Sir Jean of Acre, the second novel in my Templar Trilogy, is set in the late 13th Century and much of the action takes place during the last years of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. The follow excerpt from that novel seemed a good way to remember Easter in this blog.
Easter Sunday, 1290 AD
Madeleine felt the heat and became aware of her thirst. That was the one thing she had not learned to master. The trader could always get her to eat in the end by denying her water until she had consumed the food he put before her. She licked her lips and tasted the layer of dust upon them with revulsion.
A shadow fell across her, abruptly blocking out the sun. At once her body cramped as she registered it could only be a customer. He had stopped directly before her and she could feel his eyes studying her, boring into her. She closed her eyes more tightly and tried not to move, to not even breathe. Surely any man would be repulsed by what he saw: the hair dyed the color of straw a month ago and -- she presumed -- already growing out its natural hazelnut color at the roots, the sallow skin prematurely aged by the Syrian sun, the lips painted on larger than life with a fatty red cream.
The man -- she could tell it was a man by the smell of horse sweat and leather -- did not move, and nervously her eyes fluttered just enough to peep through her lashes. She saw two chain mailed feet and a shudder went through her. Only soldiers wore chain mail -- though she could not remember seeing a Muslim in chain mail leggings. Her eyes cautiously ran up to the leather garters buckled just below the knee. Her heart was thundering in her chest; no Muslim dressed like this.
Her eyes flew open and she gasped in terror. Looming over her was a militant angel -- white surcoat over glittering mail and a head of golden hair framed by a halo. "Gabriel!" She gasped in wonder. She had died.
And then the man dropped down on to his heels and the sun remained high over his head and he was not an angel after all.
Madeleine swallowed and her eyes fixed upon the red cross on his breast. Though he was dressed like a Templar, she had seen with her own eyes the heads of all the garrison and relief on stakes before Tripoli. And since he could not be a Templar, he could only be an apparition sent to admonish her for her loss of faith.
"What did you say?" he asked her, and she was startled by the gentleness of his voice. Her eyes were released from the cross and sought his face. It was a handsome face: tanned and weathered with deep lines creasing his cheeks and crows' feet about his grey eyes yet retaining a youthfulness and a kindness. The eyes searched her face prying into every crevice, registering the cracks on her lips and the infection in her eye, seeing the dust and the sweat.
Madeleine started to tremble with shame. She felt as if she were naked before him. But this was a different nakedness from the matter-of-fact disrobing of a slave girl. It was as if his eyes could read her very soul. "What are you?" she asked the apparition.
"I am Commander Sir Jean de Preuthune of the Knights Templar at Acre," came the answer.
"Acre too has fallen?" she asked in alarm. "You are enslaved?" But then she realized how absurd the question was. A Templar commander did not allow himself to be taken alive -- and if he did, the Muslims killed him because the Temple forbade ransom. "You are a spirit!" she concluded.
"No," he told her calmly, and she saw pity in his eyes, which made her want to cry. "I am very much alive and free." Seeing the disbelief and confusion, he explained. "We still have the right of pilgrimage to Nazareth."
"Nazareth?" she repeated, lifting her head and staring about her. "Are we in Nazareth?"
"Nazareth?" She repeated again, and suddenly it was too much for her and she dropped her face in her hands. Squatting in the dirt He had trodden, she had not even known she was in His city. She had not felt His presence here where He had lived....
"Who are you?" he asked her gently. "Your accent sounds almost as if you were from the Languedoc...."
"Poitou. From Poitou." She lifted her face and looked at him again. "From Lys-St-Georges. My father is the lord of Lys-St-Georges. My name is Madeleine.
The village was obscure and Jean did not know Poitou, but he nodded and smiled. "And you came on pilgrimage?" he asked cautiously. "You were captured en route? Your father was killed?"
"No... I came... I was a sister at the Convent of St Helena in Tripoli--"
"You want this woman?" The trader had at last returned from his midday meal and, seeing Jean conversing with Madeleine, he hurried over. "You have an eye for a bargain! Skinny as she is now, I'll let you have her for a mere twelve dinhars! But she'll soon fatten up if you treat her right." He smiled lecherously.
Jean turned on the trader and would have made a sharp retort if Paul had not suddenly grasped him on the arm. "Commander! Come quick! It's my brother! I've found him!"
"A Templar?" Jean asked eagerly, as he let Paul pull him away from the female to the male slaves.
Having reached his stallion, he unbuckled his saddlebag and removed his mantle. With this in his hand, he returned to Madeleine, who still crouched under the awning unaware that she had been bought and paid for in the transaction regarding Paul's brother.
"Come," Jean addressed her. "I'll deliver you to the Hospice of the Annunciation where you'll be fed, bathed and given clean clothes. You may have to wait until you reach Acre for a proper habit. From Acre you can return to a Cistercian convent on Cyprus or in France."
Madeleine gazed up at him in a kind of dazed uncertainty. It was less a matter of disbelief than a new fear: how could she return to a Christian world after what she had become? How could she enter a church again without remembering the Mameluke smashing her maidenhead to the words "Allah is great"? How could she mix again with women who were pure and self-contained as she had been before? How could she face a mother superior or a confessor, knowing that her heart was empty of faith? Could she go through the rituals, recite the prayers, sing the hymns and kiss the cross in a perpetual routine of deception?
Jean bent and severed the rope that tied her to her fat neighbor. Then he held out his hand to her, and she -- ashamed to take it -- tried to scramble to her feet without help. But she went dizzy from trying to stand too abruptly, and almost lost her balance. Jean had to reach out a hand to steady her. His hand was warm but gentle -- not like a man's hand, for it sought neither to dominate nor humiliate her. It offered her support.
She seemed so fragile to Jean as she swayed on her stick-like legs that he was afraid to hold her firmly. Her very bones seemed to have shrunk until they felt as though they would break in two if he closed his fist upon them. He released her and swung his mantle over her shoulders. She staggered under the weight of the wool.
Madeleine gasped and looked up at him with hug, shocked eyes. "I can't wear this! The white is for purity, the cross...."
"Christ died for our sins, Sister. For yours as well as mine." He took her hand....