Crusader's Torch Page 8

"Your slave was hurt?" the herald asked.

"One of my palinquin bearers. He was unconscious when I left him. He may still be unconscious. And I am without my palinquin to return to my house." She stood very straight and her hazel eyes met the herald's uncompromisingly.

The herald hesitated. "You will have escort back to your house, of course," he said heavily. "That is the least that I can offer. As to the slave—"

"The Court of Bourgesses will assess you the cost of his treatment, if you require that I approach them," she told him coolly. Her initial trepidation was fading.

The herald reacted as if a glove had been flung at him. "It will not be necessary," he said with icy propriety. "Who have I the honor of addressing?"

Olivia gave her name. "I am Roman," she said, "and a widow."

"Widow?" the herald inquired, his lifted eyebrow revealing his skepticism. "With a palinquin and slaves. How fortunate."

She ignored the insult. "Who wishes to return to Roma, and finds it more difficult than anticipated."

The herald's stiffness abated a little. "The Pope has called for another Crusade. It is not easy to arrange such matters in such times."

"So I have discovered." She looked toward the groom, who had haltered and tied the stallion. "You had best walk him," she suggested. "Otherwise he is going to break away again, and I will not remain here to assist you." Before the herald could speak, she addressed him. "I… inherited a breeding stable, and learned much there." Let the man think her husband had willed her the stable, Olivia thought scathingly. Sanct' Germain would not mind the small mendacity; it was close enough to the truth, for the breeding stable had been a legacy from him.

"I… have no doubt, Bondama," said the herald, his voice now respectful.

"My escort?" Olivia demanded, adding, "I am in the company of Bonsier Dar, of Spain. He will accompany me back to my house as soon as you provide me with suitable company." Now that she had achieved so much, she pressed her advantage. "I would appreciate it if you would have my injured slave taken to the Hospitalers and my palinquin replaced."

"Most assuredly," said the herald, clapping to summon aid. "They are esquires, Bondama," he informed Olivia as four youths hurried off the ship. "All are of high family."

"As fits the company of heralds," said Olivia, barely nodding in their direction. "Very well. I wish to leave at once. It isn't seemly for me to stand here where I am exposed to every eye." It was what she was expected to say, not what she believed, for the restrictions placed upon her galled her most of the time and she was enjoying this little sip of freedom.

The herald opened his hands to show his helplessness. "You have only to tell these esquires where you live, and—"

"But we don't know where she lives," one of the young men whispered to the herald in his own language. "How are we to escort her if—?"

Olivia interrupted, her German Latin-accented. "My slave who is not injured will show you the way."

The esquire flushed and the herald craned his neck as if the neck of his camisade had grown tight. Making a point of speaking in Norman French, as he had been from the first, the herald said to Olivia, "On behalf of these esquires, I offer apology for any distress you have suffered on our account."

"I am pleased to forgive you," said Olivia, following the custom.

Ithuriel Dar had made his way to her side; he stood a little behind her, reluctant to bring attention on himself. He said in a low voice, "Your slaves are waiting for you. The eunuch—"

"Alfaze," Olivia said.

"Yes; he said the other slave is badly hurt."

Olivia shook her head, her brows drawing together. "It's all such a waste. If these fools had known more about that horse none of this would have happened."

The herald had come forward with the esquires and waited impatiently to finish his dealings with Olivia. "Bondama," he said as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

"Yes?" Olivia asked, then nodded to the herald. "I will want word of my slave as soon as the Hospitalers can provide it. Bonsier Dar, give me your company."

"As you wish," said Dar, his manner more subdued than it had been, for he distrusted the Austrians.

The herald spoke to the esquires. "See that this bondama reaches her house without further incident. Then go to the Hospitalers and bring me word of her slave." He bowed formally to Olivia. "When I have word, I will send a message to you."

"My thanks," said Olivia, and set out in the midst of the esquires, Ithuriel Dar bringing up the rear. As the little group reached Alfaze and the wreckage of the palinquin, Olivia saw that her injured slave was shivering though his face and arms were slick with sweat; his swarthy face was gray. I must leave this place, she thought. I must leave. I must leave.

* * *

Text of a letter from the Venetian Giozzetto Camarmarr to the Benedictine scholar Ulrico Fionder.

My very dear and learned cousin, I have succeeded in leaving Cyprus and have arrived safely at Rhodes. I am making arrangements to take ship home, but now that Barbarossa has his army on the march, it is difficult for a mere merchant to find passage.

Let me offer prayers of thanks for all of the family who gathered the monies to pay my ransom. The pirates who held me would truly have sold me into slavery to some Islamite, which might well have meant they would have made a eunuch of me. To my wife and children, that would be as great a loss as if I had died and been buried. I lament the cost, and I am grieved that my misfortune could impose so great a burden on all who share my name and heritage. In these dire times, who among us can think himself safe? I have learned to my cost and my pain that we may know nothing certain but the Mercy of God.

Now that I am back among Christians again, I realize that what I had feared has come to pass. Everywhere the knights prepare to do battle with the devils of Islam, and everywhere stores are being laid up against the day that these forces meet. I trust that you communicated to our family the sense of purchasing transport ships, for I have seen with my own eyes the tremendous need for them, and the prices that are being paid for their use. If all the Kings under the Pope come here to fight, our fortunes could be made for the next four generations. Such an event might in part compensate for the great expense I have occasioned our family. From the dreadful developments of the last year, I pray we will salvage our name and our riches.

It may be that you do not concern yourself with such matters, but without doubt there are others of us who do, and they are eager to add to the coffers of Camarmarr and Fionder. Your Abbot would welcome a generous donation, and if one of his monks is part of a family contributing to the success of the Crusade, he will not begrudge us the profits we reap in so worthy a venture. I, for one, would be pleased if we recoup our losses in this way, for it would aid and protect the holiest place in Christendom as well as assist in bringing down the Islamites, who are the direct cause of the losses we have suffered through my capture.

I long for the day that I will see your face again, for the day I will sit with my wife and children in our own house. My captivity, though it was not long, has left me with the most profound devotion to my family, and has given me staunch purpose in my determination to exact full measure from the Islamites for the great torment they visited upon me.

Once I have reached Ragusa, I will send word to you. Look to see me before the summer is over. I fear you will find me much changed, but that cannot be helped. God has imposed His burden on me and I pray for the grace to bear the burden.

Your loving cousin Giozzetto Camarmarr

By my own hand on the feast of Saint Hippolytus the Martyr of Roma in the 1189th year of Our Lord.

- 5 -

On the far wall the plaster was broken or missing; the doorframe was warped so that Niklos had to lean on it to close it. All the furniture had been removed years ago.

"The rumor is," said the scribe who accompanied him, "that the building is haunted."

"Haunted?" Niklos repeated in disbelief. "What pagan nonsense is that?"

The scribe looked embarrassed. "Pagan, certainly. What good Christian can believe such gossip?" He glanced over his shoulder toward the window. "The talk has given the estate an evil name. My master has said he wants to be rid of the place. His wife will not come here. His brother will not dare to set foot inside these walls." The scribe suppressed a shudder. "I confess," he went on nervously, "that I would not like to be here after sundown."

"Trust in God," Niklos recommended. "Tell me about this haunting. What is thought to be the cause?" As he listened, he paced the room, assessing the size as he listened.

"It is… ridiculous, most ridiculous," the scribe began uneasily. "It seems that the son of the master of the house was going to join with the First Crusaders, with the men Tancred led. But once he reached the Holy Land, he was seized with a passion for an Islamite woman, and for her sake he abandoned Tancred and fled with his siren into the desert." He moved over toward the window so that he could look out into the overgrown garden.

"Such things have happened," Niklos said, amused at the scribe's discomfort.

"Well," the scribe went on after taking a deep breath, "it was said that she was an enchantress who used sorcery to overcome his faith so that he forgot his knightly oath."

Niklos touched the wall where a little of the plaster remained. He rubbed the residue between his fingers and sniffed at it. "Knights have forgot their oaths for less," he observed to tell the scribe that he was still listening.

"But he was sworn to restore the Holy Sepulcher," protested the scribe. "However it was done, the knight fled with the woman, and when she tired of him, she cursed him with flux and with failing bowels. In despair, he became a beggar, shamed and damned. Only at the end of his days did he return here, hoping that he might find succor in the bosom of his family. It is said that he haunts this place still, that his ghost drove out his own family, for they knew him and it brought his shame upon them."

"How does the ghost make itself known?" Niklos asked, wiping his brow with the back of his hand; the afternoon heat was intense as a lover's embrace,

"They say—I have not heard it for myself—that he can be heard crying for alms and begging forgiveness for his sins." He licked his lips. "My master has permitted the house to fall into disrepair, somewhat."

Niklos' smile was ironic, but the scribe was not looking at him and did not see it. "That's apparent. At least there is no trace of rot so far."

"There are cellars, if you must look there. I will show you where they are." The scribe blessed himself automatically. "This is not a place I want to live."

"But you are not going to have to," Niklos pointed out. "It is my mistress who may have to live here. If I find the place suitable."

"What would your mistress think of this place, if it is haunted?" His voice had risen a little.

"Has a priest been called to exorcise the ghost?" asked Niklos. "Have prayers been said for the knight's repose? Have Masses been offered for his salvation?"

The scribe had nodded to each of these questions. "All that and more. My master offered this house to a company of knights, but they would not come here for fear that the spirit of the knight would cause them to turn from their vows. Nothing has calmed the ghost."

"Show me the rest of the house," said Niklos, doing his best to sound bored. "I will want to inspect the stables and barns as well, and to see what condition the vinyards are in. My mistress will require a full report from me." Although he did his best to sound indifferent, Niklos was inwardly pleased. The house was good-sized, with quarters for eighteen slaves as well as extra rooms for household. He had already inspected the chapel built a little distance from the house, which the scribe had told him was dedicated to Santo Telesphorus. All of the place needed repair, but did not appear to be beyond restoration.

"There are ovens in the kitchen, and possibly they are sound, but it would be a foolish chance to use them unless they are remortared," said the scribe.

"Most of the house will need that, I think," said Niklos, in hope that would be the extent of the work needed.

"Some of the timbers in the cellars are… not sturdy," the scribe went on, determined to be forthright.

"Not surprising," said Niklos. "Tell me, is there a church near?"

"There are two not far. Roma itself is—"

"Quite near," Niklos agreed, knowing that the crumbling walls were visible to the south on the western side of the house. "My mistress is determined to find a house where she will not be far from priests."

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