Extract from The Black Rood

 

November 10, 1901: Paphos, Cyprus

The summons came while I was sitting at my desk. The afternoon post had just been delivered—the office boy placing the tidy bundle into my tray—so I thought nothing of it as I slid the paper knife along the pasted seam. It was only upon shaking out the small cream-coloured card that my full attention was engaged. I flipped the card over on the blotter. The single word, 'Tonight,' written in a fine script, brought me upright in my chair.

I felt my stomach tighten as an uncontainable thrill tingled through me. This was followed by an exasperated sigh as I slumped back in my chair, the card thrust at arm's length as if to hold off the inevitable demand of that single, portentous word.Truth to tell, a fair length of time had passed since the last meeting of the Inner Circle, and I suppose a sort of complacency had set in which resented this sudden and unexpected intrusion into my well-ordered existence. I stared at the offending word, fighting down the urge to pretend I had not seen it. Indeed, I quickly shoved it out of sight into the middle of my sheaf of letters and attempted to forget about it.

Curiosity, and a highly-honed sense of duty, won the struggle. Resigning myself to my fate, I rang for one of the lads and sent him off with a hastily scribbled note of apology to my wife explaining that an engagement of the utmost importance had just arisen and she must soldier on without me for the evening, and please not to wait up as I anticipated being very late. A swift glance in my desk diary revealed that, as luck would have it, the familial household was to be appropriated for a meeting of certain august members of the Ladies' Literacy Institute and Temperance Union, a gaggle of well-meaning old dears whose overabundant maternal energies have been directed to the improvement of society through reading and abstinence from strong drink—except sherry. Worthy goals, to be sure, but unspeakably dull. Instantly, my resentful resignation turned to unbounded elation; I was delighted to have a genuine excuse to forego the dull agonies of an evening which, if past experience was any indicator, could only be described as boredom raised to the level of high art.

Having shed this onerous domestic chore, new vistas of possibility opened before me. I considered dining at the club, but decided on taking an early supper so as to leave plenty of time for the cab journey to the chapel where the members of our clandestine group met on these rare occasions. With a contrite heart made buoyant by a childlike excitement, I contemplated the range of alternatives before me. There were several new restaurants in Hanover Street that I had been meaning to try, with a public house nearby recommended by a junior colleague in the firm; off the leash for the night, I determined my course.

When work finished for the day, I lingered for a time in my office, attending to a few small tasks until I was certain the office boys and junior staff had gone, and I would not be followed, however accidentally. I feel it does no harm to take special precautions on these infrequent occasions; no doubt it is more for my own amusement than anything else, but it makes me feel better all the same. I should not like even the slightest carelessness on my part to compromise the Inner Circle.

After a pint of porter at the Wallace Arms, I proceeded around the corner to Alexander's Chop House, where I dined on a passable roast rabbit in mustard sauce and a glass of first-rate claret before the cab arrived. As the evening was fine and unseasonably balmy, I asked the driver to pull the top of the carriage back and enjoyed a splendid drive through the city and out into the nearby countryside. I arranged with the driver to meet me for the return journey and, when he was well out of sight, walked the last mile or so to the chapel to meet the others.

Upon nearing the place, I saw someone hurrying up the lane ahead of me; I recognized the fellow as Dr Cardou, but I did not hail him. We never draw attention to one another in public. Even the Brotherhood's lower orders are advised to refrain from acknowledging a fellow member in passing on the street. For them it is a discipline which, faithfully applied, may lead to greater advancement in time; for the Inner Circle, it is an unarguable necessity—now more than ever, if such a thing can be possible.

Admittedly, these arcane concerns seem very far away from the honest simplicity of life on the Greek island where I now find myself. Here in the sun-soaked hills above Paphos, it is easy to forget the storm clouds gathering in the West. But the writing is on the wall for anyone with eyes to see. Even I, the newest recruit to our hallowed and holy order, recognize dangers which did not exist a year or two ago; and in these last days such dangers will only increase. If ever I doubted the importance of the Brotherhood, I doubt it no longer.

Our meeting that night was solemn and sobering. We met in the Star Chamber, hidden beneath the chancel, as it affords a more comfortable setting for discussion. I took my seat at the round table and, after the commencement ritual and prayer, Genotti asked to begin the proceedings with a report on the Brotherhood's interests in South America and the need for urgent intervention in the worsening political climate. 'While the peace treaty concluded in the first months of last year between Chile and Brazil remains in force,' he said, 'efforts to undermine the treaty continue. It has come to my attention that agents in the employ of Caldero, a dangerous anarchistic political faction, are planning an attack on the palace of the Chilean president. This attack will be blamed on Brazil in an effort to draw the two govermnents back into open conflict.'

Evans, our Number Two, expressed the concern of the group and asked Genotti's recommendation. 'It is my belief that the presidential staff must be warned, of course, so that protective measures may be taken. I also advocate, with the Brotherhood's approval, monies to be advanced to fund the training of an agent to be placed within Caldero and bring about its self-destruction.'

Ordinarily, such a proposal would have engendered a lengthy discussion on the manner and methods of implementing a plan. This time, however, Pemberton rose to his feet and, before debate could begin, thanked Genotti for his industry on the Brotherhood's behalf.

'However,' he said, his voice taking on a sepulchral tone, 'it is becoming increasingly clear that our ventures into the manipulation of political systems cannot continue. It is dangerous, and potentially destructive to the overall aims of the Inner Circle—not least because such meddling in the power structures of sovereign nations possesses a vast and unperceived potential to seduce us away from our prime objectives.'

Tall and gaunt in his red robe with the golden cross over the heart, Pemberton looked around the table to ensure that each of us understood him precisely. 'Furthermore, gentlemen, it is increasingly evident that the world has embarked on a new and frightening course. And we cannot hope to remain uncorrupted by the increasingly corrosive powers beginning to assert their influence on the individual populations of this planet. South America is in ferment, Eastern Europe is rapidly sliding towards political anarchy and chaos, the clouds of war are darkening the skies in a dozen places.'

Citing example after undeniable example, our wise leader revealed to us not only the shape and form, but the vast extent of the wickedness about to fall upon an unsuspecting world. 'New threats call for new strategies. In short, gentlemen, we must adapt our methods if we are to survive. We must prepare for a new crusade.'

He went on to lay out for us the battle plan which would shape our future from that night. When he finished, one by one, we of the Sanctus Clarus, Guardians of the True Path, stood to renew our sacred vows, and pledge ourselves to this new crusade.

Our ancient enemy arms itself and its countless minions with new and ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction, so that night we soldiers of the Holy Light likewise armed ourselves for the coming conflict. In the undying spirit of the Célé Dé, we summoned the age-old courage of those dauntless Celtic crusaders who have gone before us and, shoulder-to-shoulder, took our places beside them on the battle line.

The war will come. It is both imminent and inevitable. For the present, however, as I look out on the glimmering Cypriot sea, and smell the heady, blossom-scented breeze, and feel the warmth of the sun and the gentle, abiding love of my good wife, I will savour the last, lingering benevolence of a more humane era which, when it is gone, will not be known again.

Tomorrow's travails will keep until tomorrow. While the sun yet shines I will delight myself in this glorious season, and cherish it against the evil day.

 

My Dearest Caitriona,

The worst has happened. As old Pedar would say, 'I am sore becalmed.'

My glorious dream is ashes and dust. It died in the killing heat of a nameless Syrian desert—along with eight thousand good men whose only crime was that of fealty to a stubborn, arrogant boy. I could weep for them, but for the fact that I, no less headstrong and haughty than that misguided boy, will shortly follow them to the grave.

The Saracens insist that I am the esteemed guest of the Caliph of Cairo. In truth, this is nothing more than a polite way of saying I am a captive in his house. They treat me well; indeed, since coming to the Holy Land, I have not known such courtesy, nor such elegance. Nevertheless, I cannot leave the palace until the caliph has seen me. It is for him to decide my fate. I know too well what the outcome will be.

Be that as it may, the great caliph is pursuing enemies in the south and is not expected to return to the city for a goodly while. Thus, I have time enough, and liberty, to set down what can be told about our great and noble purpose so you will know why your father risked all he loved best in life for a single chance to obtain that prize which surpasses all others.

Some of what I shall write is known to you. If this grows tedious, I ask you to bear with me, and remember that this, my last testament, is not for you alone, my heart, but for those who will join us in our labours in days to come. God willing, all will be told before the end.

So now, where to begin? Let us start with the day Torf-Einar came back from the dead.

I was with your grandfather Murdo at the church, helping to oversee the builders working there. The previous summer we had purchased a load of cut stone for the arches and thresholds, and were preparing the site for the arrival of the shipment which was due at any time. Your grandfather and Abbot Emlyn were standing at the table in the yard, studying the drawings which Brother Paulus had made for the building, when one of the monks came running from the fields to say that a boat was putting into the bay.

We quickly assembled a welcome party and went down to meet it. The ship was small—an island runner only—but it was not from Orkneyjar. Nor was it one of King Sigurd's fishing boats as some had assumed. The sailors had rowed the vessel into shallow water and were lifting down a bundle by the time we reached the cove. There were four boatmen in the water and three on deck, and they had a board between them which they were straining to lower. Obviously heavy, they were at pains to keep from dropping their cargo into the cove.

'They are traders from Eire,' suggested one of the women. 'I wonder what they have brought?'

'It looks like a heap of old rags,' said another.

The sailors muscled their burden over the rail, and waded ashore. As they drew nearer, I saw that the hoard was really a litter with a body strapped to it. They placed this bundle of cloth and bone before us on the strand, and stepped away—as if mightily glad to have done with an onerous task. I thought it must be the body of some poor seaman, one of their own perhaps, who had died at sea.

No sooner had they put it down, however, than this corpse began to shout and thrash about. 'Unbind me!' it cried, throwing its thin limbs around. 'Let me up!'

Those on the strand gave a start and jumped back. Murdo, however, stepped closer and bent over the heaving mass of tatters. 'Torf?' he said, stooping near. 'Is that you, Torf-Einar?'

To the amazement of everyone looking on, the near-corpse replied, 'And who should it be but myself? Unbind me, I say, and let me up.'

'God in heaven!' cried Murdo. 'Is it true?' Gesturing to some of the men, he said, 'Here, my brother is back from the dead—help me loose him.'

I came forwards along with the abbot and several others, and we untied my long-lost uncle. He had returned from the Holy Land where he had lived since the Great Pilgrimage. The eldest of my father's two brothers, he and the next eldest, Skuli, had joined with Baldwin of Bouillon. In return for their loyal service they were given lands at Edessa where they had remained ever since.

When asked what happened to his brothers, Murdo would always say that they had died chasing their fortunes in the Holy Land. In all the years of my life till then, I had never known it to be otherwise. How not? There never came any word from them—never a letter, or even a greeting sent by way of a returning pilgrim—though opportunities must have been plentifial enough through the years. That is why Murdo said he had come back from the dead. In a way, he had; for no one had ever expected to see Torf-Einar again—either in this world or the next.

But now, here he was: to my eyes, little more than gristle and foul temper, but alive still. Of his great fortune, however, there was not so much as the pale glimmer of a silver spoon. The man I saw upon that crude litter had more in common with the sore-ridden beggars that huddle in the shelter of the monastery walls at Kirkjuvagr than a lord of Outremer. Even the lowest swineherd of such a lord would have presented a more impressive spectacle, I swear.

We untied him and thereby learned the reason he had been carried to shore on a plank: his legs were a mass of weeping sores. He could not walk. Indeed, he could barely sit upright. Still, he objected to being bound to his bed and did not cease his thrashing until the cords were loosed and taken away.

'After all these years, why return now?' asked Murdo, sitting back on his heels.

'I have come home to die,' replied Torf-Einar. 'Think you I could abide a grave in that godforsaken land?'

'The Holy Land godforsaken?' wondered Emlyn, shaking his head in amazement.

Torf's wizened face clenched like a fist, and he spat. 'Holy Land,' he sneered. 'The pigsty is more wholesome than that accursed place, and the snake pit is more friendly.'

'What about your lands?' asked Murdo. 'What about your great fortune?'

'Piss on the land!' growled Torf-Einar. 'Piss on the fortune, too! Let the heathen have it. Two-faced demon spawn each and every one. A plague on the swarthy races, I say, and devil take them all.'

He became so agitated that he started thrashing around again. Murdo quickly said, 'Rest easy now, Torf. You are among kinfolk. Nothing will harm you here.'

We carried him to the dun, and tried our best to make the old man comfortable. I call him 'old man' for that was how he appeared to me. In truth, he was only a few years older than my father. The ravages of a life of constant warring and, I think, whoring, had carved the very flesh from him. His skin, blasted dark by the unrelenting Saracen sun, was as cracked and seamed as weathered leather; his faded hair was little more than a handful of grizzled wisps, his eyes were held in a permanent squint and his limbs were so scarred from wounds that they seemed like gnarled stumps. In all, the once-handsome lord looked like a shank bone that had been gnawed close and tossed onto the dungheap.

We brought him into the fortress and laid him in the hall. Murdo arranged for a pallet to be made up and placed in a corner near the hearth; a screen was erected around the pallet to give Torf a little peace from the comings and goings in the hall, but also to shield others from the ragged sight of him, to be sure.

The women scurried around and found food and drink for him, and better clothes—although the latter was not difficult, for the meanest dog mat would have been better than his own foul feathers. My lady mother would have preferred he had a bath before being allowed beneath her roof, but he would have none of it.

When the sewing-maid came near with hot water and a little Scottish soap, he cursed her so cruelly she ran away in tears. He called upon heaven to witness his oath, saying that the next time he bathed would be when they put him under the turf. In the end, Murdo declared that he should be left alone, and Ragna had to abide. She would not allow any of the maidens to serve him, however, and said that as he was manifestly unable to make himself agreeable to simple human courtesy, he could receive his care from the stableboy's hands. Even so, I noticed she most often served him herself.

That Torf-Einar had come home to die soon became apparent. His sores oozed constantly, bleeding his small strength away. That first night I happened to pass by the place where he lay on the pallet my father had prepared for him, and heard what I took to be an animal whimpering. Creeping close, I looked on him to see that he had fallen asleep and one of the hounds was licking the lesions on his exposed leg. The pain made poor Torf moan in his sleep.

Jesu forgive me, I did not have it in me to stay by. I turned away and left him to his wretched dreams.

Over the next few days, I learned much of life in the East. Sick as he was, he did not mind talking to anyone who would listen to his fevered ramblings. Out of pity, I undertook to bring him his evening meal, to give my mother a respite from the tedium of the chore, and sat with him while he ate. Thus, I heard more than most about his life in the County of Edessa. In this way, I also discovered what had befallen poor Skuli.

True to his word, Lord Baldwin had given Torf and Skuli land in return for service. Nor was he ungenerous in his giving. The two brothers had taken adjoining lands so as to form one realm which they then shared between them. 'Our fortress at Khemil was crowned with a palace that had fifty rooms,' he boasted one night as I fed him his pork broth and black bread. His teeth were rotten and pained him, so I had to break the bread into the broth to soften it, and then feed it to him in gobbets he could gum awhile and swallow. 'Fifty rooms, you hear?'

'That is a great many rooms,' I allowed. He was obviously ill and somewhat addled in his thoughts.

'We had sixty-eight menservants and forty serving-maids. Our treasure house had a door as thick as a man's trunk and bound in iron—it took two men just to pull it open. The room itself was big as a granary and hollowed out of solid stone.' He mumbled in his bread for a moment, and then added, 'God's truth, in those first days that room was never less than full to the very top.'

I supposed him to be lying to make his sad story less pathetic than it might have been by dreaming impossible riches for himself, and it disgusted me that he should be so foolish and venal. But, Cait, it was myself who was the fool that night.

Since coming to the East, I have discovered the truth of his tale.

With my own eyes, I have seen palaces which make the one at Khemil seem like wicker cowsheds, and treasure rooms larger than your grandfather Murdo's hall, and filled with such plunder of silver and gold that the devil himself must squirm with envy at such an overabundance of wealth.

That night, however, I believed not a word of his bragging. I fed him his bread, and made small comments when they were required. Mostly, I just sat by his side and listened, trying to keep my eyes from his ravaged and wasted body.

'There was an orchard on our lands—pear trees by the hundreds -and three great olive groves, and one of figs. Aside from the principal fortress at Khemil, we owned the right to rule the two small villages and market within the borders of our realm. Also, since the road from Edessa to Aleppo ran through the southern portion of our lands, we were granted rights to collect the toll. In all, it was a fine place.

'We ruled as kings that first year. Jerusalem had fallen and we shared in the plunder. At Edessa, Count Baldwin was amassing great power, and even more wealth. He made us vassal lords—Skuli and I were Lords of Edessa under Baldwin—along with a score or more just like us. All that first year, we never lifted a blade, nor saddled a horse save to ride to the hunt. We ate the best food, and drank the best wine, and contented ourselves with the improving of our realm.

'Then Skuli died. Fever took him. Mark me, the deserts of the East are breeding grounds for disease and pestilence of all kinds. He lingered six days and gave out on the seventh. The day I buried Skuli—that same day, mind—word came to Edessa that Godfrey was dead. The fever had claimed him, too. Or maybe it was poison ...'

He fell silent, wandering in his thoughts. To lead him gently back, I asked, 'Who was Godfrey?'

He squinted up an eye and regarded me suspiciously. 'Did Murdo never tell you anything?'

'My father has told me much of the Great Pilgrimage,' I replied indignantly.

The old man's mouth squirmed in derision. 'He has told you nothing at all if you do not know Godfrey of Bouillon, first king of Jerusalem.'

I knew of the man. Not from my father, it is true—Murdo rarely spoke of the crusade. Abbot Emlyn, however, talked about it all the time. I remember sitting at his feet while he told of their adventures in the Holy Land. That good monk could tell a tale, as you well know, and I never tired of listening to anything he would say. Thus, I knew a great deal about Lord Godfrey, Defender of the Holy Sepulchre, and his immeasurable folly.

That night, however, I was more interested in what Torf might know, and did not care to reveal my own thoughts, so I said, 'Godfrey was Baldwin's brother, then.'

'He was, and a more courageous man I never met. A very lion on the battlefield; no one could stand against him. Yet, when he was not slaying the infidel, he was on his knees in prayer. For all he was a holy man.' Torf paused, as if remembering the greatness of the man. Then he added, 'Godfrey was an ass.'

After what he'd said, this assessment surprised me. 'Why?' I asked.

Torf gummed some more bread, and then motioned for the bowl; he drained the bowl noisily, put it aside, and lay back. 'Why?' He fixed me with his mocking gaze. 'I suppose you are one of those who think Godfrey a saint now.'

'I think nothing of the kind,' I assured him.

'He was a good enough man, maybe, but he was no saint,' Torf-Einar declared sourly. 'The devil take me, I never saw a man make so many bone-headed mistakes. One after another, and just that quick—as if he feared he could not make them fast enough. Godfrey might have been a sturdy soldier, but he had no brain for kingcraft. He proved that with the Iron Lance.'

His use of that name brought me up short, as you can imagine. I tried to hide my amazement, but he saw I knew, and said, 'Oh, aye—so your father told you something after all did he?'

'He has told me a little,' I replied; although this was not strictly true. Murdo never spoke about the Holy Lance at all. Again, the little I knew of it came from the good abbot.

'Did he tell you how the great imbecile gave it right back to the emperor the instant he got his hands on it?' Torf gave a cruel little laugh, which ended in a gurgling cough.

'No,' I answered, 'my father never told me that.'

'He did! By Christ, I swear he did,' Torf chorded malevolently. 'Only Godfrey could have thrown away something so priceless. The stupid fool. It was his first act as ruler of Jerusalem, too. He got nothing in return for it either, I can tell you.'

Torf then proceeded to tell me how, moments after accepting the throne of Jerusalem, Godfrey had been deceived by the imperial envoy into agreeing to give up the Holy Lance, which the crusaders had discovered in Antioch, and with which the crusaders had conquered the odious Muhammedans. In order to escape the ignominy of surrendering Christendom's most valued possession, Jerusalem's new lord had hit upon the plan to send the sacred relic to Pope Urban for safekeeping.

'It was either that or fight the emperor,' allowed Torf grudgingly, 'and we were no match for the imperial troops. We would have been cut down to a man. It would have been a slaughter. No one crosses blades with the Immortals and lives to tell the tale.'

It seemed to me that Godfrey had been placed in an extremely tight predicament by the Western Lords, and I said so. 'Pah!' spat Torf. 'The Greeks are cunning fiends, and deception is mother's milk to them. Godfrey should have known that he could never outwit a wily Greek with trickery.'

'His plan seemed simple enough to me,' I told him. 'There was little enough trickery in it that I can see. Where did he go wrong?'

'He sent it to Jaffa with only a handful of knights as escort, and the Seljuqs ambushed them. If he'd waited a few days, he could have sent the relic with a proper army—most of the troops were leaving the Holy Land soon—and the Turks would never have taken it.'

'The Turks took it?' I asked.

'Is that not what I'm saying?' he grumbled. 'Of course they took it, the thieving devils.'

'I thought you said Godfrey gave it to the emperor.

'Hemeantto give it to the emperor,' growled Torf-Einar irritably. 'If you would keep your mouth closed—instead of blathering on endlessly, you might learn something, boy.'

Torf called me boy, even though I had a wife and child of my own. I suppose I seemed very young to him; or, perhaps, very far beneath his regard. I told him I'd try to keep quiet so he could get on with his tale.

'It would be a mercy,' he grumbled testily. 'I said the Seljuqs took the Holy Lance, and if it was up to them, they'd have it to this day. But Bohemond suspected Godfrey would try some idiot trick, and secretly arranged to follow the relic. When Godfrey's knights left Jerusalem, the Count of Antioch got word of it and gave chase.'

Prince Bohemond of Taranto knew about the lance, too, of course. It was Bohemond who had taken King Magnus into his service to provide warriors for the prince's depleted army. Owing to this friendship, King Magnus had prospered greatly. It was from Magnus that we had our lands in Caithness.

Torf was not unaware of this. He said, 'Godfrey and Baldwin had no love for Bohemond, nor for his vassal Magnus. Still,' he looked around at the well-ordered, expansive hall, 'I can see the king has been good to you. A man must make what friends he can, hey?'

'I suppose.'

'Yousuppose!' He laughed at me. 'I speak the truth, and you know it. In this world, a man must get whatever he can from the chances he's given. You make your bargains and hope for the best. If I had been in Murdo's place, I might have done the same. I bear your father no ill in the matter.'

'I am certain he will leap with joy to hear it,' I muttered.

That was the wrong thing to say, for he swore an oath and told me he was sick of looking at me. I left him in a foul temper, and went to bed that night wondering whether I would ever hear what he knew about the Iron Lance.