Crusader's Torch Page 39

"If you decide you must leave me, then do—"

She interrupted him. "Oh, go get your food and leave me alone. I will not abandon you, Valence; your blood is in me, and I cannot. How many times must I tell you that?"

Whatever he answered was little more than a mumble as he moved away from her door and started down the very narrow walkway toward the center of the ship. He was troubled by Olivia's outburst, but more, he was fighting the melancholy that continued to strengthen its hold on him, no matter what he did. He reached up to one of the beams as the ship lurched to the side at the blow of a wave striking the bow deck. As the vessel steadied, Rainaut continued along the walkway, always taking care to be ready to grasp the beam again.

In the cook's quarters, three sailors huddled around an Egyptian-style drum-stove, all of them soaked, all of them seeking a little warmth before venturing back into the squall. As Rainaut came through the narrow door, none of the sailors looked at him.

"Your trencher's there, and the lady's," said the cook, addressing the stove. "More in the morning."

One of the sailors made a sour remark in a language Rainaut did not know; the other two laughed unpleasantly, and the cook brandished a long-bladed cleaver at them, saying to the ceiling, "Pay them no mind, Bonsier. They are ignorant sailors."

Rainaut picked up the two trenchers, making no comment on the spartan and tasteless fare and trying to find a way to balance them both in the crook of one arm. He kept his face turned away from the men. "It's nothing to me," he said, stepping back through the narrow door, puzzled by the cook's words. He whispered a quick prayer of thanks for the cook and the food, then started to make his way back toward the hidden compartments in the forward hold.

He had gone less than half the distance when he saw a man—an Islamite, judging by his clothes—hurry down the hold ladder and slip into the shadows. The careful and covert manner of the Islamite caught Rainaut's attention, and he sought cover behind a stack of bales containing dried herbs. Some of the thin sauce covering the beans and scraps of chicken slopped onto his arm, and he took a few moments to brace himself against the bales.

When Rainaut looked up, another man was just slipping down beside the Islamite, both of them in deep shadow.

"… and I will say I lost it in this storm," the newcomer was saying to the Islamite. "Take it and"—Rainaut could not hear the next few words—"… wouldn't believe me? I am an honest monk, everyone knows that."

"Surely Allah will reward you handsomely in Paradise," said the Islamite. "As will our great Saladin when he learns of this."

"It is for the triumph of Islam I do this," said the man who had called himself a monk. "Only Allah is great."

"Allah is great," echoed the Islamite. "But tell me how you"—again the storm drowned the words—"… you entrusted?"

The self-proclaimed monk moved slightly and Rainaut could see he was tonsured. "I have other documents with me, but I will have to deliver at least two of them, or there will be suspicion. With the progress I have made, I can't take that risk." He looked around suddenly. "Did you hear something?"

"How can you tell with this storm?" asked the Islamite calmly. "There are rats in the hold; there are always rats."

Rainaut held his breath and willed himself part of the shadows.

The monk waited, his whole stance watchful, alert to every sound. "What's that smell?"

"Herbs," said the Islamite. "That whole side of the ship is filled with bales of them."

"… no…" The monk frowned. "Something else."

As the ship wallowed and pitched there was a sudden crash from the cook's quarters.

"Ah," said the monk. "Doubtless something has spilled." He gave his attention to his Islamite companion once more. "I think I will be able to carry one more set of documents before I am questioned too closely. The Christians are in such disarray that only Phillippe of France has reliable heralds to carry his messages." He made a gesture of resignation. "So, this will tell you of what Leopold of Austria is planning to do with his forces, and what support the Templars are pledged to provide. This"—he offered a second, smaller document—"is a list of the noble pilgrims who are supposed to visit Jerusalem by Epiphany. All would demand a handsome price from their families. Some might come to the True Faith, given instruction." He chuckled. "Praise be to Allah, if there were a noble Crusader brought to Islam."

The Islamite nodded vigorously. "Praise Allah in all things." His voice had risen, and now he looked about nervously, as if his outburst might have been overheard.

"There is no God but Allah," said the monk just above a whisper but with such fervor that the words were carried by his emotion.

"Are there any other considerations now?" the Islamite asked after a brief silence. "Do you have anything more for me?"

"I have maps in my quarters, if you have need of them," said the monk.

"No," answered the Islamite. "These documents should be sufficient for our work." He glanced around. "We had best not remain much longer. One of the sailors inspects the holds from time to time, to be sure the cargo has not shifted."

The monk took a step back onto the walkway. "We are supposed to land tomorrow. I will be at the Palms Inn near the south gate of the city; it's used by pilgrims and merchants, if you need to speak to me again."

"It should not be necessary," said the Islamite. "You will carry documents again in the spring?"

"Yes. I think it will be safe. But I will want to… disappear after I deliver what I have." He paused. "With desertion so high in the ranks of the Crusaders, who will notice the loss of a single Hieronomite?"

"It will be noticed," said the Islamite with a certain grim humor, "when their men are ambushed and their ranks destroyed."

The monk made a motion to the Islamite, urging him to silence. "Later. We will speak later," he said, starting for the hold ladder.

"Fraire Eleus," the Islamite called softly after him, "if you have played us false, remember that the arm of the Sons of the Prophet is very long, and we will find you wherever you go."

"If I play you false," Fraire Eleus said from halfway up the ladder, "then you may burn out my eyes and fry my testicles for me to eat. On the sacred pages of the Koran, I do not play you false."

The Islamite bowed deeply as Fraire Eleus disappeared up the ladder.

Rainaut waited until the food in the trenchers he carried was almost cold before he dared to move from his hiding place. Then he slipped to his forward compartment, his mind jubilant for the first time since the Requiem had declared him officially dead. As he sat and ate the unappetizing contents of the trenchers, his thoughts ran feverishly, searching for ways to warn the Crusaders of what he had overheard. Long after the last of the pasty gravy had been licked from his fingers, Rainaut continued to ponder, hoping to find some means of notifying someone—anyone—who was of high enough rank that he would be believed.

Finally, as the squall began to blow itself out not long after nightfall, Rainaut steeled himself to speak with Olivia.

"What now?" she asked as she heard him tap on her door.

Briefly he told her about the Islamite and Fraire Eleus, and his own deep concern. "I know of it now, and I have an obligation to—"

"Do the dead have obligations?" she asked, knowing her own answer. "You are forbidden contact with Christians."

"I know," he whispered. "But if this Fraire Eleus is a spy, what then? Men will die because of him, and if I cannot stop him, the sin is mine."

All of Olivia's body hurt as if she had been dragged behind a swift chariot over rough ground. She bit back a sharp retort and attempted to answer sensibly. "If you are dead to them, you have no means to reach them. They have cast you out, you have not left on your own." She rubbed her hands together slowly, trying to ease the soreness.

"But my fealty…" he began, then stopped and tried once more. "I took a vow, as vassal of Reis Henry and now of Reis Richard, and I am bound by that vow." He waited for her to speak, and when she was silent, he continued. "I have a House and for that, I am under obligation. You understand that, don't you? Olivia?"

Olivia was staring at the cinnamon-scented wood little more than an arm's-length above her. "Valence, they cast you out. They have declared you dead. How can you be bound to them now, when they have said they will not have you?" Even as she spoke, she knew it was useless. "Who would accept a message from you?"

"My esquire, Huon," he said uncertainly. "There must be others…" His confidence faded as he considered his comrades. "They will have to listen. They will die otherwise."

"They may die in any case, have you thought of that?" She turned carefully onto her side. "There's not much room, but enter, Valence."

Awkwardly he pulled back the door. "I've lost more hair," he warned her. "And more of my skin is white."

"I don't mind," she said, saddened by his lost demeanor. "Sit. If you draw your knees up, there's room enough." She had raised herself to a half-sitting position, bracing her elbow against the sack she had carried since they were given their yellow cowls and cast out. "Does the light hurt your eyes more?"

He hesitated, then nodded. "The torchlight isn't too bad, but the sun—"

Olivia nodded in sympathy. "Yes."

"It's like needles in my eyes," he said as he did his best to hunker into the small space available for him. "When we land at Tarsus, I must try to reach someone," he said, taking up his argument once more.

"Do you think it will be permitted?" she asked, curious in spite of herself; she admired his loyalty almost as much as she was puzzled by it. "How can you gain access to anyone if they will not allow you to approach them? There is no Sier Valence Rainaut any longer for them."

"I have to find a way," he said, his expression hard to read now that half his face was white as marble. "If I do not, then my death—the death they have forced on me—is truly in vain."

Olivia made a second attempt at finding a less painful position, without success. "It was their decision to cast you out; why do you owe them anything more now that you are among the dead?"

"For my oath," he explained as if she were a ten-year-old child. "Until I am in my grave, I am not released from my oath, no matter what happens. That is the way it must be, or fealty is nothing." He drew his knees almost to his chin, crossed his arms atop them and rested his chin on his arm. "It isn't your way, Olivia, I understand that. But I am still a sworn knight."

"And you are determined to tell someone that there is a monk who is giving documents to an unknown Islamite," she said in resignation. "Even if you could reach someone of rank, what then? What can you tell them? That there is a monk who has been giving some sort of documents to an unknown Islamite? How can that warn them, and of what?"

Rainaut turned his ruined face toward her. "I have to do something. If I do not, I am worse than damned." He reached out to her, just touching her hand with his fingers. "I know that you do not understand why I must do this. I'm… sorry."

Olivia did not answer at once, and when she did, her mind was far away. "When I was young, my house had running water, hot and cold, and the water came from pure aqueducts. There were no fireplaces or hearths in the house because it was heated by the holocaust and a series of vents under the floor. There were special underground chambers where we kept ice year round, even in the heat of the summer. I bathed every day in hot, scented water—everyone, even the slaves did. I rode in open chariots, and I knew how to drive them. I owned land, in my own name, in my own right. Had my circumstances been different, I would have sued my husband in open court for how he handled my goods and monies. When it was learned what he had done, the Emperor had him executed—not as Imperial whim, but as part of the law. You have no notion how far we have fallen from that time. And all along the way, I have tried to keep a little of what I had then, some of the good things that you have lost." She caught his hand in hers. "So perhaps I do understand, in my own way, what you feel. But listen to me, Valence; you are at risk."

"It sounds as if you grew up in the kingdom of Prester John," said Rainaut with a short laugh. "Houses heated by vents under the floor." He shook his head, trying not to smile.

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