Crusader's Torch Page 4

A few of the upper windows had been opened once more, the shutters folded back against the stone fronts of the houses. At one of the windows a pair of curious faces appeared.

"You take his legs," Rainaut instructed. "I will try to carry him so that I will not pull on his shoulder any more. It is fortunate for him that he has swooned." He did his task efficiently; only the darkening of his face revealed the effort of his work.

The sarjeant, the merchant's feet caught in the crooks of his elbows, toiled along, puffing with each step. "The turn's coming up, sir. Have a care. The street is a busy one."

"Not as busy as this one has been, I reckon," said Rainaut grimly. "Who tends to the streets when we have gone?"

"It will be done," said the sarjeant vaguely. "There are those who…"

The next street was more than twice the width of the covered one they left. Here the sun was merciless where people bustled and jostled.

"This is a griddle," Rainaut protested as he and the sarjeant lugged the German merchant toward the hospice of the Knights Hospitalers.

"Not much further, Bonsier," panted the sarjeant. "Have a care—there's goats ahead of you."

Rainaut had heard the animals in the general din of the street. "Thank you, sarjeant." He continued to back up, and though the German merchant seemed to grow heavier with each step Rainaut took, he did not permit himself to complain of it. "Where now?"

"Five more steps," the sarjeant told him. "Bonsier, my back is aching like I've fallen down stairs."

"You say it's not much farther." It took an effort to speak evenly.

"A little way, yes, Bonsier," the sarjeant said, suddenly resigned to his situation. "Not much more. Have a care, Bonsier." This last warning was for a pushcart filled with hot stuffed breads; the man behind it, a slave, struggled with the unwieldly vehicle while his owner walked at the front, clearing the way and crying his wares into the cacophony of the street.

"Offer the ache to God," Rainaut recommended when the food vendor was safely past them.

"The church will be on your right, Bonsier. Take him there. There are those who will know what to do." The sarjeant's steps were faltering and he grunted with the effort of walking.

"Tell me the way, sarjeant," Rainaut ordered.

A gaggle of ill-dressed children hurtled, screaming and laughing, down the street, careless of where they went. One of them knocked against the German merchant, and the unconscious man seemed to moan.

"A bit more to the right. There are three steps, and the narthex opens immediately to your right." He took a deep, ragged breath. "Hey, you there! Get us some help!"

Rainaut heard steps behind him rush, echoing, away. The shadow of the church fell across him, blocking out the hot weight of the sun. Then, as he struggled up the steps, he heard footsteps approaching, and a voice at his side said, "We will take him, my son." As confused as he was relieved, Rainaut gave over his burden to the priest and two men in the black-and-white cote of the Knights Hospitaler of Saint John, Jerusalem. "Be careful," Rainaut said. "His shoulder's out."

"We'll tend to it," one of those beside him said.

"Deo gratias," Rainaut said, blessing himself with an effort.

A Premonstratensian monk approached Rainaut, his face worn as leather and his head all but bald. "God give you good day, sir knight. You have had a most propitious beginning here."

Rainaut was suddenly too fatigued to respond.

* * *

Text of a letter from Niklos Aulirios in Roma to Atta Olivia Clemens in Tyre, written in archaic Latin.

To my esteemed bondholder and friend, Olivia, I send you greetings and what word I can from Roma. Little as I like to admit it, you were surely right when you decided that arrangements were necessary.

I have rarely seen Roma in such disarray as I find here now. It is not only that barbarians have done what they could to destroy it for the last five hundred years, but the Romans themselves appear to have forgot who they are, and are content to house themselves in filth and rubble. Not even the worst and poorest of the underground insulae of your youth were as dreadful as much of what I have seen here.

When I left, I told you I would have all your affairs here in order in two months at the most. You warned me at the time that I was being too optimistic, and that you feared with the change in the world that I would require more time, and possibly more money. Sadly, I must confess that you are right. I will not only need more money in order to do what must be done, but I will have to have more time if you are to occupy a place that is suitable to you in all the ways you require.

What is most shocking to me is the disrepair of the aqueducts, for now there is danger of fever from poor water. It is worse than when the Ostrogoths were attacking, and there is no real battle going on. There are German knights everywhere, because of that travesty, the Holy Roman Empire, which is not aptly described by any of those words. I will strive to find you a villa outside the city walls—although the walls are in such disrepair in parts that they might as well be torn down and the stones used to make worthwhile houses for the poor wretches who haunt the streets. I have heard of a number of such villas, and I will inspect them all, taking care not to stray too far from Roma, and I will determine the quality of wells in all the locations I inspect.

I have found a monk here who will arrange for you to be carried on a Spanish ship and brought to Ostia, which they are now calling Ostia Antiqua. Proper escort will be required, but it has been suggested that you yourself petition the Hospitalers for that. They are prepared to render such service and they have chapter houses in many places. It would relieve me to know you are in the hands of a sworn knight—such a man would be less likely to try to rape you or sell you into slavery, and if it comes down to a fight, he will know what to do—than at the mercy of a ship's captain who might strike bargains with pirates, or worse than that.

No, I do not mean to alarm you. That is not my intention. But you have warned me for years and years that prudence is necessary for those of your kind and my kind, and I am only repeating your own precautions for your benefit. After so long, it would be more dreadful than I would like to think to know you had come to any harm.

Niklos Aulirios

By my own hand on the eve of the Passion, in the 1189th Christian year.

- 3 -

This chapel, huddled against the south wall of Tyre, was smaller than most; hardly larger than a box stall. The altar was little more than a polished wooden table, and the crucifix hanging above it had been hewn by unskilled hands. In so close a place, the odor of incense mixed with that of the unwashed monk who tended the chapel, making a living presence in the air.

"You were right to seek aid," said the Cistercian monk who knelt on the stone floor beside Olivia. "A woman of quality, a Roman woman, must not undertake so arduous a journey without proper escort."

"But I have none," Olivia said, wishing for an excuse to rise; it felt to her that she was demonstrating simple letters to a wayward child. "I explained that when I arrived."

"Pray you, tell me again. I do not entirely understand."

Inwardly Olivia reminded herself that she needed the monk's good will and assistance if she were to arrange passage for Roma. She kept her tone quiet and stilled the sharp retort that she longed to utter. "My husband's family has been important in Roma, but I do not think that I, as his widow, could request help from his relatives at this time." She had chosen her most restrained and Norman clothes—for this occasion, none of the wide embroidered sleeves of Antioch and Damascus silks; her bliaud was of saffron-rinsed linen, dyed the color of sand. Her fawn-brown hair was braided and covered with a tied veil of cotton, all of which was held in place with a widow's black wreath.

"There is always an obligation—" the Cistercian monk began.

"Pardon me, but I doubt any of my husband's relatives would be able to make a voyage to escort me," she said, her head lowered. She stared at the seashell embedded in a splendor of gold that hung from a flat gold chain around her neck. "Not many of them are inclined to be pilgrims on my behalf."

"There is estrangement?" the monk asked neutrally.

Olivia nodded. "I have not been in Roma for many, many years. There was never such closeness that their duty could survive so long a separation." She did not add that the separation could be counted in centuries, or that her husband had met his end while the elder Titus Flavius Vespasianus wore the purple.

"These developments are always lamentable," said the monk. "I can petition my Order for—"

Once more Olivia held up her hand to stop him. "Again, your pardon, Fraire Herchambaut. Do forgive me for this second interruption." She saw the monk nod acceptance. "My travels are not as simple as for some pilgrims. I have many household goods which must also be sent to Roma. Because I know how little concern religious men have for such concerns, I would rather not burden them with such responsibilities. Also, if I were to be set upon because of the goods I carry, I would never feel at peace if any harm came to any monk of any Order because of my possessions." She joined her slender hands.

"A very pious thought," said Fraire Herchambaut with approval.

"There is another factor as well," added Olivia thoughtfully. "I do… poorly… in the sun. I am one of those who cannot endure its rays. And worse"—she managed a faint, self-deprecatory smile—"I am ill when sailing."

"Many well-born women are similarly delicate," Fraire Herchambaut said as if impressed. "All the more to your credit that you undertook the pilgrimage you have made."

"I did not feel that I had much choice in the matter. For many widows, the loss of their husbands entails special burdens beyond their grief. Circumstances being what they were, I realized I must come here." She did not add that she had arrived in Tyre not from Roma but from Alexandria.

"You have lived here for some time, or so I am informed." He was clearly curious about her, but had learned to treat all but the poorest pilgrims with circumspection.

"I have lived here more than twelve years," said Olivia with a gesture indicating that she had little concern with the time involved. "I sought a haven."

"A long time." Fraire Herchambaut lowered his head, more in thought than in prayer. "You say you have a servant in Roma already?"

"My major domo. He is my bondsman, a Greek. He has served me faithfully a long time." This time her smile was more apparent but still secretive.

"Faithful servants are one of the greatest of God's blessings," Fraire Herchambaut declared. He rocked back on his heels. "I pray you, do not be alarmed. At my age my bones grow tired quickly."

"That is unfortunate for you," said Olivia, trying to guess the monk's age. Was he forty, forty-five? The desert aged many people fiercely, and it had been centuries since Olivia had met a physician worthy of the name.

He rubbed his hands on the front of his habit. The rough woolen garment was grimy and stained, the fabric almost stiff in places. Only the narrow scapular was relatively clean. "I was thirty-one when I left Languedoc for the Holy Land. There were seventeen of us, and we walked the distance, through Germany and Hungary. Four died on the way. I do not know what became of the rest of us, for each of us has a chapel like this one, and each in a separate town or fort. Two of my Fraires remained at Caesarea, and two at Castel Montforte. From time to time I hear of the others."

"You must miss them," said Olivia, as always puzzled by the monkish urge to withdraw from all familiar society.

"We are together in God," said Fraire Herchambaut automatically. "When we pray, we are not alone or lonely." He regarded Olivia. "Surely you have learned that peace?"

"Not… not to the degree I would like," said Olivia.

"No," agreed the Cistercian, "it is the burden of women, the heritage of Eve." He blessed himself. "Well, tell me what you require and I will do what I may to assist you. Little as I wish to say so, I think that it is wise for you to leave Tyre. If the demonic Islamites attack here as they have in Jerusalem, who can tell what would happen to you?"

"Precisely," said Olivia brusquely, which she modified at once. "What frightens me is what could happen if we fall into the hands of the Islamites." For all her years in Alexandria she had never been abused, but that had been before the Shi'ites came. Now she doubted she could rely on the protection of her household or the assistance of the scholars she had known there.

"All Christians must pray that time will never come," said Fraire Herchambaut. "It is not only a defeat for the honor of Christians, it is a defeat for the Holy Spirit as well."

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