All Things Are Lights – Day 73 of 200

As her eyes adjusted to the dim light she saw with an inward shudder the seven stone boxes around the walls of the chapel that held the remains of earlier de Gobignons. Most frightening of all was the carved figure of Amalric’s father, Count Stephen, on his lack marble sarcophagus. One leg was crossed over the other as a sign that he had been a crusader. The stone eyes seemed open, staring at the chapel ceiling, the eagle’s face still alive with rage. She looked away quickly.

Dear Goddess, Amalric is going to make me swear before the altar that I have never been with Roland.

A new fear struck her, the fear of Almighty God. She shook inwardly at the thought of what God’s vengeance might be. He might strike her dead — or kill Roland.

But if I refuse to swear, Amalric will surely kill me.

“Swear now!” Amalric bellowed at her, his voice booming against the cold stones. “Swear before the Seigneur Jesus that you have not conversed with this man, that you have not met him secretly, that you have not” — he choked the words out — “bedded with him, that you do not love him.”

He waited, blue eyes burning like the heart of a flame.

She stared up at a painted wooden statue of the crucified Savior above the altar, bleeding profusely, eyes rolled up in exquisite agony. She felt a closeness to Jesus unlike any she had ever known before. As He was alone and forlorn the day He died, she was, too, at this moment.

I will tell him the truth, she thought suddenly. Why not? I will never see Roland again anyway. Why spend the rest of my life as a prisoner? If he kills me it will all be over.

No! Anger and defiance flared up inside her. I am the daughter of Guilhem de Lumel. This man has crushed my country, my people, and I am not going to lie down and die at his hands.

Standing at the altar, she clasped her hands before her breast.

“I swear. Before Jesus Christ, I swear to all of it, Monseigneur.”

Amalric was silent for a moment. Then he shut his eyes and expelled a deep sigh.

“Thank God,” he whispered, and she felt a stab of guilt at his heartfelt relief.

He held out his arms to her, and she let him embrace her. The gold threads in his embroidered tunic scratched her cheek. She could hear his heart beating hard and fast.

He believes me because he wants so much to believe me. He wants to believe me because he loves me, and there is nothing I can do for him.

After he had held her desperately for a moment he released her and said softly, “Come with me, Nicolette.”

She cast one last look at Jesus, and then let Amalric take her hand and lead her out of the chapel.

I may have damned myself to Hell for all eternity, she thought. But she did not know which she feared more — God’s judgment or Amalric’s rage.

Back in his council chamber Amalric held a chair for her, then sank into his own. His fury now spent, he seemed worn out. His manner was almost apologetic, though Amalric de Gobignon would never apologize to anyone. “Did I hurt you?” he asked.

“Not at all, Monseigneur. “

“I am glad. Nicolette, I have much to offer you. And there will be more in years to come. I want you at my side. Let us be better friends.”

She writhed inwardly. She loved Roland, and that made any closeness with Amalric impossible. She wanted to offer Amalric some comfort — the wrongdoing was not all on his side — but she did not want to utter another lie.

“I shall try to be a better wife, Monseigneur.”

His smile was warm. “You will have the opportunity. We are going on a long journey together, you and I.”

The thought of a journey with him chilled her heart.

“A journey to where, Monseigneur?”

“Call it a pilgrimage, if you will. That is what our psalm-singing King calls it. A pilgrimage to Outremer. I told Hugues earlier this evening, and now you are the second person to know. I have decided to go on Louis’s accursed crusade.”

She stiffened in surprise. “But why?”

“That tournament changed everything. I have been turning it over in my mind all winter. And I have had the advice of some good men — Enguerrand de Coucy, Thibaud de Champagne, and several other great barons.”

She felt a tingle of fear along the back of her neck. Amalric had always disliked the King, but since the tournament his hatred for his sovereign lord had grown venomous. And these same barons, she knew, also hated Louis for his attempts to check their power and improve the lot of lesser folk.

“What sort of advice have they given you?” she asked uneasily.

“It might indeed be better if Louis went to Outremer. Queen Blanche would rule as regent, as when Louis was a boy. Did you know that Louis has been planning to meddle in how each baron rules his fiefdom?”

She remembered listening raptly when the King talked about having royal inspectors, enqueteurs he called them. The idea had struck her as bold and admirable.

“Yes, I have heard something of that plan.”

“Well, my royal aunt knows it is a dangerous innovation. She will have none of it while Louis is away. She is our friend. He is not. He now forbids us barons to make war on one another. He says he will settle all our disputes himself. As if he were man enough to be my master. Altogether, the kingdom will be in better hands with him gone.”

Nicolette suppressed a shudder. What he meant was that the same marauders who had plundered Languedoc would be free to ravage any part of France. And Blanche would allow it. But what would Amalric gain from this?

“But you will be on crusade, Monseigneur.”

“There will be reliable men here to look after my interests. Our interests, since you will accompany me.”

She felt another terrible chill, as she had when she let slip her knowledge of Perrin’s wound. So that was what he had meant when he said they were going on a long journey together.

Outremer, that graveyard for countless Christian men and women! She recalled her horror when she had first heard King Louis proclaim a crusade. But then her fear had been for others, for the men who would be victims of “the madness,” as her father had called it. She had never thought before tonight that Amalric might go. He had been so against the idea, had even tried to argue the King out of it. The possibility of her having to go could not have seemed more remote.

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