Crusader's Torch (Atta Olivia Clemens #2)

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05.03.2019

She came upon the ruins of a fort, one abandoned for centuries, judging by the tumbledown walls and the deep sands that filled half of the place. Olivia found one end of the fort where the walls were more intact and the sands had not yet filled in the structure. She took the time to gather fodder for Atlas, for she did not want him loose on a tether line, alerting others to her presence. She improvised a pen for him as the sky was glowing pink at the eastern horizon, then took refuge in a narrow room that was still intact, under the tallest wall. From the scent of the place, it had been used to store fruits and wine. Olivia wrapped herself in a dark mantel and fell once more into sleep as the rest of the world awoke.

That night she traveled again, moving westward along the road, taking care to read all the signs she came upon. She felt her strength waning, and at last she took a chance, taking a cup of blood from Atlas. As she drank, she hoped she would find more sustaining nourishment before many more nights went by. It had been several hundred years since she had had to exist wholly on the power of blood; she had abhorred it then and loathed it now. "Don't worry," she said as she patted Atlas' shoulder. "It will be just this once." Little as she wished to recognize it, she was in need of humanity, of rapture, of intimacy, for nothing else would truly preserve her.

By the end of the night, she had passed through a village and was, according to the signs, nearing Iconium. She decided not to attempt to reach the town, but chose to find yet another secluded place to pass the day, hidden from the sun and all prying eyes.

Finding such a haven was not as simple a task as it had been before, and she had to look in several places before she was satisfied with her selection: there was a rough hut, abandoned for at least a year, with the Plague symbol fading on the door. A byre, also deserted, was next to the house, and it was here, in the musty hay, with spiders and rats for company, that Olivia decided to sleep. She found sweet grass for Atlas and brought it to the broken manger, and once the mule was eating, Olivia spread out her mantel in the loft, where she would be protected from the sun and from anyone venturing to this forgotten farmstead.

Shortly after sunset, she wakened to Atlas' warning bray. She was instantly alert, her night-seeing eyes searching for the cause of Atlas' disturbance. Her sword, shorter than many carried by men-at-arms, was balanced for her hand, and the dagger she slipped out of her belt was thin and sharp. She eased herself to the edge of the loft and stared down.

Two scruffy boys in beggars' rags had sneaked into the byre, one of them clearly intent on stealing the mule, the other more cautious.

Atlas laid his long ears back and kicked out with his front feet.

The darker of the two boys laughed, but the other was growing more frightened, gesturing and speaking in whispers, as if he were afraid of more than the mule.

"Don't be an idiot," the darker boy chided, reaching for a long board and holding it in front of him for protection. "We can sell the animal and get away from that warehouse."

The other boy spoke so low that Olivia could not make out what he was saying. He blessed himself twice, and at last burst out, "There's been plague here. You know what that means."

"No one has seen a single ghost here," the darker boy mocked.

"No one has been here in more than a year," protested his companion.

In the loft, Olivia smiled and silently began to spread out her mantel.

"If you'd help me, we could catch the damned beast," the darker boy said with an angry gesture to the other. "You take one side of his head and I'll take the other."

"But—"

"Look," the darker boy said in exasperation, "someone brought him here and left him here. That means—"

"That means something happened to whoever brought him here," said the more cautious boy.

"Ten thousand devils!" the darker one swore, making another sally toward Atlas without success.

"He'll kick your head in," warned the more cautious boy.

"Not before I beat him between the ears," vowed his more reckless companion.

The careful boy tried to pull the darker boy back and was rewarded with a slap on the side of his head. "Why'd you do that?"

"You don't try to stop me, Ismael. If you're too cowardly to help me, then keep back." The darker boy started toward Atlas a third time, carrying his improvised cudgel higher, his expression as intent as a cat at a mousehole.

"A-a-a-a-a-a-hhhhhh!" Olivia moaned as she rose in the loft, her mantel spread out beyond her shoulders, held in place by her sword. She quivered, making the dust-colored cloth shake, and her moaning became a screech.

Atlas gave a high scream and lashed out more furiously with his front feet.

Ismael stood transfixed by the sight, but the other boy, who up until that moment had been the more adventuresome, flung the board he held aside and bolted for the door, his rags flapping around him as he yelled in terror, "Ghosts! Ghosts! The place is haunted! Plague ghosts!"

Olivia let her howls die away to silence, though she continued to make her mantel tremble.

Ismael blessed himself and very slowly backed out of the byre. "We didn't mean any harm," he called out in a voice that broke into childish treble as he got through the door. Unlike his companion, he did not run, but walked quickly and purposefully away.

Atlas demolished most of what had been unbroken of the manger. He snorted and squealed one more time.

"They're gone," said Olivia to calm him. "Steady there, Atlas." She tucked her dagger back into her belt and slid her sword into its scabbard. As she gathered up her mantel, she added, "I think Ismael might talk of this. We had better not be here if he decides to come back."

The mule kicked out with his hind legs and put a hole in the wall.

More than anything, Olivia longed for a bath. Her skin itched and she could feel grime on her legs and the back of her neck. She was certain that more than charcoal dirtied her face now, and she was afraid to try to put her comb through her hair, knowing that there would be snarls and knots. Before she pulled her mantel over her shoulders she took time to shake it out and to brush off the straw and twigs that clung to it. She wondered if she ought to have a tale of escape from bandits to account for her appearance.

This turned out not to be necessary. Only one gate to Iconium was open after sundown, and it was manned by two men-at-arms of the Hospitalers, both of them clearly suffering from the ravages of bloody flux. They glanced over Olivia, accepted her assurance that she was a eunuch, and told her that accommodations for Christian travelers were to be found in the Greek quarter of the city, which was immediately south of the sheep-and-lamb market.

Olivia thanked them, and considered her few remaining coins; three of silver and a dozen of copper. Luckily, she thought as she made her way through the narrow streets, she did not have to purchase food as well as lodgings. She saw two hostels for knights, grander than most of what the town had to offer in the way of accommodations: one bore the badge of the Templars, the other the three leopards of Reis Richard. Near these two were the humbler inns for merchants and pilgrims of means. It was one of these that Olivia decided to try, approaching the building by way of the passage between its stable and kitchen; she had seen a light and hoped to find some of the staff still awake.

A cook was sitting in the open larder door, a bucket of hot water between his knees and a half-plucked chicken in his hands. He looked up at the sound of Atlas' hooves on the paving stones and brought a large cleaver into the light. "Who is it?"

"A eunuch," said Olivia. "I arrived late in Iconium and I'd rather not sleep in the street."

The cook laughed guardedly. "They'd rob you of more than your missing eggs before morning." He raised one of the two oil lamps and tried to get a better look at Olivia.

She turned her face so that the light fell on one side only, disguising her more than the cook realized. "I have money," she said, making a show of reaching for her coins. "Not a great deal, but enough to pay for a place to sleep."

"A place to sleep, is it?" The cook chuckled. "Not as easily had as it was once." He pulled another handful of singed feathers from the chicken he held and dropped them into the bucket of hot water.

"Why is that?" Olivia asked, the scent of blood making her a bit giddy.

"The pilgrims, of course." He gestured to the open kitchen door. "Every hostel and inn is crowded, and it will not slack off for quite a while, is my guess."

"Pilgrims?" Olivia repeated, trying not to look at the chicken. Her need was for more than blood; looking at the bird was a sharper reminder than she wished to experience. "Have the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem, then?"

The cook chuckled once more, this time with a hint of malice in the sound. "Not exactly. Stormed Jerusalem? Last year, they might have done it, but not now. They are losing ground. Not only in regard to Jerusalem. Ascalon is not the bastion Reis Richard wants it to be, and there are few who are willing to help him make it stronger. It was bad enough when Reis Phillippe had to return to France, but now, with troops killed in ambushes and illness thinning the ranks and many of the soldiers having second thoughts and deserting, there aren't enough Crusaders left to give Saladin much more than a few days' amusement." He went on plucking the chicken. "Most of the pilgrims are going home, taking a lesson from the Crusaders, I suppose."

"Is there danger?"

The cook shrugged hugely. "Where is there no danger, other than the grave? What place can anyone go where malign fate cannot pursue him?"

Olivia remained still, considering what the cook had told her. "The Crusade—is it a rout?"

"Nothing so clear and final," said the cook. "There are those who are saying that this is only a setback. A setback! Say rather a death-knell. Reis Richard and the Templars have both asked for more men and supplies." He yawned suddenly, then continued. "But Reis Phillippe isn't the only ruler who is unwilling to spend any more money on defeating the Islamites." He pointed with his jaw toward the street. "There's a contingent of Hospitalers staying here, returning to France. Most of the men are sick or wounded and they are under escort from their Order, to ensure they are not taken for ransom or robbed."

"The Hospitalers are everywhere," said Olivia, more to herself than to the cook.

"Christian soldiers are everywhere, some of them where you'd least expect them." He sneered knowingly. "They get a taste for silk and debauchery. They aren't made for the land, for the heat and the starkness of it, and it ruins them, one way or another." He was almost finished with the chicken. "I have three more of these to do. After that, I can make a place for you behind the larder. There's a small room, with a cot. The landlord has no more beds available, but this room will take you if you're not too fussy."

"That's satisfactory to me," said Olivia, her mind filled with doubt. She was afraid that the cook might take it into his head to watch her, and then she would not be safe. "I am bound to Smyrna; is there any chance, do you think, to arrange to travel with any of the pilgrims going that way?"

"It's not for me to say," the cook answered. "The Hospitalers or the Templars will have to give you permission if you seek to go with pilgrims. Still, I can't think why you would not be welcome. I'll speak with the landlord and tell you what he says. Or you can speak with him yourself if you'd rather."

"Whatever you suggest," she said, hoping that she would not have to face too many people in Iconium, for each encounter was a potential denouncement. "In the meantime, is there room for me to stable my mule?"

"There are pens at the back of the stable. A few of them are empty; choose one." He was concentrating on his work again, no longer much interested in speaking with this newcomer. "Water troughs run through the pens. There's hay piled up in the last stall. You may put your saddle and bridle on one of the racks in the middle of the stable. No one will take them."

"God send you His blessings," said Olivia, dismounting at last.

"Come to the kitchen when you're through and I'll see that you have something to eat. I can't offer very much." The cook held up the plucked chicken. "Scrawny, but better than some I've seen. I was able to buy ducks last year, but this year they all went to soldiers before Lent."

Olivia hesitated. "I do not want to place you in any difficulty with the landlord, if food is so hard come by." She paused to let the cook think a short while. "I will fend for myself if it would be less of a demand on you. I am already in your debt for a place to sleep."

"It will cost you three copper coins, providing they weigh enough." He reached down for another chicken. "Take care of the mule. We'll talk when you've finished."