Everyone in town stood and stared. Children ran out and danced around the approaching monk. No one had ever seen anything like it before. Nothing ever happened here!
I was struck with a kind of wonderment. "Sophie, tell me, what do you see?"
"What do I see? Either the holiest army I've ever seen or the dumbest. In any case, it's the worst equipped."
"But look, not a noble anywhere. Just common men and women. Like us."
Below us, the vast column wound into the main square and the queer monk at its head tugged his mule to a stop. A bearded knight helped him slide off. Father Leo, the town's priest, went up to greet him. The singing stopped, weapons and packs were laid down. Everyone in our town was pressed around the tiny square. To listen.
"I am called Peter the Hermit," the monk said in a surprisingly strong voice, "urged by His Holiness Urban to lead an army of believers to the Holy Land to free the holy sepulchre from the heathen hordes. Are there any believers here?"
He was pale and long nosed, resembling his mount, and his brown robes had holes in them, threadbare. Yet as he spoke, he seemed to grow, his voice rising in power and conviction.
"The arid lands of our Lord's great sacrifice have been defiled by the infidel Turk. Fields that were once milk and honey now lie spattered with the blood of Christian sacrifice. Churches have been burned and looted, sainted sites destroyed. The holiest treasures of our faith, the bones of saints, have been fed to dogs; cherished vials filled with drops of the Savior's own blood, poured into heaps of dung like spoiled wine."
"Join us," many from the ranks called out loudly. "Kill the pagans and sit with the Lord in Heaven."
"For those who come," the monk named Peter went on, "for those who put aside their earthly possessions and join our Crusade, His Holiness Urban promises unimaginable rewards. Riches, spoils, and honor in battle. His protection for your families who dutifully remain behind. An eternity in Heaven at the feet of our grateful Lord. And, most of all, freedom. Freedom from all servitude upon your return. Who will come, brave souls?" The monk reached out his arms, his invitation almost irresistible.
Shouts of acclamation rose throughout the square. People I had known for years shouted, "I . . . I will come!"
I saw Matt, the miller's older son, just sixteen, throw up his hands and hug his mother. And Jean the smith, who could crush iron in his hands, kneel and take the Cross. Several other people, some of them just boys, ran to get their possessions, then merged with the ranks. Everyone was shouting, "Dei leveult!" God wills it!
My own blood surged. What a glorious adventure awaited. Riches and spoils picked up along the way. A chance to change my destiny in a single stroke. I felt my soul spring alive. I thought of gaining our freedom, and the treasures I might find on the Crusade. For a moment I almost raised my hand and called out, "I will come! I will take the Cross."
But then I felt Sophie's hand pressing on mine. I lost my tongue.
Then the procession started up again. The ranks of farmers, masons, bakers, maids, whores, jongleurs, and outlaws hoisting their sacks and makeshift weapons, swelling in song. The monk Peter mounted his donkey, blessed the town with a wave, then pointed east.
I watched them with a yearning I thought had long been put behind me. I had traveled in my youth. I'd been brought up by goliards, students and scholars who entertained from town to town. And there was something that I missed from those days. Something my life in Veille du Père had stilled but not completely put aside.
I missed being free, and even more than that, I wanted freedom for Sophie and the children we would have one day.
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