Shield of Kronos – Kathryn Le Veque

IT İS A NİGHT made of diamonds, he thought. On a moonlit night like this, one could see the agelessness of the land, a primordial verve that implied a sense of passing through space and time and history. There was no present, no past, and no future – simply the moment at hand, a weightless awareness of being. The moon overhead was a brilliant silver disc, bathing the land in a ghostly glow, and the stars above seemed to cower to the brilliance of the celestial body. The air was warm, blowing off the desert’s sands that had seen heat on this day hot enough to fry a man’s skin and burn him to the bone. England didn’t have heat like this, so searing and dry that it laid everything to waste. It had, therefore, been an adjustment for the English armies when they had first arrived with their king, Richard, two months ago in the heat of the summer. But they’d quickly adapted and quickly learned how to cope, purely from necessity. It was either that or die. In fact, it had been an adjustment for all of the pale French and English and Teutonic knights who now looked more like tanned leather because it was impractical to wear their heavy armor most of the time, which left their virgin white skin open to the blazing sun. Men were sick from sun exposure almost more than they were sick from the myriad of diseases running rampant among the Christian forces, while the Muslim armies sat back and laughed at their misery. Foolish Crusaders. Allah will punish them. Truth was, the Christian armies didn’t have to wait for Allah to punish them because God was already doing a fairly good job of it. If it wasn’t disease or battle that killed them, then surely the subversion and infighting would, which was how the knight in question, the one musing about the diamond sky and feeling the warm wind on his face, found himself on the rocky sands of the desert on this night admiring the moon above.

He was hunting. Alfaar, the native guides called his prey. The Rat. A cousin to King Richard, Jago de Nantes was the son of Geoffrey of Nantes. Geoffrey was the younger brother of Richard’s father, Henry. Geoffrey of Nantes had never married but he’d had a son with a washerwoman’s daughter and when Geoffrey died, the mother brought her son to King Henry and demanded the boy receive his due. Unwilling to deny his brother’s blood, even if the child had inherited all of his mother’s stupidity and none of his father’s royal blood, he’d given the boy a dukedom simply to ease his guilt in a royal bastard. Popular rumor said Alfaar had been given a dukedom somewhere, Colchester it was said, but no one referred to him by his title. Everyone simply called him Alfaar. And it was Alfaar that Sir Garret de Moray was hunting this night.

Garret was an older knight as far as age went – well into his mid-thirties when most knights that had come to the sands of The Levant were young and seeking glory. Garret, too, was seeking some glory because he had an older brother who would inherit everything from their father, so Garret needed to earn his way in life. He’d spent his life in service of then-Prince Richard, now King Richard, and he’d earned the trust and admiration of the man. He’d worked hard for it and he knew that, someday, he would reap the rewards. But between him and the rewards were several dirty dealings he’d had to attend to over the years, this being one of them. Hunting down a duke who seemed to think he was free to do as he wished. Alfaar had gone off again in search of blood or glory, or both, and Richard had asked Garret to find the man before he either got himself killed or somehow stirred up more trouble. He seemed to be particularly good at that. Alfaar didn’t seem to realize that orders from the king pertained to him, being that the king was his cousin, so he often went out on his own, taking his men with him, to raid villages, steal, or simply massacre people. That seemed to be his idea of glory in The Levant.

On this night, Alfaar had gone off with a few of his men, but those men had returned without him. That was concerning and Richard cornered one of his cousin’s dirty, shifty soldiers only to discover that the duke had a plan to exact revenge against the Templars, who were also fighting in the mass of Christian armies. They were loners, for the most part, and wielded a sword fiercely in the name of Christendom. But there was history between Alfaar and the Templars – the story that Richard heard was that one or more of the Templars had evidently stolen from Alfaar, and the Plantagenet cousin had a vendetta against them. In truth, there had probably been no stealing involved; Alfaar was a liar among his many attributes, so Richard had quietly asked Garret and another knight to track the man down and see what he was up to. He’d even give Garret permission to arrest his cousin, which surprised Garret. He’d never been given that order before, but it certainly made Garret’s job easier. There might even be a little beating involved with that arrest, simply to derive more satisfaction from it. He wasn’t beyond that. So, Garret and another knight, his close friend Sir David de Lohr, began to follow the clues given by Alfaar’s men.

Since it was revenge he sought against the Templars, their first order of business was going to the Templar encampment. The holy order gave Garret and David their full cooperation as they searched for Alfaar. Instead of finding Alfaar, they came across a Templar knight who had been ambushed. The man’s weapons and horse had been stolen in the attack. It didn’t take a great intellect to figure out what had happened, so Garret and David followed the stolen horse’s trail out across the sands on so brilliant a night, it was an easy trail to follow. It seemed as if Alfaar had no intention of covering his tracks. Out into the desert they went, deeper and deeper into the wilderness, in search of the English king’s foolish cousin. After an hour’s ride, the horse’s trail got mixed up with many other prints in the sand that Garret thought were the footprint of several men. Stranger still, they thought they heard voices echoing off the hills. David, a powerful knight whose brother, Christopher, was King Richard’s champion, pulled his silver steed to a halt.

The desert wind blew all around them, caressing their sunburnt faces. “Do you hear that?” David asked. “It sounds as if someone is speaking.” Garret could hear it, too. It was rather ghostly, carried upon the wind as it was. “I hear it,” he muttered. Onyx-black eyes scanned the nightscape, trying to determine where the sound was coming from. “It is echoing from the hills.” David agreed. They both knew this land; to the east of Arsuf, it was mostly desolate, with hills and the occasional oasis.

The dirt was red and rocky, dotted with clusters of thorny trees or bushes. Further east, these gentle hills would become jagged, rocky monuments with great valleys between them. But here, just a few miles east of Arsuf, there was still some hint of life. Still, these were dangerous lands. “They could be coming from anywhere,” Garret said, reining his horse closer to David so he could speak quietly and not be heard. “I would suggest we split up; I will head to the north and you go south. Be careful that you are not seen, for these are not hospitable lands. If you find the idiot, de Nantes, then come and find me. Do not engage him alone.” He had to add that at the end – do not engage him alone.

David was young and brilliant and excitable, and Garret had been a calming and mentoring influence to David and his brother and their group of friends. There were several younger knights, all of them splendid in every aspect, but they had a habit of being quite rash at times, which is why Garret had been unofficially appointed their master. The knight with the black eyes and the unflappable demeanor had been a model for the younger men to follow. “So the great Father of the Gods has spoken,” David said with some sarcasm, knowing very well he was planning on not doing as he’d been instructed. He sought to deflect the attention off of his plans. “You think you know my mind. What makes you think I am going to engage Alfaar without you?” “Because I know you too well, David.” David glanced at him, his eyes narrowing. “Tell me truthfully, de Moray. Can you really read minds?” “I can read the minds of impetuous young knights.

” “Are you really immortal, then?” Garret sat back on his horse, eyeing David with some annoyance now. “Christ, not that again.” David grinned, flashing that bright de Lohr smile, evident even in the moonlight. “Men say your wisdom is ancient, your skills unsurpassed,” he teased, mostly because it was the only thing that ever got a rise out of the stoic de Moray. “Some say you can even divine the future.” “If I could divine the future, do you truly think I would be here in the Holy Land with you and your ridiculous friends?” David laughed softly. “You are an ancient warrior from eons past,” he said rather dramatically. “Everyone says so. Your eyes are so black that you have no soul.” Garret sighed with great irritation.

“If that is true, then I would behave myself if I were you. You never know when the demon will arise.” David shook his head. “Not a demon, but a god. The Father of the Gods,” he said pointedly. “You are here to manage and mold us, much as Kronos managed and molded his immortal sons. Admit it; you are ancient, de Moray. As ancient and crumbling as the ruins in this cursed country.” Garret knew that David didn’t mean that in necessarily a flattering way. He also was sharp enough to know that David was changing the subject away from his intentions when it came to tracking down their prey.

“For a whelp who believes I am immortal, you are sorely testing the laws of providence,” he muttered. “And you talk too much. Listen to me and obey; go south. There is a brook down there and, I believe, an old grove of almond trees. If you find anything, I will reiterate that you are not to engage. Come and fetch me. This cousin of Richard’s is, if nothing else, reckless. Take no chances.” So much for diverting de Moray’s attention. David took the directive as an insult against his skills but said nothing, mostly because he knew that, deep down, de Moray hadn’t really meant it that way.

Still, there was something in David that wanted to prove him wrong. He and his friends called de Moray Kronos because they all considered themselves the next generation of knightly gods. Therefore, if David found Alfaar, he wasn’t going to ask for help like some weakling. He was confident he could take care of the man. Like a god, he was invincible. “Very well,” he finally said. Garret eyed him, knowing David was going to do what the man damn well pleased in spite of his orders. In truth, Garret understood; he’d been young and full of aggression once, so he knew the drive to act alone. “Stay out of sight,” he said. “Watch yourself.

” David nodded, turning is fat white horse around and heading off towards the south where a muddy creek ran through groves of old almond trees. Garret watched him go, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time he saw David alive. He was rather fond of the fiery young knight. Besides, Richard was also very fond of David and the young knight’s death might be a mark on Garret’s otherwise spotless record. Feeling guilty about thinking of his reputation over David’s life, Garret turned his horse for the hills to the north. The moon above made it nearly bright as day, which caused Garret some concern. If Alfaar was around here, somewhere, it would make it easy for Garret to be seen. He could hear the voices again, stronger now the further he moved north, so he slowed his pace, his eyes sharp as he scanned the topography. Someone was around here and, from the sounds of the raised voice, he didn’t care who heard him. Garret could almost make out the words, but not quite.

The hills were doing a good job at muffling the speech. Slowing his horse as he came around one of those big, rocky mounds, he suddenly spied a man on his knees. It was a Muslim. He was swathed in the glorious robes the tribes tended to favor that made them look far more impressive than the Christian armies in their wool and steel. They looked like princes when they rode into battle, with flowing garments that were brilliantly colored. But Garret quickly noticed that this man was different; his clothing was torn and his head, without the traditional turban, was bloodied. His long black hair was matted and it was clear he’d been beaten. As Garret watched, another man suddenly came into view with a very large sword in his hand. The voices that had been echoing off the hills were now clear in their words. Garret could hear everything.

“…think you could keep this country, you savage?” It was an English voice, crisp, but Garret couldn’t see the face. “This does not belong to you. It never has. You infest it like vermin. It is the job of Richard and Philip and the rest of the Christian commanders to wipe you away as one would eradicate a plague. You cannot convince me that you belong here.” The man on his knees was calm. “I need not convince you of anything, Christian,” he said in Garret’s language, his accent heavy. “My brethren shall push you and your armies into the sea. What happens tonight between you and me means nothing.

My people shall prevail in the end.” The man with the sword came to a halt in front of him. “Your people shall not prevail,” he hissed. Then, he lifted the sword. But in his other hand, which now came clear, was a dagger. “Do you see these? You shall be the catalyst for greater things, an event that will cause the armies of Richard to rise up and purge the very filth we carry within us. You will help the Christian armies succeed, do you hear?” From his reply, the Muslim must have been studying the weaponry in front of his face, although from where Garret was, he couldn’t see enough to determine where, exactly, the Muslim was looking. “I know those symbols,” the Muslim replied. “Those are the Knights of the Temple.” “They are a disease!” The Muslim looked into the face of his captor.

“They are Christian,” he said simply. “You are all a disease.” The man suddenly lashed out and struck the Muslim across the face, sending him toppling over. As the Muslim struggled to right himself, the Christian stood over him angrily. “The Templars are a disease that eats away at the armies of God,” he said. “They infect everything they touch and they pollute the minds of the faithful!” “Then they represent all that it means to be Christian.” The man with the weapons shoved the Muslim over, kicking him now that he was on the ground. “There is one true God, Savage,” he screamed as he threw his foot into the Muslim’s body. “It is my God. Your god does not exist.

Even now, as you are being defeated, your god does not come to help you. But I have the strength of my God behind me. After your death, men will find these weapons of the Templars in your body and know that it is the Templars who have become dishonorable assassins.” The Muslim was trying to defend himself. “What does that prove?” “It will prove that they are untrustworthy! They are thieves and rogues, and they must be purged from the Christian armies!” It was an unsteady rant. Garret could see that the Muslim had his hands bound and it was difficult for him to protect himself. The Englishman was doing a good job at pummeling him and, any moment, Garret expected the Englishman to plunge one of those weapons into the body of his victim. Although Garret wasn’t opposed to killing Muslims, he was a man of honor. He did not condone killing men that could not fight back. Moreover, it was clear to him that this was Richard’s cousin, a fool of a man that was trying to set up some manner of deception.

Revenge on the Templars, as his dirty soldiers had explained. He was attempting to sully their reputation. It was a confusing situation, but there was no time for clarification. Garret reached to the back of his saddle and unstrapped his crossbow. If he rode into view now, then the Englishman could quite possibly kill his quarry before Garret could intervene. But a well-placed arrow could stop the situation before the Englishman killed his enemy with stolen weapons. Just as Garret collected the crossbow, he could see the Englishman lifting his right hand, the one that held the broadsword. Simply by the way he was holding it, Garret could tell the man intended to plunge it into his victim. Quick as a flash, Garret brought the crossbow to bear on his target and let the arrow fly, sailing it into the forearm of the Englishman. A scream filled the air and the broadsword clattered harmlessly to the sand as the Englishman staggered back with an enormous spiny arrow sticking out of his arm.

Garret spurred his charger forward into full view as the panicked Englishman suddenly bolted for his stolen horse, thinking that he’d been set upon by the colleagues of the man he had intended to kill. Muslims! Ripping the arrow out of his arm, the Englishman leaped onto the horse, nearly falling off when the animal bolted forward. It was by sheer luck that he managed to stay astride the beast, turning around to see what army was charging upon him. But all he saw was a lone Christian knight with an emptied crossbow in his hand. As the moonlight illuminated the heavily-armed knight who had launched an arrow at him, the Englishman raised his injured, bloodied arm and shook it angrily. “You traitor!” he screamed. Garret could see the man’s features; he was pale-skinned, with a wild mop of hair that was some shade of blonde or even reddish-blonde. It was difficult to tell. He was slender and unhandsome, made worse by the expression he bore. Since Garret was wearing both his mail hood and a helm, he knew the man couldn’t see him very well.

Not well enough to pick him out of a lineup of men, at any rate.

.

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