Sybille's Journey: Excerpt from Chapter 2, "Escape," by Meredy Amyx




Continuity note: This version of Chapter 2 follows an earlier version of Chapter 1, which began with a celebration and dance. Nicknames had not been introduced when this chapter was written.

     As day faded into the lingering twilight of summer in the mountains, Sybille reached a decision. There were no adults about to advise or reassure her, or to spy on her or reprimand her either. And there was nothing to fear from the children as long as they didn't know anything they could tell.
     The children! All were left to their own devices, alone for the night —and for who knew how long beyond that? Maybe their parents were never coming back. Maybe they would all be burnt at the stake or left chained in dungeons. Maybe the children would all be orphans. Orphans like herself.
     She could hear a child crying in a neighboring domicile, and below the window a boy ran with a dog, calling out to someone she couldn't see. The older ones would feed the younger ones for as long as they could, and the infants were with their mothers. There was nothing she could do. She had to get herself and Arnaud away before the Inquisitor found out they were there.
     Sybille felt a sense of urgency welling up in her, urgency that she experienced as unbearable pressure that could be relieved only by action. Having made up her mind, she wanted to move with all speed. But Arnaud would not understand the peril they were in, and it would not do to frighten him unless she had to. If he panicked, he would be out of control. He would respond best to calm assurance, but conveying the nature of the emergency to him without expressing wild alarm demanded a degree of mature confidence that Sybille did not possess. What she did have was an instinct to look after her brother, and so she had to act. They had only each other, and Sybille saw very clearly that the burden of responsibility was unevenly divided.
     Arnaud was sitting on the doorstep with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, watching the sun set, as he liked to do every evening through the warm months. The adolescent gray cat that had sought Arnaud's company during the dance had found him now and rested snugly next to him on the step, purring a rapid and surprisingly loud purr.
     Sybille sat down beside Arnaud. For a while she was silent, watching the colors of the sky change as the dark gathered languidly, allowing the daylight to stretch for as long as possible. Then she could no longer keep the pressure down. Everything was moving slowly, so slowly that the hot dragon of impatience awoke, uncoiled within her breast, and prepared to strike. She felt the telltale tightening in her throat and stinging in her eyes, and she clenched her fists to keep them under control. If something didn't happen right away, it would end in her losing her temper and shouting, and then Arnaud would cry. Then more than ever she would feel like punching him on the arm. How many times had her mother chided her for that ferocious anger of hers and reminded her to make allowances for him? She knew she had to try, but she did not have her mother's gentle spirit. Sometimes it took clenching her teeth so hard that she almost hoped her jaw would break and strangle the dragon with simple pain.
     "Arnaud," she began, struggling fiercely to keep the tension out of her voice.
     "The colors look like heaven, don't they, Sybille?" said her brother quietly.
     "They're beautiful, Arnaud. Listen, we—"
     "Do you see them all? All the colors?" Arnaud pointed. "See, in between that layer and that one, there's a layer of green. Do you see it? It's like a rainbow from bottom to top."
     "I don't see any green, Arnaud. But you always see more colors than I do."
     "I think heaven is like that," said Arnaud dreamily. "A rainbow as far as you can see."
     Prickly with impatience, Sybille shuddered with the effort of keeping her voice steady. "Arnaud, we have to get ready now."
     Arnaud did not answer. He continued to gaze at the paintbox sky. The young cat stood up, stretched, and clambered onto his lap, looking for some petting, but Arnaud continue to rest his chin on his hands. He sank his face a little more deeply between his palms, concealing his mouth, and kept his gaze fixed on the sky.
     Sybille rose to her feet. Her tone was brisk, commanding, but still warm. "Arnaud, we have to go. We have to leave, escape. While the adults are gone."
     "We have to run away, Arnaud. Now. Tonight."
     Only Arnaud's wide brown eyes showed above his hands now, glowing copper in the twilight. On his lap the gray cat's iridescent irises gleamed like beacons.
     She shook his shoulder roughly. "Arnaud!" The cat leapt off his lap and scampered away. Arnaud began to whimper.
     His sister turned abruptly and went into the house. She stomped up the stairs to the bedroom that she shared with her cousin Guillemette and the servant Agnés, both of whom were now imprisoned in the chateau. She couldn't afford to dwell on that. She was responsible for herself and Arnaud, and that was all she could deal with.
     She began noisily pulling their things out of all their storage places: the shared wardrobe, the small footlocker beneath the bed, the cupboard and footlocker in the room where Arnaud slept with their two male cousins. She banged doors and thumped lids and slung things about, marching heavily from one room to another. Her face glowered like a stormcloud, and she was only a pulse away from weeping in fear and frustration.
     "Thunder of hell, Arnaud," she muttered aloud, addressing her absent brother. "Thunder, Arnaud, can't you just understand something for once? Can't you see why we have to get away from here? Those are the same people that sent the men to our house that night. Do you want them to catch us? They weren't finished with us then and they're not finished with us now. They are not going to leave us alone. Because of who we are, whether we ever did anything wrong or not." Sybille shook her cloak out violently and then balled it up and slammed it down with a fierce motion. "We have to go now, while we have the chance." A growling shriek of vexation burst from between her clenched teeth, and she halted her work as the tears came splashing down.
     She should just go. Just go, just go, just go. Save herself. What would they do anyway to a boy who anyone could see was a bit simple-minded? Besides, he was no heretic. She, she was probably worse than a heretic because she wasn't even an honest, true, believing heretic like her father. But Arnaud, he could recite what their mother had taught them and probably sound very innocent and sincere, because he couldn't sound any other way; and he would pass for a faithful Catholic, even if the differences didn't matter to him. He would be fine. If he wouldn't come, how could she make him? And if she stayed, she was doomed. She should just leave him and go. Right now.
     The gentle young face of her mother, not seen for nearly two years, swam before her tear-filled eyes. Her mother had trusted her to care for her brother no matter what. If she abandoned him, she would not be worthy of the memory of her mother's love. She pressed her palms together over her nose and mouth, took several deep breaths, and parted her hands, drawing them firmly across her cheeks to wipe away the wetness. She had faced a much harder moment than this already in her young life. Her task was plain before her, and no time to waste.
     Strewn about the big four-poster bed was their inventory of worldly goods. How much could they really carry? Not much, even if they each shouldered a pole with bundles at both ends. It was time to make choices, and fast. Sybille set about vigorously sorting their things, making a small pile for each of them to take and leaving aside anything they could do without.
     At the foot of the bed were two pieces of green woollen fabric, each more than a yard square. One was laid flat, ready to be tied into a traveling pack enclosing a small store of belongings. Next to it, the other was wrapped around something solid and rectangular, about eight inches long and ten wide, and nearly two inches thick. As Sybille worked, choosing which items to take and laying them together in a small stack to be divided later and rolled into bundles, she repeatedly eyed the green-wrapped article, but she did not open it. It had lain untouched in the bottom of her footlocker from the day she had arrived in Montaillou until tonight.
     The room was steeped in shadows now, but Sybille did not want to light a candle and draw the attention of any curious young soul who might have a view of her window. She worked as swiftly as she could in the growing dark.
     Presently she became aware of Arnaud's slight figure in the doorway. He was watching her intently, solemn and silent. She did not let on that she saw him right away, but she sensed his anxiety and began to feel more sorry for him than angry. After a few minutes, her protective instinct won out.
     "Go and gather some things from Aunt's kitchen for me," she directed without looking up, using the same offhand but authoritative tone in which her mother would have said, "Arnaud, go feed the chickens now," or, "Sybille, hand me that spoon." "We won't take more than we need," she added, "but we do need some things. Quickly, now."
     Arnaud stared at her in puzzlement. "What are we doing, Sybille?"
     "Get us each a spoon, a bowl, and a cuppewter, not crockery. Take one knife, not the good one. Wrap it in something, a towel. We'll need a skin of water—no, better have two—and a round of cheese—"
     "What are we doing, Sybille?" The alarm in Arnaud's voice gave her pause. She put down the tunic she was folding and looked directly at him. His gaze was fastened on the square of woven green cloth spread out on the bed, the cloth in which he had carried his few things when they came to Montaillou nearly two years before, and the identical piece tied around the small bundle. She knew that he recognized them, having torn both pieces himself from a blanket that lay on the bed he had slept in as a child, back home in Toulouse. From the look of horror on his face, she knew he was reliving the terrible day when they had fled the home of their birth and taken refuge with their uncle here in this little mountain village.
     By flaring torchlight, a party of armed men thundered on horseback down a thickly wooded road outside the city of Toulouse. Two bore silken banners that snapped in the wind: a cross embroidered in gold on a field of crimson proclaimed the horsemen as servants of the one Holy Catholic Church, true spiritual and temporal sovereign of the people if not of their disunited lands.
     Within the span of its reach, the Church afforded no room to unsanctioned beliefs or practices. To hold a doctrinal position contrary to the orthodox teaching was heresy, and to heretics was granted no quarter. Across the tormented Europe of the disastrous fourteenth century, with its wars and schisms, its storms and plagues, no darker shadow fell than the spread black wings of the Inquisition.
     In every major city from ~~ to ~~, the Inquisition had a presence. In every town and village, authorities stood ready to seize suspected heretics, and fear of denunciation turned neighbors into spies and betrayers. For centuries the terror went on: denounce, apprehend, imprison, torture, try, punish. Death by fire was the customary sentence for the worst offenders. For those who escaped the ultimate penalty, death might follow after years in captivity under torture. Even the lightest sentence, being compelled to wear the yellow cross of the heretic on one's garments—or, worse, the double cross—condemned one to the life of a pariah among one's fellows under the ever-watchful eye of the authorities and the eager vigilance of the upright citizenry. Right deed, right thought, and right belief, as prescribed by the spiritual leaders of the majority population, translated naturally into duly authorized public persecution of religious deviants. It mattered not that many or most so-called heretics were honorable Christian men and women whose practices and beliefs were as strict as and often stricter than those of their Catholic neighbors. The issue was not one of faith but of followership; not one of conviction but of authority.
     Belief with a sword in its right hand. [and the inconvenient teachings of its Savior forgotten]
     In the principality of the Comté de Foix, where the Pyrenees divided what would one day be the nations of France and Spain, a heretic sect known as the Cathars persisted for three centuries. Brutally persecuted, it was exterminated from French territory or driven permanently underground by the year 1324. But on this autumn night in the year 1306, as a late harvest followed a late planting after one of the coldest and most deeply storm-ridden winters in Europe's history, the swords of the Church's servants still had much blood to shed.
     Banners flying, the horsemen pounded through the night until they rounded a long bend and emerged from the shadowed forestland. Visible by moonlight, a broad expanse of lately mown hayfields opened before them. In the distance glowed the yellow lights of the stone manor house that presided over the cultivated lands before their view. A stand of tall [oaks?] sheltered the main dwelling and garden of this well-kept estate. Near the ~~, one great, ancient oak stood leaning+++ A stone barn and several outbuildings were visible close by, the barn's entrance within the stone wall that enclosed the stable yard alongside the house.
     At the leader's signal, the party drew to a noisy halt, reining their horses and calling out, "Whoa!" The horses whinnied and pranced, excited by the headlong race.
     The leader addressed his aide, pointing to the estate's main dwelling. "Is that the home of the heretic Benet?"
     "Yes, captain, that is Bending Oak. The road that turns off to the manor house is just ahead there."
     "And is there no village?" asked the captain.
     "The village is on the road beyond, straight ahead. There is just the family here and its retainers—farm hands, a few servants."
     "We kill them all, Perrin. Those are our orders."
     "Yes, captain. But—they say that the wife is no heretic but a true and faithful daughter of the Church."
     "Kill them all," ordered the captain, raising his voice.
     "And there are children," urged Perrin, not without a quaver.
     "Kill them all, I say," shouted the captain. "The Lord will know His own."
     The captain spurred his horse. "Death to the heretics!" he cried.
     "Death to the heretics," shouted his men, and they followed at a full gallop toward the road that led down to the peaceful manor house in the distance.
     [they are too far from house to be heard; maybe they approach quietly; but as they near, Perrin shouts "death to the heretics" as loudly as he can to warn them--then captain shoots him a look and spurs his horse]
     Inside the house, panic erupted. "They're coming! Oh, Jacques!" Collette Benet rushed into the main room [parlor?] with a heavy cleaver in her hand. Her fair face was flushed with urgency.
     Her husband leapt from his chair by the fire. "We will stand and defend our home." He called, "Sybille, Arnaud, come quickly!" The children appeared at the top of the stairs and thumped down them in their woollen stockings. Behind them at the top of the stairs came Martina, stout old Catalan nursemaid of the children's younger years, who now cooked and helped with housekeeping. She had been upstairs telling the children bedtime tales from her native Catalonia. On her heels was her niece Teresa, a tall, bony nineteen-year-old with protruding teeth and a permanent expression of alarm.
     Jacques Benet motioned for Arnaud to come to him. The boy whimpered. "Papa, I'm frightened."
     "Every cause for fear is an opportunity for courage, son," said Jacques, clasping his son's small shoulder. He knelt and fastened a belt with dagger sheath around his ten-year-old son's small waist.
     "This blade served me well in the war against the ~~, my son. May it now defend you!" He rose to his feet. Arnaud looked down in silent terror at the weapon he wore, its silver hilt showing a pair of crescents side by side and a third crescent facing the opposite direction, and a large cut amethyst mounted on the pommel. A similar device ornamented the fierce cutlass his father now held drawn in his hand. "As did this!"
     The hoofbeats pounded closer, and men's angry voices could be heard.
     "Mare de Deu!" cried Martina and ran to fetch her husband Victoire from the small cottage above the pigsty. Teresa took off behind her at a dead run, hoisting her skirts for speed.
     "Sybille, quick!" cried her mother. With trembling fingers she raised over her head the gold chain she always wore and pressed the pendant crucifix into her twelve-year-old daughter's hand. "Take this," she urged. "It will protect you." She looked into Sybille's face for an instant with all the loving strength she possessed, as if willing the full power of her gentle soul into her daughter's young body. Sybille stood as if transfixed, her mother's face filling her awareness.
     The spell was broken by her father's sharp command: "Children, run to the barn and hide! Don't make a sound!"
     "Out through the kitchen!" Collette added, pushing them toward the doorway from which she had entered.
     "Death to the heretics!" the loud male voices shouted as hooves clattered in the cobbles of the foreyard and horses whinnied. Arnaud and Sybille ran for the kitchen. Arnaud was weeping aloud, barely able to see through his tears. Too terrified to cry, Sybille seized her brother's hand and pulled him after her. In the doorway she paused and looked back. Her parents stood side by side in the middle of the room, their posture firm with resolve. Armed with their blades, they faced the closed door. Jacques hugged his wife's shoulder with his free hand and bent and kissed her. They were both twenty-nine.
     "Mama! Papa!" screamed Sybille. Collette turned and answered in a hushed shout: "Go! And God go with you!" Unmoving, Jacques stood braced and ready as the first fists struck the heavy oaken door.
     Sybille slipped the chain over her head, her hand gripping the death effigy symbolic of her mother's faith. The warmth of her mother's breast was still upon it. She let the heavy pendant fall beneath her tunic.
     From the kitchen door, across the stable yard, Sybille and Arnaud flew on light, silent feet, striking the cobblestones painfully without their wooden-soled shoes. By moonlight they saw the farm hands coming from the outbuildings, armed only with staves and crude farm implements, to enter the door that they had just left and join their master's defense of his house and home, their home as well. Alongside her husband Victoire marched old Martina, carrying an axe and wearing a look of such ferocity that, even in the muted light, she was a formidable apparition.
     "Go!" she urged the children, waving them on as they paused at the sight of her.
     Her ungainly niece Teresa was nowhere to be seen.
     "Get the back," shouted a voice of authority. Rough hands fumbled with the latch to the gate in the wall separating the yard from the front approach to the house.
     Sybille and Arnaud ran into the barn. They knew their way without light, and the faint glow of moonlight that came in the loft window was enough to show them the ladder.
     A tiny mew at his feet stopped Arnaud as Sybille clambered up the ladder to the hayloft. "Come on, hurry!" she whispered to him. He bent and scooped up the small white kitten, one of a litter of four that were his playmates, and tucked it inside his tunic. The dagger sheath clunked against the rungs as he hurried up the ladder, but there was so much noise outside that no one could have heard it. Shouts, screams, and the clash of steel on steel made a horrendous din. "Death to the heretics!" sounded clearly, and Arnaud's weeping deepened.
     Only days before, they had played "Inquisition" in the loft. The two children had spent hours constructing an elaborate dungeon up in the hayloft by piling bales of hay like large, soft bricks, forming tunnels and a secret entrance against the loft's rear wall. Sybille had dressed a young goat in homespun robes, given it a mitred hat made of bark and woven straw, and perched it on a high stool to pass fearsome judgments on the four kittens, a tame piglet, and a patient old hen named Maude who had played a role in countless dramas of make-believe. Each of them was guilty of some heresy. "Condemned!" bellowed Sybille as the voice of the Inquisitor. Arnaud had dutifully carried each prisoner deep into the hayloft dungeon to await its turn to be burned at the stake. He had wanted to chain them to the dungeon walls for added realism. But Sybille remembered the time when she was five that she had thoughtlessly left her little brother tied in a tree branch during a game of hawks and sparrows, and then she had forgotten him and gone for her nap while her mother and the servants had searched the grounds frantically for two hours. Eventually they had found him sitting happily in the tree, watching the leaves move with shifting shades of gold and green in the dappled sunlight. Sybille had been badly scolded all the same, and she had not forgotten a word of it. That was when her mother had told her that Arnaud had some special gifts, but that the Lord had taken a few of the ordinary ones from him and given them to others who needed them more. And that that was why Sybille must take extra care of him.
     "No ropes," said Sybille.
     Eventually, after every heretic had been tried and condemned several times, the piglet had wriggled free and leapt and tumbled its way down the ladder, and the kid had begun to munch on its robes. The kittens had fallen asleep in the dungeon, and long-suffering Maude had simply waited for it to be over. The game was a great success.
     Now, not daring to look out the window, the children burrowed deep into the fresh, fragrant tunnels of hay and pulled a quantity of loose stalks after them. The hay was airy and porous enough that they could breathe easily, although it was too dark to see anything. Sybille wrapped her arms around her brother to calm his frightened whimpering, and he clung to the tender warmth of the kitten.
     A woman's scream of anguish split the night and ended abruptly, followed by a man's roar. Sybille and Arnaud started violently. "Mama!" sobbed Arnaud. "Mama! Papa!" echoed Sybille, and both trembled so hard that they could not lie still. Inside Arnaud's tunic, the kitten mewed.
     The violent commotion continued for some minutes more. Then all fell ominously silent.
     "Sybille?" whispered Arnaud fearfully.
     The barn door sprang open and swung all the way back on its hinges with a bang. "In here!" The heavy footsteps of several men followed. Arnaud gasped, hugging the kitten, and Sybille put her hand over his mouth with a warning hiss. In their dark tunnel, she could feel him shaking with fright. Hard boot soles stomped up the ladder, and the boards of the loft creaked. The whoosh of sharp steel told her that the man was plunging the sword into the hay. Even deep where they lay, buried under what looked like a solid stack of bales, they could be pierced at any moment by the long, thrusting blade. She gripped the hilt of Arnaud's dagger and held her breath.
     They heard the other men searching the stalls and storage areas below.
     "Nothing here," shouted the man in the loft, his voice muffled but so close by that they didn't dare move a muscle. Another moment, and then they heard his tread as he descended the ladder.
     "If the children have run off, we won't find them tonight," declared another. "Best let them be."
     "The captain said kill them all."
     "Well, we can't kill them if we can't find them, can we?"
     "Let's burn the barn, then, just to be sure."
     Arnaud reacted with a violent lurch, but Sybille seized him and shook him a little to force him to be still. Half suffocated, the kitten squirmed in Arnaud's hands, and he let it go with a little whimper that made Sybille give him an extra shake.
     "Nah," said the other. He slapped the flanks of one of the horses, and Sybille recognized the responding whinney of Baleeur, her father's favorite. "There's some good horseflesh here, and I'd like to come back for it by day when the captain isn't watching."
    Leather soles thumping and steel jangling, the men exited, leaving the barn door standing open.
     From the yard came the voice of command: "Gilles, Tibaut, get Perrin's body up here. Damn that bitch and her kitchen blade. Coiseau, are you all right to ride? Good, then. Well done, men. We've done God's work here tonight." A chorus of assent replied.
     One of the men called back in a jocular tone, "Just be sure to get to confession tomorrow!" and another replied, "First the solution and then the absolution." Coarse laughter followed. Horses whinnied as the men mounted and galloped away. Long after the hoofbeats had faded in the distance, Sybille held herself and her brother quiet, barely breathing.
     At last she crept from the burrow and peered out the loft window. The moon had set, and she saw nothing but dark shadows and darker shadows. The house lights were gone.
     She crawled back under the hay, where Arnaud's sleeping body lay curled like a kitten's, and settled next to him. After a time she slept, too exhausted from fright to keep herself awake any longer.
     By the gray predawn light, Sybille and Arnaud slipped out of the barn, glancing around watchfully. All was still. The white kitten trotted after Arnaud, but the orange and white mother cat and her three other kittens stayed safely behind in the barn. The cows were lowing for attention.
     In the side yard by the kitchen door lay the body of old Victoire in a pool of blood, his pitchfork at his right hand and his dog Soldat at his left, a wide gash in his throat. The remnants of a crimson silken banner, now stained a deeper red, hung in tatters from the tines of his pitchfork. [Make it clear that this was banner carried by the men.]
     ["How can this be the work of men who love God?" lamented Sybille. "How can Christian men of any belief serve Our Lord Jesus with such terrible acts?"
     "Jesus taught us ~~," said Arnaud.]
     Sybille raised her head and shouted in the direction of the road the men had taken in the night. "A curse upon you! A thousand curses upon you for your vicious cruelty! May God send you to torments forever." She wept, screaming, "And may he join you in hell for letting such things be done in his name!"
     "Oh, Sybille," cried Arnaud, horrified.
     Sybille's whole body heaved with weeping, and she struggled to calm her breath. "We have to go in now, Arnaud. I have to. You don't have to come."
     She turned and entered the kitchen door.
     The kitchen was drenched in blood. Two of the farmhands lay slumped at the foot of the big oven, both brutally slaughtered over the pitiful resistance they must have offered with their tools of the harvest.
     Dreading to look beyond to the main front room, Sybille forced her slow feet to take her [past her last moment of hoping for the lives of her mother and father].
     She stepped over the sill. Mindless with horror, she did not hear her own voice screaming.
     The front door stood open, and early morning sun poured in, streaming over the body of her mother, which lay before the hearth, face up, and slashed open diagonally from shoulder to knee. Her face was fixed in a terrible grimace, and her right hand still grasped the cleaver.
     A quantity of blood lay like rust on the sharpened edge of the cleaver.
     Martina was slumped close by, her skull cleft by a heavy blade. The dark stains on her axe said that she, like her mistress, had done real damage with her humble domestic weapon.
     Broken furniture, glassware and crockery, ornaments from the mantel, and fireplace implements were strewn about the room. Several of her father's precious books lay among the debris.
     Sybille's shrieks of horror and loss filled the air and were soon joined by those of her brother, who had followed her at a distance and now wended his own way through the scene of carnage and destruction.
     A trail of blood led Sybille's fearful gaze out the open door.
     In the bright autumn sunshine, her father's body lay prone in the cobbled foreyard. His neck was fully severed, and his head had rolled to the side. His sword was gone.
     The carcass of a saddled horse lay nearby, and much blood covered the cobblestones. Near the gate to the stable yard, the other three [farmhands'] corpses had fallen like discarded dolls.
     The children clasped each other and cried and wailed aloud [in their despair and devastation]. At length, their weeping spent, they brought a sheet and dragged their father's body onto it as gently as they could. Sybille covered her father's head with a fine white tablecloth and then moved it onto the sheet, gingerly, trying not to touch it, trying not to let herself think what was in the bundle, trying to banish from her mind the sight of his terrible dead eyes. Then the two hauled their burden across the sill and into their family's home and laid it alongside their mother. They found sheets to cover all the deceased.
     Their sleeping room in the upper story had been ransacked, the furniture broken and soft goods slashed.
     "They were looking for us," said Sybille solemnly.
     As she spoke, she heard a soft scraping sound close by. Arnaud's eyes bulged, and he cowered behind his sister. Sybille picked up the leg of a broken chair and tiptoed haltingly toward her parents' room. A small rattle and clink told her someone was there. She peeped around the corner.
     Teresa was bending over the drawer at the foot of Collette's armoire, holding a small carved wooden box from the Orient that Sybille knew contained her mother's jewelry.
     Sybille's rage exploded out of her like a rocket of fire. "Get your hands out of my mother's things and get out of this room. You filthy crow! You're picking over the bodies of the dead. A curse upon you!" Sybille raised the chair leg like a club and ran at Teresa, who screamed shrilly, ducked, and fled from the room but did not drop the box of jewelry. Her shoes thudded on the stairs and clattered over the cobblestones of the foreyard, and she was gone.
     Sybille's chest heaved with the violence of her emotion, and she sat down upon the shredded bedquilt in the ravaged bedroom of her parents to quiet herself. From the window she could see out across the prosperous farmlands that her father had owned and worked for the good of his family and his many dependents, and with their help.
     "What shall we do, Sybille?" asked Arnaud in a low voice. Everyone in his life who knew what to do, mother, father, Martina, and even old Victoire, [whom he sometimes met when he wandered outdoors alone at night]—everyone who had guided or taught him, was deadeveryone except Sybille. Sybille had always been there beside him, and Sybille was there now. At her brother's question, the girl straightened her posture and firmed her lips in an expression of resolve, staring into an unseen distance. She was thirteen and nearly a woman.
     "Don't be afraid, Arnaud. I will take care of you. But we have to go. The men will come back, and they will be looking for us. We must go right away, before the sun is higher."
     "Go where, Sybille?"
     "We'll take what silver we can find, and some clothes, and some food and water. We'll mount Baleeur and ride to the farm of Papa's friend du Bois, who is also a follower of the [Parfaits]. We'll tell him what has happened and offer him all the goods and livestock of our farm before the churchmen come to steal it if he will send us with a cart and driver to Uncle's in Montaillou."
     "Where's Montaillou?"
     "Someplace in the mountains, where there are lots of sheep. I don't know. But Uncle is a follower too, like Papa, and there are many in his village. I don't think the churchmen will find us there."
     Arnaud's eyes were wide with fright. "Will they be coming after us, Sybille?"
     "I think so, Arnaud. Remember how M-Mama told us that the Church never gives up looking for its lost ones."
     Arnaud looked about him fearfully.
     "We have to hurry, Arnaud. Go gather a few things and tie them in a bundle. Tear one of your blankets in half to put them in. Another tunic, leggings, hose, a hood, a cloak. And put on your sturdy shoes. I know where Papa kept some silver. This is all I can think of to do if we want to stay alive."
     Arnaud swallowed hard and nodded, but he did not move.
     Sybille hugged him. "Don't worry, Arnaud. I promise to stay right by you. I promise I won't leave you. We'll take care of each other, as Mama did. And we'll be brave like Father."
     Arnaud nodded again, his face hidden in his sister's shoulder, and let out a sob.
     "Hurry now!" said Sybille. And he rushed off to their room to obey.
     Sybille drew a stool over so that she could stand on it and reach the shelf at the top of her father's wardrobe. At the back of the shelf he kept a small wooden coffer with a quantity of silver in it, money collected from [?his tenant farmers] and the sale of his crops. Sybille had seen him count the cash and put the box away, locking it carefully with a small key that he kept on a hook hidden behind a wall hanging. There was never a very large amount in the house, but there was ample for their needs and more than many around them had. Jacques Benet was a prudent and thrifty man. Although he prospered in his lands and holdings, he spent frugally in his daily affairs in order to enjoy putting a jewel on the hand of his wife, an amethyst in the pommel of his sword, and hand-inscribed books of leather-bound parchment in his family's [parlor] so that his children might be literate. A man of both the sword and the ploughshare, Jacques Benet nevertheless loved learning and cultivated in his family an awareness of the wider world that was exceedingly rare for his place and time.
     Panic rising with her sense of need for haste, [here something about her patience/impatience vs. Arnaud] Sybille stretched as far as she could on tiptoe and still could not feel the wooden coffer. She climbed down and looked for another piece of furniture that she could pile on top of the stool to extend her reach. And then she saw in the space between her parents' bedstead and the wall the shards of wood that had been the coffer, smashed to open it without benefit of key. Wretched, cursed, perfidious Teresa! She had stolen it all. Now what would they do for provisions on the road if she had nothing of value? What could they bring to the household of their uncle, a far less well-to-do man than her father, if they had no endowment of any kind?
     "Sybille, don't we have to hurry?" Arnaud stood in the doorway with a lumpy green cloth bundle in his arms and a furrow of concern on his brow.
     "We do, Arnaud. Run to the barn and saddle Baleeur. I'll be right there."
     "I don't want to go down there by myself, Sybille!" he wailed. "I will never be strong like Papa."
     "Don't look to the right or the left, Arnaud, just go. I will be there quickly. Papa and Mama were both brave, and we are brave too. Wait, first give me your knife."     
     Not wanting even to touch the weapon, Arnaud thrust his left hip forward to offer her the silver-handled dagger. She took it, noticing but not responding to his look of pained bewilderment. "Go now!" He turned and ran. >>>[This does not ring true. He panics. What does he do then?]
     She waited until she knew he had passed through the corpse-strewn main room of the house, past their dead parents, and through the kitchen and crossed to the barn, where saddling the horse would occupy him for several minutes out of sight. Then she turned to her mother's armoire, where the two fine gowns she owned lay carefully stored in a large, unlocked wooden chest. Sybille lifted out her favorite, the magnificent peacock blue silk gown trimmed with [Belgian lace] that her father had had made for her mother's birthday just over a year ago.
     In spite of herself, in spite of the horror of the occasion and the desperate urgency of the moment, Sybille paused to hold the gown up against her young body and gather it against her waist and shoulder as if to try it on. She swayed back and forth, picturing herself adorned in its shimmering beauty. And then she saw her mother as she had last looked wearing it, entering the carriage to ride to a grand feast at du Bois', and the enormity of her loss overcame her once more: never would her beloved Mama don this lovely garment again and ride out with her handsome Papa, never would she see her daughter become a woman, never would she hold her grandchild in her arms. A wrenching moan burst from deep within her being, and tears poured down her cheeks and spotted the subtly glowing fabric.
     Sybille raised the dagger and stabbed the blade into the skirt. She cut herself a length of the rich blue material as wide as her arm was long.
     She dropped the ruined dress on the floor.
     Heart pounding violently with apprehension, Sybille crept down the stairs, knowing there was one last difficult thing she had to do there, hoping she had the courage to do it.
     Arnaud looked down at the square of green wool lying on the bed, ready to hold his belongings for another perilous flight. "I don't want to run away, Sybille. Won't Aunt and Uncle be back to take care of us?"
     Sybille clasped the boy's shoulders and looked solemnly into his face. "We have to go, Arnaud. We have no choice. We have to get away. They've come for the heretics, and they've taken everyone away because they don't know which is which. I got away with going with the children because they don't really know us here and they don't know I'm almost fifteen. But as soon as the Inquisitors find out that we're with Uncle's family, they'll come after us, just like they did back in Toulouse. And they'll split us up because I'm with the adults now, and you're only twelve, and they'll probably burn me at the stake. Remember what happened to Mama and Papa even though Mama wasn't a heretic, she was a true Catholic. And they were going to kill us too, Arnaud. You know that. They'd have left us lying there all bloody, and we'd just be skeletons now.
     Arnaud started to cry.
     "Don't be scared, Arnaud. We're going to escape. That's what we're doing right now, getting ready to escape. I just want you to understand why we have to."
     Arnaud nodded, brushing tears away, and fingered the remains of his old blanket. "What should I do, Sybille?"
     "Go get the things I asked for from the kitchen, and we'll divide them between us to carry." She repeated her list of requests. "Try to stay away from windows. Stay where you can't be seen from outside. We don't want the other children to know anything they can tell on us. And don't light a candle. There's still just enough light to see by, and we'll leave as soon as it's all the way dark. We have to do this secretly, do you understand? I'll finish gathering our things here." She resumed folding the tunic.
     "Yes, Sybille." But Arnaud did not turn to leave the room. Instead his hand moved from the soft square of green wool to the matching piece wrapped around the rectangular object, its square corners tied together in the middle. He touched it lightly. Sybille wasn't watching him. His fingers darted to the knots, loosened them, and let the cloth fall open. The object inside was something smooth and softly shiny, peacock blue in hue. He made a little humming sound in his throat. Sybille looked up and froze, staring. Arnaud ran his fingers over the mellow, liquescent fabric, wrapped tautly around the solid object, which he could now see and feel had an uneven surface as of a wood carving, with small, solid protrusions arranged symmetrically at intervals. The color—the color. Slowly recognition dawned. "Mama!" he cried, grasping the cloth and raising it with both hands to cover his mouth and nose like a handkerchief. He breathed deeply as if to inhale any trace of fragrance, no matter how faint, that might cling to it. The length of material unwound, turning its contents through several revolutions and then spilling it on the bed.
     A book. And something else.
     A book with a tooled cover of rich, ruby-red cordovan leather, studded with cabochon gems in gold mountings and trimmed with golden nails, its pages of parchment laced with leather thongs. This hand-inscribed volume, brilliantly adorned with gilded illumination, recounted the letters of Prester John, mysterious priest-king of an unknown realm far to the east. The very sight of it was magical, but the contents far exceeded the exterior appearance, filled as it was with tales of wonder and adventure in Prester John's fabled kindgom, tales of unicorns and elephants, of pygmies and cannibals and Amazons, of the phoenix and the archaeopteryx, of epic battles and astonishing riches, of the Garden of Eden and the Fountain of Youth. The book was their father's, one of the treasures of his library; but it was their mother who had brought it to life for them, both reading and extemporaneously retelling the tales again and again, always with glowing eyes and a tone of barely controlled excitement, her fascination with these amazing stories frankly exceeding any thrill she exhibited in reading aloud from God's Holy Word. It was with this narrative and not with prayer-books that Collette Benet had taught her young daughter to read.
     With one hand still holding the length of glowing peacock fabric to his face, Arnaud ran his other over the richly adorned front cover, and then he turned the book over. On the back was a dark stain. He dropped the book as if it had burnt him.
     He had last seen the magnificently ornamented volume lying on the blood-soaked floor of the parlor in their home in Toulouse.
     Arnaud picked up the smaller object that had fallen on the bed. It was a second piece of the same blue silk, twisted into a tiny parcel.
     "Don't," whispered Sybille hoarsely, but she made no move to stop him.
     Fingers trembling, Arnaud unwrapped the small bundle and exposed its contents to view. He gasped. Sybille bowed her head and buried her face in both hands.
     In the dim light, four small articles gleamed golden. Arnaud had no difficulty in seeing what they were. A ring mounted with a red gemstone. A pair of small, plain gold earrings. And a gold locket.
     Sybille could feel her brother staring at her, but she did not look up. Through her hands, her muffled voice sounded constricted as if by tears.
     "The silver was gone," she said. "There was nothing. Wicked Teresa took it all. And Mama's jewelry box too."
     "How could you, Sybille?"
     "There was nothing for us, no home, no inheritance, no one to take care of us. I had to get us something so we could live. In case we couldn't get to Uncle's."
     "You took Mama's things right off her body."
     "We were orphaned, Arnaud, and the Inquisitor's men were after us! It was up to me. I had no time—what could I do? And I knew Mama would have wanted us to have them, and not some stranger. The flies were already on her, Arnaud. Oh, God!"
     "And the locket, Sybille, from around Papa's n—"
     Arnaud stopped abruptly and then began to wail.
     Sybille uncovered her face. She spoke tonelessly. "I found the locket on the cobbles in the yard. Next to his—next to his body. Mama's portrait is still in it. You can look."
     Arnaud stifled his sobs and opened the locket. For a long while, as tears streamed down his cheeks, he gazed on the miniature of pretty Collette de Vaux at fifteen, before she wed Jacques Benet. His mother's bright eyes, her dimples, her porcelain complexion, her dark curls, almost lost to his memory through his two years of grieving, were now restored freshly to his inner eye as if last seen only yesterday. Sybille allowed him all the time he needed. He had paid for this memory as much as she had.
     At last he passed the locket to her, and she too gave it a sad, lingering look before closing it gently.
     "Sybille," said Arnaud softly, "I think you were very brave."

Copyright © 2006 Meredy Amyx.

What happens next: Sybille finishes packing and supplies each of them with a warm woollen cloak. She and Arnaud wrap their bundles and tie them to either end of a pole that will go over their shoulders. Sybille tells Arnaud to leave the kitten behind. Stealthily they creep out of the cottage into the dark and start down the road toward Belcaire, home of the mother of Agnés. The kitten peeps out of his bundle.

Chapter 1 excerpt Chapter 3 excerpt