If you haven’t found this gem yet, head over to your favorite book retailer to grab a free copy. This is one of my favorite stories (and in my opinion, my best writing yet!), and I still love reading it myself.
Set in Syria during the Crusades, a young Lord Fallondon Breck is tasked with an impossible errand: stop a gruesome murderer near the lake-side village of Ghmam. Expecting great rewards at the conclusion of his mission, he doesn’t realize the challenge facing him. Will he win over a village of civilians, their dark-mooded leader, his eager son, and his beautiful daughter?
Again, totally free everywhere you can find it. If you’re still here, read on for a preview!
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The Year of Our Lord, 1185
Men across Europe have taken the Cross and travel to Outremer by ship, horse, and afoot. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Heaven. Thousands upon thousands follow after dreams and promises. A company of knights led by a young Lord Fallondon Breck arrive in the Principality of Antioch. Their mission yet unknown, their bodies weary from battles in the south. Haunted by demons and bitter memories.
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“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12
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Sensual thoughts filled the mind. The silk voice was ethereal and powerful. It spoke many things. Words of confirmation, admiration, and a call to glory. It was strength and stay when so many troubles haunted the sleeper.
You deserve revenge. No one deserves it more. You have it within you.
Restlessness. Twisting and turning, recalling memories long buried under dry sand. Fire and arrows laying waste all around.
There are allies who would help. Allies like you who hear my voice. They are not like their peers. They, too, seek revenge at any cost. Revenge for things stolen. For lost kindred. Allies with strength and iron conviction. Allies with steel and a will to use it.
Pressing, heavy, like seeking little treasures along the bottom of Tishreen Lake as children. Holding breath till it ached inside. The weight of the waters above threatening to crush little lungs in a watery grave.
I will lead you to them.
Hills. Stone paths. A cave.
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The stone walls of Saone stood silent watch over the mountain pass. Indistinguishable from the rugged cliffs and tumbling rock falls, the grey and tan blocks caught the eye only by their straight lines and geometric harmony. It was an impressive and awe-inspiring presence to any on the road. Flashes of steel and the crack of banners caught in strong winds helped too. A sleeping giant that stirred in slumber. The keep’s occupants preferred to deter enemies when possible.
I followed the young page through a series of passageways, each unremarkable and like the next. He must be nine, maybe ten years old at the most. At that age, one always wondered. Are you a child of this war, or were you unfortunate enough to have been brought here by an eager father?
Hart had to duck beneath several low archways. The big man looked uncomfortable in such close spaces. I couldn’t blame him; we were deep in the fortress now. Growing up in my family’s demesne in England, we spent most of our time outdoors. Running across pastures and commons, vaulting sheep in the crofts, fighting imaginary foes through the hedgerows. Our keep was small, mostly common room and tower. He was practically brother to me. Who’d have imagined? A Saxon of middling birth and the second son of a noble Norman line, here together across the face of the world.
Inside the labyrinth of passageways, somewhere near the top of the main fortification, a large, dry chamber trapped the master of Saone in his duties. Piles of paper, record books, seals, chests, and candles littered a great wooden table doing service as a desk. Several braziers threw off light in the room and added to the tiny streaks of daylight let in from narrow slits high above. Little more than murder ports, they let in a feeble illumination and no air. Pungent smoke hung in the air with a hellish scent. A mixture of old meals, men’s sweat, burnt charcoal, and bitterness lingered in the stagnant air.
Our sandy-haired escort stood by the open door and pounded. Impertinent little whelp. I wonder if the master beat him for such forthrightness? My father wouldn’t have brooked such audacity. All of the Breck boys, and many of the pages and squires from neighboring noblemen, had cut switches for acts of rudeness. I stood behind and took in the chamber while waiting a reply. Master of Saone seemed more like a prison sentence than something one aspired. The pudgy man raised his face and called out in a forlorn voice, “Enter.”
We came through the portal. The master’s eyes weighed us as we approached. Two young knights. We probably looked hardly past twenty summers. Bright eyes, strong arms, broad chests. Scruffy beards, neither too short nor too long. No different than thousands of our following in this land.
“You look like you’ve seen the road judging by your cloths and boots. Who are you, and why are you here?” A Norman, like me. No ‘Ye’s’ and ‘Yer’s’ in his speech. A pitchy voice though, the kind that sat behind desks all day instead of leading charges.
I stood tall, flattening the blue tabard over my maille, a once white hound and hind chasing one another embroidered over my chest. I tipped my head in obeisance, “M’lord, I am Fallondon Breck, second son of Lord Walter Breck of Breckshire. We’ve just come up from Ascalon outside Jerusalem, and were told to report to Saone for duty with you.”
The master leaned back in his chair, wood creaking against his bulk. Sitting around the keep and fighting the war with administration hadn’t left much time for fitness. I could sense he knew I was making that judgment against him. His eyes said as much and betrayed his thoughts. Youth. Soon enough it will be you locked away in a tower, too busy dealing with other men’s problems to see to your own.
“Yea, so I’ve heard. Did you take ship, or did you march? Never mind, it’s all the same anyways. You ride with Amalric of Breckshire, I believe?”
“My uncle, sir.”
Pudgy face nodded, “We’ve received word of your exploits in the south. I’m Robert, master here at Saone. Your company is being recalled to Antioch, is that right? Who is your companion here? Looks like a strong boy himself.”
Tipping his head, he spoke clearly and loud in the small space. “I’m Hart, m’lord. One of Fallon’s liegemen from Breckshire. We’ve ridden together with Lord Amalric for two years now. He gave us word that we were to split from the main host and take the road through Saone for an errand yer grace.” Hart’s Saxon accent was strong as ever, a subtle reminder of his heritage. Years after Normans came to England’s shores it remained the easiest way to distinguish our people.
Robert’s voice brightened a bit sarcastically, “That’s right. We’re having a spot of local trouble and I need someone to manage it. Amalric was the first to return my summons. It seems you gentlemen are my solution…or as much as I’ll get.” The master shuffled papers in a vain search for something at his table. If there was organization, I could not guess what it was.
I produced a script from beneath my tabard, handing it to the older man. I’m sure he was stuck behind the table. “Here, m’lord. This is what we received. It didn’t describe the nature of the issue though. Prithee tell.”
He began reading the script, muttering to himself, before I continued, “It also didn’t say what resources we’d have at our disposal. I see there are plenty of men here at the keep. Looks like more than enough to cover your watches. They’d be welcome to ride with us. Might be better for them to get out than sit around dicing all the day long.”
Robert lifted his eyes at my bluntness. “Yea, the errand. Trouble on the road further west of here. Are you familiar with the region? No? I figured as much. You must have reached Outremer by sea then. Well, lad, let me tell you. This land is fit to burst like a pox boil. It will pop of its own accord if we don’t see to it. Saracens are trying hard to push us back into the sea. Saracens control the land east of Antioch. We’re not more than a few days ride from Saladin’s troops, and Damascus isn’t too far from their picket lines. I receive word of new skirmishes every day, up and down the Orontes. That river is the only thing stopping them from a hard assault.
“The locals are a mix of peasantry who scratch a living from this hellish place. That’s where this gets troubling. The road is no longer safe. We’ve had reports of pilgrims and caravans attacked between Latakia and Antioch. Supposedly the people are found in…” The pause lengthened as he sought the right description. “Questionable circumstances. I cannot spare any of my men. The garrison must remain here in Saone. Yet my lord the Prince of Antioch desires to erase this problem. Bohemond has been explicit in that.”
I blushed at the chiding. Hart looked fit to burst. Neither of us spoke up.
Robert continued, “You will take your knights and retainers up to the Tishreen Lake. It’s as good a place to start as any. Find out what you can, and if it’s within your capacity, stop the perpetrators. I’d prefer to have them stand trial for their crimes if you can manage it. I’ve hung dozens of infidels from the gibbets here. Good example for others and who cares about a few more? How many do you ride with?”
“How many what, sire?”
The master blushed now, “How many knights?”
I smirked, “Only three, m’lord, but I have a dozen men-at-arms in my train. We should be fine. If we determine the threat is too great, I’m sure your grace will see sufficient reason to reinforce our party.”
It was Robert’s turn to grind his teeth. It was good to see my repartee find a chink in his defenses. “We will see, young sir. We will see. I’ll write you new orders and deliver them tonight. You may resupply from our pantry if needed. The barracks are full, but you may stay inside the keep tonight. If you can find space. Depart early enough tomorrow and you might make the lake with a hard march. You may join us at table tonight if you must.”
I bowed, “Yea, m’lord.” The message from uncle remained firmly planted in my mind, a defense against this embarrassment. Don’t get your head up too high. You still have a lot to learn. Take this errand and I’ll meet you in Antioch when you are finished. Await your reward from me.
“Unless you need anything else, you have my permission to be dismissed.” Robert waved his hand and resumed his study of reports and forms. Hart and I looked at one another with shared disdain, turned and left. The click of our spurs rang through the chamber, but the accusatory message was lost on the fat man’s ears.
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The road from Saone to Antioch was beautiful. The paths were laced with tiny flowers set among the brush. Father once told me of the vast deserts we’d find here in Outremer, but it was months since I’d worried over sand storms. These lands were mountainous and filled with the fragrance of cypress trees. Cool breezes kissed the valleys, and steep hills rose on either side of our path. Where the ground did level off there were small plots growing grapes and olives. Shepherds minded flocks of sheep and goats, dotting the pastured hillsides like shifting wisps of cloud.
At the same time, some sections were barren and forgotten. Hard scrabbles of stone chip fell off into deep canyons, and patches of loose scree climbed up hillsides. Armies of tough bushes and choked trees grew in impossible directions. The road had long been cleared by passing caravans and foot-weary pilgrims, but the occasional head-sized rock rolled down with a crash of small thunder. It made one observant. The horses were smart enough to avoid obstructions and leg-threatening hazards. Our train stretched for some ways with all of our supplies and remounts. Even for just three full knights, it was no small matter. Our men-at-arms were well supplied with horseflesh after the Ascalon campaign.
“Hart, what do you make of this errand? Worthy of our effort, or waste of time?” I chewed on smoked meat between sentences. The cook in Saone did right by us when replenishing our stock. Their pantry was full to the brim with dry stores, and he didn’t balk when Jody filled our panniers with goods. As for the salty treat I enjoyed, he didn’t say what animal he’d used and I didn’t ask. It was delicious.
Hart’s horse Argent shuffled beside Starchaser. We led a string of animals behind our party. The sight was common enough in these lands. Knights tended to travel together and kept remounts with them. With so many crusaders in the land, it was only a matter of time before captured horses traded hands. Some men still had their mounts from home. Starchaser made the voyage with ease, and served me well in battle. Argent was French stock and evil. The story of this company.
“I wish our task came from someone competent to help. No men to spare, eh? That fat hog probably got stuck beneath his desk and can’t lift himself out for his necessaries, let alone to actually fight. Road guard feels like a jest. It’s a role for the Templars. No disrespect to the Prince and his retainers, but picket duty? Thought the Templars were supposed to be protecting the roads. Feels like a job for some talented sergeants to manage. After everything we’ve been through, everything we’ve fought for, it feels like we’re starting all over again. Where are our rewards? Our little kingdoms? Nothing at all to show for it all. Baldur, what do ye think?” Hart sat easy in his seat. Argent swayed him back and forth like rocking a babe. A big babe.
Baldur laughed like the old codger he was. “No disrespect, huh? I’ve learned to hold my tongue on such matters. You’d be surprised how quickly such musings reach waiting ears. Prince Bohemond must feel differently about Robert. After all, Saone is a significant charge. But I can’t say. Something sounded off from reports I heard among the garrison. Maybe it’s just the newness of the place to me. All I know is I’m ready for a break from siege work and pitched battle. Never you mind riches and lands. Be grateful you still have your head and aren’t rotting away in some Saracen dungeon. You’d cry a different tune then, boy.” The old man kept looking around us, up into the hills. Wary.
“I agree with you both. But that doesn’t stop me wanting a little bit more. We have been denied. No one disputes our conduct in battle or our contribution to the cause. Yet I’ve seen many others honored before us despite doing much less. It’s time we come into our own. Uncle Amalric was right, best to make short work of this errand and be gone. I heard the King and his army moves south toward Egypt even now. They will try to take Mansurrah in the spring. Think of their reward. The treasures of the Pharaohs. Gold from the Nile. All the wealth and mystery of their lands. Yet here we are, little better than gooseherds watching their gaggle squawk at one another.”
Baldur and Hart were silent for a bit. Maybe I’d struck a chord. Then Baldur continued, “M’lord, we’ve spoken of this before. I caution you against such thinking. If this is an easy errand, then take the rest it provides. There are enemies enough in these lands. Trouble will find us easily enough. You proved yourself already. I know Lord Walter would be proud if you returned home today, and he’d be thankful for it too.”
Hart snorted, “I think he’d be disappointed we accomplished so little. We came to cleanse these lands of filth. To take back what was lost. What if we return empty-handed? Better to not return at all if ye ask me.”
Hart’s words struck me. His shield was down now. I felt the same, though wouldn’t say much about it. Surely my brother Jonathan was managing the orchards and keeping Breckshire safe. It was time for the apple harvest and reaping the fields. Festivals and celebrating a good summer. Sure, we had participated in great battles. The Breck name was known by those we served and those around us. But what could we say for ourselves? If I turned this score of men around, we’d barely have enough coin to sustain us to the coast. Maybe up to Armenia. No riches, no lands, and nothing to show for all our martial success.
We crept up a hilly section of road, slowly climbing towards Ghmam. Somewhere ahead a branch would break left and lead us the rest of the way up into the hills and to the village. I knew Tishreen Lake lay to our left as well. Small creeks spilled down creating swaths of green growth. Just a few more turns to go.
A curious thing caught my attention. A sleek canine head lifted itself from behind a rock. With a scrabble of stone he was standing and lopped towards me. His brindle coat blended into the landscape. There were dogs throughout this land, throughout all of Outremer. Most were gangly creatures, all skin and bone, mongrels and whelps all, starved and more dangerous because of it. The nobles here did not keep hunting animals like we did in England. Usually we found these strays in the vicinity of settlements, lingering in the alleys and byways of cities and towns. I didn’t recall seeing one so far afield.
He came without fear right up to my horse, stick in his mouth and sneezing like springtime was upon us. As the train marched on he got out a ways ahead of us. Starchaser eyed him warily. The dog acted like no harm would come from the heavy mount. My horse decided he was no threat, throwing a light whinny and bluster but nothing more. Usually the animal was more temperamental. Once by my side, the dog sat on its haunches, dropped its stick, and gave two barks. Its tongue flapped in the dry air, its tail wagging in the dust.
“Ho, little friend. Go on home. Git.” I waved my hand like it would do something. The dog laid down, rolled around in the dirt for a moment, then hopped up, took its stick and trotted ahead. When he saw we weren’t moving as fast, he slowed and waited.
“I guess we have a new companion. Hart, don’t worry about the battles and glory. We’ll have opportunity yet to win acclaim. Surely Uncle Amalric is finding our next duties in Antioch as we speak. Maybe we’ll march on Damascus, or Aleppo? There’s still time to gain all you seek. This errand will be over quickly and we’ll laugh about how they should have sent the squires instead. Who knows, maybe you’ll find a hidden jewel in the village and swoon at the sight of a desert diamond whilst Baldur dreams of hearty French ladies.” Even Baldur laughed at my jest. Hart just blushed, the big ox.
I heard the clatter of hooves ahead and stopped the train. Everyone gripped weapons and prepared. No one doubted the dangers the road could present. We were exposed. Ironic for the complaining we’d just made. Jody crested the hill before us and reined to a halt. He was shaken and straining for breath.
“M’lord, ye’ll want to see this. I… I…” I don’t remember seeing him so worked up before. Even in pitched battle he was more controlled. The dog yelped, looked at me and trotted up the hill before us.
“Jody, it’s alright. Take your time.” My mind raced with speculation. Danger? I gripped my sword hilt tighter.
Baldur kicked his steed ahead, “Come m’lord. Let’s see what strikes fear in the old badger.” He drew his sword and a chorus of steel followed. Hands gripped lances tighter. Shields clacked as men pull them close.
The company started up again, weapons in hand. Eyes searched left and right for anything that might betray a threat. The sad baying of our new canine friend was foreboding to my ears.
Baldur stood slack-jawed at the hilltop, Jody beside him. Hart and I reined in as well. Horses skittered to a halt behind us as the more and more filled into the road and broke away to see. Their bluster and nickers added to the noise of weapons shifting in hands. Silence reigned among the men.
Crosses. I counted a dozen straight away but knew there were more. Planted alongside the road like trees, rough-hewed and recently cut. The old style with a tall post, topped with a cross-beam and maybe some bracing, forming a T. Black crows mounted the upper arms filling the air with their lonely cries. My gut turned at the thought of these eyeless corpses crying out in agony. Most were men, but I spied at least two women and three children. Pinned up carcasses spoiling in the air. They were naked. I guessed some had been…spoiled, before being spiked to the crosses.
The crucified man nearest me wore a broken board tied to his feet. Baldur translated the flowing script for us. Not welcome.
We sat for minutes taking the scene in. Each cross was painted in streaks of blood that darkened the ground before them. The crows had made sport of several. A light breeze picked up and washed their stench over us. Several men lost their meals. The dog sat by one of the crosses and began crying a sad song to the sky. His spare ribs and mangy coat shook with grief. He looked as miserable as I felt.
I looked at Hart and Baldur, a grim set in my face. “I take back what I said earlier. We are needed here.”