Crusader's Torch Page 2

"You could scarcely do worse," she interjected with a little humor.

He was not distracted. "If it must be by water, it will be. Once I am in Roma, give me two months, and everything can be arranged for you, including your passage."

"Yes, everything here can be ready. But you haven't been in Roma in a very long time. What makes you certain that you can settle matters for me so quickly?" That last question lingered in the air like the last echo of a gong.

"I will manage it. Roma can't have changed that much," Niklos said.

"All right," Olivia told him. "You probably will not be able to secure passage for a week at least; I do not want you setting out at the dead of winter. If, in that time, you have managed to make arrangements for Roma and can gain permission for me to sell this house, as well as ship my goods, there should be no difficulties to hamper either of us." She indicated a large, leather-bound and iron-clasped book on the low table beside the Persian chair. "I want to take my library, if I can. It's always difficult, shipping books. No matter what they are, someone inevitably wants to burn them."

"I'll address the Court of Bourgesses." Niklos stood still a short time, then shook his head. "All right; I'll make the arrangements you ask. I'll leave for Genova with the merchants."

"Thank you," Olivia said reluctantly.

"You don't want me to go, do you?" Niklos asked her, long familiarity making her expressions transparent to him.

"Yes, I do. I know it is the sensible thing to do. I know that if we leave without preparation, it might be unpleasant in Roma, and that is something I do not want. Having you go ahead and make all the arrangements necessary will serve both our purposes well. And while all that is true," she said, her voice softening, "still I will miss you while you are gone, and I will worry about you until I have word you are safe."

Niklos laughed once and shook his head slowly. "Well, you've said what I wanted to hear, I suppose. But I still don't like having to leave you."

"I know." She went to the Persian chair, but hesitated before sitting down. "It seems strange to me, to have to think of Roma as a foreign city, to treat it as if I had never been there. It is my home. I was born there."

"It has changed, Olivia," Niklos said with hard kindness.


He watched her, aware of her inwardness. Over the years these brief withdrawals to her memories had increased, and though they were still infrequent, they happened more often. At such times Niklos was at a loss. He started toward her, then stopped. "Olivia?"

She gave a little shake to her head at the sound of her name, and took a moment to answer, "What?"

"Is it Roma?" He knew the answer, but wanted her to tell him.

"Of course," she said ruefully. "What else would it be? Oh, I don't relish moving, and the thought of an ocean voyage makes me ill, but the thorn is Roma." She fingered the tooled leather on the worn arm of the chair. "It was strange to me long ago. I don't know why it has upset me to remember it now."

"Perhaps because it is strange?" he suggested.

She turned toward him. "You know me too well."

"After all this time, I hope so," Niklos said, rallying her.

"You're right," she said. "If I am ever to get out of this house, you must put your plans in order." As she rose, she smoothed the Babylon skins that trimmed her mantel-a-parer.

Niklos caught the gesture. "You love that fur, don't you?"

"It is soft and warm," she said at her most neutral.

"And you love it," Niklos added.

"Yes," Olivia said, nodding once. "But I may have to leave it behind."

* * *

Text of an unofficial letter from the secretary of the Metropolitan of Hagia Sophia to the Abbot of the Benedictine monastery on Rhodes.

To my devout fellow-Christian, I pray that you will set aside the differences that divide Christendom long enough to read what I have to impart to you, for our faith, in all its forms, is again in the gravest danger, and at the behest of my most pious master, I approach you in the hope that you will consider what I tell you with all the wisdom that God can give imperfect men.

Surely, since the Knights Hospitaler share part of Rodhos with you, you are aware of the increasing menace of the desert followers of the banner of Islam, and have yearned to come to the rescue of the True Church, which is the Heart of Our Lord. So we in the Greek Church feel as we learn of the fall of Jerusalem into those terrible hands. In spite of the concession made to the Greek Church, and the returning of the Holy Sepulcher to us, the ploy is an obvious one; all Christendom can agree that the presence of Saladin in Jerusalem besmirches every one of us who have accepted salvation in the name of the Christ. Who can be certain how long Saladin will grant us this sop? No Franks have entered Jerusalem since it was taken, and there is no reason to believe that this will change.

While the Knights Hospitaler are not formed for the purpose of war as are the Knights Templar, they still hold in sacred trust the protection of Christians and the holy sites of Our Lord's life. You share similar rule, and certainly you may understand the need for increased vigilance on the part of those knights giving protection and escort to pilgrims. Those who embrace the Rule of Saint Benedict accept absolute dedication, life-long fidelity and chaste humility as the outward manifestation of inward devotion. As you have done, so these good Knights have done also.

They differ from you in their knightly vows, in their mandate to take up the cause of God and the Church as they would take up the cause of King and country. How much greater an honor to defend the most sacred shrines of our faith than to vindicate the claims of a King, anointed only on earth and not in Heaven. It is possible for the Hospitalers to do more than aid the injured and ill, to guard and protect Christians. Now they may protect Christ Himself through helping to restore Jerusalem to Christian hands. It is true enough that the Kings of this world have clamored and battled for possessions and honors, and that their chivalry has been foremost in taking up the fight. How much greater cause would they find in fighting for the preservation of our faith.

You and I must content ourselves with prayers and trust in God's great mercy; those who have been chosen for more strife have an opportunity now to vindicate their souls through their might of arms against an enemy so enormous that Satan must surely be the evil angel guiding all that the pernicious Saladin does.

With your guidance, the Knights Hospitaler can bring about the transformation of Jerusalem from vassalage to triumph again. Those of us in the Greek Church must take care so that our actions will not be misconstrued. Chivalry breeds suspicion, and in crises such as this one, knights will not listen to the timely warning of those they have never known as friends. The heritage of arms and honor teaches men to put the trust in their weapons and their oaths of fealty rather than the unity of faith in God. It is possible that the Knights Hospitaler would regard this message with doubt or anger. You, being given to a more contemplative and prayerful life, have a greater comprehension of the peril we face, and for that reason, I beseech you to address the Knights Hospitaler and urge them to be more militant in their actions, to do more than they have done to bring about the end of the vile bondage that holds Jerusalem in thrall to Saladin.

I will offer prayers for you and your Brothers, and for your success with the Knights Hospitaler. I will thank God for your aid and wisdom that comes not to succor the Greek Church, but to cast off the yoke of shame that touches all Christians.

Alexios from Salinika

At the behest of my master, by my own hand and under seal, on the day after Epiphany, in the Lord's Year 1189.

- 2 -

A squabble had started between a man leading a donkey-cart and a French Bourgess in his official collar; since the streets were narrow, this stopped traffic in both directions. Under the roof-high awnings that provided some respite from the inexorable sun, faces began to appear in window slits, adding their shouts of derision and encouragement to the exchange.

"Is there another way?" Valence Rainaut asked of the sarjeant at his side.

"We're blocked behind, Bonsier," the sarjeant said, apparently inured to problems of this sort.

Rainaut tugged at the black-and-white cote that identified him as a Knight Hospitaler of Saint John. "How long will we be detained by this?"

The sarjeant shrugged. "If it becomes a fight, it could be some time. But they don't appear to be the sort to fight," he added with a wink, for the man with the donkey-cart was a white-haired ancient with hardly a tooth left in his head and the Bourgess was portly. "Of course," the sarjeant went on when he had considered the rest of the crowd, "there's no telling what the rest might do. Tyre is a volatile place."

"Does that please you?" Rainaut challenged, hearing satisfaction in the sarjeant's comment.

"It pleases me to serve God and His Knights Hospitalers," said the sarjeant, suddenly circumspect. "When you have been here a while, good Knight, you will understand that these coastal cities are all… well, they are hazardous. If they were not, there would be no need for Hospitalers here, would there?"

Rainaut was tempted to give a short answer to the sarjeant's insolence, but held his tongue; what he had said was true enough, and there would be other occasions when Rainaut could reprimand the sarjeant if he deserved correction. He rubbed at his neck, glad that he was not wearing armor, for his clothes, more appropriate for France than Tyre, stuck to his body, soggy with sweat. "Is there anyone who could end this?"

"Lord God knows," said the sarjeant, blessing himself in case Rainaut might think he was swearing.

"How far is the chapter house?" Rainaut asked, having to shout now to be heard over the din.

"Not far." The sarjeant pointed down the street. "A little way further, then right at the corner. The chapel is there, and the chapter house is directly behind it. The hospice is nearby."

The ancient with the donkey-cart had picked up a wad of dung. With a screeching outburst, he hurled this at the Bourgess, who bellowed and launched himself at his opponent. The spectators howled and cheered as the battle was joined in earnest.

The sarjeant began to look worried. "I think perhaps that we might—" He tried to move backward, but he and Rainaut were wedged in by the press of the crowd at their backs.

"What is it?" Rainaut inquired, one hand on the hilt of his sword.

"A fight like this, it could turn ugly. Then the Templars would settle it; they restore order by cracking heads." He rapped on the closed shop door beside them, but there was no response. He pointed upwards. "Look. They are leaving the windows."

"Does that mean it is over?" Rainaut had to admit to an instant's disappointment.

"No, it means that it will get worse," said the sarjeant fatalistically. "They are leaving the windows so that they will not be struck by—" He broke off.

At the core of the fight, where the old man and the Bourgess flailed at each other with fists and feet, the donkey pulling the cart began to bray and kick in an effort to escape the battle. It was like a signal to people jammed into the street. Fists were raised, weapons drawn where there was room to do so. A few of the more intrepid dropped to their knees and attempted to crawl between the legs of the others.

"Sweet Virgin," Rainaut breathed as chaos erupted. He had drawn his short-bladed forked dagger from his sleeve scabbard and now held it low and at the ready. "What now?" he yelled at the sarjeant to make himself heard at all.

"Pray," suggested the sarjeant, bringing his hands over his head and his elbows out. A section of brick hit his shoulder and he stifled an oath.

"This is impossible," Rainaut declared, though no one heard him. As the mob surged, trying to break the confines of the street, Rainaut searched for an opening. "How near is the closest alley?" he demanded of the sarjeant.

"It's useless, sir," shouted the sarjeant. "We can't make it."

"Of course we can," said Rainaut, and started to move backward, prodding for the smallest openings between the tightly packed bodies, and sliding through them, dragging the sarjeant after him. For the first time he was grateful that most of his goods were still on the ship that had brought him, along with his two horses, his bard, and battle harness.

A yowl went up from somewhere behind him; Rainaut turned and had to resist the urge to stop and look for the cause of it. He held his two-bladed dagger against his leg and continued his slow withdrawal. "Do not be frightened, sarjeant. We will do."

"If you'll pardon me, Bonsier, I think we're for it now." He was able to make a grimace that was intended for a battle-smile. "There are too many here, and the way is blocked now."

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