~ Prologue ~
January 25, 1188 AD - Northumbria
Fear and death had ridden with him every step of the way, every breath of his unceasing race against a stalker that he could not escape. Terror had become a way of life, and strength of will had faded with every passing mile. How long had he run? How many long stretches of road had he seen pass by in a frenzied blur? But he could still feel them approaching, closing in for the kill.
The horse flashed down the narrow road, kicking up plumes of snow with each stride. Above the rider, the sky hung in dismal tones of mourning. He shuddered against the cold, using one hand to hold closed the opening of his cloak. The snow and his own sweat began forming icicles in his beard, his breath making frosty clouds that dissipated the instant after he released them. “God help me,” he gasped, turning to glance once again behind him.
As if to reassure himself that the package he bore was secure, he felt quickly beneath a fold in his robe. The rough touch of the old cloth reassured him somehow, and he tried to force the immediacy of the problem from his mind. But the thought still resounded within his mind. Why me? No man should be forced to bear such a burden alone. Were it to come to light, nations would forfeit much in blood and honor to retrieve it. Such was the way of things.
How far had he ridden? He strained to recall the vast array of nations and people that he had seen along the way. Many lands and many terrors had greeted him since leaving the eastern marches of the Latin world. His life had hung in the balance every moment since that fateful day the young priest had approached him near the walls of Antioch. He could still see in his mind the form of that young man, quivering as he died at his feet. And ever since then, his dreams had been tormented with visions of horror and unrest, and he knew that what he bore could indeed raise up mighty men and just as easily cause their downfall.
What a wonder, he thought, that this one article could cause such unholy striving among the men who claim to treasure it.
He crossed a river at a half-frozen ford, and then rode eastward, hoping to come upon some settlement nestled against the banks. The cold wind bit at his face, blasting his cheeks and nose until they were numb. It was the worst weather he had ever seen, and certainly a world away from the Mediterranean climates he had become accustomed to. Please, Lord, he begged, give me something.
He rode on for several more minutes, each stride of the horse revealing nothing ahead that could offer hope. Finally, when it seemed all chance of refuge was gone, the warm glow of clustered lights in the distance met his gaze. A smile spread across his face as he rode over the final rise and caught sight of the towering battlements of the castle rising high, majestically, above the icy waters of the Tyne. Sheltered beneath the castle’s protective shadow was a village of fair size, nestled between the snow-covered hill and the swift-moving river. It was quiet and peaceful, resting on the cold winter day without suspicion of the intrigue bearing down on it.
The shops and homes were arranged neatly into quaint little streets, all of the windows shut firmly against the chilling fingers of the storm. Light shone out into the descending dusk from the cracks in the doors and walls of the houses.
The rider threw another glance over his shoulder, trying to work up a desperate, hopeful confidence that he had at least a few minutes before his pursuers were upon him. Nudging his horse in the ribs, he rode slowly up to the main thoroughfare, now deserted in the face of the weather. His eyes roved over the town, searching for any sign that he still had a chance to save himself and the precious burden he bore. He saw a window open furtively above the street, and in the golden lamp-glow he could witness several forms peering curiously down at him. Shaking his head, he moved on, knowing that he was losing time.
Perhaps there is somewhere here that will provide a safe hiding-place for it, he thought. Where would they not think to look when they arrive?
At that moment, his gaze fell on a small building near the edge of the village. The sign above it, printed out in large, proud letters, told it to be a usury-house. He smiled again, and whispered a quick prayer of thanks. Guiding his mount behind the house, he tethered the lathering stallion and stepped up to the little plank door. The wind was still whipping around him, tearing the heat from his body. Already, the wind-driven snow had filled every sign of his entry into the town.
Knocking loudly on the door, he glanced back once more just to reassure himself that no one in the village was still watching. The door opened a crack, and he could see a pair of eyes peering out at him, trying to ascertain his purpose. Choosing not to ask politely for further entrance, he pressed against the door with both hands and stepped inside.
He was greeted almost immediately by the lined and weary face of a short man, his cheeks flushed with the indignation at the stranger’s entrance. He was dressed in a gray tunic of plain cloth, but the interior of the house betrayed much more wealth than he displayed in his clothes. Vivid tapestries could be seen folded neatly on the tables, and ornamentation of gold and silver stood open for the visitor to see. The walls had been adorned with several long strips of dark cloth in place of the tapestries. A young woman with jet-black hair stood further back in the first chamber, peering with interest at his face.
“Shalom,” the man greeted him without a smile. “What is it you want? But please be brief. This house is in mourning.”
The rider nodded respectfully. He reached within his robe to produce the article. It was a bundle of worn purple cloth, to all appearances, nothing more than the discarded garment of some unfortunate mendicant.
“I do not have much time, either. Take this, Jew. Keep it safe, I pray, for it is quite possibly very valuable. Perhaps in a few months I will be able to arrange a place of safety for it. If that is so, you will hear from me. I pray, do not sell it until then, but if you choose to sell it for money after—after two years—that is your own affair. I only ask that you will keep it safe.”
The Jew looked at the tattered garment dubiously, then sighed and nodded. “Very well. It shall be as you say, sir.”
The knight bowed slightly. “I cannot remain here longer. I am called Justin of York. If you hear from me again soon, do not be surprised.”
The Jew inclined his head slightly, wrapping the bundle up in his arms. The knight exited, and, making certain he was not being observed, rode off again, into a trail that led up into the wooded hills of the countryside.
The Jew stood in the doorway and watched him disappear into the distance. Turning, he closed the door with a sigh.
The young woman walked up to where he stood, her dark eyes sharp with interest. “Who was that, Father?”
He scratched his head and turned to his daughter. He smiled absently, stroking her midnight-black tresses. “It was a Norman knight, that is all. We needn’t worry about it,” he said, holding up the bundle to examine it before the light of a small lamp. It was a long robe, tattered and torn with age. It had been a deep purple at one point, but that hue had long since faded into a lighter shade, leaving only darker patches and stains over the length of the garment. He sighed and rolled it back up. “Here, Hannah. Hide this in the caves when you go tonight. I cannot imagine why it would have any worth, but that man seemed to think so.”
The young woman nodded, taking the aged garment in her hands. She looked at it with interest, fingering a ragged tear with her light touch. “I wonder why he thought it could be of value.”
Her father chuckled slightly. “Or what end befell the poor man who wore it. Whoever it was, he was certainly no king who would have worn such a dirty cloth as that.”
The girl smiled lightly, closing her eyes and holding the garment close to her. “Perhaps not now, Father. But can you not imagine that long ago it could have been a regal robe?”
“You have quite an imagination, Hannah. Who knows? But you had probably better just put it away and be done with it. There is work to be done, and it will not do itself.”
She nodded at the gentle reproof and set the garment aside. She returned to the corner and began stoking the little fire again, but her eyes remained fixed on the robe, torn and stained, waiting….