Crusader's Torch Page 69

"You must not despair," said Giralt, as if talking to a faltering squire. "You have come this far, much farther than any of us thought to go."

Sigfroit, who had been looking out across the narrow bridge toward the western bank of the Tibros, now glanced back. "Olivia said that she would be back by mid-afternoon; I believe she will."

"But what answer will she bring?" Fealatie asked, her voice rising in spite of herself. "This is the fourth time we have tried, and always it has come to nothing." She lowered her head. "Perhaps I should petition my husband to be allowed to enter a convent."

"No," Giralt said at once. "No."

Slowly she looked toward him. "No," she agreed.

Sigfroit paced the narthex once. "His Holiness is a very old man, an ancient man, and they say his strength is not great."

"They also say," interjected Giralt in an undervoice, "that his mind has become childish."

"They say that of everyone with white hair," Sigfroit reminded him with a significant nod to Giralt's hair that had gone badger-gray in the last six months. "It isn't always so."

Giralt got to his feet, his newly polished mail jingling as he moved. "He has many souls under his wing, Fealatie, and age has made him feeble."

"But still," she sighed, letting herself have the luxury of leaning against his shoulder. "Still."

A discreet cough gained their attention as the porter, a tertiary Brother, came from the chapel. "There will be food for you shortly. The Abbot has ordered that I bring you wine." He indicated the tray he had set down. "Deo gratias."

All three armored guests made the Sign of the Cross, murmuring "Deo gratias" in response.

When the porter had left them alone, Sigfroit poured out the wine for them. "It has a good scent," he commented. "Not that sour fare most monks drink."

"That's fortunate." Giralt took the cup offered him.

"What if we were to go to San Cristofo?" Fealatie said abruptly. "What if we were to ask for the audience ourselves, rather than waiting for Olivia to arrange matters for us? Might we not prevail?"

Sigfroit put a cup of wine in hand. "We might," he said in a skeptical tone. "But if we do not prevail, we would never again have the opportunity to approach His Holiness."

"But it's been four times; we have been at Roma now for seven months. How much longer will we have to remain?" There were tears on her cheeks. "God does not hear me." She drank suddenly and deeply as if to drown any more blasphemous words.

"It is not God, but the Pope you are trying to see," Sigfroit pointed out, sounding very much like Olivia for an instant. "God will hear your prayers, but it will take the Pope's approval to—"

Giralt motioned him to silence. "Horses coming." He took the winecup from Fealatie's hand and set it with his own on the tray.

Sigfroit had stopped still. "Olivia," he said quietly.

The rattle of trotting hooves on the bridge grew louder, then slowed to a halt at the gate to San Stefano in Insula. The clang of the visitors' bell echoed off the walls.

"Bondama Atta Olivia Clemens returns," Niklos called out. "The Abbot has already given permission for her entry."

"Saints aid me," whispered Fealatie, unaware that she had taken Giralt's hand in her own.

"Never mind the Saints, hope that the physicians who serve the Pope will aid you," said Sigfroit, setting his cup aside and striding toward the chapel door. "Where are they?"

"With the porter, probably," said Giralt. "The porter has to admit her."

"Both of them," corrected Fealatie. She took a long, deep breath and let it out slowly, unsteadily. "I despise having to wait. I believe I have spent all my life waiting and waiting and waiting."

Giralt tightened his hold on her hand. "God give us all courage."

"Amen," said Fealatie automatically, listening to the sound of approaching steps.

The warder monk, a hunchbacked fellow with a ferret's face and the manner of a general, opened the side-door to the narthex of the chapel. "Your friends await you once you have finished your prayers," he said in a pointed way.

"Pax vobiscum," said Niklos as he came through the door, holding it open for Olivia. "At last," he said to the others. "If you are half so tired of waiting as we are, you must be halfway to madness by now."

"Yes, halfway," said Fealatie.

Olivia lifted the long veil that covered her head and shoulders. "Magna Mater, what a terrible fuss it is." She ran her hand over her fawn-colored hair, securing a few wisps under the crespine net that held her coiled braids.

"What fuss?" asked Giralt in a sharp tone.

"The entire Papal court," said Olivia with asperity. "The Curia has always been difficult, but now—" Her gesture was aggravated.

Fealatie released Giralt's hand. "Tell me. It's another delay, isn't it?"

"Not precisely," said Olivia, her hazel eyes lingering briefly on Sigfroit's face. She turned to Fealatie again. "I have arranged a meeting at vespers with Cardinal Ermano Trivento. He is one of the secretaries to His Holiness and he has said he will decide if your case merits the attention of the Pope."

"But without the Pope—" Fealatie began.

Giralt interrupted her. "Doesn't the Cardinal understand that without the Pope, Fealatie will have no means to fulfill the conditions of her—"

Olivia held up her hand to silence them both. "I have explained your situation to everyone I could force or cajole into hearing me. You have my word that he knows the particulars of your situation, Fealatie." She paused, weighing her next words. "But sadly there are many petitioners, and the Pope is in frail health."

"I know, yes." Fealatie nodded slowly. "Of course. I did not want to appear ungrateful."

"Oh, for the mercy of Miner—" Olivia exclaimed. "What has gratitude to do with it? If it comes to gratitude, I owe my life to you." She met Fealatie's eyes directly. "If it were up to me, I would challenge the Pope on his way to Mass. But that is not what you wish, is it?"

"No," said Fealatie, then, very suddenly, she laughed. "You, stopping His Holiness. I can almost see you doing it."

"Don't encourage her," said Niklos from his place by the door. As the others turned toward him, he said, "If we are going to reach San Cristofo in time, we should leave as soon as the monks will permit it. It's time to be at prayers."

"Niklos is right," said Olivia with determination. "I ought to have suggested this."

Fealatie nodded, starting toward the chapel. Then she stopped. "Do you think this will do any good?"

"It may," said Olivia candidly. "It is closer than we have come before. Each step is progress, no matter how small it is." She did her best to smile just before she genuflected and crossed herself. "In Roma, long ago, they were content to let you burn a pinch of incense without the chants and the kneeling."

"Olivia," Niklos warned her.

"Yes, yes," she said quietly as she bowed her head and began the long and tedious recitations in the corrupted Latin the Church used.

The road to San Cristofo was fairly crowded, for although it was just after the heat of the day, the late spring had brought traders onto the road. Merchants with mule trains and peasants with ox-carts all jostled to or from the Papal court attending on His Holiness who had come to San Cristofo for the sake of the hot springs which were said to ease diseases of the joints. By the time they dismounted in the old courtyard of San Cristofo, the sun had slid well down the western sky.

As grooms took their horses in charge, Olivia said to the others, "Speak as little as possible until I have presented your case. They consider silence to be a sign of virtuous patience here; it will strengthen your case if you say nothing until it is required of you."

"And you?" Fealatie asked.

"It's best if I can keep quiet, as well. A sore trial, isn't it?" She gave Fealatie a swift, encouraging smile, then started toward the massive wooden inner door.

The monks who greeted them with elaborate courtesy were Ambrosians, sleek and elegant in their simple habits, their tonsured hair glossy and their bodies rounded with good living. "God give you welcome in this place and vindicate your cause. Pax vobiscum," said the senior of the two, addressing Olivia. "Bondama Clemens, your party is awaited in the reception hall of Cardinal Trivento. He and Cardinal dei Conti are already there."

Olivia, who had donned her veil once more, made a gesture of compliance. She motioned to Fealatie and the others to join her as they went down the frescoed corridor.

"An unusual place," murmured Sigfroit, staring at the faded and very secular illustrations on the high walls.

"Long ago, when the Caesars reigned, it was a famous bath for the infirm," said Olivia, keeping her voice low. "Some of the buildings are of that time."

"Strange pictures for a monastery," Sigfroit observed, then said nothing more as he caught a cautioning sign from Niklos.

The reception hall of Cardinal Trivento was on the second floor of the building, smelling of iron and sulphur from the baths below. The walls were whitewashed and the only ornamentation was a large crucifix between two tall, narrow windows. Cardinal Trivento was seated at his writing table, and he looked up as Olivia paused in the door.

"Bondama Clemens," said the Cardinal, rising ponderously to his feet. He was a massive man, big-framed and heavy-bodied; he inspected her companions through the tangle of his eyebrows.

"It is my honor to present the Chatelaine I spoke of earlier. You know her tribulation; without the attention of the Pope, she must continue in disgrace."

"Yes, yes," said Cardinal Trivento. "Come in." He held out his hand so that all could genuflect and kiss his ring. When that was done, he nodded toward the far end of the room. "That is Cardinal dei Conti. He will also receive your obligations." Once again the ritual of kneeling and ring-kissing was repeated, but this time with greater curiosity, for Cardinal dei Conti was little more than thirty, a handsome, auburn-haired man with large gray eyes and a grave manner. When this was done, Cardinal Trivento said, "I have asked Cardinal dei Conti to be with us for two reasons: first, he is the nephew of His Holiness Clement III, who reigned before our Celestine III. Second, he has studied law at Paris and Bologna, and is better able to advise you than I am."

"You underestimate your skills," said dei Conti with dignity. "However, it is my duty to impart whatever information may benefit you." He walked to the window and looked out toward the roof of the opposite building. "His Holiness has requested that where matters of law are concerned that he be given the opinions of two or more Cardinals."

"Very wise," said Sigfroit.

Dei Conti regarded him narrowly. "If you are insolent, this inquiry is over."

"I am not insolent," said Sigfroit at once, bowing his head as much to hide the angry light in his eyes as to show respect. "We have experienced delays and disappointment. I am concerned for the welfare of my Chatelaine, as my oath requires me to be."

"Commendable," said the young Cardinal dryly.

Cardinal Trivento shuffled through the vellum sheets on his writing table and finally drew out one. "Ah, here it is. This is your complaint and petition, at least as far as Bondama Clemens had communicated it to us. Chatelaine, you are to give close attention to the reading and correct any error or misconception that may appear here."

Fealatie bowed her head, giving Olivia a startled look as she did. "As God guides me, and with Him to witness the truth," she said.

Cardinal Trivento read steadily and on a single note so that Fealatie's case sounded much the same as a household inventory. The Cardinal did not look up from the page as he read, even on those rare occasions when Fealatie made meticulous corrections or qualifications, all of which were painstakingly noted in the margins of the petition. This took some time; bells were sounding for private devotions by the time Cardinal Trivento put down the pages and addressed Fealatie directly. "You vow to God that what has been read here is true, without lie or misrepresentation, as you expect to be judged on the Last Day?"

"Yes, I swear on my salvation it is accurate," said Fealatie, feeling a little breathless.

Cardinal dei Conti, who had remained silent with the rest of the company, now came forward. "What is the wish of your husband in this matter, do you know?"

"I believe he is adamant; he demands that I enter Jerusalem under the terms originally set forth." She looked over at Giralt. "My escort has been loyal beyond any duty of rank. Let their testimony be heard, as well, in order to know how much I have tried to obey the mandate of my husband."

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