Crusader's Torch Page 47

You say you are with escort, which is to your advantage, but four armed knights are not much protection from a company of Islamites. Not long ago a small party of pilgrims from Navarre were caught between a company of Templars with French chivalry and a raiding party of Islamite soldiers. Unhappily, all the pilgrims were killed during the fighting. Though you are more protected, it is most likely you would have suffered the same fate as the Navarrese pilgrims.

I will do as you request, and pass all your petitions along to higher authority, but I must tell you that both Reis Richard and Reis Phillippe will refuse it. The Austrians and Germans might plead your case, but they have no bearing in this instance. The Templars, being engaged in active fighting, cannot give you escort at this time, and as you have remarked, the Hospitalers have not time to accommodate you until late in the year, which is a considerable time.

Of course, you may take your chances and enter Jerusalem with other pilgrims to pray at the Holy Sepulcher or other Christian shrines, but to do so you will have to put off your harness and weapons and come on foot. The terms of the penance set for you would not be fulfilled, but your soul might benefit in any case.

We hope to have advanced the lines to the gates of Jerusalem by June, for to be candid, sickness among our troops increases in the heat of summer, and we must use care in our campaigns then. Once we have secured the city, you and your domestic chivalry will be as welcome as other Christians in Jerusalem. Until that time, you must wait for our victory or enter the city unarmed. I will provide you with documents for your husband, the Abbot of Sante-Estien-in-Gorze, the Comes de Reissac and any others you require, explaining the impossibility of your fulfilling the terms of the penance, but with the assurance that you did enter Jerusalem, if that is what you decide. I cannot answer for any other, but for myself, such a letter, with proof of the visit and the prayers indicated, would be sufficient, and I would consider the penance accomplished.

There may be other acts of expiation that would also be acceptable. If you have no confessor with you, then I recommend you seek out one of the Bishops on Crusade, and ask for other terms of the penance more accommodating to the circumstances as they stand at this time. The ruling of a Bishop ought to be acceptable to all concerned. A Bishop from Troyes is currently with his troops in Acre, and unless the fighting grows worse, they will be therefor a short while. He will review your penance and advise you if you can reach him before he joins the rush to Jerusalem.

Believe me, Chatelaine Fraizmarch, I hope you have good fortune in your quest; as the disowned younger son of a younger son, I know for myself that the demands of honor are rigorous and unforgiving. God speed your just cause.

Renet, once d'Ilenvair

Deputy Master of the Poor Knights of the Temple, Jerusalem

By the hand of the scribe Fraire Pythias, under the seal of the Templars, on the Feast of Saint Nicephorus of Antioch, whom the Orthodox Rite celebrates tomorrow, in the Lord's Year 1192.

- 8 -

Jamil had supplied mules to carry them through the mountains; squat, strengthy beasts that moved at a long, steady walk but obstinately refused to go any faster. Jamil himself, a jovial fellow with an eyepatch and a crocodile grin, admitted cheerfully that the charges he made were ruinous, but that he was the best guide and the least corruptible.

"For it is true," he told Olivia some time after midnight as they made their way up a long slope, the mules carrying their heads low and snorting, "that others will agree to guide and then sell their charges into slavery, or lead them into traps, or other terrible things. I do none of this." He held up his right hand. "I would swear by my balls, but I haven't any." His laughter, like his voice, was high as a boy's.

Rainaut had said nothing since they had mounted their mules at the back of the field behind the inn. He was lost in gloomy reverie, refusing to respond to any comment or question addressed to him. Once, when a small fox broke cover ahead of them, he glanced up, but otherwise he might have been baggage instead of a man.

"I was told you are honest," said Olivia. She had dressed in men's clothing—over Rainaut's sullen objections—so they could move more quickly and at less risk. "For what you were paid, you had better be."

"You see, that is another reason for all the money," Jamil informed her with an expansive gesture. "If I charge too little, everyone will be afraid that I will harm them or sell them. If I charge a great deal, then you know you are safe." He indicated the rising mountains off to their right. "I know some trails that would frighten a mountain goat up there.

The mules will take them well enough. Watch out when you dismount, by the way, Bondama: Atlas there likes to bite."

"I'll remember," said Olivia, making a face no one could see. She had noticed earlier that Atlas tended to nip.

"Atlas and Achilles. I name them for heros. It encourages them. The Bonsier is on Hector. I have more of them, for larger numbers. Everyone must be willing to ride. No carts on these trails, that's what I tell everyone. No carts and no horses. If a horse is frightened, it bolts. Not these mules, they keep walking." He pointed up ahead. "At that boulder, the one that looks like the prow of a ship, the trail turns sharply to the left and down. Be ready." He considered. "The Bonsier?"

"I trust he heard you. Hector will follow in any case, won't he?" Olivia said, aware that it was useless to attempt to break the shell of Rainaut's self-imposed isolation.

"Through the fires of Hell, if necessary," said Jamil with pride. "Nothing will stop Hector."

"I hope not," said Olivia. The night was anodyne for her and she felt at peace in the darkness. If only she had a sackful of Roman earth, she would be easy in her mind. As it was, she already dreaded the coming of morning and the vitiating power of the sun. "How long until we reach the main road to Smyrna?"

"Four days, Bondama, if all goes well. Since you require that we travel at night—not that I object or question this—it may take a little longer. If there are delays, well, who can tell?" Jamil waved his hand toward the distant crags. "If you had no guide, you would be lost in this wilderness, prey to beasts and brigands. With me, you know you will be taken to the road and put on your way. That is why my price is high." He patted Achilles on his neck. "They're good-hearted, in their way."

Olivia had bred horses and mules in the past, and was familiar with them. "Mules are sensible creatures," she said, though she missed her horses. "In the mountains no animal is better."

"I knew from the first you were a canny one," Jamil declared as he clapped his hands in approval. "Last year there was a knight, he'd lost an arm at one of the fortresses—I forget which—and was insulted because I told him he would have to ride a mule. He was bound for one of old Barbarossa's cities. In the end, he had to go another way, for he would not ride a mule. He was a foolish knight."

"Yes he was," Olivia agreed.

"He had two destriers with him; great hulking warhorses, with big hooves and the appetites of hungry lions. How were they to cross these mountains on trails like this one? It was useless." His indignation was more for dramatic effect than from lingering offense. "I told him that the destriers were fine if we were going to charge fortifications, but they would not do well on these mountains. He swore at me and called me many unkind and unchristian things. I was told that he went to Constantinople."

Olivia, who had been to Constantinople, shuddered. "He might have done better to keep fighting here."

"That was what I thought," Jamil said, clapping his hands again, shifting in the saddle as Achilles made the steep turn he had warned Olivia and Rainaut about. "There," he called back over his shoulder. "You see? It is as I described it."

"So it is," said Olivia. She followed his example and clung to the mule with her calves. "Valence," she raised her voice, hoping he would listen, "take care here."

"He is a strange companion, Bondama," Jamil said as the mules tromped down the narrow defile.

"His illness makes him so," said Olivia, knowing it was true and heartbroken for it.

"Maladies are terrible things. In my day I have seen many and many struck down." He made three gestures to ward off the Evil Eye. "My brother was stunted. He never grew to a greater size than an eight-year-old child. It was brought upon us by the ill-wishes of our enemies."

"That is unfortunate," said Olivia, carefully questioning nothing that Jamil said. "Was your brother older or younger than you?"

"Older. A pleasant enough fellow, and most able. He was good at fixing things, especially things in the house. Thanks to him we never had a fire in the kitchen." He fell uncharacteristically silent.

"What became of him?" Olivia asked.

"I don't know," Jamil admitted. "When he reached twenty, and it was apparent he would grow no more, our father sold him to a troupe of Frankish mummers. I was nine then, the youngest." He slapped his thigh. "But that was long ago, Bondama, and the world is a different place."

"We're being followed," Rainaut said suddenly.

Jamil and Olivia turned in their saddles to stare at him. Jamil spoke first. "Are you certain, Bonsier?"

"Yes. There are six or seven of them, on foot." He was sitting straighter, more alert than he had been in hours. "I doubted at first, but then I heard them signal."

"Prophets of God," said Jamil, making more signs to ward off the Evil Eye.

"What is it?" Olivia asked sharply.

Jamil sighed extravagantly. "It is… They have seen the Bonsier's cowl. They know he is a leper." He raised his head to the night sky. "There are lepers in these mountains, and they prey on other lepers. They are outcasts and they know no laws, for they are beyond the laws." He felt for his sword. "You are armed, Bondama?"

"Both of us are," Olivia answered. "Why?"

"Because there is a place ahead, not very far, where the trail passes through a gap between two crags. The way is steep and dangerous, and it is an ideal ambush." He pulled Achilles to a stop. "We must be prepared. If we are being stalked, it is by those lepers, for only they hunt these regions. All other brigands and robbers keep away, for fear of them."

"They are moving closer," Rainaut warned. As Hector stopped, he reached for his sword. "I will fight if you permit me," he offered.

"Why would I refuse?" Jamil asked in astonishment.

"No knight would accept me as a comrade-at-arms now," Rainaut said in flat anger.

Jamil stared in disbelief. "What an absurd notion." He drew a dagger and his sword. "I am not so nice as they—I want all the help I can have."

Olivia had drawn her sword. "Do not worry; I know how to use it."

Jamil set Achilles in motion again. "Take care. I will tell you just before we enter the gap, so you may be prepared. It is a little way along this trail."

"And you had best go on talking, or they will know we are on guard," Olivia advised, bracing herself in the uncomfortable saddle.

Rainaut was silent again, but this time, it was the silence of anticipation.

"Yes," said Jamil, speaking more loudly than before. "My poor brother. My father was certain that he was cursed in the womb, and his size proved it. He killed two of the sons of his enemies in retribution, and they in turn murdered his brothers and their children. When my father sold my brother, he said that he hoped the evil would leave with the son."

"Poor son, to have so much hurt." Olivia had once owned a midget, a lad from Egypt who had been part of her household when she lived in Alexandria, and she had learned much from that tiny, bitter scholar.

"He was a good sort. I liked him better than some of the others." Jamil swung his sword experimentally. "My father died the year after he sold my brother; he took the sweating sickness and nothing could save him."

"And you?" Olivia asked lightly as she listened to the sounds in the night around them. She could feel the weight of eyes on her, and her body grew taut in preparation.

"Oh, our enemies had caught me already, and gelded me. My father had no son worthy of the name outlive him. He was most miserable." He pointed toward a looming mass of rock. "We're approaching the place, Bondama, Bonsier."

Olivia drew her sword and angled the dagger in her belt. "I am ready. Sier Valence?" she called over her shoulder.

"Ready." He sounded almost as he had before he had been cast out of the Hospitalers and the society of men. "It is not fitting to fight from the back of a mule."

"Better than standing on the ground," Olivia pointed out as the mules plodded into the gap. "How many steps?"

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