“Strong Roland, lord of Bretons’ sons,
And Durendal fierce by his side,
Sar’gossa waiting with baited breath,
Ganelon marching in pride.
“The Franks march forth and the Cross is held high,
And sun did beat o’them from up in the sky,
‘Brother, sing this song for Charles and his kin,
So that we might flee this woeful sin’.
“But nought could stay that Durendal’s edge,
Nor could Masile shield his pains,
Until the good followers of Christ were gone,
And Roland was left with the elephant horn,
And to this day doth King Charles mourn,
For Roland, he blew out his brains,
Oh, for Roland, he blew out his brains,
Poor Roland, he blew out his brains.”
Eleanor de Molay did not know the words to any of the songs that the three sieurs Josse Durand, Samuel de Rennes and Cressin du Bois sang – and they sang many – but their harmony was magnificent, with flawless control of tune, across every poem to which they turned their collective voice. Indeed, so hearty, playful and satisfyingly bass was their warbling that El had not once found frustration with her permanently silent role in their four-piece group, so given to song that they could have been wandering troubadours simply donning the Templar red cross. If the bawdy lyrical treatment afforded to Roland, hero of Roncesvalles, was anything to go by, El doubted their repertoire had been heard within a Templar chapter house.
She also wondered what Roland himself would make of it all, that honourable man, carried by angels to Paradise on the back of his final sacrifice. How would the manner seem to him by which his final moments had been captured and preserved in both written and oral tradition, the latter by nature more fluid in its portrayal? A hero, but his reputation exploited for exuberance and celebration. The trio were certainly loud enough to reach the heavens where Roland unquestionably now resided, invigorated by a songful liveliness to rival that of the blackcaps, robins, doves and swallows who sought to join their merrymaking.
The four alternated between walking and riding horseback, easing their hardworking mounts’ path along the umpteenth mud path that bisected the infinite, empty fields of Normandy. Many days had passed since completing their crossing of La Manche from England and disembarking south of the Seine’s mouth at Honfleur, to their considerable displeasure, rather than the intended port of Rouen further upriver, and the winter rains were becoming colder. King Philippe le Bel was to thank for the extended duration of their journey, specifically his heavy direct taxation of merchant and transport usage of the port. The King sought to reimpose order amongst the agitated populace there, but, as Josse explained with ire, the Temple bore the brunt of financial clampdowns.
Avoiding the King’s men would make their life easier in any case, the group’s captain Samuel had told her. King Philippe’s souring relationship with the French Temple made that King Edward Longshanks and the English branch of the Order appear head over heels in marital bliss.
So few had crossed paths with them, however, that El began to wonder if Philippe had taken every man in France to Flanders in any case. Normandy was huge, yes, but the little Frenchwoman did not remember it to be this deserted, and rare was the glow of the hearth through a window, the distant hum of chatter through a hamlet. Birdsong in the trees and the patter of rain on saturated earth offered the only persistent company to their trek. England’s regular, clustered villages had spoiled her expectations of the countryside.
“You don’t know any songs?” asked the onetime Tower guard Josse, his head now free of the lump that for a few days had marked the spot whereupon El beat him with the oar whilst on the Thames. “Cressin of all people knows songs, and he’s so miserable he hasn’t smiled since he was eight years old.”
El glanced to Cressin for his response, who was riding ahead and to the right upon his magnificent pebbledash rouncey that he had named Riviѐre, for the waterside stables where they had acquired their steeds for the journey from Honfleur. Riviѐre was fairer to look upon than all the other horses in their party, even El’s own slender silvery palfrey, whom the seller had said was called Miroir. There seemed no other more beauteous or natural a sight than that resolute knight bedecked in the Templar white, red cross back and front, atop such a splendid mount. The spray of drizzle that dimmed the horizons from north to south could not quite vanquish the pious magnificence of that Christian soldier. Cressin, bald of head and stern of face beneath a grey hood heavy with residual rainwater, was reserved almost to the point of rudeness, but El admired his discretion as indicative of monastic discipline. He would be suited as a spy were he not so obviously dressed.
Perhaps he was. El was ostensibly amongst allies – it was too early to term them friends – but the intensity of her unconquerable guilt was matched only by a vigilance to never again allow opponents to best her. It had happened too often over the previous year. Whilst it had not taken her long to confirm that these men were genuinely brothers of the Order, the trust requisite between friends remained to be established. She had wondered how a message from her uncle in Avignon could have so quickly made its way to London, requesting that she be broken free of imprisonment. They had acted according to their initiative rather than execution of specific instructions, Josse had explained, and the three had assumed varied employments of potential utility across London in anticipation; the Grand Master bid them help El when she needed it, and imprisonment qualified as just such an occasion. It had fallen to Josse the goal guard, then, to play his role with particular conviction so as to not rouse suspicions of ulterior motives.
“Fourteen,” Cressin blurted out.
Josse was unprepared for a response. “What?”
“I smiled when I was fourteen, once. At my favourite joke,” he elaborated without facing his accuser.
“Well, I never.” Josse sounded genuinely surprised. “Care to share?”
Cressin straightened his back and rolled his shoulders, physically preparing himself for such a unique performance. “One day a knight returned to King of France’s castle laden with gold, loot and prisoners. The King asks him, ‘Where have you been?’ And the knight replies, ‘For the past few weeks I’ve been robbing and stealing on your behalf, burning all of the villages of your enemies in the north.’ And the King is incredulous, and says, ‘But I don’t have any enemies in the north!’ The knight drops a bag of gold down and sighs. ‘Well, you do now’.”
Josse and Samuel chuckled and El smiled, enjoying the reserved man’s utterly deadpan delivery, absent of any inherent enjoyment of the joke itself, and envisaging the knight to have answered his king with as little enthusiasm. It sounded like something Henry would have told, wry smile on his tanned face.
“It wasn’t you, was it, Samuel?” the curly haired Josse asked with impish cheek.
“I am innocent. I only burn villages in the south of late,” Samuel replied as he cast his gaze around the endless fields that converged on Normandy like the rings on an archery target circling the bullseye. Northern France just went on forever, and Christendom even more so. How great were the bounds of the Earth that one could travel for years by horse and still not reach the strange-tongued peoples of the far distant east, their dark skin dressed in all sorts of fanciful manners, across the Euphrates and beyond the Indus?
“The King is burning the north already,” said Cressin wistfully.
A general murmur of agreement went up, heavily laced with derision and contempt.
“He’s sets himself to fall,” Samuel opined.
El had not spoken for a while, not feeling she could contribute, until this comment. “I don’t think he is. No other king can stand up to him.”
“He’s lost any friends he had in Flanders, and their neighbours in Brabant and Holland won’t be so welcoming with what’s happened next door,” Josse suggested. “No one can last without friends. You’d still be in prison if we weren’t your friends,” he reminded her with a raised eyebrow and mocking nod of the head.
As had been the case so regularly over the previous few days the little Frenchwoman found Josse’s smarm grating but, also as common, she conceded he had a point. “Though the enemies he makes are not exactly queuing up to capitalise on his loneliness. Edward Longshanks is in no shape to strike back after the fall of Aquitaine. Especially not with what happened in London.”
“The Emperor of the Germans is a wet fish,” Cressin added in his droll manner. “He is still to arrive for the battle at Ghent.”
Samuel gave a half-laugh. “You all think too conventionally. When one man seeks to bend the continent to his will there will be all kinds of resistance – Philippe’s making an enemy of the one power no one ought to make an enemy. There’s only so much nonsense Pope Boniface will tolerate before he moves to rein in the Paris churchmen.”
El thought Samuel’s faith in the reach of Rome and his confidence in the worldly integrity of the senior Parisian clergy naïve. “From what they say, the Archbishop of Sens is a prince, more or less – it’s impossible to move him.” It was true that distance from the source only magnified piety or notoriety, as appropriate, and hundreds of miles of separation did not kindly treat the reputation of Archbishop Guillaume de Paris, confessor to King Philippe le Bel, though El herself had not met him. There were few held in lower regard by the English than the archbishop, particularly within the Temple.
“What do you think we’re here for?” came the rhetorical reply from Josse on El’s left.
“What are you suggesting?” El was curious as to Josse’s insinuation – after her recent experiences with governing authorities in England, the Frenchwoman was further disinclined towards direct policing of purely secular, political matters than she had been before.
Samuel answered her just as Josse opened his mouth to speak, the former’s easy and intrinsic authority prevailing over the latter’s exuberance. At times Samuel had seemed as prone to credulity as any Order member El had met, yet there was something about his demeanour that demanded attention. “He’s not suggesting any-”
Josse tried to get a word in. “Well…”
“-although this hasn’t escaped Master Matthew’s attention, so the Order shan’t be unprepared for any further deterioration in relations between the King’s government and the Church.” Samuel referred to Matthew Norris, the Master of the Temple in Paris, shrewd and cunning in equal measure, reputed for an altogether craftier approach to diplomacy than Master Guy de Foresta of the London Temple.
“I hope you’re right,” El said, bullish.
“You need not worry so much, sister,” Samuel replied with all the confidence in the world.
“You didn’t see what happened in London. That’s beyond the control of both the Order and the Church.”
It was a sobering conclusion even for their discussion about the increasingly menacing King of France. El did not intend to end the conversation with mention of London, but her companions knew not to push her on the subject of the Godstone – including Josse, who usually cared little for boundaries. No further words joined the light spray of rain in the winter air, or accompanied the soft plod of hooves in the gently churning earth, not quite saturated by the drizzle drifting down from the ubiquitous white clouds. El was beginning to forget what colour the sky was given how long these clouds – or was it just one, great cloud? – had held dominion over the heavens. The wet now stayed the birds in their nests, and the only sounds in the world at this time were the sporadic braying of four horses, interspersed with irregular coughing and sniffling from their four riders.
Silence between them returned, songs exhausted and spirits dampened with mention of the ever-threatening King Philippe. Slipping into the gentle monotony of her silver-grey horse’s undulating walk, El’s attention quickly retreated from the dripping hood above her eyes and the water cascading down onto her small nose. Against her wishes she was dragged back to the ravenous demons lurking in her mind, monsters that roared for and fed on attention. Sharing the burden of many days’ travel with likeminded company had eased the oft crippling pressure under which her conscience struggled, and distracted her from the uncontrollable and exhausting train of silent apologies she could barely control any longer.
The thick woollen hood, soaked through, hung heavily about her head, for the cloak was far too large for her slight frame. Away from the gaze of her comrades, the hood became a safe place to shut out the rest of the world as El tried to deal with these demons. And yet it sealed her away from the world precisely when the little Templar needed some support, any support. But how could she broach this with these strangers? Did they know the sins she bore, for which she would never in this life fully atone? What would they make of the blood spilled on her account in Wales? The man she had killed in London? Her failure to stop the attack on the demonstration? They were complicit in her fleeing imprisonment a second time – would they regret this, if they knew her litany of crimes? Her earthly sentence had surely not yet run its course, otherwise she would not be so crippled by the inferiority of her penance. And there was only so much distraction she could draw from the physical complaints she silently harboured as part of this penance, relics of the rough treatment meted out during her various stints of incarceration over the previous half year. The skin on her hands and legs was taking time to heal, and her right knee complained often with a throbbing ache whether she walked or rode.
The tail of Cressin’s horse swished from side to side, unwittingly and momentarily bringing El back from the precipice of internal despair, over which she stared into the abyss, compelled through her inability to perform appropriate contrition and the subsequent fear of facing God in her prayers for such failure. Endlessly this deterioration spiralled, hourly, daily, weekly. Failure bred fear and fear bred failure. Incongruously, she could only pray and hope that the Lord would forgive her very fear of praying to Him.
One field came to an end, demarcated by a copse of sturdy oaks with branches that gently shimmered in the wind, and afterwards came another one, thereafter another. The Templars rode on without anything to say or sing and unknowingly condemned their guest to the machinations of her guilt. El longed for them to talk, to strike up a conversation, to ask her something, for Josse to make a comment that required a response; for then she would be justified in leaving her self-pity, even temporarily. She could not initiate it herself, because that would represent a wilful abandonment of her penitential post.
It had haunted her through Wales, England and now France, on the road, in gaol cells and across the sea, and its choking grasp was stronger than ever. It was an endless misery, boundless like the great ocean to the west, beset by storms that desired sought nothing more than to drag El down and drown her under the relentless and unforgiving greyness. She was alone in her small rowboat, compelled to work the oars heading deeper and deeper into the nothing; in order to row she could not face the direction she was headed, and so regularly lost sight of what it was she was originally praying about.
The midday was now long past and the sun’s whereabouts remained as ever a mystery behind the clouds, though the drizzle eased to a soft dusting of mist. Their horses trotting onwards, field after field, the four Templars each kept to themselves – El’s lips moving in silent prayer, unseen by Josse beside her, and even the latter’s curious mind and thirst for conversation were hushed by the long day’s ride. Samuel and Cressin presented nothing of their own thoughts, solemn and stoic and disciplined behind the great red cross writ large across the white tunics on their backs as they rode. Yet then Samuel spoke, grandly and rhetorical, loudly enough to give the horses fright. As quickly as her free-range incarceration had begun, El was brought back to the here and now.
“Well, what do we have here?” he asked, shocking the little Templar spy from her closed prayer cycle. She was guiltily grateful at having been rescued from her internalised struggle and equally reluctant to once more leave business unfinished. Nothing was more effective than the audible presence of others in removing her from perpetual unfulfillment.
The attention of all four flew ahead, concurrently like skittish deer in the field alerted to an intrusion. At the top of the road – if it could be termed as such – about one hundred paces distant, emerged the outline of a figure on horseback through the mist that hung lightly as a window-curtain, barely fluttering in the breeze over the bed of some lord or lady in the summer time, deterring the mosquitoes that feast on the sleeping during the muggy night. The lady stirs, awakening and seeing the fine patterns in silk but barely feeling the material; like the damp mist on the riders’ raised faces, the curtain is tangible enough for concealment yet insufficient to truly register its presence.
“Betting is open,” was Josse’s enthusiastic response to this development.
“None of that on my watch,” replied the firm Samuel ahead of him.
“Couple of silvers?” Josse asked his captain.
“Alright. Lone horseman, trotting pace… this time of day… messenger?”
Josse smiled ruefully without Samuel seeing it. “I was going to say that. There’s no one for miles around here. Could just be a townsman or trader, chancing not running into four miscreants.”
“Too generic,” countered Samuel. El watched the group’s captain lean forwards in his saddle as if the minute reduction in distance would aid his sight through the gentle shower. “He doesn’t carry much with him, so if he’s a trader, it’ll be to do with the horse itself.”
“I’ll bet he’s armed, whatever he is,” Cressin added, sombre.
The pause that followed the surly Templar’s assumption told El more about the men’s mindset than any of their jocular exchange could. Her companions were soldiers first and clergy second.
“He also appears to have stopped,” Josse added.
“And we shall not,” Samuel affirmed, spurring his horse into a trot and encouraging his party to follow suit.
The Templars upped their pace and brought about an opposite response from the lone rider, now halting. As they closed, the hooded figure chose not to move his or her horse, deliberately or otherwise stopping his chestnut horse so that its right flank was showing towards the four as they advanced.
Bearing his sword arm, El noted.
Seeing the lone rider’s intent, at about forty or so yards distant the four horses slowed to a walk. El no longer needed to squint through the abating drizzle and the clouds to the south east, above and beyond their target, looked to be lightening.
Pulling back his own sopping hood, the curly-haired Josse leaned over from the left. “Very deliberate, this. A hooded figure atop a horse, straddling the road. About time something exciting happened, isn’t it?” he asked El with a playful expression. His hair was flattened to his forehead, dark strands striving to reach the eyebrows that arced slightly with his mirth.
Samuel replied on El’s behalf. “The last time you had some excitement, you were being beaten into the Thames by a small girl,” he said dryly from up ahead, not taking his gaze off the hooded figure menacingly motionless a few score paces away.
“I’m warmed up now,” Josse replied, and El watched him move a hand to the sword handle that jostled his left thigh with every gentle oscillation of his horse’s stride.
“Not everyone who wears a hood’s searching for trouble,” El counselled, admonishing Josse for his instinctive response in locating his blade. “It is raining.” It was a forced response; she herself immediately thought the worst but was striving to alter her newfound suspicious mindset.
“Not for me. We’re clearly Templars,” he said, pausing as he looked to El. “Even you, though no one will personally recognise you as such out here. So you should not worry about that.” Josse turned his head back in the direction they were travelling. “My experience is that people who hide from the Temple aren’t usually our friends, and this fellow cannot possibly have mistaken us.”
“Much like people who hide from the King aren’t usually his friends?” El shot back to the erstwhile Tower prison guard.
“Come now, Mlle de Molay – how many times have you pretended to be someone else? It’s very unfair to pick on me for that.”
El worried Josse had been too loose with his tongue, using her name within earshot of this stranger atop their horse just a little way ahead, and she glared at him again. The visual indicator of displeasure was lost on him, though, as he lolled slowly from side to side with his lithe horse’s lethargic gait; Brindille – ‘twig’ – he had named the leggy palfrey on account of its skinny appearance relative to the stockier specimens acquired for the others. Josse was impervious to criticism in any case, El thought; nothing could penetrate his assured demeanour nor wound the confidence that fuelled it. As much as she desired to question him on any number of issues – why he had freed Prince Madog, the visions he professed to have seen across London, amongst others – she more greatly wished an oar in her hand with which to beat him once again.
Cressin turned around and stared at El over his left shoulder; it became clear to the little Frenchwoman that he too had rested his right hand upon the handle of his sword at his side. “King Philippe is no friend of the Temple. It doesn’t pay to be unprepared.” His grim and humourless face was more so with the sobering message and he pulled it away from El’s gaze to glance around the fields to their right. If this were an ambush, it would be on a small scale – the low grass flanking either side of the path surely could not hide many would-be assailants. Nonetheless, El conceded, Cressin was right. With further disagreements between king and Order, the Temple could no longer take for granted its domestic invulnerability for granted.
Samuel and Cressin brought their rides to a halt about ten paces from the motionless horseman, wordlessly signalling El and Josse to bring themselves about. “Greetings, friend,” hailed Samuel. “If you would allow us past?”
The hooded figure looked to be a man, judging by the height in the saddle and the broadness of their shoulders. His face was entirely shrouded beneath the heavy hood of a dark cloak and so it remained unknown if he had acknowledged the request, for there was no movement act upon it. So conspicuously devoid of suggestive emotion, recognisable insignia or physical activity, the rider presented a challenge, an affront, to these Templars, without doing anything. Even his horse would not lift its head or brush its tail at the newcomers’ approach; heedless or aloof or both.
“If you would kindly move, friend,” Samuel repeated in the same jovial tone. Their brief time together had suggested to El that Samuel was possessed of excessive patience; captaincy and seniority fell easily upon his shoulders. The little Templar spy was yet unsure the same could be said of the surly Cressin. She imagined that Josse, an unpredictable trickster who had masqueraded as a guardsman at the Tower, could wait all day if needs be.
At last spurred into action by the second request, the anonymous rider lifted both arms to his hood, languid and in no hurry. El tensed, sensing Josse beside her doing the same, though she was relieved somewhat to see the anonymous rider’s gloved hands to be empty. El could see Josse remained with hand firmly grasping the weapon at his side; the trio had not yet armed her, aggrieving her somewhat given the circumstances of long, cross-country travel. It was now far too late to complain, but the closer the Templars came to the suspicious cloaked figure with their hidden gaze and apparent intent to hinder their progress, the more grateful El was that Josse did take suspicious precaution, for her sake at least.
All the same, the hooded figure was soon no longer so, for he revealed himself as calmly as he had declared his empty hands – it was a dark-bearded man, with bristled hair, small cuts about his face and familiar, deep eyes. El’s heart skipped in her chest, and she was beset with great astonishment – it was Henry! Here, in the French countryside, hundreds of miles from London. Oh, to find him once more, and in these circumstances – what was he doing here? The Frenchwoman felt elation unmatched since before she could remember. He should have been in England, where the stone was. She should be in London, with him.
“Forgive me, brothers and sister,” he announced in the welcome, bass tone that she knew so well. He looked at all four in turn, lingering but a moment on each, no longer on El than the other three. The other three did not see what she saw in his deadpan face, however, the same joy that had positively beamed at her the night she returned to the Round Church after the ordeal in and flight from Wales all those months ago. Henry had seen her riding up the road, long before she had known it was him sat upon that motionless chestnut horse.
Just as quickly as she recognised Henry then did El realise him to be working in some capacity, and considered it odd that he would hide his Order brotherhood from other Templars. To her disappointment – and she strongly suspected his own – there would be no conspicuous reunion for the long-lost comrades and friends, separated by time and experience since her return to the Round Church back in the summer. And to think, Henry’s own surprise at seeing her here! The last he knew, or as much as she imagined he knew, El had gone missing following the great disaster at the Tower Liberties. Perhaps Henry had been told that she had been imprisoned, likely since Master Guy de Foresta was never usually reticent with either him or El.
But even Guy was uninformed about her uncle Jacques’ plot to remove her from London; as far as she was aware, the only people who knew of her presence in France were Jacques and the three riders in her present company.
Surprises all round, then, for who could forecast the plans of the Lord? Nevertheless, theirs was a game of discovery and affirmation. El and her three companions awaited an explanation brought about by Henry’s presently inconvenient etiquette, all the more suspicious for the fresh lacerations polluting his skin.
A moment’s pause passed between the five, suggesting to El that Henry’s face was familiar to none of Josse, Samuel or Cressin. Henry’s assumption of another personality had presumably passed the crucial first reveal.
“I see you are brothers of the Temple?” Henry asked with joviality.
“We are, sir,” Samuel confirmed, intrigued by the man’s direct observation. He leant forward in his saddle and rested his left hand upon his mount’s muscular neck, anticipating further elaboration as to the identity of this horseman, notably yet to allow the Templar party passage.
“God bless you,” Henry offered. “I myself have taken my vows of service to the Hospital of St John – I am Brother Otis, attached to the Hospital house at Brest. I must apologise for my most improper present conduct, but I needed to be sure you were who I suspected you to be.” The Englishness of his French speech shone through, perhaps more pronounced than El knew to be normal. “And worry yourselves not with my legitimacy. Not all the Hospital’s undertakings require the tunic of St John – arguably this quest should, I concede – but I’m sure you can appreciate the necessity for blending in on occasion.” He glanced from face to face amongst his audience, lingering last and longest upon El though not to arouse suspicion of recognition. Her spirit warmed because Henry, her only friend for tens and hundreds of miles, had found a way to talk to her, even deep undercover. They were forever blending in, Eleanor and Henry, and here they did so too.
Retaining a relaxed posture and now brushing a hand under his strong jaw, Samuel appeared as interested in the stranger’s story as El was fascinated by the ruse. “You’re a long way from home. Pray tell us your piece, brother Hospitaller.”
Henry’s expression hardened. “I am spreading grave news across the country – I’ve been sent by Father Mousse at Brest to warn our brothers and sisters of a wrecked Saracen fleet off the Breton coast.”
His words were nonsensical to El – what madness was this? There was no conceivable circumstance that would see a Saracen fleet sailing anywhere near France, let alone its northwestern coastline. Samuel sat up straight in the saddle as if to increase his concentration and perhaps comprehension and El saw that even the unflappable Josse had removed his hand from the sword at his side.
“A Saracen fleet,” Samuel repeated, puzzled. El unconsciously angled her head a little as bemusement too visited her mind. Henry’s overall play was as cryptic as the news with which he had led.
“I wouldn’t have believed it either, brother, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes, clear as day. A beach littered with the bodies of Mamluks on the Île-de-Molène off the Finistère, hundreds of them. The whole coast is abuzz with talk of a mighty storm of colours around the feast of St Crispin – did you see it?”
“A storm of colours? We did not,” Samuel confessed, evidently struggling to keep up with the horseman’s acceleration from shadowy secrecy to outlandish claims. El shared the captain’s bewilderment, and was further concerned at having recently heard so many outlandish claims from so many diverse sources.
Henry continued regardless. “I would hardly believe it either. It was ferocious, frightful, and the crash of thunder a more terrible din you would not hear. Like the deafening rumble of a thousand hooves all stopping at once overhead, bringing magnificent, iridescent blue clouds, far broader and lengthier than you would expect of the winter skies, low on the horizon, hurling blue lightning at the sea in rage, nothing like I’ve seen before.” Vigour charged his voice even as the eager whites of his eyes blazed out from orbiting dark rings. The Englishman appeared aged and weary though sounded anything but.
Such talk was outlandish and yet captivating for the same reason. “Mamluks, you say? Saracens? Are you certain they were not Moors of Granada?” Samuel sought in confirmation, holding Henry’s gaze.
The apparent mania in Henry’s eyes dulled a little. “The whole beach. Weapons and all. I have travelled and fought in the east, and these bodies were of those people, skin dark like the wet sand on which they lie, their clothing, everything. They were no Moors, for I know of their customs and dress, and these bodies were not so dressed in their style.” Enthusiasm conceded to resignation, providing his audience more insight than they might otherwise suspect into the man’s experiences and history.
To El, he looked unexpectedly vulnerable, traumatised in some capacity. There might well be truth to this, she feared, as bizarre as these assertions were. It was from El herself, of course, that Henry had heard about the ways of the Moors, but he could hardly confess the source of such information in their present company.
“What would they be doing this far north of the Mediterranean? This is impossible,” Cressin asserted.
“We are hundreds, thousands of miles from the Holy Land and the infidels that lurk beyond,” Samuel began. “It might be this storm has brought about visions to your eyes that might have tricked them.” He spoke in sympathetic disbelief, measured so as to not outrightly dismiss this stranger’s confident, haunted testimony. He seemed a fine captain, Samuel, temperate and balanced.
Behind the two leaders, El glanced across to Josse at Cressin’s use of the word ‘vision’; the curly-haired trickster returned her attention with the slightest hint of restlessness and certainly none of Samuel and Cressin’s instinctive rejection. Josse had, after all, confessed to El of strange sights and visions at his post in London, not long after the beleaguered Prince Madog had done the same with his own harrowing tales of delusions… delusions that, for whatever reason, El could not shake from her memory.
Henry sighed. “I could scarcely trust my own wits, even upon closer inspection, but I assure you my words are true. I had been sent by Constable Mousse of our Brest house to investigate following the storm, which assuredly only Noah himself could have endured. Others of the Hospital are scouring the island in my wake, and I am to spread the news from Order to Order as fast as I might. These are dark times, brothers and sister, given the ill stories we hear of the Mongol in the east and his preparations to strike at Christendom once more.”
Cold winds had indeed swept into western Christendom from the Polish plains and across the Empire, telling all that the Golden Horde Mongols sought to resume their cyclical campaigns to reach the ocean of France and Spain, despite the many kingdoms of Christendom that stood between them and such distant dreams. The Golden Horde always loomed as a spectre on the periphery, difficult to perceive for those in the west who were so far away from the strike of its swords and arrows. Periodically they clashed against the shields of brave Poles and Hungarians, sometimes to great success and sometimes to lesser, but all throughout they would not be vanquished or sated.
Again Henry spoke, agitated. “It seems improbable, I confess, but my eyes were not deceived, and many saw the storm that I suppose brought their downfall.”
“If these times are darkening, why do you not ride faster?” Josse questioned Otis, raising his chin as if he were looking down his nose upon the would-be Hospitaller. For once his intonation did not match the attitude whence it came; El suspected Josse to be concealing his own worries about Henry’s revelations. He’s not told the others, she surmised of the visions he had confessed to her. Josse carried his own struggles and visions and was here presented with an opportunity to hide them, to shoo others away – their possible ignorance to his burden notwithstanding – by further emphasising the delusions of this strange horseman. El would not be so easily misdirected.
Henry slapped his horse on the neck and fondly rubbed the animal’s skin, running his thumb through the shaggy mane as he did so. “The poor girl has ridden hard since I left the coast – she’s been good to me. Dead Mamluks are certainly newsworthy, but they were all dead to a man, which gives us a little time at least to prepare.” Try as he might to appear upbeat in the circumstance, real sadness cast a grey pallor upon his cheeks where a healthy summer glow would normally reside. Be his story a truth, exaggeration or otherwise, the four Templars opposite him all could see something afflicted Otis-who-was-Henry, and each came to their own conclusion.
“How many ships did they have?” Josse pressed further, though El wished he did not.
“There were no ships,” was the blunt answer. “Just bodies.”
“None at all?” Samuel questioned.
“As I say, this was some storm beyond the comprehension of men. I’ve spent my whole life looking out over the water, here and in England. It was… haunting.”
Forlorn, Henry looked to El as he spoke and she understood he spoke the truth at that moment. Whatever he saw, he had not seen any ships, but not because there had been no ships to begin with. He had not seen any ships because the storm had taken them away.
Patient as ever, Samuel silently consulted with Cressin before turning back to their impromptu guest. “If these are dead men without ships, then what you say is a fair statement – we have a little time to prepare, especially if the eastern heathens too ready to ride against Christendom.”
“Aye,” Henry glumly agreed.
“Forgive our questions, Brother Otis, for your tidings are heavy. We must ride, then, to ready our brethren,” Samuel resumed, politely seeking a way to break away from this unusual interlude to their journey. “Tell me, do you have weapons beyond the sword at your side, Brother Otis?” None of the four had seen the left flank of Henry’s horse, but all assumed a man travelling the roads on his own would carry some weapon.
“Thank you, but I’ve no need for extra weapons,” Henry answered as he looked down to his left side, confirming the Templars’ suspicions. “No one thus far has troubled me.”
“Mmm,” pondered Samuel, jutting his chin forwards in continuing disbelief. His jawline was remarkable to behold, emphasised all the more by the clean shave Cressin had provided him that morning, a marvellous display of blade work had El spellbound by the very risk of it; not a single drop of blood was spilled nor a hair missed. Henry, by way of contrast, appeared to have endured a terrible working over at the hands of some incompetent barber, not at all supporting his claims of avoiding trouble.
“The closer to Paris you go, the more opportune the outlaws,” Cressin stated. Samuel complemented the bald man’s assertion and reached to the belt girt at his waist, withdrawing a large knife neatly a foot long, so great in size that El first thought it was a miraculously concealed sword. The Templar captain briefly admired the blade’s edge, a glance speaking volumes of its potency.
“Or Flemings. King Philippe has thoroughly shaken that beehive,” added Josse from behind the display of deadly steel. “They’ve already skirmished around the outskirts of Paris, we hear.”
Many might have cowered at Samuel’s gesture, so outnumbered in the loneliness by this heavily-armed group. It scarcely brought a physical response from the Englishman, though, much to El’s relief, suggesting that he retained natural confidence in his martial prowess, even if his other wits seemed shaken and his face a victim of some sharp implement or more. “It looks a worthy accompaniment for the road, however I don’t think there are too many outlaws out here to concern brothers – and sisters – of the Orders.”
“It may not be so in Breton lands, but through the Norman countryside these outlaws belong to the King,” Samuel asserted unhappily. “We are fortunate to travel in numbers, and with full tunic, which is often sufficient to dissuade opportunists. You are without either.” The first overt criticism of Otis’ unusual and suspect appearance and story, Samuel expected to see the Hospitaller cross adorning his attire as the Templar cross did their own; in any case, he still would not dishonour the man with direct questioning.
Henry rolled up first his right and then left sleeve, revealing the knife he had strapped to each forearm, one to the top of his right arm and the other to the underside of his left. On occasion El had cause to witness their deployment, a fluid dance that transformed an ostensibly genial, unassuming and peaceable fellow into a menacing threat to security and mortality. With her eye for detail, El noted their readjustment – where previous the knives were strapped to the top of either wrist – appreciating the improved ease and efficiency this new alternate arrangement. Henry lethargically raised both arms out wide to flaunt the concealed equipment and dropped them again, saying all he needed to say without saying anything.
Across him from, Samuel observed Henry’s actions as he replaced his own blade at his belt. “You appear capable, brother. We pray your capability is enough to keep you from harm.” It was time to move as far as Samuel was concerned, and if El could hear the increased urgency in his voice then so too could Henry.
Henry offered a meek smile, that of a man resigned to some unbeatable fate. “Worry yourselves not with my safety, brothers and sister. What worse can the King’s men do to me than the Saracens have already inflicted?”
Edging his horse forwards as a reminder of their desire to continue, Samuel tipped his head to the lone horseman. “Godspeed on your journey, Sir Otis,” he said, assuming the Englishman to be of knightly status, “I hope your identity is received warmly and your message with sharp ears and minds.”
Otis-Henry in turn brought his relaxed chestnut palfrey around, the animal nodding as he did so like in an apparent show of reluctance to at last give way. He urged his mount into a slow walk forwards, motioning to pass between the quartet and resume his own journey, and the others went to move their rides aside for him; piece spoken, the perplexed obstructed had now become the obstructers. Twenty thin legs slowly manoeuvred the five horses in different directions across the path, a leisurely dance of departure that as much represented a continuation of their riders’ measured consideration of the other party, and none of the four Templars removed their eyes from this strangely-minded messenger.
“God bless your journey. May our paths cross again someday under happier circumstances.” He glanced from face to face amongst his audience as he passed, Cressin to the right and Samuel on the left, beyond them Josse on the left and finally lingering last and longest upon El to the right. Their eyes met where if their embraces could not.
It did not seem perverse to El that amidst the grave, if not baffling news carried by her erstwhile companion, normality had returned for the briefest of moments. They were working, hiding in plain sight, together. It was as if nothing had changed, she felt, none of the prior months and disasters had befallen them. For the first time in a long time, she was living in the present, and she was warm. Things were as they had been, and should be.
And then things were not as they had been nor as they should be. Before she could blink the chestnut palfrey had carried Henry away from her, like two ships rowing past one another tentatively along a narrow channel, where the crew on each watches the other with breath held for the chance of contact between the two, but there is none. El turned in her saddle to follow him as did the other three, her chest suddenly bursting for him to stay as the others urged him to continue.
Henry was not coming back from whichever destination he sought. El breathed heavily of the misty air, fuelling the exhausting rush of thoughts dashing between her sinking heart and frenzied mind. Gifted this brief reunion, its abrupt conclusion now tore her asunder. All she longed for was to join her dear friend, but unspecified fear held her in check, to cruelly freeze her body in place, and she had no option but to watch him go.
Turn around, please, turn around. He did not turn around.
“We must continue,” spoke the gently authoritative Captain Samuel once Otis-Henry looked to be out of earshot. “If he recognised any of us, then we’d best not be in the area for long. Sister Eleanor, come.”
El found nothing more unwelcoming than removing her eyes from the figure receding into the grey-green-brown vista, in doing so enduring a keen sense of losing part of herself. Abandoning Henry and returning to face the three Templars seemed so momentous as to mark the first day of the rest of her life, and she did could not find a precise reason why. Truthfully, when would she see him again, if she were travelling so far south to her uncle in Avignon?
Cressin glared at her, unintentionally menacing. “Do you know that man?”
Her small, dark eyes darted to his, blood pumping through her body as heightened emotions strung nerves every which way. “His message, it’s… there’s something about his message that doesn’t sit right,” she half-lied, dulling her true heartache. She felt the attention of all three, hoping it would converge upon Henry’s fanciful tale of Saracens, rather than his hidden history with her.
Samuel’s sharp look cut through the light drizzle to both his comrades, seeking opinions; the surly visage within Cressin’s hood was possessed of characteristically minimal contortion, though Josse pressed together and protruded his lips in the unconscious expression of dilemma. The curly-haired Templar seemed to gaze through El and she in her despair understood the man’s deeper trauma. As the route to a home she might have desperately wanted slipped away from El without so much as muscle moved on her part, Josse sat atop his horse contemplating the disturbing chaos of another man’s professed visions.
Cressin then spoke. “To me there’s little sense in a fleet of Saracens venturing so far. If he saw anything then they must surely have been a company of Moors, but why they would be sailing in strength this far north and without the permission of Castile…”
“Strange fellow he may have been, but any brother of the Hospital would be well informed in the ways of Moors and Mamluks, as are we Templars,” El added, finding herself seeking to defend Henry’s unexpected comments.
“I’d sooner disbelieve these tales as the testimony of a madman, but to judge madness is a futile pursuit,” Samuel concluded as he rotated in his saddle and urged his dark bay horse on. Honfleur was the name given her by the captain, following Cressin’s lead in honouring their arrival back to France, and she was strong in bearing and nature. Unwilling to expose his own buried thoughts on the matter, the newly reticent Josse also turned around and readied to continue the ride; El looked after him eager for him to return her gaze, that she might somehow convey without words that she remembered his tale of visions unbelieved.
“We’ll give word of this report to the Order houses that we cross and let them judge our message without pressuring them either way, since these are strange times, after all,” the captain declared firmly. “The Hospital can further confirm as their investigations are completed.”
Cressin turned back to El. “We shan’t allow Moors and Saracens to come between returning you to your family, sister.”
They rode onwards on their long journey to Avignon and El’s uncle, the Grand Master Jacques de Molay. In doing so, unbeknownst to those brothers with her, they were leaving behind the closest thing to family El knew. He had now vanished from her life again, one hundred yards away, but it may as well have been one hundred miles. What had that insightful woman said to her in Newgate gaol? There are different types of fear, and imprisonment represented the fear of being alone. Not alone in the sense of being physically separate from others, but emotionally so. Josse, Samuel and Cressin were company enough, but she did not know them, not yet at least, and so she remained alone. With Henry, she never knew loneliness, but something else, something more pleasant.
She raised her face to the sky and squinted against the returning rain. The Lord was with her; perhaps God had arranged this one last meeting between her and Henry, that they might say goodbye in a concealed manner befitting their roles as spies. El was heartened amidst the sadness, as Henry’s sudden and likely final absence sunk the stomach within her.