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Pagans scribe, p.14
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       Pagan's Scribe, p.14

           Catherine Jinks
 
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  Whoops! Where’s my quill? Paganus, archidiaconus Carcasonis . . .

  ‘ “Your complaint against the priest of Bram is one that I found difficult to understand. However, I have made enquiries, and discovered that your account was not as full and honest as it should have been.’’ ’

  Causam tuam contra sacerdotem Bramiensem . . . My fingers are getting stiff. How many more letters are we going to write today? The Archdeacon leans back in his chair: he puts his hands together and stares out the window, frowning, his gaze blank and preoccupied.

  ‘ “I have been informed that it is your custom to forbid burial, and due rites, until the relatives of the deceased have made satisfaction to you,’’ ’ he says at last. ‘ “Certainly the Church is always happy to receive gifts from members of its flock when they die, just as it has always received portions from them when they are alive. But to insist on payment is forbidden, as you should know. Naturally such behaviour on your part has caused anger and resentment among your parishioners. It does not surprise me that the priest of Bram has taken your place in their hearts, and that they are giving to him, on their deaths, those worldly goods which you believe are your due.’’ ’

  Consuetudinem vestram licentiam sepeliendi negare . . . ‘Wait, Father, please! Not so fast.’

  ‘Sorry.’ He sighs. His chair creaks. (Sed solutionem postulare . . .) ‘Ooooh,’ he groans, in a muffled voice. ‘These useless, venal, petty-minded priests. No wonder we’re in such a mess here.’

  ‘Shh!’

  ‘Sorry.’

  On their deaths? When they die? When they die, perhaps. Ubi pereunt . . .

  There’s a knock on the door.

  ‘Come in!’ the Archdeacon exclaims. He sounds quite pleased to be interrupted. But when the door swings open, he stiffens.

  ‘My lord,’ he mutters, warily.

  ‘Hello, Pagan.’ Lord Jordan looks pale and tired. He’s wearing a simple brown tunic and no sword-belt. He closes the door softly behind him. ‘Hello, Isidore. Working hard, I see.’

  ‘Is there anything special you want, my lord?’ the Archdeacon enquires. ‘Because I have a lot to do just now.’ He sits up straight as Lord Jordan wanders over to the bed and sits on it. ‘I have a great deal of correspondence to get through. What do you want, my lord?’

  ‘Oh, many things. Many, many things. As you probably know.’ Lord Jordan stretches his long legs out in front of him, and crosses his ankles. His tone is careless, but there’s no smile on his face, or in his eyes. ‘I have news,’ he says abruptly. ‘News from the Viscount. He sent me here to tell you, because – well, because he’s too disturbed to tell you himself.’

  Oh no. What can this be?

  The Archdeacon sits forward. ‘What’s happened?’ he says.

  Lord Jordan sighs. He folds his arms, and stares down at the floor. All at once he looks much, much older.

  ‘It’s Béziers,’ he says. ‘Béziers has been taken. They took it three days ago, on the Feast of the Magdalene.’

  No. Oh no.

  ‘Sweet saints . . .’ the Archdeacon whispers. ‘Already? So fast?’

  ‘It was a joke. A complete joke. Some idiot shopkeepers made some kind of a reconnaissance sortie through the gate overlooking the old bridge. You know the one? They started taunting a crew of French mercenaries who were camped down by the river. They waved flags, and shouted insults. They weren’t expecting anything: the mercenaries were sitting around, barefoot, in their shirts and breeches. But the mercenary captain – whoever he is, he must be damned good – gave the signal to attack, and they did. With a bunch of hand weapons. They forced the shopkeepers back through their gate, and got inside the walls.’

  ‘Sweet saints preserve us.’

  ‘Once that happened, it was finished. Bernard de Servian brought his garrison up to defend the ramparts, but the gates couldn’t be closed. All the noise had alerted the rest of the crusaders, and they just waded in. Took everyone by surprise. It was over in a few hours.’ Lord Jordan suddenly strikes the bed with his fist. ‘The fools, the fools, the God-damned fools! They could have held out for weeks, but it was over in a few hours!’

  Oh Father. Oh Father, what will we do? He’s put his hand over his mouth, and he’s staring – staring at Lord Jordan.

  ‘Christ,’ he mumbles.

  ‘And that’s not the worst of it.’ Lord Jordan suddenly raises his eyes. They’re pouchy and red-rimmed, and they’re looking straight at me. ‘Perhaps,’ he remarks, ‘it would be better if Isidore left the room.’

  What? No! The Archdeacon’s hand falls. ‘Left the room?’ he echoes, faintly. ‘Oh my God . . .’

  ‘No! Don’t make me leave! Please don’t make me leave!’

  ‘It would be better,’ Lord Jordan says, in a voice full of meaning, and the Archdeacon suddenly snaps back to life.

  ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Yes, of course. Off you go, Isidore.’

  ‘Father, don’t send me away!’ (You can’t do this! You can’t do this!) ‘I have to know! You have to tell me!’

  ‘Isidore! Get out of here! Now!’

  ‘They’re dead, aren’t they? They’re all dead, every one of them!’

  A shocked silence. The Archdeacon looks at Lord Jordan. Lord Jordan looks at me. His face is so still, I know that it must be true. The worst thing – the very worst thing – and it’s actually come true.

  ‘No,’ he says at last. ‘Not every one of them. If every one was dead, we wouldn’t know what had happened. But most of them, yes. Almost all of them.’ He turns back to the Archdeacon, who’s shaking his head – who’s clutching the arms of his chair so tightly that his knuckles have turned white.

  ‘Oh no, my lord. No. That’s not possible.’ He sounds as if he’s going to be sick. ‘I can’t believe that.’

  ‘Believe it, Pagan, it’s true. Thousands and thousands of people, Christians and heretics. Men, women and children. Some of them were taking refuge in the cathedral – the crusaders killed them there, on consecrated ground. They killed the clergy in front of their own altar.’

  Oh God. Oh God. The Archdeacon covers his face with his hands.

  ‘Then they burnt the whole place,’ Lord Jordan continues, remorselessly. ‘Looted it and burnt it. Well, some of them did. I’d wager my inheritance that most of the damage was done by mercenaries. They’re all scum, those mercenaries. Probably did most of the killing, too. They feed on blood.’

  Blood. Blood on the altar. Blood of children, screaming children – blood flowing down the steps. A sea of blood. And the third part of the sea became blood . . . and there followed hail and fire, mingled with blood . . .

  ‘Isidore.’

  They’re going to kill us. They’re going to kill every one of us. He that abideth in this city shall die by the sword . . . and the sword shall devour, and it shall be made satiate and drunk with our blood . . .

  ‘Isidore!’ It’s Lord Jordan; his hand is on my shoulder. ‘There’s no need to panic,’ he says. ‘Carcassonne is not Béziers. Do you understand? What happened in Béziers was a fluke. An accident. It won’t happen here, because the Viscount won’t let it.’ (Shaking me, hard.) ‘You shouldn’t have listened. Didn’t I tell you to leave? I knew this would only frighten you.’

  ‘Saint . . . Saint Ambrose . . .’

  ‘What?’ He leans down. ‘What did you say?’

  ‘Saint Ambrose told us that it is a brave man’s duty not to dissemble when some danger looms, but to meet what is to c-come with careful forethought and lofty vision of mind.’

  He gasps and his hand tightens; I can hear him choking and snorting. Finally he says, in a slow, quivering drawl: ‘You’re one of a kind, Isidore, I have to admit it. You’re really something.’

  Suddenly there’s a knock: rat-tat-tat! A sharp, angry knock. The Archdeacon uncovers his face, which looks grey and pinched; he swallows, licks his lips, wipes his forehead. ‘Who is it?’ he croaks.

  ‘The Chancellor.’

  ‘Come in, Guibert.


  The door opens, and the Chancellor comes in. He’s small and round and strutting, like a quail or a bantam, heavy with his own importance. A proud man; his spine is as stiff as a hyena’s.

  He glances at Lord Jordan, sniffs once, and turns away.

  ‘Father Pagan,’ he says, ‘a very disturbing rumour has reached my ears. I’ve been told that you wish to demolish our refectory. Surely this cannot be true?’

  The Archdeacon has to think for a moment. He blinks, and bends his mind to the question with an effort that’s written clearly on his brow.

  ‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘Yes, it is true.’

  ‘Father, I must protest. This is going too far.’

  ‘I’m sorry, but there’s no alternative. Lord Raymond needs the stone for his fortifications.’

  ‘And we need our refectory for our meals, Father! I find it incredible that you should disregard our rights in this way. You haven’t even presented your request to the cathedral chapter for consideration – you’ve just gone ahead and ignored us completely! The Bishop would never have allowed this.’

  ‘The Bishop is in Montpellier! The Bishop has forfeited his authority by running away to hide, like a snake in the grass!’

  ‘I hope you’re not implying –’

  ‘Shut up!’ The Archdeacon jumps to his feet. ‘Just shut up! I’ve had it up to here with you people! Would you rather give up your refectory, or have your guts ripped out and trampled all over the church floor? Because that’s what’s happened to the canons at Béziers! That’s what’s happened to the Chancellor at Béziers! Is that what you want?’

  Father Guibert takes a step backwards, retreating before the blaze of the Archdeacon’s fury.

  ‘At – at Béziers . . . ?’ he quavers.

  ‘They’ve slaughtered all the clergy there! They’ve hacked them to pieces on the steps of their own altar! They’ve killed the entire population! And you’re talking to me about your miserable refectory? You make me sick!’

  ‘Father – please –’

  ‘Get out of here! Go on! Go and tell those bleating fools that they can either eat off their knees, or have their limbs strewn all over the cathedral! And if I hear one more complaint, I’m going to sling you all out of this city, and let you take your chances with the northern knights! See how much they care about your refectory, when they start slicing off your fingers!’

  The Chancellor bolts. He stumbles out the door backwards, and Father Pagan slams it shut behind him – slams it so hard that the floor shakes. An echoing silence, taut with emotion.

  Lord Jordan releases my shoulder.

  ‘Well,’ he says smoothly, ‘I knew I could rely on you to spread the news in a gentle, reassuring way. I mean, God forbid that anyone should panic.’

  The Archdeacon puts a hand to his forehead. He sags against the door. He’s flushed and trembling, and gleaming sorry. with sweat.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ he mutters. ‘I couldn’t – I’m sorry. I’m ’

  ‘You need some sleep,’ Lord Jordan observes. ‘Either that or a cask of wine.’

  ‘I’ll call a chapter.’ The Archdeacon takes a deep breath. ‘I’ll call a special chapter, and I’ll announce it properly. That’s what I’ll do.’ He moves away from the door and begins to pace up and down, like a cat in a cage. ‘But I’ll need someone else, as well,’ he continues. ‘Someone with a military background, who can reassure them. Will you do it, my lord?’ He stops. ‘Will you talk to them?’

  Lord Jordan raises his eyebrows. He raises his hands. ‘Oh no,’ he says. ‘Not me. Clerics in large numbers make me feel ill.’

  ‘But –’

  ‘Leave me out of it, Pagan. I’ve got other things to do.’ He reaches out, suddenly, and pats me on the back. ‘Cheer up, my friend. No one’s ever breached the walls of Carcassonne, and no one ever will. Believe me, you’re safer here than you would be anywhere else.’

  He smiles wearily, and heads for the door. But the Archdeacon’s voice stops him as he’s crossing the threshold.

  ‘My lord! Do you know that your brother is here? In Carcassonne?’

  It’s a challenge, not a question. It’s like a slap on the face. Lord Jordan stops; he looks back over his shoulder. There’s a long pause.

  ‘Is he?’

  ‘He’s staying right here, in this house. As my guest.’

  ‘Thanks for the warning.’

  ‘Don’t you want to see him?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘But you haven’t seen him for twenty years!’

  Once again, Lord Jordan smiles – a strange, complex, difficult smile. For some reason, it’s more frightening than a drawn sword.

  ‘Exactly,’ he says, and disappears from view.

  Chapter 20

  28 July 1209

  Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.

  ‘Look.’ The Archdeacon points. ‘Look, the fires are still smoking.’ smoking.’

  Desolation and destruction. Vines stripped, corn trampled, trees felled. Even the floating water-mills have been demolished, cut free from their hawsers and sunk into the river. To look at it, you’d think that the invaders must have come and gone.

  But they haven’t, of course. All this was done by the people who tended the vines, and planted the corn, and owned the trees.

  They must have wept tears of blood when they did it.

  ‘Father, do you remember that scene in Livy? Where Verginius kills his daughter rather than let her become a slave?’

  ‘ ‘There is only one way, my child, to make you free’,’ the Archdeacon quotes, gazing out over the battlements at the ravaged fields, the smoking bonfires. ‘It is a bit like that, isn’t it? What a terrible waste. But it must be done. We can’t let the enemy have that food or that fuel.’

  The enemy. When will they come? What will they do? What does an army look like, encamped around a city?

  I’ve read so much, but I just can’t imagine it.

  ‘This really takes me back,’ the Archdeacon observes, stopping at an embrasure. ‘This takes me back to the siege of Jerusalem. I remember standing on the walls of Jerusalem, with Roland, watching Saladin’s army approach.’

  ‘How long did that siege last?’

  ‘Oh, about ten days.’

  ‘And did – did you have to eat mice, then?’

  ‘What?’ He swings around to face me. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

  ‘Did you have to eat mice and weeds, and chew leather thongs?’

  A pause. He’s squinting in the glare; he puts his hand up, to shade his eyes from the sun. It’s so hot on this parapet.

  ‘All right,’ he says at last. ‘What have you been reading?’

  ‘Father –’

  ‘I’m not stupid, Isidore. What is it, Livy? You mentioned Livy. Are you reading The History of Rome?’

  ‘Book twenty-three. The siege of Casilinum.’

  ‘Who was that? Remind me.’

  ‘It was Hannibal, Father, and –’

  ‘Hannibal!’ he exclaims, and laughs. ‘In God’s name, Isidore, if Hannibal were heading this way I really would be worried!’ He reaches out, and takes my hand. ‘Listen. You’ve got to stop all this reading. I’m going to have to put my foot down.’

  ‘But –’

  ‘No wonder you’ve had so many fits, these last few days. I realise it probably has something to do with the heat – that’s why I brought you up here, because the air’s always fresher on the walls – but I’m sure it’s partly all that reading. You know what I’ve said about reading.’

  ‘Yes, but –’

  ‘Besides, you’re just scaring yourself. The siege of Casilinum! This isn’t Casilinum, and Arnaud Amaury isn’t Hannibal, thank God. Though even if he were, I wouldn’t despair for a moment. Lots of cities resisted Hannibal. Puteoli, for instance.’ He drops my hand and grips my arm, pulling me towards the embrasure. ‘Look at those
barbicans. Look at those galleries. Look at the walls. You don’t understand military engineering, so you don’t know what a marvel we’re standing on. I’ve seen a lot of cities, in my life, and not one of them was as well fortified as Carcassonne. Not one of them.’

  ‘But Father, it takes more than walls to defend a city.’ (Livy himself said that. He said that good fighters wish to defend their walls with their arms, rather than themselves with their walls.) ‘It wasn’t the weakness of its walls that defeated Béziers. It was the foolishness of its people.’

  The Archdeacon turns his head. He peers into my face, intently, silently, almost fiercely. ‘By God,’ he says at last. ‘By God, you’re a wonder.’

  ‘But isn’t it true?’

  ‘Of course it’s true! You’re absolutely right. There are fools everywhere, even in Carcassonne. Fortunately, however, they’re not in charge around here.’

  He begins to walk again, heading north; sunlight flickers on his black robe as he passes embrasure after embrasure, arrow-slit after arrow-slit. Apple cores and nutshells, scattered underfoot. Lots of dirty sawdust. A distinct smell of urine (someone’s been pissing against the wall). The next tower is one of the old ones, small and round, with lots of red brick inserted between the grey stones. Didn’t someone say that the Romans had built it? Through a postern, and into the murky guardroom beyond, which is full of wood and tools and animal skins. (Why animal skins?) An even stronger smell of sawdust here, sawdust and leather. Someone’s talking in the room below, but I can’t quite make out what he’s saying.

  Leather buckets, lined up under the window.

  Bang! Bang! Bang! What’s that? Is that hammering? Out into the sunshine, and here’s the next wooden gallery, slung out over the huddled roofs of the Bourg. I wouldn’t like to be living in the Bourg right now. It looks so vulnerable, pressed against the base of the city walls, like a child clutching its mother’s skirts for protection. Not that it doesn’t have its own walls – it does – but they don’t seem very sturdy. And poor old Saint Vincent! Sprawled over there beside the river, no walls, no towers, no nothing. Why would anyone want to live in a suburb? You’d feel so exposed.

 
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