Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

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

Saturday, 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


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