Sybille's Journey: Excerpt from Chapter 1, "Montaillou," by Meredy Amyx




     My grandmother Sybille was in Montaillou when the Inquisitor came. It was August 15, 1308, and she was three weeks short of her fifteenth birthday.

     In the little village of Montaillou on the morning of the Feast of the Blessed Virgin, the fifteenth of August, 1308, Sybille Benet awoke while it was still dark. She crept out of the big four-poster bed she shared with her cousin Guillemette and the servant girl Agnés. No one else in her uncle's household was yet astir, although Agnés ought to have been up already and starting preparations for the family's share of the village feast that would follow mass on this holy day.
     Sybille kept her movements soundless as she dressed, careful not to give the ill-tempered Agnés the benefit of being awakened accidentally. Both of the older girls were sleeping as deeply as the seven sleepers of Ephesus, who slumbered in a cave for three hundred sixty years. Sybille savored the feeling of moral superiority it gave her to know that she alone of the household was up so early on this important day. The sensation was all the more delicious for its rarity: it seemed to her that she spent at least half her life in a state of apology for something.
     She knew full well that when she had enjoyed the taste of self-righteousness for several minutes more, she would come back and gently wake the grumbling servant girl. Agnés would never go so far as to thank her; but sometime in the next few days, Sybille would find herself the beneficiary of some small, silent favor—a tear in her tunic mended, the water bucket already filled when it was her turn to carry, an extra bite of some tasty morsel left for her to give to her younger brother Arnaud.
     The promise of a favorite food was one of Sybille's best strategies for controlling the boy's conduct, as Agnés well knew. Oddly, despite her grumpy disposition, seventeen-year-old Agnés was the only person other than Sybille who had any influence over Arnaud's behavior. Some days, as Agnés went about her chores, he followed her like a devoted pup and tried to copy everything she did. She showed him more patience than she granted anyone else, even when his efforts faltered or added to her work. But sooner or later she would become vexed by his presence and his relentless imitation and scold him until he went away, usually in tears. Sybille did not even pretend to understand their relationship.
     The air at dawn was already uncomfortably warm, and midday would be hot. The whole village was sure to retire for a nap following the communal banquet and before the afternoon's games and sporting contests began. Even though the Church frowned on such diversions, frowning being one of the things that the Church did best, the village priest of Montaillou could be relied on for lenient enforcement of the many civil and criminal statutes of God. Everyone knew that Pierre Clergue was not one to let his vocational dedication to things divine stand in the way of his parishioners' appetites for earthly pleasures. When it came to appetites, the tolerance of Father Pierre was boundless. Not a woman for several villages around, from lasses in pigtails to grandmothers long past their last blushes, was unaware of Pierre Clergue's liberality toward appetites, his own first among them.
     As for Arnaud's appetites, one of Sybille's challenges that day would be keeping her younger brother sober. On any festive day, and on a hot one especially, there would be much quaffing of ale that had been well cooled in dark cellars dug out of the mountainside. By evening, when the lanterns were lit and the village musicians struck up their tunes for dancing during the long, slow twilight of the Pyrenees, most of the villagers would be in a high state of merriment. But there were always those who showed their worst face at such times and who would think it amusing to get someone like Arnaud intoxicated and then make him the butt of cruel jokes. Arnaud was only twelve and quite defenseless, with no one but Sybille to look after him.
     Sybille had saved some strawberries especially for this occasion, keeping them cool in the cellar for nearly a week. There was no treat Arnaud craved more than fruit, and strawberries were his favorite. She relied on her skills and her special inducements to keep his impulses in check for the duration of the day's events.
     But first they had to get through mass.
     Sybille combed her dark brown hair and deftly plaited it into two long braids. She hoped she would be allowed to go without a head covering today. Her aunt had been pressing her to start wearing a wimple like the other women, saying it was not appropriate for a girl of fourteen, and one so obviously mature, to continue going bareheaded like the younger girls. But on a hot day like this, maybe Aunt would be kind and not insist that Sybille wrap her head and neck in a length of white linen just for the sake of a social custom.
     She slipped her tunic over her head, tied the laces of her leather slippers, and stepped softly into the room where Arnaud shared a bed with his two male cousins, one older and one younger. They did not like sleeping with him because he often had nightmares and sometimes wet the bed. When their father had accepted his orphaned niece and nephew into the household nearly two years earlier, he had expressed his will that they be treated as members of the family. If his wife and children resented this arrangement, they kept it among themselves; but it was no secret to Sybille.
     The girl looked down tenderly upon her sleeping brother. She was often impatient with him, she knew, but now he looked like such a lamb that she wondered how she could ever lose her temper with him.
     "Arni!" she whispered. Arnaud was sleeping at the far left of the bed, curled in a tight ball. He wore a thin nightshirt because he did not like sleeping naked or nearly so. The household cat was a furry gray spiral at his feet. His cousins, wearing only loose underpants, were tangled together at the opposite edge, leaving as wide a gap as possible between themselves and Arnaud. Sybille was afraid to touch him because he might cry out if startled, and then there would be noisy complaining from his bedmates. She whispered again, more loudly: "Arni!"
     Arnaud uncoiled, opened his eyes, and smiled dreamily up at Sybille.
     "Souci," he said, using his childhood nickname for his sister.
     "Arni, you have to get up now." The soft light of dawn was beginning to seep into the room.
     "I thought we were back home at Bending Oak. It was summer and we were going to play." His voice seemed to come from far away.
     "Come, Arni. Come now." Sybille turned back the sheet and uncovered the boy's thin, bare legs. Arnaud whined in protest, and a responding snarl issued from the far right side of the bed. "Hurry," she urged, shaking his shoulder. "There'll be treats today. It's a special day."
     Arnaud grinned and tumbled out of bed. He reached for a tunic, but Sybille said, "No, first come with me. Come in your nightshirt."
     Arnaud knew what that meant. He knotted his face in a scowl and was about to object, but Sybille made an exaggerated shushing gesture and pushed him gently ahead of her toward the stairs.
     "Go on down now," she said, "and put some water in the basin. I'll be right there. Go quietly, now!"
     Arnaud balked, still scowling.
     "I have some strawberries for later," she said, "if you're a good boy."
     Laughing, he galloped down the stairs, his bare feet light on the cool wood. "Shh!" she whispered sharply after him.
     Back in her own sleeping room, Sybille moved quietly to open the cupboard and fetch out a smock. The cupboard hinge creaked. In the bed, Guillemette stirred but did not waken. If Sybille disturbed her cousin too early, she would earn a tongue-lashing. Agnés slept on, as soundly as a stone. Sybille put the smock on over her tunic and tied the strings in back. She pulled on a cap and tucked her braids up into it. At the last possible moment, she touched Agnés on the shoulder and spoke her name softly. The older girl's eyes popped open, and she glared at Sybille as if she were a cockroach in her porridge. Then her gaze shot to the window, where daylight was brightening. She leapt up, muttering curses under her breath. Sybille withdrew as swiftly as possible.
     Arnaud was waiting in the yard beside the door. Naked to the waist, with his nightshirt tied around him like a loincloth, he was gnawing on a hard chunk of barley bread. In the other hand he had a generous wedge of cheese made from sheep's milk. She knew she ought to reprimand him for breaking his fast before mass, but she did not want to draw his attention away from the things she had to tell him today. Besides, he would behave better if he wasn't hungry. He rarely seemed to have his fill. For all he ate, he ought to have been a husky youth, but he remained slight of build and small for his age.
     His skin was smooth and fair, unblemished but for an irregularly shaped rosy pink birthmark on his left shoulder. He did not like to show it because it excited people's superstitions. Some, for instance, said it must mean their mother had eaten strawberries while she was pregnant. Others had worse notions. Arnaud thought maybe it explained why he loved the popular fruit so much. Sybille had a similar birthmark on her upper right thigh, but no one had seen it since she had learned to bathe and dress herself. Their mother had had a small pink mark on the back of her neck. She had called it the kiss of an angel.
     None of the speculations meant anything to Sybille; to her, a story was just a story.
     A basin of water stood on a level tree stump. The despised scrubbing brush was in it, and a cake of creamy Castile soap lay beside it along with a torn length of old linen. A bench was drawn over next to the stump. Arnaud had also thoughtfully provided himself with one of his aunt's best linen towels, lying folded on the bench, but Sybille did not chide him. "Good lad, Arni," she said, and he beamed in response to her approval.
     She could hear Agnés clanging and banging around in the kitchen. Soon the whole household would be roused. Agnés would hate having to work over the cooking fire on such a warm day, and so she would make sure that it wasn't a very pleasant experience for anyone. Most housekeeping tasks were divided among the available hands, irrespective of station, but some were considered menial enough that none but a servant or the poorest live-in relative was obliged to perform them. If it hadn't been for Agnés, those lowly chores would have fallen to Sybille, and both of them knew it.
     Agnés had come from a very poor family over in the neighboring village of Belcaire, her father burned at the stake for the Cathar heresy when she was three and her eldest brother now in prison in Carcassonne for the same offense. Her mother, Fabrisse Duran, had been tried by the Inquisitor at Carcassonne and sentenced to wear the yellow cross sewn on her garments. That dread mark of the convicted heretic caused her to be publicly shunned by the community. Fellow Cathars, of whom there were many in that region of the Comté de Foix and its neighbor Languedoc, did not dare associate with her openly for fear of being denounced themselves. The elder sister of Agnés had run away at fifteen, and she had two small brothers at home whose paternity had never been openly discussed. As often as she could, Agnés walked the five miles home over the footpath to Belcaire and took her earnings and some provisions to her mother.
     Once, about a year ago, when she had been given two days' leave, she had taken Arnaud with her. He had set off happily, following Agnés like a shadow down the narrow footpath and never glancing back to where Sybille stood ready to wave, a pang of jealousy striking her heart. Agnés's mother had received him like a king and showered him with attention, and her two little brothers had idolized him. Arnaud had never been looked up to before. Ever since, Arnaud had talked about going back to Belcaire, but Agnés had not offered again. Sybille wondered privately if taking full responsibility for Arnaud had been too much of a strain on her limited powers of endurance.
     But however poorly Agnés bore her burdens, bear them she did, and by that she won Sybille's unspoken admiration. Sybille too had come to terms with a hard lot at a young age, and so she felt a kinship with Agnés, although no mention of it ever passed between them.
     Sybille rolled up her sleeves and waited while Arnaud hastily finished his breakfast. He sat down on the bench and bent over the basin like a condemned man awaiting the fall of the executioner's blade. His jaw-length dark brown hair fell forward and concealed his face. Sybille seized him by the hair, picked up the brush, and set to work.
     "We're going to mass today, Arni," she began, "and there are some things you must remember."
     "First say it, Souci," he demanded.
     "Not this time, Arni. I have to tell you other things. You have to listen."
     "I won't listen until you say it, Souci," he said, his voice blurred by the vigorous scrubbing she was applying to his neck and ears.
     With a sigh, she recited the requisite words, the words their mother had always said in mock scolding when she bathed her son—words once spoken in loving jest, now hardened into ritual: "How ever do you get so much dirt on you, Arni? I declare, Victoire will not have enough soil left in the field to plant his beans."
     "Then what will he do?" asked Arnaud, as regular as a catechism.
     "He will have to plant them behind your ears!" said Sybille, imitating her mother's tone as faithfully as she could. And they both laughed as if it were the first time the joke had ever been made. But for Sybille, the grief beneath the laughter was never more than skin deep.
     She banished the thought. She could not bear to think about them right nowher mother, Victoire, any of them.
     The ritual accomplished, he submitted obediently as she dunked his head and worked his hair with her fingers. She let him up, hair dripping in rivers, and began a brisk application of the scrubbing brush to his back.
     "Listen to me now, Arnaud," she said, using his proper name in a firm tone to show she was serious.
     "What about a story? I always get a story with a bath."
     "No. Not now!"
     "Tell me about Prester John," he begged, trying one last time to ward off the lecture by calling for Sybille's favorite tale of a magical kingdom in the East.
     "Arnaud!" She shook his head angrily by the hair and smacked him with the bristle side of the brush, leaving a stippled red mark on his pale back. "Listen!"
     "Yes, Souci," he responded meekly.
     "We're going to mass this morning. You know that. It's the Feast of the Blessed Virgin. We have to go. Everybody has to go so they can't tell which ones are the heretics."
     She felt him nod his head as well as he could with his hair in her grip.
     "There'll be lots of candles, you know, and things on the altar. Lots of things, pretty and shiny."
     She felt him tense with excitement and nod again.
     "You have to stay beside me," said Sybille. "You can't go and look at them. All right? Or touch anything. Do you understand, Arni? No touching. Remember that. I don't want to have to use the rope. You're just too old for that now."
     Arnaud was still.
     Sybille stopped washing and lifted his head by the hair, not hard, but firmly, to make him look at her. He wore a set expression, but his eyes were defiant.
     "Arnaud! Do you understand?"
     Still grasping his hair, she moved his head like a puppet's in an exaggerated nod, and his face broke into a grin. "Yes, Souci," he said, giggling.
     Sybille began to work on his chest, saving his arms and hands for last because they would blacken the water. He wriggled and squealed as she went over his ribs, but her hold on his hair was firm and kept him in place.
     She drew a deep breath and continued.
     "This isn't going to be an ordinary mass, Arni. Someone important will be there, someone like a bishop or another important priest from a cathedral in a big city like Toulouse. Remember the cathedral in Toulouse?"
     "Pink," said Arnaud.
     "That's right, you remember."
     Pink. Yes, she remembered too: the famous pink-hued brick of the Saint-Étienne Cathedral. The sunlit interior, the arches, the columns. The high, high dome with its colored windows. The altar with its shining brasses, the choir with its elaborate carvings. A feeling of smallness, of awe and fear.
     "The wolf," said Arnaud with a tremor in his voice.
     She'd been frightened too. Right beside the confessional, a frieze carved in dark wood had depicted the Good Shepherd, who giveth his life for the sheep; in the next panel, a wolf, with terrible teeth, menacing the sheep. The eyes of the wolf seemed to fasten on the person who was about to enter the confessional.
     Her first confession, at age seven. How assidously she had rehearsed the words of the ritual, her mother coaching her. She had approached the confessional, trembling, on the eve of her first communion. Her sins lay heavy on her soul, terrifying her. She saw the vicious eyes of the wolf, the slavering teeth, the stricken lamb beneath his great and merciless paw, and the hireling shepherd fleeing in the distance.
     And then her mother had let go of her hand: "Go ahead, Sybille." And she was alone.
     Arnaud's cry of pain shocked her back to the present. She had been scrubbing so fiercely in one spot on his shoulder that it had begun to look raw.
     "Oh, Arni, I'm so sorry!"
     Wringing the soft linen rag over his back and chest, she rinsed his body gently and went on.
     "Well, I heard about this special visitor yesterday, but I don't know who he is. Father Pierre will be there, but the other priest will be more important." Picturing the bishop of Toulouse in his splendid vestments of white and gold before the altar at Saint-Étienne, she began to embellish. "And he will wear special clothes, fancier than our priest's and more like what the saints and angels wear. With lots of" She paused. Could it make things any worse to call his attention to them? No, she decided: Arnaud would not fail to notice. Better to make the rules simple, plain, and complete. "With lots of shiny things. Silk and gold thread and silver and gold and maybe even jewels."
     Arnaud began to bounce with anticipation.
      "Arnaud! Listen. You are going to stay with me. And what are you going to remember?"
     His look grew sullen. She gave his head another shake, as if his poor brains could be jostled awake. "Arni! What are you going to remember?"
     "No touching."
     "That's right. No touching. You are going to stay with me even without the rope on your wrist. And keep away from the candles. And some of the parishioners are going to have their fancy clothes on, too, the rich ones, and you can't touch them either. No touching. Say it!"
     "No touching," repeated Arnaud.
     "Good. We don't want them making their angry faces at us, do we?"
     Arnaud shook his head.
     "Or calling names after us."
     He shook his head again.
     "How do we feel when that happens?" she prompted.
     "Sad and ashamed," Arnaud replied, his wide brown eyes luminous with tears. "Some boys called me shit-for-brains, and that fat woman said I was an idiot."
     "I'm not an idiot, Souci."
     "No, Arni. You're not." She stroked his tousled hair, already half dry in the warm early sunshine. "So we don't want that to happen any more, Arni. All right? Andif we have to leave before mass is over, we will miss the benediction."
     Completion of the ritual was important to Arnaud. If he wasn't properly told to go in peace, he worried that there wouldn't be peace and something terrible might happen instead.
     "And rememberafterward, if you've been good, there'll be strawberries."
     Arnaud was silent, but his desire glowed in his eyes. She gave him a moment to let the promise sink in. Placing his grimy hands in the basin, first one, then the other, she washed the dust of summer days off his arms. The water swirled muddy and thick as a silt-laden stream in spring.
     "All right, Arni. You did good. You do your feet now, and then you can dry off and comb your hair and get dressed."
     The village of Montaillou was in most respects like any other small community in the region. Situated high in the Pyrenees not far from the Spanish border, Montaillou had strong ties with Catalonia to the south. Its economy revolved around sheep-herding and its many products: wool, milk, cheese, and meat. Montaillou belonged to the region ruled by the Count of Foix, whose family had once governed an independent principality but had lately become subject to the king of France, as neighboring Languedoc had done already. The lord of the domain was rarely in residence; but when the count visited Montaillou, he occupied the castle that stood on a crest just above the village. In his absence, all civil matters in Montaillou were under the jurisdiction of his bailiff, Bernard Clergue.
     The core of the community was the church, under the offices of the priest. And the church, of course, meant the Churchthe Roman Catholic Church. The Church's dominion was broader, deeper, and more powerful than that of any earthly king or prince, though no more perfect, administered as it was by mortal men somewhat less able than the Son of God to resist the lures that flesh is heir to, of which seven only begin the list. In Montaillou the priest of Notre-Dame-de-Carnesses was Pierre Clergue.
     Between them, the brothers Clergue wielded what power there was to wield in the village of Montaillou.
     What set Montaillou apart from other villages was the lingering presence of those who dared to defy the sacred authority of the mighty institution of Rome.
     For more than a century the Roman Catholic Church had raised the scourge against heresy, and nowhere more zealously than in the Languedoc, the region where the Albigensians, or Cathars, had their strongest foothold. By decree of Pope Gregory IX, the Inquisition had been mounted in 1184 for the single purpose of rooting out heresy, and the Cathar heresy in particular; but the semblance of judiciary process was too slow and inefficient for some. The bloody Albigensian Crusade had brought the sword against adherents of forbidden beliefs, delivering sentences in steel that made the judgments of the Inquisition seem just by comparison.
     Of the many points of dogma that made the Cathars heretics in the eyes of the Church, the principal one was the belief in the dualistic Manichaean doctrine of balanced good and evil forces set in eternal opposition to one another, as if God might have an equal. This was the same heresy embraced by St. Augustine prior to the epiphany that set him on the path to sainthood and led him to be its most vocal denouncer. To this belief the Cathars added an ideal of poverty and purity, by which standard they viewed themselves as true, good Christians, real Christians, above the corruption and worldly materialism of the organized Church. And furthermore, they observed certain rituals to assure themselves of salvation by means not countenanced by Rome.
     No single concern of any kind, not even survival, outweighed that of salvation in the minds of the Christian populace, orthodox and heretic alike; and those who claimed to hold the key to it owned the minds of men and women.
     Truly they were far closer to one another spiritually, the heretics and their orthodox brethren, than they were different, scions as they all were of the Church whose vast canopy overspread what was soon to become Europe and whose stout trunk has stood unbending through centuries of human history. However they might have varied in their perceptions of the Divine or their practices on the path to salvation, they were above all Christiansnot Jews, not Moslems, and not pagans. Upon this, by the tenets of their faith, they were agreed: that Jesus was the Christ, the resurrection and the life, the bread of life, the light of the world, the door, the way, the truth, and the life, the good shepherd, and the true vine. But that commonality was obscured by the perceived magnitude of the doctrinal differences between the pronouncements of the established Church and the consciences of the earnest digressors. In that dark and troubled epoch, divergent beliefs were not respected as personal conviction but reviled as defiance of religious authority. Backed by secular powers, the Church tolerated no challenge to its ascendancy. Even the smallest dogmatic fissures between orthodox and heretic formed a gulf wide enough to part hell from heaven.
     That gulf cut through the life of young Sybille Benet and made of her no believer at all.
     The Cathar leaders and evangelists, humble craftsmen by trade, were known as goodmen or perfecti, pure or perfect. Their followers, however, did not have to trouble themselves overmuch with the rigors of saintly spirituality; they could relax their standards a little during their lifetimes as long as they underwent the proper procedures upon their deathbeds. The Cathars had a formal system of just-in-time heretication that saw to the salvation of their flock. How could any practice not be popular that afforded its devotees both the opportunity to feel more righteous than their fellows and the license to postpone living up to their own ideals until they'd had a good sampling of what it was they were going to renounce?
     For many reasons, then, Catharism exerted a strong appeal to the countryfolk, both peasant and gentry, and the heresy had won so many converts that the Church had been forced to take the strongest measures to stamp it out.
     There in Montaillou resided the highest remaining concentration of heretics, the greatest single affront to the supremacy of the Church of Rome: of the two hundred twenty residents, a good half were conversi, disciples of the perfecti.
     Members of this small community knew they were divided and knew how they were divided. Few secrets were truly secret, and in that time of the unbridled terrors of fanatical faith, denunciation and death could come as easily with a whisper as with a roar.
     But the people were also bound together by blood, by long association, and by sheer proximity. And the Feast of the Blessed Virgin furnished a rare occasion for their essential unity to come to the fore. Of all the figures in the medieval pantheon, none was more deeply revered or adored than the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her holy feast day honored traditions common both to the mainstream Church and to the heretical deviants. For the love of the Blessed Virgin, the devout Cathars and their Christian brothers and sisters joined hands to pray, to break bread, and to dance together, forgetting for a few hours how dangerous they were to one another.
     The tree-lined village green of Montaillou was a spacious rectangle laid out, like the rest of the village, on a slope downhill from the castle, and fronted with ten or a dozen dwellings. In the shade of the trees on one side of the green, long boards had been set up on trestles in readiness for the day's festivities. As the bell of Notre-Dame-de-Carnesses tolled the hour of terce, third hour after sunrise, on this Thursday morning, the villagers, garbed in their best attire, made their way to the green carrying their offerings. They set their pots and bowls and baskets, their loaves of bread and their rounds of cheese on the trestle tables and proceeded to the church for mass. The casks of ale would be kept in some cool place until the last moment and then rolled out as the meal began.
     Spirits were high and smiles abounded. Irrespective of creed, neighbor greeted neighbor with a wave and a hello, inquiring in a cheery way about each other's health and welfare. Shepherds exchanged news of their flocks. Except for a few small teams left behind in the high summer pasturelands to tend their combined flocks, even the shepherds had come down to join the village celebration. The shepherds were for the most part an independent, free-spirited lot with a seminomadic culture of their own; and many of them, Sybille knew, were heretics.
     Before leaving their uncle's house, Sybille patted Arnaud lightly around the waist and made sure that he was not carrying anything with him, neither inside his belted tunic nor in his hands. He had no money and no sense of how to use money, so he did not even carry a purse or pouch. There was noplace else for him to conceal something decently on his person: no long sleeves, no boots, no cap, no cloak. Sybille was satisfied that the boy had no improper possessions on his person, no matter how innocuous: nothing to eat, nothing to drop accidentally, nothing with legs and vocal cords. Arnaud submitted to the inspection without protest, secure in his innocence.
     Sybille and Arnaud walked to the village green in company with their uncle and aunt and their three cousins, but staying a little to one side, not exactly with the family and not exactly apart from it. Agnés trailed behind bearing a large pot of steaming mutton stew, her specialty, and justly famous in Montaillou. She would not reveal her secret ingredient when others asked; she just smiled and shook her head. But Sybille knew that every time Agnés came back from a visit to Belcaire, she brought a small supply of rosemary from her mother's garden.
     Arnaud was almost skipping with excitement. Sybille allowed him a little range crossing the green, thinking it might help him to keep still during mass. As they approached the tables laden with food, she reined him in close and made him hold her hand. Just in case, she had tied the rope around her waist, out of sight beneath her loose outer tunic but within easy reach. He veered toward a basket of luscious-looking white peaches, but just as quickly she steered him away with a tug.
     Peaches—now, those were Sybille's favorite. She hoped she'd get to them before Arnaud did.
     After two years, the people of Montaillou were used to witnessing Arnaud's impulsive behavior and Sybille's efforts to keep him in line. Typical of small-village folk, the people were tolerant of a very broad range of human anomaly and defect. But the limits of tolerance were firmly set at the line marking the rights of others. And Arnaud had crossed that line on too many occasions, never meaning ill or intending any harm, or even necessarily understanding what he'd done, but trespassing against people nonetheless. Sybille was conscious of many watchful eyes, some sympathetic and some skeptical or disapproving, as she shepherded her brother toward the church.
     Sybille's aunt looked away. She had already committed her act of charity that morning by granting Sybille dispensation one last time from the obligation to cover her head with a wimple. The boy was not her responsibility; he had not been born into her family.
     Sybille led Arnaud by the hand, determined not to show embarrassment or even let on that she knew people were watching them. As usual, they had fallen behind the rest of the family, except for Agnés, who lagged somewhere further back. They entered the church following several members of a sheep-herding family that she knew to be heretics. One of them turned and smiled at her. Further ahead she saw Beatrice de Planissoles, chatelaine of the count's chateau and foremost member of the village's small aristocracy, attired in shining purple silk. Sybille knew that gown: its girdle was adorned with [it was adorned with buttons made of] faceted amethysts that had enthralled Arnaud on a previous occasion. Sybille had not been quick enough to stop him from touching Beatrice's bejeweled [bodice] abdomen, and the lady had shown her displeasure with the back of her hand, cutting Arnaud's face with her gemstone ring.
     When Beatrice entered the church door and moved to the right, Sybille guided Arnaud to the left.
     The altar was luminous with dozens of tapers, and pillar candles on carved and polished wooden stands were set about in many places. Candlelight and colored sunlight vibrated together and reflected off surfaces in a visual fusion that coruscated, scintillated, glinted, and glowed. Sybille could see from Arnaud's dazzled expression that trouble loomed. She tightened her grip on his hand. "Stay with me," she told him firmly.
     The mood in the sanctuary was devout, the worshipers at one for a time in the harmony of their shared faith in their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; or, at the very least, united in their terror of the fires of the Inquisition. The occasion meant more than a temporary truce among disciples of contradictory teachings in honor of the beliefs that they had in common. It represented a high degree of self-interest among the citizens of Montaillou. No one wanted to be taken or mistaken for a heretic Cathar, especially not in the presence of an authority higher than Pierre Clergue. Pierre's sympathies were well known, but no one would expect leniency from his ecclesiastical superiors. Anyone might be denounced as a heretic; an accusation did not have to be proved or even well founded in order for it to bring great sorrow and travail upon the head of the accused and all his or her family.
     Every family, every household of Montaillou was present in full on that feast day: none too old and none too ill to partake of the Body and Blood before the altar of Notre-Dame-de-Carnesses.
     Sybille, with Arnaud close beside her, assumed a prayerful posture while waiting for the service to begin. [~~~some kind of music] announced the processional, and she looked over her shoulder, expecting to see a magnificent figure arrayed in white and gold, resplendent with mitre and crozier, more grand than the towering bishop of her imagination. But there was no one following the two altar boys and Father Pierre except a humble friar of the preaching order, a Dominican, as she knew by his white habit and black cloak. She had seen monastics of all the orders, white, black, and gray, come on pilgrimage to the little church of Montaillou, and there was nothing special about the appearance of this one. Although he was taller than Father Pierre, the friar was a man of no great stature or distinction. The only unusual thing was that it appeared he was going to have a part in the service.
[Where is the procession coming from? Is there a place at the back? Do they come from behind the altar and march around the church?]
     As the small procession moved through the center of the standing congregation, someone near Sybille uttered a gasp. Instantly the Dominican's gaze shot in that direction, sweeping over Sybille in passing and causing her a chill. His dark, intelligent, and keenly suspicious eyes seemed to penetrate to her soul as he sought the source of the involuntary sound.
     When he had passed by, a blade of ice burned in her belly.
     A murmur of exclamations passed through the assemblage, and Sybille sensed both the thrill of excitement and the shudder of dread. All eyes were on the black-cloaked figure as he mounted the three steps of the dais behind Father Pierre.
     Someone leaned forward close behind her, and she heard the voice of Agnés in a whisper.
     "It's him. That's the Inquisitor."
     Stunned, Sybille inhaled sharply.
     Agnés was not the only resident of Montaillou that day who had been a witness to the service of God's justice and who recognized the face of Geoffroy d'Ablis, Inquisitor of Carcassonne. Sybille glanced around and behind her, and she observed a strange mixture of expressions on the faces of the congregants, some of whom, she well knew, were struggling to conceal the pure terror that struck their hearts at the the sight of this man in their own small church. Even the righteous faithful delved into an anxious and unaccustomed state of self-examination, furrowing their brows as they scrutinized their own behavior, and that of their neighbors for good measure, pondering whether any word or deed might be construed as sympathetic to heresy. By their faces, it was as if God and Death and the King all three in one person were standing before them in tunic of white and hooded cape of black, as if one should fall to his knees and cover his face before such a sight.
     That is exactly what some did, crossing themselves and mouthing rapid, silent prayers, no doubt calling for God's blessing upon this notable who had come to honor their humble church and their ceremony of worship.
     Arnaud sensed that something out of the ordinary was happening, but he did not recognize that it had to do with the plain-garbed man who had passed by with the priest. He looked [back toward the church door] and craned his neck, seeking a glimpse of the imposing figure that Sybille had described. Impatient for the spectacle he had been promised, he began to stand on tiptoe, rocking from one foot to another and looking toward the [rear] of the church to see if anyone else was coming. His elation was fading into disappointment.
     Sybille looked around at the familiar faces of the parishionerscitizens of Montaillou, all of whom she knew. In the nearly two years since she had come as a virtual stranger to her uncle's household, they had tried, most of them, to make her feel that she belonged, and some had been good to Arnaud as well. There was old Raymonde Azéma, who had taught Sybille her own distinctive style of weaving bags and baskets of hemp, and her granddaughter Fabrisse, Sybille's best friend. Orthodox Catholics. Fabrisse caught her eye, and the two girls exchanged the knowing smiles of adolescent confidantes. There, close by, were the weaver Bernard Rives and his wife Alazais. Cathar heretics. Seeing the boy's almost hypnotic fascination with the process, the weaver had allowed Arnaud to sit by the hour and watch him at the loom. Kind, good-hearted folk, all of them. By the tenets of their respective faiths, each of these families believed in the other's damnation.
     Indeed, on every hand she saw believers. She was surrounded by true believers. In her heart she knew that she was not one of them, was not and never would be, world without end. Stories, she thought, it was all just about stories, and one as good as another. When you thought of religious teachings as stories, they were harmless enough. Some were frightening and others comforting, and some taught lessons, and some made no sense at all. But in themselves they caused no mischief. It was the righteous conviction that was deadly.
     And the friar in the black cape was its agent, in the flesh.
     In this community there was no scarcity of conviction. There were the habitually observant, the sincerely devout, and the passionate zealots, all of them certain of their own righteousness. Most followed the faith they were born to. But there were also converts in both directions. Half of the congregation believed that the other half had no hope of salvation unless they switched sides. And somesome switched sides regularly. She looked right at Pierre Clergue.
     And saw that he was looking at her.

Copyright © 2006 Meredy Amyx.

What happens next: Arnaud commits an impulsive act that draws the disapproving attention of the congregation and gets him and Sybille ejected from the church. They walk outside, only to discover that the church is surrounded by soldiers. Frightened, they rush back in to warn people, but Pierre Clergue already knows. He informs the crowd that they will be taken into custody, all but the children. Not wearing a wimple like the other women, Sybille is taken for younger than 14 and is allowed to stay behind. Amidst much noise and chaos, the adults are all taken to the chateau and locked up under guard.

Prologue Chapter 2 excerpt