Hortus Conclusus

Novels

We attack from three sides at once. From the south where the moat is now the shallowest and it’s possible to nudge the siege tower up to the walls; from the north, ramming the city gates; and from the east with scaling ladders. Saint Anne’s Army is divided into two: half push the tower forward under Léon’s command and cover it from the sides while the other half, led by Sergius, attacks the city gates with the Provencal soldiers and storms the most difficult sections of the wall. I myself am in the tower. It consists of three parts and has been built taller than the walls so the defending soldiers have as little chance as possible to shield themselves from the death raining down from above. Standing by my side on the platform are the finest knights we have, Lord Charles and Tancred of Apulia among them. These men care neither for angels nor ordeals; they possess brute force and the ability to direct it.

My own strength is at an end, my fever blazing even more intensely than before, I see everything through a gray fog within which swirl the steam of breaths, ice crystals, and flecks of ash, and just moments from now the eddy will be joined by the souls of the pilgrims to lift heavenwards with the haze, currently they lie between two worlds and from below, from the ground, come the sounds of cursing, gasping, and rallying cries, the Tafurs push the contraption upon wooden wheels, citadel against citadel, force against force, soon it will be made clear which will triumph, that of Satan or of the Lord, at long last we have set the stronghold into motion. The tower sways perilously, holding too many men too densely, each man knows what to expect from the walls, no one wishes to stand in the front row, the archers squirm their way towards the rear, but the knights shove them back up against the balustrades, at the center of the platform are the drummers and flutists meant to strike terror into the defenders but who deafen us instead, drums beaten fervently as if the cloth-bundled clubs were pummeling infidels and not tautened hides, that hide is my skin, I think, my heart, the rasping emanating from my chest, the flutists blow, Lord Charles bellows at the top of his lungs, many are roaring and howling, we are a herd brought to the slaughter, arrows whiz towards us and black birds wheel above the arrows, we are their feast, flesh for butchering and devouring, we still have names and titles but we are flesh.

Jerk by jerk we draw nearer to the walls, from our vantage we can see Comestor’s Tafurs storming the moat, raising the ladders, stones and logs showering down upon them, they are all clad in identical rags, a homogenous grayish wave, the roars, howls, and screams of the wounded sound from their direction as well, ladders snap, they fall, the infidels shriek in return, we speak the very same language, look! Tancred roars, shaking me by the shoulder, Sergius’ men have set up the battering ram, the first blows strike the gates, something silken streams out from beneath the walls, they are rats fleeing the city, it is a good sign, we now tower above the waves, I should feel anxious, my blood sounding the alarm, but I feel something else. Rather, I see it. Maria is here. I haven’t seen her the entire siege, but now she is here, next to me, before me, above me, everywhere, go away, I think, get out of here! go! Lord Charles blows the horn, his cheeks puffing absurdly, but instead of a resounding signal it emits a mere whimper, the death gurgle of a swine, it’s lurching, sard! a plump knight growls, don’t sway it! he roars downward, craning over the edge, this tower’s a shit carving! an arrow cracks into the beam where his throat just was, bowing before the commoners, the iron splits the wood, Lord Charles turns and stares at it in astonishment, then smirks, raises the horn to his lips, and this time blows a victorious metallic blast, one in praise of survival, he laughs uproariously, he has risen from the dead, it is a celebration of joy, I laugh along with him, though not out of joy but apprehension, apprehension is in the air, it passes along through the fighters, infectious, stronger than courage and cowardice, stronger than the grief within me, stronger than the black wings, my heart pounds, the drum pounds, Maria dissipates into the cloud of steaming breath, praise be to Christ, te Deum laudamus! the tower shudders and groans in praise of the Lord, it crawls forward a jerk at a time, the men howl with laughter and piss themselves as they do, good thing it’s the top floor, Lord Tancred snickers beside me, that was the right choice! right, I think, of course it’s right, all that is higher are winged, spinning cherubs and seraphs who roar in turn: holy! holy! holy! Flames break out on the walls, an arrow has struck a torchbearer or he himself has erred, has struck himself, the Tafurs are pushing the tower straight into the fire, hold! Tancred cries down, hold! but our momentum is impossible to halt, down below the ram bashes the city gates with steady booms, the gates flex, buckle inward, then rebound, they’ll never break, I think, we’ve got to do the whole job ourselves again, a moment later the tower thuds against stone, we’ve landed, we’re here. Off! Lord Charles cries, toots the horn once more and tenses to leap into the flames, I wrench him back, the Geneva archers release a volley of arrows, a fissure forms in the thorny wall greeting us, the spearmen fall onto one knee, their comrades attempt to enter the gap, this is our moment, Tancred the Norman and I look at one another, we nod and hurl ourselves forth together.

We fought for an entire day, the infidels resisting like demons. Only later, plundering the bodies, did we realize that soldiers equipped like knights had been sheltering in Ma’arra; it was possible that all secondary fighters had been dispatched to defend some other city. The Ma’arra garrison had had every advantage over us: better weapons, strong walls, even Greek fire. Yet we had something they did not. God’s protection, priests would say. Providence… They do know better, but soldiers are aware there is no protection that comes of its own accord. One must give it his all and must earn such protection. I’ve wondered: what if God was awoken by the desecration committed by my orders? Those corpses, which were dragged to the bonfires as the defenders of Ma’arra looked on in horror. What if God opened His eyes and realized that we truly are prepared to go to the final limits in His name? That we have completed the trial?  Yet sometimes as I lie sleepless in my monastery cell at a dark hour, I’ve wondered: what if God does not wish to see? And if those who are undaunted by anything will triumph? But the very next moment, I’ve dispelled the thought.

Translated by Adam Cullen

First appeared in Estonian Literary Magazine 1/2019


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