22 JULY 1209
THE FEAST DAY OF
SAN MARIA MAGDALEN
The elegantly robed merchant in blue-dyed cotton tunic stood in front of Andreas, silently holding his ground, glaring, unmoving.
The châtelain fingered the pommel of his sheathed war sword. “You must depart now. All must take their leave from the Faubourg. These homes are to be razed. You were given notice two days past to vacate.” He grasped the handle. “We cannot protect you here, and we cannot allow the Frances cover so near the city. You must go behind the walls.”
“If we refuse?” The man clutched in one hand a long-handled axe with a sharpened edge that reflected the first sun of daybreak, but the head of the weapon remained on the steep, hardpan street. In the other hand he held a square object that reflected also in abundance the brilliance of the day’s first light. It did not appear to be a weapon. He tightened his grip on the handle of the axe.
“Have you a wish for your soul to quit the body?” Andreas nodded toward Bertran. “If you refuse to leave my sergeant can separate the axe from your grip before you can raise it to your waist, and drive it deep into your belly before you can raise your arms to ward off the blow. Release it now or know his skill.”
Bertran took a step forward and the man in blue loosed his grip on the wooden handle and for a moment the axe was vertical, balanced on its head. The handle slowly pitched sideways and met the street with a crack as the man began striding up the hill, square object still clutched in the other hand, out of the Faubourg towards the West Gate. The others behind him lingered for a moment in the bleary-eyed paralysis of dawn before hastily following in fashion.
Andreas watched them take their leave and retrieved the axe from ground. Its handle was of ash wood and the whole of the intricately etched weapon was weighted and balanced perfectly, as if the slightest motion would cause it to seek out a place to imbed its blade. It felt but an extension of his hands. If only the affairs of faith and earthly dominion were so aligned. “Why are the Bitterois so obstinate?”
Bertran looked at Andreas with mild surprise. “Would you have them yield all stubbornness and capitulate to the pope? Do not be too harsh with them, Andreas. Would you wish to surrender your home to fire?”
“I would rather surrender my home than my life, would rather watch it burn to cinders than to put the whole of my city at risk.” Andreas raised his voice to the knights and soldiers around him. “Douse these buildings in pitch and oil. Bring more hay about the ramparts and soak it in pitch and oil as well.”
If the French sought to take the settlements as cover, they would have life and shelter burnt away.
As Andreas was directing the saturation of the last of the houses and mounds of hay in incendiary liquid, the cry came from the sentries. “The Frances approach!” Andreas and Bertran scrambled up the hill, through the West Gate, and onto the thick, high, ramparts of Beziers itself. Reaching the southernmost tower, Andreas took in the sight. Waves of color melding together, rippling slowly over the plain, bobbing low and high in unyielding rhythm, making an appearing in the distance, seeming to stretch to the haze of land and sky, to the very margin of the world, as an unbroken, multi-hued cloud floating at grass tip. Indeed a wide fantastical beast splashed in color, one that had head and tail separated by many miles.
Wishing to believe the sight a chimera rising from the steamy heat of the morning, Andreas witnessed the vibrant shroud slowly sharpen into a multitude of banners and flags caught high on lengthy staffs. Blots of color separating into scores of crests of every imaginable shade from green to scarlet to blue to gold.
Those bearing the insignia paraded over the fold of a hill into view. Had they weapons, the multiple gonfanoniers holding aloft the crests of their lords would have themselves comprised a sizeable siege army, especially if banner and flagpoles were as lances. Yet these gonfanoniers were but heralds of a force far more immense.
The number of noble banners being paraded across the field south of Beziers toward the River Orb pointed to an army not of thousands but tens of thousands. More soldiers than anyone in the South had imagined. Indeed, he did not know theFrench army held so many men. Was this truly a Christian army hell-bent on besieging Christian lands? Such an urge must rise up as a poisonous vapor from the lake of fire, inhaled and spat out like acid from the mouths of fiends.
“Bertran, they are upon us.” Andreas spoke the obvious, a thing for which he possessed a gift, his tongue loosened at last. “Raise the alarum in full. Tell the people to cease their feasting at once and make ready for battle. Inform the soldiers to spread word amongst all the Bitterois. Pull all forces out of the Faubourg, and above all, make certain the gates are secure. Once the hillside is emptied, the West Gate is not to be opened again under any circumstances, unless I personally give allowance.”
He turned to look at Bertran, who already hastened toward the West Gate to discharge the task.
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