by Judith Tarr
I. Aqua Bella
The sun was gentle in the first hour of its rising. It lay lightly upon the hills of Jerusalem; it washed with gold the walls of Aqua Bella castle, and the village huddled beneath them, and the green that was the great wealth of the demesne: the oaks that were holy, the olives that were more than holy, and the glorious tangle that traced the track of the stream. Women were washing in it, singing sweet and high, with here and there a ripple of laughter.
He came by the road that led to the sea, riding all alone, all his armor and his weapons borne on a dove-grey mule. His destrier was a fine blood bay, and he a fine high-spirited creature himself, his grey cloak flung back from a flame of scarlet, and gold about his brows, and a ruby in the pommel of his sword. He sang as he rode, setting the charger’s pace.
Quant Dieu a vus fait sa clamur
Des Turs e des Amoraviz,
Ki li unt fait tels deshenors….
The women’s singing faltered and died. Safe in their veils of greenery, they stared out at the wonder: a knight in gold and splendor, unguarded, unattended. He was a mad one, surely, or one of God’s protected.
His voice was both deep and clear, free and glad and fearless, calling the air to arms for a battle thirty years won.
Ja mar d’enfern avrat pouur,
Char s’alme en iert en pareïs
Od les angles nostre Segnor.
No fear of hell had ever troubled him, nor any fear of mortal steel. His stallion danced, shying from the flutter of a veil; he laughed and bowed to the eyes staring wide or shy or brightly fascinated from the thicket, and never lost the rhythm of his song.
Ki gist el munt de Sinaï;
A Saragins nel laisum mais,
Ne la verge dunt il partid
Le Roge Mer tut ad un fais,
Quant le grant pople le seguit;
E pharaon revint après:
El e li suon furent perit.
His eyes asked no pardon of Saracen women, nor ever thought to need it. Among the leaves a smile flashed, or two, or three. The charger snorted. Its rider bowed again and wheeled about, cantering up the road to the castle. The women watched him go. One by one, slowly, they went back to their washing. In a little while they were singing again. A new song: of morning and of sunlight, and of a spirit of fire on a Frankish charger, singing the conquest of their people.
The road and the song ended together. The knight hailed the guard at Aqua Bella’s gate, light and glad, offering his lone and splendid and most assuredly Christian self to a stare both narrow and wary. The wariness was Outremer, embattled kingdom that it was, with the Saracen snapping at its throat; and people always stared at him. “Tell your lord,” he said, “that his kinsman comes to greet him.”
The eyes narrowed to slits. The bay charger stamped, tasting darkness under the morning’s splendor. The knight shivered in the sun. His gladness was gone, all at once, irretrievably.
“Brychant!” Young, that voice within, but breaking with more than youth, though it tried to be steady. “Brychant, who comes?”
No one, the guard was going to answer. The knight watched the thought take shape. Now was no time for guesting fools, fresh off the boat from the look of this one, white as a lily in this sun-tormented country, riding alone and all begauded like a lure to every bandit in the east.
The guard’s mouth was open, the words coming quick and harsh. But the speaker within had come up beside him. A boy, slender, dark as a Saracen, with eyes like a wounded fawn. They took in the stranger, once, quickly, and again more slowly, going impossibly wide. “Prince?” the boy whispered. “Prince Aidan?” He gathered himself with an effort that shook his narrow body, and bowed, all courtesy. “Your highness, you honor us. You must pardon Brychant, we are all amiss, we — ”
Prince Aidan was out of the saddle, Brychant still glowering, suspicious, but bellowing for lads to tend the stallion and the mule. The prince spared no thought for anything but the child who was so perfect a courtier, and who struggled so fiercely against the flooding tears. “Thibaut,” said Aidan, taking him by the shoulders. “You would be Thibaut.” He was shaking. Aidan stroked calm into him. “What has happened?”
The tears burst free, and knowledge with them. “No,” said Aidan very softly. “Oh, no.”
The boy was past hearing. The guard and the servants were nothing and no one. Aidan’s arms gathered the child; his mind followed where the darkness led.
They had laid him out in the hall. A priest muttered over him. People hovered. They were not, Aidan noticed, either milling or keening. Their grief smote him, but their fear was stronger. It choked him.
He thrust through it. Somewhere he disposed of the boy. His arms were empty as he stood over the bier: a table in truth, with a silken cloth on it, and another over the one who lay there. A man no longer young but not yet old, sun-dyed as they all were here, but fair under it, bone-pallid now; black hair early going grey, long nose carved to match the long chin, the face that had always been so mobile gone suddenly and hideously still.
“Who killed him?” Aidan heard himself say it; he shivered to hear it. So soft, and so calm, and so very deadly. “Who cut him down?”
“Who are you to ask?”
He spun. Others flinched. This woman did not. He hardly saw the shape that held the soul. Here was fire to match his fire, grief to rival his own, and a will as implacable as all heaven. His body thought for him. It lowered him to one knee, bowed his head. “My lady.”
“Who are you?”
She knew. But she needed to hear him say it. “He was my sister’s son.” He looked up, into dark eyes. “Who has done this thing?”
“If you are what he said you are,” she said, “you do not need to ask.”
She was not afraid of him. Even when he stood, tall even for a westerner, with all the names on him that Gereint had told her of. He went back to the bier, bent over it, laid his hand on the cold cheek. “Child,” he said in the tongue of their own people, richer and darker than the rattle of the langue d’oeil. He stroked the silvered hair. “Gereint, child, what was it that could not wait for me?”
His hand slid from the head to the stiff shoulder to the silenced heart. Ten years. So little a time. The boy had gone because he must. As Aidan had lingered, because he must. Cares; a kingdom; a little matter of wars and embassies. Gereint had wanted glory, and Jerusalem.
He had had both. And a lady of the kingdom beyond the sea, and a demesne scant hours’ march from the Holy City, and death in the morning when at last his kinsman came to fulfill the promise made before he went away.
Under the pall they had robed him in eastern silks. But Aidan was what he was. He saw the narrow wound, so thin to be so terrible, through which the blade had pierced the heart. Gereint had never waked to feel it. Asleep beside his lady, he died, and she slept on oblivious, and woke to find him dead. And on the pillow between them, a cake. Round, savory, warm yet from the baking. Such cakes were not made in that house, nor in any save one.
Hashishayun. Aidan had heard of them, as a legend, a tale to frighten children. Infidels, madmen, fanatics out of Alamut in the black heart of Persia. They came like spirits in the night, killed as their masters commanded them to kill, vanished into air. If by God’s grace a man could catch one, the murderer turned his weapon on himself and died in a madness of joy, singing the praises of his unholy god.
Aidan’s head came up. He was smiling. Hands flickered. Someone had crossed herself. His smile widened. Alamut was mighty, so they all said. Alamut was invincible. But this, he was willing to wager. It had never had to face the like of the Prince Aidan of Rhiyana.
He turned to the woman. Margaret de Hautecourt, he named her in his mind. Gereint’s lady, with whom he had confessed himself quite besotted, laughing even though the formal phrases of his letters. No great beauty, she. A little round dumpling of a woman, older than her husband and showing it, and no sign in her of her Frankish father. She could have been full sister to the women by the stream. Infidel. Saracen. Pullana as they would call her here, half-blood, powerful and yet despised.
His head shook once, invisible. Not despised. Not she. She knew what he was, and she understood what it meant, and she had no fear of him at all.
He spoke to her, measuring each word. “For what they have done,” he said, “they shall pay. By my name I swear it.”
She startled him. She touched his hand; she said, “No. This is my doing. I will not drag you in the mire of it.”
“He was more than kin to me. He was my sister-son. I was with him when he was born.”
More signs of the cross. Margaret turned. Her voice never rose, but the oglers scattered. The castle woke, shaking off its shock, becoming again a strong holding.
And all for a few soft words. Aidan let them rule him. He accepted servants, service, a bath of eastern length and luxury. The clothing spread for him was stark, black and white, and rich in its plainness: Arabian silk, and something softer than linen, finer, miraculously cool. “Cotton,” said the man who waited on him, a Saracen himself, bearded and turbaned and exquisitely courteous. He offered food, wine. He provided escort to the solar, where the lady sat with one lone, drowsing attendant for propriety’s sake, ruling Aqua Bella with a firm hand.
And ruling herself. For an hour she had forgotten everything but death. Now she remembered who she was. She greeted Aidan as a great lady should greet an outland prince, veiling grief with courtliness. “I regret that we must meet under such a shadow,” she said in that soft voice which made him think of silk over steel. “Gereint was like a boy, waiting for you to come. Every morning he would say, ‘Today. Maybe it will be today.’ And laugh, because he was a man grown and a baron of the High Court of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and he was eager as a child to see his kinsman again.”
“And before I passed your gate, you grew most heartily sick of me.”
She laughed, startling herself. “I did wonder that any man could be such a paragon. Greatest knight in the west of the world, and sweetest singer, and fairest and most courtly of men, and — ”
“Lady, stop! I cry you mercy!” He was laughing, through tears, as she did. “Where Gereint loved, he loved immeasurably. I have some little fame, and of fortune enough, but I am a man like any other.”
“Not quite,” said Margaret, soft again and steady.
He looked at his hands. Long hands, too slender for their strength, too white and too smooth and too young. He raised his eyes. Margaret was looking for truth. He gave it. She did not flinch from it. “My father was mortal,” he said.
“Your mother was not.”
“Her daughter was.”
“And her daughter’s son.” There was no bitterness in Margaret’s voice. “Gereint was proud of his lineage, though the magic had passed him by. He was the kin of white enchanters; he carried splendor in his blood. And yet, he said, he was glad to be mortal. He was not made to bear the greater burden. The beauty, or the deathlessness.”
“We can die,” said Aidan. “If the blade be keen enough. If the heart be torn, or the spine severed. We can be slain.”
“As easily as he was slain?”
His head came up. “It was a mortal man who killed him.” His throat closed. He was cold, suddenly. “Tell me why.”
He thought that she would not. Her face had gone stark.
She fixed him with eyes that were beautiful in the round plain face. There was no softness in them. Such eyes had faced him across bared steel, and at the council table, and in the courts of kings. They were, at least, human. His own were not.
“Tell me,” he said.
“It was none of his doing.” She did not wring her hands like a weak woman. They were fists in her lap; she studied them as if they fascinated her. “Did he tell you all that I am? Hautecourt of Aqua Bella, yes. Baroness born in Outremer. But born also on the other side of the wall. My mother was a daughter of the House of Ibrahim. In the west that is nothing: a merchant house, and infidel besides. But in Aleppo it is as close to nobility as makes no matter. Among the kingdoms of trade, my mother was a princess, the daughter of a queen. The House of Ibrahim is known wherever caravans go; it has kin and allies and servants from London to Samarkand, from Genoa to Byzantium, from Rus to Nubia. The silk roads, the spice roads, the roads of gold and salt and furs — it has power over them all.
“And power, as you who are a king’s son know, begets jealousy. Children of the House have always traveled far to seal alliances, and sometimes have forsaken the Faith of the Prophet for the House’s sake, as long ago they forsook the faith of Moses. So did my mother do.
“I was her only child. She raised me in two worlds; and my father allowed it. He was an odd man, my father. Much older than his lady, and a rough soldier to look at, a famous fighter, and yet he had been a monk. Not even a fighting monk; a Cluniac, a cloistered ascetic. He left, none of us ever knew why; came Crusading; served the King of Jerusalem, won his demesne, took a wife from the House of Ibrahim. People said he had gone infidel. I think it was only that, at heart, he was a civilized man.” She looked at her guest, new come from the wildest west, and shook her head once, sharply, as if to clear it. When she began again, she seemed to be speaking of something else altogether. “What do you know of the Hashishayun?”
She said the word calmly, without the hiss of hate and fear that Aidan had always heard in it. As if it were only a name.
It was sublimer than contempt. Aidan gave it what tribute he could muster. “They are the Assassins. Madmen, drugged or possessed, trained to kill in utmost silence and with utmost dispatch. They believe that murder is their path to Paradise. They obey a mad king, or kings. There is some doubt that they are human.”
“They are quite human,” said Margaret with only the barest hint of irony. “They are schismatics, heretics as Christians would say, fanatic followers of one whom they call the Lost Imam. Their heart and center is in Aluh Amut, Alamut, the Nest of Eagles in Persia; but they are strong through the lands of Islam. They are very strong in Aleppo, where is the House of Ibrahim. And they are strongest in Masyaf in Syria, so that some are calling that fortress Alamut the lesser, or simply Alamut.
“Their faith is simple enough. They wait for the return of their Imam who was lost long ago. They live by strictest laws. All other faiths are false, and false believers are their prey. They work their will through terror; murder is, indeed, their road to salvation. They have slain caliphs and sultans, lords of Islam and of Christendom, priests and mullahs and ascetics: any who has set himself against their mission or their lord.
“The greatest of their chieftains in Syria is the lord of Masyaf. Sinan is his name. Sinan ibn Salman ibn Muhammad, who calls himself Rashid al-Din; whom others call Sheikh al-Jabal, the Old Man of the Mountain. He professes loyalty to the lord in Alamut, and yet it is an open secret that he serves himself foremost. The Assassins of Syria pay lip service to Alamut and do the bidding of Masyaf. In Aleppo they do not even trouble to bow to Alamut.
“You know what power is,” said Margaret. “Never too sweet, and never enough. Sinan bids fair to command all his sect, and through it to sway most of Syria and Outremer to his will. But most is not all. He would have more. In order to win it, he needs eyes and ears in every city; he needs allies, servants, slaves. He thinks,” said Margaret, “that he needs the House of Ibrahim.”
While Margaret spoke, Aidan left his chair and began to prowl. It was his way; he could sit still, if he must, but stillness robbed him of his wits. In the silence he spun on his heel, facing the lady, waiting.
She smiled very faintly at a memory. Gereint, warning her: “He can never sit for long, except in the saddle. He can’t help it. He was born restless. God’s mistake. His brother got all the quiet; he got all the fire.”
“That’s not strictly true,” Aidan said. Suddenly he grinned. “But true enough.” His head tilted. “Sinan wants a web of loyal spies. I can understand that. Why precisely your mother’s family?”
“It is the greatest,” Margaret answered. “And it has something which he wants.” She met his eyes. Sea-grey, Gereint had said, like his own: northern seas and northern stone. They put her in mind of fine steel. When he shifted, the strangeness flared at her, cat-green. “I was a widow when Gereint came here,” she said, “a ruling lady with two young children, and men enough to defend me, and Aqua Bella mine by right. My husband had been a vassal of the Prince of Antioch; he left other sons than Thibaut to inherit his lands. It had not mattered to me. I had Aqua Bella. And I had my share in the House of Ibrahim.
“Sinan asked for me. For me, not for one of my cousins, because I was both Frank and Saracen. My Christianity was no impediment. I am, after all, a woman, and a woman is what her man commands her to be. He wanted my House and my place in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Perhaps, a little, he wanted me. I was not so ill to look at when I was young.
“I refused him,” she said. “He persisted. He could not understand that I was my own woman. I had taken one husband for duty and to please my father. I chose the other to please myself. Then, I thought, Sinan would let me be; and I wedded my daughter to a baron in Acre, lest he turn his mind to her.
“But Sinan is of the people of Alamut. He accepts no will but the will of his master, and since he reckons himself master, that will is solely his own. He granted me some little peace. Then he commanded me. I would set aside my Frankish boy; I would accept his suit. My answer had no words. Only laughter. I was proud of it. I was a very perfect idiot.
“I grew more perfect with time’s passing. Sinan, having commanded, turned to threats. He slew my best hunting hound; he slew the mare I had raised from a foal. I gave him only defiance. Then he let me be. I thought that I had won. I lowered my guard. And when the new message came, I defied it. Yield, it said, or truly I resort to force.
“I defied it,” she said, “and for a long while again no blow fell. I was wise, I thought. I took great care to guard myself. I thought that he would abduct me; I took every precaution against it.
“But he is an Assassin. His force is deadly force. He did not take me. He took my lord.”
Aidan was still. A quivering stillness, like a flame where there is no wind.
“So you see,” said Margaret, “it is all my doing. I will not surrender the House of Ibrahim into that man’s hands.”
“Indeed you shall not.”
His face and his voice between them brought her to her feet. “You have no part in this.”
“Your enemy has made certain that I do.”
“Then you had best slay me, for I have been your kinsman’s death.”
Aidan considered the logic of it. He could do that, even in the white heat of rage. His teeth bared. It was not meant to be a smile. “You know what your folly has won you. That is revenge enough. No, my lady; your suitor owes me a blood debt. He will pay it in his own person, if I have to pull down Alamut stone by stone.”
“Masyaf,” she corrected him, cool and fearless.
“Masyaf, and Alamut, and every hut and hovel which owes fealty to the Hashishayun, if need commands it.”
“All for a single human life?”
“He was my sister’s son.”
She touched him as if she thought that he would burn. Her hand was cool and steady. He caught it. It did not try to escape, even when his grip woke pain. “So strong,” she said. Observing only, interested. “Do you truly mourn for him? Or are you glad to have found so mighty a battle?”
He could kill her. Easily. One effortless blow. Or he could break her mind. She was a mortal woman. She was nothing before his power.
She knew it. She cared not at all. She could do naught but what she did; she would yield for no man, nor ever for a white he-witch whom grief had driven to folly.
He let her go. “I will do what I will do,” he said.
She bowed. It was not submission. “Will you see your kinsman laid in his tomb?”
“I have time,” he answered her.
“Indeed,” she said, “you do.” She sat again, called for her women.
He was dismissed. That was novel enough, and he was bemused enough, that he let her have her will. Later she would pay his price. If he chose to ask it.
by Judith Tarr
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-026-2