All Things Are Lights – Day 12 of 200

Many hours later, as they walked onward through the valley in the deep shadow of late afternoon, Diane looked up at the peaks to the west of Mont Segur. They were jagged black silhouettes. Turning her eyes to the besieged mountain itself, she saw its top glowing golden in the light of the setting sun. Now Roland was leading the way, and they followed along the banks of a little mountain creek. The last time she had seen it, it had been clear as spring water. Now she was revolted by its brown color and the stench it gave off, like a town gutter.

She spied figures moving in the woods and froze.

“It is all right,” said Roland. “That is just the camp of the rabble: the merchants and whores and thieves. They live on the army as fleas live on a dog.”

Only partly reassured, she stooped and picked up some dirt and rubbed it over her face, roughening her skin to make it appear more like a man’s. She insisted, too, on taking the heavy pack from Roland. It would seem odd for a knight to be burdened with anything other than his weapons.

Farther on, a lank-haired girl standing ankle-deep in the stream stared at Diane with glazed eyes. She thinks I am a man, Diane realized. The girl couldn’t have been more than thirteen, but her belly bulged under her torn skirt. She pulled open her blouse to display pregnancy-swollen breasts in pathetic invitation. Diane turned away, unable to bear the sight. Life had crushed the child’s spirit and left her little more than an animal. Could there be a worse crime than to get such a creature with child, forcing her to bring a baby into this suffering world? She heard a jingle and looked back at Roland. He had taken a silver denier from his belt, and tossed it to the girl.

After they had walked on, he said, “My mother might have been such a one as that if Arnaut de Vency had not rescued her. Carrying some crusader’s get.”

She heard the torment in his voice and pitied him. She knew the source of his pain. In the old days, when he had been courting her, he had confided that his natural father was not Arnaut de Vency but a crusader lord who had raped Adalys, Roland’s mother, and left her pregnant. Hating his origin, Roland seemed at times to hate himself.

“Do not speak so of yourself, Roland,” she said to him now. “All of us are born of shame, whether our parents are married or not.”

Roland eyed her angrily. “And so that is why you perfecti despise human love. Sometimes I do not wonder that the Catholics persecute you.”

She felt as if he had struck her.

She walked behind him in silence, apprehensive over the increasing noise in the distance: men’s rough voices, the whinnying of horses, the clatter of steel. When, following him, she stepped out from the shelter of the trees, she stopped, her heart pounding with terror.

She was facing the power of the Evil One.

Before her rose a high wall of sharp-pointed logs. A forest of banners of silk and rich samite fluttered above and beyond it. Many of them bore blood-red crosses, some thin and long, some stout and square, some tipped with multiple points. Other banners displayed the arms of the nations and baronies that had joined together at the Pope’s call for an Albigensian Crusade, to make war on Diane’s religion.

Men in steel helmets wearing long coats of mail strode back and forth before the wooden wall or exercised huge war-horses covered in brightly colored silk coats. The palisade seemed to enclose leagues of rolling hills. On the hills, stretching as far as Diane could see, tents were massed — thousands of them, their pointed roofs clustered together on the hilltops, the biggest tents at the very top of the hills, the smaller ones of the poorer knights lower down.

Thick columns of smoke from cooking fires spiraled up through the clear mountain air, and Diane’s stomach turned over as the odor of roasting sheep reached her. Forbidden by her vows to eat meat, she had come to loathe its smell.

The noise was terrifying now, thousands of voices echoing against the walls of the valley in a raucous, deafening clamor. How could she force herself to walk into that camp?

Roland led the way to the main gate, and she made herself follow. A sergeant with a long black mustache came forward to challenge them.

“I am Sire Orlando of Perugia,” Roland said.

The sergeant touched his hand to his pointed helmet in deference to Roland’s knighthood. “And this young man with you, Messire? He spoke in the Langue d’ Oil, the harsh speech of the north.

“My equerry, of course,” said Roland airily. “Guibert de Saint-Fleur. “

Diane gave the sergeant a perfunctory bow.

“Why did your seigneur allow you to leave camp?” asked the sentry. “Were you not told that Monseigneur the Count de Gobignon ordered everyone in the camp to stand to arms?” He studied Roland with narrowed eyes.

Diane’s heart pounded against the wall of her chest. She prayed that the guard would not look too closely at her. Every-thing she feared about the crusaders was now embodied in this one mustachioed man.

“Why a general alert.” Roland asked, his voice incredibly calm.

“Something is happening up on the mountain, Messire.” The sergeant gestured to Mont Segur, towering above them. “Nobody knows what. We may be winning, or the Bougres may be counter-attacking.”

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