The three horses moved quickly along the coastal road.
The outer horses were common, those that would not attract notice in any city market, one dappled gray and the other roan. The men who rode upon them were clothed in rough brown habits, the blood-red emblem of their Christian faith emblazoned upon the left breast of each of their tunics. They were large men and thick-set, with obvious muscle mass moving beneath their flesh as they rode.
The central rider told another tale. His horse was as dazzlingly white as his robe. His tunic, likewise, bore the red cross as did the flowing robe that flew out behind him. Sunlight glinted off of the swords that rode on each man’s left hip, but not in a manner that reflected ceremonial use. It was the sparkle of light off of battle-burnished steel.
In the near distance, a fortress sat squat on the horizon. It would not be much longer before they arrived, the riders knew. Even at this distance, though, he knew that watchers on the walls would have spotted them. He knew that their uniforms carried a very particular meaning to anyone looking through a spyglass at them and that meaning was that these were men who were not to be trifled with.
Eyrick von Steinblatt sat upon the privy. His hemorrhoids were giving him the seventh ring of Hell and the only thing he could force out was a revolting miasma of gas. He stood from his moment’s retreat and cleaned himself before retrieving his trousers from their puddle around his ankles. He dropped his tunic back around him and buckled his belt before stepping out.
He stepped into the central center from which he commanded the watch at this time of the evening and noted immediately the charged, uncomfortable mood of his men. His lieutenant came forward. “Sir Eyrick, there are three riders approaching.”
Steinblatt was not a man who suffered fools gladly, particularly when his ass hurt as much as it did at that moment. “And?” he demanded, his voice surly.
For a moment, the fiery pain that had besotted him vanished. “Templars?”
“Yes, My Lord.”
He turned to a nearby man. “You there, send word immediately to the chamberlain that three Templar riders are approaching.” He turned back to his trusted lieutenant, Malachi von Steubenn. “Tell the gatesmen to lower the bridge and prepare to admit them.”
Malachi snapped his heels together and turned, barking orders even as his commander strode away, forcing his steps from their pained gait to a much more military one as he retrieved his sword. He swore to himself for not having shaved that morning, allowing himself to enjoy rather the mouth of a lover than take care of his business. The stubble that darkened his cheeks and chin would doubtless be noted by a Templar….
“What rank are these riders?”
Malachi turned back. “Two appear to be sergeants. One is a knight.”
“Damn me to hell,” he muttered under his breath.
Even as the fortress’ watch commander made his way down to the courtyard, the chamberlain to Lord Martin fussed his way through the halls to his master’s bedchamber. He strode in without knocking, chamberlain’s privilege, he would have told anyone with the gall to ask, and found Lord Martin sporting with one of the young men from the Quarter outside the walls.
The boy was very pretty, Firenze acknowledged to himself, but business was business and Templars were not the type of men to be kept waiting.
“I beg your pardon, My Lord,” he said.
“Get out, Firenze! I’m busy!”
Despite the obvious exertions that Lord Martin was putting into the activity, the boy in front of him, whose face Lord Martin obviously couldn’t see, told a story of boredom. One more rich, powerful man, the boy no doubt thought, just wishing for his client to be done. The moan that he let out belied the look, but such young men (and their fellow young women) were past masters at the art of convincing their clients of that which their clients wished to be convinced.
Firenze was adamant. “I’m terribly sorry, sire,” he began, “but there are three riders approaching at a gallop.”
Martin stopped his ministrations and withdrew from the boy. “Who gives a damn about riders! I swear to the Holy Christ that I’m going to…”
Firenze interrupted, chamberlain’s privilege again, “They are Templars, My Lord. You will be expected to receive them.”
The Lord of Velay sighed disgustedly. “Oh, very well. Go and greet them. I will be along presently.” As he said it, his eyes returned to the small bum of the young man whose body he had just been enjoying.
The three mounted men stood straight beside their mounts as Eyrick von Steinblatt made his way toward them.
All three men were obviously strong of arm. Even under the long sleeves and the robe of the central rider, the knight, this much was obvious. As one, the three men removed their helms. The two sergeants were dark-complexioned with broad shoulders and thick arms. Black shirts covered their arms and black trousers their legs. The brown tunics they wore were of fine cloth and each wore a wide leather belt with a knife hanging under their right hands and a simple sword which Steinblatt knew was razor sharp under their left.
But, if they were fine specimens, the knight they accompanied was an Adonis. His skin was fair and his hair jet black. His eyes shone a blue so deep it was almost black. His coverings were all white, with only the sheen of road dust marking it. The knight stepped forward and bowed stiffly from the neck.
Steinblatt dropped to a knee. “Reverend Lord and Warrior, I greet you.”
The hiss of the chamberlain’s voice reached his ear. “Get up, you fool. A knight does not kneel before a Templar.”
The Templar knight studied Steinblatt as he rose. Steinblatt feared that the Templar’s blue eyes missed not even the mildest error. The watch commander moved quickly to come to his feet. A flash of discomfort crossed his face and he knew a momentary weakness. In one terrible moment he knew he would fall at the Templar’s feet. With snake-like speed, the Templar knight’s hand shot out and caught him by the arm, steadying him and helping him to his feet. The Templar knight’s voice was deep. “I thank you for the honor in the spirit in which it was offered, good sir, despite my unworthiness.”
Steinblatt nodded his thanks, a touch of fear still in his eyes, despite the fact that the other man’s touch had calmed him greatly. Sir Eyrick did not know it was a gift the Templar knight had.
The Templar turned his gaze to the chamberlain, who bowed low. The knight’s right hand came to his left shoulder and knocked once in salute, the soft thud of his gauntlet knocking against the armor on his chest. “You are Firenze Malick, yes?”
Firenze knew a moment of discomfort at the Templar’s gaze. “I am, Reverend Warrior.”
The Templar knight nodded once decisively. “I am George North of the Temple. I have come to offer information to Lord Martin de Bourbou, the Duke of Velay and nephew to His Imperial Majesty Raymond de Bourbou, the Emperor of Europa.”
“Of course, Sir George. He should be here presently.”
Sir George turned his attention back to the watch commander, his eyebrow raised in inquiry. “I am Sir Eyrick Steinblatt,” he stammered out.
George nodded. “Sir Eyrick, could one of your men show my brethren to the local chapter house? They will provide our horses with forage and care.”
Eyrick found himself wanting badly to be of service to the Templar. “Yes, of course, Sir George.” He turned and caught the eye of one of his men.
George turned and glanced at his companions. “Brother Steven, Brother Hunter, I will be well while out of your care. Take care of the horses. I will be with you again as quickly as possible.”
The two Templar sergeants saluted as one. One of them, Eyrick did not know if it was Steven or Hunter, Eyrick did not know which was which, responded, “As you command, My Lord,” before leaning forward and whispering, “Your vow, Brother.”
George whispered back, “And yours.”
With that, the pair took the horses’ reins and led them away following his man.
As he waited, George North, Knight of the Order of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, studied the courtyard that surrounded him. Soldiers and minions went about their daily business around them. He judged them to be efficient, but not overly so.
A bustle around the door and Lord Martin de Bourbou walked out. He was a tall, thin man with a narrow face and sharp cheekbones. His eyes flashed green in their deep-set sockets. His lips were thin and could not hide a strong hint of cruelty. Upon seeing him, George knew that this was a man who hurt others for pleasure as much as for duty. He had, George thought, what had once been famously called a “lean and hungry look.”
The Duke of Velay, a favored nephew of the Emperor of Europa, was dressed in light silks with a long cloak that hung to his ankles. The cloak was light purple, the shade reserved for members of the Imperial family. The deeper purple it was designed to invoke was reserved only for the Emperor and the highest ranking officers of the Church and the Temple.
Still, his rank guaranteed obeisance from secular knights. But, George was a Knight of the Temple, and, like those warriors in the Order of St. Peter, he would not go to a knee. He did, however, bow deeply at the waist. “My Lord,” he intoned.
Lord Martin looked down his nose at the Templar. All of the markers were there, recognized Martin, knowing his own when he saw it. “You are?” he inquired.
“My Lord Duke, I am George of the Royal House of North, Cousin to King Roderick of East Anglia, Knight of the Order of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. I have been instructed by Brother Randolph Timmons, Master of the Temple, to bring you a private message.”
Martin did not look impressed. “What is the message?”
George looked around meaningfully. “I have also been instructed not to reveal the message in the presence of more than the men I was instructed to deliver the message to.”
Martin smirked. “And if I deny you a more private audience?”
“Then I must decline to speak further and make my way to the chapter house for repast and rest before returning to Brother Randolph tomorrow.”
Martin sighed, looking bored to all but the most practiced eye. Even the favorite nephew of the Emperor of Europa could not deny a Templar envoy this request. Still, if it had been a lesser standard bearer or one representing a lesser force, he could have been apprehended and tortured for his message before being executed for insolence. Nobody would dare order such an action against one of the Temple. “Very well. I will hear this message.” He turned his attention on Firenze. “Have refreshment delivered to my audience chamber. I will receive Sir George there.”
“As you wish, Sire,” muttered the chamberlain.
The Duke of Velay turned his attention back to the Templar knight. “Sir George,” he bowed slightly, “please come with me.”
With that, the two men who stood apart from all around them strode purposefully into the fortress’ keep.
Aaron Steepeknow had been a member of the Order of Christ and The Temple of Solomon since shortly after he reached his sixteenth year. He had been sponsored by the local lord and the local Priory to become a member of the Order. He was no noble. He had won no knighthood in battle. He was just a peasant farmer’s son who some folks saw something in. He had been welcomed with open arms into the Order, where he had learned to fight, to soldier, to worship God in battle.
And, as important as Lord Martin de Bourbou considered himself, his fortress town of St. Heinrich was not big enough to warrant a Knight of the Temple to administer a local priory house, as nearby Le Puy was. But, it was important enough to have one of the Order’s Sergeants Major as the Templar in charge of its chapter.
The rank was a special one in the Order, reserved only for those cases like this one. It was a special rank that was also an office. And Aaron Steepeknow was one who held it.
Still, he was looking at two of his fellow sergeants. And they were not locally-assigned.
And they accompanied a brother Knight.
And he was not just any Knight.
“Let me understand this, Brother Steven. You are telling me that you are companions of Brother George North?”
“Yes, Brother Aaron,” replied Steven Lewes. “We are honored to accompany Brother George.”
George North was a legend in the Order. He was a warrior with few peers. He was beloved of the Master of the Temple. He had once personally saved the life of the Pope despite the legendary feud between the Papacy and the Temple. His was a name with which to conjure.
The three sergeants (well, thought Aaron, two sergeants and one Sergeant Major) took the three mounts to the stable, where they were given fodder and rubbed down by the two stable-boys employed by the chapter. After making sure their horses were thus provided for, as only natural for a Templar, Aaron led them to the barracks where they would be provided bunks for the night and where they left the few personal possessions they carried and their swords, keeping their dirks, and then to the refectory, where they were provided a noon meal of salted pork, apples, cheese, and a good dark beer (Velay was known for its dark, malty beer). The two travelling men ate in silence while listening to a green-clothed chaplain read from St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth.
A brown-suited sergeant, this one very young, came rushing to the side of Aaron. “Brother Aaron, there is a Brother George who has just arrived on foot.” The boy was breathless, having exerted himself heartily in his excitement to reach his commander.
Aaron rose, accompanied by Steven and Hunter, rose and spoke the young man. “Take care of Brother Steven’s and Brother Hunter’s leavings.” As the young sergeant bowed his acceptance, the three more experienced Templars made their way purposefully to the courtyard of the chapter house.