Crusader's Torch Page 23

"It will take Templars to carry out God's grace for you gutless monks," one of the Templars jeered. "Since you say that God forbids you to attack, only to defend. You can't reclaim Belvoir that way."

This time all the Templars laughed without prompting; the tone was edgy and unpleasant.

Olivia, listening to this exchange, frowned. The last thing she wanted now was a melee between Templars and Hospitalers. She made her voice high and quarrelsome. "Sier Valence, Sier Aueric, why this delay? Is it not enough that I am forced to sit here by the side of the road?"

"Bondama Clemens," said Rainaut at once, his manner apparently resigned and irritated. "Have but a little more patience. We will be under way almost at once."

"And see to it that my horse is tended properly. I want no more split hooves." She knew she sounded like a bad-tempered crone, and she smiled broadly.

"Is that her horse?" the Templar leader asked, indicating the bay Olivia had been riding. "Why does she want it? It's a runt."

Rainaut shrugged expressively. "She has a notion about breeding, he said, shaking his head, then added, "She hankers for the old days of the Caesars, and thinks they rode small horses."

When the Templar laughed again, the nastiness had gone. "I might have been wrong about you; maybe you have a battle on your hands after all."

Rainaut, feeling he was betraying his vows, rolled his eyes upward. "The worst kind; not only can we not attack, but we must not strike women."

Now all the Templars were chuckling, the hostility of a few moments ago forgot in the shared contempt for civilians. The leader said, "If you will have such ludicrous rules of conduct, you must endure your harridan, I suppose. A Templar wouldn't stand for such treatment. Women are easily dealt with. A blow or two, and she would be more cooperative." He looked around for the agreeing nods of his troops.

"There are times it is tempting to use your methods," said de Jountuil. "But she has connections in Roma, and it would be unwise for us to forget that. Not that she would let us."

Inside her curtained wagon, Olivia gave a sly half-smile. In her most forbidding accents, she said, "You continue to chat with riff-raff, Sier Aueric. I will mention this, you may be certain of it."

"What connection can she have to make you endure that?" the chief Templar asked, his voice deliberately loud.

De Jountuil almost whispered. "Very near Saint Piere's Seat, if everything we have been told is correct. Her family is old, very old, and they are powerful in Roma."

"God save me from powerful old widows," avowed the Templar, and was given supporting nods from the men accompanying him. "Very well. Let us get out of your way. We have our journey and you have yours." He dragged on the rein and spurred his horse into motion. "Peace and Grace," he shouted back as an afterthought.

"And with you," Rainaut called, as the Templars went by in rising dust.

Olivia listened to the Templars clatter away, then drew the curtains back on the side of the carriage away from the Templars. "You did very well."

"I did not think we would see them in such numbers," Rainaut said, frowning. "They are moving troops faster than before."

"They're anxious to be fighting again," said de Jountuil, not without a trace of envy. "France and England will be here soon."

"And you wish to fight with Reis Richard," Olivia said for him.

"I am a Christian knight," de Jountuil said curtly, looking Olivia directly in the face. "I honor my King and my Faith with fighting for their protection." He had become flushed with anger as he spoke.

"Then why be a Hospitaler?" Olivia asked, looking from de Jountuil to Rainaut. "Why didn't you become Templars if you so long to fight?"

"We are legitimate nobles," de Jountuil reminded her. "We have obligations to our Houses not to disgrace our name with allying it basely."

"Oh, of course," said Olivia lightly, thinking that the whole question was more foolish than she had supposed possible. "And so you are Hospitalers." She looked back at her slave and said, "You may ride with me, if you wish."

There was no room to bow or to show respect. Iyaffa put her hands over her face and nodded low. "You need not—"

"You didn't like riding the mule," Olivia interrupted the string of protestations she knew would follow. "And when we enter Sidon, we may have to continue our deceptions. It will be easier to make them think that I am an old woman if you ride with me." As she spoke, Olivia thought of the thousand years since her birth: old woman, indeed.

"If you require it, mistress," said Iyaffa. "I will do as you ask." She bent as low as she could in the confines of the wagon, hands once more spread over her face. "You have only to ask a thing of me and I will do it."

"Thank you, Iyaffa," Olivia said, strangely humbled by her slave's devotion. When she reached Sidon, Olivia was determined to give Iyaffa her writ of manumission and a proper pension for the service she had rendered. She shook her head at this quaintly old-Roman decision. It had been eight hundred years since owners treated their slaves thus, but Olivia had never been comfortable with the harsher laws that had replaced the ones she had known in her youth, and she continued to treat her slaves as if the old laws were in effect.

"We're almost ready," Rainaut said. "We'll lead your horse."

"As you wish," Olivia responded, and leaned back on the thin pillows that covered the plank seats.

They reached Sidon by the middle of the afternoon, when much of the city was drowsy with heat. The guards at the gate, often abrupt and demanding, passed the Hospitalers and their train through with little more than the necessary questions and the instruction to report at once to the funda for any taxations that might need to be paid.

"We are faring well," said Rainaut, from his vantage point behind the wagon. "The streets are fairly empty."

"Let us hope that there will be someone at the funda who will tend to us. I do not want to wait forever for this or that official to compute our taxes. We are only visiting here." Olivia did not want to admit she was as tired and uncomfortable as she was.

"We'll attend to that," said Rainaut, his words becoming loud as they entered one of the covered streets. He looked about with marked unease, remembering his first experience with such streets in Tyre.

Olivia looked up at the gathered cloth that was the roof of her wagon. "Find out what ships are leaving, and when. If we do not find out quickly, we may have another long wait to endure."

"Of course," Rainaut assured her. His horse was weary and starting to favor his off-rear foot. Along with all the things Olivia required, he would have to find a smithy and a farrier to tend to the animal. His eyes ached. Perhaps the smithy would have a wheelwright as well, so that the wagon axles could be greased and made true again.

"Ehi! Rainaut!" De Jountuil was in the lead; he turned in his saddle to shout back at his fellow Hospitaler. "The funda is just ahead on the right. Better dismount."

"Right!" Rainaut yelled back, and pulled his horse to a stop. As he climbed out of his saddle, he felt his legs ache as if he were a green rider who had never sat a horse before and who had no experience of long journeys. He held onto the stirrup until he was certain he could stand upright without swaying.

"The funda? Where is it?" Olivia called from behind the curtains. Being within the city walls, she knew it was reckless to draw the curtains back, for Sidon was not a Christian port but an Islamic one.

"Just ahead. We're almost there." Rainaut had brought the reins over his horse's head and was now leading him, walking immediately behind Olivia's wagon. "I can see part of the wall now."

"Excellent," Olivia said. "I feel as if I'd been cooped up for days, not hours."

It was on the tip of Rainaut's tongue to remind Olivia that the precaution was for her own protection, but he stopped the words as three Islamic soldiers approached, their curved swords sheathed across their backs. "Be quiet, Olivia," he ordered her in an undervoice.

"Why?" she asked sharply.

"There are soldiers," he told her in a level tone. "Officers of the funda, I hope."

"And I," Olivia said softly.

The three Islamic soldiers bowed to the strangers. "Hospitalers," said the oldest of the three. "You are welcome in Sidon."

De Jountuil sighed inwardly with relief though his manner did not change. "We are escorting the widow Bondama Olivia Clemens to Cyprus as part of her homeward journey to Roma," he explained when he had finished introducing himself and Rainaut to the soldiers. "We have a safe conduct to this place, and we seek housing here until such time as we may take ship for Cyprus or Roma."

The oldest Islamic soldier pursed his lips. "We will address the officers of the funda, of course, but we are a small city and our inns and hospitals are full." He bowed to express his apology for this problem. "The widow you escort will need more than a tent, won't she?"

"She would," said de Jountuil before Rainaut could speak, for there was an impulsive look about him that troubled his companion. "And we would, as well."

The three soldiers conferred. "You must follow us," said the oldest at the conclusion of their discussion. "We will take you to the officers of the funda." He turned at once and started to lead them forward.

"The streets are damned empty," Rainaut said sotto voce to Olivia.

"It is still their time of rest. In another hour, the city will be completely alive again." She reached out and pulled the curtain back a little so that she could see where she was being taken.

"Close the curtains," Rainaut hissed. "For God's sake, Olivia, these are Islamites. They would cut off your nose if they caught you peeking at them."

She closed the curtains angrily. "Where are we going?" she asked Rainaut. "Since I cannot watch, you have to tell me."

"We're about to enter the funda. The soldiers are leading us to the inner courtyard." He kept his voice low, but no longer feared to be overheard.

"Who are they taking us to?" she asked in a rush.

"I don't know," Rainaut confessed. "But since we are foreigners…"

Ahead the three soldiers stopped before a carved and painted door as detailed and luxurious as the most treasured Persian carpet. One of them tapped a brass gong, then stepped back to allow the doors to be opened.

Opulent in his official red robe, the master of the funda strode out to greet them. He was of medium height with large shoulders and chest and a massive neck. His big square fingers were crusted with rings and his short beard was glossy. He made the gesture of greeting and said, "It is an honor to have you in my city. I am Hamal Khouri. What will it be my privilege to do for you?"

* * *

Text of a letter from Joivita to Meniques, dictated to the scribe Cortise.

To my dear cousin Meniques, I send word of my most recent attempts at securing a proper alliance, as well as the failure of same brought about by the untimely intervention of none other than my cousin himself The knights I have been able to bring to my bed until now have all been here under vows, which has meant that there was little I could do to induce them to take me to wife or make me a proper leman. I would have liked to continue with Sier Valence, but he has left Tyre, and so there are others I have sought out, or who have sought me out and are to my liking. One in particular is a knight who has come from England in advance of the Reis Richard, and who is placed well with his King. He is of good heritage and holds the title of Esquire. Not so great as a knight, you may say, but an excellent beginning. He is not quite nineteen and he burns for me.

We have met now eight times. Each time Taggart has shown more passion than before. He has declared himself my devoted servant and begged me to accept his protection. Which I would do, and gladly, but that you, my foolish cousin, decided that you would beat and rob him for his arms and the few jewels he wears. Now he lies with a broken skull and the infirmarians say that he will not last the week.

Why would you not be content? Why would you not leave my lover alone? You had to have that one extra bit of loot. How much did you get for the armor and the rings? Compared to what I would have brought you through my alliance with him, you have made a very bad trade, and for that, if nothing else, I despise you. There was a chance that this man would have kept me and you handsomely for quite a long time, and you can think of nothing better to do than to hit him over the head and steal his purse.

When Taggart recovers—although as I have told you already little hope is held for that—I will visit him to find out if he has any desire left for me, and if he does, I will do all that I can to be deserving of it. You are another matter, and if ever you speak to me again, or attempt to force me to aid you, I will denounce you in the Court of Bourgesses, though they brand me for it. You have taken everything I loved from me, cousin, and I will not let you have anything more.

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