18 July, 1209
The boy did not recoil at the charge of the cavaliers.
“Make way!” Andreas drove his snorting stallion toward the courageous youth. The filthy wretch trudged toward the charging cavalier, one barefoot step after the other. He was unflinchingly alone. All other refugees crowded in road ditches, leaned toward the trees, clutching them tightly.
“Make way for the Viscount!” Andreas called as a stone unleashed from a catapult. He was accustomed to having others move with speed at his commands, as if a boulder soared down upon their heads. Andreas waved his arm furiously, gesturing toward the tree line.
Still the boy plodded along the road with uncovered feet, skin on rock. A darkened mist seemed to enshroud his very soul. Since cockcrow, when their company had made departure from Beziers, Andreas had commanded all in their path to flee the road. Each traveler and refugee, whether merchant in dyed cotton or peasant in beast-colored rags, had given deference to their noble party as expected. A wide berth to fly along the road without hindrance.
Yet a little child refused to yield.
Andreas felt a strong urge to ride over the boy, to send a message to any who would dare block the way. He shook the shrill thought from his mind, searched for a spot to vacate the stone-paved road. Yet, amidst the throngs of refugees massed in the shallow, grassy ditches, pressed tight against the stands of oak and poplar and beech, there was no such place.
Space enough for a little one only, not an armed cavalcade of four and twenty.
Andreas drew rein on his muscular blackish-roan stallion. The horse reared. Its front hooves pawed with violence. Andreas slid back against the cantle of the saddle. He raised high the lance in his right hand as his left clung tightly to the reins.
“All halt!” He felt his face grow hot. The company came to an abrupt halt behind him, iron horseshoes grinding, sparking on ancient stone pavement. The barefoot wretch was a senseless intrusion. The front legs of his mount found the road once more. Andreas saw that the boy was playing no foolish game. In spite of the azure brilliance of the clear, high Languedoc sky, the close sight of the lad induced a quick, darkening chill, and Andreas shivered.
The youngster’s dark, round eyes appeared sunken into his thin, sallow face. It was a countenance erratically framed by stringy, greasy black hair that hung down to his neck. His hollow gaze was fixed straight ahead at all and nothing. His undyed tunic was riven in jagged, diagonal fashion across the torso, blotted with brownish, crusty stains. A sour stench filled Andreas’s nostrils, drew water from his eyes, and he turned away. The lad bore an alarming, tart odor of befouled blood and of death. But it seemed more than the smell of the unwashed. The reek seemed somehow to exude from his immortal soul itself, or even supplant it, as if the innards of the boy were being consumed by a fire unseen. A cauterized soul smoldering in a blackened cloud.
The boy continued to walk. He came within a step of the forelegs of Andreas’s mount. The knight drew breath to bellow at him once more. A man, seemingly the father of the boy, emerged quickly from the compacted mass of peasants on the side of the road. He harshly clamped a sizeable, rough-hewn hand on the shoulder of the lad. Why had the fool not kept close vigil over his wretched child?
Andreas turned his hot anger on the sullied man. Tunic tattered, red hair matted and lengthy, he looked little better kempt than the boy. “Your son has detained us here and we need reach Montpellier by nightfall. Does he lack hearing?” Andreas squared his shoulders. “Your Viscount is on an urgent mission. Now yield the road.”
“Many apologies, my lords, for the insolence of the boy.” The man released the words in breathless gasps, turned his wary countenance and disheveled body to face Andreas. “We flee the approaching host, like all… all others in your sight.” He waved his arm at the masses of refugees.
They shuffled forward and broke like a beast-colored wave around the knights, sought not to appear as if they were watching the peculiar sight of a commoner addressing his lord on the road. Andreas thought the lot of them grubby and gaunt from the journey through a sun-scorched land where dust and moisture saturated the air. Many among them had the look of fretful exhaustion, brittle terra cotta masks of fear. None seemed as the peasant lad.
The hands of the man rested on the shoulders of his little boy. “As you can see, my son stumbles around as one in a trance. If I may beg pardon, my lords, I will tell… tell of all that has befallen us.” The hands of the man trembled as he gripped tight the boy. The father was clearly fear struck. The son was almost vacuous; a fleshy shell devoid of spirit.
“Continue, but speak with haste,” said the rider alongside Andreas. The voice belonged to Raimon Roger Trencavel I, Viscount of Carcassonne, Albi, and Beziers. He was lord of these lands. Andreas was châtelain to the Viscount, nearly the equal in stature to Raimon Roger himself. Nearly, but not quite. The châtelain was the official given charge, among other things, for the safeguarding of the Viscount, and for the governing of the Trencavel castle, the Chateau Comtal in Carcassonne. The English counterpart was called a castellan. Châtelain was a position of rank rooted many centuries past in the time of the Frankish Merovingian kings. In those times, such an official had been called the mayor of the palace.
Andreas the châtelain blinked his smallish hazel eyes, rubbed his straight square nose, puckered his wide mouth, and with no small difficulty stifled a deep groan at the words of his lord. For they were words that meant their company would be stationary, at least for these few moments while the villager gave voice to his woes. Andreas removed his helmet and straightened his sweat-soaked, rumpled brown hair with a black leather gloved hand. He watched the throngs trudge by beneath him. So many flee in distress. Why lend this one his noble ear? Yet Raimon Roger was ever willing to hear from his subjects, to speak with them personally. It was a generosity he bestowed too liberally on his people.
Andreas placed the burnished steel helmet back upon his head. He cursed the delay under his breath. With the armies of the North drawn near, safety lay in motion. Andreas looked up and down the straight Roman road they traveled. The Via Domitia it was called. He saw none other than those fleeing to Beziers. Yet he was leery. Remaining still on the road was akin to surrender. Andreas could fight his way through any trap as long as he met the challenge at full battle charge.
In Iberia, seven years past, on the way to battle in Reconquista, the endeavor to reclaim Spain from the Muhammadan, their company had halted at the sound of crackling from the wood at twilight. A company of Moors twice their number had emerged from cover and attacked with disarming speed. In their light armor and atop agile mounts, thin swords hacking and slashing, the enemy retreated before the knights of the Languedoc could give chase. The Moors had charged again from another angle, and once more retreated. This was repeated thrice more until the knights were vigilant to the point of skittishness.
Andreas, only sixteen, newly dubbed a cavalier, had grown angry. “No more defenses. We attack! Who will follow?” Though he lacked the authority, most were of the same mind and followed eagerly. The rest were compelled to take up the charge or be abandoned. Andreas led the attack. Raimon Roger followed. The Moors converged on the road once more. They could not withstand the galloping force of the more heavily armored knights from the Languedoc. All the Muhammadans, though their numbers were greater, were slain in the saddle or unhorsed and trampled.
Upon hearing tell of the event, Andreas’s father had told him only that he was reckless, that he should have known his place and kept formation. Yet Raimon Roger had given commendation to his impetuous knight. Andreas had admired his lord’s frank acceptance of the usurpation of his authority. Since that day, Andreas had held charge over older men. Raimon Roger had eventually elevated him to châtelain, a position that in France was a title of heredity. He could have received no greater honor from his lord.
The fact that a little boy this day dared defy the cavalier who had risen to be châtelain to the Viscount of Carcassonne, Albi, and Beziers was like a mouthful of raw vinegar. It set Andreas’s teeth on edge.
The boy’s father continued to speak, eyes darting to and fro like a hare chased by the hounds. “Many thanks, my lord. It is a blessing to… to set eyes upon you my Viscount. My son and I have endured sorrow beyond telling. The cavaliers from the North raided our… our village two days past. They must be the Frances we heard of, for they spoke a… a strange tongue. They stole the chickens and beehives from the village and slay… slay all who dared oppose them.”
The man’s stumbling way of talk grated in a sickeningly raw way on Andreas, like the squeal of a pig at slaughter. But he kept rein on his tongue.
The boy now had head pressed against the man’s belly and shook ever so slightly. The man drew the lad in closer and spoke. “His older brother, Jaufre, grabbed a staff as a weapon and struck at one. Before he could swing twice, one of the knights slashed him across the belly and ran him through the heart.”
He made a cutting motion with his arm. His own chest and belly heaved as one. Tears slowly escaped the corners of the man’s eyes. They traced tributaries through the gritty layer of gray dirt upon his leathery, wrinkled cheeks, slid down into his reddish beard growth. “They slashed also at little Miquel for sport and made him bleed.” He clutched anew at his living son. “Now we seek refuge at Beziers.”
“Like so many others.” Andreas stared absently down the road at naught, felt the sting of remorse lodged as an arrow afire in his soul. The callousness of the French to slay a child in such a fashion was disturbing, a thing that exceeded the ferocity of battle. “We rode from Beziers this morn. Every hour its numbers burgeon with those who flee the scourge from the North. The road has been thick this day with others such as you.”
Andreas turned to look the man in the eye, slowly drew a breath, and exhaled. “In truth, it is I who should issue apology for being so harsh. Pray accept my condolences and those of your Viscount for the most cruel death of your son. Truly we are sorry.” Andreas cast a quick glance at Raimon Roger, who nodded solemnly. “We ride to Montpellier to avert war, but it seems conflict has consumed already your house.”
He felt the anger rising yet again in his voice, but not toward the villager in front of him. “Had we but been there, these hell spawn, with no sense of Paratge, would have been slain to a man.” Andreas tightened his hold of the black leather grip of his newly sharpened longsword, pressed his hand hard against the straight silver crossguard.
Andreas noticed the shifting of hooves and the snorting of nostrils. The mounts grew nervous. Was a wild boar close by, running its trampled paths through the wood?
“It was a strange thing, my lord,” continued the villager, “for it is not easy to ride into our village unseen and unheard and yet these knights did so. We had no knowledge of their presence until they were upon us. Jaufre witnessed them first. We could do nothing… nothing but let him bleed and watch… watch the knights ride off with our chickens and beehives, at least those they did not smash with clubs.” The man furrowed his brow. “They kept giving utterance to a word, one that was strange to my ears. Its sound was like…” The face of the man twisted and his mouth puckered. “Like Melimarpera.”
The horses grew ever more agitated. Andreas thought he heard bees buzzing. Melimarpera? Andreas turned to Raimon Roger and spoke tersely. “My lord, as it is we are already desperately short of time this day. We best continue if we would make Montpellier by nightfall.” For reasons he could not take hold of, Andreas felt anxious once more to abandon this dialogue. His own mount now sidestepped back and forth. It was as when they had faced the Moors. Yet he caught neither sound nor movement from the wood.
The Viscount seemed to ignore Andreas, turned to the villager. “Have you provision enough for the remainder of your trek?”
Another knight called out from their troop. “My lord, we have spare loaves of bread and full skins of water.” It was Bertran. “Hunger and thirst are no friends of the traveler.” Bertran rode to the front and handed down provisions to the man.
“Bless you, sir,” was all he uttered.
Bertran leaned in close to the man, almost in an embrace, so near that Andreas could scarce discern his words. “We all lament your loss, for it is grave indeed. Yet tell me this, and you may think it strange, but it is in truth a matter of great import. What number of your hives did the green cavaliers thieve?”
The man looked around once more, as if for an unseen enemy on the hunt. He appeared perplexed, unsure if he should give reply. But he did, in a voice that matched the slight volume of Bertran. “They smashed so many, I am unsure… No, it was seven. By the devil, they thieved seven. They were careful about that. They stuffed seven hives into large, heavy woolen sacks, heavy enough to block a bee sting. They rode off after that in haste, the lot of them.”
What did it matter the number of beehives? Bertran often issued such questions and statements with meaning unknown.
Bertran gave no perceptible response. Yet he looked again to the dense wood as he directed his white stallion back to his place in the ranks.
Andreas followed Bertran’s movement with his eyes, returned his glance to the villager.
“I know the pain of death little one,” said Raimon Roger, looking upon Miquel, “for my father gave up the ghost when I was but a boy.” There was an emotive, bone-scraping twinge in his voice, one that gave reminder that Raimon Roger rarely spoke such things merely out of courtesy. Never had Andreas seen a lord who possessed such empathy for his lessers. Raimon Roger shifted his gaze to the boy’s father. “Yet this hour grants us no time to mourn. May Deu spare us all in these evil days. Stay close to your living son, and make quick on your journey to sanctuary.”
Turning to Andreas and the remainder of their host, Raimon Roger issued proclamation. “Onward to Montpellier!”
They rode away. Andreas looked back and saw Miquel walking along the ancient Roman road toward Beziers with his father as if his uneven, tramping steps had never known interruption. The black cloud lingered unbroken, moved like… a swarm of bees. As if the boy himself had become one of the thieved hives.
Andreas noticed also that Bertran actively scanned the forest, peered intensely into the undergrowth. But nothing gave motion there. The sound of buzzing filled his ear once more.
Bertran moved his arm that quick and his dagger flew, singing, spinning toward the wood in a brilliant circlet of silver slicing daylight. Yet no target was visible until the blade found its mark.
The penetration of flesh unleashed a staccato cry of pain followed by the release of gurgled breath. A man in a tunic of green bearing a crossbow slumped off his reddish mount and into the ditch, the dagger buried in the meat of his throat to the handle of polished silver inlaid with jewels. Andreas ordered their company to halt once more and followed close. Bertran rode out of formation, dismounted, and knelt by the man. He was sprawled on his back, arms and legs spread, his breathing coming in labored heaves. Bertran tore off the helmet of the cavalier, grasped a fist-full of curly blonde hair, and yanked his sun-starved face close.
The blood flowed down his neck evenly, spilled out like a waterfall, soaked into his tunic, turned green to hues of darkish purple. From where did the man emerge? Spirit transformed to flesh by the piercing of a knife.
Bertran raised his voice. “Speak your name and your city, and do it now. I may ease your passing.”
The green knight simply looked at Bertran and smiled, loosed a sloshing laugh as he spew out a mist of darkest red.
Andreas kicked the knight in the ribs and he wheezed and exhaled more blood. “Hearken to him, demon. How cloak you your appearance? Are you a man or a ghoul who bleeds as one?”
Bertran had a different question. “Are you of Paris? Orleans? Chartres? Out with it!”
“I am of the light…” His eyelids drew shut eternal.
Andreas felt movement through the soles of his leather boots. The ground seemed to sway though nothing trembled within his vision. He heard resonance like the mighty roar of a thousand winds rush past, though neither leaf nor branch stirred. The land issued a bottomless reverberation and fell away in great chunks in a perfect circle around Andreas and the dead cavalier. A red serpent uncoiled and surrounded Andreas, bit its tail and formed itself around the circle. The creature shook itself violently. A swirling vortex of starless night pushed up through round broken earth. A rumbling, like an ancient creature awakened, issued from the deep below. An axe-wielding beast the height and breadth of an aged oak ascended from the abyss, leapt toward Andreas, weapon raised high, poised to strike. The head of the beast bore two horns, the body reddish and scaly, the voice was as the sound of an inferno, and gave issuance to rasping words, seemingly ancient. Plumes of fire descended from the heavens with each utterance. The knight stepped back and raised high his warsword. The axe swung down in swift descent with force beyond comprehension.
“Andreas, focus your wits!” Bertran came into vision. Solid ground rushed up from the void and restored itself. The serpent and the beast turned to vapor. Bertran slammed the dead knight’s head to the earth and threw his helmet into the wood. “You see with second sight,” he said to Andreas.
Bertran withdrew his dagger, wiped the thin blade in the dry grass, and nodded toward the freshly slain knight.. “He’s not alone, but a scout. We are being tracked. Andreas, I pray you circle the company. I will fetch the man and the boy. I fear for them.”
The few other times Bertran had spoken in this way, peril had been imminent. It was he who had first warned of the Moorish assault in Iberia.
Andreas nodded silently to his friend, returned sword to hilt, regained his mount, drew rein, and galloped back toward Raimon Roger. The sight of the spinning chasm and of the fiend had made his brain airy and belly tight.
“Circle the ranks!” he cried. “To haste!”
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