Crusader's Torch Page 59

"Oh, no. I do not break bread with him," said Sigfroit, indicating Gace as if he were a minor servant.

Gace's face darkened and one hand went to the poignard in his belt. "Do you dare—"

"Certainly not; you are the daring one. I would not take any gauntlet of yours." The insult was deadly, and all of them knew it.

"Sigfroit, for Our Lord's sake—" Fealatie began.

"I will help in obtaining his release, I will endorse your signature, but I will not share food with him, or take his challenge," Sigfroit said, stepping away from them.

Fealatie could not argue with him. "Giralt?"

"If you insist," he said quietly, meeting her eyes. "If it is your wish, I will do it, for your sake; else not for my hope of salvation."

"Fine words," Gace jeered. He cocked his head toward Sigfroit. "At least he's honest."

Giralt made mallets of his hands, preparing to fight. Fealatie stopped him, stepping between him and Gace. "No," she ordered. "No. There will be no more divisiveness."

"Tell him," Giralt muttered, his eyes growing flinty as he stared at Gace. "He is the one who is leaving."

Fealatie took a step closer to Giralt. "Please. Please do not do this. It is painful enough to have him go; to have such anger at his leaving is worse than any condemnation from my husband. Giralt. For your oath, if not for me."

It was Sigfroit who answered for Giralt and himself. "We are your men, Bondama Fealatie, and what you ask we will do."

"Is it settled?" Gace asked when Giralt had opened his hands and taken several steps back. "Food, and then I will find a priest. The Bourgesses must be able to recommend one."

"Yes," said Giralt with bitterness. "Best speak with the Bourgesses. It is less disgraceful than going to one of the churches for absolution."

"No more," Fealatie insisted. At least she would have Giralt and Sigfroit, she told herself. She would not be alone, and likely to suffer the penalties women endured if they disguised themselves as men. In the company of her knights, her battle harness was not a disguise; alone it became the means of her condemnation.

Once again no one spoke.

When the silence had been stretched out as much as any of them could endure, Sigfroit said, "I am going back to the inn."

"Good," Fealatie concurred, looking to Giralt for support. "Will you come?"

"Yes." He had positioned himself between Fealatie and Gace, and now made it all but impossible for Gace to speak directly to the chatelaine. "Let me accompany you."

Fealatie wanted no more abrasions, and she was terrified of being alone. "All right." She knew that there was no reason for her to speak with Gace again, but she had enough sympathy for him that she wanted to find a word or a phrase that would mend the rift he had created. "It is a fine thing to long for home."

As Gace bowed to her, Giralt took her arm to move her away. "He is not worthy of being the dust under your feet, Bondama."

True to his word, Gace found the needed cleric, a Cistercian monk, who was willing to write a formal release and witness it.

"By mid-day tomorrow it will all be over and you can congratulate yourselves on your valor while I make arrangements to return to France." He was full of bravado and would have swaggered if his malformed foot permitted it.

Sigfroit refused to speak; he stared at the ceiling of the common room of the inn, his jaw set. Giralt made a point of speaking only to Fealatie. "I have a notion, Bondama, and I hope you will consider it. Since we have yet to receive permission to approach Jerusalem."

She answered listlessly. "What is it?"

"You said yourself that only a Cardinal or the Pope could determine if you have met the conditions of your penance, or could impose new terms on the penance. If that is the case, then it might be our best course to go to Roma and find a Cardinal who will listen to you and who will decide what is to be done." The words came out quickly, more from nervousness than from enthusiasm. "It is a satisfactory solution to the problem, isn't it?"

Fealatie sat a little straighter on the hard bench. For the first time in months her thoughts quickened without fear. "It might be one means," she said, not letting herself hope.

"It could be the only means," said Giralt. "And it is one that… that your husband cannot cavil with." He took care not to appear to speak with Gace, or to seek his advice. "We could be here another year without getting nearer Jerusalem, no matter whose aid we solicit. If we go to Roma, it could be that we will not have to return here, or if we do, it will be with the means to fulfill the terms of penance."

Sigfroit, who had been ignoring the whole, began to listen attentively. "If a Cardinal declares your penance done, there is no one in France who could question you." He hesitated. "Your husband is a… stern man, and without such—"

"My husband is a good Christian," said Fealatie, trying to keep from hating Gui de Fraizmarch who had treated her with such unforgiving harshness.

Giralt spoke carefully. "It is fitting that a Cardinal determine the matter. Not just for your husband, Bondama, but for the Comes de Reissac, who requires expiation. Since de Reissac endorsed your penance, he must approve the mitigation from a Prince of the Church. We are witness to your many attempts and can address a Cardinal or your husband on your behalf."

Neither Giralt nor Sigfroit was willing to speak against Gui de Fraizmarch, although both had long since decided that the man was overly severe in his punishment of his wife. Sigfroit heard Giralt out, and added, "We are honor-bound to see that your penance is fulfilled; if there is a Cardinal who will endorse what you have done already or will set an acceptable goal, it will satisfy me and my oath entirely."

"And it is so much safer in Roma than here," added Gace, and grinned sourly when the others refused to speak to him.

"I will see if there is passage," Giralt volunteered. "If there is not, then I will try to get safe-conducts for the road. One way or another, we will get to Roma."

"And then?" Fealatie asked of the air.

"You will persevere and that will bring vindication," said Giralt with feeling, his hands almost touching her. "What reasonable man would refuse to assist you? It is for the benefit of your soul as well as to regain the honor of your House and your husband's House." He wished she would smile, or that she would show more animation. All through their long ordeal she had been encouraging and brave. Now, with the first hint of hope, she was languishing. "Fealatie, you will achieve your victory."

"I've had a victory already," she said softly, "and look at what I have reaped."

Only Gace laughed at this, and he slapped his thigh and stamped his feet, making a greater show of hilarity than what he actually felt. "Bondama, you are a treasure."

She turned and stared coldly at Gace. "What have I done to deserve such a compliment?"

Gace laughed more determinedly. "A treasure."

"Of what worth?" She rose from her place and went to stand directly in front of Gace. "Tell me, Gace, of what worth?"

His laughter stopped as suddenly as a thunderclap. "Great worth," he said emotionlessly.

"Why should I believe that? Why should I not challenge you for the insult you have offered my House through your derision? Or would you refuse my challenge? And why?" She was poised and steely, unflinching in her arrogation, aware that she had gone beyond proper limits, that she was doing herself what she had forbade her knights to do. "Would you face me, Gace?"

He had gone white around the mouth. "No."

"And why not?" she asked relentlessly.

"It would… dishonor my oath. Which you may possibly understand." This last was defiant and truculent.

"Certainly," she said, taking one step back. "And before you speak again, I pray you will consider your honor and mine." With that she signaled to Sigfroit and Giralt and left the room.

The following morning, Gace was subdued, addressing Fealatie respectfully and directly at all times, for the first time treating her as he would have treated her husband.

"We will meet shortly with the monk. He has said that the release has been drafted and needs only your approval before it is prepared for signatures and witnesses." He was not dressed in his mail now but in a cotehardie and mantel, for traveling. "I will leave my harness with you, if you require it."

"No; take it with you," said Fealatie. "It is one less thing for us to carry."

He bowed again. "Thank you, gracious Bondama."

"How soon will you depart?" Sigfroit asked, as if inquiring about the hour or the weather.

"With the Bondama's permission, I will leave before sunset. You will not see me again until… until we meet in France." He said this unsteadily. "When you return to France, it will be my honor to visit you."

"Spare me that honor," said Sigfroit caustically. "You have favored me with enough of your presence. Once we return to France, there is no reason any of us should meet again." He did not offer any formal farewell.

"Where is this monk of yours?" Giralt inquired.

"He will be here," said Gace with a nervous cough.

"Shortly?" Giralt would have needled Gace more, but a warning look from Fealatie silenced him.

"I am sorry that we cannot offer you food for your journey," said Fealatie with more politeness than truth, "but it must be reserved for those continuing on in my company. You are a knight; you understand."

"Of course," said Gace a bit too eagerly.

She folded her arms, her mail squeeking where she bent it. "When you return to France, do me the service of notifying my husband what I have decided to do, and inform him that he will receive word from me after I have reached Roma."

"Yes, Bondama." He bowed again, taking care to include Sigfroit and Giralt. "And the Abbot of Sante-Estien-in-Gorze. Certainly he must know of your actions as well."

He was spared further embarrassment by the arrival of the monk, a square-faced, tonsured man of middle years tending toward a ruddy complexion and portliness. He carried three sheets of vellum with him along with a small box containing his ink and writing instruments. As soon as he had delivered a cursory blessing, he took a place at the long dining table and spread out his work. "Do any of you read?"

"I do," Fealatie said at once.

"A little," said Giralt.

"No," said Sigfroit. "Not much."

"Well enough," the monk declared, holding up one of the vellum sheets to show the writing on it. "I have indicated that it is agreed that this knight has completed his escort and is released without further duties."

"Yes," said Fealatie, reading over the monk's shoulder.

"Further, there is no fault attached to his departure and no dishonor to his House. His conduct is not to be impugned, nor his departure condemned. In addition, no argument exists between any of you and this knight, nor any blame fixes to him." He paused to look at Fealatie. "I have reason to believe that this is a most… unusual penance, and its completion has been rendered virtually impossible. Your husband and the Church demand that you fulfill what cannot be accomplished. Is that essentially correct?"

"Essentially," said Fealatie, resting her hand on the hilt of her sword.

"Since you are aware that the fulfillment of the terms of penance are not possible, this knight is exonerated from the task of assisting you to carry it out." He looked up at Fealatie, tangled brows raised in speculation. "Have I surmised correctly?"

Fealatie nodded once. "That is one way of looking at it."

The monk's lips twitched at the corner in a failed smile. "Very well then. If these items are sufficient, I will make a full and correct copy, and you will sign to show your acceptance and agreement." He was fussy in his movements, forever brushing his fingers over the vellum as if to rid it of dust and lint. "You may stipulate that the knight is being released at his request, if you like."

"I would want that included," Fealatie said firmly. "Yes, include that, if you will."

"Gladly," said the monk as he set to work.

Fealatie read the words as they appeared on the vellum sheet as if they were writ in fire and gave her into the power of Satan himself.

* * *

Text of a report on the questioning of Fraire Eleus, made by the Hieronomite monk Folgore d'Orbicciani.

Our Order having been apprised of the possible tergiversation of one of our number by a Master of the Knights Hospitaler of Saint John, Jerusalem, our Senior Abbot has given orders that the monk in question, one Fraire Eleus, is to be questioned. I swear on the Cross that this is a full and accurate recording of all that the apostate Eleus said during the tortures that were applied to him to obtain his true confession on the third and final day of his ordeal.

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