The walls of Jerusalem, once guarded by the followers of the fiendish servants of Iftikhar ad-Daula, had finally cracked beneath the pressure of the Franks and their trebuchets. Thousands of soldiers, all bearing arms in the name of the one true God, poured through the narrow crack in never-ending waves, cutting down swathes of Muslim and Jewish defenders, routing the already demoralized forces and sending them into the darkened corners of the holy city.
The walls fell in the dead of a starless night, the only lights within the captured city coming from the burning pitch that had been launched into the city over the last few days and the torches of the conquering crusaders, flickering pinpoints of orange hued orbs dancing madly through the maze of streets and alleyways, reflecting off of gleaming swords and sand-polished armor.
Heinrich and his men, a band of Hessian mercenaries that had signed on at the request of Pope Urban II, marched through the wall with weapons held loosely at their sides. They had no desire to aid the Franks and their zealous masters in gaining control of the city, of purging it of any blasphemous idols; they only cared for the spoils of their successful campaign, ripe for the looting.
“Hassim!” Heinrich barked, calling back into the small crowd of his personal soldiers, all of mixed descent and origin Hassim himself was actually from the soon-to-be ruined city, a traitor that had eagerly joined with the invaders after being pushed from the city’s gates due to his devotion to the Lord. A rakish man of dark complexion, the farmer-turned-mercenary now bore his old tools of aid as tools of war, a twin set of sharpened sickles. Making his way through the troupe, he bowed his head in submission to Heinrich before speaking.
“The temple we seek is small, unobtrusive. It lies deep within the city, tucked behind several blocks of homes and inns.” He spoke, his heavy accent crudely butchering what German he had been able to learn in the past few months.
When he had been captured by Heinrich’s scouts, he had only been able to save himself with the promises of untold riches, riches that the crusaders themselves would never find. Heinrich had been skeptical, as he often was, but the tales of a secret cult that swelled amidst the lepers had seemed too tempting to be lies. Heinrich Winthrop was not a man prone to rash actions, but Hassim’s tales proved to be far too tempting to the old soldier.
Heinrich had spent the last twenty years in service to countless lords and nobles, acting as a soldier for hire, being readily available to any who would offer him the chance. While not a greedy man, he was a pragmatic one; he had seen what the ravages of war could do to a country, and how often the tides of war would make unexpected turns. A pure-blooded German of no notable birthright, Heinrich prided himself on his many successes in life. His band of soldiers was one of the most formidable in all of Europe, a mixture of Franks and Germans, with more than a handful of Norsemen and Mongols added in from various campaigns. All were thoroughly loyal to him, a trait he highly valued and cultivated through equitable treatment and uncharacteristic camaraderie, choosing to spend his time with his fellow soldiers in the slums than in his own private quarters as many leaders were wont to do.
But as with all things, Heinrich had begun to see his life begin to slip. His age, while not venerable or crippling, was slowly beginning to catch up to him. His bones ached with the passing of seasons, old wounds long since healed and forgotten swelling with the changing of the weather. His age had even cost him an eye in his last campaign due to his slower reflexes. He had been forced to abandon his favored weapon, a weapon he had wielded for over ten winters, in exchange for a smaller blade and shield. He still bore his favored weapon, a prodigious hammer he had pried from the hands of a Vandal chieftain, but with his now limited sight and his body’s protests he now chose to be more cautious.
“All right men!” Heinrich called above the den of chaos surrounding them. “We move into the slums, be wary of any traps that may be waiting for us. And kill any who stand in our way!”
A rowdy cheer, made only more sinister as the sound of steel grinding against steel, followed his command, his men rushing past him and into a darkened alleyway that Hassim stood by. Heinrich sheathed his blade, a wicked piece of iron he had slowly grown fond of in the past few weeks called a Khopesh, and moved to follow his men.
“My lord,” Hassim said as Heinrich approached, bowing low at the waist. “The temple will likely be unguarded, its treasures left unattended due to the invasion. But the monks that dwell there are not known for their love of peace.”
“So we may very well have a challenge on our hands?” Heinrich guessed, looking at Hassim with his one good eye. “If what you have spoken of truly exists, then we’ll gladly fight them to the death.”
“Just remember your promise milord… we claim your treasure and you and your ilk retreat from this land, never to return.” Hassim hissed, moving alongside Heinrich as they jogged into the darkness, shouting over the screams of the innocent echoing through the city.
“I hold no love for this barren patch of sand and rock, so it will be a promise I’ll readily keep. Though how you’ll get my fanatical brethren to leave will be interesting to see.” Heinrich replied, quickly cutting down a woman as she burst from the shadows, a brilliant gleam of silver darkened by her stream of blood splattering the walls around them. Hassim’s twin sickles made short work of her two children, though Heinrich could see how hesitant he was with his swings.
Hassim was not made for war like Heinrich was a fact that made it all the easier for Heinrich and his plans to leave the odd farmer in the ruins of the holy city once his mission was complete.
The slums of Jerusalem were like any other, Heinrich mused as he strode through red-tinged mud. Poorly built structures, all leaning at odd angles and upon each other for support, with the rank smell of poverty and disease. A small part of him pitied the people who dwelled here… well, used to dwell here, seeing as he just lopped off the head of yet another dark-skinned native. The rich of the world kept their heels firmly in place, forcing the serfs into abject slavery through fear and intimidation, and worse, false hope.
Like the false hope of a loving God.
A screaming child, clutching at the blood-spattered corpse of… someone was quickly disposed of by one of Heinrich’s thick leather boots, the boys head cracking like an overripe melon against the hard stone wall. This entire war, with all of the death and suffering that were coming from it, were caused by the cry of the faithful, and led by the hounds of some dark organization that claimed to represent a being of eternal love and sacrifice. A careful twist of his blade removed the newest threat, a man lurking in the shadows hoping to sneak past the raging conflict within the city. While Heinrich’s blade failed to claim his life, it did more than enough damage to make the coming sunrise that man’s last.
Hassim shouted, pointing forward and past a wide intersection; apparently the temple was near. Heinrich bellowed for his men to rally, to come to his aid and moved onward unerringly. He knew his men would come to his call, break away from their personal looting and combat.
The intersection was marked only by a low well and a single wooden door, placed deep into the crook of a wall, so deep in fact that Heinrich would never have seen it had Hassim not been here to act as his guide. The building was built from solid stone blocks, far larger than any one man could lift, that rose high into the night sky. The sounds of battle raged from high above, screams of pain and cries of mercy raining down upon his ears like torrential rains. Blood, warm and thin, ran down the walls from high above; it would seem that whatever this building was, the zealots had found a measure of resistance atop it.
“The Temple Mount sits high above us, one of the holiest places in all of Jerusalem.” Hassim said from Heinrich’s elbow, as if in explanation. “The Muslims would have fallen back to defend it from your countrymen.”
“And they are giving their lives for such resistance… what a waste.” Heinrich spat, wiping the flat of his blade along his thick leather leggings. “This is the temple I seek then?”
“A lesser known temple built beneath the Mount, supposedly where the bodies of several prophets lie in repose.” Hassim nodded, twirling one of his sickles nervously. “It looks as if the temple has so far remained unmolested, so I would imagine its guardians remain.”
“Well then,” Heinrich drawled with a feral grin, motioning two of his men forward, a pair of heavy set Cossacks. “Let’s molest then.”
The Cossacks grinned toothily before kicking in the flimsy door, rendering the wood into bits and pieces. Several soldiers rushed forward into the darkness of the temple, swords raised high with brave cries on their lips.
“The rest of you, spread out!” Heinrich ordered, waving about the numerous alleyways. “I don’t want to be interrupted by some would-be hero of Allah… be sure to kill anything darker than yourselves!”
Hassim cowered at the hearty roar his men gave out as they moved out, moving quickly to stay by Heinrich’s side. “Are sure that’s wise milord? What if we have need of the men in here?”
Heinrich snorted as he tugged a torch from one of his soldier’s hands and forcing it into Hassim’s. “I’ve sacked more monasteries than any other man in Europe, and I can tell you this: holy men are lousy in a fight.”
Hassim fell silent as Heinrich shoved past him and into the fluttering shadows of the doorway, the one-eyed soldier’s Khopesh drawn at the hip and shield held high over his blind side. The entrance was clearly not the antechamber of some lavish temple, but a stairwell leading deeper into the gloom of the unknown. The sounds of battle could be heard echoing up from the deep, with harsh cries of mixed German and French. Heinrich quickly descended the stairs, the cooling rivulets of blood splashing as he trod through them, down what was easily thirty feet of stairs.
The stifling heat of the desert and the surrounding fires was now gone, replaced with the cold chill that could only be found within the bowels of the earth. The faint smell of moldering parchment, accented by the greasy tint of copper (from the blood) and fat (presumably from candles) danced across his senses, leading him onward with a glee he only felt when victory was within sight. The chamber Heinrich found was indeed a picture of monastic life: long wooden tables, dotted with thick tallow candles shedding a faint glow over countless scrolls and books. The cooling bodies of five men, all dressed in loose fitting vestments with a variety of weapons, lay strewn about the room in various positions, his men looming over them with bated breath.
Heinrich turned to stare at Hassim with his one good eye, a wicked gleam flashing over the blood shot orb. “Where is it?”
“I don’t know where exactly, just that it is kept here.” Hassim whimpered, withering beneath the maddened glare.
Heinrich snorted, turning back to his men. “Spread out! Kill any that you come across and leave no stone unturned! You two,” he cried, pointing at his hulking Cossack servants, “Guard this stairwell, and make certain nobody sneaks past you.”
“And you Hassim,” Heinrich said, kicking the sniveling man hard in the side of the knee, dropping him to the ground with a high pitched wail. “Tell me more of what lies down here, and why you seem to have lost your usefulness to me.”
Hassim, tears welling in his brown eyes, sobbed as he clutched his ruined leg. “I-I-I don’t know what t-to tell you!”
“You were supposedly a member of this order, however briefly, so you must know what could be down here waiting for me.” Heinrich calmly asked, kneeling next to Hassim’s crumpled form. “If what I seek is truly here, than a paltry amount of monks will be but the first of the guardians.”
Hassim’s eyes widened dramatically at Heinrich’s statement, earning a sinister grin from the old Hessian. “Yes Moor, I know what dwells down here; I also know you are no follower of our supposed Lord and Savior. My only question is why you would also seek entrance here, especially after learning what is kept here.”
Hassim’s eyes, filled with tears and doubt, darted to and fro in search of some form of aid, but found only Heinrich’s grim features and the twin wolfish grins of his Cossack guards.
Hanging his head in defeat, Hassim said a silent prayer to Allah. “I heard of this order years ago, when I f-first began my service to Ifikthar. I-I helped root out the f-few saboteurs wi-within the court, and w-w-was tasked with finding their base, and their treasure.”
“And what did you find Hassim? Hmmm?” Heinrich purred, pressed his blade against the dark man’s throat. “Tell me. Tell me what I want to know.”
Author's Note: A short novella I've been working on, this will be released in full in December. It explains some of the finer aspects of my alternate Earth without being too intense about it. We get to meet a villain and see a hero rise, all while watching a holy city burn. The setting I think is a great one as the place has seen so much war that it practically demands a horror story to be written about it. This is the only chapter I'll release, but the full length work will be around fifteen chapters long and priced around 1.99 for Kindle, maybe 5.99 for paperback if I can manage it.