A Red Fleur-de-Lis
Italia was barraged by thunder. Under wrathful skies, glowing rivers running through the black, seventeen men made their way. The town of Asti, the next checkpoint on their course, lay some leagues to the east.
Hail clattered off of oaken shield and iron helm. Stiff-backed riders were knocked about in their saddles. The horses were covered to the haunches in green mud.
Volkmar imagined he could feel moss growing on his damp, pasty backside. Bobbing in the saddle like a bottle caught by high tide, he chewed on a hunk of aged bread. It had a faintly musty scent but starving seemed less attractive to endure.
In spite of the dismal conditions, the men were grinning. After Turin, most anything could be counted an improvement.
A duo rode to behind Volkmar, in his right-side blind spot. One could recognize Richter and Wolfgang anywhere solely by the conversation that passed between them.
“It’s a pleasant change. I’m enjoying the lack of ice,” said Richter.
“Aye, but my woes have only lessened somewhat. Ever do you smell of donkey,” Wolfgang waved a hand before his nose. “Do me a favor and hang back a bit. The only thing worse than the stench of your skin is that of your breath. Been chewing on the turds we use to feed the fires, have you?”
“Hah! Droll. Who needs a bath? The rain will do the work well enough.”
“Right now, we’re just being pelted. I doubt it’s cleaning you. Not well enough, anyway.”
“My business is my business. Keep that boiled caterpillar you call a nose out of it.” Richter’s blade-thin face twisted into a grimace.
Wolfgang touched his smelling organ gently and then presented the other with a rude gesture. He ran his fingers through the wolfish mane that was his hair, combing it back.
Richter tapped the cleft of his chin. They laughed.
Each clung to his late thirties, but Richter didn’t look a day older than twenty five aside from a bushel of gray hairs that wound about one of his ears (Volkmar did remember that when they’d first met, despite being a man grown, he’d seemed like a thirteen-year-old in expression and physique).
He and Wolfgang were two of Volkmar’s longest-held friends, and fine soldiers both.
When the hail softened to rain, they held aloft their half-helms like chalices to catch the drops. Volkmar swished the tinny-tasting water around in his mouth.
The village at the mountain’s root, more a cluster of thatch-roofed dwellings, provided Volkmar with steeds and some scraps of food. He’d insisted on giving the peasants what he could in return, even though, it being their duty to the Reich to aid its soldiery, he could have taken what he pleased and left them with nothing. His gifts had been only a woolen coat and a gold coin, but the quality of both made him wonder who really got the better of the trade.
His black locks stuck to his greasy forehead. He stared at the messenger whose name he still did not know. How had he not bothered to ask the man his name, or where he was from? Had Volkmar’s hunger to leave Turin been so powerful he’d forgotten even basic courtesy? Forget manners—knowing what to call one’s supposed benefactors was part and parcel of survival.
Well, Volkmar would endeavor to learn at last a fact or two about this mysterious imperial messenger.
“You are not a soldier. You hold yourself too well for that.”
“I suppose I’ll thank you for the kindness, my lord,” said the man, watching the road. “Though the compliment did have barbs to it.”
Volkmar paused and the clack of hooves on stone filled the gap. They’d regained civilization: no more dirt paths, now.
Everywhere he looked, Volkmar caught frightened peasants ducking into their thatch-roofed homes, scooping up any children as they dashed.
He said, “If I were to guess, I’d think you the son of a merchant family. Milan, maybe. With the amount of trade running through the city, you might have caught a Servian phrase or two.”
The messenger smiled. “Actually, you are right about two facts, my lord. I am a merchant, indeed, but second generation only. And I am fluent in Servian. Then again, I also speak, to varying degrees, Hungarian, Frisian, Polish, Dutch, Occitano, Lombardo and Francien. And German, of course.”
“Can you read and write?”
“A little, more or less, depending on the language.”
Now Volkmar was impressed. “And your name, sir? Pardon me for not recalling it.”
The man shook his head. “I haven’t given it, my lord.” It was strange that he paused before answering so mundane a question, but he did. He sniffed. “Miklós Istvanfi, I am called. I was born in Veszprém, Hungary.”
Continuing to ignor the flamboyant arrogance, Volkmar focused on the more interesting part. “But you serve my Lord Heinrich.” Volkmar shook his head. Hungary and the Reich were renowned for their bitter and often bloody disagreements. The Kaiser wasn’t well known for his altruistic streak concerning foreigners, either.
“We are all God’s children. Your—my Kaiser sees this.”
“Excepting the Moslems, naturally,” said Volkmar, making only a minor attempt to hide the insolent sarcasm in his tone. After all, disgraced though he was, it would be his word against a lowly merchant’s. He had nothing to fear of Miklós.
The Hungarian chewed on his upper lip. “Yes, excepting them.”
Has a nerve been plucked? “And the Jews,” Volkmar added.
Miklós gave him a look that he deemed somewhere between irritation and the flustered worry of a caught naughty child.
Why, though? Why the embarrassment, feigned or real? Volkmar asked himself. To revile the Jews isn’t exactly a frowned upon belief, where any God-fearing Christian is concerned. Aloud, he said, “Do not assume that just because news was slow to travel to Turin that I heard not a scrap of it during my stay on that highest of hells.” He picked at a piece of meat caught between his teeth. “I know of the unfathomable migration of people who were so inspired by His Holiness’ speech at Clermont. They thought the way would be easy. No doubt the notion was inspired by the Church. When they found that walking was a hardship, indeed, especially with so many women, children and old men, they took to looting. And I do know what looting is like, having seen it from both ends.”
“So, you lied to me, my lord, when you claimed none the wiser to the tidings of the world.”
“It is not my duty to speak my full mind to you, my friend. I am, after all, noble-born, and may therefore do as I please.”
“You are also disgraced. Begging your pardon, my lord.”
Volkmar shrugged that comment off. “Be that as it may, let us return to the matter at hand. Who was it, then, that became the new target of the so-called People’s Crusade when they found Jerusalem too lofty and distant a goal for their pilgrimage? The Jews. How we hate them for their faithlessness, for murdering the Messiah. Don’t we, Miklós?”
“To kill an infidel is not murder, so said the Pope,” said Miklós, raising his chin.
Volkmar cared little for the danger of what he was about to say. He’d decided, long ago, to speak his mind, no matter what. Such was the obligation, the moral duty of a true knight. Besides, he could see death, for heresy or other crimes, only as liberation. What was there to fear? “But do you know what I believe, Miklós? We hate the Jews because they’re rich. How many of their moneylenders would have to pool their funds to purchase kingdoms? They nearly did it, not so long ago when they were lending to Frankish kings. And what was their reward? Imprisonment.” He waited for the Hungarian to inject a thought into the discussion. When no reply seemed imminent, he continued, “They are being slaughtered, even now. Families, not soldiers. In my own Reich, no less. Yet you neglected to mention this, spouting instead the holiness of this mighty undertaking. Christianity’s quarrel with the Jews is a thousand years old, and yet—suffice to say that I deem it more honorable to kill only when the other man has a sword in hand. And I do mean man, sir. Butchering children, womenfolk, the elderly, such is the work of cowardice, and cowardice serves only the Adversary, the Great Deceiver.”
“We cannot control the minds of peasants,” said Miklós, rocking in the saddle.
“But you didn’t bother to tame them, either, before setting them loose.”
“Forgive my saying so, lord, but your words reek, more than faintly, of heresy.”
“And, tell me, friend, what to make of the plea to protect the helpless, the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow? Is the word of my priest heresy, too?”
The conversation ended then. The men rode on at their steady pace.
Nodding off in the saddle, he dreamed of it, again: the courtyard of stone, overgrown with vines, saplings sprouting in the cracks.
He walked up the spiraling staircase of a gutted tower, his naked body exposed to the elements, the sky in storm. The wind moaned as it slid between the crumbling ribs of that old watch tower.
He always awoke at the same place in the dream. When a fork of lightning split the heavens and struck the tower, sending it crashing down. Falling amid the debris, he’d see a grave in the courtyard below him. He’d tumble and roll in the air, and then he’d open his eyes.
Hours later, they crossed paths with a battalion carrying the Fleur-de-Lis standard, gold on a split field of blue and white. A quarter of their number was mounted on fine white horses, another quarter were Men-at-Arms, and the rest were bowmen levied from the peasantry.
“The high envoy of King Philip I of France greets you,” said the knight with the brightest and tallest plumes on his helmet. His German was flawed but serviceable. He raised his hand in salute. “Friend or foe?”
“Let us say ‘friend’ for today,” said Volkmar. Even a Frankish general’s folly can’t lose with favorable odds set at one hundred against sixteen. “We make for Genoa.”
“White Crosses, eh? We are, as well,” said the knight. “Feel free to fall in with us, my lord. Eugène de Béziers is my name.”
He raised his visor and extended a hand to the German, who shook it.
“Volkmar von Bremen.”
“Ah. I know of it. You’ve come a long way south from that city, lord.”
Too long a way, thought Volkmar. “Thank you for the kindness. We won’t slow you.”
Eugène nodded and was off. His plumed soldiers followed in reasonably good order, throwing their legs up high with every step.
Volkmar couldn’t help but notice how clean and white everything was. Their banners, tunics, even their horse-blankets were as spotless as the day they’d first been sewn. He rolled his eyes at that.
Over-attentiveness to cleanliness, in addition to being bad for one’s health, could only prove detrimental to a proper fighter. Without a single, scratchy black hair popping out of his chin, how would anyone know he’d gone months without a bath sometimes, or fallen into a stable that was completely occupied by beast and byproduct? Misconceptions lead to people thinking they can walk all over you.
Knights who bathed in lilac-water and drank only honey-brewed liquor were good for only one station: the court. There they could have their bottoms fanned by servants all day, should they feel the fancy.
Volkmar’s companions shared his leanings. Once the soldiers resumed their course, he heard a hoarse growl from one of his men, “Oh, Gott im himmel! Anyone but the Franks.”
Just off the road, near the trees, the soldiers made camp for the night. Flocks of crickets fled from their thundering feet for the safety of the high grass. From there, they sang their protests.
Wasting no time, the Franks had made a fire from the hacked limbs of a birch. Volkmar and his fellows couldn’t grasp why. It wasn’t particularly cold. Wasted efforts.
The Germans sat a comfortable distance away from their new companions. That is to say, well out of earshot.
“They build fires to quell their fear of the dark,” laughed Wolfgang.
“No, it must have to do with the smoke covering their smell,” said Richter. “That’s also why they wear so much perfume.”
“We smell worse than they, Richter.”
“At first-sniff, perhaps. I think you’ll find, however, that the stench of a good, hardy German fighter, who smells of fields and blood, is infinitely preferable to the natural malodor of crusted shit and dog ejaculate.”
Wolfgang laughed again.
Volkmar’s eyes scouted the area for Miklós but found nothing. “Our Hungarian has wandered off.”
“Probably off making nice with that feathered idiot,” said Wolfgang, lazing in a flowerbed.
“Maybe he got himself eaten by a wolf while he was doing his business,” said one of the others hopefully.
A wolf howled from far beyond the ring of firelight. Richter made an ‘oo’ noise and twirled his fingers.
“He’s our responsibility,” said Volkmar. “It won’t do to have him harmed on our watch.”
“T’Hell with him,” chorused the others.
Volkmar shrugged. “I suppose the road is beset with danger. Even the most vigilant of warriors can’t protect the weakest from every peril.” He divvied out the last of the foul bread. “Well, then, lads. Bon appétit.”
The moon hid itself behind a thicket of cloud. A fluffy, delicious, hazel-colored bunny padded along the road. Richter chased after it for a minute or two before slumping in resignation. Volkmar laughed at him.
They lay down, and Volkmar drifted off.
A sharp cry sounded from over by the Franks’ fire.
Volkmar raised his head from the bundled cloak he’d be using as a pillow. “What in God’s name…?”
Richter smacked his lips, unaware. Wolfgang mumbled in his sleep.
Volkmar shouted, “Up, you fools,” before rushing to the source of the disturbance.
The man’s blue tunic was torn at the waistline, his belt and scabbard were missing. He held a hand to his forehead. Blood dribbled from between his fingers.
De Béziers exchanged harsh words with the soldier.
Volkmar knew only a negligible amount of French, so he became none the wiser. He asked, “What has happened?”
“He woke to find creatures straddling his chest,” said the Frankish commander. “Ghosts, he thinks. Or demons. Says they took Jacques, one of ours, into the dark.”
“Sit him down. Let’s have a look at him.” Volkmar’s next words caught in his throat when there was another scream from among the rank and file.
Nearer the campfire, a crazed Frankish soldier snatched a longsword away from one of his comrades and babbled to himself. In his hysteria, he failed to realize he was backing himself closer and closer to the flames.
“Talk some sense into your man,” said Volkmar.
De Béziers rattled off a calm but quick string of characteristically mellifluous sentences, but the other man could only shake his head and blink and bite his lip. He scratched at his throat, gasping.
“Looks like he can’t breathe?”
More terrified shouts sounded from just beyond the ring of firelight, sending the Frankish soldiers into a frenzy. The battered, bleeding, babbling man was knocked into the midst of the fire. His cloak ignited and the flames curled through his blond hair. He leapt upright and ran this way and that, spinning and flailing his arms.
“Malediction,” cried de Béziers. “We have been cursed this night.”
The Franks drew their blades, their commander shoving them into a defensive line.
Volkmar dashed to warn his own men.
Richter was already clutching his axe like a priest might cling to the Holy Book. “What’re we supposed to be killing?”
Volkmar admired the sentiment. He regretted not having an answer. “I don’t know, lads. Whatever it is, though, has given our new friends quite a scare.”
“Excellent. So, we could be looking for anything from phantasms to a hare with the mange,” said Wolfgang.
In no mood for jokes, Volkmar grimaced. “I’d hoped to get some sleep tonight, but the darkness has other designs. Come on, we’ve got to show our westerly neighbors how to hold their bladders.”
Upon catching sight of Volkmar, Eugène said, “There you are, coward. I’d thought you gone for good.”
“Coward? Speak for your own men.” Volkmar glowered at the thinned ranks. “Where have they all gone?”
“I’ve formed them into search parties,” said the commander with a haughty grunt. “Whatever’s out there, they’ll find it.”
Volkmar shook his head. Gesturing for his fellows to follow, he headed for the woods.
People were shouting from all sides. The din was overwhelming. Even the distraught crickets couldn’t match the volume.
The Germans hesitated, just for an instant, before the trees. Then they marched forward, arches of shadow falling over them. The air had a tinge of dampness to it, which, back at the camp, had been burned away by the fire. A precursor to summer rains, perhaps.
One of the men stopped mid-step, struggling with invisible demons.
“What’s wrong?” said Volkmar.
“Cobwebs, sir,” said the soldier. He at least had the decency to appear ashamed.
Volkmar rubbed his eyes. Refocusing, he said, “It’s clear that we can’t rely on that Eugène for anything.”
“I’m shocked,” Wolfgang muttered.
“But I’m determined to find whoever’s doing this and bury them myself.” Volkmar sneered. “Ghosts. Hah!”
He pressed deeper into the dark. “First, though, we really do need to find Miklós. If he dies, we’ll end up right back on Turin. That makes him, in my mind, the absolute priority over any damned Frankish children wandering in the woods. Fan out and find him. But no one goes alone. Eight groups of two, every direction. Now, go.”
They parted at a clearing. Volkmar took with him Guntram, who spoke a fair amount of French. That would be useful if they stumbled upon any of the men Eugène was needlessly pissing away to the bandits or wolves, or whoever, who’d stolen into the camp.
With how thick the overgrowth and brush were, it take a miracle to discover Miklós Istvanfi out here, if here is where he’d gone.
God only knew what was happening. Something in the back of his mind made the hairs on his neck and arms stand on end. A voice was telling him, Armed men, Frankish or no, wouldn’t be so terrified of mere wolves.
Volkmar’s chain mail rustled in time with the leaves underfoot. Guntram continuously loose an ebbing and flowing stream of oaths.
They heard a shrill scream. Volkmar imagined its vibrations rippled through the latticework of twigs and battered the leaves and pine needles like a gust of wind.
“A woman?” he said, forefingers scraping the pommel of his longsword.
“No,” said Guntram, tucking his blond hair under his half-helm. “I would guess it’s one of the so-called ‘men’ under Eugene.”
A shape emerged from the shadows as Volkmar held on to Guntram’s shoulder, keeping him still. It was a man, a torn blue and white tunic clinging to his frame. His hands twitched at his sides, his elbows locked in an awkward arc. He was babbling. Volkmar couldn’t understand him, or the sight of his foaming mouth and twitching eyelids.
“Ask him what happened to him.”
Guntram did so, interlacing his syllables with a soothing tone.
The man kept on jabbering, his eyelids spasming in time with his pale hands. Ever thicker coils of spittle crept from the corners of his mouth.
“What’s he saying?” said Volkmar. “What’s got him so afraid?”
“Maybe he got hit over the head, sir. It’s not French he speaks, but Latin.”
“You don’t know any, do you?” But he already knew the answer.
“Not a lick, sir,” Guntram admitted with a shrug.
Volkmar took the madman by the neck, said the Latin word for ‘master’ and pointed in the direction of camp. That was the best he could think up, in the moment.
“Hopefully that will send him on his way,” he said as he led Guntram onward.
“Courageous lot,” muttered the soldier.
Volkmar pretended not to overhear. He didn’t have any more energy to waste on calling the French fools and cowards. All the time in the world wouldn’t be enough to properly convey the sentiment.
Combing through the overgrowth, their efforts reaped no rewards. He couldn’t tell exactly how much time had passed during their search, but he guessed no more than an hour.
Guntram coughed. “Sir, for all we know, the Hungarian could be back with Eugène and his little girls by now. This is fruitless.”
Volkmar knew he was right, but that didn’t stop him from punching a tree trunk. Babying his knuckles afterward, cursing his foolishness, he followed Guntram back to the camp as the night began to lighten ever so slightly.
What they found…
“Holy Mother,” Volkmar breathed.
A perfect circle of corpses surrounded the ashen remains of the fire. Some were still in one piece.
Blood had spilled from them in waves, washing red their uniforms, plate mail and skin. Empty eyes had drifted upward before their end. A few of warriors had clutched, in their final moment, at their wounds, or raked their nails in the dirt, attempting to scrabble away from their killer.
The Franks were dead. To a man.
Even the horses had been slaughtered, their bodies interspersed between or laid atop their masters.
A fly nestled on one milky eye.
“This massacre must have happened mere moments ago,” Volkmar murmured, squatting. “How did we not hear?”
Shaking his head, Guntram crossed himself. “There were no screams. None that I heard, at any rate.”
A wooden flagpole was the only thing that remained standing, but its flag, France’s flag, had been shredded. Moving through the scene was tantamount to taking a stroll through death’s garden, every bloodied face another red flower in his bush.
Volkmar took a step forward. His boot crunched onto something small and cylindrical. A dirt-marred finger, still sporting its sigil ring.
A group of conspirators must have swept in and divvied up the killings between them. There must have been dozens of them, and master assassins all—very few of the victims had time enough to draw steel. And the attackers were no bandits. To slay and subsequently arrange the remains so many so perfectly requires organization, a degree of coordination that common thugs lack.
No, this was planned. This was a message. But for whom was it intended?
Guntram called him to one of the many massive trees encroaching on the camp. There, pinned to the ancient, armored bark by a halberd, he’d found Eugène.
Volkmar’s arms fell limp. The commander’s fingers had wrapped around the shaft of the weapon. His cheeks sagged, hanging from his enraged and fearful face like an ill-fitting mask. His helm had been split by a separate blow; the metal folded into his exposed brain.
Before he even had a second to think, Volkmar heard hooves beating the earth at a gallop. He turned just as Miklós shot from the saddle. One of his legs caught on the stirrups and he fumbled for a moment. When he’d freed himself he uttered not a word. He stared at Volkmar.
The German said, “Where have you been?”
“What in God’s name happened to the soldiers here?” said the Hungarian.
“Answer the lord’s question, messenger,” said Guntram. His blade was naked, out for all to see.
Volkmar could feel his subordinate’s malaise. He couldn’t blame him for it, either.
“Do I detect suspicion both in your voice and comportment? Are you accusing me of this?” Miklós touched a hand to his chest. He gave a dry, hacking laugh. “You said yourself, my lord, that I am no fighter.” He scowled. “You’d like to know to where I sped off? Well, I answer: the nearest little hamlet, where I happened to have bought us some food.” He tossed a bundle of cloth at their feet. A fold fell to reveal a loaf of bread. “Am I exonerated?”
No, thought Volkmar. I don’t know what to think of you.
The Hungarian wasn’t crossed off the list of suspects because he could not have committed this heinous act alone. No one could have. Did he, or whoever it was, have raiders waiting in the woods? Connivers, schemers…
Volkmar’s mind wandered though his eyes remained fixed on the golden chain hanging from the young man’s neck, partially hidden under the fur trim of his cloak.
He has to survive, or else I will never recover from the shame. Volkmar told himself. He has to arrive in Genoa safely. He sighed. Then, the Devil take him, I won’t care.
Volkmar raised his hands, palms facing the other man. “I believe you, friend,” he lied.
Miklós sniffed and wandered off, perhaps to loot the fallen. No judgment cast, regarding that particular action. It was a practice that was necessary, if not pretty. Better living men make use of the equipment than wild animals tearing it apart during a feeding frenzy.
Once the Hungarian had put distance between himself and the two Germans, Volkmar told Guntram, quietly, “We keep two eyes on him, always, from here on out.”
“I’ll bet it was him. The worm, why don’t we just—”
“He lives,” said Volkmar. “We do him no harm. We bring him to Genoa. Then… well, who knows what might happen to him there?”
Guntram crossed his powerful, hairy arms and turned away to hide his smile.
Volkmar stared into the milky, dead eyes of one of the corpses. Whether or not he is somehow responsible for this attack, Miklós is no innocent. He’s hiding something. “We don’t have the time to bury them,” he said, changing the subject quickly to cover his own bloodlust. “As soon as the others return, we should leave.”
“I hope God will forgive us the sacrilege,” said Guntram. Waving to a group of his men emerging from the woods, he added, “He’ll have to. We must press on, or risk the same fate as that fool, de Béziers.”
Volkmar nodded, though he wasn’t really listening. Whoever has done this terrible thing will pay. I swear it. If not now, then later. But I must first think of the safety of my men.
Guntram murmured, “God forgive us. God save those slain this night.”
Volkmar pointed to the rings of dead men whose eyes had searched for salvation in their final moments. They were ravaged, bled like pigs, and carefully arranged by an army of sadists, who’d disappeared into the shadows as quickly as they’d come.
The destroyed Franks were starting to stink.
“God doesn’t live here,” he said.