A Story of the Fourth Crusade
(With First Alternative Ending in the Style of Jorge Luis Borges)
By Rosa Martha Villarreal
These swore on the holy relics that they would perform their embassy loyally and in good faith, and that they would come back to their host. Three kept their oath well, and the fourth evilly, and this one was Robert of Boves. For he executed his office as badly as he could, and perjured himself, and went away to Syria as others had done.
--Memoir or Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and The Conquest of Constantinople, Geoffrey de Villehardouin,
Translated by T. Marzials
When Sir Robert departed for the Holy Land in defiance of his lord, the Doge of Venice, he was accompanied by an archer known as Eusebius de Asturias because the archer hailed from northern Spain. The archer had fought against the Moors since his youth, and now in the waning years of his prime he saw his one last chance to gain spoils in the rich lands of the orient. Soon after he swore fealty to the knight, Eusebius and his new lord secretly departed at night and secured passage to a small port near the Turkish border. There, they were to meet with a small band of crusaders and travel overland through the Muslim lands by night and resume their journey by daylight once they reached the safety of Christian lands.
When they arrived at the port, the other crusaders were not there. But Sir Robert and Eusebius dared not wait. Their brothers may have been arrested or shipwrecked or perhaps have had a change of heart. One way or the other, by now their plan was surely known to the Doge and the Frankish Barons, and there was no other recourse except to continue to Syria alone.
Sir Robert and Eusebius hid during the day in abandoned stone huts in the countryside or in caves. In the dead of the night, they stole food from the villages and farms. Soon every night seemed like the night before and only the changing moon told them that time was indeed passing, and they were still living men and not wandering spirits.
One night, they discovered an offering of food at the entrance of a Muslim village. Or so they thought. The remains of a slaughtered sheep hung on a post. Not the entire carcass, just the heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys. Blue glass amulets were hung next to the entrails. Pieces of paper with Arabic writing were littered on the ground as well.
Eusebius was wary of the food offerings, but not Sir Robert whose mind was filled with fantastical musings about how the villagers must think they were spirits or wayward angels. When they found similar meat offerings at the entrance of every village, the knight was more convinced than ever that this was a sign from God.
When the third full moon had arrived, they came upon a stone marker with three crosses. They were now in Christian lands. Giving thanks to God, they slept for the remainder of that night and greeted the sunrise once again.
The first Christian village they encountered was empty. The livestock was all gone, and the barns, grain stores, and other foodstuffs had been burned. Inside the homes, disorder abounded as if the people had but a few moments to gather what belongings they could before fleeing.
“The infidel armies must have marched through here on their way to the Holy Land. Perhaps there are Christian souls hiding nearby,” said the knight.
“Aye, my lord” responded the archer. “The wells may have been poisoned. We should drink and water our horses only at the springs from now on.”
Days later, when they found another village, it, too, was abandoned and all of the food was burned. They wondered why they had not yet seen a single refugee. What they did encountered helter-skelter on the road between the abandoned settlements were large mounds of dirt. Sir Robert, frustrated by the sight, finally decided to poke at the dirt, and a human hand was revealed. He galloped to another nearby mound and found another corpse interred standing up.
“What foulness,” said the knight.
“Aye, my lord,” said the archer. “It must be a pagan custom.”
They rode on for several more days, barely speaking. But each silently waited for the world that they knew to re-emerge, for human souls to reappear. Even the sight of the enemy would have been preferable to this solitude. Then an unexpected sight appeared. The sun hung low in the sky, and a grove of trees appeared in the horizon, almost as if it could only be seen in the light of the dying sun. The knight raised his arm, and the archer halted at his side. Sir Robert took out his map, a gift from his uncle who had fought in the previous crusade.
“The grove is not marked on the map, Asturias. But the trees look mature. A strange omission, indeed.”
The archer said nothing.
“Could we have taken the wrong path somehow?” said Sir Robert. Then speaking more to himself: “Perhaps my uncle thought it unimportant to mark the grove being that the Monastery of Saint – is but a league from here.”
“Or perhaps…” the archer finally spoke up.
“What?” the knight said irritably.
“My lord, it could be an enchantment of the Devil or some pagan demon. We should ride on.”
The knight ignored the warning and defiantly spurred his horse towards the grove. He was a soldier of Christ, and if he had to battle the Devil himself, he would do so for God and glory.
From the perimeter of the grove, the crusaders could see thin rays of light break through the canopy of the thick ancient trees. A mud brick structure was partially hidden in the shadows.
“Asturias,” said the knight. “Look beyond. There appears to be a house in the grove. There may be someone there.”
Before Eusebius could respond, Sir Robert brusquely spurred his horse forward, but the animal resisted, reared and threw him to the ground. The archer swiftly dismounted and tended to the knight who was stunned by the fall.
“Do not move, my lord. Rest here for a while. I shall investigate.” Eusebius drew his archer’s sword and walked towards the house. The archer found several fresh burial mounds marked by crude crosses of branches tied with rope. The dead appeared to be hastily buried and the odor of decomposition—and something else that was like the perfume of decaying flowers–seeped from the soil. The archer thought, “Perhaps the infidels had recently rampaged through these lands. Or perhaps there had been a plague. Perhaps that is why the villages were abandoned.”
The mud brick house in the grove was partially collapsed and exposed. Eusebius could see barrels and tools strewn about. As he approached, he saw a door which proved to be unlocked and opened with slight push to a second room which had a small cot, a table and stool, and a fireplace for cooking. A kettle hung in the fireplace. An iron pan was hung next to the fireplace, and on a shelf nailed to the wall he found flour, dried meat, and oil, as though someone had recently been living there. He wondered if the owner were nearby.
Eusebius returned and reported his findings–and his suspicions–to the knight.
“I do not trust this place, my lord. It is almost as if it has been set up to lure us in. We should move on, sir.”
The knight, however, aching from the fall, ignored the archer’s words.
“We stay here tonight. The monastery is a day’s ride from here.”
The knight had been in good spirits that evening, but the archer was filled with foreboding. The knight prayed and mediated while the archer boiled some water for Sir Robert’s bath and baked some bread and roasted the dried meat over the fireplace. At dinner, the knight ate lustily but not Eusebius. Unlike the knight, his sense of smell seemed to have been fouled by the odor permeating from the graves because he could have sworn the food smelled like the perfume of decayed flowers. The knight, however, claimed there was no such odor. Eusebius tried to eat but he would retch the moment the food was near his mouth. The knight laughed and devoured the remaining food. That evening after his prayers, Sir Robert retired on the cot.
The archer slept on the floor next to the fire not so much to warm himself because it was not cold. It was as if he needed the proximity of that primal weapon, fire. Though he suppressed the thought, he sensed an unseen enemy nearby, and placed a lit torch at the entrance of the room for extra protection. The horses sensed danger, too, because they rustled about nervously. Eusebius took the torch and went outside to calm them. He was suddenly overtaken by a magnetic urge, a perverse curiosity, to return to the nearby burials. His instincts told him there was something there. He went and got a shovel and began to dig up one of the graves. The body appeared to lay in an uneasy repose, as though, she–it was a woman—had been carelessly and unceremoniously dropped. He got on his knees to get a better look, and as he passed the torch over her body, he saw that her torso was exposed, ripped open and desecrated by some unspeakable violence.
“God be merciful,” he said, crossing himself, and filled the dirt back into the grave. As he walked back to the house, he thought he saw the outline of a man standing in the night shadows, but when he called out, no one answered. He gave it no further thought and went back inside to sleep.
Many hours later, Eusebius shuddered, awakened by the horses’ cries of terror. He ran outside and saw their penumbras disappear into the shadows. The archer ran after them, unarmed and without alerting his companion and without the torch. He followed the sounds of their pounding hooves and occasional neighs. Thick clouds moved back and forth, obscuring the moonlight and then suddenly moving again, brightly illuminating the landscape before him. He spotted the horses in a meadow, huddled, whimpering, and rubbing their heads and necks against one another.
When he reached the horses, the clouds shifted once more and the moon shone on what appeared to be a mound. It was not a dirt mound like those they had seen before but a stone beehive mound. In the moonlight, Eusebius saw a narrow opening. “What a strange and ungodly land this is,” he thought, crossing himself. The clouds once again shrouded the moon just as a man emerged from the aperture.
“Greetings!” said the archer. “Are you a Christian, good sir?”
The man said nothing. Eusebius could not make out the other’s face. Then the clouds drifted again and the moonlight shone on the stranger’s face, albeit ever so briefly. The archer squinted his eyes in disbelief, for the fleeting image seemed an abomination. The man’s face appeared to be that of two men squeezed together. The man made a muffled sound, filling the archer with terror. Eusebius ran towards the horses, who had not moved and merely watched him all along as though they were held there by a spell. He mounted his horse bareback and galloped away with the knight’s horse running along his side. Thoughts raced through Eusebius’s mind. Had the animals been lured there by that obscene and ungodly monster? “I must tell my master!”
When the archer returned to the house, the sun had begun to rise. The knight commanded him to help him with his chainmail. Eusebius reported the events of the night before.
Sir Robert was disinterested. “We must hurry to the monastery. Our greater mission awaits us.”
When they arrived at the monastery, the gates were wide open. The streets were empty. Nary a human soul was to be seen. Rats scurried about trash and partially burned food. Even the dogs and cats had apparently fled with the people.
“Ho, there!” cried the archer, his voice dissolving into the wind that swept through the main thoroughfare.
“Fear not!” shouted the knight. “We are soldiers of Christ!”
“My lord,” said the archer. “Perhaps the monks are barricaded in the church.”
But the church, too, was empty, undisturbed, as if all had fled in an instance.
“Asturias, there is a foul evil in this land,” said the knight, crossing himself.
“I feel it, too, my lord,” said the archer.
“Let us rest here tonight, and tomorrow we will continue our journey to Syria.”
That very night, Sir Robert fell ill with a fever. They quartered themselves in the parlor and decided to wait for the fever to pass. But the fever only worsened. The knight slept most of the time, restless, and the suffocating perfume of decaying flowers drenched his clothes and the bedding. Eusebius tried feeding the knight small game and wild figs, but Sir Robert ate little if at all. The archer went into the apothecary’s lab to find something to give to the knight. But as he could not read, he went about opening jars and smelling the contents, hoping to find a familiar smell of an herb the midwives had used back home. Some of the herbs and powders had familiar scents. Eusebius boiled these medicines in the hope that he could miraculously cure the knight but to no avail. The knight merely lay in bed, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling. He had stopped eating and managed only to rise from bed to relieve himself.
Desperate, the archer went back to the apothecary’s lab and frantically leafed through books, hoping beyond hope that the pictures would tell him something. The pictures resembled those he had briefly seen before in other books: Soldiers, monks, scenes of battles. In some scenes the holy men confronted God’s spiritual enemies: Satan, demons, heretics, and witches. He ran his fingers over the words, silent as rocks, their secrets locked from him. He was certain that the words in the books, like the powders and herbs in the jars, held the cure to his companion’s ailment.
Exhausted he went to bed, and, as he slept and dreamt, his mind’s eye again saw the images in the books and discerned a pattern that had escaped him before. He got out of bed and returned to the apothecary’s lab. In the flickering candlelight, he studied the pictures and found images half-hidden on the peripheries of the illustrations, faces camouflaged among the shrubs and trees.
In a different illustration, men-like creatures—part bird, part serpent–were embedded in the face of a cliff. They appeared to struggle to free themselves. He turned the page and studied the next illustration. In the foreground, the soldiers of Christ and monks marched in a procession, their feet floating above the ground like ghosts, while barely visible in the background, a mound with protruding hands and feet. Some of the soldiers were kneeling and praying, their eyes heavenward, mouths agape.
Eusebius took another one of the books he had previously inspected: One depicting battles, a castle, and an army of crusaders attacking the castle. One particular scene depicted a pitched battle. The occupants of the castle hurled rocks, arrows, and poured cauldrons of boiling oil at the crusaders. When he saw this illustration the day before, Eusebius assumed that the enemy were the Turks. But something caused him to pause before he turned the page. A curved glass lay on the desk. He had seen the monks use them before to magnify words and objects. He took the glass and held it over the men atop the castle and he fell back with a muted shriek. They were not Turks! They were not even men but the same bird-serpent men-like creatures of the previous picture. “Not even the pawns of the Devil!” he thought. “Something more sacrilegious, things beyond God’s creation.”
Then the sunlight shone on the pages. He had spent the entire night studying the books. He hurried to his companion’s side. The knight was gone.
The day was overcast, and Eusebius rode at a brisk pace, deep in thought, mulling the enigma of Sir Robert’s disappearance. The knight must have vanished on foot because his horse was still in the stable. Yet his chainmail, shield, and sword were gone. When Eusebius had last seen Sir Robert the night before, he was still bedridden, barely speaking. Eusebius wondered what miracle had occurred that allowed his companion not only to rise from bed but walk away. But soon, on horseback, Eusebius was sure he would overtake the knight. He crossed himself, and, as if God had heard his thoughts, the sun broke through and the archer beheld a castle perched on the mountain before him.
With Sir Robert’s horse tethered to his, he pressed forward. The road before him wound and ascended towards the mountain. The clouds parted every so often and the sunlight seemed to reveal a different world, strong and godly, as if to press him onward. Then the clouds once again darkened the skies. He caught something out of the corner of his eye, an image from a recurring dream which had haunted him since childhood: An enormous, half-decaying tree twisted with age, protruding from a pile of enormous rocks. He remembered it now. In his dream, there was a hollowed-out space in the trunk of the tree. A crystal would rise from the crevice and float in the air.
He searched many years in his youth for the meaning to the dream, questioning the Spanish monks in the monasteries they had liberated from the Muslims. No one had an answer but a monk who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land decades before. The monk said that the Egyptian wizards from the time of Moses had made such a crystal to preserve the bodies of the dead. But Eusebius now wondered: What if the monk was wrong and the crystal could turn lead into gold as the alchemists said? What if his dream had been an omen? For that brief moment, Eusebius’s being was filled with joy. He dismounted and searched the tree for any hollowed-out spaces but there were none. He looked at the pile of rocks. Some of the rocks were not strewn about willy-nilly but arranged in a pattern.
Eusebius sensed that the crystal was hidden there and began to toss aside the rocks. A rune stone became visible. He paid no attention to the rune stone’s images let alone try to decipher their message—their warning. He lifted a slab and discovered a corpse with a gauze-like veil on his face and his body covered with a half-rotted, blood stained shroud. The stench of decaying flowers permeated from the grave. Perhaps the gem was hidden therein. He looked around and found a branch and slightly lifted the shroud and saw that that the corpse’s chest had been crudely slit open. Then the corpse shuddered. Eusebius jumped back and crossed himself. “Did I imagine it, dear God?” he said out loud. But when looked again, he saw the fingers on the exposed hand moving slightly. He threw the slab on top of the corpse and piled the rocks atop the grave and fled at full gallop.
Eusebius felt himself falling and shuddered. He had fallen asleep on the road while riding. He looked behind him, and Sir Robert’s steed walked calmly with that serenity that comes from the lack of dreams, that cursed portal into the unseen worlds. Eusebius wondered if he had indeed seen the animated corpse or if he had dreamt it. Before he could give that further thought, he saw the castle was about half a league away. From there, he could discern the castle’s bluish hue, as if the stones were illuminated by some unseen moon. It would be nightfall soon, so he backtracked to a nearby creek to make camp. The horses grazed for a while, but they returned to the camp when the sun had almost sunk beneath the horizon. They hovered near Eusebius as he cooked a rabbit he had hunted earlier in the day. They lay near him like dogs, as though they took comfort in the fire and his presence. He could have sworn they sighed.
“You are good beasts,” he said rubbing their heads, and he did not bother to tether them for the night.
Later that evening, the waning moon floated over the castle. He saw the dense penumbras of men moving about the ramparts of the castle. He was now certain that they must have kidnapped Sir Robert for ransom as was the custom. He kneeled and prayed out loud to God to steel himself for the uncertainty that lay before him.
When the sky turned to the gray hues of early morning, he saddled the horses, and rubbed their necks. “Wait for me here, my friends, my angels. I shall return shortly with our master.” He fashioned a torch, strapped on his sword, and slung the bow and arrows over his shoulder, and walked towards the castle.
The gate of the castle was swung wide open, as if they—whoever they were–had left it open just for him. From a distance, he could see the courtyard was empty and the only sound was that of the wind. Eusebius knew this could be a trap, but he had to try and find Sir Robert. He walked about the perimeter of the castle to search for a way in and found a collapsed portion of the outer wall. Once inside the wall he made his way inside the castle. In the interior of the castle, he saw objects embedded in the stones. Bright and illuminating, some resembled the contraptions of alchemists and astronomers. Others appeared like toys, not the toys he’d seen, but what a people from another world would conceive of as toys. Others were shards of metal.
When he entered a different hall, the rafters were collapsed as if a projectile had landed there during a battle. The debris of the roof was strewn about, and the sun shone on the walls revealing carved reliefs depicting a story of some kind. Bird and serpent men-like creatures were eating the hearts and entrails of humans and horses. He dropped on his knees and prayed to God for protection for whatever place this was it was not that of the Muslims who at the very least worshiped a God similar to his, if not the very same one. He took the flint stone that hung from his neck and lit the torch. Whatever abominations inhabited this cursed castle could not be immune from fire, that sacred secret stolen by a strange god as a gift to mankind long before his God had existed.
He walked through the spacious corridors, noting distinguishing markers so he could find his way out quickly if need be. Finally, he came to an entrance that opened up to a great hall. A blue-tinged light streamed from the stained-glass windows high above, giving the sensation of being submerged under water. Eusebius saw men–Christian men—standing in the room. He knew that because of the red crosses emblazoned on their white capes. He wanted to call out, but an instinct that had persevered since the time humans were but ape-men abominations themselves silenced him.
Eusebius approached the center of the great hall. The crusaders stood like stone statues around a body that lay in an open sarcophagus. As he approached them, the smoke from the torch could no longer mask the perfume of decaying flowers. The men were mummified. A cobweb-like gauze covered their well-preserved faces, their eyes shut, as if in a strange burial custom. “Like the mounds!” he heard himself say out loud. Eusebius covered his nose with his hand and approached the sarcophagus. He let out a scream. It was Sir Robert! Before he could ponder how or why his master was killed and placed there, he felt the air move.
Eusebius turned around and saw that one of the mummies was moving ever so slightly, like a half-dead insect in a cocoon. Then another opened his eyes and began to move his fingers, just like the corpse he had found by the twisted tree, then another shuddering as if he had awoken. Terrified, Eusebius fell backwards, dropping the torch, and heard a scream. It was not his voice, but Sir Robert’s. “He’s alive!” he thought. Eusebius ran to the sarcophagus to save his companion. The knight struggled to let out one word: “Burn!”
Then he heard thumping of weighted footsteps approaching the great hall. Eusebius knew they were not Christians nor Muslims but them–the ones he had seen atop the castle the night before. They had found him. “Forgive me, my lord!” he said and crossed himself and set Sir Robert on fire. Then he lit the capes of the other crusaders. The great hall was filled with screams as the fire engulfed them. They were still alive, all of them. Eusebius then heard a dull muffled sound approaching one of the entrances of the great hall. The sound was like the attempted shouts of mouthless men. Eusebius ran in the opposite direction, hastily setting fire on what he could. When he reached the courtyard, he spilled an oil barrel in front of the gate and lit it on fire and fled. He looked back and saw the creatures, scurrying about trying to put out the fire before it spread. He could not see them well enough to discern their faces but feathers sprouted from their necks and shoulders, and they moved clumsily as if they were made of stone. He ran down the road and heard explosions as the fire must have surely spread to the nearby oil barrels.
The sun was now beginning to set. From the foot of the mountain, Eusebius could see the castle roof ablaze. The windows were bright orange and reds. Soon, the remaining rafters would collapse and burn everyone inside.
The horses were not far from where he had left them, calmly grazing in a nearby meadow. When they saw the archer, they trotted towards him and huddled close to him as if to comfort him from the grief and despair. Remounting, he rode away and a darkness set upon him, his body slackened, and his thoughts vanished.
He awoke in an abbey.
“We found you on the bank of the river two days ago,” said the attendant monk. “The horses were wandering in our courtyard. The angels must have sent them to tell us of your whereabouts. You are very fortunate that we have found you. Another day in the cold may have killed you, or you would have caught the plague.”
“Not plague,” Eusebius struggled to say. “Creatures. Vile, ungodly…”
Another monk came into view, the abbot. “No, my son. The plague. It was carried here by two lone crusaders.”
The End No. 1
A Story of the Fourth Crusade
(With Second Alternative Ending in the Manner of Edgar Allan Poe)
Another monk came into view. “I am Father Augustine, the Abbot. Brother James is correct. There is a plague. It was carried here by two lone crusaders. The people began to flee when they heard they were nearby.”
“No! Men-like creatures…they poisoned the food. Trapped people in cocoons…ate their hearts and entrails.”
The two monks looked at each, and finally the abbot asked, “Was it a demon?
“Not a demon! Men! I saw them. But I have burned them!”
“He must be delirious, Father,” said Brother James as the archer slipped back into unconsciousness.
“Let him rest,” said the abbot. “We will interrogate him when he recovers.”
After having questioned Eusebius for several days, the monks determined there was some validity to the archer’s claims as they had previously gotten scattered reports of strange mounds which emitted a foul perfume. The fleeing villagers had been too fearful to uncover the mounds and set them on fire. Father Augustine ordered a messenger to Rome informed them of his decision to investigate the incident and possibly capture one of the creatures. He assembled a group of monks to accompany Eusebius back to the castle. The evening before the expedition, the silence of the refractory was broken when two shepherds burst in with the body of their dead companion. He had been attacked by three men-like creatures who had ripped open his chest and eaten his heart and other entrails.
“It’s them!” shouted Eusebius. “They live! I must kill them!”
He burst out of the refractory, into the stable, and rode out bareback on the knight’s steed armed with only his sword. The monks were unable to stop him but quickly assembled their entourage and followed suit. The very next night they came within sight of the Monastery of St. ______, where Sir Robert and Eusebius had rested. The buildings were in flames. Just outside of the gates they found the body of Eusebius and what appeared to be another man. Eusebius and his antagonist had apparently killed each other in hand to hand combat. When Brother James turned over the body of the other man, he let out a shriek because it was not a man but a human-like abomination like the one the archer had described.
The monks took the body of the creature and sent it to Rome where it was hidden in the secret vaults of the Vatican.
Rosa Martha Villarreal, a Chicana novelist and essayist, is a descendant of the 16th century Spanish and Tlaxcatecan settlers of Nuevo Leon, Mexico. She drew upon her family history in her critically acclaimed novels Doctor Magdalena, Chronicles of Air and Dreams: A Novel of Mexico,and The Stillness of Love and Exile, the latter a recipient of the Josephine Miles PEN Literary Award and a Silver Medalist in the Independent Publishers Book Award (2008). She writes a column, “Tertullian’s Corner,” for Somos en escrito Magazine.