Authors: David Morrell
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Thrillers, #Espionage
Fraternity Of The Stone
In Some Respects, The Intelligence Profession Resembles monastic life with the disciplines and personal sacrifices reminiscent of medieval orders.
-The U.S. Senate's Church Committee Report on Intelligence Activities, 1976
WARRIORS OF GOD
THE DESERT FATHERS
The Roman Empire, dangerously fragmented, made a desperate bid for unity by choosing Christianity as its sole official religion. A few Christian fanatics, disillusioned by this contamination of politics into their religion, retreated from society, venturing into the desert of Egypt, where they lived in caves to seek a mystical conjunction with their God. As word about these spiritual hermits spread, other disillusioned Christians soon joined them, establishing an austere religious community based on fasting, prayer, and physical mortification. By 529, the severe traditions of what some called these "holy madmen" had begun to drift northward through Europe.
And Christian monasticism was born.
THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN
Hassan ibn al-Sabbah, leader of a fanatical sect of Muslims, adopted murder as a sacred duty in his fight to wrest control of his country from Turkish invaders and their ally, the Egyptian caliph. His secret organization of religious killers soon spread west to Syria, where his successors each acquired the title "The Old Man of the Mountain." In 1096, the European crusaders invaded the Mideast, commencing their papally authorized Holy War against the Muslims to regain the Holy Sepulchre. These intruders naturally attracted the attention of "The Old Man" and his followers, who were known as hashishi because of the hashish they allegedly smoked to achieve religious ecstasy and promote the frenzy with which they prepared themselves to face possible martyrdom.
But hashishi was mispronounced by the crusaders.
They carried a different name back to Europe -Assassins.
Though the sun had begun to set, the desert sand had not yet given up its heat. Surrounded by guards, the voluminous tent - made from heavy sailcloth - billowed slightly from a searing breeze. Exhausted horses, slick with sweat, raised dustclouds as the knights who rode them approached from opposite camps. Flagbearers preceded each column, their respective banners depicting three golden lions above each other upon a field of red - the English - and a gold fleur-de-lis upon a field of blue - the French. Though united in a holy cause, they nonetheless disagreed profoundly about politics between their countries, for the French contested land owned by the English in their territory. Due to these strained relations, neither column was willing to tolerate arriving first and thus being made to suffer the indignity of waiting for the other. Scouts on nearby dunes had signaled the progress of each group, ensuring that both delegations would converge on the tent simultaneously.
The columns met: four emissaries in each, along with their retainers. They peered toward a barren mountain in the distance where armies swarmed amid the smoking ruin of a minareted castle. The siege had been brutal, costly in lives, lasting for almost three months; but at last the Muslims here at Acre had been defeated.
For a moment, political differences between French and English were forgotten. Weary but resolute, they praised each other's valor, congratulating themselves on victory. First bodyguards dismounted, then valets who assisted their lords. In contrast with the pride that had made each group determined not to wait for the other, their courtly manners now required them to offer their rivals the privilege of being the first to enter the tent. Practicality solved the dilemma. Whichever lord was closest agreed to leave his servants behind and step ahead.
Inside, the flap of the tent secured, the knights stripped off their weapons, helmets, and chain-mail armor. The air was stifling. After the blaze of the desert sun, their eyes adjusted slowly to the murky light. Shadows from the guards outside darkened the walls of the tent.
The knights assessed each other. On this, the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, the lessons of the earlier Crusades had taught them to wear long gowns to preserve their body moisture and prevent the deadly sun from burning their skin. The gowns were pale, attracting less heat than the brilliant colors that they favored in their homeland. The only concession to color was the large red image of a cross that adorned the front of their gowns - along with the coppery splotches of dried heathen blood.
The men had beards. Even so, their cheeks looked gaunt and dehydrated. Raising hoods to cover their matted hair, they drank wine from cups prepared for them. Given the purpose of this meeting, water would have been preferable. Clear heads, after all, were necessary. But the logistics of the Crusade, the massive territory involved, had resulted in insecure supply lines, and wine - which they had saved for a celebration - was the only liquid available. Though thirsty, they drank it sparingly. For now.
The tallest, most muscular man, an English lord known for his skill with a battleax, spoke first, using the accepted diplomatic language, French. His name was Roger of Sussex. "I recommend that we complete our business first before..." He gestured toward the bread, olives, and dried spicy meat laid out for them.
"Agreed," said the leader of the French contingent, Jacques de Wisant. "Your King Richard will not be joining us?"
"We thought it prudent not to inform him about this meeting. And your King Philip?"
"There are certain matters best discussed in private. Should it prove necessary, he will be told what we decide."
Each knew what the other meant. Though they had guards, they themselves were guards as well, of a higher order. Their function was to arrange protection for their respective kings. Such protection required a network of informers who reported even the vaguest rumors about subversive plots. But seldom were these rumors passed on to Richard or Philip. What a king didn't know would not alarm him or make him suspect that his security staff was not what it should be. Dismissal might take the form of an ax to one's neck.
"Very well, then," an Englishman, William of Gloucester, said, "I suggest we begin."
The nature of the group changed abruptly. Whereas before the knights had been conscious of their French or English allegiance, now their national rivalries disappeared. They shared a common bond, an exclusive code, comrades in the fraternity of the Greek god, Harpocrates.
The Englishman, Roger of Sussex, held a Bible that the monks of his land had copied for him, bound with leather and gilded with gold. He opened it. "The Book of Daniel," he explained. "The passage in which Daniel keeps control of his tongue despite the threat of being eaten by lions. It seemed appropriate."
The ritual began. The eight knights formed a circle. As one, they solemnly placed their right hand upon the Bible and swore themselves to secrecy.
In imitation of their enemies - and due to the difficulty of transporting furniture - they sat on an ornate rug that their armies had liberated from the
defeated Muslim castle. They leaned back on pillows, swirled the wine in their cups, and listened to Pierre de l'tang.
"As the man responsible for arranging the conditions of this meeting," he said, "I remind you that the guards outside stand well away from the walls of the tent. Provided that your voices remain at a normal level, you won't be heard."
"So my assistants informed me," an Englishman, Baldwin of Kent, replied.
The Frenchman nodded his compliments. "Yes, my own assistants apprised me that they were watched."
Baldwin nodded his compliments in return. "But my assistants informed me of something else. Your king intends to divorce his army from Richard's Crusade."
Baldwin narrowed his eyes. "Indeed."
"As Frenchmen, we weren't aware that this Crusade belonged to Richard."
"It does if Philip returns to France."
"Ah, yes, I grant the point." Pierre sipped his wine. "Your assistants have excellent sources. And did they tell you when our king intends to lead his army home?"
"Within a fortnight. Philip plans to take advantage of Richard's absence from court. In exchange for the territory that our country owns in France, your king has promised to support Richard's brother in his bid to take over the English throne."
The Frenchman shrugged. "And what do you propose to do with this information, assuming that it's true?"
Baldwin did not answer.
"I respect your tact." Pierre set down his cup. "It does seem that relations between our countries will soon worsen. Consider this, however. Without rivalry, our skills would not be of use."
"And life would not have interest. Which brings us to our reason for requesting this meeting," Jacques de Wisant interrupted.
The Englishmen sat straighter.
"Assuming that your sources are correct," Jacques said, "if indeed we leave the Crusade within a fortnight, we regret that we'll also leave a particularly fascinating unsolved problem. As a parting gesture of the fraternity we share, we'd like to assist you in finding an answer."
Baldwin studied him. "You're referring, of course - "
"To the recent murder of your countryman - Conrad of Montferrat."
"Forgive me for being surprised that an Englishman's death, no matter how shocking, distresses you."
"Almost as much as the previous identically shocking murder of our own countryman - Raymond de Chatil-lon."
No further explanation was necessary. Six years earlier, a truce between the crusaders and the forces of Saladin had been broken when Raymond de Chatillon attacked the caravan of Saladin's sister. For this violation, there was no peaceful redress, so the great Muslim counter-crusade, the jihad, had begun. One year later, during the siege of Jerusalem, Raymond's head had been found on the altar of the Shrine of the Holy Sepulchre. A curved knife lay beside it.
Since then, dozens of identical assassinations had taken place, achieving their intended purpose, teaching fear of the night to the crusading lords. Yesterday, after the fall of the Muslim castle here at Acre, Conrad of Montferrat's head had been found on the altar set up for the victory mass. A curved knife lay beside it, a knife that the crusaders had now learned to identify with The Old Man of the Mountain and his cult of fanatics.
"Assassins." Roger made a face as if intending to spit out his wine. "Cowards. Thieves plundering lives in the dark. The proper way for a lord to die is in daylight in battle, bravely matching his skills with those of his enemy, even if the enemy is heathen. These sneaks have no regard for honor, for dignity, for the pride of the warrior. They're despicable."
"But nonetheless they exist," Pierre de l'tang pointed out. "More important, they're effective. I confess to morbid suspicions that my own head might be next on the altar."
The others nodded, admitting fears about themselves.
"Still there's nothing we can do, except to gather more bodyguards around us while we sleep," William of Gloucester said. "And even then, these assassins slip past our best defenses. It's as if they can make themselves invisible."
"Don't credit them with mystery," Jacques said. "They're human like ourselves. But highly trained."
"In barbarous tactics. There's no way to fight them," William said.
The group regarded Jacques intensely.
"You have a suggestion?" 'Roger asked.
"What is it, then?"
"Fight fire with fire."
"I won't consider it," William fumed. "Use their obscene methods against them? Become as cowardly as they are, creeping upon their leaders while they sleep? It's unconscionable." "But only because it's never been done."
William stood in distress. "Because it goes against the warrior's code."
"But these sneaks are heathen. Uncivilized," Jacques said. "If they're too primitive to understand honor and dignity, we're not bound to respect them by adhering to the code."
His remark had force. The tent became silent as the group considered the implications.
William nodded. "I confess to wanting Conrad avenged."
"And Raymond," a Frenchman reminded him.
"I'd spear a mad dog regardless of whether he was or wasn't facing me," another Frenchman said, and made a fist.
"But the scheme isn't practical," Baldwin interrupted. "The Muslims would recognize any of us who tried to infiltrate among them. Even the night wouldn't hide the purity of our skin."
"And bear this in mind," Roger added. "No matter if we darkened our skin with substances, we don't understand their language or their ways. If one of them spoke to us while we went among them in disguise, or if we made a wrong gesture... "
"I wasn't proposing that we try to infiltrate," Jacques said.
"Not ourselves. We send in one of their own."
"Impossible. They hate us. Where would we find such a - ? "
"One who saw the error of his heathen ways, who converted to the one true God, a Muslim who became a Christian."
The English were shocked.