SideQuest Adventures No.1(The Foreworld Saga)(6)
Author:Mark Teppo

    “I will be staying with you from here on,” Feronantus said, giving the quartermaster a means to disregard the issue of the previous night’s lodging. “Though, I hope we will not be staying here overlong.”

    “Yes,” Geoffrey said, taking a step back and pushing his tongue into his cheek. “King Richard’s concern about the ransom may be nothing more than the fertile imagination of a man who has been imprisoned too long. And if we march on the imperial caravan, could it not be construed that we are making an aggressive move of our own?”

    “Only if they attack us before we have a chance to explain ourselves,” Feronantus replied.

    “And what explanation would we give them? The same one you gave us yesterday? Do you have any letters from Richard to support your story?”

    Feronantus shook his head.

    “The imperial ambassadors will be very suspicious of anyone offering aid and protection during their journey. As would I, if I were in the same position. How can we convince them our motives are pure?”

    “Maybe we should wait until the French attack them,” Rutger suggested.

    “If the French even attack. In the meantime, where are we? Riding alongside the caravan?” Geoffrey asked. “Do you not see how that could be even more insulting to the emperor?”

    “I think the emperor cares more about the money actually arriving than how it is protected during its journey,” Feronantus pointed out. “I do not care how insulted his ambassadors may be. If there is no French plot, then we have simply ensured that the English ransom is delivered. If there is a French plot, then our aid will be useful and respected.”

    One of the other knights spoke up. “Queen Eleanor supported our order in the previous crusade. We sought to pay our debts by aiding her son. Would not that include doing whatever is in our power to assist in his safe return to England?”

    “This is a game between the emperor, the king of France, and King Richard,” Geoffrey said. “We do not wish to antagonize any one of the three by choosing a side.”

    “Even if one of them were an aggressor against fellow Christians?” Feronantus asked.

    “That is a matter of perspective, boy,” Geoffrey snapped. “You were in the Holy Land with King Richard. You saw the mess he caused.”

    “He won back access to Jerusalem,” Feronantus said. “The other princes wanted more glory. They wanted to sacrifice more of us. By making peace with Saladin, King Richard saved many lives. He acts while others stand around and shake their swords and plot against each other. You may not like the message I have brought to you from King Richard, but the gist of it is that he seeks to prevent bloodshed. Why are we quibbling about aiding him? We are not assisting King Philip in stealing England’s coin. The emperor has not promised us a share of that money if we assist in ensuring that it arrives safely. Nor is the emperor offering us a portion of this money to be his sword arm in whatever action he desires to take in Italy. It may not be our place to condone the actions of a king or an emperor, but it is our place to make sure that what is promised actually happens.”

    “We have to protect them from their own base desires,” Rutger said.

    That comment won him a few guffaws from the other knights and a stern look from Geoffrey. Rutger stood fast by his words, though, and Feronantus laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder in support.

    “King Richard could have asked us to help him escape,” he said, “for is he not protected by the decree of the Pope that all crusaders be allowed to return home after they have served the Church in the Holy Land? But he hasn’t, for that would be beneath the dignity of a king and a righteous knight. The emperor seeks to put him on trial for his actions in the Holy Land—actions that our order participated in. Are we not on trial as well? We aren’t protecting the money for Richard’s sake, or to take a side in this conflict between these three men. We’re protecting the money because it is our duty to do so.”

    After some deliberation, Geoffrey nodded. “Very well,” he said, “but we are not going in such numbers as to make the imperial escort nervous. Is that satisfactory?”

    Feronantus bowed his head. “Aye, brother, it is. We seek to supplement their company, not threaten it.”

    “I will lead it,” Geoffrey continued. “And you are coming,” he said, pointing at Rutger. “You will be in charge of the base desires of our mounts.”

    “Shoving hay in one end and shoveling shit away from the other is the cycle of life, Sir Geoffrey,” Rutger said. “It is an honor to be included in such a critical role.”

    “Perhaps when you speak less rashly in the future, I might be inclined to offer you a more elevated position,” Geoffrey said to Rutger. He clapped his hands once, forestalling any further discussion. “Pack your heavy gear,” Geoffrey said to the remainder of the men in the room. “There is no reason for us all to be as foolish as Rutger.”

    Maria rode south from Mainz. It might have been quicker to follow the Rhine, as she and Feronantus had after leaving Speyer, but that would have felt too much like doubling back on their existing route, and she knew she would not be able to find freemen like she needed there. She had to reach Strasbourg, at least, and probably go farther. Maybe even into France. She had come to Speyer from Queen Berengaria’s court in Poitiers, and so knew the route she had to take.

    She wore a plain robe and cloak and kept her hair tied back and hidden beneath a hood, trying to minimize the fact that she was a woman riding alone, but she could only do so much to hide her shape and size. She had worn men’s clothes in the past, and while it had been an effective disguise, it was a difficult charade to maintain. Her best assets at this time were speed and the invisibility afforded by the judicious use of silver coins. Many a farmer was happy to feed both her and her mount for a few shards of silver. Country folk were very good at not asking too many questions and forgetting they had seen her as soon as she passed beyond the next hill.

    She would reach Strasbourg in a few days. She knew several inns there with garrulous staff, and they could tell her where to find English freeman. Richard had said that his army had been scattered during its return from the Holy Land. She had wanted to press him as to why this was the case, but heeding Queen Berengaria’s admonishment to curb her tongue in the presence of the king, she had said nothing.

    Besides, she knew why. She didn’t need to ask him. He had a history of leaving people behind.

    The Shield-Brethren knight, Feronantus, on the other hand, was not the sort to abandon anyone. Richard’s chivalry was too feigned, too much the sort of courtly behavior effected by troubadours and young men. Feronantus was the opposite, and he intrigued her. During the few days they had traveled together since leaving the imperial court, she had discerned little about him (and he, in turn, had asked few questions about her—and his lack of curiosity was almost as interesting as his reticence). He spoke German fluently, suggesting that he had grown up in the empire; he knew French and Latin and a bit of Arabic—all of which was conversant with what she knew of his order’s training; and while he didn’t seem to be educated, he was clearly intelligent. She could discuss literature and philosophy with him, and while he would not necessarily know of the works she mentioned, he was able to engage her on their contents. On martial matters, she had no doubt he was exceptionally trained.

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