Crusader's Torch Page 9

The scribe opened another door with difficulty. "Some of the doors will need replacement," he explained unnecessarily.

"She will tend to it," said Niklos, "if she decides that this is the house she wants."

"My master has slaves skilled at such work," the scribe said, as he had been told to do.

"That can be determined later if my mistress purchases this house. My mistress has tastes of her own, and she will decide how they can be best served." Niklos nodded as he looked around, imagining the walls freshly plastered and painted, furniture in place.

"It is a pleasant room," the scribe ventured uneasily.

This room was larger and opened on the far side to a private garden. The plants had gone wild and given way to weeds, but Niklos could see there was an empty stone fountain at the center. Five other doors gave onto the garden, and above the garden there ran a gallery to the upper floor.

"How are the stairs?" Niklos asked.

"Most are safe," the scribe admitted.

"I will want to check them shortly." He forced the garden door and stepped into the tangle of creepers and dry thistles. He looked up at the gallery from this vantage point, and called over his shoulder. "How many rooms on the floor above?"

"Six, I believe. Six or seven," the scribe answered. "One is large. The others are of moderate size." He was growing uncomfortable again. "How much longer do you wish to remain here?"

"Until I have seen all I need to see to make my recommendations," said Niklos bluntly. "Will the other doors open, or ought I to come through that room?"

The scribe folded his hands as if in prayer. "Good bondsman, sadly I am not as sanguine as you are, and I am more distressed—" He stopped as something banged in the depths of the house. "Salva me," he muttered as he blessed himself.

"It is probably that shutter we had to pry open. I warned you that it might happen; the wood around the bolts was rotten." Niklos walked through the garden and tugged on the larger of the two doors. At first it would not budge, but finally, with a groan of protest, it opened, and would not be closed.

"It will need—" began the scribe unhappily as he followed after Niklos.

"It will need replacement. All the wood will need replacement," Niklos said affably.

"A costly business," the scribe observed. "For a house with such a reputation as this one, perhaps too much cost."

Niklos laughed. "Your master charged you with the task of showing me this house, not with damning it," he said. "Where is the door to the cellar? I want to find out how much damage there is."

The scribe sighed heavily. "It is near the kitchen. There is a pantry and the cellar door is beyond it."

"Is there a holocaust?" He did not expect to find one. Most of the larger rooms had fireplaces, which indicated that the old Roman system of heated floors had been lost before the house was built.

"A what?" asked the scribe, confirming Niklos' suspicions.

The kitchens were in disarray, and there was a lingering odor of burnt meat that made the scribe cough. The pantry was nothing more than a small room of empty shelves. The door to the cellar hung on a single hinge.

"Not very promising," Niklos said in faint amusement as he started toward the opening.

"Be careful," the scribe warned sharply. "It may not be safe to go there."

"It may not be," Niklos agreed, and stepped through into the darkness.

"Must I accompany you?" the scribe called out, ill-concealed dismay in his question.

"I will manage for myself," Niklos answered cheerfully. "I should not be long." He moved cautiously as his eyes adjusted to the dimness. He heard a muffled slithering, and the chitter of rats, but neither sound concerned him. He made his inspection quickly and thoroughly, noting the timbers that would have to be replaced, the sagging floor and the cracked supports. As he looked around, he was more and more convinced that this would be the place for Olivia. It was not so new that she would feel ancient inside it, and it was neglected, so that she could make it her own without attracting criticism or condemnation. Best of all, it was close enough to Roma that the earth would nurture her. He brushed off his hands before he emerged from the cellar, not wishing to add to the scribe's unease.

The scribe was nowhere to be seen. The pantry and kitchen were empty. Apprehensive, Niklos went looking for the scribe, searching the house before looking in the gardens. Eventually he discovered the man kneeling in the chapel, his head pressed against the dusty altar.

As Niklos approached, he looked up in shock, then tried to remedy this with a lopsided smile. "I thought you would be some time. I didn't mean to leave you…" He indicated the house with a frightened lift of his hand. "Have you seen enough?"

"I wish to inspect the stables, the barns and the slaves' quarters. And I want to see how stout the compound walls are." Niklos was at his most matter-of-fact, speaking sensibly and without any suggestion of apprehension.

The scribe fretted. "You could come another time. It is afternoon, and the sun will be setting—"

"The summer sun is long," Niklos said evenly. "I have been charged with a task by my mistress and I am bound to carry it out." He looked around the chapel. "Is the roof intact?"

"The stones are in place. No one has been up on it to see." He coughed. "My master could arrange it, if you insist."

"It is not what I insist," said Niklos. "I am a bondsman and my mistress has given me a task. It is she who insists, and I who will answer." He studied the floor, realizing that under the dust and litter, it was of rosy marble. "One of the churches will be willing to supply a priest?" he asked.

"If a living is provided. Otherwise it isn't certain." The scribe had mastered himself and was standing very straight, as if his lapse had been the act of someone else. "My master can tell you what to do, if your mistress decides to come to this place." His tone indicated that he considered this highly unlikely.

"Let us go to the stables," said Niklos. "One can buy slaves in Roma, I know, but are there craftsmen there who could be put to work making repairs?" The more he learned of this place, the more convinced he was it would be what Olivia wanted. As he and the scribe came out of the chapel, Niklos asked, "How much land is included in the sale?"

The scribe sighed. "From that hill"—he indicated a long ridge to the east—"south to where the road comes, then follow the road to the tower there; that's the western boundary, there, from the tower to the foot of the broken aqueduct, then along the edge of that field to the crest of the hill."

"It includes the vinyard?" Niklos said, to be sure.

"Yes, and there is a spring on the eastern slope that gives water year round. In the days of the pagans, it was thought to have magical properties, but Romans would believe anything."

"So they would," said Niklos with a quick smile. "Show me the stables."

It was almost sunset by the time Niklos had finished. The scribe was markedly uncomfortable and his attention strayed constantly to the house, as if he expected the dishonored beggar-knight to appear in one of the windows. Niklos ignored the scribe's distress for a while, then said, "If you would rather wait for me outside the gate, do so."

"I have been instructed to stay with you," the scribe informed him miserably.

"You went to the chapel earlier, and left me in the cellar. I will not mention that if you will not." He wanted to put the scribe at ease, but failed.

"My master is most adamant," said the scribe stubbornly. He looked-toward the house, his eyes glazing with fear, and then he looked directly at Niklos. "I will escort you."

"As you like," Niklos conceded. "I want to see the gates of the compound. We will be through then."

"There are five gates," said the scribe. "Follow me."

The compound enclosed house, gardens, the slaves' quarters, the barns, the stables, and the chapel. All but one of the gates were in need of replacement.

"Your master has been lax here," said Niklos when he and the scribe went to their tethered horses. "If it was his obligation to see that this land is kept in good heart and the house maintained, he has not done well."

"It has been a difficult time in Roma," said the scribe stiffly. His mount was an old mare, slow and cantankerous, but even then, the scribe handled her badly.

Niklos watched the scribe drag himself into the saddle, and checked his impulse to offer some suggestions. Instead he waited while the scribe dragged the mare around, then set out toward the estate of the scribe's master. "Is this the last of the holdings you are to show me?"

"There is one other, but it is a day's ride from here. You said you must have a location within sight of the walls of Roma, and if that is truly your requirement, then the other estate will not do for you or your mistress." He squinted in the fading light, trying to make out the turns in the road.

"I see well at night," said Niklos as soon as he realized the scribe's predicament. "I will be happy to guide you."

"It is appreciated," said the scribe shortly.

They rode in silence for a short time, and then Niklos asked, "How long do you think it would take a crew of skilled artisans to restore that house and the other buildings to usable condition?"

"You're not seriously interested in the place, are you? Your mistress would not want to have a house with a ghost in it, you can be certain of that." The scribe laughed tentatively. "Or do you ask for some other reason?"

"That house, ghost or none, most closely fills my mistress' requirements. It is a most suitable place, the ghost aside, and she is not easily troubled." Niklos smiled as he spoke, but it was too dark for the scribe to read his expression. "That smithy in the stables, that needs more change than the rest of the buildings, but that is not so urgent as the rest."

"You're serious, aren't you?" the scribe demanded. "You intend to advise your mistress to purchase that holding." The scribe waited for an answer, and when none came, he was outraged. "You say you are her sworn bondsman and you are her true servant, and yet you would bring her to a house known to have a malign ghost within its walls. You are willing to recommend a house that is dangerous to her body and soul."

"Your pardon, scribe," said Niklos sternly, "but my mistress follows the teaching of the Church Fathers and puts her faith in God, not in spectres, which the Church teaches us are immaterial." He took a deep breath. "We're near your master's house."

"I will tell him what you have said." The scribe was rigid now, his words like stones.

"So will I," Niklos said easily, as if he were unaware of the disapproval of the scribe. "Eugenius," he said as they turned in at the gate, knowing that his breach of good conduct would give him the scribe's strict attention. "I am not unaware of your good intentions, but I have a mandate from my mistress, and I am bound to fulfill her orders, no matter what you or I may think of them."

The scribe started at hearing his name spoken by this foreigner. He was so shocked that no rejoinder occurred to him and he said only, "You mistake me."

"If I do, then you must excuse my failing," said Niklos as he pulled his horse in at the entrance to the stableyard. He swung off the gray and offered the reins to the stable slave who approached, lantern in hand. "What I might select as a house is not the issue; what my mistress has said she desires in a house is all that concerns me."

Eugenius made as bad a job of getting off the old mare as he had getting on. "Then your mistress is a fool."

"Oh, I don't think so," Niklos said, speaking so lightly that the scribe grew wary, hearing the warning Niklos intended.

"As you say," Eugenius said as he walked away from the horses, "you must carry out her orders, I suppose. But you must warn her of the ghost. Otherwise you will advise her irresponsibly and her fate will be on your head."

Niklos. fell into step beside Eugenius as he led the way to the entrance to his master's house. "True enough," he said at his blandest. "But permit me to know more of my mistress, who I have served for most of the years of my life, better than you, for you have never met Bondama Clemens."

A slave opened the door and the major domo came at once to guide Niklos to the smaller reception room where his master would meet him shortly.

"Well," said the scribe, "I have done all that I might to dissuade you."

"I know. And I know you have done so for the best reasons, but I must obey my instructions." He nodded to the scribe, and hoped that this little courtesy would make up for the gaffe of addressing the scribe by his name.

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