Authors: Judith Tarr
The Dagger and the Cross
A Novel of the Crusades
Book View Café
ISBN: 978 1 61138 073 6
Copyright © 1991, 2011 Judith Tarr
Who, in the early hours of the morning at a
Boskone not too long ago and not too far away,
presented me with an “angle” and a plot, and gave me the beginnings of this
The good parts are yours. The errors and infelicities, of
course, are entirely my own.
If there was an inch of breathing space anywhere within the
walls of Acre, there was a pilgrim in it: gaping at the sights, battling the
crowds, or giving thanks to God that he had come at last to this land across
the sea, this gateway to Jerusalem. Byzantium might be greater, Damascus might
be older, Jerusalem infinitely more holy, but Acre was the port to which every
pilgrim in Europe was best advised to come, if he would salve his soul with the
greatest of all pilgrimages.
Acre was the gate, and this was the season. Fine sailing
weather, the furnace heat of summer some weeks off
and Easter just
past: most holy of feasts in the most holy of places. The outer harbor seemed
all ships and scarce a glimmer of water. The inner harbor, safe in its walls
and its chain, warded the thronging fleets of the city’s own. Even the landing
of the Ordemer, the unsheltered shore that faced the westward sea, had all the
traffic it could bear.
In that press, even a king might find himself compelled to
wait his turn. And a prince, to pace a vanishingly narrow strip of quay, even
that much won for him by determined guards and the exercise of his justly
notorious temper. The fleet was there, crawling past the Tower of Flies—such a
city: its harbor warded by a tower named for Beelzebub, and its land wall
anchored by a tower called Accursed. Five slender graceful ships sailing under
the devil’s tower, each with a seabird carved on the prow, and on the foremost
a crown; and he was here, landbound, walled in noise and stench and thrusting,
thronging humanity. He could not even prowl properly. There was no room.
Something blocked what space he had, halting him. He glared
down. The obstacle glared up, magnificently fearless. All at once he laughed.
He caught her in his arms, swung her high, held her level with his eyes. Her
glare more than matched the one he had forsaken. “Put me down,” she said, each
word icily distinct.
“Not without a ransom,” he said.
Her jaw jutted. It was a most determined jaw, although she
had not even ten summers to put behind it. “I am too old for children’s games.”
He raised a brow. “Are you, now? And when did you come to
“This morning,” she said. “When you told everyone else to
wait at home. I decided to be grown up, and decide for myself.”
His brow rose a fraction higher. “Is that logic, milady? The
others are quite sufficiently grown up, and they obey me.”
“They choose to.” She wriggled, to little effect. “My lord
uncle, will you put me down? If it pleases you?”
He obliged her then, for courtesy. She settled her skirts
and pushed her tousled hair out of her face. She was not a pretty child: too
pale, too thin, all eyes and angles. What she would be when she was grown, not
many had the eyes to see.
Which was, he reflected, a mercy. She had her mother’s
coloring: storm-blue eyes, brown curling hair with lights of red and gold. She
seemed to have her mother’s face, if not that lady’s robust Norman bones. The
rest of it would come clear later. Much later, God willing.
Once she had won back her dignity, she made her way to the
end of the pier, and poised there. The guard nearest maintained an impressive
calm, but his eye was keen, even as he spared his lord a smile.
Prince Aidan smiled back a little wryly, and went to stand
beside her. After a sufficient while, her hand crept into his. A little longer
and she leaned against him. The ease of it, the perfection of trust, caught at
He shook his head. She had distracted him admirably; and he
had not even threatened to tan her hide for disobedience. The fleet was a whole
shiplength closer. That would be the pilot on the flagship’s deck, the lean
whipcord man in the turban of a Muslim. The mariners about him seemed strange
after so long in this alien country: two breeds of them, they seemed to be,
tall and narrow or short and solid, pale under the weathering of sea and sun or
nut-brown from head to foot, hawk-keen or stone-blunt, but all black-haired,
sea-eyed, blue or grey or misty green. Home faces, faces bred under another
sky, on grey stone and grey sea and mist-grey moors and headlands. Rhiyana,
Rhiyanon, Rhiannon. Armorica once, Less Britain after, but the magic that was
in it, and the line of kings that ruled it, had changed its name and given it
another patron; and even the Christians could not deny or destroy her. For a
moment he seemed to breathe that air, cold and clean, and taste the edge of
strangeness that made it wonderful.
He gasped, coughed. Ysabel regarded him in concern. He
smiled at her. She was dubious, but she let him be. He took a shallow breath of
the fetor that was Acre, and raised his eyes again to the ship. There was one
face of them all, one that his heart cried for a sight of; one that was not
there. Some he might have known, a dozen years agone, and some of those sadly
aged in human fashion, and one, a woman’s, made him gasp. But it could not—she
Gwenllian was an old woman. He knew it; as he knew that she
had not come. Elen, this had to be, just past twenty, and the image of her
grandmother when she was young, slender and tall, hair as black and eyes as
grey and skin almost as white as his own. She had grown up willful and proud
enough for a queen, standing under the canopy in what seemed to be full mail.
Cloth of silver, cunningly cut and sewn. The sun caught her
briefly, dazzling him.
Then he saw the one who had come up beside her. No matter
what they were, no matter how close minds and hearts might be, they whose
bodies had slept twined in the womb could never be wholly content save in each
other’s living presence. He met his brother’s eyes across the narrowing expanse
of harbor. A long sigh left them both.
“Allah!” came a mutter behind him in the accent of a Kipchak
Tartar. “As like as two hairs on the same dog.”
“That is not,” said a voice almost exactly like it, “how I
would put it. One being a prince, after all. And the other a king.”
Aidan kept his back to the two of them. They would know
better than to think that he had not heard; though they might cherish a glimmer
of hope. Their captain’s hiss was considerably more distinct, and the muted
clatter of two armed men snapping to attention. Aidan swallowed a smile. Timur
and Ilkhan had never quite believed that any pair of brothers could be more
alike than they themselves were. Now they were learning the error of their
As long as it had taken the fleet to make its way through
the harbor, the last moments seemed to pass in a blur of speed. Shouts from the
ships; shouts from the shore; space cleared, lines flung, sailors clambering up
masts and over sides. The passengers waited in tight-leashed patience.
Aidan had no such virtue. He damned prudence, damned
dignity, damned his own princely finery, and leaped the long stretch over and
upward, onto the deck. His brother was there. Who reached first, who caught
whom, neither ever knew or cared.
Gwydion was the quiet one, the water-twin, the merest shade
taller, the merest whisper more slender. A smile from him was like a shout of
laughter. He was smiling now, holding Aidan at arm’s length, drinking him in.
His hand brushed Aidan’s face, half cuff, half-caress, ruffling the close-cut
beard. “Gone Saracen, have you, brother?”
Aidan eyed Gwydion’s own beard—new since they parted, and
most becoming. “What is this, then? A new fashion?”
“A bow to kingly dignity,” said Gwydion.
“And besides, how else can we drive people mad trying to
guess which of us is which?”
“That’s easy,” someone said behind Aidan.
Aidan spun. Ysabel perched coolly on the rail, looking from
one to the other with a narrow eye.
“We are,” said Aidan with taut-strung patience, “indistinguishable.”
“You are wearing your black coat, the one the sultan gave
you, and he is wearing a blue cotte,” she said, “with silver birds all over it.
You do have the same face. That’s amazing. But you’re two different people.”
“We are that,” Gwydion granted her. “Is it so obvious, then?”
She nodded. Then, as if she had remembered at last who he
was, she slid down to the deck and curtsied. “My lord king.”
The King of Rhiyana bowed, all gracious, and hardly laughing
at all. “My lady. You would be Ysabel?”
“Ysabel de Mortmain,” she said.
Gwydion inclined his head. “You honor us.”
There were grins here and there at the spectacle of a
king offering full courtesy to a small tousled girlchild. Not an excessively
clean one, either. Aidan judged that she had come up one of the hawsers. Her
cotte would never be the same for it.
She, having paid tribute to courtly manners, returned to
herself with a snap, and cast a curious eye over the ship. “Is this yours? Do
you sail it yourself? Are you the captain, or do you have someone who does it
Gwydion came as close to laughter as he ever came. “Yes, it
is mine, and I have ample help to sail it, but yes I am the captain, and the
admiral, too, since this is a fleet and I command it. When time is not so
pressing, would it please my lady to examine it?”
“That means,” Aidan said, “that his majesty has duties, and
you are keeping him from them. Here, milady. Since you are so determined to go
where you are expressly forbidden to go, you may atone for it by practicing
Her glare was eloquent regarding his own failings in that
quarter, but she knew better than to say it aloud. He
bowed to her
wisdom and took her by the hand, turning toward the high ones who waited still,
in just such patience as he preached, under the awning. The lady who led them
seemed much amused, even as she came to his embrace.
“Elen,” he said. “Elen, I’d never have known you.”
“I would always know you, uncle,” she said. Her voice was
silver-sweet, and the lilt of their people was strong in it. So too, now, a
ripple of mirth. “Even without your lord brother to remind me. You don’t
“No,” Aidan said, very still. “No. We never do.”
Her eyes, so like her grandmother’s, looked levelly into
his. She was not bitter. No more than Gwenllian had ever been; or Gereint her
mother’s brother, who died in a castle near Jerusalem, the night before Aidan
came to share his Crusade. Now Gwenllian grew old, as Elen knew that she
herself would. But Aidan who was Gwenllian’s brother, Aidan would not, no more
than Gwydion who was called the Elvenking. A mortal king had loved an immortal
woman under the boughs of Broceliande, and his sons had inherited her magic,
but his daughter had inherited his humanity.
Human eyes met eyes that were not human at all, and smiled. “Did
you think that I would grow up ugly?”
“I knew that you would grow up beautiful.” Aidan kissed her
lightly on the brow. “You are most welcome in Outremer.”
“I am most happy to be here.”
She was: it sang in her. He caught her, to her startlement
and sudden delight, and spun her about, and set her down as lightly as if she
had still been a child. “Come, catling! See what a kingdom we have for you to
Ysabel did not know if she liked these strangers who had
come to claim her prince. The king—he was bearable; he was like the other half
of Aidan, the half that was quiet, and knew all the uses of patience. He needed
them, in the customs house of Acre. Where Aidan would have lost his temper and
done something regrettable, Gwydion spoke softly, leveled his calm grey eyes,
and got what he wanted. Ysabel decided that she could approve of him.