The air buzzed with heat. The wound in his chest, dangerously deep, stung him as he bent down. He sat naked on his bed, left foot snuggled on his thigh, cutting a toe nail with his dagger. His knees were scared like his body. Gray hairs mingled with black on his chest. A reddish ooze glistened through the bandage over his wound. He scratched his chin with the dagger's point, then used it to dig out the ingrown nail in his toe. The nail bothered him more than the nearly fatal wound. He twisted in the blade, once shiny, now stained with blood from old battles.
squinted over his foot.
The toe seemed faraway, hazy; perhaps, it was the heated air of the desert where the mirage of an oasis was more dangerous than a breathing enemy. He heard the shouts of Saracens storming the battlements. He understood their curses against his religion, the obcenities against the women of the Franks. Balian turned to the window. An impulse wanted him to rise, which he refused.
Later, he would kill enough of them.
They would pay. They would remember him in Hell.
He twisted, sliced away the nail, with it some flesh. Blood, spiced with the dirt on his feet, dripped to the stone floor. He picked up the nail, studied it, tiny, stinking, like the scale of a fish, that had irritated him so much, the dead piece of nothing, and flicked it out the window.
He daubbed the wound with straw.

He got up, stretched his legs, and walked into the shade beside the window
where he enjoyed the cooler air.
He heard the people outside - down in their hovels, in the poor market, dying in the dirt; and the braying of a donkey, the barks of scavenging dogs, the death rattle of a large animal.

was a Knight in the Krak des Chevaliers, the Crusader castle in a desert
a long way from the sea. Some days he thought he could sense ocean and seaweed, smells lifted far by a long wind. It made him dizzy when he strained his eyes towards the Red Sea somewhere beyond the storm of dunes.
He felt an anger for something; a longing for something that went unnamed,
like an important dream he could not bear to remember. He thought of women,
often of gold, of the ransom for noble captives, of magical things that existed
in the lands at the ends of the world.
Balian grunted, impatient with his wound.
He wanted to fight.

A woman hawking wine to soldiers along the battlement saw his nakedness.
Pausing in her busines, she boldly stared at him. Balian felt her eyes:
A damp cat pawing over his body. Soldiers jeered at her. Shading their eyes
from the sun, they recognized Balian. Their laughter stopped. A soldier pushed
the woman to move her on her way. The force which he used, twisting her body painfully, reminded Balian of a task he had been assigned. But he was in no hurry. He laughed. Yes, the bastard would be grateful for any delay.
Another commotion erupted beyond the walls.
Arrows floated up, which the soldiers answered with cauldrons of boiling oil.
A dust cloud swept over the battlement.
Saracens thirsting for glorious martyrdom, Balian sneered.
ed-Din, the Khalief, was a cunning devil. The seige would be long.
People were beginning to starve. The sun would get hotter, more.
Already, a sick giddiness, the dance of death, had appeared.
Here and there, you heard a laughter that cursed everything,
a freedom that drove men into madness.
Balian's eyes grasped the flow of soft dunes where thousands of spear-points
glinted. Banners with the name of Allah in snaking gold thread snapped in the
The banners angered him so he wanted to kill. 
The wind came, stirring his hairs. He felt his courage boil into foolishness. Balian walked away from the window and pressed his back on the cool wall away
from the light, resting his grayed head against the stone.
What he owned in the world was in the room before his eyes. The chain mail, suite of armor, shields, studded leather belts, garments, boots and the slippers; unguents for wounds,  jars of precious spices, pepper worth its weight in gold in the West a world away; a small sack of precious stones, a second larger one of gold coins, then quantities of currency used in Syria, Byzantium, Jerusalem. Spoils of war and death.


Too, he took a slave, a eunuch whose life he spared for no reason
while plundering the harem of Abu'l Wefa, Chief of the Assassins.
Scenes of that slaughter ran through his mind, unbidden. The destruction.
The curses of the weak. Women who begged for mercy.
A memory: Balian discovered himself lost in the mazed palace, alone,
but face to face with  Abu'l Wefa who spat at him.

"Dog, do you love this breath you have? But living yet - !"
In a great chamber. The Assassin eager to further his religion of death,
to peel off another life.
Then this man, whose heart pumped with fanatic power, saw no more because it was his life that dried. Balian employed the time
the question took to kill him. Wefa's eyes spun left-ways, whose last sight
was of a blank wall, as smoke rose through the rock-crystal windows of the harem.

Balian heard the growling in his stomach, carressed it, feeling the hard lines
of scars. The hunger darkened down to his groin, over his sexual member
which felt as though no time has passed. Like a morning in vivid memory.
No cruxific hung in the room. But Balian prayed. Words crisp like broken glass
on his tongue. A vision of Christ for whom he had slaughtered the Saracen, the Turkoman, the unbelievers, cooled his hot imgaination with rains of blood.
He killed women and children who had smiled at him.
Why, he could not remember.


of the Krak des Chevaliers, deep beneath it, were vats of oil
on the edge of boiling. The air stank of smoke, burnt flesh, excrement, sweat. Rats were encouraged to multiply. Spiders crawled on the walls, and in one corner a blind dog kept on the verge of starvation had many uses. Crusted chains looped from the ceiling. Instruments of torture waited, neatly arranged on table tops. Horrible machines waited, ready.
Chief torturer was the Arab Yusuf with his knowledge of human anatomy.
Willian and son, Urban, were his helpers. Both very strong.
Personal servant of the Saracen knight Zengi, Ahaz, the middle-aged man
on the rack, was captured when he strayed drunkenly far from Zengi's tent
next to Nur ed-Din's.
Balian opened the chamber's door and walked down the damp steps.
turned to him. Urban furiously pumped the bellows for more fire.
The tongs and needles on the coals brightened red hot. Ashes torn off the coals spotted the atmosphere. Balian hated the smell of the chamber. He spat  down on the steps. Eyes on the captive, he reached the ground.
"My Lord," Yusuf bowed.
Balian ignored him.
"My Lord," William and son greeted him.
Balian's eyes poked around the chamber.
Straining against its chain the blind dog alternately growled and whimpered, barring teeth, broken from biting the chain, and blackened gums. Rags of saliva uncoiled from its lips to the infested floor. Its tail wagged a moment, then curled down between its legs. The blind dog turned its head to the ceiling and Balian heard it  sigh.
He pitied the dog, then abandoned the feeling. An emptiness remained.
At the bellows Urban grunted. Ashes shattered free of the coals, swirled burning overhead in the stagnant space.
To see the poor spectacle, Ahaz was straining to move his head off the rack.

"We have prepared him," Yusuf said.
"What has he told you?"
"Nothing, my Lord, he screams."
Balian nodded. He knew Ahaz was no peasant but a man of learning.
It was custom for scholars to serve a great noble like Zengi, and if respected enough, to become his personal servant. Ahaz knew astronomy, algebra, he could read and wrote poetry.
Balian walked heavily to the philosopher, stopping by his head, condescending to say nothing to him. Spittle glistened on his chin. Still his eyes were alert and, Balian thought, still bright with damned knowledge and still his lips pleaded
ignorance while his face squirmed in confusion.
Balian raised his hand. Instantly, the philosopher cringed away for a blow.
It did not come. Balian squeezd softly his shoulder, carressingly, twitching on
the fine smile on his shadowed face.

Ahaz, you are a teacher."
Yusuf translated into Arabic.
nodded and rushed out harsh pleading gutturals.
wanted to translate it but Balian waved him shut up, listening as though he understood. The noise bounced around the stinking corners of the dungeon. Then it stopped, Ahaz gasping for breath.
"Do you write with your left hand or right hand?" Balian asked.
"His right hand," Yusuf said.
"Cut off his left hand. Tell him."
Before translating, Yusuf issued orders to the two and they hurriedly positioned
themselves around Ahaz who looked puzzled at the activity. Urban kept his hands out of sight while Balian took a step back, and now Yusuf translated using a normal tone of voice. When he finished the sentence Ahaz looked bewildered, shaking his face and turning sideways for Balian in despair. But while he was twisting, Urban grabbed his hand, pulled it hard, and cut through the weak wrist, shattering some bone with the heavy chopper. The arm was secured with leather straps so it could not be twisted away. On the stump pumping out blood William slapped on hot thick globs of tar. In a blink it happened, during a breath,
so it became surprise that first molested Ahaz and then the pain.
And the smell of blood, and the impossible fire on his flesh.

Balian wanted to be done with this business.
Yet the Duke gave him the duty. He hated the stench.
Confronting this helpless man proved distasteful, like eating a slug. 
He drummed his fingers on the rack. He heard Yusuf cough. Again, Urban worked on the bellows while William, his father, turned a long needle over the coals.
Balian slapped at a mosquito that attacked his jaw, and missed it.
Perspiration, in a shinning ball, bounced off the rise of his nose, splashing
to the iron bands and wood crossed on the rack.
In the wetness reflected the red turbulence of a torch.
Dropping his finger over it, pushing in the sensuous shallow lake of sweat,
caused Balian to feel another world.
There the sun was soothing and fields were green.

It was where he was a child.
He remembered squatting, defecating on the grass, in that vast blue beginning
of the morning. His mother lay in bed, very sick. Red, juicyly red, the ball
of fire stared at him, somehow speaking, full of favor and timeless; and he felt keenly the releasing of his bowels. The emptiness inside of him came to him like
a quick, wild toy of joy. Balian, the child, giggled so foolishly.
And Balian laughed.   

It startled Yusuf, Urban and William. Ahaz paled.
But Balian remained in the other time, with the smell and illness and youth.
Until the wind changed into rain.

Balian returned to the spiders.
"Don't bite off your tongue to escape answering. I have paper and quill for you
to write with."
Yusuf translated for the astronomer. The torturers hardly dared to breathe.
They had heard of Balian, joked about him in the taverns. The one who fought alone. The mute one. The dumb one. Now he stood there. The blind dog started up
a coughing-howling.

As though on his death-bed, certain other memory-paintings unfurled
before Balian's eyes.

For weeks now Balian felt strangely ill at ease. The cause of it he could not find
but he didn't like to worry like a  monk, splitting the hair of an angel on a pin. He had developed  an obsession that at distance seemed only smoke, but a dangerous nuisance. In battle, if a mosquito distracted him his head was off,
with the mosquito's kiss still fresh on his cheek.

The strangeness came suddenly, one night snapping out of sleep,  with the camp
fires of the Saracens in the distance, and ravings of drunks on the street below, a woman's shouted call for love; and Balian, as if he were only then just born, felt lost, a stranger to everything, his eyes growing wide in the lucid  darkness. The things around him seemed somehow altered, not exactly right.
He remembered them with disturbing vivid reality, puzzles glowing against obscurity, like questions too beautiful to answer.

He did not understand anything.
The ceiling floated as in a dream.
He groped towards the window. The winking fires of enemies.
The noise of the world, as a bubbling in a great dark pool, faraway weak but
insistent, and within the blurred maze a sharpness now and then, probably a child working very late, dizzy with need to sleep; these things were old, yet Balian was lost in newness.
First, he thought he was struck in his sleep.
He felt his skull, but no pain there or wet blood.

Was his food drugged? Maybe his drink?
But his slave tasted everything.
The eunuch, a captive from the slaughter of the oasis of Q'addba, was sprawled
in sleep, softly and easily inhaling. Balian, turning away, glimpsed an onion
on the table, the skin of wine hanging on the wall, his shield -  seeing his sword made him feel the breath of a murderer behind a shadow.
grabbed it - sliced across the outline.
Only, he was alone.
So then he realized that his state was the prelude to a vision.
Soon an angel will appear, announcing a great destiny that will be accomplished for him. The hair on his forearms thrilled on end, while terror and arrogance
mixed well in his heart.
He stood right, still as eternity, weightless as a shadow, and heard in his emptiness the long murmurs of his eunuch's breathing. And soon, the child in the street started again her shrieks. Then a boy's shout, with the crack of a stone hurled against a wall.

But the angel did not come.
The onion rested on the table, reflecting out the improbable moon.
Balian hurled his dagger at the offensive shine. The onion halves spun away - a thud softly, a thud on the floor, at the wall; the blade's edge vibrating a yellow

line against his face.

He drank himself to sleep. Daylight came and other nights and days during which
Nur ed-Din pressed his seige against Krak des Chevaliers. Balian fought in a rage, debauched like one possessed. A puzzling intensity blew as a bright wind through the violence where he sought to lose himself. But, afterward, the thing that was
new was there. It waited for him, like an unblinking eye.


Urban's laugh brought Balian back to the torture chamber.
The boy sat on the steps, contented as can be, with his arms folded, rocking
himself. His young face, creased with blood and dirt, danced upon the charcoal's
"Sssh!" his father said.
The boy became confused. He lumbered up to the bellows and rotated the red
needles. A puff of ash, sparkling then quickly dying, expanded into the blackness,
chased by the  captive's eyes. Mucus from the man's nose dried on his upper lip
and Balian noticed his left ear was torn.
For a moment Balian experienced saddness for Ahaz.
He touched the crusted earlobe, then the tortured head.

Ahaz stared at him, dreadfully waiting, daring not to hope, yet puzzled by this
gentleness. Was it just part of the torture?
And then Balian asked -
"Who is the Lord you serve?"
Ahaz turned away, sobbing.
What are the battle plans?"
"He only follows Nur ed-Din's wishes."
"Then tell me those things."
"Master, I am a servant. But a mere dog. I know nothing!"
"You are brave. A pity."
Yusuf tensed for Balian's order. Urban giggled, which Balian liked hearing then.
A whisper of maddness was more frightening than any physical torture. He studied the shattering countenance of Ahaz.
Ten thousand years waited, passing.
"I teach Zengi astronomy," Ahaz  pleaded. "Discuss the Koran. Peace be with you, Master! Write poetry. But my Lord speaks no war plans to me."

He seemed to be dissolving, scratching about his wits to be believed,
for the use of his brain in a body carressed by agony.
But he saw in Balian's face, turned to stone again after it smiled,
a determination that went beyond cruelty. And he saw boredom that made him close
his eyes and wait -
"You have ears. Listen to this," Balian said. "If you bite away your tongue, you
can write with the hand. Understand this very well. You have your eyes. You can tell me what you saw. What are Zengi's plans then? One more time, eh."

On the captive's face tears streamed down. Translucent with terror, he babbled, stuttering for Allah's mercy, pleading for his children's sake.
"I can not -Allah, I can not -  !"
Balian was about to step back. A drop of liquid splattered on his fingers and he looked up into the black warped stones, some which seemed to be grinning in the
flicker of torches.
With his face thus upturned he murmured, "Yes, with certainty, oh, you can."
He nodded to Urban and stepped toward the dog straining against the chain of iron and  hunger, vague devotion, and fury.
Ahaz screamed.
William stuffed his mouth with a rag.
It was terrible for Ahaz to hear his scream only in his mind.
His eyes turned inside his skull.

Yusuf poured filthy water over him. Reviving, he licked the water around his lips, tasting its sweetness, it was a pleasure; and he lived the moment in a dream that seemed to hang a life-time, he saw his family, his fruit garden flourished, and he was really growing old with his beloved wife. He was blessed! Such an immense dislocation afflicted him, such a desire to be somewhere else.

Then he felt the scratching of pain while a growing darkness began staining the clarity of his world. Purity turned into scurrying insects and in the midst of choking smoke he recognized Balian.

A horror more fierce than the pain of the barbed needle sizzling through his foot flooded into him.
Madness hissed on its hind legs and its tongue licked his eyes.
Next to his ear, splashings of droplets from the darkness roared like vultures' wings.
Ahaz could not take more, he fought the pain, hated it, made it dumb with his
will, but now it broke into his secret core and its noise conquered him.
He let go.
He told Balian everything.
And more, for out of the blue, he almost shouted the names of two spies within Krak des Chevaliers, dooming them.

As he surrendered these things, in a voice pressing to please, the lines of his
face seeemd to blur and give up tension. He seemed to become younger; resigned to
what he was, freeing himself of his doubts.
knew - at last with certainty - that he was going to die; before, his death
was an idea, a philosophical turn of phrase. The agony of his body seemed an
. His obliteration, the loss of his consciousness, was like the gift
of a jewel that was polished with his blood.
The dog's tail beat once on the stone.
"Tell me more," Balian said.
Ahaz gaped at him.
"You are hiding something."
"- nothing - no! no! no! no!"
"Continue," Balian ordered.
The torturers shuffled about their instruments. Ahaz choked on his tongue,
wanting words that did not exist. Balian turned his back to him and started
up the steps. And then, untouched by anyone or anything, Ahaz screamed horribly.
Balian quickened his pace.
He wanted to get out, away from the stench of lies and deception and - illusion.
"Fool -!" he whispered.
The chamber's existence, like scents of repulsive perfume, pooled around his head
and Balian vomited explosively. With mouth twisted and dripping, he met Ahaz's burning eyes. Ahaz spat at him but then said nothing although Balian desperately wanted him to speak.
For the first time Ahaz cursed him.
It was like a gem thrown up to Balian and the knight smiled.
In the next second was a flash of metal - down through the captive's heart into the wood beneath.
"Now he is free of it," Balian said.


Balian walked onto the grounds of the Krak des Chevaliers.
Protected by battlements it became a sanctuary from the seige.
Sprung up with hovels, brothels, taverns beneath reeking tents, caked quagmires,
clouds of dust, carts, chained slaves, the dead or dying.
Some gave up caring about tomorrow or the thoughts of others, walked naked,
defecated openly, and took the curses of the modest or pious as compliments. Girls, afraid of the next day, offered their bodies in return for the tense oblivion of a few minutes of fornication and sweet lies.
Balian shielded his eyes from the sun.
He spat on the waves of dust. An ox brushed past him like a dark ghost,
its stiff hairs scratching his forearm. The animal was subtracted to its bones
and limped, almost certainly dying. As it disappeared into the crowds it looked
back softly at Balian, which he noticed and immediately resented the implication of pity.
The dumb thing, chased by annoying flies, knew nothing of its own wretched condition. But in the gentleness of the animal's glance Balian thought he saw
a flash of power that somehow conquered pain and care. Its calm aroused within him
the puzzlement of a deep jealousy.
What did the stupid animal know that he did not?
It had no words - just empty Mooos - to explain one moment of its existence, yet it bore calamity and starvation with a glance that an angel could envy.
Balian roughly tugged his ear in annoyance.
In a minute, lost in a crowd, he had other feelings. The stinging sun made him thirsty. He thought of a tavern deep within the slum of tents where he would forget the castle and the battle and things which had diminished in meaning
for him. He walked past stalls selling dung used for cooking-fuel, ignoring the vendor's calls. He got to clear ground for some reason not occupied yet.
Three children were making stick houses in the dust and digging holes.

At first he didn't notice the lunatic obscured in the shade frozen like an insect. But the insect jumped out and rushed about snatching handfuls of dust
that he smeared on his chest then shoulders then over his face and hair
as saliva erupted in silver bubbles in his lips.
He had eyes that seemed to want to burn into things and sometimes when he touched
an object - a pole stuck in the earth - he spoke to it as if it were alive,
a back-and-forth exchange of ideas with the dry wood; he laughed, smiled, and
produced tears when the pole told him a great secret or expressed to him
its feverish love.
Of course, the three children stopped playing to watch him.
They laughed uproariously and shouted, reminding them of the clowns and actors
who traveled from village to village. The lunatic was too engrossed in his
dialogue with the pole to notice them. But soon the pole must have given him
a specially deep problem for he looked up, wriggled his long nose, and then gazed
at them very cross-eyededly.
They shrieked and clapped their dusty hands which seemed to fascinate the lunatic
so he started also to clap, twisting and grimacing that delighted them into high
wails of amusement, because the lunatic was trying to clap - with one hand!
"No God-!" Balian said," - misery!"
The words exploded from him.
The children drew back shocked, while the lunatic nodded, saliva foaming
at his lips, and  pointing a blackened finger at him. The sharp patch of sky through the tents swam around Balian's head. Sweating coldly, he hurried away
as the lunatic sang nonsense words high over the children's stunned quiet.
In his mouth his tongue twisted helplessly, in his skull his brain struggled
against the white bone that formed the clouds of his sky.


Balian found a tent where wine was sold.
Excited, the wine-woman provided him with a stool as befitted his rank
while peasants squatted on the earth or sprawled on their sides and elbows.
They were afraid to stare at a knight of rank but were curious and suspicious
of his presence. The wine-woman bowed obsequiously, rubbing her hands,
her toothless mouth gnawing its gums and her left eye watering.
It was a foul place but buried deep in the refugee camp where Balian
could not see the castle walls and could barely hear the sound of battle.
Scarred skins of wine dangled from poles and a brazier, exuding black stinking
smoke, was burning clumps of meat.
"A pleasure, Sir - honored - yes, and what else will you need?" her right eye twinkled, "We have your desire -."
"Something to eat?"
Only wine, sow."
She shrugged and brought him a skin.
"It's good wine, a pretty red, Sir. But a bit pricey, Sir, with the seige and all, you understand."
He threw her a bright gold piece which she quickly, against the greedy stares
of the peasants, snatched into her rags.
"A pretty girl for you, Sir?"
"A cunt - ."
Yes -."
"Is she tasty, will she make me drunk well?"
"Excellently, Sir!"

"Ah, but I have one here well snuggled in this filthy skin. I'll try her first! Now, go, sow!"
Balian lifted the skin to his mouth and eagerly swallowed the liquid,
never minding the taste which was tart and mingled with grit.
He held the skin away and let it stream strongly into his mouth.
Its red color was a small pleasure against the degradation around him
and its coolness, miraculous in the heat, seemed to quicken a clarity in his eyes. He was anxious for the first sign of its effect, the numb-glow that muffled
the world's screams to a pleasant buzz.
The wine was bad.
After a while it did not matter. It streamed down his chin to the iron studs
of his corselet. Balian leaned back on crates and rags, saw the sly looks
of the peasants' faces blurred with dust. He did not want to think or to feel.
He stared out into the path between the hovels, at the passing garbage,
the animals....To think led nowhere. To feel was more confusing.
And in his mind he still saw, lingered traces of the lunatic's hand clapping at  space, clapping in the void. A hand that seemed to fly endlessly in a search for something to stop it, to release the final sound, the return of an answer.

But the clap, somehow, ended for Balian -  in a flashpoint that was neither light nor darkness but came like a kind of seeing into some thing.
Some piece of an impenetrable wall suddenly crumbled and for a moment he saw into the other side what was there and what was there ....
Balian filled his mouth with wine.
Bending forward, squinting against dust and light, he looked hard to see; and
wonder and also fear began his thinking and he saw a beggar stumble in the dust. Confused, he looked left and right to the peasants, were their faces amazed and dumb at the thing like a shower of fearful clarity?
A man was snoring.
Another idiot was masturbating.
The population squatted and sprawled, suspicious and wanting to drink more.

What he saw or dreamt - he wasn't sure - was not unpleasant, even was good but it was disturbing, like a vague passion that ran in a flash too clear and too deep. He thought a sickness passed into his brain. Balian felt a chill in his temples and a dizzyness and he lolled his head back, gasping for air, with his eyes staring on the tent with holes in which the sun screamed and burned, and it was then when Balian realized there was something else.

He felt a cool moisture, a rough tickling on his knee, and saw there a wooly dog which just then gazed up at him, tongue lolling while it panted, with a kind expression. And it whimpered a bit, pulled its tongue back into its mouth and  yellow teeth, snorted, and sneezed, and the tongue dropped out to its long pink length. A milky spot blinded its left eye and its coat showed patches of bare skin
scaly and ruptured with disease.
Balian did not move his leg but rested a hand on his dagger, if the animal was
mad. The dog arched its face slightly to one side, as if to communicate a  plea and its one good eye, though obviously the animal was decaying, seemed quite
bright and even arrogant, innocently so like a puppy's.
"What do you want, eh? Begging like the others, eh? No? Lucky dog - mindless beast! You're falling apart, aren't you - your hair - your skin - what's next, eh? Your head'll drop off next, then it's all over. Hungry? Thirsty?"

Balian poured wine over its snout and it snorted, lapping at its whiskers
and gulping at the stream. It appeared to smile, and coughed, clearing its throat. And air, heated by the desert, swept through the tent, dragging in the odorous smoke from the brazier.
Engulfed in the smoke and hot ash, the drunken peasants chewed their lips
and groaned in hunger. The dog sat on its tail and pawed the ground.
"Meat for this beast!"
The wine-woman got up from her drinking and teasing of an old man who was intently kneading her breasts, and picked up a chunk of meat dripping grease and brought it to Balian.
"A tasty bite, Sir!"
Balian flicked down the knife which impaled it.
"For it - ?! But that is a choice piece, Sir, and expensive -."

Observing this, the peasants muttered darkly and one of them, a long monkey-faced
man with six fingers on one hand, was about to challenge the fairness of Balian's charity,  but his companion stopped him, pinching his side -
"He'll kill you - !"
"Here we are, starving, and he gives meat to a dog - ."
"You cann't eat nothing with your throat cut."
Balian glanced towards them, at the buzzing noise of the drunks, and the man, resolution chilling suddenly, faked a coughing fit, and bowed head down to his wineskin.
The charred meat remained untouched.
Balian prodded it towards the dog.
"Eat, you dumb mongrel! Food!"
The dog only wagged its hairy tail, sliding cautiously closer to him,
peering exactly into Balian's eyes; its nose wet with sweat and whiskers
going white from the ends.
"What then, eh? Wine, is it!"
It yawned.
He upturned the skin over its ears.
As the wine soaked down between its pale eyes, a kind of red crown glistened
on its dog-head but it didn't appear to care; unbothered, maybe enjoying the
bath, it wagged its tail and more dust joined the drifting smoke and stench.
The peasants made obsene remarks.
"Ah, now, you don't drink. But I see no froth, so you're no.... mad dog."
Balian leaned forward and positioned himself almost nose to nose with the
panting mongrel. His face went relected back to him in the dog's eyes
and the dog-face was likewise in his but unknown there.
Balian stared fascinated at himself, noting his unkept hair and beard,
the scars thick on the side of his nose and forehead, and felt the breath
of the dog beat on his cheeks.
Soon the dog swallowed its tongue.
With its thin lips pressed together, what looked like a serious expression
crossed and then settled on its face which drew Balian's attention.
It opened its mouth in a kind of lazy yawn then smacked its lips and then,
after a moment during which it scratched its ears, it directed its attention
to the tent top full of holes bright with the day and through which the rancid smoke escaped, then slowly looked down into Balian's eyes and seemed to speak.
It was a coarse sound, like a precisely articulated long growl and then another with a break and a pleasing intonation sounding like a question that ended it.
The hairs on the back of Balian's neck stood on end.
What he heard from the dog's own lips seemed of the greatest importance to him
and his feeling was like that a while ago when he saw what he saw as if a veil wiped clean the dirt that covered the world.
"It's nothing, don't you think?"

Balian roared in terror and unsheathed his sword but the dog, of course, jumped
back and ran off.
So he missed it with his blade.
But his fury was unleashed and, still clutching the wine skin, Balian,
the knight who fought alone, finding himself with no other object on which
to inflict his strange anguish, stormed upon the drunken peasants with his sword hacking.
At once, he killed three men with a whirl of steel, stunning the others
seeing in their midst of drinking and smirking the slaughter; so during a wink
for a whore, being splattered with blood and bits of flesh like buzzing flies; Balian put his confusion in the murders, cutting bodies and wanting to kill pity
and the puzzle of his moments of insight, to drown them in blood and excrement
and stink of the impregnable world that flourished as a rancid nightmare
around him.
The masturbator Balian cut in half while the monkey-faced man lost his shoulder,
the one who was snoring slept through it while the old man flirting with the wine-woman forgot where he was; the woman chilled, with her mouth full of meat.
Others, beyond the tent, gaped paralyzed or vanished.
Onions from an upturned stall, mushy with shoots germinating, cascaded over a dog full of fleas.

Finally, Balian stopped, witnessed the dead and wounded on whom flies
were already landing, and shuddered at the work of his temper.
Around him the world seemed charred, no one moved.
He waited for something to happen.
He knew the peasants were going to attack him with their knives, stones,
and hands. It was their turn to abhor him.
They watched, learned from him, then now they will use the lesson to tear him apart.
He welcomed their hate - laughed at them hesitating.
Then he heard the grumbling and the air seemed to come to life again, picking up
a straw, a thread of rag, swirling dust, the hair at his temple;
other sounds broke through the wrap of breathlessness.
Something flickered in his vision.
The next moment he heard a voice and his fingers tensed.
He looked down at them and saw them gripping the hilt of his sword.
But the sword was in its scabbard. And the voice was the wine-woman's.
"..your dropped the skin - ."
He didn't hear her meaning, she repeated it, so dazed, he looked down and there, by an expanding pool of wine, was the dog.
Floppy ears lowering, it sniffed at the piece of meat;
looped down from its buttocks, the matted end of its tail timidly swept
a bit left and right.
And he heard someone fart and laughter and the creaking of a cart going by.
The peasants were alive.
Balian rubbed his eyes and held his throat, feeling the hairs and the sweat on it, sucking in breath.
It was a dream?
It came....
He panted in relief.
But, still, after a moment, he was uneasy.
He felt a digging chill on the back of his neck and in his chest.

If it was a dream, it was too good, he was alive, he saw...
The mangy dog's eyes were liquid and gentle.
Balian curled his knuckles on his sword, but his fingers tensed when a suggestion unobstructed as the hole above him, where the pale-blue emptiness danced, repeated in his brains.
It said in him that something important was about to happen.
Out of the air - a shape - a sound - in a moment that could not come.
It was impossible, yet undeniable like the sun.
Peering down, Balian held his breath waiting for the dream to go real.

The dog's tongue was hanging out, panting;
soon it made a slurping noise, cocking its head and its eyes opened
a little wider at Balian. It blinked a few times. It licked his knee once
and gave a little bark out of its wine-brushed gray-whiskered face.
It did move its lips into shapes, a kind of clenching up over its teeth
then a drooping down and a quivering perhaps the effect of its panting.
Terror pressed around Balian's temples.
The silence in its gaping mouth seemed to contain the meaning of human words
and in his ears he heard that meaning mixed in the buzz of the air.
But it said nothing.

Slowly, it turned and walked away with a flopping limp.
Balian watched the dog, wet face and buttocks and dragging tail, disappear
between the legs of passers-by.

The sense of nightmare in it vanished - like an inky bubble that suddenly burst. Not finding himself insane, Balian, opened his hands as they dropped from his sword, felt surprise. And peace. It danced in his heart from one beat to the next. The next, lasting only a silvery moment, and too soon beat by beat thoughts arose to bother him. He tried to master them to find comfort in reason; yet one by one they began to confuse him and, as on a merry-go-round, he found himself almost as before. The wine poured into his mouth, teased his eager desire for oblivion.
That was what he knew how to do.
Holding the skin up over his head the streaming wine as it emptied
became transparent, looked like red crystal going blue, and finally bright white.