Joan of Arc Tale: Escaping Rouen

This story was originally published on a Christian fantasy/sci-fi website called Gateway Science Fiction. It was published about two years ago. Unfortunately, about one year ago [2006], Gateway shut down; I've decided to republish the story here.

The timing is appropriate. A short story of mine "Scattered" will be coming out soon in Irreantum magazine [2008]. Both "Scattered" and "Escaping Rouen" share a similar theme/plot: two characters with absolutist viewpoints must reach some sort of understanding/compromise. The issue at stake is belief and integrity versus the (very necessary) ability to change and be flexible: are those two approaches compatible?


When Henry V did not die of dysentery in 1422, he spent the next nine years holding France in one piece. Like an uncompleted garment, it unraveled first at one seam, then at another: Normandy followed by Touraine followed by Maine.

Should he have died--as in many other worlds he did, leaving a 9-month old successor--the unraveling would have begun immediately; but Henry had managed shrewdly, with constant exertion, to wind up the escaping threads.

He arrived in Rouen in the summer of 1431 to deal with yet another of his subjects’ rebellions.

The prison stank, even by Paris standards, and Henry made a mental note to have it cleaned. Wars do not excuse dereliction in duty. He strode across a pile of rubble, keeping his sigh of annoyance to himself. Better to expend it in the proper way to the proper individual. The soldier in front of him was no more responsible for the lack of maintenance than he was responsible for the king’s victories.

Or the king’s failures, Henry reminded himself. If only the Burgundians would choose a position, either Henry or Charles, and stick to it.

He followed the soldier up shallow stone steps. The stench slackened slightly. Henry made a note to drain the bog on which the prison rested, and then the door before him swung open, the soldier said, "The Maid," with only a quiver of uneasiness ("A witch," some said) and stepped back.

A slight figure in men’s clothing rose from the opposite wall. A white oval face lifted to examine the king of England and France. A small, tucked mouth above a small chin; heavy lidded eyes: he had not realized she was so young, and he was amused, in his glittering, short-lived way, that Cauchon had not mentioned the Maid’s age.

He motioned to the soldier to close the door and seated himself on an overturned crate. Broken barrels and dank hay lay about the room. He noted the irons on the wall. A narrow window further down the cell let in a stream of sunlight; it illuminated the girl’s scarred wrists and broken nails.

"You have helped rebels conspire against their king," he said. "At Orleans, at Beaugency there have been uprisings behind your banner."

"They are not rebels before God."

Her voice was husky, yet higher than he had expected; the men’s clothes were misleading, a disturbing incongruity:

He said, "They are rebels before their anointed king."

"Only God can recognize a king."

"God has recognized me."

She leaned against the rock wall and studied him. He knew what she saw: the long, straight nose, the long chin with its solid jaw, the eyes as light as hers, the dark hair cropped close. He affected neither his father’s mustache or his father’s pointed beard; his was a face that could attract without unnecessary barbering. He did not engender love or affection, but he did inspire what was more important: loyalty and trust.

She said, "God has recognized Charles, son of our late king. He will be crowned."

He wondered--not amused this time for these statements were treasonous--if Charles appreciated the girl’s support--Charles scampering from city to city throughout Touraine as if ceaseless flight would keep him from Henry’s grasp.

The Maid said, her voice rising, "I know Charles is to be king. God told me."

"God himself?"

She flushed but, "Yes," she said. "Though St. Michael and St. Catherine and St. Margaret who escaped the belly of the dragon. They speak to me."

He frowned. There was nothing insane here, nothing so mild (but bitter) as his father’s remorse over Richard’s death.

She said, "The Saints want France for Charles. God has blessed the fleur-de-lis. Our royal house will be victorious."

He did not say, Against such odds? Who knew better than Henry that God blesses how and whom He will. All those bloody French knights on the field at Agincourt; the English army blessed by God and hence victorious: Henry had never doubted it.

He said, "Charles does not have the pope’s blessing."

A flicker from some layer deep within her eyes. He waited.

"I cannot lie to God," she said. "And who is to say what Pope Eugenius will do."

He stood. She flinched and his mind--ever objective, ever watchful--noted the careful way she held her torso, the arms folded across her waist, the forced nonchalance when she met his gaze. He paced away from her to the window. Behind him, he heard her sigh, an expulsion of relief. Outside the tower, the orange sun was settling below the hills around Rouen.

Henry said, "Pope Martin never supported Charles."

He waited for her protest. He had heard it, cautiously worded, from bureaucrats, those who thought Pope Martin V had been the pawn of Henry and the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, but Henry had never doubted his motives there: end the Great Schism, restore order to the Church. God’s Church is not to be handled as the kingdoms of the earth, and Martin had been an effective pontiff. Let Eugenius prove himself as capable. Henry had no doubts.

Let this girl doubt, let her prove heresy with her own words.

She didn’t. She shook her head, the tangled mass of hair sliding against the packed stones. She drew down her brows.

She said, "I cannot deny what I know, what I've seen."

He leaned against the stone sill, studying her. If the thin wrists could be trusted, her men’s clothes hid half-starved ribs. The Ecclesiastics had uttered wrathful words on the subject of the Maid's clothes. "A girl posing as a man. Can there be doubts of her blasphemy?" but Henry considered it a minor point. They could hardly expect the Maid to lead armies in women’s dress.

She pressed her hands to her face, her body dipping into shadows.

She murmured, "May I take communion? They haven’t let me."

"Yes," he said, another point of debate between him and the Ecclesiastics. If she were to be retrieved from her madness, or her heresy, what better means than the sacrament of Communion, what better confessor than a priest handling our Lord’s flesh and blood?

"Thank you," she said and lowered herself against the wall.

He headed to the door. There was no more he could learn. He would ride to Beauvois in the morning with three hundred men and from there to Paris to collect the rest of his army, and from there to Chinon where Charles was rumored to be hiding.

"You’ll stand trial," he said over his shoulder.

She lurched past him. He shouted, and the guard plunged into the room as the Maid, Jeanne, squeezed over the window sill and dropped. He heard her body strike the water and ran, not to the window like the guard but down the steps and across the stinking corridor to the outside wall. He marched into the dimming light, shouting for assistance.

Her body floated in the moat. A soldier pulled her ashore. Startled faces gleamed in the orange sunset. Henry checked his wrath and waited, jaw set. There would be no escapes or suicides--whatever this girl imagined she was doing--no evasion from justice under his rule.

The soldier turned Jeanne over. Water spilled from her mouth to the ground. She coughed, her body writhing. Her hands clutched at the soil.

"Put her in the second floor cell," Henry said.

That cell, dark and damp, had only thin, straight slits for air. Jeanne slept the night in her sodden clothes. Henry, striding into the cell the following morning, found her shivering tight under a scanty covering of hay.

"Why did you jump?"

"I don’t want to stand trial," she said on chattering teeth.

"Obviously. But if your claims are true, why fear the Ecclesiastics?"

"Could I explain to them any better than I’ve explained to you? I can’t force them to experience what I have experienced, to make them see and understand with mere words."

He didn’t sit. There was hardly space in the cell for them both. He propped a shoulder against the wall, hands behind his back.

He said, "Couldn't the saints help you?" but gently. Saints were exacting; they demanded much for the glory of God even to the consumption of flesh and bone.

She leaned her head on her curved arms. He thought she wept until she turned her cheek, and her dry eyes stared beyond him.

"They won’t be used," she said, "for my personal safety. They trust me."

"Even until death--?" For she would be burned if Cauchon's Ecclesiastics found her guilty. Henry had directed the setting of such fires. He'd watched hungry flames eat hair and skin, heard screams ascend like incense from an Old Testament sacrifice.

He saw Jeanne flinch, a shudder that went deeper than the shivers. Her lips trembled, and she turned her head to the wall. Irreproachable self-control.

He edged forward, and she tensed, wary eyes slewing towards him. She had not had his childhood, spent surviving political manipulations (let the Yorkists gnaw fruitlessly at their ambitions; he would not be kept from his father's throne). Violence surprised her; she braced herself for blows, for unwelcome hands. She did not know how to maneuver in tight quarters.

He crouched at her knees.

"Consider," he said. "Consider, how necessary to have but one voice that speaks for God. When popes multiply, nothing can come but confusion, impiety, falsehood; men taught untruths; men taught lies for the sake of political gain or greed; the Church’s doctrines polluted and turned away to gross and imaginary needs. Corruption would flow through the church on the devil’s breath. God would become the slave of every political rebellion, every knight’s lust, every king’s half-hearted demand. It is so easy to call on His name for our own desires, to satisfy what we want for ourselves."

She did not respond.

He said softly, "They are not Saints who speak to you but devils."

"No," she said, on her knees now, her back straight, her eyes level with his; panic was there but confidence as well and in her taut shoulders. "Explain Orleans if they are devils. You never have taken that, and it was myself—with," she corrected—"with the aid of God that kept it from you last year. Explain Beaugency and Patay that we took back--"

"Only to lose again."

"But we took them. Explain that, of me, a poor girl from nowhere special; how could I accomplish that without God’s help?"

He didn’t know. He'd had a poor idea of French resistance until the Maid began her opposition.

"Explain," she said, "why the Saints chose such as I if not to show God's hand in this cause. I am His tool."

Henry rested on his heels.

"Tell me," he said, "Do they instruct you to follow your own direction? To trust your private interpretations of holy doctrine? To hear God's voice only through the Bible?"

Was she familiar with the Lollards and their dangerous preachings? A 'Yes' to his questions would confirm her heresy, warranting her death, and he suppressed an impulse to block her mouth.

She frowned. "The Saints would not preached against themselves," she pointed out, bewildered, and Henry’s amusement flickered; Cauchon would not find her an easy witness.

"I won't deny them again," she said fiercely because she had when Cauchon first threatened her with fire; Cauchon had high and unrealistic hopes of another recantation. Henry doubted he would get it.

We all flinch from fire the first time. But who does not prefer burning to the bitter chill? Without her Saints, Jeanne would freeze.

They may even deliver her, he thought as he strolled out into the yard, take her life before the flames reach her bones. He didn't begrudge that mercy. He did not need Jeanne's suffering, only her suppression. She belonged now to the law.

He forestalled the ride to Chinon. Charles, messengers said, had moved again. Henry strode about the yard, checking the baggage, speaking to the supply masters.

Bishop Cauchon waited in the king’s apartment: a grizzled man with sharp eyes and a rueful smile.

"The Maid," he said as Henry stripped off his gloves and took up his dinner. "She will be given over to my charge?"

"When I leave," Henry said. "You will follow inquisitorial procedure."

"Of course. We’ll find her guilty, don’t worry." Cauchon flashed a smile. "Even should she recant, she’ll not keep herself untainted for long."

Henry’s food waited.

He said, "Oh?"

"No. Those boy’s clothes for one. She cannot resist them. And she’s fond of her voices. They give her special significance. She was meant to be nothing but a drudge and an uneducated one. She’s not been satisfied leading armies. She won’t be satisfied with a trial. Vulgarity needs an audience. Don’t worry," Cauchon said, strolling to the door, "the clerics are all pro-English."

A soft breeze punctuated his exit. Henry stared at the crucifix on the opposite wall.

These are the men who surround me now, who surrounded my father. This is why I left England--for God and for glory, away from the constant machinations of court.

Politics drove Charles VII mad.

A vision crossed Henry's eyes: Jeanne amid snapping flames, a quiet and wary crowd in Rouen’s Marketplace, a cry, "Jesus!" from Jeanne, her face pale despite the heat.

She'll freeze from Cauchon's apathy before she ever reaches the pyre.

A messenger approached Henry as he left the apartment. "Charles is in Louches."

"Understood," Henry said and to his sergeant, "We’ll leave before sunset."

Jeanne slept, her knees drawn to her chest. She woke on Henry’s entrance. He dragged her upright.

He said, "Cauchon will find you guilty, do you understand? You must be honest with yourself. Do you truly believe men are wrong to trust me?"

I must be under God’s protection. There is a hierarchy to all things. To resist it is like resisting the realities of death. There are things that are so and things that are not. We must each watch and listen, discern as falsehood the bulging rumor, the crafted anecdote of improbable occurrences. Men believe so easily what they want to believe and hear what is easy to hear. Truth is a blunt sword. It throbs rather than stings.

"The devil is wicked," she said, "and clever in deceit. Such demons ride hard upon all men."

He shook her. "Upon me? Do devils speak to me, is that what you believe?"

She hesitated. He felt her doubt, palpable and urgent.

"Perhaps," she said, and he lowered his head to hear her voice, "devils convinced you to come to France."

Cauchon would burn her for that. Except that it was not heresy, only the blunt edge of politics that she had not knowledge enough to duck.

Cauchon would be angry if Henry removed Jeanne: not for the loss of her death but for the loss of the trial and all its attendant glories. But Henry would not have come to France if he cared for the egos of such men, if he fretted over what they said behind his back.

"Come," he said.

She stumbled before him into the yard. A guard gripped her arms as Henry mounted, then pushed her up before him.

"Henry," Cauchon strode from the living quarters. "Majesty, where are you taking the Maid?"

"Archbishop Chichele is in Harfleur. He will be her new guardian."

Cauchon, the diplomat, did not argue, but, "I fear you have been swayed against your reason. The Maid has witching powers."

Jeanne's hands tightened on Henry's hands that enfolded her waist. Henry studied Cauchon, the cocked eyebrow, the wry mouth. He was a man who understood what words could do but not a man equipped to understand the guileless intent.

He said, "You think Chichele will be unable to handle her?"

Cauchon struggled over that, and Henry laughed. Years of survival in his father's court, he knew how to maneuver.

When I die, it will be from disease or in war. These machinations are but the petty acrobatics of the self-obsessed.

Cauchon tried again. "This is the proper place for her to stand trial."

Again that vision, an aching spasm against the mind: Jeanne burning while Rouen watched.

"I want her closer to English soil," Henry said and heard his error.

So did Cauchon. "Is this not England? Wherever your majesty rules?"

The waiting soldiers gazed and listened. Henry smiled. He was not Cauchon; Henry's pleasure was in gain, not in the maintenance of dry equilibrium.

"Everywhere is England," he said. "Everywhere is France. What God gives me, I will take."

He thudded out of the yard, followed by his troops. Cauchon became a small, staid figure under shadow. Jeanne leaned against him.

"Will I stand trial?" she said.

"Yes," he said because the king’s justice is not to be ignored or shrugged off.

But it will rightly done.

"There are," he said, "other Ecclesiastics," and some that even understood the call of God.

They left Rouen before the sun set, passing through the Marketplace and over the Seine River, and neither the Maid or the king were sorry to leave it behind.