Crusader's Torch Page 48

"A dozen, a little more," said Jamil. "Be prepared."

The attack came suddenly. Five men in stinking rags dropped down on them from the high rocks, howling like demons. Most of them carried knives and hatchets.

Jamil was knocked off Achilles and carried to the ground in the first rush. He screamed a curse as one of the hatchets sank into muscle and bone at his shoulder.

Achilles plodded on three or four steps, then stopped.

One man had landed on Achilles' rump and was trying to knock Olivia out of the saddle. She swung around, drawing her dagger and slamming it home in the same movement. As the brigand took the blow, he fell heavily against her, trying to grab her with bandaged hands while he died.

Rainaut had his sword ready, and the leper who grabbed him was dead before he reached his goal. The second attacker swung aside in time, but landed heavily on the rocky ground, screaming as his leg gave under him. Rainaut dragged on Hector's reins but the mule refused to move from the trail.

Jamil had knocked one of the leper outlaws off him and had struggled to his knees. Half of his cotehardie was turning black in the moonlight as blood pumped from his wound. He struck out with his sword but did little more than slap at his attackers.

"Behind you!" Olivia shouted as she saw another of the outlaws coming toward Jamil, a maul raised to batter.

Jamil turned, but he was too slow, and the maul struck him on the side of the head. With little more than a whimper he collapsed and was still.

Another leper was grabbing for Olivia's saddle. She kicked him in the jaw, using the metal stirrup to increase the damage. There was a crack of breaking bone and a shriek.

"On the left!" Rainaut cried out, and Olivia scythed her sword, feeling cloth shred as her attacker jumped clear.

Rainaut had another leper on him, this one holding onto Hector's reins and trying to hack at the mule's throat with a wide-headed battle-axe. Rainaut was too close to the rock to have room to use his sword, but he slipped his hand to the quillons and coshed the leper with the hilt; the leper took one last swing at the mule as he stumbled away, but it was enough.

With a grunt, Hector dropped to his knees, then fell to his side, all but trapping Rainaut beneath him. His legs kicked twice, and then he died.

Rainaut struggled to pull his leg free of the body; one of the attackers shouted incoherently and ran toward him, a long dagger poised to strike. Before he could reach the pinned Rainaut, Olivia's sword bit deep in his side, casting him back against the rock.

"To me!" Olivia shouted to Rainaut. "To me!"

Cloth and leather were rent as Rainaut dragged himself out from under the mule. He narrowly avoided the vicious hack of a hatchet, then reeled under the glancing blow of a mace. Half walking, half crawling, he covered the distance between Hector and Atlas.

"Up behind me," Olivia ordered while she kept two of the leper brigands at bay with quick swings of her sword. "Hurry."

Aching, his body shaking with pain and effort, he clambered onto Atlas' rump, wrapping one arm around her waist.

"Hold tight," she said, then dug her heels and the pommel of her sword into Atlas' flanks.

The mule brayed in protest and for the first time in his life lurched into a ragged canter. Down the steep trail he went, jolting and rocking, eyes rolling, long ears flat back against his neck. Sparks flew from the rocks where his hooves struck, and he brayed defiance at the night. Olivia jolted in the saddle, hanging on with her legs as the mule careened down the mountain. She could feel Rainaut bounce and slide in an effort to stay on.

"Damnation!" Rainaut shouted as the mule's violent turn caused him to drop his sword.

Olivia did not bother to respond. Her arms were starting to ache from the strain of holding Atlas' head. She tried to listen for sounds of pursuit but could not distinguish anything over the racket of their own precipitous flight.

Atlas came to a stop quite suddenly. One instant he was cantering, the next he had come to a stop. He lowered his head and panted.

"Do you think they followed us?" Rainaut asked, looking back up the trail.

"I don't think so. I don't hear anything." Olivia patted the mule's neck. "We came out of there—"

"It was fast," Rainaut said. "They killed Jamil."

"Yes," she said. "And they would have killed us."

"They were lepers," Rainaut said, as if he were just learning new words. "Lepers who prey on lepers."

Olivia lifted her head to gaze up at the night sky. "It's safe, don't you see? Lepers are dead men, and they attack others who have been made dead men, and no one will stop them."

She made a gesture to the forbidding crags rising above them. "Who would want to pursue them in any case? Where would you go to find them?"

"I am ashamed that there should be lepers who could do this to those as afflicted as they are." He tugged at his yellow cowl. "It is terrible enough to be a leper."

"When I was much younger," Olivia said, "there was a time when Christians were still a very minor religion, but growing stronger. That was when many Christian men were going to the desert, to live apart from the rest of mankind, which they said they hated for sin, and to devote their days to meditation and the renunciation of the flesh. They all made a point of that, giving up the flesh and its damning pleasures. And all of them were haunted by dreams and desires that tormented them with all the sins of the flesh until some of them were quite mad. These lepers are similar men."

Rainaut hugged her and then released her. "You always try to find ways to ease my anguish, don't you?"

"That wasn't my purpose," she said, wishing she did not feel as defeated as she did.

"But you… Olivia, I do not deserve your kindness." He took hold of the high cantle of the saddle rather than put his arm around her as Atlas moved off once more.

"Was I being kind?" she asked, her tone sharp.

"You have always been kind to me." He wanted to touch her hair, to make her stop the mule so that he could lose himself in her arms and her kisses. But that was no longer possible. He repeated his denial to himself as Atlas plodded on, making it his litany so that he would not succumb to temptation. As a leper he was not entitled to pleasure or comfort or gratification, much as he might long for them.

Olivia felt his withdrawal, the cruel discipline that erected barriers between them. She wished she could make him listen to her, that she could convince him that his honor was not destroyed because he had a disease that turned his skin white and caused his hair to fall out. But she knew there was nothing she could say that he would accept now; he had moved himself beyond her. Her thoughts were heavy as the mule followed the narrow trail deeper into the mountains as the night wheeled on toward morning.

Shortly before dawn, Atlas brought them to a sheltered meadow that was little more than a declivity in the side of the mountain. There was grass and a little stream, and the remnants of a shepherd's hut.

"We won't find better," Olivia said. "Jamil said that there are no inns on this side of the crest."

"That shelter looks as if it would fall over if the wind blew," Rainaut said as he slid off Atlas' back.

"It's better than lying in the open." She was exhausted, and knew she could not risk exposing herself to sunlight. "For one day…"

He shrugged. "For one day, I suppose it will do." He had gone to the stream and examined the banks. "I think it's pure enough. There are no skeletons around it." He had seen his share of tainted wells in the desert and now he took precautions automatically.

As Olivia dismounted, she said, "I'm going to make hobbles for the mule, and a grazing line. That way he will not go too far while we rest." Under other circumstances she would have permitted herself the slight restoration of a cup of the mule's blood, but Rainaut would be outraged if she did. Another day or two of her particular hunger would be difficult but not intolerable, she decided. She began to unwind the long rawhide braid from where it was tied to the saddle.

"Do you think the lepers will follow us?" Rainaut asked, more repugnance in his words than he knew.

"I doubt it. We've come a long way."

"But we're on a trail. All they have to do is take the same road." He was becoming apprehensive now, looking about the little meadow as if it were the bait for a trap.

"They don't know where we've gone. The way we rode off, how could they? Besides, you saw how they were bandaged. I don't think they can travel very far, not with their feet rotting." She did her best to speak evenly, without obvious emotion of any kind, but there was an expression in her hazel eyes that Rainaut did not miss.

"You despised them. You loathed them." It was more a confirmation than an accusation, but he grabbed her arm in so sudden and painful a grip that she drew back from him in shock.

"For attacking us," she said. "Not for being lepers. For that I am more saddened than you can know."

He laughed nastily. "They disgusted you." He released her. "I disgust you."

She finished taking the rawhide line from the saddle. "You know how I feel. I have told you." As she secured the line between two trees, she went on, "You want me to turn away from you, to leave you to your suffering. That isn't possible. You know why, whether you believe it or not."

Rainaut unsaddled the mule. "Do you think we will find our way to the road to Smyrna?"

"The mule has traveled it enough. I suppose we'll have to rely on him to get us there." She secured the reins loosely to the tieline. "It's almost dawn. Listen to the birds."

Both of them were quiet, the first rustlings and piping calls of morning holding their attention. Atlas, freed from the burden of saddle and rider, lowered his head to the grasses and began to eat. Along the eastern bastion of mountains the vastness of night was fading toward brightness.

"We need to rest," Olivia said, looking at Rainaut. "Come."

He hesitated. "Do you wish to sleep alone?"

"No, Valence," she said. "Neither do you."

"There is great temptation," he said as he came toward her. The last touches of winter had left the mountains sere, but there was a scent on the wind that promised the richness of spring.

"Only if you are willing," she reminded him. "Since you are not—" She looked over at Atlas grazing. "You're probably as hungry as he is. We'll find you something to eat after sunset."

"And you?" he asked, letting himself fall into step beside her.

A shrug was her only answer.

* * *

Text of a letter from Ithuriel Dar to Niklos Aulirios.

To my Roman friend with the Greek name, greetings from Tarsus, where I landed day before yesterday. It is a busy place, this city, with much of the trade that would usually go to Caesarea and Sidon and Ascalon and Tyre being moved here instead to avoid the calamities of the Crusades. Many of the merchants coming from the East, some of them from lands beyond the sway of Islam, have chosen to come to market here rather than seek out those in disputed territory.

I have, as we discussed, made inquiry at many places in an attempt to discover if anyone has seen Bondama Clemens or the knight who had been her escort. The difficulty is that since the knight has been declared dead, those who might have seen him will not admit to it because it is not proper to conduct any business with lepers. There are one or two people I have encountered here who might have information if I can find a way to ask for it that does not imply that they have done anything wrong in dealing with Valence Rainaut or any companion of his. How easy this will be I do not know.

Someone has suggested that I speak with some of the beggars of the city, for they see and hear more than anyone, and where such unfortunates as lepers and other outcasts are concerned the beggars are more likely to know about them and to admit that they know than others who are worried about the implications of such dealings. With patience I might be able to find someone in the next two weeks with reliable information. I must have care, for there are those who will tell you anything if they think you will pay them for whatever they say.

I have spoken to a merchant from Tyre who informs me that the house of Bondama Clemens has been occupied by vassals of one of the Hungarian nobles. They have their pages and other servants as well as a half-dozen slaves to maintain their household. It was rumored that they did not pay for the property because of being Crusaders and therefore excused from such costs, which means that the sums that the Court of Bourgesses are supposed to send to you on Bondama Clemens' behalf will not be forthcoming.

If Bondama Clemens has been here recently, and if she has not left by sea, she will have to have crossed the mountains, for the coast roads have been designated as military and therefore proper documents are required for those not part of the Crusade to use them. These documents are not readily obtained and cost a great deal for those who are permitted to have them at all. It seems reasonable to assume that she has found a way to cross the mountains. From what you have said, she would rather travel that way than by sea. I will make the appropriate inquiries and, with any good fortune at all, I will have something more to report to you very soon.

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies