Book I: The Codex Lacrimae, Pt. 2
The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears
by: A.J. Carlisle
“Chapter 1: A Lore Master’s Third Rune Gate”
i. The Boy from Byzantium
It’s too quiet.
Jacob frowned and slowed to a jog, his hand grasping the pommel of the sword at his hip.
After borrowing a blade to replace the one Marcus took, the boy had made good time reaching the hospital wing of the Krak des Chevaliers. He need only find the physician Brother Belvedere, convey Ibn-Khaldun’s request for help, and there still might be a chance to join Ríg’s fight against the intruders.
For all that urgency, though, he slowed. His pace became stealthy, responsive to some instinct that screamed of danger in the infirmary.
Where are the physicians and monks who were working here?
Something felt terribly wrong, and the situation began to smell even worse. As he walked down the corridor, an acrid odor filled the air. Part musky perfume and part coppery smoke, his eyes began to water and his stomach tightened.
I smelled something like this once, when they burned a plague ship in the Golden Horn. It’s the stench of human beings burning.
The memory ignited determination in his own mind, a resolve fueled by fear for his mother.
Move, Jacob. Ima was in this section.
He clenched his teeth and fought the impulse to flee. If this foreboding proved out, his first real sword-fight might come even sooner than expected.
Moments ago, it had been disquieting enough to see the flash of eerie, aquamarine light bathe this entire section of the Hospitaller castle. At the time, he’d thought that the warrior-monks were practicing some kind of secret warding-off ritual before the siege of two armies began in earnest, but he realized that the light had been nothing of the kind.
No, anxiety now shifted into battle readiness as he crept down the hallway, stepping over incandescent chunks of limestone, concrete blocks, and some smaller feathered forms he couldn’t initially identify.
That glaucous, blue-tinged glow must have been a massive explosion!
Rubble lay on the ground beneath a destroyed window and scorch marks blackened the corridor’s walls for some distance beyond it.
This is bizarre. Those things on the ground are birds. How do a group of dead birds happen to be in the middle of a castle? Were the knights keeping them as message carriers to other castles or to Jerusalem?
He stepped over another cluster of birds, twelve pigeons that lay amidst the wreckage, their grayish, plump bodies blown inward from some point outside.
More destruction and gigantic holes in the walls awaited around the corner. Even worse, to his right rose a ceiling-to-floor mound of limestone debris that blocked the hallway leading to his mother Rebecca’s room.
Oh, Ima, what happened here? This wasn’t just one explosion, but a series of them, and the detonations seem to get worse the closer I get to the main ward.
Think, think, think. I was going to check on you while getting Master Belvedere, but what now? Should I go back and try to find another way?
No. He still felt too uncertain about the labyrinthian castle’s passages. Searching for an alternate path might mean a fatal delay. Before dashing off, he needed to both try to find Belvedere and make sure that the area where he’d last seen his mother was truly impassable!
He moved in the one direction that did seem clear, forward into the hospital wing.
The boy’s nape prickled as he entered the burned antechamber of the ward.
Small fires burned and guttered amongst the broken tables and cots. Jacob blinked rapidly against the smoky haze, wondering at the strange shapes visible in the weak late afternoon sunlight.
How can there be all this destruction and no sound? I saw the light from this, but I heard nothing!
His habitual frown deepened into a scowl. Given the evidence of his senses, only one deduction could explain an explosion with no sound; however, if true, that reason would remove all logic from his preferred calculations not only for what happened here, but also for a long-held view of the world.
There’s got to be a rational explanation. Remember what Mordecai said, ‘look past the smoke.’
Even if only to himself, he didn’t want to admit that he sensed the supernatural.
Jacob viewed magic with a healthy degree of skepticism. In his opinion, the so-called occult arts were simply a form of entertainment in Constantinople, a means for a host of charlatans back home to make a quick bezant from gullible passerby. He wasn’t cynical about this view, just realistic. Growing up in the Genoese Quarter had unveiled most of the tricks of the magic trade. Indeed, in his thirteen years of life, the boy had seen enough of conjurers, soothsayers, astrologers, and would-be necromancers to learn one thing about thaumaturgy: there were no miracles or supernatural forces.
No, in Jacob’s mind, anything that appeared otherworldly simply belonged to a class that he’d always tried to ignore — entertainers who performed daily for a Roman population whose opinions of sorcery alternated between despite and veneration.
He found the entire paradox crazy. At one moment, Byzantines would pride themselves on their Greek Orthodoxy, dutifully pray in the basilica, and piously declaim that there was only one mystical part of their lives: the sacramental conversion of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Then, in the next hour after Mass, the same parishioners might be found in any of the city’s various districts, paying ridiculous sums of money to patronize all kinds of roadside diversions!
The Byzantine populaces were avid consumers of magical totems, and they seemed willing to pay for anything if it had the faintest whiff of sorcery about it. They’d wait in lines or gather in crowded alleys to see hooded mages make provocatively dressed assistants disappear and reappear. They’d ooh and aah at illusionists’ shell games, fire-eating, or rope tricks. They’d patronize apothecaries who sold every drug imaginable: vials of health elixirs, luck potions, sexual stimulants, and especially poison (and, sometimes, a combination of the last two, if the money was right and the abused spouse were desperate enough).
All of these street performers existed side-by-side with Greek Orthodox preachers who stood on stone benches or monument steps, engaging anyone who’d listen in arguments about the True Nature of the Christians’ Triune God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the imperial city, Jacob knew that such sermonizing was no joke — contemplating the question of ‘was Christ more human, or more God?’ could occupy a Byzantine all day!
As Jacob stared at the phosphorescently glowing rubble around him, trying to pretend that there was some logical explanation for this destruction, he recalled childhood exposure to supposed magics that had instead always ended with disappointed discovery.
There was that moment of wonder two years ago when a dark-cloaked man had emerged from a cloud in Leukothea’s Alley, showering sparks from his hands and proclaiming that he was Dardo the Magnificent, a magician who’d henceforth be entertaining the crowds with a variety of magic tricks. Jacob was amazed at the performance and for the first time in life believed in magic.
“I think that magic exists,” he’d excitedly concluded to his master, after telling the old man his story.
“Bah!” Rabbi Mordecai had said, shaking his head in disappointment, not even bothering to look up from a scroll. “You should know better, Jacob. Tomorrow, when this Dardo appears, look past the smoke.”
Although irritated at Mordecai’s typically dismissive tone, the next morning Jacob had done as instructed.
Sadly, the illusion was instantly broken when Jacob, indeed, peered more closely into the alley and noticed the baker’s daughter, Melaine, closing a vent in the side of her building that belched smoke into the street. The deception was completely revealed when Dardo began cursing as the Chinese fire-sticks burned his wrists and he cast them onto the cobbles close to Jacob! After that, it took the boy only a second’s scrutiny to see that Dardo was, in actuality, Melaine’s ne’er-do-well uncle, Deimos. The man’s subsequent daily attempts at a magic show soon ended when the neighbors complained about all the smoke, forcing Deimos to remove that effect from his repertoire. Unfortunately, the smoke and Chinese fireworks were the only real elements that had attracted the passerby, so Dardo the Magnificent quickly disappeared for good.
He winced as he scalded his shin while passing a smoking chunk of rubble.
There’s an explanation here, Jacob: find it!
No matter the destruction in this ward, there had to be a logical explanation. With every magic trick since Dardo, Jacob had been successful in figuring out the fraud and chicanery behind a host of so-called supernatural phenomena.
Exotically, there had been the time when Jacob passed the bead-curtained entrance opening onto Hypatia the Enchantress’s shop. The narrow store was a dark place, filled with curios and antiques, and where a teenaged acquaintance’s mother spent every day at a velvet-covered table predicting customer’s futures, her gigantically bosomed form crouched over a faux-crystal ball as she conducted what seances she could before going to sell her body at night in the brothel next door.
One day, Jacob had been delivering a bolt of cloth to Hypatia when a customer entered. She’d cast the boy hurriedly out of sight, eager to make a sale and convince the man that his long-dead wife was returning for a conversation. Since Hypatia was practically next door to the shop of Jacob’s parents, the boy didn’t feel comfortable interrupting the seance, and ruining the moment. However, during the half-hour he was beneath the table, he saw that she was anything but a medium for otherworldly forces! Instead, she muttered nonsense words and used her hands to employ a variety of noise-making devices that imitated the rapping responses of the dead. She also placed a suggestive hand onto the man’s thigh whose purpose Jacob could only guess at, but he chose to look away while awaiting his chance to flee!
There’s always something. Look for it, and know it when you see it, even if it’s not what you expect. You simply can’t have a massive explosion like this without any sound!
That certitude made him pause. There had been one inexplicable preternatural moment that he still couldn’t explain, even a year later. No, he reconsidered; there were two instances, and both involving a woman who’d become a friend.
Sølvmora’s pirate ships and her horoscope.
He’d never forget the pirate ships. Down by the waterfront, near the section of the wharves where the Golden Chain secured Constantinople’s harbor each night, lived the astrologer, Sølvmora the Witch. Sølvmora was a truly stunning woman, oval-faced, long-lashed, and raven-haired, who wore low-cut and revealing purple gowns that somehow barely managed to cover her cleavage, but who also consistently went out of her way to make time to speak with Jacob. (He enjoyed the attention from such a beautiful lady, and the friendship and conversations he had with Sølvmora were a rare experience for the boy. Besides Arella, Owena, and Melanie, Jacob had few other friends among his peers back home, and the only adults he counted among those were Sølvmora and Rabbi Mordecai.)
Along with always having a kind thing to say, Sølvmora was perhaps the only member of the Genoese Quarter’s would-be magical community who Jacob thought might possess something of the supernatural about her. She’d made her name by appearing at the docks the night before the emperor’s fleet was to sail into the Black Sea after pirates, telling them to “wait only two weeks and a pirate ship will return to you.”
“Away, Witch! We chase three ships, all laden with stolen silks!” The general in charge of the expedition had called back.
“Of three will come one,” she assured the soldier, clutching her cloak at her throat against the mists rising from the sea. “They’ve gone to Odessa, but will be refused entry.”
That qualification had given the general pause. Notoriously superstitious, there could be only one reason why the money-hungry citizens of Odessa would refuse entry to ships laden with Byzantine silks.
Fascinated by the exchange, Jacob had watched the general stare at Sølvmora, then follow her cautionary prediction. Over the protests of his second-in-command, the general delayed his ships’ launch by a fortnight.
Sure enough within ten days, only one of the pirate ships did return to the harbor, its occupants stricken by bubonic plague and dying.
Jacob had watched the ship burn, put to the torch long-distance by a well-aimed cast from a Byzantine-fire laden trebuchet. The boy had turned on the dock in time to see Sølvmora observing the same scene from the porch of her shop. However, rather than showing any kind of elation at the verification of her soothsaying, she’d turned away in sadness from the flames, not even opening the door when the general had come to thank her with a small bag of silver (and perhaps with the hope for something more from the woman who’d saved his fleet from contagion).
Afterwards, though, word had got around the quarter and the witch never lacked for customers. She was one of those rare practitioners who enjoyed approval by both imperial and religious authorities in the ancient city.
Even Jacob and his friend, Owena, had once dared to enter her rotunda-shaped shop, and sat for a horoscope reading that had left both youths momentarily shaken.
After seating the children on an amazingly smooth section of granite flooring whose stone had been inscribed with symbols of the Twelve Houses of the Zodiac, Sølvmora asked the children’s birthdays, and then made nonsensical predictions for each of them. The moment still amused Jacob to this day.
For Owena — his best friend, and the daughter of a Welsh blacksmith who operated a forge a few storefronts around the corner from Jacob’s home — the witch had predicted, “Your true love will be lost on road to Huntsmen’s Night, but reunion comes if Sampo-Friend finds heritage and true might.”
For Jacob, Sølvmora made a similar attempt at prophecy, with a slant toward the theatrical: “When a sword sings and Kullervo’s skin flames molten, in healers’ hall shall Jacob David-son take the work of Ilmarinen.”
The two youths had asked her what she meant by such soothsaying, but Sølvmora had grown strangely silent, dumping the scrying bones and feathers back into a wooden bowl and shooing Jacob and Owena from the shop.
ii. A Memory of Owena, the Blacksmith’s Daughter
So, except for Sølvmora, Jacob usually avoided the scam artists in his part of the city, partly because he knew many of them on sight — one didn’t grow up in the Genoese Quarter of Byzantium without becoming well acquainted with every stall, back alley, and vendor. Mostly, though, he avoided such entertainers simply because he didn’t have time for any kind of recreation, busy as he was with chores at his parents’ store or with studies at the synagogue.
However, even in those rare moments when his mother pushed him out the door with an order to go outside and play!” paranormal topics kept cropping up like weeds on the peripheries of his well-ordered life.
In the form of a ghost story, such a moment had occurred just a few days before he and his mother joined Ghannen’s Jerusalem-bound caravan.
Brooding on the street while he waited for enough of Ima’s ordered “playtime” to pass until he could return unbothered to his studies, Jacob had seen Owena’s beckoning wave.
She wore a maroon sleeveless tunic that emphasized her curves in all the right places, and he saw that his friend stood at the rear of a group of teenagers who’d gathered in an alley behind the apple merchant’s stall.
Jacob approached, albeit with hesitation. A couple of the neighborhood bullies were near the front of the throng. Worse, one of the more unpleasant members of that gang stood beside Owena and was speaking to her.
Owena seemed to read Jacob’s mind, and flashed a brilliant smile as she waved again.
As usual, whatever resolve he had buckled at her persistence, and he again marveled at how her toothy smile transformed her generally plain face into one of radiant and mischievous joy.
The disconnect always astounded him; if Owena were frowning or thoughtful, no one would pick her unremarkable features out of a crowd. However, if she smiled or laughed, she revealed a true beauty that turned every guy’s head.
Jacob was always unsure what trait (persistence or joy) held the upper hand in their friendship, but figuring out Owena was half the fun of knowing her, and he always liked to make her laugh to see the transformation.
She leaned over and said something quickly to the boy who’d been whispering to her, and he stared at her, then glared at Jacob and retreated quickly into the crowd.
Hand on his sword-hilt, Jacob crossed the street, trusting that if anything violent were to happen after the boy reached the rest of his buddies, Owena would stay and fight by his side.
She hugged him, ignoring some of the whispers nearby.
“What’d you say to Milo?” Jacob asked. “He took off quickly.”
“Oh, not much, only that I needed to tell you I’m pregnant with your child.”
“Owena!” he said, reluctantly pulling away from her to look the girl in the eyes. “You can’t say that kind of thing to him! He’ll have the neighborhood talking within five minutes.”
“It’s Milo, Jake! Everyone knows he’s a liar.” She countered with a laugh. “Also, who’s to say I’m not pregnant with your child?”
“You…what?” Jacob exclaimed. “But, we…I…you, we — couldn’t. Wouldn’t.” Jacob stuttered, completely taken aback. His face flushed so heatedly that its warmth released into the rest of his body, breaking a sweat. “I mean, not couldn’t or wouldn’t — I would, of course I would, and you could, I…of course you could, I mean, look at you —”
“Jake!” Owena snapped, clasping a cool hand to his face. “It was a joke.”
“I know it was a joke,” he said quickly as fluster became irritation. She’d played him again! “It completely threw me.”
“Same feeling for Milo, I think,” the girl grinned. “But, he didn’t stick around to explode like you always do!”
She gave Jacob a coy look. “If I heard right, though, it’s encouraging to hear that you ‘would’ and ‘could,’ you know…do, you know,” she raised her eyebrows knowingly a couple times, then winked, flustering Jacob again completely anew.
“It’s, it’s just the last thing I expected you to say,” he said, unwittingly raising his voice, “especially with this crowd. They think that the only good Jew is a dead Jew.”
“Amen to that!” said one of the older boys who’d been whispering to another nearby as he eavesdropped on their conversation.
“Ignore him, Jake. That idiot just came from Francia, and he’s spoiling for a fight. Everybody thinks they’re Phillip Augustus now.”
“Exactly my point,” he rejoined. “And, it doesn’t take much to go from confiscating our property and expelling us, to killing us.”
“Give it a rest,” she sighed. They don’t hate you because you’re Jewish. They hate you because I like to hang out with you.”
Jacob glanced at the French boy, who was glaring at him.
“No, Owena, I’m pretty sure he hates me on my own merits. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Well, he’s not in France anymore, and there are so many Jews in this city that he’s in for some disappointment.” She glanced up at Jacob. “This isn’t Speyer or Mainz, either,” she persisted, “it’s Constantinople, one of the wonders of the world. We live in the imperial center, Jake! There are no pogroms, no property taken here. There’s room for everyone, and as much toleration as you’ll get in Sicily or Egypt!”
“Get out of here, Jacob,” another boy said, undermining her words, “or maybe we’ll take you behind the shed again!”
“Jacob frowned, making one last whisper to his friend. “Oh, yes, I’m feeling the Christian love here, Owena. Truly.”
Knowing how to deal with the boys, though, he raised his voice, smiled broadly, and waved toward a storage shed at the back of the alley. “I’m glad you said ‘we,’ Karon! That will make the fight a bit more fair for you.” He beckoned to the boy. “Come on, let’s do this! I’ve got twenty minutes before I have to get back to the synagogue.” He jerked a hand at the French boy. “You, too, now: by the shed!”
Karon’s face turned crimson, his eyes suddenly clouding with fear. Jacob had hit him so hard in a fight last year that the boy had lost a tooth. He looked suddenly uncomfortable, and turned away to whisper something to a buddy. The French boy’s face reddened also and, glancing at Jacob’s sword, he retreated without a backward glance into the crowd.
“Hei, David-Son,” another gang-member said, “why don’t you just stick to your own kind, and leave girls like Owena to guys like us?”
“Douse your wick, Stefanos!” Owena flared, taking Jacob’s lead and smiling, too. “If he did leave me alone with you, you wouldn’t know where to start with all this!” She gestured bawdily to herself, and laughed. “Seriously, you’re all talk. Chara told me about your walk through the Besiktas the other night. You mumbled the entire time, got her home before the sun fully set, and you didn’t even give her a kiss!”
“Oh-ho!” A smaller boy turned from listening to the boy by the apple cart. “What’s that about, Stefanos? You told everybody that you and Chara spent the night together at a warehouse in Bebek.”
Stefanos glared at Owena. “You’re a liar! I ought to —”
“Careful!” Jacob interrupted, holding up a hand. He smiled broadly at the troublemaker. “She’s pregnant!”
“What?” This outcry in alarmed unison from a few of the boys as they saw their hopes of courting his friend potentially dashed.
“Oh, please, Lads,” Owena said dismissively to the group. “In your dreams, maybe—”
“Ask Milo, and tell him to pay up!” Jacob continued, shrugging as he nodded toward the other side of the alley where Milo was brooding. “The child will need financial support!”
Owena winked at the boys, puffed out her cheeks, and bloused her tunic before putting her hands under her belly to imitate carrying a great weight.
Stefanos and Karon led the other two boys to get more details from Milo.
“You’re safe, and I’m leaving,” Jacob said, turning to go.
“We were both safe,” Owena said. “We’ve fought with half of these punks before.”
“I’m in a bad mood today, Owena, and you’re enjoying yourself too much at my expense,” Jacob complained. “If I want people mocking me, I can just go read some Greek passages for Mordecai and listen to him tell me how bad my accent is.”
She pressed her hand into his, and lowered her voice. “Jake, it was a joke. When I saw you, Milo was trying to ask me out again for what must be the five-hundredth time, and I wanted to hang out with you. It was the quickest way to get rid of him.”
He smiled, finally, and kept his hand in hers, taking a moment to appreciate her features, even if felt that his desire could never be reciprocated.
Possessed of a heart-shaped face, wide brown eyes, and black hair that cascaded to her slim waist, Owena had always seemed to Jacob more akin to a princess from a fairy tale than her reality as a comparatively humble girl who served as an apprentice blacksmith for her widowed father.
She was also a few years older than Jacob, so even though he’d grown quite a bit during this past summer (and towered over her now), he sensed that she still felt he was just the little boy who’d lived down the street their entire childhood. Why else would she mock him every chance she could?
Still, she was his truest friend in the entire quarter, and he did enjoy holding her hand. He stayed close to her as one of the bullies, Dmitrius Toporov, continued his story.
Typically, the Russian youth appeared to be bragging about one of his father’s business trips into Seljuk Turk lands, trips from which the man always seemed to return bearing the best silks from distant Cathay.
Such stories galled Jacob because his parents were competitors of Dmitrius’ family.
The last thing he needed was to listen to Dmitrius boast — as he was currently doing — of how this recent trip had been so successful that his father, Gospodin Toporov, intended to open a second store front near a section of the Theodosian Wall, a store almost ‘guaranteed’ to be more lucrative than the family’s current one in the Galata Quarter.
Jacob rolled his eyes, and moved to the edge of the gathering. Owena caught his sleeve and told him that Dmitrius was simply repeating this part of the story for new arrivals.
“I don’t want to hear anything about him or his father, Owena,” Jacob whispered.
“It’s a ghost story, Jake, and it sounds real. Really creepy.”
He snorted. “Now, I’m leaving. It has to be a lie. You know where that family gets their silks, don’t you?”
“I know you think you do. Your father accused them of dealing with Black Sea pirates.”
“Anatolian bandits,” Jacob clarified. “Highway robbers who stole bolts meant for this market, which the Toporovs then resold to us. My father essentially paid the man twice for material he’d already ordered from Cathay!”
“That’s never been proved, fy ffrind. Even if it were, Dmitrius certainly didn’t do the theft and reselling.”
“So what? If he doesn’t see what his father’s doing, he just as bad as him.”
“See? That kind of talk’s why Dmitrius and some others have a difficult time with you. If you’d listen, you’d hear that all he does is complain about his father.”
She put a hand around Jacob’s waist, and pulled him firmly close. She nodded toward the still-speaking Dmitrius.
“Look at him,” she whispered. “What would you have him do? Get in a fight with his Tad, then what? Get kicked out of his own home? We can’t be held responsible for what our parents do, and, well, if we disagree, we don’t all have a choice like you, Jacob.”
“If your parents — I mean, if your Ima…”
“My father’s not dead, Owena!” Jacob interrupted, pulling away from her.
Owena put her hands on her hips. “I’m not going to qualify myself every time with you, Jake. Of course, we don’t know if he’s dead. My point is that if your parents, I mean, if your…Duw, yr ydych yn rhwystro i mi weithiau!”
“You frustrate me, too,” Jacob said, suddenly smiling. Owena’s explosive moments of Welsh temper always seemed to snap him out of a bad mood.
Well, that characteristic and the fact that she never seemed to lose her cool with anyone else in the neighborhood. For that matter, she never seemed to spend time with anyone else except him.
He looked into her scowling eyes, wondering how she could be so beautiful even when furious!
“I’m just saying that,” Owena finished with some exasperation, “in contrast to Dmitrius, if you ever got kicked out of your family stall, you’d probably have the option to go live with Rabbi Mordecai.”
“Jacob made an irritated snort, and returned to the main point. “Look, Owena, make up all the imaginary situations you want. In this life, all I know is that ever since Aba’s…been gone, Gospodin Toporov’s cornered the cloth market for the entire Quarter.”
He jerked a thumb at Dmitrius, who was just finishing his family’s backstory for the crowd of youths, then added, “If I got my mother really mad, I wouldn’t have to wait for her to throw me out because that guy’s father and the Genoese are going to run all the textile merchants out of Galata any day now.”
“And the Genoese?” Owena repeated, catching something in Jacob’s tone. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me. Is Signor Boccanegra harassing your mother again?”
“Yesterday he had her trapped against the rolls in the back of the shop,” Jacob replied glumly. “I don’t think he could’ve done anything, but there was shouting before I got there, and he was standing way too close to her when I walked in. She…she had to adjust the top of her dress after he left.”
“You don’t think that…” Owena started to say, and then paused before finishing, “I mean, maybe she wanted some company… I mean. No, sorry. That didn’t come our right.”
When she saw his astonishment, she became firm. “Well, come on, Jake, you have to admit, she’s amazingly beautiful and it’s been a long time since your father’s been around!”
“Owena! What, you think that she wants to be with him? Boccanegra?” Jacob’s eyes flashed.
“No! Besides the screaming at him, I could tell, she was mortified. Then, there was murder in her eyes. I let him walk past me, but it was all I could do to not attack him. Ima was shaking her head when he turned from her, and I swear that she gave me a look not to do anything. I obeyed her. I didn’t have any weapon, but I think she…she realized….”
“— that there’s no place to go,” Owena finished the thought. “I didn’t really think that she’d ever go for a pig like Boccanegra. I’m sorry, Jake. One joke too many from me, I’m afraid. But, if you two don’t handle him right, well, it’s a wide world out there. If he gets too frustrated, if he were to evict your mother, where would you go? Unlike you, she’s a woman. Mordecai might favor you as a student, but she certainly can’t go live at the synagogue.”
“We’ll go to Jerusalem,” Jacob said, fire returning to his eyes.
“Oh, that’s a fine option,” Owena said dismissively. “Listen up to what Dmitrius is saying about this grave-keeper his father saw in Tripoli, and then tell me you want to take Lady Rebecca to Crusader lands.”
“I wouldn’t go with her alone,” Jacob protested. “Ghannen’s gotten a caravan ready for a run to Jerusalem.”
“What?” Owena asked, and her face flushed. “You’re serious? You’d go? I mean,” the girl cleared her throat, and looked away. “You’ve thought this through?”
“I told you, Owena,” Jacob said, not seeing how upset she was becoming. “Boccanegra’s been getting too close to her. If you saw a man with a look in his eyes like that with your mother when she was alive, what would you do?”
“Kill him. Well, I’d kill what was left of him after Tad pushed his head into the forge-fires.”
Jacob stared at her. You would, he thought. Owena, besides being the most beautiful girl in the world, you’re the strongest person I’ve ever met.
“Or you’d run,” he said aloud, “if you didn’t want to get killed in turn by the imperial guard.”
“The soldiers wouldn’t kill me for defending my mother,” Owena retorted.
“They would me,” Jacob said. Which is another reason we can never be together, my gorgeous Christian friend. “I have thought all this through, Owena. Who would a hoplitarch believe, a Jew or a Genoese? No, if I were to kill Boccanegra (who, by the way, heads up the guild here), then Ima would truly be alone. My brother and sister are too young and too far away to…ah, we’re wasting time talking about this! You know me, I’ll figure something out, but let’s just stop talking about Boccanegra or Dmitrius’s father. I’m leaving.”
“No, you’ve got to hear this story!” Owena turned toward him again, coming close and slipping an arm into his. “Seriously, Jacob. It’s bizarre, but there seems to be some truth to it. Truth like how we feel about Sølvmora being a real witch. This story seems to be the real thing. Dmitri said that the grave-keeper’s bringing dead people to life, and that the corpses attack Crusaders.”
Jacob paused, thinking of the Battle of Mecina and his lost father.
“Well, the killing Crusaders part has its appeal,” he mused, then shook his head. “But, come on. It’s Dmitrius, Owena!”
“Oes, but he’s not his father, Jake, and you need to give people and things a chance before rendering judgment in the time it takes to blink your eyes.”
“I’m usually correct,” Jacob muttered.
She smiled that smile that always thawed even the coldest part of him.
“Just listen to the story,” she enjoined, staying close to him as they moved forward into the other teenagers to hear better. “What’s the harm? You weren’t going anywhere, anyway.”
“I was, too!” He exclaimed. “I was…”
“Waiting for enough time to pass so you could tell your mother you played, and then go right back to your books,” she concluded.
“I bet that the stories in my books are more reliable than anything a Toporov has to say,” he grumbled.
“Come on, Frowny-Face,” she said, pecking him on the cheek. He involuntarily leaned into her, wishing that for once she’d kiss him on the lips.
“This will only take a few minutes,” Owena said, “and you know that your mother’s hoping you won’t be back for another hour. If we’re too late, I’ll escort you and explain to her.”
“You just want another meal at our home,” Jacob smiled.
“Maybe. You’ve tasted Tad’s cooking enough to know why that’s sensible.”
“He went to the tavern tonight, didn’t he?”
“Maybe. Just listen to the story, Jake. I’m not too offensive to hang out with, am I?”
Groaning, but trusting his best friend, Jacob had remained. Surprisingly, he’d enjoyed the story, even if he didn’t believe all the fantastic elements that Dmitrius described.
Well, perhaps Owena is correct and Dmitrius isn’t all that bad, he’d thought to himself later after he’d walked the girl back to her family’s home above the smithy in the Galata Quarter.
But, for all that talk of supernatural hocus-pocus and leprous grave-keepers controlling ghosts, it’s all ridiculous, isn’t it? Rotting corpses animated, then rising from the ground? Hah!
Hmm. Then again, that’s the part of Dmitrius’s story that made it almost believable.
Let’s say that some intangible spirit did walk the Earth. Wouldn’t it be more likely to take the form of an angel or demon like those revealed in the Midrash? I certainly don’t think it’d make some kind of resurrection of the body like the nazaros believe will happen in the Second Coming.
Ah, enough! At least if it were a Jewish angel or demon, it’d be a properly logical spirit and would know what part of the underworld to drag you into!
iii. A Lore-Master’s Third Rune Gate
That opinion had seemed reasonable in the boy’s mind until a few seconds ago. This blasted section of the Krak felt like a burned and scored passageway to …Gehenna.
There, he’d thought it. This part of the castle could easily be a multi-roomed tomb in Hell.
He generally avoided considering things or places as good or evil, believing that such notions applied only to people and actions.
Yet, here, in the gloom of the ruined medical wing of one of the nazaros’ Crusader castles, and hundreds of leagues from his former home in the center of the Byzantine Empire, Jacob couldn’t deny what his senses were telling him. He unmistakably felt an otherworldly presence.
That presence was a darkness so filled with hatred and malevolence that, like a miasma of poisonous air, it seemed to constrict his chest as the force passed through the smoky rooms, coming toward him even if he couldn’t yet see it.
He flinched at a creak, then leapt backward when that sound became a groan. Thousands of pounds of stone pushing against some unseen framing timber, and, finally, thundered into a resounding crash as a large section of nearby wall collapsed.
What happened here, and where is everybody? Don’t tell me they all rushed to fight by Ríg at the front gate!
A dismaying thought, but also a likelihood because of the priority the knights gave to war.
He shook his head in mystified disgust. These military orders might proclaim that they gave equal time to praying and fighting, but for monks who called themselves Hospitallers, somebody should have stayed to care for the bedridden patients?
Don’t be too judgmental if they ran off, Jacob. You wanted to follow Ríg when he jumped out that window, too.
Ravens cawed somewhere outside, the mournful pitches of their alarmed cries tightening Jacob’s stomach with an intimation of grief.
Those birds sound upset at something, or…sad?
He turned a corner, and then stopped. He’d reached the gigantic hall of the main ward.
Well, Jacob, mystery solved. Owena and even Ibn-Khaldun were correct: I’m too angry all the time, and I should think for a moment before judging. The Christian, Santini, might have killed your father at Mecina, but this time it’s the nazaros themselves who suffered.
He took a breath to steady himself. Besides being completely wrong in his assessment of the situation, there was too much devastation to take in.
Fool. The physicians weren’t fighting. They did stay with their patients to the end. It’s quiet because they’re all dead.
He drew his blade.
There might be something supernatural in the air, but in the physical realm he beheld only the blood and deaths of men.
Corpses and fragments of bodies were strewn upon the blackened limestone floor of the enormous room, and many blasted shapes lay, sat, and even sprawled upside-down amidst the wrecked furnishings.
It’s as if they died instantly, caught in some kind of massive explosion, and I heard nothing!
Jacob couldn’t reconcile the destruction around him with the fact that there’d been no sound of a blast, but only that eerie, flaring blue-green luminescence that he’d seen upon exiting the stairwell from the upper gallery.
I was here an hour ago, helping Ríg and Master Ibn-Khaldun. All those people they saved, the monks, doctors…they’re all dead.
The ravens screamed outside, a haunting counterpoint to the near-quiet in the hospital.
Nearby, small embers flickered, spitting sparks into the silence from splintered bed-frames that occasionally burst into flames.
Squinting against the smoke, the boy groaned when he saw a fallen doorway across the ward.
Another way blocked. Wasn’t that one of the passages to the pilgrims’ cells? How am I supposed to get to Ima now?
He inhaled shallowly to quell a rising nausea, but then coughed at the acrid odor of burned flesh in the air.
I’m going to be sick. Everyone here burned, and I can’t….stop! Focus!
He reviewed a narrow list of options that wavered between fight or flight.
Yes, run! Even if you don’t know the way, run back the way you came and find Ima!
Fool — stop panicking. What if she’s already here among all these dead men and women? What if she’s unconscious and needs help?
No, do the right thing. You can’t ignore this disaster just to get to Ima’s side. Somebody might still be alive and injured here!
Tears welled in his eyes. The internal debate was pointless. Jacob might not know what happened in this hospital, but he certainly knew himself. He’d made his decision the moment he’d seen the carnage in the ward.
Keep it together, and move, Jacob! The imaginary voice of the rabbi he’d once hoped to become held an urgency in it, the hoped-for sagacity from years of study straining to assert control in the face of the boy’s first wartime experience.
Resolved, he obeyed his future self, moving from one body to another, seeking for any sign of life among the corpses. He found none.
Your sword practice and daydreams are over. Stay alert. Whoever did this might still be somewhere in this vast hall. You’re either ready to fight, or, as Ima jokes, all you’ve been doing these past few years is playing with your sword.
After the thirtieth body, though, he began to lose hope and shifted to tallying the number of dead. At least the act of counting imposed some order on a suddenly chaotic and violent world.
No one to help here, not anymore. A place of healing turned into a tomb. I can count them, though, and then report the number of dead to Khajen ibn-Khaldun. That I can do.
Determined not to succumb to fear, he still prayed that there’d be a survivor, and that Yahweh wouldn’t let his mother be the next upturned face he rolled over.
Hope flashed when he heard someone moaning nearby. He snapped his head around, then grunted in alarm — the moan had been his own.
He returned his attention to the body before him, and recoiled.
Is this the thirty-fourth dead man, or thirty-fifth? Fool! How’d you not notice the robe’s a different color? You can’t fit it like that…he’s, it …it belongs to someone else! Oh, please, don’t let this be happening…don’t. I can’t do this, Ima, please, please, don’t be one of these —
Fully in shock, he dropped the severed and burnt arm he’d been trying to push into the chest cavity of a dead Hospitaller. Then on hands and knees he emptied his stomach into a broken porcelain basin.
He hurled the oversized bowl in disgust. But, in his haste to scramble away from the armless victim, he tumbled over the leg of another body, cracking his elbow on the bloody floor.
The sharp pain cleared his mind, and as he popped to his feet, anger overwhelming the nausea and shock.
His sword lay nearby, dropped at some point while he’d rushed around the room. He focused on the gleaming steel, the blade something clean and familiar in this world of blood and smoke and fiery ruin. He grabbed the hilt and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his free arm.
Enough, Jacob. Be a man. Find something to fight. Where are the ones who did this?
He stumbled over another inert form, but this time remained upright. He slowed to navigate more carefully between the chunks of superheated limestone.
Another curiosity drew his attention: as with the dead pigeons in the entry corridor, here lay many birds, wings spread as if they’d dropped from the air while in mid-flight. Also, while everything else in the room was scored and blackened, the birds’ plumage seemed unburnt by whatever force destroyed the ward.
Jacob reached the apparent source of the main explosion, a hole that yawned where the south wall and window used to be. He gulped at the cool late-afternoon air, letting the mild breeze refresh him while he tried to sort his thoughts.
As he stared through the jagged rupture at the chamber’s edge, he saw more lifeless shapes of pigeons, kingfishers, and grey shrikes, all littered across the cobblestoned courtyard.
Even that space lacked evidence for the cause of the explosion — no incendiary devices, no wreckage, and (strangest of all) no Hospitallers running in alarm to the area.
Impossible. Half the wall’s gone, and what’s left of it seems to have blown into the room. Surely someone heard an explosion?
And, where’d all these dead birds come from? I’ve never seen anything like it. They’re everywhere, as dead and broken as the men and women here, all dead…
A slight fluttering movement at the top of a turreted tower across the yards caught his eye. Two gigantic ravens peered at him from their perch, no longer screaming, but identical in their surprising heights to the ones he’d seen in Ibn-Khaldun’s chambers when he’d first met Ríg.
However, unlike that frightening moment when those ravens had burst into the scriptorium to confront the young Hospitaller, rather than swooping upon Jacob, both birds spread their massive wings to take to the sky, passing overhead and out of sight.
Why did those ravens survive and all these other birds die? Were they the same ravens I saw a little while ago? Stop! Can’t worry about dead birds or even dead people, anymore — let these riddles wait and go find your mother!
Preoccupied and numb, he retraced his steps through the ward, determined to find a way through the maze of the Krak’s hallways to his mother’s room.
A burly figure’s helmeted head slammed painfully into the boy’s abdomen.
Despite the sword still clutched in his hand, Jacob grunted, stunned, as the short stranger grasped the boy’s tunic, lifted him bodily from the floor, and hurled Jacob into the opposite wall!
[End Chapter 1, from The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears]
For remainder of story, please follow links to e-book versions below!
A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight
http://www.amazon.com/Codex-Lacrimae, Part 1
A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears