Crusader's Torch Page 38

It was all Olivia could do to keep her voice even. "Yes."

"I hope so," he said wistfully. "There will be few who do." He moved a little closer to her. "If only I had honor left. I think I could endure all the rest of it if I still had my honor."

"You have it," said Olivia softly but with great feeling. "It isn't something that can be taken away. You have done nothing to cast off your honor." She gathered her courage and went to him. "You are as much a man of honor now as when you wore the black Maltese Cross, as when you gave your vassal's oath to… it would be Henry, wouldn't it?"

"Yes," said Rainaut. "Yes, it was the King's Grace, Henry of England, by that name the Second." He recited this dreamily. "He was a stern man, haunted and powerful. It was late when he came to Saint-Prosperus-lo-Boys, but he would hear nothing of sleep until he had received his oaths of fealty."

It was on the tip of Olivia's tongue to ask why it was so important, but she managed not to ask. "And you have been for England since that day."

"Yes; before that, through my father." The glistening track of one tear marked his scarred cheek. "When I saw the leopards of England, while they were preparing for the wedding, I knew such abiding pride. God has shown me the fallacy of that." He smeared the wet away. "I am not worthy to weep for England, or for Reis Richard."

Olivia took his wrists, bringing his arms around her waist and pressing his hands together in the small of her back. "You are worthy of the greatest achievements, Valence."

"If that were so, I would not be a leper," he said, trying halfheartedly to get away from her.

"You are not a leper," she said for what seemed like the thousandth time. "Even if you were, the disease would not make you less than you are." As she rested her head in the curve of his neck, she whispered, "I ache for you."

"You seek my damnation," he muttered.

"No, nor your salvation. I seek only your love." Releasing his wrists, she brought her hands round and began to unfasten his loosely tied girdle. "If either one of us is damned, I am. It does not stop me loving you." She dropped the plaited leather thongs to the floor of the cave. "Once we are on the sea, we will not be able to be together"—and, she added to herself, she would feel far too sick to seek him out—"or pass the time in love-games. Before we leave, let us have one more time for loving."

"You are afraid you will not find blood enough on the ship?" Rainaut asked in a tone intended to hurt.

Olivia took a step back. "There would be more than enough blood on the ship, if that was what I wanted." She wanted to box his ears, but sensed that he was determined to egg her on so that they would not have to face the more dangerous issues of their longing and need. "I have survived on rats, and worse."

Rainaut could not laugh. "So you tell me; so you tell me."

"If matters are bad, I will show you while we are on the ship," she said, watching him. "Rainaut, you came to me, you sought me out, though you knew to do so was a risk for you. At that time, you gave little thought to what might be between us, because it never occurred to you that I would desire you. You believed everything in the songs and tales, you thought that there was a code for love, for the way of men with women. You have tried to make me one of those vicious Wooing Ladies in the troubadors' songs, but I do not strive to waken desire where it does not exist, and I am not like your Adored One, always unreachable, always ideal, elevated and pure. I am a woman as you are a man, and my love is like yours. You and I are more the same than we are different: I am not a tool of the Devil, bent on turning you from Grace, and I am not an instrument of Grace, to save you from the Devil; I am your lover, as men are your friends."

"Sophistry," he scoffed without success.

"It isn't," she said, helplessness growing in her. "You don't believe me."

Rainaut slid his long, blunt hands up her body, finally holding her face. "I believe you mean what you say," he said, his lips close to hers. "But how can you bear my embrace, knowing what I am?"

"You bear mine well enough," she pointed out. "And you know what I am."

He pressed his mouth on hers in a long, languorous kiss. His tongue found hers in sweet, forbidden pleasure. When he moved back from her, he was breathing more deeply. "That's only a start of what I wish I could have with you."

"Let me have the rest," said Olivia, her hazel eyes brilliant in the dark of the cave.

"Of this?" He indicated his body.

"Of you," she said steadily, loosening her lacings. "Now, here."

"And when you shudder and draw away?" he inquired with elaborate courtesy. "What then?"

"It will not happen," she said, starting to shed her garments.

Rainaut watched her, caught by the challenge he sensed in her manner. "Once we begin, I won't stop."

"Good God, I hope not," said Olivia with conviction. She was almost naked, her fawn-brown hair providing more coverage than the rail that covered her loins.

With an incoherent vow, Rainaut reached for her, dragging her into his arms, his blue eyes hot as metal in a forge. "No one has loved you as I do, Olivia," he growled to her as he wrestled out of his clothes and explored her body. "When you come to despise me, leave me."

She closed her eyes, feeling light-headed. Her fingers moved blindly, restlessly, over his body, discovering sensations he had never encountered before, that she had not been aware he possessed until then. It was piercingly sweet to reach the limen of love, to pursue their brief unity with olamic fervor, since both knew, and could not bring themselves to admit, that this was the last time they would join their bodies in order to share their souls.

* * *

A letter from the squire Huon to the Master of the Knights Hospitaler of Saint John, Jerusalem, on Rhodes.

To my most revered and respected Master, the blessings and greetings of this esquire from England, with many thanks to you for all that has been given me through the Hospitalers, which must include my coming into the Holy Land, for without the cause of the Holy Sepulcher and the aid of the Order, I would never have known that my vocation lies not with the Hospitalers, but with the monks of Saint George of the Latins, here on Cyprus. I have asked for admission as a novice, and have been welcomed.

It is true that once a man has given oath, he is dishonored if he abjures it. No one can deny that, and I make no excuse for what I have done, but that I was called of God: for it is also true that the fealty given to God is before all other fealties. I humbly beg you will not hold me in disgrace, nor cast shame upon my House for what I have done. I had been as one blind until God willed otherwise. Now that I see, I must seek, that I may find, as is promised by God in Scripture.

My eyes were turned to God when I saw how much God had changed the life of that excellent knight, Sier Valence Rainaut, who has been cast out of the world because of his uncleanness. He, like Job, was blameless, and those sins that were on him were the sins of living men. He strove to fulfill his oaths, to honor his Order and to defend our faith, and yet he became a leper, and the Requiem was sung for him. Until then, I had not thought how it would be to have to answer God for all I have done when I was not prepared. I thought that as one who would become a Hospitaler, there would be no disgrace that could touch me but the pain of sin. Wounds taken for the Glory of Christ were welcome to me, and I longed for the day I would face an Islamite for that great test.

Now I know that there is a greater mystery, one that is much more than a question of courage or honor or any other simple thing. Nothing in men's lives is so great as God, and yet, nothing is so far from understanding. God is an enigma to me, and only through a life dedicated to prayer and the contemplation of God can I hope to know what God is, and what I must do. Without that peace, there is no peace for me, and without that victory, I will be nothing more than a soldier fallen in battle. I pray for the Hospitalers and for all Christian knights and men-at-arms in the Holy Land defending the sacred places of our faith, but there are others I pray for as well, and I know that as a Hospitaler, I would not be doing the work God has shown me must be done.

I ask you, for charity, to inform my family what has become of me, for the monks here will not permit me to write to them. This is the only letter I am allowed to write and send, and so you will know that I place much faith in your honor and good will. There are many I might wish to write to, but my trust is greatest in you.

May God grant you gain dominion of Rhodes before the Crusade is a greater struggle than now. You have obtained a needed foothold, but now that the Templars have Cyprus, you must be aware of how great the necessity is in possessing the place without question or dispute. Having part of the island is a salvation, but possessing the whole would be a triumph not only for the Hospitalers, but for all Christians.

With my thanks and the vow of my prayers for as long as there is breath in my body, I surrender to you my name and my arms, both of which I can no longer own.


his device: azure, bendwise three scallops argent

By my own hand on the feast day of Saint Dionis of Paris, in the Lord's Year 1191. In sempaeternum amen.

- 3 -

By afternoon the blustery wind had forced Alhim to order the sails lowered and half the oars shipped. The dozen official passengers confined themselves to their box-like cabins on the central deck. All cargo was tied down, the hatches secured, and there were two men assigned to the rudder, both of them tied to the stoutest part of the aft railing.

Deep in the hold, Olivia shifted in her coffin-sized quarters, her whole body wracked and miserable. She had learned long ago to be stoic about the discomforts of sea travel, but this was more than she wanted to endure. She longed for escape; deliberately she set herself to remembering—taking care to skip those recollections that were bound up with the sea—the most compelling places in her past. Roma and Ravenna and Alexandria, Aquileia, Skopje, Sinope, Phasis, Gaza, Carthago Nova… so many places, so many years. Chersones and Tiflisi, Bizerta and Tunis. And Roma, Roma always and inevitably. Homesickness seized her more than the wretchedness of crossing water. She longed for Roma as she sought love, as she searched for egalitarian justice, as she missed Sanct' Germain. She gave a soft, protesting cry, bringing her hand to cover her mouth as she did.

"Olivia!" Rainaut tapped on her door, just loudly enough to be heard over the racket from the sea and the groaning of the ship.

She made her voice steady and even. "Yes?"

"Are you well?" he demanded.

"I am no worse than I usually am crossing water," she answered indirectly. No matter what he did, there was nothing he could do to change this for her unless he could procure a barrel of Roman earth to ease her distress.

"Do you need anything?" he asked through the rough planking that served as a door.

"Dry land underfoot," she answered brusquely. "I will manage."

There was a pause, then Rainaut said, "I am going to get the food Alhim has for us. Do you want any?"

"No," she answered, trying not to sound too impatient. "Have my portion, if you wish." Her last meal had been consumed more than a thousand years before, in a cell, while she awaited immurement.

"You're sure?" He had pried her door open a little. "I could bring some water."

"Nothing, thank you," she said, beginning to lose her temper, though it was no fault of his that she was so tormented. "Leave me; I have this trouble crossing water—you know about it. You've seen it before." She was pleased by his concern for her, yet the thought of his company aggravated her beyond words; she had reached a point where she most wanted to be alone. "Go on; get your food, but take care. The ship is tossing and it might not be easy to move about. Alhim won't protect us if we're discovered." She hoped that this reminder would sharpen his wits.

"Don't worry," he said. "Everyone's in their rooms, even that monk. He was out on deck before mid-day, speaking with one of the sailors." He leaned his forehead against the splinters of her door. "Olivia?"

"Yes?" She heard the plaintive note as he spoke her name and was able to keep her irritation out of her response.

"I never intended that you should be subjected to… any of this." His voice was low and hard to hear, but the poignance in his apology was so apparent that Olivia was startled. "You deserved better than I have given you."

It was fortunate that he could not see her faint, ironic smile. "There are those who would disagree," she said, huddling into a fetal ball. "You didn't intend this to happen," she went on, more loudly. "I've told you that before."

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