All Things Are Lights – Day 46 of 200

He did not want to talk to her about the condemned ones. He wanted to ask her where she lived and whether she was married and if he might call upon her.

What is happening to me? he asked himself. I should not involve myself with Languedoc women. Especially ones who say “Damn you!” to me.

“Tell me, Madame de Lumel, who is this Perella, and what is he to you? May I call you Nicolette.”

“Perhaps, Count, we should begin by your telling me what harm he has done that you should hold him prisoner.”

He hesitated. She was a Languedoc girl. She would never understand. How to explain?

“Look here, Nicolette.” I am the Count de Gobignon, he thought, and I will call her by her first name whether she permits me or not.

“Look here,” he went on. “A week ago three important men were killed less than a league beyond this village. One of them was a priest, a Dominican friar.”

“An inquisitor,” she interrupted.

“Yes, an inquisitor, doing God’s work. The others were his escort, a knight and a sergeant. They were ambushed on the road, shot full of arrows. A foul, cowardly deed.”

“Yes,” she said impatiently. “I know about that. But Daude was at Chateau Lumel when that happened. He is the son of our head groom. His sister, Agnes, is my personal maid. I can vouch for him and so can a dozen others.”

“That is beside the point,” said Amalric. He was thinking, one hanged man more or less would make little difference to his purpose.

She broke into his thoughts. “Is Daude to die even though he is innocent? I am told you are holding twenty young men prisoner. Do you mean to hang them all, in vengeance for the killing of your countrymen?” Her face was pale.

“Those murdered were your countrymen, too, Nicolette,” he reproved her. “There is a treaty between your Count of Toulouse and the King of France. The war between north and south is over.”

“Not for everyone,” she said bitterly.

Then he remembered who Guilhem de Lumel was. A band of knights had raised a rebellion at Montauban, one of those savage little uprisings that were ever and again wrecking the uneasy peace in Languedoc. The town had been retaken by the army of the Constable of France only a month ago. Guilhem de Lumel — Amalric now recalled having seen his name in a dispatch — had been among those killed. So the protector and seigneur of this village was now dead, and had died an outlaw.

“Now I remember your father’s rebellion.” He looked at her in wonder. “How brazen of you to come to me, to make demands on me, when your father only a month ago died in arms against our King.”

Her shoulders slumped a little.

I have her now, he thought. She needs more help than having one of her people saved from hanging. Her father’s estate is surely forfeit.

She looked up at him, and the desperation in her brown eyes wrenched at his heart. “I had to come, even if my father was Guilhem de Lumel. I could not stay home knowing Daude Perella was in deadly peril.”

“Is there no one else in your family who could have come here?” he asked gently.

She shook her head. “My mother has been bedridden since my father’s death. There are only my younger sisters and me.”

Amalric spoke quickly. “Nicolette, if I let this servant of yours go, will you permit me to call upon you?”

She stared at him, the brown eyes wide.

“You would use a young man’s life to force me to submit to you?”

“Submit? No, I mean no shame to you, Nicolette. I am a man of honor, a knight, a count. Perhaps I could help you. You know the danger in which your family stands.”

“But, call upon me? Why?”

He moved his hands helplessly, wanting to reach out and seize her small shoulders, not daring to touch her. He was twenty-one, time for him to be married. But surely to court this daughter of a rebel would be a mistake. Still, he could not accept the idea of never seeing her again. He groped in his mind for words.

“I want to know you better. To be your friend.”

She stood staring at him. She seemed to be struggling to come to some decision.

“Let all of them go,” she said. “Release all of the young men you are planning to hang, and you may come to Chateau Lumel, and I will receive you. And may God protect me.”

“But…” How could he explain it to his men? How could he explain it to his commander, Eudes d’Arcis, Constable of France? “You do not realize how much you are asking.”

“You do not know how much you are asking,” she said fiercely. “Your people killed my father a month ago. You are invaders. I cannot help but hate you. I cannot betray so much for one life alone. Even Daude, whom I have come to save, would despise me. No, Messire. It must be all twenty lives.”

He shook his head. “But how can we put a stop to these crimes if we do not hang hostages?”

“You will never end the killing that way. You will just make our people hate you more, and more of your people will be killed.”

She was beautiful and full of fire. She was quick-witted and brave. What would she be like in bed? he wondered with a hot stirring in his loins. She was so passionate and alive that she made the women of his own country seem pale and dull by comparison.

“You cannot imagine the trouble this will cause me,” he said. “But I will do it. For you. You may take your servant back to your chateau with you. I will let the other young men go back to their homes. And we will just go on hunting the killers. But in a week’s time you must be prepared to entertain me at your home.”

For the first time since he met her, she smiled.

“Your clemency makes me very happy. I will receive you, Count Amalric. Though I must warn you, I do not think I can easily help hating you.”

And I do not think I can easily help loving you, he had said in his heart as she turned away.

But now, because of the strength of that love and the pain it caused him, it was easier for him to travel about and not see her for months at a time.

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