Divine Verdict – VII

The fellowship hall of the Knight Templars had been turned into a make-shift courtroom for the trial of the so-called witch. The hall fairly blazed with candles. The seat of the Visitor General was a large chair usually reserved for the Commander. It was raised on a low platform facing the hall. There were several seats behind and below it, places for the knights themselves. The first few benches of the hall were left empty for the chaplains and the squires of the order. In front of the raised seat of the Visitor General was a low table littered with plenty of parchment, ink and quills. This was the place for the two court recorders, selected from among the chaplains. The rest of the hall was filled to the bursting with common people. Lucien had tried to avoid this, but Roger had been all for the participation of the masses. Most had just come to watch a witch be condemned and executed. The Jews weren’t allowed to attend and only one or two Christians were brave enough to take a stand for the Jewess.

There was a shuffling at the far end of the hall and the residents of the Villefort Temple entered in a solemn procession to a hymn describing the judgmental God. The solemn, holy-sounding tune and the resounding male voices bestowed awe on the people sitting in the benches. Surely, people who could make such music were also men of God, capable of discerning his will to the fullest. Roger of St. Juven knew of this effect on the peasants and exploited it completely, trying to draw them to his side in a fanatical frenzy. By the time the song had ended all of the knights had taken there places. Only the seat of Tristan of Magdala was unoccupied, causing some muttering among the people. Why was their favorite Knight Templar absent?

The Visitor General then led the people in a Pater Noster and called them to sit down. He rested regally in his chair, his wide cape draped around it like a king would have it. His thinning, gray hair and beard were cropped short and his eyes burned with what the masses regarded as holy justice, but what Lucien and Claude thought to be insanity.

“Bring the accused,” he ordered. Now there was silence in the hall as Tristan of Magdala led the girl in. She was also surrounded by four sable-clad squires. The blue satin of her dress that peeked out from under the Jewess’ gray cloak was the only spot of color among them other than Tristan’s red cross. Her face was covered with part of her shawl and her head was down. An angry muttering rose from the crowd as she came to a halt in front of her place, a low, black stool against one wall. She sat down regally and the two of the four squires took their places beside her, halberds at attention. Tristan stood just a bit to her right, closer to the people.

“Brother Tristan,” the Grand Visitor addressed him, “take your seat among your people.”

“I cannot, sir,” he answered evenly. “I do not support the charges that our Order is bringing against this girl. I wish to defend her to the best of my abilities.” Roger nearly leaped out of his seat.

“What, has she cast a spell over you, too?” he cried. “You dare to defend a witch?”

“I dare to defend her, because she is no witch. People are innocent until proven guilty, but when some judges decide they are guilty before the trial even begins, my work gets harder. As for the spell, if she had tried to cast it, it would have no effect on me, for two reasons. The first my Commander and comrades will understand — the protection afforded me by the Lord Jesus Christ, and the second you will find more palpable.” He slowly raised his right arm and drew back the white sleeve to reveal the scar. “I carry the symbol of the cross on my body the way no one else here does. I know that you believe this is enough to annul any spell cast on me.” The Visitor General’s face had grown ashen during this short bout and he found himself at a loss for words. Finally he stared at this insolent knight and nodded.

“I will allow you to defend her in court,” he said in a choked voice, took a deep breath and continued, “Let us begin. The witnesses.” Several were called forward, all of them telling wild tales of how this girl had healed Christian men in strange ways. There were many lies woven with only one or two grains of truth in them, the truth that Rachel was a healer and that she helped the Christians free of charge. Tristan remained silent until all of the witnesses had been called. Then he requested permission to speak.

“Sir, I have undeniable proof that Temple money has been used to pay these men to lie.” This time the Grand Visitor leaped from his seat.

What?” Tristan nodded.

“Claude, would you give him the list?” The blond knight handed the old man a piece of fresh parchment. Roger’s eyes narrowed at the sums.

“It’s a list of the expenditures in the last few days,” he snorted, waving the page. “So what?”

“There among the expenditures is a sum of several hundred guilders that were signed out by your lieutenant Victor of Solcourt for the express reason stated. Would you please read the reason, sir?” Again the old man squinted at the page and slowly made out the letters.

“For trustworthy witnesses in the trial of the morrow.” He looked up, angry. “Are you telling me that these men were bribed?”

“Yes, sir, on your express orders.” Now the Visitor General stood.

“How dare you accuse me!” he thundered.

“Sir, I would not do it, if two squires, who are completely trustworthy, had not on two separate occasions heard you order your lieutenant to find witnesses.”

“And you say that he did this with a bribe?” Tristan nodded.

“Then let it be on the record that when I ordered him to ‘find witnesses,’ I was not speaking of bribes.” The dark knight could tell that his superior was fuming beneath the stoic face.

“Do you have any other witnesses?” he asked in a polemic voice.

“I do, sir,” Tristan answered. “I call Louise, the wife of Henri the Potter.” There was some shuffling to allow the woman through. She was probably somewhere in her early thirties, but her hard life made her look like an old woman. She’d come dressed in her best clothes, which were rather shabby and now uncertainly stood beside the knight.

“Louise,” Tristan began gently, bending down just a bit. “Would you kindly tell the Visitor General about Rachel’s visits?” The woman nodded and didn’t raise her head at all.

“Sir, Rachel came to my house to look after my young Marc. He was very sick with a red rash all over his skin.”

“And did she heal him?” Roger cut in sharply.

“Yes, sir, she used salves and tea from herbs that she prepared in my house.” She faltered for a moment. “There never were any incantations of any kind and she was always so helpful.” She stopped and bit her lip, pulling out a small tin box. “And she gave me this salve. It cured my son, sir. Now he’s alive and well like all other children.”

“Show me the box,” the man on the chair demanded. The poor woman shuffled forward and stretched out her hand timidly. He grabbed it from her and examined it.

“Ah, here we have proof!” he cried with a smile. There were a good number of Hebrew characters etched in the top of the box. He didn’t even bother to read them as Tristan had, otherwise he would have known that these were the words of the Book of Books: “The scepter will not depart from Judah.” Roger smirked at the defendant.

“I believe your witness has turned against you,” he laughed. “Here we have undeniable proof!” He turned to the girl who silently sat on her sable stool, face hidden behind the shawl. “And you, witch, what do you have to say? We have proof that you have healed that boy by sorcery and that you have bewitched Pierre of Lyselle and Tristan of Magdala, two mighty knights of the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. What do you say in your defense?”

“I can only say, sir, that I am innocent of all charges,” she answered in a shaking voice.

“Show me your face when you answer!” he demanded. She hesitated and slowly drew back the shawl, pulling it off her head completely. The raven hair fell to her shoulders and her pale, proud face bore a beauty that few of the people there had seen. The brown eyes seemed to the peasants to be full of innocence.

“I am innocent.” Slowly she drew a light, white glove off her right hand. “But since you will sentence me to death, I demand a Divine verdict, because I know that God can save me where men cannot.” The lines in her face were hard as she stood and flung the light piece of cloth at the feet of the Visitor General. He stared for a moment and then bent to retrieve it.

“So be it,” he muttered, thinking, This girl is insolent enough to demand a Divine verdict, calling on the Christian God to save her worthless Jewish hide. Out loud he continued, “Who will fight for you?”

“I will.” Tristan’s bright blue eyes stared at the old man. “And, sir, I call on you to stand to your decision and fight yourself.” An amused smile slipped on to the side of the old man’s face.

“So you will fight the best of the Knight Templars? I think not!”

“You, sir, have taken the glove. It is your duty to take the other side of the battle.” Roger stared hard at the knight in front of him. His arms were crossed, the right bared. The scar of the cross burned mockingly in the Visitor General’s eyes.

“Very well, tomorrow at midday we shall call for the Divine verdict. I myself will take God’s cause and defend the cross from this backslider!” He rose. “Court is adjourned.” With that he swept out of the hall in a fit of rage. Tristan merely nodded in satisfaction. Claude then rose and came over to him.

“Are you sure about this?” he asked.

“Yes, my friend, I am. It is time we test true faith in God against the fanaticism that this man has. Now I have something for you to do for me...” They talked quietly for a few moments before the dark knight walked over to the recorders’ table, bent over it and wrote something on a piece of parchment. He dried it, read it again and signed his name to the bottom, before rolling it up, sealing it, and putting it in his friend’s hand.

“This will be enough,” he said with a smile. “Make sure that the messenger does not leave until tomorrow after breakfast. We will win in any case.” Claude nodded soberly and stuck the note into his belt.

Tristan then accompanied Rachel back to her tower chamber. He let her step through the door and then turned to go.

“Sir knight!” she called. He turned back.

“Yes?”

“Where did you get that scar?” He smiled to himself sadly.

“A friend of mine gave it to me. He was a Muslim who didn’t even believe that God exists, but he told me that what was carved on my heart should be seen on my flesh. He then presented me with the dagger he’d used to do it with.”

“And you consented?” She shook her head incredulously.

“No, he did it while I was asleep. The pain woke me up, but the work was already done. As you see it helps at times. Now I bid you good night.” With that he turned and walked out of the room, leaving the Jewish girl impressed at how much a man who was so clearly a Christian would stand up to defend her from death.

• • •

‘The small field in front of the Temple had been converted into the place of battle. Stands had been hurriedly set up and there were many banners waving in the wind. At the far end of the lists was the stake, surrounded already by piles of brushwood and tar-soaked hay. Chains were fastened to the pole, already blackened from earlier use. Beside the pyre was a low, black chair for the accused. The people had already arrived and there was much talk about how Tristan of Magdala had agreed to defend the Jewess. The Jews were there this time and populated a whole part of the galleries for themselves. Some of the “Christians” looked at them with disgust and made snide remarks, but no one dared attack them, after all this was a Divine verdict that was to be felled and no evil could have power over it.

A fanfare broke from the gate of the Temple and the Knight Templars rode forth, led by Lucien of Villefort on a dappled gelding. After him came two of the Visitor General’s henchmen, followed by Roger of St. Juven himself, clad in splendid armor, his gray eyes staring around with a steely gaze. After that came the knights in the order of their rank, the escort of the Visitor General sparkling in the sunlight. Then came the black horse of Tristan of Magdala, the dark knight’s armor glinting dully in the light. He held a shield that was covered with a white cloth and there seemed to be a sad quality in the blue eyes. There were now whispers among the people that he must be under a great weight.

Following him came Rachel, flanked by four squires. She was dressed in a simple, coarse white dress, barefoot, to make sure that nothing that she wore could hold any kind of protective power from the Devil. Her black hair framed her face and fell to her shoulders as she demurely strode towards the stake. Now the whispers had become a muttering as many of the people saw for the first time the exquisite beauty of this girl. Some were lamenting the fact that such a beautiful vessel could be filled with so much evil.

“If she were only one bit Christian,” one farmer told another, “I would be on that field to beat the living daylights out of any one who would try to harm her.”

After the girl came the Temple’s lower ranked inhabitants. These distributed themselves along the sides of the lists. A hymn was sung and then Lucien came forward with a large crucifix and stepped up to Tristan’s horse.

“Sir Tristan of Magdala,” he began, “do you swear upon the Cross of Christ, that you are fully clean of any enchantment or hatred for your adversary? Do you swear that you will do battle according to the code of honor of our order and do battle fairly?”

“Yes, I swear,” the knight answered, lightly resting his right hand on the crucifix. Then the Commander stepped over to the Visitor General.

“I have already taken the oath this morning in the presence of my knights,” he snapped at Lucien. The old man stared hard at his superior, gave a slight bow and retreated to his place as presiding judge.

“Then may you fight to the glory of God,” he cried, “and may his will be done. Amen.”

“Amen!” answered the people. The two knights trotted to the opposite ends of the field, Tristan on the end with the stake. He paused by the low chair where Rachel was now seated.

“Pray to the God of Israel that we will win,” he told her, “for your sake and for our sake.” The girl nodded. He reached up, snapped his visor shut and was handed his lance. Silence was laid over the field as the two men stood across from each other, the horses pawing the ground restlessly. It was white against black, good against evil, God against Satan, but who was representing whom? A squire then came up and loosened the strings of the white cloth covering Tristan’s shield. Instead of the crimson cross of the Templars was the face of a snarling lion and in Hebrew and Latin characters was inscribed: “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has triumphed!” There was rapt attention on the stands.

• • •

Bernard felt rather subdued that morning after his breakfast. The baroness was so sick that the doctors said she wouldn’t recover. Not that it bothered him any, it was just that she had a way of making people as miserable as she was. Sophie had hidden herself away at her father’s house and he felt so alone, now that Tristan had been detained at the Temple by the Visitor General. So, also hiding himself away from everyone, the baron had missed out on the excitement that filled the people of his town. A knock on the door startled him out of his bored reverie.

“What is it?” he snapped as a page poked his head in the door.

“Sir, one of the squires from the Temple wishes speak with you. He says he has a message for you.”

“Well, show him in!” Bernard roared and within seconds a shaken Philip was standing in front of the baron of Villefort.

“Who are you and what do you have to say?” the lord snapped.

“I — My name is Philip and I’m the squire of Tristan of Magdala. He sent a message for you.” He held out the roll of parchment with a stiff arm. Bernard grabbed it and broke the seal. His eyes passed over the message. Then he held it out to the squire.

“I can’t read.” Philip took the parchment, tilted it so the light struck it just right, and began to read.

“To Bernard, baron of Villefort. From Tristan of Magdala, Knight Templar. Greetings, my friend. It may be that you are unaware of the happenings of these last days, so I took a moment to write this message. The arrival of the Visitor General could not have had a worse timing, due to the fact that one of our knights had kidnapped one of the Jewish girls, who is under your sovereign protection. Upon finding her, the Visitor General assumed she was a witch and through a mock trial tried to condemn her to death. She was able to plead for a Divine verdict and I am going to stand at her side. However, my friend, I know the Visitor General well, for I served under him, and I will need your help. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah must and will triumph! I am awaiting you on the practice field by the Temple. To God be the Glory. Tristan of Magdala.” The baron was on his feet in an instant.

“What is this fool of a Visitor General trying to do?” he ranted. “Martinus!” His head steward came scuttling into the room.

“Get the men ready we must leave for the Temple immediately and get my armor at once!” The steward bowed and rushed from the room. His crisp orders could be heard from down the hall. Bernard stepped up close to the still shaking Philip.

“And you, boy, will get yourself back to the Temple at once and tell Tristan that the lion is out of the cage, is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.” With that the squire turned on his heel and hurried out of the castle.

• • •

The silence on the field did not last long. A chaplain who generally was marshal of the lists raised his hands. The trumpets blared and then the marshal cried.

“Fight, fight, fight!” The horses stood motionless for a moment and then leaped from their places. The two knights met at the center of the lists with a tremendous crash. The lances splintered, but both warriors stayed in their saddles. They circled around each other now, Roger pulling out a heavy mace. He swung it around his head twice to get it going and then held it out to strike the other knight, but Tristan was quicker. He had his battle ax free and thrust it up, haft first. The chain wrapped itself around the iron rod and the dark knight suddenly jerked it towards himself. Roger, not ready for the pull, flew from the saddle and into the dust. He was back up in moments, only to face an angry Tristan on foot. The swords were out and they clashed in the air. It seemed that the Visitor General’s sword could never even reach the other knight. Suddenly there was a different sounding clang and Roger’s helmet went spinning off his head. Still, he fought on against one of the mightiest warriors of Villefort. Moments later his sword spun out of his hand from an expert flick of Tristan’s blade. Then he drew his dagger. The long, straight blade glittered in the sun. He took a step back, tripped over an uneven hummock and lay flat on his back. The other knight dropped his shield and yanked off his helmet with his left hand. The dark face burned with anger and exertion. The sword was pointed at the old man’s throat. Suddenly Tristan heard a shout.

“The lion is out of the cage!” He glanced back at the fallen warrior.

“Then get on with it,” the old man snapped. “Kill me and show how God wanted the battle to end.” The sword wavered slightly. “Oh, so you’re too afraid to kill me?” the Visitor General mocked. “Perhaps it is me whom God wants to win.”

“I can assure you that God does not want you to win, Roger of St. Juven,” the other knight returned. “I just believe that all life is precious, even that of my enemy.”

“What makes me your enemy?”

“The things you have done and ordered me to do. Do you remember that village in Edessa? It was the one you ordered massacred. That was a Christian village.”

“It was apostate,” Roger roared back, trying to rise, but the sharp point at his throat kept him from doing so.

“Because there was a converted Saracen there? Because he did not acknowledge you as God’s appointed servant?” A sad smile crossed the younger knight’s face. “He was right not to do so, Visitor General, and we should never have obeyed your orders.”

“Wait a minute, you —” finally recognition came to the hard, gray eyes, “you were the one who tried to stop me from doing God’s work. You are that half-Jewish fool that infiltrated this holy order!” He reached up to push the blade away, but it just inched closer to his throat.

“Yes, my mother was Jewish, but she became a Christian and she was a better one than you could ever be, Roger of St. Juven. I have been raised as a Christian child. I received the baptism from the priests like all others — and yet you call me unfit to serve God, because my mother happens to have been converted from another religion — to the true faith!” The blue eyes glinted. “Do you know what it is costing me not to thrust this blade through your throat?”

“Then do it and get it over with!” the old man snapped.

“I will not,” Tristan returned and suddenly the air was filled with the sound of horses’ hooves. From around the bend came fifty armed riders, at their head the shining armor and device of the baron of Villefort. He thundered in, slid to a halt inches from the two Knight Templars on the field and dismounted. Neither flinched.

“So,” Bernard roared, bending over the old knight, “you are the man who think you are administering justice by sentencing an innocent Jewish girl to death, just on the fact that she is not a Christian?”

“We have proof that she is a witch,” the old man tried to defend himself.

“Let him get up, Tristan,” the baron ordered. The sword was withdrawn and the old man climbed to his feet, fists clenched, eyes burning in anger at the man in front of him.

“Who is this ‘witch’?”

“Rachel, the daughter of Hananel,” Tristan answered.

“So you are accusing a person who is known in my town as a healer — and a good one at that — of being a witch? Where is your proof?”

“There,” the Visitor General answered pointing at his four witnesses. The baron recognized them instantly.

“Oh, them! I’ve had them in court before and every single time they were bribed to say what their employers wanted to say. They have never told the truth in front of me. What other proof do you have?”

“The box!” the old man called. A squire came running up with the ornate tin box.

“See what is written in the top?” the Visitor General asked.

“I can’t read it.”

“But you can,” Tristan snapped at Roger accusingly. “Do so.” The Visitor General hesitated for a moment and then stared at the Hebrew characters.

“The scepter will not depart from Judah.”

“That is from the Bible!” the baron thundered. “How can you say that this is an incantation?”

“There must be some writing elsewhere,” the old man muttered turning the box over in his hands. There was none and Bernard snatched it from him.

“I hereby put you under arrest, Roger of St. Juven,” the baron roared. “The girl is innocent and she is free.” Anger flashed from the face of the old man and suddenly he had the baron’s sword in his hand.

“You will not get me without a fight.” Tristan’s blade was instantly crossed with his.

“The Lion of the Tribe of Judah will and has triumphed.” The younger knight’s blade whisked around in a complicated pattern and suddenly the old man fell with a deep gash in his throat, blood pouring from the wound.

“So the Divine verdict has been felled,” said Lucien, now standing behind the victor. The man on the ground’s face was contorted in hate and rage as he mouthed a few words silently before expiring.

“The question was if he ever knew what it was to be a Christian” Tristan said sadly. He looked down at the single drop of blood that dripped from his blade and then slowly raised it above his head. The crowd cheered and slowly began to disperse.

• • •

The body of Roger of St. Juven was laid in the chapel of the Temple of Villefort. Tristan knelt by it in silent contemplation. Dear God, was I wrong to kill him, or was this really your will? No answer came, but he remembered his dream. He was called to fight and he had fought and won. The girl was free and at home again. He had done his duty, and yet he felt the pain of killing this bitter old man clinging to him. It was sad, but it had to be, otherwise the girl would have died, but either way one person would not be going to see the Lord.

“I wish you could have known God’s peace, Visitor General,” he whispered. “It would have made life so much easier for you.” A light hand rested on his shoulder and he looked up, surprised. Rachel was standing there, dressed in her traditional clothing, her hair covered by the golden cloth.

“I wanted to thank you,” she said, cutting off any questions he might have had. “The Commander said I could.” The knight rose slowly.

“It was what I had to do, Miss Rachel,” he returned quietly. She then looked at him quizzically.

“Tell me, what makes you different from the other Christians? Your ancestry?” He shook his head.

“It’s just the way that I understand the Gospel and the way I know God to be — loving and merciful and yet just and terrible. It seems that most other people don’t understand his first two attributes, they only see him as some monster waiting for them to sin. But God is love and he wants us to love one another as he loves us.”

“And where does your Jesus come into this?”

“He was the proof of God’s love, his death and resurrection were the proof — for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. Think it over and ask him to help you understand. He will.” With that he turned and slowly walked from the chapel, the white robe billowing around him and Rachel suddenly thought that she was watching a true man of God, someone who knew God intimately, leave the room.

 

The theme of this story is based on one from Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, as retold by Max Kruse in Der Ritter.