Reynald de Châtillon was having more trouble getting his bearings than he was prepared to admit. He abhorred weakness in anyone, especially himself—and so he could not admit to it, but things were happening too fast even for him. Fifteen years in a dungeon had taken from him much of the flesh on his bones and some of his vision as well. He still could not stand naked sunlight, and he instinctively sought shadows or shaded his eyes with a broad straw hat tied over his coif. He might look ridiculous, but Reynald had left vanity behind in the dungeon at Aleppo.
The Wheel of Fortune, he thought to himself, ought to be on his coat of arms. Born to a family of no consequence, he had come out to Outremer in the train of Louis VII of France, but rather than returning humiliated like his master, he had risen to become Prince of Antioch by seducing a sex-starved and stupid widow. Knowing he’d have nothing after her son came of age, he’d tried to take the Island of Cyprus from the Greeks—and he’d succeeded! But then the Emperor sent a fleet and robbed him of the fruits of his labors. After that he’d groveled in the dirt at the Greek Emperor’s feet in a display of abject submission, but the lesson Reynald took away from the incident was only that it was foolish to attack an island without control of the sea. So in subsequent years he’d turned eastward for new conquests—only unfortunately, through no fault of his own, he’d been captured by the Emir of Aleppo and thrown into a dungeon.
The dungeon was deep underground, with no windows to let in daylight. Air came, dank and foul, smelling of death and decay, from long, dark tunnels that led to other cellars, or possibly beyond the walls. Reynald never knew where all the tunnels led, because they were barred to him by iron grilles anchored in bedrock. Only one had seemed important: the one by which he’d entered and—fifteen years later—departed.
In the intervening years, he had lived like the rats in that dungeon: drinking the water that seeped from the walls and collected in dank pools on the stone floor, fighting over the bread and other scraps thrown to them, and shitting where he pleased. He’d seen more than one prisoner die in that dungeon, and he’d contributed to the death of others to be sure that rations never got too short—or when their ravings got on his nerves. Many men went mad in that dungeon; Reynald just became harder.
When he emerged from the dungeon, the Arabs had covered their noses and mouths at the stench of him, and even the bath slaves had made faces when ordered to clean him up. They had shaven off his filthy, matted hair, oiled him, and then scraped and scrubbed him until his white, sun-starved skin was as pink as a boiled crab. They had clipped and filed his toenails and fingernails, and then dressed him in a fine white robe with a turban and returned him to the King of Jerusalem.
It was only after he had been delivered to the Hospitaller castle of Krak des Chevaliers that he learned Baldwin III was dead; that was a bad shock. The second shock was hearing that Amalric, his brother and heir, was also dead. But the third shock had been the worst: learning that Amalric’s heir, Baldwin IV, was a boy suffering from leprosy. “So who the hell’s in charge?” Reynald demanded, already wondering if there were a widow to be seduced here as well.
“Raymond?” Reynald asked, incredulous. Then he sniffed in contempt.
The feelings were mutual.
In a gesture of gratitude, the Emir of Aleppo had freed all the Christian prisoners in thanks for the Christian attack on Homs that had forced Salah-ad-Din to lift the seige of Aleppo. The gesture was a generous one, but to the end of his days Tripoli wondered if the Emir of Aleppo had known what he was doing when he released Reynald de Châtillon along with the others. Reynald was to be a thorn in his side until they both died—and he would be the cause of the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Reynald might have been released from the dungeon in Aleppo, but he was welcome nowhere. The Greek Emperor had accepted his groveling years before, but he had not forgiven the ravaging of Cyprus. Reynald thought the Emperor might concoct some justification for a new arrest—or just poison him. In Antioch, now that his wife was dead and his stepson was in control, he was even less welcome; Bohemond was bitter about the alleged “misrule” of his kingdom and the “plundering” of his coffers by his mother’s second husband. Tripoli, meanwhile, had banned Châtillon outright from his own territories, so he was only safe here as long as he was in the care of the Hospitallers. To go to Jerusalem, however, meant doing homage to a leper! Châtillon spat.
But here was this young knight, begging him to leave Krak des Chevaliers for Kerak in Oultrejourdain and attend upon the widow of his old friend Miles de Plancy. “Sylvia’s her name, isn’t it? Or, no,” he snapped his fingers in irritation at his poor memory, “not Sylvia, something with “ie” on the end. Melanie? No, Stephanie, that was her name! No?” Henri d’Ibelin nodded, and Châtillon scratched deeper in the dark corners of his benumbed memory. “She wasn’t much to look at, if I recall rightly.”
“She is not a conventional beauty, my lord,” Henri conceded. “But she has many other qualities.”
“I’m beginning to remember now. Miles said she could curse like a sailor, scream like a fishwife, and scratch like a cat—sometimes in fury and sometimes out of ecstasy when he rode her.” Châtillon laughed to see the young knight blush at his bluntness. “You’re not one of those fools who pledges yourself to a lady and vows chaste love, are you, boy? Let me tell you, chastity will get you nowhere. Rutting in the right place at the right time will.”
Henri flushed a darker shade of red, but replied stolidly: “My lady requests that you attend on her at Kerak, my lord. I have been asked to escort you. I know no more.”
“The hell you don’t!”
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