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.

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


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