The Holy City of God belonged to the banners of Allah. Early in the eighty-seventh autumn of the second century and millennial after the Blessed Incarnation of God as Jesus the Christ, Jerusalem bowed its great head to the Saracen champion and Sultan of Egypt, Salah ad-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub: Saladin.
With his occupation of the city, many Christians no longer heard the Voice of God in Outremer—the kingdom of Christian states in the Holy Land of the LORD. A myriad thought fondly once again of the great shores of the West, and longed to return; a portion of those were a great many Knights, including some of the Blessed Orders of the Temple and Saint John the Baptist. These were indeed few, as it burned in the hearts of these bearers of the Red and White Crosses—stitched with fidelity upon their breasts—to retake the Sacred City where Christ poured forth his lifeblood for the salvation of the world.
And so, like the bear in hibernation, these Knights of the Cross waited for the sweet smell of reprisal’s spring.
It can only be guessed that those of the Blessed Orders that did lay eyes again on the shores and horizons of Western Christendom did so for only the most personal of intent and shortest of time; at the least to return to the kingdom without its Crowning Jewel with some measure of renewed strength, to wage what most piously believed to be a righteous war on behalf of the Ecclesia Militans—a war begun by the Muslim when they marched into Damascus, then Jerusalem some six centuries prior; when North Africa and Iberia were overrun, and nearly all the West if Charles, called ‘the Hammer’, had not stopped Abderame at Tours; when Sicily was occupied, then Benevento; when the Status Pontificius was sacked and Basilica Sancti Petri looted like a common chest. All well before the first millennium Anno Domini had set upon the horizon.
But these politics and rivalries were not presently on the mind of the Hospitaller Knight as he made his way upon a forested road in that part of Norman Britain called —shire. Not many of England’s sons had taken up the Cross, for many were needed to keep the balance of Anglo-Saxon and Scot against the Norman. Indeed the lords of these Houses at first applauded the news of the warrior pilgrimages to the East as they looked to accomplish sword-work against the more local Norman infidel. But the idea to glorify Holy God, by freeing the East from the rule of the Saracen, was too strong a wine from which to yield for the promising young princes of Ivanhoe, Dunkeld, and Audaciter-Deus.
A wind blew through the bare trees, forcing a violent shiver. The Knight was used to the hot breath of the desert. It had been years since the kiss of a Christian winter last touched his beardless face.
Ahead the Hospitaller saw a form close to passing him on the road. “Hallo, yonder Christian!” he called forth in the harsh accent of Eastphalia.
“And God be with’ye,” came a gruff, yet amicable, voice.
When the Hospitaller reached the spot where the traveller tarried he said, “If you would be so kind as to help a knight of Christ.”
“Would be but a blessing, sir Knight. How may I be of service?”
The Hospitaller nodded. “I seek the property of the Lady of this region. Is this the road?”
“Aye, this very one, sir Knight. But the Lady of Audaciter-Deus is not available for audience, as I hear it. Her brother is about if it pleases you.”
The traveller’s countenance shifted to one like pity and he rubbed his chin. His voice was noticeably lower.
“Is there more, friend?”
“You would have more speed getting one of these lonely trees to talk than the lord of this shire, I’m afraid. Keep your sword close; he is a brooding type and much more given to acceptin’ a strange face as Norman, be he in truth or not”
The Hospitaller nodded again. “Thanks to you, good sir. A blessing for your helpful conversation, and good counsel.” The Knight wasted no time moving his horse forward.
“You’ll find him returning from the smithy soon,” the Knight heard the peasant call after him through the frigid breeze.
The Hospitaller soon learned the peasant could not have been more correct. For just as his mount crested the hill, he could discern a distant figure making his way along a footpath from a building belching black smoke from its chimney.
A small cottage beckoned not half a stone’s throw from where the mounted Knight now stood dismounted. A servant girl came out to meet the Hospitaller. She motioned to take his horse and he nodded in gratitude.
When the steed had been tied to a stall and given some straw, the young girl led the Hospitaller across the way to the cottage. Inside the homely structure, she silently served him a draught of water and a plate with bread and a bone stick of fowl. Then she bowed and made her departure saying only, “My master will join your supper in his time.”
The Hospitaller did not know how long he would be waiting, but judging by the similar plate of food on a small table near the fire it would not be long. The Knight took his fare to that table and surveyed the structure. It was one room; a cot located in the corner was heaped with fabrics and a few empty baskets, so the Hospitaller concluded that the cottage was used mostly for refreshment and receiving unsolicited guests. Close to the gate, it was the ideal place for the Knight to transact his short business.
The Hospitaller knew little of the one who would soon be his host. The hard-won facts at his disposal confirmed the lord of this shire as being in Outremer before Saladin’s occupation. His business, and the length of his stay, remained a mystery. Despite the scarcity of information, the Hospitaller would know if his host and the Templar he sought were one and the same.
The Knight of The Baptist took another hearty bite of his roll of bread; on the second swallow of his drink, the door burst open. The man that clambered through the door was not heavy-set, but he could certainly turn the tide of a fight he meant to win. The drawn sword in his hand indicated that a fight in the present was not out of the question.
“Are you the Knight of the Hospital that was given admittance?” The man’s voice was a clear baritone and one to which men desiring a leader would gladly listen.
The Hospitaller looked into the man’s eyes. They reflected a kindled fire but revealed no sign of unprovoked violent intent. Finally he nodded to the swordsman. “I am, sir, and you, I presume, are the lord of this blessed land.”
The man returned the nod with the hint of a snarl. “It is dangerous to conceal the markings of your Order, Knight. Suppose I considered you a Norman?”
“I supposed you would consider my sword resting not a breath away from you.”
The shire-lord looked back to the Knight. “Normans do not need swords to kill their marks.” He replaced his princely blade within its cover. “What business have you here?”
“I seek Sir Honour the Templar. He is said to be the brother of the Lady of this estate.”
Markus stared hard at the Hospitaller and long enough for awkward discomfort to make itself an unwanted guest for the duration. Without answering the assertion put forth, the shire-lord ambled to the table. Never taking his eyes from the Hospitaller, he dropped himself into the chair across from the Knight and proceeded to chew on a crust of bread.
When he had dispensed of the bread, and taken several long draughts of water, he leaned back in his chair and regarded the Hospitaller for long beats. “The Lady has but one brother,” he said evenly, “and he sits before you now. No man by name of ‘Honour’ dwells here.”