All Things Are Lights – Day 74 of 200

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.

Bad enough that she had been forced to spend so many years in the cold, hostile north of France. Now must she follow this man to a war in Outremer, endure the heat, the disease, the hunger and thirst? Risk death or capture and enslavement by savage Turks, should — as had often happened — the war go against the crusaders?

But how could she oppose Amalric? What reason could she give for not being willing to go? Kings and barons usually brought their wives with them on crusade rather than endure separations that must last years. And she had just promised to be a better wife.

A short time ago, Amalric had seemed ready to kill her. She could not face his rage again.

“I am entirely at your disposal, Monseigneur,” she said with resignation.

“I am pleased to hear you say so, Madame.” Amalric paused and smiled at her. “I have just decided to let you return to Marguerite,” he said.

Joy and wonder made her feel dizzy. She knew how a prisoner felt, unexpectedly released from his dungeon. The prospect was overwhelming, almost too much to bear, as if all the candles in the room had suddenly blazed up.

Then I will see Roland! It took all her strength to remain standing decorously, eyes down, to hear what else her seigneur would say.

“Granting the Queen’s request for your company will be a step toward healing the breach between Louis and myself,” he went on. “I, too, have received a letter from the palace, you see.” He shuffled the papers on his table and held up a parchment decorated with a huge, beribboned royal seal. “He makes overtures. When he finds out I have decided to take the cross, I will gain back much of the favor I have lost.”

“I shall do my best to make peace between you and the King,” she said, hoping that was what Amalric wanted to hear.

But she knew that Louis would do better to invite a viper into the palace than to renew his friendship with Amalric.

“Since you have had a letter from the King, too, will we go to Paris together, Monseigneur?”

“I am still the King’s seneschal for Beziers. Time I resumed my duties there. And I do not think I could stand the sight of Louis, even after six months away from him. Just the thought of that papelard and his preaching makes me wish Enguerrand had not stopped my mace. Ah, well, the East is far off and perilous. Who knows what might happen to the King there?”

She heard wild anger in his laugh.

She felt a sudden horror, as if she had been sleepwalking and had wakened suddenly to find herself at the edge of a high rooftop. She saw now why Amalric was willing to go on the crusade.

What did he have to gain? The King’s death.

Her life and perhaps Louis’s, depended, she realized, on not letting Amalric see that she understood him.

“We must pray he comes back safely,” she said in a soft voice that she hoped sounded calm.

Amalric looked at her intently for a long time. The yellow light from the cressets cast deep shadows on his face but she could see a faint smile playing about his mouth.

“Of course we must,” he said finally. “His return might be delayed for many years, though. That would give our people, those who think as we do, time to set the kingdom to rights.”

“I do not really understand what is wrong with the kingdom now, Monseigneur.” As soon as she said those words she regretted them.

“Nicolette, I know your father was killed, and by our side, and that hurt you deeply.” His mood seemed to have changed. She heard a melancholy pensiveness in his voice.

“But perhaps, having lost your father, you can understand what it is to be five years old, just old enough to know and love your father, and to be told that he was murdered. It was like waking up to find this whole chateau — my home all my life — vanished.”

He looked at her, his face full of pain, and she could almost see that small, orphaned boy he spoke of.

“I found out, when I was a little older, that it was the heretics who murdered my father.”His fists clenched. “They fell on him when he was sleeping and hacked him to pieces in his bed. Dirty, sneaking Bougres!”

Sleeping in a stolen bed in a stolen castle in a land he had invaded, thought Nicolette. But she bit her lip and said nothing. This story, she understood, was sacred to Amalric. And though she knew his father had been killed in Languedoc, this was the first time he had told her about it in a way that helped her feel something of what he felt.

He spread his hands. “So, you see. Later I learned all the reasons why we must destroy the heretics — how they worship two gods, they say this world and our bodies are made by the evil god, they murder sick people, they lie man with man and woman with woman — all of that. I know it is from them that the rabble get their ideas of communes and charters. It is they who spread the disguised paganism called courtly love. It is they who instill ideas of rebellion in the university students. Most knights and seigneurs, priests and bishops, they only know these things here.” He tapped his forehead with his fingertips. “But what the heretics are is burned into my heart.” He struck his chest with his fist. “I know in my very blood that this kingdom will never be safe until heresy and all that springs from it is stamped out so that not a trace remains. I look forward to going back now to Beziers, to Languedoc, where this evil has its roots. Hugues and I, we shall light a few fires.”

Her flesh crawled as if in the grip of ice-cold hands. How false, how twisted, were his ideas of the Cathars and of courtly love. And of Languedoc. I am one of those he would destroy.

What if I have so offended God by my false swearing in the chapel just now that He wants me to be destroyed?

“And so you want to purify the entire kingdom? To do that you would almost have to be King yourself, Monseigneur.”

He raised his square chin with pride. “I am almost a king. Attend, Nicolette — do you know that one of my forebears was one of the seven great barons who helped Hugues Capet seize the crown? That makes me a Peer of the Realm. Where do you think the King gets the right to rule? From the Peers of the Realm, the descendants of those seven barons who placed Louis’s ancestor on the throne. Every time a new King is to be crowned, we must consent. Did you know that?”

“No, Monseigneur, I did not,” she said, and was dubious.

“It is true.” Amalric nodded solemnly. “We can make kings and unmake them.”

And you want to unmake a king. She shuddered inside herself. When Amalric had exulted at the thought of what might happen to the King during the crusade, she had felt as if she were standing on the edge of a high roof. But now she saw far below her, not the ground, but Hell itself. Hell was burning cities, dismembered bodies, men and women straining at the stakes, the screams of innocent sufferers. Hell was made by men like Amalric.

We shall light a few fires, he had said.

I must try to stop this man. I must find a way.

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