All Things Are Lights – Day 9 of 200

She pictured herself hanging in midair, hundreds of feet above the forest in the valley, and her stomach clenched. Her body swung slowly from side to side, and she hugged the creaking rope with desperate terror. Stabbing pains in her wrists and arms made her doubt she could cling to it much longer.

From above, she could still faintly hear crashing and clanging, screams and shouts. At any moment the crusaders might break through and find the perfecti holding these ropes, while Roland and she dangled helpless above the rocks.

She pictured her brethren being cut down by those huge longswords, their blood running out over the sacred stones. She sobbed aloud. She heard Roland say something in a low voice, some word of comfort, no doubt, but she could not make out the words.

She lost track of time. It seemed just minutes ago that she had said her goodbyes. And, equally, it seemed an eternity. Would they never reach bottom? The rope around her waist felt as if it might cut her in two.

Suddenly her feet kicked loose rocks and then struck solid ground. Her legs were too weak to hold her up, as if there were no blood in them, and she collapsed. But she didn’t mind the bruising fall, so good did it feel to have the earth under her. Roland, who had also fallen to his hands and knees, crawled over and knelt beside her. She wanted him to hold her, but she was terrified of his arms.

Then she looked up and saw that the mountain peak wore a crown of flame. “Oh, dear God, no,” she whispered. The fire arrows of the crusaders must have ignited the wooden buildings.

“We called it Mont Segur, the Safe Mountain,” she said to Roland, gazing up at the fire. “We thought God would protect us up there. We should have remembered that God — the true God — does not rule this world. His Adversary does.”

Unwillingly, she looked up again and saw that the flames had grown paler, and the sky beyond them was not black, but violet. A rose glow, not fire but the rising sun, appeared behind the tops of the pine-covered hills east of Mont Segur. Their long descent from the mountaintop, she realized, had taken from the middle of the night until dawn.

Under her thin silk tunic she trembled, partly from the cold. She rubbed her hands together to warm them, and when she blew on them her breath was a frosty cloud. Spring was still a few weeks away, but the people on the mountaintop would never see it.

With cramped fingers she began to undo the knots around her waist and knees. Roland helped her, and she quivered anew at his touch.

“Come away, Diane. Do not look up there anymore. We need your eyes on the path ahead.”

She forced herself to stand. She looked at Roland and could see in the faint dawn light that he, too, looked exhausted. But she knew it would do them no good to stay still in this cold when they were soaked with sweat.

“You know this forest,” he said. “The crusaders’ camp lies beside the village at the base of the mountain. You must lead the way.”

She sighed and gestured to him to follow her.

As they turned their backs on the heights from which they had just descended, the ropes came whistling down, coil upon coil. There was little chance that the crusaders would venture down here and come upon these ropes at the edge of the forest; they would never know anyone had escaped from Mont Segur. Gratitude welled up in her to the faithful ones above who had held those ropes till they were safely down.

She walked beside Roland into the deep pine forest. She glanced over at him. His face was darker than she remembered, and bonier. The nose seemed as sharp and thin as an ax blade. He had pushed his helmet back, and his thick black hair ringed his face. He turned and looked at her, and his vivid blue eyes, so startling in his dark face, sent a thrill through her. My God, she thought despairingly, help me. This is going to be so very hard.

“Why must we go to the crusader camp, Roland?”

“My tent and my jongleur are there. I really had to join their army, you see. It was the only way I could get up there.” He gestured toward the mountain.

The thought of being among the crusaders filled her with dread. “Roland, I cannot.”

“You will be safe there. No one would expect to find a Cathar in the midst of that army.” His tone soured. “Especially not a perfecta. “

He will never understand what my faith means to me, she thought sadly.

They walked along in silence for a time. The air was filled with the fragrance of pines. Her lungs drank it in. She had almost forgotten, after nearly a year trapped in the fortress, the sweet smell of clean air. But that her lost people could not share in even this small pleasure only redoubled her pain.

She moved on, holding branches for Roland so they would not fly back in his face. She stepped nimbly over roots and rocks. Her body moved briskly, but her soul was heavy.

“You walk so surely,” Roland said suddenly. “Like a deer. And going down the side of the mountain — few women could endure such an ordeal. When I last saw you, Diane, you were a delicate lady. Now you are a mountaineer.”

His words made her feel a glow inside. “Among us there are no ladies. Women work the same as men. The holy work, too. Before the siege I was traveling all over Languedoc. I preached, Roland. I brought the Sacrament to people who needed it.”

He stared at her in wonder. “How do your mother and father feel about the work you do now?”

She halted abruptly. Roland, startled, stopped just behind her. She turned to face him.

“I am sure they are very happy about me. They both died, you see, last year. The inquisitors made them wear the yellow cross of heretics and turned them out on the roads to beg. They were too old to survive the winter. But they had a good death. I reached them in time and gave them each the consolamentum.”

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