Crusader's Torch Page 52

"You are most kind," said Olivia, puzzled by Kalere and her apparent perspicacity.

"I? No. I am only doing as the Christ bade all of us who believe in His Word." She indicated the mule. "There is a stablehand in the barn, if you need him. Wake him and tell him what your animal requires."

"And he will be pleased to accommodate me?" Olivia asked, smiling in spite of herself.

"Certainly. The stablehand came here four years ago, a man hunted by brigands and soldiers alike, a man who declared himself the enemy of man and God, who was friend to no one. He wanted a place to hide, and thought we were stupid enough to protect him as long as it suited his purpose. Well, years have gone by, and we still protect him. He no longer thinks it stupid of us, and he is no longer an enemy to man or God." She gave a trill of happy laughter. "He tended animals at first because he thought they would hide him. Now he does it for the love of them, and for love of the Christ." She looked at Rainaut. "You do not believe me? Speak to the man tomorrow and ask him to tell you his story."

Rainaut hitched his shoulders. "It matters little to me either way. If I speak to him, it will not change my mind about anything."

Olivia wanted to shake him for his callous behavior, but Kalere motioned her to silence. "Your food will be ready shortly. In the meantime, your room will be made ready." She gestured to Olivia. "And your bath awaits you. I see there is a sack tied to the saddle. It will be taken to your room."

"By a brigand?" Rainaut asked in patent disbelief.

"By one who was a brigand. As you were once a soldier." She paid no attention to the shocked expression in his eyes. "I will attend to your needs at once."

"Do you wish to know who we are?" Olivia called as Kalere started to walk away from them toward the building where the rooms for married couples and families waited.

"Only if you wish to tell me. You need not if you would rather not." She looked directly at Olivia.

"I am Atta Olivia Clemens. I am a Roman widow. I have been trying to reach Roma for some time. Until recently, I lived for some time in Tyre." As she said this, she could see Kalere's face change slightly. "Before that, I lived some years in Alexandria."

"And the knight?" Kalere inquired. "You need not tell me if you would rather not."

"The knight," said Rainaut heavily, "is a dead man. I was once Sier Valence Rainaut, vassal to Reis Richard of England and Knight of the Hospital of Saint John, Jerusalem. But that was before I was a leper."

"You are welcome here, Sier Valence," said Kalere, undisturbed by Rainaut's announcement. "If you will come with me, you will have food."

He pulled his yellow cowl back off his head. "Look at me!" he ordered Kalere. "Look at what I am."

She stopped and did as he insisted. "Yes. It is most unfortunate that you have been disfigured, but there are many who suffer so, from leprosy and other causes. I pray God will send you tranquility in your suffering."

"What the Devil is the matter with you?" Rainaut demanded as Kalere continued on her way to the buildings close to the chapel.

"Nothing," she said to him. "Come. You will feel better once you have dined. And you, Bondama Clemens. You have needs as well."

Olivia resisted the urge to offer a flippant and dishonest response to her observation. "I thank you."

"We'll talk when you have finished your bath. You, Sier Valence, must have food before anything else." She indicated a door a dozen paces ahead. "Enter there. I will see that your mule is cared for."

"The man who was a robber?" Olivia ventured.

"Certainly." Kalere looked at the mule. "It's a good thing you did not have to ride him much farther. He's all in, poor fellow."

Olivia smiled and bowed her head in resignation. "Tell me what you wish me to do, and I will do my best to comply."

"Do whatever suits you," said Kalere, and then added, "You may wish to start with your bath. Open that door, and speak to the woman who will attend you."

For once, Olivia was happy to capitulate.

* * *

Text of a letter from the Papal legate at Acre to Fealatie Bueveld, Chatelaine Fraizmarch.

To the worthy Chatelaine of Baron Gui de Fraizmarch, the blessings of God on you, and His care in this time of testing and trial.

I have reviewed the documents your escort has presented to me, and listen to their accounts of your pilgrimage here, and your attempts to fulfill the terms of your penance. You have been dutiful and devout in your compliance, and in these matters I will notify your husband that you have been most faithful to your vows. That you were willing to undertake a penance that I will say is an extreme one shows how great your desire to restore the honor of your House is, and I am convinced that your efforts are worthy.

Had I been approached at the first, I would have recommended that there be alternate penances offered in case Jerusalem were still in Islamite hands—which is, most lamentably, the case. It is not possible for you to enter that city in harness, no matter what your husband or your confessor may wish. If I were to be consulted, I would have several modifications to propose. Because of the distance between you and your home, I will see that a copy of this letter is sent to your husband and to the Abbot at Sante-Estien-in-Gorzefor their consideration. It is fitting that they should be given the opportunity to assess these proposals and to meditate on them, so that both religion and honor might be accommodated by your actions.

It is my duty to tell you that you must persevere in your attempt to reach Jerusalem, or you must be willing to seek the higher prize: the only penance that I can offer in place of the prayers in Jerusalem is for you to seek and find the Holy Grail. Only that is of greater religious merit, and only that would be acceptable to the Church and to the honor of your husband and your father. Those who seek the Grail are dedicated to so great a degree that their purpose does much to erase sin and error from their lives. It is said that God does not permit the Grail to be attained by any who are not pure in heart. Surely if you cannot find expiation in Jerusalem, your search for the Grail will impart the same blessings as those you already seek.

It is not my desire to overrule the wisdom of your father, your husband, the Comes de Brissac, and the Abbot of Sante-Estien-in-Gorze. All these men have knowledge and care beyond what I can achieve in your case. However, as Papal legate, I do know some of the desires of the Pope and of the Church in regard to penance, and for that reason, I suggest that if you cannot, after all attempts, gain entrance to Jerusalem in harness, you must consider the good of your soul and the merits of penance, and decide then if your oath and duty are better served by a lack of fulfillment of the terms of penance, or if you might ameliorate the burden of sin through undertaking a task more severe but capable of completion.

I pray that it will be acceptable to your husband and your father that your entrance to Jerusalem, unarmed and on foot, will suffice. If this is not deemed sufficient, and if you are obliged to keep to the original conditions, then I earnestly beseech you to search for the Grail and thereby purge yourself of sin. The great error you have made requires a great sacrifice to show yourself worthy of redemption. You must recognize the enormity of your shame, and be willing to continue your efforts to make amends.

Your escort is willing to continue with you, and for that reason if no other I encourage you to persevere, to dedicate yourself to the Grail and to accept the aid they offer in that most sacred hunt. If you were unable to find escort, or if you had been mandated to accomplish your penance alone, I would not recommend a task so severe. However, since your domestic chivalry is able to accompany you, I trust you will not disdain their support. It is as much for the good of their souls as for yours, and in choosing the harder road, you also choose the greater victory.

My prayers for your forgiveness come with this letter.

Fazio Cavalignano

Papal legate at Acre

By the hand of the scribe Fraire Luccio, under Papal seal, on the Feast of Saint Burgundofara, foundress of the Faremoutiers, in the Year of Our Lord 1192.

- 11 -

Rainaut was awake when Olivia returned to their room. 'You have fed," he accused her.

"Yes," she said, coming to the side of the bed they shared.

"Who was fortunate enough to earn your favor?" He threw the words at her as if they were weapons, and watched for the hurt they inflicted.

"One who slept and dreamed," she said, fatigue all but overwhelming her. "In the morning, he will know only that—a dream."

"Be damned to you, woman," Rainaut muttered, drawing the simple blankets around him.

"Valence," she said, sitting on the edge of the bed, "we have been here almost two weeks. I have limited myself to rats and rabbits until tonight, for your sake. But that is less to me than bread and water is to you. To visit a man with a dream is fare as simple as what Kalere and Ran offer at their table, yet I am content with it, for your sake. What more do you want of me? I cannot starve, but I can madden with hunger. Neither you nor I wish for that." She reached out to touch him only to have her hand batted away.

"No." He stared up at the whitewashed ceiling. "Why would you want to touch me? I'm more of a monster than you are." There was no self-pity in his voice, only a colorless hatred.

Olivia bit back the retort she wanted to give. When she could trust herself, she said, "You have no reason to be jealous."

"Jealous," he scoffed. "Of a dream?"

She rose and walked away from him. "There was a time when I could have helped you, if you had let me. When we first met, if you had not forbade me to love you, some of this might have been avoided. But that time has passed, and we are what we are."

He looked at her, his eyes following her as she moved about the dark room. "I loved you then, to distraction."

"Yes. You did love me then, but it has changed."

"I have changed," Rainaut said.

Olivia came back to the side of the bed and gazed down at him. "You have changed—I have not. It is my nature, Valence. Where I have given love I can never deny it. That you do not want love of me any more is more anguish to me than you can know, or will ever know, since you will not be as I am when your life is over." Her voice was distant and intimate at once. "When you first sought me, so much against your will, I was filled with joy. You awakened me from years of isolation, when I was more a sleepwalker than a living woman—for whatever else I am, I am a living woman—and restored my passion. I had set aside longing and desire and ardor because they were dangerous. You gave them back to me. Your love has been the most cherished treasure to me."

"And through it you have lost everything," he added, his tone hard and unforgiving.

"I have lost everything before and survived it," she told him. "And who can say if I would have been able to keep anything if I had not loved you? Can you understand how much you have given me, how much you have done for me? Without you, without the love you offered me, I would not have been drawn back to the love of life. It was not the delight of your body—or not only the delight of your body—that roused me, it was the fervor of your soul."

"It was lust." He glared at her. "Lust."

"Frenzy," she corrected softly. "For both of us, I think. Lust would have burned itself out in a day or a week. Even now, if you were healed, you would not refuse me."

His eyes were bright with tears but he spoke with contempt. "If I were healed, we would not be here."

"No," she said. "I would probably be back in Roma and you would have returned to the Holy Land, with the Hospitalers as escort once more." Her smile was faint and wistful. "Who knows, you might have taken the gift I offered you, and come to my life when you died."

"It is better I am unclean," he said, deliberately harsh.

"Is it? Is it better to turn away from love, too, as you have withdrawn from life?" Her hazel eyes softened. "Oh, Valence, I love you. I could pile words, one on top of the other, to try to tell you how much, but I could not. I love you: that is the most I can say without cheapening the worth of loving. To say anything beyond that would limit it, no matter what eloquence I used. I love you and I will love you all my life."

Rainaut attempted to laugh; it became a cough.

"All my life, Valence." She bent and kissed his forehead, then, more swiftly, his mouth.

He moved back from her as if burned; he wiped his face with the back of his hand.

She saw the gesture, as he intended she should, and her heart sank. "Tell me," she said more conversationally, as if there was no conflict between them, "why do you fear me now?"

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