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By Andrew Gross
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Veille du Père, a village in southern France, 1096
The church bells were ringing.
Loud, quickening peals — echoing through town in the middle of the day.
Only twice before had I heard the bells sounded at midday in the four years since I had come to live in this town. Once, when word reached us that the King's son had died. And the second, when a raiding party from our lord's rival in Digne swept through town during the wars, leaving eight dead and burning almost every house to the ground.
What was going on?
I rushed to the second-floor window of the inn I looked after with my wife, Sophie. People were running into the square, still carrying their tools. "What's going on? Who needs help?" they shouted.
Then Antoine, who farmed a plot by the river, galloped over the bridge aboard his mule, pointing back toward the road. "They're coming! They're almost here!"
From the east, I heard the loudest chorus of voices, seemingly raised as one. I squinted through the trees and felt my jaw drop. "Jesus, I'm dreaming," I said to myself. A peddler with a cart was considered an event here. I blinked at the sight, not once but twice.
It was the greatest multitude I had ever seen! Jammed along the narrow road into town, stretching out as far as the eye could see.
"Sophie, come quick, now," I yelled. "You're not going to believe this."
My wife of three years hurried to the window, her yellow hair pinned up for the workday under a white cap. "Mother of God, Hugh . . ."
"It's an army," I muttered, barely able to believe my eyes. "The Army of the Crusade."
EVEN IN VEILLE DU PÈRE, word had reached us of the Pope's call. We had heard that masses of men were leaving their families, taking the Cross, as nearby as Avignon. And here they were . . . the army of Crusaders, marching through Veille du Père!
But what an army! More of a rabble, like one of those multitudes prophesied in Isaiah or John. Men, women, children, carrying clubs and tools straight from home. And it was vast — thousands of them! Not fitted out with armor or uniforms, but shabbily, with red crosses either painted or sewn onto plain tunics. And at the head of this assemblage . . . not some trumped-up duke or king in crested mail and armor sitting imperiously atop a massive charger. But a little man in a homespun monk's robe, barefoot, bald, with a thatched crown, plopped atop a simple mule.
"It is their awful singing the Turks will turn and run from," I said, shaking my head, "not their swords."
Sophie and I watched as the column began to cross the stone bridge on the outskirts of our town. Young and old, men and women; some carrying axes and mallets and old swords, some old knights parading in rusty armor. Carts, wagons, tired mules and plow horses. Thousands of them.
Everyone in town stood and stared. Children ran out and danced around the approaching monk. No one had ever seen anything like it before. Nothing ever happened here!
I was struck with a kind of wonderment. "Sophie, tell me, what do you see?"
"What do I see? Either the holiest army I've ever seen or the dumbest. In any case, it's the worst equipped."
"But look, not a noble anywhere. Just common men and women. Like us."
Below us, the vast column wound into the main square and the queer monk at its head tugged his mule to a stop. A bearded knight helped him slide off. Father Leo, the town's priest, went up to greet him. The singing stopped, weapons and packs were laid down. Everyone in our town was pressed around the tiny square. To listen.
"I am called Peter the Hermit," the monk said in a surprisingly strong voice, "urged by His Holiness Urban to lead an army of believers to the Holy Land to free the holy sepulchre from the heathen hordes. Are there any believers here?"
He was pale and long nosed, resembling his mount, and his brown robes had holes in them, threadbare. Yet as he spoke, he seemed to grow, his voice rising in power and conviction.
"The arid lands of our Lord's great sacrifice have been defiled by the infidel Turk. Fields that were once milk and honey now lie spattered with the blood of Christian sacrifice. Churches have been burned and looted, sainted sites destroyed. The holiest treasures of our faith, the bones of saints, have been fed to dogs; cherished vials filled with drops of the Savior's own blood, poured into heaps of dung like spoiled wine."
"Join us," many from the ranks called out loudly. "Kill the pagans and sit with the Lord in Heaven."
"For those who come," the monk named Peter went on, "for those who put aside their earthly possessions and join our Crusade, His Holiness Urban promises unimaginable rewards. Riches, spoils, and honor in battle. His protection for your families who dutifully remain behind. An eternity in Heaven at the feet of our grateful Lord. And, most of all, freedom. Freedom from all servitude upon your return. Who will come, brave souls?" The monk reached out his arms, his invitation almost irresistible.
Shouts of acclamation rose throughout the square. People I had known for years shouted, "I . . . I will come!"
I saw Matt, the miller's older son, just sixteen, throw up his hands and hug his mother. And Jean the smith, who could crush iron in his hands, kneel and take the Cross. Several other people, some of them just boys, ran to get their possessions, then merged with the ranks. Everyone was shouting, "Dei leveult!" God wills it!
My own blood surged. What a glorious adventure awaited. Riches and spoils picked up along the way. A chance to change my destiny in a single stroke. I felt my soul spring alive. I thought of gaining our freedom, and the treasures I might find on the Crusade. For a moment I almost raised my hand and called out, "I will come! I will take the Cross."
But then I felt Sophie's hand pressing on mine. I lost my tongue.
Then the procession started up again. The ranks of farmers, masons, bakers, maids, whores, jongleurs, and outlaws hoisting their sacks and makeshift weapons, swelling in song. The monk Peter mounted his donkey, blessed the town with a wave, then pointed east.
I watched them with a yearning I thought had long been put behind me. I had traveled in my youth. I'd been brought up by goliards, students and scholars who entertained from town to town. And there was something that I missed from those days. Something my life in Veille du Père had stilled but not completely put aside.
I missed being free, and even more than that, I wanted freedom for Sophie and the children we would have one day.
TWO DAYS LATER, other visitors came through our town.
There was a ground-shaking rumble from the west, followed by a cloud of gravel and dust. Horsemen were coming in at a full gallop! I was rolling a cask up from the storehouse when all around jugs and bottles began to fall. Panic clutched at my heart. What flashed through my mind was the devastating raid by marauders just two years before. Every house in the village had been burned or sacked.
There was a shriek, and then a shout. Children playing ball in the square dived out of the way. Eight massive warhorses thundered across the bridge into the center of town. On their huge mounts, I saw knights wearing the purple-and-white colors of Baldwin of Treille, our liege lord.
The party of horsemen pulled to a stop in the square. I recognized the knight in charge as Norcross, our liege lord's chatelain, his military chief. He scanned our village from atop his mount and remarked loudly, "This is Veille du Père?"
"It must be, my lord," a companion knight replied with an exaggerated sniff. "We were told to ride east until the smell of shit, then head directly for it."
Their presence here could only signal harm. I began to make my way slowly toward the square with my heart pounding. Anything might happen. Where was Sophie?
Norcross dismounted and the others did the same, their chargers snorting heavily. The chatelain had dark, hooded eyes that flashed only a sliver of light, like an eighth-moon. A trace of a thin, dark beard.
"I bring greetings from your lord, Baldwin," he said for all to hear, stepping into the center of the square. "Word has reached him that a rabble passed through here a day ago, some babbling hermit at the head."
As he spoke, his knights began to fan out through town. They pushed aside women and children, sticking their heads into houses as if they owned them. Their haughty faces read, Get out of my way, pieces of shit. You have no power. We can do anything we want.
"Your lord asked me to impress upon you," Norcross declared, "his hope that none of you were swayed by the ravings of that religious crank. His brain's the only thing more withered than his dick."
Now I realized what Norcross and his men were doing here. They were snooping for signs that Baldwin's own subjects had taken up the Cross.
Norcross strutted around the square, his small eyes moving from person to person. "It is your lord, Baldwin, who demands your service, not some moth-eaten hermit. It is pledged and honor bound to him. Next to his, the Pope's protection is worthless."
I finally caught sight of Sophie, hurrying from the well with her bucket. Beside her was the miller's wife, Marie, and their daughter, Aimée. I motioned with my eyes for them to stay clear of Norcross and his thugs.
Father Leo spoke up. "On the fate of your soul, knight," the priest said, stepping toward him, "do not defame those who now fight for God's glory. Do not compare the Pope's holy protection to yours. It is blasphemy."
Frantic shouts rang out. Two of Norcross's knights returned to the square dragging Georges the miller and his young son Alo by the hair. They threw both into the middle of the square.
I felt a hole in the pit of my stomach. Somehow they knew . . .
Norcross seemed delighted, actually. He went and cupped the face of the cowering boy in his massive hand. "The Pope's protection, you say, eh, priest?" He chuckled. "Why don't we see what his protection is truly worth."
OUR POWERLESSNESS WAS SO OBVIOUS it was shameful to me. Norcross's sword jangled as he made his way to the frightened miller. "On my word, miller." Norcross smiled. "Only last week did you not have two sons?"
"My son Matt has gone to Vaucluse," Georges said, and looked toward me. "To study the metal trade."
"The metal trade . . ." Norcross nodded, bunching his lips. He smiled as if to say, I know that is a pile of shit. Georges was my friend. My heart went out to him. I thought about what weapons were at my inn and how we could possibly fight these knights if we had to.
"And with your stronger son gone," Norcross pressed on, "how will you continue to pay your tax to the duke, your labor now depleted by a third?"
Georges's eyes darted about. "It will be made easily, my lord. I will work that much harder."
"That is good." Norcross nodded, stepping over to the boy. "In that case, you won't be missing this one too much, will you?" In a flash, he hoisted the nine-year-old lad up like a sack of hay.
He carried Alo, kicking and screaming, toward the mill.
As Norcross passed the miller's cowering daughter, he winked at his men. "Feel free to help yourselves to some of the miller's lovely grain." They grinned and dragged poor Aimée, screaming wildly, inside the mill.
Disaster loomed in front of my eyes. Norcross took a hemp rope and, with the help of a cohort, lashed Alo to the staves of the mill's large wheel, which dipped deep beneath the surface of the river.
Georges threw himself at the chatelain's feet. "Haven't I always been true to our lord, Baldwin? Haven't I done what was expected?"
"Feel free to take your appeal to His Holiness." Norcross laughed, lashing the boy's wrists and ankles tightly to the water wheel.
"Father, father . . ." the terrified Alo cried.
Norcross began to turn the wheel. To Georges and Marie's frantic shrieks, Alo went under. Norcross held it for a moment, then slowly raised the wheel. The child appeared, wildly gasping for air.
The despicable knight laughed at our priest. "What do you say, Father? Is this what you expect from the Pope's protection?" He lowered the wheel again and the small boy disappeared. Our entire town gasped in horror.
I counted to thirty. "Please," Marie begged on her knees. "He's just a boy."
Norcross finally began to raise the wheel. Alo was gagging and coughing water out of his lungs. From behind the mill's door came the sickening cries of Aimée. I could scarcely breathe myself. I had to do something — even if it sealed my own fate.
"Sir." I stepped forward, toward Norcross. "I will help the miller increase his tax by a third."
"And who are you, carrot-top?" The glowering knight turned, fixed on my shock of bright red hair.
"Carrots too, if my lord wants." I took another step. I was prepared to say anything, whatever gibberish might divert him. "We'll throw in two bushels of carrots!"
I was about to go on — a joke, nonsense, anything that came into my head — when one of the henchmen rushed up to me. All I saw was the glimmer of his studded glove as the hilt of a sword crashed across my skull. In the next breath I was on the ground.
"Hugh, Hugh," I heard Sophie scream.
"Carrot-top here must be keen on the miller," Norcross jeered. "Or the miller's wife. By a third more, you say. Well, in my lord's name, I accept your offer. Consider your tax raised."
At the same time, he lowered the wheel again. I heard a struggling, choking Alo go under one more time.
Norcross shouted, "If it's a fight you want, then fight for the glory of your liege when called upon. If it's riches, then attend harder to your work. But the laws of custom are the laws. You all understand the laws, do you not?"
Norcross leaned against the wheel for the longest time. An anguished plea rose from the crowd, "Please . . . let the boy up. Let him up." I clenched my fist, counting the beats that Alo remained under. Twenty . . . thirty . . . forty.
Then Norcross's face split into an amused smile. "Goodness . . . do I forget the time?"
He slowly raised the wheel. When Alo broke the surface, the boy's face was bloated and wide-eyed. His small jaw hung open, lifeless.
Marie screamed and Georges began to sob.
"What a shame." Norcross sighed, leaving the wheel aloft and Alo's lifeless body suspended high. "It seems he wasn't cut out for the miller's life after all."
A silence ensued, a terrible moment that was empty and gnawing. It was broken only by Aimée's whimpers as she emerged weak-kneed from the mill.
"Let us go." Norcross gathered his knights. "I think the duke's point is adequately driven home."
As he made his way back across the square, he stopped over me where I still lay and hovered. Then he pressed his heavy boot into my neck. "Do not forget your pledge, carrot-top. I will be looking especially for your tax payment."
THAT TERRIBLE AFTERNOON CHANGED MY LIFE. That night, as Sophie and I lay in bed, I couldn't hold back the truth from her. She and I had always shared everything, good and bad. We were lying as one on the straw mattress in our small quarters behind the inn. I gently stroked her long blond hair, which fell all the way down her back. Every time she moved, every twitch of her nose, reminded me how much I loved her, how I had since the first time I had set eyes on her.
It was love at first sight for us. At ten!
I had spent my youth traveling with a band of itinerant goliards, given to them at a young age when my mother died, the mistress of a cleric who could no longer hide my presence. They raised me as one of their own, taught me Latin, grammar, logic, how to read and write. But most of all, they taught me how to perform. We traveled the large cathedral towns, Nîmes, Cluny, Le Puy, reciting our irreverent songs, tumbling, and juggling for the crowds. Each summer, we passed through Veille du Père. I saw Sophie there at her father's inn, her shy blue eyes unable to hide from mine. And later, I noticed her peeking at a rehearsal. I was sure, at me . . . I swiped a sunflower and went up to her. "What goes in all stiff and stout, but when it comes out it's flopping about?"
She widened her eyes and blushed. "How could anyone but a devil have such bright red hair?" she said. Then she ran away.
A cabbage, I was about to say.
Each year when we returned, I came bearing a sunflower, until Sophie had grown from a gangly girl into the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She had a song for me, a teasing rhyme:
A maiden met a wandering man
In the light of the moon's pure cheer,
And though they fell in love at that first sight,
It was a love that was born for tears.
I called her my princess, and she said that I probably had one in every town. But in truth, I did not. Each year I promised I would come back, and I always did. One year, I stayed.
The three years we'd been married had been the happiest I had known. I felt connected for the first time in my life. And deeply in love.
But as I held Sophie that night, something told me I could no longer live like this. The rage that burned in my heart from the day's horror was killing me. There would always be another Norcross, another tax levied upon us. Or another Alo . . . One day, the boy strung up on that wheel could be our own.
Until we were free.
"Sophie, I have something important to talk to you about." I snuggled into the smooth curve of her back.
She had nearly drifted off to sleep. "Can't it wait, Hugh? What could be more important than what we've just shared?"
I swallowed. "Raymond of Toulouse is forming an army. Paul the carter told me. They leave for the Holy Land in a few days."
Sophie turned in my arms and faced me with a blank, unsure look.
"I have to go," I said.
Sophie sat up, almost dumbfounded. "You want to take the Cross?"
"Not the Cross. I wouldn't fight for that. But Raymond has promised freedom to anyone who joins. Freedom, Sophie . . . You saw what happened today."
She sat up straight. "I did see, Hugh. And I saw that Baldwin will never free you from your pledge. Or any of us."
"In this he has no choice," I protested. "Raymond and Baldwin are aligned. He has to accept. Sophie, think of how our lives could change. Who knows what I might find there? There are tales of riches just for the taking. And holy relics worth more than a thousand inns like ours."
"You're leaving," she said, turning her eyes from me, "because I have not given you a child."
"I am not! You mustn't think that, not even for a moment. I love you more than anything. When I see you each day, working around the inn, or even amid the grease and smoke of the kitchen, I thank God for how lucky I am. We were meant to be together. I'll be back before you know it."
She nodded, unconvinced. "You are no soldier, Hugh. You could die."
"I'm strong. And agile. No one around can do the tricks I do."
"No one wants to hear your silly jokes, Hugh." Sophie sniffed. "Except me."
"Then I'll scare the infidels off with my bright red hair."
I saw the outline of a smile from her. I held her by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. "I will be back. I swear it. Just like when we were children. I always told you I'd return. I always did."
She nodded, a bit reluctantly. I could see that she was scared, but so was I. I held her and stroked her hair.
Sophie lifted her head and kissed me, a mixture of ardor and tears.
A stirring rose in me. I couldn't hold it down. I could see in Sophie's eyes that she felt it too. I held her by the waist and she moved on top of me. Her legs parted and I gently eased myself inside. My body lit with her warmth.
"My Sophie . . ." I whispered.
She moved with me in perfect rhythm, softly moaning with pleasure and love. How could I leave her? How could I be such a fool?
"You'll come back, Hugh?" Her eyes locked on mine.
"I swear." I reached and wiped a glistening tear from her eye. "Who knows?" I smiled. "Maybe I'll come back a knight. With untold treasure and fame."
"My knight," she whispered. "And I, your queen . . ."
THE MORNING OF THE DAY I was to leave was bright and clear. I rose early, even before the sun. The town had bid me godspeed with a festive roast the night before. All the toasts had been made and farewells said.
All but one.
In the doorway of the inn, Sophie handed me my pouch. In it was a change of clothes, bread to eat, a hazel twig to clean my teeth. "It may be cold," she said. "You have to cross the mountains. Let me get your skin."
I stopped her. "Sophie, it's summer. I'll need it more when I come back."
"Then I should pack some more food for you."
"I'll find food." I pumped out my chest. "People will be eager to feed a Crusader."
She stopped and smiled at my plain flax tunic and calfskin vest. "You don't look like much of a Crusader."
I stood before her, ready to leave, and smiled too.
"There's one more thing," Sophie said with a start. She hurried to the table by the hearth. She came back a moment later with her treasured comb, a thin band of beech wood painted with flowers. It had belonged to her mother. Other than the inn, I knew she valued it more than anything in her life. "Take this with you, Hugh."
"Thanks," I tried to joke, "but where I'm headed a woman's comb may be looked at strangely."
- On Sale
- Mar 3, 2003
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Little, Brown and Company