This is the second sample of my new novel which is set in the immediate aftermath of Saladin’s conquest of the city of Jerusalem. If you’ve seen the movie ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ you’ll have a good understanding of the time and setting.
The huge gates were winched shut. The crowd, which moments before had roared with joy at the departing army, gradually fell silent. People turned and looked at their neighbours, elation fading from their faces. The throng began to disperse. Those who remained looked forlorn, almost embarrassed. A pained silence descended upon them.
John and Simon gazed at the crowd in confusion. It was the first time they had paid them any attention and they were shocked.
The men were swarthy and heavily bearded, a few with turbans. The women wore veils and their arms shimmered with silver.
They can’t be our people, John thought. Since landing in the Holy Land the cousins had paid little heed to the locals. They had assumed that Jerusalem would be full of Europeans. It appeared that they were wrong. The people here looked unlike anybody they had ever seen before.
There was a sudden commotion behind them and they turned to see what was happening.
The two boys were clambering down from the shrine they had climbed to watch the army go by. A priest with pale face and livid eyes grabbed the eldest by the hair.
‘You dare to stand upon a sacred shrine,’ he cried, slapping the boy across the face.
Simon stepped forward. ‘Leave him alone,’ he cried. ‘He’s doing no harm.’
‘Infidels must not pollute this shrine,’ said the priest.
‘I’m not an infidel,’ said the boy.
‘Liar,’ said the priest. He clenched his fist still tighter and shook the boy’s head. ‘What’s your name, infidel?’
‘Claude-Yusuf. My father is a soldier. He’s just marched off with the King.’
The priest slapped the boy once again. ‘A half-breed. Worse than an infidel. I’ll have you whipped.’
‘You can’t do that,’ said Simon.
‘Can’t I?’ The priest held Simon’s gaze. ‘I think you’ll find I can.’
‘He’s done nothing wrong.’
‘He’s a half-breed. Whelped on a Saracen mother. I’d slaughter the lot of them.’
Both boys began to wail.
John had not interfered until this point but he could stand by no longer. He stepped up to the priest but Simon saw and blocked his way, preventing him from reaching the priest.
‘I have journeyed from England to Jerusalem,’ Simon told the priest, ‘and in all those miles I never thought I’d see such unchristian behaviour.’ He prised open the priest’s fingers.
The priest’s eyes narrowed. ‘I shall remember you, infidel-lover,’ he said. He strode off, his curses carrying on the air.
The boys wiped their noses.
‘Are you all right?’ John asked.
‘I am as well,’ said his friend. ‘My name is Gerard. Are you pilgrims?’
John nodded. ‘We are. We’re from England.’
The boys exchanged looks, this news of much greater interest than the recent assault upon them.
‘Is England in France?’ Gerard asked.
John shook his head. ‘Certainly not.’
Simon bent down to the boys. ‘You seem to like soldiers. You were watching the army march past.’
‘Claude-Yusuf is for the Hospitallers,’ Gerard said once again. ‘I’m for the Templars. I shall be one when I get older.’
‘What about you, Claude-Yusuf?’ John asked. ‘Do you want to be a Hospitaller?’
The boy did not answer. He stared at the ground and twisted his toes in the dust.
Simon shrugged and held a penny up to the boys. ‘Thank you for arranging such a magnificent welcome to the city,’ he said. ‘We are going to stay at the Pilgrim Hostel. Do you know where it is?’
‘It’s a long way from here,’ Gerard said.
‘A long way,’ said Claude-Yusuf. ‘We know a better place.’
John raised an eyebrow, suspecting some trick.
‘The best inn in Jerusalem,’ Gerard continued. ‘It’s much better than the Hostel. Good beds, good drink and good food.’
‘It’s close by,’ added Claude-Yusuf.
Simon laughed. ‘Then let’s take a look at this marvel of an inn.’
The two boys took the cousins’ hands and led them into a maze of alleys. John feared they would soon be lost but in a few moments they found themselves at the inn.
‘See,’ said Claude-Yusuf, ‘I said it was close.’
After the glare of the streets the inn looked dark. Better yet, it was cool. A large room stretched in front of them with rough tables and benches dotted around in an ordered manner. At the far end of the room a door led into a courtyard with small trees and shrubs. Along the wall ran a counter stacked with barrels of ale and bottles of wine. A woman stood behind this, cutting bread.
‘We’ve brought some pilgrims,’ Gerard called. ‘From England.’
‘From England?’ The woman smiled and handed each of the boys a slice of bread.
‘You’re good boys,’ she said, glancing over towards John and Simon.
Her face was oval, with olive coloured skin and dark brown eyes. Her hair was a tawny blonde, little darker than the colour of straw. Two dimples played on either side of a tiny mouth. John had never seen anything as lovely. He cast his eyes downward, seeking to banish the thought from his mind.
Simon smiled at the woman.
‘My name is Simon Ferrier,’ he said. ‘And this is my cousin, John.’
‘Welcome,’ the woman said. ‘You must be tired. Can I offer you food and drink?’
Simon nodded enthusiastically but John shook his head.
‘Not yet, I beg,’ he said. His eyes remained fixed on the floor. ‘My cousin Simon may wish to eat but before I do I must climb the hill of Calvary and see where Our Lord was crucified.’
The woman gave a fleeting smile and then frowned, wondering how best to answer.
‘To see that would indeed be a miracle,’ called a man from the courtyard. He was of slight and wiry build, dark skinned with curly hair, a moustache and a wide grin. His apron was covered in red and brown stains, some of them still wet.
Perched upon his shoulder was a small girl about five years of age. He slid her to the floor and came towards them.
‘There is no hill of Calvary,’ the man continued. ‘It was flattened and a church built around it.’
John was shocked. ‘So we can’t see Calvary?’
‘Not a trace of it.’
‘And the cross?’
‘Oh you can see that; or a bit of it at least. It’s in the church. There’s a tiny fragment of timber buried in a cross of gold.’
John frowned. ‘Gold?’
‘The churchmen felt that Christ would have wanted gold.’
The woman sighed and shook her head as if in warning.
‘The cross isn’t in the church now, father,’ Gerard said. ‘The army took it and marched with it at the front of the column, the very front, just behind King Guy. The army took the cross to go to war.’
‘Did they, indeed?’ The man looked troubled.
‘So they stake everything on this attack,’ he said almost to himself.
The novel will be published in December 2012.