Chapter 16: The East

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The journey was rough in ways that Hildegund hadn't been able to imagine before they left. The constant riding had left her legs chaffed, her back aching, and her hands numb. And now, the night filled her with fear. The encounter with the bandits had made her acutely aware of how dangerous the road could be. 

In a way, she was actually glad that Adso was at home, because that meant he was safe. One less thing to worry about. A dark quaking invaded her chest and kept her from peaceful dreams. Every rustle from the forest sent a jolt through her. When she pressed her eyelids tight she was inundated with a cascade of violent images. Men taking her. Bears devouring her. These waking nightmares followed her as she drifted off into her slumber.

However, they reached Vienna without any further incident. It was a large city, like Loconge, with mountains on the horizon and crowded stone streets that buzzed with the hustle and bustle of trade and commerce. There, they paid for passage on a river barge that floated quietly down stream from dusk to dawn. It took them first to Budapest and then to Belgrade. Then, they remounted their horses and traveled along the same well-worn paths used by the first crusaders until they reached the Eastern Empire, the heir of Rome. After briefly recuperating in the wonderfully exotic Constantinople, they crossed the Bosporus and, keeping the Mediterranean to their right, marched towards the Holy Land.

Richart, Grimbert, and Hildegund crossed over the border between the County of Tripoli and into to the Kingdom of Jerusalem just weeks before the autumn equinox.  They were tired, sweating, and sore. Night was approaching.  Shelter had been a rare commodity since entering the east, and the trio had become used to this routine.  They tied their horses to a squat, shrub-like tree and got to work constructing a lean-to and starting a small cooking fire. The evening sky was a dazzling clear blue, and there seemed little threat of rain, which made preparations for the night much easier.

The sky had turned a deep indigo by the time they had groomed their horses, extinguished their fire, and crawled into their meagerly constructed shelter.  They fell asleep immediately, exhausted and fatigued.

A horse whinnied in the distance, waking Hildegund.  She opened her eyes sleepily. Moonlight streamed down, outlining both her father and Grimbert.  Another noise broke the silence of the night. Men's voices could be heard. Hildegund couldn't make out what they were saying; they were speaking in a dialect she couldn't quite grasp.  Some of the words sounded like the Latin that she knew from prayers in church, but they were accented and strung together with a vocabulary that was completely foreign to her. "Quickly," she understood, "Knife ... coins ... take ..."

Hildegund shook her father, but held a hand in front of his mouth.  "Do you hear them?" she mouthed the words and her father nodded.  Her father in turn woke Grimbert. The two men pulled their swords close and gestured for Hildegund to stay where she was.

"Who goes there?" Richart's voice boomed. His sword flashed in the moonlight.

Hildegund's view was blocked by the makeshift tent. There were shouts, the sound of rope being slashed, and hooves galloping. Two swords clanged and Hildegund crawled to the edge of her bedroll, clutching her weapon firmly.

She made out seven figures, including her father and Grimbert.  She knew she should aid her father and friend, but she had been instructed to stay put, and a cold fear was compelling her to listen. At first the fight seemed like pure chaos to Hildegund.  The thieves ran about tearing into the travelers' saddlebags and rummaging for valuables, all while avoiding the blows from the incoming swords. Her father and Grimbert didn't have a particular opponent to focus on, and the thieves took advantage of this by taking turns harassing the men from different angles. Neither Grimbert nor her father was a master swordsman, and they hacked out without fine precision. But finally they came upon a bit of strategy.

The two men stood back to back and began to focus on the robber who was shouting orders. Grimbert attacked the supposed leader while Richart battled off any incoming offensive strikes. It seemed to be working.  Their horses had scattered and their belongings were a mess – Hildegund couldn't tell how much had been stolen – but the bandits seemed to be on the verge of retreat.

And that was when everything went into slow motion.

The bandit leader began to withdraw from the battle, stepping backwards with ever quickening steps. Grimbert pressed on, chasing him, not allowing the man to escape into the darkness beyond their camp.  Hildegund's father continued to stand his ground, fending off the blows that came at him.

But with Grimbert gone, Richart's rear was exposed. 

One of the men approached Richart from behind. "Papa, watch out!" Hildegund screamed, leaping up and swinging her sword as she charged, all thoughts of personal safety dissipating. 

But as her father pivoted around, the man's sword sliced into his belly. 

The robber snatched Richart's coin purse, which had been tied around his waist, and ran.  Hildegund went to follow the man, but upon seeing her father fall, she rushed to his side instead.

Blood poured thick as oil onto Hildegund's hands and she scrambled to apply pressure. Her father's face was ghost white under the moon and stars, and in the night's sparse light the wound looked to be spouting black rather than red. Tears came to Hildegund's eyes as she tugged off her cloak, pressing the thick wool to her father's gaping wound. The blood continued to pulse out in spurts, and the cloak soon became heavy and sticky in her hands. 

"Papa!  Please, Papa!"  She stared into her father's face, hoping for some reaction, some sparkle of life.  But none came.  Not even a last dying profession of love or a simple grunt of pain. His face was still and pale as marble, and Hildegund collapsed onto her father's chest, sobbing tears from a well deep within her heart.

Grimbert returned, leading one of their horses back to camp, it was her father's gray. Upon seeing Hildegund sprawled across the still figure on the ground, he ran to see what had happened in his absence. Sadness filled the man's eyes, and he stroked Hildegund's back, cooing to her, "It's okay child, it will be okay. He is in heaven with your mother, now." He repeated it like a mantra, over and over, until the sun's first rays reached its fingers across the eastern horizon.

This was the second parent she had lost.  She was an orphan.

Hildegund tried not to think back to that warm summer evening, but images raced through her mind anyway. She remembered how her father was downstairs closing up the shop and Hildegund was sitting by the fireplace watching the flames dance and lick at the bottom of the caldron. The earthy smells of thyme and rosemary wafted up from the simmering stew and filled the room. Her mother – stomach full and round – let out a sharp exhale that made Hildegund jump. "No, this can't be, it's too early," she thought out loud. A few minutes later she let out another moan. She furrowed her brow, a look more of worry than of pain. "Go fetch the midwife," she whispered urgently. A rush of both fear and excitement overcame Hildegund's small body.  The baby was coming!

The midwife was an older woman who Hildegund knew from church. She came quickly and got to work right away boiling rags and propping up pillows. She was there many hours saying encouraging words to Hildegund's mother as her screams echoed into the night. But when the baby finally came there had been a lot of blood, and afterwards her mother had fallen into a feverish sleep.

The baby had been small and squirming with skin that was nearly translucent.  He took rapid, shallow breaths, and his eyes never opened. The midwife had let Hildegund hold her brother, even though she was only six. Wrapped in a fine linen cloth he was still smaller than any of her dolls. The fire was kept burning throughout the night as her father kept constant vigil at his wife's side. The baby died before morning, and her mother passed away shortly after dawn. Her father had refused to let go of his wife's still hand for hours.

Now he was with them. In heaven. And she was left all alone here on Earth. In a strange land. With Grimbert as her only companion.


Author's Note:

This was a tough one... I feel guilty for killing Richard and I feel awful for putting Hildegund in this situation, but it had to happen.

As always, votes and/or any feedback much appreciated.

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