Divine Verdict – VI

Usually silent communion with God was something Tristan enjoyed, but now he strode back and forth in his small chamber with the window looking towards the coming night. It was four steps from the door to the bed and four steps back. At first he hurried back and forth, but now each step was preceded by a long pause. His head was bowed, chin resting on one hand, the other supporting the elbow. As he calmed down, he began a silent introspection. Why am I so wound up about this? he wondered. He knew about his excitable temper, something that his training as a knight helped him control. Could he be trying to get back at Roger for what he’d done in that village? No, he remembered the sand beneath his knees, staring towards the flames leaping through the small enclave, weeping, while the other Templars laughed and pointed. Not one had escaped those sharp blades and he himself had killed six of the men. It was those haunted eyes of the child that had stopped him ... haunted eyes ... He stopped in mid stride and pressed both fists into his eyes.

“My God, how could I forget,” he whispered. Those haunted eyes. That girl bound to the stake. And I could have freed her, he thought. She was innocent! The flames leaped up, touching off the already crimson hair. The hazel eyes were pleading. Slowly the head went back in an agonized scream. The flames leaped higher, scorching the fair skin. Another cry. I could have freed her. The fire was now crackling, the girl black and limp, just a smoldering carcass to be devoured by the heat of insane anger.

“No! Not again!” He was on his knees in his room, but the memory of that burning was still fresh. How often had it haunted his dreams as night after night he watched her die? He could have freed her. He knew she was innocent and could have proved it. Why didn’t I speak out? Was it because he was afraid to do something that was painful for him? Was he afraid to make a decision that would jeopardize his life? The only way that silly bishop in that little hamlet on the Rhine river would have let her live was after the “Divine” verdict — two knights in battle, one to prove she was innocent, the other to prove she was guilty. The winner would determine her fate. Had he been afraid to fight?

“I’ve always been afraid to fight when it counted,” he moaned, rocking back and forth. Even when it came to Esther he’d been afraid to fight. He remembered that day too well. It was burned into his mind like the death of the innocent girl...

• • •

...It was out on the knoll where they’d played so many times that he saw her again after nearly three years. Three years in which he’d been the squire of a Knight Templar, learning how to fight and be a man. He was a few days short of eighteen and had asked for leave to visit his family, hearing that his father was ill. The knight had granted it him and he’d gratefully accepted. Now here he was, just outside of his home-town, Magdala in Galilee, looking towards the large lake. Noon had just passed and he’d decided to go visit that spot and think a while. He had this distinct feeling that he was missing something — no, someone. It was not until he saw the young woman perched on the top of that hill staring at the shining lake that he realized who it was. She was dressed simply in dark clothes, making her black hair almost vanish in it. Only the breeze that lifted it every few minutes showed that it was distinct from the rest of her attire. A shawl lay on the ground beside her. He could not see her face and wondered what she was thinking of. He hesitantly took a step forward.

She must have heard it, because she turned her head. For an instant she didn’t seem to recognize him, the dark eyes gazing at him dolefully. Then slowly a smile spread across her face.

“Tristan!” In a moment she was on her feet. It was all she could do to keep from hugging him.

“Hello, Esther,” he said with a smile of his own.

“I missed you,” she conceded, leading him back towards the edge of the hill where they sat down and gazed out at the water. They were silent for a few minutes.

“Did you come back to stay?” she finally asked.

“No, I have to return soon. I just came to visit Father. He’s sick now, as you know, and with Louis being away in Jerusalem for studies, I was the closest one who could come see him.”

“Too bad, but maybe it’s good, though.”

“What makes you say that?” he asked, looking at her sharply. She took a deep breath and expelled it in a soft, sad sigh.

“I have to go away, also, Tristan.”

“Where to?” The deep, dark eyes focused on him sadly.

“To the Countship of Edessa — to a monastery there. My mother — she ‘dedicated’ me as a child, as she put it.” She turned her face away to hide the tears. “I’m going to be a nun.”

“My ...” The words failed him and he fell silent. For a short time all that could be heard was the swish of the waves, the cries of the gulls, the wind and the soft sobbing of Esther.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again,” she whispered. Tristan sat there, hands folded, knuckles showing white from the strain. His roaring feelings pulsed with his heart-beat. He had dreamed of seeing her again, had thought that then everything would be all right. But now he realized that this “seeing her” was only the beginning of something that would enhance the longing that he already had, that had kept him from sleeping most nights during his last three years. Finally he spoke up in a small voice.

“So there hasn’t been anybody ... asking about you?” She glanced up, surprised, the tears suddenly stopping.

“What?”

“No one has asked ... for your hand...?” A little smile drifted across her face.

“Of course, but I was always too young and now ... I’m going away.” She paused to search his face for a moment. “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I wouldn’t have said ‘yes’ to anyone anyway. I’m waiting for someone.” A note of melancholy touched her forehead again. “Someone whom I’ll never get.” Disappointment mirrored in his face.

“Who is that?”

“You.” His eyebrows shot up in surprise.

“Me? Why could you never have me?”

“Because you’ll be a Knight Templar and will have to take a vow of chastity, just like a nun...” He shook his head angrily.

“I never wanted it and I’m still only a squire. I can leave. I can come back.” He restrained a curse from crossing his lips and then looked at her, falling silent.

“You feel it, too?” she finally asked. He nodded.

“I — I guess I like you a lot more than I thought,” he admitted. “I ...” Should I tell her this? he wondered silently.

“Say it, Tristan,” she prompted.

“I — I love you, Esther.” A shine came to her eyes as a small smile slipped across her full lips. “I was hoping that I didn’t have to be a Knight Templar,” he continued. “I’d have come back and ask for your hand with honors, but now this...” Slowly she slipped to the side and rested her head on his shoulder. He put one arm around her and she slid up close. There was something heady about the moment. Finally she spoke.

“Let’s run away.” The thought had struck him at the same time.

“Yes, where to?”

“To Jaffa.” A slight lilting tone came to her voice. “We’ll get a priest to marry us there and then take the ship to Europe. Maybe Italy or Spain?”

“France,” he said resolutely. She raised her head just enough to look at him.

“France?”

“It’s where my father’s from. He’s told me about it so often and it sounded so beautiful. I want to see it.” She nodded in agreement.

“Then France it is.” He nodded also.

“I have some gold. It should get us there. I’ll try to find a job at the court of a baron and we can live in peace...” The dream hung in the air like the wispy tendrils of a spider’s web. It was clear enough to touch and seemed solid enough to hold on to. Then slowly he shook his head.

“No, it wouldn’t work.” She sat up and away from him.

“What? Why?” Her face was genuinely shocked. He looked at her helplessly.

“It’s a long way. We’re both under age. There are Saracens in the hills who would kill us. How do we know that the ship’s crew won’t sell us as slaves? What about the priest, will he cooperate? Can we get a job if we get to France? ...” He paused to catch his breath and she put up a hand, the light in her eyes slowly dying.

“I understand, but can’t we speak to our parents? Don’t you think they would let us get married, if we told them about this?”

“Maybe your mother would, but my father? Never! He is so set in his ways. It would be a miracle if he said yes. No, I think it’s better the way it is.” He stared at the water bitterly.

“I wish I’d never found out about the way you felt,” he moaned. “Things would be easier.”

“Please don’t say that,” she pleaded, resting on hand on his arm. “It may be more difficult now, but with God’s strength we’ll make it, right?” He stared at her for a long moment, his youthful face slowly becoming thoughtful. In God’s strength...

“Yes, we will,” he whispered, leaned forward and for the first and last time kissed her lips gently. Then they rose and returned to the village and to their different lives...

• • •

...Perhaps he should have asked his father, he now thought. Maybe the old man would have said yes. After all, he’d scorned what the others thought of his marriage to a Jewish convert. As he knelt on the rough, hard wood, he felt himself sinking back into the shadows and lights of that monastery in Edessa. Suddenly it was as if he was running along the halls again. The heat of the flames seared him. The Saracen leaped in front of him. He wasn’t quite quick enough with his blade and the scimitar slid along his chin, making a nasty cut. Then the bright Christian sword sang through the air and the Muslim was dead. He hurried on, feeling something nameless call him. Suddenly he stopped. There, in the mixture of the flickering light of the fire and the hazy, dust filled light from a hole in the ceiling, lay a small form in a nun’s habit. She was pinned under a heavy beam that must have fallen from the ceiling. Another nun was sitting by her, whispering, stroking the pale face. The comforter looked up.

“She needs help!” she called. Tristan dropped his sword and knelt beside the fallen woman.

“Are you all right?” he asked, his own blood dripping slowly onto the dirty floor. He knew that face that now whispered “Yes.” He knew that gentle voice, only away in a village to the south, where he’d grown up.

“Esther! My God, it’s Esther!” he cried and got up. His hands closed around the end of the beam and he lowered himself into a squatting position. Slowly he began to straighten up. The worry etched in his face gave him almost supernatural strength and he not only lifted the beam clear of the girl, but moved it around so that it lay on the ground some six feet away from her. He fell to his knees beside her and stroked the black hair. A smile was on her face.

“Tristan!” The dark eyes had a hazy quality to them, as if she was in much pain. “I was certain you’d come.” She let out a small gasp. The other nun leaned forward.

“We must turn her over, knight,” she ordered. So gently, inch by inch they laid the girl on her back. The quick hands of her sister rushed over her body.

“It’s no use, Sister Anna,” she finally said, addressing the fallen nun. Esther’s eyes closed momentarily.

“Thank you, Sister Elizabeth.” She opened her eyes again and gazed at the Knight Templar beside her. “I think I’ll die happy now.” Another pause. “Tristan, would you hold me?”

“Esther, the pain ... it would kill you.” She shook her head weakly.

“No, it’s going now. I have this wonderfully warm feeling.” After a moment’s hesitation he lifted her up and cradled her in his arms, her head resting on his left. She looked up at him and smiled, then suddenly became concerned.

“You’re bleeding!”

“Yes, but that’s nothing in contrast to what’s hurting inside.” The broken head nodded just slightly.

“I think I’ll sleep now,” she murmured. “I’ll see you in the morning, my dear one.” Slowly the dark eyes closed. Her breath expelled slowly, like a sigh, and she did not breath in again.

As he now knelt in his room in the same posture as when he’d held that lifeless body of the woman he’d loved so much, he realized that, This was the one time that I did fight and it proved useless. Would it prove the same with Rachel? Even if it did, the feeling of satisfaction that he’d done all he could would be enough.

Slowly he rose from the floor in his darkened room and lay down on his cot. Sleep was slow in coming, but when it did it was rewarding.

• • •

It seemed to him that he was walking the ethereal halls of a building he knew and yet didn’t. At every turn he thought he would find someone he knew, but he was desperately alone. Step by step he moved towards his destination. Suddenly someone called his name. He turned to see a slight figure clothed in shimmering white coming towards him. It stopped only inches from him and smiled.

“Esther!” His voice had a hollow ring to it. She didn’t seem quite solid, though she looked better than he’d ever imagined. Her edges were fuzzy, see-throughish, but her face was as radiant as ever. She beckoned him and he followed her down the hall to where the room was that he’d been looking for. In the center was a girl chained to a stake, wood piled around her. Across from him stood a knight in shining armor.

“Now you must fight,” Esther said, “for us, for her and for your own freedom.” She turned and looked at him lovingly. “You must let go of me and of what else you’re holding on to,” she told him. “You must fight and win.” He nodded wordlessly and drew his sword, gazing at the person across from him. Slowly a hand lifted the visor and he found himself staring at a dark face with shining blue eyes and a scar on the chin — himself. And then he woke up.

• • •

The last night had been terrible for Rachel as she paced her room, finding almost no sleep. The Visitor General had returned later in the day after he’d seen her and demanded all her jewelry, which she gave to him against her will.

“Might have a medallion from the Devil himself to protect her,” he’d muttered and left her with the shimmering chains and bands of gold and silver. She was certain that he merely wanted these for himself. Her breakfast had come when the sun rose and now it illuminated the countryside, giving her an even greater sense of loss. Slowly she turned from the window and stared at the ground. A knock on her door startled her.

“Come!” she called. It opened slowly and a Knight Templar was in the door. She quickly recognized the dark face, black hair and blue eyes of Tristan of Magdala.

“You!” she growled, hunching forward slightly, like a cat ready to spring.

“Don’t worry, Miss Rachel, I won’t hurt you,” he returned in a reassuring voice. “I would like to help you.” The anger of her dark eyes did not disappear, though she straightened again.

“Why should I believe you? You are a Knight Templar and would be glad to see another cursed Jewess dead.” The sarcasm in her voice could be cut with a knife.

“Not all of us are that way,” the dark knight answered. “I for one believe that all people are equal before God, no matter what their religion. The only difference is that some have made peace with him and some haven’t.” He gazed at her calmly and she relaxed.

“Very reassuring, but what could you do?”

“I will defend you in the trial that will begin in a few minutes. I know that you are innocent of any charges brought against you.”

How do you know that?” Her eyes narrowed a bit.

“From your face and your eyes. Miss Rachel, I once met a real witch. She was no ugly old hag, as a matter of fact she was a woman much more beautiful than yourself — and such a woman is hard to find. She had something in the air around her that made her totally repulsive, though and you could see the evil power in her eyes.” She leaned back and stared at him incredulously. He had not moved from his spot, hands clasped in front of him, eyes gently resting on her face.

“And you would trust only that?” she asked. He gave a little half-smile.

“No, I sent my squire into town to do some asking for me. He told me some very interesting things about you, but all of them point to your innocence. Besides that, I know that Roger of St. Juven is a fanatic. He once ordered a division of Templars to slaughter a whole village — a Christian village — for harboring a Saracen, converted though he was.” The shock was drawn in the girl’s face in clear lines.

“And you will help me against him?” she asked.

“Yes, but only if you trust me completely.” She looked at him quite critically for a few minutes.

“Then give me something to make me trust you,” she finally said. He thought for a moment and slowly rolled up his right sleeve. There in the massive forearm was a scar shaped like a cross, one that she had seen only once in the torch-light of her home.

“You — you’re the White Shadow?” she gasped. He nodded silently.

“Then you were the one who has the Saracen’s weapon and saved me that evening!” She stared at him, her fists clenching and opening alternately. “Why?”

“Because I am sworn to help all in need. That is one of the things that we must swear when entering the Order. You needed help.”

“Why didn’t you reveal yourself?”

“For your protection and mine. If they’d have found out, we would both be in greater danger than we are now. At least here I can play according to my own rules. Out there the mobs are insane. Only a large number of armed men can do anything to stop them, like a few days ago at your home. But, come, we’ve got to go to the trial.”

“Then you’ll defend me?”

“That’s what I said.” She nodded and picked up the white shawl, threw it over her head and pulled part of it across her face, so only her dark eyes were visible. Then they turned and left the small room.