Beasts of the Seventh Crusade (The Crusades Book 4) (8 page)

BOOK: Beasts of the Seventh Crusade (The Crusades Book 4)
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

 Raul took a step toward his son, and Artois looked into his eyes, grinning malevolently. Raul reached out to him, but Artois lunged, his blade aimed at Raul's heart. Raul could not move quickly enough, and the blade went through him. A man fell, seemingly out of Raul's frame, dead on the ground. He looked Egyptian. Raul looked back at Artois, who sprinted away, spotting a pocket of fierce combat on the other end of the field.

Everything turned from red to blue, and blue to black. Raul tried to move, but he couldn't. It was the same horrifying sensation from when he would oversleep, aware of his body but unable to command it. Trapped in his own form, Raul struggled mightily, but his body didn't obey. He was lifted up, high into the sky, and fell into unconsciousness.

The next thing he knew was a medical tent. Doctors, bloodied to their elbows, moved from patient to patient, offering a kind word or a drink. One doctor arrived at Raul and put a cup to his lips, but Raul couldn't command his mouth to accept the liquid. His throat was not parched, and he was not in pain, but he wanted to drink, anyway. In his peripheral, a bloody leg spasmed, its owner howling at the injustice of the universe. Raul tried to see the man's face, but a doctor went to the man and held his shoulders down. Another pinned the man's hips, and a third brandished a large, sharpened knife. He used his elbow to pin the man's other leg, and he made quick incisions at the hip.

Raul tried to sit up, to see the man's face, but he couldn't. He listened, horrified, while the man cried and moaned. He recognized the voice, but his mind felt fuzzy, unable to connect the voice to a face. After a moment, the doctor set down the knife and the man started breathing fast, harsh gasps. The doctor wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead and counted down.

"Three, two, one . . ."

The noise of the leg separating from the body was a moist sound. The skin tearing reminded Raul of the time he had seen a quartering in Paris; his father had forced him to watch, to know the price of being revealed as a Cathar. Suddenly, the leg was in the doctor's hands and he dropped it, off-put by the awkward weight. Raul focused every bit of will, every fiber of his being to sit up, to see the face of the amputee. His body started to respond, and he could nearly see . . .



His neck was cold, slick with sweat. The cabin was dark and warm, with the faint smell of peppers and clary sage hanging in the air. Raul sat up and ran his hands all over his body. Everything was intact.

The sleeping forms of Artois and Francois were on either side of Raul. They were on the ground, and he was on a bed, leading him to believe they were not drugged or unconscious, as surely he had been, but merely sleeping, waiting for him to wake.

Artois snored loudly and rolled over, licking his lips and not opening his eyes. Francois yawned but didn't open his eyes, either. Raul waited for his vision to adjust to the dwelling, and he soon recognized the simple layout of the sorcier's cabin. The man himself was not there, it seemed. Raul stood up and went to the flap that led outside, and a thin beam of light entered the cabin. It was daytime, then.

"Father?" Raul turned, seeing Francois rise to unsteady feet.


"What happened?"

"I was hoping you could tell me that. Rouse Artois," Raul said. Francois nodded and nudged the big man with his foot. Artois rolled over and Francois nudged him harder, in the ribs, and Artois' eyes blinked open.

"What?" he groaned.

"Wake up," Raul said. "How did we get here?"

"Ah, I believe a bit of explanation is in order," the sorcier materialized behind Raul, standing near the entrance of the cottage. "Let's talk outside, where the air is fresh."

They sat down around a campfire. It was high afternoon, and the breeze was warm.
Like the warm breath of the dragon, ready to snatch away life,
Francois thought. Food was brought to the four men by some women, because of the sorcier's apparent stature in the village, and Artois let his gaze linger on the women's figures that shifted beneath their threadbare tunics. It had been too long since he had a female companion.

"Now, my friends, what can you remember?" the sorcier asked.

"I remember meeting you on the path, after we expelled the dragon from the cave . . ." Francois began.

"And then we followed you," Artois said.

"That's the last thing I remember," Raul finished.

"You remember your dream, surely?" the sorcier asked.

"Yes, but I do not know how I came to be unconscious in your cottage. And I do not know what my dream meant. I saw Artois, but the face of the other man—"

"Will be revealed to you when the time is right."

"When will that be?"

"I don't know," the sorcier said. "I only showed you the future that is apparent to the gods. There are things they don't know—yes, even the gods."

"Then our business here is complete," Raul replied, standing up. His sons stood with him and they made their way back to the clearing beneath the olive trees, where their packs and provisions were. They were untouched, and there were foodstuffs filled with meat, dried fruit and medicinal herbs in addition to their original supplies.

"Where did this come from?" Francois said.

"Just a thank you, for getting rid of the dragon," the little man, their original guide to the hill village, said from behind them. Francois spun around, stunned that the little man could creep up on them so quietly.

"You all seem to have the rare ability to sneak up on people without them noticing," Raul said.

"This is our village, you all are just guests, and now the time has come for you to leave. But you will always be welcome here, I promise that," the little man said.

"Thank you."

Without further ado, the Coquets left the hill village. Their side quest into this strange place, unattached to the world, had been painful and educational. There were great, mysterious beasts that still roamed the Earth, at the edges of civilization, ready to humble the race of men whenever the opportunity arose. The Coquets had met a tiny man, a wizard, and a dragon.

They had lost their dogs and, for Raul, gained the knowledge of the future. It was not a clear understanding that he retained, such as the price of a cow, but a mystical connection to a higher energy source, one that he prayed would follow them as they traveled south, to the war-torn region of Toulouse. With a final glance at the hill village, the Coquets turned and walked away quickly, always wary of the forest.



Chapter Seven

THE TRIO TRAVELED BY NIGHT. During the day, the only serviceable roads in southern France were patrolled by units of the royal French Army, always eager to kill men who they thought were dodging their duty. The Seventh Crusade was already bringing out the worst in people. The cowardly were vilified and expelled from society. The powerful became cruel, fervent in their perceived duty to God and hasty to punish nonsupporters. Of course, Francois, Raul, and Artois fell into neither of those groups, they were merely traveling, seeking a way to meet Christof, and perhaps, survive the inevitable war.

Because they slept during the day, hiding was easy. The land was hilly and crowded with woods.
A whole army of Muslims could be hiding right here in southern France, and none would be the wiser,
Francois thought. There were a few close calls. Once, as the sun was rising and they sought a hiding place, Raul whistled loudly, commanding his dogs to heel. There was an awkward moment, and Francois and Artois looked at each other sadly. Angry voices were the next thing they heard, and the Coquets were forced to cross a small river to avoid detection by a landowner and three of his slaves. If that man had found them, they would have been reported to the nearest army commander.

The spring was in full bloom. Each night brought the possibility of warm rain, which Raul pretended to hate, though Francois suspected the rain refreshed his father, made him feel alive and free. The wildflowers were beautiful and fragrant to the people who could see them by day, and Francois developed a habit of collecting what he found at night, to be inspected when they finally halted after an entire night of walking.

"Why do you collect flowers?" Artois asked Francois one morning, as they were getting ready for a few hours of rest.

"There are beautiful things in this world, and we should enjoy them, cling to them, and most important, remember them, when we are surrounded by ugliness," Francois said, holding a delicate rose in his hands.

"The bad things outweigh the good things greatly. Do not dwell on good and evil, my sons, dwell on the present moment, which is all we can lay claim to," Raul advised, joining the conversation.

"Father, are we much nearer to your brother's home?"

"We will be there in two days. We are in the most dangerous region in the world right now, and the Inquisitors are out in full force, destroying the last vestiges of the Cathars."

Raul's words struck home that evening. As the Coquets packed their meager belongings and limbered up, preparing for an evening of skulking along the road and diving behind bushes at any given moment, they heard screams. Screams and an odd smell, one that Raul was able to identify immediately. "They're burning a man alive," he said calmly.

They crested the next hill and could see that they had reached a basin, a watery, empty tract of land surrounded by cliffs on three sides. In the middle of the basin was a cross with a crucified man. The base of the cross was stacked with kindling, and the logs were alight, the flames licking at the man's ankles, slowly ascending.

"We must save him," Artois said, hefting his battle axe.

"Don't move, Artois, that man is already dead," Raul said, pointing to a dark procession that was watching the man's death. Neither Francois nor Artois had noticed the group, ten or twelve people, behind the cross. They were so still and black, like an incarnation of a shadow, the living flesh of dark power.

"Who are they?" Francois asked.

"Inquisitors. They are priests of the church, men who have been tasked with rooting out the Cathars, although the war is essentially over. They can't let the teachings of the Cathars spread to younger generations that might take up the mantle of rebellion. Do not overly concern yourself with the man on the cross; his execution is only one of many. Know this, if we are caught and our identities discovered, we will meet a similar fate," Raul said.

"Not me, I'd rather die in combat," Artois said.

"How about we just live?" Francois said.

"That's not always the best choice, either," Raul replied. "We must pass through this area if we are to continue straight south. I have no desire to travel ten or twenty miles east or west, to avoid those Inquisitors. Let's wait, and they'll soon leave."

Raul sat down. They had a high vantage point, and there was no purpose in moving around if they were merely going to wait for the Inquisitors to leave. Artois, with a shrug of his great shoulders, sat down too. In the basin, the condemned man's screams intensified. The flames had reached his waist.

"Are you two just going to watch him burn?" Francois asked.

"Don't look if you don't want to. There's nowhere to go until those Inquisitors leave, so we must watch them," Raul said.

One of the Inquisitors broke away from the group. He was holding a large book, and he seemed to be reading from it while pointing at the burning man.
He cannot hear you, fool, he is dying,
Francois stared at the speaking man, trying to transmit his thoughts.
Cut him down and bury him like a decent human. You do not know what happens after death, no matter what your book says. Why then, do you prolong suffering?
As if in response to Francois' thoughts, a strong breeze started, picking up water from the basin and cooling the flames on the man. The speaker's hand started to tremble, and the condemned man let out an exaggerated groan of relief. The flames slowed, not quite reaching his chest.

"Lucky bastard," Artois said, smiling.

The wind died down and the man coughed. Watching from a distance, Francois thought he saw blood come out of the man's mouth. Not that it mattered, his life would soon expire. The Inquisitor stopped reading from his book and went back to the group, a stray bit of evil reconnecting with its foundation.

"What is the next town we will reach?" Artois asked, uncomfortable with the silence.

"Béziers," Raul answered.

"Truly?" Francois asked. "I have heard of Béziers before, its sad history—"

"The city is still being repaired from that fateful day, the first day of the Albigensian Crusade. Béziers was the first town that was attacked, and none was spared. Even those who took refuge in churches, even priests, were put to the sword. The royal crown did not want Cathar beliefs to spread, and they put everyone in Béziers, 20,000 people, to death," Raul said bitterly.

"And what about the women, children?" Artois asked.

"Everyone was killed, son. The French believed that God would know his own. After the city fell, everything was burned to the ground. Even those who sought refuge in churches and cathedrals were slaughtered, whether by sword or fire, it matters not. I knew many who were there that day, and I have never forgotten the church's ideas of forgiveness and love."

The condemned man finally died. Francois watched him closely, looking for any slight movement, but there was none. The dark Inquisitors sensed the death, too, and they walked away from the scene in a solemn cadence, content that they had seen justice done.

"Let's go," Francois said.

The basin was moist, with short grass that couldn't absorb all the moisture, so the water lapped at their boots. The flames had mostly died down from the burning stake, and Francois realized that the flames had never burned very brightly. They had simmered, barely extinguishing the man's life and then dying themselves, leaving a black, charred monument in their wake. The death and evil was almost palpable in the air, teasing at Francois' lips and tongue.

"Should we cut him down?" he asked, as they neared the site. He looked to his father, whose eyes had taken on the far-off look of one remembering painful memories. Raul was biting his lip, too, a nervous tic Francois recognized as a result of a difficult decision to make.

BOOK: Beasts of the Seventh Crusade (The Crusades Book 4)
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Body of Work by Doyle, Karla
The Rules by Delaney Diamond
Dance Into Destiny by Sherri L. Lewis
Nam Sense by Arthur Wiknik, Jr.
Snowed In by Rhianne Aile and Madeleine Urban
Apprehension by Yvette Hines
Crawl by Edward Lorn
Jessica's Ghost by Andrew Norriss