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.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Devil's Knight - Chapter 11

November 22, 1210

The nights were cool now, and often damp. The coal brazier that Bert kept burning in the tent created more smoke than heat, and Hughes was oppressed with dull resentment. This was a senseless siege, but de Montfort refused to lift it. To be fair, he had shown surpris­ing indulgence toward Hughes for the fiasco of the false surrender. He had heard Hughes out, and then shrugged and announced he would have acted no differently himself. But he would not hear of breaking camp and withdrawing to winter-quarters. The mood in the camp was correspondingly low and the first incidents of desertion had occurred.
Bert was relating eagerly the details of the latest flogging. Hughes was always surprised anew to discover that his squire, despite his youth and innocence, had a morbid streak that drew him to every flogging, execution and auto-dafé. Of course, he reflect­ed, as he concentrated on threading a wire through the links of his hauberk to repair a tear, Bert was not that innocent any more. Not after three sieges, the assault of the bastion here and the attack by Pierre-Roger de Cabaret-Lastours.
Yet he was innocent, Hughes reminded himself. Bert's very enthusiasm and his inability to put himself in other's shoes was a mark of innocence ― or at least immaturity. He had even managed to shake off any sense of defeat associated with being unhorsed during the night-skirmish with Pierre-Roger. To hear him tell the story, he had performed feats as great as those of Roland before being brought low by a super-human opponent. Hughes sighed, part of him envious of the self-delusions of youth and part of him irritated by so much self-deception. It was a very long time since he had been as sure of himself as Bert was.
"The real bitch among the troops is that they haven't been paid." Bert was saying with the knowing swagger of an old campaigner.
"The real bitch is that the plunder has been so sparse." Hughes corrected him.
"Yeah, that too. But when the deserter mentioned that we hadn't been paid, there was a rumble of support. Pierre-Amiel was nearly drowned out."
"Hughes!" The voice came from outside the tent and both Hughes and Bert turned sharply. "Hughes!" Norbert stuck his head through the flap. "Come quick! The garrison is abandoning Termes!"
"What?!" Hughes was on his feet, dragging the now truly tattered hauberk over his aceton without finishing his crude repair.
Norbert entered the tent, holding his side. He had not fully recovered from his wounds and any exertion left him short of breath and in pain. "One of the pickets noticed someone slinking down a gully and thinking it was another deserter seized him -- only to discover it was one of the garrison. A few minutes later another couple of men were caught in our net. They've been taken to the bastion, and de Montfort has sent for all his knights."
"What reason can they possibly have for abandoning Termes now?" Hughes asked, as he grabbed a surcoat, sword and cloak, and ducked out of the tent with Norbert. "They've had intermittent rain for the last four weeks."
"I don't know. I didn't talk to them." Norbert admitted.
Both of Hughes’ stallions were untacked and grazing. It would take more time to get one of them ready than to walk the short distance. Norbert had evidently come on foot too, so they went together, Norbert hobbling as fast as he could and clutching his right side.
The ground floor of the bastion was filled to brimming with curious soldiers, and Norbert and Hughes had to shove their way to the stairs leading up to the first-floor chamber, where the other knights were already collected. De Montfort was consulting in an undertone with Arnaud-Amaury and Sir Alain. Torches lit up the room and the orange light was reflected dully off chainmail and cervellières.
Hughes was briefly aware of how shabby they all looked. It had been months since any of them had bathed and their cloaks and surcoats were soiled with mud, sweat, smoke and grease. Not one of them, except de Montfort himself, had a trimmed beard or clipped hair. Their armour too looked shabby. Nothing glistened brightly anymore, and the first signs of rust were evident on more than one hauberk or pair of chausses.
De Montfort nodded and turned to the collected men. "A half-dozen deserters from the garrison at Termes have fallen into our hands. They say sickness has broken out; many of the garrison and refugees are already dead. The walls are no longer manned, they claim, and we will have no difficulty in gaining control of the castle."
"How did they get out?" Hughes asked, earning a quick appraising look from de Montfort.
"Good question. It would appear there is tunnel that gives access into the village. They have previously made no use of it because the village is within our lines. Half of us will use the passage to gain access to the castle and the other half will create a diversion by attacking the main-gate. Sir Charles you will take charge of the diversion with the assistance of ...." De Montfort scanned the faces in front of him and then rattled off a number of names. "Sir Alain and Sir Hughes will accompany me into the tunnel. Sir Pierre, you remain here in charge of the pickets. They must remain at their posts and be on the alert for more deserters. I want all men from the garrison put in chains and collected here at the bastion. Sir Norbert, do you feel up to guarding them?"
"Yes, sir."
"Alright. See to it that none escape. I intend to see them all burn ― Cathar and Catholic alike. They had their chance of an honourable surrender a month ago. Let's go." He strode through his knights and descended to the room below to the loud thudding of his heavy steps on the wooden stairs. Behind him, Sir Charles started loudly organizing the men detailed to assist him, while Pierre officiously complained about how he was supposed to keep the picket lines operating, when most of the knights and men were being employed in the assault.
At the base of the bastion, de Montfort gave Alain and Hughes a quarter hour to collect a score of men each and return. "Cerve­llières but no helms and no shields." He ordered.
When they were again collected, he called out to two men holding a shivering creature between them. The man had his hands bound behind his back and his legs seemed to have lost all their strength. "Take us to the tunnel entrance." De Montfort ordered curtly.
The prisoner turned his head toward the wreckage of the village. They had seized the village at the start of the siege and the timber and plaster houses had largely been destroyed. The soldiers had helped themselves to whatever household goods had survived, and the remaining thatch and wood had gradually been consumed by cooking fires over the last three months. Only the rubble of the walls remained. The prisoner seemed unable to either walk or speak, but his captors dragged him to the village and at de Montfort's orders his hands were unbound. He led them docilely to the ruins of a house with a cellar. They descended through the trap door into the cellar and the man indicated the back of the chamber where rubble was piled up. Beyond the rubble there was indeed a black hole.
Holding the torches into the entrance they could see a crude passage sloping gently downwards into greater darkness. De Montfort nodded satisfied. "Alright, kill him," he ordered the guards holding the prisoner, as he drew his own sword and took a torch to enter the passage. Hughes glanced at the prisoner, saw him sink between his guards in despair; he had evidently believed his betrayal would buy his life. Sir Alain followed de Montfort with his sword at ready, and so Hughes drew his sword and ducked into the passage. As he entered the darkness, a stifled croak indicated de Montfort's orders regarding the prisoner had been carried out.
The passage was not high enough to allow them to walk up-right and the floor was uneven and rough, frequently interrupted by boulders and jagged rocks that jutted upward as if to trip the unwary. The air was damp and oppressive. After what seemed a long time, de Montfort announced in a low voice that he could see the end of the passage. He stopped, handed his torch back and ordered two men to remain behind with the torches until called. The others were ordered to keep follow close on his heels silently.
They advanced the last 100 yards more slowly than ever and finally reached the doorway, where de Montfort paused. Then he stepped cautiously into the chamber, his sword still at ready. The others followed him one at a time.
They were evidently in a cellar of the castle. To one side were huge casks used for storing wine, oil, and vinegar. Bins containing sacks of grain, near empty barrels of apples, dried beans and other food-stuffs could be made out in the shadows as their eyes adjusted to the dark. Whatever had caused the garrison to lose heart it was not starvation. De Montfort sent for the men with the torches. Leaving two men behind to guard the entrance of the passage with orders to kill any member of the garrison that tired to escape. Then de Montfort then led the others up out of the cellar.
The door at the top of the cellar stairs was ajar, and a dim light seeped out of it. De Montfort halted and cocked his head. They could make out no articulate sounds, and yet Hughes' instincts said that the room beyond the door was occupied. An exchanged glance with Alain and de Montfort confirmed that they were of the same opinion. With nothing but a sharp nod, de Montfort signalled the attack. He kicked the door open with his foot and they burst together into the room beyond, swords lifted defensively. In the next instant, their defensiveness seemed ridiculous. The inhabitants of the room were all lying on the floor. They reacted to the intrusion of armed knights with at most a shifting of a limb or by turning their heads. Not one let out so much as a cry. De Montfort at once let down his guard, and so did his companions.
Hughes tried to make a rough count, and thought that there might be two-dozen people here. One or two still wore ragged, filthy bandages across their eyes, but they no longer seemed any worse off than the others. The smell of unwashed bodies, urine and shit wafted up from the all of them. The only light came from coals dying in the huge fireplace. Someone coughed and the hacking sound echoed in the vaulted ceiling over-head.
De Montfort started to step across the victims pausing here and there. "It’s some kind of fever." He announced. "You!” he pointed to one man, who seemed more alert than the others, “Are all the sick here?"
There was no answer.
De Montfort kicked the man. "I asked you a question! Are all the sick here?"
"How should I know?" The victim rasped back.
"PFEW!" One of the sergeants had been cautiously investigating the chamber in the other direction, and was now backing up with his arm across his nose. "Christ, it stinks in there!"
De Montfort swung about and stomped across the chamber to look through the door from which the sergeant was withdrawing. He too drew up abruptly, and covered his nose with the inside of his elbow before ducking through the door and descending   a flight of stairs. Alain and Hughes exchanged a glance and started after him.
The stench was truly abominable as they got nearer. Following the example of their commander, they covered their nose and mouth with their arms. Even so the stink was enough to make them both slightly sick. The room they had entered was apparently the crypt and the dead had been brought down but not interred. They lay amidst the monuments and coffins rotting slowly. Hughes caught a glimpse of a long black gown and a white wimple framing a sunken face and realized it must be the Lady Adele. He noted several knights, still in their armour, and his eye scanned half-conscious­ly for the corpses of the youths. He did not see them, but it was dim and the corpses many.
De Montfort meanwhile had plunged through the charnel house and started up the stairs into the chapel overhead. Alain and Hughes followed, their cursing men at their heels. The stairs from the crypt twisted up in the thickness of the wall to open off the side of the chancel. The altar greeted them. A naked stone, unadorned by candles or cross. No Eucharist candle. The blind arcading framed some two dozen empty stone seats. The flagstones were swept clean. "Heretics the whole lot of them!" De Montfort summarized in disgust, and then started visibly as his eye fell upon a figure sitting in the corner of the chapel, half hidden by a stone baptismal font.
"Who are you?" De Montfort demanded of the shadow in the corner, but Hughes knew the answer before it came. It was Raymond de Termes himself.
The defeated nobleman lifted his head slowly. "I am your prisoner, Monsieur de Montfort. Raymond de Termes is my name."
"Indeed you are my prisoner, Monsieur, and your lands and titles and serfs are forfeit - mine." De Montfort answered and the two men stared at one another.
Hughes could not suppress his pity and so he looked away. He was thinking that Raymond had not wanted this. He had wanted to stop the killing. He had been prepared to surrender all he owned to save the very lives that had now been lost. The thunderstorm that seemed to have favoured the garrison last month had in fact been its undoing. Hughes wondered where Bernard was, for this was his work.
De Montfort broke eye-contact with his prisoner abruptly and turned back to look at his companions. His eyes met Hughes’s, hesitated for a long moment, but then went on to de Roucy. "Alain, take the men and secure the defences, and then open the gates to Sir Charles. This is your castle and lordship now. I expect you to do homage to me for it before breakfast."
Alain broke into a wide grin, most unusual for the otherwise dour and reticent man. "With pleasure, my lord."
"Sir Hughes," de Montfort demanded Hughes’s attention, and he looked him in the eye. He tried to pretend that he was not jealous and offended that the prize had gone to Alain after all, but he could not. De Montfort knew exactly how disappointed he was. "You've earned your pay. I'll see that it is issued tomorrow, and you can go home to visit your wife and daughter. No need to report back to Carcassone before mid-January."
Hughes found himself saying, "Thank you, my lord." He even smiled, though a part of his brain was screaming at him that de Montfort was only giving him what he was owed. Why should he be grateful for that which he had earned a dozen times over?
De Montfort was continuing, "You best check the bodies and the sick. See if you can find Monsieur de Termes’ sons. I want them accounted for."
Hughes glanced at the defeated man still sitting in the corner of the chapel. Raymond de Termes had dropped his head into his hands.

Alain had the dead removed from the crypt and carted out of his castle to be heaped together in the place where they had camped. The survivors who were too sick to walk were carried out of the castle and dumped upon the dead. The dead and dying were then covered with straw and wood. For the 18 survivors, who could still stand, stakes were erected in a circle around the bodies of the dead and dying. The 18 survivors were bound to the stakes, faggots placed around their feet, and then the fire lit. Only Raymond himself was "spared." De Montfort had him brought under guard to witness the collective auto-dafé.
It was not very long past mid-night and the sky was over-cast, threatening rain again. The fire lit up the night and cast gigantic shadows. No one noticed that Hughes removed himself from the gawking crowd and drifted beyond his tent, as far from the smell and the sounds of the dying as possible. He tried to face the wind and breathe in some scent other then death and hatred.
Tomorrow, or rather today, he could go home to Emilie. The thought was so remote, he could not even find any joy. Emilie and Betz belonged to a different world, a world without typhus and mutilation, a world where no human-being was burned alive. With the stink of the dead and the burning still clinging to his clothes, he did not even want to think of Emilie.
Something made a chocking sound so close at hand that Hughes started and his hand dropped to his sword. His eyes searched the underbrush clinging to the steep incline at the edge of the camp and ran along the rugged line of the rocks. He thought he saw something move and stopped, staring at the spot intensely. All was still. He relaxed slightly. His hand eased on the hilt and his eyes scanned again. Then a whimper and the stench of shit came clearly up to him. He took a step in the direction of the sound, drawing his sword.
A man stood up and faced him. By the light of the human bonfire behind him, he could see the glistening sweat on the other's features and he caught his breath. It was Bernard de Termes. The young man had put his hand to his hilt, but the limpness of his sagging shoulders betrayed his illness. He did not have the strength to fight Hughes.
A sobbing sound at their feet drew Hughes’s attention, and now he vaguely saw a second form, crouching behind the rock where Bernard had hidden. Hughes took another step forward and saw the white of naked skin and slowly made out a second man, who was suffering from diarrhoea. The pain and need to relieve himself had betrayed them both.
Bernard let go of his sword-hilt and bent down. "Come, Olivier. Don't let them see you like this." His tone was weary and yet gentle. He helped his younger brother pull up his braies and cover himself.
"You best take him down to the stream and try to wash him clean. I'll bring you a change of braies and a blanket."
Bernard went stock still. "Who are you?" He asked at last, squinting. Because of the fire behind Hughes, Bernard could only see his silhouette.
"Hughes de Hebron. We met before in your father's castle."
"Is it yours now?"
"No, de Montfort gave it to Alain de Roucy."
"I see."
Hughes wondered what it was he saw, but he did not intend to discuss it. They were much too near the camp and the risk of being overheard was real. Silently he indicated the gulley leading down to a stream that since the start of the rainy season ran almost constantly. Then he turned and made his way back to his tent.
The camp was utterly deserted. De Roucy, de Montfort, Sir Charles and many of the others had already moved their billets into the castle. Those that remained were still gathered around the great spectacle of the auto-dafé. Only the horses stamped and stirred uneasily, as always discomfited and unnerved by the nearness of fire. For once he was grateful that Bert had such a fascination for executions. He could be certain that the youth would not return to the tent until the last ember had gone out.
He ducked confidently into his tent and gasped at the sight of a man rising to face him. He was so startled that again his hand dropped instinctively to his hilt, and it took a second before his brain registered that it was Guy des Vaux.
"It’s just me." Guy hastened to assure him even as his own brain made the identification. "Thank God you are here. I knew you wouldn't attend this atrocity! Hughes, he's burning Christians! He didn't even bother to ask if they accepted Christ or not?  It is Beziers all over again! I can't go on!" Guy sank back onto the battered wooden travelling trunk and clasped his hands over his face. Hughes noticed that he was shaking violently.
Hughes stood indecisively in the door-way. He was torn between the need to comfort Guy, and the two young noblemen crouching in the darkness just beyond the camp. Guy was his friend, but the others' survival might well depend on his assistance. Hughes entered the tent, still undecided. He spotted a pitcher and poured a glass of the sour wine for Guy. "You're a leech. What is the best cure for the typhus?"
"Cure? I know no cure. The best one can do is to try to break the fever with cool compresses. Food that hardens the stool such as white bread prevents excessive dehydration."
Hughes nodded and turning his back on Guy reached for an old blanket that he used as his reserve blanket in very cold weather.
"You don't think you've been contaminated? You didn't eat anything in the castle or touch the water did you?"
"No." Hughes answered. He took the loaf of bread he had only started this morning ― no, yesterday morning ― and wrapped it into the blanket. He found one of his changes of braies and tucked this into the blanket as well.
"Hughes? What is it?"
"Two Catholic youths from Termes need my help, if they are to escape."
Guy stared at him, his eyes wide in his head. He crossed himself.
"They are Catholic, Guy. I know, because they identified themselves as such, while I was in the castle negotiating."
"Does it matter?" Guy asked looking up at Hughes with eyes that seemed to consume his gaunt, frightened face. "You humble me."
"Just don't betray me."
"I'm not Pierre." Came the succinct answer.
Hughes hesitated and then took his wine-skin and filled it with the cheap wine he had. If he were going to be paid tomorrow and go home, he would have a chance to replace it soon enough. "Wait for me. We'll talk when I return."
Guy nodded, and then slipped onto his knees to pray.
Hughes stood for a minute before his tent. The blaze from the auto-dafé was already starting to die down. The last thing he needed was for assorted, self-satisfied mercenaries to start drifting back to their tents. He pulled his hood up over his head and hastened back to the edge of the camp, over the escarpment and down the slope.
The footing was poor and twigs and thorns caught at his cloak, as if trying to hold him back. Eventually he reached the gurgling stream that ran toward the gorge leading up to the castle. He saw no one and stood for a moment wondering where Bernard and Olivier had gone. It didn't really matter, he supposed. Maybe it was even better like this. He turned, and started to scramble back up the slope.
"Sir." The voice was pitched very low. He turned around and saw Bernard.
Hughes returned. "Braies, bread, wine, and a blanket. It's the best I can do. It is my own wine and not the best, but it is clean. Do you have someplace to go?"
"Do you think I'd tell you?" There was a flare of defiance in that which made Hughes smile. Bernard de Termes was sick, but he was not broken.
"No, I was just asking."
"Let me ask you something: would you have done this, if you'd been named Lord of Termes?"
Hughes had been turning away. He stopped in mid-motion, trying to sort out his own motives. Certainly the disap­pointment made it easier to defy de Montfort ― behind his back. But he did not believe Bernard de Termes was a threat to de Roucy, even if he were lucky enough to survive the next few days. His motives for helping Bernard and his brother were not revenge, it was simple pity. He turned back to Bernard. "Your father is still alive."
"What do you mean to do to him?" The question was gasped by Olivier, who had managed to pull himself upright and leaned upon his brother.
"I don't know. De Montfort does not confide in me ― still less Arnaud-Amaury. I can only say he is not on that fire."
The two youths lifted their eyes to gaze beyond the crest of the escarpment toward the lighted, orange sky. "The others?" Bernard asked.
"Everyone who fell into our hands is in that fire, whether they were found dead or alive."
"How can you say that so calmly." Olivier asked him bitterly.
Hughes started slightly. It was a good question.
"They are not his people." Bernard told his brother. "He does not care what becomes of them."
"Do you?" Hughes asked cruelly. "It was your decision not to surrender, wasn't it? Your father would have kept his word, but you thought the rain had changed things. You preferred defiance. This is your harvest." He gestured toward the invisible but oppressive spectacle beyond the edge of the escarpment.
Bernard did not answer him. It was the innocent Olivier, who protested in a tight voice. "That's not fair. None of us wanted to surrender. Not after the rain came...."
"Not even your father?"
There was no answer.
"God be with you both. You will have need of His Mercy." Hughes turned and pulled himself up the steep incline.

As he neared the top he found himself nervously praying that he was not discovered. De Montfort would not hesitate to have him flogged, if he discovered what he'd done. Worse, he might forfeit his pay….
This was madness. To be afraid of punishment because he had helped two youths escape a death they did not deserve! No one deserved, such a death, Hughes decided angrily.
He'd reached the crest and pulled himself up onto the level of the camp. Now he could see the flames more distinctly and realized this was because many of the crowd had started to disperse. He glanced about nervously, but there was no one in the immediate vicinity. He sauntered casually back to his tent, and entered it guiltily. To his relief he found Bert was still absent. Guy looked up anxiously over his folded hands.
"I've done what I can." Hughes was saying, though his conscience was already asking if he couldn't have done more. "They are in God's hands."
"He will be gentler to them than us." Guy answered.

Copyright © 2013 by Helena P. Schrader


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