A youth with a lute in his left hand shoved his way between the tables toward the serving counter. He was thin and bony. His light-brown hair was overlong, as if he couldn’t afford a barber, and his face was marred by acne. One shoulder hung distinctly lower than the other, and when he tried to hoist himself up to sit on the countertop, he gave a gasp and his face screwed up with pain. The innkeeper shook his head in annoyance and warned in a low growl as he helped him onto the counter, “This better be good, Ernoul.”
Ernoul didn’t answer directly. He sat on the countertop with his feet dangling and settled his lute under his right arm, grimacing slightly as he lifted his left to the neck of the instrument. Then his face cleared. He took a deep breath and played a few chords.
Some men were talking or dicing, but most had come here to drink themselves into oblivion. They were in no mood for entertainment. The young man on the counter elicited indifference at best and aroused hostility from many. One man called out resentfully: “Go back to your great hall, puppy! Your lord might like a love song, but we’re in no mood for it!”
“How can he? His lord was in Jerusalem!” the man across from the speaker retorted bitterly.
On the counter, Ernoul cleared his throat and began to sing:
“Salah ad-Din, you have the grave,
And you have made our brothers slaves . . .”
Instantly the squire had their attention. Across the room a dozen desultory conversations stopped and men glared at the singer. Hostility hung in the air. They didn’t need to have their noses rubbed in it by the likes of this puny, shabby squire!
Ernoul appeared not to notice. He sang in a low, soft, melodic tenor:
“But we survived, we are alive . . .”
The men in the tavern were transfixed. Not a man raised his mug to drink, not a foot clumped on the floor, not a word was spoken. They were staring at the squire as he continued more certainly in his firm and resonant voice.
“Salah ad-Din, you have the Tomb,
But it is dark, deserted gloom;
For Christ is risen! And by our side!”
Ernoul seemed to draw strength from their rapt attention; his voice grew stronger, louder as he continued.
“We are with Him; we have no fear
Of you, your army, or your emirs;
Christ on our side, we cannot die!”
The squire had struck a chord in the dingy tavern, and more than one scarred and bearded veteran found himself close to tears. Others crossed themselves or said the Lord’s Prayer in an affirmation of the faith they had too often neglected.
Still Ernoul sang, the melody mutating slightly.
“Christ is with us, Salah ad-Din.
Christ is with us, we cannot die,
But we will fight you—until you do!”
“Hear! Hear!” someone shouted, but his comrades hushed him.
Ernoul raised his voice and though he reverted to the original melody, he picked up the pace and volume as he sang out:
“The day will come when we will win,
When we will take Jerusalem
For Him, not us, for Christendom!
“We are alive, Salah ad-Din,
We are alive and cannot die;
We will retake Jerusalem!”
With a flourish on the strings and a bow of his head, Ernoul indicated he was done.
For a stunned second no one in the tavern moved, and then they burst into thunderous applause. Some men stamped their feet; others clapped their hands or pounded on the tables with their pottery mugs. The acclamation was so powerful, enthusiastic, and unexpected that Ernoul’s ears turned bright red, and he readily took the mug shoved at him by the relieved tavern-keeper. The cheers had turned into calls for “Again! Again! Sing it again!”
Ernoul put the mug aside, wiped his lips on the back of his linen sleeve, and straightened his crooked shoulders as best he could. The receptiveness of his audience had taken him by surprise; it flattered and elated him like a drug, blotting out his pain.
By the time he’d repeated his song two more times, the more musical of his listeners had already picked up the tune. By the fourth time, they were all singing with him. The song that had seemed so melancholy and mourning when sung by a lone squire had become a fighting song laden with defiance and determination.
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