Montfort and his henchmen."
Hughes remembered the Bishop; he was a fat man with oily features and obsequious manners, utterly at odds with the proud, stiff woman before him.
"You needn't look so baffled. He takes after his father." She said the last word as if it were the most contemptible insult imaginable.
"Did you hate your husband so deeply, Madame?"
"He was a barbarian ― much like your commander, Sir."
"Do you know Simon de Montfort then?"
"I know what he has done. That is enough." She gestured to the blinded men still crouching by the door.
"It is only because he is absent that we agreed to let my father treat." Bernard announced.
Hughes looked again at the young man. He was not what one would call conventionally handsome, but there could be no mistaking a certain, still inchoate charisma. There was the allure of youth combined with dawning strength and one could sense the passion that simmered almost out of control beneath his taut, gaunt face. He had his father's auburn hair and his eyes were a brittle grey.
"I did not want to prolong the killing ― or the dying." Raymond de Termes explained. "I would not have mutilated your men, sir. It was a senseless act of cruelty. I am weary of this siege, this war. Please sit down." He indicated a chair at the square table. No sooner had Hughes seated himself, than the Lady Adele poured for him from a silver pitcher with beautiful enamel inlay. Hughes felt his heart start slightly. His hand went to the pitcher as Lady Adele set it down. "That is of Saracen manufacture."
"My father brought it back with him from crusade; he accompanied Eleanor of Aquitaine." Raymond seated himself opposite Hughes and folded his hands before him on the table.
Hughes met Raymond's eyes. "Then he was a devout son of the Church."
Raymond shrugged. "I do not believe God wants us to kill for him, not Muslims nor even the mercenaries of Simon de Montfort." He smiled almost apologetically.
"Father, if you keep talking like this, Sir Hughes will think we are no longer prepared to fight." Bernard helped himself to a seat between them. "That isn't true." He addressed Hughes directly. "We would rather fight to the death than surrender to de Montfort. We will not put ourselves at his so-called mercy. We will surrender this castle only if everyone in it ― regardless of whether they are Catholic or Cathar ― is granted absolute immunity from any kind of sanction. We will not allow our Cathar brethren and friends to be burned or blinded or imprisoned. Not one of them!"
Hughes reached automatically for the goblet, but realizing that none of the others had goblets or wine he hesitated. The Lady Adele had taken a seat opposite Bernard, and Olivier leaned on the back of his brother's chair. They watched him avidly, and none of them had anything to drink. Hughes drew back his hand.
"It isn't poisoned." Bernard told him with a sneer. "I'll drink it myself if you want proof." He reached for it.
"Bernard!" His father stopped him sharply. Raymond himself took the goblet. "Forgive my son, sir. He is young. If we do not drink with you, it is only because we have so little to spare. But if it will reassure you...." He sipped from the goblet before passing it back to Hughes. "Sir."
Hughes was more wary than ever. Had the father drunk because it was poisoned? to protect his son? He put the goblet to his lips and inclined it slightly but he did not part his lips to drink. He set the goblet back upon the table. "Your terms then are surrender of the castle for the life, limbs and freedom of all within ― Catholic or Cathar, high or low, noble and common aike?"
"Precisely." Raymond de Termes agreed with a nod of satisfac­tion.
"You understand that you would be surrendering your titles and lands as well?" Hughes’s heart pounded somewhat harder as he said this. This was what he'd been fighting for for almost ten months. For this he had left Emilie behind and alone in her travail. For this he had endured the arbitrary leadership of de Montfort.
"I understand." Raymond said simply.
"It is an offence against God to accumulate wealth and title." Adele added. "Raymond understands that he moves closer to God with every step he takes away from earthly vanities."
Raymond nodded agreement, but Hughes’s eyes had shifted instantly to the two youths. Neither Bernard nor Olivier looked as if they shared their father's pious attitude toward possessions.
"Do you understand what surrender means?" He directed his question to the heirs of Termes.
"We will surrender the castle for the sake of the lives and safety of all within it. I don't see that that has anything to do with the rest of our lands and titles." Bernard answered defiantly.
"Bernard." His father reproached wearily. "Stop fooling yourself. To the victor go the spoils. They always place one of their own in the castles and lordships they take. That's what most of them are fighting for." He smiled a little apologetically at Hughes, who could only shrug agreement, even if he was momentari­ly embar­rassed as well.
"They can put someone here, but they'll have to hold it against me!"
"And me!" Olivier added in a voice that was just starting to break.
Hughes measured them. He liked their spirit, and he judged that Bernard should not be underestimated. But he could not convince himself that he was not a match for them. Once he had control of the castle, let Bernard ― without an army like de Montfort's ― try to take it from him. He turned his attention back to Raymond. "You understand then that all your land and titles will be forfeit?"
"And you are prepared to lose everything but the clothes on your back for the lives and safety of all the inhabitants and refugees now collected in Termes?"
"Yes - but I do mean all. You must agree to spare the lives and limbs of the Cathars explicitly." Raymond stressed, leaning forward in his earnestness.
"Fair enough." Hughes answered. "I agree."
Bernard was so startled that he started, his chair scraped loudly against the wooden floor. Olivier even let out an exclama­tion. Lady Adele glanced toward the blinded beggars near the door.
"How can we trust you? Did you not promise the lives of all those at Bram?" Bernard had recovered from his surprise.
"The lives - not the limbs." Hughes found himself defending the indefensible and he hated de Montfort in that moment.
"And at Minerve?"
"At Minerve we guaranteed only the persons and property of those willing to be reconciled with the Church."
"I don't believe Guillaume willingly sacrificed the Cathers, who had turned to him for protection." Lady Adele retorted. "I have known Guillaume de Minerve all my life. I don't believe he agreed to the burning!"
"I don't believe he was given a choice." Hughes answered cautiously. They looked at him. "There was nothing left to drink in Minerve when we took the town. It was a question of saving half his people or none. He hoped, I think, that the Cathars would pretend to abjure their faith for the sake of their lives."
"Then he was a fool!" Adele announced indignantly. "What sane person would sacrifice their soul for the sake of their body? In the end, even an auto-dafé is short compared to eternity."
"Have you ever seen someone burn, Madame?"
"No, but I'm sure you have."
Hughes shook his head. "No, Madame. Nor do I want to." He stood. "Open the gates to me at dusk, and you can all―" he twisted at the waist to include in his glance the blind men by the door, "go free. But I must have control of the castle by dawn. De Montfort is expected back tomorrow or the day after. You must be gone from here, beyond his reach, by then."
For a moment, Raymond seemed surprised by Hughes agreement. Then he nodded, “Thank you, sir.”
They both stood, shook hands on the agreement. As Hughes turned and started for the door, part of him feared that de Montfort would be furious about these terms, another part suspected de Montfort wouldn't give a damn what the terms were as the castle was taken. Arnaud-Amaury might see things differently, of course, but so long as de Montfort was satisfied, Hughes' dream was within reach.
Hughes reached the door and stepped out onto the landing. Overhead huge thunderheads had gathered as so often in the last days. He heard the distant rumble of thunder and the wind swirled the dust in miniature cyclones in the courtyard.
"At dusk, sir?" Raymond de Termes sought final confirmation.
"At dusk, that is at least four hours from now. You must have packed what you wish to take with you and have prepared your departure by then." Hughes admonished.
Raymond nodded, glancing up as lighting flashed, followed almost at once by a louder, sharper growl of thunder.
At the foot of the stairs, Hughes found his stallion waiting fractiously. He flung up his head and his nostrils flared as the next flash of lightning and crack of thunder came.
Hughes swung himself up into the saddle as the first drops of rain pattered down from the black clouds hesitantly. This was the first time the thunderheads had actually brought rain since the siege had started. Hughes glanced up. The rain was cool and welcome after the long summer of draught. He thought of the first rains in Palestine and for a moment closed his eyes to breathe in the unique scent of rain upon parched earth.
Then he pulled his horse's head toward the gate and asked for a trot. The portcullis raised before him and he nudged the horse into a canter. The heavens opened and poured rain upon the earth in a deluge. Almost instantly, Hughes' hair was wet and his shoulders soaked. Rain dripped off his nose and ran down his face and neck to soak his shirt. He gave his stallion his head and they galloped toward the bastion. The word "victory" pounded in Hughes' head with each eager stride. Victory. After three months of bloody siege, he had gained the surrender of Termes! De Montfort would not be able to ignore this achievement. He had gained more than the surrender, he had gained his coveted lordship!

The rain continued to fall in such violent torrents, that the tents started to collapse and more and more soldiers sought refuge in the bastion. They crowded in cursing and yet excited and fascinated by a cloud-burst of such unprecedented violence. The thunder was almost constant now, and the lightning was like a flickering lamp that never quite went out. The hardened, baked earth was too hard to absorb the moisture that was flung at it with such violence. The water ran off, tumbling down the inclines, collecting in the smallest crevice, until each was a babbling creek running down the incline. Every gully was transformed into a brook and the brooks rushed together creating streams of ever greater power. The water ran white with the dust of months, and the gurgling turned to a rushing and then a roar as the water started to sweep the loose stones and dead wood of the summer with it.
Some of the horses panicked and broke loose from their crude, paddock. Men and even a cooking wagon were caught and swept along in the raging waters of new-born rivers. The shouting of sergeants and knights as they tried to rescue what they could from the floods and the squealing of panicked horses came through the roaring of the storm. The men hovering in the shelter of the bastion murmured about the wrath of God and what this could mean.
But within a few hours the storm moved on. The thunder grew more distant and the deluge let up, turning into a heavy, steady rain. The rivers that had raged subsided. Hughes moved through the camp, seeing that order was restored. The men cursed at the rain and mud, but the uncanny violence was already forgotten. The news that the fortress was to be surrendered at dusk spread rapidly. That made the damage seem less significant. They would not need to sleep in the drenched tents, nor eat on the muddy ground. They would sleep under a real roof, and cook a feast in a proper kitchen. Even the horses, who now allowed themselves to be rounded up, would have straw bedding this night.
The men bent over the sudden and subsiding streams to wash the mud from their hands and faces. The sudden abundance of water after the dryness of half a year was as intoxicating, Hughes reflect­ed, as the first warm day of spring in France, but with dusk rapidly approaching, he gave the order for men to form up by company and prepare to march into the castle.
At dusk, Hughes swung himself up onto a bedraggled-looking stallion, and placed himself at the head of his company and started toward the outer-gate of the fortress. He glanced frequently toward the tower, where the banner of Termes continued to hang limply. It was soaked, no doubt, and too heavy to lift in the light breeze, but he would have felt better if it had been taken in.
The castle loomed up dark in the fading light. Hughes sensed that something was wrong. He held up his hand to stop the advance. The castle remained dead before him.
He did not wear his helmet. He lifted his head and listened. He heard only the rain and the water running off the crest of the hill by a thousand gullies. He started forward again slowly, but behind him he heard the murmuring of his men. The word "betrayal" rustled through the ranks. Hughes cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted. "Termes!"
He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw some movement along the ramparts. The gates and portcullis remained firmly closed. Hughes's heart understood that he had lost, but his head refused to accept it. He urged his stallion forward again, and then the volley of quarrels rained down upon them out of the darkness. Hughes’s stallion reared up and the screams and shouts among his men gave ample testimony to the fact that they were within range.
Hughes shouted at his men to pull back and flung himself from his stallion to make himself a less obvious and tempting target. A man directly beside him was curled up on the ground sputtering obscenities. Hughes bent over him. He had taken a quarrel in his calf. Hughes let his stallion go and the horse plunged back to safety while he slipped his arm under the wounded man's arm and helped him to his feet. A second volley of cross-bow fire landed around them and Hughes quickened his pace.
Charles met him, taking the wounded man out of his arms. "The rain." Charles greeted him. "It must have refilled their water tanks."
Hughes stopped and glanced back toward the castle. His castle. He didn’t know whether to laugh or weep or both. The defiant expression of Bernard de Termes came to mind, and he knew that it was Bernard not Raymond, who had prevailed. The water tanks were certainly refilled, and the rainy season had evidently begun. No doubt they could count on replenishment from now until next spring. If they had sufficient food, they would be able to hold out until well into next summer. It made no sense to maintain the siege now.
Hopefully de Montfort would see that. Hughes's heart missed a beat. De Montfort. What would de Montfort think of this failed surrender? They had casualties. Hughes looked hastily around and counted at least four men who were nursing wounds. De Montfort would be sure to blame him for not having guessed the consequences of the rain sooner. He might blame him for having put off the surrender 'till dusk. He might blame him for the terms he had negotiated. De Montfort might even blame him for the rain itself. In any case, he would be furious.

 Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader


Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter Nine

September 1210

"Puivert fell in just three days," Norbert reported to the others. He had just ridden into the camp at the base of Termes castle, where the siege continued interminably. The white dust of the road powdered him from head to foot, except where it had been turned into a fine film of dried mud by sweat. He sank down wearily on the stool Charles offered him, and gulped the watered wine a squire brought.
De Montfort, bored by the siege at Termes, had taken half his troops and set off to subdue other “nests of heretics,” leaving Alain de Roucy in command at Termes. He had struck at Arques first, flushed countless refugees from the caves with smoke and burned down the dilapi­dated and ill-built castle, before moving on to Puivert.
Puivert should have offered more resistance. It was a grand castle with extensive outer works and a solid, massive keep crowning a low but steep hill in a broad valley. It was not a mountain fortress perched atop a precipice like Termes, and in no way comparable to Puilaurens or Peyreper­tuse,­ but it was the main seat of a powerful and rich local lord. No one had thought Puivert would fall easily.   
"Three days? Didn't they put up a fight?"
Norbert swallowed down a chunk of bread laden with cheese almost without chewing. He was too anxious to tell his companions about the astonishing victory at Puivert to eat. Although he was so exhausted he had almost fallen from the saddle more than once on his ride back to Termes, the excite­ment of the successful assault came back to him the moment he started to tell of it. The adrenaline pulsed through his veins again. He could not disguise his admiration and wonder at de Montfort's success.
Hughes noted inwardly that they were all entranced by de Montfort's successes. He was no different. He too was awed by de Montfort's uncanny instinct for the weakness of any fortress, his ability to seize an opportunity with both hands, and his gift for turning any unexpect­ed event to his advantage. Puivert was only one example in a series of such incidents.
Norbert related the latest success breathlessly, between mouthfuls of bread and gulps of wine. It had been a rose-garden (Charles shook his head in bemused wonderment at the foibles of their enemies), which had proved fatal to Puivert. It was located below the main walls right at the tip of the hill. It was walled and the land around it was steep and rocky and over-grown, but it was not inaccessi­ble. On the second night of the siege, a party of de Montfort's men had succeeded in scaling the garden wall and gaining access to the garden. Once in the garden, they discovered (as de Montfort had instinc­tively suspect­ed) that the doorway leading from the garden into the outer ward of the castle was not guarded.
By dawn, de Montfort poured so many men up through the garden and into the outer ward that the garrison on the outer walls panicked when they saw them. They fled into the surrounding countryside. Although the keep held out another day, the commander was demoral­ized by loosing his supposedly mighty outer-defences in just two days. Even though the castle was well supplied with water and magnificently stocked with food, the garrison surrendered on the condition of a safe-passage for themselves and all they could carry on their person and horses. De Montfort readily agreed, content to have hold of such an important castle at so little cost.
"De Montfort gave the garrison their lives and personal belongings, but he's confis­cated the Lord of Puivert's entire lordship and granted it to de Thury." Norbert reported with his mouth full.
"Thury?!" The others asked and exclaimed simultaneously.  
Norbert nodded, and washed a last mouthful of cheese down with another slurp of wine. There was, Hughes noted cynically, little left of the delicate, well-mannered youth who had joined the army in January. But then, what was left of the man he had been? He would have to think about that. 
"Lambert de Thury, Lord of Puivert." Charles snorted out loud, expressing their collective disgust. It wasn't just that none of them had forgiven him his callousness at Bram and Minerve and in countless other situations, it was that none of the men collected in the tent had any particular respect for his competence as a soldier either. Lambert de Thury could carry out de Montfort's orders, but he had never once achieved anything on his own.
"What has he done to deserve that?" Charles asked for all of them.
Norbert shrugged and took a long drink. "He led the troops into the garden--"
"Something any sergeant could have done." Charles pointed out in a peeved voice. Though he had lost weight since the previous winter, he remained a stocky, pock-faced man. He stood with his hands on his hips and jealousy was plain on his face.
"Loyalty means more to de Montfort than skill or brains." Norbert observed.
"Loyalty?" Hughes raised his eye-brows. He stood with his arms crossed and a twisted smile on his face. "I was taught that loyalty was more than mere obedience and flattery."
"Who taught you that?" Charles asked in a patronizing voice that suggested he considered Hughes naive.
"My father - and King Philip."
Charles could only grunt in reply. He could not disparage the king, but he could not resist adding, "It seems he didn't reward your loyalty."
"You're wrong. He did. He gave me my wife and her lordship." Hughes held his head high enough to make Charles pause. It would have been easy to point out that neither Hughes's wife, who had managed to give him only one sickly daughter in four years of marriage, nor her debt-ridden lands had been worth much, but Charles was by nature a man who sought harmony rather than strife. What was the point of insulting Hughes? So he replied instead: "Well, one thing is clear, de Montfort doesn't reward anyone unless they are willing to kiss his ass first."
"More than that." Pierre added in a bitter undertone that made both Hughes and Charles glance toward the slender knight, who craved de Montfort's approval more than they craved land. Charles opened his mouth as if he wanted to ask Pierre to explain his muttered remark, but Guy intervened with a sharpness that was uncharacteris­tic -- and Hughes suspected defensive of the vulnerable Pierre. "Simon de Montfort mistrusts anyone with a mind and opinion of his own."
"Why?" Hughes truly wanted to know. "What does a man as successful and powerful as de Montfort have to fear from anyone save the king himself?"
Guy shrugged and fussed with his robes nervously. "Trencaval once thought himself above all punishment too." The others were stilled. Though they had never seen him, the image of the rightful Viscount of Beziers and Carcassone, who had died chained in the mouldy dungeon of his own fortress, hung in the dry air of the tent. "Do you think de Montfort has forgotten that not one noblemen of rank was willing to take Trencavel's titles and land? Do you think he's forgotten that Trencavel's infant son is safe in Aragon? If his luck abandons him or if he incurs the disfavour of the Pope, how long do you think he will remain Viscount of Beziers and Carcassone?”
“All the more reason to favour men of genuine competence rather than ass-lickers.” Charles responded succinctly. "If he entrusts his future to men like de Thury, he's truly got a lot to worry about!"
"He's done alright up to now." Norbert reminded them. "He doesn't need competent men, only men he can absolutely trust."
"Trust or-- What was that?"
The others too had heard the shout. Charles, who was nearest to the tent flap, turned and thrust the canvas aside, but by then a second cry set their hair on end and they were in motion before the sound of clashing arms and further shouting wafted to them on the eveing breeze.
Norbert had set aside his sword and helm as he sat down to eat, and the others had left their heavy long-swords and helmets in their own tents. While Norbert knocked over the table in his haste to grab his sword, the others plunged out of the tent, running for their own tents and shouting to one another.
Hughes pulled his coif up over his head as he ran and fastened the chin-flap in place over his chin and throat. He had not yet reached his own tent, when he was met by Bert, mounted on his own massive but clumsy gelding. "Is some­thing--"
"Yes, give me your horse!" Hughes ordered and the bewildered squire obediently jumped down. Hughes pulled himself into the saddle, putting his spurs to the horse as soon as he was headed the right way. He galloped into his own camp, and was relieved to find that many of his men were already on their feet, alarmed by the noise coming from behind him. He hardly had to shout the order to arm; men started falling over themselves in their haste to respond to his appearance alone.
At his own tent, Hughes jumped down, ducked through the flap and grabbed his sword and gauntlets from the top of a chest where they lay ready, polished by the faithful Bert. He glanced at his great helm, but then abandoned it for the sake of saving time. It was well past sunset and the light was fading rapidly from the luminous sky. To have his vision further restrict­ed by the helm might be more dangerous than relying on the protection of his chainmail coif alone, but God help him if he encountered an enemy armed with mace or axe. Hughes had seen too many men with their skulls cleaved or shattered, and so on second thought he grabbed the lighter cervellière that provided his skull with the protection of solid metal without being as unwieldy as the great helm. Last but not least, he caught up his shield and slung it over his back as he exited the tent.
In the dim light, he could make out men moving every which way, still apparently confused. Cursing, he grabbed the reins of Bert’s waiting gelding, flung them over the neck and pointed his toe in the stirrup. The shouting of his sergeants abruptly changed quality. A scream sent a shudder down his spine. He hauled himself into the saddle, but had no time to either draw his sword or even dress his shield before a knight crashed into him. He managed only to duck down, crouching on to the neck of his mount, and the lance smashed into the shield he still had flung over his back. The unexpected shock shook his bones to the marrow, but his instinct for self-preservation ensured that he sent the startled stallion forward in the same moment. Still crouching low, he pulled his shield from his back onto his left arm and then sat up in the saddle to draw his sword.
The tip of the lance was imbedded deep in his shield and a fragment protruded about six inches from the wood. Hughes turned to look over his shoulder for the man who had left it there, and saw that a mounted knight had ridden right over his tent.
He had no time to consider this. His ears and instinct alerted him to a new danger from his left. Turning back he saw three more mounted men charging toward the camp. One swung toward him and levelled his lance. Hughes lowered his head and crouched behind his shield, riding purely defensively. The impact of the lance flung him against the high cantle of his saddle, and checked his horse's pace, but he was relieved not to be unseated. He made a back-hand attempt to hit his attacker with his sword, but his opponent had already shot past him. Glancing back, he saw the other rider twisting in his saddle to look for him. They both turned to engage again.
Without a lance of his own, Hughes had no choice but remain on the defensive, hoping the lance would break. It did not. It scraped along his shield and went deep into his thigh. Hughes screamed without even knowing what he did. Then the head snapped off, and the pressure let up. Hughes crumpled over his thigh, gasping, sweating and momentarily half-blinded. Then he pulled himself upright and willed himself to ignore the pain. If he didn't, he would be killed. His opponent was coming at him again, but at least he was no longer armed with a lance. He had drawn his sword. They clashed. Their horses were pressed uncomfortably together.  They flattened their ears and snapped at each other in equine fury. The other knight was cursing in the langue d'oc -- spitting insults or so it seemed. Hughes felt the animosity directed at him and again he registered that there was a different quality to this fighting from all that he had known before.
For 15 years he had earned his wages fighting the enemies of Philip Capet, but his opponents had been vassals of the Planta­genets, more or less committed to their over-lord, but never full of loathing or desperation. For King Philip, he had fought Normans, English, Angevins, Poitevins, and Tourrainese, but never had there been this quality of hatred. His former enemies had fought out of self-respect, for honour or for the sheer pleasure of testing themselves against other men. They had been as willing to grant quarter as to surrender. Hughes had the uneasy feeling that the men he was fighting now would rather hack him to pieces than let him yield. He was fighting for his life, whether he had wanted to or not. A part of his mind registered that this was madness. For the sake of a silver mark a week, he might leave his life here before Termes, and what would then become of Emilie and the infant daughter he had never seen?
All around him raged the same unequal fight, pitting men who were only interested in wages and plunder against men who were fighting for their independence, their land and their families. The Toulousans were technically outnumbered, but no one noticed it that night. The confusion, the darkness and the sheer ruthlessness of their attack left the invaders dazed and reeling. They fought blindly for their bare lives ― each man for himself because there was no organized resistance, no one giving commands, no one leading them. For a while, they were even trapped between two enemy forces, as part of the garrison of Termes risked sallying out of the fortress to assist the attackers.
Only with the dawn did the fighting start to ebb. Men collapsed from exhaustion and loss of blood, and countless, masterless or wounded horses strayed amidst the wreckage of the camp. But the attackers had withdrawn before the light could reveal their own weakness and decimated numbers.
As it slowly dawned on Hughes that there was no new opponent pressing in on him, he let his sword sink. His arm was all but numb with the strain and it hung limp from his shoulder. The broad pommel of the hilt more than the grip of his cramped fingers kept it from dropping to the earth. He sat hunched in his saddle, and Bert's gelding stood upon three legs with heaving flanks, his head sunk listlessly to the ground. He let his eyes survey the wreckage about him, trying to identify some familiar landmark.
There was not a tent or a banner left standing. The ground was littered with corpses, wounded, scattered cooking utensils and shattered cutlery, broken equipment and torn clothes. Only by looking at the stolid form of the fortress against the lightening sky could Hughes locate his position. In the course of the fighting he had drifted halfway around the castle to the position where once Alain de Roucy had had his tent. Looking more closely, he could find the flattened red-and-white striped tent amidst the rubbish.
Forcing himself to focus further, he looked for another mounted knight, and saw over to his right a man on a blood-smeared white stallion slowly riding through the wreckage. Hughes turned his weary horse to intercept the other man, whose horse stumbled forward listlessly. It was Sir Charles. Hughes recognized him more from his portly shape than was left of his surcoat. "Who were they?" Hughes asked.
"Someone said Pierre-Roger de Cabaret-Lastours, but I don't know for sure. How many men did you lose?"
"I haven't the faintest idea. And you?"
Charles just shook his head. "Have you seen Sir Alain?"
Hughes shook his head. "What of the others?"
"Norbert was unhorsed early and was hurt but not killed ― last I saw of him. I've seen nothing of Pierre. Alain was - there he is." Charles pointed.
Alain was riding toward them. His face was grim. "There is no time to waste." He greeted them. "Start collecting the survivors and tallying the dead. I want the siege lines re-established within the hour. Do you understand?"
The other two men just gazed at him blankly. Of course he was right. They had no time to lose, and yet they resented his tone nevertheless. They were both veterans of many campaigns. They could be expected to know what needed to be done. One look at them should have been enough to tell Alain that they were neither in shock nor suffering from any other kind of incapacity that made it necessary to chivvy them like irresponsible youths.
"Did you hear me!?"         
Alain shouted hoarsely, imitating de Montfort, Hughes thought. He and Charles just looked at one other. "If you don't do as I say, you can be sure de Montfort will hear of it!" As if in the midst of so much death, the only thing that mattered was de Montfort's approval.
Hughes wanted to laugh, but he was too exhausted. With an effort he managed to re-sheath his sword. Then it struck him that de Montfort would indeed be furious. Christ, he thought, I can't bear it. De Montfort will blame us for this, and probably dock our pay for six months or some such thing. They had to try to salvage something from this catastrophe. "Alright, shall I take the south and east sectors?"
Charles nodded. "I'll head the other way."

Bert clung to Hughes’s hand and his face contorted with pain as Guy reset his broken arm. Tears and sweat gave his face a sheen and his lips were chewed raw. Hughes was greatly relieved that nothing more serious had befallen the youth. He had mounted one of Hughes' stallions early in the skirmish, which had given him an advantage for awhile, but he had then been unseated in his first encounter with a mounted knight. He had broken his upper arm and probably cracked a shoulder blade in the fall but also knocked himself unconscious. This had probably saved his life because he had appeared lifeless and so unworthy of further attention. Hughes himself had found him where he had fallen and carried him to the infirmary tent where Guy was completely overwhelmed with patients. Sir Alain had at once sent to Lagrasse for the infirmerer and assistants and also sent a man to Carcassone to request the assistance of the Hospitallers.
Bert's breath came in sobs and his grip seemed fierce enough to break the bones in Hughes hands, but then Guy announced, "That's it," and some of the tension seemed to ease. Hughes removed his hand from Bert's clasp, and reached for the waiting pottery cup, filled with drugged wine.
Bert’s tears wet his face and his teeth chattered on the cup. "I can't believe--"
"Try to sleep." Hughes advised him.
"De Montfort invited this." Bert insisted on gasping out. "Everyone knew he'd taken half the army with him." He sobbed for air, and refused to relax. "We've paid for de Thury's lordship."
"That's not fair, Bert." Hughes told him steadily. "What Sir Lambert und de Montfort achieved is not negated or made less impressive by what happened here. They took a mighty fortress with just a handful of men in three days. It is a memorable achievement. Now try to rest. I need you back on your feet as soon a possible."
Bert closed his eyes, and Hughes drew himself up with a grimace. "Let me see to your thigh now, Hughes," Guy urged.
Hughes sank down onto the nearest chest and extended his stiff leg to Guy. He himself had removed the head of the lance during a short lull in the fighting, and the bleeding had gradually diminished to a steady trickle. Now, reminded of the wound, it started to ache painfully. Hughes felt his strength haemorrhaging out of him. All the adrenalin, fear, discipline and sense of responsibility that had prevented him from acknowledg­ing his own hurts now drained away. He swayed slightly, and caught himself with his hands on the edge of the chest.
Guy pressed a chipped cup filled with sickly sweet wine into his hand. "Drink that."
Hughes opened his eyes too look into the cup and felt vaguely dizzy. He didn't want to drink, but then the sight of Guy's exhausted, drawn face made him feel he had no right to protest. He lifted the liquid to his lips, but the mere smell sickened him. He pretended to drink and then let the cup sink again. "Is Norbert going to pull through?" He asked. Norbert had an ugly chest wound and several broken ribs, possibly a punctured lung.
Guy did not meet his eyes. "He is in God's hands."
"And Pierre?"
There was a commotion at the door and a half-dozen men in black surcoats liberally coated with dust burst into the tent. They hesitated inside the flap, and then one caught sight of Guy.  At once, the leader strode between the pallets containing the wounded, and Guy slowly rose to meet the Knight-Hospitaller with a heartfelt, "Thank God!"
"We came at once." The knight answered succinctly, with a glance around himself and an expression of near disgust that said everything. "Show my brothers where to begin,” he ordered, “I will see to this man." The man's assurance and presumption were so complete and so natural that neither Guy nor Hughes questioned his orders. The knight then went down on one knee before Hughes and examined his thigh profes­sionally. Without hesitation he reached up under the hem of Hughes's hauberk and untied the points attaching his chainmail chausses to his belt. Within seconds, he had removed Hughes’s leg-coverings and exposed the wound entirely. Hughes was too weary and startled to protest. Indeed, a part of him was comforted by the familiar habit of the Hospital­lers. He found himself asking irrelevantly. "Have you ever been to Palestine, Sir?"
The Hospitaller looked up abruptly. "Yes, of course, why?"
Hughes managed a faint smile. "I was born there ― in Hebron."
The man seemed startled, looked intently at him, and then asked in a low, reproachful voice. "Then what in God's name are you doing here?"
"What do you mean?" Hughes asked, unsettled and wary all of a sudden.
"The Holy Land needs good knights ― more desperately than ever. I was only sent back to bring new recruits. I hope to sail before the autumn storms. You should not waist your time ― or your blood," he gestured angrily at Hughes’s thigh wound, which was bleeding more profusely in consequence of the Hospital­ler’s probing fingers,  "here."
"I thought this was a crusade." Hughes answered dryly.
"This is not a crusade! It is an invasion!"
Hughes nodded, gratified by the impassioned tone, the brusqueness of the answer, and most of all because it was good to have his opinion confirmed by an objective observer.
The Hospitaller, now that he had been given an opportunity to voice his opinion, proceeded to speak in a low, hissing voice even as he slipped a leather satchel from his shoulder and removed a number of instruments and a bottle of dark liquid. "Your so-called enemies are all Christians! The knights and lords are even Catholic. The heretics are sworn to non-violence and will not touch a weapon even to defend themselves. They cannot be fought with the sword! What right have you to shed Christian blood?"
"The blessings of His Holiness the Pope, and, indeed, a promise of absolution for all previous sins. Surely you heard of the relevant Papal decrees?"
The Hospitaller caught his breath, looked up sharply and stared Hughes in the eye. Something flickered there. "You don't believe that yourself."
Hughes shrugged.
"Why are you here?" The Hospitaller demanded, as he held a folded square of gauze to the unstopped neck of the flask and up-ended the bottle to pour the liquid onto it. It gave off a pungent, intense but not unpleasant odour.
"Me? I am no different from the other mercenaries. I fight for profit. For land. To provide for my heirs yet unborn. Hebron fell to Saladin in 1187."
The Hospitaller was still for a moment. Then he nodded. "I know." He pressed the gauze directly to the wound and Hughes was caught so off-guard he let out a scream before he managed to stuff his fist into his mouth to choke himself off.
The Hospitaller let up the pressure on the wound, but the liquid continued to burn. Hughes had broken out into a sweat. The Hospitaller looked up at him. "You'll live." He told him with a twitch of a smile. "And if you love God, you will offer your sword to a more worthy man than Simon de Montfort."
"For example?"
"Marshal Jean de Brienne. King Philip proposed him as a husband for Queen Marie of Jerusalem. I understand she has accepted."
"Brienne?" Hughes asked, still gulping for air because of the pain pulsing up from his leg, but it was helpful to have some topic to distract him. "He must be over sixty."
The Hospitaller shrugged. "He is a highly successful command­er. A man who can command the respect even of the notoriously unruly barons of Outremere."
Hughes refused to take the bait. He was calculating. "Queen Marie can't be more than 16 or 17."
"A marriageable age."
"Indeed, but to a man over sixty...."
"Think less of the pleasures of the flesh, sir." The Hospi­taller advised replacing his instruments in their satchel and getting to his feet. "Virtuous rather than lecherous thoughts are more likely to find favour with God, if you want Him to aid your recov­ery."
Hughes had been about to reply that he had not enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh in fully nine months, but he had no opportunity. De Montfort burst into the tent spewing insults, oaths and curses. "You hell-spawned incompetent worms! Christ protect me from your c***-s***ing services! I’ve only been gone two weeks, and you damn near destroy everything I've achieved in two years!"
De Montfort was striding through the tent distributing his rage liberally to left and right as he advanced. "I knew you were wet behind the ears, Mauvoisin," he shouted at Norbert, "but I hadn’t thought you were still wetting your diapers!" He spotted Sir Charles, who was keeping watch by Norbert's pallet and the flood of insults tumbled over one another. "I don't need bloody nurse-maids! Get out of here, and don't think I haven't noticed you are the only one of my knights not wounded! I'd like to know where you spent the battle? Hiding under a bush?!" Before Sir Charles could even defend himself, de Montfort had passed on to point an accusing finger at Pierre. "You have failed me again! Next time you fail me, I will expel you from my service and my lands!"
Hughes grasped at the Hospitaller's shoulder to pull himself to his feet, driven instinctively by the obsession to face de Montfort standing, on an equal level. The Hospitaller whispered in his ear as he helped him. "You would never hear such language from King Jean of Jerusalem."
Hughes’s eyes shifted, but he had no time for an answer. De Montfort was bearing down upon him. "Do you mean to blame me too, my lord?"
De Montfort was brought to an abrupt halt. He met Hughes’s eyes, his head jerked. Then, almost as if he had been shaken out of his rage, he said in an almost normal voice. "No, not you, Sir Hughes. I know you fought bravely."
As abruptly as he had entered, de Montfort turned on heel and removed himself from the tent without another word.
The Hospitaller raised his eyebrows and gave Hughes an appraising look. "That was neatly done." He commented. "You must stand high in his favour."
Hughes had no answer. He did not himself understand why de Montfort had backed down. He knew that he had not fought better or more bravely than Sir Charles. And Norbert, even Pierre, and all the others had done their best. It made no sense that de Montfort should abuse the others and praise him. Consequently, the praise did not make him feel proud; it simply unsettled him. On the other hand, it did open the prospects of possible reward, and he decided to cling to that. If he were once rewarded with a fief, he would no longer have to serve de Montfort, he reminded himself. It was just a matter of sticking it out long enough to gain his independence.

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader