Divine Verdict

A Tale from the Middle Ages

J.M. Diener

I

The year is 1162, the heart of the Middle Age. The second Crusade is over, the Countship of Edessa fallen, the Principality of Antioch hard-pressed by the Muslim armies. In Europe, however, few people seem to care what is going on in that end of the world. Here the petty wars of the barons and lords keep everyday life interesting.

The town of Villefort is at first glance no different than most others, with a small castle on a hill, houses clustered around its sides and a wall protecting them from the dangers of possible marauding knights. There is one exception to most towns here, in a fairly large building of uncut stone to the south of the city. The flag of the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon — the Knight Templars — flies above its battlements.

• • •

Today is a day of celebration. Baron Bernard of Villefort is celebrating his birthday and so has called for a tournament on a field below the town. Many have come from afar, even all the way from the Alsace, to see this tournament. The baron himself is planning to joust, it is said, and there he is, sitting tall on a bay mare, clad in shimmering armor, his ruddy face gleaming in the opening of his helmet. The people cheer as their sovereign rides around the lists, his lance raised. His shield is decorated with a castle over which a lion lies, the arms of Villefort. He pauses to laugh at his subjects.

“People of Villefort and guests from afar,” he thundered good-naturedly. “Welcome to the tournament.” Cheers. “Today the best of knights will joust for the honor of choosing the Queen of the Tournament and many of you know who that will probably be.” There were shouts from the stands and after moments only two names remained, competing against each other.

“Tristan!” cheered the majority.

“Baron Bernard!” the others chanted back. A wave from the baron’s hand cut them off.

“Whoever it may be, let us fight honorably.” He bowed his head slightly and then slowly rode from the lists to where the other knights were waiting. He nodded to a knight on a black charger. He was also arrayed in armor, though his was a good deal less showy. The only emblem on his shield was a red cross. His visor was open to reveal an honest face. Somehow it didn’t belong in this land of fair people, the swarthiness reminding one of the holy land, but the eyes were blue and gentle. The baron leaned over slightly and laughed to the knight.

“Well, Tristan, I believe that you are the favored here, even on my own birthday. Let’s see if for once fortune will help me unhorse you.”

“Perhaps, my lord,” the knight replied quietly. “I wouldn’t have joined in the jousting if it hadn’t been for your express wishes.”

“Always so honest, my dear friend,” Bernard chuckled. “But let’s get on with it.” He turned his steed and rode into the lists to the thunder of the trumpets, followed closely by nearly twenty knights. Only three bore the insignia of the red cross, marking them as Knight Templars. The jousting matches went quickly, with two of the Templars and the baron himself remaining in the saddle by the end of the day. Tristan sighed to himself as he watched the baron face off with his friend. It nearly always ended the same, with him and Bernard in the lists and the baron invariably finding himself on the ground after two or three passes. He’d warned Claude. His friend was the only one who could unseat Tristan and Claude had never fought the baron before. Still, the baron was clever and Claude’s foot slipped from his stirrup, taking him out of the lineup. Perhaps I should let the baron win today, the remaining Templar mused. But something inside him rebelled against that idea, just as much as it would against fighting. He sighed to himself  as the baron rode to him.

“Well, my friend,” came the other man’s voice from the iron cage, “it is you and I again.” Tristan nodded solemnly.

“Then let’s fight.” They lined up on opposite sides and the trumpets thundered. The two horses flew at each other and moments later the baron was sitting in the dust. The Templar turned his black horse and came back, slowly opening his visor. The baron was smiling at him good-naturedly.

“You have won again, Tristan of Magdala,” Bernard laughed. “Even on my birthday.” The pages were already there to help their lord to his feet. He stood, weighed down by his heavy armor.

“Now, my friend, it is your honor to choose the Queen of the Tournament.”

“My lord, I give that honor to you, since it is your birthday,” Tristan returned with a smile. Bernard looked at him critically, before nodding in agreement. He remounted his bay mare and was given a new lance. The baroness then hung a crown of green silk and gold on the end of the lance. Baron Bernard slowly gazed around the many assembled women, before placing the circlet at the feet of a young woman, not his wife. The baroness’ face stayed straight, but still turned white with anger at her husband’s obvious shunning of her. Tristan shook his head quietly and guided his horse out of the lists. He rode to his tent, where his squire was waiting for him.

“Thank you, Philip,” he said quietly, before going into the tent and having his armor removed. Dear God, he thought to himself, listening to the clamor outside, why do we always have to fight?

“Tired of fighting, friend?” came a voice from the doorway. Tristan looked over.

“Oh, hello, Claude,” he said. “I’ve been tired of it since we were in that village in the holy land.” His friend slowly walked in, a knowing look in his bright blue eyes. He ran his free hand across his tousled blond hair and took a seat on a three-legged stool, after placing a flagon on the table.

“I know that only too well, Tristan,” he sighed. “Sometimes I’m quite certain that I agree with you.”

“At least the baron is happy,” the darker knight answered taking a seat on another stool, while Philip busied himself with checking out the armor. Both knights were simply clothed now, Tristan in the rough leather jerkin and breeches that he wore under his armor. He was of medium build, his hair black, skin darker than most, telling of his birth in foreign lands. Nothing would mark him as a Knight Templar at this moment, except for the scar that ran along his chin, a gift from a Saracen scimitar. He put one wide hand up to rub his broad shoulder and closed his eyes, thinking of home again. Claude on the other hand was tall and blond, his skin fair. His nose was quite flat, showing his loud and brawling nature that few thought he could control. He was dressed in a white tunic and trousers, a leather belt at his waist, a red cross on his shoulder, telling of his order. There was only one thing the same about these two and that was the clear blue of their eyes. Many believed that this marked them as brothers, but it was so in faith only.

“I wish I hadn’t agreed,” Tristan finally broke the silence.

“To the tournament?” Claude asked.

“No, to leaving Esther.”

“Tristan, that was years ago. The girl is dead, she died in your arms.” He leaned forward his voice getting a bit louder. “You’ve got to let go of this.”

“I don’t think I can,” the darker knight answered and took a sip of wine from his cup. “It just wells up sometimes, especially when I’m tired.” The blond man nodded quietly and they drank together.

“We’d better save it, shouldn’t we?” Tristan remarked. “Baron Bernard will be loading down the tables this evening.”

“And you’ll be the last one to leave again, my friend,” Claude laughed. He rose slowly, scratching his stomach.

“I’ll see you at the temple.” Tristan nodded. He just couldn’t get over it. Well, maybe he could. Mother always told him that Jesus Christ had won over all cares.

“Yes, Lord,” he whispered, “you have.”

• • •

The banquet had been loud and boisterous, just like Claude on a good night. Tristan’s blond friend had entertained the people again with his ribald jokes, laughing the loudest and finally challenging one of the younger knights to a fist fight. The youngster had been rash enough to agree, but luckily the Templar was already a bit tipsy, so he found himself on the ground. That had caused him to go home, mumbling something about too much wine. Finally only Tristan was left sitting at the long table with the baron.

“Oh, yes,” the sovereign said with a drunken air, “this was the best birthday I’ve had yet.” He chuckled at his half-empty goblet and then leered over at the sober Tristan. The knight had only drunk sparingly the whole evening.

“If I may, my lord?” he asked.

“Bah, we’ve known each other long enough and we’re alone, friend. Anything you want to know.” The Templar was silent for a moment, his finger running along the scar on his chin.

“Don’t you think it was dangerous to make Sophie the Queen of the Tournament?” he finally queried. “You would have problems with the baroness.”

“You don’t understand, Tristan,” the baron slurred the words together and then paused to slurp from his cup. “You’ve never been in love and you’ve never lived with a woman who is your wife, but you can’t stand.” He stared at the end of the table, a tipsy smile on his lips. “But I love Sophie, my dear Templar, and she loves me. I can see her there in that white dress of hers, the brown hair and hazel eyes. Those lips.” He laughed to himself and drank deeply again. Tristan thought to let it go.

“Have you ever been in love?” Bernard cut into the knight’s resolve. The darker man smiled to himself, eyes sad.

“Yes, and I still am.”

“But I thought you Templars weren’t allowed women?” the other laughed.

“True, but it was before I became a knight. I don’t like to talk about it.” He made a wave with his right hand. The baron blinked at him and for an instant Tristan was afraid that his friend would make him talk.

“All right,” Bernard finally agreed, his eyes only half focusing on the knight sitting next to him, “you may know what being in love is like, but you don’t know what being married to a woman you’ve never loved is like.” He sighed, melancholy creeping up on him. “That baroness — I knew her as a child and we couldn’t stand each other. We only married because of political reasons — because our fathers wanted us to. It was the biggest mistake I’ve made, seeing that there are so many wonderful women in this world, eh?” His mood slowly swung back to mirth.

“That’s true,” the knight conceded, “but you are still called to be loyal to your wife, my lord. It’s what God commands.” The baron just grunted and looked into his now empty goblet.

“Well,” he finally mumbled, “it’s getting late. There is a tournament tomorrow and the day after. We need to be fit for it.” He grinned at Tristan. “Then perhaps we should be able to talk about your woman some time, hm?”