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In mid-September of 1290, under clear skies and with a brisk following breeze, a stout Norse-built cog set sail from the Norwegian port of Bergen, carrying to her wedding with England the seven-year-old Margaret Queen of Scots, known as the Maid of Norway.
The marriage had been arranged, in part, through the offices of the bearded, white-cloaked man standing at the taffrail of the Maid's ship. Frère Arnault de Saint Clair, Knight of the Temple of Jerusalem, had been among a number of outside negotiators whose assistance had facilitated the Treaty of Birgham; for the Temple's reputation for impartial arbitration was recognized universally, and the fortunes both of Scotland and of England were of great interest to all of Europe.
A singular array of qualifications commended Frère Arnault to his present assignment. Though a veteran of nearly twenty years' service as a Knight Templar, much of it in and around the Holy Land, he had been based for most of the past decade at the Order's Paris Temple, where he was regularly entrusted with sensitive financial and diplomatic missions on behalf of the Visitor of France, who was second only to the Grand Master, and the highest ranking Templar in Europe.
Landless youngest son of a prosperous Breton knight, facile in a handful of languages besides his native French, Arnault moved with equal ease among courtiers and churchmen as on the battlefield, as glib of tongue as he was quick of wit and fleet of sword. Coupled with the fortunes of his birth, an accompanying spiritual inclination might have led him to a rich sinecure as clerkly chancellor of some great house oreven an eventual mitre; but a parallel excellence in the knightly pursuits at which his elder brothers excelled had directed him instead to a vocation as a Knight Templar.
These circumstances, along with an awareness of Scottish affairs — by dint of collateral cousins in Scotland — had earned him an appointment to the Birgham delegation beside Frère Brian de Jay, the English-born Preceptor of Scotland, who had knowledge of both English and Scottish law. The two had not met prior to their present assignment, and Arnault could not say that he had warmed to Jay in the months they had spent at the negotiating table; but the English knight did seem to know his business where the law was concerned. Having seen the treaty signed and sealed, the two men were now accompanying the little princess to Scotland, where she would be met by a suitable escort of her Scottish nobles. From there, she would travel south to London, where a new life and a new home awaited her.
The wind freshened, shifting a few degrees to the north, and Arnault breathed deeply of the brisk sea air, always welcome after the years spent in the deserts of Outremer. Unarmored here at sea, though his sword was girt always at his side, he wore beneath his mantle the formal white habit of Templar monastic profession, emblazoned on the breast with the splayed, eight-pointed red cross of the Order. His dark hair was barbered close to his head, as required by the Rule, but he had leave to keep his beard neatly trimmed, out of deference to the more fastidious circles in which his diplomatic duties obliged him to move.
He allowed himself a contented sigh as he swept his gaze around him. The royal ship was threading her way along the last of the deep fjords leading out to sea. The rigging was bright with pennons in the colors of Norway and Scotland, lifting gaily on the wind, and the princess's half-dozen Norwegian attendants made a colorful gathering around her on the deck below.
Margaret herself was almost lost in the midst of them: a diminutive, flaxen-haired doll muffled in furs, sheltering in the grandfatherly embrace of Bishop Narve of Bergen. To Arnault's discerning gaze, watching from the machicolated platform of the ship's stern castle, she appeared somewhat frail and not entirely well, her small face pinched and white under its rich coif of silk and gold netting.
Less than reassured at the sight, Arnault found himself uneasily aware how the welfare of the entire Scottish nation was now dependent on the indifferent health of this one small girl. Even as that thought crossed his mind, he was joined at the rail by his Templar companion, who nodded somewhat distractedly.
Somewhat older than Arnault, Brian de Jay was a big, muscled man with short-cropped blond hair, a white-toothed grin within his curly blond beard, and eyes of a glacial blue. Leaning indolently on the railing, he cast a sour glance upward toward the ship's rigging, where the freshening wind was fretting at the reefs in the ship's great square sail.
"I would have preferred the English ship that King Edward sent," he remarked. "Even more, I would have preferred to sail six weeks ago. I like not these fickle seas in the north."
Arnault shrugged. "No doubt King Eric preferred to entrust his daughter to a ship of Norse crafting."
"The king will have been affronted at the snub," Jay replied. "It makes for a less than auspicious beginning to the alliance."
"The Norse shipwrights take great pride in their work," Arnault said neutrally, surprised at this somewhat partisan statement regarding the English king. "King Eric evidently felt that a Norwegian-built vessel would prove the more seaworthy in the event of a storm."
"Well, the delay makes storms more likely," Jay said with a grimace. "I hope he doesn't have cause to regret his decision. Aside from the political repercussions, I'd hate to see all our efforts wasted — especially when we could have been putting our energies to better effect in defense of our domains."
He was referring, Arnault knew, to the Templar strongholds of the East: Acre and Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon, Athlit and Haifa — all that now remained of the former crusader Kingdom of Outremer. Since the fall of Jerusalem, over a century before, the great crusading Orders of the Temple and the Hospital had managed — just — to retain those strongholds, bolstered by sporadic infusions of aid from the West; but their position in recent years had become increasingly perilous.
"Look at us," Jay continued disparagingly. "We are meant to be men of war. Surely our place is in the Holy Land, where the danger is — not trailing like lapdogs about the skirts of these diplomats! Our proper vocation is fighting — not matchmaking on behalf of young children."
Arnault gazed out to sea, reflecting that these militant sentiments might have carried more weight if Jay had been speaking from previous experience in the East. As it was, the Preceptor of Scotland owed his present position of eminence to the favor of the Master of England, who had groomed him for administrative function and then sent him north to oversee the Scottish houses of the Order. Unlike Arnault, who had seen active service in the Holy Land and carried the scars to prove it, Jay had yet to match words with deeds on the field of battle.
"We go where we're ordered, and do as we're told," Arnault said mildly. "And don't underestimate the value of what has been achieved by the Treaty of Birgham. If this marriage succeeds, it could bring us a step closer to redeeming the Kingdom of Outremer."
Not that the auguries were good for such an outcome. Only a few months before, the delicate balance in Acre — most crucial of the Order's remaining holdings in the East — had nearly come unstuck when a band of peasant levies newly arrived from Tuscany went on a rampage and massacred a number of Muslim merchants in an unprovoked attack. The Mameluke Sultan Qalawun had been justifiably incensed by the incident, and only some frantic last-minute negotiations on behalf of the Franks had averted an outbreak of full-scale reprisals. A fragile truce was holding thus far, but the threat of war remained ever present. The Order's military strategists hoped that if hostilities could be kept at bay long enough, the sovereign powers of Christendom might be more readily persuaded to lend their aid to the defense and eventual reclamation of the Frankish Kingdom.
"I suppose the marriage might pry loose some support from King Edward," Jay replied. His expression turned speculative at the prospect of a new crusade. "He certainly knows the Holy Land from the pilgrim campaigns of his youth. Given the part we have played in securing this Scottish alliance, perhaps he will show his gratitude by returning to Acre at the head of another army. I'll wager the Mamelukes would find him a formidable opponent."
Arnault merely nodded his agreement. At his best, Edward Plantagenet was a strong leader, shrewd in his judgments and farsighted in his aspirations. But he was also capable of being unconscionably vindictive; and his appetite for power, once roused, was insatiable. Having set his sights on Scotland, he would stop at nothing now to acquire it. If this marriage compact were to fail — for whatever reason — Edward's next recourse might well be invasion.
The weather held, despite Jay's uneasiness. Princess Margaret, her female attendants, and the bishop and his clerk were quartered beneath the stern castle, where partitioning had been installed to create cramped shelter for sleeping. The princess's military escort, including the two Knights Templar, slept out on deck with most of the crew, under the sheltering lee of the forward castle.
Some time after midnight during their second night out from Bergen, Arnault awoke to an awareness that the ship's momentum had changed. Casting off his blanket, he rose quietly to investigate, bracing himself against the rail. They had emerged from the shelter of the Norwegian coast shortly before sunset. The stars had vanished behind a thick pall of cloud. Light from the ship's lanterns showed whitecaps building on top of the waves. The captain was up on the forecastle in close consultation with the ship's weatherman.
Making his way forward against the pitch and roll of the deck, Arnault clambered up the ship's ladder to join them. When he inquired about the ship's status, the captain's response was blunt.
"I don't like the signs. There's a storm moving in from the northwest. The currents in these waters prohibit trying to outrun it. We can only hold our course and hope to ride it out."
"How bad is it likely to get?" Arnault asked.
"I can't say," the weatherman replied. "The signs might be worse. But we will see rough winds and high seas not long after first light."
The weatherman's predictions were borne out within the next few hours. Darkness yielded to an uncertain dawn, under ominously lowering skies. The ship's crew went grimly to work, dousing the lanterns and lashing down everything on deck that was not already secure. When the sail had been trimmed and the hatches closed, the captain and the helmsmen took to their stations fore and aft and braced themselves for the coming gale.
With the arrival of the first squall, the little Princess Margaret succumbed to retching seasickness and had to be confined to her bed while the ship plunged and rolled. By midday, most of her personal attendants were similarly affected, as well as a few of the crew. Bishop Narve and the young canon who served as his secretary were among the few to be spared, and set themselves to caring for those who were not. Meanwhile, the ship's helmsman fought to keep her headed into the waves, in the teeth of a blustering wind and a day that never really got light.
Arnault had been to sea often enough to be accustomed to stormy weather. When Brian de Jay proved equally resilient in keeping his sea legs and the contents of his stomach, the two Templars joined the crew in helping keep the ship battened down against the storm, which continued throughout that day and all through the night without any sign of abating.
By morning, the state of the ship's passengers was one of abject misery. Every roll of the vessel drew groans from those lying prostrate on their pallets. The air trapped in the makeshift sleeping accommodations smelled sourly of sickness as Arnault made his staggering way to the little princess's curtained alcove.
Here he found Bishop Narve and Freu Ingabritt, the little Maid's favorite lady-in-waiting, attempting to ease the child's sufferings with infusions of herbs and other folk remedies. The elderly prelate was cradling the little girl in his arms with a grandfather's tenderness, singing softly to her in the Norse tongue. The simple rhymes and melodies were those of folksong and lullabye.
"How is she?" Arnault asked from the entryway.
The bishop looked up, his expression grave. "Not well, Frère Arnault. So young a child is too delicate for rigors such as these. If this storm does not soon abate, I fear she may not survive the journey."
All that day and the next, the ship rode the storm like a leaf in a millrace, making but little headway. Towering waves tossed the ship like a toy, often crashing over the prow and sending sheets of foam racing the length of the deck. Crew and passengers alike spent their fifth night at sea without heat or comfort. On the morning of the sixth day, the ship's timbers began to crack, and the hull began letting in water. As most of the able-bodied were set to bailing, others helped move Princess Margaret and her attendants out onto the deck, in case the ship should founder and they be trapped inside.
Oilskins and blankets were rigged to create a berth for them under the forecastle, but this was poor shelter at best. The little Maid herself seemed wholly insensible to her surroundings, and lay white and motionless in Bishop Narve's arms, with only the merest flutter of a pulse to show that she still lived. Arnault and Jay took their turns in the bucket brigade with the rest of those who were still on their feet, working in relays in a ceaseless effort to keep the hold from filling with water, but Jay clearly was unhappy with the arrangement.
"This is no fit occupation for a knight," he grumbled, as he and Arnault labored alongside the crew and the military escort.
Arnault was fighting the temptation to inquire whether Jay would prefer the alternative, when there came a sudden shout from the masthead lookout.
"Land ho! Land ahead, off the port bow!"
Abandoning their labors, the two Templar knights made their way forward. Peering hard through the rain and sea spray, Arnault was just able to make out a rocky headland jutting from the waves at the outermost limits of visibility. The deck shuddered underfoot as the ship came about, its prow bearing hard on this newfound landmark. Catching sight of the captain on the forecastle, Arnault clambered swiftly up the ladder to join him.
"Have you any idea where we are?" he asked, pitching his voice loud above the roar of the wind and waves.
The captain gave a tentative bob of the head, not taking his eyes from that speck of land. "By my reckoning, we've reached the Orkneys. I would guess this to be one of the outlying islands. There should be settlements, if we can make it to shore."
The land loomed closer. A ragged cheer went up from the crew as the ship cleared the headland and the fury of the storm somewhat abated, though rain continued to fall. Beyond, sheltered by a ridge of high ground, lay a stretch of calmer water fronting a beach of pebbly shingle. Even more welcome was the sight of a plume of smoke trickling skyward from what appeared to be a substantial farmstead, perched on the grassy slope overlooking the lagoon.
Details became clearer as they drew nearer the shore. Built Norse-fashion with walls of turf and roofs of slate, the compound encompassed several barns and a number of outbuildings, all clustered around a central dwelling, the source of the rising smoke, vented off by holes in the roof slates. Encouraged by these clear signs of habitation, the captain drew as near to the shore as he dared before ordering the anchor dropped and the ship's boat put over the side. While preparations were made to ferry the little princess and the sickest of the other passengers ashore, a delegation was sent ahead to commandeer assistance from the farm.
By the time the boat could return to the ship and bring the little princess and the bishop ashore, the farm owner and some of his household had gathered on the shore with oilskins and warm blankets and even a cart for those too ill to walk the short distance to the farmhouse. The little Maid herself was swaddled in furs and tenderly carried to the farmhouse by the bishop's canon, with Bishop Narve trailing anxiously beside them.
The two Templars were among the last of the ship's company to arrive. Gratefully accepting a bowl of hot broth from one of the maids, and changing his sodden mantle for a dry blanket, Arnault shifted his attention to the other end of the long, smoky room, where the farmwife and two girls he judged to be her daughters were clucking anxiously over a small, white-faced form bundled into a bed before the roaring fire. From their tight-lipped expressions, he inferred that there was little sign of improvement in the Maid's condition.
Bishop Narve and his canon joined the women a moment later. Arnault was taken aback to see that the old man had donned a white vestment and stole over his sober clerical array; the canon bore a lighted candle and several other items. The bishop made the sign of the cross over the child's frail, unconscious form and laid his hand on her brow as his own head bowed in prayer. From the snatches of Latin that reached his ears, Arnault realized that the old man was administering the viaticum, the Communion rite reserved by the Church for those at the point of death.
"If I were a vassal of the house of Canmore," Jay remarked in an undertone, "I would be on my knees in prayer."
"God may yet vouchsafe a miracle," Arnault murmured.
Sick at heart, he drank down his broth and withdrew to an adjoining room of the house with others of the company to await further developments. Jay followed, but joined one of the men of the princess's military escort miserably warming his hands over a brazier of hot coals. Having no desire for his own comfort, Arnault made his way numbly to the opposite side of the room, where an alcove heaped with sheepskins suddenly beckoned with an insistence that, after so long without proper rest, would not be denied.
He folded to his knees like a man sinking into quicksand, but he made himself shift to sit with his back against the wall as his heavy eyelids closed, stubbornly dragging his exhausted mind toward something approaching a suitable composure for prayer — or would appear to be prayer, or sleep, to anyone observing him.
Thus blind to his surroundings, he could still feel the wayward motion of the ship, tugging him insistently toward the sleep his body craved, but he applied long familiar disciplines to turn his focus inward, drawing a deep breath as he sought the still point at the center of his being and then conjured an image of the little princess before his mind's eye: not the frail, colorless doll barely breathing before the fire in the next room but the solemn, wide-eyed child for whom he had developed a distant fondness while he waited for her ship to sail from Bergen.
With body and mind now bending to the will of soul, he slowly found himself apparently drifting with disembodied lightness back to the threshold of the central hearth chamber where the little Maid was being tended. The sensation of being in two places at once was one he had encountered before, a state over which he had some control. Conscious of having temporarily left his physical body behind, he willed his consciousness closer toward the ailing princess. The area surrounding the child's bed was like an island of light in the midst of softly muted shadows.
He caught his breath slightly as he sensed that the source of the brightness was the little Maid herself — not the fragile, wasted shell of her physical body, but the shimmering angel-form of the virginal soul softly overlaying that body. Joining the two was a silvery cord as finely spun as spider silk.
A faint flutter of relief briefly suffused him, for he knew that as long as that link remained unbroken, there was reason to hope for the little girl's recovery. But even as he allowed himself to hope, he became conscious of a chill descending suddenly upon the room, not at all related to the rain and storm outside.
All the lights in the room guttered and shrank as a shade of moving darkness seemed to permeate the room. Cold as Arctic winter, a darker core of it billowed toward the little Maid. Even as her spiritual aspect recoiled, flickering faintly brighter, the shadow-entity struck out at the fragile silver lifeline linking body and soul.
Horrified, Arnault tried to interpose himself in spirit, but to no avail. An icy buffet dashed him aside even as the little Maid's lifeline snapped. Though her soul broke free in a flash of silvery light, the shadow swooped to engulf it. Defensive instincts flaring, Arnault surged between them in spirit, deflecting an almost overwhelming wave of sheer malice as he called on the Light to aid him. But this time his intervention was enough, if only barely.
Arrested in mid-flight, the shadow briefly turned on him, furious to be kept at bay. At the same time, the roof beams of the house seemed to melt away, simultaneously opening the way to the vault of the heavens.
Fast as summer lightning, the little Maid's child-spirit soared upward. Living stars dropped out of the sky to meet her, surrounding her with a host of bright companions to guide her safely on her homeward flight.
The shadow again attempted to follow, but again Arnault surged upward in spirit to block and restrain it. The shadow at last wrenched free with a violent twist, but too late to pursue its quarry. Flinging a parting blast of hatred in Arnault's direction, it disappeared into the night. The violence of its departure snapped Arnault back into his body with a dizzying spin of images that left him gasping for breath, heart pounding, momentarily too giddy to move.
Groggily, hardly able to see, he pulled himself unsteadily to his feet, catching his balance against the wall of turf, momentarily uncertain whether he possibly could have been dreaming. In the same moment, he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, as Brian de Jay asked, "What's the matter? You look as pale as death — as if you'd just seen a ghost."
Before Arnault could frame any kind of response beyond a blank blink, a sudden doleful cry went up from the next room. Shaking himself loose, Arnault rushed to the doorway — and halted on the threshold in time to see Freu Ingabritt drawing breath for another wail. Beside her, Bishop Narve had tenderly gathered the little princess to his breast, his lined face contorted in a soundless grimace of grief. Around them, the little princess's other ladies-in-waiting were clinging to one another and weeping, their shoulders shaking with muffled sobs.
As Jay murmured something unintelligible at Arnault's shoulder, the farmwife came mournfully toward them and the others crowding close behind, dabbing at her eyes with a corner of her ample apron and the sorrow of a mother who has lost children of her own.
"Poor, wee lamb," she managed to whisper. "May our Lord and His dear Lady Mother receive her kindly."
Arnault drew a short, sharp breath and drew back, stunned, letting the others mill past him as he attempted to comprehend the enormity of what had just occurred. Mingled with the stark political implications of the Maid's death was his sinking certainty that his own experience had been no mere foray into dreams. The shadow he had glimpsed, and with which he had sparred, was no gentle angel of death, bringing welcome release from suffering, but rather, some malevolent entity come to destroy the innocent.
All at once he felt the need for fresh air. Closing his ears to the sounds of grieving, he wrapped himself in his blanket and stumbled outside. The rain had ceased, but the sky was still stormy, the wind still tossing at the ship anchored just offshore, now become a funeral barge instead of a wedding ship. Mercifully, Jay had stayed within.
This was not the first time Arnault had encountered evil in spiritual form. But such entities rarely entered the world of men save in response to human summoning — which meant that the attack on the little Maid had been no chance occurrence, but deliberately contrived as murder. Arnault did not doubt the testimony of his inner senses; but when he tried to imagine who could have compassed such a deed, and in such a manner and for what purpose, his thoughts reeled back on themselves in bewilderment.
He turned his face to the wind while he asked himself once again whether what he had witnessed could have been his own fantasy. But he knew with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that there was no question of that.
He dared not confide in anyone in the present party; certainly not the brash and insensitive Jay. But he would certainly convey his suspicions to the appropriate superiors at the earliest opportunity.
The closest of those superiors, and one who might be strategically placed to ascertain who most might have benefited from the Maid's death, was currently assigned to the principal Scottish preceptory at Balantrodoch, just south of Edinburgh, where Brian de Jay was Master. Arnault had orders to return to Paris for reassignment after concluding his escort duties to the now dead Queen of Scots; and news of the tragedy would have to be carried abroad in any event. But since transport back to France could be arranged most expeditiously from farther south, he decided that traveling with Jay as far as Balantrodoch could be easily justified. In fact, certain of his superiors in Paris would expect it.
One thing was certain: If the little Maid's death had been compassed by agents of the Dark, Arnault's assistance eventually would be called upon to counter their intentions.
Posted April 1, 2011
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Posted January 27, 2010
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