“It’s me, Balian.” The deep voice of Sir Bartholomew blew out of the folds of his hood with a billow of freezing breath.
“Merciful heaven, Bart! What are you doing here still in the robes of a monk? You’re welcome to join us anytime, if you want to take up arms again—” “That’s not why I’m here. I’ve brought you intelligence,” Sir Bartholomew interrupted, “but it is something I prefer to share with your ears alone. Will you walk with me?”
Ibelin could think of many things he would prefer to do at dusk on this dreary winter day, but if Sir Bartholomew had come all the way from Acre to tell him something, he had no right to deny him an audience. Ibelin nodded stiffly, and Sir Bartholomew indicated with an inclination of his head that they should walk toward the periphery of the camp. Ibelin fell in beside him, and they did not speak until they had put the last of the tents and campfires several yards behind them.
“Did your lady write about my grandson?” Sir Bartholomew asked at last.
Ibelin hesitated. “My lady did mention in her last letter that a boy claiming to be your grandson—”
“Oh, it’s him . . . and by all that is holy, I wish it weren’t!” Sir Bartholomew cried out in anguish.
That startled Ibelin, and he protested, “But Maria Zoё said he looked healthy and strong. No trace of ill treatment.”
“No,” Sir Bartholomew admitted. “No, they did not abuse him. They bought his soul with flattery and kindness instead.”
So Maria Zoë had been right, Balian thought. “He’s a Mamluke?”
“Lord Balian! You should have heard him! He called his mother a whore! A ‘filthy Christian pig’—and he told me he never wanted to see her again—or me.”
Ibelin heard the misery in the old man’s voice, and he felt helpless. He opened his arms and drew the old man into his embrace, but Sir Bartholomew remained stiff, cold, and unresponsive. Balian released his hold, since it was bringing no comfort, and took a deep breath. “If he wanted nothing more to do with you, why did he run away?”
“He didn’t. He was sent by al-Adil.”
Ibelin drew a sharp breath, Maria Zoë’s warnings in his ear. “To kill me?”
“No, just to spy on you—at least for the time being. Who knows when new orders might have come in later?”
“How did you get that out of him?” Ibelin asked, startled less by the content of his words than the fact that he had gained the intelligence.
“Jesus wept!” the old man cried out, loud enough to carry to the edge of the camp, and some of the Templars turned to look at the two cloaked figures silhouetted against the last remnants of the dusk. “He’s only ten! They sent a boy to do a man’s job, and he got so wound up telling me how important he was and how much better off he was. He scoffed at his older brothers, sneering at them for being slaves—as if he weren’t! In his eyes, he—Joscelyn—is going to be a great emir, while his brothers, he said, got what they deserved, as slaves to a carpetmaker and a farrier respectively. He said that was the best they could ever be, because they were “idiots” believing in “idols” and “worshiping vile women!” Balian, he called us all fools for being “polytheists,” while he has found the True—” Sir Bartholomew’s brittle composure broke and he doubled over, clutching his stomach in agony.
This time when Balian took him in his arms, he sagged into them, shaking with silent sobs. Balian held him, while the wind whipped their cloaks in the gathering gloom, and then he slowly led Sir Bartholomew, still doubled over in pain, back toward the camp.
Before they entered the Ibelin tent, however, Sir Bartholomew righted himself and balked. “No. I’m not going in there. I can’t face the others.”
“You can’t stay out here!” Balian protested. “You’re half frozen as it is! You need to sleep by a fire and have a hot meal and wine. I can have Georgios mull some wine over the fire for you.”
“Balian.” The old man dropped all titles, and Balian remembered when he had been more a mentor than a vassal. “What are we fighting for? Don’t you see there’s no point anymore? Look around you! This was the most fertile of Barry’s estates. Now it’s a wasteland. Everything from Beirut to Ascalon is a wasteland! The sand dunes are seeping inland from the sea, and the desert is spreading down from the mountains. We built a kingdom on sand, Balian, on sand and dust! In just four years, there is hardly any trace of us ever being here!”
Balian didn’t agree. He couldn’t afford to. “Bart, I understand how you feel, but your grief is blinding you. Nothing has been destroyed that cannot be rebuilt. We can irrigate again. We can drive back the desert. The trees have been cut down, but not uprooted. They will bear fruit again. We can make these valleys bloom again.”
Sir Bartholomew just stared at him with dull eyes. “Maybe—but you can’t give my daughters back their dignity, my granddaughters their virtue, or my grandsons their innocence and faith. This is a futile war, my lord. A futile waste of good lives. I hope you don’t lose yours fighting it, for I know you are a good man. When you next write to her, give your lady my best regards as well. Now I will bed down with the Templars. They will give a monk food and shelter without asking questions.” He turned and retraced his steps for several yards before heading back toward the Templar pickets. Balian watched him go, feeling chilled to the bone. By the time he started for his own tent, he had numbed feet.
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