Crusader's Torch Page 68

"Go along there; it's that way. Look for a place where the road turns west and another road from a church joins it at a square-fronted shrine. There are two crosses flanking the shrine instead of one atop. The next gate is for Sanza Pare. But they take no soldiers there." He looked at Fealatie. "It is a noblewoman's estate. They have no place for improper women." The condemning expression he wore revealed that he disapproved of Fealatie wearing mail.

"They will admit us," said Olivia. She motioned for the other three to follow, and led the way along the road they had been told to take. Now that she was nearing her home—a home she had never seen—Olivia was unable to believe that her long journey was coming to an end. It did not seem possible that she should be walking on familiar roads, with Roma, beloved Roma a day's walk from her land. Her satisfaction was dream-like, and she was not wholly convinced that she would not awaken shortly to discover that she was alone in the mountains, Atlas lamed by broken feet, and no sanctuary of any kind for her.

"That's the shrine," said Fealatie, pointing to the two crosses flanking the small structure of stone and wood. "I wonder who it honors?"

"Probably the Virgin," said Olivia, recalling how over the centuries the harvest statues of Ceres had been changed to shrines to the Virgin. "Or one of the local saints."

"I must stop," said Fealatie, pulling up the horse. "I ought to offer prayers here." She had been trying to keep to the requirements of her penance and to pray at every shrine she passed. Giralt held the gelding's reins while Fealatie went to kneel before the weathered statue that was so ancient it was impossible to tell the identity of the saint it represented.

This was so like the delays in dreams that Olivia found it difficult to believe once again that she was not about to waken. She did not pace or fret, but the hope that had been burgeoning within her faded as she watched Fealatie kneeling before the shrine.

"Bondama?" Sigfroit asked, cutting into her ruminations. "Are you ready?" There was a slight edge of doubt in his question, as if he was not certain she would take them to her estate, or that the estate truly existed.

"Oh, yes," said Olivia softly. She fidgeted as Fealatie remounted and then signaled to her. "We're almost there." Her stride lengthened, and at the next gate, she stopped, as she had been told to do. After a short hesitation, she reached for the chain that rang the bell for entry.

"How much room is there in the house?" asked Giralt while they waited.

"I… I don't know," Olivia admitted. "Enough, I am certain."

"How can you not know?" Giralt demanded, his voice growing sharp.

"It has been… a long time since I have lived in this country," said Olivia, not quite sure how best to answer him. She was spared further explanation by the appearance of a house slave. "God give you good day," Olivia said when the slave unbarred the door.

"What business have you here?" the slave inquired in an unencouraging manner.

Giralt exchanged quick looks with Fealatie, but said nothing when she gestured him to silence.

Olivia made herself speak calmly. "I… we wish to speak to the major domo here, the bondsman Niklos Aulirios," she said with careful precision. "It is important."

"Aulirios is busy in the fields," said the slave at his most daunting.

"Then please fetch him. I bring him word from the Holy Land." She knew it was useless to reveal who she was—the disheartening experience of the past had taught her that such statements were rarely believed and often escalated to angry confrontations—but hoped that her knowledge of Niklos would be enough to cause the slave to bring him. How amusing, she thought with wry irritation, that she should come this far and be balked by a slave at her own gate.

"If it is not, Aulirios will see that you suffer for this intrusion," the slave promised before going away from the gate.

"Your household is courteous to strangers," Sigfroit said sarcastically. "But that must be the habit of caution."

"I assume so," said Olivia, doing her best to seem unperturbed by the slave's actions.

"How long will he take?" asked Giralt.

"I don't know," Olivia admitted, and schooled herself to wait without fretting.

It took longer than the first half of the Mass for the slave to return, decidedly flustered. He unbarred the gate and drew it open. "Aulirios said you are to be admitted. I am to take you to the vestibule of the villa."

"You are kind," said Olivia, thinking that if they looked as scruffy to the slave as they did to her own eyes, his reluctance to admit them was understandable, and his disapproval in taking them into the villa itself.

"This is beautiful," murmured Fealatie as the gates were closed behind them and the gardens and court came into view.

"Yes," said Olivia with a faint smile. "Yes, it is."

At the slave's instructions, the horse was relinquished to the care of grooms with the assurance that he would receive proper care. This last was said pointedly, showing the slave's lack of satisfaction with the way the gelding looked now.

"There is a vestibule by the inner garden," the slave went on as the front door of the villa was opened by a footman. "Aulirios will meet you there. He has instructed that you be given refreshments." With that, he made a short bow and went away into another part of the building.

Fealatie stared around the entrance to the villa. "This is… more than I anticipated."

It was all Olivia could do to keep from concurring. She indicated the door the slave had pointed out. "We're to wait here," she said, looking at the handsome paintings on the walls and the ornate patterns inlaid on the floor. What a splendid home Niklos had made for her! Her smile was almost painful.

Two kitchen slaves had just withdrawn from the vestibule, leaving Fealatie, Sigfroit, and Giralt more food to sample than they had tasted in days, when the door to the inner garden opened and a moderately tall man in old-fashioned dalmatica came in, his handsome face frowning with concern.

The three strangers looked up, their expressions uncertain, and for a moment no one spoke.

"You are from the Holy Land?" Niklos said without any formal salute or greeting. "Why have you come here?"

A voice on the other side of the room answered. "They brought me home, Niklos."

With a glad shout, Niklos spun around, opening his arms as he did. "Olivia!"

She had decided she would not be overcome by seeing him once more, that she would walk to him, quickly but not too quickly, and take his hands in hers. "Niklos!" she cried, and hurtled across the room into his arms.

That night, when her chagrined but delighted guests had been fed, bathed, clothed, and sent to their various rooms, Niklos walked through the gardens with Olivia beside him.

"I was afraid for you," he said. "I've had Ithuriel Dar—do you remember him?—searching every port in the Holy Land."

"I remember him very well," said Olivia, her hazel eyes distant. "How will you send him word that he can stop hunting?"

Niklos considered his answer, knowing that her question was serious. "I will probably alert all our ships and the ships of our new partnerships to ask for him at every port. He'll turn up soon enough." He hesitated. "I am truly grateful to him for all he did. It's my pleasure at having you back that makes me flippant."

"I know that," Olivia assured him.

"It was an ordeal," he said, speaking of her last few years, not his own.

"Yes," she said quietly. "I'll tell you all of it, but not just now." She raised her head as an owl swept overhead on silent wings. "You have done a magnificent job here. I am overwhelmed."

"Thank you," he said. "But something does not satisfy you."

"I didn't say that," she told him.

"It's true, whether you say it or not." He stopped walking and looked down at her. "Tell me."

She did not speak at once. "Villa Ragoczy. Have you seen it? Is there anything left of it?"

"Not much," he said, making the news as gentle a blow as he could. "It was badly damaged before you went to Tyre, and it has not improved since then."

"Ah." Olivia walked a few steps away, then came back. "Niklos, buy it. I want to have it, to restore it."

"Sanct' Germain is far away, Olivia," Niklos pointed out with great kindness.

"Yes, but he may be back one day. Buy it, and make it as beautiful as you have made Sanza Pare. It truly is without equal." She leaned her head on his shoulder. "I have missed you so much."

"And I you," he said.

Shortly before they went back into the villa, Niklos said, "What about those three you brought with you? From what they said, they're not going to return to France, not for a long while."

Olivia smiled briefly. "And they may or may not be granted a change in her penance, even if you can aid them in petitioning a Cardinal."

"What, then? I know you, Olivia, and you have something in mind for them." Niklos grinned widely. "It is so good to hear your schemes once more. Tell me what you've decided for them."

"I've decided nothing for them," Olivia said in a prim manner that was so unlike her that Niklos had to stifle a laugh. "But should they want to make use of the house I have at Bergamo, or the old farm in Carinthia, I will let them know that they are available."

Niklos hesitated. "That's well enough for Fealatie and her besotted Giralt. But what of Sigfroit? He is fascinated with you."

"Or suspicious," Olivia corrected him.

"Fascinated," Niklos insisted. "Suppose he would rather remain here for a while? He would be good for you, Olivia. I know you. You are brittle as a leaf now, all for loneliness." His face changed, growing more loving and concerned. "If he asked it, would you let him stay?"

Olivia did not quite smile as she answered. "Perhaps."

* * *

Text of a letter from Kalere Navrentos to Olivia Clemens at Sanza Pare, outside of Roma, written in French and in archaic Greek.

Most gracious Bondama, your generous gifts have arrived, and my brother and I have offered up prayers in your name for the great charity you have shown to us and to those who pass through our doors.

You inquire about the state of health and mind of Valence Rainaut who accompanied you here, and we are sad to inform you that his suffering in this world has not yet ended. It will not be much longer, for his body is frail as twigs, and his flesh is as shrunken as fruit left too long on the vine. His thoughts are now quite lost to us, and no words or actions have been able to recall him from his melancholy since before the start of summer.

You informed us that the messenger who came here seeking you late in the spring has recently returned to Roma. Certainly this man will tell you more than anything I might say in a letter about the great burden God has put on Valence Rainaut. Your funds to provide Masses for the repose of his soul upon his death are not necessary, but we accept them gratefully, in the name of all those who come here for succor.

With your ordeal behind you, and your fortunes again favorable, the path is smooth and pleasant; in all life this is proof of the joy of the soul [in archaic Greek] for surely the soul is harlot and virgin, mother and daughter of the flesh, the androgyne, father and mother; the soul is exalted and spurned, is debauched and holy, is knowledge and ignorance, is foolishness and wisdom, and nothing comes in life that is not part of the soul.

[in French] For your long fidelity and your devotion without reward, God will show you wisdom and blessing. Those who love without rationing their love will receive love in abundance, for as the stone is hollowed it is filled.

Be assured that whatever may be done for Valence Rainaut will be done, and that it will be done for as long as it must be done, without stinting, and that when it is over, he will lie quietly and untroubled for the care of your good heart.

In the Name of God, Who is all things, from Muse to the End of the World,

Kalere Navrentos

By my own hand on the Feast of Epiphany, in the Lord's Year 1193.

- 20 -

At San Stefano in Insula, Fealatie waited restlessly, taking no solace from Giralt or Sigfroit. She fretted in her harness and glared at the Benedictine monks who lived in the tiny monastery.

"They will refuse me again," she said when the monks had retired for their solitary meditations before prayer. "They're keeping the Little Hours, but it won't matter if we wait from prime to compline, it will simply be another delay." Her hands were locked in combat with each other. "It's useless."

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