For days the forces of Saladin had pounded the walls of the great City of Jerusalem, seeking out the weaker portions of the fortifications, searching endlessly, relentlessly for the one place where his ballistas and catapults could do the most damage. A veritable rain of arrows, rocks and Greek fire poured into the city over the walls and into the streets, killing everything from dogs to rats caught out in the open. News, what little there was, from the army was hard to glean and disheartening at best. There would be no returning forces coming to drive the Saracens from the gates of the old city.
All was lost.
Lords Balian and Ranier of Naples had gone out to meet with the tyrant, Saladin, seeking terms after a mounted foray through the Jehosephat gate had been utterly destroyed. The two emissaries had gained nothing more than the ill-received news that the ransom prices would be paid in gold or else those who could not pay would be put to the sword. Every male over the age of ten would pay ten besants, females would pay five. Younger children would be required to pay one besant. Very high prices indeed and impossible for most of the city’s population… those that remained alive… to pay. Saladin had graciously granted forty days for the gold to be gathered.
The young Templar Knight, Androu, only just arrived from the wilds of the lowlands of Scotia, with his new Latin name of Armenius, had only just learned that he and his twin brother, Mathou, also newly named Larmenius, would be ransomed and allowed to leave the city with those other citizens, soldiers, clergy, royalty and Knights fortunate enough to have the ransom handy. This was great news. The two Knights had lain together in the darkness beneath the heavily fortified walls of the Commanderie, listening to the bombardment at night, speaking of their misfortune at having been amongst the few Templars left behind when the armies of the King had ridden off into oblivion. If only they had been allowed to accompany the army, they might have met more useful deaths. Anything would have been preferable to starving in the darkness like rats or being cut down by an errant arrow in the street or burned alive in some subterranean dead end.
But this latest news was grand indeed and he wanted only to share it with Mathou as soon as possible.
Mathou, however, was not in the Commanderie, nor was he found in any of the usual places they come to haunt since the siege began. Androu rushed through the halls, calling for his brother in their native Scots tongue, drawing stares and admonishments from the clergy, monks and attendants who were desperately trying to minister to the masses of wounded and dying and dead who had sought refuge inside the fortified structure. Everywhere was the stench of blood and death, weeping, wailing women, crying children, but nowhere was the sight of his brother. He drew up short at the spectacle of bright sunlight spilling through a tall set of open doors.
Androu blinked in the bright light as he realized that the hail of arrows was no longer falling into the street beyond the doors.
Several young men and boys were standing just inside the doors, looking out at the incredible carnage in the street. Blood filled the shallow drains alongside the street, bodies of men, women and children were strewn about along with dogs, cats, goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys and horses. All piled on top of each other, looking very much like hedgehogs under the weight of hundreds of arrows. There were also fallen blocks from the buildings surrounding the square as well as the rounded boulders flung there by catapults, overturned carts, broken pottery, pieces of metal and glass and splintered weapons of every imaginable sort. Food, much needed to feed the hungry, lay rotting amidst the destruction. A sad sight indeed. The fountain, choked with debris showed promise of nothing more than blood-tainted water. Poison. The sight was beyond comprehension. The smell was unbearable and the silence even worse than the constant explosions had been.
“What has happened?” He asked the boys in stilted Latin.
One of them turned large, frightened eyes on him. His dark face was smeared with dirt and blood.
“My Lord, the infidels have entered the city,” he said. “The wall has been breached. Can you not hear them?”
Androu willed his heart to be still and strained his ears. Faint shouts of “Allah Akbar!” Echoed through the streets.
“My brother… have you seen Larmenius, the elder?” He asked, taking the boy by the shoulders.
“Your brother? Mathou?” One of the other children answered him with a question.
“He left when the arrows ceased, Sir!” The boy, a swarthy complected ragamuffin of about fourteen years stepped forward. “That way.” He pointed one dirty finger toward one of the clogged streets leading away from the square.
Androu sucked in a deep breath of relatively cool air and then stepped out into the smoke and glaring midday sun.
“Wait, Master,” the boy shouted and caught up with him. “I can show you the way. You must be careful, sir. The infidels are killing people in the streets down that way. Blood flows like water through the sewers.”
Androu hesitated, checked his weapons, jammed the helmet he had been carrying, on his head and jerked his head to the boy in acceptance of the offer. If the boy was useful, he might see to it that his ten besants were paid. He needed a good valet. This one spoke Latin better than he did.
The young fellow nimbly picked his way over the carnage and Androu followed more slowly in the more cumbersome chain mail, boots and surcoat. He heard someone shouting his name from the door, but did not look back. Once they were clear of the square, they kept to the more protected alleys and narrow streets where less debris had accumulated. Eventually, they came upon a less damaged part of the city where the streets were relatively free of bodies and clutter. They stopped in front of a formidable residential home. The doors stood open. Amazingly, this house was undamaged. Its gleaming white facade stood untouched by Saladin’s rampage.
“He went in there?” Androu asked and frowned at the boy suspiciously.
The boy nodded solemnly and then smiled.
Androu started up the broad steps. He knew the place. The house belonged to a wealthy merchant who was purportedly a Muslim, himself. Some minor official who attended the King’s court regularly, wearing outlandish garb from Persia, which he claimed to be his home. He was about to change his mind about going inside when he heard a woman’s screams emanating from the open doors.
The Knight rushed up the steps, drawing his sword as he went, calling his brother’s name.
“Mathou!” He shouted.
He found no one inside the first three rooms and then burst into the sunlight again as he stepped into an enclosed courtyard. His eyes fell immediately on the sight of a Templar floating face down in a sizable pool. A bright swath of crimson was spreading out around his head.
A woman, her face concealed behind a veil, stood near the pool, holding an ornately bejeweled knife in one hand. A brilliant flash of red blinded his reasoning and he jerked his head back.
When he locked eyes with her, she screamed. He screamed and the boy screamed with him.
She screamed again and the boy screamed with her.
He screamed and the boy shouted in his face.
“Sir! Sir! Wake up!” The boy, no longer a ragamuffin, was shaking him roughly by the shoulder.
“Christopher?” He asked and blinked into the worried face of his apprentice, Christopher Stewart.
“Yes, Master. It’s me, Christopher, for Pete’s sake. The Grand Master wants to talk to you before you leave for America, sir,” the boy told him and then sat down on the small sofa in Ramsay’s sitting room.
Mark Andrew Ramsay sat up stiffly and found himself sitting behind his rather barren desk where he had apparently fallen asleep after consuming a half bottle of Scotch the night before.
“You scared the bejesus out of me,” Christopher ventured. “Can I get you some water, sir?”
“Get back to class, boy,” Mark grumped, managed a slight smile and then stood up. The dream about his brother’s death rarely plagued him these days, but when it did, it brought back the proper perspective he needed for his life as the Chevalier du Morte, the Knight of Death, Alchemist and Assassin for the Order of the Red Cross of Gold, poor Knight of the Temple of Solomon.
Chapter One of Twelve
Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.
Mark Andrew Ramsay carefully placed the flat black case in the rear seat of the Mercedes and closed the door. The sun glinted off the rear windshield, almost blinding him when he walked around the rear of the car, checking the tires. Old habits died hard. He hated this hot weather. He was used to friendlier climes and whenever the temperature soared into the nineties, the heat and dust reminded him of another, much less pleasant place than the restored Roman villa surrounded by ancient olive trees and carefully sculpted lawns. Scotland was always first in his mind. Long summer days, misty mornings and green meadows stretching to infinity. The less time he spent in Italy, the better and this trip… the purpose of this visit… made the weather even harder to bear though the temperature only registered a sunny eighty-eight degrees. It was all in his head. People paid good money to visit the place and he would have paid anything to skip this part of his duties. Surely there must have been some way to conduct business in this day and age without traveling thousands of miles for face-to-face meetings.
The Knight of Death had grown complacent since the end of the last Great War. It had been years since the Grand Master had summoned him from Scotland for such a mission. He had almost forgotten his primary duty and responsibility as the Chevalier du Morte. First and foremost, he was the Assassin. His secondary job as Alchemist for the Order took up most of his time and he had begun to think of himself as a simple chemist. Simple! That was how he liked things. The simpler, the better. But reality rarely allowed him to lead the life that he preferred, rather it made many demands on him that probably would have driven anyone else completely insane. All the same, he was thankful for the respite that God had given them, however short it had been. Fifty-five years had been an unprecedented time of peace for the world. All of them had grown complacent and that was probably the precise reason that this mission was necessary at all. They had failed to impress the serious nature of the Rule of Order, the Oath of Loyalty and the vows associated with an apprenticeship to one of the Knights of the Council. The inevitable consequences of breaking those vows were about to be impressed upon the young man after whom he was being sent.
He would bring the renegade apprentice home alive or, if need be, dead. If the apprentice wanted to resign, there was a wrong way and a right way. Right. Wrong. Light. Dark. Simple.
He patted the deep pocket on the leg of his black cargo pants to make sure that his plane ticket and credentials were there and then squinted at the figure of a young man dressed in a white shirt and brown trousers, running toward him across the grass beside the main building of the old villa. Mark Andrew smiled slightly and pushed his long, black hair over his shoulder as he recognized his own apprentice, Christopher Stewart, hurrying toward him.
“Master!” The boy shouted to him and waved frantically.
Mark stood waiting as his apprentice, a rather irreverent American boy of about eighteen, slid to a stop in the pebbled drive in front of him.
“Master!” The boy gasped and leaned on the trunk of the car. “I thought I had missed you. Sir Barry would not let me out of class early. He’s such an ass at times.”
“Watch your tongue or Sir Barry will having it roasting on a spit,” Mark Andrew suppressed another smile along with his normally pronounced Scottish brogue.
“I’m sorry, sir, but he knows I wanted to at least see you off,” Christopher smiled apologetically at him. “Are you sure you can’t take me with you? It would only be a few days. I could take my books and study while we travel. And I promise I would stay at the hotel or whatever while you do your… business.”
“I’m afraid it’s not possible, Christopher.” Mark Andrew licked lips and looked up at the cloudless sky again. Rain would help. Or a nice gale force wind. They had already been through this same conversation the night before. “You belong here in school,” he said more sternly. “Brother Barry would have my head if I took you away again.”
“But you’re going to America. Please? You could talk to Sir d’Brouchart. It would only be…” Christopher pleaded.
“I said no and that’s final,” Mark brushed him aside and opened the driver’s door. “Now you’d best get yourself back to the classroom before he misses you and you end up in detention… again. And don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it. We’ll take a little trip together before I go back to Scotland. The Alps or someplace cool,” Mark looked up at the sun again.
Christopher nodded, but his disappointment was evident. He knew the place would not be cool as in ‘cool’, but cool as in cold.
“You have a break coming for St. John’s Feast. We’ll go up to the monastery on the Aegean. You’ll like it there. Cool breezes, salt air, mists and sea cliffs. Very peaceful. A good place for contemplative thinking,” Mark continued as he checked his pockets once more, searching for his credit cards.
“I’m sure it sounds very nice, Master, but this is the first real mission that you’ve gone on since I’ve been your apprentice. How can I learn to be an Assassin, if you don’t show me the trade?” the young man looked him square in the eyes and made one last plea, risking much. His dark blue eyes sparkled with a daring expression that had gotten him in trouble before.
Mark Andrew’s own blue eyes narrowed sharply and Christopher’s expression changed to one of instant regret. He had gone too far.
“Ye’ll nae be speakin’ loightly o’ such things, Christopher Stewart!” Mark’s face darkened and his brogue asserted itself. “Ye’ll larn t’ crawl before ye can walk and if ye think thot me wark is something t’ be amused aboot, ye’d bettar think again. If ye evar larn t’ be a gud alchemist, which I doubt, then we’ll talk aboot th’ oother.”
“I’m sorry, Master.” Christopher lowered his eyes and his face turned red under the admonishment. It was actually the worst he had ever received from the Scot, but then he had never mentioned ‘th’ oother’ before. Not directly. The Chevalier du Morte suddenly grasped him by the shoulders and he instinctively closed his eyes, expecting the worst, but when he looked up, Mark Andrew kissed him lightly on the lips in the Templar fashion and then ruffled his dark hair playfully.
“Stop being so impatient, lad. It’ll be the death of you yet and me, as well. Now go on back to class and Christopher…” Mark’s tone changed as he shoved him toward the buildings. “Go with God.”
Christopher nodded solemnly, turned on his heel and ran back toward the Academy building where he would no doubt catch hell for being late to his next class. Mark watched him go with trepidation. Christopher did not belong here. He belonged in Scotland, but there was no getting around the required years at the Order’s Academy. He loved the boy… too much and hated to tell him no, but Christopher was hot-headed and stubborn to boot. The apprentice would have to learn patience and discipline or he would never make an adept apprentice or even a good soldier and there were few other alternatives for the boy if he didn’t shape up soon. When the last sounds of Christopher’s footsteps faded in the still, hot air, he opened the car door reluctantly. With one last sigh of regret, he slid into the driver’s seat and picked up the folder lying in the seat next to him. Inside the folder, the bright-eyed young man known as Anthony Scalia smiled back at him from the 8 X 10 color photo. The tiny marks around the edge of the picture spoke a thousand words. The Grand Master had actually framed the photograph and hung it on the wall behind his desk, between a gilt-framed print of da Vinci’s Saint John and his own portrait painted by Sir Louis Champlain when the multi-talented Chevalier l’Clef d'Or had been going through an artistic phase just after the First World War. Anthony was not much older than Christopher. Twenty-two next month, in fact. It would be a real shame if he could not convince him to return to the fold peacefully and take his punishment like a true Soldier of Christ.