Disclaimers in Part 1
Whew! Now, on to our story.....
The city lay in ruin.
She stood at the rampart of the western wall and stared out at the burned rooftops, the setting sun tingeing the smoke-filled air in a wash of red and purple. For a moment, everything faded. Time stood still and she could almost forget all that she had seen. In her heart, she knew that she could not. The events of the past few weeks had changed her, had marked her in ways that went beyond the jagged gash which covered her face from her hairline to her jaw.
The sun was moving into the horizon, slowly sinking, muting the landscape in a veil of darkness. She wondered if its light would ever hold the promise of joy, of life, in her eyes. She wondered if the light would ever hold anything except the deep purple of desolation and destruction.
She watched the dying light as the world that she knew crumbled around her.
1226 AD, Ormarc (Languedoc/Occitania), ten weeks earlier
She felt wetness against her face, a sticky wetness that was making it difficult to see. She pushed against the cooling stone floor in a desperate attempt to stand. She turned her head and she felt a searing pain flow over her body. Her stomach lurched and she expelled what little food was left in it.
She was still alive.
The sword blow should have killed her, but somehow, she survived.
Get up! Get up!
You're hurt, but you're still alive. Now get up before that soldier realizes it too and comes back to slaughter you.
"Yer a woman! Ya Cathar heretics are worse tha' the Saracens! Unnatural monsters! Heh." The soldier's eyes gleamed as he reached for the ties of his dirty, blood-splattered leather jerkin, "Let me show ye the error of yer ways." His hand reached lower, grabbing his crotch, emphasizing his intent to the prone figure clad in chainmail and leather. "I bet ya never even had a man before--"
She struggled to stand, her eyes growing dim, as her fingers tried to reach for the knife in her boot.
Can't pass out. I--I need to reach--
"Did they know ya were pretendin'? Heh. I bet ya had 'em fooled, but I know what'cha are. And I'll show ya what a real man---"
The soldier gasped harshly, his eyes growing wide. He looked down, an incredulous look crossing his face as he stared at the knife hilt sticking from his chest.
He fell with a heavy thud as the woman slumped back to the floor.
She blinked and looked up to find fevered green eyes staring at her in fear, her body suddenly cradled in velvet and brocade-clad arms. She reached up to touch a soot smudged cheek, brushing aside reddish-blonde locks.
"Na Gabrielle--" She coughed harshly, blood splattering against her mail and the woman's dress.
"Hush. Don't talk. Save your strength."
She shook her head. "Help me stand. We need to get the others, help them to your father's castle, my Lady."
Na Gabrielle struggled to help the mail-clad woman as chaos reigned around them. Fire raged through the central market and smoke billowed through the air blocking the light of the setting sun. People ran from the cathedral, some heading toward the city gates in an effort to defend against the soldiers and mercenaries from the North, while others fled toward the castle and nearby mountains. Several minutes passed and the noblewoman managed to help the warrior to a nearby stone wall.
She gently caressed the noblewoman's cheek as she leaned against the wall for support. Is this real? I can't tell if-- Is it-- "Is it truly you or am I imagining this as I lie dying?"
"I'm here." Na Gabrielle's voice rose as she saw the extent of the injuries the warrior suffered. "You're bleeding!"
The warrior laughed softly, her face moving closer to the noblewoman's, "And you're beautiful."
Their mouths met softly.
"We must hurry, Lady. We must find other survivors and get to the castle as quickly as we can."
A solidly built man with a graying beard turned from a group of haggard-looking farmers. His eyes went wide as he saw his daughter and the city blacksmith holding up a slumping form between them. He rushed over, grabbing the warrior's arm from his daughter's hold.
"I have her, Gabrielle. Run, child. Go find the physician. Hurry."
Na Gabrielle, already running toward the inner courtyard of the castle, turned to glance worriedly at the woman who leaned heavily against her father's side. With a nod towards her father, she disappeared among the growing crowd of people rushing into the walls of the castle.
"Luc," the man gestured to the stables within the castle walls, "let's take her in here for now."
The blacksmith nodded, shifting the weight of the woman toward himself. "If I may my Lord--" The blacksmith lifted the woman in his arms, walking quickly to a small pile of hay. "Na Gabrielle insisted that she help me carry N'Alexandra, but--"
With a grunt, Luc gently deposited the unconscious woman onto the hay pile. The old man leaned toward the warrior, his hands pushing back blood-caked hair from her face.
"What happened, Luc? How did you find them?"
The tall blacksmith ran a hand through his shoulder-length brown hair. His blue eyes surveyed the stables filled with people huddling for warmth.
"I was helping Peter the Carpenter evacuate the cathedral when we came upon your daughter and N'Alexandra. I almost thought she was dead, En Chrétien. I helped Na Gabrielle here, while Peter headed for the abbey to make sure the Sisters had evacuated as well. My Lord, surely these French would not dare attack such Holy places?"
En Chrétien shook his head. "It matters little, my boy. Such is the nature of war."
"But these Cathar seem harmless enough, why--"
"My Lord!" A man with a long graying beard ran to the nobleman's side, Na Gabrielle following closely at his heels.
"Ezra, quickly. It's Alexandra."
The physician knelt over the prone woman. The nobleman stood up as Na Gabrielle handed the blacksmith a cup of water. The tall man drained the cup and bowed towards the man and his daughter. "Thank you, Lady. My Lord, if you'll excuse me, I must find Peter." He turned to leave.
"Wait! Luc!" Ezra Ben Jonah stood quickly, placing a delaying hand against Luc's muscular forearm. "We must move N'Alexandra to the castle. She's lost much blood. I need to cauterize the wound on her face and side."
The blacksmith nodded and lifted the woman to his arms.
All eyes turned to see a short man with curly blonde hair rushing towards them. He bowed quickly before the lord of the castle. "My Lord, my Lady. The nunnery's evacuated. Most of the city's either here or have fled to the mountains, Lord. The French--the main army--is several leagues from the city, but there are some soldiers within the city-- looting, burning buildings, killing our people."
Lord Chrétien nodded as Luc and Na Gabrielle followed the physician towards the inner castle courtyard.
"My Lord, if I may ask--"
"Yes, come with me, Peter."
"Yes, my Lord."
Both men turned toward the postern gate. "You were saying, Peter--"
"My Lord, surely after what had happened at Toulouse, the French--"
"You know of what happened at Toulouse?"
"Yes, my Lord. I have a cousin, Henry, who lives in the city. He sent word after the siege ended. Surely, after the defeat of Simon of Monfort by Count Raymond, the French would realize that they could not possibly take--"
"The Northern Barons want this land, Peter. The Cathars were merely an excuse for them to invade. After the massacre at Béziers, there were negotiations, agreements. . .concessions made with the Papacy and the Ile de France concerning the spread of the Cathars. But it did not stop there. When Count Raymond had taken Toulouse back from the hands of the French, I too, hoped that this Crusade against our lands and people would end. I was wrong. There is news that the French are trying to take Avignon."
"Dear God, no!"
"Yes. We must try to stop them from taking Ormarc as well. Tell the guards at the gate to let in as many as they can. Then we shall close the entrance."
Peter bowed and ran hurriedly toward the postern gate.
The carpenter stopped mid-stride and turned toward the lord.
"Bring as many able-bodied men as you can find to the inner courtyard. We will need many in order to survive the coming siege."
She awoke in a panic, her arms flailing wildly as she sat up, her voice hoarse. "Ga--Gabrielle!" She coughed violently. Arms suddenly enveloped her and she struggled against them.
"Ssshh, love. I have you."
She calmed instantly, and the arms around her body tightened their hold. "Gabrielle?"
A voice filled with unshed tears whispered against her ear. "I'm here. I--I thought I lost you."
She tried to move, to see the woman's face.
"Don't move, Alexandra. Please. You're still hurt."
The noblewoman gestured to a bearded man at the far corner of the room. He took a pitcher toward the bed. "Here child, drink this." He held a cup in front of the warrior. "Not too much." He nodded softly as he watched the woman sip at the cup.
The warrior looked at the man standing by the bed. She weakly pushed the cup away. "Lord Ezra. How-- how long--"
"Six days, child. Your fever finally broke yesterday." The physician placed a weathered hand against her forehead and smiled softly. "You will be well enough to leave your sickbed in two. Now rest." He placed the cup on a nearby table. "Make sure she drinks what is left in that cup. And I suggest you get some rest as well, my Lady. If you'll both excuse me, I need to attend to the others. " He bowed and walked to the other beds at the far end of the room.
N' Alexandra reached back toward the woman sitting behind her. Gentle fingers enveloped her own. "Have you been here the entire time?" She felt a head nod against her shoulders. "Have you slept? Eaten?" No answer came. "My Lady, you need to take care of--"
"I'm fine and I needed to be here, with YOU."
"But you must keep up your strength."
She heard an exasperated sigh.
"Even at death's door, Alexandra--"
"I'm hardly at death's door, Lady. Lord Ezra Ben Jonah himself said--"
"That you are much too stubborn a mule to die so easily."
The warrior chuckled softly. "So why do you put up with me?"
She felt a soft kiss against her hair. "Because I love you, you idiot. Now, you need to drink what's in the cup."
"Gabrielle, it tastes like horse piss."
The noblewoman sighed once more. "You must be feeling better. Your tongue has certainly recovered quickly enough."
Na Gabrielle smiled indulgently. "Shall I tell you a tale to make the horse piss more palatable?"
"She is awake?"
"Yes, Father. She's still weak, but she insists that she's fine. She says that she won't stay one minute longer in the sickroom. Lord Ezra has threatened to tie her to the bed."
En Chrétien smiled. He ran a hand through his graying head and gestured to his daughter to join him. A table, filled with papers and maps, occupied the far end of the large room.
"Has he taken the bandages from Alexandra's face?"
"Not yet, Father. En Ezra says that she will bear a scar."
"I suspected as much. I saw the wound--"
Na Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't know how she survived. There was so much blood, Father. When I finally found her near the cathedral grounds, she looked so pale. It was as if death had already taken her. I managed to get her only a few feet to the western end of the cathedral when she collapsed in my arms."
En Chrétien put an arm around his daughter's shoulder.
"She was delirious. She asked if I were a vision granted to her before she died. If--if it weren't for Luc and Peter--"
"You shouldn't have been there."
Both eyes turned toward the entrance of the room. N'Alexandra leaned against the doorframe. The left side of her face was covered in bandages; her long dark hair was bound in a loose bun. She wore a dark gray cloak that covered her chainmail and leather armor.
"I beg your pardon, my Lord, for interrupting. My Lady, I can do much more good here than in the sickroom. I am well." N'Alexandra stopped in front of the nobleman and his daughter and bowed. "En Ezra has released me." She gestured to the bandages. "And these will be removed by tonight. My Lord, what of the defenses for the city?"
En Chrétien gestured to a map on the table. "They've managed to breach the northeastern wall of the city gate. That is how their mercenaries and foot soldiers entered the city. We were able to turn them back, but many of our own people died in the effort. We've moved most of the supplies from the city to the castle proper. Some of our men will stay at the city gates as well as within the city itself, but our main forces will reside in and around the castle."
"We should put archers on the ramparts overlooking the glacis. Post other archers near the murder holes should the outer gate fall and there be a need to lower the portcullis."
"Yes. My thoughts exactly."
"I know, my Lady--"
Na Gabrielle enveloped the tall woman in a breath-stealing hug. "Promise me that you'll rest, if only a little." She turned to face her father. "My Lord, if you'll excuse me, I'll go to the buttery to check on the supplies for the castle."
The warrior and the nobleman turned and watched as the young woman left the room.