THE CRUSADING WIZARD

(revised & expanded edition)

SNEAK PREVIEW #1

by

Christopher & Ed Stasheff

Copyright 2015

 

A vast satanic barbarian horde has swept off the stepes of Central Asia and overrun the Arabian Empire.  Pinned down outside of Baghdad, the Caliph sends out a desperate plea for help to the crowns of Christian Europe.  While a relief army is slowly mobilized, Matt Mantrell, the Lord Wizard of Merovence, goes on ahead to scout and learn more about their enemy.  He has just arrived in Jerusalem, under siege by the barbarian horde, but defended by Emir Tafas bin Daoud, the Mahdi of Islam.  Though vastly outnumbered, Jerusalem has been able to hold out so far... but for how much longer?

 

The captain of the guard bowed to Matt.  “Forgive this unworthy one, O Esteemed One!”

“Forgive you for what?”  Now it was Matt who stared.  “For doing your job well?  For protecting your Mahdi to the best of your ability?  That calls for praise, not forgiveness!”

The guardsman straightened up, incredulous and wary.  “I had heard the Franks were without mercy.”

“Propaganda.”  Matt waved the idea away.  “Atrocity stories.  The gur-khan’s high priest worships the Prince of Lies, worthy soldier.  We must all be wary of rumors from now on.  Do you suppose you could tell the Mahdi I’m here?”

“At once, effendi!”  The captain turned to bark an order to one subordinate, mutter something else to a second, and both guards ran back into the palace.  Then the captain half bowed, extending an arm toward the doorway.  “Will you come in out of the sun?”

“That would be nice, thanks.”  Matt wished he could have changed into some clothing more suitable for meeting the Mahdi, but he hadn’t had a chance to replace his luggage, and Cardmember Services was a long way away.  He paused to roll up his flying rug and tuck it under one arm.  A ten-pound weight hit his shoulder, shifting as he straightened; a furry tail brushed one ear, whiskers the other.  He went where the nice man pointed, managing not to show his wariness, and the entire squad of sentries fell into formation around him to escort Matt into the palace.  As they descended down from the roof, Matt felt the temperature drop the moment he stepped into the shade.

“I have heard many stories of your victories in battle,” the captain said, attempting small talk.  “Tell me, is it true you slew the sorcerer Nirobus?”

“Oh, I didn’t,” Matt replied.  “Don Quixote of LaMancha did.  At least I think he did—they both disappeared in a flash of light, and no one has seen Nirobus since.”

The captain nodded once; if he was surprised to hear that the true story differed from the rumor he’d heard, it didn’t show on his face.  “And how did you defeat the Marid djinni that Nirobus summoned against you?”

“Again, I didn’t—I just sort of distracted him with a beautiful djinna, Princess Lakshmi.” Every floor they descended felt cooler and cooler.  Matt looked around to admire the stone architecture.  Funny, the guard squadron seemed larger than it had a minute ago…

You summoned a Princess of the Marid?” the captain repeated… but, strangely, didn’t sound that impressed.

“No, actually, my father summoned her… although she only responded because she owed me a favor.  I freed her, you see, from the moonstone a sorcerer trapped her in and controlled her with.”  Balkis’ claws picked Matt’s shoulder, and he turned to see that a civilian had joined their escort—although given the stranger’s red robes and turban, Matt suspected the Arab was a wizard.  “Actually,” Matt continued, “I used to same liberation spell on the ruby Nirobus used to control his djinni—Prince Ranudin—and then Princess Lakshmi and Ranudin ran off together, leaving Nirobus in the lurch.”

“You stole the ruby from right off Nirobus’ turban?” the soldier asked, incredulous.

“No, actually, Callio did—he was a thief I met in Ibile during the war.”  But Matt frowned; he hadn’t mentioned a turban.  That was an awfully specific detail for Rumor to get right, considering everything else in the story the captain heard seemed to be inaccurate.  Then, in a sudden flash of insight, Matt realized what was happening.

“I have heard also that the Mahdi sends Queen Alisande twenty pounds of coffee every month,” the captain continued, “but I can scare credit—”

“It’s twelve pounds, not twenty,” Matt said, exasperated with this charade, “but you knew that, didn’t you?  In fact, you were probably there at the peace conference.  You’re just testing me to see if I really am who I say.”  Matt stopped and turned to look at the guardsman.  “Well?  Did I pass your test?”

At least the captain had to decency to look abashed.  “Your pardon, Lord Wizard, but we cannot be too careful.  The gur-khan has many sorcerers… and some can change their faces.”  He hesitated, then added, “And that is far more likely than a Frankish wizard flying out of the sky.”

Matt sighed as he turned back and continued walking.  “Yeah, I understand—‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.’  But you didn’t answer my question.”

The captain was silent a moment as they descended to the ground floor of the palace where the temperature was almost comfortable.  Finally he said, “You have not yet given me any reasons to doubt you, effendi… but I cannot be certain until you have met with the Mahdi.”

Matt frowned; Tafas wasn’t a wizard, so what did the captain mean?  Suddenly he realized they were stepping back out into the light and heat of the street.  “Wait… where are we going?”

“Why, to the Mahdi, effendi!”

Matt stared.  “Tafas isn’t in the palace?”

“Of course not, Lord Wizard.”  The captain looked slightly puzzled.  “What use is a palace in war?”

Matt opened his mouth, then closed it when he couldn’t think of an objection to that logic.  Now that he thought about it, Tafas had never been to type to stand on ceremony or surround himself with luxury.  Despite being raised to the nobility due to his sheer military genius, Tafas was still a peasant shepherd boy at heart, with a commoner’s sensibilities of practicality and thrift.  “Very well, then.”  Matt nodded.  “Lead the way.”

As the guardsmen escorted him through the streets of Jerusalem—presumably the Muslim Quarter, judging by the mosques—it became clear they were in a city under siege, and a hard one at that.  Many buildings displayed the scars of battle.  Masonry crumbled where boulders, presumably from catapults, had overshot the walls and landed in the city.  Charred, blackened ruins showed where fires had been ignited and extinguished.  Matt passed a courtyard apparently serving as an overflow infirmary, at least judging by the wounded men stretched out on the flagstones.

Occasionally they passed long mounds of freshly turned earth, and Matt wondered at their purpose… until he saw one being built.  Soldiers armed with shovels dug a long trench, while behind them lay the corpses of their fallen brothers, wrapped in burial shrouds and laid out in neat rows in an attempt to provide what little dignity there could be in a mass grave.  It wasn’t much, true, but better than the alternative—tossing the bodies over the city walls to fester, rot, and be pecked apart by carrion birds.

An equally disturbing sight, though, were the living.  Men sat around in the shade, sharpening blades and fletching arrows in listless silence, emaciated from weeks of short rations, uniforms stained with dirt and blood.  But most alarming of all were the looks on their faces, expressions ranging from blank to grim to despairing, men hopeless and resigned to their fate.  Jerusalem’s defenders were thoroughly demoralized—and that could be a very, very dangerous thing indeed.

The guardsmen led Matt and Balkis all the way to the edge of the city, right up to the walls.  Matt noticed a heavy rope stung along the wall, fixed to the stone by eyebolts and leading off in both directions as far as the eye could see, but for no apparent purpose.  He plucked at it with a finger.  “What’s this for?”

The captain shrugged.  “I know not, effendi, only that it is wizardry.”

Matt frowned, puzzled, but was forced to move on as his escorts hustled him up a flight of stairs to the top of the wall, then along the ramparts.  Matt noticed something odd along the battlements—tall crude dummies, stationed at wide intervals.  At a guess, they were decoys to make the enemy think the city was better garrisoned than they were—and judging by the number of barbarian arrows stuck in the mannequins, they’d performed their job well.  Still, understaffed walls were an ominous sign.

His Arab escort led Matt to the widest, tallest watchtower along the walls and bid him step inside.  When he stepped past the threshold into the tower, the captain visibly relaxed—so, for that matter, did all of the guards.

“You are truly the Lord Wizard,” the captain told him with a broad grin.  “The Mahdi will definitely wish to see you straight away!”

Matt was puzzled, not sure what he’d done to convince the guardsmen… but since it worked in his favor, he didn’t question it too much as they climbed a seemingly endless spiral staircase.  At the top, two sentries stood guard, both of which had inherited more of their fair share of Neanderthal genes, and a scrawny civilian (who Matt assumed was a guardian wizard).

“The Lord Wizard of Merovence has arrived!” the captain told them.  “The Mahdi must speak with him immediately!”

The huge sentries looked shocked, but pleasantly so, and glanced at each other.  They seemed to reach some sort of unspoken agreement, then flung the doors open and Matt stepped inside.

He saw in an instant why Tafas made his headquarters here instead of the palace.  The circular room with arrow-slit windows every few feet, from the highest vantage point in all of Jerusalem, gave him a 360-degree view of the barbarian horde outside the city.  Maps hung on the walls between windows, and a round table dominated the center of the room, covered with books, parchments, and random military and magical tools.  Two men leaned over the table, staring into a large bowl of ink.  One was Tafas bin Daoud, the Mahdi, and the other Matt didn’t recognize—but judging by the beard, earlocks, and yarmulke, he must have been Jewish.

Both men looked up and stared at him, dumbfounded.

After a moment, Tafas said, “Lord… Lord Matthew?”

To be honest, Matt wasn’t entirely sure what kind of reception he’d get—he’d last met Tafas over the negotiating table ending a war they’d fought on opposite sides of.  But, remembering protocol, Matt bowed respectfully and tapped his finger to chest, lips, and forehead.  “Salaam alaikum.”

“Alaikum as salaam,” Tafas returned automatically, then shook himself out of his daze, broke into a broad grin, and strode toward Matt.  The Lord Wizard held out a hand to shake, but Tafas bypassed it and gripped Matt in a bear hug.  Balkis’ claws dug in as she struggled to stay balanced on Matt’s shoulder.  “Allah be praised!  Well come!  Well come, indeed!” Tafas cried.  He took a step back and held Matt at arms’ length, and the wizard noticed for the first time how haggard Tafas looked.  Dark bags under his eyes suggested little sleep, he was overdue for a shave, and was skinny bordering on skeletal—which made sense; Tafas was the type who would to refuse to eat any more than his troops did.  “If Christendom sent only one man,” Tafas continued, “they chose well!”

“Why, thank you… wait, what?”  Matt shook his head, confused.  “One man?  Oh no, I’m just the advance scouting party!  I came ahead to learn as much as I could about our mutual enemy.  The rest of the army is on their way.”

Tafas froze, starring at him.  “Army?  What army?”

“Uh…”  Matt frowned.  “You haven’t heard?”

Tafas looked at Matt blankly, then turned to glance a question at the Jewish man.  The old man spread his hands and shrugged.  “We have had no word from outside the city in weeks.”

“Oh.  Well, in that case, there’s a relief army on its way from Christian Europe.  Queen Alisande of Merovence and King Rinaldo of Ibile are bringing their armies, and the Allustrians are sending an army under Graaf von Wegensburg.  Oh, and King Boncorro of Latruria is also sending a company of condottieri.  I haven’t heard about the Bretanglians yet, but I’d be very surprised if King Brion didn’t send something.  It’s definitely an international expeditiona regular crusade, really.”

As he rattled off this list, Tafas’ eyes grew wider and wider as his jaw dropped.  The old man looked equally stunned.  He staggered back and fell into a chair, overcome.  “Baruch HaShem!” he mumbled.  “Our prayers have been answered!”

“When will this army arrive?” Tafas demanded.

Matt grimaced.  “I’m afraid I don’t know.  I left before they did, and an army with that many men must travel much more slowly than an individual.  But that was well over a month ago, so by now they can’t be too far away… actually, I was half-expecting to find them here already.  But don’t worry; if Jerusalem can only hold out a little bit longer, help will arrive.”

As he said this, Tafas’s eyes lost focus and he stared into the middle distance, thinking.  “Yes…” he said slowly.  “Yes, it all makes sense now…”

Matt tilted his head to one side, confused.  “What does?”

Tafas looked up at him, coming out of his introspective trance.  “The infidels’ strategy.  Once the horde realized Jerusalem would be no easy victory, that it would cost them many lives to take the city, they were content to besiege us, trying to force a surrender through time, hunger, and thirst, with regular raids or probing attacks to whittle down our defenses.  But for the past two nights, they have stormed our walls in full force… and we have only barely held them off.”  He frowned.  “I have puzzled over their sudden change in strategy… but now I think I understand.”

Matt didn’t.  “Okay, I’ll bite… why?”

“Is it not obvious?”  Tafas stared at him, surprised.  “Unless this Olgor Khan is a fooland he is not—then he has scouts and spies far and wide.  If the Christian army had landed on the coast and marches inland, he will know of it… and that he has only a few days to take Jerusalem, or be caught between an enemy stronghold and an enemy army.”

Now Matt got it, and his face lit up.  “Then the European army is almost here!”

“It is only a guess,” Tafas cautioned, “but yes, I believe so.”

“Then you only need to hold out for another day,” Matt said, excited, “maybe two!”

If we can hold out, yes,” Tafas said, his voice gave, “but tonight the infidels will attack with everything they have, and the fighting will be fierce.”  The expression on Tafas’ face genuinely frightened Matt; for the first time since he’d met him, the Mahdi looked less then perfectly confident of victory.  “Still,” Tafas added as an afterthought, “we have you now, the most powerful wizard of the westthat should help balance the scales.”  Tafas cocked an eyebrow at Matt.  “You will join us in defending the city, will you not?”

“Oh, absolutely.”  Matt hesitated a moment, not sure if what he said next would be interpreted as an insult.  He decided to take the risk, but phrased it very carefully.  “Actually, I’m impressed you’ve held out as long as you have.  How did you manage it?”

Tafas’ face darkened.  “With faith, with wit, and with blood… far too much blood.”

The old man cleared his throat.

“Oh yes, and the Rabbi here.  But where are my manners?  I have forgotten to introduce you!”  Tafas held out a hand to the old man.  “This is Rabbi Moshe Eliyahu, my advisor, and the architect of the magical defense of Jerusalem.”

The Rabbi stood and bowed to Matt with a polite, “Shalom.”

“Moshe, this is Matthew Mantrell, royal consort and Lord Wizard of Merovence.”

The Rabbi smiled.  “Ah yes, him I have heard of!”

“Really?” Matt asked, surprised.  “Even all the way out here in Jerusalem?”

“Oh yes!  You freed our Sephardic brothers in Ibile, and they brought word of their liberator to the Holy Lands.”  The Rabbi spread his hands.  “Did you think Christians were the only ones who suffered under King Gordogrosso’s rule?”

Actually, Matt had thought that—and it was a little embarrassing.  Between that and the hero worship aimed in his direction, he felt uncomfortable enough to change the subject.  “So you guys have no problem working together, then?”  He looked at Tafas, then back at the Rabbi.  “Jews and Muslims, I mean.”

Tafas and Moshe exchanged a confused glance.  “Of course not, Lord Wizard,” Tafas said.  “Why would we?  Jews are Peoples of the Book, after all, not Infidels.”

The Rabbi, however, remained silent.  Matt glanced at him, and noticed he wore a guarded expression, his face carefully neutral.  Matt suspected Moshe didn’t entirely share Tafas’ rosy view of Judaeo-Muslim relations.

Then again, Matt thought, although Israelis and Palestinians may have been bitter enemies his home universe, that conflict didn’t begin until the nineteenth century, and didn’t get nasty until the twentieth.  In this world’s timeline, that conflict was still centuries away.

Perhaps Tafas sensed some tension in the conversation, for he changed the subject again.  “Tell me, Lord Wizard—however did you get into Jerusalem past the barbarian siege?”

“Oh, easy,” Matt replied.  “I flew over them on a magic carpet.”

Suddenly both Tafas and Moshe looked alarmed.  “How did you get past the djinn and afrits?” Tafas asked.

“Djinn?  What djinn?”

“The ones the infidels set to guard Jerusalem,” Tafas replied, “to knock out of the sky any flying carpets that ventured outside our walls.”

Matt felt a chill run up his spine as he realized how much danger he’d been in—and hadn’t even realized it.  “I… just got lucky, I guess.  Actually, a roc gave me a ride here, then dropped me over the city, and I glided in on a rug.  Perhaps the djinn didn’t realize the roc was carrying anything over the walls… or maybe even djinn don’t want to mess with a roc.”

“Brilliant!”  Tafas clapped his hands, delighted, apparently assuming Matt had actually planned his arrival that way.  “Your ingenuity never fails to amaze!”  Then his face grew serious.  “But know, Wizard, that you shall not be able to leave Jerusalem the same way.  Many have tried, and many have died.”

“You have flying carpets of your own?” Matt asked, surprised.

“Of course!  What Arab wizard can not create a magic carpet?”  Tafas spoke as if this were patently obvious—which, Matt supposed, it was.  After all, that was where he’d gotten the idea.  “That was how we kept touch with the world outside Jerusalem, as well as how we achieved many of our early victories in this siege,” Tafas continued.  “The barbarians were not expecting arrows and fire-pots to rain down upon them from a fleet of rugs in the sky, especially since they flew so high the infidels’ own arrows could not reach them.  That held the besiegers at bay for a week and more… but then their own sorcerers arrived who summoned djinn and afrits to clear the skies.  Flying rugs are no match for djinn, wizard, and many of my carpet crews died that day, falling to their deaths.”  Tafas tried and failed to suppress a shudder at the memory.  “Since then our rugs have been grounded, at least outside the city, and we lost touch with anyone outside Jerusalem.”

Matt couldn’t help being impressed.  An air force of flying carpets bombing the enemy?  Tafas was truly ahead of his time; it was one of the many reasons he was a military genius.  There was one thing was worried Matt, though.  “If the barbarians control some djinn, what’s stopping them from just flying over the walls and capturing the city?”

“For that, we have the Rabbi to thank,” Tafas replied, clasping the old man on the shoulder, “and I thank Allah that Moshe chose to stay in Jerusalem.”

Matt nodded to the Rabbi.  “Brave man.”

“This, to you, is brave?   Me, I’m terrified!”  Matt and Tafas burst out laughing at Moshe’s self-deprecating humor.  He waited for it to subside, then continued more seriously.  “But I know, too, what the gur-khan will do to the Temple Mount if he captures the Holy City.”

“And the Dome of the Rock,” Tafas added softly.

“What, I ask, is my life compared to the last remnant of Herod’s Temple?” the Rabbi shrugged.  “So I stayed, as did most of my students.”

Matt perked up.  “You’re a teacher?”

“Of course!  I’m a rabbi, aren’t I?”  He smiled, and Matt felt himself warming to the old man.  “I run Jerusalem’s yeshiva for rabbinical students with the Gift—or I did, before the siege.”

It was the first Matt had ever heard of a school for wizards—and, he thought, an idea worth considering… later, when the war was over.

“If Jerusalem is to survive long enough for your Christian army to reach us,” Tafas began, “then we will need every advantage we can get, no matter how minor.  You say you came ahead to scout the enemy, Lord Wizard—have you learned anything that can help us?”

“I think so, yes.”  Matt nodded.  “Their leader Olgor Khan is a Mongol, and his title is ‘gur-khan’—‘Great King,’ in our terms—but the source of his power is a renegade priest named Arjasp.”

“Yes, this much was in the caliph’s letter,” Tafas said, nodding, “although we did not know the priest’s name.  In what way is he a renegade?”

Matt hesitated, then asked, “Have you heard of the Zoroastrians, a religious minority within the Arabian Empire?  Also known as Guebres or Parsis?”

“I have heard of them, yes, but know little more than their name,” Tafas admitted.

“Myself, I know a little more,” the Rabbi said.  “They worship fire, yes?  And the sun?”

“Uh… not exactly,” Matt said.  “They worship Ahura Mazda, the God of Light, but they honor him through the symbols of sun and fire, since both are luminous.  The Zoroastrian priest Arjasp, though, has betrayed them—he’s forsworn Ahura Mazda, and instead worships Angra Mainyu, also known as Ahriman, their god of darkness and deceit.”

“Shaitan!” Tafas gasped in horror.  “This Angra Mainyu must surely be Shaitan by another name!”

Matt chose his words with care.  “Is it not also possible, then, that Ahura Mazda is only their name for Allah?”

Tafas frowned, hesitating, then said, “I will admit the possibility… though if it is true, they are in error about many aspects of His nature.”

“That may be,” Matt agreed, “but surely He is too vast for any human mind to conceive of entirely, and devotion to the One God is of far more importance than the incompleteness of their understanding—or ours.”

The Rabbi started to argue, affronted, but remembered himself and caught his tongue in time.

Tafas frowned in thought.  Matt guessed he was trying to decide whether to interpret “ours” as referring to the Christians’ lack of understanding of the nature of Allah, or to both Christians and Muslims failing to fully understand the One God.  He apparently decided to take Matt’s words as referring to the fallibility of Christians, because he said, “Surely your devotion to God is more important than human blindness.”

“Faith can move mountains,” Matt agreed, “and the Mazdaean high priest with whom I spoke was as angry at Arjasp as either of us—but feared him, too.”

“There is sense in that,” Tafas admitted, “if not bravery.”

“Oh, he was brave enough to rescue me from one of Arjasp’s lesser priests when they captured me,” Matt said dryly.  Balkis moved restlessly, claws digging into Matt’s shoulder.  He tried to ignore her indignation at not getting the credit she deserved.  Sometimes it was better to keep a card up his sleeve, and Balkis was proving to be an ace.

Tafas looked shocked.  “How could they capture a wizard?”

“Oh, the same way you capture a king’s champion,” Matt told him, “hit him from five directions at once without any warning.  It’s cowardly, but it works.”

“Yes… I can see that it would…”  Tafas had a thoughtful look, and the Rabbi shot him a nervous glance.

Matt decided to give himself the magical equivalent of a bubble dome, and to keep it there at all times.  “Of course,” he added, “catching a wizard and keeping him are two different things—you really don’t want to be around when he decides to get even.”

The Rabbi gave Matt tiny smile and minuscule nod, and Tafas had the sense to look slightly guilty and drop the subject.  “And what happened to this minor priest of Ahriman when the high priest of Ahura Mazda came upon him?”

“The dastoor buried him in shadow,” Matt said, “then washed the whole chamber in bright light.  We heard his screams, but they faded with the shadows.”

Tafas managed to only look grave and suppress a shudder, but the Rabbi didn’t.  “A fitting end.  Have you learned, then, how to deal with these barbarians sorcerers?”

“Oh, yes,” Matt assured him.  “The dastoor taught me a few verses.”

“Then perhaps you can aid where our own wizards have proved lacking!” Tafas said, suddenly excited.  “They have experience only in dealing with sorcerers who gain their power from Shaitan.”

“I wouldn’t expect your holy men to be terribly bothered by Satanic verses, no,” Matt agreed, “but it would be more difficult for them to counter spells oriented toward Ahriman.  Drawing on a different aspect of the Prince of Lies changes the proportions of intentions and effects.”

Tafas frowned.  “This is wizard’s talk.”

Matt tried to find a clearer way of saying it.  “It’s a matter of finding the right aspect ratio…”  He saw the blank expression on Tafas’ face and gave up.  “…never mind.”

“Ah, but this, I think, I understand,” the Rabbi said.  “By comprehending the symbols and intentions behind their spells, we can design more specific counterspells—better, I hope, than the more general counterspells we use now… yes?”

Matt looked up, surprised and impressed.  “Yes, exactly.”

Tafas, sensing a boring and incomprehensible wizard’s conversation in the immediate future, was saved by the sound of muezzins across the Muslim Quarter calling the faithful to midday prayers.  “Forgive me, wizards, but I must leave you now.  After prayer, I will gather my soldiers and tell them a relief army is on its way.  Their morale is dangerously low; hopefully this will raise their spirits.”  With that, he bowed to them with a quick tap of breast, lips, and forehead, then strode out the door, his bodyguards following him down the stairs.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

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