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Shells on the Road

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‘Whoever decided that people should use horses for travel should be resurrected, so that they can be brought to me and I can shout at them for several hours, and possibly feed them some of my aunt Navarre’s disgusting cabbage stew,’ said Babylonne, falling, rather than sliding gracefully, from her horse in a tumbling, undignified heap.

She glared at her two travelling companions, who looked insufferably poised and untroubled, considering they’d been on the same gruelling, day-long journey as she had. To compound the injustice, both of them were years older than her, which made their ease on horseback seem even more unfair.

The taller, younger of the two men smiled sympathetically at Babylonne, and dismounted from his horse in a single, fluid motion.

‘It does get easier,’ he said. ‘Your muscles eventually get used to it, and your legs stop feeling as if they’re being stretched and burnt and beaten.’

‘How long does that take?’ asked Babylonne. ‘We’ve already been travelling for a week. I’d like my muscles to hurry up and get beyond the feeling-as-if-they’re-on-fire portion of the journey!’

The third member of their party suppressed a snort of laughter, which provoked a glare from Babylonne.

’Oh yes,’ she said, ‘we know that back when you were my age, you had to ride for forty days and forty nights, across two continents, without any saddle on your horse, backwards through snowdrifts, setting a fine example for us all to follow! But I would prefer to travel in ease and comfort!’

The man Babylonne had been addressing — short, ageing, and crowned with a shock of dark hair that seemed to be trying to escape the confines of the head from which it grew — swung himself down from his horse, stretching his legs and swinging his arms at his sides.

’We are supposed to be joining up with a pilgrimage route, which means we’re meant to be travelling in a spirit of asceticism and contemplation,’ he said. ‘That means no luxury allowed — which is why poor Isidore is so miserable. He had to leave his books behind in Bologna!’

’Ah,’ said Babylonne, in the tone of one who thought she was on to a winning argument, ‘but you forget that I reject your corrupt Church of Rome, and all its works. And that includes so-called saints’ relics, and the places of pilgrimage that have grown up to house them. Which means that you and Isidore might be going on pilgrimage, but I am just going on an ordinary journey with my long-lost father and his former scribe and student, and there’s no need for me to suffer in discomfort!’

’Well, Isidore, I never thought I’d see the day when I would be lectured by a Cathar about my excessive asceticism,’ said Pagan.

Isidore thought it wise not to reply, given that Babylonne had whirled around to face him in furious outrage.

‘While you two debate penitential deprivation, I am going to look for firewood,’ he said. ‘See if you can get some water for the horses without murdering each other before I get back.’

*

Isidore took longer to collect the kindling than strictly necessary, letting his path take him on a wide arc through the darkening edge of the forest that grew along the road. It had been a strange few days — a chance encounter in a monastic chicken coop with a furious girl and even more furious chickens, long hours spent trying to convince the girl to leave her terrible relatives, without success, followed by her sudden change of heart and an abrupt departure from Toulouse at the crack of dawn, then a week’s hard riding, heading west towards the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela.

That had been his and Pagan’s intended destination, long before events in Toulouse meant that their lives suddenly became a whole lot more complicated. Isidore had made one of his semi-regular visits to his former mentor in his home near Montpellier, and had found Pagan determined to make the arduous pilgrimage, for reasons which — despite his normal openness — he kept private from Isidore.

It wasn’t out of a sense of atonement for the circumstances leading to Babylonne’s birth. Pagan had been as surprised as Isidore at her existence, but as soon as he had learnt of the appalling conditions in which she was living, and the cruelty of her relatives, he had become determined to make amends. Isidore, who knew something of the circumstances in which Pagan had grown up, understood without prying. It had been difficult to convince her to trust them — indeed, Isidore privately suspected that she still didn’t trust them completely — but the situation with her aunts, grandmother and cousins had become intolerable, and a long ride west with her unknown father and his bookish, earnest former protégé suddenly seemed like Babylonne’s best option.

Isidore found travelling with two Kidrouks exhausting, not because of the gruelling hours on horseback, but rather due to the sudden flares of temper, melodramatic excesses of emotion, and inevitable arguments that involved rather too many displays of verbal dexterity. The pair seemed to treat disagreement like a game, as if they relished the opportunity to show off their talents for debating in front of a captive audience. The trouble was, that audience was Isidore. He’d witnessed this tendency of Pagan’s many times, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Somehow, it was even more terrifying in a sixteen-year-old girl.

Isidore sighed. He had put off his return long enough, and so, laden with kindling, he ambled back towards Pagan and Babylonne. With any luck, they would argued themselves to a standstill, and begun preparing the evening meal.

*

Later, as the trio were sitting around the fire, watching the smoke curl lazily upwards into the night sky, and listening to the occasional crack as the embers burnt their way down to ashes, Babylonne spoke up.

’If we’re supposed to be going on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, why aren’t we travelling with a crowd of other pilgrims? I’ve seen pilgrims when they passed through Languedoc on their way west — they always had a leader, and they travelled in groups.’

For some reason that Babylonne couldn’t understand, both Isidore and Pagan started to laugh uncontrollably.

’Oh, Babylonne, have you ever met any pilgrims?’ asked Isidore.

Pagan nodded emphatically in agreement.

’Believe me,' he said, 'that I speak from a place of deep, resigned experience when I say I would rather make a sea-crossing on a ship filled with screaming babies and old men with toothache than voluntarily spend time with a party of pilgrims. You’ll understand why when we get a bit closer to the main route to Santiago de Compostela — hell is other pilgrims.’

The embers of the fire crackled briefly, sending a spray of sparks shooting into the sky. Babylonne held her hands over the ashes, letting their warmth sink into her skin. For the past week, she had been carried forward by fear and desperation, and had pushed aside all thoughts of the future, terrified at the prospect of pursuit and convinced that everything would be snatched away from her. Now, finally, she allowed herself to think beyond the next hour, the next meal, the next turn in the road. For the first time in her short life, she felt she might be safe.