Wednesday, 1 September 1378
The old man holds the pillow over his head but it does not help. Once again, the bombard booms and the stone tower shudders. It has fired relentlessly non-stop day and night since he returned sick and tired from Rome.
Crumbling with each hammering blast, the castle is nearing its limit, and so is Cardinal Gilles. “Holy Mother,” he cries in despair, “how has it come to this?” No answer comes but another deafening blast which sends dust trickling from the ceiling. But the cardinal fully appreciates the awful irony.
In the wake of the English invasion, old Heronimo’s “dragon-fire” has become a full-fledged terror weapon called gunpowder. With it, the cardinal is besieged by a man he once hired to defend Avignon, a mercenary by the name of Falconer. Once the papacy returned to Rome, he has turned to brigandage like so many others. Thus he seeks to bite the hand that recently fed him so well.
Yet the scene in the Eternal City Gilles left behind was even more desperate, for the new pope is obviously mad. Cardinals are already scheming to depose him and elect someone else. Nothing less than a miracle can save the Church from tearing apart in a feud which will end only in bloody ruin.
Another blast, and suddenly through the window whistles an immense stone ball. Sparks fly as the shot strikes the far wall of the chamber at an angle. It bounces around the room from wall to wall. The cacophony is unimaginable.
The cardinal screams in terror to God, Mary, and all the saints. “Sweet Madeleine, we’ll be together again soon!” he prays, but it is not to be. Around and around the chamber the great stone rumbles, and finally drops with a huge crash to the wooden floor, through it, and the next level below.
Covered in dust, Gilles is left alive, stunned but miraculously unharmed. He lays there gasping in disbelief in the sudden silence. Looking at his private altar, a votive candle yet flickers before the small image of his late wife.
With a yell, Gilles leaps from his bed. Clad only in his shift, he crawls to the hole, and sees servants, gathered around the opening below, gaping up at him in amazement.
“Don’t just stand there gawking,” he shouts. “There’s work to do! Get up here and help me down. Find Bertran at once; I need to send letters! Someone, anyone, wave a flag of peace. I must have Sir Guy at my side.”
No one stirs. “What are you waiting for, a bigger blast?” he yells. “Move, you fools! We’ve little time and all Christendom to save!”
Cardinal Gilles’ sudden decision to confess his knowledge of the Holy Tub’s location to end the crisis is brave and generous – and utter folly. Many cardinals call him mad, but not all disbelieve him. An army trails him back to Bellegarde. Soon his hometown is more desperately besieged than his tower was.
But Gilles is busy, marrying his granddaughter to Sir Guy Falconer and arranging their escape, dying in peace soon afterwards. The brutal Rape of Bellegarde by Clement VII, the antipope of Avignon, which soon follows in 1379 is as thorough and bloody as it is futile. The cardinal’s new tomb in the crypt is smashed and Heronimo’s empty sarcophagus pried open, but no trace of the wizard, the Holy Tub, nor treasure is found. Though the Vision returns in 1391, the town’s wounds will not be fully healed until the Twenty-First Century.