Crusader's Torch Page 36

When the gate was closed and the bolt slid into place, Rainaut turned to Olivia. "Why this gate?"

"Because the lepers are always let out through the other. I have heard that there are those who prey on lepers, who beat and rob them of what little they have. I didn't want us to be among them." She held up the sack she carried. "We have little to lose, and we must guard it carefully or we are lost."

"What fool would attack a leper?" scoffed Rainaut.

"Desperate men have done more dangerous things for a little gain," she warned him. "And we are beyond aid, so long as we wear these cowls." She reached up for the hood of hers.

"You're not going to take it off, are you?" Rainaut demanded, horrified.

"Certainly," Olivia answered in her most sensible voice. "I can tolerate being forced to beg—it has happened to me before now—but I will not make myself a target for those who seek out the helpless."

"But—" Rainaut protested as Olivia removed the yellow cowl. "For God's sake!"

"What has God to do with this?" Olivia said. "Some men have done this, and they are the ones who will answer for it. If you believe you must wear the cowl, as you wore the Hospitalers' mantel, then do so. But I am no leper. Neither are you." She had been walking away from the monastery walls, toward the part of the village that housed the swine-and-sheep market. There were a number of low-slung shelters that during the day stalled animals for sale, and during the night offered minimal shelter to beggars.

"You have said that, but the physicians saw my body, and they have said—" Rainaut began, only to be interrupted.

"I have seen more than your body; I know your blood, your soul. I tell you, you are no leper. The affliction you have is real, but it is not leprosy, though your skin turns white and the hair falls out, and your eyes redden. You will keep all your fingers and toes, and you can harm no one." She had stopped walking to say this, and as she spoke, she heard a stealthy footfall behind them. "Where's your dagger?" she asked in French.

"My belt," he answered, bewildered at her sudden change.

She bent down, forcing him to do the same, and reached for the hilt of the dagger as she did. In one swift movement, she had spun around, rising, the dagger flashing in her hand as she caught the arm of the beggar who had been following them.

The man howled and rolled away, cursing. Behind him was the fading sound of running.

"Keep away from us, or more of the same," Olivia ordered the cowering man in heavily accented Greek. She held the dagger at the ready, prepared for a second attack if it came.

The only response was another, more comprehensive curse, and departing footsteps.

"How could you hear that?" Rainaut asked as she gave him back his dagger. "And where did you learn—"

"You ask a woman who has lived alone for most of her life how she comes to learn to fight?" Olivia asked.

"Very well," Rainaut conceded. "But what man taught you? Who was willing to instruct you in fighting with a dagger? Or is that your only skill?" The last question was almost a joke, a way to keep from making it appear he doubted her.

"I can use a short sword if I must, and one or two other weapons. I have learned at various times in my life, for various reasons." She patted the sack she carried. "I want to be sure we protect ourselves as well as what we have."

Rainaut rubbed his face. "All right. Tell me what you believe I will have to know." They were far enough from the monastery now that the walls appeared to blend with the rise of the hill, indistinguishable from the other buildings in the town. "Where do you think we ought to go tonight?"

"Where we are not expected to go," said Olivia frankly. "Away from here, out of the village, so that we will not be at the mercy of beggars in the morning." She also wanted to find a place where neither of them would have to face the sun at mid-day. "There are caves in the hillside. Some of them are occupied, but many are not. One of them should suffice for a little while."

"You've thought it out," said Rainaut, shocked that Olivia was so prepared.

"What else was there to do for all those days they kept me in that cell? All I had was prayers and rats to occupy me"—she did not add that the rats had been her only sustenance and that she was more famished now than she had been in years—"so it was no hard task to plan for our… release."

"I hadn't realized that…" He had been so lost in his own misery for all the days he had been examined and questioned that he had not considered her plight. He had missed her, longed for her, but had not thought about what she would have endured during that time.

They were at the walls of the town, though in this quarter they were in poor repair, neglected since the Cypriots had expelled the Byzantines less than a decade ago; it was not difficult to find an opening and scramble through it, emerging in the rocky vinyard that flanked the village.

"Did you mean it?" Rainaut asked, reaching to take her arm. "A cave?"

"For the dead, one hole in the ground is as good as another," she said, wishing his dejection would fade, taking refuge in a bravery that was more assumed than genuine.

"The dead," he said slowly. "We are with the dead."

"According to the good offices of your Church," she said, her lightness tarnishing a little. Her eyes, almost invisible to him in the oncoming night, revealed more than she knew. "And my church as well, as much as I have one." Sadly, tenderly, she kissed him, touching him only with one hand and her parted lips until he relented and pulled her desperately into his arms. They remained locked together, apart from the world, until a distant plea for alms brought them back to their plight.

Rainaut looked back toward the village walls. "Perhaps it's best to be gone. There is nothing left for us there."

She began once more to walk. "Not any more."

* * *

Text of a letter from Ithuriel Dar to Niklos Aulirios.

Greetings to my persistent and impatient friend at Sanza Pare near Roma, who has been more assistance to me than any other I have known in my life.

I have learned that your mistress, the Roman widow Clemens, was indeed on Cyprus at the time of the wedding of Reis Richard and Barengaria. There are three reliable witnesses I have discovered who definitely saw and spoke with her, and who say that she was truly planning to leave for Roma on the first available ship. This is proving to be awkward. Because Reis Richard was here and bound eastward, and with Reis Phillippe also engaged on this Crusade, almost anything that can hold water has been commandeered for the use of the Kings. What they do not take up is given to pilgrims and monks and priests and bishops and all the rest of them. This has grown markedly worse in the last three months, and now that we are nearing the season of bad weather, it is likely that there will be a slight improvement in the situation. Most priests don't like to test God's whim on the sea in storms.

The bergantino I have acquired requires repairs and I will be here for another two or three weeks while the ship is put into proper condition once again. The trouble is not extensive nor is it so severe as to render the ship unseaworthy, but there are several beams that are showing signs of weakening, and I would not want to depend on them during a storm. I have enough money to pay for the repairs and the men doing the work can be trusted. When I put to sea again, the bergantino will be the stoutest ship on the sea.

I was told that the knight who was escorting Bondama Clemens was found to be ill and has been in the care of his Order. I have not been able to see the man, or to talk with him. If only I could reach him, I might be able to find out where Bondama Clemens is now. Be certain that I will continue to try to locate the Hospitaler. One of the Templars still left on Cyprus now that Reis Richard has sold it to them told me that Sier Valence Rainaut was discovered to be a leper. None of the Hospitalers will confirm or deny that—as you would expect. But then, knowing the cordial relationship that exists between these two Orders, I am not surprised that there have been such rumors about Rainaut. I would expect it in any matter of illness.

So far, no one I have spoken to in three of the island's ports remembers such a woman as Bondama Clemens, unless she was traveling in disguise, which you tell me is not impossible. I have still with me ten large crates of Roman earth, and will give them to her as soon as I locate her, as you have instructed me.

Pardon my lack of success in finding your mistress. You have been generous and helpful, and I have not done much to aid you in locating Bondama Clemens. I agree she is a most resourceful woman, but in this world, that may not be sufficient. For that reason, I have contacted those I know in the Islamic world, in case there is word of her there. If she has been taken, I will do all in my power to gain her freedom.

Ithuriel Dar

By my own hand, on one of the few Feasts both Christians and Jews can share, that of Michael the Archangel, in the Christian year 1191.

- 2 -

Four small boats rode at anchor beyond the breakers, each with a haloed lamb painted roughly on the worn sails. The inlet was named for Saint Spiridion; there was a large Greek crucifix halfway up the cliff, and a ruined tower above that.

"It will take money," said Hilel Alhim. "We are not supposed to take people from the island without the permission of the Templars." By way of comment, he spat. "Ever since they have come, they have made it impossible for simple trading men to make a living. They want our ships—for charity, of course—or they want our goods, also for charity. Why should I take your money?"

"Because all we wish to do is leave. My leman has been badly burned. He is scarred, disfigured. He can no longer fight. You know what that means." Olivia gathered her heaviest mantel around her, for the sun was deceptive, burning without giving warmth, and the wind cut hard.

"I could take the money and then turn you over to the Templars," suggested Alhim, his narrow face looking more predatory than before. "It has happened before."

"And it will again, but not through you," said Olivia. "For if that occurred, your sister's family near Famagusta would meet with misfortune through your greed. Wouldn't they?" Her smile was wide, sweet, and insincere.

Alhim frowned. "I am going to Laodicia—that's what you Romans call it, isn't it—to Tarsus, to Attalia, Rhodes, and Tarentum. That will not be a swift passage, but eventually, you will arrive."

The thought of those long, miserable days at sea made Olivia faintly sick, but she nodded briskly enough. "It is better than languishing here."

"Is it?" Alhim asked without interest. "Among the goats and the simple people? But you long for Roma, don't you? and the bustle in the streets and the gold."

"I miss my home," said Olivia. "And I intend to return there." She straightened up, her bearing more imposing than before. "I will pay your price, and you will deliver my leman and me to Tarentum. Is that acceptable?"

"Gold is always acceptable," Alhim said, staring up at the sky as if searching for portents there. "Naturally, you will not travel in the open. I have four closed compartments in the hold of my ship. They were originally intended for spices and other rare goods, but recently they have carried battle harness and horse tackle. I suppose they could accommodate two passengers, if you weren't too fussy." He was now regarding the horizon to the south. "They say that the fighting is worse."

"Oh?" She could not permit Alhim to know she was curious.

"Between Caesarea and Jaffa. The Islamites fled Caesarea before the Crusaders got there, so Reis Richard was deprived of a battle. He's hungry for one." He cleared his throat. "His men are suffering."

"That was expected," said Olivia, wondering if she ought to tell Rainaut about the Crusade's progress; he was fretting already and such news might distress him more.

"Fever and the flux are taking a toll." Alhim gave a satisfied nod. "They have salt fish, but nothing else to help them. I have heard that some of the men-at-arms have ordered their families and followers to turn back because of the danger. Not that there is any place to turn back to." He laughed. "The price is gold, Bondama; my cousin told you how much."

"I have a third of it now," said Olivia, reaching into her mantel for her wallet and the hoarded coins. "I will give you another third when we have set sail, and the last when we arrive in Tarentum." She put the six coins into his hand. "Test them if you like."

Alhim chuckled. "You are not going to give me false coin now, not when you need my ship. I will test your coins when you leave my vessel, not before." He indicated the inlet. "Be here, on the beach down there, at sunset day after tomorrow. There will be two small boats to carry you and this scarred leman of yours to my ship. If you are not here by the time the sky is wholly dark, I will sail without you, and be damned to you." He bowed elaborately.

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