The boy did not recoil at the charge of the cavaliers.
“Make way!” Andreas drove his snorting stallion toward the courageous youth. The filthy wretch trudged toward the charging cavalier,one barefoot step after the other. He was unflinchingly alone. All other refugees crowded in road ditches, leaned toward the trees, clutching them tightly.
“Make way for the Viscount!” Andreas called as a stone unleashed from a catapult. He was accustomed to having others move with speed at his commands, as if a boulder soared down upon their heads. Andreas waved his arm furiously, gesturing toward the tree line.
Still the boy plodded along the road with uncovered feet, skin on rock. A darkened mist seemed to enshroud his very soul. Since cockcrow, when their company had made departure from Beziers, Andreas had commanded all in their path to flee the road. Each traveler and refugee, whether merchant in dyed cotton or peasant in beast-colored rags, had given deference to their noble party as expected. A wide berth to fly along the road without hindrance.
Yet a little child refused to yield.
Andreas felt a strong urge to ride over the boy, to send a message to any who would dare block the way. He shook the shrill thought from his mind, searched for a spot to vacate the stone-paved road. Yet, amidst the throngs of refugees massed in the shallow, grassy ditches, pressed tight against the stands of oak and poplar and beech, there was no such place.
Space enough for a little one only, not an armed cavalcade of four and twenty.
Andreas drew rein on his muscular blackish-roan stallion. The horse reared. Its front hooves pawed with violence. Andreas slid back against the cantle of the saddle. He raised high the lance in his right hand as his left clung tightly to the reins.
“All halt!” He felt his face grow hot. The company came to an abrupt halt behind him, iron horseshoes grinding, sparking on ancient stone pavement. The barefoot wretch was a senseless intrusion. The front legs of his mount found the road once more. Andreas saw that the boy was playing no foolish game. In spite of the azure brilliance of the clear, high Languedoc sky, the close sight of the lad induced a quick, darkening chill, and Andreas shivered.
The youngster’s dark, round eyes appeared sunken into his thin, sallow face. It was a countenance erratically framed by stringy, greasy black hair that hung down to his neck. His hollow gaze was fixed straight ahead at all and nothing. His undyed tunic was riven in jagged, diagonal fashion across the torso, blotted with brownish, crusty stains. A sour stench filled Andreas’s nostrils, drew water from his eyes, and he turned away. The lad bore an alarming, tart odor of befouled blood and of death. But it seemed more than the smell of the unwashed. The reek seemed somehow to exude from his immortal soul itself, or even supplant it, as if the innards of the boy were being consumed by a fire unseen. A cauterized soul smoldering in a blackened cloud.
The boy continued to walk. He came within a step of the forelegs of Andreas’s mount. The knight drew breath to bellow at him once more. A man, seemingly the fatherof the boy, emerged quickly from the compacted mass of peasants on the side of the road. He harshly clamped a sizeable, rough-hewn hand on the shoulder of the lad. Why had the fool not kept close vigil over his wretched child?
Andreas turned his hot anger on the sullied man. Tunic tattered, red hair matted and lengthy, he looked little better kempt than the boy. “Your son has detained us here and we need reach Montpellier by nightfall. Does he lack hearing?” Andreas squared his shoulders. “Your Viscount is on an urgent mission. Now yield the road.”
“Many apologies, my lords, for the insolence of the boy.” The man released the words in breathless gasps, turned his wary countenance and disheveled body to face Andreas. “We flee the approaching host, like all… all others in your sight.” He waved his arm at the masses of refugees.
They shuffled forward and broke like a beast-colored wave around the knights, sought not to appear as if they were watching the peculiar sight of a commoner addressing his lord on the road. Andreas thought the lot of them grubby and gaunt from the journey through a sun-scorched land where dust and moisture saturated the air. Many among them had the look of fretful exhaustion, brittle terra cotta masks of fear. None seemed as the peasant lad.
The hands of the man rested on the shoulders of his little boy. “As you can see, my son stumbles around as one in a trance. If I may beg pardon, my lords, I will tell… tell of all that has befallen us.” The hands of the man trembled as he gripped tight the boy. The fatherwas clearly fear struck. The son was almost vacuous; a fleshy shell devoid of spirit.
“Continue, but speak with haste,” said the rider alongside Andreas. The voice belonged to Raimon Roger Trencavel I, Viscount of Carcassonne, Albi, and Beziers. He was lord of these lands. Andreas was châtelain to the Viscount, nearly the equal in stature to Raimon Roger himself. Nearly, but not quite. The châtelain was the official given charge, among other things, for the safeguarding of the Viscount, and for the governing of the Trencavel castle, the Chateau Comtal in Carcassonne. The English counterpart was called a castellan. Châtelain was a position of rank rooted many centuries past in the time of the Frankish Merovingian kings. In those times, such an officialhad been called the mayor of the palace.
Andreas the châtelain blinked his smallish hazel eyes, rubbed his straight square nose, puckered his wide mouth, and with no small difficulty stifled a deep groan at the words of his lord. For they were words that meant their company would be stationary, at least for these few moments while the villager gave voice to his woes. Andreas removed his helmet and straightened his sweat-soaked, rumpled brown hair with a black leather gloved hand. He watched the throngs trudge by beneath him. So many flee in distress. Why lend this one his noble ear? Yet Raimon Roger was ever willing to hear from his subjects, to speak with them personally. It was a generosity he bestowed too liberally on his people.
Andreas placed the burnished steel helmet back upon his head. He cursed the delay under his breath. With the armies of the North drawn near, safety lay in motion. Andreas looked up and down the straight Roman road they traveled. The Via Domitia it was called. He saw none other than those fleeing to Beziers. Yet he was leery. Remaining still on the road was akin to surrender. Andreas could fight his way through any trap as long as he met the challenge at full battle charge.
In Iberia, seven years past, on the way to battle in Reconquista, the endeavor to reclaim Spain from the Muhammadan, their company had halted at the sound of crackling from the wood at twilight. A company of Moors twice their number had emerged from cover and attacked with disarming speed. In their light armor and atop agile mounts, thin swords hacking and slashing, the enemy retreated before the knights of the Languedoc could give chase. The Moors had charged again from another angle, and once more retreated. This was repeated thrice more until the knights were vigilant to the point of skittishness.
Andreas, only sixteen, newly dubbed a cavalier, had grown angry. “No more defenses. We attack! Who will follow?” Though he lacked the authority, most were of the same mind and followed eagerly. The rest were compelled to take up the charge or be abandoned. Andreas led the attack. Raimon Roger followed. The Moors converged on the road once more. They could not withstand the galloping force of the more heavily armored knights from the Languedoc. All the Muhammadans, though their numbers were greater, were slain in the saddle or unhorsed and trampled.
Upon hearing tell of the event, Andreas’s father had told him only that he was reckless, that he should have known his place and kept formation. Yet Raimon Roger had given commendation to his impetuous knight. Andreas had admired his lord’s frank acceptance of the usurpation of his authority. Since that day, Andreas had held charge over older men. Raimon Roger had eventually elevated him to châtelain, a position that in France was a title of heredity. He could have received no greater honor from his lord.
The fact that a little boy this day dared defy the cavalier who had risen to be châtelain to the Viscount of Carcassonne, Albi, and Beziers was like a mouthful of raw vinegar. It set Andreas’s teeth on edge.
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