Even in the dim light, the Hospitaller could discern the permanently darkened skin behind the lord’s black-bearded face, which could only be achieved by long service in a baking wilderness. The eyes gave away no signs of mal-deception. But the man’s appearance was good enough for Saint John’s Knight to press the matter.
“Good sir, I do empathize with the precaution of hiding your identity. I assure you that my intentions are neither to uproot you, nor are they in league with the Norman brutes whose want it is to possess this land.” The Hospitaller saw that Markus would allow him to continue a bit longer. “I have broken from the duties of the White Cross to but bring one message to Sir Honour of the Templar Order;” the Knight produced a small scroll from beneath his black mantle, “one in the hand of a mutual friend.”
The Lord of Audaciter-Deus continued to stare in silence at the Knight, perhaps hoping the flicker of the flame against his features might conjure an unnatural fear in the Hospitaller resulting in a want to depart, in haste. But the Hospitaller held fast the unfriendly gaze.
“Say the name of this ‘friend’. I shall judge if it be a mutual companion, or the tidings of a new enemy.”
“I am called Markus—the third so-named in the line of this House. Concerning the one you seek: I may know of him. And if I do then I will also know of his friends, for I either know a man completely or not at all. That must suffice for your person; or you can hold your message for ears you deem more worthy.”
The Hospitaller found he had little leverage: at worst the man would deny knowledge of the name, likely forgetting it as just another name among men—which is exactly what it was, save for those who had been in the message-writer’s fellowship.
“Brother Percy; a knight who belonged to the same Order of Cross you see before you now.” The Hospitaller detected a twitch of the man’s lip. “Does your silence acquit my persistance, sir?”
“You speak of this mutual friend as if he be evermore with Holy God,” Markus answered.
The Hospitaller looked down, hoping to bury the lump in his throat, for the pain in his heart was still unhealed. “Indeed; good Sir Percy took a golden chariot at Hattin, along with many a good Christian knight and soldier.”
Markus got up with such fierceness that his chair tumbled back a couple paces to the floor. He looked like a man trying to keep his sanity after his first taste of battle. Heavy breaths passed his lips, and something about the noble perishing whilst the ignoble lingered.
When it seemed the Saxon lord’s composure had sufficiently returned, the Hospitaller risked his question again. “Are you then Sir Honour, for whom this message is intended?”
Markus swallowed, and answered low and even. “The name you seek is here but the one to whom it once belonged is but a shadow. Even so, if I must don the mantle of ‘Sir Honour’ to hear the words of good Percy then it is a burden I will bear with gladness for this brief occasion.”
The Hospitaller nodded and set the sealed scroll on the table before the Templar as he gathered his chair and sat upon it again. He glared at the rolled parchment as if he could ascertain the contents by his steely gaze alone.
When he took the note into his hands, he seemed barely to want to touch it out of fear that even the lightest of contact might crumble the note to dust. He inspected the seal, then replaced the scroll on the table between them. “You know its contents,” he said.
“I do,” the Hospitaller agreed. “It accompanied another sealed letter addressed to me. Percy requested that I commit the words on the parchment before us to memory, lest the note be lost or require destruction.”
Markus indicated the hearth with his thumb. “This message may as well be in that fire.”
The Knight looked at Markus with concern. “You have lost the language of the Church?”
“The words of the Holy Father and his council have brought me much death and regret,” Markus said. “I retain Christian Latin for hearing, to receive the Sacred Mass, but I have no need to corrupt my eyes and tongue. It has been this way since… since before Hattin. Good Percy knew this; thus either Holy God has ceased his favor upon you or your presence is the tidings of ill events.” Markus rose, unsheathing his sword.
The Hospitaller did not like this turn of events. “Open the letter, sir. Let me read you his words…” he said in as calm and serious a tone as he could. He remained in his seat, hoping the Saxon prince would see this and conclude the Knight to be harmless.
The Knight’s air of calm and lack of action was lost on the Lord of Audaciter-Deus; he approached with the sureness of a stoic warrior. “One who trusts a tame animal just come in from the wild, should expect to lose their hand.”
“I beg you to open the letter, good sir,” the Hospitaller repeated, with a hint of concern beginning to creep into his tone.
“A prayer of salvation would be a better choice of words, spy,” came the retort.
The Knight now understood the pressing situation with alarming clarity. “You think me a Norman agent?”
Markus slowed his advance. “Or of the Papal court. I will not be told that I am destined for Jerusalem for the salvation of my kin or my soul. This I am undertaking, in my country, until my death.” He stopped, as if halted by some invisible barrier, then ambled forward again. “If not for the last ‘holy pilgrimage’, I would not have the worst of all sins to atone. I fear that not a hundred lifetimes will be enough to appease Heaven for the stain on my heart. But sending one of Rome’s messengers to our Highest Judge to answer for the magna Curia might save me from the hottest of hell’s fires.”
As Markus spoke, the Hospitaller had gotten hold of the note, and worked hastily to release the seal. But time was no longer his ally. The glint of the Saxon’s blade bent a ray of the setting sun off its edge as Markus raised it above him for a mighty strike. Just then the Hospitaller’s finger slid beneath the wax, releasing the letter from its rolled state.
Markus’s foot lashed out, striking the seat of the chair and tipping it and its occupant straight backward. But as he fell, the Knight thrust the parchment into the air.
The breaths of the two men and the cracks of the fire filled the tense moments of inaction. The muscles of Markus’s arms tensed as he held his weapon aloft and gazed upon the empty note before him—empty save the sign of Sir Percy clearly drawn upon the paper as proof the Hospitaller’s words were genuine.