All Things Are Lights – Day 2 of 200

With the tips of his fingers Roland touched the red silk cross on the left breast of his black surcoat, wishing he could tear away the symbol he hated. But only by joining the crusaders had he been able to get here. And this night he would bring Diane out safely, or he would die.

He stood in the darkness breathing deeply, gathering himself for the effort. Despite his chain mail and his helmet, he felt vulnerable, frightened.

Crouching, he slipped away to the left. Beyond the narrow rim of the ridge, the slope fell steeply. A misstep would send him hurtling to the rocks below. He made his way down carefully, painstakingly, over the large boulders for long minutes until he arrived at a narrow ledge about thirty feet below the top of the ridge. He took cover behind a row of charred huts where Cathar hermits had dwelt before the siege began. This whole mountain stank of burnt wood. As he began to work his way around to the other peak, from behind him issued shouts in the dialect of Languedoc: the Cathars, raising their war cries. They must have reached the crusader fort. How wonderful if they managed to drive the crusaders off the mountaintop!

The sharp rocks jabbed and bruised Roland’s feet through the thin leather of his boot soles. He wore as little mail as he dared. As it was, the work of clambering around a peak in the Pyrenees weighed down by his fifty-pound shirt of steel mesh was bound to exhaust him soon. His best protection, he hoped, was the black cloak that would hide his movements from the men of either side.

The battle cries of northern crusaders and Languedoc Cathars were now so mingled that Roland could not tell one from the other. Swords boomed on wooden shields and rang on steel helmets. Screams pierced the night, some fading into the darkness below as men plunged off the mountaintop to their deaths.

But the clamor of battle diminished as Roland on his ledge crossed to the north side. The limestone wall of the fortress glowed faintly under the stars, rising above Roland like the hull of a ship. Like the Ark atop Mount Ararat, he thought. Only this ark could not save those who sought refuge in her. Against the pale background of the wall a sloping boulder stuck out, huge and black. Roland’s father, who had visited this place years ago, had written him saying, “The top of the great stone is only ten feet below the top of the parapet, and an agile man can make it over the wall there. You should be able to do it, if you have not let the wine and women of France ruin your body ere now.”

Roland could make out cracks and crevices in the century-old wall where he might dig in with fingers and toes. Still, it would be a far more fearsome climb than his father had made it sound. Taking a running start, Roland scrambled up the huge rock. Atop the boulder, he threw himself flat against the wall and reached up high, finding a fissure that afforded him a grip. Then he felt about with his right toe until it slipped into a crack between stones. Maybe now he would have the leverage to push himself upward. His limbs ached from clinging to the wall, but he could only inch his way up. He dared not look over his shoulder. Behind and below him, he knew, was black, empty space. Right hand up, right foot, left hand up, left foot, he crawled upward until at last the palm of his hand touched the blessed flatness of the top. He let out the breath he hadn’t even been aware he was holding. He raised himself up a little further and slid both arms over the wall and hauled himself to lie flat along the top.

Now at last he could let himself look down into the chasm. Hundreds of fires flickered like stars in the crusaders’ main camp at the base of the mountain. The dots of brightness wavered before his eyes. Dizziness swept over him. Fright made his heart thud like a stone-caster, and he gripped the wall under him so hard that his fingernails broke. He had to use all his remaining strength to force himself up to a kneeling position. He made no effort to conceal himself.

He heard at once a shrill cry of alarm from the darkness within the wall. A woman’s voice. He could just barely see a wooden platform about four feet below. He dropped to it and raised his empty hands as three dark figures approached.

“I am one man, not the crusader army, Madame,” he called. “I come in amity.”

He heard a murmur of women’s voices and strained to look about him, but the only light came from a vertical slit in a stone building some distance away. A shift in the breeze brought an animal stench that assaulted him. How these people have suffered, Roland thought, overwhelmed with pity even as the smell made him almost ill. Under siege for nearly a year, the Cathars could spare no water for bathing.

“May I come down?” Roland called to the huddled figures he could faintly descry in the darkness below.

“Drop your weapons to us and we will let you live a bit longer, at least,” one of the women called.

Roland unbuckled and dangled the heavy weapons over the side of the platform. A slender figure stepped out of the shadows and caught the longsword’s scabbard. Roland found a ladder and moved gingerly down it until his feet met flat paving stones. He turned and stood with his back to the wall, facing a row of low wooden buildings a few feet away.

Three gaunt women gathered around him. Two brought the points of their spears within inches of his face. Another aimed a crossbow at him. A twitch of her finger and that bolt would pierce him through as if his hauberk were no more than a cotton shirt. More danger here than clinging by his fingernails on the face of the mountain.

He stood very still, towering over the women, staring down at them. They looked aged, probably far beyond their years. Their eyes glittered with hate.

The crossbow woman spoke. “If you are a friend, why are you not out there fighting beside our men? Why are you wearing the sign of a crusader?” She hissed the last word.

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