Count Raymond was struck down by the swords of the Assassins at the entrance to the gate.
'A time of turbulence, of visions, portents and warnings! Heaven glowers at us because we have lost our way! Our souls, with their open ulcers, will go to hell on crutches. Around us, nothing but hollow graves, rotten and rotting corpses. Water may soak the earth. Blood soaks the heavens and calls on God's justice to flash out like lightning. The sins committed in close and secret chambers will be paraded along the spacious pavementsand squares of hell, where the rack, the gallows and the torture wheels stand black against the eternal flames of God's wrath. I urge you to repent! We have taken Jerusalem, but we have lost our way.'
The preacher, garbed in filthy animal skins, lifted his staff and pointed up at the sheer blue sky, which curved above the gleaming white city of Tripoli, overlooking the Middle Sea.
'Repent!' he yelled in one last attempt to provoke his listeners. 'Repent, before the doom gates open and disgorge the power of hell.'
Edmund de Payens, knight of the Templar order, leaned across in a creak of leather and touched his English comrade Philip Mayele on the wrist.
'Are you frightened, Philip? Fearful of what is to come?'
The Englishman's long, swarthy, lined face broke into a grin. He clawed at the greying hair that straggled down to the white cloak around his shoulders. He scratched his beard and moustache, his brown eyes gleaming with cynicism.
'Edmund, you are a soft soul, to be driven by many a black storm before you harden. Look around you. Life is as it was, as it will be and ever shall be.' He laughed abruptly at Edmund's frown over such mockery of the 'Glory Be'.
De Payens quickly remembered his resolution, after he'd last been shriven, not to be so pompous and quick to take offence. He forced a grin and nodded, curling the reins of his horse around his mittened fingers.He and Mayele were moving slowly along the Street of Aleppo down to the city gates of Tripoli. They were escorting Count Raymond, the Frankish lord of the city, who was about to leave to be reconciled with his estranged wife, Melisande, in Jerusalem. De Payens closed his eyes against the bustle of the crowds. In truth, he wanted to be back with his brethren, his fellow warrior-monks. Yet, he opened his eyes and glanced quickly at Mayele, not all the brothers were dream-followers or visionaries. Hadn't Mayele been excommunicated with bell, book and candle for killing a priest in Coggeshalle, a town in that mist-hung island of England on the edge of the world?
'Cruciferi, à bas, à bas!' The cry of derision was hurled in Provençal, a guttural shout by a Turk. It shook Edmund from his reverie, and he became aware of the crowd pressing around him. Ahead of them, Raymond of Tripoli's lightly armed Turcopole mercenaries were pushing their way through the throng, their lamellar cuirasses gleaming in the strengthening sun. Edmund searched the faces on either side, but no one dared catch his eye. Anyone could have hurled such an insult. Most of the men had their heads hidden by white turbans, their faces half veiled by the end of the cloth pulled across nose and mouth against the dust-bearing wind and the swirling black horde of flies. De Payens remained uneasy. A dust haze billowed. The stench of camel and horse dung thickened the air. All around rose the cries of the various traders. Here in Tripoli, Jew and Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox,Frank and Turk rubbed shoulders uneasily in the tunnelled darkness of the alleyways, in the noisy bazaars and the sun-scorched squares. Tripoli was the meeting place of different faiths and cultures, kept calm by the mailed fist of the old count riding behind them with his escort of clerks and men-at-arms. Above their heads, Raymond's gorgeous blue and yellow banners, displaying the silver cedars of Lebanon, floated in the late-morning breeze.
'Stay calm, Templar!' The count's powerful voice forced de Payens to twist round in the saddle. The Templar nodded politely at Raymond even as he regretted not wearing his mail hauberk and chausses; nothing but lightweight boots, quilted jerkin and hose beneath the white Templar mantle sewn with its red cross. On his back was slung a concave shield, around his waist a simple leather sword belt with scabbards for sword and dagger. Was this enough protection if such hurled invective gave way to violence? De Payens twisted his neck against the bubbles of sweat beneath his long hair. He clutched the reins between his quilted mittens and murmured the Templar prayer: 'Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam' - not to us, oh Lord, not unto us, but unto yourself give glory.
He must remember he was a Poor Knight of the Temple, dedicated to poverty, obedience and chastity. He had sworn to follow the Templar cross in unblemished fealty to his Grand Master, which was why he and Mayele were here. For the last few months they'd beengarrisoned at Chastel Blanc, a Templar fortress to the south of Tripoli. From there they'd been summoned to escort Count Raymond down into Jerusalem. Edmund was impatient. He was glad to be free of the grim routine of Chastel Blanc, eager to see Jerusalem again, but he quickly remembered how this mission was his prime duty. He was bound by oath. The Templars had been founded to patrol the highways of Outremer, Palestine, the land of Le Bon Seigneur. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, had walked, slept, eaten, talked to his friends, preached, died and risen again on this very soil. Nevertheless, de Payens felt a disquieting anxiety clawing at his heart and dulling his brain. Tripoli was noisy and frenetic, a sea of shifting colours, constant dust haze, strengthening heat and marauding flies. His body was soaked in sweat, his horse restless. The crowd on either side could house enemies as well as friends.
'Stay awake.' Mayele leaned over in a gust of sweat and ale. 'Stay awake, Edmund, for ye know not the day nor the hour; it will come like a thief in the night!'
De Payens blinked away the beads of perspiration and licked his sand-and salt-caked lips. The heat was closing in around him like a thick blanket. He must not, as he often did in such circumstances, dream about his grandparents' house, its whitewashed coolness among the cypress and olive groves of northern Lebanon. He stirred restlessly in his saddle, tapped the hilt of his sword, slid his dagger in and out. The procession was now swinging its way down the main thoroughfaretowards the great walled gate, above which the banners of Tripoli flapped between the gibbets ranged along the turreted walkway. Each scaffold bore a cadaver hanging by its neck, a proclamation pinned to its chest. This had become the gruesome feeding ground for kites, buzzards and vultures, their blood-splattered wings wafting away the black swarm of flies dancing against the light.
The noise grew deafening. Horses and donkeys brayed at the sweet smell of water. The clatter of pots and pans, the dull booming of kettle drums, the chatter in a myriad of tongues as traders called and beckoned was constant. The crowd broke like a shoal of multicoloured fish around the sea of stalls. A woman caught Edmund's eye. Her raven-black hair fringed a broad, smooth forehead, with arched brows over lustrous eyes. The bottom half of her face was hidden by a bead-laced gauze veil, which only enhanced her mysterious beauty. She smiled at him. Edmund felt his interest quicken, then he glanced away as if distracted by a group of Jews in their long dark shubas, who slipped out of a side street to mingle with long-haired Maronites from Syria and dark-skinned Copts from the fabled land south of the Nile. From a nearby church floated the faint hum of plainchant and the spicy fragrance of incense.
The singing grew louder as Greek priests made their way through the crowd, blessing the rabble of dirty children as they bore their precious icons and statues, all arrayed in costly garments and flashing precious stones, to some shrine or chapel. Behind these a line of camels,heavily burdened and swaying like carracks on the sea, battled against the throng, their drivers and guides screaming for room.
De Payens did his best to ignore all these. They were now close to the gates, where Count Raymond's mercenaries were marshalled, soft Provençal voices mingling with the guttural tongue of Swabia. Nearby, carpenters and blacksmiths created a raucous clatter of axe, hammer and sword. Trumpets rang. Cymbals clashed. Kettle drums rolled in greeting. The mercenaries arranged themselves into ranks to greet their seigneur, as the sun reached its zenith on a day about to crack and crumble into a welter of killing and bloodshed.
De Payens startled as a flock of pigeons swooped low above him. Mayele swore loudly. Edmund turned in his saddle. A group of Maronite priests garbed in dark brown robes, braided black hair hiding their faces, had appeared, holding petitions for Count Raymond. The Lord of Tripoli gestured at them to approach. The Maronites hastened on, like a pack of hounds, hot and keen on the scent. They closed in around the Frankish lord and his principal knight, screaming their blood lust. Assassins! The count and his henchman became slightly separated; their escort surged forward. De Payens and Mayele turned their horses in alarm - too late! The assassins had dropped all pretence, the white scraps of parchment fluttering away like butterflies. They drew long curved daggers decorated with red ribbon; these cut the air, gashing and slicing the count, all unprotected in hishose, cotehardie, cloak and soft boots. He and his henchman had no time even to mutter the Miserere, let alone draw sword or dagger. The assassins circled them, knives tearing and gouging, blood spurting out like wine from a skin. The daggers rose and fell like flailing rods. De Payens drew his own sword. Mayele, yelling the Templar war cry, 'Beauséant! Beauséant!' lashed out at the crowd milling about them. Their horses skittered, alarmed at the tang of fresh blood, this sudden violence. The count was now falling, drooping down over his horse's neck. Still the knives scythed the air in glittering arcs. Two of the assassins broke away and sped towards de Payens. The Templar urged his horse forward, crashing into the pair, his sword hacking and twisting as he shouted prayers, curses and battle cries. The blood frenzy overwhelmed him, the song of his sword, the sheer exuberance of the clash, with more assassins now swarming around him. They had finished with the count and were intent on joining their comrades in killing this hated Templar. De Payens' battle fury became a red mist. He turned his horse, its sharpened hooves lashing out, and the assassins promptly broke and fled into the crowd.
Count Raymond's constables, now recovering from their shock, were eager for blood. They did not pursue the assassins but like Mayele struck at anyone within sword reach. They swept into the terrified crowd like reapers, cutting, gashing and smashing with mace, axe andsword. Some of the bystanders fought back; the massacre spread like some demonic black cloud. The garrison from the gatehouse walls, blood-hungry mercenaries, needed no second urging.
'Let the ravens and vultures feast!' Mayele screamed as he swept into a group of merchants and camel traders.
De Payens, now free of his battle lust, stared around in horror. Count Raymond's corpse and that of his henchman, both swimming in blood, were being carried away wrapped in their cloaks. On either side of the thoroughfare the killing swirled swift and sudden like a breeze across the sands. Archers on the wall and the gateways darkened the sky, showering the fleeing crowd with a hail of bolts and arrows. Swords red to the hilt glittered and flashed. The dust-choked cobbles became drenched with blood pouring from severed limbs. Decapitated heads rolled like dirty bushweed across the ground. The white walls of buildings grew splattered with splashes of scarlet as if a gory rain was pelting down. Children screamed in terror. Plumes of black smoke curled up against the blue sky. The mayhem was spreading deep into the city. People fled into houses and churches.
Edmund heard a hideous cry carry across the bailey before the gateway. Two Syrian girls were struggling in the greedy grasp of Swabian mercenaries, their great two-headed axes lying on the ground beside them. The Swabians were stripping the sobbing girls and pushing them from one to another. The girls screamed; one ofthem pointed at the blood-encrusted corpse of a man lying beside them. Edmund roared in anger. He fought to settle his fretting horse, but it was too late. The mercenaries had either tired of their game or recognised the danger. They stood aside as one of their company swiftly plucked up his axe and cleanly severed the heads of both girls. The rest turned to face de Payens. He abruptly reined in and stared horror-struck as the two corpses, blood pouring from their severed necks, collapsed; their heads, shrouded by clouds of hair, bounced and rolled across the cobbles.
De Payens turned away in disgust. Sword drawn, he urged his horse towards the steps of a crumbling church, its doors flung open to allow in the flight of citizens, and rode up the steps, forcing aside the fugitives. The flickering darkness was heavy with the scent of myrrh, aloes and incense, the blackness broken by flaring torches and the glow of candles burning before icons and statues. At the far end stood the sanctuary altar, hidden by a heavy dark cloth with a silver pyx embroidered in the centre. The nave of the church was swiftly filling with refugees of every faith and none. Families clung to each other in terror, children whimpering. A Greek priest carrying a gold cross, accompanied by acolytes and a thurifer, processed out through the sacristy door. The priest bellowed that all who were not cruciferi, cross-bearers, should leave at once. Behind him shuffled mercenaries garbed in mailed hauberks, dirty boots scuffing the floor, kite-shaped shields slungon their backs, swords and daggers drawn in fierce expectation.
'Leave!' bellowed the priest as his escort clattered their arms. 'Infidels, heretics, schismatics! There is no sanctuary for you here!'
His proclamations were greeted with fresh moans. De Payens urged his horse forward into a pool of light thrown by one of the clerestory windows high in the wall. The sun's rays caught his white cloak, emphasising the red cross stitched on its right shoulder.
'No one need leave here, Domine,' he declared in the lingua franca. The priest spluttered, fingering the cross around his neck. His escort, greedy for blood, plunder and rape, grumbled menacingly, but a Templar knight, sword drawn, his horse's withers wet with blood, was objection enough. The priest bowed and, snapping at his dog soldiers, swept back into the sacristy.
De Payens took up guard at the open doors of the church. All were admitted, flooding into the nave, fear-crazed and shocked. Any pursuers were turned away by the grim sentry, his cloak wrapped about him, the blade of his bloodied sword resting against his shoulder. He sat as if hewn out of granite, staring across the great bailey carpeted with corpses, blood gleaming and twinkling in the sunlight. Flies swarmed in black hordes. Vultures and buzzards, wings flapping, floated down to their banquet. Yellow pi dogs, ribs sticking out, moved from corpse to corpse, nosing at the clothes, eager to tear at the flesh. These scattered only at the appearance oflooters and corpse-plunderers, sneaking across, greedy-eyed, for any precious item. A merchant, grateful for his escape, offered the grim Templar some sesame seed cake and a pitcher of water. De Payens ate and drank as he stared out, his mind pitching like a galley on a stormy sea. He felt cold, dead. Was it for this that he had entered the great order, vowed to serve God, Christ and St Mary and obey the master of the Temple?
To calm himself, de Payens remembered his dawn mass of ordination and investiture. How he had received the mantle of the order, the woollen waist cord that signified chastity, the soft cap symbolising obedience, all sealed by the master's kiss of peace. No more than two years ago, though it now seemed like an age! He'd arrived in the Temple forecourt in Jerusalem dressed in his best clothes. There he'd been met by Templar serjeants and escorted across the Great Pavement, where the Knights Templar had their lodgings. They had gone along porticoes, colonnades and vaulted passageways lit by dim lamps, the stone slab floor echoing every footfall. After he'd been blessed and incensed in an antechamber, he had been led into the great chapter house, where the Templars waited; their white mantles displaying the red cross, soft silk caps on their heads, gauntleted hands resting on the hilts of drawn swords. Under terrible oaths in that cavernous chamber, cold and dark, the pricks of light from the juddering oil lamps shifting the shadows, de Payens had sworn that he was of knightly cast, of legitimate birth and in good health. That he was a faithfuladherent of the Catholic faith according to the Latin rite of Rome, that he was not married and was free of all such commitments. There, in the brooding gloom, close to the stables where Solomon once stabled his horses, a mere walk from where the Saviour had preached and driven out the money-sellers, the great oaths of the White Knights rolled out. Bertrand Tremelai, the Grand Master, proclaimed the challenge in a powerful voice:
'You must totally renounce your own will. You must admit to that of another. You must fast when you are hungry. Thirst when you wish to drink. Keep strict vigil even when tired.'
To all of these de Payens had replied:
'Yes, Domine, if God so pleases.'
It seemed like a whisper in contrast. After he had sworn the oath, the investiture had taken place as the massed ranks of the Templars chanted the psalm: 'Behold how good it is for brothers to live in union and harmony.'
Once invested, he'd been escorted into the refectory to receive the congratulations of his grandparents, Theodore the Greek, with his lazy smile and soft ways, and his redoubtable grandmother Eleanor, sister of the great Hugh de Payens, founder of the order. Then they had returned to Lebanon, while he had remained in Jerusalem to undergo the grim discipline and training to be a Poor Knight of Christ.
De Payens had been relegated to the meanest lodgings within the courtyard of the Temple. Obedience was a harsh fact, not a choice, rigorous hardship the themefor every day and night. He slept in his clothes on a bed that was no more than a carpet strewn across the floor, on one side a lighted candle, on the other his weapons ready for use, his sleep constantly broken by calls to sing Divine Office. Meagre meals taken in silence were his only sustenance. Harsh sword and lance practice in the glaring heat of the noonday devil was a daily requirement. Hunting, hawking and women were strictly denied, severe punishments imposed for any infringement of the rule: forty days of fasting for striking a comrade. Those in disgrace had to squat on the floor with the dogs to eat their food, and must not attempt to drive the dogs off.
Once training was finished, he had been sent on patrol along dusty roads that wound through eerie gorges or across sandy scorched wastes dotted with oases, their precious water bubbling up under the bending trunks of sycamore, terebinth and date palm. He had served as an escort for pilgrims who landed on the coast eager to journey inland to kneel in the shadow of the Holy Sepulchre. He had guarded merchants with their baggage of hemp sacks, leather cases, wicker baskets and chests, all heaped on the bare backs of sweaty porters; as well as important couriers, dignitaries and officials. During such missions he had clashed with the bearded, harsh-faced men of the desert who came swirling out of the dust with their green banners and ululating battle cries. Along with other Templars, he hunted for these same men out in the arid desert, where the sun beat down as merciless as a battle mace, searching for the encampments ofthe desert-crawlers, as they called them, with their orange pavilions, attacking and killing, seeking out their chieftains in their turbans, velvet robes and silver girdles. Women and children had fallen, tumbling beneath the hooves of his charging destrier. During one such attack he had captured a young woman who had escaped and fled deep into the wasteland. She had begged for her life, pressing her body up against his, breasts ripe and full pushed into his hands, slim waist soft against his mail shirt, eyes and lips promising everything. He had turned away, stumbling in fear from such temptation, and when he looked back, she was gone.
The encounter had changed de Payens. He'd been plagued by phantasms, succubi of the night, with soft perfumed flesh and alluring eyes, the prospect of a sinuous body twisting beneath him, of silky tendrils of hair wafting his face. In contrition he had prostrated himself in chapter, confessed his thoughts and been condemned to black bread and brackish water. He'd crept to the cross in the Templar chapel and done penance out on some sea of rock in the blinding heat of the desert. More importantly, he lost his appetite for blood: not the fury of battle, sword against sword, but for those who could offer no defence. He'd conjured up the fabulous stories about the paladins of old, whose deeds he had learned from the indomitable Eleanor. Hadn't she whispered how the great Hugh had established the order to defend the weak and the defenceless, be it Christian or Turk? She had lectured him on the futility of killing with all the cold finality of deathbrooding over the haunting landscape of the battlefield. She had taught him his horn book and his prayer wheel by quoting poetry about the aftermath of slaughter. How did those lines go?
'Many a spear, dawn cold to the touch, we wave them high but the poet's harp won't raise the fallen warriors, whilst the buzzards, winging sombrely over the plain, will bear tidings to the vulture, how he plucked and ate, how he and the jackal made short work of the dead ...'
De Payens felt a hand on his thigh. He glanced down at the wide-eyed woman, her stricken face, her iron-grey hair charred and singed.
'Domine.' Her lips hardly moved. She pointed to the church door. 'We own a wine shop with a small vineyard behind it. The soldiers came. They took my husband and put him beneath the wine press and turned it until his head cracked like a nut, blood and brains seeping out to mingle with our wine. Domine, why did they do that?'
'Demons!' De Payens stroked her brow gently. 'Demons incarnate. The world is thronged with them.' He ushered the woman away, aware of how the noise in the church was settling, then returned to his guard and wondered what to do. A scorched, tattered figure came stumbling across the bailey, screaming:
'Christ and His Holy Sepulchre!'
De Payens waved him forward. The man staggered up the steps and crouched just within the doorway, gulping like a thirsty dog from a pannier of water a womanbrought. When he had slaked his thirst, he peered up at de Payens.
'God curse you all,' he muttered. 'Parts of the city are burning. They claim that assassins sent by the Old Man of the Mountain are responsible.'
'Why?' de Payens asked.
'God knows!' The man rose and stumbled towards him. He grasped the horse's bridle, frenetic eyes glaring up at the Templar.
'The city is knee deep in dismembered corpses, the ground is sticky and jellied with blood. Men like you--'
De Payens moved quickly, turning his horse even as his sword blocked the swift lunge by the knife hidden in the man's right hand. The weapon went clattering along the floor. Women screamed in terror; men sprang to their feet, shouting warnings. De Payens hooked the tip of his sword under the man's chin, forcing him back into the light. His assailant didn't beg; the close-set eyes in that nut-brown face never wavered.
'How did you know?' he whispered.
'You are right-handed, but you used your left for the bridle.' De Payens searched the man's face: intelligent, purposeful, with a snub nose, full mouth and firm chin. 'Why?' he asked.
'Killers!' the man replied. 'Killers bound for hell for this day's work. You must all confront the Gates of Death and meet the Janitors of the Shadowlands.'
'A quotation from the Book of Job,' de Payens retorted. 'You are a scholar, a clerk?'
'A physician who has seen enough of killing to glut himself for many a lifetime.'
De Payens lowered his sword.
'Then pick up your dagger and get behind me. I am no demon, not yet at least.'
The man slid past him into the darkness of the church. De Payens tensed, straining his ear for any sound of a fresh attack. Instead the man came to stand beside him, sheathing his dagger as he whispered:
'A terror of the twilight, blinded and bloated with blood, stalks the city in his livery of lion skins. Behind him trail the shackles of death. Whole legions he takes ...'
De Payens stared down at him.
'You sound more like a priest than a physician.'
Screams carried across the great bailey. Three figures rounded the corner, running towards the church, hastening like shadows under the sun, tripping over corpses, glancing fearfully over their shoulders. They had almost reached the steps of the church when their pursuer appeared, garbed in white, head shrouded in a hood. Mayele! He trotted his horse across the bailey, then paused. He glimpsed Edmund, but made no sign of recognition. Instead, he coolly raised his Saracen horn bow, notched, loosed, then notched again. Each arrow sped like a curse, swift and fatal. Two of the men twisted as the shafts took them deep in the back; the third, a clutch of jewellery in his fist, was halfway up the steps, but Mayele was a deadly archer. The shaft sliced thefleeing man in the back of the neck, its barb breaking and shattering his soft sweaty throat. He collapsed in a gargle of blood as Mayele serenely guided his horse across the square, then reined in, grinning up at de Payens.
'They were infidels, corpse-plunderers.'
Mayele pointed to the third man.
'He had stolen a pyx.'
'It's not a pyx.' De Payens gestured with his sword. 'It's jewellery. He was fleeing for sanctuary, innocent, Philip, as are so many who have died today.'
'Innocent, guilty?' Mayele hooked the bow over the horn of his saddle. 'Who can judge but God? Let him decide ...'
THE TEMPLAR MAGICIAN. Copyright © 2009 by Paul Doherty. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.