It is a hard, deafening rain.
Fast, malignant clouds shroud the moon and stars, and the softer velvet black of the night sky; profound darkness veils all, save for those instants when lightning illuminates the distant mountains, and I see:
My galloping mount's coat gleaming like onyx, his wet mane whipping like a Medusa's crown in the angry wind; see, too, the road to Carcassonne before us, studded with stones, brambles of wild rose, and bushes of rosemary that yield their astringent fragrance as they are crushed beneath the horse's hooves.
Rosemary brings memories; roses are not without thorns; stones are hard.
Hard as the rain: in the flash, it appears long, jagged, crystalline -- a hail of icicles, of small, frozen lightning bolts. They pierce and sting, and though it seems right that this moment should be physically painful, I feel a welling of pity for the stallion. He is exhausted, gasping from the long, strenuous run; even so, when at last I rein him in, he fights me, rearing his head.
As he slows reluctantly, lifting strong, graceful legs to pace sidelong, I put one palm flat against his shoulders and feel the muscles straining there.
He is sensitive, my steed, in the way most animals are, though he does not possess the Sight: he cannot see those pursuing us, but he can sense the Evil residing in one particular heart. He shivers, but not from the autumn chill, and rolls his great dark eyes to look questioningly back at me; I can see terror in the whites.
We have fled our enemies this long; why, now, do we wait for them?
"They will not hurt you," I tell him softly, and stroke his neck as he whinnies in protest. His coat is cold and soaked from sweat and rain, but underneath, the muscles emanate heat. "You are a fine horse, and they will take you where it is warm and dry, and feed you. You will be treated kindly."
Would that I should encounter the same.
In that instant, I want to weep, hard and bitter as the rain; hard, so very hard. The stallion senses this and, distressed, increases his pacing. I collect myself and give his wet neck another stroke. My pursuers would say I was casting a spell on the poor animal; but I know it is only the opening of one's heart to another creature, the unspoken sharing of calm -- a true calm I must look deep within myself to find. One cannot lie to animals.
I am almost near the end of my journey, but the Goddess has spoken: there is no further use in running. Should I continue to flee and my Enemy to chase, none of it will save my poor Beloved. Surrender provides my only chance -- a slender one, fraught with risk, and my Sight will not reveal the outcome. I shall live, or I shall die.
Soon the horse and I fall silent and still. The rain has eased, and in the absence of one noise, I hear another.
Thunder, but there is no lightning in the sky.
No; not thunder. Hoofbeats -- not one pair, but several. We wait, my steed and I, until they come closer, closer, closer....
And out of the darkness appear four, seven, ten cloaked men on horseback -- the very ones I have Seen in my mind's eye all the dark hours of my flight now materialized in the flesh. A black cloud slips to reveal a slice of new moon, and the glint of metal: nine of these men are gendarmes from Avignon, from the pope's personal cadre. I am encircled. They close in, drawing the noose tighter, and lift their swords.
New moons are for beginnings; this one bodes an end.
I and my stallion remain perfectly composed, perfectly still.
Suspicious, some of the gendarmes face outward: where are my protectors? Certainly, they lie in wait nearby, ready to spring on my captors; certainly, they would not have simply abandoned me, a small and unarmed woman, their supposed witch-queen.
Ah, no; 'twas I who tried to make my escape without them -- but so loyal were they that they soon found and joined me. And when the Goddess demanded my surrender -- mine, not theirs, for She had need of their service elsewhere -- I sent them away. At first they refused to leave me; indeed, Edouard swore he would die first. I could only close my eyes and open my mind, my heart to theirs, that they might hear the Goddess as I did.
Edouard sobbed as though his heart would break; the others' faces were obscured by their hoods, but I sensed the silent tears streaming down their cheeks. We said no more; needed say no more, for all was known. Thus my brave knights rode away.
And now I watch three of the Enemy's men leap from their horses to plunge swords into sparkling blackberry brambles, into thick, tall foliage, blades whistling as bits of leaf and stem go flying. One man climbs up into a nearby olive tree and hacks off branches until he is satisfied no one waits in ambush.
Mystified, they return to their mounts' sides and stare at me as I continue to sit, calm and quiet as my stallion. Darkness or no, I see fear upon the gendarmes' faces. They wonder why I do not simply bewitch them -- turn them into swine, perhaps, and escape.
All of them, that is, except the tenth man, who feels quite certain this capture is his doing. This is the cardinal Domenico Chrétien. Unlike the others, who are cloaked in somber black, he wears upon his back and head the color of blood. His countenance is broad and plump, with upper and lower lips of crude thickness, and eyes hidden in deep folds. His body is likewise soft, belying the heart within.
Commandingly, he calls: "The Abbess Mother Marie Françoise?"
This is the Enemy. We have met only once upon this earthly plane, though on another we are old acquaintances. It is difficult not to look upon him with familiar contempt. So filled with self-loathing is he that he would kill anyone who reminded him of what he is. There is only one alive capable of greater harm to my people -- the one I have come to stop, lest I and my Race be obliterated from the face of this world.
"The same," I reply to his question. I struggle, and manage to conquer my hate; to do otherwise would make my soul as closed as his.
"You are under arrest on the charge of heresy, witchcraft, and maleficium directed at the Holy Father himself. What say you?"
"That you know better than I of what I am guilty."
A humble admission on the face of it, but my Enemy understands this veiled rebuke, and his expression subtly darkens, though he dare say nothing in front of his men -- his men, who have no idea what is actually happening here, who would not believe if they were told. "You will come with us, Abbess."
I do not resist; indeed, I give a nod of compliance. Even so, I am pulled roughly off the horse, who rears, knocking down one of the guards and causing minor alarm until he is at last subdued. As I had told him, he is a fine mount; the gendarmes appreciate this, and one of them takes hold of his reins and speaks soothingly until the animal is reassured.
As for me, I am stripped of the cloak that hides my dark habit, veil, and wimple, and my arms are bound behind my back; then I am flung facedown over the back of a different horse and tied to the saddle. One man murmurs: "Now there's the perfect position for a highborn lady."
The others snort faintly at this, but no one laughs, even though I am bound, outnumbered, and apparently at their mercy. In the silence that quickly follows, I hear their fear.
It is a difficult ride home. My face slaps against wet horseflesh, and when the rain begins again in earnest the back of my habit is quickly soaked through, leaving my spine aching with cold. Water runs down my arms and legs and neck. Inverted, my veil grows heavy with rain and soon falls; my wimple slips, leaving my shorn head exposed, letting the rain spill into my ears and nose and eyes.
I try to comfort myself: it is the Goddess's will. It is my life's mission, foretold from my birth.
On the way to my destiny, the horse from time to time steps upon and crushes pungent herb; I close my stinging eyes in pain at its perfume.
Rosemary brings memories.
Excerpted from The Burning Times © Copyright 2012 by Jeanne Kalogridis. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.
The Burning Times: A Novel of Medieval France