Morgan's Genie Ch. 00bybashfullyshameless©
July, 1098 A.D.
Somewhere near Antioch
"You shouldn't have come here, Thomas. You don't belong." His tone carried neither friendship nor respect. The soldier with the axe made no attempt to conceal his easy contempt.
"That becomes clearer every day," grunted Thomas. He dismounted from his horse, leaving it to stand or walk as it wished. His round shield was already on his left arm. Sweat and dust from the road coated his brow. Thomas was barely twenty-three, but the Crusade had already left him feeling far older than that.
Screams and pleas for mercy came from women in the lonely house behind William and his axe. Two bodies in pools of their own blood attested to what had already passed before Thomas arrived. Both Saracens—hardly men at all yet, now never to be—had been shot down with arrows before they had even crossed blades with William or the other Crusaders.
Thomas couldn't imagine what the family here did to support itself. There was no sign of farming, and it didn't look like good grazing land for sheep. Moreover, he didn't know how the Crusaders hadn't sacked it before now. They were only a few miles from Antioch. Given the desperate foraging for supplies during the lengthy siege of the city, surely someone should have spotted this lone home before now.
Antioch had fallen a month ago. The Crusaders had then triumphed over the Turks who had come to save it. None of it mattered to Thomas. Not anymore.
William stood before the doorway to the house, hefting up his axe at the ready while his face retained a casual expression. Violence and killing had become fairly casual affairs for him. "Why not just go home, then?" William asked.
"You murdered John," Thomas said levelly.
"The night we took Antioch. It was not the Saracens who killed him. It was you and yours."
William's brow rose. "You know," he said dryly, "John interfered with us while we searched for plunder among the Saracens, too."
There was no denial. Thomas had no patience for one, anyway. "Geoffrey!" Thomas bellowed as loudly as he could. "Hide in there and die like the wretch you are or come out here to face judgment as a man! Make your choice!"
The ultimatum disrupted whatever was going on in the house. The women's screams fell to frightened whimpers. The taunting calls of the men within ceased. Thomas drew his sword, his shield still on his arm.
"Your idiot friend cost me four of mine," William growled, stepping forward with his axe at the ready. William lunged forward, a touch faster than Thomas had expected but not so fast as to catch the younger warrior off guard. Rather than block the axe with his shield, though, Thomas held the shield close to his chest and spun away, letting William's momentum take him past. The shield was up around again, held parallel to the ground as it slammed into the back of William's head. The crunch of bone was unmistakable. William's body jerked, flailed and fell to the ground.
Thomas paused only long enough to see his foe convulse on the ground before he looked to the house once more. There was a curtain in the doorway and certainly an ambush behind it. Thomas turned back, heaved William to his feet, and forcefully ran the beleaguered soldier at the doorway.
The curtain fell, pulled down as William tumbled into the waiting spear held by the man on the other side. There was a shriek and a stumble of confusion. Another foe advanced from around the side of the doorway, sword at the ready. Thomas gave ground, preferring to fight outside where he had room to move. As the bearded stranger swung left and then right, Thomas expertly blocked with his shield.
Thomas had the measure of the man by the time the one with the spear freed himself from the tangle of William and the curtain and rushed out to join the battle. Tellingly, Sir Geoffrey came storming out after the spearman only once Thomas was fully engaged with both soldiers. "I'll have you drawn and quartered for this treason, Thomas," the knight snarled.
"Your lord might," Thomas grunted. He parried away the sword, blocked the spear with his shield, sprang to his right and slashed expertly into the swordsman's gut. His enemy's mail was shoddy and weak; links split along with skin and muscle. The man let out a shocked, garbled cry of pain before he sank to his knees. Thomas turned with his guard still up. "You won't live to see it."
Sir Geoffrey blinked as his swordsman went down. There was a wary pause; while Geoffrey certainly couldn't be called a coward, he was a man who calculated risks. He should have had a four to one advantage here, but that already been halved at no cost to his foe.
"Harold," Geoffrey said, "go left." He stalked around Thomas to the right. The spearman moved left as instructed. "Walk away and I let you live," Thomas offered evenly to Harold. "William and Geoffrey here owed me blood. You don't share in their crimes."
It didn't work. Harold said nothing, but rather looked to Geoffrey, then back at William, and awaited his chance. There was a long, tense standoff, two foes circling Thomas while he waited calmly for one or the other to make a move. The wind began to pick up, carrying dust and sand along with it.
"Your friend died protecting Saracen sluts, like you are now," Geoffrey sneered. "He bled out in the dirt for the sake of those we came to conquer. There's a special place in Hell for traitors."
Thomas didn't take the bait. He merely kept his guard up, doing his best to keep track of both circling opponents. More dust blew by.
Geoffrey tried again. "You are a dead man, Thomas," he said. "Even if you should survive the night, you'll be hanged as a traitor. If you are lucky."
"Indeed," Thomas nodded. "That much is already decided. Either I die here, or I die on the morrow. In light of that, you might reconsider your odds of talking your way out of this before you waste more breath."
Geoffrey spat. He kept creeping to the right, searching for an advantage. Thomas kept him in view, listening carefully for any shift in movement or stance from Harold. Yet as Geoffrey moved, Thomas caught sight of someone behind him.
The old man was dressed in darkly-colored Saracen peasant's garb. Though his face bore age, it still carried strength. Rather than lean on his staff, he held it aloft in one hand while the other hand released sand into the wind.
It was just enough of a distraction. Harold made his move, rushing forward. Thomas spun. There was ever more dust in the wind, thickening with every heartbeat. He had to squint while he brought his shield up to block the spear, pushing forward hard, slamming into the enemy. It was only to put Harold off-balance. Geoffrey would be there in a moment.
Thomas turned just in time to block Geoffrey's swing and bring his own sword down across Geoffrey's face. He couldn't recover quickly enough, though; the spear hit him from behind. It bit across the back just below the shoulders. Thomas felt the head of the spear slice into his backbone, more of a slash than a stab. There was a split-second of horrible realization of how deeply he'd been cut, and then nothing.
His arms went limp. The blade fell from his hands even as Geoffrey tumbled to the ground dead. Thomas swayed, trying to turn with limbs that would no longer move for him. The sandstorm grew worse.
It hadn't been that dusty out here. It was bad land for grazing, but it wasn't desert. The storm was so strange, and so sudden...
A moment later, Thomas realized there was someone right there in front of him. He only had sight of the old man for a second. Then the staff slammed into Thomas's head, and the world went dark.
* * *
"I have always known that Christians are prone to fighting amongst themselves," someone said in the darkness. "I have seen it. It is not so different from my own people, sadly. But I did not think to find Christians killing one another at my door."
Thomas couldn't open his left eye. He couldn't move from where he lay, either, yet he felt nothing holding him down. His right eye flitted open, treating him to the sight of the stars above.
The old man knelt beside him. "You killed all but the one with the spear," he said simply. "That one I let run off back to the city."
"Why?" Thomas croaked.
"He hasn't much more time, anyway," the old man shrugged. "He is sick. He doesn't know it yet, of course. Few of your men do—yet a good number of them are. I saw no need to stain my hands with his blood."
"Not much need for that. I can do little for your wound, I'm afraid. It is all I can do to keep you alive as it is. You would at best be bedridden for the rest of your life."
He could not rise, but Thomas was still capable of a shuddering breath. "Then killing me would be a kindness."
"Do you deserve such kindness, Christian?"
After a long moment, Thomas let out another shaky breath. "No."
"Tell me, Christian," the old man went on curiously, "Why are you here?"
"I came to avenge a friend," Thomas managed, "and to honor his memory."
"Oh, I gathered that," the old man replied. "You also saved my daughters from rape and death. Alas, not so much for my servants."
"I am sorry for that. Truly."
"Why? Were they not pagans? Monsters?"
"No...they were just boys. There are no more monsters here than there are among my own people. I know that now. John tried to tell me, before he died. I should have stayed in Normandy. Found a woman. Made a home. We were fools to come here."
"But why did you come?"
"Because my liege demanded it. Because there was a holy cause. We came to reclaim the Holy Land for Christ."
"I have read of your Christ," the old man nodded sagely. "I have read your sacred texts. Have you?"
"A pity. You might have found, as I did, that there is no point where Christ instructs anyone to shed blood over this land. I seem to recall his message was one of peace and love, not war."
Thomas swallowed hard. It was difficult. He was dying, and knew it. "Then I may have been misinformed," he managed.
The old man laughed. "So, that eliminates Christ from the question. And your liege?"
"Is far less worthy of all this blood than Christ," Thomas answered after a moment.
"I see. Not a good Christian?"
"Nor a good man," Thomas sighed. "I knew, but...I told myself that he was good enough. I was wrong."
"It is a terrible thing, to serve someone who is unworthy."
"It is." Thomas fell silent for awhile. The stars were beautiful. "I'm going to die tonight."
The reply did not come immediately. "What would you do if you did not? Would you leave here?"
"And to what end? To find a worthy liege? Or perhaps a woman? Peace and love?"
"Yes," Thomas answered. A tear fell from his eye.
The old man nodded thoughtfully. "These are difficult things to find. It could take you a very long time."
"It is a sin to settle for less," Thomas whispered. "I know that now."
The old man's hand was on his shoulder. He couldn't feel it, and only knew it was there because he saw the old man reach down. "You saved my daughters and avenged my servants," the old man said. "I owe you a debt."
"I am the one who owes," Thomas whispered.
"If you had a chance to serve out the debt you feel you owe," the old man asked, his voice grave yet hinting at hope, "would you want to live? If it were in service to another?"
"Only," Thomas gasped, then swallowed, "only if it was someone worthy."
The old man produced a bottle then, sealed and decorated with complicated patterns of lines. It wasn't terribly ornate, nor did it look to be made of any precious metal, but the bottle was striking just the same. As he removed the top, smoke began to rise forth, billowing out with a dozen pleasant scents.
"What is happening?" Thomas asked.
"We must talk of service, Thomas," the old man said simply. "We must talk of service, and of worth, and of second chances."
* * *
Harold didn't have long to run. His horse was not far away, nor those of his now-dead comrades. Harold paused at those horses only to quickly check them for supplies and booty before rushing back to Antioch. He had to ride through the night, feeling a touch feverish and fatigued but knowing he must press on.
He found his lord on the road outside the city, riding with several others. "Charles!" he cried out. "My lord Charles!"
The husky, bearded warrior on his horse turned a curious eye on his man. He couldn't help but immediately note that Harold came to him without his spear, nor any other weapon on his belt or on his horse. He watched as Harold dismounted and bowed. "Speak," he said.
"We found the old man. It...well, we found his house first, and attacked. He didn't turn up until later. It was as you said; the charms you gave us were proof against the magic in his home. We broke down his wards, we had slain his servants and lay in wait in his home, but..." Harold broke off in a coughing fit, wheezing as it passed to control himself again.
"What happened?" Charles growled. "Where is my son?"
"Dead, my liege. They're all dead. All but me."
"The old man killed my son?"
"No, lord. Not the old man. Thomas."
Charles glowered at Harold for a short moment. His first thought was to kill Harold on the spot, partly out of rage that he had survived when Geoffrey had not and partly out of pure frustration. But there were more important matters to resolve here. "Show me," he said before waving to the rest of his men to follow.