Crusader's Torch Page 67

It is being said that an end is in sight, and that those few of us remaining will be permitted to leave before another year goes by. Some have suggested that the current makeshift truce will become formal and that will permit us to return either to France or to the Frankish cities. I have heard that Saladin is willing to permit Christians to retain the coastal cities that are currently in Christian hands. The merchants are all for that, and the Courts of Bourgesses have urged that the terms be formalized as soon as possible, before the Islamites change their minds and demand control of the ports.

It is disheartening to be here now, to see the destruction of the cities and all the huts and hovels where the people live who used to have houses within the walls. Many of the simple folk, farmers and smiths and artisans, are angry and displeased about the whole venture, and they blame Reis Richard more than they blame you.

Also, most of the people are afraid of the Templars, who are worse than pagan warlords in their conduct. While the Order is regarded as being in French hands, I warn you that they are beyond any control but the Will of God. They live in great luxury, for all their vows of poverty, and their Order has so much treasure amassed in their chapter houses that it is said that they could buy Jerusalem from the Islamites. No matter what the official reports tell you, or what the heralds say, I am warning you that the Templars are more treacherous than any Islamite warrior.

The Hospitalers are another matter, for they continue to uphold their rule of protection and defense, and have not yet been lured into battle. The day they are permitted to attack is the day they will become one with the Templars, in act if not in habit.

I pray that I have said nothing to offend the King's Grace, nor to bring about any mistake in judgment. I swear by God and the honor of my House that what I have said is the truth and I will stand by my Word at the Last Trumpet. God save and protect you, Reis Phillippe.

Your martlet

By my confessor's hand and under confessional seal and arms seal, on the 2nd day of August in the 1192nd year of Our Lord.

- 19 -

They came on the Via Flaminia, with one horse between the four of them; of the three they had taken aboard the usciere at Attalia, one had taken colic aboard ship and died; the other had been sold for traveling money when they arrived in Ancona. The remaining gelding was showing ribs and sweating readily in the high summer heat. Olivia's suggestion that they travel only in the early morning and late evening, Fealatie did not bother to discuss; she told Sigfroit and Giralt to find them all satisfactory places to rest at the hottest hours.

"That's for farmers," said Sigfroit. "What are we, hod carriers? that we must drop into the shade once the sun is overhead? We have been in the Holy Land, and this is pleasant by comparison." He had hooked his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his heels to show his disgust.

"I was more concerned for the horse than for you," said Fealatie. "He's straining, and if we want to be able to ride him to Roma, he had best not be hard-driven now."

Giralt took Fealatie's position. "We have come this far, and there is no reason we should bring ourselves to the brink of failure now. If resting for a time spares the animal's and our own strength, then why not?" He patted the neck of the gelding. "He has served us well and has earned our consideration."

Olivia, who felt as if she had succumbed to fever, though she knew it was the sun leaching her vitality, interjected her observation. "The horse is worn out. He cannot be pushed, but then, neither can we. Think of how hungry and thirsty we have been. If we are sensible now we will not have worse to suffer before we reach Sanza Pare."

"Are you certain we will be welcome there?" Giralt asked, his doubt plain on his good, square countenance.

"I have said so," Olivia reminded him, as tired of defending herself as she was of walking in sunlight. The one thing sustaining her now was the sense of nearness of Roma. It was stronger than the tug of a magnet, and she welcomed it.

"But there might have been some change," Giralt said, then added, "We have no money left, and if there can be no aid from you, we are no more than mendicants."

"The estate is mine," said Olivia, and heard the exclamation of shock and denial. "It is mine," she repeated when they let her speak again.

"You have said that your husband was a patrician," said Giralt, more critically.

"Yes, so I did. But he has been dead some time, and I have decided how the money is to be spent. I have had to use sponsors and intermediaries to accomplish my purpose, but I am the owner of Sanza Pare and the major domo there is my bondsman." She stumbled and righted herself by grabbing hold of the gelding's stirrup. "I tell you that you will be welcome there, that you will be given horses and money for all you have done, and whatever aid I can extend to bring you to a Cardinal or the Pope. If you do not believe me now, reserve your opinion until we reach the estate."

Giralt was about to question this, but Fealatie silenced him. "You gave Olivia your help because I asked it of you. Now I ask that you defer your arguments. There is time enough to cavil when we reach this Sanza Pare." She straightened in the saddle and pointed to the mountains ahead of them. "We have a long way to go before we reach Roma. Nothing can be settled before we get there."

Sigfroit, who had remained silent, now added his own comments. "Whether or not we have succor at this estate she speaks of, we will be near Roma, and that is what we wish to be. Giralt, no matter what else may happen, we have escorted Fealatie this far."

"It isn't enough to guard her, we have obligations to her, duties that extend beyond—" Giralt exclaimed only to be cut short by Fealatie herself.

"You have served me well, and in ways no oath can define. You have done far more than my husband required of you, and for longer." She looked straight ahead between her horse's ears. "I can no longer ask anything of you but what you wish to give. Any other obligation is owed not to me but to my husband." This reminder of Gui de Fraizmarch's existence caused an awkward moment; Fealatie did her best to lessen the discomfort they all felt. "I am thankful with all my soul that you are willing to remain with me on this journey, that you did not follow Gace and return to France when we were forbidden to enter Jerusalem."

Both Giralt and Sigfroit were sufficiently abashed that neither spoke for some time, and when they did, it was of minor and diverse matters; the subject of their service did not arise again, though now when Fealatie prayed at shrine, she added her thanks for the constancy of her two companions.

At last they reached Spoleto, where troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI were massing for yet another attack on the Kingdom of Sicilia in the south. Soldiers, knights, men-at-arms, armored bishops, and nobles were everywhere. The city was in an uproar, and what few accommodations were to be had were disastrously expensive. Everywhere they were asked if they were part of the Emperor's forces and when they admitted they were not, they were refused what few lodgings were left.

"We could seek refuge at a monastery," suggested Sigfroit when they had exhausted all but the brothels of the city in their search for rooms for the night.

"There won't be room; the families and dependents of the soldiers will be there, and half the merchants, no matter where you look," predicted Fealatie, recalling similar times in the Holy Land. "We are French vassals, these are German," she went on. "It would be wiser to find another place."

When it was evident that they would not find room, Olivia ventured a suggestion. "There are a few small villas through the mountains. Most of them won't be safe, but I know of one or two that are—or were—protected."

The place where she led them was an ancient guard station, sunk into the side of the hill and overlooking Termi and the Nera. There was no place to stable the horse, but the six-sided squat building was relatively untouched and large enough to hold many more than their number.

"How did you know of this?" asked Giralt with increased respect.

Olivia was trying to decide on an answer when Sigfroit said, "Old Roman families always know about the bolt-holes, don't they?" His wink took any insult out of this observation.

"Yes, and with good cause." She looked away. "Everywhere you look, there is war—Crusades and campaigns and aggressions—and nowhere can you escape it. It is all around us. Why not have a hiding place?" She had been driven here five times in the last three centuries, and each time the cause had been war.

Fealatie inspected the largest of the three rooms of the guard station, nodding her approval as she stood by the shuttered windows. "In this location, with walls this thick and those heavy wooden shutters, it might be possible to hold off an army."

"A squad," Olivia corrected, "at most a century of legionnaires."

"It's stone, so it's hard to burn…" Fealatie continued her appraisal, favorably impressed. She opened the door to one of the other two rooms. "A hearth. Spits. A kitchen?"

"And a place to keep warm in the winter," said Olivia. "It probably isn't safe to start a fire—the flues haven't been cleaned in a long time."

"The third room is a dormitory?" asked Giralt.

"Yes," said Olivia, holding the door open for them. She was the last to step through, and as her feet once again touched Roman earth, the first returning of her inner power began, like a freshet from snow at the start of spring thaw. How foolish she had thought she was when she had brought Roman earth to line the foundation for the dormitory, and now how relieved she was that she had done it. While it would not restore her to full strength, she would not be so drained as she had been.

"This was built by your House?" asked Fealatie, obviously evaluating the potential of the little guard station.

Olivia shrugged. "Indirectly, yes." It would be good to sleep here, she said to herself. The presence of her native earth under the stone floor was not unlike a distant humming, as if a nest of bees were hidden there.

"How indirectly?" Giralt wanted to know.

"This guard station is more than seven hundred years old. It's been changed a little between then and now, but is basically the same building. Seven hundred years is a long time." Olivia crossed the room to where a few planks revealed where the beds had been. "Think of how much has been lost in seven hundred years. The roads are not the same, the cities are not the same. Except for the hills themselves, this place has changed the least of anything. Or so I have been told."

The next morning the sky was cloudy, threatening a summer storm, and during the first quarter of the morning, they grew denser, as if dark canvas sails had been inexpertly stretched from horizon to horizon. After a brief conference, the four agreed to remain at the guard station one more day; trudging along muddy roads in a downpour did not appeal to any of them. So while the thunder trundled around them and lightning lanced through the clouds, Fealatie, Giralt, and Sigfroit feasted on the half-dozen rabbits Olivia caught for them.

"What can Roma offer better than this?" asked Giralt as he held up the last bits of his meal. "Where did you find the berries to crush onto the meat?"

Olivia waved in the direction of the drenched hillside. "I grew up not far from here," she said, not inaccurately if she stretched a point. "You could probably do the same for me in France."

Giralt chuckled. "But the berries would not be so sweet."

"A shame you did not eat them," said Sigfroit, a keen, speculative light at the back of his eyes.

"Oh," said Olivia with feigned insouciance, "it doesn't bother me. I used to like berries when I was young, but then I… lost my taste for them."

"Too bad; they're excellent," said Fealatie. "We'll have enough left over to be able to take food with us tomorrow." She indicated the last two rabbits on the spit over the fire in front of the guard station. "It's been some time since we had such luxury."

Olivia nodded, wishing Sigfroit was not studying her as closely as he was doing, and that his attention were not as acute as she feared it might be.

"How long will it take us now, do you know?" asked Fealatie, trying to disguise her eagerness.

"Three to four days, depending on the weather and how much traffic there is on the Via Flaminia," said Olivia. "If we encounter more of the army, we could take twice that time."

"Three or four days," said Giralt. "A full day's walk, I suppose?"

"Yes," said Olivia, filled with sudden and engrossing nostalgia. At that realization, she had to resist the urge to leave at once and walk day and night until she was truly home.

Three days later, with the walls of Roma visible in the distance, Olivia began to stop those met on the road to ask them if they knew the location of Sanza Pare. The first man was not from the area and knew nothing about the place, the second was from the south side of Roma and had no knowledge of the north side of the city. The third, a lanky fellow with a large brindled dog and a wicker basket over his shoulder, pointed out a side road.

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