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Purged By Fire

Heresy of the Cathars


Diane Bonavist




Excerpted from — ╬ Chronicles of the Cathar Wars ╬ A.D. 1209 ~ 1244


In the realm south of the River Loire where the langue d’oc was spoken, the counts of Toulouse had governed since the days of Charlemagne. Far from the dominion of the pope and the French King, the southern lords allowed the Cathar faith to grow. But the Holy Father in Rome grew impatient with these strayed Christians. He excommunicated the southern lords and ordered France to lead a crusade against the langue d’oc. The French came to conquer us and rid our lands of heresy, yet their zeal and avarice, their cruelty and wanton devastation only made the Southerners more fervent in their love for the Cathar heretics.

His lands and people decimated and defeated, Raymond, the seventh count of Toulouse, signed a peace treaty with France and Rome. But this was not enough to appease Pope Gregory. Enraged by the lack of converts and the failure of his priests to hunt down heretics, he gave special inquisitional powers to the Dominicans. These newly appointed Inquisitors defeated the spirit of all southerners, and they accomplished what twenty years of war had failed to do.

                                                                         —compiled by Isarn Benet    


Carcassonne A.D 1234


Isarn Benet


Tomorrow I go before the Inquisitor. To prepare, I must think over everything I will say and face the Dominican with a still mind shallow as a puddle. It is both galling and shameful for me, an advocate of the law, to find myself imprisoned. Unlike most of my countrymen, I have never defied the French invaders. I’ve accepted their rule and the pope’s harsh measures to rid my homeland of heresy. Rather than mourning for what was, I believed in accepting what is. Surviving twenty years of war refines a man’s ambition, makes him grateful for life’s quiet pleasures. When the wars ended, I hoped only to live out my life peacefully in Carcassonne.

But the Inquisitor won’t be interested in any of that. He’ll want to know about Marsal. How mocking that a soft spring day heralded her appearance. I remember waking up to the sound of the broken shutter banging in the wind, and seeing a crack of blue sky after days of drizzle. I got out of bed and went to the window, breathing deeply, filling myself with the clean elixir of dry springtime air.

   It made me hungry. Unfortunately there was nothing in the house to eat. By the look of the sun, I had just enough time to get to the market before everything was picked over. I dressed, found my cloak and hat and was gathering up the papers I needed, when I heard a rapping on the front door. My neighbor’s wife had said that she knew of a girl who would cook and clean for me, and that she would send her around one day soon. Though it would have been bold for a servant to come to the front and not the back, when I opened the door and found the stranger standing there, I assumed it was the promised girl.

   “Are you a good cook?” I said, in greeting.

   The young woman nodded. She was quite tall, almost my height, and slender as a stalk of grain. I put down the papers I had gathered and stepped outside to show her the cookery. It was in back near the garden wall, just a fire place with a baking hole and spit, half covered by a lean–to of stacked stones. “A bit primitive,” I admitted. “But we don’t require feasts. We are simply two men with appetites.”

   Having inspected the oven and cook pit, she wandered over to a patch of weeds and brambles by the wall.

   I wondered if she was a local girl or just here for the season.

   “Our last cook was with us only a month, when a sudden fancy overtook him to go south and pick grapes.”

   Bending down, she scratched up a handful of soil and sniffed it. “You could grow some herbs here,” she said, “for cooking and medicinals.”

   “You’re welcome to do as you please,” I told her. “Now, let’s decide on a wage.”

   “I’m afraid I’ve been jesting a bit, seigneur.” She twitched the dirt from her long fingers. Then she met my eyes with a bold, steady gaze that held no humor that I could detect. 

   “Madame Henri didn’t send you?”

   She shook her head, and placing her hand in that sweet spot just above a woman’s breast, she smiled and said, “I’m Marsal.”

   What an unexpected flood of surprise and joy that name brought to me. Here stood the woman who, as a child, I had saved from the  slaughter of Béziers.

   “Blessed heavens, girl,” was the best that I could find to say. She had grown to be comely.          Wispy curls escaped her tightly braided hair, framing a heart-shaped face, dimpled cheeks, and arresting eyes. She was handsome but not beautiful, or so I thought at first. Beauty, I believed then, required a certain levity and this one seemed so earnest.

   Although it was a joy to see the woman she had become, I wondered what had suddenly brought her to Carcassonne after twenty-three years and gently asked as much.

   “Good Woman Tibors died, and there was nothing to keep me in the mountains.”

   I offered my sincere condolences. Tibors was a priestess of the heretical Cathars who had brought the war upon us. But it was to her that Marsal’s parents had bade me take the child, after I sneaked her out of a city besieged by crusaders.

   Marsal turned away for a moment. I could see that she was still raw with grief and struggling for control. Seeming to have found it, she straightened her back further and reached into her belt-purse. From it she pulled a braid of black ribbon threaded through the loop carved on a tiny wooden box.

   “I recognize that,” I said, recalling how her mother had placed the ribbon over the infant

    Marsal’s head, and laid the tiny box against the child’s chest before wrapping the swaddling around her.

   “Yes, a relic of my namesake.” She took my hand, turned it over with a cool, quick touch and placed the necklace in my palm.

   “I’d like you to have it. A poor exchange, I’m afraid, for saving my life.”

   “Seeing you again is thanks enough,” I told her, but I opened the box wondering what I would find—a bone, a lock of hair? But it was nothing carnal. Just a piece of silk, once red, now pale as watered-wine, pierced by a tiny bit of wood.

   “It’s a splinter from the staff of Saint Marsal,” she said.

   I removed my hat and slipped the ribbon over my head.

   She reached out and touched the reliquary once with the tip of her finger as if to bid it farewell. An awkward moment followed and I wondered if I should insist she take it back. But I had already begun to feel an attachment for it, a slight emanation that rose from the holy relic and touched me with its gentle grace.

   “I’m pleased that you like this little gift,” she said, dispelling any thoughts of my returning it.      “It’s fitting that you have it since my mother valued it enough to send it along with me. But seigneur, maybe you can explain to me what Tibors never could. Why didn’t my parents leave Béziers before it was too late?”

   “Because everyone believed that Béziers would withstand the siege. And by the time I was smuggled out of the city, I was allowed to take only one other with me.”

   “But you had come to Béziers to rescue Aliz, not me.”

   I nodded, thinking back on Aliz. Tibors’ brother had hired me to tutor his daughter for the king’s court. But after all my efforts Aliz still refused to go. She didn’t want to grow up, marry, leave her father’s demesne where she roamed like a goat and did whatever she pleased. In the end, she got what she wanted, to stay in Béziers, in the care of the bailiff and his wife, who were Marsal’s parents. A temporary solution until Lord Prades decided what to do with his headstrong daughter.

   “I had promised Aliz’s parents that I would keep a watchful, if distant, eye on her while they were away at the king’s court.” Of course no one but I knew that Aliz had coerced her mother into letting her stay behind. The girl had seen us in a very intimate embrace and threatened to tell her father unless we did what she wished.

  “I was here in Carcassonne when I heard of the northern army advancing on Béziers.” I told Marsal a tidied up version of the facts. “I came at once but by the time I got there, the French King’s forces were in sight of Béziers. It was still possible for people to leave, but Aliz wouldn’t go. She, like your parents and everyone else, believed that Béziers was impregnable”

  “I’ve always wondered how you spirited me away,” said Marsal “Why were you allowed to leave once the siege began?”

“No mystery to that, dear girl. It was by the usual method, coin. There was money paid for myself and a select few to be smuggled past the enemy. I didn’t care how impregnable the city was supposed to be. I needed to get back home to my kin.”

  Marsal stood straight as a sentinel, drawing in every word. “Weren’t you afraid? My cries could have given you away.”

   “I was afraid,” I admitted. “And I had never held an infant before. Your father wove straps of cloth that went over my shoulders and secured you in a bunting across my chest. And your mother gave me a cloth dipped in milk and poppy for you to suck on if you cried. Miraculously you slept through the escape and waited until we were past the enemy lines before you began to bellow. I found a wet nurse among the armies’ camp followers who came with us as far as the foothills, then refused to go farther. I couldn’t very well climb the mountains with you in my arms, so I hired a mule, strapped a basket to its back and put you inside. The motion of the animal must have soothed you because you didn’t cry once all the way to Tibors.’ ”

   As I spoke, I had begun to walk across the yard. Marsal fell in step beside me.

   “Why did my mother let me go? If everyone thought that they were safe inside the city walls?”

   “Your mother let you go because she had a dream. Considering what came to pass, I imagine it wasn’t a good one. I want you to know that I tried to get safe-passage for your mother as well. I argued that a child should count as half, but the smugglers said the agreement had been for only two souls.”

   The sun was rising toward the east rampart and I had a busy day of work ahead. When we reached the side gate I tapped my hand against the relic, already a comfort, and said I would always think of her when I wore it.

   “How long will you be here?” I asked. Even with Tibors gone, I couldn’t imagine Marsal becoming a city dweller and assumed this was just a brief visit to help her with the loss.

   “I haven’t decided,” she said. “But what I told you earlier was true. I am a good cook.” We lingered by the gate. “Let me help until you find someone new to cook and care for you.” She spoke with spirit, more a pronouncement than a request.

   “As I mentioned earlier, there are two of us.”

   She nodded. “Chrétien told me he lived here with you when I saw him at Tibors’ funeral. It was he that suggested I come and see you, seigneur.”

   “When was this?”

   “Only days ago—five, six.”

   “Well that explains where he’s been.” For some of the time, but he’d been gone almost a fortnight. The man revealed nothing to me, but he could have at least told me that Tibors had died, he could have mentioned Marsal.

   “I would have gone to the funeral, too, if I’d known,” I said. “Chrétien is often away horse-trading for the garrison, sometimes he forgets to tell me where he’s going. Still, I have to eat, whether he’s here or not and will gladly accept your kind offer to cook.” I did like the girl and would be quite happy to see her again.

   She said she would come another morning when I wasn’t so busy and go to market with me to learn the foods we favored. I told her that I was not an early riser, that she was welcome to come any day after the third bell.

   When finally she departed, I went inside to gather up some papers. Then I left for my rooms in the city where I conducted my business as an advocate of the French crown.

   It was maddening and offensive that Chrétien hadn’t told me about Tibors’ death, and it kept running through my mind. Although we’d never talked about his sister Aliz and my rescuing Marsal, it was family history that I had lived and certainly it had been passed down to him. Back when I had failed to save Aliz from Béziers, I had sent a letter to Lord Prades in Aragon and told him what had happened. No one survived the siege. Twenty odd years passed before I received a reply and then it came from his son, Chrétien. Now that the Count of Toulouse and the King of France had finally made peace, Chrétien wished to come north to reclaim his ancestral lands. He remembered his mother saying that I was an advocate of the law and wanted to know if I would plead his request for reclamation.

   He accepted my offer of lodgings. I refused payment for them so he returned my kindness by couriering the occasional document for me or my fellow advocates. Still, I knew very little about Chrétien except his family roots. And I didn’t have the spirit to ask. He was so secretive—often away, never explaining why or where. I had learned early on that my inquiries were neither welcomed nor answered. But none of it mattered. His appearance had been unexpected and so very welcome, that I had quickly learned to never question him or do anything that might make him disappear.

   He spent a good deal of time at the French stables where he quartered his mount, and occasionally he did horse trading for the garrison. Always he had come and gone, often away for months. Still, we lived together in a companionable way, although I had yet to made a lick of progress with his reclamation.

   In the years since the French conquered us, I’ve seen many challenges to these grants the French crown made and only three reversals. Still, I did what Chrétien asked and began the search for lawful deeds and ledgers, knowing it was all but futile. Since there was little talent for administration among the French invaders, they have been forced to rely on people like myself, sons of the families who had once governed. The invaders dismantled the city council. A temporary measure they said, but a new one has never been formed. The castellan, who is a local man, oversees the town and the garrison. The magistrate, also one of ours, administers the law. These locals govern but the French rule. The final power is with the seneschal who is a northerner and the official representative of King Louis.

   The French have also put forth a puzzling arrangement of officials to help them rule our provinces. There are local officials governed by provincial officials governed by regional officials. This keeps a continuous movement of requests and judicial decisions running between Carcassonne, Narbonne, and Paris.

   On my way up to the city, I encountered a beggar I hadn’t seen before, and a young woman looking for business. Since the wars, so many people have been dispossessed of home and hamlet. There are more beggars now than ever in Carcassonne, and more whores—quite young ones.

   I worked all morning until my fingers were cramped from writing, then went down to the marketplace to see what I could find for the evening meal. The fields around Carcassonne have been war–scorched so many times that crops are no longer plentiful. Whenever there was a surplus it was confiscated and sent to the French garrisons in other towns. There had been salt shortages all winter. Meat was not always preserved as carefully as it might be, and it was risky to buy anything but fresh. Since it was late hours, I had to be satisfied with olives, bread, cheese, garlic and a large skin of wine.

   At home I was pleasantly surprised to find Chrétien and was glad I stopped for provisions. My earlier annoyance with him fled but I didn’t let it go altogether.

   “Mistress Marsal came to the house this morning.” I handed him a cup of wine.

He stared into it.

   “She said your Aunt Tibors died.”

   “Marsal asked after you at the funeral and I mentioned you lived in Carcassonne.”

   “Why didn’t you tell me your aunt died?” I asked.

   “I thought I had,” he said.

And I believed him. I felt that Chrétien was so guarded because he had been taught to be that way. Having been raised at court where every sigh, every frown is full of meaning, he had learned at an early age to keep his own counsel.

   “Tibors was my father’s favorite sister,” he remarked.

   My insides dove as they always did at the sound of those words—my father. Twenty four years ago, I had abandoned Chrétien and his mother while he was still in her womb. Now God had been inordinately good in bringing him back to me. But there was a price to pay for our reunion. I was forced to pretend that Prades de Béziers, revered local hero and defender of the King of Aragon, was Chrétien’s father. When in fact I, Isarn Benet, humble advocate for my fellow man, had sired him.

   To my eyes, the young man looked like me. I truly wondered how everyone else didn’t see it. He had my walk, my slight though muscular build, and the habit of bouncing on the balls of his feet when he was agitated.

   I showed him the gift Marsal had given me and explained that it was a relic of her namesake.

   “Who is Saint Marsal?” Chrétien asked.

   Although my son was raised at the court of the pious King Pedro of Aragon, his ignorance of Holy Mass and the sacraments, the lives of the saints, and many Catholic practices was appalling. Byzantium has been a blasphemous influence.

   “Saint Marsal was one of the first apostles to come to Gaul from Rome, and the first bishop of Limoges,” I told him. “He is the patron saint of prisoners and his relics are known for their especially miraculous powers.”

   Chrétien stared back at me with his mother’s dark eyes.

   If I told Chrétien he was my son, his fortune in Aragon would no longer legally belong to him. Not that I would ever expose his illegitimacy or had any way to prove it even if I had wanted to do so. I had only his mother’s word. Why would he believe me even if I did tell him the truth? Though who would admit to such shameful behavior if it were not the truth? I had cuckolded Lord Prades while a guest in his own home.

   We lingered over the wine. The evening bell began to ring for vespers.

   Sometimes I could see both his mother and me in him, but God knew his nature was all his own. The mysteries prevailed in him, and the sanguine humors too, as they often do in poets.

I had seen how other men’s eyes and conversation followed him, their respect. This wasn’t true just because he was my son. He had a natural suppleness that I never have been able to master. It was clear men admired him, not just for his songs but for his spirit, charm, and male grace. He had been a soldier since he was six years old and it gave him a certain clarity and—there is only one word— parage, a southern word that my son embodies. It means glory, honor, and duty all in one .

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