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CYRA


THE BYZANTINE SIREN




This story is a taster extract from the novel CRUSADER




BARD OF BURGH CONAN



Copyright © 2017 Christopher Webster

aka Bard of Burgh Conan

All rights reserved.


CONTENTS


Introduction

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

About the Author

INTRODUCTION


CYRA THE BYZANTINE SIREN is a 'taster' extract from my novel, CRUSADER, which relates the adventures of William de Warenne and his squire on the Second Crusade. This extract begins with the preaching of the Crusade in Conisbrough and continues with De Warenne's infatuation with Cyra, a dancing girl whom he meets in one of the wine shops of Constantinople. He develops such an obsession with her that, for a while, his crusading zeal is eclipsed. The novel begins with that period known as The Anarchy in King Stephen's reign, and goes on to describe the Fall of Edessa, the Battle of Lisbon and the Battle of Mount Cadmus. It is available here here and here. Another taster extract is available, entitled ZENGI. This tells the story of the Fall of Edessa from the Muslim point of view.


CHAPTER ONE


Coningsburgh Castle was almost finished. The gatehouse had been built and the circuit of curtain walls completed. There was still no barbican, and the outer bailey had the same circuit of wooden palisades that had protected it for centuries. But on that Easter Sunday, in the year of the Incarnation of the Word 1147, the castle was almost empty, save for the bare minimum of six men-at-arms, which was perilously few in those troubled times. It is true that King Stephen was back on the throne, but he still had much to do to assert his authority. Not that anyone was worrying about King Stephen, for a new obsession had gripped the country, and all the folk of Coningsburgh had flocked to St Peter’s Church to hear all about it.

The church was smaller than its present form. There were no side-aisles and no porch, the entrance being through an arched doorway at the base of the tower, which was not so high as it is today, and without the decorative finials. The old Anglo-Saxon nave was far too small to hold all the people who wished to attend, so only the nobility and their servants were allowed inside, which is just as well, because the Abbot of Newminster, who had come all the way from Northumberland, was going to address the congregation in French, a language which many of the common folk did not understand too well (or at all). His subject was the new Crusade that had been launched by Pope Eugene III, and preached by Bernard of Clairvaux, who had spread the word through his network of Cistercian abbeys. The Abbot of Newminster had been sent to preach in Coningsburgh because he was planning to start a new Cistercian foundation nearby, at Maltby, which would one day be known as Roche Abbey.

Father Rufus, St Peter’s priest, had already celebrated mass in the Latin tongue, but now he stood at the open door to relay the sermon to the ordinary Coningsburgh folk in English, who crowded into the churchyard and the field beyond, where the message was further relayed by his curate, and further still by Bill the butcher’s apprentice.

Robert found himself right at the back of the church, despite his status as Sir Williams’ personal squire. Indeed, Robert was so far back that he was still in the entrance chamber at the base of the tower, but he could catch a glimpse of the abbot through the round archway that connected the tower to the nave. The nave was packed tight. There were no pews in those days, so everybody was standing, except Sir William and his wife. Behind them were rank upon rank of the local nobility in their Sunday best, the men wearing jupons of brilliant colours, displaying their coats of arms, and the women outshining them in their high wimples and gorgeous gowns of variegated colours and fabrics. There was a low hum of excited chattering, which ceased immediately as the abbot ascended to the pulpit. He was a tall, spare man, famous for his devotion and self-discipline, as far as possible from the overfed abbots that Robert sometimes saw on his travels with his lord.

The abbot leaned forward on the pulpit and surveyed his audience. It seemed that his piercing eyes looked into the heart of every man and woman present. Even Robert felt it, though he was hidden under the tower arch. After what seemed an age, the abbot began to speak; first in a low voice, then rising to a crescendo:

If it were announced to you that the enemy had invaded your cities, your castles, your lands; had ravished your wives and your daughters, and profaned your temples, which among you would not fly to arms? Well, then, all these calamities, and calamities still greater, have fallen upon your brethren, upon the family of Jesus Christ, which is yours. Why do you hesitate to repair so many evils, to revenge so many outrages? Will you allow the infidels to contemplate in peace the ravages they have committed on Christian people? Remember that their triumph will be a subject for grief to all ages and an eternal opprobrium upon the generation that has endured it. Yes, the living God has charged me to announce to you that He will punish them who shall not have defended Him against His enemies.”

There were murmurs of assent from the congregation, and around him, the squires of Coningsburgh muttered their approval and pressed forward. The abbot continued in an urgent tone that echoed from the wooden roof.

Fly then to arms; let a holy rage animate you in the fight, and let the Christian world resound with these words of the prophet, ‘Cursed be he who does not stain his sword with blood!’ If the Lord calls you to the defense of His heritage think not that His hand has lost its power. Could He not send twelve legions of angels or breathe one word and all His enemies would crumble away into dust? But God has considered the sons of men, to open for them the road to His mercy. His goodness has caused to dawn for you a day of safety by calling on you to avenge His glory and His name.”

Now the murmurs were louder, and Robert heard many voices saying, “I am with you!” “I will join!” “Count me in!” The squires, too were boisterous with the same vows. But a moment later, all were hushed as the abbot continued:

Christian warriors, He who gave His life for you, today demands yours in return. These are combats worthy of you, combats in which it is glorious to conquer and advantageous to die. Illustrious knights, generous defenders of the cross, remember the example of your fathers who conquered Jerusalem, and whose names are inscribed in Heaven; abandon then the things that perish, to gather unfading palms, and conquer a Kingdom which has no end.”

The sermon was conveyed in English by Father Rufus and, somewhat simplified, because he could not hear every word, by his curate. By the time it was passed on to edges of Church Field, and translated into the local dialect by Bill, it had become more than little muddled.

T’ enemy ’as invaded yer city an’ yer castle,” shouted Bill, passing on what he could pick up from the curate over such a noisy crowd.

Aye, them Normans ’as a lot to answer fer!” said Godfrey of Top Farm, a plump man of middle age who had not forgotten what he had had to suffer at the hands of Constable Heydon.

No, not t’ Normans!” said Bill. “We’s all on t’ same side nah. He’s talkin’ abaht them Mooslims. Shurrup, nah, ah’m list’nin!” Bill cocked his head in concentration for a moment, then shouted, “He ses yer’ve to fly wiv yer arms.”

What? Ah can’t fly, arms or no arms. It’ll be ‘splat!’ an’ Coni wi’ no farrier if ah’m daft enough ter try it!” exclaimed Simon the Farrier.

Neeh, wot ’ee means is, yer’ve got ter stain yer sword wi blood.”

Sword! All’ ah’ve got is an old kitchen knife. Will that do?” joked Simon.

He ses ye’re Christian warriors…”

“‘Ee’s wrong then, ah’m a farrier!

Aye, and ah’m a miller!” said Simpkin the Miller, who saw no contradiction between being a good Christian and cheating his customers. “I can’t afford to leave me mill and gu fightin’ in foreign parts!”

A shaky voice piped up from Grandfeyther Time. “An’ ah’m nob’dy, but ah’m a Chrischun fer all that!”

He ses yer feyther conquered Jerusalem…” continued Bill.

Wot! Well if he did, he never telled me abaht it!” said Grandfeyther Time with shocked disbelief.

Where’s Jerusalem? Is it further than Nottingham?” said Simpkin.

Aye, further than London, an’ over t’ sea,” explained Simon, who was respected as something of an expert on foreign parts because of a visit to Manchester several years ago

Well, wot’s that got to do wi’ us, then?” said Godfrey.

And this seemed to be the general consensus of the outer fringe, Coningsburgh folk, then as now, not being given to extremism, and setting great store by common sense.

Thus, the mood in Church Field was very different to the mood in the church, perhaps because the majority of the nobles were not indigenous Coningsburgh folk, or even Yorkshire folk, or even Englishmen, but were there because their ancestors had taken the country by force a mere eighty-six years ago. Grandfeyther Time had been a babe in arms back then, but many of people gathered there had heard the sorry tale of the Harrying of the North from their grandparents and great grandparents, and still harboured resentment against their new masters because of the depredations of their Norman overlords during that period known as The Anarchy. It was six years ago now, and in that time the townsfolk had recovered some of their former prosperity—symbolised by Godfrey’s fat belly.

When the abbot ended his sermon, there was an awed silence for a long moment. Robert felt a swelling sensation in his breast as though his heart was about to burst. After all, wasn’t this the greatest thing a would-be knight could aspire to—a quest; a quest to save Christendom? Everybody in the church had similar feelings, moved by the eloquence of the Abbot of Newminster, and there was a renewed outburst of personal vows to undertake the crusade.

The abbot raised his hand for silence and then, looking towards Earl William, gave a slight nod of his head. Robert caught a glimpse of his master as he rose to his feet, and went to the chancel steps, where he knelt before the abbot, who made the sign of the cross over his head, and gave him the cloth cross which was the symbol of the crusade. Sir William pressed it to his heart and returned to his place. Suddenly, there was a great rush to get to the abbot and the cry, “crosses! Give us crosses!”

This went on for some time, until there was a commotion in the crowd around the abbot and a great groan spread through the church.

He has run out of crosses!”

At the same time, the abbot was seen to remove his outer garments and to begin cutting them into rough crosses with his dagger. A moment later, a tailor was found, rushed into the church, and began to cut the crosses more quickly and much more neatly. Soon it was Robert’s turn. With his heart beating even more than when he had kissed Mildred behind the forge, he knelt on the chancel steps and received his blessing and his cross.

By this time, it was the turn of the altar cloth to be cut up, and the crosses were being passed to Father Rufus outside the church, and then to his curate. Many Coningsburgh men took the cross, especially those of higher station, small landowners, the wealthier among my lord’s tenant farmers, landless knights, merchants, and some of the tradesmen. Even a few of the common folk took the cross, though they had to put up with the jibes of their companions.

An’ what use are you on a crusade? Just another mouth ter feed, that’s all!” said Godfrey to Bill the butcher’s apprentice, whose role as a mouthpiece for Abbot of Newminster had gone to his head and inspired him to take the cross.

At least ah’ll go to heaven,” said Bill.

Aye, an’ quicker than tha would if tha stayed at ’ome!” said Godfrey.

Leave ’im alone lads,” said Simpkin. “‘Ee’ll ’elp us ter win. ’Ee’s goin’ ter give some o’ ’is master’s rotten pork to t’ Mooslims.”

“‘Aven’t yer ’eard?” said Simon, “The Mooslims don’t eat pork.”

An’ neither do I after that last side o’ bacon ah bought from ’im. ’Igh it wo. ’Igher than t’ castle keep,” said Simon, who, as everyone knew, always complained about things in order to beat the price down.

Gradually, the crowd dispersed, but whether they had taken the cross or not, there was a new feeling amongst them. It was no longer ‘us and them’ with their Norman overlords. Now they were all united in a common cause in which the highest of the Norman lords or the lowest of the English commons would share the same rewards and the same risks.


CHAPTER TWO


There was talk of nothing else in the squire’s attic that evening. Even Robert felt included in the general excitement. All too often he was left out of things, partly because he was of Anglo-Saxon and not Norman descent, but mainly because he was a commoner. Despite his efforts during the six years he had been a squire, he had not made any friends—except perhaps for Oswin, who was kindly disposed to him, and helped him when he could. However, Oswin dared not appear to be too friendly with Robert in case his fragile friendship with the others was compromised.

Their excited chatter was disrupted by a harsh voice from below.

Oswin, Robert, Ranulph, Piers! You’re on duty in the hall. Get a move on now!”

It was Serjeant Dufton come to remind them of their duties in case, in the excitement of the hour, they had forgotten.

The Great Hall of Coningsburgh Castle was a wooden structure built against the north wall. Inside, it was like the feast halls of long ago, with two rows of wooden posts to support the roof, a central fire, and a smoke hole above. Ranged along the walls were many tapestries, most of them notable more for their bright colours than the skill of their execution. They depicted various scenes of legend, hunting and warfare. Most of the hall was filled with trestle tables, but at the far end was a raised dais on which was placed the high table. In the centre of the table were two ornately carved chairs for the lord and lady of the castle. Behind the chairs, high on the wall, was displayed the De Warenne coat of arms.

Robert hurried to the high table to set out Sir William’s place — something that still caused resentment amongst his fellows. Even now he would sometimes catch a look in their eyes which said, “How come this upstart English commoner gets the highest position?” They knew, of course. It was only a few years ago that Robert had saved his master’s life by his quick thinking and courage at the Battle of Lincoln. Perhaps they preferred to forget about that, or perhaps they thought that their family names, which could be traced back to the roll of honour at Hastings, were more important.

Robert arrived just in time; a few moments before my lord entered the hall with his wife and daughter. They were still talking about the crusade, though Lady Adela did not share her lord’s enthusiasm, and was hoping to persuade him to give back his cloth cross.

Just think of all the dreadful diseases out there,” she muttered, “not to mention those cruel Infidels!”

But her lord was not listening. He had a faraway look, as though his heart was already in Palestine and he couldn’t wait for his body to follow.

Isabel, as usual, had other interests.

Where’s Bijou?” she said, scanning the hall.

Perhaps he’s gone on crusade,” said Lady Adela with a shudder.

Her lord was distracted from his reverie and frowned at her, as if to warn her not to make light of serious matters.

Oh, there he is!” said Isabel, scooping him up into her lap.

Not at the table, dear,” said Adela. “We might catch something nasty!”

Isabel looked round for Robert, and handed Bijou over to him.

Robert risked a conspiratorial wink. Didn’t they have an understanding, after all? Had not his dog, Toby, and Bijou, been firm friends from that time when Toby had saved Bijou from being ripped apart by the hounds in the kennels. Isabel had rewarded him with her secret friendship, and he had begun to see her as his ‘maitresse’—a courtly mistress whom he could love from afar. Now, at sixteen, she was well worth a lovers’ devotion. She had lost the doll-like stiffness of her girlhood, and was a lovely young woman with melting blue eyes, rosebud lips and a figure that was all curves. Robert wished he could write a rondeau in French to sing her praises, but though his conversational French was as good as any Yorkshireman’s, it was a long way from teh necessary level.

Ranulph and Oswin also waited at the top table. Their job was to serve Sir William’s senior knights, Constable Heydon, Sir Jerville and Sir Fulk. Sir Richard was there with his wife, Lady Heyden; the other two were knights bachelor. Sir Jerville, as a young knight, shared the same high ideals as Sir William and had also taken the cloth cross. Sir Fulk had taken the cross too, but more from a sense of duty than Christian zeal. Constable Heydon, unsurprisingly, was the only man at the high table who had not taken the cross, and it was this that Robert heard him attempt to justify as he poured the wine for my lord and lady.

My duty as Constable of this castle prevented it,” he avowed, “though I would like nothing better than to cross swords with Zengi.”

Haven’t you heard?” said Sir Jerville. “Zengi is dead. It is Nur ad-Din you want to cross swords with.”

Zengi, Nur—it is all the same to me,” boasted Heydon. “I would take them both at the same time and think nothing of it.”

The other knights said nothing. Heydon’s boasting was embarrassing. It was one thing to bully the townsfolk, but quite another to take on the finest swordsmen in Islam—especially as he never did any training.

What about you, Foljambe?” said Sir Jerville.

I hope to serve The Lord,” said Sir Fulk, “but I also hope to come back in one piece. Pass the nightingale pie.”

Sir William listened abstractedly to the conversation, but his mind was still on higher things.

Piers was serving at the next tier of tables where the men-at-arms were sitting, and three pages were responsible for the main body of the hall. The pages were running to and fro bringing platters of food and flagons of ale to each table, and as flagon succeeded to flagon the excited chatter in the hall got louder and louder, even drowning the minstrels who were blowing their shawms and scraping their rebecs for all they were worth in an attempt to keep up. Almost all the men present had taken the cross, and those that hadn’t were, like Heydon, doing their best to justify themselves.

That night, Sir William closeted himself with his chaplain to make his confession. He was very serious about it, troubled even, as though some particular sin was oppressing his soul.

Reader! I am narrativing this story from the third-person omniscient point of view, and I am tempted to listen—but no, there is no place more sacred, more confidential, than the confessional. We know that he had killed men—but only in battle. We guess that he had sown his wild oats, as every young lord does—we guess that he had committed those 1001 peccadillos that make up the daily life of all us—but that is all you an I can do if we are to keep faith with our characters—guess.

Suffice it to say that, whatever burden had been oppressing Sir William’s soul, he emerged from the confessional released from it.

After that the chaplain had left him Sir William devoted himself to a vigil in his private chapel. His wife joined him for the first hour, but poor Robert was expected to wait on him for the whole night. That vigil showed how deep an impression the idea of the Crusade had made on him. He knelt on the hard stone floor before the altar with his sword held up in his outstretched hands as though offering it, and himself, to the service of God. When his arms tired, he put the sword down and bowed his head in silent prayer. When Lady Adela left him to go to bed, he lay face down with his arms out in the shape of a cross. After a while, the single candle burned low and went out, but my lord made no move to replace it—perhaps he had fallen asleep after all. Robert certainly fell asleep, leaning against the chapel door so heavily that he fell flat when Sir William opened it in the morning. His vigil seemed to have settled something in his mind, for his eyes showed that it was present in the here and now and not on something far away.

Robert,” he said in a quiet but decisive tone, “It is time for a Council of War. Summon my knights. I will meet them in the Great Chamber in an hour.”

Sir William began by stating his intentions: “Not only do I intend to undertake the crusade, I intend to supply it with as many pilgrims as I can, both combatant and non-combatant. Now, Constable, what men have we at Coningsburgh?”

Heydon stroked his beard as he considered the question, then began hesitantly to enumerate my lord’s forces: “100 men-at-arms and 200 foot sergeants, more or less.”

What do you mean, ‘more or less’?” said Sir William.

Those are the complements that we try to maintain. But they come and go, fall sick and fall out, if you see what I mean.”

Very well, go on.”

60 garrison guards, 20 archers, not to mention squires, pages, fletchers, farriers, blacksmiths, grooms and assorted varlets—oh, and there is my own body guard, but that’s only 10 men,—so around 600 souls all told.”

How many of those have taken the cross?”

There was some discussion of this question among the knights, leading to the reply, “It is hard to say just now, sire. But almost all the fighting men in the castle have taken it, as you would expect.”

Then who will guard the castle when we are gone?” said Sir Fulk, with his mind firmly on the practicalities as usual.

There is my personal company of 10 men, but I don’t know yet how many have taken the cross, but there is always the Castlegardurn men,” continued Heydon. “There are 31 of them on the roll. I will send out today to find out how many have taken the cross. But they are not fighting men, so perhaps most of them will be available for guard duty.”

Are they good enough to man the castle on their own?” said Sir Jerville, who had not been impressed by what he had seen of them.

They shaped up a bit when they were last here,” added Sir Fulk, with a gruff chuckle. “But they’re back to their old form, now, with their pot-bellies hanging out.”

They’ll do,” said Sir William. “Anyone who dared attack Coningsburgh while its master was away on Crusade would surely be visited by the wrath of God.”

Sir Fulk raised an eyebrow at this unexpected exclamation. He was as religious as the next knight, but quite unused to hearing God invoked as a member of the Coningsburgh Castle garrison. He was more concerned with the practical matter of which route they should take. “My lord,” he said. “I have heard that a contingent of crusaders is assembling in Suffolk under Hervey de Glanvill. I believe they plan to sail from Dartmouth and take the sea route to the Holy Land. Are we to join them?”

Sir William had already considered this possibility and weighed it against the alternative, which was the overland route through France and Germany.

I think that would be best,” he said. “What do you think, my lords?”

Neither Sir Fulk nor Sir Jerville had anything better to suggest, and Heydon had no opinion either way, since he was not going.

Then we are decided,” said Sir William, rising from the table. “Heydon, you can find out which of our garrison have taken the cross. Foljambe, you can find out about the Castlegardurn men, and Boswelle, you can try to find out how many of the townsfolk want to join us as pilgrims.”

He leaned forward on his hands and surveyed them with a determined gaze, a gaze that might have been bordering on fanaticism.

Sirs,” he said, “be vigorous in your duties. There is no time to lose. We march in May!”

When they had gone, he turned to Robert and said, “Start packing my things, my arms and armour above all—and, Robert—when we are out there—in Palestine, I mean. Stay close. Do your duty and look after me...”

Sir William’s manner, so firm in the council had become hesitant, as though he wanted to say something, but didn’t know how to say it. His speech fizzled out, and he dismissed Robert with a slight wave of the hand, but as Robert was going through the great doorway, he added, “...and look after yourself, too.”


CHAPTER THREE


Robert had a few farewell visits to make before his great adventure started. Toby had a mission too. He wanted to scent mark all his former territory to remind other dogs that, even though he had been promoted to the important position of castle dog, he was still around.

First, they went to Robert’s parents in Church Street, and there was his father as always, just inside the doorway, working at his last.

Hey up, lad. It’s good to see thee. Tha’ll be off any day now, I reckon.”

Next Monday.”

Then, noticing a larger than usual row of finished footwear ranged on the shelf by the door, he added, “You’ve been working hard.”

Aye, that I ’ave, lad. This ’ere Crusade is t’ best thing that’s ’appened fer years; all those folks wantin’ new shoes for their long march—not that I hold wiv it mind, yer.”

Why not?”

Well, for one thing, I dun’t like t’ idea of me son riskin’ his life to get back a country we know nowt abaht.”

We know a lot about it, father. It’s in the Bible.”

Aye, an’ that’s best place fer it!”

But—the Holy Land! Jerusalem! The Infidel!” spluttered Robert as he tried to convey to his father something of his high ideals.

Well, as we say within the trade, it’s all cobblers!”

Cobblers or not, it’ll mek us rich!” said his mother, who had heard her son’s voice and hurried from the back kitchen. “‘Ee, lad, it’s grand to see thee,” she said, giving him a hug.

What do you think, mother?” said Robert.

Well, I agree wi’ you. We dun’t want them Mooslims messin’ up our ’oly places, but then again, I agree wi’ yer dad. Ah’m not ’appy about me firstborn... ah mean me eldest... son fightin’ in foreign parts.”

I’ll be careful, mum. I promise.”

Well, ah’ve heard it’s a parched land, so tek this ’ere water bottle. It’s ’ard stoneware an it’ll never break.”

Thanks, mum.”

After that he had brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and grandparents to visit, but he was saving the best till last; a visit to his old workplace, the forge on West Street.

Adam the Blacksmith was also overwhelmed with work arising from the forthcoming crusade. He was sweating over his anvil with one of his new apprentices holding a glowing iron rod in pair of tongs. Bright sparks flashed from the hammer as he worked, and the sweat glistened on his brow. His huge biceps bulged with the effort, the same effort that had helped Robert to become so strong. Robert waited until the rod, now shaped into a shepherd’s crook, was quenched in the nearby water butt, and then stepped inside.

Well, look who it is,” said Adam. “How’re things at t’ castle?”

Busy,” said Robert.

Can’t be busier than ’ere. The work is pourin’ in! Ah’ve had to tek on two new apprentices to keep up wi’ it. But they’re no good. They dun’t know owt. Ah wish tha were back ’ere again.”

They’ll learn,” laughed Robert. “Like I had to.”

Aye, an’ then it’ll be too late. This village’ll be ’alf empty by this time next week!”

Just then, Mildred rushed in through the back door. She had just turned fifteen, that age when many women are at their peak of physical perfection, their curves being fully developed with no signs of the toll that Father Time inevitably exacts.

But this is who tha’s really come to see!” laughed Adam.

Wuff! Wuff!” agreed Toby.

Robert blushed, and not just at the blacksmith’s comment. He was still very fond of Mildred. Had she not been his sweetheart in a shy, childish sort of way before he became a squire? But had she not since been eclipsed by a more worthy Venus, the fair Isabel? Robert’s confusion was increased by the realization that Isabel was so far above him as to be out of reach—yet, surely he had not striven so hard to become squire that he would tie himself to a blacksmith’s daughter. Adam, on the other hand, could think of no better suitor. He knew that Robert, because of his humble background, could never be a knight. But he might one day become a garrison guard on sixpence a day, or even a man-at-arms on twice as much. He was therefore keen to encourage the two of them to be alone together.

Nah then, our Mildred, why dun’t yer tek Robert into t’ back kitchen and mek ’im a bite o’ snap?”

The word made Toby’s jaws slaver, and the two young people didn’t have a minutes piece until Mildred had thrown him a bone.

As soon as Toby was settled, Mildred threw her arms around Robert. He responded in kind, despite his doubts. After all, it was not every day that he held a beautiful young woman in his arms. He kissed her shyly, and she kissed him back enthusiastically, crushing his lips to hers.

Oh, Robert,” why don’t yer come an’ see me?” she said, breaking off the kiss at last.

Because I’m not allowed out of the castle except with special permission,” he fibbed.

But yer do love me, don’t yer?” she pleaded.

Of course I do,” said Robert, feeling as he said the words that he was betraying his amour courtois for Isabel.

Mildred was just about to kiss him again, when a noise was heard outside.

It’s me mam!” said Mildred, annoyed.

Robert, however, was relieved, since Mrs Smith’s arrival signalled an end to that awkward love scene. He exchanged a few pleasantries with Mrs Smith, then seeing that, like her husband, she was contriving to leave them alone together, he decided to beat a hasty retreat.

I must go now,” he said, “or I’ll get thrown in the dungeon.”

It was another fib, of course, but it did the trick.

Then ’urry,” said Mildred. “I ’ate to think of yer down there wi’ all them rats!”

It was a good job he had thought of the dungeon, because Mrs Smith had already left the room, perhaps in the hope of a last minute proposal of marriage.

Yer’ll not forget me, will yer?” said Mildred, and kissed him again.

How could I?” he said.

I wish I ’ad summat to give yer,” she said. Then thinking of something, she undid the top laces of her bodice—giving Robert such an enticing glimpse of the ripe fruit inside that he almost changed his mind about her—and took off the necklace that hung round her neck.

“‘Ere,” she said, “tek this.”

It was a braided leather cord with large cross on the end engraved with a letter M in the middle.

Me feyther made it. It’s only copper, but it’s got my initial on it. I wish I could give yer gold.”

I’ll give you gold one day,” said Robert, with all the more fervor since had she had not yet done up her bodice, perhaps in the innocence of girlhood, but more probably with the wisdom of a woman. She leaned forward, pressing her ripe fruits against him, and putting the necklace around his neck, kissed him again. Robert was getting into his little love scene now, and had half a mind to unfasten the rest of the laces and cop a feel, but Mildred herself broke off the kiss, and said in a tearful voice, “Well, I don’t want you to end up in t’ dungeon. Yer’d better go now.”

Robert was regretting now his lie about the dungeon, but it was too late, the bodice was being laced up. He took a deep breath and made the best of it, thinking that perhaps he would rerun this little scene when he got back, and that the gift of a gold locket might do a lot more than unlace Mildred’s bodice.

Back at the castle, he caught a glimpse of Isabel in her accustomed place at the solar window. He was still too shy to wave, but Toby, hoping to see Bijou gave his best French bark: “Ouf!”

Isabel disappeared for a moment, then reappeared with Bijou in her arms, waving his paw as she had done so often before.

It was enough to dispel Robert’s confused feelings about Mildred. Surely, Isabel was more worthy of his love. She was beautiful, but also elegant, sophisticated, and educated in the social graces of her class. She was worthy of his courtly love, and even if could never win her, she set a standard that he could aspire to. One day, when he was a man-at-arms, he might find a daughter of some minor English nobleman, or wealthy man-at-arms, or even a penniless Norman knight who would not think his suit unworthy.

A shout from behind made a rude interruption to Robert’s romantic fantasies.

Where’ve you been all day?”

It was Constable Heydon.

My lord gave me leave to…”

Never mind that. I want you in the Outer Bailey with Serjeant Dufton to see about those cursed Castlegardurn men. They’ll be guarding this castle from Monday night onwards, and they need sorting out. Now get about it!”

Robert suspected that Constable Heydon was just throwing his weight around—as he liked to do when my lord was not there—and that there was nothing he could do in the Outer Bailey that was not being done already.

But he was wrong. There were about twenty Castlegardurn men, milling around, and complaining as usual.

Ah’m fed up o’ bein’ dragged away from me farm,” said Godfrey, the ringleader.

It is your feudal obligation,” Serjeant Dufton pointed out.

Can’t ah just pay t’ quit rent?”

No, Sir William needs you to guard the castle while he is away on crusade.”

Why? ’Asn’t the Constable got ’is own army?”

Serjeant Dufton face was turning red, and it was clear that he was on the brink of giving up his attempts to persuade in favour of more effective arguments.

Robert intervened just in time. He took Godfrey aside and said, “Come on, Godfrey. It’s for the Crusade...” then he lowered his voice, “and anyway, we don’t want the Black Company to have it all their own way, do we?”

It was the second argument that persuaded Godfrey, for among the majority of the townsfolk, Robert’s father’s opinion that it was all “cobblers” was widely held.

Godfrey stepped back in line and said, “Oh well, come on lads, we’ll do our best—for the Crusade mind, and not...”

He thought better of naming names that might have got him into trouble.

Serjeant Dufton, heaved a sigh of relief and continued his dispositions.

Very well then. Godfrey, you’re on guard at the gate. I like to put a big man there.”

He’s so big nobody could squeeze past him,” whispered one ne’er-do-well.

Silence!” snapped Serjeant Dufton. “Now, Simon, you’ve got sharp eyes, you can go on the lookout tower. Simpkin, you’re on top of the keep. The rest of you, report to the outer bailey for training.”

The men shuffled off to their assigned duties and Robert went on to the keep to find Sir William with his faithful dog at his heels.

Other than the Castlegardurn men, who had resented being dragged away from their homes and businesses by their feudal obligations, everyone else in the castle, from the lowest varlet to my lord himself, was brimming with enthusiasm. It seemed that everyone was running hither and thither in a hopeless chaos, but from that chaos a kind of order was emerging.

For Toby, it was sheer heaven. He loved chaos, for he could go where he liked and do what he liked and get away with it.

By Monday morning, a train of waggons and a row of packhorses were standing ready in the Outer Bailey loaded with everything that the Council of War thought they would need: arms, armour, clothing, food, ale, wine, kitchen utensils, tents, blankets, and a thousands other odds and ends. A whole wagon held a miniature smithy, and another a farriery. Meanwhile, Sir Jerville, with help of Oswin and twenty men-at-arms, was outside the castle trying to get the pilgrims into some sort of order. They also had a waggon train which consisted of every size and shape of cart that could be rustled up in Coningsburgh, ranging from huge four-wheeled haywains to ramshackle two-wheel carts that didn’t look as though they would get as far as Nottingham, never mind Jerusalem. In the castle, the men-at-arms were forming a guard of honour in the Outer Bailey, headed by Constable Heydon, while the Castlegardurn men shuffled uncomfortably at their new guard posts. On either side of the guard of honour were rank upon rank of men waiting to follow behind Sir William. The foot-soldiers were headed by Serjeant Dufton, and the mounted men-at-arms were headed by Sir Fulk, assisted by Ranulph.

At last, a trumpet sounded to announce my lord’s departure. He descended the keep steps magnificent in full De Warenne array, a surcoat of the De Warenne arms, chequy or and azure, a gold chain round his neck bearing the De Warenne seal, and his heirloom sword at his side; a sword that was said to have severed English heads at Hastings. Close behind him came Robert carrying my lord’s helm, resplendent with the De Warenne crest; a silver wyvern mounted on red velvet trimmed with white fur, or in heraldic terms: a wyvern argent on a chapeau gules, turned up ermine. Over his shoulder he carried his lord’s shield, also emblazoned with the De Warenne chequers. He was thus heavily encumbered, but not so much as Piers who followed behind him with my lord’s lance. A difficult task, as he had to negotiate the crowded Bailey without accidentally spearing anybody.

Lady Adela and Isabel came next with two maids each. One to help them with their long trains, and the other to hold their hands and prevent them falling ignominiously down the steep steps. Last of all came Bijou, who was supposed to be safe in the solar, but had managed to slip out and follow his mistress.

At the bottom of the steps, Ralf, a groom, helped my lord to mount his destrier. This would usually be Robert’s job, but his hands were full. Sir William rode slowly towards the gatehouse waving royally to the onlookers. Robert was about to follow, when he felt a gentle tug on his arm. It was Isabel.

Bijou will miss you,” she said with a sigh, and indeed, Bijou was showing his misery by snapping at Robert’s heels. He was chased away by another member of the canine species, Robert’s dog, Toby. Having done this, Toby returned to stare in wonderment at his master, as if to say, “I hope you’re not going away again!”

Sorry, Toby,” said Robert. “I can’t say goodbye properly because my hands are full. But I’ll be back. Meanwhile they’ll look after you in the kitchen.”

Don’t worry. I’ll see that he’s looked after,” said Isabel, “and make sure you look after yourself. Then she added, after a moment’s hesitation, “Wear my token and think of me sometimes.”

He had no hands free, so she pushed a delicately embroidered silk scarf into his neckband, and looked for a moment as thought she was going to kiss him—but how could she with all those people around her? A moment later she was back beside her mother.

It was a thrilling moment for Robert, almost as thrilling as setting off on crusade, but he had no time to savour it, because his master was nearly at the gatehouse and he should be there with him. He mumbled his thanks, and hurried after Piers, being careful not to bump into the butt end of the lance.

At the gatehouse, Robert handed the helm and the shield to a page, who put it in the armoury wagon, mounted his own horse and rose out behind his master. As he left the gatehouse, Godfrey, the Castlegardurn man on duty there, shouted after him in a most unsoldierly manner, “Come back safe, Master Robert!”

Trumpets sounded again, and under the direction of the knights, three cheers were raised for Lord De Warenne and the success of the crusade. As he rode out of the gatehouse he was followed by the men-at-arms, and then the foot-soldiers, and then the archers, and finally the baggage train and the vast assortment of squires, pages, fletchers, farriers, blacksmiths and assorted varlets that make up an army. As the last of them turned south, heading for Maltby, and then the Old North Road, the pilgrims fell in behind. Never had such a motley crowd set out on a pilgrimage, and never would again until hundreds of years later when that most famous of all pilgrimages set out for Canterbury.


CHAPTER FOUR


The fleet sailed on 1st February, heading for the Holy Land as the crusaders and pilgrims had vowed, all except for a squadron which sailed to attack Tortosa. The rest of the fleet split into two, one half heading for Antioch, the other, which consisted mainly of Sir William’s men, for Constantinople.

At last, after many weeks at sea—always an uncomfortable experience for Robert—they sailed up the Golden Horn, and saw the walls of Constantinople in the distance.

Sir William joined him at the taffrail and said, “A fine sight is it not? It makes that castle I am so proud of seem like peasant’s bothy.”

Or like Toby’s kennel,” said Robert, improving on the simile. But then he collected himself. That is not how a squire talks to his lord, no matter how close their experiences in battle have made them.

Robert,” said Sir William, in that hesitant manner that overcame him when he was unsure how to express himself. “There is something we need to talk about. Something very important...”

Just then there was a noise of conversation as Sir Fulk and two other knights came to the forecastle to enjoy the view.

...but not now. Nevertheless, we will speak of it before we set out for Antioch.”

The fabled city was nearer now, and Robert turned his attention to the prospect before him. He had seen very many walled cities on his long journey, but nothing could compare to this. A double line of walls, in some place a triple line, encompassed the whole city, which was several times larger than any other city he had ever seen—Lincoln, Winchester, London, Rouen, Lisbon were mere villages by comparison. Along the walls were many square towers, evenly spaced, and built with a straightness and regularity that he had never seen before. This was old Roman work, and there was nothing in his own world to equal it. They entered the city through a vast gatehouse called the Golden Gate, which, if you included the two tiers of walls in front of it, was higher than Coningsburgh’s keep. The gatehouse was surmounted by two winged victories and four bronze elephants, symbolizing the might of the Roman West—long since crumbled, and the power of the Roman East—still strong, though always under threat.

As soon as they disembarked, Sir William set out to find his friend, Hugh le Grand, and his brother, Evrard de Breteuil, who had come from France with over a hundred of his own followers.

He found them at the Emperor’s Palace of Philopatium in the company of the king of France himself, they being close relatives. For, as a gesture of good will, the Emperor Manuel Comnenus had made his secondary place of residence available as a sign of his respect.

With the king was his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was one of the most powerful women in Europe, and at 23, one of the most beautiful. She, too, had been inspired by Bernard of Clairveaux’ preaching, and had taken the Cross, as had many other great ladies, such as the countess of Flanders and Toulouse who had been inspired by her example. In vain had King Louis tried to persuade her that a Crusade was no place for a woman, that conditions would be harsh, food would be scarce, and the Infidel would show no mercy. She simply replied sweetly that her Heavenly Lord would protect her even if her earthly lord could not.

Robert was surprised to see so many noblewomen among King Louis’ followers. They jokingly called themselves “Amazons”. He could not imagine how the military aims of the Crusade could be prosecuted with such a huge train of women—and demanding women at that! They expected to travel in relative luxury in comfortable carriages and at their own speed. Surely, at some point, King Louis would arrange to leave them behind—perhaps here at Constantinople he would find an excuse.

On the other hand, it was reassuring to see the Grand Master of the Temple, Everard de Barre. He had joined the Crusade with a regiment of Knights Templar. Many of these men had seen action in the Holy Land and would know what to do in a crisis.

King Louis had nominated Constantinople as an assembly point for crusaders from all over Europe. It was annoying that Conrad II of Germany had refused to wait and gone on ahead, as it was feared he would steal all the glory, but King Louis wisely preferred to wait until all his forces had assembled before facing the zeal of a jihad driven enemy in a torrid climate.

Already, there was a huge mass of French pilgrims in the city, numbering over 20,000 souls. Sir William’s arrival had added another 4,000, and there were new arrivals every day.

The Emperor, hearing of the arrival of another large contingent invited Sir William and his principal knights, along with King Louis and his principal knights, to a banquet at his palace of Blanchernae. The palace, though not large, was notable for the magnificence of its construction. It was decorated throughout with gold and various colors and the floor was paved with marble.

Before the banquet, the Emperor took Sir William and his knights on tour of the city, Breteuil electing to come with them, though he had seen all the sights before. Of course, they had their squires in attendance, so Robert was able to tour the great city with the most eminent among tour guides.

Everything was impressive, particularly the vast Hippodrome which was the largest building Robert had ever seen. It was the home of the famous chariot races and the rival factions, the Reds, Whites, Greens and Blues. Around this extensive racecourse had been constructed a huge building with tier upon tier of arches. But even more impressive was the Basilica of the Hagia Sophia, a great domed edifice that was the largest cathedral in the world, and would remain so for another 500 years. Inside, the atmosphere was almost other-wordly. It was gloomy because the windows were few and small, but the gloom glittered with colourful mosaics highlighted with gold leaf, and over all, looking down on them from the great dome, was the imposing mosaic of Christ Pantocrater.


CHAPTER FIVE


The night after the banquet, Breteuil suggested to Sir William that they take an ‘unofficial’ tour of the city.

I’ve found a guide. He’s a greasy little fellow, but he knows where to go,” said Breteuil.

It’s better than staying here with nothing to do,” replied Sir William. “Is your wife joining us?”

Breteuil laughed. “It’s not that kind of tour. It’s better if she stays here with the queen, and anyway, I hear that the back streets are dark and dirty, and robberies often take place, and sometimes murders. Despite what we saw yesterday, life in this city is lawless. So we must take our daggers and stick together. I don’t think any robber in his right mind would set on a group of four strong men. I’ll bring Gervaise along, and I suppose you’ll bring Robert.”

When they walked down the steps of the palace of Philopatium, the first thing they saw was a seedy looking Byzantine waiting for them. He made an obsequious bow and proceeded to show the way. For a while they followed the main thoroughfare towards the Imperial Palace where they joined the Mese, the main avenue that runs through Constantinople from the Imperial Palace to the Capitolium. The Hippodrome towered above them, even more magnificent by night than by day, thanks to the hundreds of torches blazing in its arched windows. The Mese was full of life as hundreds of people, the working day over, set out in search of pleasure. All along the sides of the Mese were rows of stalls and booths, each one lit up in its own way with oil lamps, flaring torches or coloured lanterns, and offering for sale all the riches of the Orient: cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, lychee, durian, mangosteen, quince and arrowroot, diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, silver, gold, silk, kahdi, and slaves, male and female, occidental and oriental.

After a short distance, their guide led them down a side street which was so narrow that you could shake hands with someone across the street from the windows of the overhanging upper stories. The only light came from the few stalls, which, unlike their counterparts on the Mese, were stocked with cheaper and tackier wares: spices of doubtful quality, tired-looking fruit, glass beads, bronze jewellery polished to look like gold, linen and cotton fabrics coloured with cheap dyes, and slaves that looked too young, too old or too unfit to do much useful work.

It was one of the slaves that caught Sir William’s eye. He was a young boy of about eight years old, and stood out from the others by his corn-gold hair.

Where is he from?” said Sir William to the slave trader.

The slave trader shook his head, for he knew no French, and of course, nobody knew that strange provincial dialect spoken by the underclass in England.

On a whim, Sir William repeated the question to the boy, who replied in perfect French.

Mon seigneur, s’il vous plaît, je viens de Paris.”

My God!—and he is trying to sell you as a slave! How much does he want? I’ll buy your freedom. Breteuil!”

Sir William hoped that Breteuil would use his Greek to negotiate a price, but the others had not noticed that he had stopped, and were halfway down the street. Sir William strode after them, calling Breteuil again.

Then it happened. Four men sprang out of the darkness and attacked Sir William with knives. A thrust to his belly and a thrust in his back brought him down screaming, and a moment later, they were rifling his clothes to find his purse.

But Breteuil had heard his shout, and before the robbers could get away, the three crusaders were upon them. Three crusaders against four robbers might sound like poor odds, but all three of them had spent all their lives training in the military arts. They parried with ease the clumsy dagger thrusts of their opponents, and replied with well-practised strokes to the throat or the gut. In a matter of moments, the four robbers lay bleeding to death on the ground. Robert did not allow himself a second to relish the victory. He was beside his lord in a moment, fearing him to be dead.

Sir William groaned, rolled over, and rubbed his stomach. There was no sign of blood.

What happened?” said Robert.

They stabbed me—or tried to, but luckily I was wearing this.”

Sir William pulled up his shirt to reveal a mail shirt underneath.

It’s lucky you took my advice,” said Breteuil dryly, “or you’d be dead now.”

Sir William groaned again and continued rubbing his stomach.

I’m not dead, but it was bad enough. It’s only light mail, and I felt the force of it.”

We must be sure to stick together from now on,” said Breteuil. Then he said something to their guide in Greek, who had been watching from a distance until he saw how things turned out. The guide shook his head and signalled for them to hurry on their way.

He says it’s better if we don’t wait around for the Varangian Guard to arrive. So, come on, let’s get out of here.”

In the excitement of the moment Sir William forgot all about the little Parisian, who would, no doubt, be sold to some Byzantine as a household drudge—or worse.

They had not gone much further when their guide went up to a small door in the wall, knocked, and after a mumbled conversation through a peephole, was admitted along with the others. The interior was a kind of seedy alter-ego to the Hagia Sophia in that it was dark and it glittered, though the glitter was not from mosaics and gold leaf, but coloured paper, tinsel and polished bronze. Their guide led them to an empty table near the centre of the room. Most of the other tables were surrounded by groups of men attended by women in exotic costume. This consisted of an elaborate headdress encrusted with coloured glass beads and ornate bronze roundels. From the rim of the headdress a row of small bronze disks, like coins, was suspended. Two pendants hung from either side, each one ornamented with roundels of bronze containing inset glass beads. There was an elaborate high collar spreading over the shoulders made of some stiff fabric but covered all over with patterns of small bronze beads. Another pendant hung between the breasts, which were covered with a veil of gauze so filmy as to be almost invisible. Just below the breasts was a kind of corset, also covered in bronze beads. The legs were covered only by pantaloons in the same filmy gauze. The coloured glass and bronze glittered in the dim light, and the coins around the headbands tinkled, contributing their mesmerizing effect to the undoubted beauty of the girls. For the crusaders, their beauty was enhanced by their exotic appearance. They were slightly more petite than their occidental counterparts, had the most beautiful olive skin colour, and fine black hair that they wore long—some of them so long that it reached all the way down their backs to their pert posteriors.

As soon as the crusaders were settled, four such girls came to join them and started chattering in their incomprehensible language. Incomprehensible to three of them, but not to Breteuil, who at last could see the value of all those hours he had spent in his youth poring over the Greek New Testament under the eyes of a strict tutor.

It’s nothing like Koine,” he said (Koine being the dialect of the New Testament) but I can get the gist of it.”

Sir William looked as though he didn’t want to get the gist of it. He had expected an ale house (taverna), but he feared they were in a brothel (porneio). He had resisted all manner of temptations on his long journey from Coningsburgh, and he wanted to cling to his high ideals. He tried not to look at the girl beside him, particularly at the charms that were so tantalizingly displayed.

What are they saying?” said Robert.

Lots of things,” said Breteuil, “but mostly—’buy drinks’.”

Let’s drink then,” said Gervaise. Then with a wink, he added, “For starters.”


CHAPTER SIX


A flagon of spiced wine was placed on the table along with another of water. The girls mixed the drinks, their hands moving quickly to try to hide the fact that their drinks were almost all water. After all, they had to keep this up all night.

Robert heard the word “onoma” repeated by the girls, including the one sat beside him.

Breteuil translated. “They’re telling us their names and asking ours. Mine is called Eudoxia.”


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