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When they finally came for him, he was almost glad to go.
Two of the guards attempted to pull him to his feet, but the crushed bones gifted to him by the torturers refused to support his weight. Seeing there was no way he could walk or even stand, their captain muttered an oath and sent for a litter. One soldier ripped the last tattered remains of clothing from his blood-streaked, stinking torso while another fetched a bucket of cold water and a few cloths to wash him with. Too weak and sick to care, he let them do with him whatever they would, until a black-robed friar bent over him, waving a crucifix and spouting a string of homilies about reconciliation and the hereafter. Somehow, he found the strength to spit in the startled cleric's face and vomit forth a series of oaths and blasphemies so horrendous, his immortal soul's would-be savior instantly scuttled from the cell, crossing himself as he went.
Hardened though they were, even the soldiers fell back with signs against the evil eye and hasty incantations to whatever saint they believed in.
Fools! It's too bad I'm only a mortal man. If I were even half the witch you claim, you'd be dancing to a very different tune. Oh, Jeanne! I'm thankful you didn't live to see this day.
Blessedly, they'd never tortured the Maid. She'd gone to her fiery death as erect as ever: smiling and with her head held high, so secure had she been in her belief in those damnable voices of hers. "Had he really done those things? He'd been looking at the world for so long from the bottom of a wine cup, he really didn't know. Leaving his cousin to run the estates, he'd spent his days andnights brooding alone in his apartments, drinking himself into a stupor where he could no longer distinguish between dreams and reality. Only then could he fend off the nightmares and stop asking himself how such a magnificent quest could have gone so horribly wrong.
The soldiers pulled a white linen robe over his head and debated whether to put the miter with its cabalistic symbols on him now or save it Until he was chained to the stake.
He closed his eyes and watched Jeanne's silken banner with its glowing colors ripple against the morning sky. Riding at her side to yet another victory, he felt the movements of his great black destrier between his knees and savored the spring blossoms' fragrance as they passed.
Blocking out the waiting mob's growl beyond his window, he harkened to the creak and jingle of a thousand harnesses and armored knights and all the other sounds of an army on the march. The land behind them was black with men, their ranks stretching as far as the eye could see. Beyond them, Jeanne's army swelled with volunteers from the surrounding countryside with their pikes and tools in their hands.
Again, he comforted Jeanne in his arms while they pulled the arrow from her shoulder. On the wintry eve of yet another battle, he wrapped her in his cloak against the cold then stood with her on the heights. Below them on the plain the golden pinpricks of a thousand watch fires stabbed the velvet night. But when he offered her the protection of his ancient name and a refuge in his distant manor she gently told him no.
"You were the first to offer me your sword and you'll be my last true friend when it's time for me to go. When we're done with this, I'll return home and live the rest of my life amid my cows and sheep as peacefully as it began."
It was not to be. The shining King she crowned at Rheims amid clouds of fragrant incense and paeans so glorious as to make the angels themselves weep, evolved into a two-faced serpent. Jeanne's betrayal and abandonment were His Majesty's thanks to the savior of his throne. When the Burgundians sold her to the English, he lifted not one finger to save her and sabotaged the attempts of those who would. Those damnable clerics tried and retried her, imprisoned her as a heretic, then sentenced her to die by fire.
He went in disguise to Rouen and followed the proceedings dry-eyed. And during all the years since, he had never shed a tear for her. Powerless to save her from her chosen destiny, he granted Jeanne the only gift he could and offered the executioner a purse of gold to strangle her before he lit the fire.
The man swore Jeanne's gaze met his in forgiveness as he put his hands around her throat and that a shaft of light left her body at the moment of her death. Lancing into the darkened sky, it lit the heavens from end to end before his wondering eyes. Weeping bitterly, he stumbled away from her blazing pyre, and vowed to never again take a human life.
The prisoner could expect no such mercy today. The hungry crowd would be waiting in the Place des Armes, beastlike in its impatience to feast on his final agony and watch him writhe away from the flames' lick against his living flesh.
Lining the streets ten deep, they'd hold up their children to catch a glimpse of the monstrous sorcerer who was about to pay for his crimes. His name was already a synonym for evil and he knew the legends would grow. He'd be the beast in the dark in countless horror stories and a monster with which mothers would threaten their children if they failed to behave.
When the soldiers carried him outside, he squeezed his eyes shut against the morning's unaccustomed brilliance. Propped in the waiting cart, with the decorated miter jammed firmly over his brow, the crowd's roar and stench hit him like a physical blow. The cart lurched and he fell sideways, sliding helplessly across its rough bottom. A splinter of wood pierced his cheek, barely missing his eye, but he scarcely felt the pain.
The soldiers yanked him up to face the hungry crowd once more. When he saw he was unable to hold himself upright with his broken hands, their captain took a length of rope and lashed him to the front rail.
Opening his eyes as the cart began to move, the condemned man spotted the friar. For good measure, he spewed forth another torrent of hideous invective against him and the stinking church he served; then he watched in amusement as the cleric dropped his precious crucifix in the mud and hastily formed the ancient sign against the evil eye. So much for religion. Something soft struck his face. Juice ran down his cheek and he realized what it was. A shower of rotten fruits and vegetables rained down from all sides, accompanied by roars of approval as each missile found its mark.
Again, he closed his eyes.
In their last encounter with the cursed English, Jeanne's troops turned back the invaders who'd oppressed France for so long. Had she not been captured, those final days would have been pure gold. But the Maid's shining future already lay behind her and her fate henceforth would follow a twisting, slippery road ending only in imprisonment and death.
The cart lurched to a stop and the crowd fell silent. He twisted in the ropes to gaze upward at his funeral pyre. Stepping outside himself, he watched the guards drag and push his unresisting body up the ladder. Seeing the executioner with the chains in his hand, a thought struck him. I have nothing with which to buy his mercy. When someone uncurled his fingers and pressed a coin into his hand, his eyes met the captain's. The younger man's eyes were awash with tears and he recognized one of his lieutenants from the battlefield.
He painfully turned up his palm to reveal the gleam of silver. The sum meant no more to him than a coin to toss to a beggar, but it represented a full month's pay to the captain. Summoning a faint smile, he whispered his thanks. But instead of giving him a merciful poison draft or a quick death by strangulation, the executioner thrust the coin back between his fingers. Then, crossing himself, the man muttered a hasty prayer.
Incredibly, that damnable monk had followed them up the ladder. While the executioner was chaining him to the stake, the friar once again waved his crucifix. Exhorting him at the top of his lungs to confess his sins, he ordered him to make his peace with God and plead for his immortal soul. Once again, he cursed the insistent cleric and spat in his face.
If he could have found a way to save his wondrous beloved fool from herself and those damnable voices only she could hear, he would have surely done so. Jeanne had been no more witch or heretic than he, and, the day those incense-swinging bastards condemned the Maid of Orleans, he'd forsworn his ancient faith and any belief he'd had in an afterlife.
Looking across the teeming square and surrounding streets, he wondered if Charles was watching. It was said the King had taken to his bed after Jeanne's execution and hadn't been seen again for three days. Doubting that His Majesty would display any such grief for him, he glanced up at the sky. A perfect day for a burning with nary a rain cloud in sight.
Judging by the sudden roar, he guessed the executioner had thrust the first brand between the pitch-soaked faggots beneath his feet.
An acrid sweet smell drifting past his nose told him he was right.
Closing his eyes for the last time, he focused his thoughts firmly on Jeanne and prepared to die as stoically as he'd lived.
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Saundby