Read the first few chapters of Terrowin and Cristiana's story below!

Chapter 1

 

May 1119, Burgundy

 

Sitting on the rickety wooden stool beside the cracked clay stove in her tiny, dusty kitchen, Cristiana did her best not to fidget. The nervous flutters in her belly made her want to tap her fingers on the splintered wooden table. Or bounce her foot or turn circles with her ankle. She wanted to run her hands through her hair, simply to do something with them.

She fought the urge. She’d rolled her plain, brown, waist-length hair back at the sides of her head and then twisted it into its signature plait anyway. Running her fingers through it would only ruin the look.

Instead, she picked absently at her brown tunic-dress. It plunged toward her waist in a V in front, cinched there by a brown leather belt. Her thin white undershirt covered her arms and chest beneath it. Opening from the waist down as well, it revealed brown trousers below. Some men didn’t approve of a woman wearing anything except a skirt, but the man who sat in the room with her had never seemed to mind.

In the chair across from her, looking as cool and unruffled as stone in a windstorm, sat the gallant Guiscard.

He looked too clean and proper for the dust permeating Cristiana's humble home. His curly, perfumed hair and clean, dark tunic looked utterly out of place amidst the chipped, sparse furniture. Too much of a gentleman to reside below the thatched roof above a one-room dwelling that leaked when it rained.

Guiscard did not cause Cristiana's nervousness, though. Her father’s imminent arrival did. She feared he wouldn't agree to Guiscard’s proposal.

But how could he not? No man refused his daughter a marriage above herself. A poor stone worker who served Cistercian monks simply didn’t refuse a man like Guiscard. He came from a minor noble family who had fallen on hard times. He possessed no fortune to speak of, and lived much as a merchant did, working for his income.

Cristiana knew her father wouldn’t approve of her marrying wealth. Guiscard would prove a good compromise. Not wealthy, but still above her and her father's current status.

Giscard caught her eye and gave her an affectionate smile. She smiled back tightly, too nervous today to attempt sincerity.

Giscard’s eye had fallen upon Cristiana mostly for her beauty. Cristiana knew that much in her bones. Yet, the man worked hard. More importantly, she knew him to be a shy, reserved, utterly submissive man. Unlike some men in the world, Guiscard would never lift a hand against her to do harm. Village chatter proclaimed his utter decency.

She caught him looking at her many times during past weeks, but the man proved shy in the extreme.

She’d eventually approached him with a demure request to accompany her home. So began their secret courtship, which her father still knew nothing about. Now, they waited here in their kitchen for Fendrel to return.

Oh hurry home, Papa, she thought. The waiting felt interminable, and yet she feared her father’s arrival as well.

After nearly an hour of prickly, awkward silence, Guiscard casting vaguely nervous smiles at her every few minutes, a rustle outside the door reached Cristiana’s ears.

The door opened and Fendrel’s stooped figure appeared. He wore a gray, billowy tunic. Perpetually covered with stone dust, it draped his shoulders, falling heavily across his still-muscular arms and all the way to the floor. His feet were bare, though he'd have worn sandals. He always removed them outside the door. The same gray, stone dust covering his tunic also powdered his skin and hair. It lounged in the crevices of his elbows and the wrinkles around his eyes. Such was the life of a stone worker.

He turned, and his welcoming smile faded when his eyes focused on Guiscard.

Here we go, Cristiana thought.

She leapt to her feet. "Welcome home, Papa." Crossing to him, she went up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. The chalky feel of the stone dust remained on her lips.

Her father smiled but raised his eyebrows in a questioning look, cutting his eyes toward Guiscard, who’d gotten to his feet when Cristiana did, though more slowly.

Clearing her throat, Cristiana turned her body toward Guiscard, but kept her eyes on her father's face. "Father, I'd like to present Irwin Guiscard. He has a question to ask you."

Still looking vaguely confused, Fendrel took a step toward Guiscard. Cristiana's father bowed from the waist respectfully. "I am honored by your visit, Monsieur Guiscard. Forgive my shabby appearance. How may I serve you?"

Guiscard smiled. "You've no apologies to make, Fendrel." He dropped his eyes to the floor and took a deep breath.

Cristiana detected nervousness in his face. She prayed he didn't lose his nerve. The next moment, Giscard raised his eyes to Fendrel’s. Cristiana felt surprise at the confidence in them.

"Fendrel, you are an honorable man and have raised your daughter to be a good woman. I'm here to ask for her hand in marriage."

Cristiana watched her father's face carefully. Anyone else would only have seen the polite, inquiring smile he’d pasted there. Cristiana saw more. A slight drop in the wrinkles about his eyes, a subtle shift in the set of his mouth. The question perturbed him, but he wouldn't show his discontent to Guiscard.

Fendrel bowed his head. "I speak for my daughter and myself when I say we are honored by your proposal, Sir." He raised his eyes once again. "Before I give you my answer, may I have a private moment with my daughter?"

Giscard looked relieved, probably because Fendrel didn’t say no outright. He inclined his head. "Of course, Fendrel. Take all the time you need."

Fendrel took Cristiana's arm gently and guided her to the far side of the room, so they stood in front of the window. Too poor to afford glass, they only ever covered the windows with animal skins. Yet, spring had arrived in Burgundy, so the windows sat uncovered, letting in the fresh air.

Fendrel would need to whisper. Even then, Giscard might make out what he said, but they could do no better while remaining indoors.

Fendrel pulled Cristiana close, the smile sliding completely off his face. "What's this, Cristiana? Why have I never spoken with this man before?"

Cristiana kept her eyes in the floor, unable to meet her father's gaze. "We've been secretly courting."

Fendrel's eyebrows jumped toward his hairline.

"Nothing untoward happened Papa. He expressed interest and I've taken walks with him."

Fendrel's frown deepened. "Why did you not tell me?"

She shrugged. "I feared your disapproval."

Fendrel gave her an exasperated look.

Cristiana understood why. She knew her father well enough to know he would try to talk her out of such a match. Not because he thought Guiscard a poor choice, but specifically because Giscard had more money than they did. The man would never live as humbly as Cristiana and her father always had.

Guiscard would never be particularly wealthy either. That wasn’t the point. Fendrel always urged Cristiana to take on a life of service and poverty. This man's wealth, no matter how good his character, would always exceed Fendrel's humble standards.

Her father heaved a deep sigh. “By all accounts, Guiscard is a decent man. Yet we know nothing about him. He's older than you, and yet has no wife yet.”

“I know about him,” Cristiana said quickly. “He married years ago, as a young man. The plague took his wife before she bore him any children. It’s been five years, but now he’s made me an offer. One doesn’t simply get over something like that, Papa. You never married after mama died.”

Even as she said it, her face heated with shame. She hadn’t meant to bring up her mother. The last thing she wanted was to hurt her father.

To her relief, he didn’t look hurt. A look of understanding that, for some reason, made Cristiana afraid, came into his face. “I know you want to avoid your mother's fate, Cristiana but marrying a man for the wrong reasons isn’t the correct way to go about it."

Cristiana gritted her teeth, refusing to let her tears of shame show. She’d expected him to accuse her of wanting to marry Guiscard for his money. How had he hit so squarely on her true motivations?

Because she’d slipped and mentioned her mother. That’s how. In truth, she didn't care a whit for Guiscard's money. She did, however, crave the protection and comfort marrying a man like him would afford her, so she could avoid her mother's fate.

Clearing her throat, she forced herself to look her father in the eye, determined to steer the conversation to safer subjects. The ones she’d rehearsed beforehand. "Papa, with Guiscard's money, I can bless the poor and take care of you in your old age. Nothing will make me happier or prouder than taking care of you for a change."

Fendrel frowned. "But how do you feel about this man?"

I don’t.

“Do you even like the look of him?”

Not especially.

Cristiana took a deep, steadying breath. She looked her father dead in the eye and spoke the simple truth. "I honestly don't know him well, Papa. I’ve spent time with him in past weeks and as you say, his reputation is one of honor. He's always treated me well and I think he can make me happy. I believe I can serve him as a wife does and come to love him. I can come to be happy with him. I choose him for my husband. You know I will be loyal."

Fendrel weighed her with his eyes. Something told her he could see into her soul. He stayed silent so long, she shifted her weight from one foot to another.

"And this is truly what you want, my daughter? Shouldn't you think on it more?"

Cristiana shook her head. "I've already told you, Papa. We’ve conducted a secret courtship for some time. I've thought about it a great deal. It is what I want."

Fendrel turned to the window, peering out.

Guiscard cleared his throat and Cristiana turned to find him staring at Fendrel’s back.

"If I may interject, Fendrel, your daughter will live in comfort. As will you yourself."

So, Guiscard heard everything.

Fendrel turned from the window, looking unhappy. "Guiscard, I appreciate comfort as much as the next man, but that is not what life is chiefly about. It's about what a man stands for. What he does with his life. All men die."

He shifted his gaze to Cristiana. She wilted under it.

"All women die,” he continued. “But what did they do to serve God in this life?"

Guiscard dropped his gaze and Cristiana found she had no answer either. “Father,” she groped for words. “Sir Guiscard is a god-fearing man. He serves our Lord in his own way. Must one be poor to serve Almighty God?”

Fendrel’s frown deepened and he took another breath. After what felt like an eternity of silence, he nodded slowly. "I will agree to this match on one condition."

Cristiana's heart leapt in her chest and she raised her eyes to her father, feeling a surge of affection for him.

As if reading the emotion, he held up a hand to forestall her. "The condition is that the three of us make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land before you wed."

Cristiana's mouth dropped open. Where on earth did this request come from?

“A…a pilgrimage?” she sputtered, noting that in her peripheral vision, Guiscard’s mouth had dropped open in dismay as well. “Why father? You’ve never expressed a desire for such a thing before.”

"A holy pilgrimage will bless your union," he spread his gaze between them. It settled on her and his face softened. "The Cistercian monks want to build a cathedral there. They've already asked me to accompany them to help with the stonework. I planned to tell you about it tonight."

Understanding filled Cristiana’s chest. She’d have gone with Fendrel anyway, even if she’d never met Guiscard.

"If you want my blessing," Fendrel continued. "Come with me to the Holy Lands. Marry there. After that, you may return to your lives here. I may remain there for several years to complete the cathedral."

Cristiana didn't try to cover her sigh. She understood her father’s true intentions all too well. The trip to the Holy Lands was a convenient way for him to delay her marriage. He probably hoped Guiscard would refuse to go on such a long pilgrimage. Or, if they did go, perhaps he hoped the journey would change Cristiana's mind. Perhaps he’d use the travel to try and dissuade her from marrying Guiscard.

She squared her shoulders. Well, it won’t work. If this is what her father required, Cristiana would make the journey with a firm resolve to marry Guiscard at the end of it. If only Guiscard agreed....

Her shoulders dropped as she cast a sidelong glance at her betrothed.

As if on cue, Giscard stepped forward. "An excellent idea, Fendrel. And I have a counter condition."

Fendrel raised an eyebrow at him.

"If we are to make this trip to the Holy Lands, I insist on paying for it. We will go there with speed and comfort and accede to every wish you may have. Your daughter and I will be married there, in the shadow of the lands the Lord our Savior once walked."

Cristiana felt such delight at Guiscard’s words, she could have kissed him. Though admittedly, the prospect didn’t delight her overly much in general.

Still, Giscard impressed her with both his generosity and his words this day. Perhaps he would prove a stronger husband than she'd thought. She didn’t know if the thought delighted or frightened her more. A worry for another time.

She shifted her gaze back to her father.

After a moment, Fendrel nodded slowly.

Relief rushed into Cristiana's chest. She wanted her life to be settled. She wanted to be married to a good man who provided her protection and her father comfort. She’d finally achieved it today.

The three of them sat down to a dinner of fish and lentils together and her father and Guiscard made small talk about recent events in the village and her father's work for the Cistercians.

The monks her father worked for were good and honest men. After Cristiana's mother’s death nearly five years ago, they took her and Fendrel in, making sure she and her father wanted for nothing. In exchange, Fendrel labored to help them build their beautiful, utilitarian cathedrals.

Cristiana watched her father and her future husband talk and begin to get acquainted. These two men were now the most important in her life. They loved and revered God. Cristiana could think of no better way to begin a marriage than a pilgrimage to the holiest place on earth.

Chapter 2

 

May 1119, Gascony

 

Terrowin lifted one hand from his wooden practice sword to wipe the sweat from his brow. Even one-handed, he easily held the practice sword fast against the wooden sword of his younger opponent.

Barely worthy to be called a man, Bosley should still properly be called a boy, but fast growing into what he would become. They stood with their swords locked together, Bosley pushing with all his might against Terrowin’s, trying to gain the upper hand.

A sheen of sweat covered Terrowin’s bare arms and chest. Gripping his practice sword with both hands again, Terrowin grinned at the younger man. "Keep your eyes on me, Bosley. And move your feet." With the last, he lunged forward, sliding his wooden stave off the boy’s and whirling in a circle, swinging the sword in an arc. It landed a hard blow on Bosley’s sword, but the boy blocked him with more strength than most people would probably think possible for the wiry youth. Terrowin knew better, of course, as he’d been training with Bosley for months.

The two of them danced back and forth in front of the Baron's barn. Terrowin’s long, dark hair, falling below his shoulders but secured at the nape of his neck with a tie, swung back and forth.

A steady stream of hoots and hollers, intermingled with periodic gasps, from their audience accompanied them. A small group of young men, all Bosley’s age or younger, who sat or stood in a line against the back of the barn, watching with interest. The hoots came from the older ones. The gasps from the younger ones when either Terrowin or Bosley narrowly escaped certain death by wooden stave.

As they fought, Terrowin vaguely registered a calm, almost monotonous voice reciting scripture near the barn. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Terrowin ignored it, keeping his attention on Bosley. He’d been conducting lessons for the young men all day. The sun sat high in the sky and he decided this would be the last match before they quit for lunch.

Terrowin could've taken the boy down two minutes into their match—he didn’t even bother to carry his wooden shield, as none of them came close to hitting it—but he aimed not only to best these boys, but to teach them. He allowed them to fight him, feeling as though they did at least well enough to keep him at bay, teaching them about footing and form as they went.

After a while, he always made sure to show them how much they still needed to learn. This young lad in particular had grown a great deal in his sword skill in past months, but all of these boys still had far to go. They slowly mastered the forms, but they still needed to master true awareness.

A man must know the sword well enough for it to be second nature to him. He must learn to fight effectively while letting his mind wander in order to consider his surroundings and see threats coming from places other than his opponent. These boys didn’t approach that yet.

With a sudden burst of speed, Terrowin sprang toward Bosley, commencing an all-out frontal attack. Their wooden staves clacked again and again and again while Terrowin pushed the boy backward in a tight circle. Bosley’s heel caught on some unseen object in the grass. He tripped, falling onto his back.

The watching boys all burst out laughing, jeering and pointing at him.

Bosley sat up on his elbows, giving Terrowin a resentful look. "Was that truly necessary?" he muttered, an edge of bitterness in his voice.

Terrowin grinned and stepped forward, reaching out a hand. Bosley took it after a short, sullen hesitation. Terrowin pulled him to his feet.

"You resent that I’ve shown you my true strength and what you may face one day.” He clapped the boy good-naturedly on the back. "The true enemy will not have sympathy for you, as I do. He’d have run you through."

Terrowin peered downward, trying to discern what had caused Bosley’s sudden fall. It didn't take long to find the culprit. A smooth, round stone, small enough that Terrowin could have palmed it, but large enough that unfortunate foot placement could easily have broken Bosley’s ankle. The boy was lucky it hadn’t been worse. Terrowin picked up the stone and showed it to the crowd of boys.

He turned to address the entire group. "You must learn to be mindful of your surroundings. No matter how excellent your sword skill, you’ll still encounter things you never planned on. You're all doing well and learning quickly. Keep practicing. One day, one of you will vanquish me."

Most of the boys gave him skeptical looks, which he pretended not to see. Others laughed as though he’d told a humorous story.

“Damn stone,” Bosley said bitterly. “Who put that there?”

“The lord gives us stumbling blocks,” Father Brickenden spoke up, and all eyes turned to him. His was the voice reading from the Bible as they practiced. “Not to sabotage us, but to teach and strengthen us.”

Bosley looked vaguely resentful, but he didn’t challenge the priest.

Terrowin gave the boy an encouraging pound on the shoulder. The corners of the boy’s mouth turned up slightly before he turned away.

As if sensing the lessons were done, the boys began rising to their feet, stretching, and talking to one another.

Father Brickenden, the priest who presided over the Baron's estate, sat on a large pile of hay beside the boys, reading from an open Bible that dwarfed his hands in size, loudly enough to be sure all the boys heard.

And they did. Terrowin noticed many of the boys casting questioning glances at the priest from time to time, though none approached or spoke to him.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

Terrowin smirked. "You already read that verse, father." He reached for his brown tunic and slid it over his head. It caught somewhat on his sweat-covered skin, but he pulled it down down easily enough, so the hem sat at his upper thighs. He began tightening the laces over his chest and at his wrists.

Brickenden scowled at Terrowin, straightening his spine. The motion emphasized the pot belly under his shabby priest’s robes. A warm breeze picked Brickenden’s wispy gray hair up off his shoulders and blew it across the man’s deeply lined face. Swatting angrily at the offending pieces, the priest nearly struck himself.

Father Brickenden had served as Baron Plonta’s priest for a handful of years now. Terrowin adapted to his tactics months ago. Those tactics often included reciting scripture subtly—or so he thought—in the background of life at the Baron’s estate. He said he did it to teach people something without them knowing they’d been taught. Terrowin didn’t know if such things worked, but he’d grown used to the ubiquitous sound of the old man’s voice.

"What does it mean?"

Terrowin turned to find Merrick, a boy of fifteen summers, standing at his elbow. Merrick’s curly hair hung shaggily over his ears. Dirt covered him from head to toe. Such was the state of most of these boys.

"What does what mean?" Terrowin asked.

"The priest’s verse. He reads the same one again and again, but I don't know what it means."

Terrowin pressed the tip of his practice sword into the soft grass beneath him, resting both palms on top of the hilt. "It means light always overcomes darkness. If you fight for our Lord's truth and goodness, the devil’s darkness cannot win."

Merrick frowned. "When you say ‘lord,’ do you mean, our lord the Baron? Or Christ our Lord?"

Father Brickenden stopped reading. The man still pretended to study his Bible, but Terrowin knew the priest most likely strained to hear Terrowin and Merrik’s conversation.

"Both,” Terrowin answered, realizing many of the boys had stopped to listen. “As men of God, it is our duty to protect and fight for our Lord, the Baron. We protect his person, his family, his estate, and his property. All men must protect the interests of their lords. But if we owe our allegiance to our lord, Baron Plonta here on earth, how much more do we owe our allegiance to Christ our Lord in the heaven? Is he not the greatest Lord of them all?"

Many of the boys nodded solemnly. Father Brickenden gave Terrowin an approving nod. Terrowin ignored that too. He did not say it because he sought the priest’s approval. He told the boys the simple truth.

"But what about the highwayman who gave you your scar?"

Terrowin smiled patiently. The boys never missed an opportunity to ask about his scar or the now-infamous story of how Terrowin came by it. He couldn't see the scar unless he peered into a glass. He could feel it with his fingers, of course. He’d done so often enough to memorize the feel of it. He didn’t need to repeat the action anymore.

The scar reached from the notch at the base of his throat, too high for Terrowin to see it, and around the left side of his neck, ending at the back of his shoulder. The result of a highwayman who attempted to cut his throat.

Terrowin had wrenched away and the blow landed on the left side of his neck, and superficially. Though he couldn’t see the scar—his long, brown hair often hid it from others as well—he felt it when sweat slid over it or his hair brushed it.

"The highwayman scarred me, but I lived, didn't I?"

Merrick and several other boys nodded thoughtfully.

"Fighting for God doesn't mean we won’t collect scars. On the contrary, it means we will triumph in the end, though there will be difficult times along the way. This scar taught me an important lesson. It made me vow never to hesitate to fight evil again. Evil takes advantage of hesitation to put down roots and spread its poison. A man must always charge evil head on and eradicate it before it takes hold."

“But how do we…” Merrick trailed off, studying the grass under his feet and obviously deep in thought.

Terrowin waited patiently.

“How do we know what God's will is? How do we know that we’re doing as he wants us to?”

Terrowin heaved a sigh. A deep question, to be sure. “It’s as I often tell you all. Keep to Christ’s teachings in the Bible. Don’t bring war to those who don't bring war to you. Hurt no woman. If a man gives offense, either walk away, or draw your sword. There is nothing in between. Treat every human being with the same kindness Christ showed. If you do these things, you will always be in harmony with God.”

“But Christ didn’t carry a sword,” a young boy standing beside the barn said. His name was Jemmy. A quiet, shy, curious boy who was too little yet to even heft an iron weapon.

“That’s true,” Terrowin bowed his head. “At least, not a literal one. But don’t forget that the God of Israel fought their enemies for them, often with violence. The creed of a knight is to eradicate evil, especially the enemies of Christ. We must never use our weapons or our skills to do ought else but defend the weak and the interests of our lords. Using them to harm others would make us evil, and God would not be pleased.”

“But you aren’t a knight,” Merrick objected. “Neither are we.”

Terrowin nodded. “Perhaps not. But the way of a knight is honorable. And pleasing to God. I merely attempt to answer your question, Merrick. Following the morals of a Christian knight with all your heart will never put you at odds with the Almighty.”

Merrick frowned, seeming to consider Terrowin’s words. He opened his mouth, obviously about to ask another question, but Terrowin never heard it.

A ruckus of voices reached his ears. They sounded far away, from another part of the estate. Yet, they couldn’t be too far away or Terrowin wouldn’t have deciphered them.

The boys all froze. As one, they leapt to their feet and ran along the length of the barn, eyes dancing with excitement and curiosity. Terrowin followed them.

As they came around to the front, Terrowin saw handfuls of people running to and fro across the estate. Nothing about their movement gave any clue as to why so many of them acted so frantic.

A stablehand raced toward the barn and Terrowin stepped forward, raising a hand to flag him down. When the stablehand noticed Terrowin, he skidded to a halt and made a clumsy bow.

"What's going on, boy?" Terrowin asked.

"Our Lord the Baron is returning. This minute."

Ah. Terrowin understood. The Baron was not expected until suppertime. Obviously, the household hadn't been ready to receive him. He probably approached the gates even now and the servants were forced to rush around and get things ready.

Terrowin turned to his pupils. "Do you want to see—"

The gaggle of boys burst into full sprints, moving as though they all belonged to a single creature, before Terrowin even finished the question.

Terrowin chuckled, knowing they’d rush to the front of the estate to watch the Baron return in great pomp and circumstance, as they always did. He made many such sprints himself as a young boy.

"You do well with those boys," Father Brickenden’s calming voice came at Terrowin’s shoulder.

Terrowin glanced down, taking in the man’s wrinkled face and sagging jowls. "Thank you," he murmured. He couldn’t help but notice the difference between Brickenden and other priests who’d presided on the Baron's estates in past years.

“You know,” he said, “your predecessors didn’t always approve of me talking to the boys of God.”

Brickenden smiled and shrugged. “I don’t mind, so long as you teach them correct things.”

“I embrace the way of the sword,” Terrowin pointed out.

Brickenden heaved a great sigh, and Terrowin wondered if he’d struck upon an uncomfortable subject. The priest didn’t answer for several minutes, and Terrowin felt sure he’d offended the man.

“I don’t embrace violence, of course,” Brickenden finally said. “But I do see that, in this world, it’s sometimes necessary. As a tool of defense, I don’t abhor it.”

“Did you approve of the Holy Crusade, then?” Terrowin asked, genuinely curious.

Brickenden rolled his shoulders around, looking uncomfortable once again. “The stories I’ve heard say things happened there, even at the hands of Christian soldiers, that I cannot approve of. It is a messy situation, my son. Not one with a sure answer. That said, I am not displeased that the armies of God now hold Jerusalem. Was the violence necessary? Perhaps. Only God can judge that.”

Terrowin nodded, deciding he approved of Brickenden’s words. A man could hardly know the mind of God, after all. He could only see to his own life. He cast a sidelong glance at the priest. "Why that verse in particular, if I may ask?"

Brickenden glanced back at Terrowin and scratched under his armpit before answering. "I came across the passage a few days ago and have thought a lot about it. I figured, as long as you teach these boys to fight the enemy, it is best if they know that no matter what happens, God will triumph.”

Terrowin nodded absently. "Yes," he murmured. "God will triumph."

Brickenden cast him another inquiring look and Terrowin fought not to roll his eyes.

“What is it, Priest?” he asked, not quite keeping the irritation out of his voice. If the man wanted something, he should simply ask.

“You know your Bible well, Terrowin. Much better than most of your station. Have you a cleric somewhere in your family?”

Terrowin shook his head. “My father knows his Bible well. I learned at his knee.”

Brickenden nodded thoughtfully, looking impressed. “Might I make a suggestion?”

Terrowin raised his eyebrows at the man in surprise. Could a priest know anything of sword forms?

If Brickenden noticed Terrowin’s reaction, he didn’t show it. “You talk often to the boys of learning their craft and fighting to protect themselves. Might it not be prudent to also teach them to work together?”

Terrowin hesitated. “Sword play isn't a particularly ‘together’ activity, Priest. They must learn to defend themselves before they can hope to defend others.”

Brickenden said nothing, but doubt shone out from his countenance.

“Isn’t it true,” Terrowin offered, that a man must save his own soul, through his thoughts and deeds and penance, before he can preach to anyone else?”

After another moment’s hesitation, Brickenden gave a conceding look. “You are right, lad. It is true. But in sword play, you still guard one another’s backs, do you not?”

Terrowin nodded. “Of course. But even if you fight alongside a friend, each man fights largely his own battle. What you say isn’t incorrect, Priest. They must learn awareness so they can do more, but these boys are far from that. They must learn the basics before I teach them more complicated practices.”

“Of course, of course,” Brickenden waved a hand dismissively. “You are their teacher in this thing. Not I. I only mention it, Terrowin, because of something I see in you.”

Trumpets sounded in the distance, and Terrowin knew he should go to stand by his father’s side and greet the Baron. Yet, he felt curiosity over the priest’s words.

“Shall we walk as we speak?” he asked.

Brickenden nodded and they fell into step together, heading for the front of the estate.

“What do you see in me?” Terrowin asked.

Brickenden heaved a sigh. “You seem to want to do everything yourself. Conquer every foe, fight all the Baron’s battles, and perhaps all of Christ’s as well, on your own.”

Terrowin didn’t quite hold back his chuckle, and Brickenden raised an eyebrow at him.

“What's wrong with that?” Terrowin asked.

“Nothing,” the priest said slowly, “but neither is there anything wrong with accepting help. Especially from like-minded men who share your religion and long to fight the same battles.”

Terrowin stopped, frowning. Brickenden walked several steps ahead before realizing Terrowin no longer walked beside him. He turned, looking vaguely surprised.

“I…can accept help, Priest, if the occasion calls for it. Teaching sword forms behind the safety of the Baron’s walls hardly warrants it.”

Brickenden seemed to consider that a moment before nodding. “Perhaps you are right. It’s true that I’ve only ever seen you in one setting. And I meant no offense by it. I only ask that you keep it in mind for the future. Your entire life lies before you, Terrowin. And even the greatest of heroes need help at times.”

Without another word, Brickenden turned and headed toward the front of the estate again, not waiting for Terrowin. Terrowin followed, slowly at first, and then more quickly, wondering what on earth had brought this discussion on.

 

*******

 

An hour after most of the estate watched the Baron return to his small castle, wrapped in luxurious furs atop his striking white stallion, Terrowin received a message from a castle page. His heavy boots, which reached just over the top of his knee, clacked loudly through the stone passages.

He arrived at the heavy door to his father's office and rapped on it with one fist.

“Enter."

Recognizing his father's authoritative voice, Terrowin pushed the door open. He registered surprise to find his father had company. The Baron Vauquelin Plonta himself sat on one of the heavy, tall-backed chairs in front of the cold fireplace. Terrowin's father, John, stood by the mantle, holding a goblet of wine.

The Baron rose to his feet and turned when Terrowin entered. A man of large stature, the Baron’s black hair reached to his shoulders, curling ever so slightly at the ends. In recent years, gray began meandering through it.

He wore a finely cut shirt and fitted trousers, along with soft, supple boots that reached to his thighs. His house sigil—two crossed swords with armor-laden horses on either side—embroidered their turned-down tops. The Baron’s family originally came from horse breeders.

Terrowin shut the door behind him. Hand on the hilt of his sword, he bowed to the Baron. "Welcome home, my Lord."

The Baron held a goblet of his own and raised it toward Terrowin. "Thank you, lad. And thank you for coming. Your father and I need to speak with you.”

Again, surprise tunneled through Terrowin’s chest. His father sending for him was not uncommon, but the Baron rarely did so. "Of course, my Lord. How can I be of service?"

In answer, the Baron cut his eyes toward John, who motioned Terrowin forward.

Terrowin obeyed, moving to stand beside his father near the mantle. Neither of them sat in the Baron's presence, which would be improper without an invitation.

As he moved, he noticed his father’s limp. Both of them had grown accustomed to that limp. His father acquired it years ago, on the same day Terrowin acquired his scar.

"As you know, son," John began, running a hand through his short, black hair. "The Baron has returned from a trip on which he toured all the holy cathedrals of Gascony."

Terrowin nodded. The Baron had remained absent from the castle for several weeks.

Before continuing, Terrowin’s father threw the Baron an affectionate look. The two men had been good friends for decades, despite the difference in their stations. The Baron had been the first visitor after Terrowin’s birth nearly twenty years before.

"Our Baron," John said, “as all men do, seeks absolution for his soul. While on his trip, he spoke with a priest who told him only a pilgrimage to the Holy Land will absolve him of his sins."

Terrowin fought to keep his eyebrows from jumping. The Holy Land? Not for the first time, Terrowin wondered what kinds of sins lay in the Baron's past. Months ago, when the Baron first announced his plans to visit all the cathedrals in the area, Terrowin found it strange for the Baron of Gascony to abruptly decide on such a trip. Not a massive undertaking, but one of no little inconvenience, and Terrowin couldn’t help his curiosity.

 Such things were not anyone's business except the Baron’s and God’s, of course. Terrowin, as the castellan’s son, certainly had no business asking such questions. But now a priest deemed the Baron’s sins so dark as to merit a visit to the Holy Lands? Curiosity prickled in Terrowin like a squatting toad.

He realized both the older men stared at him expectantly. "A worthy journey, my Lord Baron,” Terrowin said quickly. “I'm sure all men hope to make such a journey in their lifetimes."

The Baron smiled, looking pleased with Terrowin's answer. "The reason we called you here, young Terrowin," the Baron said congenially, “is that I wish to bring your father along with me. He's served me, running the ins and outs of my castle, since before you were born."

Terrowin nodded again.

“He will accompany me as my squire, my right-hand man, and most importantly, my friend."

Terrowin allowed himself a fond smile. Not many men of the Baron’s station would admit to having a friend of lesser status, or even lower themselves to such a friendship. Terrowin’s father stood as head of the Baron’s household in a sense, but still only the chief among servants. Over the years, the Baron proved a better man than most of his station. He treated his servants with respect and even affection.

Yet another reason Terrowin couldn’t imagine what sins required such a massive pilgrimage.

Terrowin thought he understood why they’d called him here. "And you'll be needing someone to perform my father's duties as castellan while you are away?”

In truth, Terrowin didn't relish the idea, but he could perform his father's duties well enough after all these years. He’d certainly worked by his father's side enough to know what they entailed.

To Terrowin’s surprise, the Baron shook his head. "Obviously, I’ll need to find someone to fill in for your father while we are away, but we didn’t ask you here to assume his duties." The Baron stood, setting his goblet down atop the mantle and resting a heavy, warm hand on Terrowin’s shoulder.

"You have proven yourself most skilled with a sword in recent years. Especially since that unfortunate incident on the road that left you with your scar.” His eyes flicked toward Terrowin’s neck. “Such skills are things to be proud of.” The Baron gave him a warm smile. “I want you to come with us as well, young Terrowin. As captain of my guard and my chief protector."

The polite smile Terrowin had worn since entering the room slid off his face. The Baron wanted him to leave? Go to the Holy Lands? A pilgrimage was the last thing Terrowin wanted. He cleared his throat to cover his dismay and bowed at the waist. "I…am honored, my Lord Baron."

"Good," the Baron clapped him jovially on the back, hard enough to jar him. "It's all settled." He turned to Terrowin's father. "I will speak to Ulrich about taking over your duties, John. I have every confidence my castle will be safe in our absence. And every confidence that with you at my side," he nodded toward John, "and you, young Terrowin as my protector, I'll be safe on my journey as well."

He picked up his goblet, threw the last of the contents into the back of his throat, and walked from the room, practically bouncing as he went.

The door shut behind him and Terrowin’s shoulders slumped. He turned to his father, who watched him expectantly.

"What is it, Terrowin?" John asked quietly.

"I have no wish to go to the Holy Lands, father. Such a trip will take months. Some pilgrimages stretch for years. I've nearly saved enough money to make an offer to Janla’s father."

His father frowned. “The Baron does you great honor by requesting you specially, Terrowin. He—and I—are most proud of your skill.”

“Christians control Jerusalem now, Father. The danger on the road should be minimal. Nothing out of the common way. I feel he wants me along merely as a chaperone.”

“Your role will be much more than a chaperone,” his father said sharply.

Terrowin nearly took a step back. His father rarely lost his temper.

John moderated his tone. “I cannot tell you this with any certainty, son, but I believe the Baron sees this as a test of sorts. If you protect him well, he may elevate you. Make you captain of his guard or some such.”

Terrowin’s eyes widened.

“I cannot be certain of his exact plans,” John said quickly, holding up an index finger, “as he has not confided them to me. He has hinted, however. Such an elevation would be good for you and for the woman you marry. Her father could surely not refuse you then.”

Terrowin sighed. Such an opportunity truly was a great honor. One not to be missed. And yet… “But it will mean waiting another year to marry. What if Janla’s father won’t allow her to wait that long?”

John pulled in a deep breath and put his hands on Terrowin’s shoulders. "I know you want to marry your merchant's daughter. I think she wants to marry you too. But Terrowin, the time has come for you to live what you preach to your pupils. You must protect our Lord, the Baron. It is your duty."

Frustration and honor warring in his chest, Terrowin dropped his eyes to the ground, feeling the truth of his father’s words. His duty lay in protecting his lord. But if he left for a year or more, Janla might marry another. With sixteen summers behind her, she’d already passed common marriageable age.

"Terrowin."

Terrowin could never resist his father’s gentle, wise insistence. He raised his eyes to the kind, understanding face he’d known since birth. Deeply lined with a strong jaw, and a hint of jowls, it formed into an affectionate smile. "If you're so worried about Janla marrying another before you return, make her father an offer now and see if he’ll agree to let her wait for you. There's no guarantee about how long we’ll be gone, but with the Baron’s money and status, we’ll get there faster than most and travel in better luxury. I think we can realistically return within a year. I'm hoping eight or nine months. If you can get her father to promise her to you, she'll be waiting for you."

John dropped his hands from Terrowin’s shoulders and heaved a great sigh. "I'm sorry, son. I know this goes against your plans, but there's nothing more I can do about it. Honor demands we go with the Baron."

Terrowin nodded solemnly. Yes. He would approach Janla’s father. He must do his duty and protect the interests of his Lord. To the Holy Lands he would go, it seemed. And God would guide his path.

Chapter 3

 

July 1119, Antioch

 

Terrowin winced as his horse danced to one side to avoid a rock on the road. Customarily a good rider, after several months at sea, Terrowin’s body became unused to sitting in the saddle. Two days of rocky terrain had left him sore.

Forthwind, his brilliantly white stallion—a gift from his father before they left on their journey—quickly corrected himself and kept going, keeping pace with the dozen or so other mounts around him.

A raucous laugh came from somewhere behind Terrowin. “You are quite right, my friend. Quite right indeed,” the Baron’s voice wafted to him.

Terrowin twisted around in his saddle to see the Baron clap his father on the back. The two of them talked and laughed as though they'd met only hours ago. They'd talked and laughed that same way the entire journey.

Terrowin chuckled and twisted back around, focusing on the landscape around him. Being in charge of the Baron’s security, he rode at the front of the group, mostly alone.

The Baron's retinue remained relatively small. Only he, John, Terrowin, and four of the Baron’s most trusted men from Gascony. Yates, Oakley, Waylon and Lyman led mules, laden with supplies, but also knew their sword craft well, doubling as extra guards against any dangers they might encounter on the road.

Terrowin had known them and practiced swords with them since his youth. Thus far, the journey had been almost entirely peaceful, with only some errant weather and physical obstacles—fallen trees and bogs—to slow them down.

Antioch was a place of rolling hills and broad plateaus. The grasses here were green, strewn with rocks and boulders. All the roads their group used were cut through the countryside by earlier travelers, but they tended to be rocky rather than smooth, and the horses picked their way carefully through them to avoid stumbling.

Still, he found the country lovely. Terrowin took a deep, calming breath and attempted to appreciate the landscape, doing his best to keep his mind off his soreness. The weather remained excellent for travel, as it had for the majority of their journey.

Terrowin, his father, Baron Plonta, and the Baron’s retinue left Gascony and rode through France on horseback and into Rome to get the pope's blessing for the first leg of their journey. The pope, of course, gave them his blessing with pleasure.

From there, they went by ship, which proved much faster travel than most pilgrims managed, taking weeks rather than months or years. They landed in the principality of Armenian Cilicia, where they picked up a guide named Hadrian. The Baron paid him to lead them quickly and safely to Jerusalem.

He did so by directing them around the northwestern tip of the Mediterranean and eventually here, to Antioch. They’d come to the final leg of their journey, which would take them into the kingdom of Jerusalem. Hadrian estimated they still journeyed roughly three days’ ride from Jerusalem.

Forthwind danced to one side again and Terrowin winced. It happened every few minutes on this boulder-laden path. Terrowin's sore muscles made him sullen.

Still, he couldn't help but be proud of the horse. A beautiful, snow white stallion, with a thickly muscled neck, smooth flanks, and strong fetlocks, he’d proven powerful, aggressive, and well trained.

Terrowin knew very well his father gifted him the stallion to soften the blow of having to come along on the trip and leave Janla behind. He wondered if the Baron had some part in the gift. He ought to hate the gift on principle, but he loved his new horse, which made it difficult to brood.

“You are quite introspective today, my young friend," a voice said from Terrowin’s right.

He didn't have to glance over to recognize the voice. Hadrian, their guide, nudged his small mule abreast of Terrowin’s stallion. Though Hadrian spoke Terrowin's Frankish dialect well, it still came out somewhat broken and laden with a thick local accent.

"Not as introspective as you may think," Terrowin chuckled. “During our sea voyage, I grew unused to riding. I find myself too sore to make much conversation."

Hadrian chuckled. "A hazard of rich traveling, my friend. Most pilgrims ride their horses or rely on their feet for the entire journey. They never grow unused to much of anything." He laughed harder, as though he’d made a witty joke.

Terrowin smiled politely.

Hadrian cleared his throat. "I spoke with your father at length last night. He tells me a young lady waits for you back in Gascony. That you didn't wish to accompany him here."

Terrowin nodded, shifting his weight as the horse picked its way over a particularly rocky spot. "Only because I fear the lady may marry another in my absence." He heaved a deep breath. "Thankfully, I secured a promise from her father that he would allow her to wait for me.”

Hadrian’s dark eyebrows rose in surprise. “For how long?”

"One year," Terrowin said. "He gave me one year to return or he’ll give her to another in marriage."

Hadrian nodded. "Such criteria is understandable." He glanced sideways at Terrowin. "You're not worried?"

Terrowin shook his head. “We left only two months ago and have nearly obtained our destination. Baron Plonta only plans to remain in Jerusalem a few weeks. He wishes us to be on our way before your rainy season sets in.”

Hadrian nodded thoughtfully. “The summer is fast coming to a close.”

Terrowin nodded his agreement. “Assuming the journey back takes a similar amount of time, it should be two months again. Even allowing for unforeseen delays, and God willing, we’ll make meet the deadline with no issues.”

Hadrian smiled congenially. "Then I'm happy for you, my young friend. I offer my congratulations. She must be quite a woman for you to want her so much, even on the other side of the pilgrimage."

Terrowin smiled politely. "She is quite comely," he offered.

Hadrian’s grin widened.

In truth, Terrowin could say little else about Janla. She caught his eye when he noticed her in the village outside the Baron’s estate. With her wide brown eyes and shy smile, he found her beauty most pleasing. Each time he spoke with her, he found her nature to be sweet and demure. He'd known almost instantly that he wanted to marry her.

Yet, it all happened scant weeks before the Baron insisted Terrowin accompany him on this pilgrimage. Terrowin spent relatively little time with Janla. He hardly knew her. He planned to remedy that upon his return. Besides, a pleasing demeanor in a wife was more important than actually knowing her before the marriage commenced. They’d have their entire lives to get to know one another. Terrowin looked forward to it.

Terrowin cast his eyes across the countryside again. “While I’m not anxious to be away from her for so long, I must admit, I’ve found seeing the world to be exciting."

"Have you ever traveled so far before now?" Hadrian asked, his tone casual.

Terrowin laughed out loud. "I've never traveled out of Gascony before this pilgrimage. I’ll admit to being sour my first few days on the road. I soon came to realize my folly. I had no choice except to come, after all, and I doubt I’ll ever come so far again from where I was born." He grinned at Hadrian. "I might as well enjoy the adventure."

Several gaps interrupted Hadrian’s return smile where he’d lost teeth, yet the man remained endlessly friendly and jovial. Terrowin liked him.

They crested a hill and the path sloped downward. Terrowin’s eyes fell on something at the base of the hill, directly in their path. The road disappeared from view between two clusters of large boulders as it curved southward. Right where the bend took the road out of sight, a simple-looking wooden wagon sat across the pathway at a crooked angle.

Even from this distance, Terrowin could tell the wheel had fallen off. He doubted a worse place for it existed anywhere in the countryside. Tall clusters of boulders lined either side of the road, and more rocks—most the size of Terrowin’s head—poked up out of the path as well. They were most likely the reason the wheel came off to begin with.

With the wagon in such a position, no one could travel around it or see what lay beyond the walls of boulders on the road ahead. Terrowin’s small group approached it slowly.

An old man—he appeared older than Terrowin's father—stood beside his lopsided cart, struggling to keep the large wooden wheel upright. He’d come nowhere near truly repairing the wagon yet. The wheel stood taller than him, looking utterly unwieldy. In addition, the old man favored his left foot and had a white rag wrapped around one forearm like a bandage.

"You seem to have encountered some bad luck, good sir," the Baron said politely, drawing up at Terrowin’s left shoulder. He stayed slightly behind Terrowin’s mount, though, as was prudent. "Might we be of some assistance?"

The old man wore colorless rags. Matted gray hair stuck out from beneath the piece of equally colorless material wrapping his head in the local fashion. He turned to them as they approached, looking utterly mistrustful.

Terrowin had grown used to such looks. People in this region, especially those who did not speak their language, often squinted at them suspiciously.

Hadrian urged his mule up toward the wagon. He addressed the old man in his native tongue. The man relaxed when he heard the dialect. He answered back in the same tone, even affecting a smile.

Hadrian turned to the Baron. "He will gladly accept your kindness."

Terrowin dismounted, pausing to stretch his stiff muscles. Yates, Oakley, Waylon and Lyman followed suit, allowing their laden mules to wander a few steps away. Even Hadrian dismounted to help.

The Baron and Terrowin's father remained atop their horses, watching.

Terrowin and the Baron’s four attendants took the wagon wheel from the old man and easily replaced it on its hub.

A few minutes later, they’d secured it strongly enough for Terrowin to feel confident it shouldn’t fall off again. At least, not for a good while.

The old man began speaking quickly in his native tongue. Terrowin didn't understand, but he could tell the old man expressed gratitude. Smiles wreathed the man’s ancient face and he ducked his head, his hands pressed together as if in prayer.

Smiling at the old man, Terrowin nodded at him.

The abrupt crack of one rock hitting another brought Terrowin’s head around to the right.

He glanced that way, seeing nothing except the bolder towering above them.

Perhaps a small rock had fallen down the backside of the enormous boulder. Or an unseen animal made the noise.

            An unnatural silence filled the air for one, two, three heartbeats.

Half a dozen men leapt out from behind the boulder. Some came around the sides while others jumped over the top. Dressed in shabby clothes with rags tied around their faces, revealing only their eyes, Terrowin recognized highwaymen when he encountered them.

These men bore the same dark eyes, hair, and skin as Hadrian. Local bandits, then.

He whirled, drawing his sword and swiftly assessing the threat. He didn’t feel fear, though. No mere highwaymen could best him. Nor a band of Christian men on their way to the Holy Lands. Righteousness would prevail, and God would aid them.

Yet, numbers were not in their favor. More than a dozen bandits now surrounded them, and the Baron’s group contained only eight. Terrowin’s shield still hung from his saddle. He would have to fight without it.

Terrowin moved to put himself between his father, the Baron, and the highwaymen. Too many clamored into his path. He clanged swords with three men in front of him, fighting as fast as he ever had and barely deflecting their blows.

Most of the bandits wore dark mustaches. Often divided in the middle, under their noses, the two shafts of hair down on either side of their mouths. Some wore conical helmets with thin chainmail hanging down over their ears. They carried curved, sinister knives and small, round shields.

While Terrowin clanged his sword against the men in front of him, his father and the Baron were yanked off their horses in his peripheral vision.

Bitterness rose in Terrowin’s chest while he fought to get to his father. The old man and his wagon—Terrowin didn’t know where the elderly man went, but he’d lost track of him in the melee—had been a decoy. Of that, he felt certain. A trap to get travelers to stop long enough to be ambushed.

He stabbed one of his foes in the leg before elbowing another who came up behind him hard in the kidney. The man stumbled and Waylon ran him through. The third crossed swords with Hadrian. The guide seemed to have the battle well in hand, so Terrowin turned, looking for his father.

He couldn’t see him immediately in the chaos, but as he spun toward where the rest of the battle took place on the narrow stretch of road, his eyes fell on yet another Turk. They must all be Turks, or he missed his mark.

This man stood taller than the others—nearly looking Terrowin in the eye. The Saracen wore a long, brown, khaftan-like tunic that crossed over his chest and reached down to his knees before flaring out in front. A leather belt held it in place.

Unlike most of his comrades, he wore no helmet, but rather a knitted cap on top of his head that came to a point at the apex of his skull. White fur bordered it.

Long black hair hung down his back, though thin braids came from behind his ears and swung in front of his shoulders. A thin line of hair also bordered his jaw, leaving his cheeks and chin shaven.

The Turk fought Yates. Terrowin approached to help his friend, but they fought on the opposite side of the road. The Turk, swinging a blunt wooden club, proved almost inhumanly fast. He hit Yates in the head, the arm, and the knee so fast, Terrowin barely registered the blows. Yates lay stunned on the ground at the Turk’s feet.

The Turk raised his club over his head and brought it down on Yates’ head, making a noise like a pumpkin being split. Terrowin’s mouth fell open.

The next instant, Oakley charged the Turk. Like Terrowin, he must have seen Yates’ demise. The Turk turned to meet Oakley…and dispatched him as well in under five blows. Both men Terrowin had grown up with…dead.

Rage rose in Terrowin’s chest. The energy coursing through his body also made his mind function at lightning speed. He knew exactly where Yates and Oakley had gone wrong. The missteps they’d made which led to their deaths. Watching a battle from outside was far different than being within it, but Terrowin knew he was a superior swordsman to either of his friends. He would take this Saracen Turk down.

It all happened in mere seconds, before Terrowin could fully cross the rocky road, but he finally reached the Turk. The man’s gaze focused on him. His cold black eyes and slender nose made him look cruel. Utterly unempathetic. Something in the man’s stone-like expression put fear in Terrowin’s heart.

He raised his sword.

The Turk did the same, raising a long-handled club in one hand and a small, round shield attached to his opposite forearm. From his belt hung a thin sword. Perhaps a quarter the weight of Terrowin’s, it didn’t pose much threat anyway. He still found it strange the Turk fought with a blunt club rather than a sharp sword.

The Turk swung his club and Terrowin leapt out of the way. It whooshed through the air and connected with the boulder directly behind Terrowin. Where it connected, the boulder shattered into a hundred tiny pieces. If that club connected with any part of him, Terrowin’s bones would crunch. He didn't know if it could damage his sword, but the Turk had an immensely powerful swing and Terrowin’s shield still hung on his saddle.

The Turk’s long, dark hair swung wildly from side to side each time he swung his club. Terrowin envisioned slicing through the hair with his sword when he took this man’s head.

“Halt!” a voice called.

Terrowin froze because the fur-capped Turk did, but kept his eyes on the man, watching for any sign of movement. He didn’t recognize the voice that called out.

A sickly, sinister smile slid onto the Turk’s face. He lowered his raised arms—club and sword with them—and took a step back.

Terrowin took the opportunity to glance from side to side. With that smile, he doubted the bandits planned to surrender. Still, there must be something he could do.

The highwaymen had forced the Baron’s men into the center of the road and onto their knees. They knelt surrounded by circle of dark-eyed Turks.

The fur-capped Turk backed up and nodded to something behind Terrowin. He found himself surrounded by a circle of Turks with swords all pointed toward his throat.

“Drop it,” one of them said.

Terrowin had no choice. They’d lost this battle. He obeyed.

The one who’d spoken, though head and shoulders shorter than Terrowin, grasped him by the tunic and shoved him toward where the Baron and his father knelt. The man forced him roughly onto his knees beside them.

“You are from the Frankish, are you not?”

The voice belonged to the fur-capped Turk Terrowin had been fighting. He found the man’s voice surprisingly high pitched for so large a man. Obviously the leader, he spoke broken Frankish with a heavy accent, much as Hadrian did.

“I am,” the Baron answered haughtily.

“You will give us your horses, linens, supplies, and coin, or you will not see your god’s holy places.”

A rage Terrowin rarely felt reared up in his chest. How dare anyone—and a Saracen no less—try to steal his lord’s property? Putting his head down to hide the mutiny in his expression, he took slow, steady breaths.

After a count of ten, during which more voices conversed, but he didn’t register them, he sprang into motion.

Using his arm to knock the swords of the other bandits away, he elbowed the closest one in the ribs and relieved him of his curved sword. Terrowin then lunged into the space between the Baron and the fur-capped Turk.

The Turk’s dark eyebrows jumped to his hairline, his eyes widening in surprise.

"You will not confiscate my Lord's property,” Terrowin shouted, and swung his stolen sword at the Turk.

As if taking their cue from him, the Baron’s other four attendants did the same, shouting at the highwaymen and attacking. The melee began again.

“Damned infidels!” the fur-capped Turk screamed when Terrowin swung at him, his voice growing shriller by the second. “No Christian knight can defeat me! I will cut your Christian hearts from your chests and eat then with salt from the Dead Sea!”

He drew his thin sword, and Terrowin smiled in triumph. That sword would be no match for him.  

Yet again, the man proved swift and skilled. He continually moved out of the way of Terrowin’s sword, striking jarring blows onto Terrowin’s curved blade before he recovered from the previous one.

A particularly heavy swing hit one of the boulders lining the road and glanced off. Terrowin’s boot caught on a stone sticking up from the road. He didn’t fall, but it caught him momentarily off balance.

The Turk’s eyes widened with triumph and he barreled forward, crashing into Terrowin. Terrowin’s hand went numb where the Turk crushed it against the boulder. His sword clattered to the rocky ground. The Turk’s nose hovered inches from Terrowin as he smashed Terrowin’s body into the rock. The man was remarkably strong for having such a small stature.

With effort, Terrowin wrenched himself out from between the Turk and the boulder, scraping his hands bloody as he did, and hit the ground. He rolled in circles across the rocky path to avoid the Turk’s thin sword, which came down again and again, aimed at Terrowin’s chest. Metal and men clashed around him. The skin of his back shredded painfully against the jagged boulders and his breath refused to come.

When he reached the far side of the path, he pressed his boots to the wall of boulders and pushed off, swinging his legs in an arc toward the oncoming Turk. He needed to be lightning fast and make contact before the Turk’s sword came down. If Terrowin proved too slow, his legs would be cut to ribbons.

It worked. He kicked the bandit in the knees and rolled to his feet as the Turk staggered backward, fighting to stay on his feet and dropping his thin blade.

Terrowin lunged forward and picked it up. It felt like a dagger compared to his own sword, but it would do.

Stalking forward to stand above the highwayman, he raised the small blade over his head, point down. This man would never again darken the path to Jerusalem.

Before Terrowin could strike, an all too familiar cry reached his ears. A wordless cry of desperation and pain.

His father! He hesitated, cutting his eyes left and right.

The Turk brought one knee into his chest and kicked outward through his heel. The blow connected with Terrowin’s knee, depositing him on the ground.

The thunderous sound of horse hooves filled Terrowin’s ears.

To Terrowin’s surprise, the Turk didn’t attack again or try to snatch his sword back. Terrowin raised his head to see the Turk leap astride Forthwind and galloped away.

Terrowin swept his gaze around. The horse hooves he’d heard approaching belonged to a dozen or more men, all galloping toward them from across the fields. These men—by their dress as well as their skin color—were most likely Christians.

As absorbed as Terrowin had been in the battle, he hadn’t noticed them. Yet the bandits did, and knew they’d just become outnumbered. And so, they’d fled.

The Baron’s men all held swords in hand and panted, wiping sweat and, in many cases, blood from their bodies. Many of the highwaymen lay dead on the ground. The Turk fighting Terrowin had been the last to retreat.

Letting the Turk’s sword clatter to the stony path, he pushed to his feet. “Father? Father!” He rushed forward.

John lay on the ground in the center of the ring of men, blood spouting from a wound on the outside of his thigh. Not enough blood to fill Terrowin with fear, but enough for mild concern.

Baron Plonta knelt beside John, trying to wrap the wound.

Terrowin slid onto the ground at his father’s side, taking his hands while Hadrian helped the Baron bind the wound.

“May we be of assistance?” The leader of the band of horsemen who’d scared the highwaymen away approached, looking down at Terrowin’s father with concern. He had a full head of thick, dark hair and a somewhat unkempt beard. His brown eyes, topped with bushy brows of the same color, were quite striking. Full of earnestness and sincerity. By his speech and his clothes, he might have been from Gascony itself. He had to be Frankish, at the very least.

“My father is wounded,” Terrowin answered warily. Looking around, John had received the worst of it. The others only held scrapes, bruises, and small cuts.

“Not badly, Terrowin,” his father said gently. “The wound is not much.”

Terrowin nodded, allowing the reassurance in his father’s voice to comfort him. He turned back to the Frankish man. “Who were those bandits?”

The man who answered stood beside the leader. He stood very large. Larger than Terrowin, though not by much. His alabaster skin and fiery red hair, with a bushy beard to match, struck an unforgettable combination. A sea of red freckles covered his face and exposed arms. “Seljuk Turks,” he spat.

The first man nodded. “Aland is correct. The bandits are Saracen Turks.”

“Are there many in this region?” the Baron asked.

Both the brown-haired leader and the red-bearded fellow raised their eyebrows at the Baron, looking surprised.

“Thousands,” the leader finally answered.

“Bloody bandits,” Lyman muttered, coming up to stand beside Terrowin.

Terrowin felt vague relief to find the man—and Waylon behind him—still in one piece.

“Not all of them are,” Hadrian broke in, glaring indignation at Lyman, who seemed utterly unmoved by it.

The lead horseman’s face softened. He gave Hadrian a respectful bow. “Of course not.” He addressed the Baron again. “Please don’t make the mistake of judging all Turks by these ones,” he motioned to the Saracen bodies littering the ground around them. “Most are peaceable and even trade with Christian pilgrims. Every people has its evil men. The evil Seljuks here are prone to attack Christians on the roads.”

Terrowin frowned, not sure he believed the man’s claims. He found the man’s tone deeply unsettling. Straightening his legs, he turned to face the lead horseman. “You say that as though this is a common occurrence.”

The horseman raised an eyebrow at him. “It is, Lad.”

Terrowin’s mouth fell open. “Why have we never heard of it?”

“Agreed,” the Baron chimed in, giving Terrowin a nod. “It cannot be a common occurrence. Jerusalem is firmly under Christian control.”

The man affected a sad smile. “As you say, Jerusalem is firmly under Christian control. The Outremer, on the other hand, is riddled with bandits and highwaymen. Christian pilgrims are routinely slaughtered, and their property taken.”

Silence reigned for several seconds while his words sunk in. Terrowin didn’t believe it. How could such things be happening, and no one know about them?

The leader, whose name Terrowin realized he still didn’t know, stepped toward him. “I hate to trespass upon your kindness, Sir Knight, but might I prevail upon you for your assistance?”

Terrowin blinked twice, then turned to look behind him. No one stood directly in the lead horseman’s line of sight except him. He turned back to find the man staring directly at him. “I’m not a knight, Sir.”

Now it was the horseman’s turn to blink. “Truly? My apologies. The way you fight. Your skill with a sword—I saw it from a distance—and the way you hold yourself. I just assumed….” He trailed off and cleared his throat. “Well, you have great skill. Would you help us hunt these bandits? They won’t have gotten far, and many are wounded. They’ve been assailing pilgrims along these roads for weeks. My men and I have hunted them for days. This is the first time we've encountered them.”

Terrowin stared at the man, wondering who he was, and who he worked for. It didn’t matter, though. This decision was not truly Terrowin’s. “I am not my own man, Sir. I am the Baron's man.” He cut his eyes toward the Baron, who still knelt at John’s side.

The Baron immediately took on a reluctant look. “I wish to help you, Sir. Truly, I do. These bandits killed two men who were dear to me.”

He glanced behind Terrowin and a pang of grief struck across Terrowin’s chest as he remembered that Yates and Oakley had fallen.

“But John here is injured,” the Baron continued. “And—”

“Nonsense, Baron,” John spoke up. “The injury is small enough.” He looked up at the horseman. “I may not be able to dismount and fight, but I can ride with you easily enough.”

“Nor would we have you fight,” the horseman stepped up beside Terrowin. “The last thing we want is to bring any more of your company harm. But these men are evil, and must be dealt with.”

“I may have a solution,” Hadrian cut in before John could respond. “A Hospital, run by monks of the order of St. John, is nearby. Perhaps you,” he inclined his head toward Terrowin’s father, “could go there to seek care for your wound. You could take the bodies of your fallen with you. The monks have a cemetery and I know they’d be happy to give your men a place in it. I can show you the way. The rest can hunt these bandits.”

“A good solution,” the horseman nodded, looking pleased. “I’ve been to this hospital myself on numerous occasions. The monks there are god-fearing men. I’ll send one of my men to protect you along the way.”

All eyes turned to the Baron. After a short hesitation, he nodded. “Very well. We will help you, Monsieur…?”

“De Payens,” the horseman said, stepping forward to clasp the Baron's arm in friendship. “Hughes de Payens. My apologies for not introducing myself earlier.”

Over the next several minutes, Terrowin and the Baron’s men pushed the broken wagon out of the way. Terrowin still had no idea where the old man had disappeared to when the fighting began and didn’t care.

They lifted his father up onto his horse, groaning and wincing the entire way.

“Are you sure about this, Father?” Terrowin asked when his father had settled in his saddle. “I don't like leaving you with these bandits loose on the road.”

“De Payens’ man will protect me, son,” John said reassuringly. “God will protect us both. You’ve been called to fight an enemy of God. Do so, with both God’s and my approval.”

Terrowin nodded and his father squeezed his hand. He watched Hadrian, his father, and one of de Payens’ men ride slowly away, leading the Baron’s pack horses, now laden with two dead men, along behind them.

Then he mounted a horse left behind by the bandits. Much smaller than Forthwind and chestnut in color, it hardly had his horse’s pride, but it would do.

Terrowin brooded as they rode. It simply wasn’t right for pilgrims coming to save their souls in the Holy Land to be attacked this way. Why did God allow it? Surely de Payens didn’t do this regularly. It sounded to Terrowin like he’d been paid to hunt this specific band. Once they’d been taken care of, the man would probably return to his own profession.

Someone ought to be protecting these roads and the good Christian pilgrims who traversed them. But who?

He followed Monsieur de Payens, along with Waylan, Lyman and the Baron to hunt the Saracen highwaymen.

Chapter 4

 

July 1119, Antioch

 

"Yes," Fendrel's voice drifted into Cristiana's ears. He rode directly ahead of her, by Guiscard's side. She’d listened to the two of them talking for hours. Days. Months, really.

Ignoring them, she allowed her mind to wander. The rocky countryside around her sprawled, majestic and beautiful. And vastly different from her homeland. She found it both frightening and romantic.

"What do you think, my dear?"

It took Cristiana moment to register the question, and that her father addressed her. She frowned and her cheeks heated. She racked her brain for what they've been talking about. She had no idea. She truly hadn't been listening. "I…agree with you, father,” she murmured.

Fendrel chuckled appreciatively. "You see, Guiscard?" he said, the slightest edge of mocking in his voice. "She is still more my daughter than your wife."

Guiscard threw a look back a Cristiana, equal parts resentful and hurt.

Cristiana made a show of straightening the leather, V-cut tunic dress she wore over her light blouse and britches. She shifted her eyes back to the terrain around her, ignoring Guiscard’s gaze.

Though she didn’t know him well when they became engaged, the journey from Frankia allowed her plenty of time to speak with him. At times, Cristiana admitted to herself she found him shallow, simpering, even slightly annoying. Overall, she could tolerate him.

Because of Guiscard's money, they secured travel by boat at the South of Frankia. They’d traveled directly across the Mediterranean, which took much less time than coming the entire way by foot.

They landed in the County of Tripoli and now needed only to finish their journey to Jerusalem on horseback. Once there, they would visit the holy places their Lord Jesus Christ once walked. Then Cristiana and Guiscard would be wed.

She longed to dig into her saddle bags and pull out what rested there. Her father had bought her a small glass as an engagement present. Made from some kind of brittle metal, it threw her reflection back at her poorly, but was still the finest thing she’d ever owned. It glimmered in the sunlight and she wished she could hold it as they rode.

She supposed she could, but she feared a jolt from the horse as it picked its way over the rocky terrain would cause her to drop it and it would shatter.

Up ahead, a small group of locals appeared around the bend. Guiscard took the lead and Fendrel motioned Cristiana ahead of him. They moved their horses to the right side of the road and kept them in single file so the travelers on foot could pass by them.

As they neared Jerusalem, they saw more and more travelers like themselves. Most proved polite and merely nodded to them. Some wanted to trade. Others scowled at them in an utterly unfriendly way as they passed, or simply didn’t acknowledge them.

These travelers were dressed in a way Cristiana had seen often since landing on these shores. They wore scarves around their heads to keep off the sun. Their tunics, britches and dresses were made of a lightweight material Cristiana had never seen before this journey. As this particular group passed, they all nodded to Cristiana's group. Cristiana nodded back.

The women wrapped scarves around their heads, but their hair remained visible. She envied the hair color of many of the women in this part of the world.

Most of the natives boasted raven black hair, with a few exotic orange or yellow heads thrown into the mix. Cristiana had always found her own long, medium brown hair blasé. She longed for the black locks she saw on these women, though she knew her wish to be shallow.

Today, as usual, she’d rolled her hair back at the sides and woven it into a thick braid which she pulled over her shoulder. She generally wore her hair in this style anyway, but it proved particularly efficient. Especially when traveling on horseback.

Once the locals passed by on foot, Fendrel and Guiscard resumed their conversation, periodically asking Cristiana's opinion on things. She knew they talked to pass the time.

They drew close to Jerusalem now, and Cristiana felt relieved. This journey showed her things she would never have otherwise seen. It still proved long and tiring, though.

Her suspicions that her father planned to use the journey to convince her not to marry Guiscard proved correct. More than once while Guiscard rode ahead, she and Fendrel fell into conversation, which he inevitably steered toward her happiness. Wouldn't she be happier taking on a life of service? A humbler husband?

Cristiana stood fast in her determination to marry Guiscard. She wanted to be settled. She wanted to be protected. She truly did want Guiscard's money, if only to keep her father comfortable in his old age. Nothing he said would change her mind.

Did she know in her heart that her father was right? Yes. Of course she did. But it hardly mattered. Cristiana had never found a love match among the men she’d met growing up. And after what happened to her mother, she feared being married to most of the men she knew. While they might be good men, they could still become rough when they drank. Guiscard remained the safest choice.

A soft, singing voice reach Cristiana's ears. She glanced around, wondering where it came from.

Ahead of her, Fendrel halted his horse. "Do you both hear that?” he asked, addressing both her and Guiscard. “Or is an old man hearing things again?"

"You mean the voice, father?" Cristiana asked. "I hear it too. Someone is singing."

As they continued along the rocky path, the voice grew louder. They rounded a bend to find a young man sitting against the trunk of a tree on the side of the road. Cristiana guessed him to be several years her junior. Fourteen or fifteen seasons old, she thought.

His voice still held the high pitch of a child, and he wore ragged clothing. Earth-toned, she thought. Or was he simply filthy? She couldn’t tell. He wore a dirty piece of material tied around his head—most likely to keep off the sun. He hadn’t tied it in the neat, efficient way the Saracens tied their head towels. Rather, he’d simply plunked this onto his head and secured it with some vines. He wore no tunic, belt, or shoes.

Obviously a pauper, Cristiana wondered if he sang in the hopes of coaxing coin from passing pilgrims. She strained her ears to hear the lyrics of his song as they drew closer.

 

"I had a dream a lovely dame.

Strayed across my path.

Her hair, though dark, shown with the light

the sun at midday hath.

She wanted me to act a man,

better than I be.

But when I woke, she’d gone away.

Woe, oh woe is me."

 

Cristiana chuckled. A typical love song about a young man losing his lover. What could be more tragic?

"Good day, young sir," Fendrel called as they approached the boy’s sitting place.

The boy stopped singing and grinned at them, a smile missing many teeth.

"How fair you?" Fendrel asked.

"Well, good sir," the boy answered jovially. "How goes your pilgrimage?"

Fendrel raised a tufted white eyebrow at the boy. "What makes you think we’re pilgrims?"

The boy shrugged. "It's obvious to them who cares to look. You openly wears your crosses, carries many bags, have lighter faces than most in these parts. And,” he paused for emphasis. “You’re headed toward Jerusalem."

Fendrel chuckled and glanced at Cristiana and Guiscard. Guiscard remained completely expressionless. Cristiana returned her father’s smile.

"On that topic," Fendrel said. "Can you tell us how far we are from Jerusalem?"

"Still two or three days, sir, depending on your speed of travel. You're getting close, though. A little more patience and plodding, and you’ll arrive."

Fendrel nodded. "Your song is most pleasing, young man," Fendrel said conversationally. "Do you sit here and sing for the pilgrims who pass?"

Cristiana didn’t try to suppress her smile when her father spoke the very words she'd thought earlier. She decided she wanted to speak to the young man as well.

"Your song makes no sense, young minstrel,” she said, keeping her voice friendly and urging her horse forward a step.

The young man’s smile faltered. He looked vaguely affronted. "How so, milady?"

"How can the lady’s hair be dark, and yet shine with the light of the sun?"

The minstrel’s scowl melted into an uneasy smile. "I don't write the songs, milady. I only sings them."

"Well, your song has entertained us for a few moments. I think that deserves a little coin." Fendrel glanced expectantly at Guiscard.

Guiscard nodded and took a small iron penny—not worth much, but perhaps enough to buy the young minstrel a humble meal—and gently guided his horse to the side of the road so the young man could take it from him.

The young man jumped to his feet excitedly and hurried up to Guiscard's horse, practically salivating at the sight of the money.

Guiscard leaned down from his horse, proffering the penny. The lad reached up. "Thank you kindly, sir."

Rather than taking the penny from Guiscard's hand, he wrapped his bony fingers Guiscard's wrist and yanked the man closer to him. Guiscard nearly fell off his horse. He only stayed on because he’d hooked his toe around the stirrup on the other side.

In one swift motion, the young minstrel produced a dagger from somewhere and cut Guiscard's throat.

Cristiana blinked once, twice, three times before the site of blood pouring out of Guiscard's throat in front of her truly registered. She opened her mouth to scream but couldn’t. She wanted to, truly, if only to release her pent-up horror, but her voice refused to come.

Fendrel leaned out of his saddle and gripped her horse’s bridle, trying to push the animal to go around Guiscard's horse. "That way, Cristiana," he shouted. "Ride!"

It was already too late. A dozen bandits jumped out from either side of the road and grasped the bridles of all three horses, keeping them in place. Grubby hands grabbed for Cristiana’s saddle, saddlebags, ankles, knees. Strong fingers locked around her arms, attempting to yank her off the horse.

The arms yanked her in several different directions at once, sending pain jolting through her joints, but she went nowhere. Finally, the hands pulled her off the horse backward. Perhaps they simply pulled out from under her while the hands kept her in place.

Either way, she found herself on the ground, screaming and flailing as a group of bandits stood over her, gripping her arms and legs tearing at her tunic dress.

No. Not this. Not this! Not what had happened to her mother.

They spoke strange words to one another and many of them chuckled in a sinister way. She didn't understand the words, as their language was local. She understood the lascivious intent all the same.

Cristiana flailed harder but they knelt on all sides of her, surrounding her in a complete circle. She rolled to her right. Three men met her there. When she kicked at them with her boots, one of them slammed his elbow into her inner thigh. Pain shot through her leg and up into her back. On its heels, her leg went completely numb. It abruptly felt like a bag of wet sand.

 When she clawed away from them, rolling to her left, she came face to face with a large man with dark skin, a long black mustache and a pockmarked face. He picked roughly at the laces of her dress with his thick, sausage-like fingers.

She kicked and flailed, screaming louder, and saw frustration in his face when she wouldn’t hold still. One of her flailing feet connected solidly with something. Not the big man, but rather the man next to him. She felt reasonably certain she’d kicked him in the groin.

The man yelped in pain and screamed a slew of words at her she had no hope of understanding. The big man glanced at his friend with irritation before rounding on Cristiana again. He left off trying to open her laces and pulled his fist back to his shoulder. She knew she wouldn’t escape the blow. His meaty fist raced toward her face.

The world went dark. She still lay on her back while hands still gripped her arms and legs, but she couldn’t see anything or move. She became aware of voices around her, including that of her father.

"Please. Gentlemen, please,” his voice echoed as though coming from down a long tunnel. “Do not hurt my daughter. You may have everything. Take everything that is ours. All our belongings and property are yours. I beg you simply to leave her and I on the road. We can walk the rest of the way to Jerusalem.”

Cristiana fought to open her eyes. After a brief war, they fluttered hesitantly open. Everything looked blurry. She blinked a few times and found she lay in the same position as before the big man punched her. On her back in the dirt with six men kneeling around her. All of them gripped her arms, legs, or dress in some way, yet none of them currently focused on her. They all watched her father.

A new man strayed into her line of vision. He walked up to her father, thrusting his face into Fendrel's. This man looked like a local Saracen with their style of long, divided mustaches and eyes that looked almost black. He had long dark hair that hung down his back, except for two thin braids than hung in front. A knitted cap on his head came to a point and was lined with white fur. “The Christian asks for mercy?"

Cristiana registered vague surprise that one of them spoke her language, if brokenly. She supposed the bandits came across enough pilgrims to pick some of it up.

"Yes," Fendrel said, his tone respectful. "I beg you for it."

The man looked downright sinister, and a feeling of terror rose in Cristiana's chest.

The smug, sinister expression didn't leave the man's face. He nodded, turning his back on Fendrel. He now faced Cristiana, though he didn’t look down at her. "Very well. As your Christian Bible says, ‘ask and ye shall receive.’”

He pulled a knife from his belt.

Cristiana wanted to scream, knowing full well her father was about to die.

The large man with the meaty fingers seemed to decide the scene no longer needed his attention. He lifted one knee over Cristiana and put it down on the other side, straddling her thighs as he ripped at her clothes with renewed vigor.

Cristiana understood these men's intentions, and that it would be painful. She understood all too well that they might even kill her before they’d finished. She struggled against their advances, but only feebly. All her limbs felt weak and the world appeared blurry, as though she saw it through a translucent veil.

The sound of horse hooves on the road behind them thundered in her ears. She couldn’t see where they came from, but the man straddling her looked up in surprise.

Something silver and metallic arced through the air above Cristiana's head. It connected solidly with the man's neck.

Nothing sat above his shoulders, any longer. His headless body tumbled to one side.

Cristiana sat up in time to see the Saracen who’d spoken to her father spring into action. Vaulting behind Cristiana's father, the Saracen wrapped an arm around Fendrel’s chest and pressed his knife to her father’s throat.

The men kneeling around Cristiana also leapt to their feet. They unsheathed knives and swords and backed up, so they stood flush with the Saracen holding her father captive.

Cristiana kicked backward, wanting to get to her feet but only succeeding in sitting up somewhat and kicking in place. Strong arms wrapped around her middle and she was hauled upward, onto her feet. Glancing from side to side, she found herself surrounded by more than a dozen new men. All held swords and none of them appeared to be Saracens.

Movement brought Cristiana’s head around to the right. A man’s face hovered close to hers. “Are you all right, my lady?”

The man stood head and shoulders taller than she, with long brown hair, nearly the length of hers, yet thinner, and secured at the base of his neck with a simple tie. Striking brown eyes gazed down at her with concern. She realized it was his arm still around her waist. His that had pulled her to her feet.

Registering his question, she tried to nod, but couldn’t be sure she’d succeeded. Her entire body trembled with the shock of what had just happened. She turned forward again and her gaze fell on the Saracen still holding a knife to her father's throat.

“Please,” she whispered, taking a shaky step forward. “My f-father.”

The knight behind her let go of her waist and put a warm hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. “Shh,” he hushed her gently, almost tenderly, before stepping around her to put his body squarely in front of hers.

She realized he held a large sword in his right hand.

“Malik, release that man.”

The firm voice addressing the Saracen bandit didn’t come from the man who’d helped Cristiana, but rather from a man standing on her left. He had dark hair and a bushy beard that needed grooming about the neck. Yet he held the unmistakable air of leadership.

“I do not take orders from Christian infidels,” the Saracen hissed. “No one moves, or the man loses his throat.”

A breath of silence passed before the leader spoke again. “You’re surrounded. You must know we cannot allow you to keep attacking our people on the roads.”

The knight in front of Cristiana tensed. She saw him exchange glances with the leader, and one of the men standing to her right. She couldn’t tell which one.

No!

They were going to do something. They had some plan they’d made before arriving. They couldn’t. He’d told them all not to move.

Cristiana opened her mouth to scream, but too late. The tall knight lunged toward the Saracen holding Cristiana’s father at the same time the leader and a figure on her right did.

“NO!” she screamed, just as the Saracen’s knife bit into her father’s throat.

The tall knight almost made it. Another half-moment and he could have saved her father. But he didn’t.

Cristiana wailed in agony as her father clutched at his throat with both hands, blood gushing out through his fingers, and fell to his knees.

The man who’d murdered him shoved him toward the tall knight before turning and fleeing. The knight caught Fendrel and lowered him gently to the ground.

All the Saracen bandits lunged into action, and a battle broke out in the clearing around Cristiana. Swords clanged together, cutting off heads, arms, legs, and running through torsos. It all sounded like a deafening cacophony to her.

She fought to get to her father, but too many men stood in her path. Too many swords swinging through the air. One was the tall knight who’d helped her up. He’d engaged one of the Saracens in battle and the two of them danced back and forth in front of her, first in one direction and then another so she couldn’t get past.

She could see her father’s body laying crumpled where he’d fallen. Seeing an opening, she tried to lunge toward him. She immediately saw the Saracen’s sword change directions. He wasn’t aiming at her, but his sword swung toward her all the same. She immediately realized she wouldn't clear it. His sword would slice her in half, and her forward momentum proved too strong for her to pull back in time.

The tall knight grabbed her roughly by the arm and tossed her backward. She hit the ground hard, skinning her elbows on the rocks as he went back to battling the bandit.

Cristiana sat up shakily, cursing the roughness of men. This was exactly the kind of thing she wanted to avoid by marrying Guiscard.

By the time she rose to her feet, it had ended. Every one of her attackers lay dead on the road. Including the young man who'd sung his lighthearted song. His chest held a hole large enough for her to have put her arm through.

She looked for the man who’d cut her father’s throat. He wasn’t among the dead. He must have escaped.

The men who’d just rescued her all stood around, covered in blood and sweat, chests heaving and exchanging looks with one another.

Cristiana glanced down. Her brown, V cut tunic dress was torn, and splattered with blood. Dirt covered her from head to toe and the shirt she wore under it, as well as the britches were torn as well.

She swept her eyes over the scene in front of her, feeling disconnected from her body, and realizing the men all watched her, concern in their eyes.

When her gaze came to the tall knight, her eyes locked on his. For the first time, she appreciated how big he was, with round shoulders and powerful-looking arms, he possessed a confident stance and earnest eyes.

Cristiana thought he might've been the one to cut off the head of the man who'd straddled her.

The long-haired man took a step toward her.

She sensed he would approach and turned away, lunging toward where her father still lay. He still lived, gripping his throat and fighting for breath. Even as Cristiana knelt beside him, tears streaming down her face, and took his hand, she perceived the light in his eyes fading by degrees. Her father’s face looked ashen. He stared up at her, his eyes sad.

Taking his hand away from his throat, which simply increased the amount of blood still spouting outward, he reached up to touch her face.

For the first time, it occurred to her that her left eye was swollen shut where the large man punched her. Not until her father reached up to touch her did she realize her vision was limited. He touched her cheek and she felt the warm wet blood on his fingers transfer to her skin.

“Papa,” she whispered. “Stay with me.”

He’d fallen not far from where Guiscard lay. Amazingly, Guiscard hadn’t expired either. Both men kicked and sputtered and gurgled blood.

Another man, large-statured with gray-streaked black hair and finely cut clothing, knelt beside her father and took his hand, looking compassionately down into Fendrel’s face.

Her father’s eyes already appeared glassy and a moment later, his hand dropped to the ground. His chest stopped rising and falling, and the blood gurgling out of his throat subsided.

Cristiana folded herself forward and dropped her head until it rested in the dirt beside his hand.

Her father, dead. She couldn't make herself believe what she’d witnessed.

She felt a presence behind her and a warm hand rested gently on her middle back. "My lady," the tall knight's deep voice was unmistakable. "I am so sorry. Was he your father?"

Cristiana sat up, straightening her spine. She nodded, not trusting her voice to work.

The tall knight squatted beside her, hand still on her back.

She turned to find him peering earnestly into her face, deep compassion in his expression. The expression contrasted sharply with his roughness a moment before. His brown eyes, looking soulful now, stared out from a granite-like face. A line she hadn’t noticed before reached from the notch of his throat and around his neck to the back, disappearing under his tunic. A scar of some kind, she thought.

Cristiana felt only bitterness. This man had gotten her father killed. He’d moved when the highwaymen explicitly told them not to. What right did he have to feel compassion now?

"And the other one," the knight's gentle voice prodded. "Who is he?"

Cristiana shifted her gaze to where Guiscard lay on the ground. He still breathed, though it sounded painful. One of the men in the group had his hands pressed to the wound on Guiscard’s neck while another fumbled with a bandage.

“My betrothed,” Cristiana whispered.

A second wave of bitterness rose in her throat. What right did Guiscard have to live when her father lay dead at her fingertips? Guiscard would never be half the man her father was.

The well-dressed man still kneeling on her father's other side, gave her a sympathetic look. She thought he must have been close to her father's age. "Our deepest condolences, my lady. It is obviously not safe for you to be on the road alone. We’ll take you with us. We’re still three day’s ride from Jerusalem, but some of our wounded went to a Hospital not far from there.” The man raised both his eyes and his voice, addressing the leader who’d spoken to the Saracen man. “I assume our task is completed, Monsieur de Payens?"

The one called de Payens hesitated a moment before nodding. “The leader, the one called Malik, got away. But we seem to have killed the rest. At least they’ve scattered for the moment. So yes, Baron. Our task is concluded.” De Payens swept his gaze over all the men in the company. “I thank you all for your assistance. Be assured you’ve done a service to the children of God this day.”

The distinguished man—the Baron, apparently—turned back to Cristiana. “We will take you with us. God willing, perhaps the Hospitallers can still save your Bethrothed.”

Cristiana heard the words, but her eyes remained on her father’s still form. Did the man address her? She couldn't tell.

The well-dressed man shifted his eyes to the tall knight still squatting beside Cristiana. "Bring her.”

“Yes, my lord Baron,” the tall knight said. His arm encircled her waist as he gently lifted her to her feet. "Come, my lady. We will take you someplace safe."

She allowed him to turn her away from her father. When she took her first step, her leg—the one the man elbowed—gave out, nearly depositing her in the dirt again. The tall knight caught her easily and she slumped against him. She gripped his shoulders, digging her fingernails in, though he did most of the work to keep her upright.

It suddenly dawned on her that he meant to take her away from her father’s body. She must bury him. They couldn’t simply leave him here on the road.

"Wait," she breathed, wishing her voice sounded stronger. "My father. And Guiscard. What will happen to them?"

The tall knight approached his horse, towing her along. "We’ll bring them with us, my lady,” the knight said softly. “Your betrothed still lives, and we'll get him help, if we can. Monsieur de Payens has already told us the Hospitallers have a cemetery we can bury your father in.”

“Actually,” a different voice chimed in. “I’m not sure that's such a good idea.”

Cristiana turned to find a man who looked like a local sitting atop a mule. He turned to address the Baron.

“Darkness is already falling,” the local man said. “The bandits scared off most of the horses. Already, we’ll all be riding double, and slowly if we want her betrothed to live through the journey. We don’t have an extra spot to carry a body."

“No.” Cristiana shook her head vehemently. She wanted to explain that her father must receive a proper, Christian burial. That she wouldn’t leave until he did. That if they left him, bandits and animals would defile his body. That these violent men, who’d unwittingly gotten him killed, owed him a proper burial at the very least.

The words wouldn’t come. All she could do was shake her head and clench her fists, while her entire body quaked with anger and grief.

Her own anger surprised her.  It made her feel more alive than at any time since the incident began and each of those minutes felt like an eternity. She embraced the defiance to keep the feeling within her grasp.

The tall knight peered down her face, and then over her head.

Cristiana turned to find that the Baron now stood directly behind them.

"She's right, Baron,” the tall knight said. “There must be something we can do. Christian pilgrims deserve a Christian burial."

The Baron stepped closer and dropped his voice. "I understand Terrowin, but Hadrian is right, too. We are losing the light. The leader escaped. He might bring back reinforcements, and the darkness always invites more bandits. We cannot be caught out in the open in it. I would hate to have to return home and tell your betrothed your gallantry caused your death.”

The knight called Terrowin merely gazed back at the older man. "You and the others go on,” he said. “Take her betrothed to the Hospital. Make sure my father is well and tell him I'm fine and will be there in a few hours. I'll bury her father and we'll catch up."

The Baron still appeared hesitant. "You may be forced to ride through the darkness."

Terrowin nodded. "I understand. We’ll be fine. She deserves a goodbye to her family."

Another pang of bitterness rang through Cristiana’s chest. What right did he have to judge what she did and didn’t deserve? His father apparently waited for him somewhere. At this Hospital, it seemed. His thoughtlessness had taken hers away.  The idea of the man who’d gotten her father killed being the one to bury him left a bitter taste in her mouth, but better that than no burial at all, so Cristiana remained silent.

The Baron nodded reluctantly.

Within minutes, the group mounted up and moved away. Both the Baron and de Payens shook Terrowin’s hand, saying they would see him at the hospital in a few hours. Others in the group also said muted goodbyes or simply gave waves or nods.

True to what the local man said, every one of them rode double, including Guiscard, who would have needed to anyway. Though still alive, he’d lost much blood. He barely seemed conscious. The man who rode behind him both kept him on the horse and kept a hand on the bandage around Guiscard’s neck.

Cristiana viciously hoped Guiscard died along the way. She couldn’t bear the thought of him living while her father died. Her father hadn’t wanted her to marry him, and this trip had been partly to convince her not to.

The group melted into the twilight. Cristiana watched them go. Then she stood alone on the road to Jerusalem with her father’s body and the knight who’d gotten him killed.

Click below to continue reading Terrowin and Cristiana's story

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