God's Scarlet Fury By Robert E Hirsch

On January 21st in the Year of Our Lord 1088, a woman gave birth to an infant son in the tiny village of Despina, an isolated Greek community tucked east of Armenia, which was itself east of Sultan Kilij Arslan’s Empire of Rüm. Rüm, at this time, comprised much of that portion of Asia Minor now known as Turkey; the area had previously belonged to the Byzantine Empire until the invasions of the Seljuk Turks nearly two decades earlier.
God's Scarlet Fury
God's Scarlet Fury By Robert E Hirsch

Unable to escape westward with the Byzantine retreat, the Greeks who had migrated and settled there in earlier times found themselves trapped deep within new Seljuk principalities. In time, they quickly found themselves surrounded by hordes of incoming Seljuk Turks settling in their midst and beyond, to the west. Worse yet, they were not allowed to escape, or even travel more than short, designated distances from their villages. Regardless of what these Greeks did prior to the arrival of the Turks, whether it was commerce, trade or production, they were now tied to the land as indigent farmers. In essence, they had become hostage to a conquering culture of an opposing race and religion.

This newborn child entering life on January 21st of 1088 in the tiny village of Despina, ‘Christos’ by baptism, was the first boy born into the Greek family of Phillipos Laskaris, a former city-dweller of Manzikert now reduced to scraping a living from barren, rocky earth to feed his wife, four daughters, and aged mother. Like all sons of the poor, baby Christos entered this life bare of any legacy save the futility of his father’s battered dreams. Christos’ father, Phillipos, was also a first son, and had been named in accordance to the Greek custom of naming the first born son after his paternal grandfather.

Phillipos, however, departed from this Greek custom upon the birth of his own first son, naming his boy Christos. Throughout history many fathers have named their sons after great men rather than familial ancestors. This practice has especially been prevalent among the poor, like Phillipos; it is a mostly idle and hope-filled gesture, though entirely futile, made by defeated men praying that their male offspring might one day cast off that crushing millstone of hopelessness that grinds the poor, over time, to dust. So it was that Philippos Laskaris named his new son Christos in honor of Christ himself, thinking there was no greater figure in all human history. Christos, in Greek, stands for Christopher, but was close enough to ‘Christ’ that Phillipos settled on the name. Of course, in truth, even Phillipos well knew his expectant gesture concerning his son was a fool’s dream. After all, gestures of such nature committed by the destitute are feeble at best... those above them ensuring them to be so.

The Laskaris family, as other Greeks who had been trapped and allocated to Despina, was Greek Orthodox Christian. Their family roots had originated in Constantinople, but their immediate ancestors had migrated east of Armenia seeking entrepreneurial opportunities within the distant eastern stretches of the Byzantine Empire. This venture blossomed into prosperity for decades, but family fortunes severely digressed when the Seljuk Turks invaded, capturing Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes at the bloody Battle of Manzikert on August 26 of 1071. After his capture, Emperor Romanos was led to his opponent, Sultan Alp Arslan, who placed his foot on Romanos’ head and demanded to know, “What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?”

“Perhaps I’d kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople,” replied Romanos.

“My punishment is far heavier,” decreed Alp Arslan, rubbing at his beard, slipping into a silken smile. “I forgive you... and I set you free.” Arslan then burdened him with many presents and demanded 1.5 million gold pieces as initial ransom, to be followed by annual installments of 360,000 gold pieces.

Returning to Byzantium in defeat, Romanos was quickly overthrown by the competing Doukas clan who deposed, blinded, and exiled him to the island of Proti, making Alp Arslan’s odd punishment come to full fruition. Arslan next opened the floodgates of Asia Minor for Turkish settlement and rule. The Laskaris family, then, had represented since that reversal of Byzantine power east of Constantinople, part of the dispossessed and stranded Christian population now living east of Armenia beneath the hammer of the Seljuk Turks and Islam. Their minority status was made even more poignant by the fact that their population was quickly waning, unlike that of the migrant Arabs, Turks, or Armenians.

The immediate overlord of these displaced Greeks in the Despina region was Sultan Abdul Azim, a tall, dark Sunni Muslim of pure Seljuk stock. A fierce warrior and firm-handed ruler, Azim was fair and tolerant, allowing Greek Orthodox Christians within his realm to retain their culture and religious practices. As the region encompassing Despina was barren and held little value, Lord Azim also rarely interfered in the lives of the Greeks remaining there. It was a peaceful existence, then, for the Greeks of Despina– though bleak.

As with most children, Christos was scarcely aware of the abject poverty tethering his family to a life of bare subsistence, forcing them to survive on a meager diet of roots and vegetables, a rare rooster being butchered on Christmas and Easter– perhaps even a hen should nature grant a decent harvest. Having never traveled beyond Despina, Christos mistakenly thought that all people other than Lord Azim lived in such humble fashion. To his advantage, being the only son in the Laskaris household, he had been coddled from birth by all four of his older sisters as well as by his doting parents. Subsequently, Christos found much satisfaction in the simplicity of life in Despina, and as taught by his devout parents, he thanked God each Sunday at mass for his family’s sparse but adequate life.

Within the contentment of Christos’ boyish innocence there was but one dark shadow– his grandmother, Anglaia Laskaris. The ancient woman possessed a dark, brooding spirit; she seemed always to be weighing the world through sullen eyes, measuring everything before her through the lens of resentment. Moreover, she appeared lost much of the time within the realm of bitter suppositions, suspiciously dissecting the significance and intent of even the most trifling comments from others, or their interactions. Shuffling about her daily chores with the plodding steadiness of a blindered mill-horse forging forward in slow circles, she seemed little aware of those parasitic umbrages nagging at her conscience, feeding within the dark, embittered precipices of her brain.

There were things about old Anglaia that frightened Christos’ mother, as well as all of his sisters. Even Christos’ father, Phillipos, despite the fact that she had brought him into this world, denied her all but the most sparse of communication– and never filial affection. He, apparently, was the only one who knew his mother’s ‘horrid secret,’ an act committed in earlier years that was so heinous, apparently, that he refused her the tiniest speck of forgiveness. Though Phillipos never revealed this particular secret, nor even once spoke of it, his wife and daughters somehow knew that this ‘thing,’ vaporous and unspeakable as it was, had long ago divided him and his mother, Anglaia. Nonetheless, despite this gulf, Phillipos continued to tend to his mother in old age because of deep Christian values passed on to him by his father, now twenty-five years deceased. He, like many Greek Christian men, had been lost to the nightmare of the Battle of Manzikert.

Whatever Anglaia’s profound secret was, young Christos had decided it was robbing her of all capacity to emote even a moment’s worth of joy. Indeed, it seemed to him that for his grandmother, the past represented only bitterness, the present held little to no meaning whatsoever, and the future was but a dark corridor with no exits.

This distressed Christos, but no more so than her appearance. Anglaia’s hair had grown sparse to the point of exposing her scalp in spots; she was also nearly toothless and her face and skin were deeply creased from age and heavily mottled with liver spots. She was horribly stoop-shouldered, too, which caused her to stand and walk inclined at an awkward forward angle. And whenever she spoke, each word was uttered in raspy, serpentine outbursts which were at times impossible to decipher.

Truly, she constituted an unwelcome and distressful presence within the Laskaris household. Even during those moments when others of the family were celebrating for one reason or another, beneath her wilting gaze, joy fled.

Oddly, the only time Christos noticed a flicker of light within her dead eyes was during the violence of... terrible storms. She would stand in the doorway gazing at their approach, lost to the angry swirl of black clouds erupting into furious thunderheads. A glimmer of life would slip into her expression then, whenever those rare but murderous rainstorms battered Despina, flinging jagged fingers of lightning to rattle the conscience while illuminating obscure skies in violent outbursts that shook the soul.

Yes, the fury of storms seems to comfort her, thought Christos. Perhaps she imagines they might yet sweep Despina from the map, washing away and cleansing her rabid hatred of the place.

As Christos possessed a gentle nature and pure heart, one of his Sunday prayers always included a private request to God that He might one day grant old Anglaia a moment of happiness. He did this faithfully despite the fact that since his birth the old hag had never once offered him the slightest gesture of affection. Still, unlike other members of the Laskaris clan, he tried his best to love her... thinking God would want that.

Chapter Two

January 21st... Alas, Despina

On Christos’ ninth birthday, he and his grandmother happened to be working the rocks halfway up a rise overlooking Despina, inspecting their snares for rats. Far above them at the very crest of the rise several men were digging for tubers and roots. Their words and laughter carried on the wind as they poked and prodded one another in fun. Still each man kept his attention to the ground, digging in earnest– except one particular fellow sitting lazily atop a boulder watching the others work. This seemed to irritate Anglaia, though Christos could not imagine why.

“Look,” she complained, pointing to the man as they neared another snare, “it’s that lazy damned Klopas sitting on his dead ass while all the others dig!” She was about to blister the man with yet more scorn, but at that very instant she happened to spy the next snare. “Ho there, Christos!” she rasped, poking an unsteady finger at one of the snares. “Quick, get him before he breaks from the line!”

Scrambling over rocks and diving to the ground, Christos swiftly crushed the terrified rodent with a rock as it tried to gnaw its own limb free. “Got it!” he shouted, tearing the rat’s mangled leg from the snare and hoisting the rat high. “That makes five today, Grandma!” he beamed, stuffing the rodent into his hip pouch. “We’ll be feasting on meat later today for my birthday celebration, huh?”

“Aye, a morsel of meat tonight,” the old woman muttered, issuing a grim smirk, which was as close as she was capabe of conveying satisfaction. But it was enough to please Christos, and as his eyes lingered on the rare gaze she now offered, he grinned a bit. The moment was quickly lost, though, as she seemed to hear something in the valley below. Turning, she shaded her eyes from the stark glare of the afternoon sun, straining to make out the distant spires of dust arising from the road. “Horses,” she muttered, as to herself. “By the… hundreds.”

“What’d you say, Grandma?” asked Christos.

The old woman offered no reply. Instead, she shuffled forward, crouching behind a waist-high outcrop of rock so only her head craned above its jagged edges. “Come, Christos,” she said, a trace of urgency entering her voice. “Get over here, boy... and get down.”

“B-but, what’s wrong?” objected Christos, straining his neck over the rocks to investigate.

“Get down, damn you!” shouted Anglaia, cuffing him brusquely across the back of the head, forcing him beneath the cover of rock. “It’s Mahmoud Malik and his gazis, I think, sweeping into Despina.”

“Mahmoud Malik? The Butcher of Medina?” asked Christos, his face dropping. “But how can you know it’s him?”

“By looking yonder at those black pennants streaming at the fore. I first saw them at Manzikert back in ‘71. Malik barely had his beard at the time, but when his black flags swept into Manzikert, it was as if God had unleashed a demon from the crags of Hell onto us.”

Christos huddled beside her, daring yet to peer over the rocks. “But Grandma, I thought Lord Azim had forbidden Malik from entering his sultanate, huh?”

“Aye,” the old woman scowled, “but it looks like he’s slipped back yet again from the sultanate of Rüm to raid Lord Azim’s lands, and now the bastard’s on our very doorstep!”

Below them the swarm of invading gazis broke off into three files, one following the road into Despina as the other two flanked into opposite arcs, surrounding the village to cut off escape. Sabers raised, the middle column thundered into the village, immediately falling upon unsuspecting Greeks, slaughtering most where they stood. Wailing in terror, some villagers managed to flee into shanties but were quickly pursued within and slain. Others broke for the edge of town hoping to make the rocky outcrops above the village, but their flight was cut short by five hundred horsemen circling the village from opposite angles, firing a scything rain of arrows with deadly compound bows into all adults taking flight.

Anglaia shoved Christos’ head to the ground so he could not witness the butchery. “Don’t raise up, boy!” she commanded, feeling the pit of her belly dissolve as the scene below began to hack and hew at her memory... carving open long sequestered, grievous wounds of twenty-five years gone by. Moaning, she struggled mightily against the weight of those horrid past images, trying to flush them from her thoughts. Then suddenly, to her shock, her eyes caught sight of her son, Phillipos; he was herding his wife and four daughters before him in a mad scramble toward the cover of the rocky outcrops surrounding Despina. Like terrified sheep scattered by an attack of ravening wolves, they had broken into open flight, their eyes wide with horror, their broken, bleating voices exclaiming terror.

Grunting with clenched fists, Anglaia watched, her heart frantically urging them on. But within a blink, Phillipos fell, riddled by murderous fire from a dozen ranging archers blocking his path. Collapsing to his knees, he raised an arm in desperation, flagging a warning to his wife and daughters to turn back. He tried to call out, but his larynx fell hollow; both lungs had been punctured by arrows, as was his throat. Thus mortally injured, his upper torso run through from neck to navel, he convulsed– losing himself to those violent spasms induced by the dreadful velocity of winging arrows striking their mark. His eyes bulging from their sockets, his vision imploded red, and the very last thing Phillipos saw in life was his wife; she was just an arm’s length away, also on her knees. Perforated by nearly a dozen shafts, she was stretching both arms toward Phillipos– screaming his name. An instant later, both lay dead.

Leaping from their mounts, a pack of gazi archers ran forward, swiftly severing Phillipos’ and his wife’s heads, along with others of the fallen. A different faction of riders swooped onto Phillipos’ daughters who had deliberately been spared; the girls had by now huddled together in a cowed pack, wailing frantically for their parents.

Dismounting, the gazis began tearing away the girls’ clothing until all four were stripped bare. Throwing them to the ground, the gazis then flung their sabres, loosened their kur kushaks, and dropped their trousers, laughing and gabbling as would an aroused pack of hyenas. Next they began, one after another after another, mounting the young girls.

Finally, when the dozen or so men were done, they flipped the girls on their bellies– and started over again, losing themselves in bestial lust, alternately cheering each other on while jeering at their victims.

Watching this horror from the rocks, Anglaia spat, knowing that mass rape would be but the beginning of her granddaughters’ nightmares. After the Turks had sated their lust, they would be binding the girls and dragging them off with the other youngsters who were being spared for Muslim slave markets. This realization unleashed in Anglaia yet more specters of the past. She knew the fair skin of Greek children brought good prices from Arabic and Turkish noblemen of the large cities who prized them as high earners in the brothels of Damascus, Medina, Aleppo, and Baghdad– which is where the four girls would be dragged for an existence of slavery, prostitution, and misery... never to be seen or heard of again.

Though her heart was dissolving and she could scarcely hold herself up, she shed no tears. I’ve none left, she cursed, because life depleted that woeful well years back at Manzikert. Still, she continued to press Christos’ head to the ground. “Don’t raise up or they’ll see us… then they’ll chase us down and drag you off,” she whispered.

“B-but what about Mama and my sisters, and father?” protested Christos, squirming to free himself.

She refused to answer... but after enduring insistent repetition of his complaints, she rattled him by the head with both hands, forcing his eyes into her own. “They’re done, Christos… each and every one!” she hissed, a cold glitter filling her eyes. “Forget about them, dammit, for they’re done!”

Stung, Christos froze. “Wh-what do you mean?” he stammered, his mind filling with dreadful suppositions. “What do you mean, done?”

Again Anglaia refused to reply, but only bit her lip as her dark little eyes bored directly into those of Christos, leaving little doubt as what she had meant.

His grandmother had always been a severe woman, but the terrible expression now glaring at him frightened him into silence. Mistakenly, he thought her dark gaze to be anger, not understanding that it was something far more profound. It was the wild tide of unearthed memories washing through an old woman, magnified by the realization that every member of her bloodline was now dead except the young boy huddled at her side.

Nor could Christos have possibly imagined that within his grandmother’s glacial stare arose a flickering impulse to reach within her sleeve, extract the dagger she always kept concealed there, and plunge it into his heart before he could react, or even feel its cold blade. Horrific as that impulse was, Anglaia knew that the future of her four granddaughters below had taken a hellish turn, and she wished them dead rather than having to face what now stood ahead of them. She further knew that such an existence would be even more brutal on Christos should he be captured; the sexual perversities committed against light-skinned boys by certain wealthy Muslim noblemen of sick thread were no secret amongst the Greeks.

Aghast as she reached up her sleeve, sickened by what she was about do, she felt a cold finger touch her heart as the faces of two young girls from the past flashed across her consciousness. Shuddering, she withdrew her hand and fell back while holding onto Christos, pressing his face hard against her bosom. Struggling to breathe, she began to gasp in deep, broken gulps as a sole tear finally appeared from nowhere, filling the corner of an eye. It welled there a moment, slowly streamed downward filling one of the crooked creases that furrowed her weathered cheek, then dispersed into smaller crevices.

Feeling her shuddering, Christos became startled, having never witnessed in Anglaia any out-pouring of emotion other than bitterness. He tried to raise his eyes to look at her, but she held his head so firmly against her that he felt he would soon smother. “Are you crying, Grandma?” his muffled voice queried. Having seen nothing that occurred below, it still had not quite completely registered to Christos that his and Anglaia’s entire lives had just collapsed– nor that he would never again see the other members of his beloved family.

“No,” the old woman lied, “but we must leave this place, boy, and never come back.”

“Leave? Never come back?” asked Christos, alarmed.

“Aye, there’s nothing left here now... for either of us.”

“But what about Mother and my sisters!” Christos pleaded, clinging to hope, refuting reality. “And what of Father?”

“Did you not hear what I said a moment ago, boy?!” Anglaia barked. “They’re gone, goddammit! You’ll be seeing them no more... and I don’t wish you to speak of them again for it’ll only bring hurt!”

“B-b-but–” shuddered Christos, stung speechless by these words. His face dropped then, and his boyish chest began to heave, in spasms, as tears flooded his eyes. Confused, he closed his eyes, imagining the face of each and every dear sister, along with his beloved parents. “B-but... what are we to d-do... and where are w-we to go, Grandma?” he sobbed incoherently, drowning in grief, lost to confusion.

“Anywhere but here, boy,” Anglaia replied, her voice low. “Somewhere far from the bloody path of Mahmoud Malik’s black flags.”

“But… how will we live, the two of us?”

Anglaia closed her eyes a moment, wiping the remnant of the lone tear from the crags of her cheek. “I’m a helpless old bitch and can barely get about, so you’ll have to step forward now, boy– because there’ll be no help from others.” Pausing, her eyes turned inward, losing themselves to that private trance of calculation that Christos had so often witnessed over the years. She licked her lips then, as shortly they began to riffle in self-conversation. Finally, looking at him, she said, “If we choose to live, Christos, I’ll now have to teach you to steal... for we have nothing now.”

“Steal?” asked Christos, disturbed. “But Grandma, that’s against God’s commandments and–”

She scowled at hearing this, and shook him angrily with both hands again. “Tis God that dropped this sudden Hell on us today, Christos!” she hissed. “If nothing else, then for the remainder of your years remember what fell into your lap on this, your ninth birthday. Men came, they murdered everyone we know, and now we’re left here alone and helpless. And all that though your mother and father spent half their lives on their knees in prayer, and taught you and your sisters to do the same! Now look what all that goddamned prayer has earned them! So then... now you know, Christos– prayer’s but a wasted notion for fools and those headed to the goddamned slaughterhouse!”

Christos recoiled at hearing such blasphemy, and quickly searched skyward, certain that lightning would strike his profane grandmother dead at any moment. When nothing happened, his gaze fell back onto Anglaia with objection. “But, that’s not possible, Grandma,” he whispered, more to reassure himself than to convince her. “God is only– good.”

At this, her eyes narrowed and she directed a piercing stare his way. “Oh, you little fool! This isn’t the first time my life’s been turned on its head for no reason and for no cause. Like me, Christos, you’ll learn the truth about God in time… if you live.”

Chapter Three

Klopas and the Hip Pouch

Anglaia and Christos remained in hiding halfway up the rocky outcrop, not daring to raise their heads until long after Malik’s gazis finished ravishing Despina, setting fire to it, and dragging off the children. Christos cowered there beside his grandmother, staving off tears and snuffling uncontrollably for hours as the stark realization finally struck home that, just as his grandmother had decreed, his family no longer existed... and his life in Despina had been obliterated by the gazis of Mahmoud Malik.

Anglaia chastised him from time to time as his mournful outbreaks on occasion grew too loud to suit her, but for the most part she left him to his sorrow until, finally, he fell into a fitful sleep. As he shivered and moaned there, his head pillowed across an arm, Anglaia looked down at him with foreboding disquiet. He’s already as good as dead, most probably, she suspected... and so am I.

When dusk arrived she shook his shoulder. “Dark approaches, Christos,” she said. “We can make it to the top of the rise under cover of night, then drop over to the other side. It’ll be safer there, I think.”

“Wh-what?” he mumbled, half awake, momentarily confused about where he was.

“Get up!” Anglaia said, shaking him again. “It’s time we move on. Take a final look down the hill if you wish... we won’t be coming back, ever.”

“But where are we going?” asked Christos, coming awake.

“To Byzantium where the Greeks still rule... far from Seljuks and Saracens alike. I’ve hated these goddamned Muslims since first they showed. I once had a life, but their arrival signaled its end. Oh, such a damnable scourge to my existence! But come along, I’ll need you to lead for I’m too feeble and unsteady.”

Christos stood, gazing vacantly through the obscure light down at Despina which now lay in smoldering ruin and ash. He had cried himself out before falling asleep, so now in the fading light as he surveyed the charred remains of what was once his life, he felt only that numb disbelief that overcomes one in the wake of unforeseen catastrophe. Taking his grandmother by the hand, he then slowly began the ascent toward the crest of the rise, meticulously picking his way through the maze of boulders and outcrops obstructing their path. Slipping back from time to time, and stumbling forward as well, he clung tightly to old Anglaia whose breathing soon became labored. “Do you need to rest, Grandma?” he asked.

“No, dammit... just get us to the other side, boy.” Then, making certain that Christos was not watching, she pressed a palm against her side, just inches from her navel, and winced. Something was there, inside, working against her; it had arrived months earlier, unexpectedly, somewhat innocuously even, announcing itself in the form of an isolated pang one night as she struggled to find sleep. She had told no one, thinking she had merely stretched a muscle or such earlier that day while digging in the garden. But three days later the pain returned, and again several times thereafter– on no particular schedule and for no particular reason. And now here it was once more, nagging at her at the most inopportune of occasions. What in Hell? she wondered, holding her breath as to chase it away.

The crest was a good distance away, and the steep incline was heavily punctuated with troughs, boulders, and long runs of jagged rock. As night continued to deepen, Christos cautiously felt his way forward using one hand while dragging Anglaia upward with the other. After struggling for nearly two hours, he pulled her over the top and to the other side. “We made it!” he wheezed triumphantly, thinking his grandmother might share a word of gratitude.

She had little to say, though, as she settled to the ground. Resting her back against the face of a massive boulder, she said but, “Toss me one of your rats.”

Christos had forgotten about the rats in his hip pouch, as well as about hunger. “But we’ve no way to light a fire, Grandma. You’re not going to eat it raw are you?”

“Christos, do you wish to live, or do you choose to die?” she asked curtly.

“To live,” he said, fishing into his pouch obediently, passing her one of the now stiff rodents.

“Even if we had fire, it’d only draw attention, Christos,” Anglaia said crossly. “You’d best start thinking ahead if you have any thoughts of lasting out in the middle of nowhere. And you’d best start being suspicious, too, of anyone crossing your path from here on out. Your days of dumb-eyed innocence are behind you now, boy... taken from you by God.” She then bit into the hide of the rat’s belly with her remaining front tooth, and gnashed at it, pulling and stripping away the hide. “We’ll share this, which’ll leave us four more,” she said, gumming a snip of flesh as best as she could. “Enough maybe to get us through a few days if we’re careful. But by morning, we’ll need water.”

“I think there’s another village about six miles or so from here,” offered Christos, “and it’ll surely have a well. Though I’ve never been there, Father used to mention a little town on this other side of the rise.”

“Yeah... Milos,” grunted Anglaia. “But it’s not a Greek village, it’s Turk. Worse yet, at the moment we don’t know where Malik is, either... or who’s on his side or who’s joined his attack on Lord Azim’s sultanate. Then too, I’m so damned slow and clumsy that if I try to get into Milos, I’d just get us both caught. So if we’re to seek water there, then it’ll be up to you. Maybe you can manage to slip in alone during the late hours of night or the wee hours of morning, then slip back out without being noticed.” She paused then, and took another tiny chew of rat before passing it to Christos. “Getting water from Milos will be as good a time as any for you to try your hand at stealing, I suppose. Now take a bite of rat, but just a nip, Christos. No telling when we’ll come across anything else to eat, so we’d best ration what we have in your pouch, there.”

In the dark, Christos rolled the rat about in his fingers with repugnance, feeling its head, legs, tail, and open belly where Anglaia had eviscerated it. Its raw flesh and fur did not feel the least bit appetizing, but he hadn’t eaten since the the night before; the hunger gnawing at his belly overcame objection. Thoughtfully, he bit off the head, thinking to save the meatier portion for Anglaia. Sinking his teeth through the rat’s skull, he heard the crunch of bone against teeth; it did not offend him as much as he had imagined. “But taking water isn’t exactly stealing, Grandma... is it?” he asked, swallowing the fare.

“Are you a Turkish resident of Milos, Christos?” she asked sharply.


“So then, do you have a right to the well water in Milos, Christos?”

“No, Grandma... but–”

“Then if you take it, you’ll be stealing, Christos,” interrupted Anglaia. “But of course, if you’d prefer to die an honest death rather than steal to live, then we’ll just forget about the damned water. Besides, maybe God wants us to die, like your mother and father, heh?” It was a cruel remark and cut with the precision of a razor, leaving Christos speechless. “On the other hand,” she continued, hearing no reply, “perhaps He wants you to live, in which case He’ll then wish you to steal. See there, He’s now forced stealing on you... because it’s against his will that man willingly kills himself. Am I right?”

Christos said nothing.

“Pass the rat back here– don’t eat the whole damned thing.”

Christos handed it to her in silence. Reflecting on her line of reasoning, he finally said, “Grandma, what about you? Don’t you wish to live?”

“I don’t care one way or the other,” she snarked. “I died a long while back though no one wished to concede the point, especially your father. I’d just as soon be free of this wretched earth this very moment, for it’s been nothing but a damned trial of endurance and survival since Manzikert. Yeah, I’ve been ready for the big sleep for many years now... but God’s kept it from me.” She reached in her sleeve then, and held her knife to the sparse light of the moon. “You know about this knife I carry at all times, eh, Christos?”

Christos considered the blade’s dull glint in the moonlight. Though the Laskaris clan never talked about it openly, everyone knew she carried it; only Phillipos knew why. “Yes,” confessed Christos, “I know about it, Grandma.”

“Very well then, know this: I’d simply slit my own throat and be done with this shit I’m in now, this very moment– if not for you.”

“If not for me?” asked Christos, confused.

“Yes. Helpless as I am and little that I have to live for, you’re even more helpless. There’s no hope for a nine-year-old wandering about alone in this wicked world, especially in times like this. You’d be like a newborn sparrow thrown to a huddle of hungry crows, dammit. Though I’m of little use in many things, at least I’m wily enough to get you through longer than you could ever last on your own. Gullible and simple-minded as you are, you wouldn’t last a week alone, so yeah... I’m thinking to give you half a chance at least by lingering about to help you get by for as long as I can.” Then, waggling the knife at him, she added, “But should you tire of living along the way... just let me know, heh?”

Christos went silent, scrabbling to decipher what Anglaia meant by this. Anglaia also grew quiet, until the sound of rock sliding down the slope startled them both. Struggling to her feet, she held the dagger behind her back. “Who’s there?!” she hissed.

No reply came at first, only the sound of footfalls edging toward them. Finally a voice followed. “It’s me, Klopas,” a voice said. “Is that you, Anglaia?”

“Yeah, come on,” Anglaia replied, recognizing the man’s voice. She had known Klopas for years, distrusting him from the very moment they had met. He was a thief according to some in the village, though it had never been proven. But Anglaia’s dislike for him went deeper; she had never liked the way Klopas gawked at her daughter-in-law, and even less the way he ogled her young granddaughters. Despite his gregarious front, Anglaia knew him to be a worm.

“Ah, thought I saw you and your grandson down in the crease just below where me and the others were working this afternoon before the attack,” said Klopas, his face carrying a ghostly pallor in the light of the moon. “I been at the summit since early morning digging roots.”

“Yeah, I saw you there,” said Anglaia, surreptitiously slipping her dagger back up her sleeve, noticing that Klopas’ eyes carried that keen look of one glimpsing about– as just before committing thievery. Ah, but that bastard’s up to something, she thought. “It looked to me you were doing nothing but sitting on your dead ass, Klopas,” she sniffed, masking her suspicions. “And tell, so what happened to the others?”

“Shit, they scattered like mice, same as I did! Hiding here and there among the rocks, I suppose, who the hell knows? All of us lit out the instant we recognized the black flags. That goddamned Malik! We remember Manzikert when he showed up waving those black banners. Christ, even the other Turks hate his ass.”

“He’s not Turk, you lout,” countered Anglaia, finding satisfaction in contradicting Klopas’ point. “He’s a Persian mercenary, damn his soul, and when he’s not fighting for Kilij Arslan in Rüm, he’s raiding other sultanates, as he’s doing now.” As she said this, she telegraphed a look of pure condescension– to ensure that Klopas felt her loathing.

Shrugging with irritation, Klopas returned a blank stare, wondering exactly why it was that the old woman had always refused to treat him with a speck of civility. Of course, as with all people of low character saddling themselves with self-induced flaws, Klopas failed to recognize his own many shortcomings. “What the shit difference does it make, Turk or Persian?” he retorted. “Point is, Malik’s back to his old butchery again!” Pausing, he shook his head, intent on repaying Anglaia’s sharp tongue with some barb of his own. That is when he happened to remember, from his position atop the rise during the attack, spotting the ill-fated flight of Phillipos and his family from the charging gazis. Thinking to deliver a sharp wound as repayment for Anglaia’s bitchy tongue, he thought to bring it up. “Shit, Anglaia,” he began, “did you see those gazi archers today? And after killing our fellow Greeks, they began taking their heads! And I swear, I thought I saw your son down–”

Anglaia’s eyes fired darts at Klopas as she stuck a finger toward Christos. “Shut your damned mouth!” she snapped. “The boy doesn’t need to hear such things, damn you!”

“Oh, pardon... I forgot about the boy,” Klopas shrugged, feigning apology. Still, he could not help but smirk the tiniest bit. He yawned then, poking at his belly. “Say, you and the lad there got anything to eat, by chance?”

Christos was about to answer and offer a rat, but Anglaia interceded. “No,” she said.

“Oh, but I thought you two were snaring rats down below us today. No luck, huh?”

“No,” lied Anglaia.

“A shame,” replied Klopas, eyeing the leather pouch hanging about Christos’ waist. “I’m hungry as hell... you, too, probably, eh? Aw well, maybe we’ll chance across something down the road tomorrow.” Seeing that Anglaia remained tight-lipped, her scowl still glued in place, he raised his shoulders in a questioning gesture. “Yeah, so tell, Anglaia... where the hell are you two headed now that Despina’s gone?”

Anglaia remained motionless, leaving Klopas standing there to endure an uncomfortable silence. Seeing that even this did not encourage him to leave, she finally pointed toward Milos and said, “West, I suppose, if that’s any of your damned affair... maybe all the way to Bithynia, or even Constantinople if we can make it across the Bosphorus. Otherwise, I suppose we’re headed to our goddamned graves!”

Klopas chortled at this; he had never liked Anglaia, but from time to time he found the old bitch’s bluntness entertaining, such as now. “Jesus Christ, that’s 600 miles to the west!” Klopas sniggered. “Old as you are, you think to make it that far on foot? With a boy in tow? Ambitious plan, I’d say. But you’d best watch your cranky old ass, Anglaia, especially with all that other shit stirring that direction.”

“Eh? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” asked Anglaia. “What other shit?”

He shook his head up and down a moment, as congratulating himself on a past cleverness. “Oh,” he replied, “just that I managed to slip beyond Lord Azim’s border and snuck halfway to Edessa a few months back.”

“Halfway to Edessa?” muttered Anglaia. “That’s a far damned distance away, you got... if you’re not lying, that is. But what of it?”

“Well... interestingly, I happened across a caravan out of Nicaea. One of the men in the train was a Byzantine merchant from Constantinople.”

“Christ, quit dragging your story out, Klopas! So?”

Pleased at raising the old woman’s ire, Klopas continued, but slowly so. “Well... learning that I, too, was Greek... this fellow mentioned that Constantinople’s been bursting with thousands and thousands of western Europeans this past year.”


“Yeah... the first group to arrive was an army of peasants that walked all the way from France and Germany. On their arrival, they sailed across the Bosphorus, apparently, and tried to invade Kilij Arslan’s capital of Nicaea. Word is, they were slaughtered by Mahmoud Malik and some other general under Kilij Arslan’s command... General Soliman... I think.”

“An army of peasants?” Anglaia huffed. “Ridiculous, Klopas. There’s no damned such creation. Chrissakes... and you say they walked all the way from France and Germany? To attack Kilij Arslan, Sultan of Rüm? Hup, that’s about the most jack-assed thing I’ve ever heard you say, and I’ve heard plenty of horse shit come out of that sloppy mouth of yours, Klopas! And you mean to tell that you swallowed such tripe?”

Ignoring the affront, Klopas nodded. “Granted, it sounded a bit far-fetched, but there’s more. This same merchant claimed that a second wave of westerners has since shown up, with more yet expected to arrive. And they’re moving east... our way.”

“More to come? Peasants, you mean?”

“No, this second bunch is all knights and footmen, arrived by the tens of thousands from all over Western Europe.”

Dismissing ridicule in favor of curiosity, Anglaia looked closely at Klopas. “To what purpose?” she muttered.

“War, I’d guess. Why else would men-of-arms show up in such droves? The merchant mentioned something about a recent alliance between the Pope of Rome and the Byzantine Empire. I don’t know, it didn’t make a lot of sense... sounded like the Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians are joining forces... to make war against the Muslims, maybe. Ha, wouldn’t that be the hallelujah shits?! It could mean us finally getting out from under the Turks. Imagine that.”

“Christ,” wheezed Anglaia, “there’s already a damned war, Klopas, in case you hadn’t noticed today– and we’re right in the middle of it. The last goddamned thing we need is war on top of war.”

“Maybe so, but a Christian war against the Turks is a war I could welcome. Aye, I’d give anything to see the Turks run back to Asia, or wherever the Hell they came from. But Christ, I don’t know... maybe the guy I was talking to was just spewing caravan talk. You know, campfire bullshit. But who knows, eh? Could be true.”

As they spoke, Christos listened, his imagination running rampant. He had heard talk in the village while growing up of the Byzantines perhaps one day reclaiming territories lost to the Turks, like Manzikert, or even Despina. Oh, what a happy day that would be, he thought, though he held no particular ill feelings against Despina’s Sunni overlord, Lord Abdul Azim. Nonetheless, Christos had been raised to believe that all Muslims were heathens, and now this recent horror committed by Mahmoud Malik to Despina and his family seemed proof of it.

“Aye, Klopas,” Anglaia snorted, derision slipping back onto her tongue, “that’s campfire bullshit all right. Since the Schism of ‘54, we Greeks have long split from Rome. Hell, Emperor Alexius even made alliances against the Catholic Pope, Gregory, during the Vatican’s war against the Germans. I’d say that fellow you spoke to is full of shit. Yeah, and you, too, if you believe any of that piss he’s passing around!”

“Hell, I never said I believed it!” snapped Klopas.

“Ha, and I suppose the both of you were drinking, too, during that exchange of bullshit, eh?” As she talked, she continued to keep a close eye to Klopas; in the obscure light it seemed to her that he had been eyeing Christos’ hip pouch too closely. Then, as Klopas happened to turn a bit, she thought to detect a goatskin bota tucked under Klopas’ arm. “Say now,” she said, softening her tone, “you wouldn’t happen to have anything to drink, might you?”

“No,” Klopas lied, shoving his bota behind his back, convinced that Anglaia was a damned liar, and that Christos’ hip pouch was full of plump rats.

“A shame,” replied Anglaia, “working all day at the top of the rise like you fellows were, I’d think you’d have at least have brought wine, water, or such.”

“Yeah, well... the others were holding onto the botas, but they’re long gone now.”

Klopas then went silent, shuffling about on his feet– which led Anglaia to believe he was about to leave. She was mistaken. Taking on a tone of veiled amity, he said, “You know, Anglaia... doesn’t make a whole lotta sense for any of us to go any further tonight, dark as it is. Yeah, that’d just invite injury, I’d suppose. How about we just sit tight, stay right here for the night, huh?”

“Together? The three of us?” blenched Anglaia.

“Sure, why not? That way I could... you know, maybe help keep an eye to you and the boy. Huh?”

Smelling fish, Anglaia’s face contracted into a scowl. Nevertheless, and despite her immediate inclination to disagree, Anglaia shrugged, nodding yes; she was in no position to actually force Klopas to leave. “That’ll be fine,” she grunted, suspecting his proposal out of place, coming from a man in hiding; it would only be to Klopas’ disadvantage to be tied to an old woman and a boy... even at night.

Several more minutes of disingenuous conversation ensued before Anglaia and Klopas finally settled among the rocks as best as they could to find sleep. Drawing her grandson close to her, Anglaia whispered, “We’ll sort things out in the morning, Christos. We’ve a long trek ahead of us, so get some sleep.”

Though Christos had briefly found sleep earlier, it had been a restive sleep. Then too, he was bled dry from the day’s tragedy, as well as from hauling his grandmother up the rise. Within minutes of nestling next to Anglaia, something he had never once in life done before, he felt himself spiraling toward blackness. Moments later he found himself in the midst of his four sisters, laughing and teasing as they playfully goaded each other into riding Eros, the village’s cantankerous billy-goat that was shared by all the families of Despina for breeding purposes. It was a pleasant dream, and a deep sleep.

Christos awoke at dawn with a start, startled– eyes blinking with confusion. Not moving, still caught in the fog of half-sleep, he imagined for a moment that he heard a groan, accompanied by a flicker of motion off to his side. Unable to come fully awake though, he closed his eyes again, drifting back toward sleep. It was but part of a dream, he thought, fading.

A few moments later, however, he heard something else. It was Anglaia’s terse voice, most likely directed at Klopas. Lifting his head, Christos rubbed at his eyes. But then, catching his focus, he gasped, drawing back. There was his grandmother, standing just feet away, swearing in sporadic outbursts... stooped over Klopas who lay sprawled on his belly– his dead eyes staring blankly at the ground, his lips mottled with earth, his woolen shirt soaked with blood emanating from the nape of his neck. Anglaia was struggling a bit, working at freeing Klopas’ bota from his shoulder. Stunned, Christos jumped to his feet, eyes wide with shock.

“No need to fret, Christos” said Anglaia with a calm so frigid that it made Christos tremble. “Klopas is done. He pretended to be asleep, just as I did... but then made a mistake. He came after our rats.”

Chapter Four


As the Roman Empire’s dominion in Western Europe began to dissolve from the Fifth Century forward, the eastern portion of the empire known as Byzantium remained intact. The Byzantines, therefore, became the sole inheritors of Rome’s past glory, power, and culture, though in reality and over time they had become more Greek than Latin.

Constantinople, capital of the empire, was strategically situated atop an isthmus jutting into the Bosphorus Straight, connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Thus straddling Europe and Asia, it handily exploited the pulsing trade route between Occident and Orient. Moreover, Constantinople had by now also developed into the greatest Christian city in all the world, actually dwarfing the western European capitals of Paris, London, and Rome in both size and wealth.

In the Seventh Century, the Muslims of Arabia, known as Saracens, launched invasions resulting in Byzantium’s loss of its most eastern territories. This centuries old struggle later centered on control of Asia Minor, most of which was also lost by the Byzantines. By this time, however, the Muslims in question were no longer the Saracens of Arabia, but the Seljuk Turks originating from the Hsiung-nu tribes on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and the Altai Mountains. As these Turks moved west off the steppes of Central Asia in the Tenth Century, they embraced Islam and established themselves around Bukhara in Transoxania under their khan, Seljuk. One branch then migrated to India while the other struck west and entered mercenary service under the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad, the spiritual leaders of Islam. The fierce Turkish horsemen, called gazis, eventually followed a Seljuk kahn, Tugrul Bey, and conquered Baghdad itself in the year 1055, thus wrestling power from the native Arab Saracens. From there they made incursions into Armenia, Anatolia, and other Byzantine territories, threatening the Byzantine Empire’s collapse.

Turkish aggression along the eastern frontier was halted only in 1081 when a young aristocratic general named Alexius I Comnenus came to power in Constantinople through a bloodless coup engineered by his mother, the powerful Anna Delassene. Nonetheless, the Turks maintained a tenacious grip to the north and east, their boundary extending now to within just twenty miles across the Bosphorus Straight from Constantinople itself.

To counter this impending threat, Alexius looked to Western Europe for assistance. Despite the Great Schism of 1054 which had divided Christianity into the Eastern Orthodox rite of Byzantium and the Roman Catholic rite of Western Europe, Alexius appealed to Pope Urban II for military support. Pope Urban II, wishing to re-establish a state of détente with Byzantine Christians after half a century of discord, in turn called upon the knights of Western Europe, inciting them to march to the aid of their fellow Greek Orthodox Christians in the east– while simultaneously completing his objective of reclaiming the Holy City of Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks.

So it was that five months before old Anglaia and her grandson fled Despina, Emperor Alexius Comnenus had declared a celebration feast within his opulent residence, the Palace of the Blachernae, situated atop a hill near the northwest corner of the capital overlooking the entire city. It was a celebratory affair attended by aristocrats, high clerics, top military commanders, wealthy merchants, and other influential elements of Constantinople’s upper society.

Warm within the exclusive coven of others with prestige, wealth, and position in life, two thousand dignitaries accompanied by spouses or escorts moved about in fluctuating groups, heads drawn together in lively exchanges, their cheeks red with wine. Flittering around them was an army of elegantly attired servants serving spirits, figs, olives, and delicate slices of smoked meat and fish accompanied by sturgeon roe piled high, all on silver platters so highly polished as to send bursts of light reflecting off massive candles illuminating the affair. Additional servants carried platters of gold, upon which were arranged roasted pheasant, heron, crane, and goose. Each fowl was meticulously splayed atop a lush bedding of scented herbs, fancifully ringed with lush borders of freshly cut lily blossoms, each platter featuring a different color.

Every half hour the arrival of four separate four-man teams dressed as huntsmen was heralded by a flourish of trumpets as they entered the hall to replenish the fare that the previous teams had carried in just thirty minutes earlier. The first of these teams carried in a whole roasted boar, the second a roasted stag, the third a roasted calf, and the fourth an offering of roasted lambs. As they arrived, the smoky scent of perfectly brazed meat wafted throughout the hall, delighting guests, drawing from them exclamations of affective rapture and praise. Each roasted animal carried in by the valet teams was displayed atop a long slab of polished marble artfully detailed with garlands of fresh flowers intermingled with fat clusters of grapes, mounds of freshly picked berries, and artful, exquisitely carved slices of melon.

Those unfamiliar with Emperor Alexius’ celebration feasts might have interpreted such presentation as a grand affair– but this was actually an informal gathering, rather moderate compared to the emperor’s formal celebrations and royal banquets. Whatever the reason, he far preferred these more casual affairs where he could move about more freely, engaging in less stilted dialogue just as he was doing now while escorting his wife, Queen Irene Doukaina, about on his arm.

“Ah, and good evening to you, my good Bishop,” he said, coming across Bishop Tristan de Saint-Germain, First Counsel and Personal Crusade Scribe to Pope Urban II. The young bishop was moving slowly, as evidenced by his reliance on the beautiful woman assisting him, Lady Mala, la Gran Signorina of Genoa; holding firmly to his arm, she was propping him from his weak side, where one month earlier he had suffered life-threatening wounds. “I’m pleased to see that you are overcoming your injuries,” continued Alexius, “and that you’re enjoying a sound recovery. How has it been, then, since rejoining the living, eh?”

“Oh, grand indeed... just being here, Majesty,” replied Bishop Saint-Germain, bowing respectfully. “Though I must confess, there were times during my convalescence that I thought myself already dead.”

“Fortunate you were to survive such grievous wounds, Bishop,” smiled Queen Irene, tilting her head the slightest bit in the same breath to acknowledge his escort, Lady Mala. “Even our physicians had doubts whether you would actually survive or not. But alas, to the good fortune of all, God was merciful.”

“Aye,” nodded Alexius, “and only by His generous graces did you survive that bloody massacre of the Peasants’ Crusade across the Straight in October. Of the 50,000 Latins I deported to Bithynia, there were less than 3,000 who straggled back across the Bosphorus. Such an unfortunate and needless loss of Catholic lives, all owed to the rabid fanaticism of Peter the Hermit. Damn him, dragging hordes of peasants from France and Germany all the way across the continent to fight Turks with shovels and pitchforks! Who could have imagined such a venture... but a madman?” Shaking his head with dubiousness, Alexius paused, giving a slight shrug of the shoulder. “Of course,” he continued, “fuel was added to the fire by that damnable gaggle of Latin military outlaws showing up here in Constantinople at the same time as the Hermit. Driven by visions of Muslim plunder, both groups insisted on crossing into Turkish territory despite my many warnings. In any case, Bishop, you tried your best to save them from themselves. And for your valiant effort, God saw fit to spare you from the butchery.”

“Oh, but let us not forget, either, the skill of your personal physicians, Excellency,” said Bishop Saint-Germain. Gesturing to his side, he then also acknowledged la Gran Signorina. “And such a debt I owe to my dear friend, ever loyal Lady Mala,” he said. Exchanging a glance with her, he added, “She tended to me day and night, never leaving my side, showering me with prayer. Truly... she fanned my will to live, and kept my soul from surrendering hope.”

“He flatters me,” Mala bowed, smiling back at him. “I did little more than hold his hand and sit at his bedside. But then, Tristan and I have known each other since we were but children, so he has always held a special place in my heart. Thus, I did pray day and night to our Merciful Father in Heaven. And as you see, He heard me, knowing this world would surely be a darker place without the Bishop.”

As she said this, Alexius thought for a moment that he saw something pass between the two– a glimmer, so to speak. It was palpable, yet so elusive that one possessing normal perception might have never taken notice. But Alexius was more perceptive than most; as emperor, he had to be. “Indeed, it would have been a terrible tragedy to lose you, Bishop,” he said. “And I know that news of your loss would have gravely wounded Pope Urban, as you are like a son to him. Then, too, Bishop Adhémar, Raymond of Toulouse, and the rest of Pope Urban’s military forces will be showing up soon, and your many talents will be an invaluable asset to them as they move against the Turks this spring.”

“Ah... I certainly hope so, Majesty,” replied Tristan. “And on that topic, I’ve noticed that several of the first contingents of the Pope’s knights are beginning to arrive by sea, and a few others by land, even. From Lady Mala’s palace overlooking the harbor, I’ve been watching them pitch camp outside the city walls.”

“Ah, a mere handful compared to the masses yet to arrive. And none of the primary players as of yet... though I’ve received word that the major princes have all by now departed and are en route. And thankfully, as noblemen of high blood, they shall be far more civilized than the Hermit’s wild horde of peasants and renegade soldiers.” Here he shook his head as his expression dropped. “Oh, a damn shame I was forced into deporting the Hermit and that bunch across the Straight, but they forced my hand, you know.”

“It was no fault of your own, Majesty, I assure you,” affirmed Bishop Saint-Germain. “And rest assured, I have already issued a detailed account of matters back to the Vatican. Yes, Pope Urban will mourn the loss of so many Catholic souls, but never forget, Majesty... he himself tried to bring a halt to the Peasants’ Crusade from the moment of its inception. But Peter the Hermit simply refused to be stopped, and turned his circus into a traveling plague throughout Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria. Everywhere they marched, they bred dissent and devastation. Even to you here in Greece, despite claiming to be here as your saviors.”

“God in Heaven, yes... their arrival here was like the descent of some horrendous, parasitic swarm, devouring Constantinople itself!” exclaimed Alexius, acknowledging the bishop’s comment yet still bearing traces of regret at the bloody outcome of his own deportation order. “I had to ship them out just to keep peace within my capital. We’d never before endured such thugs, ruffians and riffraff! But assuredly, the Pope’s army is led by nobility and will therefore, at least, be practiced in civility.”

At this, Tristan assented with a nod of agreement, though the expression accompanying it seemed to lack complete conviction. “Indeed...” he said, offering nothing more.

“In any case,” continued Alexius, “a day of reckoning awaits the Turks when Pope Urban’s knights arrive, Bishop!” He issued that wry smile of the fox then, looking over at his wife. “Ha,” he clucked, “and the Turks aren’t even yet aware what lies over the horizon.” Leaning over to kiss the back of Lady Mala’s hand, he said, “Regrettably, I’ve some church business to discuss with Patriarch Nicholas, and I see him standing over there in the midst of his high bishops.” Nodding his head in that direction, he chortled a bit, looking at his wife. “Ha, Irene... probably scheming how to take my mother’s part against me again, eh?”

“Undoubtedly so,” replied Queen Irene, casting an icy gaze toward the Patriarch. She had distrusted the high cleric since early childhood; after donning the queen’s tiara at age eleven, that distrust had only magnified; Patriarch Nicholas was too easily manipulated by Augusta Anna, Emperor Alexius’ conniving mother.

Tugging at Irene’s hand, Alexius turned, leading her toward the Greek clerics– but once beyond earshot, a look of puzzlement etched itself onto his face. “And so, Irene... did you notice anything there a moment ago... between Bishop Saint-Germain and Lady Mala?”

“Notice something?” Irene inquired. “Such as what? I’ve no earthly idea what you’re alluding to, Alexius.”

“Ah, perhaps it was nothing, only my imagination toying with me. Still... I thought I saw a certain look pass between them.”

Irene put a finger to her lips, to keep from smirking. “A look?” she asked, feigning surprise. “Well yes, dear, I did notice that they were looking at each other, just as you were looking at them, and they were looking at you.” Pointing to herself, she then said, “And look here, I’m looking at you now, and you’re looking at me. What of it?”

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” snorted Alexius, a plume of impatience forming over his brow, “that’s not at all what I’m talking about!”

“Well, what are you talking about, then, dear?” she asked, remaining stone-faced despite knowing precisely where Alexius was probing. But needling him tickled her a bit, so she found herself struggling to mask amusement.

“Mala informed me upon the Bishop’s arrival here that they had been childhood friends, which is fine and well,” Alexius continued. “But... if I didn’t know better, their friendship might possibly extend... a bit deeper?”

“Really now, dear,” replied Irene, lifting a brow of condescension “But then, that would actually be their business alone... wouldn’t you suppose?”

“Oh, but never mind then, dammit!” snorted Alexius. “I’m but making conversation here, for Christ’s sake!”

“And you never mind, too, Dear,” replied Irene demurely, though her tone belied a hint of scolding. She very much liked Bishop Tristan de Saint-Germain, and felt a fortuitous yet keen sense of kindred affection for Lady Mala. Thus, Irene felt it was neither for her husband nor anyone else to pass judgment over either of the two... or their relationship. Besides, Greek Orthodox clerics were allowed to marry and raise children, though she knew such was not the case for Roman Catholic clerics since the rise decades earlier of Pope Gregory VII’s strict reforms. Subsequently, Irene knew that any intimate or carnal relationship between the Bishop and Lady Mala would be anathema within the tentacled reach of the reform-centered Vatican... especially for one so highly positioned as Tristan de Saint-Germain. Still, it was a philosophy that clashed with her own faith– thus she embraced the part of Lady Mala and Bishop Saint-Germain, not that of the Vatican.

Despite that outward air of propriety and distance steadily presented by the two, Queen Irene had long suspected that they did indeed share a passionate, heartfelt love for each other, albeit illicit according to Gregorian Catholic dogma. But Queen Irene well understood their dilemma; as a young woman years after ascending to the crown at age eleven, Irene had reportedly fallen beneath the spell of a young Byzantine military officer. Though never substantiated, Alexius’ mother suspected her daughter-in-law guilty of carrying on an inappropriate and illicit relationship. In the end, Irene and the young officer were prohibited from ever associating with each other again, as Augusta Anna intervened to squash certain rumors that had begun to surface. “Oh, I am livid!” the old empress scolded, breathing fire while accusing Irene of one sin after another. “Never again are we to ever see you in his company!”

Shortly afterward Irene was forced into a program, contrived as it was, to demonstrate more deference and respect for Alexius’ position as king. This had infuriated Irene because from the beginning of their marriage, Alexius, being older, openly consorted with a lifelong lover by the name of Maria of Alania; he also had children with her, housing her in a private complex within the royal palace.

It was no secret, therefore, that the royal marriage was more a matter of political practicality and appearance than of romantic interest. Their marriage being built upon such a dubious foundation from the start, Irene Doukaina held no particular affection for Alexius– and possibly even less as time progressed. Their marriage had actually been devised by Alexius’ conniving and ambitious mother, Anna Delassene; she engineered the union only for the purpose of allying the two most powerful families of Constantinople in order to advance her conspiracy to have Alexius crowned emperor. Shortly after his coronation, Anna Delassene compounded Irene’s enmity by violating iron-clad Byzantine custom and insisting that Alexius crown her, his own mother, Augusta of Byzantium, rather than follow the customary track, which was to crown the king’s wife as empress.

But the more wicked act was what Anna Delassene had arranged to have done to the young military officer who had captured Irene’s interest. As empress, she discreetly had him ordered to the bloody Seljuk front where he was soon slain– not by Turks, but by her own Byzantine assassin.

Two years later, in a fit of guilt-ridden remorse just before taking his own life, this same assassin had come to Irene and confessed his crime. “Oh, my Queen,” the man had wept, “forgive me, and pray that God will do the same for my own torment shall soon take me from this life! It was me that killed your young captain during the confusion of battle... but it was your own mother-in-law, the Augusta, who gave the command!” From that moment forward, though she had never revealed the assassin’s confession, Irene Doukaina’s hatred for Anna Delassene had never ceased to fester.

As Irene accompanied Alexius across the hall, she spotted her loathsome mother-in-law engaged in conversation with several generals. Probably cozying up to them in hopes of usurping a measure or two of Alexius’ unshakeable popularity with the military, thought Irene bitterly. In actuality, she had little cause to worry. Despite Augusta Anna’s sway with Patriarch Nicholas, high clerics and Constantinople society, she was a woman– thus held in low esteem by Alexius’ misogynistic generals and troops. More critically, it was Alexius alone who had pulled Byzantium from the jaws of Seljuk annihilation, so the military was firmly in his pocket despite his mother’s political machinations. As could only occur through the poison of resentment, even though Irene held limited affection for her husband, she still resented Anna Delassene’s constant maneuvering to erode Alexius’ authority. In truth, Irene despised the scheming old bitch, wishing her dead.

As the royal couple approached Patriarch Nicholas and his high bishops, Irene happened to notice a curious circle of men standing near the clerics. There were five altogether, dressed in foreign military attire, and all were massive in size save the extremely striking young man in the middle who appeared to be commanding the attention of the others. She gazed at them in passing, and noticed that the handsome one glanced up at that same moment, noticing her.

As their eyes met, Irene leveled a look at him, more out of curiosity than anything... but this caused him to quickly avert his gaze. As he did this, it seemed he flushed a bit about the ears, which she found amusing.

She could tell that he was slightly younger than herself, and she thought his reaction rather boyish; this generated in her a private smile, reminding her of that awkward insecurity and lack of guile so characteristic of adolescence. Yet... on closer inspection, the striking clarity of the young man’s clear grey eyes nearly startled her, which is when it also occurred to her that he bore a remarkable resemblance to Bishop Saint-Germain. Ah, she thought, they are most certainly related.

Holding an eye toward him while remaining compliant to her husband’s lead, Irene promised herself that as soon as Alexius and the clerics buried themselves in political talk, she would take her leave, circle back– and as a courtesy to the Bishop, make the young man’s acquaintance. Oddly, as she decided this, she thought to feel the rise of a tiny palpitation... but dismissed it, knowing it to be an absurdity.

The man in question was actually Guillaume de Saint-Germain, Bishop Tristan de Saint-Germain’s young brother. He was standing in the midst of his three Danish uncles, Orla Bloodaxe, Ivar Crowbones, and Guthroth the Quiet. Also standing there was Hroc Five-hands, twenty-year-old son of Orla Bloodaxe. They, like Bishop Saint-Germain, had also recently survived the October massacre of the Peasants’ Crusade across the Bosphorus Straight, barely escaping with their lives. Such, in fact, was the topic of their discussion as Emperor Alexius and Queen Irene walked past.

“Peter the Hermit languishes in the monastery of the Hagia Sophia I hear,” said Orla. “I hear he’s tried twice now to slip aboard a ship to Italy, hoping to make his way back to France. But he was caught, and the emperor has now formally banned his departure, insisting he remain here until the arrival of Pope Urban’s military forces. As the root of the Peasants’ Crusade debacle, Alexius believes the Hermit is now duty-bound to make up for last October’s slaughter by accompanying the second wave of crusaders to the Holy Land.”

“Ja, serves that hairy little bastard right after all the misery he’s bred,” snorted Orla’s brother, the one-armed Crowbones, waving his stub in the air. “Forty-seven thousand dead across the Straight, half of them women, children, and elderly! And we’d be dead too if not for a twist of good fortune at the end.”

“N-no,” stuttered Guthroth the Quiet, “twas G-God that spared us, Crowbones, not f-fortune!”

“Ja, Ja,” sniped Orla with a touch of cynicism, “so you say, Guthroth. Anyway, since being saved from Turks, me and Crowbones have been baptized just as we promised, so I hope you and Hroc are happy now, huh?”

“No, Father,” objected Hroc, “it was your own wish to take the water, remember? Not ours. During those darkest hours you vowed that if we were to be so lucky as to walk out of Nicodemia alive, then you and Uncle Crowbones would become Christians and forsake the pagan ways.”

“It was a moment of weakness, dammit,” Orla frowned, stroking his beard. “Still, I’m a man of my word as is Crowbones, and we did it, didn’t we? But all this convert jabber the Catholic monks and priests are cramming down our throats makes my head spin. Shit, how can they expect us to swallow such prattle... virgin birth, walking on water, turning water to wine, raising the dead? Hup! Fairy tales, I say! And little different from the old Norse legends in terms of magic and sorcery despite Christian claims to the contrary!”

Crowbones agreed. “And we still don’t get what’s wrong with Catholic holy men getting married or diddling women when their root grows stiff. It’s just not natural to order a man to shelf his pole and never stick it in a crack once in a while. Swine’s head, I’d be stuck playing with my balls every night of the week if I could never enjoy a woman’s honey-hole from time to time.”

“That’s enough,” frowned Guillaume, who disapproved of any talk that countered or even minimized Gregorian Catholic dogma. “I myself took a vow of celibacy and chastity of my own free will though I’m neither monk nor priest, and I assure you, I never play with my balls, either.”

This drew a slight snigger from Orla who could not help but poke Crowbones in the ribs. “So then,” he twittered, “I have to wonder whose balls it is that Guillaume plays with, huh?”

Crowbones followed with his own snigger, and began wiggling his fingers about his crotch in mimic of one fondling himself, though Guillaume did not catch it.

“Chastity is a matter of personal sacrifice to God,” Guillaume continued, “and there’s no shame in it.” Though he was addressing Orla and Crowbones, his eyes had inadvertently fallen onto the queen again.

Taking notice, Orla nudged Crowbones again and smirked, saying, “Ah, good for you, Saint Guillaume, but pray tell... what chaste things are crossing your mind now as you stare at comely Queen Irene Doukaina as she makes her way across the floor?”

Guillaume, having never lain with a woman in his entire twenty-eight years, nor even ever having pursued one, flushed pink at Orla’s suggestion. Folllowing his adoption by Countess Mathilda Medici of Tuscany as a young boy, his had been a life of weapons training, military camps and war. Even the mere presence of women other than his adoptve aunt Mathilda had been a rarity for him, other than during the celebration of Sunday and feastday mass. Nor had he ever missed the presence of females. As such, he tended to be overly sensitive to teasing about the female gender, not unlike those boys of ten who violently deny even the slightest insinuation that they might have an interest in girls. “Oh, but I object!” he exclaimed, coming to life. “I was simply taking notice of the queen’s... impressive crown,” he stammered. “Look there how it… glimmers in the candlelight!”

“Ja,” snorted Crowbones with mockery, “look how her impressive crown glimmers in the light!” Looking over at Guthroth, he then said, “Aye, what say you Guthroth? Isn’t that a glimmering crown!?”

Guthroth, who rarely spoke unless absolutely required because of his speech impediment, broke into laughter at Crowbones’ jab. “J-ja, a gl-glitt-ering, im-presive crown!” he snickered.

Refusing to be left out, Orla next piped in, pointing to his rump, then to his chest. “Ah, but just exactly which impressive crown of hers has caught your attention, Guillaume?” he crowed. “The crown of her ass, or the two arranged there upon that buxom chest?”

At this, all three Danes brayed loudly with laughter, and even young Hroc could not help but join the hilarity incurred by Guillaume’s sudden bewilderment. Their raucous banter caused Guillaume to flush red, and he fell speechless. Annoyance and humiliation followed, as did embarrassment; the guffawing Danes were now attracting attention throughout the banquet hall. Shooting them a curt look, Guillaume stalked off, distancing himself from the ruckus. Attaining the other side of the hall, he stared at the floor, embarrassed that Orla had made a fuss over him looking at the queen. As he lifted his eyes, though, he happened to notice that Queen Irene was now looking directly at him, as offering an expression of empathy.

Born in 1066, the same year as Tristan de Saint-Germain, Irene Doukaina was now thirty-one years of age. She was striking in her own right, standing erect and willowy, accompanying her words with the most graceful of gestures. Her face was perfectly symmetrical, not completely round as that of Assyrian women, nor long like the face of a Scyth– rather, pleasingly oval. Her light-blue eyes possessed a piercing effect that tended to hold one’s attention, involuntarily so, even. Shy by nature, preferring not to appear in public, she could be both forceful and severe if necessity so required. Undeniably, she carried her impressive presence and beauty with exceptional dignity and grace, thus Guillaume de Saint-Germain could not be faulted for noticing her as she walked past.

Though the queen had no idea what the men had been discussing, it was evident to her that the others had somehow turned the handsome one into the butt of some perturbing joke. Tipping her head, Irene smiled. Then, stepping away from her husband who was engrossed in dialogue with his bishops, she motioned to Guillaume with a tilt of the head so inconspicuous that Guillaume grew confused. Not understanding, his feet remained nailed to floor. In reply, Queen Irene repeated the motion with a more discernible effort.

This time Guillaume understood; the gesture was unmistakable. Glancing across the room at the Danes to ensure they were not watching, Guillaume was relieved to see that they had already turned their backs on him and fallen into new discussion. Guillaume then hesitantly placed one foot before the other and began making his way across the hall. Finally, finding himself directly before her, he swallowed hard, hoping the tremor that had now struck the tips of his fingers would not transfer to his tongue.

“Good evening, Highness,” he said, bowing timidly. “Guillaume de Saint-Germain… of Tuscany, in Italy.”

Chapter Five

Pit of Vipers

Since the inception of metaphor, it has been the serpent more than any creature of this earth that has embodied danger, wickedness, and betrayal. The snake’s temptation of Eve, the bite of the asp turning Cleopatra’s hot-blooded passions cold, and other such tales have raised terrifying images of the serpent’s slithering tongue and venom-infused fangs. Over time, vipers have become the very wellspring of human nightmares. In the end, only one image exists within the human conscience curdling the blood more than a single serpent, and that is a place writhing with many serpents. In other words, a snake pit.

Snake pits are places of inconceivable horror, though their dread exists more in imagination than reality; history itself actually does not support the assumption that such pits were ever actually maintained or used for torture and execution. The effort, risk, and precision required to maintain such a hellish death trap, in truth, would have far outweighed the unpredictable outcomes of such a creation. Nonetheless, the Viking warlord Ragnar Lodbrok was said to have been cast into a snake pit after being captured in battle by King Aelle II of Northhumbria. Legend also asserts in Atlakviǒa and Oddrúnargrátr that Gunnar, King of Burgundy, was murdered by Attila the Hun in a snake pit. Nonetheless, the true basis of a snake pit’s dread lies more with anticipation and dread than in reality. So it is that actual fatality and terror incurred by a pit filled with slithering serpents pales in comparison to a pit filled with– slithering men.

On the same evening the aristocracy of Constantinople was feasting with Emperor Alexius within the Imperial Palace, just outside the edge of that city such a gathering of serpentile men was quietly forming. Having been scattered by the defeat of the Peasants’ Crusade, a bloody disaster owing very much to their own greed and miscalculation, these three particular fellows had returned in shame to Constantinople. Banned from entering the walls of the capital by the Emperor, they had dispersed to various pastoral locations, reduced to taking temporary labor on farms and within outlying villages. These defeated miscreants could have returned to Western Europe where their fortunes were questionable at best, but knowing that Pope Urban’s main army would be arriving in several months, they chose to remain in Byzantium. Each hoped, somehow, to rekindle his participation in the Pope’s approaching holy war.

Despite their humiliating rout at the hands of the Turks, these three mercenary weasels still hungered for what had lured them East in the first place, the promise of Muslim plunder. Having deliberately arrived earlier than the Pope’s main military forces, they had hoped to get a jump on the higher ranking noblemen who would later be carrying out Pope Urban’s crusade against Islam. Reclamation of the Holy Land for the sake of Christianity, then, was not in any way the source of their ambition. Rather, they dreamed of being the first to claim Muslim territory and to carry off legendary Muslim riches.

In truth, it was their own arrogance and underestimation of the Turks that had been the impetus of their earlier downfall across the Straight of Bosphorus. It was exactly these two weaknesses, in fact, that had enabled the Turks to lure them into a fatal trap leading to the slaughter of most of twenty thousand Western men-at-arms, plus another twenty-five thousand of Peter the Hermit’s peasant horde. This trap had also precipitated their own cowardly flight from battle during which they trampled over their own troops, abandoning them to seek refuge behind the deteriorating walls of the former Byzantine fortress of Nicodemia.

Narcissistic as they were, they of course rebuked all blame for this cataclysm of their own devise. Instead, they pointed to the ineptitude and foolishness of Peter the Hermit, as well as to the actions of Bishop Tristan de Saint-Germain who had objected to their behavior and ambitions from the very beginning. They also faulted Emperor Alexius for deporting them across the Bosphorus Straight next to Turkish territory though their own unconscionable misbehavior within Constantinople had generated this deportation in the first place. Even further distorting their unfounded resentment, they had already dismissed the fact that had Emperor Alexius not sent ships to rescue the three thousand survivors holding out against the Turkish onslaught at Nicodemia, they would have each perished.

But then, men of shallow grain easily deflect responsibility for failure; to do otherwise would be tantamount to– admitting fault. Accordingly, while licking their wounds outside the capital, these three vipers cast all blame for their current demise upon the miscalculations and misdeeds of ‘others.’

The first viper of this group was Walter Burrel who had enlisted in the Peasants’ Crusade as second in command of the military faction beneath the charge of Sir Walter Sansavoir, a devout Catholic knight of altruistic thread who had fallen beneath the evangelical thrall of Peter the Hermit. The wily Burrel, though, quickly instigated a campaign of undermining Sir Walter Sansavoir as the Peasants’ Crusade departed France and made its way into Germany. By the time the march made Hungary, Burrel had succeeded in subverting and thieving half of Sansavoir’s command. As it happened, Burrel also possessed a penchant for violence– and profoundly despised Jews. Spurred by these black impulses, he incited a number of anti-Semitic massacres along the roads of France and Germany.

After reaching Constantinople, Burrel next engaged in hostilities against the obnoxious Lord Rainald of Broyes who had recruited thousands of Langobard and Lombard troops from Northern Italy and Alemanni troops from Germany. Despite these contentious feuds, the two egotists eventually joined forces, engaging in unlawful and boisterous conduct within the Byzantine capital, forcing Emperor Alexius to deport the entire Peasants’ Crusade to a slip of Byzantine territory across the Bosphorus; this territory bordered Turkish territory, being but two days march from Nicaea, capital of Kilij Arslan’s sultanate of Rüm. Despite that ever precarious position, Burrel, Rainald, and others crossed into Turkish territory, raiding villages and murdering the unsuspecting Muslim population. This incurred Turkish retaliation, and within months Rainald and his troops were massacred at Xerigordos while most of the other crusaders were massacred at Civetot and Nicodemia shortly thereafter. As for Burrel, he had survived only through cowardice and early flight from battle.

The second viper of the group was yet more odious than Geoffrey Burrel, and went by the name of ‘Tafur,’ though it was not his real name. Possessing both a dark heart and an irresistible lust for blood, Tafur had first introduced himself to Peter the Hermit in Amiens, France as a knight who had lost his horse. In a fit of false religious fervor, Tafur fell to the ground, stripped himself of helmet and chain-mail, threw away his sword and shield, and vowed himself to poverty in the same fashion of Peter the Hermit himself. He also declared that his only weapon from that point forward would be his humble staff. Later, in a show of dramatic veracity, he pulled a sizzling brand from a campfire and emblazoned the sign of the cross upon his forehead, encouraging his newfound followers to do the same.

More significantly, Tafur offered to train Peter the Hermit’s peasants how to use their staffs and farm implements as weapons to combat the Turks. Then, in the same fashion that Geoffrey Burrel had begun to undermine Sir Walter Sansavoir, the devious Tafur set about betraying Peter the Hermit. During the march to Germany Tafur recruited a vicious and violent core of nearly four thousand fanatic peasants who proclaimed him ‘King of the Beggars’ while naming themselves after him as ‘the Tafurs.’ Following his lead, many of them branded their own foreheads with the sign of the cross– yet zealously participated with their so-called king in thievery, intimidation, rape, and murder.

During the march to Constantinople, Tafur’s peasant renegades bred fear, wreaking violence wherever they appeared, while also massacring Jews and Hungarians by the thousands. After arriving in Constantinople, their barbaric behavior next also contributed to deportation across the Straight. Once landed there, Tafur and his fanatics shortly began robbing, raping, and killing Christian Byzantines, and eventually trespassing into Turkish territory where they continued their violent rampage against Muslims. Tafur then joined in planning an attack on Kilij Arslan’s capital, Nicaea, which ultimately ended in disaster.

There were three elements of society that Tafur, as a result of horrid experiences during youth, passionately despised: high nobility, high clergy, and Jews. Just prior to the Civetot massacre, it was Tafur who had placed Bishop Saint-Germain on trial after having him abducted, then falsely charging him with crimes against the Peasants’ Crusade. Had the Turks not ambushed the Peasants’ Crusade, it had been Tafur’s intent to publically humiliate Bishop Saint-Germain by subjecting him to an arduous regimen of torture before the mobs of the Peasants’ Crusade, then executing him by hanging.

The third viper was Lord Desmond DuLac, a dishonored Norman ousted from England for corruption and conspiracy by the Norman king, William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. DuLac, haughty beyond tolerance, was hopelessly possessed of greed and blind ambition. He also happened to be the brother of Bishop Tristan de Saint-Germain’s and Commander Guillaume de Saint-Germain’s father, Roger de Saint-Germain, who had been executed for treason in 1073; Desmond DuLac had actually conspired against his own brother by reporting him to Duke William the Bastard of Normandy, later to be known as William the Conqueror.

Having always lusted after his brother’s wife, the beautiful Asta of the Danes, DuLac seized the opportunity to propose marriage to her following his brother’s execution. Seeing that she was now humiliated and forced to forfeit all property, possessions, and titles, he bartered an alternative to her sudden fall into disgrace and poverty. During these negotiations, however, DuLac absolutely refused to accept Asta’s two sons, Tristan who was seven and Guillaume who was four. Faced with DuLac’s calamitous demand, Asta agreed to the marriage on only two conditions. First, DuLac would have to award a huge amount in alms to the Benedictine Monastery of Cluny so her sons could receive the highest education in Europe, thereby securing for them a decent future. The second demand was that DuLac would agree to employ and provide accommodations for the members of her personal Danish Guard and their families, numbering eighty-six men, women, and children in all. So it was that Asta flung herself atop the altar of sacrifice, forfeiting her own happiness by marrying Desmond DuLac and moving to England.

Though Asta’s demands were steep, DuLac agreed, satisfied that he was netting the most beautiful woman in all of France. But the marriage was destined from the very beginning to evolve into a bitter union, as Asta was forcibly separated from her sons for eleven years– and hated DuLac because of it. Eventually, in a moment of desperation, she and the Danes fled DuLac’s iron fist in a bloody revolt after which they fled England forever. Asta then joined a Benedictine convent, becoming a sister-of-means, while the Danes joined the Tuscan Knights under the command of Guillaume who was by then grown and serving his and his brother’s adoptive aunt, the great Countess Mathilda Medici of Tuscany.

In light of this history, ill feelings existed then between Desmond DuLac and the Saint-Germain brothers. But it was the Danes, in particular, whose blood boiled black for Desmond DuLac– Orla, Crowbones, and Guthroth the Quiet. Orla and Crowbones had in fact vowed to kill DuLac on learning of his unlikely arrival in Constantinople, and would have done so if not for circumstances restraining them from carrying out this assassination. Still, the two brothers continued to await the right opportunity, vowing to carry out the deed even if it was their final act in life.

Having remained apart, and also having maintained a low profile since the October massacre by the Turks, Burrel, Tafur, and DuLac had managed to communicate with each other only from time to time, as on this very night they secretly congregated within the stables of an isolated Greek farm. Despite circumstances of defeat and humiliation having now driven them together into a communion of mutual misery, the three men still neither liked nor trusted each other; their original relationship had been one of untenable discord, and little had changed since then.

This meeting, therefore, was not a gathering of friends.

“And so, Tafur,” sniped Geoffrey Burrel, “how goes the labor with you and your primitives on the surrounding farms?”

“How do you think, you damned fool?” replied Tafur, irked by the smirk slipping into Burrel’s face as he spoke. “We work our asses off for the Byzantine gentry and they repay us with a pinch of salt and crumbs of bread. Shit, the nobility here is no different than the nobility back in France, you piker! They’re greedy as Hell... and sanctioned by their Church to thieve from peasants while working them to the bone.” He said this knowing that both Burrel and DuLac were noblemen. But then, he had never hesitated since the very inception of the ill-fated Peasant’s Crusade at voicing his disdain for either of the two.

“Ah, the ever spiteful Tafur speaks,” mocked Desmond DuLac. “Poor fellow... peasant labor doesn’t suit you, though you were bred to it by some peasant bitch and a dirt grubbing farm-hand twice her age?”

“Watch your tongue,” hissed Tafur. “Speak ill of my mother again and I’ll crack that bony skull of yours!”

“Oh, but careful now,” grinned DuLac. “Aye, my lads Luc and Pierre Gustave are within hearing distance, just there beyond yonder olive grove.” He was referring to the formidable Norman twins, the Gustave brothers, whom DuLac always kept close at hand. “Make a move toward me with that staff of yours and they’ll be on you like crows on carrion.”

“Your body guards be damned,” sniffed Tafur. “I’d be a fool to come alone, so I’ve brought along my own company– aye, twenty of them... there, just beyond the barn in the tall grass.” Scorn followed. “Ha, just look at you, you misshapened wreck of a man,” he said. “You’re as sniveling as your namesake. Indeed, your peasant victims back in England did well by naming you ‘the Mole,’ I’d say.”

As DuLac was beady eyed, short, paunchy in the belly, and possessed abnormally short arms, his Saxon underlings in England had derisively bestowed upon him the moniker of ‘the Mole.’ This tag infuriated DuLac, of course, whose haughty arrogance could not abide ridicule of any fashion. Still, in truth, his physical appearance could not help but invite ridicule.

“Chrissakes,” grumbled Burrel, interceding, “we’re here to discuss the arrival of the Pope’s army, not to pitch darts at each other. Having now lost most of our own troops and weaponry, there’s a damn good chance we’ll be left behind when the main crusader forces arrive. But Christ, we didn’t come all this way from France and England to end up empty-handed, huh?”

“My men need nothing but staffs and scythes, just as before,” said Tafur, referring to his remaining corps of seven hundred peasant zealots. “We’ll simply steal them from the farms we work when the time comes. So me and my bunch are ready to go as soon as the next march begins.”

“Well, goddammit,” sniffed DuLac, “that does me and Burrel little good. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to go at the Turks with sticks and stones like that band of savages you lead, by God.”

Burrel laughed, amused at the image of DuLac holding Turkish infantry at bay with a stick while hurling rocks at charging gazis. “Hell no, me neither!” he snickered.

“Say what you want,” retorted Tafur, “but the two of you lost as many to the Turks in the gorge at Dracon as I did, and that despite your chain-mail, helmets, and hauberks with shield and sword. A lot of good your fine weaponry served that day, eh?”

“It was the Turkish archers that got us, and the ambush,” objected DuLac. “Chain-mail’s fine against the edge of swords, but useless against the point of armor-piercing arrows. And who’d have ever imagined horsemen could fire bows like that, huh... charging here and there at full gallop!”

“Enough about Nicodemia and Civetot,” prodded Burrel. “DuLac, what about you and me? How do we get back in the hunt? Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy’s crusader army isn’t simply going to turn over weaponry and mounts to us. Though we’ve nearly a thousand men at our combined disposal, we’re not worth a pot of piss without horses and arms. Christ, as I see it, we’ve but one crack at continuing with the crusade– and much as I hate to say it, that’s... you.”

“Eh?” said DuLac, surprised. “Me? What in hell’s that supposed to mean? What are you getting at?”

“I’ve been thinking on this long and hard, DuLac,” shrugged Burrel, pausing for a time before continuing. “Aye, you’re originally from northern France, aren’t you?”

“Yes, the Saint-Germain-en Laye territories,” nodded DuLac. “But what of it?”

“Then you later hooked into the the Bastard of Normandy and his Norman breed, right?”

Puzzled, DuLac shook his head. “Aye. But again, what’s that to do with the shit heap we’re in now?”

“Well, Christ, DuLac. I’d then suppose surely you have some ties with northern France and Normandy both... which is where a good portion of Bishop Adhémar’s overall force has been recruited from. Surely to God you’ve got some sort of relationship with someone from there, huh? A friendship or two, a past alliance. Goddamn... surely you’ve not burned every bridge you crossed since moving to England?”

Hearing this, Tafur chortled a bit. “Aye, Dulac... even wild boars keep a tie or two intact!”

DuLac offered no response, as Burrel’s question had put him to thinking. Knitting his brows, he lapsed into reflection.

“Well, what about it?” pressed Burrel, seeking traces of assent within DuLac’s sudden change of expression. “Any possibilities there... or am I just pissing in the wind?”

Rubbing at his chin, DuLac raised his gaze toward Burrel. “Being ousted from England by King William as I was,” he said, shaking his head, “I’ll hardly get a nod from his brother, Robert of Normandy who’s on the way here. Which means I’ll also get the cold shoulder from his close friend and ally, Robert of Flanders, who’s also on his way here.”

“They’re not the only ones coming,” said Burrel, his tone edging on insistence.

Nodding, DuLac thought a while longer, abandoning his current bad stead in England and Normandy to grope further into the past. Finally, after a good while, he tilted his head, an expression of light dawning from nowhere. “Hmm...” he mulled,”but you know... as I remember, many years back– my father was allied through the marriage of his sister to the Toulouse clan in the south of France. As I recall, my father also sent troops to support the House of Toulouse from time to time... to quell rebellion, I think.”

“The House of Toulouse?” said Burrel, his interest pricked. “Judas Priest, man! Raymond of Toulouse is the richest noble of France, sitting atop more wealth and property than King Philippe himself! And though the Pope has appointed Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy as leader of the crusade, it’s said Pope Urban’s counting heavily on Raymond of Toulouse to carry out the military aspects of the war.”

Hearing the other two reel off this litany of noble names, Tafur spat. “Listen to you two, worrying about one rich bastard after another! Ha, sounds to me like you’re about to learn how to beg for the first time in your lives.”

“That alliance I mentioned, it was a long, long time ago,” mused DuLac, ignoring Tafur’s poke. “Aye... it’d be a far reach, convincing Raymond of Toulouse to voluntarily arm a thousand men... especially with knights in the mix. Despite his wealth, he’s not touted for generosity, you know.”

“Mule’s ass!” groaned Tafur. “And just what nobleman have you two ever met who was known for generosity, including yourselves?”

“But they claim Raymond’s bringing thousands of troops himself, and financing it all!” insisted Burrel. “So tell, have you yourself done anything to piss off the House of Toulouse?”

“No. I’ve never had dealings with any of them. Hell, if Raymond of Toulouse walked in right now, I’d fail to recognize the man.”

“Ha! Excellent!” beamed Burrel. “Nonetheless, play your father’s card... you know, old family history. He might bite. And Christ, with his wealth, DuLac, what’s financing another thousand or so troops to the pie? This war will be about man-power… and we’ve got manpower, just no damned weapons or horses.”

“Aw, I don’t know,” muttered DuLac. His arrogance did not object to charity coming from Raymond of Toulouse, but his sensibilities were offended by what Tafur had just said earlier; the prospect of having to beg, which is exactly what DuLac suspected would occur if reduced to approaching Raymond of Toulouse for assistance... was unacceptable.

“Goddammit, DuLac!” urged Burrel. “It’s our only chance, man. Otherwise, we’d as well pack up and start walking back home. And God knows– there’s nothing back there for either of us.”

Hearing this, Tafur grinned a bit. “Ha then, it’ll be a pleasure separating from the two of you as you return to France, tail tucked between your legs while me and mine advance to Jerusalem with the oncoming army.”

“Eh?” shrugged Burrel. “Oh, but hold on, you moron. I wouldn’t get cocky so quick. You’ll likely be going nowhere, Tafur... especially once Bishop Adhémar lays his eyes on you and your bunch.” Glancing over at DuLac, he sought reinforcement. “Am I right?”

DuLac nodded, giving Tafur a cold eye. “Aye, Adhémar comes from high blood and noble heritage, as does Raymond of Toulouse. As such they both equally loathe the peasant class, and neither would consider for a moment marching alongside tramps in sac-cloth with shovels and forks as weaponry. And once either sees that horror you fanatics have branded on your foreheads, they’ll each one think the entire lot of you mad.”

“It’s the mark of God we’ve burned into our foreheads!” snapped Tafur. “And Bishop Adhémar, at least, will recognize it as such!”

“Ha! The hell you say,” chided DuLac. “No, he’ll react just like me and Burrel did. Now granted, we’ve since learned that your peasants can fight... but Bishop Adhémar? No, you’ll get no nod from him, nor Raymond of Toulouse. They’ll quickly give you the boot, Tafur, unless of course...” Here he stopped, and looked away, as calculating something.

“Speak up,” said Tafur, stung by DuLac’s words, suddenly struck by their likeliness. “Unless what, dammit!”

“Unless Burrel and I were to take up your cause,” said DuLac. “Indeed, the bishop might accept our word, and damned sure would over your own.”

“Hup,” nodded Burrel, satisfied that DuLac’s dart had met its mark.

Tafur fell silent. Though he had taken certain pleasure in listening to DuLac and Burrel bemoaning their uncustomary lack of resources, he now gave careful consideration to the two names they had cited: Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy and Raymond of Toulouse. They were both blue-bloods of high pedigree, the very sort of men Tafur had despised from birth because of their nose-in-the-air attitude and mistreatment of the poor. Thus, as DuLac had declared, Tafur and his shabby, forehead-branded peasant troops could well be ill-received by the likes of such privileged men.

Blenching at the prospect of his own return to France, Tafur retreated a moment into himself. Aye, dammit, he thought... these bastards DuLac and Burrel may be right about it all. I might well need their good word in the end, should they actually succeed in acquiring help from Raymond of Toulouse.

Meanwhile, DuLac had himself drawn quiet, losing himself to thoughts about the mutual quandary in which all three were now caught. “Shit,” he finally muttered, looking at the other two. “Burrel’s right... me talking to Raymond of Toulouse is about our only hope of staying with the crusade.”

“Agreed,” said Tafur. “And I’d say you need to get to Raymond of Toulouse as soon as he arrives. Sell him on the fact that we’ve already fought the Turks. You know... pitch that we’ll be an advantage to him.”

Hearing this, DuLac turned sour, and shrugged with bile. “Damn, but you’ve a lot of nerve giving me advice, Tafur! Back in Civetot I twice had Bishop Saint-Germain but a blink’s notice from the hangman’s noose. But oh no, you interfered, claiming you had a better idea. Aye, ‘Let’s extend and his suffering humiliation!’ you said.” Here DuLac threw his hands to his hips and spat. “Aye, and in the end he escaped when the Turks attacked. Now it’s said he’s back in Constantinople in the good graces of Emperor Alexius and staying up in that damned palace again with that wealthy bitch from Genoa. His brother and the Danes are there, too, who I’d also like to see dead, by the way!”

“Water under the bridge, DuLac,” replied Tafur dourly. “So, the Bishop got away... but only because of the Turks. What’s your point? What’re you poking at?”

Looking over to Burrel, then back at Tafur. DuLac shrugged. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Hell yes...maybe I just will give a shot at approaching Raymond of Toulouse… but if I manage to pull anything off, you’d both owe me.” Pausing, he gave them each a hard look before continuing. “So I’ll require something in exchange.”

“Huh?” grunted Tafur.

“And just what’d that be?” asked Burrel.

“Look here,” said DuLac, pointing at himself. “At some point I know the Danes’ll try to get back at me for what happened in England, and the Saint-Germain brothers might support such an effort because of their mother, Asta. Sure, I keep the Gustave twins at my side, because if the Danes ever get an opening, they’ll take it. And once they get their blood up, they’re damned near unstoppable.”

“Talk plainly,” said Tafur. “Get back to what you want from us.”

“Quite simply, I want the Danes dead... before they get me,” said DuLac. “As for the Bishop and his brother, Guillaume– I want them gone, too. If nothing else, to repay their mother for what she did to me!”

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Burrel, shaking his head. “Asta of the Danes is dead and buried back at Marcigny-Sur-Loire in France, as told to you by Saint-Germain himself! Do you mean to tell me that she’s still stuck in your damned craw, even from the grave, DuLac? Yah, yah, I’ve endured your sob story about her walking out on you a hundred times, but Christ, man... that was over ten years ago. Can’t you leave it alone?”

“I don’t give a damned how long ago it was!” snapped DuLac. “It still sets me afire, Burrel, and I hate her for it. I’d cut off my right arm to punish her, but she’s gone. The next best thing, then, is to rid the world of her bastard sons!”

Burrel thought a moment, kicking at the hay strewn about the stable floor. “I don’t get this thing between you and their mother, DuLac. It’s become an obsession with you, and obsessions can lead a man into the fire. True, the Danes have threatened you, but the Bishop hasn’t, nor has his brother. If anything, Bishop Saint-Germain may actually be your best protection now. You know, keeping the Danes off your ass. He’s a cleric, after all.”

“Hold there,” interjected Tafur, pointing at Burrel with objection. “I despise the Bishop as much as DuLac... maybe more. I want something done about him, too.”

“Well hell, I suppose so!” laughed Burrel. “After that imprisonment and trial you put him through in Civetot, and threat of execution! Shit, man... and how long before you think he’ll be coming after you, Tafur, one damned way or another?”

“I don’t doubt it,” replied Tafur. “So even more reason for me to agree with DuLac.” Pausing, Tafur looked over at DuLac. “But that won’t be any easy thing, DuLac. Not here in Constantinople while he’s under the wing of the emperor, nor even later as he’s joined by Bishop Adhémar and the incoming crusaders. Judas priest, he’ll be untouchable in their midst! Still, there may be a way to neutralize him at least.”

“What are you talking about?” asked DuLac.

“I despise the man as much as you, DuLac,” Tafur said, “but we’ve got to be careful here. He’s been an obstacle to me at every turn since Cologne, Germany. Had things not gotten twisted about back in Civetot, he’d be dead now, hung by the peasants for his crimes against the Peasants’ Crusade. And don’t forget that little man, Benito Fazio, who testified at the trial that Bishop Saint Germain, years ago, had his mistress and newborn child murdered. He–”

“Sakes alive,” groaned Burrel, “did you actually believe all that tripe from that little shit-bird with the girly voice?”

“Damn right I did!” exclaimed Tafur. “And so did a hell of a lot of others who were there at the trial.”

“What’s your point?” asked DuLac.

“When Bishop Adhémar arrives, we’ll let him know about the trial and Saint-Germain’s high crimes. He’ll end in disgrace. That’s how you choke the life out of men in high places, DuLac. Or have you already forgotten the look of dismay and shock on Bishop Saint-Germain’s face when the mob turned against him during his trial at Civetot?”

“You moron,” said DuLac, shaking his head incredulously. “You had witnesses back in Civetot who testified against him, like that woman Estelle Dupuis. Most of all, you had Fazio who exposed the story of the Bishop’s mistress and their illegitimate child, and their subsequent disappearance. But your witnesses are gone now, Tafur. Dead. And little chance someone looking like you would have, convincing Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy that the Pope’s First Counsel is a murderer.”

“Enough about the Bishop,” said Burrel, impatience seeping into his voice. “Let’s get back to the crusade.”

“Dammit, Burrel,” fired DuLac “you’re not the one who has to worry about Saint-Germain or the Danes! They’ve nothing against you. Still, you’d best make a call here. If you’ll not stick with me and Tafur on this thing, then to Hell with you! When I go to Raymond of Toulouse with hat in hand, I’ll leave you out.”

“Look here,” groused Burrel, “my sole interest is getting back in the game and rejoining the crusade, DuLac. If helping you piss out your poison over that Saint-Germain bunch is what it’s going to take, then yeah, I suppose I’m in, dammit. But it’s a tricky proposition, I say, tangling with one as highly connected as Bishop Saint-Germain. We could pay dearly if things get crossed, you know!”

Satisfied by this response, DuLac nodded. “Very well then. It’s agreed, huh? One way or another, whatever unfolds, we’ll undo Bishop Saint-Germain, his brother... and the Danes. Aye... they’re never to set eyes in Jerusalem.”

Chapter Six

Tristan’s Lament

From infancy through adolescence, the malleable young brain is exposed to a ceaseless assault of ideas, values, and indoctrination– from elders. Ostensibly, such teaching infused by parents, teachers, and mentors is for the benfit of the learner. Yet, it often happens with teaching values that less altruistic motivations come into play, in particular when it is a powerful institution controlling the flow of information and instruction– as was the case with the Roman Catholic Church during the Eleventh Century. Church teaching was inflexible, dogmatic, and unforgiving, centering on two concepts: the morbid, eternal suffering awaiting those bound for the fires of Hell, and the narrow path of salvation that had to be followed to gain the eternal rewards of Heaven.

Ethics aside, such rigid teaching during this era of heightened ignorance and violence accomplished several objectives. To begin, it maintained a certain level of order by threatening severe consequences to those who violated a firmly rooted belief system that was, in many ways, beneficial for the general good. Next, it offered hope to the miserable masses during a period of gross inequity and abuse at the hands of the privileged few.

There was also a third, darker side to the Church’s teachings– the ruthless perpetuation of its own influence and authority. This was accomplished with such effectiveness that the Church’s tentacles maintained a stranglehold over the entire landscape of Western Europe through the hammers of evangelism, fear, and military might. To disagree with or question the Church during this period was a perilous proposition, as came to be learned by even many of the most powerful lords of the continent.

Such formidable royals as William the Conqueror of Normandy, Emperor Heinrich IV of Germany, and Duke Robert Guiscard the Wily of Lower Italy took turns being damned, anathematized, or excommunicated by an aroused Church. Unable to withstand the crushing yoke of such ecclesiastical pressure, these chastised military and political giants invariably and humbly retreated back into the graces of the Vatican. In victory, the Church nearly always welcomed such errant power brokers back into the fold with... open arms– after first forcing them to perform contrition and penance, often by building new churches and monasteries, or surrendering exorbitant alms and territory.

Such being the consequences for the greatest figures of Europe, one can scarcely imagine the terrifying burden taken on by a person of lesser stature or means who happened to question the Church. Even more inconceivable would be the crushing impact of questioning the ‘Word’ by one such as Bishop Tristan de Saint-Germain, whose entire existence had been shaped, manipulated, and driven by strict, reformist Gregorian Catholic doctrine. He had begun life at the knees of his fervidly pious mother, Asta of the Danes, while being surrounded by an army of attending teacher-nuns. He was next passed along at age seven to the very nest of radical Catholic reform at the Benedictine monastery of Cluny, France amongst two hundred monks afire with spiritual zeal. More significantly, while there, he fell beneath the shadow of his future father figure, Odo de Lagery, who was serving as Grand Prior of Cluny, and also destined one day to become Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Urban II.

Considering this suffocating, stilted upbringing, it seemed unlikely that one so heavily indoctrinated could ever begin to question even the slightest aspect of Catholic doctrine. Yet, owing to ceaseless political intrigue, abusive practices, and injurious experiences with the Peasants’ Crusade, this is exactly what had been happening to Tristan de Saint-Germain despite Catholic dogma being so deeply cultivated in him throughout his years.

This nagging doubt now eating at him, inevitably, could not help but create in him an excruciating inner struggle that confused, and even terrified him. Still, the seeds of disquiet had been sown. After witnessing one injustice after another, one atrocity after another committed against Jews by Catholics, and after witnessing the massacre of Catholic Hungarians at the hands of Catholic crusaders, Tristan had begun to slide into the morass of ‘doubt.’ He revered the Church, respected its laws, and cherished its teachings… but the Peasants’ Crusade, more than anything else, had forced him to watch perversions of Church teachings being committed by those purporting to uphold them.

This led him to initiate a dissection and rethinking of all he had been taught. Owing to the superior education he had received among the Black Monks of Cluny, coupled with his own frightening intellect, he was adequately tooled to take on such an endeavor. More critically, over time, he had cultivated and absorbed an extraordinary knowledge of Catholic theology, practice, and history. In the past he had blindly accepted the Catholic catechism without plumbing its depths, but now was thirsting for a more profound understanding of it. Time, though, had given rise to suspicions that the purity of Catholic spiritualism had been contaminated by the ambition of power-brokers and the filth of politics. Worse yet, he himself had dabbled in such while rising through the Church hierarchy beneath the service of Odo de Lagery, now Pope Urban II.

This evolution from blind faith to seeded doubt, as could only be expected, extracted a toll on Tristan; like all Catholics of the era, he was simply unable to expel that ingrained fear of eternal damnation that the Church had so effectively instilled in them. In addition, he also clearly understood the crushing consequences of questioning the carved-in-granite tenants of an omnipotent Church. As with others of his rare ilk, then, he remained guarded about this creeping crisis of faith that had befallen him... and shared his thoughts with no one.

Despite his stony silence, Mala had begun to detect tiny fissures developing within the fortress of his unshakeable faith in the Church. This first came to her attention upon Tristan’s arrival to Constantinople, as he began recounting to her his tribulations during the march of the Peasants’ Crusade. Later, while he was convalescing from life-threatening wounds inflicted at Nicodemia, she sensed that Tristan’s doubts were growing yet more pronounced. During his moments of semi-consciousness she would hear him mutter strange things about Odo de Lagery, God, and the Church. At times these broken ramblings sounded like accusations, while other times they carried the tone of questions, as though asking God for answers.

Mala, believing during that dark period that she might lose Tristan at any moment, had refused to leave his side during the day, and had even taken to sleeping at the edge of his bed throughout the night. As his bouts of unconsciousness began to dissipate and he began to heal, at night she moved to an adjacent room. It was during this particular stage of Tristan’s convalescence that he dropped into periodical troughs of melancholia, clinging to her in a manner that he would have never dared do before lying on death’s doorstep, while staring beseechingly into her eyes for extended moments. This he did even in the presence of others, which surprised her; it had always been Tristan’s habit to carefully guard his feelings about her in public, and he became adamant about maintaining an ‘appropriate’ distance.

As his injuries finally healed, his color returned, as did his smile. But the smile was not the smile of before; it was more subdued, held more in check– as though something was missing. Another thing, too, began to happen. While in the midst of conversation with her, his gaze would wander off at times and he would begin whispering things about ‘their son… their farm…their animals’… speaking as though he and Mala were married. This went on for weeks, and though Mala reveled in the warmth of such pronouncements, Tristan’s moments of disconnectedness also caused her to fret. Regardless, Mala had never felt closer to him, and hoped that his escalating tenderness toward her would never slip away– though in her heart she knew all things fell to the wayside with time.

Through all this, however, Mala’s greatest concern remained the approaching arrival of Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy. Once he and the Christian armies of Pope Urban II made Constantinople, Tristan would be following them into Turkish territory and war. God only knows, she worried, how that could end.

Nudged by this fear, she treated each day with Tristan as a gift, reveling in his company. She especially enjoyed the day of Emperor Alexius’ celebration feast as Tristan led her about on his arm, charming all he encountered while heaping her with attention and flattery. She had never wanted that night to end… but it did, finally, and she and Tristan were among the last to leave the Imperial Palace that evening. As her coach delivered them back to her palace over the harbor, Tristan seemed to be in an unusually light mood, slurring his speech the least bit due to the uncustomary amount of wine he had consumed. He was even breaking, from time to time, into boyish bursts of teasing.

“To bed you go! You’re becoming impossible!” Mala laughed, dragging him to his room.

“Will you not sleep with me tonight?” he sniggered, poking at her before throwing himself onto the bed.

“Oh my, but you have had too much wine, my dear,” scolded Mala, poking him back. “And we both know that wine simply doesn’t suit you. But no, I’ll not be caught in your bed. Your brother and the Danes are just down the corridor. The Danes would say nothing, but you know how Guillaume is about such things... especially since you’re a high cleric!”

“Ah, but you made love to me on the beach of Bithynia across the Straight!” Tristan objected, beginning to feel the room spin. “And you slept in my bed for over a month during my recovery as–”

“Ah, no.... I slept on the edge of your bed, my dear,” Mala corrected. “And you were unconscious much of the time, as I recall. As to that night on the beach, yes... mea culpa... I am guilty.”

His head fell back onto the bed then, and though it was full of wine, a wistful look slipped into his tired eyes. “Ah, yes... that night in the dunes by Nicodemia, Mala.” he said, his thoughts drifting back. “I found you again that night, after all these years… and you found me.”

“Yes, I remember,” Mala said, touching his forehead with her own. “Indeed, after all those agonizing years– we found each other.”

They had made love that night in the dunes of Nicodemia, for hours. It was the first time they had lost themselves to the carnality of their passion since their youthful and fateful tryst in Marseilles ten years earlier. In the light of that Nicodemia October moon, alone amongst the dunes, they had finally shut out the entire world and once again lost themselves in each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

But she departed for Constantinople that next day. Then the Turks attacked.

“I want you, Mala,” Tristan said, his eyes rolling about aimlessly as the room continued to turn, making him ill. “I want you to be my… w-i-f-e.”

This gave Mala a start. Sitting erect, she gazed down at him, her heart afire. Though these words were something she had ached to hear again since Marseilles ten years earlier, she knew they were vacant... and impossible. Still, the words pleased her. She started to give a reply, but to her disappointment, she saw that Tristan’s eyes were closed. The wine had put him out, and he was sound asleep.

Reaching down, she took his limp hand in hers and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Oh, if only you knew how happy I am this very moment, smart boy,” she whispered. Then, as she sat staring at him for several long moments, time seemed to melt away and she again saw within his face the boy of seven who had first captured her affections along the banks of the Seine so long ago. This caused her breath to catch, and a vaporous sadness overcame her for some reason... which in turn caused her to drag the covers over him and withdraw to her own room.

Two hours later she bolted awake, hearing Tristan wailing her name in the night, as though something hideous had happened. Throwing a mantle over herself, she ran to his room and found him sitting up, only half awake, reaching and groping about in a fit of bewilderment. “Where are you!?” he was shouting. “Where did you go? Come back!”

“Tristan! What is it?” she asked, frightened. “What’s wrong?”

Closing his eyes, he rolled his head about his shoulders, then ran a palm over his forehead, breathing heavily. “It was but… a dream,” he mumbled, confused. “But so real, Mala, so very real. You and I were there at the bottom of the mountain at Canossa... at our farm with the boy.”

“The boy?” said Mala, her face contracting. “Our lost son?”

Tristan shuddered, nodding yes before continuing. “I was just reaching to embrace him. He was just there, inches away, laughing and reaching for my hand– but then it all turned black, and just disappeared. I didn’t believe it was a dream. When I awoke and found myself alone here, I thought that was the dream. A nightmare… where everything was stripped away and just taken from me again.” Reaching over, he embraced her tightly, his head dropping onto her shoulder. “I am collapsing, I fear, Mala... from within. Everything is coming at me all at once since the peasants’ march and the massacre across the Straight. Aye, and it seems I can no longer hold myself up.”

Indeed, the brutality of that bloody day had turned Tristan on his head. Although he had in earlier years skirted the horrors of war by studying it, scheming it, and even strategizing it, the massacre of the Peasants’ Crusade was the first time he had been caught within it, run down by the enemy, or forced to witness first-hand the butchery put into motion in the wake of a complete military rout. His dearest friend, Jurgen Handel, had been delimbed before his very eyes, and Tristan also witnessed the horror of Innocenzo’s undoing– his entire back sliced bare to the vertebrae by a Turkish saber. Moreover, his own deep wounds had nearly proven fatal, as he for weeks slipped in and out of consciousness, his mind drowning in disconnected thoughts and images brought on by that nether world of near-death.

Truly, there is no lesson as enduring as that salient, frightening lesson taught at the doorstep of extinction. Of all experiences in life, that lesson alone pierces human consciousness to the very marrow, stripping away all that is superfluous and gratuitous in life. Indeed, as the spectre of annihilation raises its grim, stark face, all else melts within its cold gaze as reality and truth suddenly take on new meaning... and new direction.

“Oh, Tristan, yes,” Mala whispered. “You’ve endured so much since leaving Rome, and seen such horrors committed by the Peasants’ Crusade along the way. Then your enemies tried to hang you in Civetot while accusing you of horrible lies. And you were nearly killed at the gates of Nicodemia. But you’re here now, with me!”

Tristan exhaled deeply, setting his hands in his lap as defeat filled his expression. “H-Handel...” he said.

“Handel?” said Mala. “Jurgen Handel?”

“Yes, Mala... oh, but how I miss my dear friend, Jurgen Handel.”

“But what brings him to mind at this moment, Tristan?”

“My confusion, I suppose,” Tristan shrugged, sitting erect though his head lolled low. “He has been coming to me, of late.” At this, Tristan’s raised his eyes, offering Mala a vacant gaze, as when one’s mind has slipped into the past. “Since my youth I have always sought someone to be my light, to guide me… my mother, the Black Monks, Odo de Lagery, Aunt Mathilda. But the real light was placed right before me on the day I met Jurgen Handel. Yes, him. He always knew what was right, and lived it. When it was time to be ruthless, he was ruthless. When it was time to be gentle, he was caring and giving. When it was time to stand up and be counted, or disagree, he was the first to speak. Such strong convictions... such a good soul.”

“Yes, I know, Tristan. It was Handel who found Duxia and I freezing to death atop that pass in the Alps and saved us, transporting us to Italy while also nursing us back to health. He was tough as rock, but possessed a gentle heart.”

“Oh, but curse of the faithful,” Tristan winced. “How could God thus forsake his most loyal shepherd? Poor Handel, so horribly mutilated in the end, cut to shreds, his arm severed. Why would God take Handel in such gruesome fashion, knowing that Handel was trying to save the women and children of the Hermit’s march? Also knowing that Handel so strongly opposed the crusade in the first place? And of all people on this earth– it was me who swayed Odo in the end to take on this crusade... which led to Handel’s death!”

Mala shook her head. “There’s no answer to such things, Tristan... so you must let them rest.”

“Handel saw clearly at the very end, you know. As he was dying, talking about his work for the Church, his final words were, ‘It was all false, so very false.’ And yet, despite all the good he did in this life, he feared the fires of Hell at the end. How is that possible, Mala?”

Mala offered no answer, but only cradled Tristan’s head onto her shoulder, stroking the nape of his neck.

“And poor, pitiful Innocenzo, also butchered,” continued Tristan, growing more disordered with each word. “A lost lamb, unknowing and afraid, helplessly caught in a world of savage predators! And he, too, feared the fires of Hell as he took his last breath in this life, though he never caused injury to others. No, it is us in the Church manufacturing injury, Mala!”

“Shh, Tristan,” Mala urged, seeing that the more he said, the more inflamed he was becoming. “You’re just upset and tired– and you had too much to drink at the Imperial Palace.”

Tristan shook his head. “I drank because I begin to fathom more and more the things you have been saying all these years. I am not the free thinker I have so adamantly claimed to be... and never was. I was never allowed to think anything but the Church– because of my mother, the Black Monks, Odo de Lagery, Aunt Mathilda of Tuscany, the College of Cardinals. I was entombed as a child within the catacombs of dogma by an endless line of good but over-zealous spiritualists! They bred me in their image, and in the end... to be their instrument, Mala, just as you insisted years ago. They were not advancing me...only perpetuating their own view of Catholicism. And like the anxious hound seeking the stroke of the master’s hand, I advanced this monstrosity of a crusade, preaching it, recruiting for it!” As he continued to speak, his volume increased by degrees. “What cripples me now is that I feel nothing but loss surrounding my life: the loss of my mother when I was a child, the loss of innocence working for the Benedictine Underground, my loss of you in Marseilles, the loss of our son in the Alps, the loss of my mother yet again after leaving Canossa... and now the unsettling of everything I have believed in my entire life. A heavy burden, Mala, and it is crushing me.”

“We have each other, Tristan,” said Mala, pulling him nearer. “That’s all I care about. It’s all I’ve ever cared about... since we were children.”

Tristan looked at her, remorse filling his face. “Oh, such a fool I have been, Mala… and the cause of such misery for you– loneliness, anguish... the Alps and the loss of our child... your marriage to Balducci. You called to me time and time again, but I closed my ears and heart, turning away in favor of what others had drilled into my brain. Yet, you never gave up, and your love remained. I realize now that you are my destiny, not the Church. It has, despite sanctimonious claims of reform and righteousness, turned false… just as Handel said in his final words.”

Mala was unprepared to hear such talk from Tristan. Enclosing his cheeks with the flat of her palms, she slowly shook her head, staring into his eyes. “Tristan, stop! You must never, ever breathe a word of what you’ve been saying tonight, to anyone. Not Guillaume, not the Danes, not Emperor Alexius, and especially not Bishop Adhémar or his knights when they arrive.”

“But do you not see? My fog is lifting, finally.”

Mala shook her head. “Perhaps so, Tristan… but you’re speaking blasphemy at a time when Christendom stands at the edge of holy war against Islam. There’ll be no mercy from the Church, nor even from your beloved Odo de Lagery. They’ve invested far too much in you over these long years, Tristan! You now represent too much for them to surrender you. You’ve become a symbol of the Vatican itself. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Mala, I no longer have any heart for this crusade. Half of my will collapsed during the horrors of the Peasants’ Crusade, and the other half with the final words of Jurgen Handel as he departed this earth.”

“Tristan, hear me,” Mala insisted, her tone edging toward supplication. “If you fail to listen to me, then you’ll be torn from me yet again. Oh, but don’t martyr yourself for the sake of some foolish sense of truth or integrity that means so little to the world! Should anything ever happen to you, I’ve no reason to live. I beg you, no matter how strong the pull to speak out, keep these things to yourself. Circumstances don’t allow for the truth, especially now as the Christian armies begin to arrive by the tens of thousands to invade the Turkish Empire. Oh, I beg it, Tristan. Swear that you’ll hold your tongue, Tristan– on my life! When this war is over, win or lose, there may be a chance for us… but until then, suppress your disillusionment. Do what’s expected of you. Otherwise, you set us both afire! Should anything ever happen to you, then there is nothing more for me in this life.”

As Tristan listened, the weight of her words caused an image to arise in his head– the small farm back in Italy sitting alongside the brook at the foot of the mountain near Canossa. He also thought, for a flickering instant, to hear the faint sound of infantile laughter lifting from nowhere. “Yes... Mala,” he said, drawing out his answer, “I know you are right. But then, in the name of God... what am I to do? Don a false face? Become a wooden figure-head?”

“No... just hold your tongue,” Mala replied. Then silence fell between the two, as each slipped into reflection. “And there is another reason to take care,” Mala finally said, taking his hand, placing it over her belly. “Tristan, you asked earlier tonight whether I remembered the dunes in Bithynia where we made love.” She started to continue, but her voice broke off .

“Yes?” said Tristan, waiting for her to say more. But she sat there quietly, conveying an odd gaze, one that was altogether unfamiliar to him. “Well then,” he shrugged, “what is it?”

Tilting her head a measure, she said, “You’ve been restless with dreams about that tiny cottage back in Canossa at the foot of the mountain… like tonight before you awoke with such a start. You were there again, with our lost son.” She started to say more, but again hesitated.

“Yes?” Tristan urged.

“Our night in the dunes, Tristan, was three months ago,” she nodded, her strange gaze slowly evolving into a controlled, but wry smile. Then, moving his hand in circles about her belly, she said, “I am going to have a baby, Tristan... and if dreams truly do herald the future, it will be the son you have been calling to throughout your long convalescence after the massacre at Civetot.”

Chapter Seven

Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy and Count Raymond of Toulouse

In laying out his strategy for his holy war against Islam in the East, Pope Urban’s greatest challenge was to carefully select a leader of the crusade. Knowing that the Christian knights of the continent were arrogant, violent, and self-willed, he determined first that if he had any hope of maintaining control over them, he would have to collar them... with the cross. In other words, a renowned religious figurehead loyal to the Vatican was required– not a military man but a respected, highly visible and acclaimed cleric was needed, one who could sanctify the coming bloodshed beneath the aura of spirituality while simultaneously corraling the rowdy egos of Christian knighthood.

After much consideration, Pope Urban found his ideal spiritual shepherd in the figure of Adhémar of Le Puy, a cleric of high repute who for the past twenty years had been serving as bishop of the Auverge region in France. Born of the noble bloodline of the counts of Valentinois, Adhémar was a staunch, moralistic reform-papist who was highly regarded throughout France. More importantly, his blind loyalty to Pope Urban aside, he was an ally and intimate associate of southeastern France’s most wealthy and powerful secular leader, Count Raymond of Toulouse.

Though little historical evidence remains of private negotiations between Pope Urban and Bishop Adhémar as concerns his appointment to crusade leadership, it is most certain that such negotiations did occur. It is equally certain that these talks took place well before Adhémar’s dramatic unveiling to Christendom at Clermont France on November 27 of 1095 when Pope Urban made his incendiary plea for the knights of Europe to take up arms against Islam.

At the moment the Pope stepped back from the lectern after finishing this historical address to the mobs that fateful day, a hue and cry arose amongst the ten thousand Frankish knights in attendance as, passionately, they began to beat their shields with swords, crying out in unison, “Dieu le veut! God wills it!” Others within the crowd fell to their knees in prayer, their eyes filling with tears, while yet others were seized with evangelical fever– shouting God’s praise, dancing about in fits of joy and celebration. It was a mad moment of pure mob emotion, and was about to be further fueled by an act of pre-planned theatrics.

As Urban issued his final words, unleashing bedlam amongst the attending horde, Bishop Adhémar boldly stepped forward, his figure falling beneath Urban’s tall shadow. Smiling, reverently taking a knee, Adhémar then loudly begged the Pope’s permission to make the crusading journey to Jerusalem. This further incited the crowd, and in the midst of their wild clamor, Pope Urban blessed the unhesitating, ever faithful Adhémar with the sign of the cross and an embrace.

One day later he anointed Adhémar as leader of the Holy Crusade, ultimately declaring that ‘all knights and men-of-arms going to war shall heed Adémar’s commands as though they had come from the very mouth of the Pope himself.’

Prior to his speech at Clermont, Pope Urban had also approached a second important figure, the powerful Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse. Urban had no intention of giving Raymond full military command of the crusade, yet desperately sought the count’s enormous wealth and military resources to strengthen the Christian cause. Urban wanted and needed Raymond despite the glaring fact that Raymond had twice earlier been excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII; by the 1080’s, the repentant Raymond had returned to the Vatican’s fold, becoming an ardent supporter of Gregory’s reform movement, as well as an avowed ‘fidelis beati Petri.’

Raymond was in his sixties, proud, self-possessed, obdurate. Moreover, he was experienced in war, had led major military campaigns, and had battled the Moors of Iberia during the 1080’s where it was said he lost his eye; Raymond later claimed that he had actually lost the eye to the Turks during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem for refusing to pay the offensive pilgrim tax they extracted from Christians visiting the Holy City of Jerusalem. Regardless of which version of the story was factual, he kept the defunct eye on his person at all times as a ‘testament to his personal suffering and love for God.’ So proud was he of this second account, true or not, he carried the defunct eye in the pocket of his gambeson... and such as it was, now shriveled and desiccated, he would pull it out from time to time as proof of his tenacity, bravura and love of God. This, of course, drew sanctified ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ of which Raymond never seemed to tire.

Raymond had actually failed to attend the Council of Clermont to listen to Pope Urban’s call to arms against Islam, but the day after the Pope’s speech, Raymond’s ambassadors arrived in Clermont to pledge full support and participation in the campaign. Although unsubstantiated, it is believed that Count Raymond had in truth boycotted Urban’s speech, feeling slighted at not being chosen as the military leader of the crusade. He and Bishop Adhémar, as intimate friends, had discussed joining the holy war before the Council of Clermont as a two-man package, thinking Pope Urban would select Adhémar as spiritual leader while Raymond would be appointed military leader.

But Urban stubbornly refused to give Raymond any such appointment, suspecting that such a move would cause resentment among competing crusader lords from France, Germany, and Italy. It is also most probable that Urban assumed that Emperor Alexius would actually take military command of the war expedition once the Latin crusaders arrived in Byzantium. In the end, his intimate friendship with Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy aside, Raymond very much coveted the position of military commander-in-chief of the crusade, and was embittered by what he interpreted as Pope Urban’s snub.

The Pope’s original muster date for the French knights was set for August 15 of 1096, nine months after his speech at Clermont. This failed to materialize, however, as the major Frankish crusaders required far more time to gather resources and settle their affairs in preparation for a long absence from their feudal estates. Subsequently, it was not until February (1097) that the vast crusader train of Bishop Adhémar and Count Raymond of Toulouse made their way through France to Italy, finally gaining the Via Egnati, the road to Constantinople constructed by the Romans in the 2nd Century BC.

Starting at Dyrrachium along the Adriatic Sea, this road followed an arduous path along the Genusus River and over the Candviae Mountains toward the highlands of Lake Ohrid. Turning south following a chain of steep mountain passes, it then meandered to the northern coastline of the Aegean Sea, ran through Thrace, and led to Constantinople. Like other primary Roman roads, it was six meters wide (19.6 ft.) and was covered by large polygonal slabs of stone, or in places, a hard layer of sand.

As Adhémar and Raymond slowly worked their way to Byzantium, behind them their vast army stretched for over a mile, winding around mountains and valleys– likened by many to ‘some monstrous serpent slithering across the landscape, its endless endless train disappearing far back into the endless distance.’

“Tis a hell of a lot tougher, this trip, than I’d expected,” complained Raymond, whose age had begun to make him prone to bouts of illness and aching of the bones.

“Aye,” agreed Adhémar, “that and the fact we’re not so young anymore, my old friend. But as we endure, never lose sight that we are doing God’s holy work– and shall be most glad of it in the next life! And bless you, Raymond, for your grand generosity before leaving dear France.”

Adhémar was referring to the massive donation Raymond had surrendered to the Cathedral of Le Puy before their departure. He had done this to secure the intercession of the Virgin Mary, in exchange for which a candle was lit before her statue; once extinguished, that candle would be replaced by another, on and on for the remainder of his natural life. An exchange of this nature could well be interpreted as beyond mercenary on the part of the Church, yet such was not uncommon during the era. More significantly, in the end, it was often the nobleman, not the Church, who seemed to derive the highest level of satisfaction from such a bargain.

As with many Medieval lords of advanced age, God had been coming to mind far more frequently for Raymond than in times past, as had concerns of the eternal hereafter. “Ah, yes,” he replied, nodding at Adhémar, “generosity happily given... for the redemption of my past crimes and those of my parents, as well as for the love and honor of Saint Gilles whom I’ve frequently offended by many kinds of injuries. But this crusade shall be my living act of contrition, Adhémar. Though I’ve sinned grievously in years gone by, I now heartily seek the Lord’s favor… and holy redemption.”

Like so many crusaders embracing the Christian cause, Raymond had made earnest efforts to clear his conscience before donning the scarlet cross and setting out on this sacred expedition to the Holy Land. Of course, the Church greatly benefitted from this rush of conscience-cleansing fever by crusading nobles, and soon found itself buried in silver marks, alms, and donations. This wave of penitent desperation had also caused many crusading noblemen to settle long-standing disputes with their local religious communities by disposing of a vast array of property in exchange for blessings, hard cash, or equipment.

Capitalizing on this gold mine, many religious houses seized the opportunity to sweep up mortgages on crusader estates for mere fractions of their value. Oddly, any anger on the part of fleeced nobles was not directed at the Church, but reserved for Jews who also were engaging in rapacious financing– but in the form of loans and/or liens on feudal estates, not spiritual favor; ecclesiastic law mandated that usury by Christians was criminal, but no such law existed amongst Jews.

“As you know, Raymond,” commented Adhémar, “the Day of the Last Judgment is prophesized, and now quickly approaches. How fortunate then that this crusade provides us the chance to purify our souls before standing in final judgment of the Father. Good also for all these sinful knights of Europe who wish to atone for their years of bloodletting, butchery, and greed. It’s as though God has opened a door to Europe’s most sinful hordes at the final hour!”

“And I’m ever grateful for it,” nodded Raymond, who despite his years, immense wealth, and high stature in life, was now sacrificing a made-life, abandoning it to perform an act of penance half a world away.

As had become the custom with those joining the crusade, Raymond had taken the cross in a spontaneous, emotionally-charged ritual. Later, in a secondary, more formal ceremony at the Cathedral of Le Puy, he was bequeathed his staff and purse, symbols of the pilgrim. That had been, despite the glorious fanfare of his colorful career, his proudest moment in life.

“Still, Adhémar,” he continued, shaking his head with disappointment, “I’m perturbed Pope Urban continues to reject me as commander-in-chief of the march. I have the experience, a capacious treasury, and the personal will, dammit.”

“Oh, but put this nagging thing behind you, Raymond,” sighed Adhémar, knowing how deeply the Pope’s rebuke had wounded his friend. “Besides... Urban told me that, in reality, you will be looked upon by the other crusaders as the de facto military leader of this campaign.”

“Ha, I won’t swallow that knot of gristle! Bohemud of Taranto and Robert of Normandy deferring to me? Or Godfrey of Bouillon? Hell, had Pope Urban anointed me with holy oil and pronounced my appointment, perhaps– but without his official blessing I’m just another goddamned general.” His face drew up in a knot then, and he spat. “Coins of Judas, Adhémar! Who in Hell ever heard of an army as big as this coming together from all over Europe without a designated military commander? Chrissakes! This is just the sort of horseshit that piles up when clerics and politicians stick their fingers in war. Urban may be Pope, but he doesn’t know a pissing thing about conducting warfare or leading troops!”

“Now, now,” chided Adhémar, knowing Raymond’s wound would continue to be an issue throughout the crusade. “What’s done is done, so let’s concern ourselves only about the future. God shall recognize your efforts, Raymond, and reward you for them.”

But Raymond was extremely proud, and this pride had been deeply pierced by Urban’s slight. “I mean it!” he continued to complain, beginning to cough; the long weeks on the road maneuvering the Alps and now the eastern mountains had filled his chest with mucus. “Politics and war simply don’t mix. Take the Pope’s stand with King Philippe of France, for example. Philippe was enthusiastic about joining the crusade, but Urban and his bishops excommunicated the man just because he fell in love with Bertrada of Montfort!”

“Oh, but damnation on King Philippe!” objected Adhémar, bridling at Raymond’s comment. “Bertrada was already married! To the powerful magnate Fulk, Count of Anjou! It was a scandal of international scope, not to mention that in order to bed Bertrada, Philippe abandoned his wife, the queen of France. On God’s honor, surely you don’t approve of such blatant lechery and bigamy?!”

Raymond hesitated. “Well, not completely,” he waffled. “But dammit, Adhémar, war calls for exceptions at times. Chrissakes, can you imagine the manpower and weaponry King Philippe could have fielded to help us take down the Turk? But Urban won’t allow his participation in this thing just because of a little philandering? God in Heaven, Adhémar! Is the Vatican’s issue with Bertrada’s pussy really that important? Dammit, in matters as great as God and war, I shudder to think that decisions are made based on a woman’s crack... and at a time as critical as now.”

“Especially at a time as critical as now!” snapped Adhémar with certainty. “This is God’s war, Raymond, and His warriors must be pure. He would not abide a lecher or a bigamist representing Him in battle, especially against dark, immoral heathens like the Turks!”

This response held water in Adhémar’s mind, as it would in the minds of any Gregorian reform cleric. Yet, in light of the fact that just moments before Adhémar had been citing the horribly sinful acts of the European knights now taking the cross, it would seem that he might see that his current argument was riddled with holes. But no. The inflexible certainty of righteous moralism does not tolerate questioning, so Adhémar saw no flaws in his stand, nor room for disagreement. “Morality is the very foundation upon which saintly Pope Gregory cleansed the filthy stables of a declining Church, Raymond,” he pontificated, “beginning with the mandate that celibacy and chastity must be adhered to by monks and priests!”

“But Philippe is neither monk nor priest,” insisted Raymond, shaking his head.

“No, but he’s a king,” Adhémar fired back, his cheeks gaining color. “And kings, just like monks and priests, must set the highest of standards. Aye, they must lead by personal example. Philippe has no business parading a harlot about on his arm before the entire world while abandoning his legitimate wife!” He then muttered a few more things to himself in agitation while Raymond privately admonished himself for bringing up the topic of the French king. “Indeed,” Adhémar huffed, “shame on you, Raymond, for even considering the participation of King Philippe in this holiest of campaigns, for sins of the flesh are a cardinal offense against God!”

Chapter Eight

The Other Armies of Pope Urban II

In addition to Raymond of Toulouse and his army from Southern France, there were three other major armies making their way to Constantinople, plus many smaller factions. The first of these major armies was the Northern French force coalescing beneath the combined leadership of Robert Curthose who was the Duke of Normandy, his brother-in-law, Count Stephen of Blois, and his cousin, Robert II, Count of Flanders. Related by blood, this particular trio of crusading noblemen was tightly knit, and together fielded an impressive military force.

Duke Robert of Normandy was the eldest son of deceased William the Conqueror, and brother to William Rufus, king of England. Though Robert of Normandy had commanded large armies and partaken in many military campaigns, he was genial by nature for the most part, and had actually earned somewhat of a reputation for indolence. He also happened to be rather ineffective in governing and administering his realm, and was tiring of the constant turmoil surrounding its defense against both his brother in England and rebellious vassals at home. Some even claimed that Robert’s primary motivation for taking to the crusade was to escape the tribulations of governance. This is questionable, however; unlike certain crusaders, Robert of Normandy had always voiced full intentions of returning to Europe after the crusade.

Stephen of Blois, Robert’s brother-in-law, was one of the wealthiest nobles of France while also having married one of the most renowned women of the age, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror. Being that Stephen was prospering, married to a fine woman twenty years his junior, and had done nothing especially sinful that required expiation of sins, it seemed curious that he would agree to take on the difficulties of the Pope’s crusade. More curious yet were the facts that he was not reputed to be especially pious, nor did he possess a bounty of military experience. Thus, it may well be that he simply sought adventure, or wished to revel in the fraternal company of the two men he most revered in life. In any case, his intentions were never really made clear.

As for Robert II of Flanders, he was following the example of his sadistic father and namesake who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy City some years earlier to atone for years and years of confessed brutality and greed. During that pilgrimage, it happened that his father had actually spent time in Constantinople, developing there an aimiable relationship with Emperor Alexius; later, he had even provided Alexius 500 knights, at great expense, to help defend Byzantium against the encroaching Turks.

The armies of these three Northern French noblemen departed in autumn of 1096, crossed the Alps, and traveled through Italy where they met Pope Urban in the city of Lucca toward the end of October. Their intention was to attain the southern tip of the Italian peninsula and cross the Adriatic Sea by ship. By the time they actually reached the southern tip, however, they were advised that it was ‘too late in the season to make a safe passage across the Adriatic.’ Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois, being in no apparent hurry, elected to sit out the winter there and wait until spring to cross the Adriatic. With great wealth at their disposal, they lived quite comfortably during this long sojourn– while leaving those of lesser means to their own devices.

Fighting discouragement and fearing privation, many of those who could not afford such a lengthy lay-over ended by selling their weapons to finance the journey back to France. Robert of Flanders, however, spurred by impatience, simply refused to wait out the winter. Deciding to chance the violent winter seas, he disregarded all warnings and crossed the Adriatic with men and equipment. Fortune smiled, and he arrived safely.

It was early April of 1097, half a year later, when Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois finally began placing their forces aboard ships at the port of Brandisi. But disaster ensued as the first ship to set sail mysteriously ‘cracked through the middle for no apparent reason’ and quickly sank, drowning over four hundred crusaders.

This catastrophe caused a great stir amongst those still in port, disheartening many while terrifying others into interpreting the mishap as a foreboding omen of things to come. According to the written account of Fulcher of Chartres, ‘many faint hearted who had not yet embarked returned to their homes, giving up the pilgrimage and saying that never again would they entrust themselves to the treacherous sea.’ Most remained despite the downing of the first ship, and four days later they departed Brandisi in favorable winds, completing the crossing to the Byzantine port of Durazzo with no further incident. Landing intact, they began their march toward the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

In addition to the Southern Frankish force of Count Raymond of Toulouse and the Northern Frankish force of Duke Robert of Normandy, a third crusader army hailed from Lotharingia and Germany beneath the banner of Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, who was accompanied by his brother, Baldwin of Boulogne. Godfrey of Bouillon was a rather curious case, and his enlistment in Pope Urban’s crusade came as quite a surprise to many. As a fierce opponent of Church reform and Church independence from the German Crown, he had actually fought against both Pope Gregory and Pope Urban during the Investiture War. Staunchly allying himself to King Heinrich IV of Germany during that war, Godfrey had even slain one of the Gregorian Vatican’s champions, Rudolph of Swabia, and had also taken part in the siege of Rome.

Godfrey was a shade taller than the average man, strong beyond compare, and solidly framed with pleasing features and medium blond hair and beard. He was nearing forty and claimed lineage back to the great Emperor Charlemagne. His namesake was his beloved but childless uncle, Godfrey the Hunchback, the estranged husband of Countess Mathilda Medici of Tuscany.

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