All Things Are Lights – Day 104 of 200

The first of the condemned disappeared behind the bulk of the pyre. Then, one by one, prodded by the warders, they climbed up ladders to the top of the heaped wood. A trio of executioners, dressed in red hoods and tunics, began tying them to stakes.

Then Roland saw Diane.

He went cold as if the blood had drained out of his body. Her red hair had been shorn away, but her long figure and fine-boned face were unmistakable. Two guards were lifting her to the pyre. She seemed unable to move under her own power. Her feet dragged over the brush as they pulled her to her stake.

Sweet Jesus, they broke her legs. She cannot use her legs at all.

Little sobbing sounds escaped from Roland’s tight-shut mouth, though he was scarcely aware of them. Only by biting his lips hard enough to draw blood could he stop himself from screaming. A wave of blackness swept over his eyes. He swayed, grasping at the iron balcony railing to steady himself.

They turned her to face the church, with her back to Roland, tying her hands behind the pole, then wrapping ropes about her body to hold her up. She sagged in the ropes as if unconscious. The back of her shift was stained with blood.

Roland wanted to howl his grief to the heavens. The pain of being burned alive could not be more unbearable than this, seeing the bleeding, still-living remains of the woman he loved.

“Oh, God,” he whispered, tears running down his face. “God, God, God!” Oh, my poor, sweet, gentle Diane. How could anyone do this to you?

He put his hands over his face and wept. If I had left her to die at Mont Segur she would not have had to suffer this.

Was I wrong to rescue her?

If I was, my death today, I pray, will make up for it.

It was all settled. After seeing this, life was worth nothing. There was only one path. To die. To die fighting, if possible. Sword in hand, at least.

He turned to the men beside him. “It is time for me to go.”

“Yes, Messire.”

He wanted to say something to these young men, some last watchword.

“You are young men,” he said brokenly.

“Yes, Messire.” All three were crying.

“Do not hate the world. I did not mean what I said before about the Cathars being right. In spite of what you see this day, it is a beautiful world, and I believe that a God of Love created it.”

They said nothing.

Perrin was standing in the room, his face, too, wet with tears. He was holding a length of rope in his hand.

“Is my horse ready?”

“Forgive me, master.” Strong hands seized Roland, and Perrin looped the rope over his shoulders. Martin took Roland’s helmet off and laid it carefully on the bed.

For a moment Roland was too surprised even to try to move. By the time he started to fight, his arms and hands were bound.

“Perrin, my God! Not this from you!”

Perrin stepped away from him. Gautier and Horace still held him, but with the ropes securely around him he was helpless.

“This is no treachery, master,” said Perrin, still weeping. “I am carrying out the wishes of Madame Diane herself.”

“You could not have spoken to her.”

“The day she left your house in Paris I had a last word with her. She knew then that if she returned to Languedoc it was only a matter of time before the Inquisition caught her. She said that even though you had rescued her once and might want to try again, sooner or later she was certain to die a martyr’s death. Your efforts to prevent that would be futile. Try to understand, master, she does not need to be rescued. Even less does she need you to lay down your life. We are still your men, master, and if there had been the slightest chance of success today, we would have gone into the plaza with you — if need be died with you. But when I saw how hopeless it was, then I knew that Madame?s request must be honored.”

Roland heard Perrin’s words, but they made no sense to him. His grief of a moment ago had now turned to rage. Rage that filled him so full he felt almost able to burst the ropes that held him. He strained savagely against them. The ropes cut into the muscles of his arms through the mail and burned his wrists. He hardly felt the pain. Diane was dying out there. He was frantic with the need to fight his way through to her. Why were these fools stopping him?

“Perrin, may God damn you! Let me go. How can you betray me like this?”

“I understand your hatred, master, and I shall bear it. I love you. I love Madame Diane, too, and thanks to what she taught me I think I know her mind better than you. She wants to die. For her, as for me now, life is suffering. She said to me that all the time she lived after Mont Segur was borrowed time that she must eventually pay back. Well, she has paid it back now, with usury. As for you, master, she believes the time for you to die will not be till you have traveled a long road, fulfilled a mighty destiny, and come at last to know peace. She wants you to help the King, and be reconciled with Madame Nicolette. This was her last message, which I was to give you should this terrible day ever happen. As for Madame Diane herself, she has won. She has remained steadfast. They could not break her spirit. Today is her victory.

Roland shook like a man with the falling sickness. His chest heaved against the constricting ropes. He could scarcely breathe.

“I shall never forgive you for this, Perrin,” he panted. “From this day you are no longer my man.”

“I expected that, master,” Perrin whispered, wiping his streaming eyes. “But if I did anything but what I am doing, I could never forgive myself.”

Perrin glanced at the door to the balcony. “Soon it will be over, master. There is nothing for us to do. No good can come of your seeing our dear lady’s final agony. It is only her body they are destroying, anyway. Her spirit will live on and always be with you. Let us go away from here quietly now and not look back.”

“No,” said Roland. “If I cannot die fighting for her, let me at least suffer with her. Let there be one person among all this multitude who loves her. She may not even know I am here, but I must do this for her. Please take me outside.”

His heart felt impaled on a barbed spear. He was sure he would go mad. But if he could not die he must make himself stay and bear witness. He had done that at Mont Segur, but the agony of that was nothing compared to this. He had cared for the hundreds who died that day, but he loved this one woman. He would do this for her, and he hoped the sight would forever stop the beating of his heart.

Perrin said, “We will release your bonds if you give us your word you will not try to escape from us.”

“I will give you my word in nothing. I will never give you my word again.”

Perrin sighed. “So be it.”

They helped Roland out to the balcony, where he could watch Diane as the long ritual of the sermo generalis began.

Diane woke to the din of hundreds of shouting voices and blindingly bright light. Something was holding her upright, but not her own strength. Ropes. There were ropes around her. They bit into her torn flesh, hurting her arms, her waist, her thighs.

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