The southwestern border of the Imperium Romanum Sacrum (or, as it was commonly called, das Heiliges Römisches Reich) ran along the tips of snowcapped giants that cut through mist and cloud. Rain spattered against its cliffs and laid persistent siege to the peaks of Turin, upon which was nestled a castle. It owned few pointless windows—what was there to see, save the eternal fog?
Sparse fires battled the frigid tempests assaulting the fort, their lights as fireflies in the night. It was an awful place to be. Indeed, the men residing there considered it their private corner of Hell. Accordingly, some had styled the spires ‘Lucifer’s Teeth’.
Earlier that day, unlikely though it was, a lone man had come. By horse, he’d explained, until he reached the base of the mountain. From there, a mule carried him most of the way, until the paths grew too treacherous even for that poor beast.
“I know full well how to scale this bitch of a peak, thank you,” the gatekeeper of Castle Turin had retorted, before finally showing the shivering man inside.
His feet squished against the soggy remains of a rug. Everywhere he looked, along the walls and in the ridges of the arch, he saw lines of fungus. Masking his disgust with exuberant yawning, he awaited the lord of the castle.
The one who ruled over this dingy fort weighed him before approaching, thinking, Assassination is unlikely. After all, what fate could be worse than to languish here in perpetuity?
“A miserable sight, I know, but we live here comfortably enough,” he told the messenger. It was an outrageous lie, but the lord of Turin felt certain that the unpleasant truth would do him great harm. And he’d already managed to plunge deep into the negative values, politically.
The messenger inclined his head in deference, saying, “Lord Volkmar, I am most grateful for your hospitality.”
Volkmar said nothing. He turned on his heels, arms dangling at his sides and made for the inner hall. The pair stalked the corridors of the crumbling fort, vestiges of the lost splendor of the ancient Roman Empire, the forefathers of Turin’s current residents.
By his expression, it was easy to notice how the ever-present musty stench wrinkled the messenger’s nose. For Volkmar the scent was as common and mundane as the sight of snow.
The lord walked with an accustomed hunch; the ceilings were low in this wing of the castle. The envoy banged his forehead more than once.
Volkmar noted that the man did not curse in any Germanic tongue. Was it Servian?
“You’ll forgive me my low spirits, but we’ve had another suicide this past week,” said Volkmar. “Dietrich wasn’t known for his patience.”
“God rest his soul,” said the other man.
Once in the dining room—adorned with nothing more than a large wooden table and a few hazardously frail chairs—they seated themselves. Volkmar took one extremity, the messenger the one opposite. A raised voice was required to make oneself heard at the other end.
With the pair dined three handfuls of soldiers. They ate like barbarians, stank of old fish and got angry at the slightest hint of insult. Volkmar enjoyed their company immensely.
After the meal (bean stew, every night) Volkmar spoke, “So, my friend, what’s toward?”
The messenger rose from his chair and failed to make eye-contact with any of the soldiers. His ruby-studded ring shone as he daintily flicked his wrist. “His Holiness, the Pope, has rallied many armies to reclaim the Holy Land from the infidel Turks. It is the largest force the world has ever known. Word has spread that every day more swords join the cause. You may already have heard this much.”
Volkmar set down his cup. “We don’t get much news up here.”
The rest were silent, attentive.
The messenger continued, “They who have taken up the cross, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it is said, make their way to Konstantinápoly wherefrom the Emperor Alexius will rally and direct them to Jerusalem, the burial ground of Christ.”
“I mean no insult,” said one of the soldiers, “but what does this have to do with us? What prevents the Greeks from resolving Greek problems?”
The messenger looked to Volkmar—expecting him to chastise his man, no doubt—but the lord grinned and agreed, “They are reputed to be devious.”
The newcomer, obviously flustered, went on. “To the point, my lord, I am to give you the order from the Kaiser himself that you must raise a small force—one hundred strong—and take it to Genoa. From there you will travel with General Olstoff.”
The Kaiser himself deigns to address me? Volkmar downed the dregs of his ale. “I suppose that I am called to immediate action.”
“Your assumption is correct. My lord, you would do well to understand that you have been commanded to perform this task by the highest authorities: first God Himself, and, closely second, the Emperor. Your failure to obey will constitute treason against the Crown, whereafter you shall be branded a heretic with His Holiness’ personal assurances of excommunication. And His Magnificence, the Kaiser Heinrich IV, would have you know that he will be decidedly less understanding even than that.”
A dozen grimy, hard stares greeted the statement. One man slammed his oaken goblet on the table, tearing splinters from its filthy surface. Another crossed his arms and leaned back in his seat, as if daring the Fates to claim him.
The messenger cleared his throat. “However, His Majesty also declared that this is your chance to redeem yourself. Between you and me, the Kaiser seeks to rekindle Papal favor. Thus, if you are useful to him and perform this task successfully, you can expect the erasure of your past sins and transgressions. Such is the mercy of God and His chosen earthly representatives. And such is the order I have come to relate.”
“It’s a choice between heresy and redemption, then?”
The messenger gave what Volkmar considered a curt nod.
Volkmar made a show of scratching the cleft of his chin and letting his gaze wander the low, leaky ceiling. “Hmm, that’s a tough one. Give me a night to think on it.”
Some of the men guffawed, spraying mouthfuls of stew across the hall.
Shaking hands, tentative fingers, unlatched the armoire doors. They creaked from disuse; for years he’d worn only the one outfit, which included a heavy cloak, woolen socks and several layers of drawers. His everyday attire had been serviceable, but did not sit right on his skin.
Brushing the wood with his palms, feeling the tug of minute splinters, he nudged open the doors. Right then left, and there it was: a uniform, gold and black checkered, striped in those colors at parts, a crowned double-headed eagle, black as death, embroidered on its breast.
The gold had faded to nearly beige and the black was dull and gray. Whole patches of the uniform had frayed and, generally, it smelled of rot. But it was undoubtedly and satisfyingly his. Now he could wear it once more.
Volkmar von Bremen ousted the disused raiment and, with great self-reflection and no small amount of guilty satisfaction, donned it.
At the height of Mount Turin it was as if the fortress were suspended in eternal night. Only at dawn, when the sky was clear enough, did the sun give them a spectacle unlike any other on this earth. The fiery body would slowly make its ascent behind the rock walls of the mountain until it reached the highest peak. Then, just for an instant, the entire world around the walls and towers would be lit up with brilliant morning while the men remained caught in darkness. That daily moment was both a metaphor for their lives and very much a sight worth seeing. Admittedly, after the first twenty times, most of the splendor was lost upon the disillusioned veterans.
After what seemed his ten-thousandth viewing of the astral body’s glimmering ascent, Volkmar assembled his men in the shadow of Lucifer’s Teeth and said to them, “I don’t know about you—I have nothing against the Turks. But I have endured too many days up here. Anywhere must be better. I’ll fight anyone they tell me to, so long as it gets me off this peak.” A fearsome wind ripped his words away, so he spoke again, louder this time: “If you’re with me, I see Italia as a hole as good as any to recruit one hundred brain-dead fools. Otherwise,” his sword clanged against the face of the mountain, “you’re welcome to this rock.”
Not an hour later, the exiled Germans began their downward hike along the spiraling, icy paths of Turin.
A crow perched on a cracked boulder cackled at them, yellow eye reflecting the sunlight. Then the wind swept upward from the depths and crushed the bird under a ton of snow.
The soldiers cackled back.