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The Pilgrimage: A Novel

This is an abandoned first draft of a novel that I'm in the process of writing -- this effort was abandoned in favor of a more conventional style. However, never one to let a lot of effort go completely to waste, I present it here for your perusal.  It's a long old file so, if your interested in reading it, you may be better off printing it out! If you have any comments, follow the 'About this Site' link.
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Chapter 1

What can you see?

A wide path, pressed out of the dry undergrowth by the passage of innumerable feet, stretched along a broad valley and overhung with tall, leafy trees. The trees themselves are our guide, carved deeply with the mark of the cross by the pathfinders who travelled before us to find the way through this deserted land to Nikiea, the city that, with God’s grace, we will conquer.

Ahead, the horses and men are dappled with splashes of brilliance by the sunlight that pierces the canopy, but the sunlight cannot pierce the sombre mood which cloaks us and weighs ever more heavily upon us as we approach our goal. Everybody is watchful for the sudden attack that may swoop from each rocky outcrop we pass, although we trust in God and our scouts who travel along the ridges on either side to watch over us and to protect from the pagans.

My Lord Baldwin of Boulogne rides ahead, surrounded by his loyal knights and noble comrades, with his proud banner flying from the staves carried by his retainers. Although I am merely one of his humble chaplains, I have been granted by God’s favour the chance to ride in train of this great man and carry the standards of our Father in His name.

Wait... there is a commotion among those ahead of me as they pass from the woods into the white sunshine of an open clearing.

I spur my horse and ride up to see what is in the clearing that is causing the men of my Lord’s retinue to cross themselves stare with fear and horror before, in turn, spurring their horses onwards and across the clearing. I, now, have reached the clearing and broken into the harsh, cold light that forces me to shield my eyes before looking around to see... dear God! The bones of the dead lay strewn across the field, some of the skeletons dismembered by the ravages of wild animals but most left to lay on the ground at the place where their holy spirit had fled them. I, too, cross myself at this fearful sight but I cannot pass these bodies by.

Instead, I dismount and lead my horse over to a patch of bare earth upon which lie the bleached bones of several people. There are the remains of three people here, one of whom, who must have been a young child of no more than six or seven, lies cradled in the arms of another. The skulls of each of them have been smashed open. They have not been here long, for though the flesh has dissipated their clothes still remain and upon their clothes is stitched the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, the symbol signifying that in their dying breaths the Lord had granted them full absolution of their sins. These people were pilgrims.

*********************

Tell me about the dead

Gerald was a strong man, broad too, you know, and always cracking jokes and never acting too serious. Everyone liked him, I think, especially the ladies! I suppose you could call him the leader of the group who left our village although, you know, we didn’t have no leader but Walter and we were all equal under God, of course. His wife, Margaret, and mine, Maude, had known each other all their lives, like sisters, and so me and Gerald, each of us without brothers of our own, came to be like brothers to each other. Gerald was the one who kept us going on the march, through all those godforsaken places, forests and mountains, you know, with the people that lived there who couldn’t even speak our language and wouldn’t sell us any food and so the hunger really started to set in.

There were so many of us on the pilgrimage by then, of course, that we could do whatever we liked, and so we took the corn from their fields and rounded up their cattle – but we left them in peace because they made the sign of the cross and so we knew they were Christians.

It really hurt Gerald when Margaret died. She’d been sick for some time, of course, but Maude looked after her as good as she knew how and we knew that, God willing, Margaret would recover. She was still very weak when we had to cross that river, you know, in the plain where the air was filled with blossom, and Gerald tried to hold onto her but she slipped and fell and was swept away. We looked for on the banks, of course, but never even found her body. Gerald changed from then. He didn’t laugh no more, everywhere he went he had his sword in one hand and pouch full of blossom in the other.

Gerald was killed in the ambush. When we marched out from the camp, people were singing, banging drums and playing trumpets, everybody was relieved that at last we were going to conquer Nikiea. Me and Gerald, Dave, Bob and Bill were the only men from our village that were left by then, and we were right up near the front of the army. We went along the path as it came out from the trees in the valley and into the plain. Suddenly, there were drums beating that weren’t our own, and the plain was full of Turks on horses galloping towards us.

Everybody panicked. People were running everywhere, throwing away their swords and anything else that might slow them down. Some people tried to fight – Gerald did. I think that, deep down, he didn’t really want to live anymore and so he stood there with his sword and his pouch as the rest of us ran. I tried to stand with him, but then he got an arrow through his throat and dropped down dead, and so I ran as well.

Dave was a pigherd. He looked after the pigs of his own and those of the other villagers and, of course, Lord Fountleroy’s. Dave was as unselfish a man as you ever met, never had a bad word to say about anyone, just kept himself to himself, you know. He was cut down as we ran back through the valley chased by the Turks. I saw the Turk that killed him, I looked straight into his black eyes as he came for me but then I dived to the floor at the last moment and when he swung his sword he hit Dave instead and I saw Dave’s head, half cut-away from his neck, flop forward before he fell.

Then I was up and running again. I was sick with fear, everywhere there were dead and half dead people, the screams of the dying and the shouts of the Turks which sent me half crazy so that all I could think was hiding somewhere, anywhere to get away from those dreadful sounds. Bob and Bill kept on going back to the camp, they went to try to save their families but I could hear the pounding drums and bloodcurdling shouts from in front of us and behind us and I fled up the sides of the valley and ran like a blind, mad pig fleeing the butchers knife and, puking and bleating, I got away.

Maude was in the camp when the Turks got there and began their slaughter. My sweet Maude, every time I think of her I just feel shame and misery. We had been together for so long and I had loved her for so long and we were partners, man and wife. We made this pilgrimage together because we knew that we were old and we wanted to be together in the Holy land when we died. We had nothing when we left except each other. She was the one that made my life worth living, but in the end I betrayed her and ran away, and now I am alive and she’s dead, and I don’t know why.

Those of us that were left made it to the ruined castle that stands by the shore, and we were rescued by the Greeks, God be praised. I went back to the campsite a couple of weeks ago, after the soldiers arrived, and tried to find her body, but there were too many lying around. I never found her or any of the others that I once knew.

God, maybe we should’ve waited for the soldiers from France, but it nobody thought that way then. Oh, we knew they were on their way, we knew that the Pope had raised a huge army which was on its way to conquer the Turks and the Saracens, but we thought that God was on our side. We didn’t need armour, or proper swords, or the Greeks, or anyone. We had God on our side, or that’s what we thought, until the ambush happened and everyone was killed.

I so now I’m sat here, by the side of the road that leads to Nikiae less than a mile away, and I watch as the Frankish armies begin their siege. The hills around are swarming with Franks, with the coming and going of great counts and dukes, instructing their men to build shelters, set up guards, dig latrines, and all the other things for a siege. I am reduced to begging for scraps, I lift me head and see two lads, a priest and a knight, talking.

They look alike, they might even be brothers. The knight has a cocky, laid back air about him. He’s doesn’t think much of the priest, you can tell by the way he keeps looking around, as if he’s trying to find a friend, or as if there’s something just over the priest’s shoulder that he’s much more interested in. The priest doesn’t notice, or he pretends not to, and he keeps talking at the knight, asking him questions, smiling, looking at his feet but the knight only ever answers in grunts. They are obviously well to do, and so I call to them.

– Any food, brother?

They turn to look at me and I notice that the priest has piercing blue eyes that burn out from beneath his thick, black eyebrows. He’s still talking to the knight, I can’t hear whatever it is he’s saying, but all of a sudden the knight breaks out into a broad smile and throws me a piece of dry hard bread. The priest looks at me curiously for a bit but the knight has already turned his back on me and walked off, so the priests darts after him and tugs at his sleeve again.

It’s god’s will that all this has happened, that’s all I can make of it. When we joined up with the all the others, nearly a year ago, it felt like the whole of Christendom was with us on our fantastic, triumphant pilgrimage. God knows, if only we’d known then what was going to happen, but we were so sure that it was God’s will, you know, that God would clear a path for us to the promised land. Instead, it was god’s will that they should all die except me.

When I try to think of why God has wrought his terrible vengeance upon us, I think of Anton. Anton was a proper soldier, the son of the lord of our little village and of all the other villages in the area, but I think his dad never really liked him and so when Anton told him the he was going to follow Walter to Jerusalem I think he was probably glad to get rid of him. Anton was a cruel man in some ways, I suppose, but a good, devout man. He helped us get together some weapons, and some food for the journey, and he knew the way to Cologne which is where Peter had told all the pilgrims to meet.

Anton died the day after we crossed over the sea into the land of the pagans. He was like a wild animal by then, mad for revenge, and so he was right at the front when we attacked one of the villages near where we crossed over. They were Christians too, like us, or so someone said, but Anton said they weren’t like any Christians he ever saw and so he killed those of them that we could find and we took everything they had. It was them that killed him. After the village had been burnt and we were about to go back to our camp, he ducked off behind some bushes for a crap and some of the villagers who were still alive must have been watching because they crept up on him and slit his throat.

How many other Christians were killed by the pilgrims along our long, hungry march? The bishops and the priests said that we were only supposed to kill the pagans, and that the Jews shouldn’t be killed either, and so a lot of us didn’t touch them, me included. Like everybody else though, I saw the Jews being killed, the ones that were left alive being beaten and their money taken from them. Maybe the bishops were right, maybe God didn’t want the Jews killed – who can tell? I don’t know, but God has spared me and the rest are dead, and everything God does has its purpose.

*********************

The walls of that famous city seem stout and strong from my vantage on this slight hill. I can see across to the lake, the Ascanian lake I think it’s called, which laps against the city walls to the west, and all the way round to the south of the city where the army of Count Raymond of Toulouse, newly arrived, is setting up camp and preparing to extend the siege to the southern city gate. The walls are strong, but surely no walls can stand against this mighty army of god which has arraigned itself against them.

All of France has been filled with holy fire against the Saracens, and men have travelled from the whole of Christendom to join in this marvellous pilgrimage. Around the northern road to the city sits the camp of the great Duke Bohemond, his multitude of Normans from Italy filling the narrow plain and taking up their positions on the low hills that surround the city. It truly is a wondrous sight – it is said that the Italic Normans furnish the fiercest, most skilful knights on God’s earth, and to look at them now, the iron of their hauberks resplendent in the oriental sun, no man could argue that there is any more powerful manifestation of God’s favour. My Lord Baldwin’s camp is just to the south of me, and beyond that the camp of his brother and benefactor Godfrey, Duke of Lower Lorraine. To the south too are stretched the camps of Robert, Count of Flanders, of Robert, Duke of Normandy, of Stephen, Count of Blois, and His Highness Hugh of Vermandois, brother of the King and the surest sign of divine favour for our enterprise.

I stand here at my ease and watch the scene forty or so yards away as my Lord Baldwin discusses plans and tactics with a knight named Tancred, who is one of Bohemond’s retinue and who has been given the command of Bohemond’s left flank. Of course, this means that Tancred’s positions and those of my Lord’s will abut, and so there are many implications which must be thought through and planned – what will happen if there is a sortie from the city, for example, and who is responsible for setting the guards on the hills around us. That sort of thing.

There really isn’t anything for me to do here though – what do I know of tactics, after all! I’m here to minister to the spiritual needs of the soldiers, and to the families of those that have brought them, and to the humbler folk too, if they want it. Sometimes I do wish though that I could take up arms against the corporeal enemies of god, to extend my struggle on God’s behalf from the inner demons that persecute men’s souls to the outer ones that persecute men’s bodies.

God has deemed that that is the role of his knights, however. Tancred has brought some of his retinue with him, proud Normans all of them, festooned with so much iron that you’d think that it grew on trees, rather than having to be transformed from the hard earth. One of them stands not far from me, he, like me, looking around over the camps of the multitude of Christians who fill the plains around the city. I call out to him,

– come up to the top, up here, you can see all the way to the lake from here!

He turns to look at me, so I wave to him, but he makes no movement nor motion and so I proceed down the slope towards him. He is every bit the warrior, tall, well-built, clad in the hooded full length chain-mail coat that is the fashion among the Normans and, as I approach, I can see that he has the straw-coloured hair and blue-grey eyes of many of his compatriots. He is a young man, maybe twenty.

– Hello, hello, how are you? I say, extending my hand in greeting. The name’s Michael,

He takes my hand in his, firmly grasping, and squeezes hard until I cry out. He laughs

– Ha! You’ll need a stronger grip than that if you’re going to make it all the way, brother!

I shake my hand ruefully. He’s very right, I will need to develop the physical strength of a fighting man if I want to travel with them. Truth be told, I had not seen many Normans before our pilgrimage reached Constantinople, but looking at this stranger before me it is apparent why they are renowned the world over as some of the strongest and bravest among the Christian folk.

– Yes, yes, but God is my strength. It’s by His will that we will conquer the heavenly city, what are we but His tools?

– Whatever. Isn’t this all just too cool though. Look along the South wall, there must be a hundred thousand of us encamped down there.

I was a little disconcerted by his impiety.

– I, too, am always profoundly grateful when the Lord deigns to grant our hopes. God truly has brought a host together here, my friend. While the good Lord smiles on us, I think that nothing will stand in our way.

– It’s a big city too.

– They say there are a hundred thousand Christian souls in Nikiae, waiting to be liberated from their bondage.

– Waiting to be liberated from their inheritance, more like!

– It will not come to that, I am sure. Those people are good Christians, they do not deserve to suffer more than they already have under the yoke of their Turkish lords. It’s true, Nikiae’s a wealthy city – I’ve heard a few people say that – but we are pilgrims, not pillagers. We’re here to save the lives of the our Christian cousins, not to destroy them. I, too, have heard that there are some with us who are afflicted by earthly greed, not heavenly hunger. But, thank God, there are few of them. We have been brought here by God to salve our souls in the struggle to liberate the holy land. We cannot hope to achieve that if we deviate from God’s will. If we attack Christians, if we take their money, their wealth or their livelihoods, then we are not doing God’s will, and God will destroy us in righteous anger, as He did with the Sodomites.

– Whatever. So how are we going to get there, to Jerusalem I mean? We’re going to live on air, right?

– God will provide for us, as He provided for the Israelites for forty years in the desert. If we only keep our faith with Him, then everything will be provided for us.

At that moment a beggar, sat by the side of the road, clad in scraps of rotted and decayed clothing, calls out to us, his hands stretched towards upwards in supplication.

– Some food, brother?

I look piteously at him. All armies have their hangers on, their beggars and thieves, washerwomen and whores, I know that much despite my ignorance of worldly ways. There is something different about the masses of impoverished people that joined us at Constantinople, though, they were not your typical camp followers. These people were the remnants of a vast pilgrimage, a spontaneous rising of ordinary folk that had sprung from the countries northern Europe in response our blessed Pope’s call.

They did not have the Pope’s blessing. He had sent a letter to his Bishops specifically warning them against a popular movement of this kind, explicitly telling them that his decree had been a call for the knights and soldiers to give succour and aid to the Eastern Church, and not for a rabble of peasantry to leave the lands of their masters and march on the East.

The Bishops could do nothing to stop them. Certain itinerant priests, rabble-rousers, travelled from town to town preaching that the Charlemagne road was also the road to salvation. The chief among these priests was a man they called Little Peter, and I’ve heard that the peasants came to revere him as a living saint – a reverence which, in his conceit, he did not try to stifle. And, because of his exhortations, the common folk, in their ignorance, came to believe that the end time was near, that the latter days spoken of in Revelation were upon us. With their wives and children, they rose in their hundreds of thousands to travel to Jerusalem to wrest that Holy town from the clutches of the Antichrist. In their ignorance, I believe they could not even distinguish between the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly one.

As they travelled eastwards, they left a trail of destruction in their wake, stealing food, burning homes, even razing towns to the ground. When they came to Constantinople, the Emperor pleaded with them not to cross the Bosphorus, but they were maddened with a desire to conquer the Turks, and they believed that they were so numerous that none could stand in their way. But God was not on their side, they had travelled to Asia without the dispensation of their Bishops, they had killed untold numbers of Christians on their way, and they had met with death in the wooded valleys before Nikiae.

I plucked at the knights sleeve to get his attention.

– You see him there, that beggar? God has spared the lives of some of those poor fools as a warning to the rest of us, a warning of what will happen if we do not submit to His divine will. All our earthly power is mere vanity if we are not fulfilling the Divine Plan. If we transgress, then we are doomed to failure and misery, like that poor wretch there.

At this, the knight gave a wry smile and shook his head. Then he produced a large piece of twice-baked bread from the pouch that hung at his side and tossed it to the beggar. The he turned, and began walking back towards the others, who were still deep in discussion at the foot of the hill.

I looked curiously at the beggar for a moment, as he held the bread in his hands, expecting him to stuff it quickly in his mouth before some other wretch stole it from him. He was very much a peasant of Northern France, that was clear, but he had been brought to a parlous state. His tan hair was dirty and lice filled, his clothes were filthy and shit-stained, and the coarse features on his face were picked out in sharp relief by the ravages of hunger, the grime smeared by tears that welled from his sunken eyes. As I looked at him, I caught a felt a brief flash of comprehension, a glimpse of the tragedies this man must have suffered to bring him to this condition. The wrath of God is a terrible thing indeed.

I turned, and caught up with the knight, who was now some way down the road, before continuing my theme.

– If we keep our faith, then all the doors will be open to us.

– You reckon the Turks are going to just let us in?

– If it’s God’s will that they do so, of course they will! Yes! I can’t presume to even guess at God’s will in this matter, but this pilgrimage is a test for us, to prove the worthiness of our souls. If God so chooses, then the Turks will open the gates for us and let us in. If God so chooses, then the Turks will abandon their idolatrous worship of Muhammad and turn to the true, Christian faith.

– Don’t be stupid. We’re here to kill Turks, not to turn them into Christians.

– We are here to conquer the Holy Land for Christ. The Turks, too, are the sons of Adam, but their idolatrous and sinful ways have condemned them in the eyes of the Lord. But the Lord is full of pity for his miserable children. Even followers of Mohammed can be saved if they would only give themselves up to Christ’s mercy.

– they’ll be persuaded soon enough when we get hold of the bastards.

– No, don’t you see, It’s not up to you, or to me, to judge. Judgement is God’s holy right. With God’s grace, we will march to Jerusalem and, if it is his will, we will return that holy city to the Christian fold. But it is not for us to condemn the muslims, there is still time for them to repent, to return to Christ, to redeem themselves before final judgement is passed.

– Hey, I’m not judging anyone. You know, you’re right, those of them that will join us, we’ll let them live. But the rest of them are going to hell the fast way.

– But that’s my point! You can’t threaten to kill them... nobody should come to Christ under threat of violence. If you forced them to be baptised, then it would count for nothing, not in the eyes of God, and not in the eyes of His church. They must be compelled to seek God’s mercy through fear of his divine justice, not by threats from men.

– You’re so far up yourself you can’t even think straight!

The knight exclaimed,

– You’ve been hid away from the world for too long. This is no cosy pilgrimage to Compostella, this is war. We’re fighting our way to Jerusalem, and that means killing, and it means destruction, and it means everything else that goes with that. This isn’t some kind of idle preaching tour, this is a fight to the death, everyone knows that. We’ve got the Popes’ blessing to fight our way to Jerusalem, and if you think we’re going to do that through preaching forgiveness, then you’re in for a shock. God helps those that help themselves.

I look at him with some degree of pity now. Strong in body he may be, but his mind is obviously weak. God made each of us for a purpose, and I’ve often seen that he made some of us to fight material foes, and some of us to fight the demons within, to commit warfare against Satan’s demons and overcome them through mental fortitude.

I am about to reply to his outburst when there is a sudden commotion, in the camp. A man, a servant by the look of him, comes running to wards us, shouting.

– Arnulf, Arnulf, come quickly! There has been an attack on the South side of the city, and Lord Tancred is riding there to give support.

The knight breaks into a run, and I too race off after them. Arnulf (Arnulf, the knight is called Arnulf) reaches his servant and carries on running towards the camp where I can now see that his horse is ready for him. His servant has his lance ready for him too, and he levers Arnulf up onto his low-slung, shaggy horse – of the kind favoured by the Normans. Other members of Arnulf’s conroi are gathering at the far end of the camp, and Arnulf gives a great whoop and spurs his horse on to meet them.

*********************

Christ it feels good to be back on my horse and charging like a mad dog out of the camp and away and across the fields. I look around to check, yes, we’re all here – the small group of close companions who have been my friends and comrades ever since I arrived in Italy. Rainald, to my left, with Berengar and William. On my right Bernard, Ardouin, Roger and Guy. The whole army is writhing like a nest of ants disturbed on a summer’s day, with men racing hither and thither trying to find their comrades as we race en masse towards the south face of the city.

Others from Tancred’s force join us too, Rainald spots Tancred’s banner to our left and calls out to us, signalling with his hand. We divert or horses so as to bring us closer – spread out as we are leaves us open to infiltration, so we bunch together and charge on in unstoppable mass of metal and muscle. Tancred and his standard bearer are now only fifty yards or so from us now and he looks over to us, his face showing the exultation that we all feel and he raises high his lance and cries ‘God Wills It!’, the war cry of the army that was given to us by the Pope himself as a sure and certain indication that we are doing the Lord’s work.

‘God Wills It!’, we reply, and the shout of a thousand men rips across our lines and we follow it with the war cry of Tancred’s household, ‘Tancred, Tancred and God’. The rest of the army takes up the war cry too and a tumultuous din is raised. I look around, and see Bohemond’s banner to our right and slightly behind and, of all of Bohemond’s vassals, it seems that Tancred is to the fore and that it excites me. I shout to the others, telling them that we must be the first to get to the battle but they cannot hear me over the din of thundering hooves and shouting men but William sees that I am shouting something guesses my intent from the way I shake my lance and so he throws his head back and laughs and spurs his horse onwards.

The other Noble princes have taken to arms too but I see that they are in front of us because they were guarding the west face of the wall. I can see the banner of Baldwin, Count of Bolougne, about half a mile ahead, and that reminds of that crazy bone-headed priest of his that collared me earlier.

But onwards we rush, my horse now frothing and panting and the sounds of battle reach us now and I can see something of the lay of the battle. Raymond’s standard holds firm two hundred yards or so before the southern gate, and most of his men stand with him. The Turks are mostly on horseback, they ride round in a sinuous motion fast, seeking out weak spots in the line, trying to cut off outlying groups. An a hilltop to the south of the main part another group, maybe a thousand or so, have rallied, and their plight is serious.

But look, see how the realisation of our relief force sweeps through the lines of Turkish horsemen. Like ripples in a field of wheat they seem to bend and bunch, and now they are thrown into confusion and we hear a roar from Raymond’s men. Of a sudden there is a charge from the centre of Raymond’s camp as his lines break and a mass of his knights charge forwards and towards the men surrounded on the hill.

All before now is in turmoil, as the Turks between ourselves and Raymond turn and flee and I am astonished by the speed of their horses. Shouting and cheering now we charge after them a raise my lance ready to strike as we pursue them into the hills. The terrain is steep here, with jagged rocks and thorny scrub, but their stragglers are close now on the path ahead and I think we will see blood shed.

I look around, Rainald is still with me but we are separated from the rest. On either side lie the bodies of those Turks, killed, I guess by the men of Normandy and Lorraine who are still some distance ahead in our pursuit of the Turkish horsemen. I begin to despair of ever catching them, Rollo is tired now, and it will do no good to ruin him by exhaustion. I’m lagging behind Rainald now, and I’m about to call to him to tell him that I think we have gone as far as we can, when I see a sudden movement in the branches that overhang the road and then a figure flies at him. He is knocked from his horse by this man, who I see now is a Turk, and they land heavily on the hard dirt track. The Turk has a rock in his hand which he smashes into Rainald’s head before leaping up and racing up the track to where Rainald’s horse now stands, casting the rock aside as he goes.

I see now the Turk’s plan. He has lost his horse and, without a horse, he is doomed. I spur my horse in pursuit and position my lance ready to throw. I will not catch him if he mounts Rainald’s horse, because Rollo is now almost spent, so I hurl my lance at him and, God be praised, it hits him in his shoulder and lodges there and he is spun half around by the force of it and stumbles into the ground. He rises and struggles with the lance, he tries to pull it from his shoulder, staggering to the side of the road but I catch him just as he removes the lance. I have my sword ready now raised above my right shoulder, but he is on my left side which makes the stroke difficult.

I do not have the time to try to bring him on my right now that he has the lance in his hand – his left hand, which I can see is not his favoured hand, but dangerous none-the-less. It is too late for him, he will not raise the lance against me, because I bring my sword down upon him, aiming for his neck but hitting him instead in the jaw, which breaks with a sickening crunch. My stroke was not powerful, and the wound is not mortal, I have not broken his skull but his mouth hangs shredded and bloody and he waves the lance feebly.

I smash downwards again, but the Turk catches Rollo with the point of the lance, only a feeble wound, I think, but it makes Rollo shy somewhat which throws my aim, and so this time I hit the Turk on the side of his head above his ear, where his helmet, leather reinforced with metal straps, gives him some protection. Not protection enough, though, because the force of my blow knocks him to the ground and keeps him there.

I jump down. His eyes are lifeless but his soul has not yet left because is pushing weakly with his legs, trying to raise himself with arms, still trying to flee. I shift my grip on my sword. Now, holding it raised above him like a dagger, I stab it into his chest. Once, twice, again and again, until my arm is tired and he has stopped shuddering and I am certain that his soul has fled to join Satan in hell.

I step back a little, breathing heavily, and look at the creature lying dead before me. He is maybe 20, 25, with dark skin, darker even than the Greeks. His face is strange, and his clothes too are strange. His tunic catches my eye, the cloth it’s made of is not woven but matted, woollen but soft. His boots are made of untreated sheepskin, tightly fitted up to his ankle with the fur turned inward. On his finger there is a ring of some metal, gold I see, looking closer, so I take it. I have never killed a man before.

I turn back to look at Rainald and see that he is, at least, moving now, sitting on his backside and propped up on one arm. I call to him, and he waves his hand at me, so I jog over.

– Christ, my head hurts, he says. He’s taken his helmet off, and I see that the side of his head is bruised and swollen, and his hair matted with blood. I kneel down and take a look, but it seems OK.

– Nothing broken, I say, you’ll be alright, and, standing, I offer him a hand up.

He is unsteady on his feet still, but it is not, I feel, safe to sit around here, and so I help him back to his horse, which stands a short distance away grazing by the side of the track. When he is mounted, I take the reins and, after collecting my lance, mount Rollo and head back to our camp.

*********************

I am still on my hill when I see the first elements of our victorious army return, and my heart is filled with joy for the love that God has for his miserable followers. The trumpeters play in a wild cacophony of praise for Him, the sound booms around the valley and echoes off the hard, stone walls of Nikaie. The leading company of brave knights comes trotting up the path now, maybe a mile away. On either side the peasants cheer and waive their arms wildly running forward, jumping up to slap their backs, playing their own rustic music, dancing and laughing.

Now they break their column formation and line up before the walls, just out of bowshot. They are brandishing their lances, and many of them, I see now, carry the severed heads of the infidel. Now they waive these heads at the unfortunates within the city, and give forth their shout

– God wills it! God wills it!

And it is, indeed, the will of God that has granted us this astonishing victory, a victory that condemns the infidels who dare to stand in the face of God to defend this holy city against us. After Arnulf and his comrades had ridden of, I stood for a while with Arnulf’s paige as he talked with the others from their camp – I was eager for news.

The attackers, it seems, were men of the Sultan Arslaf. Sultan, by the way, is the infidel’s word for king. I knew this, of course, and so I interjected at this point to explain the term for the benefit of the others.

Now this Arslaf is the Sultan of this part of the world, and he has his palace in Nikiea. He was the one that was responsible for the massacre of the poor Christian pilgrims after they crossed the Bosphorus, a heinous deed for which his soul will no doubt pay. He was, I am sure, surprised to see another army of Christians come to avenge their brothers. I close my eyes and imagine with satisfaction the look of terror that must have crossed his face when the news reached him that we had surrounded Nikiae and trapped his family trapped within.

And so he came from wherever he had gone with his army to lift the siege, but our brave soldiers were ready for him, and they destroyed his army.

The sun is hot, so I find a shady place to sit. The celebrations in the plain below get louder as more and more of our soldiers return with glad tidings to their respective camps. I can see that there are wounded too, some are astride horses, but many are crammed into ox-drawn wagons, designed to carry grain or beer but now pressed into service as ambulances.

You may think that I should be down below, with these men, administering the last rites and extreme unction to those about to die. But that, as events have transpired, is not my role in this army. Officially, I am a chaplain of my Lord Baldwin but, I am sad to say, the sin of jealousy eats at men’s hearts. Even those men who are superficially humble can fall prey to Satan’s demons, especially when they are rendered vulnerable by ignorance and pride.

Bonfilius is the man who has fallen within the devil’s influence. He is the one who rejects me, his brother in Christ, who bars me from taking my rightful place at Lord Baldwin’s side. Simoniac, he calls me, and makes other outrageous accusations too, but it is sinful pride that swells his stuffed head. He has been Lord Baldwin’s chaplain for twenty years or more, and he has grown fat in the luxury of his position. He obstinately blocks me because he fears for his position. He fears my learning, and my righteous living, and he fears that if I am allowed to gain influence then he will be knocked from his perch within Lord Baldwin’s court.

He also hates me because I am an outsider. He calls me an apostate because I have left the religious life, but I am strong in faith and I know that it was God’s will that I should follow His call to leave the cloister and journey to Jerusalem. I had my Abbott’s blessing, he explained to me that God had not meant for me to be religious. I was an oblate, and for good reason, he said, because the Lord had wanted me to experience the rigours of the rule, and I had become very learned in the scriptures, which were more dear to me than life itself. But, he said, he did not think that it was God’s purpose to keep me within the cloister.

I was both surprised and delighted when I heard those words, his blessing for me to travel with the pilgrims to Jerusalem. Since then, I’ve wondered about the marvellous genius behind God’s hidden plan, because I’d never thought the Abbott, Gilbert was name, I’ve never thought that he liked me much. Oh, he knew that the faith was strong in me, but I don’t think that he thought that I fitted into the community. My own urge was to be alone in the library, studying books, learning, which is not proper for a cenobite, he often told me. But he must have seen that God had a purpose for me, because he did a most blessed thing in releasing me from Holy Orders.

My mother was displeased. It had cost her plenty to make me an oblate when I was five, and then, suddenly, I was back on her doorstep. But my brother, Stephen, was kind to me, and he had connections with Baldwin because of some property he owned south of Boulogne. Baldwin, as everyone knew, would be joining the pilgrimage, and so Stephen took me to see him. Stephen told me that Baldwin, although a stern and aloof man, may have some sympathy with my position since he, too, had once been in a prebend in Rheims, and somewhat scholarly, and many had thought that he was destined to be religious. Like me, he then left the church – but Stephen told me that he had then married an Englishwoman, something that seems quite abhorrent to me.

After some discussion, Stephen negotiated a position for me as a chaplain to his household. The fee, which Baldwin requested as a contribution to the costs of my upkeep, was fixed at 10 Marks - a considerable sum, for which I will be eternally grateful to Stephen.

And so I travelled with Baldwin and his brothers, the Great Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, and Eustace, Count of Boulogne. Although I saw little of these other great men, I confess that in the sinfullness of my pride I had imagined myself to be riding at the right of Baldwin on our journey. Instead, I found myself travelling with the train, a most just lesson from God. Baldwin rode alongside his wife’s carriage, in the company of his knights and of Bonfilius.

God’s plan has slowly revealed itself over the long march we made along the Charlemagne road. The course of our long march has given me plenty of time to contemplate, and to search my soul for God’s inspiration.

The army, I know, is under the guidance of the good Bishop Adhémar, and it is by his will, and by the will of the other noble leaders, that god’s will shall be manifested. It is clear to me, as it is clear to others who have the capacity for deeper thought, that to battle the earthly enemies of Christ will be to no avail unless we uphold the teachings of Christ himself. We cannot reach the earthly Jerusalem unless we strive for the heavenly Jerusalem also.

It is the burden placed upon those of us with some understanding of theology to bring an understanding of God’s will to those among us whose faith is strong but whose intellect is lacking. I must play my part in this, that much is clear to me now, although God has not ordained that my role should be as a preacher and counsellor to the princes of our great army. God has placed me here to help the more common folk, this seems ever more clear to me since my meeting with Arnulf. It is men like him that I must help. It is men like him, who believe their souls are saved since they are on this pilgrimage, but who, through their ignorance, do not understand that unless they give their souls to Christ, they cannot fulfil the divine plan. The church relies on men such as Arnulf to save her from the infidel, churchmen such as myself have a duty to bring them to God so that they may be saved.

*********************

‘What a fucking prick that guy was’, I tell Rainald. I’m in a foul mood, I’ve got a headache, I’ve got gutache, and the thick Romanian wine is starting to slur my speech.

‘He comes straight over, like, and starts lecturing me on the true path to God and everything. Christ, this army’s so full of preachers you’re scared to fucking move in case you tread on one.’

Rainald sits there cool as ever.

‘Really wound you up, didn’t he?’, he says, picking up an orange from the bowl in front of us and starting to peel it.

‘Too right he fucking did!’ I tell him. ‘I mean, he was banging on about how to fight a war, about how God will look after us all, you know, the usual old shit. If I’d have given him half a chance I’m sure he would’ve started banging on about the lilies in the field and all that bollocks.’

‘Listen’, says Rainald, ‘we’re not at Amalfi now, there’s going to be a lot of preachers preaching, maybe you should listen to some of it, it might do you some good.’

‘No, you listen’, I shout at him, ‘I’m not taking lectures from nobody, not from you, and especially not from that fucking priest. You should’ve heard him, he didn’t know jackshit, I reckon’.

‘Yeah, but let’s fucking face it’, he says, ‘neither do you’.

Well this really winds me up, the patronising shit. I lurch to my feet, and kick out at the stool. I’m not going to sit in here in this stifling heat and have Rainald take the piss. He can be a complete prick when he wants to be.

‘I’m fucking out of here’, I tell the others. Roger and Berengar are by the awning, playing on a game of Nine-men’s Morris they’ve scratched into the dirt. Berengar looks up at me and waives, and I scowl back at him. Guy’s crashed out in the far corner, one of the dogs licking at his comatose face and I feel like kicking him, the lazy fucker, but instead I storm outside.

There, crouched near the tent under a makeshift shelter sits a mangy peasant feverishly chewing on something or other. God only knows what he’s doing there – I certainly didn’t hear anyone let him set up there so I stride over and kick him instead, the fucker.

He folds to the floor and looks up at me startled so I kick him again in the side of his ribs and then knock down his shelter. I kneel down to him and pick up the old bone he had been gnawing on and bring it up close to his face.

‘Have you been stealing from us, you piece of shit?’ I demand. He looks at me and shakes his head and mutters something. I can’t hear what it is that he’s saying but it’s probably a pack of lies so I rap him sharply on the forehead with the bone before hurling it at the dog by Berengar. To my satisfaction I hit the dog, who yelps in Berengar’s ear and wakes him. The dog turns to investigate the nature of the missile, and sniffs at it cautiously before picking it up and carrying it to the far side of the tent, where there is some shade.

This all makes me feel a lot calmer. I stand up and look around, wondering where the others have got to, and I see them, William, Ardouin, Roger, teasing one of the girls that Tancred has employed to help look after the camp – too cook, clean, fetch water, that sort of thing. This one, Maude, is a bit of a dog, I think, nice enough, you know, but nothing special. Apparently, she came on the pilgrimage all the way from Normandy with Little Boots – she was your typical wide eyed pilgrim, though I reckon she’s seen a bit of the world now. Since Tancred hired her, a favourite topic among the lads has been boasting to each other about what they were going to do to her, which usually ends with Roger trying to beat the crap out of Ardouin.

Anyway, now Roger has got Maude held tight with her arms held behind her, and William and Ardouin are trying to grab her legs and lift up her skirts while she kicks and screams at them. The lads are really cracking up with laughter now, especially when she catches William with an almighty wallop in the eye, and its all that Roger can do to keep hold of her. I don’t know why she’s screaming, she knows it only encourages them, and she knows that Tancred has promised to break the skull of anyone who touches her.

Talking of Tancred, the man himself turns up now. Obviously the Council has finished, so I saunter over with the others to hear what he has to say. While he’s waiting for everyone to gather he starts chatting to Rainald, asking how the bruise on the side of his head is doing.

Rainald tells him that he’s doing just fine. Its a couple of days now since it happened and he tells Tancred that it’s stopped throbbing. The old dear that’s been looking after him, one of the women that Tancred hired, well, what she doesn’t know about medicine isn’t worth knowing, and she seems to have come up trumps again with Rainald.

Then Tancred turns to me.

‘Rainald tells me that you saved his life’, he says to me, and I grin at Rainald.

‘Well, you know how it his,’ I say, ‘It wasn’t Rainald I was worried about, I was more worried that that bastard would nick the horse!’

Tancred laughs at this, but then gets his serious face on.

‘You’re a good soldier Arnulf,’ he says, looking right into my eyes, ‘one of the best there is. I’m proud of you, I’m glad to have you with me. You look after this fat, old man here,’ he says, nodding towards Rainald, ‘I’ve know him a long time, and I’d hate to lose him.’

This leaves me almost speechless. Tancred has got to be one of the greatest men I’ve known, everything about him marks him out as a hero – brave, strong, clever, Christ, he’s even good looking. Now I know something more, as I look into his eyes I see that he really cares for us, that whatever else happens, I know that he’ll stand by us so long as we stand by him. All at once my hair is standing on end and I’m choking back tears and I tell him that I’d give my life for Rainald, or any of the others in our company, and that I will follow him to the ends of the earth and die for him, if God wills it. He stares at me and I look back at him until he knows that I’m telling the truth, and then he reaches out and squeezes my shoulder before turning and heading back to where the others are gathered.

I stand there for a while, then I offer my hand to Rainald and help him up outside. It looks like the whole company is gathered here now, nearly a hundred knights, most of whom I know fairly well by now, as well as some of their hangers on. Tancred has climbed up on a small stool so that we can all see him and shouts for a bit of quiet.

‘As you know’, he begins, ‘I’ve just been at a meeting of the council leaders, and I’m going to tell you what we decided.

‘Firstly, the profit from the battle. As you all know, the Turks’ baggage train was captured, and there was some money in it. Now, this wasn’t nearly as much as some of the rumours had suggested... no, there’s no point in moaning, the fact is that there just wasn’t much there. It’s been decided that the Army should set up a communal fund, right, so none of it’s going to be handed out right now.

‘I know, I know, but none of you are poor right now, and the fact is that we’ve got a long way to go yet, and none of us know when we’re going to need a bail out. The Bishop will look after it, so there’ll be no cheating and, just to make sure, everybody will have a representative to help guard the money – Bohemond’s sending some people, so our interests are looked after. In the future, any profit is going to be split, half will go to the communal fund and half will be divvied up in the usual way, OK? That’s what we’ve agreed and that’s the way it’s going to be. If I catch anybody cheating on the community and holding stuff back, I will personally skin them alive, got me? OK.

‘Second, the prosecution of the siege. As some of you might have noticed, Nikiea’s got some bloody thick strong walls around it. Now, there’s two ways around this little problem. First, we can knock down the walls or, second, we can starve the buggers out. In fact, we’re going to do both.

You’ve all seen that that Turks are running boats out across the lake and bringing in supplies that way. Well, there’s not a lot we can do about that right now, but the Bishop has already sent a request to the Emperor asking him to set up a blockade. I’m assured that he can do this but, because there’s no navigable passage, it will mean dismantling the necessary boats and dragging them overland to the far side of the lake. This will take some time.

‘As far as knocking a hole through the walls, well we’re going to try to dig out the foundations. When I say we, I mean the Romanians, along with some men that Count Raymond and Duke Godfrey have volunteered for the job, because they’ve apparently got experience at this sort of thing – remember the trouble we had at Amalfi? Again, there’s no point moaning, you know there’s hardly any skilled engineers in our part of the army, and those that we do have we’re going to need to get the camp properly set up. We could be in for a long siege, so we’re going to need proper latrines, shelters and the like.

‘We, meanwhile, are on guard duty. We’re relying on the emperor to keep us fed, and that means keeping the road to Civetot open. Duke Bohemond is going to set up a rota with all the details of patrols we’re going to need to run, as well as who’s going to look after the caravans as they go back and forth.

‘Now you don’t need me to tell you how vitally important this work is. This pilgrimage is the biggest collection of people that has ever gathered in one place – I saw some of the figures that had been worked out about the number of tons of food the army will need every day, and it’s truly astonishing. They’re all going to be relying on us to do our part – and if we don’t the whole thing will just fall apart, OK.

‘I’m going back to Bohemond now to work out all the details. In the meantime, everybody just hang tight, and try not to cause too much trouble, OK?

And with that, Tancred jumped off the stool and walked back to where his servants were waiting with his horse. Rainald and me go back inside to the table where the wine and Rainald’s half eaten orange stand waiting.

‘Fuck’s sake’, I say, ‘Guard duty?’

‘Don’t knock it’, says Rainald, ‘it’ll beat sitting around here for weeks on end. This siege is going to drag on and on, that’s what they’ve not told us. It’ll be good to get away and down to the coast. Look on the bright side, at least you won’t get hassled by that priest.’

‘Yeah, but what’s the betting that there’ll be more of them at Civetot?’, I ask.

He dips the ladle into the keg and pours himself some more wine.

‘You’ve got to expect it mate’, he says, ‘we’re going to Jerusalem after all’. He puts the beaker to his lips, sips, and grimaces. ‘This shitty Romanian wine’, he says, ‘they don’t even salt it’.

*********************

A cart comes clattering down the road towards me, hauled by a thick set draft horse. The cart is followed by crowds of paupers – ragged men, women and children – calling out, shouting, pushing. I push myself up onto my feet, trying to see what is exciting these people so much.

Then I realise. Although I can scarcely believe it, the cart is full of bread. There must be a ton of it or more, and the men on the back are throwing it in handfuls at the people that follows them. I run towards them and join the crowd scrabbling in the dust. People are punching, biting, shouting at each other as they hunt, and I am lucky. I find maybe a dozen of the small, hard, unleavened loaves, as much as I can carry in the folds of my coat, and so I quickly retreat back to the patch of dry earth which is now my home.

I brush the dirt from one of them and bite into it, swallowing it in barely chewed chunks, chaff, grit and all. I devour another, and then another before I’m full.

I think I will sit here for a while, but later I might walk over to the city to see what’s going on. This is the first time in months that I haven’t been hungry, and when you are hungry, you are weak, and when you are weak, that is when the demons strike. For the past week or so, I have been watching the siege, wanting to help the soldiers in their fight for God, but instead so beset by demons that I have spent most days cowering from them.

<day check day - is it ascension of the lord?>

I have watched as they laboriously built the tower and covered it with soaked skins. Yesterday, I watched as they pushed it towards the tower, shouting and chanting as the enemy danced on the walls, firing a storm of arrows that cut them down by the dozen. They pushed it across the open ground, yard by yard, almost up to the ditch. Then they formed into ranks, those at the front using their shields and mantlets to protect the others as they painstakingly filled in the ditch.

Then they began again, pushing the tower forwards. As each man was killed by an arrow, or a rock, he was replaced by another. I watched as the tower wobbled as it was forced over the rugged ground. With each wobble, the pushers would stop, there would be shouted commands, and men with planks would rush forwards to try to prop up the frame. And so they inched forwards, leaving a trail of dead and dying behind them, but now I noticed that, with each wobble, the tower began to lean. Only a little at first, but then more and more.

And then it collapsed. There was a crack, the groan of splintering wood, and the tower came crashing to the ground. The men at the top had fell to their deaths, and the men at the bottom were crushed. Those that survived were left exposed and fled from the shrieking enemy, although most were cut down as they ran.

As I look know I can see that other siege engines are being built, and at the other end of the city there is an armoured shelter perched against one of the turrets, and men within it are burrowing into the foundations. I have watched long enough, now I’m going to go to see if I can help.

*********************

The siege is over, God be praised, and the ending of it was a most extraordinary thing. This morning I rose to see the banners of the Emperor flying over the battlements, and a deathly quiet hanging over the camp. I learned, later, that the defenders had surrendered to the admiral of the little flotilla of boats which had blockaded the lake. We have besieged this city for seven weeks, and now God has delivered it into the hands of the Christians without bloodshed in the streets of that holy place.

The camp is quiet because my Lord Baldwin has left for Pelakanum with the other princes, taking with him the important members of his household. They have gone to negotiate with the Emperor, to receive from him the gifts that he has promised as a reward for the part they played in the siege.

In the meantime, I make the most of my share of the reward – the meat, vegetables, fruit, bread and wine that the Emperor has provided for us all. I eat until my belly hurts, safe in the knowledge that the Emperor will provide all the supplies that we need before we continue our journey. It truly is a most gracious gift, given in the spirit of ecumenical Christianity.

*********************

Rainald spits again. ‘They’re treacherous bastards, that’s what they are’, he says, when I point out that we are richer now than we have been since we left Amalfi.

‘Don’t be fooled by their smiles and their airs and graces’, he continues, ‘they’ve screwed us good and proper’.

I’m not going to let this one pass. Rainald has a bitter hatred for the Romanians, though for the life of me I don’t know why. I mean, the Emperor has given us food, horses, oxen, equipment and money. We’re better armed and better fed than before we began the siege, and even the paupers have been looked after.

‘Listen’, he says, ‘they’re our enemies, they know it, and you shouldn’t forget it. I was fighting the Romanians at Larissa, and at Dyrrachium, when you were still a kid. Bohemond should have been Emperor, not this slimy, double-dealing Alexius.’

‘But that was then,’ I say, ‘this is now. He helped us during the siege too. He sent us soldiers, and he blockaded the lake. Face it, without his help, we’d still be there.’

‘Without his help we’d have stormed the city, and we’d have been rich. Christ, you say we’re well off now, well this is nothing compared with what was in that city.’

I don’t reply, I simply stare moodily at the long lines of horses, carts, and foot soldiers stretched out into the distance in front of us. The road here is a good, broad and free from potholes, and I hope that it’ll continue like this all the way to Dorylaeum. I doubt it though. Looking ahead, I can see we’re headed towards broad, low hills, heavily forested, and I, for one, am glad that we have experienced Turcopole guides to help us find our way, and an Imperial brigade in the rearguard to sweep up any stragglers.

‘At every stage we’ve been double-crossed’, Rainald blurts, unable to let the matter lie. ‘I mean, that bastard Botoumites must’ve have been talking to the Turks behind our backs, trying to get them to surrender. Why all the secrecy, if they weren’t about to double cross us. And then we find out that he’s let all the Turks go! So in one fell swoop he’s kept all the money from us, and he’s set the Turks free, no doubt they’re getting ready to attack us right now, and with his Imperial majesty’s blessing!’

‘You make it sound like the Romanians, and not the Saracens, are our enemy.’

‘Well, aren’t they?,’ he spits again.

Forward to Chapter 2       Forward to Chapter 3

The story of the First Crusade.

Copyright © 1999 Dr Tom J Rees. All rights reserved.