All Things Are Lights – Day 19 of 200

He continued to walk amid the heavy silence, tensely waiting for an attack, watching from the corners of his eyes for sudden movement. But none came. Instead, Roland heard Amalric speaking in a low voice and then heard his aides call orders for the procession again to get under way. He heard no further word about binding the prisoners. The Cathars at least were going to be permitted to walk to their deaths under their own power.

The black-robed men and women avoided looking at Roland as they made their painful way past him down the mountainside. They understood that to show him any gratitude would put him in still more danger. He felt a wave of love, as palpable as the crusaders’ hatred, from these people who were so soon to be destroyed.

I should go down to the camp now, saddle my horse, and get out of here, Roland thought. I am badly hurt. I need help, and I will get none here. Once Amalric has done these poor people to death, he will turn his full attention to me.

Yet Roland could not bring himself to leave. He had to be able to tell Diane how these people died. But more than that, he felt there ought to be one friend to the victims here in their last moments, even if his love and grief must remain hidden in his heart.

With his own dagger he cut two strips of cloth from his cape and bound one around the wound and one above it to slow the bleeding. His arm was throbbing from wrist to shoulder.

He looked down to the field of martyrdom. The long line of dark figures now extended almost to the stockade. Roland slid down the slope awkwardly, cradling his wounded arm to keep it from striking rocks.

Some of the men in the crowd recognized him and moved away as he came near, but most of them were too interested in what was about to happen to pay him heed. He took a position against the wall of rough-hewn timber, near the gateway.

Not ten feet from where he stood a bonfire of big logs crackled. He could feel its heat. Around it stood a circle of men holding unlit torches.

The Cathar procession stopped as they neared the open gate, and they clustered together in a large group. Roland saw Bishop Bertran, still in the forefront of his people. On a low hill looking down at the Cathars stood a row of men in dazzling vestments, a few with tall, gilded miters on their heads. Those, he knew, were prelates of the Roman Church. The fat one in gorgeously embroidered purple, with two or three jeweled rings on each finger, must be the Bishop of Albi, who had commanded troops in the siege. This must be a special triumph for him, since the heresy was said to be so strong in his city.

In the midst of all the red and purple finery one man caught Roland’s eye. His black woolen cloak and white tunic were almost as stark as the robes of the perfecti. Roland recognized the garb of the Dominicans, the leading inquisitors. Pale, shining blond hair wreathed the Dominican’s thin face, and the top of his head had been shaved in the priestly tonsure. He approached the Cathars alone, then stood a moment in silent prayer, his eyes gazing heavenward. Roland had seen him before and been told that he was Friar Hugues, the younger brother of Amalric de Gobignon.

As the young Dominican began to speak to the assembled Cathars, Roland watched them intently. Were they grateful for the few additional moments of life this sermon provided, or did this just prolong their suffering?

“Though you have denied God all your lives long, He still loves you, even at this moment,” Friar Hugues said pleadingly.

As he went on, he showed himself a mighty preacher, roaring like a lion, whispering like gentle breeze. He was so enthralling, Roland almost forgot the pain in his arm and the suffering in his heart.

Darkness was falling, and the sun had dipped below the western peaks when Friar Hugues, his face lit by the flickering glow of the bonfire, ended.

“It is a painful death you are condemned to. You know, of course, that it is not the Church that punishes you. The Holy Inquisition has merely proven that you are guilty of heresy. It is the secular authorities who will decree that you must be burned to ashes.”

Like Pilate washing his hands of the blood of Jesus, Roland thought.

“Yet this death by fire is not imposed out of cruelty,” Hugues went on. “We permit the State to burn your bodies as a sign that the Church must be utterly cleansed of false teaching. Think again about your heresy. Search your hearts. Are you so very sure you are doing the right thing in choosing the flames? Is there not one among you who feels some doubt? Do not be afraid. That doubt is the voice of God in your heart. He is trying to save you. Come forward now. Come Forward, come to God. Save yourself, for His greater glory. This is your last chance. I beg you. Jesus Christ begs you. Come forward.” Weeping, Friar Hugues dropped to his knees, repeating his pleas.

Among the Cathars no one moved or spoke.

Shivers ran across Roland’s back. What a people, who could withstand such a sermon, with the sight of torches before them and the tarry smell of pitch in their nostrils.

Friar Hugues fell on his face on the trampled grass of the meadow, sobbing.

Now another voice rose above the crackling of the bonfire.

“You have said the Church must be cleansed.”

Realizing that the voice came from among the Cathars, Roland looked there and saw that it was Bishop Bertran speaking. His voice was not faint, as it had been when Roland last met him, but strong, clear, as it must have been forty years ago, when he debated Saint Dominic.

“The Church shall be cleansed,” the Cathar bishop went on. “From the flames you light today will fly sparks that will kindle a great fire of purification. The corruption and tyranny and superstition of the Church of Rome will be burned away.”

The Bishop of Albi waved fat fingers glittering with rings. “We have not come here to listen to heretical sermons. You have wasted your last chance to repent. You are hereby delivered to the secular power.” He turned to a young friar seated at a table, scribbling industriously on a roll of parchment. “Let it be recorded that the accused died unrepentant.”

The Bishop held out a jeweled hand. Roland’s eyes followed the gesture, and he saw Amalric, seated on a big chestnut horse, holding a roll of parchment. The Count’s silver coronet and his purple and gold mantle proclaimed his power, the power to put two hundred people to death by fire.

Amalric read the sentence of death for all the perfecti, pronounced in the name of Louis, King of the Franks, with a cold serenity that was more chilling than any outburst of passionate hatred could have been.

Men with spears began pushing the condemned through the gateway of the palisade. Roland’s heart beat hard with the dread of what he was about to see. Even in peril of his own life, facing an enemy’s naked steel, he had never felt such tormenting fear.

He looked up at Mont Segur. The broken Cathar fortress and the crusaders’ wooden fort, now abandoned, were still bathed in sunlight, though the shadows of the nearby mountains had crept over the meadow here below. Roland saw small figures standing atop the walls of the fortress. They were those who had chosen to renounce their faith and live, those who would now be left behind. This must be worse for them to witness than it is for me, he thought pityingly.

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