Crusader's Torch Page 30

The monk blessed himself. "If you have suffered any abuse at the hands of the Crusaders, then God will reward you for your pains." He lowered his eyes. "I am Fraire Eleus, and I am bound for the Holy Land. It is my intention to join the Hieronomite community near Ascalon."

"There's bound to be fighting at Ascalon," said the innkeeper.

"All the more reason to be there, to pray for those wounded and fallen in battle," said Fraire Eleus. "I had hoped to reach Sicilia before the two armies embarked, but the same storms that held them here all winter kept me at Fraxinetum."

"There are Islamites in Fraxinetum," said the innkeeper. "More shame to France."

Fraire Eleus blessed himself. "Yes, there are Islamites in Fraxinetum. There are Islamites in most of Spain. There are Islamites in Narbonne. If we are not careful, there will be Islamites in Roma and Paris before Jesus Christ comes again."

"And so we take half the unhanged criminals in France and England, put crosses on their arms, and tell them to have at any green banner they see?" the innkeeper asked. He pulled more fish off the bone and bit into it. "Well?"

"Something must be done," said Fraire Eleus.

"Possibly. It appears to me that this is more Byzantium's fight than ours, but we're all Christians, aren't we? Why should the Byzantines have to turn back Islam all by themselves?" The innkeeper laughed aloud at his own humor.

Fraire Eleus shook his head. "You have permitted the experiences of this last winter to blind you to the real enemy. It is understandable, I agree, that you would harbor unkind thoughts for those who have behaved poorly while at your establishment, and certainly if they have caused damage and not supplied the repair, they have acted improperly, but… God is not to be mocked, Bonsier Innkeeper."

"Who's mocking God, I'd like to know?" the innkeeper asked of the ceiling. "I'm not. This Jew isn't. You're not. The Islamites pray to God five times a day, every day. Reis Richard says his army is for the honor of God. Reis Phillippe says his men are champions of God. No, it is not God Who is mocked."

Ithuriel Dar wished he could find a reason to leave the inn at once, but none suggested itself. He had more of the wine, and then realized that he would need his wits about him. "Innkeeper, a little bread?" He reached for one of the breads on the platter with the fish.

"Help yourself, help yourself. Have the onions, too. They're one thing the Crusaders didn't raid out of the garden, though they took enough of the rest." He grabbed one of the breads himself, tore it in half and started to sop up the sauce with it. "It's good."

"It is," Dar agreed, following his host's example. "The matter is," he said, turning the conversation—he hoped—from the Crusades to the information he sought, "that I have been asked to meet and accompany a widow returning from the Holy Land."

"Another Jew?" asked the innkeeper with a conspiratorial wink.

"No; she is the widow of a Roman noble." He remembered watching her on the wharf at Tyre and a slight smile played over his features. "She has been trying to find passage from Sidon to Rhodes or Cyprus, and from there back to Roma."

"Not easily done, I'd say," remarked the innkeeper. "Not in these times. Pilgrims and clergy and knights from all over Europe bustling to and from the Holy Land. One widow, pah! Who cares for one widow?" He glanced at Fraire Eleus. "Not that the rest aren't important."

"You are a very worldly man," Fraire Eleus said, his manner becoming more reserved.

"Well, yes, I should hope so," said the innkeeper. "Someone has to look after the world, Fraire. You're looking after the soul, the Church is looking after salvation in the next world, so it's left to simple fellows like me to tend to the world and all that's in it. Have some more fish, won't you?" This last was addressed to Ithuriel Dar.

"Much appreciated," Dar mumbled as he listened to the innkeeper.

"You mayn't believe it, Fraire, but you need us worldly fellows. We have our uses, you know. You might be more concerned with your prayers, but it's nice to have a warm hearth to say them in front of, isn't it?" He winked outrageously. "Those soldiers, too, most of them were out to make their mark in this world, not the next. Give them a chestful of gold from some Islamite's house and they will let the rest take care of itself."

"You demean them," said Fraire Eleus, shaking his head slowly, ponderously.

"Not I," corrected the innkeeper. "I have no reason to be in sympathy with them. I tell you what I have seen and heard; if it displeases you, that's unfortunate, but it doesn't make what I say less true."

Fraire Eleus sketched a blessing in the innkeeper's direction. "I will pray for you, and hope that God brings you to the light."

"If He does, well and good. If He doesn't, then I will muddle along as I've done before." He picked up one of the sections of bread and squeezed it between his thumb and fingers, watching it ooze sauce. "Excellent," he approved before he ate it. As he chewed, he blessed himself.

Dar wanted to move away from his place with the innkeeper, but was now convinced that if he attempted the move without some explanation, it would draw more, not less attention to his errand. He helped himself to two more onions and tried to be inconspicuous. He still did not know what he hoped to learn about Olivia, and he hesitated to write to Niklos Aulirios until he had something useful to report. "Superb sauce," he said to the innkeeper, to account for his silence.

"I was lucky in the cook. I bought him from a bishop on Sardinia. He had an estate there, where he went when he wanted to get away from Pisa. It was as luxurious as a Persian brothel and as secluded as a hermit's cell."

Fraire Eleus looked offended. "This is worse than blasphemy."

"Hardly that," said the innkeeper. "God witness all I say, it was the way the bishop lived when he was not with his flock. He kept dozens of slaves to care for his guests and to tend to all their wants." He smirked. "A most lascivious man, under his bishop's raiment."

"And how did you happen to be there?" asked Fraire Eleus, clearly skeptical.

"I was sent for, because of the wine I serve here. I have an agreement with the vintner, as did my father and his father before him. The bishop wanted to purchase some of the older barrels. I traded them for the cook, and I believe I had the better bargain." He laughed aloud. "Not to say that the bishop didn't get good wine—he did, but surely he drank it all before the year was out, and I still own the cook."

Dar almost choked on the onions, but managed to say, "How long have you had the cook?"

"Eight years," said the innkeeper. "I'm lucky he's a slave and not a bondsman, or one of those Kings would have commandeered him away from me. As it was, I set the price too high and neither would pay it."

"Do you mean that Reis Richard and Reis Phillippe ate here?" Fraire Eleus asked. "Here, in a common inn?"

"Of course not," said the innkeeper with a disgusted snort. "But their men did, and their officers did, and the knights carried tales. Each King sent their factotums to make an offer for him, but—" He shrugged.

Fraire Eleus gave a ghost of a chuckle. "You almost persuaded me, but I know it must be false, your story. Reis Richard or Reis Phillippe sending their factotums to you indeed! I wonder how many have listened to your tale and thought it true?" He gave the innkeeper a long scrutiny. "I will not forget you, nor will I forget what you have said. The time may come when it will serve me well."

"You want to frighten me?" the innkeeper asked incredulously. "You think that you have heard heresy in my inn? I have said what all the others in Siracusa have said, what all those on Sicilia have said since those two quarrelsome armies arrived."

"They are doing God's work, quarrelsome or not," said Fraire Eleus.

"Then they have a strange way of showing it," was the innkeeper's belligerent response.

Dar reached over and plucked at the landlord's sleeve. "It might be wisest to—"

"I will not be mealy-mouthed for a cowl," said the innkeeper implacably. "If he thinks that his God was served by the soldiers here, let him repair the damage they did." He flung the contents of his cup at the ruined beam. "Damnation on all scoundrels hiding behind crosses, that's what I say. And God would second me, if He were asked about it."

Fraire Eleus retreated a few paces more, then folded his arms into the sleeves of his habit and lowered his head. "I will pray for you," he said before falling silent.

"And that will fix the beam, won't it?" bellowed the innkeeper. He swung around, facing Ithuriel Dar. "What do you make of this, Jew?"

"I hope it will not bring you trouble. Or me." He waited while the innkeeper considered what he had said. "I want only to find Bondama Clemens and see her returned to her home. I want no part of the Crusade. I am a shipowner, and I cannot command my own ships because they are being used to carry the families of the men-at-arms to the Holy Land; there is no payment for this usage, and whatever happens to my ship is my expense."

"It appears you have as much complaint against the Crusades as I do," said the innkeeper. "To say nothing of the widow you are supposed to find. She'll be fortunate to get out of the Holy Land with all her skin, if you take my meaning." He filled his cup once more. "All for the reward in Heaven, is it?"

Dar decided to make one last attempt. "Leaving Sidon, how long should it take a ship to reach here?"

"It depends on the weather, and any stops along the way. And pirates, of course. The pirates are about the only ones to turn a profit these days. Chances are that a ship out of Sidon will stop at Cyprus or Crete, one of the two. If the fighting's still going on on Cyprus, they may make for Crete. There's more pirates there, but it's closer." He peered at the far wall, as if he expected to find an answer written there. "But, if the fighting's over, Cyprus is safer. We'll say Cyprus. From Sidon to Cyprus to here. That would be… oh"—he beetled his brow—"twenty-four days, more or less. As much as thirty, as few as twenty-two. It depends on the situation in Cyprus, doesn't it?"

Dar, whose ship had taken nineteen days to go from Tyre to Ostia, nodded. "Yes; it all depends on Cyprus."

* * *

Text of a letter from Aueric de Jountuil to his confessor on Rhodes.

To the most worthy and reverend priest, my spiritual father, Meyeul, my greetings and hope of forgiveness for my long silence. It was not my intention to neglect you while I have been carrying out my duties as a Hospitaler, but there has been so little to report that I have been reluctant to disturb you with letters that have no content. As it is, I am making use of the scribe accompanying us on our journey to Cyprus, and from there it is my intention to return to Rhodes for a time, not only to receive any new assignment that might be granted me, but to restore my inner tranquility that has been lacking in my days of late.

It is not that I chafe at the obligation of providing escort, for that is the purpose of the Order, but I am of the opinion that there is no reason for us to spend our time with the Roman widow known as Bondama Olivia Clemens. She is fully capable of fending for herself, and to have to protect her when there are many others more worthy of our aid who languish because we have this widow to tend to is galling to me.

I am not in agreement with my comrade-at-arms, Sier Valence Rainaut, who seems to have fallen under the spell of the woman—and there is no denying that she is a woman of considerable impact—and who is forever finding reasons why we cannot leave her. I know he has remained true to his oath, but I fear for him, because he is so much in the thrall of this widow. If ever a woman exercised a fatal fascination for a man, it is this widow who has captivated Sier Valence.

My other concern for Sier Valence is more worrisome, if that is possible. He has of late complained of an ailment that has changed the nature of his skin. He now has three patches of skin—one on his face, one on his shoulder and one on his arm—that have the white look of burn scars, but where he has never been burned. The hair grows poorly there if at all, and feels scaly to the touch. He has become sensitive to light; bright light hurts his eyes and causes him to have terrible pains in his head. While he has not been examined by a physician, I know he is worried that he might have been tainted with leprosy. It is imperative that we learn as soon as possible what afflicts him so that proper steps may be taken. Should he have become a leper, those of us who have been with him must pray that we have escaped the contagion. I beseech you to pray for me and to beg God to spare me from this scourge. I have upheld my oath and I am faithful to God and my calling; there is no reason for God to punish me as He may be punishing Sier Valence.

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