Divine Verdict – III

It was early evening before Claude finally got a chance to speak with the Commander of the Villefort Temple. Lucien of Villefort was calmly sitting in his quarters, poring over his greatest possession — a portion of a Vulgate Bible. It was only the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John, the Book of Romans, and John’s Apocalypse, but the old man still loved to read it, understanding the immeasurable wealth that had been passed into his hands. These were pages he himself had copied, years before he had taken up the sword to liberate the holy land. The Dominican monastery two towns over had been sad to see him, one of their best novices, go, but all knew that it was God’s will. Perhaps that was why the abbot had allowed him to take these few pages of the Word with him.

Now he reverently laid aside the parchment and turned to Claude of Rimneau, who was standing silently in the doorway. The old man nodded and the Knight Templar fell on one knee, bowing his head in a sign of respect.

“Sir.”

“Rise up, Brother Claude,” came the clear, soft voice. It was an impressive baritone with just a slight tremor in it.

“Sir, I have something to speak with you about,” the knight said, his eyes still on the ground.

“Then speak.” It was an invitation. “But first close the door and draw up a chair.” The blond man did as he was ordered. Letting his charges sit in his presence was not a strange thing for this Commander to do. It made the event more personal and in that way the gentle Lucien had pried many a dark secret from the soul of the man he interviewed. He was so infinitely gentle about the way he did it, but did not let the pain of guilt be lessened at all. Claude knew this all too well and suddenly was afraid.

“Sir, you were not at the tournament today?”

“No, I was not,” the other replied, shaking his silver head. The younger knight took a deep breath.

“Very well, sir, I have a complaint to make about Brother Pierre the younger.” A nod from his superior made him continue, “Today during the tournament he nearly slew one of the other contenders. I was just barely able to stop him. He said that it was his choice if a battle should be life or death.” The blue eyes went down for just a moment before looking into the green ones of the old man. “Sir, I believe that he is dangerous to the honor and to the goals of our order. He is brash and bloodthirsty. I have also heard that he has a taste for women and frequents some — uh — wenches...”

“Do you have proof of that?” The voice was still quiet and infinitely gentle, and yet it made the knight squirm in his seat.

“No, sir, not for the charges about the women, but for the rest... Tristan can vouch for me on the counts of brashness and bloodthirst.” The old man sighed, letting his bearded chin sink onto his white tunic in thought.

“Very well, Brother Claude,” he said after a long pause, “I will look into what you have told me. I will speak with Brother Tristan and with Brother Pierre and we will do as the Lord sees fit. Dismissed.” The blond man rose and bowed to his Commander and the left the room. Lucien closed his eyes. I feel so old, so very old — and now this, a traitor in my own temple. Holy Mother of God, why do you let these things happen?

• • •

The sun had not yet risen and already the Knight Templars were on their feet for the morning mass. Tristan received the wafer and the wine, drew the cross from forehead to chest and shoulder to shoulder, retreated to his seat, and knelt in silent communion with God. These were the times when he felt closest to his dear Savior. The outward ritual meant little to him, it was just knowing what the Lord Jesus Christ had done for him on that cross that gave him peace. He looked up at the crucifix and thought of the man of sorrows.

“This is my body, broken for you,” he remembered old Moshe recite in the tiny hovel that was the chapel for Tristan’s mother, Esther’s father, Claude and his parents, and so many others of Magdala. Then it was the blood, shed for you — for the remission of your sins, forever. Few believed that now, it seemed, and that made the knight sad. Perhaps some day the Christ would make it clear to all men. Now Tristan was certain he was part of a sort of elite, who knew the true secret of salvation — faith. He hardly spoke about it, but when he did it was clear that it was important to him. Few would listen and no one was sufficiently his enemy to call attention to the authorities. Sure, the Commander knew, but he did not want to lose his chief advisor and believing in the shed blood of Christ was no heresy, not after what he’d read in the books he’d copied.

Lucien of Villefort rose from in front of the altar and made the sign of the cross. He then bowed his head and clasped his hands. The knights slowly repeated the Pater Noster after him before breaking into a Laudamus te, Christe. Then they were dismissed to private meditation and recitation of their prayers, most to patron saints, Claude and Tristan to God alone.

As the dark knight turned to leave the chapel a gentle hand rested on his shoulder. He turned to see the Commander gazing at him quietly.

“May I have a word with you, Brother Tristan?” he asked. The knight nodded mutely and bowed, then following the old man back to his quarters in the tower. The door was closed, they were both seated and Lucien folded his hands in his lap, letting them rest on his long, white robe with the crimson cross on it that the Saracens so feared.

“I must speak with you about Brother Pierre the younger,” the Commander began after a few moments of quiet introspection. “Your friend, Brother Claude, said you could vouch for him.” The green eyes came up and gazed into the deep, Mediterranean blue of Tristan’s. “Tell me what happened yesterday on the field.”

“Brother Pierre tried to take the life of Klaus von Tann,” he said simply. “Brother Claude stopped him and forced him to leave the lists.”

“Did you hear any of the conversation?”

“No, sir, I was sitting in the stands.”

“And yet it was clear that Brother Pierre would have slain the knight?” Lucien’s voice suddenly became very fragile.

“Yes, sir. There is no doubt in my mind about that.” The old man stopped, sad and puzzled.

“And what of the charges that Brother Pierre visits the brothels?”

“I cannot say anything on that account, sir,” Tristan stated resolutely. “It is just hearsay, though I did once hear the young lady Sophie say that our brother proposed to her in a rather violent manner during his time as a squire.” The gray eyebrows across from him went up and the dark knight continued.

“She says she was only fifteen at the time — ‘Pretty as a picture,’ the baron would add — and Brother Pierre saw her and, well, proposed to her. She said no and he got violent, tried to force himself on her. She screamed and fortunately a servant was nearby. He scuffled with the squire and won, but the lady Sophie is still afraid and angry at our brother.” He fell silent and watched his Commander’s face grow pale.

“How trustworthy is this girl?”

“Not very, but the servant would back up her story.”

“And this was?”

“About five years ago, sir.” The green eyes were haunted.

“Tell me, Tristan, what should I do?” the old man finally asked in a broken voice.

“Sir, I would privately warn Brother Pierre that he is in grave danger and call him to repent.” A sad smile slid across Lucien’s face.

“You still believe in the goodness of man, do you, Brother Tristan?”

“No, sir,” he replied, shaking his head resolutely. “I believe that man is innately evil, but that God calls him to repentance and brings him to a point where he cannot resist the call  without being damned for eternity. It is a choice: the Cross or hell.” Pause. “I believe that every man has a chance, even our Brother Pierre.”

“Very well,” the old man answered after a very long silence, “I will take your advice. Perhaps he will repent. Thank you very much, Tristan.” He thought for a moment. “Please pray for us, brother, because I have a feeling I will need more wisdom than my own.”

“I will, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

• • •

It was a contrite and repentant Pierre that left the Commander’s room later that morning. He even went so far as to apologize to Claude, something unprecedented, due to the fact — and this was no secret — that the young knight despised the blond man especially. Tristan was present for the apology.

“I think he’s made a turn-around,” Claude remarked as he watched Pierre walk away humbly. His friend shook his head sadly.

“No, it’s all show. You could see it in his eyes. No matter how hard that boy tries, he’ll never be able to mask them.”

“Hm.” The blond knight cocked his head to one side and rubbed his flat nose. “Shall we go to watch the end of the tournament, my friend?” he finally asked.

“Yes, let’s. I want to speak with the baron when it is through.”

• • •

The galleries were full again, this time with Baron Bernard sitting in his plush throne, elevated above the others. The young lady Sophie sat at his right hand, the baroness being sick, or so said the people from the castle. The more base ones knew that it was jealousy that plagued the older woman.

Today was the archer’s tournament and excellent men from all different parts of France had come to try their hand at it. The shooting went quite quickly until two were left over. The one who took the prize from Sophie’s hand was a young man from the Bretagne. The other just happened to be the baron’s older son, Jean. He eyed the young woman in the stands next to his father, who was her senior by a bit less than twice her age, hating Bernard more each second. Even from the distance from which he watched, Tristan could see that. He leaned over to his friend next to him.

“It looks like the baron and Pierre are not the only ones enamored with the lady,” he remarked. Claude just grinned to himself.

“I remember something similar some fifteen years ago, my friend. Only that time it was not the baron of the town that was keeping two young lovers apart.” The dark knight smiled just a bit wistfully.

“Yes, it just happened to be the faith.” They rose slowly and walked towards the pavilion of the baron. He was dressed in blue and gold, a fur-lined cap on his head, waving one hand to his subjects, Sophie holding on to his other. He looked down after a few moments, his eyes resting on the two Knight Templars.

“Ah, Tristan, my friend,” he laughed cordially, “it is good to see you again.” The darker man bowed slightly.

“And Claude,” the baron acknowledged and nodded his head. The other knight also bowed.

“We were hoping that you would join us this evening. There is a banquet in honor of the end of the tournament and you are both welcome, as highly honored champions.”

“We would be delighted, my lord,” Tristan answered with another bow. Something in his face made Bernard lean forward, letting go of the girl’s hand.

“What is it?” he asked in a low voice.

“I must speak with you privately, sir,” was all the knight answered quietly.

“Very well, tonight after the banquet we’ll have time.” Tristan nodded and then watched as the baron took Sophie’s hand and they marched off the platform.

“I have a bad feeling that he won’t like what I have to tell him, my friend,” the shorter knight remarked.

He was right. The baron had been rather unhappy with the conversation about Sophie. He loved her, he’d explained, and she loved him. After all, the baroness was ten years older than him and quite ill. The doctors had said something about breathing problems. Tristan sadly knew that his friend would not shed one tear at the death of his wife. He would merely marry his mistress and life would go on — more happily for him. So the Knight Templar left the castle downheartedly, floating down the ethereal streets like a white specter.

• • •

Rachel left the small hovel where she’d been tending to a Christian boy. The mother had been thankful, but both of them knew that it wouldn’t do for a Jewish girl to stay at a Christian family’s home. After all, her healing skills being lavished on the poor — especially the Christian poor — were enough danger. Not a few Jewish women had been burned at the stake for their acts of charity, defamed as witches. So she slipped into the night, wearing a dark gray cloak to disguise her identity. She knew that many Christian men would gladly kidnap a Jewess or a Jew in order to press inordinate sums of money from them. And Hananel, her father, was one of the richest. Hah, those Gentile fools would do anything to fill their pockets, she thought with disgust, even attack innocent girls. Just like her mother. She paled at the thought and wiped it from her mind instantly. No, she wouldn’t let it bother her. It was not important.

She did not notice a cloaked figure slip out of the shadows behind her and follow her along. The girl left the dark alley and pattered along the main thoroughfare of Villefort, before disappearing into another dark street. Suddenly she stopped. Had she heard a shuffling behind her? She turned and looked over her shoulder. Nothing, just the moonlight slipping in from among the rooftops. And yet the alley was still pitch black. A quiet mewing made her jump and she looked down to see a calico cat brushing against her leg.

“Sht, go home!” she ordered quietly and took a step forward. Suddenly someone caught her from behind. She was able to cry out before a rough hand came up and pressed over her mouth, stifling any other attempt at calling for help. She struggled in the strong arms as she was pulled back into the shadows.

“Be quiet, Jewess,” a voice hissed in her ear. “No one has heard you.”

“Now there you are wrong,” came a second voice from the alley entrance. A figure clothed all in white was standing there, his face hidden in the black shadows cast by his cowl. The girl suddenly wondered if she’d heard his voice somewhere before. The man in white took a step forward. Suddenly she felt herself thrust aside, landing on the hard packed dirt of the street, only inches from a smelly sewer troth that ran down the center of the alley. A dagger flashed in her attacker’s hand, long and straight with a plain cross-bar, a Christian dagger. The white shadow also drew one, his with a gold hilt, curved — a Saracen’s weapon. Her attacker launched himself at the other, the blade flew forward, but the challenger was quicker. His white cloak came up in an instant, the dagger lodging uselessly in the folds. There was a loud tearing sound as it flew back out, cloth hanging on its edge. The curved dagger shot forward like a snake and her attacker cried out, dropping his weapon and fleeing into the night. The Christian blade lay on the ground. That just goes to show how weak their religion is, she found herself thinking. The Saracen defeated him. Her rescuer was now looming over her, his face still hidden in the dark.

“Come, I’ll take you home,” he said, offering one dark hand to her. She took it greatfully, rose and he followed closely behind her. She realized that he was a good deal taller than her.

“I believe you Muslims are stronger than the Christians after all,” she muttered.

“Don’t be deceived by the outward appearance,” the white shadow returned. “You hate the Christians?” Only a slight nod from the girl.

“I don’t blame you,” was all he answered. They reached her door. He kept his head down to hide his face from the light of the torches on the wall.

“Are you hurt?” she finally asked. He just shook his head, stepped past her and rapped on the door with his right hand. She saw that the knife of her attacker had caught his sleeve, tearing it away. The light of the torch revealed a deep scar in the skin of the massive fore-arm — it was shaped like a cross. She drew her breath sharply as he suddenly dropped his hand and vanished into the darkness. Here was something she could not understand — a Christian who wore white and carried a Muslim dagger saved her, a Jewess. Was the whole world going upside-down?

• • •

Hananel sat quietly in his study, brooding over the strange thing that had happened to his daughter the night before. He did not trust the Christians, but this was a very unusual thing indeed. The protector of his daughter — whoever he was — would probably never appear again. Strange. If only all Jews could have someone like that. Of course the baron said he protected the Jews, but who could be sure? The baron’s father certainly hadn’t. If it had been so, Ruth, Hananel’s darling wife, would never have been killed by that angry mob.

“All Christians are cowards and demons,” he muttered to himself as he rose and paced through the large house. He hated them. God, how he hated them! If it were up to him, they would all die quickly. Even this incident of kindness did not make him any more friendly to these people. Outside he had to play the humble servant, because otherwise they would kill him. He had to wear that ridiculous hat and always call everyone “sir.” It was demeaning to say the least — below his dignity, after all he had more money than any other person in the town, including the baron.

A slight rap on the door brought him out of his brooding. He looked up and called, “Come.” The door opened and Rachel walked in, dressed in gray, formless clothing, her hair covered by a yellow cloth, the only bit of color in her outfit.

“I hear you were at another Christian’s house last night,” he spat into the stillness.

“Yes, Father,” she answered, head bowed.

“Well?”

“The child was sick. He needed help — and Mother would have done the same.” She still kept her head down, but there was pride and disdain in her voice.

“Oh, she would have?” the old man snapped back, rising to his feet, gray eyes spitting fire. “That was what killed her!”

“No, Father.” The girl’s head came up, her brown eyes boring into his. “She was killed because they accused her of stealing something that she hadn’t. You were the culprit.” With that she turned on her heel and stalked out of the room. He let out a curse and slammed his fist onto the desk. Now even his daughter was talking back to him. Perhaps he deserved no more from this cruel God of Israel. Perhaps the Christians were right, the Jews were cursed.

“No, no, we are not!” he whispered to himself, sinking into his chair, anger and dispair tugging at him.