Crusader's Torch Page 7

"Perhaps Roma was a better city then," Olivia suggested as she listened for the signal from Alfaze.

"How could that be?" Dar argued, enjoying himself tremendously. "How could the past have been so much better than what we have now? You can see that some of the buildings once had marble fronts, but that means little."

"If it were simply a question of marble fronts, I would agree," said Olivia, sounding more wistful than she realized.

"Still, if it's your home, it's doubtless preferable to Tyre." He looked up sharply as a bell sounded.

"My palinquin is ready," Olivia explained. "Come with me and my bearers will take me with you." As she started toward the side of her house, she paused to take a small misericordie from its rack on the wall; she tucked the thin dagger in the long folds of her girdle and stepped out of the door.

"We are ready," Alfaze said in his soft voice. "Where are we to carry you, mistress?"

"To wherever this bonsier tells you; somewhere at the wharves." She started to pull her curtains closed, then stopped. "Who is left to watch the doors and guard the house for me?"

"Saniel and Fedyah," Alfaze told her. "And three kitchen slaves."

"That will do for a short time," Olivia said, hoping that whatever Dar offered would be acceptable to the Bourgesses; she was aching to leave. Once she closed the curtains, her bearers lifted her and followed Ithuriel Dar through the crowded streets to the wharves.

At the largest of these, an usciere was unloading its living cargo; knights, equerries, and esquires stood to receive the horses as they were led out, edgy and restless after their long passage in stalls belowdecks. Templars, Hospitalers, and even two men in the yellow cote of the Knights Hospitalers of Saint Lazarus were claiming their precious animals.

"I don't carry horses on my ship—it isn't made for it. Horses belong in uscieres, and that's how it ought to be." said Dar as he watched one of the Templars alternately bully and coax a dark gray destrier down the reinforced rear gangplank. "Ah," said Dar. "Two over—you can see there is a Pisan ship. It has a square and a latin sail, and twelve oars."

Olivia, opening her curtains enough to look out, finally saw the ship Dar had indicated. "Is yours like that?"

"That's a tarida; the Ondas del' Albor is a tarida bastarda, with more sail and longer." He braced his hands on his hips. "And my ship is more beautiful."

"I am certain it is," said Olivia, respecting Dar's pride.

"There are two latin sails on the Ondas del' Albor." His expression approached smugness. "Aside from a panfilo or a fusta—and those are armed warships, mind—not even the bergantino is faster. Of course, a saettia is fastest, but there's no room for any cargo on one. I started out with a baleniero, but—"

"Bonsier Dar," Olivia interrupted, "I am sure everything you tell me is true, but I have no great interest in ships. I wish only to get over the water as quickly as is safe, and to have my goods and myself returned to Roma."

Dar sighed and turned away from the excitement on the wharves. "You do not see the beauty in all this, good widow?"

"No, Bonsier, I do not," Olivia said, and then modified her words. "If I did not become ill when traveling by water, doubtless I would come to love it in time."

Dar raised his hand to shade his eyes. "There is another ship, at the edge of the sea; it is bound for this port, I think. It carries blazoned sails."

"How can you tell?" Olivia squinted at the horizon and saw nothing.

"My eyes are farseeing, which for others could be an affliction, but is to my advantage." He favored her with a sidelong glance. "Also, when I was a child, my father taught me to look this way, from the tail of the eye, in order to see things at a great distance."

"How can you be certain that's a ship? What if it is only a cloud?" asked Olivia, curious about his answer.

"A man who has been at sea for as long as I have knows the difference between a ship and a cloud." He folded his arms over his chest and looked directly at her. "And I know the sails are blazoned because I can see that something is painted on the sails. Surely they are blazoned. Perhaps it is one of the ships of Barbarossa. They say he is bringing an army to recapture Jerusalem."

Olivia kept her voice level, but it cost her an effort. "I have heard something of this as well, Bonsier Dar. The Pope is eager for a new Crusade."

"True enough, true enough," sighed Dar. "Everyone's after poor Jerusalem, but they try to keep us out, whose city it is." He stared out to sea. "Yes, it is blazoned; Norman arms, I think, from Sicilia."

"I won't argue with you, Bonsier Dar." She was relieved that he had changed the subject. "You are, as you have said yourself, the one who has been at sea, and I have already confessed my… dislike for traveling over water." She said it lightly, refusing to be drawn into an argument. "I am pleased you are so capable and vigilant."

Dar was not mollified by this. "Save your banter, good widow. I will not be challenged on my skills and my knowledge, least of all by a seasick woman."

"I do not challenge you," she said. "I am curious, in part because I am afraid."

"You have no reason to be. With me, you are as safe as a baby in its cradle." He rocked back on his heels and stared at her, his face a network of creases that revealed his every thought and emotion. "I am not sure you trust me."

"I don't," she admitted without heat. "Or," she amended, "I do not trust you completely. You would not think much of me if I did." This last shrewd touch restored her to Dar's good opinion.

"True enough," he said, showing very white, even teeth. "And who is to blame me for that?"

"Who is to blame me?" she countered, waiting to see his response.

"Perhaps," he said speculatively, regarding her with increased interest, "it will not be such a tragedy to have you aboard my ship, after all. You have a good wit. It is a thing I admire in women; wit." He started to stroll along the wharves, paying almost no attention to Olivia's bearers as they struggled to keep up with him in the press of the dockside crowd. "Don't dawdle," he called out to the bearers as they lagged behind.

"For mercy's sake," Olivia replied, "slow down." She cursed the laws of Tyre that required she travel concealed. It was as bad as Constantinople, she thought, which was one of the worst observations she could make of a place. "If my slaves try to go faster, they'll drop me."

"Nonsense," Dar shouted back.

Suddenly one of the horses being unloaded from the usciere broke away from the slaves attempting to lead him. He reared, plunged, whinnied in angry panic, then broke free, rushing headlong down the gangplank into the crowd.

People scattered; screams and shouts cut through the buzz of talk. As the horse grew more terrified, he darted wildly, pawing the air, striking out, trying to find an opening.

"What on earth—?" Olivia demanded as Alfaze lurched, and then the palinquin dropped to the planks of the wharf. As she tried to crawl from the palinquin, Olivia heard one of her bearers shriek, and the hard, implacable sound of hooves pounding on flesh and bone.

"Widow!" Dar shouted from some little distance. "Guard yourself!"

The horse was a big knight's stallion, taller than any of the horses bred in the Holy Land, and heavier of body, a destrier for an armored man to ride in battle. His sorrel coat was sweat-dark and flecked with foam, and the white mane was a long, tangled mat. He was panting with fear.

"Have a care!" bellowed someone in the crowd.

The hooves came down again, but this time Olivia had been able to extricate herself from the curtains and was scrambling to her feet as the horse reared over her. It took all her will to resist the urge to run from the animal. She had a few seconds to act, to save herself from the crushing blows.

She stepped to the horse's side and reached for a handful of mane, holding as the horse pulled; as he reached his full height, Olivia tugged sharply on the mane, dragging the horse sideways and back until, with a scream, the horse fell on his side, legs thrashing. Olivia flung herself on the neck and wrapped her arms over his head, pinning him to the tarred planks of the wharf.

The frenzy around her stopped almost at once. Two of the slaves who had been chasing the horse came running up to Olivia, one of them marked with fresh bruises and cuts. The rest of the crowd gathered around, many expressing amazement that a woman should have brought such a brute under control.

"If you will not get too near," Olivia said in a penetrating voice, "he will remain calm. The animal is terrified, and small wonder."

"He will hurt you, lady," said one of the slaves.

"No, he won't, not if you are sensible," she said, keeping her weight on the neck and head of the horse. The odor of his sweat was everywhere. "He'll be all right shortly, but not if you let him up right now." She spoke to the slaves in much the same tone she would use on the horse, firm and confident but not too loud. "Stand back, and I'll get him up for you. No one is to make sudden moves."

"Widow!" Dar called out from the edge of the crowd.

"Remain where you are, Bonsier," she told him as she crawled up the neck to the horse's head. Only when she was certain she could stand up in front of the animal did she rise, and stepped back as the horse got to his feet, still breathing hard and wet, but no longer insane. Olivia signaled to the nearer of the two slaves. "Hand me a rope," she said, watching the horse closely.

"You cannot manage, lady," said the nearer slave. "Let us bring whips."

"I've done better than the two of you," she reminded him. "Give me a rope and step back."

The horse shook his head, his eyes showing white; he arched his neck, ears forward, legs stiff.

"He's going to attack," warned the nearer slave.

"Not quite yet," said Olivia. "Hand me a rope. Now."

The slave hesitated; a sailor came forward and offered Olivia a length of rough hemp, which she took at once. She stepped nearer the horse, staying to the side so that he could see her, and eased the rope over his neck. "Stand still," she said quietly, calmly.

"He is maddened, lady," the slave pleaded.

"He is frightened," Olivia corrected as she looped the rope under his neck. "If everyone will move away, I will give him back to the slaves who should not have let him go in the first place." This last, pointed remark was heard with mixed feelings.

"Lady…" the slave with the bruises began. "He will bolt."

"He will not," she said, holding the makeshift lead in a steady hand. She glanced down and saw that Alfaze had got free of the wreckage of her palinquin, but that her other bearer was tangled in the carrying staves. There was blood on his head. "I am going to lead him away from my slaves," she announced, and moved slowly, coaxing the horse as she went.

"He—" the bruised slave began.

"Stand back and be silent," Olivia said sharply. "Do not speak to me again."

Someone in the crowd whooped; the horse brought his head up and made a sound like a cough as he arched his neck.

"Be silent, I pray you," Olivia said with a calm she did not truly feel. "All of you be silent." She patted his high shoulder. "Come, fellow. Come along." It was a tricky business leading the horse along the wharf. Every noise made him tremble and falter. Olivia held onto the rope and hoped she would not be tested again.

She had nearly reached the usciere when a man in herald's livery of Austria came down from the ship, relief in his face. He watched Olivia with a degree of surprise. "You caught him?"

"Yes," said Olivia, bowing her head in courtesy to the herald's master. "Is he one of yours?"

"Part of a grant to the Templars," said the herald. "I am to deliver them with the compliments of Leopold of Austria." He indicated the arms on his tabard.

Olivia gave her makeshift lead over to a groom with Leopold's badge on his arm. "Very generous of Leopold," she said, aware that she was behaving improperly to speak to the man at all. "I am certain the Templars will be grateful."

"It is prudent," said the herald in a pointed way. "I thank you for your efforts."

Olivia accepted the thanks with a slight smile. "In future you might take greater care in handling those horses. Stallions are worst of all." She started to turn away, then looked back at the herald. "One of my slaves was badly hurt by the horse and my palinquin was ruined. Will you offer recompense, or must I go to the Templars for that?" It was a risk to challenge the herald in this way; Olivia waited for his answer, hoping that she would not be dismissed or upbraided for her request.

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