Crusader's Torch Page 35

"Oh," said Huon in a small voice. He stayed two steps behind Rainaut. "The widow is—"

"God!" Rainaut burst out, then once again mastered himself. "That I brought her to this." He had been filled with despair through the last several days while it was decided how his case was to be handled. During that time he had been kept in a monk's cell, watched over by a confessor and slave to tend to his needs. He had not seen Olivia, nor spoken with her. He had come to fear that she hated him for what he had brought upon her.

"She is to be cast out with you." Huon sighed. "She told the Master that she knew you were not a leper."

A faint, astonished smile plucked at Rainaut's mouth. "Did she?" Perhaps she was not as furious with him as he thought. "What has become of her?"

Huon did not answer. They were almost to the central chapel for the monastery, and here there were monks, their cowls over their faces, the candles they carried dark. He motioned to Rainaut to walk ahead, into the chapel.

As Rainaut genuflected, he was flanked by two monks who led him to the foot of the altar, to stand where his coffin would have been. A moment later two other monks escorted Olivia to his side and joined their hands.

Her hand tightened on his, then relaxed. "I understand we are not to be married," she said lightly, ignoring the outraged scowls that were directed toward her.

"We might as well be," Rainaut responded, taking courage from her. Now that the Order had condemned him, he felt oddly free. For the first time in several days, he smiled, and stretched the scarlike mark on his face.

The Abbot of the monastery approached, his face grave. "You have been entrusted to us by the Master of the Hospitalers, with instructions that as you are unclean, you are no longer one of the company of men, but are beyond the gates of death. The priests are ready." He blessed first Rainaut then Olivia. "Pray God He show you His mercy."

"Since you do not?" Rainaut asked, releasing Olivia's hand.

The Abbot shook his head and turned away, making a signal to the vested priests at the altar.

As the Mass for the Dead began, Olivia found it difficult to concentrate; in her long, long years, she had not been reminded of her own mortality with quite such directness as she was now. She remembered waking in her tomb, and the perilous escape from it, Sanct' Germain using a pry-bar to make a hole in the bricks that sealed her in. She had been condemned to a living death then, as well. How many years had gone by since then—more than a thousand. A sensation that was not quite dizziness passed through her as the Requiem continued.

From time to time, Rainaut sang along with the monks, refusing to surrender himself without protest. His fear which had filled him with ice for days faded away now that the actual moment was upon him. He longed to rage, to throw the candles from the altar, but he could not bring himself to so heinous an act. How strange to be numbered among the dead while there was hot blood in his veins. It was tempting to laugh, but he had enough caution left that he did not want to blaspheme and place himself beyond redemption. Most of all, he wanted to be alone with Olivia—that would come soon enough—to comfort her, to apologize for what he had done.

The priests kept on with their tasks, going mechanically through the celebration of the Mass, paying no heed when Rainaut joined in the responses. All four priests were careful not to touch either Rainaut or Olivia, and kept the capacious sleeves of their habits from brushing against them.

In the dark-draped chapel, the monks grew indistinct as the afternoon wore on and the hillside fell into shadow. The high stone walls rang with the prayers for the dead.

"It's almost over," Rainaut whispered to Olivia. "They have used the most elaborate form of the Requiem."

The nearest priest glared at him as he pronounced yet another blessing.

"If we were truly dead, it would not matter," said Olivia, knowing that in other circumstances she would find that amusing. She stared at one of the high windows. "Do you think we'll be gone from here before sunset?"

"A little," said Rainaut. He shrugged as he saw the sharp gesture of admonition from another one of the priests.

"Good," said Olivia softly.

"How? So that we will not be more disgraced than we are already?" He had let his words grow a bit louder in defiance, then subsided. "Forgive me, Olivia."

"There is nothing to forgive," she said, turning her fascinating hazel eyes on him. "There are others who might want forgiveness, but you do not need it from me, not for this or for anything else."

The nearest priest glared at both of them, and faltered in his recitation of the familiar words.

"Not much longer. They don't bless us, but they do ask God's mercy on us," said Rainaut, not knowing if Olivia knew the variations on the Mass for the Dead.

"This whole Mass is a curse," Olivia said, an ironic smile crossing her face briefly. "Worse than any disease."

This time the priests did stop, and one of them came as close as he dared. "You are unclean beings, forsworn, and you dare to interrupt holy words."

Olivia regarded the priest with amused contempt. "Ask those who have known me a long time: they will tell you that I dare to interrupt anything." She obliged them by falling silent, her mind roaming over her long memories. She had not encountered so rigid a world in a long time. Regius was atypical for his time, and the Byzantines had been more convoluted in their methods and motives. Two hundred years before, while she was living in the north at Brescia, when much of Italy was the Kingdom of Lombardy, there had been that dreadful year when the local monastery had become convinced that there were demons everywhere, and had set about condemning everyone and everything that frightened them. This travesty of a Mass was the same sort of ritual, she thought, conducted for similar reasons. Perhaps they had been infected with madness, those monks, and it had spread through France and England and Italy, making everyone mad.

"Olivia," Rainaut said, with enough urgency that she suspected he had already spoken to her once.

"I'm listening," she said, looking at Rainaut and ignoring the dark-habited men.

"They want my armor and all articles you have of vanity—mirrors and beauty enhancers and—" He looked away.

She shook her head. "I have been here for a while; they know I do not possess a mirror nor any other… vanity they might name." She looked at the priest. "Are you done, or is there more?"

"We have further duties, but you must go. We will then cleanse the chapel of your presence." The priest would not look at either of them as he spoke.

"I have one small sack of belongings," said Olivia as easily as she could. "It has been inspected three times and I will therefore assume that I have your permission to take away everything in it."

Huon, who had watched the celebration from the back of the chapel, now came forward. "I will take you to your cell, Sier Valence, and I—"

"This is no longer Sier Valence," one of the priests admonished. "Sier Valence is dead. This was Sier Valence, but now he is only a leper."

"While I serve him," said Huon, his voice cracking with the intensity of his words, "he is Sier Valence, and that would be true had he been in his grave for years." He turned to Rainaut and bowed properly. "I will have to take your armor, Sier Valence, and those objects you have bequeathed to others."

It was all Rainaut could do to stop himself from clapping the squire on his back. "I will go with you, and I will accept your escort to the gate of the monastery when all this is finished."

Olivia could see that some of Rainaut's sense of purpose was returning. "I thank you both," she said. "It will not take me long to be prepared." She started away from the altar and was given a sharp reminder to genuflect.

"I am dead," she reminded the priests sweetly, "and therefore I cannot do as you ask." She walked out of the chapel, half-expecting one or more of the monks to detain her and force her to kneel to the crucifix. Behind her, she heard shocked murmurs, which satisfied her more than she wanted to admit.

While Huon collected the various items he was required to take to the Hospitalers' headquarters on Rhodes, Olivia made certain she had her sandals and her three mantels ready along with the few coins she had been able to salvage from the purse she had carried on the tarida. It was not much, but she knew that she would need every bit of gold and silver she could find if she and Rainaut were to escape from Cyprus. Before she left the little room, she looked around it one last time, sensing it would be some time before she had even the modicum of comforts offered in this visitor's cell.

Huon was standing with Rainaut as Olivia joined them near the side gate of the monastery garden. "It is not supposed to be allowed," said the squire, "but if you must get a message to those… those you cannot reach"—he coughed by way of disclaiming—"a note delivered to the English docks, the customs house, will find me."

"Here on Cyprus?" Olivia asked.

"Unless you are able to leave the island, and few ships are willing to carry lepers." He looked down shamefaced at the two long, yellow cowls in his hands. "And you must wear these now. To refuse…"

"They stone lepers to death if they're caught without their yellow cowls," said Olivia at her most matter-of-fact. "We'll wear them." She held out her hand to Huon. "Don't worry; this is not your responsibility, and I do not blame you for what has become of us."

Huon tried to smile at her, then looked away, his skin flushing. "I do not mean to offend."

Rainaut seized his cowl and pulled it defiantly over his head. Most of his face was obscured with the hood, and the cope reached almost to his waist. "Worse than what monks wear," he said harshly.

Olivia put her hand on Rainaut's arm. "I will see we get off Cyprus. To remain here is worse than death. If we leave Cyprus, we have a chance. Here, there is only madness and starvation." She tugged her leper's cowl on. "You may tell the priests that we have the cowls and we left wearing them."

Once again the young squire hesitated. "If you leave the island, what will become of you?"

"That depends on where we go," said Olivia. "We must not remain here, that is certain." She studied Huon briefly. "Will you do me one last favor?"

"If it is in my power," said the squire.

"I will provide you with a letter. See that it is carried to Roma." She pulled the rolled and sealed document from her sleeve. "This may gain us a little aid. If you will get it on a ship bound for Roma. It goes to an estate near Roma called Sanza Pare."

Huon nodded. "All right. I'm not supposed to take letters from Sier Valence, but they said nothing about you."

Olivia lowered her head. "Thank you. I am grateful. Perhaps, one day, I will be able to thank you with more than words."

"It isn't necessary," said Huon, suddenly very much embarrassed.

"It is," she countered. "Never mind."

Rainaut had been staring hard at the door in the wall. "I suppose there's no purpose in delay."

"Probably not," said Huon, reluctant to open the gate.

Olivia filled the awkward silence with another question. "Tell me, is there a lesser gate out of the garden?"

Huon looked startled. "There's one by the sheepfold."

"Would it make any difference if you let us out that way?" she asked.

"I suppose not," said Huon, frowning.

"Then let us leave that way." She had already started to walk away from the garden gate toward the livestock pens. "Come, Sier Valence. Humor me in this."

Rainaut shrugged. "Out is still out, Olivia," he reminded her as he trailed after her. He was puzzled by her request but did not want to hear her explanation until they were outside the monastery.

"I have to tell you to leave," said Huon as they reached the sheepfold gate. "I don't want to do this."

"I understand that," said Rainaut. "It is your duty, and you are sworn to uphold your duty. We will go quickly." He took Olivia's free hand in his. "See? We are ready."

The sheep, gathered into their fold not long before, were restless at the intrusion of these unfamiliar beings. They made low sounds of distress, and most of them kept to the side farthest away from the gate, fretting as the three unfamiliar humans lingered there.

Huon gave a sigh of resignation. "I will tell them you have gone." The gate was stout and the hinges stuttered as the squire pulled it open. "God keep you," he said as Olivia and Rainaut went through it into the shadowed twilight.

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