A Byzantine spy questions the motives of God as he witnesses the horrors of the Crusade
Published in the March 2009 issue of Aphelion
Published in the May 2010 issue of Spectacular Speculations
Featured in the "Short Stories Newsletter (September 29, 2010)"
Published in Farspace 2 December 11, 2010
Sitting in front of a sacked mosque, the watcher strained weary eyes against the rising sun obscuring the Temple of Solomon. A new day in the Holy Land did little to stave off the chill. The beggar-in-disguise pressed his rags, newly acquired from a deceased contributor, tighter around his slim frame.
The Byzantine cursed the name of Emperor Alexius, even while serving the man as his spymaster. "Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven." A cynical snort answered his own mutters, "Nothing here but a den of thieves, murderers, and rapists. These fools pose no threat to the empire, just Christian wolves killing Muslim dogs, the whole lot of them."
Thoughts drifted to his wife and two sons back in the empire as a pilgrim strode by and tossed some coins in a cracked bowl. The spymaster lifted his face and met the eyes of the supposed benefactor, memorizing his features out of habit, giving a false smile of thankfulness, before returning to the mission.
Four men, squires and men-at arms exited the temple. The Knights Templar, the members fancied themselves, these pitiful warmongers of no standing or consequence in their homelands. A tattered standard rustled as the desert wind blew by, displaying two armored men astride one horse, an all too true sign of their wealth.
The spy found it odd that the men charged with guarding the Pilgrim Road would embark so early. A fifth, breastplate covered with an ivory tabard dyed with the crimson cross, exited the building. The watcher smiled at the unmistakable dark eyes and high cheekbones covered with an ebony beard matching his shoulder length hair. Grand Master Hugh de Payens, why would he embark on a simple escort mission? Most curious.
In silence, the spymaster, trailed the mounted Templar Knights on foot, keeping to the shadows of ruined husks that once housed Muslim families, a tattered remnant of life before the wolves came, before the Crusaders captured their prize. The party exited the St. Stephen's Gate and traveled a northwestern route.
The watcher raced to the nearby inn, tossing his disguise in an alley, displaying the garments of a wealthy Byzantine trader beneath. The master of disguise slowed his sprint as he approached the opening, smoothing his silks before crossing the threshold.
A slim proprietor, his angular face creased with a perpetual frown, greeted the trader with a mere creasing of thin lips. "Good day, Silvanus Moschus, breakfast?"
"My horse, and quickly, I have a client in the west. The fool wants to trade wool for olives - -- olives for God's sake!" Silvanus smiled as his blasphemy caused the dreary man to widen his mahogany eyes and rush to the stable himself, rather than rely on the stableman. Mentally, he chided the actions that would only bring more attention upon him, make the mission harder to complete, delaying the return home. Somehow, however, he could not help the antagonistic streak within. His loathing of God-fearing hypocrites ran deep.
Moments later, Moschus mounted a chestnut gelding and raced out to catch his quarry. Alone and unarmed, he kept a safe distance, following the fresh tracks churning up the dirt road in the knights' haste.
The crimson sun crested an azure horizon as he pulled reign atop a large rise, surveying a small city dominated by the ruins of a Byzantine monastery upon a large hill. "Mons Gaudi." Even in a shell of its former glory, the church awed him. "Then this is Arimathea." Silvanus thought back to his lessons, drilled into his photographic memory as an adolescent. "Nothing here but peasants, so why are the Templars here?"
"Because they are fools, as are you."
Turning to the voice from behind, he blinked at the Arab, stunned by his ability to speak Greek.
The man, donned in the golden garb of the Saracen army smiled, showing a row of gleaming teeth though his ebony beard trimmed to the size of a man's fist. "My knowledge of your heathen tongue surprises you. I learned Greek from our Greek slaves."
Silvanus offered the soldier silent congratulations for following him undetected, and on foot no less. "Why are you here?" Silvanus asked in fluent Arabic. "You're a Saracen. You were beaten, your people slaughtered."
The fighter replied with a nod, a sad nod, hidden behind angry eyes affirming Silvanus' recollection of events. "Yes, but a man must eat." With the practiced fluidity of a trained killer, he unsheathed a scimitar and raised it high, screaming to Allah for victory as the blade rushed downward.
Silvanus leaped from his horse, sacrificing the animal to the killing stroke. The weapon stuck horseflesh and the beast whinnied in pain. The animal kicked and bucked, striking the bandit in the face before running off to die.
Silvanus recovered from the brush with death and scurried over to the corpse to make sure the assailant died. A snapped neck confirmed his thoughts. The naked desert before him offered no other surprises. Deeming it safe, Moschus removed his colorful clothes, displaying a filthy cotton robe and linen pants. Without a second thought, he trekked onward to Arimathea, leaving the weapon behind. A pilgrim strayed from the Pilgrim Road proved a poor disguise without the need of an Arabic weapon to heighten suspicion.
The beggar turned merchant turned pilgrim stared at the sights of Arimathea and beheld an odd assortment of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. A lone church bell rang in the distance. An Arab shouted the call to prayer from the heights of a domed mosque. Silvanus found the harmony difficult to comprehend. These peasants found some semblance of community within a province too unimportant for the new king to claim. The meager society offered hope for humanity to the spy's cynical mind. No wolves here – yet.
Silvanus approached an old beggar sitting in the dirt and queried about the knights' whereabouts in German, French, and Greek before settling on Hebrew. The old man shrugged knobbed shoulders, visible through a flimsy garment of stretched linen, and looked away. With a deep sigh, Silvanus tossed a pair of coppers into his bowl. The old man rubbed a clean-shaven chin, assuming a mask of deep thought that made Moschus roll his eyes while depositing a silver coin. Failing to hide surprise, the informant's thundercloud eyes grew wide as the silver rolled about the bowl. He reached for the coin, a cough from Silvanus gave him pause, and he deftly pointed to a steep hill behind Silvanus. "Tomb of Samuel."
Sparse outcroppings provided scant cover as the spy crawled up toward the tomb. He spied three men dislodging the boulder guarding the dead. Three? With the speed of a cat, Silvanus turned around, and found nothing but shanties to his back.
The sound of hooves racing along the ground turned his attention once more to the grave robbers. Five unmanned horses fled across the landscape. Four men gave a valiant chase before realizing the futility of it. Madness piled on madness.
One of the men-at-arms saw him and pointed. He turned to flee and almost impaled his neck on a sword aimed at his exposed throat.
"Why are you here?"
Silvanus understood the Frenchman and replied in German, "I don't understand you."
A shadow loomed over him and Silvanus twisted his head to see, scraping the swords edge along his neck. A trickle of blood stained his pale tunic.
Hugh de Payens stepped from behind the rock and spat at Silvanus' feet, "A Frank." The eerie sound of unsheathed steel caused Moschus to close his eyes in uncharacteristic fear.
Another Templar approached from the left, hard eyed and grimfaced. An arrowhead scar marred his sun-darkened cheek. "Do we kill him, my lord?"
Lord Hugh shook his head. "No, not here on holy ground. Your thoughts must be pure, sergeant. It is the only way." Payens looked down into Silvanus' eyes, "What do I do with you, peasant? I cannot kill you and I cannot set you free." He nodded over Silvanus' shoulder.
Pain against the base of his skull buckled him over, followed by darkness.
Darkness surrounded him as Silvanus awoke with an exploding headache making the simple tasks of thinking straight and moving difficult. Detaching himself from the pain, Silvanus focused of his plight. The darkness turned out to be a blindfold. His immobility came from binds against hands and feet. The spymaster refused to panic, choosing to fall into his training instead, determined to ascertain the situation with his remaining senses.
The ground felt cold, hard, and dry. A cell? No. I feel rocks, dirt, there's no wind -- the tomb? I'm in the damned tomb! Panic pricked through his mental shroud, but he tamped it back down as the inklings of a plan surfaced.
Silvanus crawled along the floor, looking for anything resembling a sharp object. After minutes of searching, he found nothing. Very well. Now it's time to panic.
A terrified scream echoed across the cave. The sounds of boots sprinting toward him caused Silvanus to squirm and crawl toward a perceived wall. The screamer tripped over his prone body. Silvanus heard a sickening crack of skull against stone. The screams died in an instant.
Silvanus acted without hesitation, crawling along the dead man's body, searching for his weapon. His hands soon grasp something that resembled a pommel. Silvanus clasped the sword and pulled enough of the blade to suit his purposes. An intense desperation sped him along as he severed the bonds.
Soon, Silvanus secured his freedom. Although the cave held no light, he knew he wanted to go away from whatever the Templar fled.
Sword before him, Silvanus stalked onward, praying to reach the entrance, to see the sunlight streaming though, to feel the wind against his cheek. The poised sword clanked against stone and the spy sighed in defeat, running his hand along the smooth face of the boulder blocking his exit.
"Only one way to go now." Turning about, he crept back, picking up the deceased's buckler while passing by. The old fear returned, rising like bile in his throat, and the spy wondered why the fools locked themselves inside.
"Searching," a soft voice replied in the darkness, giving Silvanus notice that he spoke the last thought aloud. The soft sounds of weeping caused Moschus to glance down at his feet. A shadow in the darkness shook as it wept.
Silvanus knelt close by and chose to speak French. "What's wrong with you?"
The dark musing came from a familiar voice of Hugh de Payens. "What?" Silvanus shook his head. "Why are you here, Hugh?"
"You're -- mad."
Footsteps echoed from around a sharp bend "No, he's not mad He just didn't like what he saw."
Silvanus looked up at the stranger, a scrawny adolescent holding a torch above his freckled cheeks still fat from childhood. "You are no knight."
The boy held out his palm -- and returned it to his side after the spy refused to shake it. "Squire François, sir." The boy's dark eyes regarded de Payens with a hint of commiseration. "You might as well leave him be, he has to find his own way -- I think. If you're looking for answers, follow me." The squire turned around, taking his precious light away.
Silvanus followed, leaving Hugh to his fate. "So why are the Templars interested in Samuel's Tomb?"
"They're not," François started before shaking his head, "Sorry. I mean we're not. Watch your step, there're bones everywhere."
Silvanus glanced down and tried to leap out of skin as the corpses in various stages of decay stretched before them. The ebony lacquered armor of a Hun skeleton sat to his right. Beside it, the mummified remains of a Roman Legionnaire clutched an ancient standard of a black eagle on a crimson field. The golden armor of the Saracens glimmered against the flame's light as they trekked past. Further still, the recent dead lay, bearing the familiar marks of the empire. "Armenians, the Emperors mercenaries. What is all this?"
The pale boy seemed to pale more as they crossed the gauntlet of dead. "I don't know."
Silvanus placed a hand on the boy's shoulder, whose palatable fear reminded the spy of his own children when the Crusaders arrived at the gates of Byzantium. "Perhaps we should stop."
François shook his head. "No, you need to see this."
They walked around a natural curve in the tunnel and came across a squared alcove lined with flaming torches along the walls, their light glistening off a wide table of solid gold. Silvanus controlled mouth-watering greed as he eyed the golden bowls, plates, and wineglasses set about it. A second teenage squire hovered above two sergeants, their lifeless forms beneath the opulent scene, turning the moisture in Silvanus' mouth to ash.
The ornate dinner scene intrigued the master of disguise. He strode toward it with sword and shield poised, as if expecting attack, and paused when the nameless squire gasped at his incredulousness. Irritated, he jerked the boy from the scene, tossing him toward François. Inspecting the corpses from a distance, Silvanus found no wounds marring their armor, no signs of a struggle. Curious. "How did they die?"
"Screaming," François muttered.
The second piped in, "They tested God, and He killed them."
Moschus held back a condescending retort. In his line of work, an answer always lay beneath the religion of the ignorant masses. Thoughts drifted back to his journey with the Crusaders through Antioch and the barbarous slaughter of defenseless Muslims in the name of the same God their enemies worshipped. What God of peace bloodies His hands with innocents, and what do you say for the fools who die in His name?
François clucked in irritation "Wasn't God you buffoon. They did it to themselves. They tried to steal it."
Silvanus concealed a smile before facing the two. One of them has hope. "Steal what?"
François rolled his eyes, "The chalice sir, the Holy Grail. The cup Jesus held for his last supper. It's right there in front of you, ready for the taking. That's what the Templars -- what we wanted."
Silvanus stared hard at the wineglasses around the table. "They look like normal glasses to me?"
"Well then, you try touching it," the other boy dared.
Silvanus did not take the offer. Only heroes die for their courage. Who locked us in the tomb?"
François sighed. "He might be right about that one -- rock just tumbled on its own when were all inside."
Frowning, Silvanus surveyed the room for signs of unnatural nooks or cracks, the telltale signs of manmade traps. "Tell me everything that happened in this room."
"Well we were looking for something Lord de Payens called, 'the symbol of our order.' Lord de Payens runs to the table, grabs for the chalice, and starts babbling stuff like, 'This isn't me! I'm a knight! I'm a holy man of God,' and on and on until he starts crying like a baby. The other two tried to steal the other glasses and they just -- fell."
Silvanus sat down and brooded over the problem, thankful for the blissful silence from the boys. A litany of odorless, colorless poisons loomed in his thoughts. However, none that penetrated the skin matched the hallucinogenic symptoms of de Payens. But that does not mean that none exist. The incapacitated men at arms represented another obscure puzzle with no answers. Concentrate of what you can rationalize, Silvanus. A slow, painful death from starvation plagued his mind.
He stared at the table, at the golden objects adorning the stone table. Unless -- Thoughts of his wife and children obliterated the suicidal thoughts. Placing face in hands, the spy uttered a weary sigh, "I should have never followed you. I don't care about the Templars and I don't care about Jesus' damned wineglass. I just want to get out."
A small tremor interrupted his musings. The gold dinnerware melted away to nothing, leaving a single bowl placed in the table's center. Azure flames erupted from the bowl. A scene played within the fire –
A Hebrew, well dressed and young, argued with a man with Mediterranean features, donned in the uniform of an Urban Cohort. The Roman nodded, and the man sprinted to a hill lined with three crosses with dead men nailed to them. A woman watched as he pulled a slender frame from the center cross and carried the body to a tomb. She perched a small wineglass, golden, and studded with gems atop the raised grave.
The flames died. The rumbling ceased. Silvanus leaped to his feet, shocked by the inexplicable. A life ground in the quest for secrets offered no solace, no answer for this oddity. Silvanus felt something caress his cheek. "The wind. The cave is open!" Laughing at the stunned youths, he engulfed them beneath his arms and escorted the pair out of the cave.
Arriving at the entrance, Silvanus noticed an armored shadow silhouetted against the rising sun.
"You might as well come out," the shadow commanded. "You have something that belongs to me."
Shocked at the lunatic's recovery, Silvanus uttered the truth. "We don't have anything, Hugh. I swear to God."
"You have the chalice. How else could the cave open? I felt the Hand of God. I want it. I want it!" The shadow charged, raised longsword screeching across the tomb's ceiling.
Without thought, the spy pushed the lads behind him, ushering them back to the alcove, back to -- a golden table littered with bowls, plates, and wineglasses --
"To the sides!" Silvanus picked up the weapon and shield he left behind, turned to face the madman, feeling overmatched and foolish as rationale sunk in. I await a knight's charge -- and for what? He peered at François to the right, turned toward the nameless one perched against the left wall, and thought about his own children.
The screech of steel against stone preempted Hugh's entrance. He screamed and unleashed a mighty chop against Silvanus' buckler. The impact knocked the smaller man backward into the table.
Silvanus realized the futility of his situation before the attack and planned for the inevitable failure. With Hugh distracted, Silvanus screamed, "Run, boys," and watched the pair escape beneath the shelter of a dented shield.
The knight snatched Silvanus' source of defense from his grip, launching the metal across the room, and lifted the stunned Byzantine by the hair. "It will be mine!"
Fearing for his life, Silvanus strained to employ his strongest weapon, his mind. "You would kill me on hallowed ground?"
Hugh's face slackened for a moment, but only that, before a grimace of anguish and lunacy marred his features. "I am worthy."
"Then take it. It's still here."
Ebony pools widened as Hugh surveyed the magical scene. His grip slackened, and Silvanus slid to the cold floor like a lifeless sack. A gauntleted hand reached for the gem-encrusted cup and paused, surrounding the chalice but not clutching it. "No." Hugh pulled the Greek to his feet and turned him round toward the dinner setting. "You take it." With sword pointed to Silvanus' back, Hugh backed away.
Silvanus faced the tabernacle, unmoving, entrenched in deep thought as eyes glanced down at the corpses under the table. Either by God or by Hugh, I'm dead. I wonder if the boys escaped. The cornered spy noticed an absent breeze. He smiled. Somehow he believed that they had survived -- and somehow he knew it for truth. The spy laughed, and received a painful thrust to his spine for the outburst.
What God of peace bloodies His hands with innocents, and what do you say for the fools who die in His name? The question flowed through his mind unbidden. An answer, secret until this moment, followed.
Unafraid, the sacrifice turned and gazed up into the Hugh's eyes. He laughed at the hatred within them. "I refuse." Silvanus crossed his arms. "We'll both die here."
An impotent scream, full of venom and fury replied as the sword impaled his chest. Pain erupted within him, bringing darkness and with it -- The Light.