The story of Roland, a 13th century French troubadour. Set amongst the historical details of Louis IX's failed crusade to Egypt and the extermination of the Cathars in France, the author uses a combination of fictional and historically accurate characters to turn the history into an adventure story.
Like most of Robert Shea's books, a look into secret societies is a considerable feature of the story, in this case the Cathars and the Knights Templar.
ROLAND NARROWED HIS EYES AND STARED UPWARD INTO THE DARKNESS, across the top of Mont Segur toward the Cathar fortress. Standing on a high walkway of planks behind the palisade of the crusaders’ small wooden fort, he heard faraway voices and saw torches moving on the Cathar rampart.
The two men on watch with him that night, a sergeant from Champagne and a young man-at-arms from Brittany, were talking in low tones about the women to be had far below, at the foot of the mountain. They seemed not to see the activity about the Cathar stronghold on the upper peak of the mountaintop opposite their own fort. But Roland, knowing Diane was in the besieged fortress, could not take his eyes from it.
He knew he had to act soon. Each day the crusaders grew stronger and the Cathars weaker. Once the Cathar stronghold fell, the crusaders would slaughter all within, including Diane. The sergeant, chuckling, was offering his young companion a wineskin. The Breton never received it.
From behind the Cathar wall came the sound of a huge thump, as if a giant’s fist had pounded Mont Segur. Roland recognized the sound, and fought panic as he thrust his arms out, trying to push the other two men toward the ladder. But there was no time for them to climb down to safety. The thump was the counterweight of a stone-caster, and the whistling noise that followed fast upon it was the rock it had thrown.
A shape as big as a wine barrel blotted out the stars. The stone hit the parapet beside Roland, and the whole palisade shuddered. Roland caught a glimpse of the sergeant’s horrified face and heard his scream as the boulder struck him, crushing him to the ground.
Roland and the young man-at-arms clung to the wooden wall, saving themselves from falling twenty feet to the yard below. Right beside them was the gaping hole in the palisade left by the stone.
Roland knew more stones would soon follow, and wanted desperately to jump for the ladder. But he forced himself to stand still long enough to see what was happening at the Cathar fortress. He watched the wide main gateway swing open. A blaze of red torchlight gleamed on helmets and spear-points — fighting men were pouring out on the run. He waited a moment, counting. A hundred or more.
His breathing quickened and his heart pounded. Here was the diversion he needed.
He shouted down into the darkness, adding his cry to the shouts of men waking up within the crusader fort. “To arms! To arms! The Cathars are attacking!”
Pushing the man-at-arms before him, he hurried down the ladder. The young Breton was blubbering.
“Alain. The damned Bougres got Alain.”
“Mourn him later,” Roland advised. “Just try to keep yourself alive. “
Roland hesitated at the foot of the steps. The stone had knocked the logs apart, leaving an opening at the base of the wall wide enough for a man to step through.
“I am going out there to get a better look at them,” Roland said, sliding the two-handed sword, almost as long as his leg, out of its scabbard. “You report to the commander.”
“God go with you, Sire Orlando,” the man-at-arms said to him.
Roland hurried out into the darkness, alone with his excitement and fear.
The ground shook as a second Cathar boulder landed somewhere inside the fort. He heard splintering wood and shrieks of pain and terror. Then came another massive thump, this time a counterweight of the crusaders’, sending a huge stone screaming overhead to answer the heretic missiles. Behind him rose the clamor of the French knights struggling into hauberks, buckling on swords, shouting names of their patron saints and their crusader war cry, “God wills it!”
A cruel God, if He wills this, Roland thought.