All Things Are Lights – Day 83 of 200

Nicolette reeled toward the still-open door. Again Diane put out a hand to help her, but Nicolette struck it away. She all but fell through the door into the darkened front yard.

Diane stood frozen as she heard Nicolette being sick outside the door.

After a while there were footsteps stumbling away, then the slow clip-clop of a donkey’s hooves. Diane went to the door and gently closed it. She turned and stared at the dagger still upright in the floor.

XV

The rain was not enough to keep Nicolette from her daily ride, but it was soaking through her thick brown cloak and raising a reek of wet wool. Even though she wore a broad-brimmed leather hat over her hood, her face was wet.

Her palfrey did not seem to mind the wet weather. The aging mare ambled contentedly up the stony mountain road, stopping every so often to nibble at tufts of brown grass growing out of the bare slope on their left.

It was midday, but it seemed like twilight. It is as miserable as Paris, she thought. Languedoc is not at its best in November.

The gloom of the day was well matched to Nicolette’s mood. Since that terrible moment when she had learned the truth about Roland, the whole world had gone gray, as if she were suddenly color-blind.

Foolish of me to be out on such a day. I could take a chill, and that would be doubly dangerous just now.

For though she felt dead, there was life growing inside her. For nearly two months now she had known it: she was with child. But sadness weighed as heavily on her as the thick low clouds that seemed to press down on her head. All she could think was, I do not, for myself, care whether I live or die in childbirth.

If I do die, I shall surely have time to confess to a priest what I did with Roland. At least I will not go to Hell.

I do not think I believe in Hell anyway. Or in anything. Not even Love. Especially not Love.

The six mounted guards who, by Amalric’s orders, here accompanied her everywhere, were probably cursing her for dragging them out in this weather. They’d rather be drinking wine and toasting their feet at a fire. But this was occupied country, and the patriots of Languedoc still struck at the invader from time to time. It would be foolish for the wife of the royal seneschal to go riding in the hills around Beziers alone, and so they must perforce don their heavy helmets and hauberks, buckle on their swords, and ride along with her.

She looked back to where Beziers crowned a clifftop over the river Orb. A mist had crept up the river from the sea and now hid most of the city, leaving visible only the red-tiled, cone-roofed towers of the city walls and the spires of the churches. She could see the upper half of the yellow stone citadel, in which she lived with Amalric. He was there now, writing requisition orders for supplies for King Louis’s crusade.

The fathers and grandfathers of these men riding with her could have been among those who massacred the people of Beziers forty years ago. Her escorts were all good-looking blond Franks with straight noses and square chins. Amalric tended to favor such men.

Sire Guy d’Etampes, the young knight who was Amalric’s constable, kept up a running flow of conversation. He apparently considered it his duty to entertain her. But all he could talk about was war — the coming crusade. She recalled how she had talked to Roland about going on crusade, and the ache in her heart turned to a sharp pain.

“These are good years for the peasants,” d’Etampes said. “The King’s agents are everywhere, buying up the harvest. It will be another two summers before we leave, but they are already stockpiling hay and wheat at Aigues-Mortes.” He turned and grinned at her. “At least when it is time to embark our party will have a short journey. Aigues-Mortes is but twenty-five leagues up the coast from here.”

“I know where Aigues-Mortes is, Messire,” said Nicolette tartly, cutting him off. “After all, I was born in this country.”

“Excuse me, Madame. I had forgotten.” D’Etampes turned away, using a corner of his blue woolen mantle to wipe from his eyes the beaded moisture that ran down from his conical helmet. He pulled his hood over his head, protecting his face from the drizzle and obscuring it.

The young man was abashed, Nicolette saw. He wanted her to like him. He had his eye, she knew, on Isabelle, who would be an excellent match for a knight of middle rank like himself. This presumptuous knight does not realize that I have no influence at all with Amalric. Isabelle will go to whomever her father picks out.

And, she told herself, unless Amalric sires a son, he will never accept anyone below a count for Isabelle. Whoever marries Isabelle will inherit the Gobignon holdings.

What if this child I am carrying is a boy? At that thought, the pain in her heart hurt like a sudden knife wound.

Roland’s baby.

There were times when she prayed that she would lose the baby. At others she wanted it desperately, for it was all of Roland she had left. Today she felt loving and protective toward it. This time she would be a better mother.

She saw a shallow cleft in the mountainside ahead. Nestled in it under bare tan cliffs was a small chapel, half fallen to ruin. She had seen dozens of such decaying churches in this country. Amalric, she thought, hadn’t made Catholicism very popular in Languedoc.

As her party approached the church she noticed two men in brown robes sitting in the doorway. As she and her escort came near, they stood up. Franciscan friars. Nicolette remembered the Franciscan habit she had worn only two months ago.

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