All Things Are Lights – Day 102 of 200

I will let them come with me, he thought, but I will find a way to get them out of there before the end.

He turned his face away to hide his tears. Thank God for men like this.

XIX

Roland sat up on the cot he’d lain on, unable to sleep, for the past several hours. The clamor of the people of Beziers in the plaza assailed his ears like thunder. Through a window he glimpsed a bright blue sky. His four men were standing by the window staring glumly out.

Diane was to die today, and in all likelihood he was, too. He felt as if he were wrapped in iron chains.

Somehow he got up and began to wash and dress himself.

With the help of Gautier and Horace, the former Mad Dogs, he donned his hauberk, specially shaped to allow for his deformed right shoulder. Over it he drew on his black surcoat emblazoned with the silver griffin. Then Martin handed him the bronze medallion of Apollo given him years ago by Emperor Frederic. Roland lowered the silver chain over his head. I last wore this at Queen Marguerite’s song contest, he thought.

“Bring me my sword.”

Silently Perrin unwrapped Roland’s belt and, in its plain black scabbard, the broadsword he could wield with one hand. Kneeling, he presented them to his master.

So full of despair was Roland that he could move only slowly, heavily.

Diane might already be dead, he thought. Then his sortie into the plaza would be for nothing — she would not even know he had tried.

The four men with him in the room he had rented for one hundred silver deniers were silent. No longer were any of them trying to sway him from the course he had chosen, to ride into the plaza fully armed when everyone’s attention was on the ceremony. He alone would cut through the crowd and the guards, seize Diane, and ride off before anyone realized what was happening. He had ordered Perrin and his men to slip out of town and seize a boat, specifying a meeting place upriver, for their escape when he began his attack. If they obeyed, he thought, they might get away.

He was as aware as they that de Gobignon’s archers could bring him down before he got halfway across the plaza. But they all pretended this was a daring but well-conceived plan. He felt grateful to them. This would be the last service they could do him.

He took his conical helmet from Horace and pressed the leather lining down on his head. The helmet seemed to weigh a hundred stone. I am putting this on for the last time, he thought.

Everything today is for the last time.

I wish I had written a poem to leave behind. Beautiful verses that someone might sing after I am dead. Something for Nicolette to read. Something she could show our son, one day when he is grown and she tells him about me. This is the kind of man your father was.

Riding into that plaza, that will be my poem. Maybe some other troubadour will make a song about it. A different Song of Roland.

I wonder how far I shall get. Saint Michel, there will be women and children in that crowd. I do not want to trample them.

Perhaps I will get some of de Gobignon’s guards. Cut the swine down with my sword. Even left-handed, I can get a few of them. If they do not see me right away. Got to keep them from spearing Regibet. I might make it all the way to the pyre before they realize what I am doing and start shooting arrows at me.

Nicolette will see me die. Why must she go through this hell, too? Dear God, please make her stay away.

Saint Michel, am I going to cry? In front of my men, when I am trying to face death like a brave knight? That would be a poor thing. Let them say I went to my death gallantly. Let me have at least that little bit of glory.

He listened to the sounds coming from the plaza. Bursts of laughter from men, the cries of women greeting one another, the shrieks of excited children. There must be hundreds out there.

Then he heard trumpets blaring a solemn hymn while drums beat slow time. This was the signal they had agreed on for Perrin to go down to the inn yard and prepare the horse. Roland’s heartbeat quickened. But he felt no fear. Just great sadness, and relief that finally he was acting.

“Perrin, get Regibet.”

Perrin left, and Roland and the men went out to the balcony whose fine view of the plaza had cost so much of his silver. Blinking in the high, bright sunlight that glared off whitewashed building fronts, Roland thought, It must be mid-morning, the hour of Terce. They will start soon.

Filling the center of the plaza was a mass of piled-up wood, higher than a man, square in shape and about fifty feet on each side, streaked with black pitch, contained by crude wood fencing. It is Mont Segur all over again, thought Roland, wanting to disbelieve his own eyes. Out of the heap of wood jutted rows and rows of stakes. A spiral of thick black smoke rose from the opposite side of the square, beyond the pyre. That would be the fire from which the executioners would ignite their torches. The sight made Roland curl his lips in revulsion.

He saw people packed around three sides of the square, and their voices sounded to him like the clamor of a waterfall. Who comes to see such things? he wondered. Most of these people were probably not native to Languedoc. As their landlord, himself born in the county of Gobignon, had reminded him last night, thousands of common folk from the north had followed their seigneurs down here to take the places of dispossessed and dead Southerners. And that was especially true here in Beziers, where the entire original population of the city had been massacred by crusaders.

Looking down, he saw that the crowd was composed largely of families. Many small children rode their fathers’ shoulders, to see better. Most of the people wore brown or gray, the colorless clothes of the poorer folk. Here and there in the crowd blossomed the bright red or blue of men and ladies of means.

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