The gates of Vaucouleurs stayed opened those days, a welcome sign of peace. La Hire touched his tired horse with his heel, and the horse jogged forward amidst the swirl of carts and livestock. Market day, he saw, and turned his horse away from the square to the courtyard. It was quieter there. A few men at arms were practicing swordsmanship, the others lounging idly. At first La Hire went unnoticed. Then one hapless soldier saw him and stopped dead in mid-lunge, mouth hanging open. He was almost skewered, his partner stumbling to catch himself at the last minute and cursing the other’s clumsiness. Everyone turned to look, and silence descended. A page, cleaning armor, dropped a helmet and bolted for the castle.
“La Hire. La Hire.” The whispers rose to the bright summer sky. “It’s La Hire.”
The men surged forward, laughing, shouting, their eyes bright. “La HIRE!” They swarmed around him, a cheering mob, reaching out to touch his cloak or his sword, their eager hands almost pulling him from his horse. La Hire reined back, bellowing curses.
“Back, damn you all! Back, do you hear?”
“That’s enough!” Jean de Metz, with the little page panting at his side, came down the steps into the courtyard. He tilted his head sharply and the men backed away.
“Let him be. Get down, La Hire, they won’t hurt you. It’s not often we get heroes in Vaucouleurs. Besides me, of course.” He grinned.
La Hire dismounted, wincing at the pain in his stiff back. He handed his reins to the page.
“De Metz, you ruffian. I heard you were captain here. It’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, old man. Come on in.”
He could feel de Metz watching him over his cup, and La Hire laughed at his intent expression. “So what do you see?”
“I see the bravest man in France.”
La Hire shook his head. “No more. I am an old man, de Metz. I was old ten years ago. Now I am old and fat.”
De Metz raised his cup. “May we all grow old and fat.”
La Hire waved his. “Hear hear.” He took a swallow. “Where is de Poulengy?”
De Metz shrugged. “He’s off to visit Domremy.”
La Hire set down his tankard and swung his feet off the table. He stared. “The family is still there?”
“No–the father is dead, and the mother is living off a pension in Orleans. Why not? they should be grateful after all. No, de Poulengy just goes to stare at the house. Then he gets drunk and comes home. He’ll be back later today or tomorrow.”
“Do you ever go?” La Hire asked.
De Metz’s black eyes slid away from his gaze. “No, I–well, what would be the use of it?” He shrugged again and took a drink. “What brings you to Vaucouleurs, old friend?”
La Hire held out his cup and de Metz filled it.
“Now that the Burgundians have come back to the fold and the goddons have fled to England, I’ve had to take on other commissions. Gilles de Rais sent me a message, asking for my help. He didn’t say what for.”
De Metz stared. “De Rais? Name of God, La Hire, do you know what you’re getting into?”
“Oh, not you too, de Metz. Don’t tell me you believe all those stories of werewolves in Brittany?”
“No, no, of course not.” The Vaucouleurs captain shifted uneasily, just barely keeping from crossing himself. “But there are other tales with de Rais’s name attached to them, stories of witchcraft and murder — you’ve heard them too, don’t deny it. And what does de Rais want with La Hire? Ten years ago you were at each others’ throats.”
La Hire grinned wolfishly. “Oh, he was jealous all right! I had the Maid’s ear at Orleans, and not he. Thought he was going to pull his beard right out, he was so frustrated.”
“She listened to his counsel too,” de Metz reminded him.
La Hire snorted. “Yes, afterwards, at Paris! Any fool could have told you we could not take Paris. Tell you the truth, Jean, our little Maid was quite the soldier, but she was also a bit of a snob. If it had a title, she listened to it. Me now, just a mercenary, well, I couldn’t get the time of day from her after Orleans.”
“Try telling that to Dunois, or even Charles,” de Metz said. He looked down at his cup, rolling it between his fingers. “Jeanne D’Arc didn’t really listen to anybody, La Hire. She had her saints, and that was counsel enough. De Rais had no more influence over her than anyone did.”
La Hire grunted. “Those days are long gone. And any animosity between de Rais and me can be smoothed over with coin.”
“So you’re going?”
La Hire eyed him over his cup. “I hoped you and de Poulengy would come along.”
De Metz leaned back, his expression curious. “Us? Why?”
La Hire chose his words with care. “You know I have little faith in God, Jean, and only just a bit more in myself. But I think — and don’t laugh at crazy old La Hire — that I’ve been given a sign to go to Brittany and do what needs to be done for de Rais.”
De Metz’s mouth hung open for a moment. “A sign. You. From God?”
“No. From the Maid.”
He presented de Metz with a small, bent ring, battered and tarnished. With a shaking hand de Metz took it and held it up to the light. La Hire watched him read the worn inscription, his lips forming the words: Jesus +Maria.
“This is her ring. How did you get her ring?”
La Hire lifted his broad shoulders. “De Rais sent it with his letter.”
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and by this token of the faith of Jeanne the Maid… the letter had begun. La Hire had not been prepared for the memories the little ring raised — or the uneasiness. The Maid was dead, and nothing could bring her back. If anyone betrayed her it was Charles the King, not La Hire the mercenary.
But he thought he should go help de Rais, anyway.
Footsteps on the stair caught their attention, and they could hear a voice bellowing an offkey tune. The song stopped abruptly and the door thudded, as if someone bumped into it, and then slammed open, banging into the wall. De Poulengy stood there, arms wide, a bright grin on his lean face, his graying chestnut hair standing out wildly.
“La Hire!” he cried out, beaming. “Old friend! They told me you were here.”
And with that Bertrand de Poulengy slid to the floor, out cold.
La Hire said little as they journeyed south from Vaucouleurs. He rode grimly, in constant pain in his hips and his knees. Drinking helped, but he couldn’t ride drunk across France. He concentrated on fighting the pain. De Metz, catching his mood, kept his own counsel. Only de Poulengy seemed cheerful, once his hangover wore off. He didn’t try to make conversation, sensing the somber mood of his companions, but he rode with a light expression, as if a smile waited just beneath his skin. Only once did he exclaim,
“By God, it feels good to ride again!” but he said it more to himself than the others.
The roads took them through the farmlands of Lorraine, tinted with the light green of early summer crops. The bells of sheep and cattle could be heard jingling across the fields, and here and there in the distance they could catch the gray-green waters of the lazy Meuse.
Only a few years before, those fields had been charred black, the villages ravaged by fire and war. What the Maid had wrought was, quite simply, the miracle of France’s rebirth. La Hire’s hand twitched to make the sign of the cross, but he held it back and instead cursed under his breath so violently that his horse started and pulled at the bit.
It was a relief to his aching joints when twilight fell and they could stop for the night, choosing a campsite along the outskirts of the Bois Chenu. The trees pressed in on them and the evening air was cold after the strong summer sun. La Hire rolled his broad shoulders under his shirt and cracked his neck, swearing at the cold stealing into his joints. De Metz looked up from starting the fire.
“Sounds bad,” he commented. La Hire only grunted sourly and de Poulengy guffawed.
“Losing your touch, La Hire?” he said cheerfully. “You used to peel paint with that tongue.”
“Go bugger the devil!” La Hire snapped, and de Poulengy just laughed again. De Metz shook his head and went back to his fire building.
“So,” de Poulengy said, when they had eaten and were sitting comfortably around the fire. “Do you really believe de Rais is behind these rumors of witchcraft and werewolves in Brittany?”
“I never liked him,” de Metz said loyally, glancing at La Hire. “But he was a brave knight, and he was always at Jeanne’s side. Still, these rumors, spreading even into France –”
“Jeanne would have known if he was evil,” de Poulengy said, crossing himself. He leaned forward earnestly. “God would have told her.”
“What do you think, La Hire?” de Metz asked.
La Hire stared into the fire, dozing a little. Or not exactly dozing, but seeing behind his eyelids another fire, and inside the leaping flames a darkened form. With an effort, he dragged his attention back to the others.
“What? No. De Rais was a son of a bitch, but I don’t think he is a werewolf.”
They laughed, but de Poulengy persisted.
“What about the other tales, of murder and kidnapping? Something bad is happening in Brittany. And if even half the stories are true, we might find ourselves wishing for the goddons to come back.”
“Might be fun to fight goddons again,” La Hire said lightly. De Metz snorted.
“Speak for yourself. I’ll take a Breton werewolf any day over an English goddon.”
“What’s the difference?” La Hire shot back and de Metz laughed.
When they sobered a little, de Poulengy said reflectively, “I know what La Hire means, though. By God, raising the siege of Orleans, then taking back the towns on the way to Rheims — we were invincible!”
The other two nodded assent. La Hire thought back to those days of triumph, following the Maid and her white banner. How her self-righteousness chafed him and the others — yet everything came out just the way she said it would.
I have been sent by God to do these things: raise the siege of Orleans; crown the dauphin at Rheims; and drive the English from France.
She had even predicted her capture; he wondered if she knew the rest of her fate, or if her saints had kept their counsel out of pity.
“Would that Jeanne were with us now,” de Poulengy said finally. He ducked his head, muttering something about the smoke. The other two exchanged uncomfortable glances and waited for him to compose himself. Instead, he caught their expressions and burst out, “I know you think I’m a sentimental fool, both of you, but I’m only a fool for saying what I think.” His voice went thick. “She was a good girl and a great soldier, and she was badly used, badly used by France and Charles and the rest of us. Sometimes I think she would have been better off if we had had our way with her and left her in that ditch, eh Jean? At least then she would not have come to such a wicked end.”
De Metz straightened quickly. “Ho, now, Bertrand. Take it easy.”
La Hire stared at both of them. “What is he talking about?”
“Nothing, nothing, we were young,” de Metz said hastily. De Poulengy laughed.
“Yes it was nothing, because she shamed us out of it. When we took her to Chinon to see Charles, the plan was to take advantage of this poor, mad, innocent peasant girl. How did you put it, Jean? Put her to the test? Instead, she lay between us for ten days, La Hire, and we did nothing except cover her with our cloaks and we never touched her. Because she was Jeanne the Maid and was destined to save France from the English, and be burned at the stake for all her pains!”
His voice rose to a shout.
“We didn’t do it,” de Metz said softly. “It’s all right, Bertrand.”
Again there was silence, punctuated only by the snapping of the fire. La Hire thought about what would have happened if they had tupped the Maid on the road to the King. France would not have survived. He shook his head at the thought and de Metz rolled his eyes in scorn.
“Don’t act so righteous, La Hire. Would she have been any safer in your hands?”
“You’ll get no blame from me, de Metz. I’m just amazed you didn’t try it anyway.”
“We couldn’t,” de Poulengy said flatly. At La Hire’s raised eyebrows, he went on, “Listen, we were young and cocky, like anyone, and — we couldn’t. Oh, we wanted to, and I have never ridden in such painful discomfort in my life. But I couldn’t even speak to her of it.”
La Hire stared at him and suddenly guffawed.
“My God! I just realized that’s what that expression was on everyone’s faces! Especially d’Aulon’s, that time he caught a glimpse of her in the baths. I used to wonder why she always wore her armor, even slept in it. I thought it was because she was so damned proud — What?” he asked at their expressions.
“He did?” they chorused.
“What? Oh, d’Aulon. Yes, you should have seen him. He was shaking as if he had seen one of her saints. He said her breasts were beautiful.”
Once again there was silence as they digested this. De Metz shook his head.
“Too many revelations for one night, La Hire. I think I’m going to sleep with that image to lull my dreams.”
Following his lead they rolled out their bedrolls, settling into the lumpy ground as best they could. But de Poulengy wasn’t finished. From the darkness on the other side of the dying fire, he asked reflectively,
“La Hire, why didn’t the three of us just storm the prison in Rouen and rescue her?”
La Hire rolled over on his back, staring up at the distant stars.
“She was Jeanne the Maid, Bertrand,” he said gruffly. “We all thought she’d win. Now shut up and go to sleep. We have a long ride ahead.”
It was a cold August evening when they reached Chateau Machecoul. The twilight pressed in, mist stealing across the road in low, feathery patches. The castle loomed ahead of them, a dark hulk between the trees. La Hire exchanged glances with the others as they stopped at the gate and looked up at the heavily guarded walls of the castle. At their approach the portcullis was cranked up, and they rode in, their horses tossing their heads uneasily. La Hire choked, and he saw de Metz and de Poulengy bring up their gloved hands to cover their faces. The smell of offal wafted over them, a sweet, rotten stench that hung heavy in the air, mingled with another odor he couldn’t place.
That is no midden heap, La Hire thought. But it was tantalizingly familiar.
Out of the twilight a servant came forward, attended by another holding an ornate candelabra to light his way. The servant bowed, a nervous little grin twitching at his lips.
“I am Henriet, my lords, at your service. As guests of the Marechal, you are welcome here. You will come with me, please.”
They dismounted warily, exchanging glances, and at a sharp word from Henriet, grooms ran forward to take their horses.
With a snap of his fingers and another nervous twitch at his mouth, Henriet gestured them into the castle. Even in the great hall the stench lingered, though it mingled with the smell of beeswax from the phalanx of candles that gleamed from the walls. Between candelabra hung heavy tapestries, their golden threads shining.
Henriet and the servant led them through the hall and up a narrow staircase, a tight and gloomy space after the expanse of the hall. Shadows moved around them jerkily. La Hire held his breath, straining to hear furtive sounds over their footfalls, cursing de Poulengy’s heavy steps. Rats, he thought, or other vermin–he could hear rustling sounds like tiny footsteps and every once in a while a broken sob that raised the hair on his neck. Candlelight glanced off a miniature door, waist high and barred like a small cage. It seemed to him an eye peered back at them, catching the light and then disappearing into shadow. But he could hear scratching, straining noises and a breathless, unhappy cry. The others had pulled ahead, and La Hire lengthened his stride to catch up.
“When can we see Sire de Rais?” he called out, a little breathlessly. Henriet turned, licking his lips indecisively.
“The Marechal is at Mass and does not like to be disturbed at his devotions,” he said at last. “He asks that you attend him after the evening meal.” He unlocked a door and showed them in to a chamber. A cheerful fire took the edge off the seeping chill, but the same stench that clung to the courtyard permeated the air. “You may wait here and rest yourselves after your journey. Food and drink will be brought up.” Henriet looked at them as sternly as he could, though his quick nervousness betrayed him. “The Marechal is a very private man, Sires, and Chateau Machecoul is very large. It is easy for visitors to get lost in its halls and passageways. Please stay in this room so as not to inconvenience yourselves.”
He bowed himself out. The three men looked at one another, and de Metz raised an eyebrow. He walked over and tried the door. It was unlocked; he closed it carefully, but with a look of relief.
“I hadn’t realized how different things are in Brittany,” he said flippantly. “What have you got us into, La Hire?”
Wincing, La Hire eased himself down onto the bed, rubbing his knee. Hunger and pain inflamed his temper and his words were short.
“You know as much as I do, de Metz. What else do you want from me? De Rais will tell us more, when he’s ready.” Irritably La Hire raised his voice. “Hey! Someone bring us the food and drink you promised! Damn!” The last was aimed at his leg, which was throbbing miserably.
The dinner hour passed and the chamber began to feel more like a prison. They paced and bickered, tempers flaring under pressure of their uncertain position. When at last they heard servants at the door, the three knights turned toward it eagerly.
“Finally!” de Metz muttered as the servants bustled in, bearing trays of meat and wine. The fragrance of the meat made La Hire’s mouth water; he felt himself grin. The aroma of roasted meat pulled them all eagerly toward the table, when, coupled with the pervasive stench of Machecoul, the smell overpowered him with memory.
Jeanne, weeping over the bodies of the English soldiers, burned to a crisp in the charred ruins of Les Tourelles. Their skin roasted black, their faces unrecognizable, and the smell…
La Hire looked down at the meat, bile bubbling up in his throat. De Metz, perhaps prompted by the same memory, made a strangled sound. The two knights looked at each other, sick understanding in their eyes.
“Take it away,” La Hire said hoarsely. The servants hesitated and exchanged frightened glances.
“Sire–we can’t. Henriet said–the Marechal said–you are expressely invited to eat, Sires.”
“Take. It. Away.” La Hire groped for his sword, pulling it out of the tangle of gear by the bed. The servants started back, almost dropping their trays. De Poulengy, in the act of sitting down, goggled at La Hire in confusion. The servants didn’t require another hint–they bustled out with their cargo, dropping utensils in their haste.
When they finally were gone, de Metz checked the door again, this time to make sure there were no listeners at the latch. De Poulengy flung himself onto the bed, irritated.
“I don’t know about you, La Hire, but it was a long time since I tasted food that good,” he began heatedly.
“I hope you never did,” de Metz said, his voice bone dry. His face was pale. La Hire shook his head.
“Oh God,” he muttered. “Oh God.”
De Poulengy looked from one to the other. “Afraid, Jean?” he said. “And you, La Hire, praying? My God, what was it? What was that meat?” Then de Poulengy stared at them as light dawned. “My God,” he said. “My God, La Hire, what have you gotten us into?”
De Metz shook him awake after first watch and La Hire rolled to his feet silently. He settled himself by the door as de Metz took his place on the bed and dropped instantly into sleep.
The room was cold. The fire had died down and only coals glowed on the hearth. La Hire hugged himself to stay warm, bouncing on his toes to get his blood moving and his stiff muscles to loosen up.
A sliver of moonlight through the shutters illuminated de Poulengy’s face, mouth open as he drove his pigs to market. De Metz coughed and sputtered and caught his breath. Preoccupied, it took La Hire a few moments to realize he was hearing something besides his companions’ deep snores. He held his breath.
A rhythmic grunting came from somewhere below their chamber, ending in two overlapping sounds, a long sigh and a muffled scream. A long metallic scrape, muted by distance, followed, and something heavy rolled. La Hire, a man of war, recognized that sound and his guts froze. He broke out into sweat.
Move, damn you, La Hire! He was numb, and for a desperate moment hoped he was still dreaming. He heard nothing more, though he strained his ears, and he wondered how long the sounds had been going on, or what else he missed before he woke. Screams? his mind remarked. Crying?
He cursed, but it only helped a little. He thought of de Poulengy and how he would have crossed himself and gotten courage from God. But La Hire had only one prayer, and it was not one that could be used when a man really needed it.
He gathered up his sword as quietly as possibly, buckling the swordbelt around his waist, and forgoing the rest of his equipment. Something hard pressed against his chest; running his fingers over it he detected Jeanne’s ring, caught in the loose folds of the shirt. He did not remember putting it there, but he held it tightly for a moment.
Better than a prayer, he told himself, though the Maid had no patience for superstitious talismans and would have reprimanded him sharply if she had been there. Still, he felt a little better.
He limped down the long hall the way they had come up from dinner. Many of the torches had burned out, but one or two still flickered, and he snagged one to help him on his way. The stairs at the end of the hall were a descent into utter darkness. La Hire took them slowly, straining to see more than a few steps at a time, but the torch helped little to illuminate the way and only interfered with his night vision. He took a tentative step and stumbled. Grabbing at air, he windmilled desperately through the darkness into an unseen hole below.
The first thing he noticed was the pain — the next thing was the light. La Hire lay on his back on the stone floor, struggling for the breath knocked out of him. He got to his feet with difficulty. Warm candlelight bathed the room, and when he could move enough to look around, he saw it was a circular chamber, draped in velvet and brocade. But instead of a grand hall, here these tapestries hung over a rack and a wheel. Bones littered the floor, and the sick-sweet odor of decay permeated the room. Dried blood streaked the floor and reddened the instruments; a head, quite removed from its torso, stared lifelessly at him. Another body slumped on the rack, and La Hire saw that it was still alive, gasping shallowly every few seconds. He started involuntarily toward the victim when the tapestries swayed and a cold breeze raised the hair on the back of his neck. La Hire turned, his legs stiff and heart pounding, to meet de Rais.
The brave knight who had fought at the side of the Maid, who had argued into the night with La Hire over tactics, who was quick to anger and as quick to charm, was unrecognizable. His hair and beard, always wiry, stood out in tufts from his head. His hose and tunic were as richly embroidered as always, but La Hire noted that de Rais looked like a shrunken stick inside them. Only his eyes were familiar and they burned with madness.
“Welcome, La Hire,” he said. “Welcome to my church.”
“Sire,” said La Hire, his voice rusty. “I am just La Hire but I don’t think this is anyone’s church unless it’s the devil’s.”
“La Hire!” de Rais said in mock surprise. “It is a miracle! You have regained your faith. Does this mean you will worship with me?”
“What do you want from me?” La Hire asked. De Rais laughed.
“Great La Hire. You are my safe-conduct to God. Or at least past the executioner. If La Hire stands with de Rais, de Rais will not burn.”
La Hire shook his head, the old rage filling him.
“By God, if you think I will play this game you are a bigger fool than I thought.”
“What, do you think you can stop me? You, La Hire? I traffic with forces greater than you have ever known in your bleak, pathetic life. They have given me strength!” De Rais’s voice rose into a shout. “They have given me appetites beyond anything I have thought possible, and they have given me leave to feast in ways that you cannot imagine! I burn with desire, La Hire, and I feed at will, and burn, and feed, and it is never-ending–” his voice broke.
In the silence that followed the prisoner moaned. They both looked over at him, and La Hire, his eyes adjusted to the dim light, for the first time saw that it was a boy of perhaps twelve. He felt a muscle jump in his cheek.
“No, de Rais,” he said. “I can only help you by killing you, and I will do that in an instant.” He moved a few steps toward the boy with the intent of releasing him, but de Rais was faster.
The marechal lunged forward, taking La Hire by surprise. De Rais was wiry and strong, and his fingernails gouged La Hire through his shirt. He threw the captain onto the floor and held him down. La Hire found himself looking up into de Rais’s mad eyes. Spittle dripped from the marechal’s mouth, and his beard was stiff and pointed, so black it gleamed blue in the light.
“Kill me? I didn’t bring you here to kill me. This is a church, after all. God’s peace governs here. No. You are here to atone, La Hire.”
“Go to hell, de Rais. I have nothing to atone for,” La Hire shot back.
“Oh, indeed?” de Rais raised an eyebrow. His mouth opened but it was Jeanne’s voice that came out.
“Save me,” de Rais/Jeanne said. “Save me from the fire, La Hire.” Candlelight flickered in de Rais’s eyes, but the pinpoint flames turned into an inferno, and in the midst of them a young girl writhed.
“Jesus!” La Hire gasped, his eyes bulging in terror. He bucked and tried to throw off de Rais’s hands.
“In God’s name, La Hire, do not abandon de Rais as you abandoned the Maid,” de Rais continued, still in Jeanne’s voice.
“God damn you to hell!” La Hire roared, wild with fear. “I did not abandon her! I will kill you, de Rais! I will kill you, you child-eating devil! I will kill you!”
Strangling on his rage, La Hire rolled over on top of de Rais, getting one hand free and punching him so hard the marechal’s head snapped back against the floor.
It should have knocked him senseless. Instead, de Rais threw his head forward and caught La Hire in the nose with his forehead. Stinging pain exploded in his skull, and blood spurted. La Hire bellowed and shook his head to clear it, flailing to catch de Rais.
The marechal easily captured his hands again and rolled La Hire back onto the floor. With an almost gentle gesture he slid one finger down La Hire’s bloody face and placed it on the captain’s lips.
Glaring, furious, La Hire stared up at de Rais, his breath coming hoarsely.
“I will kill you,” he said again, through clenched teeth. In answer de Rais leaned close to his ear, and in a soft whisper, said, “No. Save me.”
This time the voice was his own. La Hire stared. For an instant de Rais looked at him, his eyes pleading. Stop me, he mouthed. Then cold air whipped past La Hire, raising the hair on his arms, and the room was plunged into darkness. The weight left his chest. De Rais was gone.
When he could move again, La Hire rolled painfully to his feet and wiped the blood from his broken nose with the back of his hand. Damn you, de Rais, he thought half-heartedly, and searched for a candle.
The darkness gave way reluctantly to the feeble light and La Hire stumbled over to the rack. The boy was still breathing, but blood came from his mouth, and his eyes were staring. Fumbling with the restraints La Hire released him, and the boy fell into his arms, crying out feebly. La Hire lowered himself into a sitting position against the frame, the boy half in his lap. “Shh,” he said gruffly, scraping a hand over the boy’s hair. “Shh.”
He started when he heard familiar voices coming from above. Torchlight winked from the stairs.
“Jean! Bertrand! Down here! Watch your step.”
He heard them exclaim as they stopped abruptly at the edge of the trapdoor.
“Name of God, La Hire, what are you doing down there?”
“Not now, Bertrand! Get down here!”
They jumped cautiously into the chamber, staring around them with awe.
“Name of God, La Hire!” de Metz said, taking in the rack, the boy, and La Hire’s ruined face.
“Never mind. Did you see de Rais?”
They shook their heads.
“He did this. He’s mad. The dinner, now this–” he nodded down at the boy. “Who knows how many victims.”
“Hundreds,” croaked the boy. He clutched La Hire’s shirt with weak fingers. “Sires, I can see you are men of good blood and have to come to help. Go to Nantes and find Constable L’Abbe. He has suspected the marechal for a long time but lacked proof. My body is the evidence he needs.”
“Not your body, boy,” de Metz said gruffly, but the youngster shook his head, gulping back the pain.
“No. It’s too late. But if you can, Sires, find me a priest? And my–my mother? She lives in the village, she must be worried. If you could tell her that I will see her in Heaven–” he stopped, groaning.
La Hire tipped the boy gently into de Metz’s arms and stood up. “Let’s figure out a way out of here.”
It turned out to be a mundane secret; the tapestry behind the rack hid a corridor. They followed the cold breeze coming from the outside and found themselves in the courtyard.
It was cold and pitch dark. Dawn had not yet come, and the torches had gone out. Fog settled over the open space, and they could hear water dripping loudly in the distorted air.
“Go,” La Hire told de Metz. “Get L’Abbe and bring him back here–” he glanced down at the boy. He appeared to be unconscious. “And a priest,” he finished softly. “We’ll find de Rais and hold him for the constable.”
De Metz nodded and headed toward the stables with his burden.
They found him in the chapel. De Rais knelt in front of the altar, his body still as stone and as quiet. La Hire and de Poulengy exchanged uneasy glances. They watched from the door as the dim figure bowed his head and crossed himself. De Rais got to his feet, and, still facing the altar, said,
“Have you come to kill me, La Hire?” His voice was quiet, rational.
“If I must,” La Hire said. De Rais nodded, as if considering that. He turned at last, his face in shadow.
“I am not a bad man, you know.”
De Poulengy’s laugh echoed explosively in the chapel. The other two ignored it. De Rais went on with his defense.
“I fought for France beside the Maid, as did you. God will see that. He will weigh it. And I have decided to enter a monastery. I will take a vow of poverty, you see, and I’ll be good. Yes. I think it will be a good life. I am tired of this one.”
La Hire and de Poulengy exchanged glances.
“I don’t think that will be an option, Sire,” La Hire said.
“But I am so tired, La Hire. I want to stop, but I can’t. Do you think God will understand that?”
If He did, La Hire thought, it will be because there is no God, only a Devil.
“Consider yourself stopped, Sire,” de Poulengy put in. He stepped forward, one hand on his sword hilt. “We’ve summoned L’Abbe.”
For the first time de Rais looked directly at de Poulengy.
“You,” he sneered. He stepped out of the shadow, and La Hire saw de Poulengy flinch uncertainly. “Who are you to judge me? Go back to France, little man, go back to your sad pinings for a past that never was. You are destined to be nothing but the dung under the heels of great men. First Jeanne, now me–”
De Poulengy lunged, grabbing de Rais by his tunic and throwing him backward. La Hire pulled him off. “De Poulengy, don’t!” he said. “He is just trying to taunt you–”
Furiously de Poulengy tried to pull himself from La Hire’s grip. “Let me kill him, La Hire! He is evil, he is filth–”
Pressed against the altar where de Poulengy had pushed him, de Rais watched their struggle, laughing. Some intuition made La Hire panic. With a last effort he pushed de Poulengy off and lunged for de Rais, catching a velvet sleeve just as a breeze from the courtyard swept through the chapel, and the candles flickered. But he kept his grip on the marechal, and after a moment, the candlelight came back up. Their faces only inches apart, La Hire caught the look of terror on de Rais’s face when the marechal realized he was caught.
“No!” he howled, and twisted one hand free. In the time it took La Hire to register that he held a dagger, de Rais had buried it in La Hire’s side.
For a moment La Hire’s hearing was preternaturally acute. Above de Rais’s thick breathing and de Poulengy’s frantic cursing, he could hear the hissing of the candlewax, even the dripping of moisture outside the chapel. He looked past de Rais to the quiet altar, and saw for the first time the stained glass window above the crucifix. At first he thought the armored figure was St. Michael.
Then he recognized it for who it was. The dawn must have come, because gray light filtered through the leaded glass, shining through the halo behind the armored head, black hair peeking out around the face, just as it had done in real life. Her banner waved above her, and her armor, plain and unadorned, gleamed with new light. She stood on the walls of Orleans, but her gaze was not fixed on the sight of her most triumphant military victory, but upon La Hire.
“God’s blood, girl,” he said to her. “What are you doing here?”
“La Hire, how many times have I told you not to take the Lord’s name in vain?” she scolded.
He smiled. He never thought how good it would be to see her again. “You never give up, do you? Don’t you know my swearing is a hopeless battle?”
“Despair is a sin, La Hire. There are no hopeless battles where there is God.”
“Even here, Jeanne?”
“Especially here, La Hire.”
“He asked me to save him. To stop him from killing again.”
“Then you must do so.”
“Will he be brought to justice?”
“If God wills it.”
“Damn you, Jeanne! I knew you’d say that.”
He expected her to reprimand him again, but she said nothing, just looked at him kindly, and he had to avert his gaze to tell her what he had kept pent-up for ten years.
“I was in a Burgundian prison,” he said flatly. “Just to let you know. I would have come, if I could.”
He plunged on. “I don’t know about the others. The King, D’Alencon — I don’t know why they abandoned you. I suppose they thought — well, that you were the Maid and you would win.”
He dared to look at her then, and her smile was kind, though tears sparkled at the corner of her eyes.
“But I did win, La Hire,” she said.
He waited, but she said nothing more, and he noticed that the window was still again. La Hire sank to his knees. Even as de Poulengy hurried to grab him, La Hire looked at de Rais.
“I’ve come to save you,” he said, and pitched face down onto the chapel floor.
He woke up in a different chamber, this one streaming with light from shutters thrown open to the fields outside the castle. The scent of the dead children that clung to the walls of Machecoul had lessened, but La Hire knew it would never be entirely clean.
“He should have died,” de Poulengy told de Metz as they stood over the bed. “I’ve seen wounds like that.” He shook his head and went on. “But La Hire just stood there, just staring. And then he told de Rais he had come to save him. Then he collapsed.”
La Hire grunted. He was still weak and his eyes kept wanting to close. “Did I say anything?”
“No … at least I didn’t hear anything. But de Rais said you were talking–” he looked away uncomfortably. “–to Jeanne,” he finished. “And he saw behind her a vast army of knights, all stern and sorrowful, and he knelt in surrender to you.”
“I didn’t see the knights,” La Hire said without thinking. De Poulengy looked at him.
“But you saw her?” he said quietly, his voice aching. La Hire exchanged glances with de Metz. It had never been easy for de Poulengy. The rest of them could think of Jeanne as a warrior sent from God or a boy in knight’s armor rather than a girl, vibrant and spirited. A son for Dunois, a brother for d’Alencon, a weapon for Charles the King.
De Poulengy had loved all of her in equal parts, the girl, the saint, and the soldier.
“What happened then?” de Metz asked.
“While I was trying to stop La Hire’s bleeding,” de Poulengy went on, “de Rais tried to kill himself with the dagger, but I took it from him, and then I tied his hands with the altar cloth.
“I didn’t want to put La Hire in the hands of the servants, so we holed up in the chapel until afternoon, when I heard you and L’Abbe in the courtyard.”
“The boy was all that L’Abbe needed to get the warrant for de Rais’s arrest from the Bishop of Nantes,” de Metz said. ”He told his story to L’Abbe before he died.”
La Hire wondered if the boy had seen a priest before dying. He hoped so. Despite himself, his eyes closed. He heard the two knights leave and the door close behind them. With the last of his strength he brought his hands together and began to pray.
Author’s Note: Etienne de Vignolles, called La Hire, and Gilles de Laval, called de Rais, fought by the side of Joan of Arc during her pivotal 1429-30 campaign against the English during the Hundred Years War. De Rais quit the battlefield before Joan’s capture and by his own account became involved with witchcraft, cannibalism, and necrophilia. In 1440 he was hanged and burned; his story is the source for the folktale Bluebeard. La Hire’s prayer, “God, do for La Hire what he would do for you, if you were La Hire, and he were God,” inspired this story.