The House of Empty Promises
Rosy light peeked over the hilly ridge to the southeast. The sun arose over the distant Mediterranean and foreshadowed a bright day. Poor luck for those seeking anonymity.
“So we have the murdering lunatic, the cripple and the man who thinks he’s a lady,” said Wolfgang to himself. “Now all we need is a dancing mule and the circus will be complete.”
The humidity and a sticky southern wind conspired to envelop Volkmar.
The man called Cerveux had provided only one horse which Emicho took for himself. Volkmar voiced no objection, grateful for not having to drag the cripple by his shirt-collar.
“Twenty? I’m expected to walk twenty leagues?” Richter grumbled as he fell in stride with Wolfgang. “For what?”
“My mother said ‘become a blacksmith; you’ll earn well by your family’,” said Wolfgang. “I remember laughing heartily at that. ‘Blacksmith work is repetitive and painful and so I might as well turn soldier,’ I told her. ‘As for family, I’d much prefer a den of camp whores for company’. I couldn’t have been more than nine at the time and I was already gabbing about prostitutes. I thought squiring for a knight would be brilliant and lead to a bright, rich future.”
“Now you see the other side?”
“Now I see the other side, alright.”
Richter adjusted his belt and said, “Why we haven’t chained that animal,” he jerked a thumb in Miklós’ direction, “I can’t understand.”
Wolfgang showed his teeth. “Appearances. He’s an asset to the Reich and in our charge.”
He looked ravenous. Volkmar could guess for what.
Forget the cities I’ve conquered and liberated, the duels I’ve won; getting the Hungarian to his destination in one piece will be my greatest feat by far.
Richter grinned, mumbling so that only Volkmar and Wolfgang could hear, “Once we’ve come to Genoa, he won’t be, though. In our charge, that is. And then we’ll see what’s what.”
Wolfgang returned the wicked grin. “Indeed. He’ll have a very pleasant first night in the city, surely. May he sup well on his last meal. The last meal of the damned.”
“Plenty of knife-happy thieves in Genoa,” Richter noted.
“More than you can count. Lots of dark corners, too, from what I hear. Awful dangerous for a chap to be walking about town alone.”
Volkmar whispered, “Enough,” as he passed them, falling in with the procession’s only rider, thumbs tucked in the loops of his belt, saying “Emicho, we have no food, no water.”
“The forest will provide,” said the rider. He wore a brown leather cap, the brim at a jaunty angle.
“Adelbert can’t do all our hunting for us. And unless you expect me to fashion a bow from twig and vine, I have to doubt your word.”
Emicho threw back his head and laughed, the knob of his throat jutting out. “Rest easy, my lord. You needn’t pelt rabbits with pebbles. I have prepared for our current circumstances.”
“How could you have known?” said Volkmar.
Emicho grew serious. “Were I a religious man, I would tell you it was Providence that brought us together. Bloody and screaming is how God tends to work, so the pattern fits. But I am not religious, and so I’ll tell you true: this is my fifth attempt at escaping Asti.”
Volkmar scratched the graying hairs of his bristly beard. “Your legs.”
A red-breasted woodpecker chirped and flitted overhead.
Emicho seemed vaguely surprised. “My, you are a shrewd one, after all.” He paused, shifting his full focus from the road to Volkmar. “They broke my knee when last I tried to flee.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
Emicho smirked briefly. Then he said in a flat tone, “Let us call them ‘clergy strong-arms’.”
“Holy men?” Volkmar frowned, arching an eyebrow.
The other shook his head quickly. “No. They strive in opposition to the teachings of the Good Book, though they’d claim to be the Lord’s most earnest servants.” He blew out his lips. “If they’re holy, then I must be Jesus Christ Himself. Pardon the blasphemy, my lord, but I’m trying to prove a point. Honestly, everything the supposed holy men I speak of have done is utter garbage. All of it. They call me wicked, but at least I’m honest about my intent.”
“And your knee? How did that happen?”
“I disobeyed my caretakers, those who watched me from afar.”
“Why do you avoid answering my question?”
“But, my lord, I don’t. At least, it wasn’t my intent. Forget I said anything. The ramblings of a crippled man.”
Volkmar sighed. “Who took your knee, Emicho? And why you? Why hold you, of all people, in Asti, of all places?”
“That’s a complicated question with many possible answers. None of which I’m wont to give.”
“You owe your life to me.”
“You have a funny habit of seeing things backwards, my lord,” said Emicho, waggling a finger. “You, after all, owed me yours first, if I owe you mine at all.”
“We both know full-well that that watchman would have skewered you like a sausage, but I’ve no desire to argue the particulars with you. Instead, let me cut to the quick. Let’s call it highway law: I have the bigger sword, twelve men with me and, best of all, two working legs. I could have you killed right now. Therefore, I’m owed your life twice over. Tell me what I want to know.”
Emicho guffawed, slapping the neck of his horse. “A clever man cuts to the heart. I like that.” He wiped his nose with a faded red sleeve. “Very well, then. My father is an abbot. A man of some power, even. He wants me away from him, but not too far as to be outside his sphere of influence.”
“I take issue with your statement. Three issues, in fact.” Volkmar ticked off his fingers as he said, “First, priests, friars, monks, abbots, bishops and what-have-you are forbidden to sire children. It goes against their office, their God-appointed station, their oaths of service to Man and the Divine. Of course, we live in the real world, which is often much less perfect than appearances would have us believe. Thus, secondly, why should a man push his own son away, bastard or no?”
“The answer to your first question is easy,” said Emicho, slouching in the saddle. “And, by your words, I suspect you know exactly how little sway oaths hold over ecclesiastics. Father Jürgen is a whoremonger. He likes them young. So young they’re not even women.” Emicho gestured at his own chest. Indicating his lack of bosom, Volkmar supposed. “As for why he’d keep me at arm’s length, and no closer or farther away… I don’t believe as he does. I’m a stain on his name, on the church, on God, on the known world and so on. A black mark, a foul omen upon his house. Most crucially, I am difficult to control.”
Why, I would never have guessed, thought Volkmar.
Emicho was much deflated compared to his usually exuberant self. He asked, “But what would be your last problem, my lord?”
“You’re taking us to the very same abbey you’re referring to now, aren’t you? The abbot happens to be your father and the very man whose aid we’ll need, is that not so?”
“Hmm.” Emicho gently guided his horse around a pothole in the road. “You’re far too clever for this world, Volkmar.”
“Why would your father help you now, if he hates you?”
“It won’t be for me. It will be for the good of the Reich. He’ll do anything for that protection. He is not what you’d call ‘honorable’. But even a cornered rat will relinquish part of his hoard.”
“Again, why? Your answer seems lacking to me.”
“The truth, then.” He pointed impudently at Volkmar, forgetting his place. “Your warriors will seize by threat anything we need that the monks won’t willingly give up in service to the Kaiser and to God.”
“That’s a horrible and blasphemous plan, and I cannot condone it, much less have my men take part in it.”
Emicho shrugged. “Would you prefer we starve to death in the wilds?”
He nudged the horse to pick up speed. The pair cantered off, leaving Volkmar to choke on the flecks of kicked-up grass and dirt.
The moon hung low over Volkmar as he sat uneasily, forehead, neckline and hands clammy in the humidity. He sneezed and shivered despite the warmth. He hoped he wasn’t coming down with a fever.
If I die now, I’ll never see Falk again. And I did promise myself I’d visit him, next chance I get.
He ignored his guilty conscience even as it reminded him that his son lived in Roma, the Eternal City. Volkmar was neglecting the only chance he might have for years to stop by and embrace his only remaining blood relation.
I have orders from the Pope and the Kaiser. I cannot dally on my way to Genoa. And before I arrive in that city, I must first find some means to acquire one hundred able-bodied men ready for the trials to come. How I’ll do this with nary a Mark to my name… God help me, I was once the Lord of Bremen, and now I can’t knock two coppers together to buy a loaf of bread and new pair of walking boots.
Looking heavenward, he watched the gray rags of cloud glide across the canopy of night, obscuring first the glowing pinpricks that were the stars before blanketing the sickle-cut of the moon.
In the distance, a wolf bayed with his brothers.
The pines rustled and swayed hypnotically. Against his will, his eyelids slid shut. He had another hour to go, at least, before his shift was through. Had he become lazy in his old age?
In my forties. Feeling tired and vaguely feverish, he thought. I might as well start digging my own grave.
The men were already doing it for him, really. They didn’t trust him as they did before, thought his decisions were backward and dumb.
He heard the tear of cartilage from beyond the ring of shadows at the edge of the tree line. The noise grew louder. He waited.
The carcass of a deer was dragged into sight. The wolf that had pulled its weight by the power of its jaws faced Volkmar.
Its molten-gold eyes focused squarely on him, regarding him, unalarmed and without tension, but only for a moment.
Volkmar’s hand rested on the hilt of his steel sword. He didn’t speak, for fear of rousing its beastly anger.
The wolf’s fur might once have been entirely black, but it was graying in the twilight of its life. Strange. He felt a kinship with this creature, then, a bond so poignant that it dissipated his own fears like sun-struck morning dew droplets.
The wolf sniffed the air and yawned. After it gave him another glance, it reclaimed its prize and left in its tracks a trail of blood.
“Two old wolves,” he thought, half lost in dream.
Guntram relieved him nearly an hour later.
When Volkmar laid his head down to sleep, he did dream.
He was returned to the courtyard of stone, overgrown with foliage and knotted trees, some old, some young, all vying for the faintest rays of sunlight filtering through the overcast sky.
Again, he climbed the spiraling staircase of the crumbling and windswept watchtower, not once wondering who had built this place or why; he was at home, here. He knew these steps as well as he knew the feel of the pommel of his sword.
But he was naked, as he always was when he ascended the tower’s steps. And the clouds formed a funnel, a tornado black and raging.
The tower groaned as it strained to hold itself upright against the violence of the wind. The column of swirling destruction cut its way across the infinite forest, headed straight for Volkmar and his tower.
A trident of lighting struck the very foundation of the watchtower, splitting it at its base.
Volkmar’s stomach lurched as he was catapulted through the air.
He saw the gray of sky, the green of the forest, the gray again, the green again, as he twisted through the air. He could hear only the ungodly roar of the tornado as it swallowed him whole and his vision was shrouded by darkness.
His body was blasted apart by soaring, rib-sized chips of rocky debris, slicing his flesh and cracking his bones.
Shredded and trailing a tail of blood, he crashed, head-first into the simple, wooden grave in the image of the holy cross.
But he awoke, alive, again.
Yes, wretchedly alive.
Sword bared, Volkmar vaulted onto his feet from where he lay in a bed of grass. His pounding heart was a war drum whose beating reverberated from his core to his fingertips and toes. Icy trails of sweat crisscrossed his spine.
The leash of panic loosened its coil and he relaxed slightly. The stars still glimmered and the air was still black. He hadn’t slept through the night, after all.
The perfume of pine held a hidden accent, however: a tinge of bile.
His eyes wandered along the trail the wolf from earlier had left behind, highlighted in blood made pink by dew.
Volkmar batted at the clouds flooding his brain. His knees sprung into clumsy locomotion and propelled him forward. Boots sagging just a bit into the damp earth, he followed the path of broken twigs and ruffled brush into the dark.
Then he saw those same golden eyes wreathed in ever deepening shadow; the wolf stared up at the roof of tree limbs.
The wind carried the stench of torn up entrails. Volkmar turned away, gagging. He looked back. Approaching the wolf, he kneeled. It had been eviscerated, from its lifeless eyes dribbled tendrils of blood, from its mouth, a white froth. Steam hissed faintly from the deep gashes in its belly.
A guttural groan startled him to attention. He forgot to breathe as his eyes searched the darkness.
A deer, tall and proud but leaning heavily on its right side, had crept up to stand before him and the corpse of the wolf. Its own eyes were missing and ropes flesh hung in tatters from its long neck. Then Volkmar saw why it leaned. One of its front hooves was missing, snapped clean off the bone.
He did nothing. He could think of nothing to do, save hold still.
The deer’s breath fogged before its ruined snout and Volkmar saw the glint of flat teeth.
The ravaged animal finally limped away between the trunks, making its horrid call a few times more.
Volkmar brought a hand to his mouth, almost expecting his own skin to peel off.
He wondered, Am I awake, or do I dream?
“Hungarian,” growled Adelbert as he lashed some sacks round the belly of Emicho’s horse.
Volkmar gathered that Bert cursed for two reasons. The first was that he’d taken off his shirt—the work made him sweat like a whore in church—and now found it lying under a fresh pile of the horse’s natural expression of good health some minutes later. The second was Miklós’ unyielding slowness in responding.
“Hungarian,” he called again, tying the final knot.
The tall, straight cypresses and squat, wild lemon trees left long shadows which speared into the carpet of brown leaves. It was too soggy and cold for spring. Despite the damp chill in the air, the men were sweating due to the long, upward hike through rocky terrain.
Adelbert, who’d trapped and bagged a pair of hares, mopped his balding crown as he fumbled with the knot. His fingers brushing his sparse and thinning hair only made him more irate.
Being considerably older and yet maintaining a full head of hair, Volkmar knew his friend well enough to avoid the topic of his premature baldness.
A priest once explained to Volkmar that to be vain is a sin. Volkmar had replied, But we must all have our little vanities, mustn’t we, if only to prevent ourselves from grander wickedness. How could we live without differentiating ourselves from our brothers, our neighbors? Is the measurement of oneself against another not the only way to determine the degree of one’s transgressions against God?
The priest had prescribed three hours of meditation in solitude, so that “my Lord Volkmar might reflect on his errant thoughts and rein in his wayward heart.”
“What, blast you?” said Miklós, finally bounding toward Adelbert.
Somehow, the Hungarian wasn’t sweating. Not a drop.
Volkmar blew through his teeth at that; those thin, white fingers couldn’t have seen a day’s hard work. Everything about the young man was just unnatural.
“As someone seems to have smeared my old one in refuse, I’ve want of a new shirt,” Adelbert said, mopping his brow. “Fetch me one.”
Miklós stiffened. He’d been standing perfectly still before, except for the shallow bob of the apple of his throat as he breathed, but now he might have been carved from granite.
“How dare you speak to me in such a way?” His voice grew very quiet, until it became nothing more than a viper’s hiss. “Sir, how dare you? My father, Lord Istvan, owns more land than shall accrue you and all of your descendents for a thousand years to come. I have conversed with kings and trod the same paths as the Pope, the Voice of the Almighty. Don’t you ever treat me so basely again or I will thrust upon you a pain that would make the Deceiver himself recoil in disgust.”
Adelbert spat in his face.
Miklós was stunned.
In characteristic Bert fashion, he said, “If your father, who begat you, can make the Devil cringe, what does that make me, who can hawk one in your eye without fear? Nice speech, by the way, but you don’t know my father.” As he said this, he unsheathed the sword from the belt about his waist and hefted it above his head.
Volkmar could have put a stop to the display then. Perhaps he should have. He didn’t, however, because it was his staunch belief that a moderate dose of existential terror, administered regularly, was particularly healthful for the constitution. Especially for worms who call themselves men.
Adelbert continued, “My Pa was a murderer. They caught him eventually, five years and thirteen victims later. They took him up to the Duke’s demesne in Passau and brought the axe,” he snorted like a mad cow, “down on his neck.” With his sword, he struck the earth beside the cowering Miklós.
The Hungarian opened his eyes, blinking profusely, and bared his teeth, crimson gums to clash with his pallor.
“The nobles and clergy staged a private party to witness the execution of so vile and terrible a highwayman. Do you know why? Of course you don’t. Where most tortures and executions are made public spectacle, for entertainment as well as educational purposes, my Pa was hacked apart in private because he was more demon than man. One look from his gray eye would make women miscarry; a touch of his hand,” Adelbert reached for Miklós, who shrunk away, “could stop the heart of a child. So, being compassionate men, the lords of Passau preserved the people from that fright. How did they put an end to his lust for death? They decapitated him, drawing and quartering his remains, and burying the lot in the sepulcher. His head they placed upside down, to prevent him from rising again.” Adelbert chuckled, sheathing his sword. “And do you know his preferred quarry?” He grinned. “Hungarians. Women, mostly. But he liked men just as well, he told me.”
“Adelbert, that’s enough,” said Volkmar.
Many of the others were watching now and could see that Miklós had wet himself. The humiliation was complete.
“Everyone pulls their load around here, sir,” said Adelbert, testing the knot he’d tied. He stabbed a finger at Miklós. “Everyone but him.”
“Let him be, Bert.” Volkmar stood up and approached his friend.
“Who’s to say we won’t be accosted by bandits on the way to Genoa?” said the soldier with a shrug. “It’s as common as liver-spots on old ladies. My own cousin was waylaid not two years ago. We could make it look any way—”
Volkmar’s fist caught him across the jaw. “Need I remind you that I’m still in command.” He stooped and offered Adelbert a hand, adding, “Talk back to me at your own peril.”
“This rat has a whole case full of clean clothes and never lifts a finger,” Adelbert rasped, accepting his superior’s help. “Maybe he can forgo one of his many changes of apparel to grant a simple soldier this favor.”
Volkmar patted him on the shoulder. To Miklós, he said, “Give him the shirt.” To the soldier, “You, go kill us a doe. Those hares will last a while, but not long enough.”
By far the best archer of the group—and not just self-titled—Adelbert hesitated.
Perhaps he wonders if a pair of feathers sprouting from my skull would cure my pomposity.
Then Bert said, “I’d spotted a quarter of an hour back along our trek. With the brook. I’ll be there.”
Nodding, Volkmar said, “Good. See what you can do. We’ll stay here tonight. We wouldn’t get far without eating well, anyway.”
Adelbert saluted and was off.
“Get back to work, the lot of you. We need dry wood for the fire and the tents won’t set themselves up,” Volkmar said.
Leaving Miklós where he lay, Volkmar jogged down the winding trail after Adelbert. Catching up, he said, “You laid it on a bit thick, didn’t you?”
“Had a point to prove. You’re nothing if you have to rely on the weight your father’s name carries, real or imagined.”
“That’s true. I just think the lesson is wasted on him.”
Adelbert’s grin was hopeful. “Because we’re only going to kill him soon, anyway?”
“Because people like him don’t learn. They’re born into the world blind and the wealth they’re wrapped in preserves the illusion that the world is anything but a cruel and loveless hell.”
Chuckling, Adelbert said, “Thanks for picking up my spirits, boss. Why don’t you head back to camp and direct the idiots. I think I’ve had about all the positivity I can stand from you.”
Volkmar turned around. From over his shoulder, he called, “Sorry about your face.”
Adelbert rubbed his jawline. “I’m fine. I probably deserved it.”
And they walked away from each other.
Volkmar couldn’t help but laugh at the joke. Adelbert’s father had never been a stone-cold killer, to say nothing about any supposed supernaturally demonic powers. In fact, the old man wasn’t even dead. He lived in a cottage in Ostmark with most of his family.
His father had been a woodsman. But, as with the rest of his fellows, Adelbert’s hunts didn’t stop at hares and foxes.
From now on, Volkmar told himself that he’d have to keep close watch over his men, lest they ruin his one chance at redemption by prematurely killing that sniveling wretch, Miklós Istvanfi.
Upon the hill rested an ancient and nameless abbey, weathered stone on weathered crown. Teeth of rock latched onto cliff ranges that ensconced the foreboding edifice.
Volkmar led the band, following the narrow donkey path that wound the girth of the hill. Any other way would guarantee only a swift fall, dozens of feet of air to embrace a messy death.
“An impressive structure,” Volkmar, out of breath from the long slog through muddy fields, admitted. “And, in terms of sheer intimidation, the location leaves little to be desired.”
“It’s monks that live here, you say?” said Wolfgang.
“The kings of Christendom are generous to those who commune with the Almighty. Charity is a virtue and the one thing the nobility has in plenty is land,” said Emicho. “But that is not the whole truth.”
“Really, now,” said Volkmar.
“My father has arrangements with the lords of some local fiefdoms. Some of the men have… needs, small and large, private and strange. And as long as Jürgen provides…”
“A lord can come by whores easily enough. Why involve religious men?” Richter asked, clasping his hands behind his head and stretching.
Emicho said, “Whores, yes. Can’t snap his fingers without having one tug at his drawers, your typical lord can’t. But, while these services do include favors of the flesh, it is not pedestrian camp followers they seek.”
“I don’t follow,” Wolfgang grumbled. He tugged at the black stubble on his chin.
“Young girls. Very young.” Emicho made a show of cringing. He spat over his right shoulder, narrowly missing Wolfgang’s face. “And, often enough, boys, too.”
“You can’t be—” Richter started.
“Plenty of them coming up the hill for communion, providing the aging monks with strong, young backs and hands to complete the chores such men are too old or pious to perform. Unfortunately, not all their labors are limited to simple run-and-fetch.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Richter.
Volkmar fell back a few feet, so he came to Richter’s side. “And why not? Remember old Father Simon when we were posted in Verdun?”
“Of course I do. T’was my axe-stroke what lopped his head from his shoulders.”
“Of what did they accuse him?”
Richter narrowed his eyes. “Heresy.” He said the word slowly, his lips shifting around the syllables uncomfortably.
Volkmar laughed. He stopped walking, bending double.
“Even you believe it now, don’t you?” he panted in between breaths. “No, you idiot. That’s just what they told the peasants when we dragged him into the square. To save the Church, to spare the clergy the embarrassment of admitting they had a rapist and molester of children in their midst, that was our only function. And we’d never have been called upon at all, would we, if the matter hadn’t somehow become public knowledge.”
Richter glared at Volkmar but said not a word.
“The lords wouldn’t have cared, and the clergy do as they please,” Emicho argued. “Commoners have no value to them.”
“That is true. But dogs will oust the weakling from their pack. Touching a child is horrid, but all the bishop cared about was clearing the reputation of the diocese by purging the black mark on its name.”
“Simon had to be blamed,” said Richter, finally.
“Yes, Richter. How could you have forgotten?” Volkmar clapped him on the back. “When we marched against the Saxon rebels in the Year of Our Lord 1075? There were too many twisted hermits for my taste, out there in the woods, many of them claiming divine inspiration when they were finally brought to justice. If ever they even were. No doubt, some of them still ply their evil trade, beguiling love-struck youths with their false sorceries and potions, while occasionally bedding the occasional young, nubile—”
“Stop,” Richter growled, crossing himself. “I can hear no more, God help me.”
Volkmar regarded his friend. Perhaps I went too far. But the truth is the truth, and I swore to speak it whenever and wherever I might, even at the cost of my life.
Though, I wonder, is reminding a friend of a painful truth a worthy endeavor? Is a truth important precisely because it is painful?
None of them felt much like talking, so they reached the base of the hill and, in silence, undertook the ascent.
Narrow as the path became, the horse could go no farther. Volkmar looked at Emicho’s bandaged knees and said, “Are you fit for this?”
Only the day before had he decided to abandon the crutches. He leaned on his new walking stick, panting. “Now, yes. I can do it.”
Gravel ground underfoot and the sun rose with them, nearing its apex. They ascended the spiraling path until iron barred their progress, black rods set against them. The rusted metal groaned with the passing wind.
Before the gate stood a short, broad man decked in chainmail. From his eyes poured venom and the scar that spread across the right side of his face, from chin to brow, was taut. When Emicho approached, however, his expression changed.
“Marteau, a joy to see you again, my friend.” The two clasped hands. Emich gestured at the gate and what lay beyond it. “How is the old bastard?”
Marteau pulled at the grungy scarf slung around his neck and grinned. The white scar tissue wriggled dryly into a new shape.
“This,” said Emicho from atop his mount, “is my other very good friend, Marteau. I don’t know why he’s called that because he was struck mute before he would tell me. And the man certainly can’t read and write.”
Volkmar looked to Wolfgang, whose face betrayed that he was troubled about something.
“My lord, a word?” he said.
He and his master sidled off a few paces from the gate.
Wolfgang said, “I know you like the man, my lord, so please take no offense at what I am about to ponder aloud. May I speak freely, sir?”
“You may, of course, my friend.”
“How is it that Emicho, self-professed captive and lonely victim of torture, was so well-prepared for this journey? He could not have known when he met us. How did his friends, Cerveux and, now, this Marteau fellow, know when and where to join up with us?”
Volkmar scratched the stubble on his cheek. “It’s a very good point. To be clear, it’s not that I like him at all. He’s offered us assistance when we needed it. His timely intervention likely saved us from that misunderstanding between Miklós and the bishop’s men?”
“Yes. Convenient, wasn’t it, that whole episode?” Wolfgang narrowed his eyes. “What if—and I have not a shred of proof to support this, understand—what if Emicho and Miklós are conspirators in a plot to ensnare us, here, at this remote abbey?”
Volkmar quirked an eyebrow. “To what end?”
“Who can say? All I know is that I don’t like the smell of this one stinking bit.”
“Your concern is noted. We’ll be on our guard until we know we’re safe. I doubt very much, however, that we have anything to fear from mere monks.”
“How is that we know we’re dealing with monks, sir? Having only Emicho’s word to go on, we could be faced with just about anything once we step past those gates.”
Frowning, Volkmar said, “Well, we’ve gone too far to turn back now. And where would we even go? We must finish the game we started.”
From several yards away, Cerveux gave them a toothy grin. He couldn’t have heard us, low as we were speaking, Volkmar told himself.
“You’re right, sir.” Wolfgang put a hand on Volkmar’s shoulder, adding, “Just, please, be careful.”
They rejoined the group just as Emicho cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Sanctuary.” Nothing happened for a few minutes, so he repeated himself.
At last, a hunched monk came into view behind the bars. From under the folds of his heavy, woolen cloak only his nose and mouth were visible.
“Who goes there?” said he.
Emicho answered, “Weary pilgrims, seeking refuge after a long journey. And we’ve many miles yet to go.”
“Why the swords then, if pilgrims you be?”
“We are White Crosses, en route to Holy Jerusalem. Powerful as the Word of the Lord may be, it yet requires mouthpieces to chant it. Wide as is the Garden of the Lord, it takes strong arms to pluck the weeds from the soil. Our blades shall hew the infidels, that more light may touch upon good Christians over lesser heads.”
“Ah. Emicho.” The monk’s voice was drained of all emotion. “Ravaged by the passage of time though you’ve apparently been, your snide sarcasm is unmistakable.”
“Enough of your cheek, Amé. Let us in.”
The monk inclined his head. “Of course, young master. Your father’s been expecting you.”
The gate grinded open, and he stepped through. Cerveux pressed a hand onto Marteau’s shoulder and they followed.
Volkmar turned to his men. They had the look of back-broken elders. Had he not known them, he would need a thousand guesses to discover they were soldiers of the Reich. More than the physical strain of the journey, the emotional blows had taken their toil. Five of their number, their close friends, after all, had been killed or worse.
“The road has been unkind, so we must rest here. We’ve almost reached Genoa,” he told them. “We’re close.”
Richter indicated the gate. “I thought Emicho said his father held him in Asti, a prisoner in a city not his own? Why then has the return of the prodigal son been expected?”
“That is curious,” said Wolfgang.
Volkmar sighed. Richter and Wolfgang are close as brothers. Do they conspire against me? Have the seeds of rebellion been sown? He said, “That might have been a bluff. Emicho’s father is a man wrapped in conspiracy and mystery. His word cannot be trusted without evidence to support it.”
“Forgive me, my lord, but according to whom?” Richter shook his head. “We’ve only the claims and opinions of Emicho for all of this. We go into that abbey blind as newborn pup.”
“Be that as it may,” Volkmar growled, “we go. We’ve no other options, lads. We’ll rest in shifts, if it will make you feel safer. But we’re staying here. You are so ordered.” He threw up his hands. “Don’t despair now, when we find ourselves virtually at Genoa’s very doorstep.”
“Aye, Genoa. And then?” said Ekkehard, pushing out an obviously false laugh. “Another year or more of marching just to win a chance at being killed by the Turks.”
I have tolerated far too much insolence, thought Volkmar. I must silence them all. Now. He already knew the answer but he asked anyway, “Are you a religious man, Ekkehard?”
The soldier stared at him blankly. He swiveled his head and spat over the edge of the path. “No, sir. I’ve had to end too many lives to believe in a point to it all, a greater plan.”
“There’s your problem, then. You think with your head, not your sword-arm. You see what is there. Not the ghost behind the scene telling you what’s real, telling you what to believe…” Volkmar caught himself rambling. “Dangerous thinking. Keep it to yourself. Especially here and now.” He raised his voice. “We go to Konstantinopel to kill Turks because the Kaiser and the Pope—and God, I suppose—tell us to do it. We are blades for hire. Bodies for the wall. That is all, and nothing more.” Crossing his arms, he ended with, “What do you care, Ekkehard, about the when and where of the fight? What does it matter who swings the sword, so long as you stand to receive or parry the blow? If you no longer wish to make killing your profession, there’s the road,” he pointed back the way they came, “but you know as well as I that all we’re good at, all we’re all capable of, is felling those whom our betters have determined should be put to death.”
Ekkehard scowled but submitted.
The Germans passed beneath the archway. Adelbert covered the dome of his head with his arms, eyeing the crumbling keystone warily.
“Welcome, lords,” said Emicho, right arm held on high, left leaning on the cane, “to the house of empty promises.”
On either side of him hooded monks shook their heads or muttered to one another. One among them stepped forward, drawing back his veil.
“Hubris is a sure path to spiritual purgatory, my son,” he said. He plucked at a strand of his black, tonsure.
“Johann.” Emicho beamed at the holy man. “What will it take for you to leave abandon all of this nonsense and take on a sensible profession?”
“Such as?” said Johann.
“Mummery, or fire-breathing? Horse taming?”
The circle of monks surrounding the soldiers murmured their disapproval (the default response for any decent man of the cloth).
“Ever the clever boy, I see.” Johann steepled his fingers. “You ask what it would take for me to leave the priesthood? The promise that I’ll retain the full use of all my limbs would be a good start.”
Emicho’s expression darkened. He nudged the horse’s ribs.
Volkmar caught up with him. “Are you alright?”
“I’m not angry with Johann.” Emicho groaned. “He’s alright. He was only joking, besides.”
“Then what is it?”
“Here he comes.”
Volkmar followed Emicho’s gaze to a steel-jawed, narrow-eyed man garbed in simple gray. He held himself straightly, rigid at the knees, and kept his nose crinkled in disgust even as Volkmar proffered his hand.
“Who do you bring before me?” he asked.
Emicho opened his mouth to speak.
The abbot slapped him, gray cloak flapping. “I will not hear one word from the mouth of the unclean.”
The abbot’s bastard turned away.
Volkmar retracted his attempt at a friendly greeting and said, “I am Volkmar von Bremen. I was told you could help me, Father Jürgen.”
The corners of Jürgen’s lips wriggled upward. “Well, you know my name. Now that we are acquainted, please, do come in.”
The abbot folded his arms in the sleeves of his cloak, disappearing his hands in its folds, and walked toward a square hole in the stone wall, employing long, joint-cracking steps. Volkmar looked back to see Emicho’s little wave and the other men milling about or discovering a place to sit. Then he had to stoop to pass the low opening, so small that it wouldn’t even have allowed a Frank’s frame without him having to duck his head.
“Bowing upon entry teaches humility,” the abbot droned.
The room within was completely bare. Apart from a three-legged wooden stool, a urinal hole was its sole distinguishing feature.
“I fear we cannot offer much in way of the comforts a lord must be accustomed to. Our duty to God takes all our time. Our way of life is our just and good sacrifice for the honor to serve.” Jürgen crossed himself.
“Fear not; of late I have grown accustomed only to frigid gales and moldy bedding. Your hospitality is more than enough, Father. Besides the few but welcome accommodations you can provide, all I need is information. Emicho tells me you know of a band of men stationed somewhere nearby, forgotten after the last rebel uprising?”
“Even bastards bark the truth on occasion,” said Jürgen, rubbing his hands over his legs.
“Where might I find this place?”
“That’s easy enough. But first, let me tell you something. Gottschalk is the man you seek. You shall speak with him. He holds no title and serves not even the Cross, but he might yet join you.”
“He doesn’t sound immensely reliable,” said Volkmar, seating himself upon the stool, which wobbled under his weight. “What makes you confident of my chances to recruit him?”
“Confidence is not a word I would use. Yet, there is hope. Blood is what he and his seek. And, if the tidings from inland be true, blood is certainly what you’ll give them beyond Konstantinopel.”
“I don’t seek it, but you speak true. It is what we will all reap from this affair.”
“Perhaps before even you ever set foot in that ancient Roman city.”
“What do you mean?”
The abbot whispered, wheezing, “The roads of Christendom are beset by liars, sorcerers, whores, magicians, highwaymen, bandits and infidels. A careful man sleeps with one eye open, and one hand clutching the Cross.”
“Thank you for your warning, Father. Again, I will seek out no trouble on the road. I do not wish for violence.”
“What do you wish for, then? What more could you possibly hope for, lord? What could be greater than to lay down your life in Christ’s hallowed name? What could bring you more glory than to reclaim our Holy Land?”
The land was never “ours,” however you define the term, Volkmar wanted to say. But that will not stop us from piling high the corpses of Turks just to claim a few hundred leagues of stone and sand. If Christ is anywhere, He is everywhere, and He cares not for where our feet touch earth when we worship Him.
Aloud, Volkmar said, “I seek only to serve my master, the Kaiser, and my people.”
“Ah, yes. And, in so doing, regain your honor and achieve your salvation,” the abbot, faced Volkmar’s noncommittal answer, said. “Thankfully, your own betterment and improvement of station is tied to our own, and to the glory of all Christendom.”
“Yes, Father,” said Volkmar. Is he calling me selfish?
“Nothing is too great a favor to repay when done for God. You wish to serve God, my son, and so I shall tell you exactly how you may.”
“Soldiers,” said Volkmar as he stepped into the courtyard. They remained where they were. None bothered with a salute. He let his eyes roam, giving them each a wary glance. “We leave in an hour.”
“I’ve barely picked the rocks from between my toes,” Richter complained.
“I’m hungry enough to eat even Miklós’ filthy hide,” said Adelbert.
Volkmar snapped, “Is this how you’ll speak to me in Genoa, in front of generals and princes? Stand to attention!”
That got them up. They were confused. Volkmar hoped the look he was giving them passed on the desired message.
Guntram crossed his arms.
Wolfgang said, “I think I see the sense.” He lowered his voice. “I definitely don’t care for the smell, here.” Returning to his regular volume, for the benefit of the monks who silently bore witness to the exchange, “We can’t ask humble men of the cloth to feed a band like us.”
“Not with your stomach, Wolfgang,” said Ekkehard.
“I see the roll over your belt, you fat knave,” Wolfgang retorted.
Emicho had been behind Volkmar that whole time. He placed a hand on the other’s shoulder and said, “That’s the wisest decision you’ve ever made.”
“I lead children,” Volkmar whispered.
He faced the younger man, leaving the others to their squabbling.
Volkmar murmured, “Why did you have us come here, cripple?”
Emicho hadn’t heard the comment. “I have one more favor to ask,” he said. “Take Johann with us. He’ll be useful. He can read and write for one thing.”
“So can I,” said Volkmar with a shrug. “So can you.”
“Not in seven languages.” Emicho snorted. “Besides, we will be busy swinging steel. How will history remember us if we have no chronicler to put it to vellum?”
“You’re a warrior now, are you?” said Volkmar. “Alright. Maybe we can get someone large to carry you while you swing a Morning Star.”
“Very funny,” said Emicho flatly, shifting his weight to the other crutch. “I’ll have recovered by the time we reach Genoa.”
“For another thing, why must we still take you along? The bargain was for your safe passage out of Asti. Our arrangement has been concluded.” Volkmar yawned. “And for another fact, we could use that horse to carry our gear.”
Emicho covered his eyes. “You’re quite confident then. I see you have it all sorted.”
Volkmar waited. He knew the man well enough by now to know he wasn’t through.
The cripple added, “I know Gottschalk. He’s one of the finer archers this side of the world, I’d say. Keenest sight and surest aim, and I’m willing to bet that he won’t shoot at me. Can’t be so certain if it was just you walking toward his outpost, no banners flying.” His grin spanned the width of his face. Volkmar realized Emicho was missing one of his canine teeth. “Friend or foe, my lord?”
“Alright, I’ll bite: why would he not kill you?” Volkmar said, rubbing at his chin.
“He might. Gottschalk is unpredictable. Worse still for spending years in this limbo of his. He’s only marginally less likely to take my life. Because we’re half-brothers.”
“You mean, Father Jürgen—”
“Saint Jürgen, busy servant of the Almighty,” Emicho hawked a glob of phlegm at the parched, brown shrub beside him. “Busy serving himself to every cankerous wench he can find, that is.”
Something akin to pain passed over his face.
“Let’s just get the hell out of here,” he said.
An upbeat tune, whistled through dry lips, floated their way. Johann the priest, saddled atop his donkey, bowed his brow to them.
“My lord, Volkmar, I ask that you accept me into your company.”
Volkmar took the priest’s measure with his eyes, tracing the meager possessions fastened to his mount, the frayed travel bag, the single emerald apple in his hand. “We have a long road ahead of us and at its end there will be blood. I cannot knowingly subject one such as you to that kind of harm.”
“It is my choice. And I will be of some small use,” Johann said. He flourished the quill from behind his ear. “What good will glory be, if there be none to record the names of the doers and the hour of their deeds?”
Emicho said, “I already tried that argument, my friend. Go back to your interminable studies. He thwacked a stone with his cane, and then he winked at Volkmar. It was all a game to him.
Johann’s shining expression faltered for just a moment. He rallied with, “Consider this my newest quest for understanding. And I do still owe you something, my friend.”
“Then do me the favor of leaving, now.”
Johann fidgeted with his crucifix necklace. He dismounted from his drooling mule and moved to Emicho’s side. “Truthfully,” he whispered. “I can’t stay here any longer. I hate this place. And your father, too—God forgive me.”
Emicho held his breath. It spilled over, at last, in the form of uncontrolled, coughing laughter.
“That I will believe,” he said. To Volkmar, “Let him come. He might do us some good and if you turn him away here, he’ll only follow us anyway.”
Volkmar stared at Johann’s thin face, his closely-tied, wide and watery eyes.
Volkmar said, “Very well. A little more prayer on our side certainly couldn’t hurt. Just keep that ass down-wind from me.”
When the priest looked away, Emicho winked at Volkmar.
Well, now we have a man of God with us, the weary lord thought. That has to count for something.