Authors: Karleen Bradford
For Rachna Gilmore, Jan Andrews, Caroline Parry and my editor, Marie Campbell, who all helped me to chip away the stone and find the story
n the year 1096, Pope Urban II responded to the Byzantine Emperor Alexius’s plea for help in recapturing the lands that the Seljuk Turks had conquered. The pope called for a holy crusade to liberate Jerusalem.
A monk named Peter, also called Peter the Hermit, set out in April of that year from Cologne, Germany, with over twenty-thousand followers. This People’s Crusade, as it came to be called, was destined to end in disaster. Peter’s motley band included only a few nobles trained in the art of war, and their foot soldiers. For the
most part, it was made up of pilgrims anxious to liberate Jerusalem, and criminals released from prisons upon the pope’s promise of pardon for the sins of all who took part in the crusade.
The People’s Crusade swept across Germany, Hungary and Serbia on its way to Constantinople in Turkey. The travelers soon ran out of supplies and resorted to looting and pillaging villages as they passed. Other small groups of crusaders were also making their way across Europe and they, too, were causing havoc. Villagers, at first supportive, became fearful and resentful of these roving bands. Battles broke out between Peter’s followers and the soldiers and villagers of the towns through which they journeyed. In the town of Semlin, in Hungary, which had already suffered at the hands of crusaders following Walter Sans-Avoir, Peter’s followers killed four thousand people after a dispute over a pair of shoes. A final ambush by the Turkish army, just outside Constantinople, ended Peter’s hopes. He settled down to wait, with the few survivors, for the First Crusade to catch up with them.
The First Crusade was composed of some of the greatest princes and knights in Germany, France and Normandy, with their well-trained armies and their followers. One of the most noble and respected leaders of this expedition was Godfrey of Bouillon, who set out in August of the same year to meet up with the others in Constantinople and, with them, march on to Jerusalem.
heo raised his eyes. The sword flashed in the sunlight above him. His hands clenched into fists, and he pressed them hard against his thighs as he knelt on the sweet-smelling grass of the meadow. He willed himself to stay absolutely still, his face to remain impassive, but a singing excitement rising inside him threatened to burst out at any moment.
A touch on his shoulder; a light blow to the cheek.
“Rise, Theobald.” Count Garnier’s deep, slightly husky voice rang out.
Theo stood. All of the count’s men were there to witness the knighting of a boy they had known for most of his life. The count lowered the sword and held it out before him, flat on the palms of his hands. The priest, robes stirring in the slight summer breeze, made the sign of the cross over it.
“Bless this sword, Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Eternal God …” His words resounded so that all assembled could hear.
The count then fastened the sword around Theo’s waist. His movements were deliberate, solemn. Theo forced himself to stare straight ahead, even though his eyes squinted in the sun’s glare. He was determined that his knees should not tremble as the count’s oldest squire, Hugh, knelt to fasten gleaming new spurs to Theo’s soft leather boots.
Hugh finished and stepped back. He caught Theo’s gaze and held it for a moment. He had been Theo’s instructor throughout all the years of his youth, and his eyes shone with pride. Theo grasped the pommel of his sword. It felt cold in spite of the heat of this late summer’s day. He took a deep breath and, with a quick, determined movement, unsheathed the weapon and held it high. Cheers shattered the silence.
Three times Theo brandished the sword, and then he returned it to its scabbard. The cheers redoubled. The count’s face broke into a smile, cracking the weather-beaten skin into unfamiliar creases around his eyes and mouth. Now, finally, Theo relaxed. He let out the breath he had been holding and stepped forward to receive his foster father’s embrace. His own smile, wide as it was, was still only a shadow of the great happiness that welled up within him. He was a knight. At last.
Overflowing with eagerness to fulfill his duties, to prove his faith and courage, he had stayed alone at prayer all the night before in the church, dedicating himself to God and to his master. Earlier this morning, he had attended mass amid the smoke of incense and the glow of candles. And now it was over. He was a knight, pledged into his foster father Count Garnier’s service. Although he had as yet seen only seventeen summers, the war that loomed ahead of them promised to be the biggest, the grandest yet, and the count had need of him.
I will not fail him, Theo vowed. He had been sent to the count by his father as a boy of seven years, according to the custom of the time. He had served him first as page, then as squire. Now he could take his place beside him as knight. His head swam with the heat of the day and with magnificent visions—visions of the battle to come, and of the joy of fighting side by side with his master for the glory of God. They would be invincible, he was certain of it.
They were assembling and making ready for a holy crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the heathen. Pope Urban himself had called for it, and the nobles of all the Frankish and German lands were gathering. In less than two weeks—just after the Feast of the Assumption—they would set out. It would be the greatest war the world had ever seen, and he would be a part of it. When Jerusalem was Christian again, he would be there. He would be among the heroes who set it free.
A trumpet sounded, closely followed by another.
“Master?” A low voice brought him back. “Your horse, if you are ready?”
Theo whipped around. His groom, William, stood waiting, eyes averted as always. To Theo’s annoyance, the man never seemed to look him in the eye. William had been sent to him by his father, however, and Theo could not reject this generosity. His father had also presented him with the sword and the spurs, the embossed shield, the metal-ringed leather tunic and helmet that weighed so heavily upon him, and the magnificent warhorse whose reins the groom now held. Fine gifts, but Theo’s mouth quirked down, a momentary pall cast over his triumph. His father had provided for him well, but Theo knew that, in return, he was expected to acknowledge that he would receive nothing else. The manor, the land—all would go to an elder brother he scarcely knew. It was up to Theo now to provide for himself for the rest of his life. He forced a civil reply to the groom.
“My thanks, William,” he said.
He is a very good groom, he reminded himself. I should not be so ungrateful.
At the servant’s side, saddled and caparisoned in a crimson blanket, the massive warhorse snorted, stamping his enormous hooves and tossing his mane as if to jerk the reins out of the man’s hands. The groom gave the horse a light impatient slap. The animal’s eyes rolled wickedly.
Theo raised his eyebrows slightly. Good groom or not, William treated the charger in a way that didn’t seem quite right. Theo had not yet had a chance to ride the horse, but he had spent a few minutes with him the day before. Enough time to realize that the shining, roan-colored warhorse was worthy of respect—and also had a healthy liking for turnips.
There was a sudden cry from William, then a quickly suppressed curse. Theo saw that the charger had shifted his weight and planted one plate-sized hoof on the groom’s foot. William was pushing at the animal’s haunches, trying vainly to move him. The groom’s face was contorted with pain. The horse stared into the distance as if totally unaware of the havoc he was causing; then, with a heaving sigh, he casually shifted his weight again. William leaped back. He hopped on one leg and raised the other foot to massage it, glaring all the while at the backside of the charger. Theo took the reins from him and hid a smile. Yes, this horse was definitely an animal to be reckoned with.
More trumpets. Theo looked out at the meadow in front of him. Ringed with the ancient, towering trees of the Ardennes forest, the fields lay flat, then sloped gently upward. Count Garnier’s castle was situated at the top of the rise, silhouetted black against the deep blue sky. Today, the count was hosting the last great tournament planned before their departure. The vast green expanse between Theo and the castle on the hill was dotted with brightly colored tents and flying streamers. Seats had been arranged for the ladies and their retinues. Knights with their warhorses, squires and grooms gathered in knots around the edges of the jousting grounds.
A commotion at the far end announced the arrival of Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine. One of the greatest and most honorable princes in all of France, he would lead Count Garnier and the other Lorrainers on this crusade.
Godfrey rode up to where the count and Theo stood. His charger was a dapple gray, but so hung with gold and jewelled trappings that little could be seen of its original hide. The sunlight glinted off all the adornments in dazzling shafts. The duke saluted Garnier, and inclined his head toward Theo.
“A noble knight you make,” he said. “I shall be honored to number you among my party.”
Theo dropped to one knee. “It is my honor to serve you, my lord.” His blood was pounding through his veins so hard that the sound of it in his ears blocked out everything else. He felt it rush to his cheeks and did not dare raise his face. He had seen the duke from afar, and knew the stories, almost legends, of his bravery, but this was the first time Godfrey had ever spoken to him.
Godfrey gestured to Theo to rise, then rode on. He drew up before the largest of all the tents that dotted this end of the field. His men ranged themselves behind him, pennants snapping in the quickening wind. His trumpeter blew a long, sharp blast—the signal for the tournament to begin.
Theo snatched the reins from William’s hands and mounted quickly. Count Garnier was already riding toward their allotted spot, the rest of his men following. The count would be among the early jousters, Theo knew. He turned his horse to follow him. At the kick of Theo’s spurs, the charger rolled his eyes back to look at his new master, then strode majestically and unhurriedly forward, as if the decision had been his own.
“You do have a mind of your own, don’t you?” Theo said. Ears set far apart on either side of the horse’s broad head twitched back at the sound of his voice. “And a noble Roman nose. A noble Roman nose like that deserves a noble Roman name. I shall call you Centurion.” The feel of the wide body between his knees was reassuring, and the strong horse smell enveloped him.
How will you fare in the lists, my friend? Theo wondered. His very life would depend on this horse. Then—how will
fare? The thought made him catch his breath. As the youngest and newest of all the knights, his turn would come late in the day, if it came at all, but suddenly there was a nervous sickness in his stomach and a sour taste in his mouth. In practice with the count’s other knights, all well known to him, Theo had shown promise and done well, but today … Today he would be up against strangers, all formidable foes. He fought to breathe normally. He would be going into battle, real battle, very soon—a mere jousting tournament should not be cause for fright. But jousting tournaments were not to be taken lightly.