God Wills It
WITH A loud crack, the sword came down on a helm already knocked askew by an earlier blow. The helm flew off and the wearer staggered and nearly lost his feet.
“Ho, valiantly done!” fifteen-year-old Elisabeth von Winterkirche called from her perch on the wooden fence.
Her twin brother Elias made a mock bow. “I thank you, my lady.”
“You always take his side,” said the other boy, Albrecht, who like Elias was squire to Sigismund von Winterkirche, the twins’ father.
“He’s a better fighter than you are,” she stated emphatically.
“And better looking too,” Elias quipped. He preened, stroking the barest shadow of beard growing on his chin.
“I will concede that point,” the shorter, darker boy said. Elias looked at him with that funny, knowing smile that irritated his sister so. It just did not seem to fit.
Albrecht leaned to pick up his helm and put it back on his head. “If this damned thing had straps, it wouldn’t come off so easily.”
Elias let out a bark of derisive laughter. “Oh, is that why I keep knocking it off? It’s not my mighty and well-delivered blows. It’s the lack of straps.” He lifted his chin and waved his fingers at his own throat. “Look, no straps here either. But my helm is sitting securely on my head.”
Albrecht muttered something that made Elisabeth burst out laughing.
“What did he say?” her brother demanded.
“He said your swelled head fills it so much it is stuck,” she explained.
Elias took a stance with his wooden sword tilted up from his right side. “Have at me, varlet. I shall not brook such ignoble insults!”
The two hefted their small shields and began to move in a counterclockwise circle, each looking for openings in the other boy’s defenses. Elisabeth, unlike most girls, did not watch the practice fighting for her own entertainment. She watched each move while imagining herself in combat, detecting as best she could what each opponent was trying to do, what might work better, and what she would try given the chance. Those chances did come, for the twins had been each other’s only companion through their father’s absences and mother’s frequent illnesses. Only when Albrecht came to serve at Winterkirche did Elias have anyone else to practice fighting with him. Elisabeth itched to get in on this fight but contented herself for now just critiquing the boys’ moves.
Each had his practice sword up and held parallel to the upper edge of his shield. She had long known a fighter had to keep his sword up above the level of his opponent’s shield if he had any hope of landing a blow to the body. Striking the heavy wooden shield was not without its utility, if one could deliver a hard enough blow to knock the shield askew. Elias and Albrecht knew each other’s skills well enough not to waste effort on this move. They circled each other looking for a head shot.
Elias, the taller, repeatedly brought his sword swinging around to strike Albrecht’s shoulder or head, but Albrecht managed over and over to raise his shield enough to block the blow or to meet sword with sword, resulting in the sharp thwack of wooden blades. Elias constantly pressed forward, making Albrecht retreat. Elisabeth pressed her lips tightly together with impatience. Elias’s greatest flaw was that he was all forward motion, aggression, and not enough defense. If only Albrecht would use that against him. Elias got in some bruising blows on the shorter boy’s right arm. Elisabeth mentally registered the point, but the fighters did not pause.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she finally cried, jumping down from the fence. “This is getting tedious. Let me fight him.”
The boys stopped and stared at her. “Fight whom?” her brother asked.
“You, Elias. Albrecht just lets you chase him around the yard. Give me your weapon.”
Albrecht looked at Elias.
“Go ahead. She won’t break anything,” Elias said, rolling his eyes.
Elisabeth let Albrecht slip the shield onto her right arm, his helm on her head, and finally hand her the wooden sword.
The siblings took their fighting stances. Elisabeth let Elias come forward, backing up as he fully expected she would. When he seemed to put all his force into the motion, she stopped retreating and came at him, raining blows everyplace she could. He was startled at first but regained his stability, then hauled off and gave her a bruising whack on the hip. She dropped to her knees but did not concede.
Elias grinned at her. He widened his stance and took a step forward. She lifted her sword as if to swing around and catch him right of his sword, where one elbow had appeared. He laughed and moved so his shield was up and between them. She let her sword go back around and come up from below. His unprotected groin received all the might she could muster.
He staggered back, his mouth wide open but no sound issuing forth. Collapsing to his knees, he dropped his sword and shield. He put his leather-gauntleted hands to his groin and toppled over sideways.
Elisabeth lifted her arms and crowed with triumph. She danced around in place, chanting, “Yes, yes, yes!” When she looked around again, she saw Albrecht kneeling by her brother, his arms out at his sides, at a loss for how to help him.
“He’ll live to suffer worse blows than that” came a deep male voice from behind her. She turned to look at Elias’s and Albrecht’s sword master, Dagobert. “Just let him lie there a bit and give him small sips of this.” He handed a waterskin to Albrecht, then turned to Elisabeth. “Madam, you take advantage of how much he underestimates you. If you were not his sister, he would decimate you.”
She scowled at him.
“And you put me in a difficult position. Your mother has begged me to discourage your interest in fighting.” He looked to where Albrecht was helping Elias sit up. “Speaking of your mother, she wants you both. She has had a messenger.”
The twins found Adalberta in her solar. She sat in a window embrasure with her embroidery in her lap, her eyes closed and her head back against the frame of the window. She looked as drained as ever. For all her protests that she was feeling stronger, neither of her children could ever see evidence of it. When she heard them come in, she opened her eyes, straightened, and tried to make it look like she had been busily stitching. As little interest as Elisabeth had in such things, she could see there had been no progress on the altar cloth in at least two days.
“My darlings, I have the happiest of news! I have had word from your father. The Lombards have let the imperial party cross their land. The four-year exile is over!”
The joyful look on their mother’s face was not feigned. The two young people hurried forward to kneel at her feet. “Oh, Mother, at long last!”
“I know it has been very hard on you, my dears, to be without your father. And Elias, I know you have taken it hard not to have the chance to leave home to squire in another household. I will never stop being grateful that you agreed to stay here with me, especially at first when I was so ill.”
The twins managed to hide the shared knowledge that their mother had never in their memory been anything but ill. “Is Father coming home soon?” Elias asked.
“He must go with the emperor’s army to Cologne; then he and his household knights and men will come south to us. In a few days, maybe more. But after all this time, I think we can wait patiently.”
Elisabeth pressed one of her mother’s hands against her cheek. “Oh no, we can’t.” She laughed.
ELISABETH CURSED like one of the grooms as she tugged the hem of her skirt from the bramble where it was caught. “Damn, if I could just wear britches like Elias and Albrecht, I shouldn’t have to deal with skirts!”
It was her constant refrain of late: “I wish I was a boy.” Boys could learn to use weapons, boys could climb trees, boys could go off for hours and wander in the countryside, and boys did not have to sit still in Mother’s solar and learn excruciatingly dull needlework.
She knew Elias and Albrecht were not far. They had given her the slip earlier that afternoon and gone off with their bows to their favorite patch of woods. Elisabeth was becoming weary of this phase in Elias’s life. For months she had found her brother spending more and more time with his friend and leaving her behind. Her mother told her it was natural, and that soon she would be more interested in ladies’ concerns, as her brother was in men’s. “Balls,” she muttered under her breath, delighted at her own audacity.
Serve him right if he misses Father’s homecoming. He knew Father’s party was expected today. Where is he? she wondered as she pushed her way through the scrub.
As she rounded the edge of a small coppice of trees, she thought she saw movement. There they are! She slowed her progress, wanting to surprise her brother and his friend.
She heard a yelp, which meant that whomever was chasing had caught the other. Probably it was Elias, the taller and older, by a year, of Father’s two squires. She stepped forward to make herself known and froze.
It was indeed Elias who had caught his friend. He had Albrecht, with his tangle of brown curls, pressed up against the trunk of a tree, his own hands on either side of Albrecht’s shoulders, trapping him. It was what Elias was doing that rooted Elisabeth to the spot. He leaned slowly forward, bringing his face down to the smiling Albrecht’s, and he kissed him. Kissed him! He kissed him on the mouth, and Albrecht responded. He reached up his own arms, put them around Elias’s body, and they melted together in an embrace that communicated itself somehow right to Elisabeth’s belly.
Taking one step backward at a time, Elisabeth put the coppice between herself and the boys. Conflicting impulses assailed her. She wanted to turn and run all the way back to the manor. She wanted to burst in on them and demand an explanation. She followed another impulse instead, walking quietly to a spot by the brook, where she sat on her favorite boulder. Drawing up her knees, she wrapped her arms around her legs and dropped her chin to rest on them.
What were Elias and Albrecht doing?
She knew perfectly well what. She just had not realized boys would do that with each other.
She and Elias had been inseparable until three years ago, when Albrecht von Langenzenn had come to Winterkirche from his own family’s manor to become a knight-in-training as Sigismund of Winterkirche’s squire. It was then, Elisabeth now realized, that the bond between her and Elias had loosened. Though the three children were friends, she became aware of a special new bond between the boys. She’d complained to her mother about it. Adalberta had stroked her soft brown hair and assured her that Elias was of an age where he needed companions of his own sex. A pouting Elisabeth had nevertheless said nothing to her brother about feeling abandoned.
Sitting on the rock, Elisabeth stared unseeing at the brook as it flowed, tumbling over fallen branches and the stones of its streambed. Should she tell Mother about what she saw? Her innate loyalty to her twin above all others caused her to say “No!” aloud to the brook, the trees, and the birds around her. But wasn’t it a sin? Were you not supposed to get married before you kissed anyone like that, and if so, how could two boys get married? She had never heard of such a thing. Should she say something to Elias himself? He would explain it to her. He was so kind and so wise. He would make it all right.
A shrill blast of a horn made Elisabeth look up, and she turned her head toward the manor. Father! It was Father, back from his journey to see Emperor Henry. She leaped to her feet and ran nearly to where she had spied on the two squires. Though she could not see the boys, she could hear giggling and shouted, “Elias! Father is home!”
Not waiting for her brother and his friend to join her, she turned and dashed back toward the walled compound that encircled her father’s estate. Normally she would have made for an open wicket in the gate, but the two halves of the stout wooden barrier stood wide open now that the horses and men were trailing in. She slipped by the last stragglers into the courtyard. It was indeed her father, just now walking his horse to where grooms stood ready to take the reins. Mother stood in the doorway to the hall, offering her tired smile for her beloved husband.
“Papa! Papa!” Elisabeth cried, dashing up to join Sigismund as, dismounting, he went to Adalberta and returned her smile. He turned his head to see Elisabeth at his elbow. “Liebchen, darling, look at you. Every time I see you, you are taller! And prettier!”
He threw one arm around her shoulders and the other around his wife’s. “Where is Elias?” he asked, drawing both of them up the stone steps to the hall.
“He’s coming,” Elisabeth replied, the excitement of her father’s return banishing any other thoughts from her mind.
Sigismund did not seem to hear her reply, speaking excitedly to Adalberta as they entered the high-raftered room.
“His name is Peter the Hermit, a priest from Amiens, my dear, and I cannot wait to tell you what he said.”
“Child!” It was the serving woman, Marta, who appeared and beckoned to Elisabeth. “For shame, to greet your lord father with your gown all in a mess! Come here!”
Elisabeth stopped and shook her head. “But…,” she protested.
“You have plenty of time to hear your father’s news, whatever it may be. Do you not want to look your best for him? I mean, look at your mother, so lovely, so groomed. You look like a cotter’s brat.”
Letting the woman draw her away, Elisabeth looked back at her parents. Indeed, Adalberta was lovely. Wan and sickly as she was, she nevertheless was dressed immaculately and glowed with pleasure as she went to the table by the fire, her arm tucked in her husband’s.
A movement nearer the door caught Elisabeth’s attention. “Marta, look at Elias. He is all over leaves and sticks and mud. Why do you not chastise him?”
“He’s a boy. He is supposed to roughhouse. Now come.”
Elisabeth sulked. There it was again. How she wished she were a boy.
Scrubbed, dressed in a more grown-up gown, her braids brushed and plaited again and coiled on either side of her head, Elisabeth was finally permitted to join her parents in the hall. Her sulk disappeared when, seeing her, Sigismund called out, “Darling girl!” He stood and bent, his arms out to enfold her in his embrace. When she stopped before him, he had to straighten up. “I said it before. You are getting so tall! Tall as your brother, I’ll warrant. Here, Elias, come stand here by your sister. Yes, look at this, my wife. They are almost of a height.”
The twins stood before their father. Elias was a respectable height for a boy of fifteen, but Elisabeth, hardly any shorter, was overtall for a girl. They couldn’t, of course, be identical twins, but to look at them one would say they might as well be. Elias’s hair, the exact color as his sister’s, a light brown, was cropped while hers was coiled in braids. Their dark-brown eyes and rich eyelashes were the same. Their noses were small, too small for a boy, just right for a girl, and both had high, sculpted cheekbones and large, square jaws. Elisabeth saw that Elias was starting to show some fuzz on his chin, and she was green with envy.
“Now, you two, come sit with your mother and me. You as well, Albrecht. This concerns you too.” Sigismund returned to his chair next to Adalberta. The three young people took seats usually reserved for guests. Elias and Albrecht normally served at table, being squires, and Elisabeth stood behind her mother during meals to see to her needs.
“His Holiness has had a plea from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios,” Father was saying. “There have been attacks on pilgrims to the Holy Land, hundreds killed, hundreds carried off to the slave markets. The paynim no longer protect the pilgrimage routes, but let brigands have a free hand. There are rumors that some of the Turk leaders are sending their own guards to attack larger bands of pilgrims.”
Adalberta put her hand to her lips. “No, how horrible. Why?”
The three young people turned their eyes back to Sigismund in unison.
“Well, there have always been brigands, but they have attacked randomly. Pilgrim bands that hired armed men to protect them could turn brigands away. No one really knows why that has changed, but Peter the Hermit said—”
Elias interrupted his father. “Peter the Hermit?” Elisabeth noted, not for the first time, how deep his voice had become.
“A French priest. He is in Cologne to gather pilgrims for a journey to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem,” Sigismund said.
“Not much of a hermit, is he?” Elias quipped, earning a short laugh from Elisabeth and a glare from both parents.
“Show some respect,” Adalberta corrected. “He is a very holy man.”
Sigismund took a gulp of the wine a servant had brought. His men, having seen to the disposition of their horses, were wandering into the hall and taking seats or leaning up against the timber walls to listen to their lord’s account of the hermit’s tale.
“He tried to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before, but he was captured by the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia and tortured.”
Adalberta’s eyes grew round.
“Why?” asked Elisabeth.
Sigismund sat forward, shaking his head. “They are heathens. They are devils. Cruel and rapacious. They are the enemy of all good Christians.”
“But a priest!” Adalberta cried, unbelieving.
Albrecht shyly spoke up. “Mayhap they are even more violent with our holy men?”
The knight nodded. “It would seem so, lad.”
Adalberta’s eyes were guarded as she asked, “And this Peter… from Amiens, you say? He is gathering a multitude? To do what, my lord?”
“To return to the Holy Land and take Jerusalem back.”
“He is gathering an army?” Elias’s voice held a note of excitement. Elisabeth cast an alarmed look in his direction. Elias had been itching to be in a fight. He was disappointed when their father had failed to take him and Albrecht to Cologne for the meeting with the emperor’s representatives. Both boys hoped the meeting was to plan war.
“No, not exactly,” Sigismund replied, noting Elias’s crestfallen reaction. “He is calling it a People’s Crusade. Just the poor, the destitute who are under the care of Holy Church. But to hear him speak! It was inspiring. He said, ‘Deus lo volt.’ God wills it. We could not help but shout it back to him, every one of us in the throng.”
Elias leaned to Albrecht and whispered, “I would wager the local bishops would not be sorry to see their burden thus eased—”
“Elias!” Sigismund’s eyes were flaming. “Enough with your impious comments!” He glared at his chastened son, then slowly turned his face back to his wife. “Liebchen, I am going.”
Adalberta hid her dismay. “I thought you might” was all she said.
“Then it is not just peasants going?” Elisabeth asked.
Her father sat up straight, squaring his shoulders. “They will need protection. Many of the emperor’s commanders and officers are asking for leave to go with them.” He looked sharply back at Adalberta. “I shall not go, if you are ill and need me here.” His eyes revealed his reluctance to make such a promise. In a gentle voice meant only for her ears, he added, “But it is in large part to kneel at the Sepulchre and pray for your health and long life that I wish to go.”
Before she could reply, Elias burst out, “Then Albrecht and I are coming with you?” He beamed at his friend, who returned the smile, but with anxiety written on his face.
Elisabeth looked from her father to brother to Albrecht and back again. A glance at her mother’s averted face told her Adalberta would not hold her husband back, no matter her misgivings. Tentatively, Elisabeth said, “Mother has been very weak of late.”
“Nonsense, girl. It’s just the season. You know how tired I get in the winter.” Adalberta shook her head almost imperceptibly at her, as if begging her not to say more. “It is March. With the spring I will grow strong again.”
Elisabeth continued to watch as the men talked excitedly of their upcoming adventure. She knew her mother, Adalberta del Luzio of Lombardy had never been strong, and had heard it said that giving birth to twins had weakened her further. The children, as they grew, were used to a mother who did not stir much from the manor, staying quiet and taking to her bed often. The twins were each other’s support, as Sigismund was often away in one of the Holy Roman emperor’s frequent wrangling battles with the pope. Elisabeth spent all the time she could with her brother, playing at boys’ games, begging him to impart all he learned from his weapons master when they were old enough for Elias to be trained. Their mother tried to teach her the feminine art of needlework and instruct her in seemly comportment, but the moment the ailing woman took to her chambers, Elisabeth was out like a shot, looking for her twin and diligently mastering every masculine skill he gained.
They were accustomed to their mother’s retiring life, but Elisabeth thought her mother had become paler of late. She had frequent debilitating headaches. Her joints were swollen and tender. During the occasional periods when Sigismund was not off serving his emperor, Adalberta masqueraded as best she could.
Looking at her now, Elisabeth could see she was lagging. Adalberta leaned to whisper in Sigismund’s ear. He looked at her sharply, a smile lifting the corners of his lips. “Are you sure? Are you well enough?”
Adalberta deftly feigned enthusiasm. “I am, my lord, and it has been some time.”
Sigismund grinned delightedly. To the company in the hall, he proclaimed, “I and my lady are tired and wish to seek our bed for a nap.” He looked down when a few suggestive comments came from his men. “My love, go on up to our chamber. I would speak with our daughter.” He kissed his wife on the cheek as she rose and then made her way to the stairs.
He watched Adalberta’s retreating figure, then gestured to Elisabeth. “My dear, I have some excellent tidings for you. Come with me.”
Elisabeth was already focused on her father, wondering what it was he had to tell her. Now she stood, exchanged puzzled looks with her twin brother, and followed their father to where he stopped near the foot of the stairs Adalberta had mounted. “Yes, Papa?” she asked.
Sigismund hesitated, then addressed her. “Liebchen, you are almost sixteen now, a woman. Your mother and I have neglected plans for your future.”
Elisabeth eyed him warily.
“I have betrothed you to a fine man, a Freiherr of the duke of Bavaria. I think you know him.”
Elisabeth’s face went white. “Oh no, Papa, please! I do not wish to marry.”
Sigismund looked sternly into Elisabeth’s eyes. “But you must. Unless, of course, you wish to take the veil. I did not think so,” he went on when she recoiled at the suggestion. “You will need a home and children like any other woman, and I have chosen a man of noble blood and excellent reputation who will provide for you and protect you.”
Elisabeth stared, unbelieving. “Wh-who?”
“The Baron Reinhardt von Linkshändig. You remember some years ago when he came here?”
“B-but I thought he was married!” she stammered.
Sigismund put an arm around her and looked at the rushes on the floor. “He was. He lost his wife in childbed. Actually, both of his wives. He is twice a widower.” He raised his head to look compassionately into her eyes. “My darling, he is a good man, a great knight, and loyal subject of the emperor. He is going on the pilgrimage with me. Now promise you will think about this, pray about it, and see the wisdom in it. Your brother will marry, and his wife will not want a spinster sister about. And you will want a household of your own. You know that’s true.”
Elisabeth nodded dumbly. “Yes, Papa.”
“You will be married before we set out.”
To Elisabeth, his words sounded like a death knell.
THE HOUSEHOLD plunged into activity at once. Despite anxiety for Adalberta, Sigismund could not hide his anticipation. Elias and Albrecht did not even try.
Elisabeth found herself left out of the boys’ preparations. She could only stand on the periphery and watch glumly as the three men in her life spent every waking moment arranging to leave her behind, to a fate she could not comprehend. She realized how much more her mother must dread this parting. Though they had rarely talked, mother to daughter, Elisabeth sought Adalberta out and confided her fears.
“Mama, how will we bear it?” she sighed while the two sat together in Adalberta’s solar.
Adalberta put a comforting hand on her daughter’s supple one. “That is our lot, my dear. Women wait while men go abroad.”
“Men are so selfish!” Elisabeth could not restrain her outburst.
Her mother shook her head. “Nay, it is not selfishness. It is duty. Theirs is to obey their masters. Ours is to obey them.”
“I don’t understand why it has to be like that. Peasant men and women work together in almost everything. I have seen them, side by side in the fields, planting or harvesting. Why can we not do the same? And why do they have to go to war anyway? It seems to me that life would be so much better without going to war.” Elisabeth’s face held a petulant sort of challenge.
Her mother finally prodded, “What else bothers you, my daughter?”
Elisabeth raised bleak eyes to her mother’s face. With a hushed voice, she asked her, “Mama, do you think since Elias and I are twins, I might be more like him than if I had been born separately?”
Adalberta’s frowned, her forehead furrowing. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what if I am not entirely a girl? What if being twins means Elias and I share some of each other’s, um, manliness and womanliness?”
“What in the Virgin’s name are you talking about?” her mother said querulously.
Elisabeth would not meet her eyes. She did not share her thoughts about her brother’s “unmanly” love for his friend. She was uncertain how to describe her own feelings of being in the wrong body. “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like a girl. I don’t want anything of a woman’s life. I don’t enjoy sitting and sewing and waiting for the men to do all the living. I want to live too. I want what boys have.”
Sighing, her mother shook her head. “I have failed you, my daughter, and for that I am most heartily sorry. I have not spent the time with you that I should. You spend all your time in your brother’s company, never learning what it is to be a woman. I hoped Marta would fill my place, but she is even more indulgent than I.” Reaching to cradle Elisabeth’s chin in her palm, she drew Elisabeth’s reluctant eyes to her own. “Perhaps it is best if my lord does go to the Holy Land and prays for my health. Perhaps it is not too late for me to spend the time with you I have neglected. There is so much you have to learn before you are wed.”
Fear clouded Elisabeth’s eyes. “And that is another thing! I hardly know Reinhardt. What I do remember, I did not like.”
“He is strong and can provide for you and your children. He is an honorable man you can be proud of.” She let go of Elisabeth’s chin. “It is for the best.”
Elisabeth stood and stepped stiffly to the window embrasure. “I shan’t need to be provided for. I will die giving birth to his brats just like his other wives. That’s all women are for. To have babies, then die.” Her thoughtless words hit her like a slap. She whirled to face her mother. “Oh, my dearest Mama, I am so sorry! I did not mean….”
Adalberta shook her head compassionately. “I know you did not mean to hurt my feelings. And truly, darling, I understand your fear. You cannot know the joys that make it all worthwhile. The companionship of your husband, the satisfaction of running your household, and, most of all, the love for your children.” She put out her thin arms to Elisabeth, who went to her, knelt, and leaned into the embrace.
“You have Papa. He loves you. That is why you endure it all.”
Pressing Elisabeth’s head to her breast, Adalberta reassured her, “Your Papa and I love each other very much, and it is true. But we did not even know each other when we were wed. Love came over time. And from our union came you and your brother. Just think, if I had thought like you do now, none of that could have ever come about.”
Elisabeth nodded against her mother’s body. “I don’t understand how Papa can go and leave you suffering.”
“It is because I am suffering that he is going!”
Looking up at her mother’s strained expression, Elisabeth shook her head. “I know that, Mama, but it is more. He wants to go. Almost as much as Elias and Albrecht. Why do they want to go and leave us behind?”
Adalberta pulled Elisabeth up so she could sit beside her on the settle. Putting her arm around Elisabeth’s waist, she chuckled. “I think you know why the boys want to go. As for your father….” She paused. “Let me see if I can explain it. Your father was ever a loyal man to Emperor Henry, in spite of the great man’s petty quarrels with the Holy Father. Over the years, he has become disillusioned. He says that he now believes that the emperor has used the disputes simply for his own arrogant purposes.” She leaned her head on Elisabeth’s. “You know your father is a brave and honorable knight. He needs to turn his energies to a worthy cause. He needs… redemption.”
Elisabeth subsided. “I know, Mama. But I will miss them all. And I will worry as well.&rdqu