Shane D. Rhinewald has always been fascinated by the Middle Ages—that harsh, gritty and yet often richly romantic period. His interest in castles and swords caused him to pursue an undergraduate degree in history despite having no interest in teaching it. He went on to earn a graduate degree in journalism and worked for several years in the newspaper business. He now earns a living as a public relations professional and writes fiction on the side. His speculative fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Daily Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Big Pulp, and in several anthologies.
Feast of Faith
By Shane Rhinewald
Everything smelled like death—sweet, mouth-watering death.
Fires burned in the fallen city of Ma’arra, carrying the stench on their curling smoke, and it reminded Simon of Provence of roasting meat. His stomach—empty for days—rumbled its delight, and he licked cracked lips with a dried tongue. Dead bodies, he told himself, trying to wish the ache in his belly away. Just Saracens, he remembered, cut down in the streets or peppered with arrows on the battlements. Still, they smelled as good as freshly slaughtered cows.
Simon pushed the mail coif off his head and knelt in the dirt. He looked up at the moon, hanging just above the horizon as if wondering whether or not to make its ascent this night. It cast milky light on a broken siege tower that leaned against the southern wall of the city, lopsided. Simon could make out the shape of a man hanging limply from the contraption. He was glad for the men who had first breached the walls and given their lives to end the siege. On other nights, it had been him on those walls, one thrust away from death.
Today fortune had favoured him.
He had been at the back of the line, nursing the wound in his thigh where a Saracen spear had torn out a chunk of flesh the day before. Simon rubbed the blood-crusted linen beneath his trousers, trying to remember what it had felt like but to no avail. Instead, he could only remember the arrow he had taken in the shoulder at Antioch. That had pushed a chainmail link into his flesh, and the camp doctors had said he would die of rot and disease. But God watched out for his truest soldiers—at least that’s what Simon liked to believe.
Still, the wounds over the years had taken their toll, and at seven and twenty he walked more like a village elder than a man in his prime. His left shoulder hardly moved anymore, the joint partially frozen, making it all but impossible to use a shield. His right knee, swollen to the size of an autumn gourd, ached each night when the temperature dropped. And the jagged scar that streaked down his cheek like a river tributary stared angrily back at him each time he caught his reflection in a pool of water.
No one had told Simon it would be like this when he had agreed to take the cross and march for the Holy Land. Certainly not the Pope, who had stood in French towns, proclaiming the need to win back Jerusalem from the infidels. Urban II only spoke of glory for God, untold riches, and opportunities for peasants to be made lords. To a man-at-arms of common birth, that had all sounded good. Good enough to leave behind a doting wife and a daughter of six.
But Simon would give that all up now—glory for God or riches—for a piece of bread or a bowl of porridge. Even a mouldy biscuit. Anything to fill his belly and take away the constant, gnawing pain. It dwarfed everything else; the knee, the shoulder, the thigh. His stomach felt like a tangle of ropes, constantly twisting and pulling, tauter and tauter.
So he stood from the dirt and struggled forward on two painful legs, hoping to find food in the fallen city. Raymond de St. Gilles, Count of Toulouse and Duke of Narbonne, had promised them riches when they had marched from Antioch months ago. But mountains of grain would have been more appealing than mountains of gold right now. There had been little water and less food on the journey through the desert, and those who didn’t die of the plague unleashed in Antioch had been forced to butcher and eat their horses. Even his liege, Sir William de Guiraldi, had cut his beloved palfrey’s neck, offering the meat to his closest men-at-arms. Simon had not been one of them.
So with only food on his mind, Simon stepped inside the ruined and smouldering gate of Ma’arra. He had fought at Nicaea, Dorylaeum, and half a dozen other places he couldn’t recall the names of, but nothing prepared him for what he saw inside the city. The dead lay everywhere; men, women, children, and even dogs, crumpled in doorways, pinned with arrows against walls, or blackening in fires. Blood ran in rivers through the streets, finding the cracks in the cobblestones and quickly filling them.
Others were still dying or trying to escape, stumbling dazed and bloodied through the maze of streets. A woman with a gash in her forehead passed, screeching something in Arabic. Simon just watched her run by and blinked his gummy eyes. He couldn’t make sense of the chaos around him. A pikeman charged past, almost knocking him over, and plunged his weapon into the belly of an old man. Both fell in a twisted heap of flailing arms and legs.
Simon stopped and turned in a circle, the hunger in his belly all but forgotten. He had seen the slaughtered Jews in Metz. He had seen Kerbogha of Mosul’s army left to the carrion birds. He had seen men scratch their faces bloody in Antioch. But nothing compared to the savagery he saw now. It was as if God had abandoned them and their quest in this cursed city.
Simon started to turn away from the scene, ready to abandon his quest for food and return to the crusader camp at the edge of the city. But he saw a headless corpse slumped in a doorway and stopped. A child of no more than nine, he thought, probably as old as his own daughter now. Thinking of Isabella only brought bile to the back of his throat, and if he’d had any food in his stomach, he surely would have vomited. Instead, he just swallowed the bitterness. It felt like a lifetime ago when he’d left Marianne and Isabella with promises of a lordship and their own manor.
As he stared at the girl’s body, Simon couldn’t help but remember the words of an old priest, standing on the side of the road as they had departed Italy, declaring, ‘Killing an infidel is not a sin. It is the will of God.’ He wondered if the priest would say that now. Simon made the cross on his chest and turned.
Soldiers milled about him, stripping the dead of any valuables or raping them. Simon had seen it before but had still not grown accustomed to it. One soldier stood off to the side, trying to pull off his chain hauberk, one hand already at the front of his trousers. A woman lay sprawled in the road beneath him, still alive, maybe. In the end, it wouldn’t matter.
Simon approached the man and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘Is that God’s will?’
‘Fuck God’s will.’
Simon turned back toward the gate and lowered his eyes to the road.
Startled, he turned to see Louis, a Norman crossbowman he had befriended at Nicaea. A year ago, the man had walked with a proud, almost arrogant, gait. Now, he moved with hunched shoulders and a slight hobble. Still, he smiled. Even in dark times, Louis always had a good jest, and it had been that humour which had drawn Simon to the man. Simon pulled the man into an embrace, feeling the Norman’s breath on his neck.
‘Good to see you alive, my friend,’ Simon said.
‘And you. I heard you took a spear on the battlements.’
Simon patted his thigh. ‘God is still with me, I think. I fear he may not be with the rest of us though.’
Louis pulled Simon between two timber houses, and whispered, ‘I came over the wall soon after the city fell. Raymond de St. Gilles tried, but he simply could not keep order. The men are desperate and hungry and beyond reason. It’s been chaos since, and the killing and burning is not done yet. Even the bishop couldn’t stop it. A group of knights from Brittany ran him off when he tried.’
‘I don’t like any of this,’ Simon said, shaking his head. ‘This hardly feels like the work of our Holy Father. This isn’t why I took the cross.’
‘They are still infidels,’ Louis offered, but he hardly seemed sure of it. He was as pious a man as Simon had known, and his sudden uncertainty unsettled Simon’s stomach.
‘Is there at least food?’
Louis shook his head. ‘The food situation’s dire, at best. From what I’ve heard, the Saracens emptied their stores, and the surrounding villagers are blackening their fields. The nobles and highest-ranking knights confiscated what victuals could be found, and there’s been fighting over the rest. I ate a biscuit earlier that I found crumbled in the pocket of a dead Saracen, but that’s been it. If we don’t march on Jerusalem soon, we may all starve to death in this Muslim shit hole.’
‘When will we march, do you think?’
Louis shrugged. ‘We march as soon as Raymond and Godfrey and Bohemond and the rest of those calling themselves lords stop squabbling like children. Their arrogance may be the death of us all. I hear Bohemond is still in Antioch, calling himself prince and refusing to march farther.’
‘So we did all of this for nothing? No march on Jerusalem. And worst of all, no bread.’
Louis shrugged and cast his eyes to the ground. ‘Sometimes I wish I had never left Normandy. Damn the Pope and his proclamations.’
When they had met at Nicaea, Louis had told Simon of his children, and the two had bonded around the campfire, sharing stories of their families. Both men had left behind youngsters who would never understand why their fathers didn’t return home if they were to die in this cursed place. Simon thought of Isabella again and her curly hair.
Louis, likely sensing the melancholy mood, clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Some of the men have bedded down in the ruins of a mosque. Come. Let’s see if we can scrounge up something for you to eat.’
Simon nodded and followed the crossbowman without complaint, trying to stifle his tears.