Heretic (Extract)

The Dominican friar arrived at Castillon d’Arbizon in the autumn dusk, just as the watchman was shutting the western gate. A fire had been kindled in a big brazier that stood inside the gate’s arch to warm the town’s watchmen on what promised to be the first chill night of the waning year. Bats were flickering above the town’s half-repaired walls and about the tower of the high castle which crowned Castillon d’Arbizon’s steep hill.

God be with you, father, one of the watchmen said as he paused to let the tall friar through the gate, but the watchman spoke in Occitan, his native tongue, and the friar did not speak that language and so he just smiled vaguely and sketched a sign of the cross before he hitched up his black skirts and toiled up the town’s main street towards the castle. Girls, their day’s work finished, were strolling the lanes and some of them giggled for the friar was a fine looking man despite a very slight limp. He had ragged black hair, a strong face and dark eyes. A whore called to him from a tavern doorway and prompted a cackle of laughter from men drinking at a table set in the street. A butcher sluiced his shopfront with a wooden pail of water so that dilute blood swilled down the gutter past the friar while above him, from a top floor window where she was drying her washing on a long pole, a woman screamed insults at a neighbour. The western gate crashed shut at the foot of the street and the locking bar dropped into place with a thud.

The friar ignored it all. He just climbed to where the church of Saint Sardos crouched beneath the pale bastion of the castle and, once inside the church, he knelt at the altar steps, made the sign of the cross and then prostrated himself. A black-dressed woman praying at the side-altar of Saint Agnes made the sign of the cross and, disturbed by the friar’s baleful presence, hurried from the church. The friar, lying flat on the top step, just waited.

A town sergeant, dressed in Castillon d’Arbizon’s livery of grey and red, had watched the friar climb the hill. He had noticed that the Dominican’s robe was old and patched and that the friar himself was young and strong, and so the sergeant went to find one of the town’s consuls and that official, cramming his fur trimmed hat onto his grey hair, ordered the sergeant to bring two more armed men while he fetched Father Medous and one of the priest’s two books. The group assembled outside the church and the consul ordered the curious folk who had gathered to watch the excitement to stand back. There is nothing strange, he said officiously.

But there was. A stranger had come to Castillon d’Arbizon and all strangers were cause for suspicion, and so the crowd stayed and watched as the consul pulled on his official robe of grey and red cloth trimmed with hare fur, then ordered the three sergeants to open the church door.

What did the people expect? A devil to erupt from Saint Sardos’s? Did they think to see a great charred beast with crackling black wings and a trail of smoke behind his forked tail? Instead the priest and the consul and two of the sergeants went inside, while the third sergeant, his stave of office showing the badge of Castillon d’Arbizon which was a hawk carrying a sheaf of rye, guarded the door. style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> The crowd waited. The woman who had fled the church said that the friar was praying. But he looks evil, she added, he looks like the devil, and she made the sign of the cross.

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When the priest, the consul and the two guards went into the church the friar was still lying flat before the altar with his arms spread wide so that his body made the shape of the cross. He must have heard the nailed boots on the nave’s uneven flagstones, but he did not move, nor did he speak.

Paire? Castillon d’Arbizon’s priest asked nervously. He spoke in Occitan and the friar did not respond. Father? The priest tried French.

You are a Dominican? The consul was too impatient to wait for any response to Father Medous’s tentative approach. Answer me! He also in French, and sternly too, as befitted Castillon d’Arbizon’s leading citizen. Are you a Dominican?

The friar prayed a moment longer and then brought his hands together above his head, paused for a heartbeat, then stood and faced the four men.

I have come a long way, he said imperiously, and need a bed, food and wine.

You are a Dominican? The consul repeated his question.

I follow the blessed Saint Dominic’s way, the friar confirmed. The wine need not be good, the food merely what your poorest folk eat, and the bed can be of straw.

The consul hesitated. The friar was tall, evidently strong and just a bit frightening, but then the consul, who was a wealthy man and properly respected in Castillon d’Arbizon, drew himself up to his full height. You are young, he said accusingly, to be a friar.

It is to the glory of God, the Dominican said dismissively, that young men follow the cross instead of the sword. I can sleep in a stable.

Your name? The consul demanded.

Thomas.

An English name! There was alarm in the consul’s voice and the two sergeants responded by hefting their long staves.

Tomas, if you prefer, the friar said, seemingly unconcerned as the two sergeants took a menacing pace towards him. It is my baptismal name, he explained, and the name of that poor disciple who doubted our Lord’s divinity. If you have no such doubts then I envy you and I pray to God that he grants me such certainty.

You are French? The consul asked.

I am a Norman, the friar said, then nodded. Yes, I am French. He looked at the priest. Do you speak French?

I do, the priest sounded nervous, some. A little.

Then may I eat in your house tonight, Father?

The consul would not let Father Medous answer, but instead instructed the priest to give the friar the book. It was a very old book with worm-eaten pages and a black leather cover that the friar unwrapped. What do you want of me? He demanded.

Read from the book, the consul demanded. He had noticed that the friar’s hands were scarred and the fingers slightly twisted. Damage, he thought, more fitting for a soldier than a priest. Read to me! The consul insisted.

You cannot read for yourself? The friar asked derisively.

Whether I read or not, the consul said, is not your business. But whether you can read, young man, is our business, for if you are not a priest then you will not be able to read. So read to me.

The friar shrugged, opened a page at random and paused. The consul’s suspicions were roused by the pause and he raised a hand to beckon the sergeants forward, but then the Dominican suddenly read aloud. He had a good voice, confident and strong, and the Latin words sounded like a melody as they echoed from the church’s painted walls. After a moment the consul held up a hand to silence the friar and looked quizzically at Father Medous. Well?

He reads well, Father Medous said weakly. The priest’s own Latin was not good and he did not like to admit that he not entirely understood the echoing words, though he was quite sure that the Dominican could read.

You know what the book is? the consul demanded.

I assume, the friar said, that it is the life of Saint Gregory. The passage, as you doubtless recognised, there was sarcasm in his voice, describes the pestilence that will afflict those who disobey the Lord their God. He wrapped the limp black cover about the book and held it out to the priest. You probably know the book as the Flores Sanctorum?

Indeed, the priest took the book and nodded at the consul.

That official was still not entirely reassured. Your hands, he said, how were they injured? style=”mso-spacerun: yes”> And your nose? It was broken?

As a child, the friar said, holding out his hands, I slept with the cattle. I was trampled by an ox. And my nose was broken when my mother struck me with a skillet.

The Consul understood those everyday childhood accidents and visibly relaxed. You will understand, father, he said to the friar, that we must be cautious of visitors.

Cautious of God’s priests? The Dominican asked caustically.

We had to be sure, the consul explained. A message came from Auch which said the English are riding, but no one knows where.

There is a truce, the friar pointed out.

When did the English ever keep a truce? The Consul retorted.

If they are indeed English, the Dominican said scornfully. Any troop of bandits is called the English these days. You have men, he gestured at the sergeants who did not understand a word of the French conversation, and you have churches and priests, so why should you fear bandits?

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