Read Beasts of the Seventh Crusade (The Crusades Book 4) Online
Authors: Mark Butler
Pope Gregory was one of King Louis' greatest allies. The wealth of the church, aided by the French court, was spread throughout France. In return, churches and priests were everywhere, spouting support for the king and condemning heretics. It was a fine arrangement, except that Louis had inherited one of the church's bitterest enemies, King Frederick II, holy Roman emperor.
King Frederick was the man who had conducted the entire Sixth Crusade, and Louis admitted grudgingly, he had accomplished much. It was not enough, though, because the old treaties had expired and the Muslims were once again overstepping their borders.
In times of great calamity, a mighty ruler must rise up,
He could be that ruler, the savior of Christendom.
A series of low, doleful drums came from outside, and Louis went back to the window. A procession marched in the street; it was an execution detail, with ten hooded, armed men guarding some miserable creature who was led by a leash around his neck. The man's name was Leaf, Louis remembered, and he was some sort of pervert. Not that it mattered, but he was a notorious criminal, and Louis was going to make a personal appearance at the man's execution. The people needed to see that their king saw justice through to the end. With that thought in mind, he called to the empty room behind him, "Servants, attend me!"
Tailors, appearance specialists, and various attendants swarmed the room. They set upon King Louis like starving animals, eager to obey his every whim. With a groan of annoyance, Louis allowed them to prepare him for a public showing.
Leaf was sentenced to quartering. A tall, wooden scaffold was constructed in the center of Paris, and the executioners took Leaf on a circuitous route to the scaffold. He was marched for hours, up and down the streets, while rotten food and vile words were hurled at him. When Leaf finally reached the spot where he would be killed, the king and his entourage had still not arrived.
There were preliminary tortures to pass the time, and the executioners proceeded with those before King Louis arrived. Both of Leaf's hands were chopped off, to the delight of the crowd, and his stumps were cauterized in vats of burning sulfur. He was hung naked, upside down, and his back was whipped raw. After a few minutes, the executioner's arms seemed to tire, and they left Leaf hanging until the king arrived.
Trumpets and criers announced the king's approach. He was on horseback, surrounded by his personal bodyguards; who were all experienced, hardened killers and the finest troops France had to offer. King Louis wore a purple robe and simple golden crown, and he stepped onto the scaffold to speak to Leaf before the quartering began.
"You poor bastard," Louis whispered to him, "I will grant you access to heaven if you confess to your crimes."
"I did it! I killed them!" Leaf cried out. An audible gasp came from the crowd; even the most seasoned interrogators had been unable to elicit a confession from Leaf. Somehow, someway, King Louis had convinced Leaf to try and save his soul. With a look of smug satisfaction, King Louis turned to the crowd.
"This man may have saved himself from hell's fires! It is not for me to decide, but God Almighty. If this man," Louis paused, searching his mind for the right words, "If this man called 'Leaf' suffers the punishment of flesh, God may have mercy on his soul."
There were nods and smiles from the crowd. They would still get their quartering, and King Louis could worry about God and his judgment.
"Executioners! Carry out the sentence," King Louis said.
Each of Leaf's limbs was bound tightly, from his hand stumps to elbows, and knees to feet. When each limb was secured, the loose ends of the ropes were attached to metal bars, similar to the bars used in churning grain. However, these bars were fastened, by rope, to massive horses. They would be made to walk away from the scaffold, stretching Leaf's limbs to impossible degrees. It was the cruelest punishment known to man; the quartering caused immeasurable pain, so much that the victim often passed out, only to awaken to more pain. Eventually, the limbs would tear off and the victim would bleed out.
With the preparations complete, the horses were given short, swift tugs on their mouth bits. They took a few small steps, and the people closest to the scaffold heard all of Leaf's tendons and ligaments tear simultaneously. He screamed pitifully. His voice was gurgled a bit, too, which concerned King Louis. The man could not die too quickly.
"Stay the horses!" King Louis yelled out. The executioners immediately stopped their inexorable pulling on the metal bars. The crowd responded as a living thing, screaming curses and begging Louis to continue the punishment. Each person's reactions and sounds were congruous with everyone around them. They were nervous, afraid that the king might give the man clemency. They waited with anticipation, wondering what King Louis was planning.
"Gag that man, so that we might enjoy a little sermon in peace and quiet," King Louis said. Smiles and laughter were heard from the crowd, and King Louis knew he had struck the right chord. He was prolonging Leaf's suffering and giving the crowd a taste of God's Word, so that they could feel God was on their side in this gruesome matter.
A greying, ancient priest went to the scaffold and led everyone in a prayer. He spoke of God's love and read verses from the Bible. King Louis smiled as the priest reached Romans 13:4.
"For he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
After half an hour passed, the priest retook his seat. He had done his job, prolonging the man's pain, pleasing the crowd and flattering the king. No one checked on Leaf during the sermon, and when they were ready to resume the torture, he was barely alive. A bucket of shit-water was dumped on Leaf's head, and he woke with a start, mewing pitifully.
"Finish the job," King Louis said.
The horses were unable to pull Leaf's limbs off. The executioners had to go to his knees and elbows and make short, sharp incisions with sharpened knives. Leaf began bleeding quickly, and the horses were made to pull again. All four of Leaf's limbs came off at the same time with a wet, sucking sound. His blood fouled the air; sweet and tangy. His limbs were piled on his torso, which was still showing signs of life. In front of the crowd of Parisians and King Louis, the executioners set the pieces on fire.
King Louis mounted his horse and his bodyguards mirrored him. He smiled at the crowd and a passionate citizen lifted his voice above the crowd, "Long live the king!" The rest of the crowd responded with a deafening roar.
"Long live the king! Long live King Louis! Long live the king!" they chanted over and over.
King Louis' bodyguards cleared a path for him back to the palace. Louis' heart was pounding as he rode through the throngs of people. They were his people and would follow him to whatever end.
THE ROAD SOUTH WAS NOT STRAIGHT. It wound around lakes, through forests, and over mountains, exhausting the Coquets. The bloodhound pack followed the men, doggedly sticking to their masters. Spring was coming slowly, and frost stubbornly clung to the tips of leaves, like dying men cling to life, until the final breath that separates them from the whole.
People were few and far between. The first day they saw four caravans, bound for Paris and Troyes. They had been filled with prisoners, equipment, and soldiers, all extracted from war-torn southern France. With news of the Seventh Crusade reaching the edges of the nation, people of all varieties were flocking to the big cities, seeking profit. The second day the road looped around a frozen pond before climbing to the hills. There were a few fires in the recesses of the woods, where the hill people kept their communities. Raul instructed his sons to keep their hands off their weapons and travel quickly; you never knew who was watching you.
The third day the trio encountered flat plains. Hundreds of acres of brown fields stretched in every direction, waiting for the thaw to break so they could be cultivated. There were grand estates too, set miles away from the fenced borders of their land, and Francois gazed longingly at the huge homes.
"I would like to own a great swath of land one day! I will have a hundred servants and ten wives!" he said.
"What would you do with ten wives, little brother?" Artois asked, amused.
"I don't know until I see them, but something good," Francois said. Raul, who had been stony-faced and quiet the entire trip, burst into laughter.
"One woman is more than enough for most men! Your mother could never have been just another wife."
"I need more than one," Artois said. His horse bucked a little, and he pulled on the reins. The outskirts of wealthy plantations were the worst places to camp at night, where house soldiers would come to investigate, and possibly rob, travelers who lingered near their master's property. There was no break in the road, though, and it narrowed as they passed the properties.
"How long until we reach Toulouse?" Francois asked.
"Three days at the most, but we are going through Toulouse, all the way to the coast. Christof likes to be close to the sea. It helped when he was in the slave trade, as well as a quick escape; the French crown have been hunting rogue Cathars for years," Raul said.
The path bifurcated; they could travel east, which would be the long road to the coast, or they could travel straight south, through the devastated ruins of the Albigensian Crusade. From their current location, each direction looked equally unpleasant. The road east would be inundated with vagabonds, looking for poor travelers trying to avoid Toulouse. Going south meant running into military forces or mobs of bloodthirsty Christians, seeking out the hated Cathars. No one would ever believe the trio was traveling south except that they were Cathars, looking to reunite with the remaining members of their society. Their bloodhound pack would give credence to a story of hunting fugitives, but they would still be under high suspicions.
"We should go south, Father. Your brother will appreciate the speed with which we have traveled, and there will still be time to get back to Troyes," Artois said.
"We're not going back to Troyes," Raul hissed. "Those ungrateful, moronic villagers will accept my services without a thought, but they won't pay me my due. They don't like me and never will. I'm not going back to Troyes; I'd rather be in Paris, where anonymity is an option."
"The question before us is east and then south, or straight south. Let's examine that question before we start worrying about returning anywhere," Francois said.
"We go straight south. I'm in no mood to ride these ugly horses all over creation before I get to where I want to be. If we encounter trouble, we'll deal with it," Raul decided. Artois nodded at his father's decision; he hated the thought of running from or avoiding anyone. Dodging danger had never been a part of his composition.
The path took them through thick, freezing woods. The trees were dense and the path was narrow, and Francois heard owls hooting nearby. The air smelled of pine and cedar, and Francois marveled at the aromatic woodlands.
"These trees serve as a natural barrier for the rich properties we went by," Francois observed.
"Aye, that's part of the design. The woods also separate Toulouse from Poitiers. Soon, we will be in lawless country," Raul said.
"Troyes was lawless," Artois said. Raul and Francois chuckled.
Francois noticed the marked trees first. The first marking was made to resemble the sun; a circle was cut from the bark, and lines emanated from the circle. It was a strange thing, but Francois knew nature to have its brand of eccentricities. He said nothing to Raul or Artois. The second marking, a mile down the road, was more ominous: three arrows were carved into a tree, pointing to the woods. Francois paused at the tree and followed the direction of the arrows with his eyes. There was a path there, though it was overgrown with vegetation.
"Come on, Fran! We need to find a place to lay our heads before full darkness," Raul called back.
"Wait, come see this," Francois said. He showed them the strange arrow markings and the trail, and neither man seemed impressed or interested.
"There are hill people in these parts. They use these subtle markings to communicate with one another and other tribes. It is nothing," Raul explained.
"Yes, Father," Francois said, still curious.
They continued their trek, and Francois' eyes feverishly searched for another marking. When the sun was at its descent, in the failing light, Francois saw a third marked tree. And just past it, a fourth. The third tree had, carved neatly into the bark, the image of flames on buildings. The fourth tree was unmistakable. A great beast was carved into the bark, with dozens of humans cowering around its feet. The clarity of the artwork was stunning.
"Father! Artois! Come see this," Francois called out.
"This is not a pleasant walk through the woods, Francois! This place is dangerous, and the road is still long," Artois chided him. Raul had kept going around a bend in the path, but he came back after a moment.
"Look at this tree, and this other one." He showed them the trees. To Francois' astonishment, Raul closed his eyes and put one hand on the tree with the beast. He seemed to be breathing deeply, trying to calm himself.
"What is it, Father?" Artois asked.
"I've seen this before, back in Italy, when your mother and I were without children. She showed me a book of demons, from one of their holy libraries. This is the exact image of the demon, I swear on my soul," Raul said.
"What should we do?"
"We must find the hill people in this area. They can give us succor through the night," Raul said.
"Will they help us, even if we can find them?" Artois asked, looking more nervous than Francois had ever seen him. Artois liked his enemies in the open light, where he could match his strength against theirs. But demons and monsters of the night, who crept in while you slept? Artois was as scared as a little boy.