The High Crusade
by Poul Anderson
To JENS CHRISTIAN and NANCY — as well as PER and JANNE — gratefully and hopefully
As the captain looked up, the hooded desk lamp threw his face into ridges of darkness and craggy highlights. A port stood open to alien summer night.
’Well?” he said.
“I’ve got it translated, sir,” answered the sociotechnician. “Had to extrapolate backward from modern languages, which is what took me so long. In the course of the work, though, I’ve learned enough so I can talk to these … creatures.”
“Good,” granted the captain. “Now maybe we can discover what this is all about. Thunder and blowup! I expected to come across almost anything out here, but this—!”
“I know how you feel, sir. Even with all the physical evidence right before my eyes, I found it hard to believe the original account.
“Very well, I’ll read it at once. No rest for the wicked.” The captain nodded dismissal, and the sociotech departed the cabin.
For a moment the captain sat motionless, looking at the document but not really seeing it. The book itself had been impressively ancient, uncials on vellum between massive covers. This translation was a prosaic typescript. Yet he was nearly afraid to turn the pages, afraid of what he might find out. There had been some stupendous catastrophe, more than a thousand years ago; its consequences were still echoing. The captain felt very small and alone. Home was a long ways off.
He began to read.
Archbishop William, a most learned and holy prelate, having commanded me to put into English writing those great events to which I was a humble witness, I take up my quill in the name of the Lord and my patron saint: trusting that they will aid my feeble powers of narrative for the sake of future generations who may with profit study the account of Sir Roger de Tourneville’s campaign and learn thereby fervently to reverence the great God by Whom all things are brought to pass.
I shall write of these happenings exactly as I remember them, without fear or favor, the more so since most who were concerned are now dead. I myself was quite insignificant, but since it is well to make known the chronicler that men may judge his trustworthiness, let me first say a few words about him.
I was born forty years before my story begins, a younger son of Wat Brown. He was blacksmith in the little town of Ansby, which lay in northeastern Lincoinshire. The lands were enfeoffed to the Baron de Tourneville, whose ancient castle stood on a hill just above the town. There was also a small abbey of the Franciscan order, which I entered as a boy. Having gained some skill (my only skill, I fear) in reading and writing, I was often made instructor in these arts to novices and the children of lay people. My boyhood nickname I put into Latin and made my religious one, as a lesson in humility, so I am Brother Parvus. For I am of low size, and ill-favored, though fortunate to have the trust of children.
In the year of grace 1345, Sir Roger, then baron, was gathering an army of free companions to join our puissant King Edward III and his son in the French war. Ansby was the meeting place. By May Day, the army was all there. It camped on the common, but turned our quiet town into one huge brawl. Archers, crossbowmen, pikemen, and cavalry swarmed through the muddy streets, drinking, gaming, wenching, jesting, and quarreling, to the peril of their souls and our thatch-roofed cottages. Indeed, we lost two houses to fire. Yet they brought in unwonted ardor, a sense of glory, such that the very serfs thought wistfully about going along, were it but possible. Even I entertained such notions. For me it might well have come true, for I had been tutoring Sir Roger’s son and had also brought his accounts in order. The baron talked of making me his amanuensis; but my abbot was doubtful.
Thus it stood when the Wersgor ship arrived.
Well I remember the day. I was out on an errand. The weather had turned sunny after rain, the town street was ankle-deep in mud. I picked my way through the aimless crowds of soldiery, nodding to such as I knew. All at once a great cry arose. I lifted my head like the others.
Lo! It was as a miracle! Down through the sky, seeming to swell monstrously with the speed of its descent, came a ship all of metal. So bright was the sunlight off its polished sides that I could not see its form clearly. A huge cylinder, I thought, easily two thousand feet long. Save for the whistle of wind, it moved noiseless.
Someone screamed. A woman knelt in a puddle and began to rattle off prayers. A man cried that his sins had found him out, and joined her. Worthy though these actions were, I realized that in such a mass of people, folk would be trampled to death if panic smote. That was surely not what God, if He had sent this visitant, intended.
Hardly knowing what I did, I sprang up on a great iron bombard whose wagon was sunk to the axles in our street. “Hold fast!” I cried. “Be not afraid! Have faith and hold fast!”
My feeble pipings went unheard. Then Red John Hameward, the captain of the longbowmen, leaped up beside me. A merry giant, with hair like spun copper and fierce blue eyes, he had been my friend since he arrived here.
“I know not what yon thing is,” he bellowed. His voice rolled over the general babble, which died away.
“Mayhap some French trick. Or it may be friendly, which would make our fear look all the sillier. Follow me, every soldier, to meet it when it lands!”
“Magic!” cried an old man. “’Tis sorcery, and we are undone!”
“Not so,” I told him. “Sorcery cannot harm good Christians.”
“But I am a miserable sinner,” he wailed.
“St. George and King Edward!” Red John sprang off the tube and dashed down the street. I tucked up my robe and panted after him, trying to remember the formulas of exorcism.
Looking back over my shoulder, I was surprised to see most of the company follow us. They had not so much taken heart from the bowman’s example, as they were afraid to be left leaderless. But they followed — into their own camp to snatch weapons, then out onto the common. I saw that cavalrymen had flung themselves to horse and were thundering downhill from the castle.
Sir Roger de Toumeville, unarmored but wearing sword at hip, led the riders. He shouted and flailed about with his lance. Between them, he and Red John got the rabble whipped into some kind of fighting order. They had scarcely finished when the great ship landed.
It sank deep into pasture earth; its weight was tremendous, and I knew not what had borne it so lightly through the air. I saw that it was all enclosed, a smooth shell without poop deck or forecastle. I did not really expect oars, but part of me wondered (through the hammering of my heart) why there were no sails. However, I did spy turrets, from which poked muzzles like those of bombards.
There fell a shuddering silence. Sir Roger edged his horse up to me where I stood with teeth clapping in my head. “You’re a learned cleric, Brother Parvus,” he said quietly, though his nostrils were white and his hair dank with sweat. “What d’you make of this?”
“In truth I know not, sire,” I stammered. “Ancient stories tell of wizards like Merlin who could fly through the air.”
“Could it be … divine?” He crossed himself.
“’Tis not for me to say.” I looked timidly skyward. “Yet I see no choir of angels.”
A muted clank came from the vessel, drowned in one groan of fear as a circular door began to open. But all stood their ground, being Englishmen, if not simply too terrified to run.
I glimpsed that the door was double, with a chamber between. A metallic ramp slid forth like a tongue, three yards downward until it touched the earth. I raised my crucifix while Ayes pattered from my lips like hail.