Crusader's Torch Page 51

He rounded on her, his scar-like countenance no longer capable of expression. "I was dreaming."

"So I thought," she said, continuing to tend to Atlas' feet. "Something unpleasant, I thought."

He flinched at that. "Unpleasant," he repeated. "It will be dark soon."

"Yes," she said, approaching him now that her task was finished. "Will you be ready to leave?"

"I can leave at any time," he said defiantly. "I am your servant, Bondama." This last was a fury, and it impelled him, bringing him to his feet.

"You were my lover, my leman, Valence, not my servant." She kept her voice steady, but it was an effort; his condemnation was more painful to her than she could admit to anyone but herself.

"But I served you, Bondama. And for that God has made me suffer." He kicked away the branches at his feet and ran his white hands over his clothes to rid them of twigs and leaves.

It was useless to argue with him when he was in such a state, and so Olivia busied herself with saddling the mule, her mind deliberately on other matters. "There may be a church or a monastery near," she said when she could trust herself to speak evenly. "Perhaps we can get some food."

"And one of the monks will oblige you by opening a vein?" he challenged.

"Stop that," Olivia told him without heat. "It is your disease that speaks, not you. I have no wish to listen."

"Then leave me," he said, and suddenly his eyes were bright with tears. "Olivia, my most-loved, please leave me. Before I become worse than—"

She stood still, the saddle girth dropping out of her fingers. "Don't ask that," she said.

"Please. Please." He put his hands to his face as he wept.

"You know I can't," she said, deliberately returning to her work. "If you are safe and protected, if you are not in want or in danger, then if you wish it, I will go, but you are blood of my blood, and I cannot abandon you." She tested the girth for tautness and then began to reel in the plaited tether. She worked automatically, not looking at him.

"It is agony for me, Olivia." His words were soft and thick. "Look at what I have become. Look what I have made you."

"Don't dwell on it," she said, at last able to meet his eyes. "It doesn't matter."

He turned away from her, his back hunched, his head lowered. He remained that way while she adjusted her bamburges so that her legs were protected, then he drew on his solers, securing them with wide thongs around the ankle. "It is torment," he said when he turned back to her.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Again the distant bell sounded, this time joined by a second, higher bell, the two of them conducting a kind of dialogue, the higher bell answering the lower.

"Shall we try there?" Olivia asked, hoping she would be able to follow the sound of the bells; in the mountains sound was often misleading and confused.

"There is no reason for a monastery to offer charity to a leper," said Rainaut. "But why not?"

Secretly Olivia was relieved by his response. He had been sunk in despondency for three days, in a humor so dark that she had been afraid to speak to him. If he were willing to seek out assistance of any kind, she saw this as an improvement. "Come," she said. "The mule's ready." She tightened the girths a second time, then swung up into the saddle, gathering in the reins and bringing Atlas around to Rainaut. "Give me your hand," she said, reaching down to him.

Without speaking, Rainaut grasped her hand and came up behind her, settling down against the cantle, one arm around her waist. He looked up at the sky where the first stars shone. "I pray there is a haven for those like me. Is that sin, do you think?"

"No," said Olivia, and started the mule on his way.

It was midnight before they heard the sound of the bells again, this time much nearer. The ringing continued for a while, long enough for Olivia to get a good sense of where the bells were. As they reached a narrow roadway, she cocked her head and listened.

"It's to the left, down the slope," said Rainaut.

"Yes, I think so," Olivia agreed. "Come." She nudged the mule into motion. "I wish I knew what we were looking for," she added when they had gone a short way along the road. Although it was night, her eyes had no difficulty in making out the brush and trees that lined the roadway.

"You said a monastery," Rainaut reminded her.

"What else would be out in so isolated a place?" The question was more apprehensive than rhetorical. "What if it is a stronghold for robbers?" It was not impossible, she knew, for robbers and bandits to employ such a ruse to trap unwary travelers.

"You'll probably triumph over them," said Rainaut. "You did before."

She waited before responding. "It would be better to run and hope we're not followed."

"Why? What danger are you in?" He chuckled, and his arm around her tightened.

"A great deal of danger," she said with asperity. "I am not wholly immortal and I am not invulnerable. If my head is struck off or battered, I would be as dead as you would. And wounds that do not kill me are painful and incapacitating for a time. I do not want to risk so much."

He reached up with his free hand and ruffled her hair. "You make light of your powers."

"I don't, you know." She could sense his elation as she had sensed his despair. Both troubled her; she had realized months ago that the alterations of temperament were part of his disease, and as they became more extreme, she knew his affliction was growing more severe.

"Think about it," he went on heedlessly. "You could make yourself invaluable to Reis Richard or Reis Phillippe. You could pass on your gifts to them, and at the same time protect them from their enemies. You would be stronger than any king in the world, if you did that."

"No," said Olivia with force. "It would make me the object of hatred and curiosity. No one who is… what I am can endure such attention. There would be prison or the stake for me, and in the end I would die the true death, and the king I served would fall with me." She paused, hoping he was listening. "I do not love for power, Valence."

"But you have it," he said, catching some of her hair in his hand and pulling it. "You are life and death to me."

"If you had allowed it, I would have been life only," she said.

The road turned, and ahead was a small compound, a belfry rising atop the tallest of the buildings inside the walls. Over the barred gate a single lamp burned, and beside it hung a length of rope.

"What sort of place is this?" Rainaut asked.

"There is a chapel of some sort," Olivia said, indicating the cross atop the belfry. She studied the burning lamp. "Why do they do that, do you think?"

"In honor of God," said Rainaut shortly. "Are you going to ring?"

Olivia got off the mule and handed the reins to Rainaut. "Wouldn't you?" she asked before she walked to the gate and reached for the rope.

"Wait!" Rainaut called.


"It might bring misfortune." He drew his sword. "If you must do that, at least I will be prepared."

"You won't need a sword here," Olivia said, hoping she was correct.

"You can't be certain." He kicked Atlas to get the mule to move closer to the gate.

"No," said Olivia. "But I'm willing to take a chance." Before he could protest again, she reached up and rang the visitors' bell. Knowing how late the hour was, she did not assume her summons would be answered quickly, and for that reason was more surprised when the small side-door, hidden in an angle of the wall, opened almost at once.

A woman of middle years and austerely simple dress raised her hand in greeting. "God bless and keep you, travelers."

Olivia looked at the woman more closely. "And God bless and keep you," she said, crossing herself as she did.

"You are on the road very late," she said. "Have you a place to sleep for the night, or are you without shelter?"

"Who are you?" Rainaut demanded before Olivia could answer.

"I am Kalere Navrentos; my brother and I keep this place for those in need of aid." She smiled, looking from Olivia to Rainaut. "Whoever you are, you are welcome here."

Rainaut got Atlas to move a few steps closer. "No doors are open to me. My cowl is yellow. I am a leper."

"Sier Valence," Olivia said, hoping he would not damn himself more than he already had.

"This door is closed to no one," said Kalere Navrentos. "You are welcome to enter. We offer simple fare and simple comforts." She regarded Olivia. "Would you like to enter?"

"Yes," Olivia said. "My companion is very hungry, and I have need of…" She faltered, knowing how many Christian communities forbade bathing as a sign of vanity. "If it is permitted, I would like a bath."

"There is a small bathhouse that you may use," said Kalere. "It is available to all those who wish it. The water is cold, just as God gives it to us." She indicated the main gate. "I will open for you." With that she stepped back and closed the little side door.

"It may be a trap," warned Rainaut as soon as the door was shut.

"For whom? And why?" Olivia asked. "You need food—"

"So do you," he said with a hint of malice.

"All right, so do I. There is shelter here, and respite. Whether you desire it or not, I do." She went to the gate as it swung open.

Once again Kalere made a greeting that was also a blessing. "In the name of the Christ, come in and be welcome in His Name."

"And the mule?" Rainaut asked, deliberately rude.

"Certainly. There is a barn with stalls and hay. If you are too tired to tend to him, I will take care of him." Kalere bowed her head, saying, "We turn no creature away."

"I'll tend to Atlas," said Olivia, anticipating another outburst from Rainaut. "You have a meal, and thank God that our steps were guided here."

"You mean that you had ears sharp enough to follow the bells," Rainaut corrected her.

"That is why we ring them," said Kalere, still smiling pleasantly. "We pray that we will bring those in need of our aid to our door."

"How many are there in your community?" Olivia asked, trying to make the question sound disinterested.

"My brother and I built this place. There are twenty-three travelers with us, if I count the two of you. Some have remained with us for quite a while, some leave the day after they arrive. We thank God they have been here, however long they stay." She stood aside as Atlas grudgingly came through the gate, and then she took a moment to secure it again. "We wish we could leave the gates open all day and all night, but there are desperate men living in these mountains, and for the protection of the travelers who come here, we must bar the gates at night. It is sad that it must be so." She made a gesture that took in the whole of the compound. "The chapel is at the center, as you see, where it belongs. There is an infirmary, a refectory, dormitories for men, for women, and a few rooms for those who are married, or families with their children." She smiled. "We have a room for you to share, if that is what you want. It is simple, but—"

"We are not married," said Rainaut.

If Kalere found this distressing she gave no sign of it. "If you are united in God's eyes," she went on, "you have reason to want such a room."

Rainaut glared, then looked away. "Lepers are not entitled to such charity."

"Everyone is entitled to such charity," Kalere corrected him gently. "No one comes who is not welcome. We have had thieves and murderers and madmen here, and all have been welcome; no one has ever harmed us, nor will they." She smiled at Olivia. "Everyone, whoever they are, whatever they have done, is welcome here."

Olivia had the strangest sensation; Kalere knew her for what she was. It was so unlikely a possibility that she had to resist the urge to laugh: there had been times in the past when she had experienced similar sensations, most of them more from her own fear than genuine intuition. Now she watched Kalere speculatively. "How do you mean that?"

"No one need be afraid once they are here. Our Lord taught that if we are to love, we must accept and embrace everyone; my brother and I have striven to do this. Anyone who comes to so remote a place as this one cannot be here by accident." She looked from Olivia to Rainaut. "Your beast is weary and you are exhausted. Both of you will be fed." She started to walk away from the gate, then looked back at Olivia. "The bathhouse is there"—she pointed to a small stone building beyond the chapel—"and there are provisions for bathing there."

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