Take a peek at this excerpt from Night Pilgrims, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s latest Saint-Germain novel, available July 30th!
Now comprising more than twenty-five books, the Saint-Germain cycle is a masterwork of historical horror fiction. The vampire Count Saint-Germain has crisscrossed the world many times, seeking love and the blood of life and seeing humanity at its best and worst.
In Night Pilgrims, Saint-Germain is living in a monastery in Egypt when he is hired to guide a group of pilgrims to underground churches. The vampire finds a companion in a lovely widow who later fears that her dalliance with the Count will prevent her from reaching Heaven.
The pilgrims begin to fall prey to the trials of travel in the Holy Lands; some see visions and hear the word of God, while others are seduced by desires for riches and power. A visit to the Chapel of the Holy Grail brings many quarrels to a head, and Saint-Germain must use all his diplomacy—and a good deal of his strength—to keep the pilgrims from slaughtering one another.
Rakoczy, Sidi Sandjer’min
Text of a letter from Sieur Horembaud du Langnor at Alexandria to Rakoczy, Sidi Sandjer’min, written in Latin, and carried upriver to the Monastery Church of the Visitation; delivered twenty-three days after it was written.
To the renowned European teacher known here as Rakoczy, Sidi Sandjer’min, greetings from Sieur Horembaud du Langnor, once Crusader, now penitent, bound for the churches and shrines in the far south, on the Feast of the Circumcision, in the Year of Grace, 1225.
I am told by several well-informed Christians here in Alexandria that you are the man I must address in this predicament. I am seeking a translator and guide to assist in my pilgrimage to the south, into the mountains beyond the ancient Empire of Axum, which will set out from your monastery within a month of my arrival in that place. You, I am informed, know well the ways of the Nile and have many languages at your command, which will be most useful: I am intending to find a number of like-minded Christians to accompany me and my servants on my journey to the Christians of the Horn. As few Europeans are willing to guide us, lacking sufficient knowledge to undertake this pilgrimage, I believe it is God’s intention that you will accept the commission, for it is said you understand the risks of journeying beyond the limits of Egypt; you are vastly traveled, or so I have heard, and that would mean that you are especially well-prepared to supervise our journey. Also, you know the customs of the Christians of the region, and will be able to assist us in showing proper regard for their ceremonies, and to be able to lead us to the holiest shrines and churches.
I would expect that we will be gone on this pilgrimage for a year or so. Those who have made the journey themselves have told me that it will take that long to travel into the mountains beyond the desert, to visit the holy sites, make proper obeisance at each of them, and to return. I have been told that at the height of summer, rains begin in the mountains, and that until autumn, the rainfall continues, and slows travel in those distant places. All those going must be prepared for hardships, but such devotion is pleasing in God’s sight, or so the priests have said.
It is important to me to do this, for unless I perform this penance, I may not lead my troops again, by order of the Bishop of Acre. This was due to an error from local guides who assured me that there were Islamites in the town we had reached, and said they were preparing to poison the wells. As soldiers loyal to the Church and Christ, we went in and killed the people, and only then discovered that the people of the town were Christians of the Eastern Rite, and that we bore their deaths on out souls. I am eager to rejoin my troops so that we may stem the tide of Islamites that plagues the Holy Land, as any true Christian in this place would be, and therefore I have decided to address a European to guide me and my pilgrims, so that we should not be tempted to sin again, and who could offer testimony that the terms of my penance has been fulfilled. All those who have been on Crusade know to their costs how easily one can transgress. To that end, I am hoping to secure relics for Saunt-Adrien-le-Berger in the Aquitaine, where my fief is located; relics will surely help me in being restored to command of my troops and bring distinction to my family. I long for battle in the cause of Our Lord, Who made me to be a warrior in His Name. To wear armor again, to wield my sword in the name of the Savior: what Christian knight can ask for more?
Not that pilgrims can go armed into those lands beyond Egypt, for that has been forbidden since the First Crusade, when only unarmed Christians were allowed to enter Jerusalem, which stricture is still in force there. Hunting weapons are allowed, but the weapons of war and the armor that goes with them are not, and failure to comply with this order of disarmament brings a most unpleasant death. Enforcement of these restrictions is severe, by all reports. We will need to find men to accompany us who are skilled hunters, not Europeans, which would make us more vulnerable to attack and capture, but from Egypt and Christian. I am not minded to trust any Islamic hunter in our numbers, for they will put their faith ahead of ours. Since you are already among Christians, the search should not be a difficult one. I will leave such things up to you. God has pointed the way to you, and I will bow to His Will, as will you, for the sake of our faith, if you are the man I have heard you are. You are the man I seek; if you will pray, you will learn what God has revealed to me, and you will place yourself in my service, for it is the service of God.
I authorize you to bring with you up to six men, and will bear the cost for their travels; food, water, and shelter will be their concern, and yours, to the limits of my purse. When I and my pilgrims arrive where you are, you will advise us on what we need for our journey and where to obtain it; I have two servants with me, one of whom is a fine judge of camels and should be able to find worthy beasts for us once we need them. This is an endeavor worthy of any Christian, and one that many saints have undertaken. It is unfortunate that we must travel in summer, and therefore at night, but God has willed it so, and we must take His Gifts as He offers them. Be ready to receive us and we will welcome you to our numbers.
Sieur Horembaud du Langnor
by the hand of Frater Anteus, Ambrosian
Sandjer’min studied the letter that a monk called Yaboth had brought to him in the scriptorium behind the chapel. “Sieur Horembaud du Langnor, in the Aquitaine,” he mused as he read the message a third time. “He certainly knows what he wants.”
“Is it important?” Yaboth asked, hesitating a bit as he spoke while he peered at the letter he could not read. He was middle-aged, about thirty-five, with a long, tangled beard and fingers gnarled from his years of copying.
“It may be,” said Sandjer’min. He set his stylus aside and looked down at the page of formulae for medicaments, part of a book of remedies he was preparing for the monastery. “But that depends on Malik-al-Kamil more than on Sieur Horembaud.”
Yaboth looked askance. “What has the Sultan of Egypt have to do with a Christian knight?”
“Directly, I would think very little, but if the Sultan has decided to banish most Europeans from Egypt, then it may have everything to do with him, and me.”
“There has been no word of such a ban yet, Sidi,” Yaboth said, not looking directly at Sandjer’min.
“But if it comes, then I must consider Sieur Horembaud’s request seriously.” He gazed out through the unshuttered window into the warm afternoon. “I shall be sorry to have to leave here.”
“Do you want to send this Sieur Horembaud an answer?”
“It seems unnecessary. He is planning to stop here on his way south in any case.” Getting off the writing stool, he began to refold the letter, sliding it into the sleeve of his cotehardie when he had done, then closed his dish of ink and covered his ink-cake, a mixture of powdered charcoal, rat-skin glue, and ground marsh-berries. “It’s time I go to Aba’yam.”
“He is improving, isn’t he?” asked Yaboth, more doubt in his voice than he liked.
“Yes, he is improving, but he still needs to become better; why do you ask?” Sandjer’min regarded Yaboth with a penetrating gaze. “Is Tsura’gar persisting in seeking to replace him as Aba’yam?”
“He says not, but who knows the hearts of men but God.” Yaboth said unhappily. “He has said that the continuing pain in Aba’yam’s foot is a sign that he is no longer fit to lead the monastery and that we should elect a successor.”
“An unfortunate situation,” said Sandjer’min.
Yaboth scowled. “Has he said anything to you—Aba’yam, not Tsura’gar? Do you know what he is planning to do?”
“What would he say to me? I am a foreigner not of your faith. It would not be advisable for him to speak to me about the monastery or the monks. For the most part, we discuss his progress and the treatment I provide.” This was not entirely true, but he did not want to break Aba’yam’s confidence. He gestured his farewell for the day and left the scriptorium, walking around the front of the chapel, past the refectory to the dormitory, where he knocked to summon the monk who supervised the building. “I am here to—”
“I know what you are here for, Sidi,” said Tsura’gar, his head slightly lowered, not in humility, but like a bull preparing to charge. He was the biggest man in the monastery, almost a hand taller than Sandjer’min, bigger framed than most of the Copts, with dark-brown hair hanging in disordered curls to his shoulders, and honey-colored eyes. “Aba’yam is waiting for you in the wash-room.”
“Very good,” said Sandjer’min.
“Shall I escort you?” His stare challenged Sandjer’min to refuse.
“As you like. I do know the way,” said Sandjer’min with no indication of annoyance. “But do as you think best.”
“Then it is best that I show you,” said Tsura’gar. He set out to trudge along the narrow corridor and up the half-flight of stairs at the end of it.
“Did Aba’yam soak his foot this morning?” Sandjer’min asked as they went up the steep steps.
“He did, and prayed while he did it.” There was a edge of defiance in his answer, as if he regarded Sandjer’min’s medicaments as a kind of rival to God’s capacity to work miraculous cures.
“Very good,” Sandjer’min said, refusing to be drawn into an unnecessary dispute.
Near the top tread, Tsura’gar stopped and rounded on Sandjer’min, on the step below; taking full advantage in the difference in height this gave him, he loomed over the foreign Sidi. “You will not suborn him with your foreign wizard’s tricks. He will not forfeit his soul to be spared suffering of the body.”
“I have no wish to do other than return him to good health,” Sandjer’min said calmly, his enigmatic gaze meeting Tsura’gar’s stare.
“That is God’s work.”
Sandjer’min studied Tsura’gar’s face, wondering to whom the monk had been talking, that he so reviled Sandjer’min’s efforts to help Aba’yam; whoever it was, his influence must be growing stronger for him to condemn Sandjer’min’s efforts so rigorously. “Which is why God gives us medicinal plants and treatments, that His Will may be done. It would be irreligious not to use what he has given for our good.” He saw Tsura’gar’s frown deepen to a glower. “Why do you doubt this?”
“Because you are not a Christian!” Tsura’gar burst out, his face thunderous. “You have not been baptized! You have not Confessed!”
Sandjer’min favored Tsura’gar with a sardonic smile. “At least I am no hypocrite. You monks have known that I am not of your faith since I came here, and raised no cry against me, until now,” Sandjer’min reminded him with unflustered calm. “None of you protested my being here before the Sultan’s messengers arrived.”
“Because Aba’yam welcomed you, and Venerable Minseh made no objection.”
“What do you hold against me, then, if Aba’yam and your Venerable have accepted me?”
“Because I know the Devil sent you.” There was absolute certainty in Tsura’gar’s deep-set eyes. “You are his servant.”
“If I were, what good would it do for me to treat monks and your fellow-Christians for injuries and illnesses. How would that serve the Devil?” He waited to hear Tsura’gar’s answer.
“You seek to turn us away from God,” Tsura’gar insisted. “To mistrust His Mercy.”
“How could treating the sick do that?”
“There are things in your medicaments that will cause us to turn us away from faith. You are a corrupter of holy men, with your foreign ways and your—” Tsura’gar folded his arms so he could more completely block the last two steps to Sandjer’min. “You have come here to lead us to tergiversation.”
“By treating your ills?” Sandjer’min persisted.
Tsura’gar had no answer for this, and barreled on, “You have insinuated yourself into Aba’yam’s good graces and you are using that to destroy him. You think I haven’t been watching you, but I have, and I see what you are doing.”
“I am treating Aba’yam for a deep putrescence in his heel which—”
“You put it there, with your potions and ointments and soaking! You are slowly poisoning him.” He raised his fists, trembling with the effort to keep from using them.
“Aba’yam had a the end of a thorn sunk deep in his heel; sand worked itself deep into the wound and irritated the tip of the thorn. That is what caused the putrescence and made it impossible for the wound to close. Now it is almost—”
“There was a thorn, probably poisoned, because you—” He stopped abruptly as Sandjer’min came up next to him, took him by the shoulder and held him against the wall without apparent effort.
“Listen to me, Tsura-gar: I have done all that I know to do to return health and strength to Aba’yam, as I have done for other monks, and those of the faithful who have come here for succor. I do it out of my obligation to you for giving me a safe haven here. No one has complained of either my work or my reasons for doing it, not even those among you who are suspicious of me, or not until now.” He spoke softly, almost gently, but with such purpose that Tsura’gar goggled at him and squirmed in his relentless grip. “I have no reason to do any of you harm.” He took a half-step back—all the narrow stair would accommodate—and released Tsura’gar. “But rest assured, I will shortly be gone from here. You haven’t long to wait.”
“How long?” Tsura’gar asked, the question itself an accusation of lying.
“A month at most.” As he said it, Sandjer’min knew he was committed to leaving. “I have been asked to join a group of pilgrims going south.”
Tsura’gar showed his teeth in what was not quite a smile. “I will inform Venerable Minseh of this. He will be much relieved,” he said nastily.
“I would have thought it was Aba’yam’s responsibility to do that,” said Sandjer’min with maddening calm. “If you will excuse me, I have to attend to Aba’yam now. If you feel you must, you may lambaste me again when I am finished.” Without waiting for any response, he climbed the last step and entered the wash-room, to find Aba’yam waiting for him, his foot plunged into a large bucket of steaming water; the room smelled of salts and wet hemp. Next to it Sandjer’min’s medicament case was sitting, its straps unbuckled.
“I heard you talking with Tsura’gar,” Aba-yam said, keeping his voice low. “He will have to do penance for his accusations.”
Sandjer’min pulled up a low stool and sat down next to the bucket. “If you would help me, say nothing to him: he is looking for reasons to think ill of me, and such penance would give him another injury to increase his rancor. Any attempt to hold him to account will strengthen those who oppose you.” He lifted Aba’yam’s foot from the hot water, examining it carefully, testing the skin around the ruddy new scar on his heel. “Are you having much pain from walking?”
“A little, but as you told me would happen, it is decreasing. I have walked twice as far yesterday as I had been able to the week before. In a month, I hope to be fully restored. In the meantime, I will continue to wrap my foot before I don my sandals when I must walk across sand—even a little sand. I think you were right in fearing that sand in the wound was making it worse.” He flexed his foot. “You see? Now that the swelling has gone down, I can move much more easily.”
“Good, but not quite as supple as it could be,” Sandjer’min told him.
“How long do you think it will be before it is fully strong again?” Aba’yam asked this without any show of worry, though his eyes were a bit too bright.
“A year, perhaps a bit more,” Sandjer’min said. “The putrescence has been deep, so it will require time to leave your body completely.”
“A year? So long,” Aba’yam marveled unhappily.
“Such obdurate putrescence can take longer than that to heal. If it had spread, you would have lost your foot and perhaps your life.”
“So you warned me,” Aba’yam said, letting his foot sink into the bucket again. “But a year seems a long time for a man of my age; I have fewer years ahead than behind me.”
“I suppose it must,” said Sandjer’min distantly, trying to recall how it had seemed to him before his unsuccessful execution, when he was thirty-three breathing years old, thirty-three centuries ago.
“It may not appear to be so long a time to you. You are a grown man but not sunken in years, as I am,” said Aba’yam.
Sandjer’min smiled faintly. “I am older than you may believe.”
Aba’yam shook his head. “I will accept your conviction, but I can’t imagine you are much more than thirty-eight or -nine.”
Not wanting to continue on such potentially dangerous observations, Sandjer’min asked, “How long have you been soaking your foot?”
“Not as long as you would prefer, I suspect.” He lifted the foot. “The skin isn’t shriveled yet.”
“True enough. Keep it in the water a little longer.” He unbuckled the strap that held his case closed. “Have you been eating lemons with your midday meal?”
“Not every day, but most of them.” Aba’yam yawned, then blessed himself so that his soul would not escape his body. “I could have more if you require it, though I don’t like the taste.”
“If you dislike the taste, then don’t eat more than you’re doing already.”
Aba’yam shook his head a second time. “Thank you. My mouth puckers at the thought of lemons. Why do you want me to eat them?”
“They bring the sun into your body,” he said, giving the explanation he had heard in Persia when he and Ruthier had traveled into China almost two decades ago.
“Haven’t we sun enough in Egypt?” Aba’yam joked feebly.
“Not for the inside of your body,” Sandjer’min said seriously. “I hope you will continue with the lemons, for your sake.”
“Very well,” said Aba’yam.
“If your teeth start to hurt, you may stop for a while, say for a week at most,” Sandjer’min told Aba’yam, then gave his attention to laying out his medicaments. When he was satisfied with his work, he asked “How much longer will you be able to continue not leading the monks in the rites of your monastery?”
“Before Tsura’gar confronts me for Aba’yam?” he asked. “The Procession of the Annunciation to Holy Marya is in a few weeks; I will have to participate fully. As you may be aware, the monastery takes its name from what followed that holy occasion, and therefore I must lead or become Bulo’the again, and go into one of the old desert caves to fast and pray for salvation from my failure.”
Knowing it was useless to argue about this, Sandjer’min said to him, “If leading a procession is your greatest trespass, you may count yourself a most fortunate man.”
“All sins, even the smallest, are abhorrent in God’s eyes,” Aba’yam said sternly, looking directly into Sandjer’min’s dark eyes. “Repentance is needed, or salvation is meaningless.”
“Surely God understands the nature of your errors and assesses them with that in mind,” said Sandjer’min, remembering how different the teachings of the earliest Christians had been from those that now predominated the liturgy and the tenets.
“God’s sacrifice of His Son demands our repentance,” Aba’yam insisted.
Sandjer’min wondered what Aba’yam had done that made him believe years of isolation and penance was required of him; he kept the question to himself, and instead broached the matter that had claimed his attention for most of the day. “I have received a letter from a Christian knight who is escorting a group of pilgrims into the lands to the south. He has… asked that I go with his company, and I am inclined to acquiesce; he wants someone who can speak to the peoples of the south.”
“Do you know those tongues?” Aba’yam asked, startled.
“No,” Sandjer’min admitted. “But one of your monks must, and may be willing to go with us. I should know the languages of the pilgrims.” He took a deep breath and continued, “It is time my manservant and I were gone from here; it would be poor repayment for your hospitality to bring the Sultan’s men down upon this place because of my presence.” It was true as far as it went, but there were other factors that had become pressing—there were few women in the village that he could visit in dreams and none whom he could as knowing lovers—and spurred him to decide on leaving. With Tsura’gar and his faction against himself and Aba’yam, the protection the monastery afforded the three of them—for surely Ruthier was equally at risk as Sandjer’min and Aba’yam—would not last long.
“Is there any way I might dissuade you?” Aba’yam asked, the vertical lines between his brows deepening.
“I doubt it; it wouldn’t be wise of you,” he said. “Let me treat and bandage your foot, Aba’yam, and then I will arrange with Ruthier to make ready for our departure, so that when the knight arrives with his pilgrims there need be no delay.”
Aba’yam’s sigh was a complicated one: resigned, exasperated, regretful, fatalistic, and slightly bored with the process of treating his foot. “For now, I will say nothing, in case you should change your mind,” he said as Sandjer’min anointed his foot.
“I do not think that will happen,” said Sandjer’min.
“Then I will pray for you,” said his patient.
It was two days later when Zekri, a monk from up-river near the Second Cataract, whom Sandjer’min knew from his work in the scriptorium, came to Sandjer’min’s little house and asked if he could have a word with him.
“If you’ll step in out of the sun,” Ruthier said, “I will ask him if he’s—”
Sandjer’min appeared in the doorway to the second room. “It’s all right, Ruthier. I’ll talk to the monk.”
Ruthier nodded. “My master.” His glance in the monk’s direction told him the young man needed to speak privately with Sandjer’min, and so he turned to him and asked, “Would you object to my leaving you alone while I go fetch a rabbit? I shouldn’t be gone long. I’ll be back as soon as possible.”
“By all means, fetch the rabbit.” He indicated the door; Ruthier left promptly. “Now, Zekri, why are you here?” he asked, taking his place on the tall stool at the work-table.
“I was hoping you might need a guide for your travels to the south,” he said with unusual directness; he blushed and stammered, “I have h-heard that you’re g-going upstream. I—I know t-the way. It’s not-t easy to f-follow the Nile. I c-could help. My v-village is south of h-here. I’ve b-been beyond the F-fifth Cataract with my f-father, and I know s-some of the t-tongues along t-the way. I know some f-few words of Umo and Barwa.” He tugged at the sleeve of his habit, his black eyes moving uneasily; he was lean and angular, a young man still showing the awkwardness of youth. “I c-can vouch for wat-termen along the river.”
“Indeed,” said Sandjer’min, his face and eyes revealing nothing of the flare of curiosity that had ignited within him. “And how do you know about this? About my coming journey?” He knew Aba’yam had said nothing about his plans, which meant they had been overheard when he was treating Aba’yam’s foot..
“Monks t-talk,” said Zekri.
“So they do,” said Sandjer’min, and motioned him to continue.
“Yes,” said Zekri, continuing with more confidence. “I have been that far t-twice, to the Fifth Cataract. My f-father had been across the Nubian Desert into the mountains four times; he would have g-gone a fifth time, but he took ill and d-died before he could leave again.”
“It is true that it would be useful to have a guide. I have been to the Third Cataract, but it was some time ago.” It had been more than a millennium since he had made that journey; he kept that to himself.
“The river changes over time. My knowledge is no more than five years old, and should be adequate to the pilgrims you will guide. It is pilgrims, isn’t it?” He looked at Sandjer’min directly, and then his eyes flicked away. “I know men in the stops along the river, which I doubt you do.”
“You would be correct,” said Sandjer’min. He waited, curious to see how long Zekri could go without speaking.
After a short silence, Zekri said, “I have other knowledge, some from my own travels, some from my father’s accounts. For my own, I know what animals dwell along the Nile, and in the Nile, and I have been taught how to deal with the dangerous ones. I have been told of the dog-faced moneys and the wolves in the mountains.” He saw Sandjer’min’s dark eyes widen. “Oh, yes, there are wolves. They are high up, and they hunt in packs. There is more I’ve learned that can help you: I know what to look for to be safe from c-crocodiles and hippopotami, and where snakes go to nest. I have heard of all the animals in the mountains and the d-deserts, but have not seen them all.”
“I know some of these things, as well. I have seen dog-faced monkeys, but not, I admit, the wolves you speak of. I know jackals and snakes and many kinds of birds.” He considered the monk carefully, aware that a second pair of well-informed eyes could be useful as they traveled; he shrugged. “Still, if Aba’yam and Sieur Horembaud are amenable, you may come with me as one of the men I am allowed to bring.”
Zekri smiled uncertainly. “Shall you tell Aba’yam that?”
“If you like,” said Sandjer’min. “I will see him again tomorrow and will bring this up to him. I’ll let you know what he decides.”
Zekri ducked his head. “Thank you, Sidi.”
“May I ask why you want to go with us?” The question was little more than an impulsive afterthought, but he saw alarm in Zekri’s face. “Is there some trouble?”
“No; I seek to avoid trouble, Sidi,” the young monk answered, flushed deeply, and went silent.
Sandjer’min wondered what the trouble might be, but decided not to ask; if Zakri wanted to tell him, he would wait for him to speak. “Very well. But I will give you two days to change your mind, if you should decide to stay.”
“I won’t,” said Zekri with such force that Sandjer’min realized that the monk was not simply asking to journey upriver with him, but was seeking to escape something or someone within the monastery itself.
“Nonetheless,” Sandjer’min said calmly, “I would be easier in my mind if you gave yourself a little time to consider what you’re undertaking.”
“If you insist, I’ll p-pray, but I won’t change my mind; if I do not go with you, I will still leave this place,” said Zekri, his hands clenching, punctuating his determination. He studied the few remaining dried herbs on the hooks behind the work-table. “You will bring your medicaments, won’t you?”
“I will,” he said.
“G-good.” Zekri stood awkwardly, trying to summon up something more to say, then muttered a few disjointed words of thanks before he turned abruptly and left.
A bit later in the afternoon, Ruthier returned, a skinned rabbit hanging from a cord around his wrist. He stepped through the door, pausing as he crossed the threshold. “What did Zekri want?” He spoke in Imperial Latin.
“He wants to join the pilgrimage,” said Sandjer’min in the same language, pausing in his loading a wooden chest with his clothes.
Ruthier cocked his head. “Interesting. Did he say why?”
“He knows the river for a considerable distance to the south, and thinks he can be useful,” Sandjer’min said with supreme neutrality.
“Then there is more than that,” said Ruthier, taking the cord from around his wrist and slipping it over a peg, the rabbit hanging against the wall.
“It would seem so,” said Sandjer’min, then changed the subject. “How are things in the village?”
Ruthier knew Sandjer’min would not discuss Zekri again for a while, so he said, “There’s much concern about the Sultan’s messengers. The villagers are afraid they’ll lose all their young men to the Sultan’s army. A few are planning to enter this monastery to keep from having to serve the Sultan.” He hesitated. “Would you want to take any of them with us? It would remove them from the Sultan’s grasp without having them resort to entering the religious life.”
“To go south with the pilgrims? That would be for Sieur Horembaud to decide, not I.” Sandjer’min was aware that Ruthier’s dismay came from something more than the plight of the local villagers, but said nothing.
“What if you were to recommend a few of them? They’re Christians, and there would be merit in helping them, would there not?”
Sandjer’min shook his head. “No, not as things stand. It could cause problems for the villagers and the monastery if we did.”
“What do you think it would lead to?” Ruthier asked, not as convinced as Sandjer’min was that there could be trouble. “The village is small. The Copts are important to the village, but not much beyond its limits. Sese’metkra would seem hardly worth the effort to conscript its young men. At most there would be twenty young men who could be taken for soldiers, leaving the village without the means to plant and harvest as they have done.”
“I agree. This is the sort of place where an example can be made, where opposition can be cut short with little effort on the Sultan’s part,” Sandjer’min said. “There aren’t enough villagers to stand against the Sultan’s men, so it is comply or be crushed, which would serve as a warning to other Coptic villages to do as the Sultan commands. It would also mean that many of the people would be pressured to convert, so they would be allowed to keep one son at home.”
Ruthier took a deep breath. “And that would imperil the monastery and the village, having such conversions.”
“Very likely,” said Sandjer’min.
“To lose children or to lose one’s faith,” Ruthier mused. “Not an easy choice for these people.”
Sandjer’min nodded. “And our presence makes it more complicated, for of the town turns away from the monastery, we will have to leave quickly.”
“I agree. But do you think that would spare the young men of the village?”
“I don’t know, but I would guess not.” The world-weary tone of Sandjer’min’s answer reminded Ruthier of their days on Cyprus and in Spain.
“You’re probably right.” Ruthier took a short while to think. “I was thinking of my children, my master. Had this happened in Gades when I was still alive, I would have wanted the chance to keep them out of the hands of those who fought against us, and that wouldn’t be possible if I joined with those enemies.” It had been almost twelve centuries since Ruthier had been restored to life by Sandjer’min, and longer since he had been separated from his family, but the poignancy of the loss had never left him.
“You understand the impasse here,” Sandjer’min said.
“And I sympathize with every villager family with boys between fifteen and twenty.”
Sandjer’min nodded slowly. “I have no doubt of that, old friend.”
“Why would the Sultan not spare a few of the—”
“—villagers’ sons? It would be a false delivery, I fear.” Sandjer’min stared thoughtfully into the middle distance. “Who would decide which boys were to be exempt and which were to be taken? There would be dissension and the village would face reprisals if there were any kind of refusal.”
“Arbitrary selection of young men would not gain the villagers’ approval,” said Ruthier.
“I don’t believe Malik-al-Kamil is worried about the approval of a few Copts,” said Sandjer’min. “He needs to strengthen his army.”
“A pity he won’t spare a few Copts from the war,” said Ruthier, more sharply than was his habit.
“But where would it stop? He would end up having to excuse all Copts from his conscription, and that would compromise his forces. I am not defending him,” he added, seeing Ruthier’s glower. “I am only describing the Sultan’s predicament. If he does not take all the young men he can, he will lose before the first battle occurs. That does not mean that I am in favor of what he believes he must do, but my opinion means little here.”
“Then you think Jenghiz Khan will get this far?” Ruthier asked.
“No, but I didn’t think he’d get so far into China, or the west,” said Sandjer’min.
Ruthier took a long moment to think this over. “You’re right: it is time we were gone,” he said at last, and went to take his dinner into the second room.
“What do you want to do with the sword?” Ruthier asked Sandjer’min as he set the metal buckles on their clothes’ chest over the tongues, then pressed down the cap that would keep the buckles from opening. As they usually did when they were together alone, they spoke Imperial Latin. “Pilgrims can’t have swords.” Outside the sun had barely begun to rise, its golden rim sliding above the line of hills to the east; cocks were crowing, goats and sheep in the monastery pens and the village below bleated for food, and activity had increased at the water’s edge in preparation for loading the barges and boats to resume the voyage upriver. The wind was steady, coming up from the north, promising good travel for the day.
“I’m not going to carry it in plain sight, but I won’t leave it behind.” Sandjer’min almost smiled. “I have wrapped it and its scabbard in leather and put it in the back of my medicaments’ chest, under the metal belt that keeps it closed. I’ve designed it to look like the leather padding on the inside of the belt. I’ve installed a pair of leather staples to keep it in place.”
“What if anyone should discover it?” Ruthier pursued.
“I don’t know. I suppose I will have to think of some explanation for it being there. For now, I will trust that it won’t be discovered. But I will not leave so valuable a sword here in the care of monks, who would not know what to do with it, or how to take care of it.” The sword had come into his possession as the result of single-combat in the mountains of western China a decade ago; Saito Masashige, the foreign warrior he had bested, had presented Sandjer’min with it in recognition of his victory.
“They’d probably use it to kill chickens,” said Ruthier.
“Or cut the limbs off of the trees,” said Sandjer’min with genuine sadness.
Ruthier was able to shudder at the thought. “You must bring it with you.”
“And hope for the best.” Sandjer’min nodded. “Have we everything else ready?”
“The tent is in a heavy cotton casing, your medicaments chest is ready, our other chests and cases are set outside on the sledge. All I have to do is finish loading them on and tying them down. Your mattress is rolled and tied on your chest of native earth.”
“Very good,” Sandjer’min approved. “Then we need not linger.”
Ruthier hesitated before he asked his next question. “Did you visit the widow at the edge of the village last night?”
“I did. She had a wonderful dream,” he said, a hint of sadness in his answer.
“But you would prefer a knowing partner,” Ruthier said for him.
“Yes; but such a woman isn’t to be found here, and if there were, it wouldn’t be safe for either of us to be intimate.” He waited for the next question; when none came, he said, “Still, I will miss her.”
“There are women among the pilgrims,” Ruthier pointed out.
Sandjer’min shook his head. “In such a group, I would be a fool even to visit one of them while she slept; there is too much familiarity among them for my actions to go unnoticed, and among pilgrims, my true nature would be seen as diabolical. No, for now, I must content myself with taking a little from the asses and horses. There may be places along the way where I can find sleeping women.”
“Where might that be?” Ruthier asked.
“I will know when—or if—we find such a place,” said Sandjer’min at his most distant. After a short silence he added, “The monks and the villagers have remembered we are foreigners and are relieved to have us gone, as useful as we have been to them.”
Ruthier nodded and changed the subject. “What of Zekri and Olu’we? Will they want to put their cases on the sledge with ours?”
“They’re probably going to be assigned to help the slaves bring the horses and mules down the hill; they should have their cases at the landing already if that’s the case. You and I can handle the sledge ourselves. We won’t have to ask for any additional help.” Sandjer’min was strong enough to carry all their luggage himself, at least at night, and by day he would have been able to bear most of it, but that would draw attention he did not want, and so he put the last case on the sledge, signaled to Ruthier to leave the little house and the shelter of the sycamores, and begin yet another journey.
“Are you ready?” Ruthier as he shoved the door all the way open.
The sky was brightening to a purplish red; Ruthier closed the door behind Sandjer’min and said, “Windy today.”
“The signs are for it; it should help speed us upriver,” said Sandjer’min, going to the front of the sledge and taking the broad loop of hempen rope in his hands, giving it an experimental tug. “I’ll need you to hang onto the rear once we start down the hill. I don’t want this running away from me, or knocking me off my feet.”
“Do we wait for the animals to be led down?” Ruthier gathered up a length of rope, wrapping it from hand to elbow, then stowing it under the ropes holding their belongings on the sledge.
“Yes. They should be on their way shortly; the slaves went up to get them a little while ago.” He heard one of the horses whinny, and added, “They’re on the move.”
Ruthier glanced toward the stout gate that led to the barn, the stable, the pens, and paddocks behind the monastery wall. “I have been told that Sieur Horembaud bargained for more food last night.”
“He has got more of it for the animals than the pilgrims. He said keeping the stock fed will be more important than keeping the pilgrims fed, that fasting will benefit them if it comes to that.” Sandjer’min watched as the four horses were the first through the gate, frisking on their lead-lines, tails flagged over their rumps.
“Do you know which boat we will ride in?”
“I believe he intends to separate us while we are moving; I have told him that you and I will usually dine apart from the rest—that it is the custom among those of my blood, and among yours, and he has agreed to allow us to do so, though I’m not sure how he sees that happening,” said Sandjer’min, watching the horses come to order and mince down the hill, the nine asses coming along behind them, stolid and dependable. All of them were dusty and a few showed bare patches of skin where the sand had worn the hair away.
“Why?” Ruthier inquired, “Does he suspect us of nefarious dealings?”
“If he does not, Frater Anteus does,” said Sandjer’min. “We should let Sieur Horembaud tell us where he would like us to settle for the voyage to Edfu; he will be more comfortable that way, making assignments and directing the travel,” he went on, more to himself than to Ruthier, then added, “I have asked him to permit me to attend Torquil in the shelter that has been rigged for him on one of the barges; that will ensure that Torquil is given treatment for his burns, and it will keep me out of the sun. If I can keep the chest of my native earth, I shouldn’t be too exhausted.”
“You mean he consented to letting you travel with Torquil to care for him?” Ruthier was somewhat surprised to hear this, for he had thought that it was unlikely that the knight would be willing to see Sandjer’min so coddled when others were not.
“Consent is too strong a word; he has been willing to consider it, and told me last night that he thought it would be best for Torquil that I attend him. And since he intends that you and I should travel in separate vessels, he has assigned the nun—Sorer Imogen, the Englishwoman?—to assist me with Torquil,” said Sandjer’min, recalling his discussion with Sieur Horembaud from the previous evening; his expression darkened. “Once we start across the desert, we will travel at night, so that should be no difficulty. But while we are on the river, sun and running water will enervate me by the time we stop for the night.”
“You convinced him to use the old trade route, then?”
The last of the asses clattered by, their tails already flicking at flies; the slaves leading them kept them to a brisk walk, holding the leads to the simple halters with care, for the asses were still unused to them, and inclined to fret and resist if tugged suddenly. They progressed down the hill and out the heavily planked gates, then along the main road through the Sese’metkri to the landing.
“I showed him the maps of the river, including that loop to the southwest, and how we could take several days off our travels if we went on the Gold Road.” He gave an ironic smile. “I think gold caught his attention.”
“Then we will have to buy or engage camels. Horses and asses alone cannot make that journey,” said Ruthier. “This company of pilgrims will need camels to get across that part of the Nubian desert.”
“That they will.” Sandjer’min sighed. “Camels. Perhaps I can persuade Sieur Horembaud to let me ride one of the asses.”
A glint of amusement lit Ruthier’s faded-blue eyes. “If he refuses, you’ll have to ride a camel.”
“If only there were Bactrian camels here, not Dromedaries,” said Sandjer’min, and tugged the sledge into motion. “I’d better arrange for a horse.”
“It’s the wrong desert for Bactrians,” said Ruthier, and took hold of the main rope, preparing to keep the sledge to the pace Sandjer’min set.
“Sadly, it is,” said Sandjer’min, making sure his efforts to lug the sledge appeared genuine, for he could see Tsura’gar standing a short distance above the chapel, watching him. Sandjer’min ducked his head respectfully.
Ruthier saw him, as well, and fell silent until they were past him. “It is unfortunate that Aba’yam did not come to offer you his blessing.”
“I asked him not to,” said Sandjer’min.
“You did?” Ruthier was so surprised that he almost stopped moving.
“Tsura’gar has been urging the monks to support him to be Aba’yam, and to compel the present Aba’yam to retire to a cave to pray. If Aba’yam were to offer any kind of farewell short of a curse, Tsura’gar would use it to discredit Aba’yam, and that would be poor thanks for the haven this place has been.” He could see Tsura’gar raise his arms in prayer, and briefly wondered what the monk was praying for.
“Are you certain that that would happen?”
“Not absolutely, but certain enough, and that would be poor compensation for Aba’yam’s kindness to us; he has trouble enough without our adding to it,” said Sandjer’min, reducing the speed of his walking as he felt the weight of the sledge shift with the steepening of the slope. “Hold on, old friend.”
Ruthier tightened his grip on the rope. “Do you need more help?”
“Not yet, but don’t let go of your rope,” was Sandjer’min’s reply. He lifted the front end of the sledge a bit, not only to get it over the uneven ground more easily, but to keep the sledge moving more slowly than it was straining to go.
As they passed the chapel, Zekri and Olu’we came out, both with the Cross marked on their foreheads in oil, and each with two large cases slung over their shoulders. They fell in beside Ruthier. “We were told to go to the boats with you,” said Zekri.
“Good morning, Brothers,” said Sandjer’min in their own tongue. “A good day for traveling, wouldn’t you agree?”
The monks muttered a response, showing how much they were trying to contain their excitement; Zekri pressed his lips tightly together to keep from smiling.
A moment later, Olu’we said, “I’m going to tell them to keep the gate open for us,” and all but ran down the hill.
“He’s been worried that we will not be allowed to leave, after all, and now that the animals are through the gate, he fears the slaves will close us in,” Zekri explained quietly.
Sandjer’min gave a single laugh. “Many of the monks want us gone, as well you know. They’re more inclined to drive us out with whips than keep us in.”
Leaving the monastery behind, they went on through the town, passing the civic house and the market-square, heading toward the landing where the barges were drawn up to take the animals aboard. Rowers stood near their various barges, most of them eating dates and flat-bread, paying little attention to the loading going on, or the people who were gathering at the foot of the landing. On the nearest barge, a simple tent of dark wool had been set up, with a pallet lying under it; Sandjer’min realized this was where he was bound, and where Torquil would be laid. A number of trunks had already been lashed to the deck of that barge, and three large nets filled with fodder for the asses were tied atop them.
Sieur Horembaud, who had been shouting to the men at the end of the landing, now came toward the four new arrivals. “In good time. The watermen tell me that we should make swift progress today, with the wind so brisk.”
“It is brisk,” Sandjer’min agreed, dragging the sledge onto the landing. “There are two chests and my mattress I would like to take aboard the barge with me, and my chest of medicaments. The rest can go where it suits you.”
For a long moment, Sieur Horembaud looked as if he would like to refuse, but then he shrugged, “You’re the one who will have to treat Torquil; you know what you need to do it. If you require those things, I’ll take it you know your business: you may have them.” He rounded on Ruthier and the two monks. “You will go with the English widow—well, not really a widow, but as good as one—Margrethe of Rutland, in the third boat; she has her husband’s half-brother with her—he’s young enough to be impatient with everything. Her sister-in-law, Sorer Imogen, will ride with the Sidi, to aid him.” He glared at the river. “As we concurred last night.”
“Yes,” said Sandjer’min, letting go of the pull-rope and working to untie the chests and cases from the sledge.
“The slaves will load your goods for you; leave the chests and cases and the rest of it to them. Your manservant may go along to the end of the landing.” He nodded to Zekri and Olu’we. “You monks go with him; with Ruthier,” Sieur Horembaud shaded his eyes and looked toward the rising sun. “We go to Edfu with good signs.”
“How long will it take? We’ve been riding these waters for a long time, and still have far to go, haven’t we?” asked one of the pilgrims; he was a man of moderate height and fulsome manner; his accent was that of central France, and his clothes marked him as a man of modest fortune. “To get to that place?”
“The watermen say two, perhaps three days. We’ll sail through the night tonight, and that should bring us to Edfu in two or perhaps three days.” Sieur Horembaud pursed his lips, as if trusting that repetition would indicate he was deep in thought. “It will be hard on the horses, but it can’t be helped. Even horses as light-bodied as these don’t like standing for hours on end.”
“A pity you couldn’t bring a destrier or two,” said the Frenchman.
“The heat would make them useless, and they’d eat double what these horses will. And they wallow in sand.” Sieur Horembaud laughed contemptuously. “What do you know of destriers?”
“I know enough to see that these horses are little more than ponies,” the other man protested.
“Ponies would be able to endure the rigors more than a destrier could,”—he thought back to the hardy ponies of the Jou’an-Jou’an in the Year of the Yellow Snow, and wished he could summon a few up now—“and since we’re not allowed to have armor, there is no reason to bring heavier mounts than these are,” said Sieur Horembaud, and held up his hand to silence the Frenchman before he could advance another argument. “All you advocates think about is winning your points; you have no mind for practicalities—not even you, Noreberht, though you may think otherwise.” Sieur Horembaud’s smile was more a show of teeth than an expression of good will.
Noreberht chuckled ill-naturedly. “You will not let me forget why I am a pilgrim, will you?”
Sieur Horembaud turned away from him. “You know which boat is yours. Get aboard the second boat. And take that fussy Italian slave of yours with you.”
Noreberht signaled to the young man who served him. “Come, Baccomeo; the Sieur wants to be gone.”
Another of the French contingent came up to Noreberht. “Sieur Horembaud wants me with you.”
“Why? Because we are French?” Noreberht asked at his most ungenial. “He could claim as much himself.”
“It is what he told me to do.” The man had a brand on his forehead, identifying him as a violent felon; at forty-one, he was regarded as the oldest of the pilgrims. He wore a penitent’s dull-blue habit, and his greying hair was cut close to his head so that he looked to have a narrow halo of silvery bristles. Almost every one of the pilgrims was afraid of Micheu de Saunte-Foi, which pleased him more than he liked to admit.
The riverman who was serving as their guide, a middle-aged Coptic Egyptian returning home to Edfu, came up to Sieur Horembaud. “How much longer? We want to be underway as soon as possible,” he said in poor Greek, the only language he and Sieur Horembaud had between them.
“As soon as everyone and everything is loaded. Talk to that man—Ragoczy. He knows more tongues than I do.”
Sandjer’min had already got aboard the barge and was directing the slaves in placing his chest filled with his native earth next to the pallet, the rolled mattress tucked in next to it. As the riverman came up to him, he looked around. “Yes? What do you want?” he asked in Arabic, and then in Coptic.
The man answered in Coptic, bowing slightly, “Sieur Horembaud said I should speak with you. I am Iri’ty—”
“A name of excellent omen,” said Sandjer’min. “What are we to speak about?”
Iri’ty answered with formality. “Matters that he and I cannot; you have both our tongues, and you will explicate what he cannot. He says we are to leave when everything and everyone is loaded.”
“No doubt,” said Sandjer’min.
Iri’ty shook his head. “He wants me to talk to you rather than to him. And after our voyage from Alexandria, I would rather speak to you, Sidi.” He smacked his hands together to show his frustration with the Aquitanian knight. “Well, at least I know there is someone here who understands my speech. That’s something to be thankful for.”
“How have you managed so far?” Sandjer’min inquired, wondering what it was that Sieur Horembaud was up to now. “By the sound of it, coming up the river with him was not easy.”
“Sieur Horembaud is not an easy man. Frater Anteus did his best to provide translations, but neither of us was satisfied, nor was Sieur Horembaud,” said Iri’ty, his demeanor showing that this had been a trial for them both. “You do speak Coptic fairly well, and that will make the last part of the trip easier. I wish I could ride aboard this barge, not in the first boat.”
“There are two monks with my manservant. They can speak to you as well as I, if not better.” Sandjer’min gave Iri’ty an understanding look. “Do not be vexed by Sieur Horembaud: he has been deprived of the means of making war, and that makes him peevish.” He shifted his stance, already feeling the debilitating drag of the water.
Before Iri’ty could agree, a nun came up to the barge and said in Church Latin, “I am Sorer Imogen. I have been told I must assist you in caring for Torquil des Lichiens.”
“That is what Sieur Horembaud has told me, as well,” said Sandjer’min, exchanging short bows with Iri’ty before the riverman returned to the boat that would lead the way south. “You are most welcome, Sorer.”
Two slaves approached the barge with the shelter, carrying between them a man lying on a plank and covered by a linen sheet, with a broad strip of linen across his eyes; one hand had slipped from beneath the sheet, showing ravaged skin marked, like his face, with weeping blisters. They stood, unspeaking, until Sorer Imogen stepped aside, and then they carried the plank onto the barge and moved to the shelter where they lifted the covered man and set him onto the pallet, stood the plank on end against the stack of chests and cases at the rear of the shelter, and left the barge. The man on the pallet sighed.
“I believe our charge has arrived,” said Sandjer’min to Sorer Imogen, wanting to discover what degree of care she was prepared to give, and in what manner.
“Gratia Dei,” she exclaimed, and carefully stepped aboard. “Tell me what I am to do.”
“Have you done any nursing of burned men or women?”
“No; I have prayed. We Annunciationists pray and weave.”
Sandjer’min showed no sign of the disappointment he felt, saying to Sorer Imogen, “Then for now, we should take turns watching him, for we will be underway shortly. I will attend to him until it approaches midday, during which time, I urge you to rest,” said Sandjer’min, struggling a bit with Church Latin.
“I will pray,” she announced.
“Not aloud; we must give Torquil every opportunity to sleep.” He said it kindly, but saw her stiffen. “There is room on the barge for you to find a place to pray without—”
“The oarsmen will hear,” she said.
“Then they may be uplifted by your piety,” said Sandjer’min, doing his best to keep the asperity from his tone.
Her face softened. “How true,” she said as she came up to boarding plank. “For even a seed dropped on a stone may yet take root.”
Sandjer’min took a moment to collect his thoughts, and wondered what he would have to do to achieve Sorer Imogen’s approval; he had seen women like her in many places and in many times: ones who placed their commitment to an idea above all else, including good sense, and felt vindicated for doing it. He had a brief recollection of Tamasrajasi, of Csimenae, and of Rhea, which he thrust aside. “Perhaps you should have a look at our patient?” he suggested, offering his hand to help her onto the barge.
“It will be fitting that you pray with me,” she told him, ignoring his hand. “God will guide us if we pray.”
“If you like,” he said at his most conciliating, “but I pray to other gods than yours.” He went into the shadow of the simple tent, and looked down at the man lying on the pallet there, only his face showing, and looking like spit-roasted pork. “Most of the skin on his arms are burned, and his legs to the knees.”
Sorer Imogen crossed herself, her face paling to the color of her gorget and wimple. “Saints and Martyrs,” she whispered, staring, appalled at what she saw. “I was told he was… But I did not think he… ”
“Not all the blisters have broken yet, and when they do, they must be medicated promptly or it is possible that he will develop putrescences, and those could endanger his life.” Sandjer’min spoke levelly and with a great deal of attention on the nun, hoping to see her understanding. “He must be given water regularly; in this heat, he will have—”
“I will pray, and be sure that the water is blessed to his use,” she told him, and went to kneel at his side, unaware of Sandjer’min’s brief frown. “Poor young man,” she whispered before she crossed herself again, pressed her hands together, lifted her rosary from her belt, and began to recite her beads.
On the third boat, Ruthier helped Margrethe of Rutland onto a low bench, then held out his hand to the young man who accompanied her. “There’s room enough for both of you on the bench,” he said in careful Anglo-French, hoping she would understand him, and moving to occupy the bench opposite them; Zekri and Olu’we took their seats on the bench at the rear, flanking the steering oar.
The young man regarded Ruthier will the arrogance of one born to privilege, but also revealing astonishment that this foreigner’s servant could understand his language. “We will do as Sieur Horembaud tells us.”
“As will we all,” said Margrethe quietly. “Sit down, Heneri. The manservant is right.” She pulled her veil around her face, the fine, grey linen dulling her pale-blue eyes.
“A fine day for our travels,” said the next arrival at the boat: unlike the rest of the pilgrims, he wore the same garments that the Egyptians did, a loose djellaba of pilgrims’ blue cotton, belted in leather; instead of boots, he wore sandals. His close-trimmed beard was brassy, and his hair was carrot-red. He looked directly at Ruthier. “I am Nicholas Howe. Frater Giulianus, who travels with me, will join us directly. You’re with the foreign physicians, aren’t you?”
“Ruthier,” he said, ducking his head politely. “I am Sandjer’min’s servant.”
“The physician they brought along for Torquil des Lichiens.” Howe sat down.
“Yes.” Ruthier inclined his head.
“Why does Sieur Horembaud bother? Clearly Torquil cannot live so why prolong his suffering?” Howe directed his stare at the river. “I hope you have something interesting to tell us,” he went on, his Anglo-French more strongly English than French. “We’ve almost worn out what we have to relate to one another.”
“I will do what I can,” said Ruthier, moving a bit farther down the bench to provide room for Howe and his comrade, Frater Guilianus.
Three boatmen came aboard, and immediately behind them, Frater Giulianus scrambled aboard, the wide sleeves of his habit exposing his hirsute arms. He was about to look for a seat when Sieur Horembaud came up to them. “Howe, you and Frater Giulianus, get into the second boat. You’ll be over loaded otherwise.”
Howe scowled briefly, then rose. “Of course, Sieur Horembaud. It wouldn’t do to sink, would it? Come on, Frater.”
Frater Giulianus coughed once. “Certainly.”
The two climbed out of the boat; Ruthier noticed that Margrethe gave a little sigh of relief.
“Now we will have a little peace,” she murmured.
“Are you troubled by him?” Ruthier asked, revealing only a faint interest, although he was most curious.
“He is inclined to speak at length about his many adventures, most of which are difficult to believe. And he has a rough way about many thing.” She put her hand to her lips. “I should not speak so of him; he is on a pilgrimage for his faith.”
“As are you all,” said Ruthier, hoping to learn more.
She looked at him, her eyes growing wide. “And you are not? For a man living at a monastery, how can you say—”
Ruthier shrugged. “My master has decided to travel, and it is my duty to go with him. We have gone many places during the time I have been in his service.” It was a simple explanation, and had the advantage of truth, but the reality was vastly more complicated, something he kept to himself. He studied her briefly. “If you would be willing to tell me, why are you on this pilgrimage? A well-born Englishwoman like you I would expect to go to the cathedrals of Europe if you wished to see holy places.”
“She’s doing it for her husband,” said Heneri, in a tone that did not encourage discussion. “The Bishop said she had to.”
“Heneri,” Margrethe chided him gently. “As one of our company, he has every right to know.”
“He’s a servant. All he needs to know is his master’s wants; he said as much just now.” The young man pointed to the shelter on the barge. “Why aren’t you with him?”
“It is Sieur Horembaud’s wish that we travel in separate vessels for now.” Ruthier retreated behind his habitual reserve.
“And he has ordered my sister—my half-sister—” he corrected himself, “to assist your master, so that she may discover more about him. I heard Sieur Horembaud tell her to do this.” Heneri declared.
Ruthier refused to be lured into a squabble. “As well he might. We have a great distance to go, and it is to Sieur Horembaud’s advantage to know as much about his companions as he can learn.” Then, indulging himself in a moment of retaliation, he added, “It is what my master would do in his place.”
There was a silence among the pilgrims in boat three, and then Heneri folded his arms and said, “I don’t think you should talk to one so far beneath you, Bondame Margrethe.”
“We are all one in the eyes of God, and while we are on this journey, we will be humble,” she said.
“Your husband would not like it,” said Heneri.
“If my husband could like or dislike anything, I would not be here,” she responded more sharply.
“Don’t!” Heneri snapped, rounding on Margrethe.
Ruthier was about to move from his place on the bench to the opposite one Howe and Frater Giuliano had vacated when Sieur Horembaud came to the edge of the landing. “Heneri! Mind how you speak to this man. Bondame Margrethe is right. You will be entering the Templars when you return home, boy, and you will need to be more reconciling in your behavior when you do.” He pointed to Ruthier. “Stay where you are. The other bench is for Viviano Loredan and his servant.”
“He’s moving us around a lot,” said Heneri quietly.
“He is our leader,” Margrethe reminded him. “If my husband’s sister is with this man’s master, other adjustments should be expected.” She smiled as she turned to Ruthier. “Forgive my husband’s half-brother, good man.”
“My name is Ruthier,” he said.
“You are French?” She sounded surprised.
“I was born in Spain,” he said, “But I left it long ago,” when Nero was Caesar, he added to himself.
“And your master? is he also from Spain?” Margrethe asked, striving to smooth over the discord.
“No; he is from lands ruled by Hungary,” said Ruthier, and volunteered nothing more.
A man of twenty-seven came aboard, his blue surcote showing the Lion of San Marco on his sleeve identifying him as a Venezian, as did his accent speaking Anglo-French. He made a casual greeting to all on board and sat down on the bench that faced Rugier. “My man will be along shortly. He is procuring some jars of wine.”
“Excellent,” said Heneri, his sullenness fading. “Something to make the river less boring.”
“You’ll give me two coppers for every cup you drink,” the Venezian said genially.
“Why should I?” Heneri challenged.
“Because it’s my wine,” said the Venezian. He glanced at Ruthier. “You’re one of the new ones, aren’t you? I’ll ask the same of you as I do of the lad.”
Ruthier took a little time to collect his thoughts. “That’s most kind.”
A flurry of activity on the landing served to warn all the travelers that the rowers on the barges were getting ready to cast off; Sieur Horembaud shouted, “All slaves and rowers, make ready to leave!” while he climbed aboard the first boat.
A wiry man in a pilgrim’s habit rushed aboard the third boat, wine jars in both hands. “I’ve got five of them, Signor’ Loredan,” he said, panting, as he plopped down on the bench beside the Venezian.
The oarsman came on board behind him, and two boatmen followed him, each taking his place with the ease of habit, paying little attention to their passengers. On the landing slaves were unfastening the lines that held the boats in place. Sails were raised quickly, and the wind shouldered into the sails; the oarsman took hold of his broad steering oar and set out for the center of the Nile, the third boat to move away from Sese’metkra. The last two boats set their sails and moved up the river, with the rowers on the barges coming after, their oars moving at a steady, regular beat under the ruddy sun.
Night Pilgrims © Chelsea Quinn Yarbro 2013