Crusader's Torch Page 56

"You are generous," said Olivia with a slight bow.

"Oh, not that, exactly," said the cook. "But slaves like me know what it is to be in need." With this obscure reassurance, he waved Olivia away and went back to his task.

Olivia led Atlas through the stable and out into the yard of enclosed pens. As the cook had told her, there were three still vacant, all of them small, none of them clean. She secured the mule with his tether line and set about unsaddling him and giving him a cursory grooming. When she was finished, she turned him into the largest of the three pens and carried the saddle bridle back into the stable, setting the saddle on the far end of the rack with the bridle tied to the pommel rings. She rubbed her brow, trying to ease the ache there before she went back to the cook, her single sack of belongings tucked under her arm.

"There you are," said the cook as Olivia approached him. "Ready for prayers and sleep? Or do you want a bite to eat?"

Esurience flared in her, and despair. "I had better rest first," she said, her voice sounding husky in her own ears. "Later, perhaps, if it is convenient."

The cook chuckled, the sound like the snap of banners in the wind. "If there is anything left after all the pilgrims have eaten, it is yours."

Olivia murmured a few appropriate phrases while she resigned herself to one more night of animal blood for sustenance.

* * *

Text of a confidential letter to Robert de Sable, Grand Master of the Poor Knights of the Temple, Jerusalem, from the secretary of the Metropolitan of Hagia Sophia.

To the most worthy and Christian knight, the Grand Master Robert de Sable, greetings and continuing prayers to you, not only in my own devotions, but as part of the continuing devotions of that most holy of Metropolitans, my master of Hagia Sophia.

We have lately heard of the many reverses suffered by all Christian men-at-arms and chivalry currently sworn to uphold the honor of Our Lord in the Holy Land. My master has been much shocked to have news indicating that after so splendid a start, the forces of our faith are no longer in the advance, but have fallen back on almost all fronts, and now are in the position of vanquished foemen and the target of all manner of Islamic treachery. Most shocking was the information that many of the Crusaders had been led by guides to that part of the desert where neither pure water nor relief from heat is available. It was to our sorrow that we were appraised of the death of so many valiant Christian soldiers, and we have once again petitioned Heaven to come to the aid of Our Lord's defenders, protecting them from further misfortune and disgrace.

You of the Templars have always set the example for all other Christian warriors to follow, and your continuing devotion to the cause of the liberation of the Holy Sepulcher can never be called into question by anyone. Your sacrifices and your endless zeal are commended by every leader in the Christian world. That we of Byzantion have no such fighters is forever a blot on our military men. Your constant struggle to uphold the glory of Christ and God is the very culmination of true Christian faith. All other soldiers are lessened when compared to your pure and faultless fidelity, which always shines with the luster of hosts of angels.

With so much of excellence about you, and in so glorious a cause, how can it be that you would consider turning away from the protection and glory of Our Lord, to retreat from the most crucial test of faith that ever Christian was privileged to have? How can you, of all soldiers, be content to leave Jerusalem in the hands of Islamites and defenseless to the predations of these despicable men? Had God given such an opportunity to me, I would have embraced it with the passion of one vouchsafed a welcome in Paradise. Yet you, who have seen on the field of battle the ramparts of Jerusalem, have been willing to withdraw from that most sacred city and to waste what is left of your numbers in the most trivial of conflicts, answering more to the beck of kings than to the clarion of God's cause and your soul's salvation.

If you have lost sight of your most exalted goal, then let me have the office of bringing you to the full realization of your purpose as the Grand Master of your Order. You are the Marshall of God on earth, as the Archangel Michael is the Marshall of the Hosts of Heaven. It was the Archangel Michael who battled Satan himself and sent him tumbling to his prison in Hell. If God so empowered His Archangel, He will likewise give might to you in the name of the most holy city and the honor of the Holy Sepulcher. What earthly honor, what king's reward can compare to the freeing of the Holy Sepulcher? You have it within your grasp to turn back the Islamites as Archangel Michael turned back the rebellious angels who put in their lot with Satan and serve now as the devils in Hell. What could be more worthy of your strength of arms and your life's-blood than the banishing of those hellish Islamites who have so greedily spread through the lands where the Christ has reigned?

Persevere, I beseech you, not only in the name of Our Lord and His city Jerusalem, but in the name of the vows of your Order, which call you to the greatest of contests ever offered men of honor. Speak to the Christian kings who have shown so little faith of late. Urge Reis Phillippe not to forget his obligation to all those in Frankish cities throughout the Holy Land, if he cannot be persuaded to recall his oaths to God.

Spur Reis Richard on to the victories that first marked his arrival in the Holy Land. Forget the petty rivalries which have clouded the sense of righteousness for so many soldiers. Bring accord to the men who came with Barbarossa and have not found a leader to satisfy them. You and your companions in the Hospitalers are all the hope left to Christendom. If you fail now, the honor of God will be tarnished and the glory of your Order forever tainted.

My prayers and the prayers of all in the Greek rite are with you; as we prayed for your victories, we now pray for a return of purpose for you as well. May God open His way to you, that you may again be worthy to be His champions in battle.

Alexios from Salinika

secretary to the Metropolitan of

Hagia Sophia, Konstantinoupolis

By my own hand with the approval of my master, under seal, on the Feast of Saint Athanasius, the 2nd day of May, in the Lord's Year 1192.

- 13 -

Against her own exhaustion and need, Olivia rose not long after mid-day and sought out the cook. She made a point of thanking him where his minions could hear her, praising him for the aid and advice he had given her. "Be good enough," she added, wishing she felt less debilitated than she did, and knowing that her weakness would exact a price, "to tell me where I must go to apply for passage to Smyrna."

"You could leave the way you came," said the cook as he supervised the turning of four enormous and heavily laden spits, "alone on your mule. That way you need have no one's permission."

"That way there is danger, as well." Olivia put her hand on the hilt of her sword. "And this way, someone knows if I do not reach my destination."

"An excellent point," agreed the cook. "Well, it must be the Templars or the Hospitalers. I'd go to the Hospitalers, if I were you. These days the Templars are only interested in other fighting men, which clearly you are not, in spite of that metal cap of yours." He made a gesture with a greasy ladle intended to take in the others in the kitchen. "Fair enough for a eunuch, isn't he? But not likely to be a knight."

Several of the scullery slaves laughed, none of them kindly. One, a lad of no more than fifteen or sixteen with the fixed but unfocused stare of the simple-minded, threw his head back and crowed heartily.

"You're very helpful," said Olivia, trying to conceal her irony.

The cook responded candidly. "Probably not, but in these times, help is not easily come by. Go to the Hospitalers. Tell them where you wish to go and ask if any of them will be escorting pilgrims that far. It will be easier to come to an agreement with two knights than with an entire party of pilgrims, no matter who they are." He swiped the back of his hand across his sweating forehead. "Stop by here when you return. I'll hold that room for you until you have passage out of Iconium."

Olivia bowed. "You are most gracious."

The cook laughed again and urged one of the scullery slaves to work harder. "It will be the same charge each night. I am not one of those landlords who is forever increasing his rates."

Olivia gave the usual polite answers as she made her way out of the kitchen. She was amused and troubled at once, for she sensed the cook's attraction—to a fresh-faced eunuch, not to a disguised woman—and was not eager to be accused of her particular deception. At the same time she felt a deeper anxiety, and she knew it sprang from her need to apply once again to the Knights Hospitaler. If she had not left Rainaut so short a time ago, it would be less worrying to apply to them. Or so she argued with herself. When she had left Tyre in the escort of two Hospitalers, she had wealth, rank, and Roman earth to protect her. Now she was without all three and the prospect of putting herself in the hands of the Hospitalers once again was not wholly welcome. She briefly considered the cook's sarcastic advice and wondered if she dared to leave Iconium on her own, without any escort or companions. The dangers of such an enterprise more than outweighed the temptation it offered.

When she reached the chapter house of the Hospitalers, she saw that she was far from the first to petition them: a large gathering of men waited at the door of the chapter house, all of them standing in the heat of the sun since there was no shade here at this time of day.

Impulsively, she entered the Hospitaler chapel and approached the altar, kneeling when she was four steps away from it. She raised her folded hands to her face and tried to puzzle out the best way to proceed.

A little later, while her debate with herself continued to rage, she heard footsteps behind her. She knew better than to turn, for that might be regarded as irreligious. Keeping her hands raised, she looked covertly around the chapel as much as the movement of her eyes would permit, but could not see the other supplicant without moving her head. She continued her apparent prayers, wincing as she heard a second man, this one with ringing spurs on his heels, come into the chapel. At least, she insisted to herself, she was no longer in the sun, which was one genuine improvement.

Two priests came into the chapel and began preparations for their mid-afternoon Mass. One of them gave Olivia a long, critical stare, but said nothing, and in a short time continued about the tasks of preparing for worship.

More men entered the chapel; the air was close and quite warm. In an hour it would be stiflingly hot. Candles and incense were lit, their smoke contributing to the smell of the place. Gradually knights and pilgrims found places near Olivia, and in a short while the chapel was crowded; the odor of unbathed flesh and unwashed clothing grew oppressive.

At last the Mass began, the priests intoning the liturgy in high, nasal voices while the responses were deep and uneven. Olivia kept her voice low, so that she would not attract any more unwanted attention than she already had. Over the centuries she had learned many versions of the Mass, noting now with impatience that the greatest alteration she had seen in all that time was a tendency for the service to become longer. There was a time when Christian worship required little more than a communal supper and a bishop to pronounce "Ita Missa est" before bread was broken. Those days were far in the past, in the remote time before Niklos Aulirios had become her bondsman. She bit her lip to keep from crying out at his memory, and in the next breath cursed herself for the direct stare she had attracted from one of the two officiating priests. For the rest of the Mass, she tried to shut out the pressure of so many people around her and to follow the ritual in an exemplary manner.

She was just getting to her feet after the Mass was finished when the priest who had stared at her two times came up to her. She lowered her head respectfully and wished there were fewer people in the chapel so that she could make her escape. "Good Pere," she said when the priest made a gesture to detain her. "What do you wish of me?"

"I could not help but be struck by your zeal and devotion," he said, his voice still high and nasal. "It is not often that eunuchs show such piety."

Olivia cursed herself in amusement. The very thing she had hoped to avoid through the appearance of devotion had been enhanced by it. "Perhaps it is that not many eunuchs are welcome in worship." She knew of churches which expressly forbade eunuchs to participate in services when women were present; she assumed the priest knew about them as well.

"A lack in some of our faith, I fear," said the priest. "After the ferocity I have seen in battle and the torture endured by Christians, I no longer see the shame in being without the means of generation." He put his hand to the large, jeweled crucifix hanging from the massive gold collar he wore. "You came into the chapel early, doubtless to prepare yourself for the Mass. But I wondered if there might be another cause as well."

Olivia did her best to conceal her confusion. "Good Pere, I am not worthy of such… assistance."

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