Chapter One-In the Beginning

From Brother Gregory, of the Order of Saint Benedict in the Abbey of Vinceaux, France, to Audemande, best beloved sister and lady attendant to Lady Sybilla, Countess of Jaffa and Ascalon, in the city of our Lord, Jerusalem. Written this second day of February in the year of our lord 1182. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I give you greetings, sister.

As I am writing this letter I can see Brother Jerome in the orchard outside the scriptorium window, where the trees are just flowering, and I know that wherever you are, you will probably be eating better fruit than the poor, wormy, winter specimens that will probably end up in our dinner tonight. But you are at the court in Jerusalem, God willing, and my abbot seems to think that fruit that has come up from the ground where Christ's sainted blood was spilled will taste better. I pray every night at evening office for your journey to be safe and without incident, and for the pilgrim who will carry this letter across the sea to you. Hopefully Hugo is well, and the dour old soldier will find Jerusalem to his liking after he has visited the sites of pilgrimage that Father Reynard set down for him. Your studies must continue without me; Jerusalem is one of the world's great centers for Christian learning, and I would hate for my letters to be the only thing you read to improve your command of Latin.

Brother Jerome and Brother Walter send their regards and prayers for you; Brother Jerome wishes he could send you some of the Abbey apples, but I think several thousand miles is a long way for one sad fruit to travel. Brother Walter misses your help in the herb garden, and asks me several times a day when you are coming home. I hate to have to tell him it shall not be for a very long time.

I must finish this quickly, as Brother Rene is coming around and he will certainly have me punished for putting personal affairs above the work of copying Livy's Ab Urbe Condit. Abbot John has already told me I may write to you, since you are on the pilgrim road and in need of guidance, but he does not seem to have told Brother Rene about this.

He is gone now, and I may continue. This copy of Livy we have is deplorable, so bad you can barely read it, and some of the pages are beginning to mold. I think we should store them in our blessed southern Poitevin sun, but Brother Rene says that bleaches the pages. I hate to see great works this way.

Sister, I wish you joy in your new life. I know the sun is shining where you are in Jerusalem, probably hotter than the sun here, but I know that it is the same sun, and the same God that watches over both of us.

God's peace be with you,

Your brother, Gregory.

Audemande folded the letter back up and glanced at the address on the envelope- Audemande, daughter of Armand of Vinceaux in the province of Poitou under the guidance of Hugo of Vinceaux, man-at-arms, on the Pilgrim Road to Jerusalem.

Such a long address for such a small person, Audemande thought to herself. Well, she was small now, after walking through much of southern France to reach Narbonne, then heaving up any of the food that might have gained the weight back from southern France to Corsica, and then on to Messina, and then again from Messina to Jaffa.

So much water. She didn't think she wanted to see another body of water in her life. She was going out into the desert to Jerusalem, and that was fine with her. And now she was in Jaffa, with Hugo and their gaggle of pilgrim companions, on the road to the Kingdom of Heaven. At least now she wasn't walking any more – Hugo had given seven of their silver deniers to a trader in Jaffa for a rather pretty palfrey she'd named Joyeuse for the happy way the horse seemed to step.

"Seems silly, naming a horse after a sword," Hugo said dourly, leading the horse to their pilgrim hostel for the night.

"You remembered the name of Charlemange's sword, Hugo!" Audemande said, suprised. "I didn't think you listened to those stories!"

"You only told them a hundred times on the way from Poitou to Narbonne. Silliest muck I ever heard. Have you ever tried chopping through a man's helmet and his head?" Hugo asked seriously. One of her father's men-at-arms and a seasoned warrior who'd seen enough fighting to probably write his own chanson, Hugo was far more earthy than Audemande and far less poetic.

"Well, no," Audemande reasoned. "But if you're a hero like Roland, I suppose it can't be that hard."

"Roland was a man, same as any other- your father, Lord Hugh, me. Can't chop a man's helmet and his skull at the same stroke. Now come on, get off and let's give Abbot John's letter to the Prior, or whoever runs this place."

The hostels along the pilgrim road were mainly monasteries and rest houses run by god-fearing monks and nuns trying to do the will of God by helping those trying to do their penance by returning to the city where God's son suffered. Before they had left Poitou, Abbot John, the man in charge of Gregory's abbey, had written them a letter, to be given to the various abbots and priors along the road to show that they were traveling to Jerusalem not only as pilgrims, but to join the court of the King of Jerusalem, and should be helped if at all possible. The letter also mentioned (Audemande knew this because she had taken it out and read it after the wax had broken) that the lady's virtue should be protected from any unsavory characters on the pilgrim road 'for I know that many men who seek salvation are lost and apt to stray.'

The prior chortled when he read their letter. "Do you know how many of these I read a day, pilgrim? Hundreds, from hundreds of abbeys across Europe. I know of some that sell them to pilgrims, though its usury to do so. This one's no different."

Five months of traveling hadn't been without effect on Hugo, who had learned a thing or two about bartering as he tried to make their deniers last longer. "Her brother's a monk in this abbey, sir, and her father's a knight. Armand of Vinceaux. We're traveling to Jerusalem to join the court of King Baldwin, at 

the request of Sir Armand's lord, Hugh the Ninth of Lusignan. His uncle Guy is married to the king's sister, and this girl is to serve her!"

"We have no room," the prior said finally.

"We can pay," Audemande said sweetly, and the prior turned to look at her.

"How much?" he asked quickly.

"Master Prior, you are a Benedictine, and so, it happens, is my brother. In your Rule, which my brother has taught me well, Benedict quotes our Lord when he says that "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say 'I was a stranger, and you welcomed me' and also says on the subject of guests 'that even the most poor deserve respect.' Would you turn us away if our price were not high enough, or take our money to leave us penniless on the road to Jerusalem?"

The prior sagged, outmanned with his own monastic rule. But Audemande had one more thorn left in her arsenal. "And does not Benedict also say that when electing priors, one should be aware that in the past some priors 'usurped tyrannical power and fostered contention and discord' and one should be sure to report him to the Abbot if he does usurp his position? So, Master Prior, we ask you again -- have you any room for us at your inn?" Audemande smiled sweetly again and the prior melted in defeat.

"I can give you beds in our dormitories- there's a group of pilgrims leaving today. But you'll have to share them, and get your own food; our kitchens cannot follow the Rule when there is no money in our tithe boxes."

"That is fine, master prior," Audemande said levelly, dropping a little curtsey. "I will remember your monks in my prayers tonight, and my brother's abbey will remember yours in their prayer."

"Didn't know your brother's book would be that helpful, little miss," Hugo said, impressed as they were lead off by a noviate to the pilgrim's dormitories. Audemande had insisted on buying a very worn and dogeared copy of The Rule of Benedict, with the intent to read it when they camped at night. Hugo hadn't wanted to part with another one of their precious deniers, but Audemande had told him it would pay for itself, and so it had.

"Bread and cheese for supper?" Audemande asked, watching Hugo count the last of the deniers in his large, tanned palm.

"I don't think they have cheese in Jaffa, young miss. Fellow told me once that Saracens don't eat it. If God didn't want us to eat cheese, why did he give us cows and goats, that's what I want to know," Hugo said stodgily.

"Just bread, then. And fruit, if you can find it. Please, Hugo?" Audemande asked with her winning smile.

Hugo gave in with a quirk of his eyebrow. "If I can find it, no promises," he said, trudging off into the marketplace. Audemande watched him leave and spread out her cloak on half the bed, wondering to herself if there would be a bath for her in Jerusalem before she met the Lady Sybilla. After five months 

of sleeping in her dark pilgrim's cloak and in flea-infested straw, she had bites everywhere and lice in her hair; not befitting for a knight's daughter going into the service of a noble lady like Sybilla in the grandest city in the world.

Digging in her bag, she pulled out her writing board, a planed piece of wood that Hugo had made for her, and her ink stone and brush. Adding a dribble of water from her waterskin and daintily picking a stray hair from the brush, she began her letter to Gregory. Better to write him now while they were still in a place where it might get back to France. And two more copies, after this, with two different pilgrim ships to Messina.

From Audemande, daughter of Armand of Vinceaux, in the port of Jaffa in the Holy Land, to Brother Gregory, of the Order of Saint Benedict at the Abbey of Vinceaux, France. Written this fifteenth day of August in the year of our lord 1182. In the name of the father, and the son, and the holy ghost, I give you greetings, best beloved brother.

I am glad to hear that you are well. Hopefully we can arrange some safe transport of our letters, though a merchant or a good and god-fearing guide; I do not wish to be without your council while I am here, which Abbot John has been so gracious to permit…

This story's been something of a flea in my ear for a little while now, and now that a good portion of it's written, I'm sending my baby out among the lions for critique and review. I am not promising that it will be up to my usual standards of historical accuracy and plot development. I cannot promise it will not be without its flaws. Hopefully, however, it will turn into a good story.

I am departing from my normal procedure on stories of a multiple chapter nature and I am posting it before the story is finished. I know how it ends. I simply have yet to write it down. But there are gaps in the middle of the story that refuse to be filled in, and I cannot promise by the time we get there that they will even attempt to let themselves be bridged. As it is, I hope you will all enjoy it.

Now please, honestly and frankly, what do you think of it so far?