Divine Verdict – V

Hananel had never been to the Temple outside of Villefort. It was a place that the Jews and many Christians also stayed away from. True, it was one of the better ones of the land, where the knights really were noble and helped the people, but still the peasants were afraid of the white-clad warriors. They were something like monks, only stronger and that made an impression on the poor man.

Now the old Jew was standing by the gates. It had taken all his courage to take this step and he was now afraid that it was leaving him just as he was going to see the people there. Who would he ask for? The Commander? No, there had been talk about the knight Tristan of Magdala being a man with an open ear for anyone who came. Perhaps he would help. Little did he know that this was the same man that had knocked on his gate that morning. He took a deep breath, grasped at the Star of David under his tunic and walked across the lowered drawbridge to the sentry standing on the other side.

• • •

Roger of St. Juven and his most trusted aid, Victor of Solcourt, were quietly walking in the garden of the Temple, talking about the condition of this small house of their order.

“They are in good condition,” the Grand Visitor remarked in a sour tone of voice.

“Does that bother you, sir?” Victor inquired.

“Of course it does! Not enough to find my old enemy Lucien of Villefort as Commander, he is doing a better job here than any of the other Commanders we have visited in France. I would give everything to see him taken from his position.”

“Why is that, sir?”

“Because, my friend, he was to be Grand Visitor, but I pushed some gold coins and favors around and got this position. If I were to die, he’d take my place immediately and the French division of our order would succumb.” The maimed left hand came up in a fist. “He does not have the zeal to do it. He does not love the Holy Father in Rome, nor God himself sufficiently for this. He is strange, I tell you, a monk at heart and not a warrior. He is not fit for this position.” He grumbled quietly into his beard, letting Victor assess what he had said. The younger knight knew that if someone was abhorred by his superior, then it was best to hate that person as well, but somehow he could not dislike Lucien of Villefort. There was something about him, an almost natural leadership that made Roger’s rule of terror seem worse than it was. Perhaps the old zealot was wrong for the first time in his life. At the same moment a squire came running up.

“Sir,” he said with a bow to the Visitor General, “there is an old Jew who wishes to see the Knight Tristan of Magdala. He said it is personal, but I thought that you should hear it first.”

“You did well,” Roger answered gravely. “Bring him here.” As soon as the squire left the old man’s brow furrowed.

“Tristan of Magdala, that name seems familiar, but I don’t know from where...” he muttered into his beard. A few moments later Hananel came in, following the squire. He instantly fell to his knees in front of the Grand Visitor.

“I wish to see Tristan of Magdala, sir,” he pleaded.

“Silence, Jew,” the old knight snapped. “You will speak when you are spoken to. I am Roger of St. Juven, Visitor General. If there is anything to be spoken of, it is to me that you will speak, is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” the Jew stammered, meanwhile contemplating the canine origin of this man’s mother.

“Now what seems to be the problem?” The knight leaned back and crossed his arms, glaring down at this insolent wretch who thought that he could face up to the greatest representative of the greatest religion of all time; a wretch who had the audacity to cling to some worthless belief, more base than that of the Moslems. It took Hananel a moment to compose himself.

“Sir, it seems that one of your knights has kidnapped my daughter and is keeping her here in the castle.”

“Was it Tristan of Magdala?”

“No, sir,” the Jew answered with fake humility, “I don’t believe it was. He is merely known as a Templar whom everyman can approach.”

“Well, I tell you, Jew, that she is not to be found here. And if she were, she’d be sorry to ever set foot in the place, for she wouldn’t leave it alive.”

“But, sir, I’d offer...”

“Silence and begone with you, insolent dog!” Hananel rose, his face white with fear and anger, but he didn’t press the subject.

“And now, Victor,” the Visitor General began when the old man was out of earshot, “we will search this castle and find the girl. Surely she must have worked some devilish charm on the poor knight who took her and also bewitched the Commander to allow her to stay.” He rubbed his hands, his eyes filled with a perverse glee. “This will be the end, not only of the Jewish witch, but of Lucien of Villefort.”

• • •

Less than a half-hour earlier Pierre of Lyselle rushed back up the stairs to the western tower, hoping to finally speak to this girl that he was so taken by. The squire opened the door for him without a question and he stormed in. Rachel was standing by the single, small window, her face filled with anger and pride.

“Who are you and what do you want?” she demanded, voice mirroring a frozen pond. Pierre made a low bow before her.

“I am Pierre of Lyselle, a Knight Templar and your humble admirer,” he answered, trying to soothe her with his words.

“Oh, you are?” The dark eyes glittered dangerously. “I believe you are the one who took me from my father’s house.”

“That was for your own good, my lady.” He took a step forward and she backed away against the wall.

“I would think you would be thankful for my saving you from being massacred by the townspeople,” he told her. Suddenly her heart was in her throat.

“You mean, they’re — dead?” The knight shrugged.

“Some.”

“My father?”

“I don’t know, fair maiden, but you are safe here,” he brought up one finger, “as long as you do as I ask.” Something in his hazel eyes made her shiver.

“I would never do that,” she whispered. “I may be no Christian but I have honor.” His features became stony for an instant and then he barked a laugh.

“Hah, you have honor?” He snickered and became serious again. “You can only have honor through a Christian, Jewess. I am that Christian. Lie with me and you will have your honor.”

“No!” It was just a bare whisper. She pressed herself against the stone wall, dark eyes wide with fear. She tried to edge away from him, but he was quicker, grabbing her and propelling her to the low bed. He threw her down on it and stood over her grinning.

“If you resist, it will only hurt you more,” he sneered. She pushed herself up, trying to get away. He lunged for her.

“Pierre!” The voice from the doorway was hard. His head snapped around to see who would be so insolent to intrude. Blue eyes burned out from an olive-skinned face with a thatch of dark hair. A scar pulled itself along the set jaw. Both hands were on his sword.

“Tristan, how dare you intrude!” the younger knight snapped.

“As I see it, it’s my duty to intrude here,” the dark man returned, “both to you and to the maiden.” Pierre straightened up and glared at his senior.

“You call her a maiden?” he scoffed. “She’s a Jewess.”

“And that makes her all the more a maiden,” Tristan shot back. “Now get out into the hall.” The younger knight hesitated just a moment too long and suddenly found himself staring at the sharp point of Tristan’s blade.

“Move!” he ordered. Pierre complied, sullenly stepping through the door where he was instantly pinned against the wall by the powerful fist of Claude. Tristan turned to the shaken girl.

“Are you all right, young lady?” he asked, perhaps a bit sternly. She sat up and nodded.

“Now to get you out of here,” the knight muttered, picked up a bundle of clothes and tossed it to her. “Put these on. I’ll close the door and wait outside. Come out when you’re finished.” With that he turned and left, closing the heavy portal. Rachel slowly pushed herself off the low cot and opened the bundle. There were blue and white clothes, made for a lady of high standing. There was also a white shawl and a gold cord to hold it in place. She knew that she actually shouldn’t wear them, but if it was her ticket out of here and away from that monster, Pierre, she’d do it. With a sigh, she set to changing her clothes.

• • •

Tristan and Claude stood at the top of the narrow stairs, side by side, swords unsheathed, points on the ground. They stared down the winding stairwell, hoping that no one would come. Pierre sat in one corner, where Claude had already tied his hands behind his back. Philip the squire stood guard over him. Suddenly the dark knight cocked his head.

“What’s that?” he asked quietly. Claude had heard it, too.

“Someone is coming up the stairs,” he whispered.

“True, but it’s not just a someone,” Tristan returned, “that sounds like the whole Temple is on its way up here!” Suddenly two squires in black swung into view, carrying candles. Right behind them was Roger of St. Juven, followed by Lucien and Victor, walking side-by-side. After that came most of the knights of the Temple.

“So you have already apprehended the witch,” the Visitor General said with a smirk.

“Witch?” Tristan asked. At the same moment the door behind him opened and Rachel stepped out in the regal gown and shawl. The jewelry she’d hidden under her plain dress now sparkled around her neck and wrists. She stood, stunned at the many men there.

“Step aside, in the name of the Cross,” the Visitor General commanded the two knights. They hesitated, glanced at each other and did as they were told. The old man stepped up onto the landing and glared down at the girl.

“So you gain entry to this holy precinct, do you, witch?” The gray eyes narrowed menacingly. “Yes, girl, I know who you are and we will put you on trial for your evil deeds.” Rachel backed away into the room, her eyes wide with fear. Her right hand fumbled for the door.

“Fear the cross, do you?” the old man laughed. “Well, now you will see the power of it!” In the same instant the Jewess’ hand closed around the heavy ring set in the door. She pulled on it with all her might and the door slammed shut in the men’s faces.

“Prepare the courtroom,” Roger ordered, turned and marched down the stairs through the crowd. Two squires hoisted Pierre of Lyselle to his feet, untied him and marched him to his quarters until the trial. The Commander took a step up to the landing on which the two knights still stood with their swords in hand.

“What do you think you were doing?” he asked quietly, just a slight edge in his voice. “You were playing right into his hands!”

“We’d hoped he hadn’t found out yet,” Tristan admitted, slowly sheathing his blade. “We wanted her out of here, for her protection and for ours. I know Roger of St. Juven. I’ve served under him. One time we even massacred an entire Christian village on his orders, merely because they had a converted Saracen in their midst, who would not bow to the commander of our troops.” He shook his head sadly and then gazed into the deep green eyes of his superior. “Sir, I didn’t want him to see her, because I knew that if he did, he’d kill her somehow.”

“Do you like her?” the old man interjected.

“Not more than any other person, sir. I just believe that all life is precious, even that of my enemy.” Lucien sighed and let his shoulders sag, making him look older and more care-worn than ever.

“I admire you, Tristan,” he finally admitted. “It is already past noon. We have a meal and then vespers planned for today. The trial cannot be held before tomorrow.” He lowered his old head. “I want both of you to go to your chambers after vespers for silent communion with God until the morning. Your are not to touch supper, is that clear?” The two knights nodded and the Commander waved his hand.

“Dismissed.”