It was the day after the sea didn’t part. Jaques sat on the wharf watching the bright merchant boats load and unload in the Marseille harbour and wondered what to do next.
Marie came and sat next to him, hunching up cross-legged and passing him a heel of loaf that someone in the crowd had given her yesterday. Like her brother she wore a scruffy smock, ragged after weeks on the road. Like his, her feet were blistered from the march.
“Renaud and Anseau have gone home,” she aid at last. “I think Ferry’s slipped away as well.”
Jaques didn’t answer. He gnawed on the bread as the tide washed under the pier beneath him.
“Hervé asked one of the priests why it didn’t happen,” Marie went on. “Why the waves didn’t part like they did for Moses. He said maybe our faith wavered.”
Jacques finished the last of the food and licked the crumbs from his fingers. People had been generous on their march. The children been famous. Now that the sea hadn’t opened people might not be so quick to offer aid.
“What did Stephen say?” the boy asked at last. “He was so sure when he preached.”
“Nobody can get close to Stephen now,” Marie answered. “Those sons of rich knights surround him all the time. He rides in his cart with the bright canopy. But from what I could see this morning I think he’d been crying. So many of us have gone home. Some called him names.”
“What do you expect?” Jaques challenged. “How far have we walked to get here? How far is it from Vendôme? Far enough for Aubert and Odelina to drop dead as we travelled. Have you forgotten how tired we were?”
“Of course not,” his sister scorned. She remembered the day Odelina hadn’t woken up, somewhere after Lyons. It had been the day after Marie had shed her first woman’s blood. “But we knew it would be hard. We are crusaders. We suffer to free the Holy Land from the heathen. Only suffering will bring about the Kingdom of God.”
Jaques gestured over the azure sea. “Well the Holy Land’s somewhere out there. We can’t preach to the heathen and convert him to the ways of Christ if we can’t get to it. Stephen promised he’d get us there.”
“Well maybe he still will? Maybe this is just another test, like the walking? Maybe that’s why the miracle was delayed and the sea hasn’t opened yet?”
Marie could still remember how Stephen of Cloyes had preached it that day in Vendôme, when the children had gathered from all over France carrying Oriflamme banners.
The boy prophet, twelve years old, the same age as Jaques, had been given a letter by Christ himself to deliver to the King of France. King Philip had dismissed the former shepherd-lad but Stephen had begun to preach that a crusade of children would do what all the armed might of Christendom had not: they would convert the Moslem and regain the Holy City, not by the sword but by the Word.
Jaques had heard him on the steps of the abbey of Saint-Denis, and he’d brought his sister to hear too. They’d run away that very night, like hundreds of others, like thousands of children who’d gone to join the crusade. Nobody knew how many had marched with Stephen; some said seven thousand, some said thirty thousand. But the children marched.
The crowds had cheered them in Tours and Lyon. More had joined them, with the blessings of parents who were anxious but proud. Sons of noble houses had left their homes like their crusader fathers and had formed Stephen’s honour guard. Even some young priests had joined the pilgrimage, trekking with the rest to save the Holy Land. The people from the towns and villages turned out to praise the children, offering gifts of food and clothing to speed them on their way, but it was the hottest summer anyone could remember and there was little to spare. Some of the child-crusaders had fallen on the march. Others had deserted. Most had arrived to see the waters part yesterday – except the waters had not opened.
“Maybe we should go home too?” said Jaques. He wasn’t sure of the way but he missed his parents. His father might beat him for running away but he’d forgive him.
“I don’t know,” admitted Marie. “It doesn’t make any sense. Why would God give Stephen that letter, those visions, then leave us here on the shore?”
Jaques rubbed his feet. “I’m kind of glad we don’t have to walk any further,” he confessed. “It was an awful long way this far. I bet it’s as least as far again to Jerusalem. And the bottom of the sea is probably all squishy and slippy, with dead fish and things. It would have been the worst part of the march.”
Marie laid her head on his shoulder. “Well then, what shall we do? Shall we pray some more, or try for home?”
Jaques considered their options. The sun beat down on them. It would be a hard journey back, harder because now the great crusade was split up. People would mock them. Nobody would help them. But he had his sister to consider, and Marseille was already turning against the child-pilgrims.
We have to go home, he decided.
He was about to speak, to tell Marie that it was all over, when ragged-kneed Gobert raced up, red-faced and panting with excitement. “The miracle!” he called to Jaques and Marie. “It’s come!”
Brother and sister looked out into the bustling harbour. The sea was still there.
Gobert shook his head. “That vision was symbolic! That was our mistake. When Stephen saw the sea parting it meant we were to be given passage. The waves won’t part, but there are two merchants, two holy men, and they’ve offered their ships to take us to Jerusalem! Free! Seven big ships, we can pack on hundreds of us, thousands. God spoke to them and now we’re to sail for the Holy Land!”
Jaques touched his road-cracked feet and praised God. The Holy Land – without walking!
Marie jumped up and danced. “We’re going to save the heathen!” She burst into the marching song the children had sung along the way: “Lord God, exalt Christianity. Lord God, restore to us the true cross!”
“We’re… we’re going to Jerusalem!” Jaques realised. A big stupid smile spread across his face, a grin of amazed wonderment. “We’re going! We’re going save the Holy Land after all!”
The children skipped down to the wharf where more and more of the pilgrims were clustering for access to the merchant ships. The kindly captains, Hugh the Iron and William the Pig, were trying to explain to the youngsters that it would take time to ready the vessels for so long a voyage by sea.
Marie and Jaques didn’t care about the wait now. They held hands and sang songs with the others and they waited for the Promised Land.
In A.D. 1212 seven ships carrying hundreds of would-be-crusader children described in most accounts as “of no more than twelve years of age” set sail from Marseilles amidst great public support. Two vessels foundered off Sardinia with no survivors. The others sailed to Africa and rendezvoused with Saracen slavers, who took the children off to be sold in Algeria and Egypt. Eighteen of the child slaves died in the marketplace of Baghdad when they refused to convert to Islam. All the others vanished from history, save one priest who returned after eighteen years of captivity to tell what had happened. At least this is the account accepted as history in medieval times, a tale of faith and betrayal that was recorded as “The First Children’s Crusade”.
Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2011 reserved by Ian Watson. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.