Fight the Good Fight
Another Sunday morning in Cologne, March 1212. The wind had lost its winter bite and played gently with the trees in the streets and back-yards. For the first time since October, the sun was warm, and the clear golden light in the streets had a new intensity. Perhaps, thought Klara as she looked out of the window of the room she shared with her sisters, spring was really here. She hoped so. She didn't fancy another morning breaking the ice on the well with a stick this year.
She opened the trunk where they kept their clothes and took out her Sunday dress, running it between her fingers, holding it up to the window so it caught the light. It was a lovely dress, not dull brown like her other dress, but blue. It was very faded now, because it had belonged to her mother when she was a little girl, but it was still recognisably blue.
Vanity, vanity, she told herself firmly. All is vanity. Dreadful things happen to little girls who are proud of their clothes. All for the glory of God, she told herself.
"Forgive me, Mary, for I have sinned," she said out loud, dragging the dress quickly over her head. She took the comb from the window ledge and chanted Ave Maria as she brushed her hair, as she did every morning.
She passed the comb to Rosa and scrambled down the ladder to the other room, which opened out onto the street, where Mother and Aunt Gerda slept. The pig nipped at her apron as she jumped off the ladder. "Not today, idiot! This is my Sunday dress!"
Mother slapped him with the spoon and he ran away grunting.
"Morning, Klara," said Mother. "Have you slept well?"
"Yes, Mother. The Lord has given me a good night."
"Good. Come and have something to eat."
They ate cold bread for breakfast, because nothing could be cooked on a Sunday and they had to eat quickly, for the service was at nine, and they must not break the Communion Fast of at least one hour.
Little Hana, who was only just learning to talk, giggled through breakfast at a robin bobbing about on the window ledge.
"Hush!" said Mother. "Don't laugh on the Lord's Day, Hana!"
They had to eat breakfast quickly, "Now girls," said Mother, putting on her shawl. "Do we have the collection money?"
"Yes," said Klara. Making sure they had the collection money every Sunday was her job.
"All right, let's go."
The girls trooped along after Mother and Aunt Gerda. It was Klara's job to stop Hana jumping in ditches or playing with cats or stopping to admire the shapes of clouds.
"Stop it!" she hissed out of the corner of her mouth. "Walk quietly. We're going to church!"
Solemn processions of families were making their way through the streets of Cologne to the church by the Rhine, as they did every Sunday morning. Always the same faces—Frau Schmidt, the Müller family, the Webers (oh! those children! Pushing each other into the ditch, could their mother not control them?).
The church was beautiful. Klara saw it every Sunday of her life, but she always thought it was beautiful.
On the outside, there were stone gargoyles and statues of angels. The angels had serenely beautiful faces and held great swords with which to smite sinners, so heavy and wicked-looking, even in stone, that she shuddered to look at them. Was it right, really right, to look even at a statue of an angel? Should she not bow her head, avert her eyes, pass the divine messengers humbly? She looked down at the ground, respectfully.
Inside, the church was even more beautiful. It had stained glass windows, in many beautiful colours, red and blue and green, which sparkled when the sun shone through them. Each series of windows told a different story from the Bible. The one Klara liked best was the one above the altar, of the Crucifixion of Christ. Blood dripped from his five wounds. His face was etched with pain but glowing with the Glory of the Lord. How could she look on that face, every Sunday at Communion and doubt that Jesus loved her? After all he had suffered for the poor sinners, she would do all she could, every day of her life, to be worthy of that sacrifice.
Yes, their church was lovely, and the best thing, the most beautiful thing of all, was that they had built it themselves, they the people of Cologne, with their own money. They had undergone privation and sacrifice for the Glory of the Lord.
The service was the same as every Sunday. Latin Mass. Holy Communion. Klara's heart pounded, as it pounded every Sunday, when the priest called her name.
She walked up the steps to the altar falteringly. The priest looked at her so frowningly that she remembered every sin she had ever committed and repented for it. She knelt down before the altar and listened to his blessing. It was always the same blessing, every Sunday of her life. She closed her eyes when he placed the bread on her tongue. She was sure it wasn't proper to look at the Body of Christ. It felt like bread, and tasted like bread, but she knew it wasn't bread. It was the Body of the Lord, and as it ran through her blood, she felt it tingle and warm her. As she rose, she looked at the face of Jesus on the cross and asked the Virgin Mary to thank the Lord for her.
She tried to control her heart and breathing as she climbed down the steps from the altar to the pew.
Next, collection. The plate was handed round. Everyone gave something. Even the ragged, thin beggars with hacking coughs and sunken eyes, huddled at the back of the church, put a coin or two on the plate, and when the priest blessed them, their eyes shone and their faces glowed with joy.
A woman holding an ill child on her knee gave three gold coins. "All I have," she said to the priest. "God forgive me for not giving more. I pray that he sends a miracle to heal my child."
"The Lord's will be done."
"His will be done, Father."
Josef Schneider was next, clutching his baby on his knee, his many children huddled in the pew next to him. He dropped a coin into the plate and turned away, blushing.
The priest bent close to him. "Is that all, child?" he said, more sadly than angrily.
"Father, forgive me…"
"It's not I who needs to forgive you, it's the Lord."
"Father, I have a new baby, my wife's just given birth. She's ill…"
"Child, will your coin be better used by a quack-doctor or by the Lord? Give to the Lord, and the Lord shall give back to you. Put your faith in him, for he knows best and his will shall be done."
Herr Schneider hesitated.
"The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed is the name of the Lord."
Herr Schneider took his wallet from in his jacket and turned it inside out on the plate.
The priest beamed. "Bless you my child."
Klara nodded. Quite right.
Then it was Klara's turn. She laid the coins on the plate, crossed herself and asked for Masses to be said for the soul of her father.
After the service, the priest motioned forward a boy who had been sitting in the front pew, whom Klara didn't recognise.
Then, to her astonishment, the priest began speaking to the congregation in German. Some of the people sitting around were so shocked they gasped and began to whisper, but they soon stopped. No one must talk in church except when told to. Besides, what the priest was saying was even more astonishing. This was Nicholas, Nicholas himself, Saint Nicholas as some were already calling him. The vision-seer, the mouth-piece of the Lord, the next King David.
Klara had heard of Nicholas, of course. Everyone had. No one between the Rivers Rhine and Oder hadn't heard of Nicholas. But he was here, now, in their little church in Cologne. She looked at him. She had never seen a Saint before. He looked eleven or twelve, with a solemn face, quite an ordinary-looking face, round and freckled, brown hair and bright, sharp blue eyes that looked right into Klara's the whole time the priest was talking, and pierced right into her soul. She felt them, sharp and hot in her chest, her breath came faster even than in Communion.
He began with what they all knew.
That the most Holy Land of Israel had been captured by vile infidels nearly thirty years ago. Every day, nay, every hour, they spent on Holy soil was a stain on the name of God, and on the one true religion.
He went on. It was the duty of good Christians to go to the Holy Land and smite them in the name of the Lord, with the power of the Lord behind them. They must cleanse the Holy Land of infidel filth, and reclaim for the True Religion. There had been two Crusades since the infidels defiled the Holy Land, but these had failed. Failed to capture the Lord's own city in the name of the Lord. How could this be? How could the Lord allow it?
Hot rage rushed through Klara. How? Yes, how? She looked at the wooden cross hanging over the Rood Screen, at Jesus' pained but uncomplaining face. How could anyone defile that name? Her throat burned raw as she longed and longed to save Christendom in the name of God. They could do it. It was red-hot boiling certainty.
And was that not what he was saying? Now. The Lord had allowed it, because his Crusaders, his chosen warriors of light, had failed him. They were miserable sinners, they had betrayed their holy calling. But they, the Children of the Lord, were innocent, were his true servants. For had not our Lord Jesus Christ said "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God"? Was it not the destiny of the children of the Lord, to go forth and, with his grace and by his power, win the Holy Land from the damned?
Rage grew, swelled, but mixed with it was ecstatic joy. Because he was right. Because everything he was saying was true. She only realised she was crying when the tears ran into her mouth. She raised her eyes to Jesus on the Cross, blinking through the tears, and knew that he had blessed them, she felt his power, even now, hot and strong, giving her life, giving her grace. She could hardly see for tears, but when Nicholas called for volunteers, for the Lord's true servants, she stood up and stumbled to the front of the church, barely able to feel her own legs, for she felt as if she were walking on light.
Rosa and Hana could not go, for they were too young, but she could go, and she must go and if she were to die, it would be in the service of the Lord.
"The Lord is pleased," called the priest, and Nicholas echoed him, eyes blazing with some distant fire that could only have been the Lord's. "The Lord is pleased!"
"For each of you who go to the Holy Land, His Holiness the Pope has offered a special Indulgence, free of charge, forgiving you of all sins you have committed in the past.
All sins. Every single time she had besmirched the name of the Lord and rejected His Grace with her petty human failings. She would do anything for the Greater Glory of the Lord, so that he might forgive her sins. Anything at all.
A rough queue began to form, before Nicholas and the priest, standing side-by-side at the altar. There were about fifty children, all told. She was one of the oldest, a few older children tried to come, but Nicholas turned them away and the priest made them pay for an indulgence. The youngest child was a girl who looked about six. She was quite alone, no siblings with her, and on her face was a look of such glorious fervour that Klara knew that if she survived she would become a nun.
Each child presented themselves before Nicholas, took their indulgence from the priest and filed out of the church, to the smiles and proud tears of their parents.
When it was Klara's turn, she didn't dare look into those bright blue eyes. She wasn't worthy.
"What's your name?"
"Klara, Father." It seemed natural to call this child father.
"And you wish to join the Fifth Crusade?"
"How old are you, Klara?"
"And have you sinned grievously?"
"Erm… grievously? I don't think so…"
Nicholas smiled. "Are you true maid?"
"Oh, right… Yes." She felt her face go hot.
He laid his hand on her head. "The Lord's blessing be upon you."
The priest blessed her, in Latin, and gave her the Indulgence. Such a fragile, paper thing, she held it in her shaking hand and it trembled. But this was her Salvation. From His Holiness, from Nicholas, from God. Now she must earn it, be worthy of God's grace, of his trust in her.
She stuffed in her petticoat, where it was safe. A talisman of God's love.
Mother stopped her as she went out of the church. She was smiling and crying at the same time. She flung her arms around her and clutched her so tight it hurt. Just for a moment, leaning against Mother's shoulder as she had done as a very small girl, Klara felt a little ache, just a little, that she might perhaps want to stay there forever, where it was safe. But that the flesh talking. That was the Devil's first temptation.
And she was the Lord's servant. Had not the Lord said "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple"? She pulled away.
"Serve the Lord well," said Mother. "Bring his blessing on this family."
Aunt Gerda hugged her, and cried too. Her sisters were distraught. "I wish you didn't have to go!" said Hana.
"That's the Devil talking," said Klara. "Mention that sin at your next Confession."
"Be careful!" said Hana.
"I'll do as the Lord commands."
"I don't want you to die…"
"My life is in His hands. We must trust Him to know what is best."
Mother stroked her hair back from her face. "I'm so proud of you, sweet-heart."
"Pride is a sin, Mother."
Nicholas was calling them to get into line. She had to go.
"I'll ask the Lord to bless you. I'll pray for your souls. When we liberate Jerusalem, I'll return if God wills."
And she slid into line and followed Nicholas up the river, down the streets of the Cologne, away from her home. She didn't look back.
Word had got around quickly. When they went to the churches on the edges of the Cologne, and in the villages along the Rhine, they often found lines of children waiting for them.
By the time they reached Bonn, they had a string of hundreds of children. Looking at them all, Klara had no doubt that they would capture Jerusalem easily.
In Bonn they bought swords. Even the Army of God needs weapons, it cannot rely on His might alone. It was the first time Klara had ever held a sword. It was heavier than she had expected it to be, but it felt good to carry it, for it was very sharp. With this, she could smite the infidel. Of course, God would truly smite them. She was merely His servant and His weapon, to use as He saw fit.
That night, they ate bread which some monks had given them and put up ragged tents in a field on the edge of Bonn. They lit fires and sang hymns, to praise the Lord for giving them this chance to serve Him.
That evening, Klara saw Nicholas have a vision. He sat by the fire, very pale and still. Then, slowly, he raised his head and spoke, quietly, as if he were singing.
Some of what he said was in German. Some of it was in strange tongues. "The Ancient tongues of the Israelites," whispered a boy who looked about ten. That must mean God was truly speaking through him, thought Klara.
The children gathered round to watch. Nicholas spoke long and earnestly, with a bright, remote look in his eyes. Then he raised his eyes to Heaven, rocking back and forth, moaning. Klara gasped.
"Is he all right?" asked a girl standing next to her.
"It's the power of the Lord," said the boy. Klara felt it. It descended from the sky and fell upon them like manna from Heaven. Warm, strong, more nourishing than bread. Such overpowering love and power that it tore at her heart like nails and she began to cry.
Then Nicholas' head drooped. For a moment he sat there, breathing quietly. Then he smiled round at them all.
"The Lord has given us strength. Did you feel it, my children?"
"Yes," cried Klara, along with everybody else. They had all felt it, everyone. The Lord had touched them, they were in his presence.
"He sent me a vision."
"He showed me the future of the Holy Land, pure and clean and Christian. God's Kingdom of Earth, a New Eden, with no serpent in it. There, the children of God will live forever and sing His praises. We shall have the honour of serving Him in His own country, my children. God shall conquer the desert, he shall give us fields of wheat. Orchards, meadows as far as the eye can see where hundreds, thousands of fat cattle graze for God's children. Mighty rivers will flow with milk and honey, as they did for Moses. And, as he did for Moses, the Lord will part the sea for us, too, my children, so we may reach the Holy Land. This the Lord has promised us, this, my children, is our destiny."
There was a moment's silence, while this sank in and the vision of the Holy Land rose before Klara's eyes, a country she had never seen, of warmth and pleasant weather. God's gift to His children. Their reward. She checked herself. This was greed and pride. This was the flesh talking. God had rewarded them with His grace, the country was His own and they were His merest servants. "To the Glory of God!" she called.
"Amen!" the other children echoed. They went to their tents.
The tents were strictly segregated by sex. Klara was the eldest of four girls in hers. There was the girl who had asked if Nicholas was all right, whose name was Marta and who was about eight, the six-year-old, who was called Ella, and Gretel, who was ten.
The boy who knew so much about the Ancient Israelites was called Karl and slept in the tent next door.
There was a moment, when Klara knelt on the grass in Bonn under a thin piece of cloth and said her Ave Maria, that she felt a strange pang, as if she would open her eyes and find herself in Cologne again, in her own room with her sisters.
Listening to the other girls giggling amongst themselves, kicking each other in the night, was horribly like her own family. All they needed was a pig…
But she asked Mary to forgive her this moment of weakness, to grant her worthiness to serve the Lord, and that night she dreamed of Jerusalem and woke with the vision still before her eyes.
And if a woman woke that morning, in the cold, clear Monday light in Cologne, and ran down the cold street with tears in her eyes, screaming "My baby! My baby! You bastard, what have you done to my baby? What have I done to my baby? God, give me back my child!" then she never knew.
The journey south across Germany was long but not difficult. If anything, they were hugely successful. Their fame ran before them and in every town and village, queues of children waited in church or the town square to join them. Children from further East came to Wiesbaden and Mannheim to meet them. The priests blessed them and gave them flowers "to put on the altar in Jerusalem".
They did not have enough swords for all the children now, but it didn't matter, Nicholas assured them. God would show the means, if they only had unwavering faith.
They relied on food from farms and monasteries, and Nicholas led grace at every meal. Monasteries in particular were very generous with their food and even gave them beds to sleep in. Klara remembered the first ever time she slept in a bed. It was so soft she didn't see how she would ever get up. She hoped there were beds like this in Heaven. Then she remembered she was being worldly and asked Mary for forgiveness.
Klara usually walked with the other girls from her tent, and Karl. She was a little in awe of Karl. He was so much younger than she was, but he seemed to know a lot more. He was the only one of them who could actually read Latin, and would read religious pamphlets and translate them.
Klara remembered these pamphlets, the writings of great saints and martyrs, and she said them over and over again to herself in her head, as the road became steeper and wound through forests and up hills.
"The Lord is my shepherd," she told herself as her back ached and bruises swelled on her feet. "I saw twelve horses against a sky of blood, for Christ and the good apostles, and they reared up and kicked the Devil into Hell," as she tripped on tree roots in the rain. "The Second Coming is imminent."
The villages of the Black Forest were particularly pious. Even shacks on the edge of the woods, with no church in sight, contained eight, ten, twelve children, willing to fight for the Holy Land.
"Where are we going?" the children asked. "Are we to walk through Asia?"
"No, we'll reach the Holy Land by sea. The Lord will part the sea for us, as he did for Moses. I have seen it in my visions."
When the Pope's supply of Indulgences ran out, Nicholas, moved by the power of the Holy Spirit who came to him in his visions, wrote his own.
"The Lord forgives all sins of those who fight in His name," he told the children. "Join the Crusade, all your sins will be forgiven."
"The Lord offers Heaven to his soldiers," called Ella. Ella's fierce piety had, if anything, increased. She could not talk about anything other than the Lord, she recited her Rosary as she marched and prayed when they rested, barely rousing from her stupor to eat. She said she felt the Lord within her, and if he saw fit to spare her life she would become a nun.
They settled into a routine. Waking—Gretel would always spend a while styling her curling auburn hair, even when Klara told her it wasn't appropriate, and only stopped when she threatened to tell Nicholas—marching, eating, camping again. Klara struggled to remember that she had ever had any other life.
Basel was the last town where they gained recruits. They went to the church, to pray and be blessed. Nicholas led a service and, after the chorus of "Amen!", knelt by the altar to see if the Lord wished to send him a vision or some other sign, or grant him a miracle. He had been waiting for a miracle for many weeks now.
Klara closed her eyes and breathed the sweet, sticky smell of the incense. Ave Maria, she prayed. I thank the Lord, as ever, for offering me this chance to serve him. I hope that, by His strength and grace, I shall be worthy of the faith he has placed in such a sinner.
Beside her, Gretel was weeping quietly, smiling gently. Klara wondered what the Lord had shown her. No, she must not get distracted. She returned to her prayer. Thank you for this good fortune. Thy will be done.
She felt the Lord's blessing and His blessing and smiled, because He was leading her to victory over the Infidel and the certainty of Heaven.
After prayers, she met Gretel on the steps of the church.
"What did the Lord show you?" she asked.
Gretel smiled. Her eyes looked distant. "The Lord spoke to me. He was in a cloud of golden light. He told me not to be afraid, he had brought me good news. I'm going to lead a group of women in Jerusalem to the highest calling, to found the greatest nunnery ever erected to the glory of God. The Temple of Solomon shall rise from the desert, untarnished by the vile destruction of Shishak of Egypt, gold and glowing once again, in a miracle which the Lord shall perform through me. This is my destiny."
She looked so happy, the distant, intense happiness of one who has found a higher plain of existence. The light glowed behind her eyes like twin stars.
"That's… that's wonderful…" said Klara. Happiness for Gretel's wonderful destiny as the Lord's chosen one mixed with bitter guilt. It was her fault, and hers alone, that the Lord had not chosen her. He was sending her a sign. You have displeased me. You are too stubborn, to proud, you cling to hard to earthly things, value your earthly life too highly. You are ungrateful, when I have offered you this chance to Crusade in my name.
"I used to be a silly, worldly girl. I was proud and vain, and a disgrace to the name of God. But now I shall try to serve him as well as human flesh can allow. I saw the Lord, Klara… I saw him…" She began to cry. "He spoke to me..."
"Good. Good… that's wonderful." Her tongue felt thick, her words sounded blurry. "You'll probably be canonized…"
"I don't care for titles! I don't care for anything worldly… Oh, don't you see, this world doesn't mean anything… It's trivial. All that matters is beyond… We must live only for that…"
And Gretel collapsed on the steps of the church weeping.
She asked Nicholas for permission to go to a small shrine to Our Lady outside the town. There she cut off her hair and offered it to the Virgin, and fastened a spiked metal cilice to her wrist.
The next day, they set out from Basel.
It was hard going, now. The path was steep and rocky, the wind was cold, Klara's feet were raw and bleeding that night, but she was glad of the pain. The flesh must suffer for the soul to be cleansed. If she bled, it was for Jesus, as Jesus had bled and suffered and died for her.
By the time they reached the Aare, after many days, some of the younger children were crying from pain and exhaustion. Ella, however, walked on, her head held high.
As they camped that night on the banks of the Aare, rubbing their aching limbs, Nicholas preached to them. "The way is hard, my children. But the path to Heaven is never easy. Jesus suffered on the cross, my children, to save us poor sinners. These sacrifices we make are small, petty things in comparison. It is for the Glory of God, my children, and the redemption of our sins!"
"The Glory of God!" the children chanted. "And the redemption of our sins."
Looking at him, so young but so earnest, so clearly moved by the Holy Spirit, Klara cried, for gratitude at Christ's sacrifice, for wonder at Jerusalem's coming liberation and shame that she had cared for such a trivial thing as her own comfort.
But the next morning, the first children left them to go home.
The morning they left Lucerne, they saw the Alps rising against the clear blue sky. They looked both very close, massive and rocky, and very far away.
"Is this what Heaven looks like?" Klara heard herself say. "Is this what God's own country looks like?" As if God were sending her a sign, the mountains flushed red in the light of the sun, a clear scarlet path against the white snow.
"God's own country is more beautiful than that, my child," said Nicholas. "But it is indeed a sign from the Lord. The hard and bloody path to Heaven, lying straight and true over the mountains. To Jerusalem!"
"To Jerusalem!" said Klara, fighting back tears. Of course, of course it was a sign. God was leading them on. He was guarding them, watching over them, His servants, His children, showing them the way.
That day was hard. The wind blew sharp from the hills, biting into Klara's face. The sun made her thirsty, her head began to hurt. They were running low on food, there was only a small piece of bread to eat for lunch. Klara's heart sank when she saw it. How was she supposed to march on that? Immediately she was ashamed of herself. God would deliver her. She must not doubt that.
Nicholas passed around the water, a couple of swallows each, no more. They marched on, up steeper and steeper hills, past winding gorges that fell away in sheer drops to rivers that splashed along far below.
Even with her dry throat and pounding head, Klara enjoyed the scenery. God was showing them the glories of His Kingdom, the wonders of His creation.
In the late afternoon, they reached a stream.
"A gift from God!" called Gretel, lifting her eyes to Heaven.
"A gift from God," repeated Klara, as she knelt by the stream. She was desperately thirsty, but remembered to say grace first. Then she bent down and gulped down great mouthfuls of water, splashing it over her face and hands. Water had never tasted so good.
They struggled on. Some of the little ones were crying from hunger and thirst, falling on the rocks and cutting their faces and hands.
"Come along," said Klara. "What we suffer, we suffer for God."
"We suffer for God," repeated the children.
She dried their tears and led them along by the hand.
"If you could see my visions," called Gretel. "If God had shown you what He has shown me. The visions are so beautiful…" She was walking as one walking on light, head held high and singing hymns. She saw visions every night, now, God spoke to her, she said whenever she was tired.
When they sank down on a high meadow to camp, with a line of pine trees to fend off the worst of the wind, they barely had strength to put up their tents.
Klara lay on her back, feeling her feet swell and bleed, and stared up at the darkening sky. God was watching them, she knew. He was proud of His warriors. And she would deserve that pride, when they reached Jerusalem.
They said grace, ate another piece of bread—the last food they had—and prayed together. Nicholas had a vision of the liberated Holy Land, Gretel had a vision of Heaven. Klara went to sleep that night exhausted, hunger gnawing at her stomach, but convinced of the rightness of their cause.
Nevertheless, that morning, for all Nicholas shouted and cursed, more children left them, scrambling slowly and painfully back down the hill.
The next day they set of without breakfast, for they had none. God would provide for them, said Nicholas.
Nevertheless, some of the younger children complained about having no food, and Klara knew that but for the power of God, she would not be able to go on, struggling up the rocky way, lugging her sword with which she would free the Holy Land.
It began to snow. Slowly at first, hard flecks trickling inside her frock, crunching under her feet. Then faster and harder, pelting out of the clear, white, empty sky. It blew in her face, stinging her eyes so she could no longer see. She raised her voice in a hymn to the Lord, praying that He deliver them from the storm, to safety and peace in His arms. The wind rose loud and shrieking, but the voices of the children were louder.
Klara could no longer see the path in front of them, but struggle south over the mountains, and as the words of the hymn lifted her up and bore her spirit above the worldly concerns of snow and hunger, she knew that whether she could see or not, God would show her the way and set her feet aright.
The cold bit so deep into her limbs, deep into her heart. She shivered harder, stumbled and slipped on the snow.
The cold ached, like a physical force swelling in her chest, sending its needles into her head, her face, her feet. Like the nails of Christ. This would be their suffering, their steep and perilous way to Heaven, as that had been His. She took satisfaction in the pain, knowing that it led to redemption, to freedom from sin. For, as pain began to burn, to rise before her eyes in a red mist, God did not intend this life to be easy, or what's a Heaven for?
After a while—she had no idea how long—the pain lessened. How strange, for the snow fell as thick and fast as ever. She no longer felt her feet bleed, no longer felt her feet at all.
She walked on, slowly, stumbling and falling on icy rocks she could see but no feel. Specks began to float before her eyes, dark and flickering. After hours, when she could no longer see at all, Nicholas called a halt. She stopped walking and keeled over where she stood. She lay for a long time in the snow, her vision dim and blurry, her body like lead, her arms and legs rigid, before God gave her the strength to move. She sat up and blinked hard.
"Am I blind?" she tried to say. Her tongue was heavy and her mouth wouldn't move. She tried again. "Am I blind?"
"No," said Marta. "It's dark."
Oh. So that was it. She blinked hard a few times and looked around her. The little band, the little invincible army of Jesus Christ, were sitting on the snow in a mountain meadow. Nicholas was rocking back and forth and swaying. In the flickering light of a torch Karl was struggling to light, she saw his eyes brighter with Holy Light than ever.
"The Lord has sent me a vision," he said, in a high, ringing voice.
"I had hoped he's send us some food," said a boy who looked about eight years old.
Nicholas went rigid. He turned his head slowly and stared right at the boy, with eyes like icy knives. Klara felt her breath catch and shrank back as far as she could.
"It is not your business to question the Lord," said Nicholas, very quietly, but sharp against the fuzzy back-ground of snow, so they all heard him. "The Lord will provide for His chosen army when He sees fit. The Israelites did not receive Manna from Heaven by asking for it. Do not question the Lord. Follow His orders, submit to His will, and you shall be rewarded in His Kingdom." He opened his doublet and took out a long leather whip. Coldly and precisely, he lashed him first on one side of the face, then the other, and left him with bleeding cheeks and tears starting in his eyes.
"The Lord has sent me a vision," he continued, as if nothing had happened.
"Praise be the Lord," chanted the children. Klara noticed with approval that the boy who had questioned the Lord chanted particularly loudly. She pushed herself upright, despite screams of pain from her back, and, while she listened to Nicholas' vision, tried to rub some feeling back into her legs.
"The Lord has sent me a vision of a liberated Jerusalem. We are on the right path, my children, we will reach the Holy Land and build God's kingdom on Earth. But it needs your absolute, unconditional faith."
He went on, familiar visions, familiar words. Klara felt a great peace wash over her, almost physical warmth. They were in the Hands of God, and He would deliver them in safety to the Holy Land.
They found some berries, ice cold under a coating of snow, but still food, still nourishing. A sign from God, said Nicholas.
Each berry Klara ate, tearing off the thorny branches with fingers too numb to hurt even when they bled, was proof of God's love for her.
Thank you, Jesus, she thought, as she put each berry into her mouth. Thank you for your kindness. Thank you for this consideration. I will try to be worthy of it.
That night, they wrapped themselves in the tents, for though the snow melted, the ground was freezing, if they sat on the bare earth, the cold seeped into their bones and Klara knew that when it reached their hearts—but for the Grace of God—it would kill them.
The next morning over half of the remaining children went home.
The next day was even harder. Klara woke with a raging thirst, sick to the bones with cold. She prayed even longer and more fervently than ever before, that God might give her the strength to march. For without Your help, oh Lord, without Your strength and patience, I would not be able to go on. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
It did not snow that morning, but it was bitter cold. Klara's breath rose before her like dragon's smoke. She walked on, for Jesus, praising Him with each agonised step that He might have mercy on her many sins. Ella, deathly pale and fighting for breath, walked beside her. She barely seemed to notice her surroundings. Her eyes were fixed on some higher plane and all else was trifling.
Not all the children scorned the flesh. There were some who cried, sobbing with every step. Gretel scolded them. "You're wicked to cry! Selfish! This is the flesh talking! You can only reach Paradise if you scorn the flesh!"
Some of them listened to her, tried valiantly to pray, others complained and fretted until they felt the touch of Nicholas' whip.
They begged for food and water at the doors of the mountain shacks. The shepherds either didn't speak recognisable German, and only understood what they wanted by gesture, or shook their head and said that they had nothing to give them, had nothing to feed their own families with.
To Klara, every crumb of bread was a miracle, every sip of water, soothing the burning in her throat, was a gift was God. He was generous, bountiful. His faith in His warriors, His tender care in times of opposition moved her to tears.
She had reached exhaustion beyond pain, now. Her feet did not ache, merely bled. Her back did not ache, but barely moved. She dragged herself over the rocks and scrambled up the slopes numb.
That night, as they collapsed exhausted on the ground, Klara heard the voice of God, clear as day, as if it were inside her head, even as it drifted to her on the distant wind. You have done well. I promised you the Kingdom of Jerusalem and I shall give it to you.
"Thank you, Lord," she said out loud, as well as she could through cracked and bleeding lips.
The next day the band dwindled. Not only through desertion. The children began to die. The little ones first. From exhaustion, constant cold, worsening hunger. A few of them simply didn't get up the next morning, and it was only when they had pulled at them and shaken them that they realised the Lord had taken His warriors as His own.
There was nowhere to bury them. They simply left them at the side of the path, the snow drifting over them, some of them curled up as if they were asleep, some of them bent double in pain, eyes open, glazed and staring at things Klara could not see.
The children had all seen death before, but it disheartened some of them.
"If we're God's chosen warriors," one little girl asked Nicholas. "Why does He let us die?"
"Because He has taken His chosen warriors to Heaven to be with Him there."
Nicholas' hand reached towards his doublet. The girl stopped talking.
"God moves in mysterious ways. Our hope of salvation lies in our total obedience. We must have faith in his infinite mercy."
His infinite mercy, said Klara over and over again as she chewed on her crust of bread, the only thing she had eaten all day. His infinite mercy.
Ella strode along as if the Lord had picked her up and were carrying her—and perhaps He was. She hopped from rock to rock like a little mountain goat, never losing that expression of holy ecstasy. Marta plodded along, scowling. "Cheer up," said Ella. "We're God's chosen warriors."
"I know," said Marta. She looked around at their faces and realised something else was expected of her. "Thanks be to God."
Gretel raised her head high in the wind and murmured Ave Marias as she walked along, until her lips were too numb to form the words, but Klara couldn't help notice how pale and thin she was getting.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you." Gretel broke off from her higher plane to smile at her. "The Lord gives me strength, I feel better in His presence than I've ever felt before."
Ah, what she had thought was illness was the presence of the Holy Spirit.
When they collapsed on a bare, wind-swept slope, Klara's head was fuzzy and her whole body was numb. She longed for food, any food, anything to eat, or she didn't know how she would get up in the morning.
A little girl collapsed on her lap. She had been sobbing, but now she had no strength left to cry. She stared up at the sky out of blurry, drooping eyes.
"She's very weak," said Gretel. "The Lord would give her strength if she would only accept it, but she's too proud and stubborn, she complains."
Klara looked down at the girl, her face blue with cold, limp as a little broken doll. If they didn't warm her soon, she would die. She took the tent and wrapped it round her, rubbing with all the strength she had, which was none, trying to get the blood moving. But it wasn't very long before she realised that the little girl had gone to meet her Maker and receive her divine reward.
Karl had to drag her body into an icy ditch. Klara collapsed herself and lay on the hard ground, barely able to breathe, with no strength even to try. If it hadn't been for a painfully sharp stone digging into the small of her back, she could easily have slipped into a faint she would never have woken up from—that and the strength of the Lord. As it was, she clung to consciousness long enough to sit up and rub life back into herself.
Gretel was sitting on a stone, her eyes closed. She barely seemed to be breathing.
"Gretel," said Klara. "Are you all right?"
Gretel ignored her.
On the verge of panic, Klara recognised the signs of a vision. It was a long vision, this time. What on Earth could God have to say? Was He showing her all 3000 years of Creation, or something?
Eventually, Gretel opened her eyes and sighed. She smiled at Klara as she had never seen her before.
"Klara…" she said eventually, slowly. "I'm the new Virgin Mary, Klara."
"Oh, good. You mean…?"
"There'll be a new King in Jerusalem. A Christian King. The Lord has chosen me. I must await my miracle."
The news that they had a new Virgin Mary among them sent ripples of excitement through the children. This, surely, was a sign of God's approval. This was His blessing on them. He might not be sending them much food, but He could sure send miracles.
Nevertheless, it was a weary, bleary-eyed, much depleted Army of God who gathered the next morning under a blank white sky that threatened snow. All morning it lowered over them, as they toiled over the rocks up a narrow pass, surrounded by dizzying peaks. In the mountains, the wolves were howling, hungry and cold, but Klara couldn't tell exactly where, because the sound echoed all around the mountains.
The first flurry of snow came around mid-morning, deceptively soft on Klara's cheek. Then out of nowhere the wind shriek, a high, agonised shriek. It almost knocked Klara over. She fought for breath, but only took in mouth-fulls of snow and freezing air that cut her like a knife.
Nicholas and Karl in front of her were barely visible through the blizzard. She struggled after them, each step an effort, squinting against the snow and the blood that trickled into her eyes. For a horrible moment, fear gripped her, pulling at her stomach so she nearly threw up. Then she remembered that God was watching over her, He would guide her now as He had always guided her. As she thought that, the fear subsided. The love of God was stronger than the pull of the flesh.
All that day, perhaps into the night, they laboured through the swirling snow and howling wind. They passed around bread frozen solid and broke their teeth on it. Klara had no idea how far they had walked, how long they had walked for. The noise of the wind in her ears seemed to echo inside her skull, to swell and throb, and only prayer could drive it out.
When they could walk no further, they sank down in the snow, for there was no shelter anywhere. Klara knew that they would most likely freeze, but they could not continue.
Marta and Karl were dragging Ella between them. Her eyes rolled in her head, her hands were blue. They laid her down as gently as they could, on a roll of tent, and covered her with Marta's apron.
They gave her bread to eat, but they could only get it into small enough pieces for her to eat by breaking the pieces on the rocks. Ella barely had the strength the swallow, but still tried to speak. Klara heard her say as she forced down a tiny piece of bread "I don't think it's God's will that I live to become a nun".
Klara knelt down at Ella's side and prayed. She prayed to the Virgin to ask the Lord to forgive them their sins, to deliver them from the storm, and to save His devoted and humble servant from death. The wind rose, the snow fell relentlessly, swirling before Klara's eyes, round and round dizzyingly, even when she closed her eyes, until she couldn't tell whether the swirling dots were outside her head or within.
Ella was speaking, faint, barely breathing, but with the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit. "I see angels… so many angels… beautiful ones with silver wings…"
"Yes?" Klara bent nearer, eager for any word she could hear of Paradise.
Ella's eye-lids flickered, just for a moment, she looked straight up into Klara's eyes, and she felt the Lord piercing her soul, cleansing, strengthening, judging every trace of weakness, every failing. He had come to take His chosen one away to Him.
"The Lord is lifting me," said Ella. Klara had to read her lips. "He's taking me to His country… the garden…." The words came broken and fragmented. "The garden… beautiful…"
Klara felt a burning pain in her eyes, and she realised it was the frozen tears of joy that the wind whipped from her cheeks.
"The angels…" Those were her last words. Ella's whole body relaxed, the light died in her eyes. Squinting through the darkness against the glare of the snow, Klara could have sworn she saw a halo glow on Ella's hair.
"The Lord has taken her," she said loudly, her voice sounding harsh in her throat, and in the distance, she heard the flapping of angels' wings.
"Oh Lord," said Nicholas. He prayed to God as confidently and poetically as a priest. Indeed, surely he was a priest, for even if he weren't ordained, he was still God's chosen one, to whom He had given visions. "You have taken Your warrior to You, as You see fit. We who were her friends in life offer this prayer for her soul."
Marta was inconsolable. She didn't have the strength or the tears to cry. Not all Gretel's pleas, not all Nicholas' assurances that Ella rested in Heaven with Jesus and His angels, not any prayers or hymns, could soothe her.
"Marta, stop this self-indulgence. The Lord saw fit to take her to him, for her faith was impeccable and she fought for Him bravely. He picked her as too good for this sinful Earth, and if you want the same privilege granted to you on your own death, when it comes, you must not question His will, or set your own selfish wishes above His plan."
But she only took comfort in the Lord when he drew his whip.
It was a night and a day before they could move for the storm. They sat in the little shelter their tents could offer them, curled together for warmth. Klara didn't know if she slept, the snow swirled before her vision no matter what. Sometimes she saw shapes through the storm, the shapes of angels, glowing and radiant, so she was forced to look away, in fear and shame of her human inadequacy, and she knew that if the Lord had sent His angels to them, they must be on the right path.
She didn't mind the cold, she was used to it, or the noise of the wolves in the mountains, for she had her sword and God would give her the strength to lift it, but the hunger was terrible. She prayed, in shame, to be forgiven for caring so much for the soul's worldly vessel. The longer she lay on the freezing rocks, the more life she felt seeping out of her. She almost cursed impending death, then remembered she was in the hands of the Lord, and let His warmth fill her, lulling her into a peaceful sleep, and she knew that whether she lived or died, it was by His will and with His grace.
When the storm finally died, they all knew they needed food. They staggered up the path, thin, ragged, shaking. Klara couldn't see or care where they were going, she had forgotten about the cold. She only knew that she had to eat or she would die, and it was her duty as God's servant to fight for her life now that she might give it in Jerusalem.
They arrived at a hut, banged on the door, terrified the elderly shepherd who opened it. He couldn't understand their German, spoke no Latin, couldn't understand that these children were soldiers of God. But he did understand that there were about twenty children at the point of death from starvation. He gave them some bread, understood by their tears and smiles that they were grateful and sat down to watch them eat.
Klara had never tasted anything so good as that bread in her life. She inhaled it, stuffing it into her mouth as fast as she could swallow it. She felt new strength and warmth rush into her limbs, set her fingers tingling, soothe the ache in her stomach. Even the smell was life-giving. And horribly, suddenly reminiscent of home, far away in Cologne. What were thy doing at home, right now? How were they getting on without her to help with the dress-making business? No, these were trivial, earthly concerns. She was a soldier or God, her thoughts should be on higher, better things. These earthly concerns were a distraction, a temptation of the Devil to lure her away from her calling. The Devil was clever like that.
Her family were good Christians—or at least Christians struggling for good in the knowledge of their own innate, insurmountable evil—and their fate was in God's hands.
So she devoured the bread and took great gulps of water, muttering the whole time "Thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus," at first barely aware of it, then guiltily, to compensate for her momentary lapse of concentration, then touched to the depths of her heart by the certainty of His love.
It was a long way yet to Genoa, where the Lord would part the sea, and more children died on the struggle over the Alps, their bodies eaten by eagles and wolves, but their souls with Jesus.
Sometimes, it took them two days to get over a mountain, they were so hungry and weak. Sometimes it snowed and they had to dig through the snow with their hands to find berries. Klara's fingers and toes were black with frost-bite and she limped along, in agony at every step if she had any feeling in her limbs at all. She thought of it as her martyrdom, the hunger and pain were to make her ready for Jesus.
Always when they reached one peak and looked down, praying to the Virgin to show them Italy, there were only more mountains, and more, stretching out before them. More cliffs, more rocks. But what was this, Nicholas pointed out, compared with the forty years the Jews had spent in the desert, looking for the promised land.
"God fed the Jews," said Marta.
"God feeds us," said Gretel. She was now so weak she could hardly walk. The blood the cilice squeezed out of her arm froze solid on her skin, and Klara saw the veins clearly in her arms and face. She had horrible pains in her stomach, but she kept her spirits high, saw visions daily of her future as the new Virgin Mary and resented any suggestion that she was ill.
"Hush! God knows best."
They were in sight of the Hübschhorn when a storm blew up, not a blizzard this time, but a sudden, horrid quiet as the wind died, a great crack of lightning, right across the sky from left to right, and the rain came pouring down.
The wind rose. The thunder roared almost directly over-head, the next bolt of lightning struck the top of the Hübschorn and sent boulders crashing down the sides.
"Get down," called Klara. "Then we won't be struck by lightning."
The children obeyed her, lying on the snow with their hands on their ears, while the storm raged above them and the rain lashed down, filling Klara's mouth and nose and eyes, soaking through her clothes and running down her back.
All but Nicholas. He stood on a boulder, almost invisible in the rain except when the lightning lit him up from behind, offering prayers and vows or devotion to their Lord and Saviour. Klara was wracked by guilt. He had set his faith in God to see him through the storm. Should she do the same?
But before she could stand up, while her lips were still forming the words to the hymn, the storm passed, as suddenly as it had come.
The silence, before the biting mountain wind began again, was eerie. Klara could hear her own breathing, raw and fast. Then one little girl, too weak to walk, who had to be dragged by the others in turn, began to cry softly.
"Don't be afraid my child," said Nicholas. "It was a sign from God."
"What has He told us, Holy Father?" said Karl.
"That He is with us, watching, always. That we must turn away from sin, the Devil and the lusts of the flesh."
"Amen," echoed the children.
"And we have failed to do this."
What? Klara choked. Had God sent this storm upon them because of His displeasure with her, because she was insufficiently holy, because she had thought selfish thoughts, because she hadn't endured with stoicism and selfishness?
Karl was staring at Nicholas as if he had slapped him. Marta was biting her lip until it bled. Gretel was nodding, as if she had known this all along and approved.
"We have tolerated heretics among us," said Nicholas.
Heretics! In the army of God? Vile, miserable sinners! Klara shuddered. She couldn't help it. It was instinctive fear and shame at the thought of sin, of heresy. "God has given us so much." She wasn't aware of saying it until she heard her own voice.
"He has indeed, my child." Nicholas' smile lit up the depths of her soul. His face became stern. "If only everybody could have your righteousness and piety." Klara felt a glow of pride, before she remembered that pride was sinful and no amount of righteousness and piety could compensate for the stain of sin she had been born with, and the sin of her entire life. For the earth is sinful and the flesh is weak.
"Someone here," said Nicholas, in a voice as quiet and hard as a rock. "Has doubted, broken faith, questioned the Lord."
Klara shivered, feeling Satan's touch on the back of her neck. He was so close, he had got right into the middle of God's own army. But Satan was clever.
"Who," said Nicholas, "has doubted?".
Silence. The distant scream of an eagle made Klara jump.
"If the heretic refuses to present themselves, the Lord shall be extremely displeased, and will be forced to resort to extreme measures to find out who is corroding His army with satanic lies."
More silence. Agonised silence stretching forever, while the children fought to remember every sin anyone else had committed, every deviation from the one true path the Heaven.
"Peter complained that God was neglecting us," said a boy suddenly. Klara had never spoken to him, couldn't remember his name, but he looked about eight or nine. The boy standing next to him flushed.
"It was when Ruth died," he muttered. Klara remembered a girl called Ruth, one of many who had sat down in the blizzard and never got up. She remembered that this boy had cried.
"Ruth was your sister, wasn't she?" said Nicholas.
"Twin sister… Father…" he faltered out under Nicholas' gaze.
"The Lord took her as His own. She does not belong to you, Peter, she belongs to God. We are here as His servants and His soldiers, we must only do His bidding."
"She had just died, Father…" choked Peter.
Klara turned away. Excuses. Heretics always had excuses, like the ones she had seen burn in Cologne. They seemed to think that God was optional, that He was open to… negotiation. Discussion. Instead of being the most powerful, wise being in existence, capable of destroying cities in a blow.
"And you complained that God had abandoned you." Nicholas' face and voice were completely expressionless. "God did not abandon you, He never abandons His army. You abandoned Him. And that is a mortal sin." He opened his doublet, but instead of taking out his whip he drew his sword. "Swords need to taste flesh. And my sword's first heretic will be you. Hold him!"
Thomas and a girl about Nicholas' age seized Peter. Between them, they wrestled him to his knees in front of Nicholas.
Klara's heart lurched. Yes. This was justice. Watch how those who defy the Lord suffer and die.
"Forgive me, Father."
"It's not my part to forgive you or not. It's God whom you should ask to forgive you."
The sword flashed down.
Klara had seen a beheading before, in Cologne, but then she had felt a moment's pity for the man, a bandit, who had so humbly said his prayers. It was different when it was a heretic. As Peter's head dropped off his shoulders and bounced in the ice, a shapeless, sightless lump of flesh, there was such a wonderful feeling of release. The blood spurting up from his neck, spattering hot on her face and hands, was payment to Lord. What the Lord was due. The headless corpse writhed, more blood drenched the front of her dress. The blood of the heretic would wash away her sins, all their sins. Suck out the poison in their souls, the serpents they had let breed in their Eden. She let the blood run slowly over her, bathed in it, and she didn't know whether the warmth she felt on that cold and barren mountain was the warmth of the heretic's blood or the warmth of God's love.
There was a great lightness and freedom in the air afterwards, a new buoyancy in all their steps as they passed through the toil and hardships that still lay ahead. No more than a dozen of the hundreds who had left Basel looked down Lake Maggiore from Verbánia at the rolling green land below them, thanked the Lord and knew they had been blessed. But the Lord takes no notice of numbers, but of purity of souls.
The many crucifixes they bore and the Bible and pamphlets they carried let them into the monastery near Verbánia, though Klara wasn't sure the abbot really understood their mission. They bathed, changed their clothes, ate and Klara let the monks bind her feet and smear ointment on them.
More than the relief from pain and exhaustion, the deep spiritual relief of the monastery was fortifying. Manna to the soul. God did send us manna, just as He sent to the Jews. She liked the idea of manna. She studied the stain-glass windows on the monastery walls and felt very close to God, perhaps as close as she would ever be to Him in this life.
They slept well in the monastery, glad to have proper blankets to cover them, although Klara prayed for forgiveness in setting such store by material comfort.
In the morning, they set off. The monks offered to let them stay a while, but Nicholas was firm. They had to get to the Holy Land.
The abbot explained, via Karl who spoke Latin, that he didn't think Gretel would make it to the Holy Land. She was ill. No, no, Karl assured him. She wasn't ill. God was giving her strength. She was His Chosen One. She was the second Virgin Mary.
As Klara dressed and brushed her hair, and helped Gretel, who's stomach and chest hurt her terribly, to get dressed, she noticed Marta smear her cheeks with pink cream.
"What's that?" she asked.
Marta blushed and couldn't meet her eyes.
"What is it?" she repeated. A familiar deadly fear was rising in her stomach, making her sick. The fear of sin.
"It's… it just makes my cheeks look red… I bought it in Verbánia with some money a priest gave to me."
"You used a church-man's money!" Klara's ears hurt listening to this talk. "You used holy money to pay for that filth!"
"You know how sinful it is!" Wild fear gripped her. She could see Marta sliding away into Hell before her eyes.
"No buts. Only bad women wear make-up, the Church says so! Do you want to be like the Whore of Babylon? Do you? Do you?" She realised she was screaming and fought to breathe. She felt dizzy.
"Give it up. Give it up and once. Burn the foul, proud, lustful stuff. And tell Nicholas! Tell him at once."
"No." Marta raised her head and looked Klara dead in the eye.
"But you must. This is the Army of God. Your soul's at stake!"
Then it was time to go and Klara didn't have time to say anything else, but she was worried.
They set off across Italy for Genoa, where the sea would part and show them the way to the Holy Land.
It was a long journey, the Alps weren't as near to Genoa as Klara had thought. But God was with them all the way, there were many farms to beg from and only one child died, a little girl. Gretel seemed so at one with the Lord that it was hard to get a word out of her, at least, not one relating to this mortal coil. She seemed to be permanently having a vision. The Second Coming of Christ was imminent, she told Klara. Judgement Day was very near. They must purify their souls and be ready.
It was Marta who really worried Klara. Despite everything she, Gretel and Karl could say, she wouldn't stop daubing her face. In fact, the more Klara pleaded, the more stubborn Marta seemed to become. Klara became really worried about Marta's soul, especially because she didn't know how soon, on this dangerous journey, she might die. She didn't want to see her condemned to eternal damnation for a little earthly vanity.
"You know how seriously God takes pride," she said. "You know how seriously He takes vanity."
"I don't see that it's God's business."
"Hush! You mustn't talk like that, or I'll tell Nicholas. I mean it…"
And so it went on, all the way across Italy.
They reached Genoa in August. It looked beautiful from the hills behind the town, not only because it was beautiful, in worldly terms, but because it represented their salvation. The salvation of Jerusalem. God's Kingdom on Earth.
They marched down to the harbour in formation, like an army.
Before them stretched the sea. Klara had never seen the sea before. It was bigger than she had ever imagined, not a river like the Rhine, where one bank was visible from the other, but stretching to the distant horizon, gleaming in the sun-light so fierce it hurt her eyes.
Waves rose slowly, sighing, gathered themselves and lashed against the land in a torrent of spray.
And it was all at God's command. He had created it, He could part it to let His army pass. For He was the ruler of the world.
And the sea didn't part. They stood on the shore, the soldiers of God, in front of all the people of Genoa, and the sea did not part. Not after two minutes, not after five, not after ten. The waves still battered the west coast of Italy. The sea still lay between the Army of God and the Holy Land.
How was this possible?
Had God abandoned them?
No. That was impossible. God hadn't abandoned them. He… was moving in a mysterious way.
But the thought remained.
After all they had gone through. All they had suffered, all the people who had died…
A wave of anger surged up from the sea and washed through her. Not against the Devil, heathens or her own repulsive human sins, but against God.
And she was afraid, and ashamed of it, but it had been there, for a moment, and she couldn't hide it, even from herself.
"Oh Lord," said Nicholas. "Deliver us from this predicament. Know that we are yours, and we shall do your bidding, even onto death. Forgive us our sins, which are many and disgusting."
"Amen," said the children.
Nicholas turned to them. "Perhaps the sea will part to-morrow."
But it didn't. They spent the night on the shore, and the sea flatly, firmly, undeniably, did not part to-morrow.
Some Crusaders accused Nicholas of betraying them, cursed him for friends and family who had died in the Alps, and turned to go home. Others announced their intention to settle in Genoa. Klara watched them go coldly. They were weak fools who had no faith in God.
It was the day after that, when Klara was watching Marta fish her cream out of her pocket, that it hit her.
God couldn't part the sea, because they were sinful. Marta's pride and vanity had tarnished them. She must be destroyed for the Army of God to be cleansed.
This wave was anger was good. It was righteous anger. Marta was an infidel. For the good of Jerusalem, to save Marta's own soul and Klara's besides, she had to tell Nicholas.
"I need to talk to you," she said, with none of the deference she usually showed.
Nicholas looked up from where he was deep in prayer on the shore.
"Father," she added, curtseying.
"There's a heretic among us. Marta." The words tumbled over each other. Her face felt hot. With the love of God. "She's vain and proud. I'm afraid she sets worldly things above God. She wears…" She could barely bring herself to say the shameful, dirty word in front of him. "Cosmetics."
"Oh…" He smiled. "Thank you for telling me about this sin."
God's approval glowed from his eyes.
Marta looked up when they came in as if she knew what was going to happen to her.
"Marta," said Nicholas, in that quiet, deadly voice he saved for when he was very angry and God was very disappointed. "Have you sinned?"
She tilted her head up. "Says who?"
"Marta, if you have sinned against God, you risk damnation. Do you understand what damnation is?"
"Why did you not tell me about this sin?"
"Because I liked it."
Nicholas' eyes widened. "You like sin? You enjoy it?" He shook his head slowly. "A repentant sinner is one thing. But the likes of you… It's my job to judge you as a good Christian."
He turned to Klara. She was ready to do the Lord's bidding. His warmth was so strong in her she was surprised she couldn't see light shining off her.
She held her. Karl held her other arm.
She didn't ask for Nicholas or God to forgive her. She just scowled at the ground in the moments before her head was cut off.
The blood was as hot as Peter's. Now the cleansing came with even greater relief. For this time, today, surely, God would part the sea.
Klara felt lighter and happier than she had done that dreadful day in Verbánio. Now, Marta's sin was atoned. Who knew, with her bloody death, God might even have mercy on her and let her sleep with the angels? After all, she had crusaded… But she had not repented. She was a defiant sinner.
But one must not waste time and effort on sinners. Their fate, after death, when good Christians have done all they can for their salvation, is no longer good Christians' concern.
God would let them go to the Holy Land now. They could serve Him with all their hearts there, liberate His kingdom from the infidels.
Nicholas prayed long and loud for Parting of the Sea. He waded into the sea and prayed with the waves washing over him.
And yet the sea did not part.
Had they done something to displease God? Were their sins so truly vile as He was withholding His blessing from them? Was this a test of faith, and they must walk into the water and swim?
The answer came that evening, in one of Nicholas' visions. God was not punishing them. His blessing was not with-held. The death of the heretic had satisfied Him. He had changed His plans. They were to go to Jerusalem and meet the Pope. They would receive money from him to go on to the Holy Land.
The relief was tangible. The Army of God could be counted on two hands. They were hungry, broke, a few were murmuring that however willing the spirit, the flesh would fail them. This news heartened everyone.
Klara knelt by Gretel, who was slumped on the hard stone, eyes close, talking to the angels.
"We're going to Rome," she said.
"Oh." Gretel smiled, without opening her eyes. "That's good."
She barely had the strength to talk. How would she have the strength to walk to Rome, never mind the Holy Land? Would they have to carry her?
She was so pale, her eye-lids were translucent, Klara could see the shadows of her bones beneath her face. At least she didn't look so thin. At least, her arms and legs were thin, skeletally thin, but her stomach was getting fatter.
That night was the last night they spent in Genoa. The next dawn they struck camp for Rome.
The march down the coast was long. Italy was hotter than Germany. Gretel did indeed have to be carried on a make-shift stretcher. Her eschatonic visions became more and more frequent and more and more incomprehensible to one still chained to the flesh. Skeletal horses, enormous flying fish, cats with many heads. All, of course, sent by the Lord to show them the way to Heaven and Jerusalem.
"What do these visions mean?" Klara asked Nicholas. They were camping outside Pisa, Nicholas silent and sullen after yet another desertion, Klara bathing Gretel's feverish fore-head with a damp cloth.
"It's not our place to understand. When the time is right, God will reveal all."
"Of course." Klara bent her head, feeling a twinge of guilt for having asked.
Gretel murmured in her fever dream, sweating harder.
"What?" said Klara.
"Angels so close I can hear them."
"Good." She placed her hand against Gretel's forehead and bit her lip. She was burning up. Sweat poured off her forehead, the blood around the cilice was oozing and unhealthy-looking.
"Should we take this off?" she asked Nicholas.
"No. Penance is good. Mortifying the flesh is good."
"And do you? Mortify the flesh?"
"Of course." He smiled distantly. "It teaches us to suffer meekly, like Jesus."
He opened his shirt and Klara was nearly sick. He's strapped a barbed cilice round his chest, which oozed blood whenever he moved. The skin around it was raw and chafed. It wasn't just the wound that shocked her, it was the fact that he was doing this to himself. It showed such fierce piety that it made Klara a little more ashamed of her own weakness, her frailty, the fact that she hadn't done that.
As they drew nearer to Rome, they passed more and more pilgrims. Some of them had food to spare, and shared it with the Crusaders, but not many of them seemed to understand that they were going to the Holy Land, they were merely stopping off in Rome.
When they got to Rome, the crowds were crushing. Pilgrims on foot, pilgrims in carts, groups of monks clutching relics, ill, dying, desperate people who had limped and hitch-hiked and begged their way across Europe, to see Scala Santa and St. Paul's Outside the Walls.
Rome was biggest city Klara had ever seen, a bewildering jumble of houses, shops and churches. The street traders seemed as eager to sell beer as they did holy relics.
"Pieces of the True Cross!" A trader pushed past a grumpily immobile donkey in the middle of the street to wave his trade in Klara's face. "Pieces of the True Cross!"
"I haven't any money," said Klara.
The trader didn't seem to understand German.
"I haven't any- oh, for God's sake. Karl! Come and speak to the gentleman!"
Karl who could speak Latin had realised that the Italian dialect in Rome was similar enough to Latin for a few of the locals to understand. However, as so many of the pilgrims didn't come from Italy, it wasn't so useful with, for example, the increasingly angry donkey-owner.
Karl explained to the street trader that they would love to buy pieces of the True Cross, but unfortunately, they were broke.
The trader shuffled away sulking, only for a stream of traders to appear in his place, selling talismans, saints' bones, drops of Jesus' blood, snacks.
Rome was more confusing than they had thought. Klara had imagined that they would simply walk to Rome and find the Pope there, but there was no sign of him.
"Where should we go?" she asked Nicholas.
Nicholas looked as baffled as she was. He must be waiting for a sign from God. Eventually he said, "I think we should go to the pilgrimage church at St. Paul's Outside the Walls".
So they set off, following the shuffling, chanting trail of pilgrims.
When they reached the atrium of St. Paul's, they were besieged by traders. It seemed that no Church Father had so much as eaten soup without someone collecting the spoon. Women in low-cut red dresses prowled around, patting Nicholas on the head and laughing, but Klara had no idea what they were saying.
A quack doctor materialised beside Gretel's stretcher, offering balm which looked, in fact, like pond water with a bit of confetti thrown in.
"No thank you," said Klara. He wouldn't go until she pushed him.
The crowd moved forward, Klara pushed and scrambled after Nicholas and finally, hot and panting, emerged into the colonnade of St Paul's Outside the Walls.
Here it was quieter, not because it was less crowded, but because the crowd had formed itself into a more or less orderly queue which was shuffling into the Basilica, and they had finally escaped the street traders.
As Klara breathed in the incense, she felt her heart slow. She breathed easier, felt the Lord in her head. After all, she was here in His city, the heart of His Church, if there were any sins with the Indulgence didn't cover, this trip to see the Sarcophagus of Paul certainly would. And the tomb was beautiful. A huge, ornate tropaeum, which looked like a little church in itself, balanced above the marble tomb-stone.
Klara could just make out the Latin inscription.
"PAULO APOSTOLO MART."
"What does it mean?" she whispered to Karl.
"To Paul the apostle and martyr."
Klara knelt before the tomb-stone, awed. Paul was had been almost a God himself, founder of the Church, travelling Europe and Asia to save humanity from Sin. Yet here she was, before his mortal body. How could she ever be worthy?
The answer came from the Lord: by dying for her faith, as he had died for his.
I will, Lord. I will.
She closed her eyes, dizzy with incense, and prayed for her soul. The hand of God descended on her and for a moment, the Gates of Paradise opened before her eyes, a dazzling golden light and warmth, stronger than any earthly fire or light.
Then the altar boy hissed at her to stop wasting everybody's time. She scrambled up, apologising to the altar boy, and hurried outside.
She had to wait for the others, as Gretel in particular took ages before the tomb, ignoring the altar boy, and came out with a red flush in her cheeks against her pale face, chattering breathlessly about the visions God had given her.
Nicholas hunted down the Archpriest of St. Paul's. He was seemed extremely reluctant to talk to them, calling them, in faltering German, "dirty, ragged children".
"We have a calling from the Lord!" said Nicholas.
"I am uninterested in commoners' callings from the Lord. I am a busy man."
"We need to speak to the Pope!"
"What?" The Archpriest stared at them. "The Pope!" He burst out laughing. "Dear God! That's a good one, that is! Hey, Angelo!" Angelo materialised in the door-way. "Listen to this!"
"We need," said Nicholas, with icy calm, "to speak to the Pope".
Angelo laughed. "Well, it takes all sorts, doesn't it?" he said, in German which wasn't much better than the Archpriest's. He disappeared, still shaking his head and laughing.
Klara felt a flash of anger. How dare these men laugh at them! How dare they deny the reality of their Holy Task!
"We have walked," she said, fighting the urge to scream until her voice grated in her throat. "From Cologne. We have walked across the Alps. We are going to Jerusalem. We'll liberate it from the infidels and re-claim it for God! But we can't do this without the advice and help of His Holiness."
The Archpriest looked up from his papers. "Do you know how many twits I get in here, every day? Do you?"
Klara shook her head.
"Dozens. The only reason I haven't thrown you out into the gutter is because I've never met anyone so rude and insane as to actually demand to meet the Pope, and I find your chatter amusing. However, listening to the babble of idiots has only limited power to amuse. I suggest that you leave, now, before I make you."
Gretel pushed in front of Klara. "The Lord has sent me visions to confirm our Holy Mission!"
She described to him, in breathless detail and with burning intensity, the details of her visions. The Archpriest looked on, first in boredom, then in amusement, then in incredulity. "You're mad," he said flatly. "You're all mad."
"We will not move from this room until you take us to His Holiness!" said Nicholas.
The Archpriest rolled his eyes. "Do you have any money?"
"Then I see no reason why I should help you."
Klara couldn't remember drawing her sword, but it was gleaming in her hand. With a soft swish every sword in the room was drawn.
White-hot rage burned in Klara. Her stomach was heaving as if a knife were twisting around in her insides. "If you don't take us to His Holiness right now," she said, louder and clearer than she ever remembered speaking before, "I swear by our Lord and Saviour I will hack you to pieces right now".
The Archpriest looked at them. The Archpriest gulped. The Archpriest straightened his robes, squeaked "Follow me, please," and scuttled from the room.
He loaded them into a carriage and his coach-man drove them through the streets of Rome, until they reached the Lateran Palace, a beautiful brown stone building, with an elaborate gate-way and many fine horses out-side.
The Arch-priest was so afraid of their swords that he treated them very politely, handing Klara down from the carriage as if she were a fine lady.
"How do you speak German so well?" she asked.
"We preach most of our Indulgences in Germany," said the Archpriest.
He led them through the beautiful door-way, past the stares of the passing church-men, into the most luxurious building Klara had ever seen. The floors were solid marble, which gleamed so brightly she could see her face in them. On every inch of wall-space, even in corners where no one would ever look if they weren't trying to drink everything in with their eyes and burn it into their memory, even on the ceiling, were paintings. She scarcely payed attention to the subject matter, she was so stunned by the colour—bright reds, greens, purples, bright as the paintings in church in Cologne, but twice as detailed—but she recognised some Biblical scenes.
The walk through the Lateran Palace was a mixture of the searingly vivid and dizzyingly vague. Too much too look at, too much to marvel at.
She remembered a particular golden column, with silver birds twisting up it. A door with roses carved into the handle. A magnificent mosaic of Jesus and the Apostles.
And it was all to the glory of God.
Outside a big wooden door were two servants, who sidled away nervously as the Arch-priest approached. What an honour it must be to work here, thought Klara. How proud they must be to serve God.
The Arch-priest knocked on the door.
"Enter," said a voice.
The Arch-priest opened the door, and there, before them, in flesh and blood, was His Holiness, Pope Innocent III.
She was looking at the direct spiritual descendent of St. Peter.
She didn't hear what the Arch-priest said to the Pope. She could think of nothing but the radiance of the Pope's robes, of the saintliness of his face, of the beauty of that room. Of the misery of her own sins.
The next thing she was aware of when she could breathe again was the Pope speaking to her.
"Child. Are you with these Crusaders?"
"Yes, Holy Father." Her voice sounded faint. The floor swayed beneath her. The Pope put a hand on her arm and she felt the Hand of God and fainted away.
When she came to, she was lying on a beautiful, gleamingly-polished table beside Gretel, who looked as if she were barely breathing. She was curled up round her horribly swollen stomach and her lips and eye-lids were blue.
The Pope was talking to Nicholas. "You are going to Jerusalem?"
"Yes, Holy Father."
"And you are absolutely set on this?"
"Yes, Holy Father."
"I implore you to re-consider, to return to your homes like good children."
Re-consider! The Pope, the Holy Father himself, in whose name they were doing this, told them to re-consider! Her indignation made her leap off the table. She was about to scream at him, but Nicholas got there before her. "I have no intention of re-considering, Holy Father. I shall send a boy back home to my family in my place, with those who are returning. I go on."
The Pope bowed his head. It looked to Klara as if he were grinding his teeth.
Then, from outside the window, came shouts and cheers.
Klara slipped down from the table, ran to the window and peered out. A crowd of people had gathered before the palace, most of them poor and ragged, but singing and happy-looking. At first, she couldn't hear what they were saying, but as more and more joined in the chant and the wind rose and carried the noise up to the window, she heard them chanting "The Child Crusaders! Lord save the Child Crusaders!".
The Pope clearly heard too, because he suddenly cleared his throat and said "Of course I'll give you money to take a ship to the Holy Land. You can stay at a monastery tonight and to-morrow you can go down to the docks and catch one of the early ships trading with Turkey. I've warned you that the journey is dangerous and likely to fail. That's all I can do."
He left them while he went to find some money. Klara wandered round the room looking at things. She had never seen such luxury in her life, whenever she thought she had seen the most amazing thing, there was something else—an exquisite little statue, a wall painting, a carved chair.
She was following a panel of paintings round the wall, telling the story of Lazarus, and opened a door in the corner of the corner of the room, when she realised she was in the same little corridor the Pope had gone into, and that he was taking an awfully long time.
Voices drifted towards her from under a door.
She moved closer, guilt stabbing at her throat. It was wrong to listen at doors, it was wrong… But her ears sharpened as she caught the word "money". It felt so jarringly out of place, here in the palace of the servant of God.
"Waste of money and time."
It was the Pope. Klara stopped before the door. What was a waste of money and time? But in the pit of her stomach she knew, even before the Pope went on speaking.
"I told them to go home, but they wouldn't. The damned common people marched through the streets praising them like angels, so of course I had to agree, or there would have been a riot."
Klara didn't wonder why he was speaking, falteringly, in German, until she heard the other person in the room answer in German. "They'll probably die soon, anyway."
She bent down and peered through the key-hole. The Pope was sitting at a desk, surrounded by boxes of money, and what Klara guessed were books of accounts, scribbling away. He was talking to boy who had the same accent as Klara did. He was from Cologne too, and had come all the way to Rome to serve the Pope. He looked about Karl's age, but was playing with much larger sums of money than Karl had ever seen in his life. Presumably he hadn't learned Latin yet, though. He craned over the Pope's shoulder. "No, you can't spare the money from the Bavarian Indulgences. You need it to pay the King of France for allowing your son into Government."
Son? What son…?
"Of course…" The Pope crossed out something he's written. "I don't know how I'd keep my accounts without you…"
"You know, I'm thinking of ditching the Church for a merchant company."
"Not a bad idea." The Pope slammed the account book shut. "Right, better go send them on their way…"
Until now, Klara was standing frozen in front of the key-hole, unable to move, barely able to breathe, the blood rushing louder and louder in her ears. Just as black mist was rising before her eyes, she realised the danger, wrenched herself away from the door, and fled, tumbling back into the room and collapsing into a chair.
The Pope was only moments behind her, beaming like the angels who ushered the righteous to Heaven in the paintings in church.
"Here is the money. It will pay your passage to Jaffa. Then you must travel over-land to Jerusalem."
His voice, his manner were so kind. Had she really seen what she thought she saw? Already, the memory was slipping out of her mind.
She curtsied low. "Thank you, Holy Father."
The Pope frowned. "Are you all right, child? You look pale and breathless."
"Yes, thank you, Father."
"She went-" said Karl.
"To get some air!" said Klara. "I came over faint and I went to get some fresh air."
"Very well," said the Pope, still frowning.
He sent them to spend the night at the monastery with blessings and prayers, and it was so easy for Klara to listen to the familiar, incomprehensible Latin words of the prayers and believe in him. His Holiness the Pope, infallible spiritual descendent of St. Peter.
When they arrived at the monastery outside Rome, they were welcomed, fed and given beds to sleep in.
The monks were particularly concerned about Gretel, who hadn't spoken or moved since she had been placed on the table in the Lateran.
"She's very sick," the monks managed to explain, with much gesticulation and translation.
"She's not sick," said Nicholas. "She's God's chosen one. She's the second Virgin Mary."
That evening, a messenger from Cologne arrived at the monastery. He was exhausted, his horse dripping with sweat and foaming around the bit, after scouring Rome for them.
He implored them to return to Cologne. "Nicholas, your mother's dangerously ill. Your father…" He gulped. "Your father's been hanged."
"Why?" said Nicholas.
"By the parents of the children you led to their deaths."
Nicholas considered, then shrugged. "I'll pray for his soul. Ask the priest to take care of my mother."
"You won't go home?" The messenger was close to tears.
"No." He considered again. "You, Rupert. You're leaving anyway in the morning. Go in my place to my family."
"All right," said Rupert.
"What news from Cologne?" blurted Klara. It was strange, she had almost forgotten Cologne. What it looked like, what it smelled like. What her family looked like. But now the messenger had arrived, she felt a sudden longing for what she could barely remember.
The messenger shrugged. "Not much. Frau Schneider died of puerperal fever."
"What?" Klara couldn't stop herself. She remembered Herr Schneider in church, the day Nicholas came to summon her to God. He had struggled so hard against worldly concerns to do his duty to the Church. And this was how God repaid him?
Why, God? Why?
It flared up in an instant and was over, but she felt sick with dread of Hell-fire all the same. To ask God why was the worst of sins.
"You're Klara, aren't you?"
"Your family have sent me to beg you to come home."
The tears stung in her eyes. Come home. For a moment, the walls of the monastery melted away, and she was playing on the street in Cologne with her sisters.
She pushed the image away. It was a temptation from Satan.
Sorry, God. Sorry.
How close she was coming to Hell-fire today.
"I'm not going home," she said. And her certainty must have shown in her face, because the messenger did not press her.
He shrugged, turned the horse and galloped away towards Rome.
That night, Klara tried to sleep with the peace of righteousness, but she couldn't. Every time she closed her eyes, the image of the Pope with the accounting book appeared
Eventually, she could bear the cramping pain in her chest no longer. She left the room she had been placed in with Gretel and went to find Nicholas.
He was sleeping with the peace of righteousness, and she had to shake him hard before he woke up.
"What?" he said. "Don't you know it's sinful to be in my room? You're a woman."
"I know. But I need to talk you… I've sinned!"
"What have you done?"
It always struck her how like a God this ragged boy could look, with the light flashing in his eyes, like the fire that has burned down Sodom and Gomorrah.
"I haven't done anything… I sinned in my thoughts."
"What have you thought?"
"I thought… I saw the Pope. Counting his money. Calling the Crusade a waste of money and time."
"Are you sure you saw this?" Nicholas was frowning, the light of the moon on his face in the dark made the Divine Light in his eyes even clearer.
He smiled and shook his head. "It was a temptation from Satan, child. He sent you a false vision to trick you and test your faith."
She almost sobbed with relief. Of course, it was so clear. That was exactly what Satan would do to test God's Chosen Ones.
"How can I prove my faith?"
"Say ten Ave Marias."
"Yes, Father. Thank you, Father. Good night, Father."
She went back to her room and said her Ave Marias. With each repetition, she felt the knot in her stomach loosen and a weight lift off her shoulders.
When she went to bed, she felt blessed and at one with the Lord at last.
She had barely gone to sleep when she was woken in the darkness of the small hours by Gretel crying softly.
A horrible moaning sound, like a wounded animal.
She lit the lamp.
Gretel was sitting curled up at the head of the bed. The sheets were soaked with blood.
The world went grey and foggy. Klara collapsed against the wall. All she could see was the spreading red stain, with widened until it filled her whole vision.
"Nicholas!" She could barely breathe. "Nicholas!" A wild shriek which echoed off the stone walls and down the corridor.
She couldn't move, she couldn't see, she knew she should help Gretel, before she bled to death, but every time she moved her vision blurred, sliding between red blood and cold blackness. She wanted to fall into the blackness, not have to look at the blood, which gushed now all over the floor, trickled in scarlet streams towards the door.
She felt that she had sat there staring for hours, but before the echoes of her last mad howl had died away, Nicholas appeared in the door-way, the abbot right behind him.
"Oh, my God!" said Nicholas. "Get water, get water quick."
"What's happening?" Klara struggled up off the bed.
"The new King David," said Nicholas quietly.
"Get hot water," said the abbot. "Get towels." To Klara, "Help me to staunch the bleeding".
Nicholas ran from the room, but Klara wasn't sure she dared approach the bed.
She had killed pigs before, she was used to blood, but there was a difference between killing a pig and looking after an injured human being. For one thing, people have faces. Klara couldn't bear to look at Gretel's face. White, drawn in pain, her eyes glazed and staring.
"I don't understand," she heard herself say to the abbot, over and over again. "I don't understand."
"She's having a baby."
"What?" Klara had heard, of course, of women having babies, but the priest had always told her they were gifts from God. This… this tangle of blood-stained sheets and the girl on the bed shaking like a blade of grass in a gale… this wasn't a gift from God.
Nicholas was back, with a pan of water and a lamp to boil it with. He'd brought clean sheets and towels, and a Bible. He put the water on the boil, and the abbot made Klara bathe Gretel's fore-head with a damp cloth and a series of noxious poultices.
She could barely remember what he told her to do, she simply did it, watching her shaking, blood-stained hands move as if they belonged to someone else. She supposed afterwards, she must have heard him telling her what to do, but she could barely hear anything, only very thick and far away, as if through water or cloth.
"She's not married." Her voice wasn't her own, it was high, strained.
"She's the second Virgin Mary."
"But… she's not old enough to have a baby…"
"No," said the abbot. "She'll die."
The words hammered sharp and burning on her head, echoed round and round, nearly made her faint again.
Oh, Lord. Her voice wouldn't work. Save Your chosen one. Save her now. She looked down the bed to the abbot, and the growing circle of monks behind her, and saw the hopelessness in the abbot's eyes. We can't.
She tried again, closing her eyes to shut out the sight of blood, trying to remain simultaneously aware of her own unworthiness of God's love and the certainty of Christian redemption. It was difficult. Please, Lord. This makes no sense… She stopped. One must not expect sense from God.
Please, Lord. Please. Just… please…
Still nothing. Klara felt a great emptiness and hollowness in her chest, and the fragile, flickering light from the lamp collapsing it, vanishing, fading. Never, never, had she felt like this when she prayed. God wasn't answering. Why had He abandoned her?
She fought to remain conscious, counting her breaths as she watched her hands lift blood-stained rags from Gretel's mouth where the blood poured, staining the sheets and dribbling onto her dress and feet.
There had to be a reason. God didn't abandon His children. It wasn't in His nature. This must be a test of faith, like the tests He had sent Job. And she wasn't passing.
God's will be done, God's will be done, His will be done…
Gretel's eyes flickered and opened, wide and very bright, her face so sunken that they shone out like twin lamps.
"This is the reward of the blessed…"
"Right…" Klara knew she had to listen to her, the words of God, through the mouth of His chosen one, but she didn't want to listen to the agonised whispers dragged from the lips of the girl they couldn't save—and God wouldn't.
"This is a sign… of God's kingdom on Earth…"
There was a moment's pause. Klara rubbed the poultice into Gretel's forehead, harder and harder.
Then Gretel said, barely audibly, "The angels are taking me away".
"Where?" Klara was swamped with a sudden urge to be sick. "Where are they taking you? Where? Come back… don't go!"
But it was too late. The Lord had taken His own. Gretel lay still and dead and fast getting cold, and the abbot was standing at the bottom of the bed clutching a little blood-stained thing.
Klara didn't speak. She didn't move. She heard the others praying, but her lips wouldn't move to join in. She was too exhausted. She felt herself trembling, and her own body suddenly felt so small, so fragile, so breakable. The cold was rising from Gretel's body and filling her. She fixed her eyes on the lamp, a single glowing point of light and warmth, and measured her breathing. In… out… in… out…
I love God, she said over and over again. God is good. He comes to save us all. He saved Gretel. He will save me. He will save me…
That was how she lulled herself, eventually, into fitful sleep. She said to herself, over and over again, "God will save me. God will save me…", and when she woke in the morning she heard herself say it, and realised she must have been saying it in her sleep.
The next morning, Gretel was buried hurriedly in the monastery garden. The wooden box was covered in flowers, there was no trace of blood and horror.
She joined in with the prayers and the hymns, and dropped a little bloom of wilting flowers, which she had found in a field, onto the grave. She knew that more beautiful ones grew in Heaven.
The deserters trundled home, promising to tell Nicholas' family what had happened to him.
Klara looked around at the circle of faces. Had there ever been hundreds, thousands? Now there were seven.
Seven ragged, tired German children in a foreign land, clutching swords nearly as big as they were, bearing a very tattered banner of Christ. For a moment, she almost laughed. Were they really going to Jerusalem? Now? Like this?
But the strength of the Lord doesn't come in numbers, it comes in the strength of belief.
She knew that, she had been told that since she was a little girl.
Nevertheless, she whispered, "Are you there, God?".
Silly question. Of course he was there.
The ship was the first ocean-going ship Klara had ever seen, and she thought she was beautiful. Sleek, lively, bobbing on the grey October waves. She was called, fittingly enough, Our Lady Mary.
The crew were all Italian, but they eventually explained to their German passengers where their cabins were and what times meals were at, and where they were most expressly to not go.
Klara went up on deck to watch the anchor being taken in. Our Lady Mary swayed, jolted, then creaked, heaved, bounced as she caught the wind in her sails, and skipped off over the waves.
At first the motion was horrible. Tilting, rolling, the floor hopping away from Klara's feet at the crest of every wave, only to rush up again on the way down and hit her in the back of the knees in the trough. And it was inescapable, on the whole ship.
She got used to it fairly quickly though, and by the second day was quite enjoying the voyage.
They had fair weather at first, with a nice cool breeze after the heat of Italy. The coast of Italy gradually disappeared as they made a bee-line for Straits of Messina. Klara spent her days in prayer and listening to Karl reading religious pamphlets. All the pamphlets spread the same reassuring Word of God.
Yes, God's coming was imminent. Yes, the Holy Land must be liberated from the foul grip of the infidel. Yes, He would redeem the sins of His warriors.
The sailors didn't really seem to understand where their passengers wanted to go, or why. It appeared that the Pope had told them they were take them to Jaffa, and they admired the Banner of Christ, but all Nicholas' attempts at preaching were in vain. The sailors shook their heads and explained falteringly that they didn't understand German.
As they sailed through the Straits, she stood on deck and waved at the shore, even though it was too far away to know if there were people there.
It was only a hot, rocky patch of land, with a few hills in the distance, but it was Sicily, and until this spring, she had never thought she would see Sicily in her life.
It was as they crossed the Mediterranean, heading for Cyprus, where they had cargo to take on before going on to the Holy Land, that Klara saw the black clouds gather, just as they approached Crete.
"Storm!" she shouted. "Storm!"
The sailors didn't understand her, but they looked.
She saw them gasp and frown, just as a high wind came from nowhere, and whined in the sails, which crackled and flapped like demonic birds.
One of the sailors shouted to her. She didn't understand the words, but the meaning was plain. Get below.
She opened the hatch and slid down the ladder. The floor felt different beneath her feet. It twisted and jolted, the boards shuddering. Our Lady Mary wasn't happy at all.
Then Our Lady reeled back-wards, throwing Klara off her feet. She had no time to scramble up before she was thrown forwards and sent rolling into the wall.
She staggered up and ran to her cabin, the floor-boards wobbling beneath her, horrible creakings and groanings from all sides. She wrenched the cabin door open and collapsed on the floor, twisting her ankle.
Our Lady shuddered from mast to hold. Curled up on the floor, Klara felt the sea shake her bones. She picked herself up, was thrown against the wall, and braced herself in the corner, curled up on the floor, trying to ignore Our Lady's helpless writhing.
Laura and Sarah, the only remaining girls in the Crusade, were sitting on the bunk, pressed against the wall as far from the rain slamming against the port-hole as possible. As lightning flashed painfully bright against the black sky, they buried their faces in their skirts.
Klara couldn't take her eyes off it. It was dark as night outside. The waves rose higher than Our Lady, great walls of water that filled the entire port-hole, then the ship ploughed right into them, jolting horribly, or they came crashing down, lifting Our Lady up on the swell and spinning her round and round. The lightning flashed again and again, brighter and brighter. The thunder crashed right over head and echoed round and round the cabin.
"Help us, Lord," she said out loud. "Help us."
Her only answer was the rising wind.
"Lord." She closed her eyes, tried to focus on the face of Jesus she had seen in church so many times, but the lightning still flashed, even against the closed eye-lids. "Lord, tell us what we have to do to earn your approval. Lord, I'm sorry. Whatever I've done, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. But help us now. Oh, God… help us now…"
A hideous crack right inside her head. She was thrown backwards against the walls. She could hear Laura and Sarah screaming, but see nothing but blinding white light.
Is this God?
As she shook her head desperately to clear the light away, fumbled to sit up, she heard an agonised screech of wood on wood.
As the white dots cleared, the first thing she saw was a crack in the floor, directly in front of her nose. The whole room slid back-wards, for a moment she was looking right up at the stars, then she fell forward, down, into the darkness, waves and bits of wood battering her head and chest and stomach, into the water.
It was pith dark, utterly silent, freezing cold. The cold went into her stomach, her chest, her brain.
She opened her eyes. Am I dead?
The grey sky was turning blue over her head.
Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus…
She moved her head. It hurt. She sat up slowly, and salty, foul-tasting water trickled out of her mouth. Her stomach heaved and she forced herself to breathe. In… out… nearly retch… in… out…
When she could finally breathe without a conscious effort, or collapsing with a reeling head, she noticed she was sitting on rocks, hard, sharp, jagged ones that dug into her back. Her palms and the side of her face were bleeding. The blood trickled into her mouth, tasting foul as the sea-water, and suddenly she was ragingly thirsty.
She sprang up. Too quickly. She tottered and almost fell, black dots swirling before her eyes. She steadied herself on her feet—Lord, give me strength—and took deep breaths. Water, water…
She saw a bundle of rags on the rocks near her. She scrambled over a boulder and discovered it was Karl. He was quite clearly dead, a boulder had smashed his chest in. His eyes were open and stared up at her, past her to the lightning sky. For a moment, she almost fainted again.
The blue eyes remained fixed on her, she could see the sky reflected in her, see her own face staring back at her.
"Nicholas!" she called. Her voice sounded faint and distant, echoing off the rocks, whipped away in the wind. There was no sound but the crash of the waves on the rocks. Not even a bird. She wobbled, for a moment she felt herself tilting into Karl's eyes.
Breathe… Lord, give me strength.
And the Lord gave her strength.
She swallowed, wincing as her own blood stung her dry throat. She reached out and shook Karl's body gently, just to check he really was dead, but it was quite obvious. His body was as cold and stiff as a dead lamb in a blizzard. Even the blood where his chest had been was cold and thick.
She bent her head and began to pray, knowing that God must have some reason for letting His own warriors die. It was just not hers to know.
She heard a noise beside her, finished praying and turned to find Nicholas sitting on the boulder beside her.
"You've survived, too," he said. His voice was quite emotionless.
"Are you the only one? Is it just for the two of us to enter Jerusalem in triumph?"
There was a faint cry behind the next boulder. They scrambled over to look and found Sarah, lying on her face on the rocks, shivering. Her mouth opened and she fought for breath, but she was too weak to cry more.
Klara knelt down beside her. "Sarah?"
Sarah raised her head, but barely seemed to see Klara.
"She's very weak," said Klara. "She needs water."
"I'll see if there's water." Nicholas stood up and squinted down the beach. "I'm sure the Lord would not deny it to us."
Klara held Sarah, dripping and shivering, on her lap, and tried to rub a little warmth into her limbs. She herself was bitterly cold and could barely move, she was so exhausted, all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep… But she mustn't sleep, she knew that. She would die.
Nicholas came back, saying he had found a stream. Klara's heart leapt when she heard this, then ached when she realised she would have to get up and move, over hard, sharp boulders, nearly dragging Sarah, who was only ten.
If it weren't for God, she would never have found the strength. Thank you, Jesus, she thought with every step. Thank you for letting me live. I'm honoured to serve you. She slipped on a rock, deepened the already-bleeding cut on her foot and wrenched her ankle. The next hobble sent sparks of pain running up her leg. She fell over another rock and landed in the stream.
She let herself fall face-forward into it, gulping water so fast she threw it up, then gulping more. It tasted impossibly sweet. Even though it was cold on her skin, she felt it warming her stomach, giving her life.
She poured water into Sarah's mouth and pinched her nose to make her swallow. She poured more and more, slapping her on the back when she coughed and shaking her when she seemed to be slipping away.
Nicholas rubbed her hands to force the blood to move, and her eyes flickered open, bright and living.
The knot in her throat loosened, she sighed and breathed easier. God was with them now, watching over them. She just knew it. Then an arrow bounced off the rock near her head. She looked up and the next arrow nearly hit her in the eye. She felt it graze her already-cut cheek, then splash in the stream beside her.
Five Turks were galloping across the rocks towards them. They had bows and arrows, spears and long knives that glinted dazzlingly in the sun.
She seized one of Sarah's arms, Nicholas seized the other and they ran.
Klara had never run so fast. She didn't feel weakness, thirst or pain. She was aware of the blood ringing in her ears, her breath grating her lungs like needles, but felt none of it.
She had to escape from the slave-dealers. And God would deliver her from the slave-dealers, for as long as she kept the faith and kept running.
So she did. Even when her eyes went red with the blood she could feel filling her head, she hopped from rock to rock like a gazelle. She couldn't tell whether the pounding in her ears was her heart or the horses' feet.
Then, she could run no more. Her legs gave way beneath her, she felt herself drop, could do nothing to stop it, her head hit a rock, and she bounced over and over.
She heard thundering hooves nearer and nearer. Where was God? With the mind she had left she prayed.
A man fell on top of her, rolled over, bashed his head against her teeth. She couldn't tell if she was tasting her own blood or his.
People shouted in the distance.
Strong arms lifted her up.
The arms of God. He had sent a miracle.
Someone spoke to her in a language she didn't recognise.
"Ship-wrecked," she said. It was all she could say. And if it wasn't what the man had asked, well, he was going to find out anyway.
Then everything went black. Thank you, Jesus. Then, nothing.
Once again, she was surprised to be alive. The sky very gradually came into focus. Then the rock she was lying on. Was she still on the shore?
Then she heard men's voices.
The sky was blue and hurt her eyes. She tried to turn her head and nearly fainted. She decided to listen to the voices.
"What on Earth are they doing here?"
"I don't know, Master. They seem to be ship-wrecked emigrants."
"The boy seems to be in charge. He's delirious. Ranting. At least, I hope it's delirium and he doesn't talk like that all the time."
"He talks like that all the time." That was Sarah's voice. Sarah was alive! She sat up, her head swam as if it had been hit with a hot brick and she collapsed.
"Hello, Miss." A boy's voice, German.
She blinked to clear the swirling spots away from her vision. A boy was standing over her. He didn't look much older than she was, but he was dressed like a knight, with a red cross over his tunic. She knew that sign. It was the mark of the Knights Templar.
They had been rescued by God's own knights, who existed to serve only him. God had delivered them.
She tried to say "Hello" but the word wouldn't come. Her throat was burningly dry. It was as if she hadn't drunk anything.
"She's better, Master."
Klara tried to sit up. She saw two men—presumably the ones who had been talking earlier— standing under a tree, and Nicholas lying on a rock, mumbling. Sarah, looking pale and tired, was sitting on another rock. Nearby, under some cedar trees, seven or eight other men were standing with their horses, muttering amongst themselves and staring.
The Master left Nicholas and came over to her. He was a big, grim-looking man with piercing grey eyes. Klara felt herself flinch.
"This is Sir Stephen," said the boy. "He's the Master of the Order. I'm Franz."
"How did you know I was German? I mean…" She wrenched her eyes back to the Master. "It's an honour to meet you, sir."
She didn't listen to the Master talking.
Franz grinned. "You talk in your sleep." He talked German like a native, with a Rhineland accent.
"You're from Cologne?"
"Near Cologne. And so are you, I can tell."
Klara felt a little warmth loosen the knot she realised she had carried in her stomach since March. So far from home, she had found a local. To her horror, she felt tears run down her cheeks. She batted them away with her hand. "Not crying," she muttered. "Not crying…"
"Are you listening?" It was Sir Stephen.
Klara jumped. No, she hadn't been listening. "Yes, sir."
"Is it true that you're Child Crusaders?"
"Yes, sir." Klara stroked the hilt of the sword she still had strapped to her belt. "By the grace of God, we got this far. Thank you for saving us here, sir."
"Merely our calling from God. Your got here alone?"
"Yes, sir. Once there were thousands of us."
"Truly the Lord works in mysterious ways!" Sir Stephen's eyes began to dance with the same fire she had seen in Nicholas'. "You are His faithful servants and He is indeed great!"
"Yes, sir," said Klara, feeling something was expected of her. "God be thanked!"
The man who had called them ship-wrecked emigrants appeared beside Sir Stephen.
"What is it?"
"The other young lady, Master, says she's hungry."
"Give her some bread. There's some wine in my bag."
They scrambled over the rocks to their horses and began rummaging through the saddle bags.
"That's Mark," said Franz. "What's your name?"
"How do you do, Klara?" He kissed her hand.
"Franz!" Sir Stephen was glaring at him like a hawk. "Come away from her at once. We've already broken our vows to the Lord picking her up off the ground. No need to earn His undying wrath."
"Yes, Master. Sorry," he said to Klara. "He doesn't like my talking to you, because it's against the rules to associate with women."
"You mean, like monks?"
"Franz! Double the lashes at penance tonight!"
"Yes, sir." He looked at Klara as if he were about to say something, then grinned shyly. She felt herself blush and he hurried away.
They ate bread and drank wine, the Crusaders sitting on one boulder, the Knights in a group by themselves. Klara listened to the Knights talking about what to do with them.
"They can't come with us," said Sir Stephen.
"I think, Master," said another Knight, who, Franz whispered, was called Robert. "That we can't do anything else. Of course, we're not supposed to associate with random young ladies, but if we leave them to their own devices, it's clear they won't last five minutes. The whole countryside's full of Arabs between here and Jerusalem."
"God will protect them," said Sir Stephen. "We should give them some money and leave them by the road to the harbour."
Klara's bread suddenly felt very hard and dry. She looked at Franz and saw him looking at her. She didn't want to leave the only friendly and familiar face in this strange place! And he didn't want to leave her either, that was clear. They had so much to talk about.
"Master," said Franz. "I think we are God's protection."
Sir Stephen glared at him, and Klara realised he hadn't helped. "You leave that lay-woman alone, Franz."
"They're half-dead, Master," said Robert. "More than half, Miss Sarah. The Arabs would slaughter them."
"Hey!" said Klara. "I have a sword." She knew it was unhelpful, but she couldn't help it.
"They are the Army of God, they shouldn't be helpless."
"Perhaps God is working in mysterious ways, Master," said Robert.
Stephen hesitated. That would make sense. After all, He did usually work in mysterious ways.
"Perhaps," said Robert. "They are waiting for a miracle when they reach Jerusalem…?"
"Perhaps…" said Stephen.
"And we are appointed by God to protect those who serve Him. Perhaps it's our duty to take His servants to Jerusalem, and protect them on the way."
Stephen was still hesitating. The cold grey eyes boring into Klara made her blush and shiver.
"I think…" said Mark, nervously. He hesitated.
"Well, they're hardly lay women, are they? They've been chosen by the Lord to serve Him. They've been called. Like nuns."
Stephen frowned. "All right. We grant them such assistance and protection as may be necessary."
"Thank you," said Klara. She smiled at Franz, which felt odd and stiff, and she realised she hadn't smiled for months, then blushed when he smiled back. What was she doing? Why was he smiling at her?
Sarah and Nicholas thanked him, for his food and protection, and they got up to leave.
The Crusaders had to share horses with the Knights. Klara supposed this was all right, as the badge of the Knights Templar was two Knights sharing a horse. This was their chance to live up to their badge. In fact, Stephen pointed this out and seemed quite enthusiastic about it.
"You see," he said as they jogged along over rocky, wind-swept hills. "I'll tell the Grand Master about this. We are the dutiful servants of God." He seemed to have forgotten about not wanting them to come with them at all.
Klara was riding with Franz. He rode well, letting the horse steer his way around the rocks rather than driving over the boulders. Even so, there wasn't much room in the saddle, and, unless she wanted to perch above the horse's neck, she had to sit practically on Franz's lap.
She had never sat so close to a boy before. Her family didn't have any horses.
"What's he called?"
"Luke." Franz patted Luke's neck and he snorted happily.
"You can give him a pat if you like."
She patted him gently on the neck. He twitched his ears.
"He wants to know who are you are. Go on, introduce yourself."
Klara didn't know what to say. The thought of introducing herself to her horse was ridiculous.
Stephen turned round and glared at them.
"Hello Luke," said Klara. "I'm Klara."
"Pleased to meet you, too." She felt herself smile again, slightly, shyly, at the ridiculousness of it all, and got another glare from Stephen, who must have heard the snort.
"Do you have any animals?"
Klara felt a sudden twinge for, of all things, the pig. She had left it without ever saying good-bye. All right, so it would probably be sausages soon, but still…
"My family have a pig," she said. "And it doesn't have a name."
"So you have a family?"
"Yes." She was surprised by the question.
"Then what are you doing here?" Franz looked more surprised than she was.
"I'm…I'm serving God." What a funny question!
"You've come here to serve God when there are people waiting for you in Cologne?"
A knot was tightening in her throat. She disliked the sharp, hard feeling of his eyes on her. "Yes," she said. She heard her own voice. Sharp, defensive. "You should understand, you serve Him, too."
"Yes," said Franz. He didn't sound happy. She looked at him, but she could only see his face side-ways and couldn't read his expression.
There was a moment's pause. Klara felt her thoughts drift back over the Mediterranean. What were her family doing, now? She tried to picture them, Mother sewing, Aunt Gerda over the stove, Rosa and Hana playing in the street, but the memories were faint, static, unreal. All the figures had their backs to her, and when she tried to make them turn around, she realised that she couldn't remember their faces.
Well, she told herself, perhaps it was better this way. Maybe that meant they had forgotten about her, too. But as she watched Mother in her head ladle soup into four bowls, only four, she had a horrible feeling that wasn't true.
"Are you all right?"
"Er… yes… I was just… thinking about… home…"
"I was asking about home. What's happening these days in Cologne?"
"Not much. I only have old news. And not much of that."
She told him what she could remember from Cologne, old gossip about people he had probably never heard of, half-remembered stories, nonsense.
But his eyes burned bright at the news, and whenever she stopped he told her "Go on!".
When they stopped for lunch, Stephen made it clear he still didn't trust them. He refused to look at them or speak to them and glared at Klara when he met her eyes by accident. She didn't dare talk to Franz while they ate.
After lunch, Stephen took Franz aside and hissed at him, which he probably thought was subtle but which carried for miles across the bare, echoing landscape. "I don't want you talk to her. Even if she's virtuous, it's still breaking your vow to the Lord to talk to her. The Lord will be displeased."
"Yes, of course, Master."
And yet they did talk, in whispers, at the back of the line. Small talk. It was odd, after all these months. Talking about something other than God. Klara wondered if she could still do it.
"What are you doing in Cyprus?" she asked.
"Defending it from the Turks. We thought we'd killed them all, until we found those slave-dealers."
"What are you going to do know?"
"Return to the Holy Land. There we'll fight the Arabs for Jerusalem and win."
One of the Knights shouted "Turks!"
Klara squinted against the glare of the sun, and eventually saw some tiny figures approaching over the hills.
"Positions!" shouted Stephen.
Turks… She felt her blood run cold. When she tried to breathe, her heart and lungs were frozen. It was nearer exultation than terror, the cold, ruthless exultation of a martyr.
These were the enemy. The infidel. The destroyer of Christ.
The Knights Templar charged. Luke moved so fast beneath Klara that she felt as if she were flying. His mane flew in her eyes, stinging. She couldn't see the Turks, now, couldn't see anything. She was crushed against the saddle by Franz, his long, gleaming sword digging into her side. Faster, her stomach lurching away and floating, when she breathed in, her lungs filled with dust and grit, as Luke leapt over a boulder, she got one clear look at the Turks, only feet away. Huge, armoured from head to foot.
An arrow flew past her neck, tugging at her hair- CRASH.
The breath was knocked out of her. Blind, ears ringing, head swimming, she flew backwards, was dimly aware of Stephen grabbing her shoulder, of a shower of blood in her eyes and mouth and nose. When she could see again, it was a Turk's dead face, mouth open and gushing blood, staring, sightless eyes, sliding past her face.
Franz pulled up. All the Turks were dead, and three of the Templars—a necessary sacrifice for God, of course.
"We won," she said faintly, squinting against sun-light which suddenly seemed very bright and very warm.
"Of course." Franz was wiping his bloody sword. "We are God's chosen."
Stephen was already leading a prayer. Klara joined in. She knew that God was listening, that He was always listening, He loved her and would always protect her. His blessing had got her this far, after all. She felt His protection, warm and steadying. A constant reminder of the reality of Heaven, of her own duty, of His glory.
At dusk, they reached a Templar Fort. It stood on a cliff, overlooking the sea, and, carved out of great lumps of grey rock, looked like part of the cliff itself. It looked like a heavily-fortified church, smaller than she had expected. Even this little fort, though, had lands of its own. A door at the side of the fortress opened onto a peninsular sticking out from the cliff. Here, in the most defensible part of the fortress, was a stable and a rocky, barren paddock, where sleek, well-fed horses lazed around. A cedar-wood fence surrounded the cliffs at the edge of the paddock.
Franz followed her eyes. "Horses are valuable round here. Instruments of war. The peninsular is unassailable."
On the hill above the fort were a couple of stone huts, and a flock of goats with heavy, clanking bells glared at them from on top of boulders.
"There's not much fertile land here," said Franz. "Most of our land is in France and Italy. That's where most of our wealth comes from."
They drew up outside the fort and Franz dismounted and helped her down. A priest came out from inside the fort and began a blessing, then stopped and stared at the ragged children perched on the Knights' horses.
"Father Louis," said Franz, as Stephen explained how they had found the Crusaders. "Come on, we'll put Luke away."
He led her inside the fort, before Stephen could catch them and complain.
Inside, it was cool and dark. After the glare and dry heat, Klara was glad of a bit of a draught, but she knew it must be freezing in winter.
A door on her right led to the church, one on the left opened onto a corridor, the next door was the stable. That was all.
Franz opened the tack room and found a cloth to rub down Luke, who was tired and attracting flies.
For a while, she just watched him, talking to Luke and stroking him while he rubbed him down, and the other knights filed into the stable with their own horses, glaring at her.
She could feel their judgement. What are you doing here? We shouldn't be talking to you…
"You have a lot of horses," she said to Franz, partly to distract herself from how uncomfortable the staring made her.
"We're each allowed four horses, but I only have Luke."
"I thought the Knights Templar are meant to be poor," she said. "Isn't that why you have two Knights on one horse on your badge?"
"We are rewarded by God. We cannot wage this war on the infidel without material wealth."
"Oh." For a moment she felt guilty for doubting the holiness of God's servants, and she was going to apologise. Then she saw a puzzled, bitter look in Franz's eyes, so she didn't, although she couldn't have said why.
Instead she said "You're young to be a Knight Templar. You're only a boy." She tried to work out exactly how old he was. About her age. Thirteen? Fourteen?
He shrugged. "I was in a choir back…" He swallowed. "Home. Then I was a squire. Saved my master's life, he knighted me, I joined the Templars. A couple of years ago. It was all I… wanted… to do."
"They let you join?"
"I was a good fighter. I was devout."
Then Stephen turned and saw them talking, and strode across the yard.
"Franz." Stephen's eyes were as cold and hard as ice. "Go inside and polish your armour." He turned to Klara. "I'll show you to your room," he said in a voice that made her shiver.
Klara's room in the fortress was in the pantry. Stephen apologised. In larger fortresses, they had guest bedrooms, but there was barely enough room here for the knights. Klara didn't mind. At least she had a bed, which was more than she had had at home. Thank you, God.
The Crusaders were allowed to bathe, and given clean clothes which weren't torn to rags, bloody and filthy. Klara leaned back in the hot water, feeling the dust and salt float away. Her aching muscles relaxed slowly and she stretched her back and ankles. As the grime and blood washed away, making greyish-pink swirls in the water, she realised how exhausted she was. She needed a meal, and sleep
That evening, they ate in the fortress, at a wooden table in the kitchen. The Master, who was sure the Lord would be displeased if they were to eat with women, wanted to put the Crusaders somewhere else, but there wasn't anywhere else, so he satisfied himself and God with ignoring them. There was a long grace before and after the meal.
Then came evening penance. After prayers, all the Knights had to whip themselves a set number of times depending on how many sins they had committed today.
The Master stood at the front of the little church and, with his hand on the Bible, glared round at his increasingly nervous-looking congregation.
First he asked if anyone had anything to confess. About half the congregation stumbled forwards with things to confess.
Klara was surprised at first to see public confession. She was used to the privacy of the box, the priest's voice above her. She was very glad Stephen wasn't asking her to confess.
One by one, the Knights confessed coveting wealth, thinking unrighteous, blasphemous and lustful thoughts, swearing, forgetting to say all the day's prayers the correct number of times, and not paying attention during the sermon.
Once they had beaten themselves bloody, the Master, the gleam in his eyes growing ever brighter, asked if anybody wished to help a fellow of soldier of God find peace with the Lord.
Nearly nobody could meet his eyes. The entire congregation was staring at the floor.
Then came the second set of confessions. Generously assisted confessions. Nigel had slouched in sermon. Geoffrey had taken more than his share of bread at breakfast.
The Master turned to each sinner and asked him if this was true. The sinner, invariably, said that it was completely true and he was a vile sinner unworthy of God's forgiveness. The Master decreed even more lashes for "stubborn and recalcitrant" sinners than for "the voluntarily penitent". Only fair, thought Klara. God needed sincere penitence before He could forgive.
Then came Stephen's personal accusations. Franz and another man called Charles met each other's eyes, winced and looked away.
"Sir Charles, late for service. Fifty strokes."
Sir Charles gnawed his lip. He shuffled up to the front of the chapel and took a whip.
Before he could even remove his shirt, the entire congregation gasped at his next words.
"Sir Franz, gossiping with a young lady in the stable-yard. One hundred strokes."
"Sir…" said a few Knights. They tailed off under Stephen's glare.
"I have the authority of God. He who argues with me argues with God."
Certainly not Franz. Well, he deserved it, thought Klara. The Knights Templar ought to be wholly devoted to God. But at the bottom of her chest, a little, aching voice muttered "It's not fair".
Sorry, God, sorry. She glanced around, afraid that someone had heard, that she had somehow spoken aloud. Someone had heard, of course. God. Whose whips and flames were harsher than Sir Stephen's could ever be, and lasted for ever.
She was horribly aware of that, now. In the little, blood-stained church on the barren rocks of Cyprus, as she watched the blood trickle down Franz's back and tried to feel the righteous glow of satisfaction she knew she should feel.
Then Father Louis preached a sermon about the importance of slaying infidels and Sir Stephen whipped himself for sins he never made quite clear.
That night, there was a thunder storm.
She was lying awake—she didn't know if it was for ten minutes or an hour—listening to the crashing and the roar of rain, when the door opened.
She gasped and grabbed the sword which she kept next to her bed.
"It's all right. It's only me."
She let her breath out. "Franz."
He crept in with a candle. "We're not allowed in the pantry at night," he whispered. "Don't talk loud."
His face was white as a sheet, flecked with blood he hadn't managed to wipe off. He moved stiffly and she saw the bandages on his bare arms, with blood soaking through. God knew what his back looked like.
"Why are you creeping into my bedroom at night?"
"Good question." He sat down on the edge of the bed and winced. "To which I do not know the answer. Er…"
Klara pulled her blanket round her like a shell. He was too close to her, on the bottom of the bed.
"Er… I just came to see if you were all right after… nearly drowning… and… all that."
"You're not sleeping."
"I should ask if you're all right," said Klara, looking at his arms. He shivered in the cold night air and the spot of blood on one of the bandages grew.
"Anyway… yes… I have no idea why I disturbed you. Sorry about that. I will leave you…" He gestured vaguely at the door. "With the storm."
He slipped out of the door as quietly as he had come in.
Klara rolled over and prayed, horribly suspicious that she had sinned, but not sure what it was.
The next day, the Knights were preparing to travel to Syria, where they planned to land in Antartus and launch an attack on the Arabs from Chastel Blanc.
The day began early, with morning prayers, breakfast after a long grace, and church. Father Louis was preaching again. This time, it was on the importance of self-control, and the importance of a good Christian resisting temptation to do wrong or neglect the observance God was due.
For some reason, Klara just felt more guilty afterwards.
After the service, which went on long enough for her head to ache, the Crusaders were put to work packing the supplies.
This meant sitting on the floor in the pantry with big hemp sacks and ticking off everything they packed on a list.
Sarah got bored quickly and began admiring the paintings on the walls. Idly, she opened the door at the other end of the pantry and gasped.
Klara glanced up. Down a flight of steps—she guessed it was set into the hill—was a room full of gold coins, ingots and fantastic weapons with jewel-studded hilts. So Franz wasn't wrong. The Knights Templar were rich.
"This is amazing," said Sarah. She ran her finger along an ingot.
"Sarah," hissed Klara. "Sarah, don't be worldly."
"Why not? They are. They have all this."
"Well, they're allowed to have it. It allows them to serve God."
Sarah bit her lip, scowled but shut the door.
After lunch, Klara saw them acquire some of that wealth. A train of pilgrims, dirty and ragged, shuffled up the hill in the scorching afternoon sun. Father Louis came out to meet them.
"My children!" he called. "Good Christians!"
"Father… father…" They knelt at his feet. "Bless us, father."
Father Louis, beaming benignly, blessed the pilgrims and wished them well on their journey.
"Thank you, father. Thank you." Some of the pilgrims were crying, they seized his hands and kissed them. Only where Klara was standing, in the shadow of the church spire, could she see the flicker of disgust across his face.
She felt a flash of anger, so sudden it surprised her. Father Louis was chosen by God… No, surely she had imagined it.
The pilgrims scattered coins at Father Louis' feet. "Thank you, thank you, father."
Klara watched Father Louis snatch up the coins like a crow, quickly, hungrily, and shove them into his pockets. Rage smouldered and twisted inside her. This wasn't what it was supposed to be about.
No. What was she thinking? How dare she set her judgement above that of Father Louis, who was, after all, ordained? The Devil was tempting her, nudging her with doubts now she was getting so close to the Holy Land. She had come this far, with God. The Devil would not win, now.
"I have here," Father Louis produced a stack of papers, "Indulgences signed by His Holiness himself. For just two Groschen, you can atone for all your sins."
The pilgrims seized upon the Indulgences. Coins changed hands faster than if they had been greased.
Father Louis continued. "There is a bone of Saint Paul in the church. If you touch it, it will give you many blessings."
"Take us, Father! Take us to see the bone!"
Father Louis led them to the door of the church. He held out his hand wordlessly for the money. First a woman, limping, with a bad skin infection, pressed a silver coin into his hand. Then a young man, wordless, overwhelmed.
Then an older man, who hesitated.
"Come, child!" said Father Louis.
"I have no money, Father."
He was lying. Klara could tell. So could Father Louis.
"Well," said the pilgrim, slowly and with visible pain. "I have one. But father… I need money. To buy food…"
"Your coin can be put to good use in the Church, child, for the glory of God." The image of Herr Schneider's desperate face flashed across Klara's mind, and the ghostly face of his wife.
The pilgrim looked up.
Father Louis' voice became stern, commanding. "Do not reject God, my child, for if you reject Him, He will reject you."
The thought of rejection was too much. The pilgrim shuddered. He shoved his coin into Father Louis' hand and mumbled a plea for God's forgiveness.
The other pilgrims jostled up behind him, desperate to push their coins into Father Louis' hand and push past him to be blessed by the bone.
Klara recognised her own eagerness in their eyes.
It was Franz.
Klara immediately looked around. Stephen had told him not to talk to her. To disobey Stephen was to disobey God. But Stephen wasn't there.
"The bone in the church…"
What she really wanted to say was "Is it real?" but that was blasphemy and she could be burned at the stake for saying that.
"Where did it come from?" she asked.
"From Saint Paul." Franz didn't meet her eyes and his voice was too bright. He sounded the way people sound when you're dying and they tell you that you'll be all right. He sounded the way people sound when they're dying and they tell you that they'll be all right.
"I was going to brush Luke. I wondered if… I mean, there's no reason why you would, but I wondered if… you'd like to come and help."
They crept down to the paddock. Franz caught Luke and tied him to the fence. Luke clearly recognised Klara, and sniffed at her face.
"Hello, Luke," said Klara.
Luke snorted companiably.
Franz began brushing his shoulders. Luke snorted again. His whole body stretched out as he relaxed. He looked completely happy. Klara felt a sudden pang.
Franz looked happy, too. His jaw relaxed, his eyes were softer. He was a nice-looking boy, thought Klara. She shocked herself. She had never noticed a boy's face before.
Franz moved on to the other side of Luke. This was obviously an itchy spot, because Luke looked ecstatic to have it brushed. He closed his eyes, stretched his nose out and pushed Klara over.
"Hey," said Franz, pulling her up. "Don't do that."
Luke snorted in a way that might be apologetic, but was more likely "Why have you stopped brushing?".
Franz went on brushing, and they went on talking about unimportant things. The shapes the clouds made, horses' ears, anything other than God or fighting the heathen.
Luke got the most thorough brushing he had ever had.
They were interrupted when a gong sounded for evening prayer.
"Lord!" Franz jumped. "I didn't realise how late it was getting." The sun was already drooping over the horizon.
Klara suddenly didn't want him to go. She was scared of the other knights, scared of Sir Stephen, scared of Father Louis.
He smiled at her. "See you to-morrow." His smile lit up the depths of her soul, like Nicholas', but for the wrong reasons.
Guilt broke her stomach like a brick. She said nothing.
God was watching her and judging her all night.
The next day they set off for Antartus, on a beautiful ship called Sword of Christ. She and Sarah shared a beautiful cabin in the bows. Nicholas and the Knights shared. The horses were in the hold with the supplies.
The morning was all prayers and services. The knights spent the afternoon training on the deck, hand-to-hand fighting, jousting, archery. Klara sat in the stern, well out of the way of the arrows, and listened to a pamphlet about the importance of being a virtuous Christian maiden. The words of God filled her with peace and hope, gave her the strength she needed to resist Franz's smile and big brown eyes and find solace in the Lord.
Strength which lasted until that evening.
After penance, a long, increasingly-dreaded ceremony, Klara went to her cabin and found Franz standing outside the door.
"Come down to the hold," he whispered. "We can talk there."
She scrambled down the narrow, dark ladder to the hold, and landed in a pile of hay. Horses sighed at her in the gloom.
She picked herself up and waited for Franz to join her. She only had to wait a minute. He slid down the ladder with a lamp. The flame made his eyes look even brighter than usual. "Hello."
"Sorry we have to meet in such a dreadful place. But it's the only place we won't be seen."
"What did you want to talk to me for?"
"Nothing in particular. I just wanted to talk to you."
"We should be in bed." Klara peered around her at the shadows, in case they would leap out and catch her hiding where she shouldn't be.
"Come and say hello to Luke."
Luke did not appear to be enjoying his sea voyage. He looked sad and reproachful.
"Hello, Luke." Klara patted his nose.
"I think he's finding it cramped," said Franz.
"Well, when we get to Antartus, he can do all the running around he wants to."
Nobody mentioned that this running around mostly involved slaying infidels.
It was hard to find harmless topics to gossip about. Klara tried to remember what she had talked about with the other girls in Cologne. Family troubles. Who was courting whom. But here, neither of them were near their families and nobody was courting anybody. She vaguely remembered that there had been something called politics, price fluctuations, grain riots. But that all felt very far away, too.
They talked about the sea, how they had both felt the first time they saw the sea, that neither of them had grown up near the sea. They talked about the Rhine, how pretty it looked in the summer, deep blue, with the reflections of the clouds scuttling across it.
"We should be grateful to God for such things," said Klara, but she felt it come out of her lips so… dutifully.
"Yes," said Franz.
Then nobody said anything.
Fortunately, Luke interrupted the silence by eating Franz's hair.
Then they talked again, about horses, silly things horses did sometimes, how to train your horse.
They talked until the signal came for the watch to change. Then, hurriedly, guiltily, Klara's throat suddenly dry at the thought of running into Sir Stephen, they hurried to their cabins.
The next few days were much the same. They prayed, Franz trained, Klara collected her pamphlets and when there was no one to read them, looked at the pictures which told the stories like the stained-glass windows in church. They met and talked when they could. This proved rather difficult sometimes, as Klara could have sworn Sir Stephen and Father Louis were stalking them.
Klara tried to tell herself that she was doing nothing wrong. There was no harm in meeting and talking about innocent, virtuous topics.
Except that Franz had made a vow before God not to talk to women, and he was breaking it deliberately and repeatedly. And she was helping him.
But there was nothing sinful about spending their leisure talking about pets, was there? Or fishing? Or stars?
So why did she walk away from each meeting feeling so… dirty?
She wanted to do something bad. She enjoyed rebelling, she liked looking at Franz, and she knew good girls didn't like looking at men, he made her feel… good, when he talked to her. And she couldn't feel good. Consciousness of her own state of miserable sin was the only way to virtue. She hadn't done anything sinful. She hadn't even thought anything sinful, not really. But she wanted to think something sinful, and that was all that mattered.
Every night, she asked God to forgive her, to help her to be strong enough to obey. But she knew, in the pit of her stomach, that she didn't really want to obey. She was lying to God. The Devil was tempting her and she was giving in. She wasn't strong enough to serve God, or to get to Heaven.
And she had a horrible cold feeling at the back of her neck, that Stephen was watching her.
After days at sea, they sighted Antartus in the morning, with the pink glare of morning sun-light full on their face.
The city of Antartus was currently being held by the infidel. However, the keep was held by the Templars, and would always be held, in the name of Christ, until His second coming on Earth!
Not wanting to get into a fight just yet, they landed just up the coast, out of town. They unloaded the Sword of Christ and mounted their horses.
There were spare horses for the children, tame, steady ones which wouldn't jump about too much. Then they would make a dash for the keep.
Klara's cheeks burned with shame as she gazed at the walls and spires of Antartus. That God's own people should first set foot in the Holy Land like this! Ragged, in torn cloaks, scuttling from their ship to their citadel like rats. They ought to walk proudly, with a banner of Christ before them.
Antartus was lovely. She had to admit that the infidel was a good town planner. It should be theirs. It should be God's! She would reclaim it for God if it killed her. She felt a rush of conviction then, that she had never felt since leaving Rome. She fell to her knees and prayed, to thank God for showing her the promised land, and to swear to Him that she would reclaim it for Him, by His will and with His grace, or die trying.
They nearly died trying.
The dash to the keep, round the back, across the stark, dry country-side, was agonising. As they drew near, they had to dismount and drive the horses before them. Bent over, crawling in the dust, skinning her hands and her knees, obeying instructions Sir Stephen hissed at her, unable to see more than two inches in front of her most of the time, it wasn't even much of a dash. More like a shuffle. Cold, too.
Then came the first flurry of arrows.
Klara's heart sank. Oh no, not this again… She'd had enough of arrows, she really had.
She raised her head and caught a glimpse of an Arab scouting party, before she had to duck again under another flurry of arrows. She knew what she had to do. She drew her sword… and was nearly trampled by an Arab horse, a beautiful, delicate little creature, with a very indelicate kick.
The Arab sitting on top of the horse tried to spear her, missed, and was shot with an arrow.
She picked herself up to see what she could do to help—and found that it was over.
Another group of Templars had arrived, from inside the fortress, and were chasing the surviving Arabs across the rocks.
Her own order sprang onto their horses and joined in the pursuit. Klara's horse flew beneath her, with barely a stumble. Really, this horse-riding was easier than it looked. She raised her sword, nearly cut her own horse's head off, and quickly lowered it.
Only a few Arabs escaped, and Stephen was quite happy to chase them across country until either they died or he did, but the Master of the other Order, who was called Sir John, warned him against leaving the keep unguarded for too long.
The keep at Antartus was more impressive. It was big, majestic, flew a huge banner from the top with the Templar symbol.
Klara had a proper guest bedroom, which was not a pantry. It was very well-decorated, with detailed wall-paintings depicting Biblical scenes, an enormous candelabra and a stately bed, so high she had to jump up to get into it.
Klara went to the little chapel in the keep to offer thanks to God for getting her this far. It was a beautiful building, carefully and lovingly decorated with stone angels and scenes from the Bible. She took a deep breath of incense and tried to feel at one with God. A murmur of voices drifted from behind to altar. Father Louis was surrounded with shabby, ill-looking, tired young women in very scanty dresses, and was rummaging in his coin purse.
Klara slipped away.
Over dinner, she found herself sitting directly behind Sir Stephen. With no one else to talk to, she listened to his conversation with Sir John. Her heart sank as she heard the word "sin". "Sin is everywhere," said Sir Stephen. "And I am always vigilant in seeking it out." Even though Klara knew Stephen couldn't see her, she felt as if she were being scrutinised to the depths of her soul and her face went cold and she shivered.
That evening, she didn't have a chance to speak to Franz, but that night there was a knock at the door.
"Only me." Franz. That was all right, then.
He ducked through the door, closed it gently behind him, so as not to make any noise, and sat down on the chair at the edge of the bed. Klara sat up and shivered as the draught came in from under the door. Franz quickly reached out and chivalrously pulled the blanket up her. His hand was warm, but made her shiver harder. The warmth seemed to travel from her arm all round her body, which might be why her face felt so hot.
"So, how do you like Antartus?"
Klara, distracted from the feeling of his hand on her arm, felt the air rush into her lungs again.
"It's all right," she said. "But…"
"Why was Father Louis talking to young women in church this afternoon?"
Franz hesitated. Then he said, slowly and cheerfully, "They're women of loose morals. He preaches to them and shows them how to live a more virtuous and Christian life".
"Maybe they'd lead a more virtuous and Christian life if he were to stop taking their money." Klara's face burned as she heard the cheek of her words and the bitterness of her words, and realised that neither of them believed what Franz had said.
She knew she should apologise to God, but she didn't want to. She began to cry. Hot, painful tears of anger and self-loathing. What kind of vile sinner doesn't even apologise for her sins?
"Hey, hey…" said Franz gently. He put an arm round her shoulders, as gently and gentlemanly as a knight of legend, just to comfort her, but she felt that warmth, that false comfort that didn't come from God, and cried harder, for shame.
"It's all right," said Franz.
"No one ever says that until it isn't," said Klara.
Silence. She wiped away her tears and wondered how to move Franz's arm without offending him. Not that she really wanted to move it.
"You should go," she said.
"I know." Suddenly he was angry, but she couldn't tell whether it was with her, with himself or with something else entirely. "I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be talking to you. You're evil, you're a temptress, I'm weak and a liar and worse than a heathen, for betraying the God I'm meant to worship." He took his arm off her shoulders and ran.
Alone in the dark, Klara began to cry. She knew he was right, that everything he had said was true… but she didn't want it to be. She was rebelling against the will of God.
She did apologise then, to God, for everything. She knew she ought to pay, to compensate, but she hadn't any money, so the humblest grovelling would have to do. She begged God to forgive her for questioning the faith of a priest in the Church of Rome. The horrible suspicion rose in her stomach that the image of the Pope with his accounting books hadn't been a vision from Satan, but the truth, then cried harder for doubting His Holiness the infallible and questioning the limitless evil and deceptiveness of Satan.
Maybe, she told herself, this was the ultimate test of faith, to separate God's true followers from the sinners who would follow the easy way down to Hell. Her own religious leaders must fail, the ones who should guide her must go astray, to test the faith in her own heart. Because while a priest and even—yes, possibly—the Pope might fail, God never could, could He? He was infinitely good, infinitely wise.
And how disappointed He must be in her, right now.
The next day they reached Chastel Blanc, riding hard and fast. Chastel Blanc stood on the middle of three hills, a functional fort but beautiful in its way, in its sheer stark formidability. At the centre of the castle was the tower which served as a chapel and living quarters. There was an outer wall, surrounding a shed and some stables and a small vegetable garden, which didn't grow many vegetables in the dusty soil.
Klara was installed in a room above the stable. Stephen told her that tea time was at six, and in the mean-time, she should stay out of the way of their weapons. Then he summoned the other Knights, to talk about the attack of Jerusalem they were planning, in the name of God. It wouldn't remain in the hands of the infidel for long.
The afternoon and evening dragged by agonisingly. All she could think about was that when night fell, she could go out and meet Franz.
She thought about his eyes in grace before tea, tried to catch his eye in grace after tea, shivered in evening penance remembering what his hands felt like.
Klara went to bed exhausted, but lay awake, restless and slightly sick. A nice sickness, one that made her feel light. Lighter than she had ever done before. But then she hated herself for feeling light. It was a trick of Satan's.
When Franz came in, the first thing he said was "Sorry".
"It doesn't matter."
"I blamed you for my sin."
"Don't talk about sin." She was tired of sin. She wanted to just… enjoy the fleeting and trivial mortal coil for once. She wanted to talk about things that made her… happy. Oh, God, what was this man doing to her? How he was corrupting her!
He smiled. "All right."
"How do you like Chastel Blanc?"
"Good. It's a good base to have." There was silence. "I like the… view."
"It's nice, isn't it?"
Then Klara asked, "How's Luke?". She was glad she had thought to ask that. Luke could always get the conversation moving.
"He's happy to be here. Has a lot of room to run around in. He spent this afternoon making friends with a baby goat."
"Yes. The baby goat spent all evening trotting around after him with his tail in his mouth."
"I'll show you, to-morrow."
Klara shrank away from him. "What do you mean, "And?"?"
"And? The Master spends all Sunday on his knees in the chapel. He won't notice what we do."
"That doesn't mean it's all right!"
"What harm's it doing, really?" There was an edge to his voice. Harsh, rough. It scared her. There was something in that voice that was about to snap.
"You took a vow!"
"Yes, I took a vow when I was a little boy never to have any kind of normal life, lest it come between me and God. And maybe I'm sinning, but you know what? That's between me and God and I'll chance it. I don't see what you're doing wrong." His eyes were shining like the eyes of a man in a fever. His breathing came fast and shallow.
"You make me a bad person!" She felt the tears starting in her eyes, and Karl must have seen them, because he took a deep breath, and with an effort that made him tremble, calmed down.
"You ain't a bad person," he said quietly.
"Yes, I am. We all are. That's the whole point of Christianity! But I'm worse than most. I'm a sinner and I'm not even a penitent sinner."
"So you can't come to see a baby goat with me on Sunday, because it might upset the Creator of the World?"
"And you still hate yourself for your selfishness and sinfulness?"
"Yes. Of course. Don't you?"
"All the time," he said, very quietly. "All the time. And I'm sick of it. I'm so sick of it, Klara." He looked at her very intensely, she felt his eyes burning into her like hot daggers. "But if you hate yourself, then at least know that I don't hate you. I… I think you're actually quite good, on the whole."
He was sitting very close to her. She felt the warmth of his arm on her own. And he was more real than anything else in the room. Her stomach began to squirm. His eyes were so hot, on her face, on her bare arms, that she thought she was melting. She didn't know whether she liked it or not.
Then she said, heard herself say, very distinctly in the gloom, "I'll come with you, to-morrow".
"I'll look forward to it."
The next morning, it was all Klara could do to keep from breaking down and crying in the service. She had made a wicked promise, in full knowledge of her own wickedness. Not merely yielding to a moment's temptation, but setting out to do wrong. She was taking pleasure in defiance. She couldn't bear to look at Stephen, helping Father Louis with the service. She thought that if she were to look at something so holy, God would strike her blind. She had come into His house to worship Him, dirty and defiled, with rebellious thoughts in her mind. She was worse than any infidel who had ever lived. She was a base hypocrite.
And when she watched the baby goat playing with the great charger in the meadow later, she forgot all about her wickedness. She didn't care about God any more. And she knew that only made her worse.
There was another service that evening. Stephen had a vision of the Second Coming and started speaking in tongues, but she barely noticed. If she had been filthy before, she was doubly filthy now.
After the service was Confession. Klara felt sicker and sicker as the evening sun streamed through the window and her turn in the Confession box approached.
She walked forwards with wobbling knees. She was so weak, so unworthy of God's love…
"What have you to confess, child?" said Father Louis kindly. Oh, how she hated him!
"I… I lost concentration in a service once. I lost concentration in grace once."
"Is that all?"
Could he hear the lie in her voice? Could God not send him a vision, and let him know she was lying?
Maybe he did know. Maybe he would just let God punish her later, for eternity, after she had died. She felt the Hell-fire burning her knees through the floor, heard the distant roar of flames, and nearly fainted.
"Say ten Ave Marias. Ten strokes of the lash."
Was that all? Giddy with relief, she rose from her knees and stumbled through the incense fog out of the church.
She took the lash from behind the altar and went to her room above the stables.
She had lied. She had lied in confession. She had lied to God. God knew anyway, of course, God knew everything. But that wasn't the point. She had defied him, defied him because she wanted to continue to sin.
She flung herself on her narrow bed and cried until her tears ran out and her throat was raw with thirst.
She had one chance. One chance to save herself, even a little bit, from the fires of Hell.
"Ave Maria," she began in the gloom.
Silence. Reproachful silence. God was waiting.
She raised the whip and brought it down hard across her shoulders. A stinging pain and the blood trickled down her back. Good. That was good. She was suffering for God.
She lashed herself again, harder, and the ache in her stomach dulled a little the more her back hurt. Let the sin wash out with the blood.
"I'll do anything," she heard herself say to God. "Anything at all…" Anything except what You really want me to do.
She flung the whip so hard against her shoulders that the end flicked up and struck her in the face, drawing blood just below her eye.
These were the first wounds she had taken for Jesus. Her flesh burned, bled, shrank away from the blow. Her soul would be triumphant.
She passed ten, but didn't stop. She would go on and on, until she had suffered enough to drive all the sin out of her body, to prove to God that she was penitent.
Her blood was dribbling onto the floor now, forming a puddle round her bare feet. She flung the whip against herself harder and harder, in grim silence. Her arms ached, her head began to throb, she had lost track of how many strokes she had received now, she could feel nothing but her own hot blood washing evil away. There wasn't even any pain any more. She couldn't feel anything, she could barely feel the whip in her hands any more, she could just see her own red hands, and the blood dripping down her face onto the floor, and then darkness and cold on the other side of the blood, which got closer and colder and swallowed her up.
When she woke up, she was lying on her face on cold, hard stone. Her back hurt more than she had ever imagined a wound could hurt. She wanted to die.
She had deceived Jesus. She had failed as a warrior of God. She couldn't live with herself.
But suicide was a mortal sin. There was no way out of the pain and self-loathing. There was no way to escape God's wrath, only increase it.
But if she were damned already, could she really be more damned?
She knew the answer. Yes. God's wrath was infinite and His tortures were endlessly inventive.
She picked up her sword, and turned it over in her hands. Shame to die without ever using it on an infidel. But it was so tempting. A quick, sharp blade.
But she didn't do it. Fear of God's endless punishment held her back. Or maybe it was something else. She hoped it was something else.
Either way, she eventually fell asleep, clutching her sword so hard the blade sliced into her hand and a little more blood soaked into the sheet to join the blood trickling down her back. But she didn't even notice.
She dreamed of Franz that night. He was running towards her, along the rocks of the deserts of the Holy Land, and she reached out towards him, but the thorns wrapped around her ankles, burned her flesh and held her back.
And she woke up in the cold grey light of morning hurting all over, weak with blood loss, and guiltier than ever, but she didn't understand why.
Franz gasped when he saw her in the stable-yard. "What the Hell have they done to you?"
"I… wanted to punish myself for sinning."
"For what sin?" She was shocked to see tears in Franz's eyes. "What have you done wrong?"
"Everything." And she burst into tears.
When Franz put an arm round her shoulders, she didn't resist. She leaned her head against his shoulder and liked how it felt. Sinning again, already. How false could penitence be?
Father Louis strolled into the stable-yard to collect his white mare, with his latest woman whom he was showing how to lead a more virtuous and Christian life.
They sprang apart and Klara pretended to be drawing water from the well.
"Franz!" called Father Louis. The now virtuous and Christian woman scowled and flounced off in a huff when they realised they had company. Father Louis said "The Master wants you to go to the outlying villages to collect grain today".
"All right, Father."
Klara hurried away.
For the next few days, Chastel Blanc was buzzing like a hive of bees, fortifying and supplying the Knights for the hoped-for crushing of the infidel.
She proved that she loved Jesus by devoting every spare minute of the day to reading—or at least looking at the pictures—in pamphlets about the virtuous Christian life.
To compensate for the fact that she wasn't leading a virtuous Christian life.
She still met Franz at every opportunity. Slipped out to the stable to see him. Let him into her room when nobody was looking to talk. She liked talking to him. He looked happier when he was with her than he ever did most of the time.
And when he said goodbye and slipped away before anyone could notice what they were doing—anyone apart from God—he squeezed her hand in a way that was most definitely sinful.
She was a bad woman. They both knew exactly what they were doing—and they both didn't care.
She thought about Franz while she worked, she thought about him in bed at night. She thought about him in evening penance and could have died of shame.
It was early on Thursday morning, when Klara and Franz were brushing Luke and Klara, ever vigilant, was keeping an eye out for observers, that she saw Stephen coming out of the main door of the tower.
"Franz!" she hissed. "He's coming!"
She was almost sure he hadn't seen her, almost sure… but if only she could make that entirely sure.
She spent the rest of the day on her knees in prayer, as if by keeping God contented, she could stave off punishment from Stephen.
Just before tea-time was a knock at the door. She started, as if she had been doing something wrong.
"Come in?" Please, God, don't let it be Sir Stephen… But why would God care about her fear? He was angry with her. Surely He wanted her to be punished.
"The Master of the Order, Sir Stephen, wants to speak to you in the church alone."
So this was it. Judgement Day. She was suddenly very cold. Only under her feet, where Hell blazed, could she feel her bare skin burning.
She didn't say anything to Mark. She couldn't. She could barely breathe. She climbed down the ladder into the stable and crossed the court-yard, aware of the warm air on her skin, but feeling only deadly cold, right down to her bones. Sweat trickled into her eyes. How was she sweating but cold?
Her legs began to wobble as she approached the church door. For a moment, she wanted to turn and flee. But she knew she couldn't do that. They would hunt her down across the country-side with dogs, the way she had seen witch-finders do. They would tear her apart. The walls and guards of Chastel Blanc didn't just keep the Arabs out. They kept her in.
Besides, she couldn't run away now and never see Franz again.
She went into the church.
Sir Stephen, the Master of the Order, stood before the altar with his back to her. He seemed to be praying… Maybe he wouldn't notice if she… He turned. His eyes were like those of an eagle, hard and sharp as flint. She felt them cut into her chest and bit back the tears.
"Sir?" Her voice sounded so high and weak in this echoing stone room.
She came. What could he read on her face? Fear? Horror?
She knelt before the altar. She was staring almost directly into the face of Jesus. The kind, wise face on the cross suffered such pain so patiently, so nobly, that it twisted her gut and she nearly threw up.
"Did I see you in the stable-yard with young Sir Franz this morning?"
He was asking, not telling. There was hope yet.
"No, sir." She tried to arrange her face into an expression of utter innocence, and confusion about why she had ever been summoned here.
"I thought you had."
"No, sir!" She let all the horror she felt into her voice, and tried to mix a little indignation with it.
Sir Stephen's face could have been carved out of rock.
"It was only a glimpse. But I could have sworn…"
"Sir!" She heard her voice crack with panic. Marta's head rolled from her shoulders before her eyes, and she wondered what her own would feel like. "Sir, I have come here to serve God." And she had. She had crossed mountains and oceans to serve God, and she was failing Him in His own country. "I have no other thoughts on my mind than how quickly we can—with God's grace—destroy the infidels who pollute His land." She realised how easy it is to copy the things priests say.
"Do you love Jesus, Klara?"
She couldn't bear to look into his eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of angel. The one with the flaming sword who had expelled humanity from Eden.
"Yes, sir." Her tongue felt heavy as lead. It was true. She loved Him, but with oh, such feeble human love. She failed Him again and again, by her very existence, with the stains on her conscience which corroded His grace in her soul.
"What?" She did look at him, then, in shock.
"Prove to me that you love Jesus." He took one of the candles on the altar and moved it forwards, next to the cross, so the flames flickered on the gold, and Jesus' face seemed to move and glare at her. She didn't ask what she needed to do.
She held out her hand, gritted her teeth and thrust it into the flames.
So this was what Hell-fire felt like. The terror of enduring this for eternity was worse than the pain. The tears were of fear for her soul.
The pain was so bright, so searing, that it was hardly pain at all, that she could hardly breathe. Her arm twitched, it went against every instinct even to hold her hand in the flame, she had to hold her elbow on the table with her other hand. It was almost unbearable.
But with the God, nothing is unbearable. As the pain ran up her arm, as if her whole body was burning, she watched, with disconnected interest, as if it were someone else's hand, what was happening to her hand. The skin bubbled, blistered, began to melt like hot wax and ooze down her wrist, charred, blackened and crumbled.
Her little finger turned into a torch. The weak flesh won. She pulled her hand back and clutched it against her chest, rocking backwards and forwards, hearing her own sobs like a wounded animal.
"So," said Stephen. "You don't love Jesus."
"I tried, Master." She could barely get the words out. "I tried."
"Get out of the house of the Lord. Go and make yourself useful."
She got up and ran, still clutching her hand, still choking on the tears of a pain to nerve-shattering to feel.
"Jesus' endured tortures for us all, girl. Remember that, and try to at least try to be worthy!"
She ran to hide her pain and shame and weakness. To hide from the eyes of God. She ran to Franz.
He was training his falcon, a sleek, beautiful bird with amber eyes that turned soft for Franz and no one else.
"Klara!" She looked at her, covered in ash and blood, crying as if she would break in two. "My God!"
She fell on his shoulder. He put both arms around her and she didn't try to fight him off. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she was sinning again. But in her heart she didn't care. Franz sympathised with her. He cared that she was in pain. When she looked into his eyes, she could tell that it hurt him to see her unhappy, a raw, physical pain. And he didn't think she was a bad person. The only person in the world.
She choked out the story, word by word, and the shock and pain in his eyes deepened, and mixed with… anger. No Christian resignation there. Then she was frightened, and shrank back.
Franz was whispering under his breath. "How dare he! How dare he… How dare…"
"Are you asking God how He dares to do something?"
Heresy! She shrank away from him, crushing her hands over ears, unable to block out the two words she had just heard. Is he? Is he? Is he…?
"Franz!" she began to cry again. "Don't!"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry…" The dangerous light in his eyes died. The falcon cheeped softly and rubbed her head against Klara's face. Unlike sociable Luke, it was the first time Franz's falcon had shown her any affection.
"God," said Klara. "Is great. He is all-loving. The world and everything in it belongs to Him." She could hear her own voice getting higher and higher, more and more hysterical. "One day Jesus will return to take the righteous into Heaven. And you'd better behave to make sure you're one of them!"
He took her hand—the one that wasn't burned—and squeezed it. "I'm going exactly where you're going. Don't you worry about that!"
What a strange way of putting it. Made it sound almost as if she were the main point of getting to Heaven.
"I'll take you Mark," he said after a moment. "Get your hand sorted out." He put an arm round her shoulders to take her back into the fort.
Her tears were drying now, and the pain in her hand had already become a maddening throb. She tried to breathe steadily, slow her heart before she fainted from the blood she felt rushing to her head, so she barely heard him say, "Sorry".
"But you didn't do anything. It was a test from God."
Franz didn't say anything. His falcon just nibbled her ear gently. "What's your falcon's name?"
"She doesn't have one."
"You should give her one."
"I'll think of a good one."
Mark patched up her hand as best he could, and put some salve on it. But he was frank. "It's badly burned. You'll never be able to use that hand again. You're lucky so much of the flesh has been destroyed, or you would be in worse pain."
"I see." She didn't much care. Now she had an aching hand to add to her aching back.
"You won't…" Franz became very interested in watching the clouds. "You know… mention…"
Mark smiled, a tired, bitter smile. "No."
That evening, in penance, Stephen had another vision. This one went on for two hours, and watching Peter get twenty lashes for nodding off took even more time. Klara tried to feel the same exultation listening to Stephen commentate his vision and speak in tongues as she had listening to Nicholas'. But she was tired and her hand was sore and it was so hard not to be… annoyed.
She felt this new rebelliousness against God's will join all her other sins in her stomach, weighing her down heavier. Holding her down to the trivialities of the Earth, holding her back from Heaven.
She was so tired that night that she went to sleep the moment she blew out her candle, despite the pain in her hand.
But she woke up the moment she heard, or felt, Franz at the door.
He came in. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. Thank you."
"Came to see if your hand is all right."
"It's… well. It's… all right… ish."
Franz hopped up onto the bottom of the bed and rested a big leather book on his knee.
"It's a Bible."
"What do you have a Bible for?"
"Because I want to look in it. And I wondered if you did, too."
"But… people like us… we're not allowed to read the Bible. Only priests… only God's chosen ones… only they're allowed to read to Bible, to directly access the Word of God. It's holy…"
"You're a Crusader. You marched here from Germany by the will of God. If you're not God's chosen one, I don't know who is."
She considered. All her life, she had been taught to believe in the absolute, unquestionable holiness of the Word of God, as stated by God himself and handed down from the Apostles to their spiritual descendants, the priests of the Church of Rome.
And the laity, the humble and meek, must look to God's chosen ones for their spiritual guidance. To open and read a Bible was an act of unspeakable arrogance.
But Franz had a point. She was a Soldier of God. She had come here to the Holy Land to die for Him. Didn't she have a right to be His chosen one? Didn't she want to see what she was dying for?
"I don't speak Latin."
"I do. I'll translate."
"All right." She took a deep breath. "Mind where we start?"
"Why don't we open it and see what comes up?"
"Together?" She put her hand on top of his on the edge of the Bible.
She opened it.
It was just paper and ink.
Franz frowned at the verse. "Erm… this seems to be about… slaves. Slaves… be subject to your masters… erm… and, be afraid of them! And… not just the nice, but also the unfair… Because… er… basically because if you endure pain, and suffer unjustly, knowing about God… it will bring favour."
"Great." Somehow, she didn't want this to be God's first message to her.
"I think… he—Saint Paul—was talking to some persecuted Christians… under the Romans…"
"I'm not under the Romans!"
"Find another one." A comforting one. A bit of love. Something the Creator of the World might say to a little Christian girl in a fortress on the edge of the Holy Land, in the middle of an ancient struggle for God and on the brink of the Second Coming.
"Erm… this is the Book of Judges… And…" Franz's voice became rather faint. "And there's a man called Jephthah. He… does some rather unpleasant stuff to some people called the Ammonites… Something about the Israelites getting rebellious. So God sold them to the Ammonites. And… this Jephthah defeated them and murdered his daughter."
"Er… because he had promised God the first thing he finds when he gets home as a burnt offering."
"Oh. I thought Jesus gave Himself as an offering, so that wouldn't happen."
"Er… this is the Old Testament. There's none of that, yet."
"Er… This is Timothy. It says… Slaves should regard their masters as worthy of honour."
"He's keen on that sort of thing, isn't He, God?" For a moment, the figure of Father Louis danced in the flame of the candle. "Does He say anything else about it?"
Franz scowled at the laborious hand-written notes at the bottom of the page. "Right… let's see what Titus has to say. Slaves are… to be submissive… to their own masters… in everything. Please them… erm… don't… be argumentative…"
Franz squeezed her arm. "Let's find another bit. This bit's the Book of Revelation. So… it's all about when Jesus comes back."
"Well, that's what we're all hoping will happen."
"There was a lady called Jezebel-"
"Oh, I've heard of her, she was an unrepentant whore."
"Yes, and when she didn't repent, God killed her children."
"Oh. Well, you know… wrath…"
"People who keep Jesus' works will have power over some nations… and they'll rule them with a rod of iron."
"There's a bloke on a white horse, who conquers people… and one on a red horse-"
"That's not even real."
"Perhaps He meant brown. Or perhaps with God all things are possible. Anyway, this red horse made people kill each other. A black horse had a pair of balances…"
"It doesn't say. And there was a pale horse… called Death. Well, ridden by Death, anyway."
"I see." She didn't.
"Locusts which look like battle chargers with lions' teeth… It goes on and on like that… Vials of wrath… do some pretty unpleasant stuff. And, of course, nearly everyone goes to Hell."
The little candle sputtered in the draught coming in under the door. It smudged and blurred and Klara realised that she was crying.
"I don't think I like the New Testament very much."
"We can look at the Old Testament, if you like."
"That can't… that can't be the real second coming, can it?"
"This is the revealed word of God."
"But God wouldn't really come back, just to damn nearly everybody in the world to Hell, would He?"
"The righteous are rewarded," said Franz slowly.
"So this is a final test of faith?" Because I haven't had enough already. "God… expects a lot, doesn't he?"
"He expects a lot from all of us… It seems getting to Heaven is harder even than I thought." She heard herself complaining and bit her lip. She would never get there if she complained. Oh Lord, thy will be done. The Second Coming was something to be celebrated. A lot of the Bible might sound like hard work… and illness… and obedience… and pain… and everything she had lived through on Earth. But at the end of it was a Heavenly reward. There was, there was. There had to be something better, or there was no point to Christianity.
"Any good verses in the Old Testament?" she said, watching Franz leafing through.
"There's a lot of Middle Eastern history."
"That might be interesting."
"It isn't. It's all about so-and-so, son of so-and-so… and his goats, and how he argued with his neighbours about his goats… and lists of tribes… really long lists of heads of tribes… and did you know that the tabernacle had to be made of ten curtains of twisted linin, purple, blue and scarlet?"
"No, I didn't."
"Or that the length of one curtain should be twenty-eight cubits, and the breadth of a curtain should be four cubits?"
"And eleven coats of goats' hair to cover the tabernacle?"
"And the boards of the tabernacle must be ten cubits long and a cubit and a half wide?"
"I didn't." She tried to let the eleven coats of goats' hair and the ten-cubit-long boards nourish her soul, but it didn't sound very nourishing. It sounded relatively unimportant, for the Creator of the world, how many cubits long His boards were. Ah, but God moves in mysterious ways. She couldn't understand the tremendous importance of the length of the boards, because her flawed and sinful human eyes couldn't comprehend the true wonder of God, and the ultimate glory of His plans for the world. And by doubting the glory of the Revealed Word of God, even in the silence of her mind, she was proving herself utterly unworthy of God's Word, and Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. She was questioning the unquestionable.
But the thought lingered, a hard, smouldering kernel of irritation that not all the penitent tears which flowed down her cheeks could wash away.
This is His only written word… and He tells us how to build a wooden box…
"Why are you crying?"
"No reason. It doesn't matter… Because… the Bible's so wonderful, isn't it?"
He didn't believe her. She could tell he didn't believe her.
But he smiled and said "yes".
He stayed until she stopped crying. Then he squeezed her hand, in that sinful way that made her heart beat faster, and left, taking the Revealed Word of God with him.
"How about calling your falcon Jezabel?"
"I don't know. I guess I just have a really weird sense of humour."
"Then we'll share a weird sense of humour." The candle vanished as he closed the door.
Klara lay down in her bed, but now she couldn't sleep, so she prayed. She prayed for forgiveness, to be spared Hell-fire, which frightened her more than anything else. She could see it when she closed her eyes, red, crackling, laughing flames, drawing ever closer out of the dark.
The next day opened still and warm, with an electric tingle in the air. Rumours flew around the fort. The Arabs would attack to-morrow. The Christians were about to re-capture the city of Jerusalem. The Arabs would be wiped off the face of the Earth by a thunder-bolt from God.
Klara watched the Templars training, fortifying Chastel Blanc, drawing maps of the country-side, and felt her heart burn with bitter, futile anger and disgust with herself. How she could build God's kingdom on Earth, when she herself was tainted? How could she vent God's wrath on others, only for Him to vent it on her? How could she fight the infidel for God, if she couldn't even fight her own daemons?
Franz was getting careless. He talked to her all through lunch, out of Stephen's eye-line. But she was sure he caught a glimpse of them together when he got up.
"Don't talk to me at meals," she whispered to him.
He shrugged. "All right."
"Do you want to get caught?"
"No. Of course not. But… I'm so tired of sneaking around. Don't you see?" And he looked tired, right to the depths of his soul.
After lunch, the storm broke.
Klara sat in her room and tried to look at a pamphlet, watching the rain pelt through the arrow slit in the wall and drench the floor. The words on the page swam in front of eyes, dissolved, re-formed into a blood-stained girl before a great warrior, a horse rode by Death… and the face of Jephthah's daughter became Gretel's, flickering in the lightning. The thunder crashed, echoed round the room, echoed round her head…
The whole landscape was dark and blurry, through the heavy clouds and the rain, even though it was only afternoon. It could have been the apocalypse already. In a way, she hoped it was. If God was going to judge her, let Him judge her now. The lightning flashed again, huge glowing figures lunged out of the clouds. Angels, angels with golden wings and glowing eyes… Bigger, more beautiful, more terrifying than anything she had ever imagined. She was going to Hell.
She screamed and screamed and screamed, her own screams hammering against her ears as she crashed onto the floor.
Franz didn't even knock. He burst straight into the room and grabbed hold of her before she fainted. The shock brought her to.
"It's all right," he said. "You were tired. You had a night-mare."
"It was awful."
"Come for a ride."
"What? Now? In the storm?"
"No one else will be around. The Master won't be around."
They went down-stairs for Luke, slipped out of the side-door of the wall and galloped off.
Klara ignored the rain lashing at her eyes. She didn't mind the thunder any more, she knew it was insanely dangerous to go galloping on the cliffs in a storm, but there was something about the movement, the cold air on her face, even the lightning, that made her feel more alive than she had ever felt before. She could feel every drop of rain on her skin, Franz's right arm holding her on the saddle tickled—she could have sworn her skin wasn't normally this sensitive. Her stomach seemed to drift away, higher and higher, right into the sky above her. She tipped her head back and let the trickle into her mouth and eyes and nose.
The storm stopped in minutes, the sun re-appeared seconds later. Luke ran faster, without any urging from Franz. She leaned back in the saddle. She was out-doors. The sun was shining. What could possibly go wrong? She was untouchable… invincible… "You'll break your neck," said Franz, laughing.
She laughed. She wouldn't break her neck. She wouldn't break anything. She was unbreakable.
Luke, worn out, slowed to a trot, then a walk, then stopped, flanks heaving, by a stream. Klara flopped off the saddle like a child's rag doll and rolled on the grass. Franz flopped next to her.
"You look ill."
"I am ill." Her tongue didn't feel like hers, her voice didn't sound like hers. "Make me better."
Franz plunged his face into the water. "Have a drink," he said.
She gulped water so fast she nearly choked. Nothing had ever tasted so good. She leaned back and felt the cool air on her face, soft, but clearer than she had ever felt it before. She plunged her face back into the cool, soft water, then her hands, then rolled forward and let herself slide into the stream.
"You only just got dry after the rain!"
"Don't matter. Don't care."
Franz shrugged and jumped in after her, spraying water on her face.
She splashed back, astonished at herself. This was like being five years old again.
Franz shook water out of his eyes, splashed her again, and ducked away laughing as she tried to splash back. She sprang after him, slipped, fell on her stomach. The splash drenched both of them. She jumped up, knocked into him and they both fell over in a tangle on the stream bed. She felt a bubble burst in her chest, a pain that at been in her stomach for as long as she could remember faded, just for a moment and she began to laugh. She heard herself laugh and couldn't believe it, it sounded so hard that she laughed harder and harder, until she could hardly breathe and Franz was laughing, too, lying on top of her in the middle of a river.
"Franz," she said, when she could speak again. "The water's going in my ears."
"Sorry." Still laughing, he pulled her up, and didn't let go of her. His hands slid up and down her arm, shyly, he was still laughing.
Klara didn't know what it was, or what it meant, but she knew a good girl would pull away. A good girl would be disgusted. This was that sin the Bible talked about.
And she didn't pull away. She leaned against his shoulder. Because charm is deceitful, beauty is vain, an immoral woman, sweet as honey, was bitter as poison and dangerous as a double-edged sword, was the first deserter of Divine Law who bore the punishment for the Fall from Eden to this day, but anything that could cost man the Garden of Eden must be worth it, and God should have known what He was letting Himself in for when He created a helper fit for man.
"For you," said Franz.
Klara sat up and looked, and saw him grinning at her and twirling a small piece of weed. "There are no flowers. Sorry. It's not too bad if you turn your head sideways and squint."
"It's lovely." She took the piece of weed, tucked it behind her ear and burst out laughing at the expression on Franz's face.
God, he's enthralled. Am I really that impressive?
She felt a little rush of power. Power felt good. Now she just had to learn what to do with it. But she had her whole life to do that.
Then it was time for Franz's sword-fighting practice, and the Master usually emerged from solitary prayer to supervise, and might notice his absence.
For a mad moment, Klara looked up the cliff, to where the sea met the sky, and wondered if they could stay here for ever, if they could run away together, far over the sea and never come back.
But God needed her. Jerusalem needed her. She knew that. Of course. But now there was no warmth in her heart, no light bubbling up from her stomach to carry her away, like on that strange, distant day in Cologne church. Only a cold, hard sense of duty. This was good, it was for Heaven, for the Second Coming. And gnawing in the pit of her stomach was something very like resentment.
They rode back across the desert in the fading light. Franz dropped her off at the stables, swung her down from Luke, hesitated, then took her hand and kissed it, like a knight with his lady.
Is that what we are now?"
Then she slipped up-stairs, quiet as a shadow after weeks of practice, Franz went to join the Knights, and no-one saw a thing.
But God saw. God is always watching.
She woke after a long, confusing dream, in the pale light of early morning, to someone breaking down her door.
"What's up? I'm coming, I'm coming, I'm not late for breakfast yet!"
Then she heard the crashing outside.
For a moment she thought it was just people dropping things, but it wasn't the right kind of crash. It was too… insistent, too purposeful, too threatening.
Then the door burst open, and half a dozen Knights, led by Mark, burst in, swords drawn.
"The Arabs are attacking!"
"We must fight for the Holy Land!"
She didn't say anything. She couldn't. She felt her body stand up from the bed, pull on her jacket over her petticoat, seize her sword and run out the door.
The Arabs were attacking. The infidel had come to drive God's people out of His country. Well, they would be slaughtered, by the Grace of God. She gripped her sword, her senses seemed to sharpen, the colours around her brightened, she felt her own breath in and out of her lungs.
So this was Holy War.
The courtyard was heaving with people. Robert was leading a group of archers up the walls, Nigel was readying the horses, with the idea of leading a part of men outside the walls to counter-attack.
The other Crusaders were waiting on the steps of the tower. Nicholas looked utterly calm, like a stone-carved angel. Sarah's eyes were bright, her face was pale, she clutched her sword so tight in her hand her knuckles were turning white.
"You three," said Mark. "With me."
He led them across the court-yard, dodging a hail of arrows, to the towers at the back of the outer wall. The towers were hardly more than flights of stone steps built against the inside of the wall and stopping just before the top, with an arrow slit for firing through.
"My lady Sarah," he said. "You take the East. Nicholas, you take the centre. My lady Klara, the far West."
"Yes, sir," said Klara. Her voice sounded strong, confident, so she guessed that must be how she felt.
Mostly she just felt unreal, light-headed.
Mark pressed a bow into her hands, and she scrambled up the tower.
She had no idea how to use a bow, but she knew God would show her how to use it. She knelt by the arrow slit, set an arrow on the string—and it fell off.
Fumbling, fingers sweating, she grabbed it and shoved it against the string. It broke. She threw it away and tried with another. God offered no help. Why not? Why not, when she was His warrior? Had she displeased Him that badly? Was she that fouled?
She pushed the arrow onto the string, and noticed the clip. Thank God. That was how to keep it on the string. She leant closer to the arrow-slit, so she could see out. There were hundreds of Arabs, the swords-men at the front, hurling themselves at the walls again and again, trying to scramble up.
So many, so many… so many ungodly things on Earth…
She propped the bow against her burned hand, and with her whole hand, pulled the string back, almost to her cheek. She had no idea where to point it, hesitating, she released it, her hand slipped, the bow wobbled and the arrow flew about half a foot, flipped round and round, bounced off the walls and landed on the ground. She saw an Arab pick it up and put it to his own bow.
She tried again. Again, the arrow dropped harmlessly to the ground.
She closed her eyes and prayed, harder, more desperately than she had ever prayed before. God, help me. Help me to be worthy to serve You. Don't bar me from Your Grace, Lord, I want to fight for the Holy Land, to be Your most humble and grateful servant, it's all I've ever wanted. Please, God. Please… I'm sorry for my sins, God. I'm sorry.
And she almost was sorry. Almost.
She set another arrow to the string, and felt God's Grace within her. As she raised her arm to fire, she felt it guided by some higher force than her.
She drew the string back and fired, straight at an Arab chief, on his white charger. "Caelum denique!"
The arrow flew home. Klara watched fascinated, with an odd shrinking in her stomach, as it buried itself deep in his throat, he flopped off his horse like a dead fish, into a puddle of his own blood, rolled over and over… Such was the power of God.
A voice sounded deep in her head. For every infidel killed, a sin cancelled. For every infidel killed, a year off purgatory.
She fired again and again. God sent nearly every arrow home. Her arm was sore, her breath came in rasps, but she looked down and saw that the tide of battle was turning.
The Arabs were retreating. God's army was winning! They were winning, they were winning! Klara saw the golden spires of Jerusalem in her mind's eye.
A squire of the Knights came bringing bread and wine. She ate at her post, shoving bread into her mouth when the Arabs paused to re-load, firing when they looked as if they were about to advance.
As dusk began to fall over the hills, word went around that the crisis was over, they must settle down for the long game.
From now on, they were divided into three shifts and could have some time to rest.
Klara, a squire with a blood-stained face told her, was on the first shift to rest. She gathered the few arrows she hadn't used and limped, suddenly very shaky, down the steps. She was a true soldier of God. He would let her get to Heaven! Tears trickled from her eyes, leaked out now she was too exhausted to hold them back.
Through the blur of her tears, she looked at the court-yard properly for the first time that day. Weapons, rocks, bits of wood, human limbs scattered the ground. The dead Knights were lying in front of the tower.
She hadn't seen him all day.
Was he there? Was he one of the stiff, pale corpses staring sightless at the sky? She couldn't bear to look. In the corner of her eye, the hewn-off heads and trickles of blood flickered and swam.
Franz, pale, bloody, exhausted-looking, clutching a bow in one hand and a bloody sword in the other. As she turned and looked at him, she saw his whole face glow as if she had lit a candle inside it.
She flung herself at him. He was alive and solid and warm, holding her so tight she thought he would break her back. She felt blood run off his cheek and into her hair.
"Are you all right?"
"Of course. Are you?"
"Yes… the blood…"
"Oh, it's not mine."
"Thank God." She was struggling to breathe now, so she stepped back, and saw Sir Stephen on the steps of the church, watching her.
Her stomach dropped out of her body. A cold fear settled in her blood, sickening, wordless, for her body and her soul. For a moment, he held her gaze, frozen, then she felt Franz grab her arms and hold her up.
"Klara? What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
She could barely form her lips around the words. "Sir Stephen."
Franz's eyes hardened. That mad, trapped look that always made her scared.
"I'm on rest shift," she said. "Are you?"
Franz grinned. "No. I should be up there. But I snuck off to look for you."
She felt a flutter in her stomach that might be flattery or guilt.
"Dinner!" shouted a squire. "Dinner!"
Klara queued up with the others, on the tower steps. There was only a piece of bread for tea and Klara's heart sank—one of the best things about the Knights Templar was that she had been better fed than she had ever been in her life, but this was almost as bad as the food at home.
Then she went to her room, thought about undressing, but decided not to, as she didn't know when they would have another crisis, and tried to sleep through the battle.
Her blood was still rushing too fast and hot to relax, she heard the men shouting outside, the clash of weapons, and felt her hand creeping towards her sword. Her body was drained, her limbs ached, she was too tired to move—but not tired enough to sleep.
There was a knock at the door.
"Who is it?"
Franz came in and closed the door quietly behind him.
"Franz! Be careful! People might see…"
"My shift just ended. I think it's a few minutes before yours starts. The cycle of three shifts over-laps-"
"Spare me the military tactics. They can go on for hours."
"Anyway, I thought this would interest you."
It was a pamphlet, written in clumsy Latin and partly translated into even clumsier German, with scribbled notes in many different hand-writing styles in the margins.
"What is it? I can't read, remember?"
"It's a pamphlet." Franz looked awkward, nervous. "Some of the things it says about God are… interesting."
"In what way… interesting?"
Franz didn't answer. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes were too bright and he gnawed his lip.
"You look ill."
"Maybe I am ill…" He began to laugh. She flinched. "God, Klara, you know how many people I've killed today? Because I don't…"
"They're infidels. They should die."
"Sometimes…" He stopped.
"Put it this way: sometimes I deserve to be burned at the stake."
"How do you mean?"
"If this place weren't besieged by Arabs who would kill me on sight…" He tailed off and shook his head vaguely. There was a strained edge to his voice, as if he were about to crack somewhere inside.
He shook his head again. "Just read the pamphlet."
"You'll have to read it to me."
"All right… Klara… it's… it's not a good pamphlet."
"I wasn't expecting it to be."
A lump rose in her throat. What was she saying? Why? She was frightening herself. Why, why, couldn't she just… be good? Tell Franz to get out of her room, take the pamphlet to Sir Stephen, prove her loyalty to God, make her life that bit easier?
Was the Devil so strong? Had he possessed her? Maybe she should be exorcised.
The most frightening thing was that she didn't even hesitate, didn't even feel sorry, not really, though she knew she should.
"Right…" They sat down on Klara's bed and Franz opened the pamphlet on their knees. "The first bit's about a Greek called Prodicus…"
"Who were the Greeks?" She knew they were something Church-men talked about a lot, but she had never asked about them before, because no one was interested in telling her anything.
"Great civilisation. But pagan. Been duly smited by His Mightiness up there-"
"Don't talk like that!"
"I'm sorry. I think I'm getting a fever…"
"I think you are!"
"Now the only ones who can remember what they said are the infidels out there."
"Of course. Anyway, this Prodicus… he said the gods-"
"How many gods are there?"
"Apparently the Greeks had quite a few. He said that the gods of popular belief do not exist. Primitive people… invented them."
"Well, his vile pagan gods don't exist." She spoke louder, as if she could drown out the ringing in her ears and ignore the sickness in her stomach.
"Euhemerus claimed that gods are merely deified rulers of the past."
"Well, those are false gods. Idol worshippers' gods…. They have nothing to do with the one true God."
"The Greeks thought they were the true gods."
"Well, that just goes to show how little they know." But it upset her. It was painful to listen to… dirty… The Greeks thought they were the true gods… They were wrong, they were wrong, they were wrong…. The room seemed to swim in and out of focus. She felt sweat trickle into her eyes and suddenly felt very hot. Maybe she had a fever, too.
"There was an Arab poet called Al-Ma'arri who said-"
"So you quote God's enemies, now?" The words tumbled out before she could stop them. This was mad, she had gone mad, why was she sitting here listening to this….?
"He said that God's just… a fairy story… a fable… from ancient times."
"The Arab God."
"Is our God."
"With extra bits. As I understand it."
"But we're fighting them!" She was shouting now, her words echoed round the stone room and down-stairs the horses were restless. "They're evil! They're the enemy!"
"I know. Don't shout. People will hear."
"That can't be right."
"Apparently the extra bits are ever so important."
"Clearly." She forced herself to breathe. Who cared what a mad Arab said? What did it matter? It was all lies.
"He said…" Franz took a deep breath. "That people either have brains, or a religion. But not both."
"Then he's clearly a liar and an idiot and is now damned!"
"Some of the other people who read this pamphlet have said-"
"I'm not interested in what they say! I'm not interested in the bloody pamphlet… I wish I'd never seen it…"
"Really?" he said quietly.
"No," she said, just as quietly. Her stomach contracted. "But I should… Where did you get it anyway? Surely things like that are banned?"
"Exactly." He grinned, that grin that scared and exhilarated her at the same time, that made her feel bad. "There are advantages to working for the book-burning club. You see-"
"You get the books. I see… That's corruption," she pointed out, with an air of conscious virtue that nearly made her laugh when she heard it.
"This whole Church is corrupt."
"But that doesn't mean…" A few of the Bible verses she had read rose up from the dark places in her mind and she pushed them back down again. "That doesn't mean God's corrupt…"
She wondered what Franz might have said if the horn hadn't sounded for the shift to change.
"That's you," said Franz.
"Right. Sleep well."
"Have these…" He pushed more pamphlets into her hands.
"I can't read."
"They're illustrated. You know… like stained-glass windows in church… Only with very different messages. Remind me when we have a chance, and I'll read you the captions."
"Thanks." She stuffed them into her skirt pocket.
"You know Klara…"
"If… if you need a bit more sleep… or just… well, for whatever reason… I'll cover for you…"
"I have a feeling you'll be in enough trouble with Stephen from what he saw yesterday evening, without going looking for it."
"Klara." He was biting his lip again, but now his eyes were dim and glazed with pain. "Klara… it's dangerous."
"Of course it's dangerous. It's a war. God's war."
"Yes… but… please don't. Stay here, where it's safe… relatively. I bet the Master won't even notice…"
"Franz." The look in his eyes gave her a fluttering feeling in the ribs. "Franz… I can't come all this way to Crusade and then not Crusade."
"Oh, Klara… oh, God." For a moment, she thought he was about to cry. "Live," he said, so fiercely she jumped. "Live for me, Klara, or I'll kill myself."
"Don't say that. Suicide's a mortal sin."
"You're a very bright young lady. And I need you around, Klara, more than anything else in the world."
"I'll take care. I promise."
He smiled, and she was sinfully happy, just for a moment. She hurried down the stairs and out into the court-yard, before he could make her any happier. I'm sorry, God. I'm sorry. But she wasn't sorry. She was just afraid of being punished, and she knew it.
Maybe the out-door air would clear her head, rid her of these… problems. The out-door air, reeking of blood and horse-sweat, did nothing of the sort.
There was a lull in the fighting, the dead Knights' bodies were strewn around the court-yard, the living Knights huddled among them, ignoring the blood that mingled with the blood dripping from their own wounds. Above Klara's head, carrion crows wheeled and screamed. At least something was having a good time, here.
She climbed up her tower, finding the Knight who was leaving his shift curled up at the top of the stairs, clutching a wounded eye.
"You took your time."
The Arabs re-grouped just as she took her position, and attacked.
She drew her bow, set her first arrow on the string and fired in the name of God. And God granted her many successes.
She was tired, so tired that everything hurt, she was hungry, her skin felt foully dirty, more than her skin, her soul.
But fighting was one way she could clean herself, one way she could make God love her again. One good thing she could do. So she shot and shot, watched her victims dying, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, flailing, blood splashing on the ground, until it seemed that she could see blood, blood and only blood, on her hands, in the sky, even when she closed her eyes.
She felt sick now, hot… fevered. She panicked. She was on a battlement in the desert, and blood was raining from the sky…
She must have screamed, because then someone was shaking her, one of the Templars. "Are you all right…? Are you injured…?"
"No. I think I fainted. But… I think I'm going to be sick."
"You look exhausted. Haven't you had any rest last night?"
"Yes. But I couldn't sleep…"
"Maybe you had a night-mare."
"Maybe." She shivered. "I'm all right, now."
But the fight was harder, now. She could feel it, more desperate. There were just… so many Arabs, and they were such good fighters, she knew almost nothing about fighting but she could tell that much.
Here was an Arab now, scaling the wall, and more and more followed, more than she could shoot. Help me God, help me… She drew her sword. It was the first time she had wielded it in combat, and it felt heavy suddenly, clumsy.
She slashed. The blade of the sword cut straight across the Arab's face, straight through his eyes. He fell, silently, disappeared out of sight. Then another, she braced herself against the wall and stabbed, wildly, desperately, surprised by her own strength as this Arab fell, too, down from the tower to the rocks below. But then, it was the strength of God.
More and more Arabs scrambled up to the window, but they could only come one at a time, and she beat them back, and back and back… Eventually, they gathered at the foot of the tower, presumably to plan a better strategy.
But she was exhausted. It hit her like a blow, she collapsed against the tower wall, with no strength left to cry, or she might have done. She couldn't do any more, she just didn't have the strength, she couldn't lift the sword. How long since she last had a good night's sleep? How long since she had last eaten? God, she was thirsty, so thirsty…
For the first time, she became horribly afraid that the Army of God would lose. And then she felt the chill of guilt and horror as she knew, now she thought that, that her lack of faith would make it true.
She wanted to sleep, she needed to sleep, she could barely see…
The horn sounded. End of shift! Not a moment too soon. As soon as she was relieved, she hauled her aching body down the steps, staggered across the court-yard, head spinning, and collapsed in the queue for bread and wine.
The mood in the queue was grim. She wasn't the only one who thought they were losing. As the Knights received a piece of bread and a cup of wine, they not only mumbled grace, but offered a prayer for victory. Because praying could make anything so. Ask and ye shall receive. Maybe I could be good if I were to pray hard enough.
But did she really want to be good, or just escape Hell-fire?
She nearly fainted at the sight of the Master crossing the court-yard. He was the last thing she needed to deal with right now.
A small group of Knights were following him, with bowed heads, carrying between them a small bundle…
Nicholas God's Chosen, Nicholas the Saint, Nicholas the Holy Boy of Cologne.
Shot in the neck. Killed instantly.
The body looked so small, so frail, so… dead. It lay on the tower steps, while all the Knights of the Order filed past to pay their respects. Some mumbled a prayer, some kissed his hands and asked his blessing, some just stumbled past in silence with tears in their eyes.
He had been so great, they had come… so far. She remembered when all the world had lain at their feet, when the Army of God had been a thousand strong. The beauty of the vision, the power of the dream. To end in a little, crumpled body with bits gauged out of it, lying on a cold stone slab. It seemed that all the world was between Cologne in March and Chastel Blanc in November, in the long, bitter winter drought.
Had he believed until the end? Had he seen Heaven?
But of course. How could she doubt? He was a Crusader, a warrior of God, his soul would rise straight to Heaven with the souls of saints and martyrs.
But she couldn't pray and she didn't say good-bye.
"Klara?" It was Father Louis. "Do you need spiritual comfort?"
"The women you usually spiritually comfort won't come and see you in a besieged fortress?" asked Klara, making no effort to keep her tone respectful. Then she fled.
That night, she slept. Still and silent as the dead, the only trace of her nightmares her eyes rolling beneath their lids. Strange, confusing dreams, in strange, dark places where the sun never reached, where the only warmth was the fires of Hell, where skeletal horses chased her over the desert and angels with blazing swords stood between her and the Gates of Paradise. In the distance she heard crashing, nearer than before, louder, and somewhere in her mind she knew she was fighting a war, she was fighting a war and she was losing.
She woke up when the crashing reached her door, when Sir Robert and Sir Nigel burst in, with a group of squires, and Sir Robert said "We're losing".
I know. "Do you want me on the walls?"
But she knew it wasn't that. There was something wrong. Too many swords. The looks on their faces.
"I want you to come with me."
"No." She didn't mean to refuse, didn't mean to resist, because she knew that no refusal was possible and resistance was futile. It was a whisper of disbelief, incredulity at what she had known for days was inevitable. The Master knew. Time to pay.
She didn't argue. She couldn't move. She crouched on the bed, cowering against the wall, her hands over her face, until they dragged her out of bed, wrenched her hands away. Her arms were held behind her back in an iron grip. She couldn't have escaped, if she could have moved. She was dragged out of the stable, across the yard, into the chapel.
There, as the night faded from black to grey, Sir Stephen was waiting for her, his Knights around him with drawn swords.
They had Franz already. He had fought, and fought hard. He was bound not just hand and foot, but the whole length of his body. He had a gash down one side of his face, running straight across his eye, his mouth was slashed open, most of the rest of him was bruised and bleeding.
"Sorry," he mumbled, as best he could round broken teeth.
"I don't see that there's anything you can do."
Sir Stephen turned to Robert and Nigel. "Bind the girl."
Klara felt her hands be tied together, then Nigel pushed her forwards and she fell on her face on the hard stone, cracking her head against the base of a column and breaking her teeth. She tasted blood on her tongue and winced. What hurt more was Franz's hiss of futile rage. When she looked at him, she saw his eyes blazing like the eyes of a cornered wild-cat.
"You miserable sinner," said Sir Stephen.
Klara rolled over to look, but he wasn't talking to her. He was talking to Franz.
"Do you understand what you've done?"
"You swore to give yourself to God. You swore a Holy Vow. And you broke it, not once, but repeatedly. Deliberately."
"Yes, sir." Franz's face was very pale, so pale Klara thought he might faint, but his voice was completely steady. Loud, even bold. She shuddered. Why did he not grovel, beg, tell Sir Stephen how very, very sorry he was? Who cared if it was true? It was what one said.
"We're losing," said Stephen, very quietly, now, but in a voice that filled the entire church. "We, the Army of God, are losing Chastel Blanc. We cannot fight the infidel, because we cannot fight the evil in our own souls. We have been corrupted from within. You have corrupted us from within." The whole church murmured in shock. Anyone who wasn't shocked put up a damn good show of looking shocked.
"Yes, sir," said Franz. His tone made her flinch. Grovel, you fool. Had he gone mad? She looked into his bright, dancing eyes and realised that yes. He had gone mad. Sir Franz of the Knights Templar had finally, completely snapped.
"You have rejected God. You have succumbed to lust, and depravity, and if the books you keep in your shirt pockets are anything to go by, to apostasy. There is only one answer to that. You must burn."
Klara had known this would happen. There was no shock, only a horrible wrenching pain. Franz would burn. Not in the fires of Hell, but the fires of Sir Stephen of the Knights Templar. And she didn't want him to. She didn't want it more than she had ever not wanted anything, more than she had realised it was possible to not want something. She prayed then, silently, desperately. She apologised for her unworthiness, her sin, her disgusting selfishness and filthy human thoughts, and she begged God for a miracle. She promised Him—anything, worship, wealth, Holy War, anything at all. But He was the Creator of the Universe, what could she give Him? God doesn't make bargains, God doesn't answer demands. God demands unconditional devotion.
Franz seemed to barely hear Stephen. He was staring in front of him, staring with bright, feverish intensity at nothing. Dry-eyed, stony-faced.
"Franz?" What was he thinking? What could she say to him? What could she do? One of the Knights slapped her round the face.
Franz winced. "Sorry," he said.
Klara glared at the Knight, who gazed back impassively, burning contempt into her with his eyes. "Not your fault."
"Do you repent?"
"What?" Franz's voice sounded vague, puzzled.
"You have lost all hope of mercy from Man, but if you beg God for forgiveness now, He may yet let you get to Heaven… eventually."
"Why do I have to repent?"
"He's mad!" said Klara. And really, he was. His face was still cold and proud as a carved angel, but he was shaking like someone in the last stages of fever, his words tumbled out of his mouth fast and high, as if they had burst out after years. "He's not responsible for what he's saying. Don't listen-"
Another slap in the face, this one knocking her head right back against the wall.
"You repent," said Sir Stephen, and there was something utterly vicious in his voice, a cold, animal rage, like a snake with a mouse in its coils, that made all Klara's insides writhe and heave. Cold sweat trickled into her eyes and made them sting. "You repent to show that you believe that Christ's death was enough for all of us. That you believe God knows best. That you despise sin, despise your own earthly desires, and reject the Devil and all His works."
"I'm proud of my own earthly desires, sir. They're the best thing I've ever felt, and the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Was he talking about her? A little of the breath was sucked out of her lungs, her head whirled more than ever.
"That's how one possessed by the Devil talks. One who sees only the earth, only the pleasures of the present. You must look only towards Heaven. And have the strength, Grace and faith in Christ to turn away from sin. You have succumbed to the most pernicious type of sin, sin which pretends to be fine and noble, allows you to feel good, to feel, as you say, proud—which comes before destruction. The oldest, most famous sin in the Book."
"I haven't done anything."
"But you wanted to. And you can sin not only with the body, but with the mind. Repent now, sincerely, tremble before the Wrath of God, and the sin that cost Adam Eden need not cost him Heaven."
"The thing with sin, sir." And now his voice was perfectly steady, every syllable was clear. "Is it feels mighty good. And there's not much else in this hard old world that does."
"But you must reject that world. You must accept that we belong to God, we must obey His rules, live in hope of His eternal reward in Heaven and fear His eternal punishment in Hell. That is all we should care about."
"Oh, I know. Jesus died for our sins, God will punish us for ever, in the fires of Hell. Well, if that's so, it seems a pretty grim fate awaiting us after death."
"Good. That's right, you see. Repent."
"So why do you need to punish me? If He has so much Hell-fire, aren't your fires pretty poor things by comparison? If He's so almighty, why doesn't He just smite me now? In fact, maybe He will." He pushed himself as up-right as he could, and shouted at the sky. "Hey, God!"
Klara flinched. One did not talk to God like that. That was asking for eternal punishment.
"Stop!" shouted Sir Stephen. He seemed to be about to snap, now, there was a wild look in his eyes she had never seen before. "Stop, what are you doing?"
"Hey, God! If You're so mighty, smite me!" Silence. "Go on! Do it! Strike me down, God Almighty, with all Your hatred!"
Silence. The loudest silence Klara had ever heard, which rang in her ears and made her head hurt. There was no lightning. No Devil with a fork and hooves. She realised she was crying, she didn't know whether with relief or fear, at whatever would happen now God's wrath hadn't materialised.
"I'm afraid," said Franz. "The Creator of the Universe is busy, right now."
Sir Stephen kicked him in the face, his nose broke and blood went everywhere. "He's moving in mysterious ways, you apostate fool!" He turned to his Knights. "Go build a pyre. Leave them there. There's no way on Earth they can escape. The boy will be burned. Unfortunately, the girl isn't a Knight, so I can't burn her, but as soon as we're not under siege, I'll take her to a Church court, have her tried for immorality."
"You haven't answered my question," Franz called after him. "Why do you need to do God's work for Him?"
"Because we are His chosen ones, who have sworn to do His work. We reject sin, we destroy the sinner, before you can contaminate the rest of us, and lead us into sin."
"Do you have so little faith in your own faith, then?"
No answer, the door slammed. They were alone.
She was tired, so tired.
She looked at Franz, tied up so tight his hands were turning blue, bleeding all over his face. Doomed to… to… She remembered a witch burning she had seen as a little girl. The flames crackling, louder even than the screams, the charred bodies twitching and jerking, as if they were still alive. Maybe they were still alive. For the Glory of God.
She met his one still-seeing eye, and just thought No.
That was it. No lightning, no great dark clouds rolling down and blotting out the sun, no screaming rage against the Heaven, just a little voice inside, clear and cold. I have had enough.
The lump of grief, pain and fear in her stomach melted, the cold stone weight in the back of her mind drifted away. She had forgotten what it was like to live without it. Had she ever lived without it? Was this, really… what the world could look like? The first thing she felt was a great relief.
Franz was still going to die, and die horribly. If Sir Stephen had her tried for immorality, her own prospects didn't look much better. The wrath of Sir Stephen was inescapable. But Sir Stephen was not God. He was a man. And she could say "Screw you, sir".
It sounded very small and strange in the great echoing church.
Then she crumpled up on the floor and cried, cried until she ran out of tears, until she almost fell asleep with sheer exhaustion, because she was alone, and lost and more frightened than she had ever been. A horrible, over-whelming fear, dark and cold and empty. Of life, of death, of the world, of everything. Of being alone, just alone… And regret. So much regret, for every day of fear and misery and self-loathing. All the days she'd wasted.
Franz soothed her. "Don't cry," he said. "Don't cry. Don't cry."
She couldn't stop. Physically, she couldn't stop. She didn't have the strength.
"What's wrong?" said Franz.
"What's wrong? What's wrong?" She felt her voice break off hysterically, began to laugh. She could think of so many answers to that question. We're tied up. We're miles from home. We're besieged by Arabs. I don't know… what do you think is wrong? You're going to fucking die?
But what came out of her mouth was "I know how much He made me suffer. I know how much He made me hurt. But, oh, God, Franz, I don't want to be alone".
"You're not alone yet. I'm still here."
"What about when you're dead?"
"Then… you're alone."
"But I don't want to be. I'm scared… I don't know why I ever came here…"
"You came here because Nicholas told you it was your duty to God."
"So what do I do, now?"
"Well, if they ever untie you it'll probably be to lock you in the deepest, darkest dungeon in a nunnery. So I don't think you get any say in what you do, now."
"You know what I meant."
There was a long silence. The noise of the siege drifted in through the windows in the tower walls. "I don't know. I don't have all the answers."
"I don't want this to be all there is."
"Dying. Dying horribly. Fighting in a desert. Being hungry."
"My home's a hut. We have two rooms. Five of us. We share them with a pig. I spent every day mending clothes. Since father died… and I'll never see father again, will I? Since father died, the sewing business has been the only way to feed us. And everybody I know lives the same way… When I was a little girl, I always believed in Heaven, where I could see father again, and the little baby who died… Where I could eat all I want to… and I won't have to work. Where I won't have to choose, every day, do we eat today, or do we buy fire-wood? And now, I'll never get there. I'll live… in that hut… in a whole street of huts, until I die."
She looked up at the stone angel above the altar, with the cruel, beautiful face. "What else can I do?"
"I don't know. But you only live in that hut because-"
"Because we're poor, low-down people whose role in life, whose divine role in life, is to be poor and low down, until Kingdom Come, when we get our divine reward." She listened to the bitterness in her voice and was surprised at how much she had in her. Years' worth… "So we have a shit life, but a good death. Hell, after some people's life, any death's good…"
"But if the after-life does not exist, if there's no divine reward…"
"Then the tithes we give to the priest, to the Pope, the money we pay for Indulgences or as Good Works…"
"But…" But nothing. No God would strike her down for presumption. God, or course, has His earthly instruments. His earthly instruments would torture them to death for even suggesting such a thing. But no earthly instrument is invulnerable. Eventually, she said "Do you think they believe?"
"Sir Stephen, yes. If you mean the likes of Father Louis, I doubt it."
"What is there to bribe them with, after all? They just collect the tithes, collect the rents on monastic land… Why do they need to believe? What's the point of a little of hope and happiness after you die, when you have everything you need on Earth?" She remembered all the church services she had ever been to, the collection plate that went round every week, the clatter of coins as the congregation, with righteous determination to do their duty in their eyes even as they flinched to watch their wages slip away, added to the growing pile of copper and silver on the plate. The priest blessing all who gave to the Lord, reminding them who had created all things, put all people in their place on the Great Chain of being, and to whom they owed absolute obedience.
"Do you really believe that life can get better?"
"Well, put it this way." Franz laughed slightly. "I don't think it can get much worse."
"Don't tempt fate." Her life had got so much worse recently. If life as a dress-maker in Cologne was bad, the things she had seen and done for a better after-life were worse. And what comfort had it been to her, in the end? "It'll get worse when you're burned to death. It'll get worse when I spend the rest of my life in a dungeon in a nunnery. That's how it'll get worse." She began to cry again. "I don't want you to die." It sounded so stupid, so childish, a desperate plea. Of course she didn't want him to die. What could saying so do? And why would he care what she wanted?
"Believe it or not, I don't want to die, either." His eyes softened. "But thanks. The knowledge that you have no particular desire for me to die an agonising death is more reassuring than it sensibly should be."
She couldn't cry. She was too sick and too tired. But the hollow place in her stomach ached more and more. She didn't want Franz to die, she didn't want him to, she didn't want him to. And lying on the floor in a church, there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. She had never felt so weak, so helpless, so close to the edge of darkness in the back of her mind, which if she slid over there was no way back up, no God to hold her, no posthumous compensation to make this situation, her life, the world any less unfair.
She wanted to kick her heels against the floor and scream like a two-year-old, but her ankles were tied together.
Why not slide over the edge, into the dark? Why hold on when you were going to fall, any-way? It would be a relief, in a way, to finally go mad, so she wouldn't have to fight any longer not to go mad. How many other people slid into the dark? Was it there in everyone's mind, in the back corner where they tried not to look, until they gave up the fight at the foot of a stone angel in the Holy Land? Was everyone so afraid of being alone?
"Don't leave me," she said, as if Franz had any choice. "Don't leave me!" Her heart beat faster and faster, she was so afraid, so afraid of everything… "I can't do it on my own!"
"Can't do what?"
"Can't live. Can't cope. Can't do anything."
"Yes, you can." He sounded so calm that for a moment she almost believed it. Her breathing slowed involuntarily, she felt her heart beat steadily. She was still alive for now.
"I think Al-Ma'arri was wrong. People don't either have brains or a religion. They have a religion, or hope. And right now, I have neither."
"You can still hope, Klara, you can always hope for the best."
"So that's my life, now? The little life there's likely to be anyway. I hope for the best. I fail, I lose, I'm killed by an Arab in this miserable desert, I escape from a nunnery and beg in the streets, I'm burned for heresy, God knows what'll happen. But I can hope for the best."
"It's what I'm trying to do. If you have any better ideas, feel free to share them, because this one doesn't sound too good to me, either."
"I used to believe."
"I know. So did I, remember?"
"Really believe, Franz."
"With everything I had."
She was crying, now. Crying in pain for everything she's lost, everything she'd given, everything she'd never felt. "I'm so angry, with so many people. I can't hate myself any more. I can't feel guilty any more. I can't do any more bloody God any more. But I want something, right now, on this floor, despite everything, that I can believe in. Because… I can't hold on any more…" She remembered sitting in church, watching the sweet incense smoke rise in front of the altar, shimmering in front of the statue of Jesus on the cross, and knowing, knowing with absolute certainty, that He had died to save sinners, that God was everywhere and saw everything, and that no matter how hard life was, how cruel it seemed, it was for the best in ways beyond her understanding. She thought back now as if to another life, that simple, absolute faith, thought back knowing she could never believe in Salvation again. "I had absolute faith. And I don't have that any more. And I'm so scared."
"Isn't there always absolute faith? Isn't that what absolute means? Because I damn well hope so."
"In what? What exactly is worthy of your absolute faith?"
"Me?" She laughed through her tears. "That's a good one. Oh, Jesus, that's brilliant! Get re-incarnated as a professional fool or something."
"Why, thank you." His offended expression was even more funny.
"Me… Franz… are you even looking at me…? I'm so fucked up. I've spent the past quarter of an hour curled up on the floor whimpering like a drowned rat. I can't get you out of these ropes. I can't get you out of this fort past a load of Arabs with swords. I can't help… Whatever you believe I can do… I can't."
"So stop fooling yourself. I'm a failure… I'm weak and stupid, and I'll let you down, I am letting you down. I have let you down…"
"You ain't failing. You haven't let anyone down. And you're neither weak nor stupid."
"How do you know?"
"Because that's what absolute means."
"But everything's so fucked up."
Franz laughed bitterly. "Specifics?"
"Franz… If there… if there isn't anyone, a God, or anything… why did I come here?"
"You were wasting your time, I guess."
"But what about… all the people I've killed?"
Pain flickered across his eyes. "We were wrong."
"We were wrong?" She can't hardly speak. "That's it. We were wrong?"
"Yes. We've fought a totally pointless war, we've killed people totally pointlessly, and that's… wrong."
She remembered the bow in her hands. It had felt so good. So righteous. Heaven in the form of a piece of bent wood. God's will as wooden sticks with feathers. Now it felt like a jester at a fair, only… sick.
"It's a sin to kill."
"There are no sins any more."
"I know. But… I don't like it. I just feel…"
"They were soldiers. They were fighting a war. You were fighting on the other side."
"Not all of them." The blood splashed against her face again, a dark red arc against the clear blue sky. Hot… such a relief… for God would part the sea… "I told Nicholas about a girl who wore cosmetics. He chopped off her head."
"What do I do about it?"
"You won't go to Hell."
"That's not the point. The point-"
"I know what the point is! And there's nothing I can do about it." Slowly, helplessly, he began to cry.
"That I killed her. I killed her for nothing, no… worse… for a lie…" She closed her eyes. She didn't want to look at Franz, at the faint pink streaming through the high windows, at anything. She wanted to close her eyes and hide in the dark from the knowledge that she was a murderer. "She was so young…"
"I know… I know… If there were anything I could do, I would."
"But there's nothing you can do… There's nothing any of us can do!" She sobbed, heaving sobs that shook her whole body, that tore her stomach, the most horrible wrenching pain. If she could do anything, anything at all… Even apologise… But she couldn't. Marta was gone, dead, murdered. There was blood on her hands, blood… red… dripping… She clawed at her palms, gauging, but there was only more blood, more… Running up her wrists, trickling along the paving stones.
"It's all right, it's all right," Franz said, and she realised she was saying, over and over again, "Get it off! Get it off!".
"The blood! The blood…"
"It's your blood. You've torn the skin. That's all."
She lay and watched her own hands bleed, felt her heart slow down and the blood dwindle to a trickle, closed her eyes and stopped fighting pain and grief. It washed over her, wave after wave, burning holes in her throat, her lungs, her stomach. Perhaps she fainted when the darkness closed in, all she knew was that when she was numbed to Marta's blood splashing again and again across her eye-lids, when she could bear to face the world again, she was lying on her stomach on cold stone, and not all the anger and regret in all the world could help her now. She had killed for the Lord Almighty, and there was no forgiveness and she could not buy or bribe or beg her way out.
The cold wasn't just coming from the wind through the windows, but from inside her bones.
"Klara," said Franz. "You deserve better than this. I'm sorry."
"So do you," she said. God, but he did. She looked at him trying to grin and something shattered deep inside. He did not deserve to die like this. "I'm sorry."
"It doesn't matter about me. I don't have a family."
Klara thought of her own family, for the first time without guilt at her selfishness. She felt a faint pang, but mostly they just seemed unreal, a group of strangers who played across her mind in images from someone else's life. And that was worse than all the homesickness she had ever felt. "I've almost forgotten my family, I think," she said quietly. "I… I don't think I'd recognise Rosa's face any more… I expect they've forgotten me, so it doesn't matter any more."
At that moment in Cologne, her mother woke up, looked out at the cold grey sky, and eternal autumn rain, remembered where her eldest child was and her heart broke all over again. She had thought a heart could only break one, and then comfortingly numb, but she knew now that it could break over and over again, every morning, for months, for a life-time. And every day it hurts just as much.
"I doubt they've forgotten you."
"Well, I guess I'll never know, now. So it doesn't matter."
"It matters to me."
"And what happens to you matters to me. I just… I just don't want never, ever to see you again… Not in Heaven, not as an angel, not ever… To have no hope of doing that."
"I wish I could say something helpful. I can't."
"You can always say something helpful. When I burned my hand. Always. Say something helpful now."
"Why do I have to say something comforting about my death? This is the wrong way round…" He grinned. "No, I'm kidding, I'm kidding…"
Klara almost laughed. "See!"
"You don't need help. This is the whole point, isn't it? You are strong enough to cope with the rest of your life, however short-"
"I give myself about two weeks. You? Please don't be discouraging and say one."
Franz wrinkled what was left of his nose. "Oh, I'll be generous and say three." They both laughed.
"I've got you now. Never mind to-morrow, or the next day or next year—and there better be a next year, Klara, seriously, you live a good long time. You do it for me… I've got you now. And if we never, ever see each other again then… then we'll have to make do with now. You take it from here."
"I got to have something to get me through. Something to believe in."
"You believe that, you won't ever feel completely on your own. But Klara…."
"I can't do that. You have to do that. For yourself. On your own. Because that's the whole point, isn't it? We live, we die, death's the end. That's all we've got, and it seems pretty poor, so we've got to do the rest ourselves. No one can tell you what to believe. Not any more. There's no word from on high, no book with all the answers in… You find them. You have to. For the rest of your life."
"And if I can't do that?"
"I think you can."
"If I'm too weak? If I'd rather just go mad? You don't know I can…"
He grinned. "Absolute faith, remember?"
It made her feel a little bit, just a little bit, stronger. A bit of the warmth seeped back into her limbs.
"But… I'm nobody… Seriously, I'm nobody. I'm not meant to… believe… I mean, I am meant to believe, obviously, but only it what they say I'm allowed to believe, which they have their own reasons for wanting me to believe, and…" Her voice got faster and faster, then tailed off. "Suppose I'm wrong?"
"Why would you be?"
"Isn't it just easier, to be told? This is what you must think, this is what you must do, this is how you must feel… than set my word up against everyone else's… and have them tell me I'm wrong…?"
"But that doesn't make them right."
"But what I say is ridiculous… What I believe… It doesn't matter what I believe. I'm nobody… I can't even read…"
"So what…?" She laughed, a strange, high, hysterical laugh. "People like us aren't supposed to have opinions, we aren't supposed to think. We don't change the world. We live in our huts and do what we're told and leave the thinking to our betters."
"You're right. People like us don't change the world. Yet. Maybe one day we will. Not now, maybe not for years, or for thousands of years. But nothing's impossible. Not any more. Not with He Who Has Ordered Everything out of the way. And it doesn't matter what we believe. No one will ever know or care. When the Christian World tells the story of the Crusades, we won't be in it. We're not important. But we can still believe it, whether anyone knows or not. No one else gets to decide that."
"There are people who write books about God. About… people. About how the world is, and how it ought to be, and when they find bits which suit the way they want things to be they quote them at us. They're Churchmen, abbots, Bishops. And I can't read."
"You can learn. You can learn Latin, anything you like. Write pamphlets."
"No, I can't, I work… worked… whatever, as a dress-maker."
"And that's why you can't read. Because you were putting food on the table since you learned to talk. It doesn't make you stupid, or contemptable, or incapable of independent thought. I expect that one day someone will write a book, agreeing with your ideas. And I don't realistically expect that you'll get one line of credit for it. Because no one cares what people like us believe, unless we cause trouble. But that's not the point. We can still believe it. And if they don't know, or care, or even believe it's possible for us to think to think anything other than what we're told, then they're the idiots. We live in sheds like animals because that's what they think we are. But one day, we'll show them different. We can be free."
"One day, we'll show them different," she repeated. She stopped shaking. I'm a free woman, she told herself. And no one created me low. No celestial plan depends on my humiliation. And no one created me sinful. I'm a free woman. I can manage on my own.
"When you lose everything," she said quietly. "Then there's nothing in the whole world except… the worst pain I've ever felt. But when you've lost all hope, when there's nothing left, you can come out the other side. And then you're free."
Franz grinned at her. "Yes."
So maybe that was absolute faith. She felt the same warmth now as she felt in church, bright and strong, but this warmth was different. This warmth came from inside. And she could never lose it. Never be unworthy. And it would never leave.
Sir Stephen opened the door. "Sir Franz. I do apologise for the delay. Getting fire-wood in a besieged fortress in a desert is… difficult…"
"Always perfect manners, isn't that right sir? Even when killing people. However, consider the delay graciously forgiven. In fact, don't hurry on my account at all…"
A group of Knights picked up Franz, and dragged him outside. Another group picked up Klara and dragged her after him.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Outside, of course."
Outside, a small number of battle-weary Knights were sitting on the ground, around a huge pyre. She could see why it took so long to build. It was enormous. Clearly Sir Franz didn't believe in doing things by halves for the Glory of God.
The knights scrambled up the pile of wood, dragging Franz after them, and tied him to the post at the top. Klara was fighting an urge to be sick. He looked at her, and she looked away, her eyes blurring over.
Franz was going to burn. Franz was going to die… There was nothing she could do about it… Nothing she could do…
Sir Stephen was reading a prayer, but she couldn't hear it. Her ears were ringing.
Then Sir Stephen closed his Bible and stepped back.
"Franz," he said, loud enough for everyone watching to hear. "This is your last chance to repent."
"What good will it to me to repent? You're going to burn me anyway. What does it matter whether God decides to burn me all over again, after I'm dead?"
"Your burning on Earth is punishment for your sins. You cannot escape this punishment. Your punishment from God is not only for your sins, but for your pride and stubbornness. If you reject God now, the Devil will claim your soul."
Sir Stephen's eyes glittered with rage. For a moment, he was almost snarling. Klara thought he would lunge at Franz and kill him himself.
Then, shaking with surpressed rage, he turned to the Knight beside him. "Light the fire."
Father Louis produced a huge silver cross and held it in front of Franz's face. Franz twisted away in disgust.
Then Sir Robert stepped forward to light the fire. It wouldn't light. He tried again. It still wouldn't light. Sir Robert began to blush.
"Light it, you fool," hissed Sir Stephen, now white and flexing his fingers like cat's claws.
Sir Robert tried again to light the torch, for a moment it flickered into life, then went out. Franz grinned and Sir Stephen, seeing it, hissed again. The bafflement and wounded pride in his eyes were so obvious that for a moment Klara almost laughed.
Sir Robert, now acutely nervous under Stephen's eagle eye, gripped the torch firmly, took a deep breath and dropped it. He picked it up, blew the dirt off carefully and tried to coax it into life. And this time it caught. The little tongue of flame licked at the pyre beneath Franz's feet, the wood hissed and crackled in pain. The laughter died in Klara's throat, now she could hardly breathe at all.
The fire spread, fanned by the wind in the dry, dusty heat. She knew, someone had told her, that a burning on a dry day is more merciful than one on a wet day, because it's quicker, and these flames were certainly quick. The crackle became a rush, then a roar. Klara turned her face away. She couldn't watch any more, she couldn't see how she could ever have gone to see people die like this of her own free will.
But she could still hear it, the dry wood in the fire, still choke on the smoke. She tried to pull away from the Knights holding her and put her hands over her ears, but they squeezed tighter, wrenched her arm up behind her back so she flopped down like a fish and pushed down onto the ground with a knee in her back.
A hand grabbed her face. Sir Geoffrey wrenched her head up so she had to look. "No," she whispered, she couldn't manage any more than a whisper, he was breaking her neck. "Don't make me watch, please don't make me watch."
"You must watch the sinner, girl. Watch him suffer and die."
The flames ran up the pyre, now, encircling Franz, rising high around him so the yellow light rippled on his pale face, cast strange shadows. The fire seemed to slow down, toying gently at his bare feet, sending up sparks to land on his arms and fizzle out at once. She saw Franz flinch as the fire touched him for the first time.
"No," she said, or tried to say, but she didn't know if any words came out, she only hear the fire roaring in her ears. "No, please… I can't bear it… Have mercy, have mercy…"
The fire was done with playing, it leaped up on a gust of wind, the sparks caught Franz's clothes, his shirt began to burn. The flames ran up his legs, eating through the flesh, she caught a glimpse of white bone through the flames, before that blackened and charred and the flames flew up and she was spared the detail.
"Please have mercy, please…" She sobbed in the ear of the Knight holding her. "You're being cruel, it's not fair-"
His mailed fist slammed into her face, knocking out the teeth that the church floor hadn't already dealt with. She swallowed one and almost choked. "Don't question the ways of the Lord."
"Please…" Blood dribbled out of her mouth as she spoke. "Please… don't do this…"
The flames ran up Franz's body, caught at his hair, burned holes in his chest and stomach. Klara knew she was going to be sick, but her throat was too raw, too dry. The smoke smelt of Franz's burning flesh, filled her mouth, her nose until she could hardly breathe.
His face was melting, great blobs of flesh ran down, his remaining eye fell out. Klara threw herself against the men holding her back. "Don't kill him! It's cruel, it's cruel! Burn me instead, burn me!"
"Too late, girl. He's dead if he's lucky, if not, he just wishes he were."
His whole body was charred and black, his face was crumbling, great lumps of charcoal that had once been human flesh tumbled down into the fire, which leapt up higher and higher.
As she watched, sick, shaking, her stomach burning inside her, she saw his whole body collapse, crumble away, organs dropping into the flames and burning.
Then, finally, she fainted.
She woke up in a make-shift cell, made of the cold store under the stable. She was chained hand and foot, weighed down with a heavy metal ball.
Her head hurt, her mouth hurt, her lungs were raw. She stretched and winced at the pain in her back. Flames flickered against her closed eye-lids. She sucked in air, held back the picture with an effort.
She couldn't cry, her eyes were raw and dry, they stung with the dust and the smoke. But she didn't think she would ever cry again.
Franz was gone. Dead. Murdered. She would never see or speak to him ever again.
She was so tired. So tired… she just wanted to sleep. She collapsed against the stone walls, and snapped her eyes open as the flames rose, Franz's body writhed and twisted…
She was so tired, so drained. She didn't mind being drained, because it meant all the feeling had left her, meant she would never cry again. But she needed to sleep, she needed to sleep and she couldn't.
She had no idea what time it was. There was no light in the cold store. No one fed her. Eventually someone did. She ate the bread and drank the wine mechanically, without tasting. She didn't feel hungry.
She lay and stared at the ceiling, felt sleep creeping up on her and fought it back because every time she closed her eyes she saw the fire again, she saw Franz burning to death. And she knew that beyond that image lay whole worlds of horror and pain and grief, that once she let herself go there she was lost and she wouldn't have the strength to… survive. But she didn't have the strength to unsee the picture, either. It hovered before her eyes, the fire, the smoke, Franz burning. She felt it pushing up on her from the back part of her mind, all the pain, all the desperation, which would go on and on without end, and from which there was no relief. She felt the whisper of her own madness approaching, pushed it back with such effort it hurt and she felt herself begin to sweat feverishly.
She must have slept eventually, because she felt fire licking at her legs, looked down and found that she was running through it. She was running to Franz, who was leading her into the fire, deeper and deeper, and it hurt, it hurt so much, but she had to follow him, even though she knew, somewhere in the back of her mind, that she was dreaming, but that only made it more frightening, because she couldn't wake up. He turned to face her for the first time, standing on the edge of a cliff, and he was Lucifer the Fallen Angel and his eyes blazed with anger.
"This is your fault! You left me!"
That was when she began to wake up. "It isn't. I never left you. You don't talk like that, you never have!" Absolute faith.
She woke up in the cell, aching all over, but the fire still swirled in front of her, still crackled and leapt.
Am I going mad? The room was hot, hot with fire. Hot? No, it was cold. So cold, chilled her to the bone. Why was she still sweating then, as she shivered?
She remained in that room for, she guessed, two days. She had no idea how the siege was going and she didn't care.
She knew only that there were feelings she couldn't bear to feel, and things she mustn't think about—Franz's smile, his eyes, how he used to laugh how he would never laugh again… Because if she did, it would tear her apart.
But the little light was still there, inside her, she knew she could keep it burning for as long as she chose, and she kept it burning even now. No one else would tell her how to feel. No one else would use her to fight their battles for them. Ever again. And whatever else she lost, she still had that.
It was the only thing she held onto as the room swirled and swam and filled with blood, as she ached for sleep she was terrified to have, because of the terrors that would come back if she did.
If it weren't for that, she might have starved herself to death.
Eventually, Sir Robert appeared. He picked her up, chains and all, and carried her out of the room. She hadn't the strength to fight. She guessed she mustn't have hadn't a lot to eat.
She did manage to ask "Where are we going?".
"We're losing the fort," he said.
The came out into the court-yard and she saw what he meant. The whole outer wall to the east was destroyed. Even now the Arabs were clambering over the rubble, dashing for the tower. Hundreds of Knights Templar lay dead on the ground.
So, the Army of God had lost. So what?
Sir Robert loaded her onto a horse, another Knight lifted Sarah—not in chains—onto the horse behind them, and they galloped away, the Arabs after them.
The Arabs gave up quickly, though, in favour of attacking the fort, and then they were alone. Klara and Sir Robert, the man who had burned Franz to death. Galloping across the desert, perched on Sir Robert's horse, the wind in her hair and the dust in her eyes, as fast as she had gone on Luke, but with none of the joy.
"Where are we going?" she asked, over the noise of the horse's hooves.
"To a nunnery. You'll be safe there."
"Safe? Or just not your responsibility?"
He didn't answer.
After several hours of hard riding, they reached the nunnery, a tiny, white-painted building in the desert, with only a well and a wooden block with an axe next to it in the court-yard.
A few nuns hurried out to see who was coming. Klara caught snatches of conversation as they gathered round. "Visitors… not often we get some… good God, look at the state of them… covered in blood, aren't they?"
They all fell silent as the abbess appeared.
"Sir," she said, bowing to Sir Robert.
"My lady." He bowed his head as he threw Klara off the horse. A dozen hands caught her before she landed on the rocks. "The girl is of loose moral character and an enemy of the Lord. We held her in chains in Chastel Blanc, but it's falling to the infidel as we speak. You take her, hold her here, don't listen to the filthy prattling of her blasphemous tongue. If you wish to bring her to Church court for immoral practices, I recommend it."
The abbess looked at Klara with limitless contempt.
"I see. I'll deal with her very firmly."
Klara didn't care. Let the abbess deal with her very firmly. Let her do what she wanted. She didn't care.
The other Knight handed Sarah down quickly, saying only "She's very pious. Just keep her away from that one."
Then they were gone in a swirl of dust.
The abbess dragged her inside, the nuns following in a gawping line, nudging each other and whispering.
"Sister Isabella, Sister Hannah, help me here. The rest of you, go away. A sinner is not something to be admired, it only adds to her pride. Go and attend to the pious one."
The other nuns hurried away, leaving only Sisters Isabella and Hannah flanking Klara, watching her the way one might watch some fierce animal.
The abbess led her to a small room on the right, with a big carved stone tub in the middle of the floor. "You're covered in dust and blood," she said. "Bathe. Then we'll dedicate you to Our Lord."
"I don't want to be a nun."
"It's not about what you want. It's about atoning for your sins. You ought to be grateful to be alive at all."
Sisters Isabella and Hannah stood on either side of the door. Guards, she realised. There was no chance of being alone to bathe. The abbess took her chains off and stood back against the wall. She was measuring the distance between her and the door with her eyes and for a moment Klara almost laughed. Did she think could float through the air?
The blood came rushing into Klara's wrists now the chains were off, and she noticed the chafed skin, but didn't feel anything.
She pulled off her skirt and dropped it on the floor. And the pamphlets slid out of the pockets and fell on the floor.
Klara's blood ran cold. She had forgotten about the pamphlets.
The abbess' eyes lit up like the eyes of an eagle who had just caught a particularly juicy rabbit.
Sister Hannah bent down, snatched up the pamphlet while Klara was still frozen with fear.
"Blasphemy," she said, glowing with satisfaction.
The abbess took the pamphlet and her face set hard as stone. "Blasphemy," she repeated.
Feeling returned to Klara's limbs and she ran.
She got as far as the door before Sister Hannah seized her and threw her against the wall. The abbess grabbed her other arm, and her grip was like talons. Breathless, head reeling from where she had been thrown against the wall, she was dragged outside into the court-yard.
There was no ceremony, no chance to argue or escape. She was thrown in the dust in her petticoat, tied up by two nuns in front of the block.
She pushed herself painfully onto her knees. She wanted to look the abbess in the eyes. She needed to do that at least.
"This." The abbess held the little piece of paper above her head. "Is blasphemy. It denies the truth of our Lord and Saviour. It's utterly untrue."
"It's so "utterly untrue" that you think it's dangerous enough to kill people for just reading."
"Infidels must be killed by good Christians. If you remain in our community, you will defile it and lead us into sin."
"Again, you have very little faith in the strength of your convictions. If the Creator of the World is so easy to forget, maybe He's not so great after all."
"How dare you?" Once again, she was hit in the face. Do people have no better come-back to the things I say than to slap me in the face? So lazy… The abbess controlled herself with clear difficulty. "Repent. Repent and you may yet get to Heaven. Confirm your faith in the Lord may yet forgive you."
"But you won't." She heard her voice raise. She led all the anger into it, all the anger that had had no vent for days. And there was so much of it. She let the gulf of pain inside open just a little crack, because if she were going to die soon anyway, then never mind how much it hurt. And it all came flooding out. More pain. More grief and anger, than she would have thought possible. "You won't!" she shouted through her tears. "You'll just chop my head off because it'll make you feel virtuous or whatever sick, twisted insanity you've made yourself believe in."
The abbess clearly wasn't in the mood for this discussion. She drew her axe.
"You will die, Devil girl. You will die and go to Hell, as you deserve."
"You're wrong," said Klara, very quietly. "I'll never make you believe it, but I know you're wrong. And there's nothing you can do about it."
The abbess didn't answer. She just gestured to Sisters Hannah and Isabella and Klara felt her neck grabbed from behind and her head forced down onto the block.
She could see nothing but stone and dirt, and the wooden block. What a boring last thing to see.
Suddenly she wanted to see the sky again.
She wanted, more than anything else, to see Franz again.
The last thing she ever thought was I lost our bet… thought I'd make two weeks.
They buried her body in a shallow grave in the desert for the jackals and vultures to find, and at dusk the Templars came to tell them that, despite all odds, the Templars had held Chastel Blanc.
Sarah became a nun.
The First Crusade set in 1095 out to capture Jerusalem from Muslims. The Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, but the Middle East contained bandits who attacked Christian pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem. The Knights Templar were founded in 1119, by the French Knight Hugues de Payans, to protect these pilgrims. Their first head-quarters were at Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which they called the Temple of Solomon. The full name of the Order was Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, hence the name Knights Templar.
In 1187, Jerusalem, and much other land in the Middle East which the Crusaders had captured, was captured by the Muslims under Saladin. The Third Crusade (1189-1192) re-captured some of the land in the Middle East which Saladin had conquered, but not the City of Jerusalem itself. The Christians did not re-gain any control of the City until the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229).
The Children's Crusade took place between the Fourth and Fifth Crusades, when Jerusalem was under Muslim control. It is now believed to be mainly mythical, but according to Mediaeval historians there were two child preachers: Nicholas of Cologne in Germany and Stephen of Cloyes in France. The French Crusade doesn't seem to have got very far, but the German Crusade was more successful. The children marching over the Alps, attempting to part the sea in Genoa and meeting Pope Innocent III appears in the original sources of the story. In the original history/legends, none of the children get further than Italy, where most of them were captured by slave-dealers.
The Christians lost Jerusalem to the Kwarezmian Tartars, who were Muslim, in 1244. The Order of the Holy Sepulchre remained in Jerusalem, but the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Crusades failed to return Jerusalem to the Christians. It remained a Muslim city and there were no more major Crusades.
The Knights Templar became enormously wealthy and powerful and very secretive. When the Muslims held Jerusalem, the Templars couldn't continue to use it as a head-quarters and in 1291 they lost their last main-land strong-holds, Tortosa (Tartus) and Atlit. They were formally dissolved in 1312. However, quite what they did in the nearly two hundred years they dominated Europe remains obscure, which is probably how they liked it.
Chastel Blanc was built by the Knights Templar during the Crusades. It was seized by the Baybar Muslims in 1271.