Crusader's Torch Page 31

It is a terrible thing to be a leper. Only those whose lives have been debauched can count themselves fortunate if this disease comes to them. I have placed no adoration before God, I have sought no prize but the service of God. I am not like Sier Valence, who does not know if God or this Roman widow is more dear to him. Let me be spared. Let God spare Sier Valence if He is able. I ask you to pray for me. I beg you to request an examination of Sier Valence as soon as we reach Rhodes.

In all things I am your obedient son in God's eyes,

Sier Aueric de Jountuil

Knights Hospitaler of St. John,


By the hand of the scribe Arrin, on the Feast of the Martyr Sabas the Goth, in the Lord's Year 1191.

- 17 -

Until the second pirate ship appeared, they had a chance, though a slim one, to get away: as the second saettia nosed in from the west, the first picked up the speed of the oarsmen, so that the long, narrow ship seemed to leap through the water toward them. The tarida, built for trade and heavily laden, had neither the speed nor the maneuverability of the two pirate ships, and the captain, a hatchet-nosed Greek from Hydros, began to swing his boat around to take the attack.

"You must not do this!" Rainaut cried out as the tarida changed direction. "You haven't a chance."

"I haven't a chance running, either," he growled. "At least this way the worst that will happen to us is slavery, and—" He stopped, seeing the rage in Rainaut's face.

"Not for us. Not for Hospitalers, nor the woman we escort. You must fight." He reached for the tiller arm to restrain the captain.

"Stop!" roared the captain, bringing the flat of his short sword down on Rainaut's shoulder. "You touch anything else on this ship, and I promise you, you'll be over the rail for the sharks."

"We have our duty," said Rainaut through clenched teeth as he tried to flex his arm.

"And I have mine," said the captain abruptly. "Leave me."

The two saettias were closing quickly; Rainaut knew he had very little time to warn Olivia and de Jountuil. He turned on his heel and strode toward the rear of the ship, aware of all the sailors around him hurrying onto the deck. He broke into a run.

"Who are they?" Olivia asked as he approached. She was wrapped in a long mantel over her bliaud, and she carried a dagger in her right hand. She was pale and still a little shaky from her continuing seasickness.

"Pirates. We're not far from Cyprus. You can see it, over there to the left." He took her by the shoulders. "They're going to board. They want captives for slaves and for ransom."

She shook her head. "No."

"I am sworn, as is de Jountuil, to defend you until death. I will do so, if it will save you." He cleared his throat. "If you require something else of me… ?"

She looked at him. "You mean the quick and merciful sword instead of slavery and worse? No, thank you. I'd rather take my chances with the water, and you know how much I love the water." She was not able to laugh, but her expression was heartening to him. "Water, at least, is clean."

"Whatever you decide, you must hurry. They'll be on us in less than—" There was fear in him, cold and shameful, like something small and hard under his sword belt. He could hear an echo of his fear in the voices of the sailors.

Olivia had been staring at the approaching ships. "They have beaks," she said quietly, hardly audible in the noise and clamor around them.

"What?" Rainaut shouted, unable to hear her over the din.

"The ships coming," she said more loudly. "They have beaks. The corvus, like the old Roman ships. They're going to break this ship apart, and then pick the bones." She shuddered in spite of herself. "There's no choice then. They're going to ram us. We go into the water, like it or not."

Her last words were drowned in a howl of anger and dismay as the oarsmen caught sight of the enormous metal beaks of the two saettias, and the captain swore comprehensively as he realized what was going to happen to his ship. The confusion, which had been under minimal control, erupted into chaos.

"We must go over the side. Now. Before they reach us," yelled Olivia, trying to make herself heard as the ships hurtled together.

"Can you swim?" Rainaut shouted, knowing how seasick she had been, and afraid of her answer.

"No," Olivia replied. "Not very well." There was no time to explain the reason for this. "But I'll try."

Rainaut took a quick look over his shoulder. "Come. Now." He looked about the milling sailors. Nowhere could he see another black Maltese Cross. "Where's de Jountuil?"

"I don't know," Olivia answered. "I haven't seen him."

Three of the deckhands ran past them, one of them screaming in Greek for the Archangel Michael to come to his aid.

"De Jountuil! De Jountuil!" Rainaut hollered, but had no answer. "Aueric de Jountuil!"

From the front of the ship came many, louder cries, and a dozen of the oarsmen slaves strove to pull in their enormous oars before they were broken by the closing pirate ships. The tarida began to wallow as the tiller was released.

"There's no time," said Olivia, leaning close to Rainaut to be heard. "We must go now."

"Yes." He helped her over the rail, making sure she could hold on while he joined her.

A shudder, the first indication of impact, of the rending corvus, passed down the length of the tarida, the wood of the ship just starting to moan with strain.

"Hurry!" yelled Rainaut as he shoved Olivia hard, sending her falling toward the froth of the wake. Then he leaped, arms windmilling, as he plunged into water.

Strange sights and sounds assailed him as he plummeted beneath the surface. The undersides of all three ships hung like enormous fish above him, and the movement of the oars in the water was like watching playful schools of minnows. He looked wildly for Olivia, and was appalled that he could not find her. Finally, his chest hot with lack of air, his arms aching, he broke the surface just as the side of the tarida broke under the onslaught of the beak of the first saettia. He was tossed about as the sea rushed and gurgled at the sudden opening.

Olivia struggled to the surface, her efforts sluggish, feeling the water leech away her strength with every movement. If only it were night, so that she would have some protection from the sun, at least. Her shoes, with their precious lining of Roman earth, were growing wet, the sustaining bond failing. She felt dazed, sickened. Only her dread of lying helpless on the floor of the ocean, deprived of every sense but consciousness, kept her from succumbing to the merciless combination of water and sun. Weakly, but with iron determination, she began to paddle away from the three ships toward the distant outline of the hills of Cyprus.

"Olivia!" Rainaut shouted, knowing he could not be heard over the enormous furor of battle. He thought he could see her a little way off, making scant headway in the churning water. "De Jountuil!" He tried to make out the identities of those he saw fighting on the canted deck of the tarida, but could not. His eyes stung, his face hurt, and the shine of sun on water gave him a ferocious pain through his temples. Reluctantly he started to swim away from the battle. There was nothing he could do, he realized. He had only his short sword with him. The tarida was taking on water fast and it would not be long before those aboard her would have to surrender to the pirates or go into the water. Praying that Olivia truly had got away, that de Jountuil was not trapped aboard the tarida, he started to swim in the direction of Cyprus, pausing now and again to look for other swimmers.

He had covered half the distance from the wreck of the tarida to the shore when he saw someone floundering in the water not far from him. Though he was nearly exhausted himself, he changed direction, determined to give aid. When he saw that the other swimmer was Olivia, he was jolted with renewed strength and purpose. He wasted no breath in calling to her, but increased the reach of his stroke as he tried to reach her.

Behind them, there was a ragged shout from the pirates of the two saettias as the tarida slipped under the waves. Long grappling hooks on heavy lines were broken out and tossed at the sinking ship, securing the wreckage for towing.

Olivia's face was sun-scorched, the skin of her cheeks and forehead beginning to blister, her lips cracked and peeling.

She opened her eyes with difficulty as she felt someone grab her mantel and turn her onto her back. Painful though it was, she did her best to smile. "Valence."

Rainaut could not conceal his shock. "God and the Saints, Olivia."

"Those of my blood… sun and water…" She swallowed hard, but could not speak again. Her strength, usually greater than others knew, was failing her rapidly.

Rainaut kissed her brow. "I'll help," he said, hoping his sense of futility was not too apparent in his voice. "I'll pull you to land, Olivia."

"If…" She coughed. "If the night…"

He made no sense of what she said, but replied, "We'll be on the shore by nightfall." As he said it, he consoled himself with the knowledge that they would be on the shore or they would have drowned. Cyprus seemed a long way off. The body of an oarsman slave bobbed in the waves, not far from them. Rainaut saw it with foreboding. He worked to rig a sling improvised from the wide silk-and-leather girdle that she wore; he passed it across her back and under her arms, praying that it would not give way.

"Thank… for trying," Olivia said, her voice hardly more than a croak.

Desperately, hopelessly, he pulled the sling over his shoulder and started once again to swim, permitting himself the reward of looking at the distant island once every ten strokes. He made himself move automatically, the way he did when he drilled with sword and battle-axe. He shut out fatigue and pain and exhaustion and kept to the steady, repetitive action, permitting the strain to daze him so that he would not have to feel his body as he pressed it to and beyond its limits.

When he felt his feet scrape on rocks, he thought he had gone mad. Then he banged his hand on another rock and shouted aloud. Slowly he struggled to his feet, the water coming no higher than his waist. "God," he whispered.

Olivia sagged against him, all but unconscious.

His hands were still unwieldy as he tried to untie the girdle that bound them together. He could not bring himself to look at her burned face, but he spoke to her in a rough undervoice as he worked the knots loose. "We're on… a spit of land. At low tide, we'd be on the beach. It's still a long way to the shore, but we can walk it now. We don't have to swim anymore. We're safe, Olivia." He paused to bless himself. "I thank God for our deliverance, and I pray to be worthy of His care."

Rainaut's words reached Olivia as if from a great distance, as if called down an echoing well. She was so completely enervated that to lift her hand was a greater effort than she could summon. Her skin hurt as if she had been rubbed all over with nettles and coarse salt, and her face and hands tormented her. She tried to speak, but her throat was parched and her mouth too raw for the words to come.

Half-dragging, half-carrying Olivia, Rainaut made his way along the long, partially submerged spit toward the shore. He was afraid to stop for rest, because he doubted he would be able to move again once he halted. The westering sun glared down on them and made purple shadows on the sides of the Cypriot hills. "Just a little more," he panted. "A little more. The beach is up ahead. A little way. A few more steps." He spoke as much to himself as to her. "Almost there. Look. Almost there." His legs ached, his thighs quivered with each step he took, and he had to concentrate fiercely to keep from stumbling.

Then, miraculously, they were on the beach, in the shade of an outcropping of dark rock. It was cool, out of both sun and wind, and far enough from the water that the sand underfoot was dry.

For a moment, Rainaut strove to help Olivia to lie down with some semblance of comfort; then he collapsed at her side, his eyes closing as he fell.

It was night when he came to his senses, awakened by the litany of pain in his body. He groaned as he started to sit up, his back and shoulders so stiff and filled with hurt that there was no position he could find that brought him ease or relief. A relentless hunger competed with his agony for attention.

"Valence?" Her voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Valence?"

"Olivia." He turned, wincing, toward her. "Are you…"

"Over here," she said in the same breathless voice.

"Where?" It was a clear but moonless night and the hours in the full glare of the sun had taken their toll; he could hardly make out the shapes of the large rocks in the starlight—Olivia he could not see at all.

She touched his shoulder. "I'm here." The weakness she heard in her own speech vexed her. "We're… alive."

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