Sybille's Journey: Excerpt from Chapter 3, "Belcaire," by Meredy Amyx




Continuity note: The last words of Agnés were an encoded warning to go to her mother's. There may have been a scene in which the children were confronted by soldiers on leaving Montaillou and Sybille denied they were residents of Montaillou, saying they were going home to Belcaire and supplying convincing detail. This chapter was first drafted using the town of Laroque d'Olmes, which turned out to be too far to walk to from Montaillou overnight; it has not been rewritten for Belcaire, a smaller village that was not a market town (marché).

     In the cool gray mist of dawn, Sybille awoke dream-haunted and damp with dew. The figure of a headless man had pursued her across barren country to the edge of a cliff, and she had fallen over into a chasm that somehow became deep purple waters into which she sank and sank without air.
     Awareness of where she was and why brought her suddenly to full consciousness. She and her brother lay between a low stone wall and a row of shrubs on the uphill side of the [village? town? need elevation] of Belcaire, on the fringe of the town proper and at the edge of a grazing pasture. They were a fair distance from the path that led up the mountain to Montaillou, but near enough to see a long open stretch of it. No one was proceeding either up or down, so there was no need either to hide or to explain their presence.
     Sybille had slept half on and half under her sturdy gray cloak, woven of thick wool and densely fulled for warmth and strength, a more-than-adequate substitute for a blanket. Her tied bundle of clothing served her as a pillow, and her second bundle and wooden pole lay beside her.
     Arnaud lay wrapped in his brown woollen cloak, the hood partially covering his face. His head rested against his sister's side. When she moved to sit up, he stirred, and from the folds of his garment the half-grown gray cat emerged, sleepy and stretching. Sybille smiled wryly when she saw it. Arnaud looked around, somewhat dazed. The bushes that hid them from casual view also kept him from seeing at once where they were.
     The cat began scampering about and making little pounces, as if any movement in the dry grass might mean breakfast.
     Breakfast for Sybille and Arnaud consisted of a hearty wedge of [shepherd's cheese] and a swallow of water apiece.
     "We'll leave our things here for now," said Sybille. "We have to go into the town and look for a way to travel. We don't want to attract attention or someone will guess we are runaways. And that," she said with emphasis, "would be bad because then the Inquisitor could track us." She watched Arnaud to be sure that her words registered, not to cause him undue fright but to make sure he did not forget the necessary cautions. His eyes opened wide in alarm, and she took that as a sign that he understood. She began gathering their belongings together in a compact heap so they could be left safely.
     "If only we had a little silver or even just a few coppers, though," she added in a worried tone, "enough for some provisions to get us started on our journey. Later on it won't matter if we have to spend a few days somewhere and work for our food, but now it's important for us to get away from here. We know they'll be looking for us, just like before."
     Arnaud nodded. Without a word, he wrestled one of his traveling packs out of the pile, the one wrapped in green wool and not his cousin Guillemette's apron. He opened it and unrolled his clothing. There at the heart of his bundle lay a small drawstring pouch of sueded brown leather that Sybille had never seen before.
     Deliberately and with evident satisfaction, Arnaud loosened the leather thong and peered inside. He cupped the pouch in one hand and reached deep into it with two fingers of the other hand. With all the ceremony of a priest blessing the host, he withdrew a small silver coin and held it out to Sybille. Mystified, she opened her palm and let the coin fall into it.
     "Arnaud, where did you—?"
     He shook his head sharply, and she was startled into silence.
     Arnaud repeated the process and produced a second silver coin, which tumbled into Sybille's hand with a small clink. Seeing the wonder in her expression, Arnaud smiled and reached again into the pouch. Ten times he drew out a piece of silver, and ten times he dropped it into his sister's hand.
     He paused then and looked again into the pouch, gazing so deeply that he might have been looking down a well.
     Sybille felt her impatience rising in spite of herself. "What is it, Arnaud, for heaven's sake?"
     But Arnaud just smiled a little smile and didn't hurry. At length he reached inside with four fingers and took out a small round object, which he turned over slowly. The brilliant gleam of green light that shot from the object when the sun struck it could only have come from a gemstone. As Sybille stared, Arnaud opened his hand to reveal a silver button set with an octagonal emerald as large as the tip of his little finger, surrounded by twelve small diamonds. This too he passed to his sister, who was too amazed to speak.
     Once again, he reached into the pouch, this time without looking. His fingers found one more small object. He brought it out, enclosed in his palm, and seemed to caress it, relishing its feel. A look of great delight illuminated his face. Sybille felt ready to burst with exasperation, but she forced herself to let Arnaud take his time. He could not have appeared more pleased if he had just been crowned king. Sybille leaned forward to see this treasure above all treasures.
     Arnaud uncurled his fingers one by one, like the petals of a rose.
     In the center of his palm rested a smooth white rock of a peculiar helical shape, as if a force of nature had given it a full twist before discarding it to lie upon the surface of the earth alongside all the other nondescript pebbles of quartz and granite, none of them exceptional, none worth more than any other.
     Except to Arnaud.
     He did not offer the twisted pebble to Sybille, but dropped it carefully back into the pouch and then looked at her expectantly.
     "Where did you get them, Arnaud?—the coins?"
     "Papa gave them to me on my last birthday."
     "Your last birthday? Your last birthday was last December, Arnaud. Your birthday is on the [feast] of the Holy Innocents, three days after Christmas." For the first time she thought how appropriate that was. "It comes every year. You were ten when Papa gave you those. You're thirteen now."
     "My last real birthday," said Arnaud stubbornly. "Before."
     Involuntarily, Sybille recalled her last real birthday, the seventh day of September, day before the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Three weeks and two days before their old life had ended forever, she had turned thirteen. Her father had given her a silver comb of filigree design ornamented with three sparkling yellow topaz, a fine gift for a young lady on the verge of womanhood. Teresa was probably wearing it now. In hell, I hope, thought Sybille, the old rage clenching at her chest once again.
     She pulled her mind back to the present. "How come I've never seen that?" she asked, indicating the pouch.
     "I brought it from our house when we ran away. And I've kept it in a hiding place at Uncle's that nobody knows about, only me. It's where I put Papa's, you know, the dagger, too."
     He delved into his pack and produced the weapon in its sheath. Sybille drew the dagger and looked wonderingly at the strange emblem on its hilt, the device she had glimpsed only briefly in those confused and terrifying moments when she had last seen her parents alive. Recalling the scene for the thousandth time, she touched the gold chain that she still wore around her neck, with the stylized image of the executed Jesus suspended from it, himself a heretic in his time. Her mother had believed it possessed some special power, like a charm or talisman, but Sybille had no such belief. It had not done her mother much good. She wore it only to honor her mother's memory; what other reason could there be?
     Now Sybille had time to observe the odd configuration of the three silver crescents on the dagger's hilt, two of them aligned on the same horizontal axis side by side, both opening upward, and the third, smaller, opening downward, centered on the boundary between the two above. The device was echoed in miniature on the pommel, where the points of the smaller crescent seemed to hold the cut amethyst as in a pincer. The design of her father's sword, she recalled, had been just like it.
     "What does it mean, Sybille?" asked Arnaud, staring at the emblem.
     "I have no idea," she told him. "I don't think it means anything at all. It's just a decoration."
     She returned the dagger to its sheath and offered it to him, but he waved it away.
     "The man is supposed to carry the weapon," said Sybille, urging it toward him.
     Arnaud hung his head. "I don't know how to be a man, Sybille."
     There was no point in arguing. She slipped the sheathed dagger inside her tunic and placed five of the coins inside her bundle. Then she held out the remaining coins. "You keep these, Arnaud. We might need them later, but I'll just take half of the silver for now. You have done such a fine job of keeping them safe, little brother. No one could have done better."
     His smile revived, and he returned his valuables to the pouch one by one.
     "Better keep it with you," said Sybille. She handed him the button last. "And where did this come from?"
     "I found it on the floor of the church. After mass, my first time after my confirmation. It's beautiful, isn't it, Sybille?" he said, turning it in the light and admiring the brilliant hue of the faceted emerald and the diamonds' rainbow fire.
     "It's beautiful, yes."
     "I thought God gave it to me." He dropped it carefully into the pouch. Sybille did not answer.
     She finished gathering their belongings into a small heap and settled the brown cloak over them as the best available camouflage. No one would be likely to investigate those perfectly featureless bushes alongside the wall. She had been lucky to find such a good hiding place by moonlight.
     The hour was early, but many townsfolk were up and about. Laroque d'Olmes was a busy market town with a thriving trade in wool and ~~. [Must describe Belcaire instead] Ancillary businesses and services of many kinds operated out of shops, market stalls, and carts in the central marché. There was enough foot traffic in the main streets that the two children did not attract any particular notice as they made their way among the stalls, looking over the merchandise with curiosity. +++ Although they had been in Montaillou for nearly two years, they had come down to Laroque d'Olmes only once before, when their aunt had brought them [to visit the cobbler and be fitted for shoes?]. Sybille knew there was an inn in the town, but she did not know where it was. She had heard older girls in the village speak of it a time or two in a knowing way. "The Half Moon Inn might be the place to find someone who's traveling," muttered Sybille, half to herself. "Maybe someone will have room for us on a cart. Or maybe we can get as far as ~~ on foot, if someone will show us which road to take. Maybe we can join a party of pilgrims and just follow them for a while. Better watch out for pilgrims a little bit, though, because they are sure to be devout, and they won't think much of traveling in company with heretics. We will have to take care what we say. We can't tell them that we are escaping because of the Church. We can't tell anyone that we are escaping at all, or they will know which way to come after us. We have to remember that they will be looking for us. We must never forget that. They could be looking for us right now."
     "Listen, Sybille," said Arnaud, who had been paying attention to the talk around them while she was thinking aloud.
     They had stopped in front of a baker's shop, the aroma of fresh bread halting their movement as solidly as a stone wall.
     An elderly customer was speaking to the baker's wife as she wrapped a dozen [rolls?] in the customer's linen napkin and placed it in her basket.
     "What about the children?" asked the baker's wife, a stout, kindly-looking matron in a broad apron. "Who's looking after them?"
     Two peasants walked past Sybille and Arnaud, one with a load of sticks on his back and the other pushing a small wagon laden with cheeses. Sybille heard: "—passed through here this morning before dawn on their way south to Catalonia, but not very many escaped." "think they will be?" The voice of the second was drowned out by a group of chattering young women coming from the opposite direction:
     "burned at the stake"
     "denounced to the Inquisition at Carcassonne"
     "aunt was seen in company with the heretics and"
     A man walked past on the other side of the road, a large cross of yellow fabric stitched to his cloak. The peasants and townsfolk fell silent and stopped to watch him pass, giving him a wide berth. Several crossed themselves and mouthed a blessing. Sybille and Arnaud stared after him, wondering. The moment he was beyond earshot, the talk began again.
     "except for a few shepherds that were still up on the mountain"
     "imprisoned and tortured"
     "children were left all alone"
     "one of them."
     "Tell your daughter and her husband to be very careful," the baker's wife was saying to her next customer as Sybille and Arnaud entered the shop. Sybille purchased two loaves of [black bread] and received a handful of coppers in exchange for one of the five silver coins.

Copyright © 2006 Meredy Amyx.

What happens next: Sybille inquires the way to the inn, arousing the curiosity of the shopkeeper. She explains that she is looking for traveling companions and tries out her first version of the pilgrimage-to-Paris story. She and Arnaud head for the inn, eating while they walk, and then suddenly they see the Inquisitor, almost face to face. He says something that Sybille misinterprets and positively cements the notion that they are after her. They turn and run back they way they came and finally find their way back to the marché.

     Taking advantage of not being native to the area and known from birth, Sybille invents a crude but barely serviceable tale to account for their being young strangers passing through on their own. A marketwoman comments on their accent and traces of gentility in Sybille's speech, thereby warning Sybille that her speech could betray her. In fear of pursuit, Sybille resolves to go as far away as she can: to the coast of Flanders, a seaport where they can board a ship to other lands. Knowing that the native villagers naturally turn to the south, she represents them as being bound for Paris, many miles to the north, on a pilgrimage to honor the Blessed Virgin at the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. A pedlar traveling on foot to the next town to the north offers to let them accompany him, and they leave town together.

Chapter 2 excerpt A later excerpt