It was with an anxious yet measured stride that a young maidservant hurried down the hollow, somber halls of the Crequy Castle. There was no reason for fear, yet the very air in that grief-sticken abode breathed of a silent and menacing doom.
Making her way through the familiar corridors, the maid at last came to the bedchamber of her mistress. Raising her hand to knock on the ornate door, she hesitated. Quietly placing her veiled head against the wood, she listened. Nothing. At least, not what she was listening for. During those bitter days, the servants strove to never come upon the Lady Mahtilde while she was grieving.
With a gentle rap against the door, the maid called out to her ladyship. The natural reply came from within, and the young servant entered the room.
The bedroom was dimly lit, for the window was closed and shuttered to keep out the cold winter air, leaving the fire in the hearth as the only light. Her ladyship's sitting chair was naturally very close to the warm flames. But the maid was surprised to find the chair empty, and Lady Mahtilde instead sitting beside it on the stone floor.
One day, shortly thereafter, a breathless Muslim came hurrying into the tent of Raoul’s master. All eyes were immediately fixed upon him; Raoul especially strained to see his face. It was filled with fear.
“The Crusaders!” the man announced quickly. “They have routed our army!”
Raoul sat up, his eyes wide. Though unable to completely understand the Arabian, Raoul caught the word for Crusader. Gesturing for the little slave boy, the knight whispered,
“What is it? What did he say?”
The little slave did not answer him at once, and Raoul’s eyes turned towards his master, who was questioning the newcomer impatiently.
“What is this nonsense? What are you talking about?”
“What I say is true,” the man insisted, “Our armies have suffered a defeat in an attack against the Catholics. Our men have been routed into retreat and are not far behind me.”
Raoul felt a nudge against his arm. It was the slave boy. “They are talking about the war,” he explained. “Our armies have fled a battle.”
This news of victory sent a thrill through the imprisoned Crusader’s heart. But it was soon clouded by the terrible realization that no answer to his ransom had returned. His master too wondered at his messenger’s delay.
“Well if the attack was as near as you say,” the stout Saracen retorted hotly, “Then I would have known. I sent a man to the Crusader’s camp not long ago and he has yet to return.”
But what Raoul and his master did not know was that the messenger who carried the letter of ransom had arrived at seemingly the worst possible time. Caught up in the midst of the battle, the Arab was mistaken for an attacker and slain with the other Saracens. And then, with the roles reversed from those of the perilous mountain ambush, the Muslim armies fled the victorious Crusaders.
No sooner had Raoul’s master spoken, though, then the newcomer’s words were proven true. A sudden sound of horses and armored men came bearing down upon the little camp. Raoul turned eagerly towards the mouth of the tent. The pursuing Crusaders had found him!
His sudden hopes, however, were mercilessly crushed by the rapid footfall and entrance of a Saracen soldier.
“Our armies are in retreat,” he stated forcefully, “The Catholic troops are in pursuit and this encampment is in danger.”
A terrible quiet fell upon the Muslims. Raoul scanned their pale faces - focusing especially on his master’s. The Saracen fingered his sword nervously, his mind filled with thought. For a single moment, the French captive permitted himself once more to hope. With the Crusaders so near, negotiations for his ransom could easily be arranged.
But his master broke the ominous silence with a nervous whisper.
“Hurry!” he breathed. “Prepare to leave at once!”
“We are escaping!” the little boy cried out excitedly to Raoul.
Raoul stared at his master in dismay. Leave? He could not be serious! What about the money? The 200 pieces of gold?
“Master!” The young lord stumbled through the terror stricken Arabs, who now fluttered about their tents like frightened hornets from an overturned hive. “What of the ransom?” he pleaded, catching hold of the Saracen’s long tunic.
The master knew what it was his slave wanted, but he refused to give him so much as a look. Terror had seized his timid heart. Freeing his robe from the knight’s grasp, the Saracen motioned to a passing servant.
“See that the Frenchman is securely bound!” he pointed impatiently at Raoul. “We must travel at once and with great haste!”
Immediately, the French lord found his hands quickly thrust and fastened behind his back. Almost in a daze, Raoul offered no resistance. His mind was in a whirl. It was like a dream. A nightmare.
Please God… he prayed. Please God, no! This cannot be happening. I’m so close. So close to King Louis’ army. They could simply rescue me. If there was just a little more time?
A sturdy rope was thrust around his neck, and with a shove he was herded outside. Like a harnessed cattle, the knight was gathered with the rest of the Saracen’s possession. Raoul shut his eyes in desperation.
Please, Blessed Virgin, Please! the poor captive begged. Blessed Mother, don’t let them take me! Just a little more time and my friends will break my chains without a ransom. Please! Raoul pleaded like a child to his Mother’s tender heart. Save me! Delay the infidels or hasten the Crusaders. But please! Do not let them flee with me!
But flee the Saracens did, as if Death itself was at their heels. For what seemed an unending string of days, their flight continued. And with each passing hour, Raoul grew sick at heart; his courage waning with each step he took. For with every mile, the French lord was being dragged further and further away from his rescuers… and freedom.
“My lady?” the girl stepped forward with a slight bow. “Am I disturbing you?”
“Hardly.” Mahtilde responded, sitting up with a smile. “I was just singing my little love to sleep. I fear I may have joined him.”
“Then I awoke you.” The maid sighed disappointedly.
A brief but uneasy pause followed, and then, with another bow, the servant relayed her message.
“I was sent to inform you, my lady, of the arrival of the Lord of Renty.”
“The Lord of Renty?” Mahtilde rose to her feet.
“His business, he said, took him near Crequy and so he has stopped by the castle to inquire about your ladyship. He also brought some food and things for the old count.”
“How kind of him. And he is still here?”
“Yes,” the girl bowed. “He hoped to see you. But he said that if it were inconvenient to be graced by your presence, he would readily take his leave.”
Lady Mahtilde nodded understandingly. The Lord of Renty was one of Sir Raoul’s good and dear friends. Though all consolation was fruitless to her, his sincere sympathies and dependable friendship were a sure support in this difficult time. Of course she would go see him.
Leaving her handmaid to watch the infant Baudouin, Lady Mahtilde went straightway to the Great Hall.
When she arrived, she found her dear friend standing in wait.
“Lady Mahtilde” he said, reaching out. “You came.”
“As did you.” Mahtilde smiled graciously, as the knight kissed her hand. “You are kind to think of us, sir.”
“Neither you nor Sir Gerard leave my mind,” the lord assured her. “I hear his health is failing.”
Mahtilde lowered her face. “Yes,” she admitted. “Every day he grows worse. Ever since that… dreadful day.” Slowly, she raised a soiled kerchief to her eyes. “He has never been the same.”
At the sight of the poor lady’s tears, the knight’s hand instinctively went for her shoulder.
“Nothing has,” he said quietly, looking sadly at the young widow. Several painful moments passed, as he sought for a word or thought that could ease her sorrow. But in such grief, there is little that brings comfort. Nevertheless, there was an overwhelming urge within him, almost a need, to console... and even protect the Lady Mahtilde from her sorrow.
At last the words, simple though sincere, came.
“My lady,” he said. “You have suffered a terrible blow. Never has there been so noble a man as Raoul, and therefore never has there been such a loss.”
Through her mourning veil, the Lord of Renty saw Lady Mahtilde raise her eyes.
“You carry a heavy burden, Mahtilde” he said solemnly, “If there is ever anything I can do to help you, I implore you to tell me.”
Before Mahtilde could assure him of her gratitude, their conversation was interupted.
“Sir Baudouin is here, my Lady!” A young courier announced briskly, entering the Hall.
“Baudouin?” Mahtilde asked, her face lighting up at the name of her dear husband's brother. “Please, show him in.”
With a curt bow, the herald left the room.
“I shall not detain you, Mahtilde,” the Lord of Renty said, graciously excusing himself. “Please give my best to the count Sir Gerard.”
“I will, my dear friend.” the lady extended her hand. “You do more good than you know.”
The noble lord took the delicate hand and pressed it to his lips. “I only beg, good lady,” he looked now into her eyes, “that you remember me when the burden becomes too heavy to carry alone.”
Deeply affected, a gentle nod was her silent, yet significant reply.
When the Lord of Renty had gone, Lady Mahtilde had little time to wait for her brother-in-law.
“Baudouin!” she cried, her hands extended out at the sight of him. And a smile, the brightest yet to have graced her lips in many days, spread across her lovely face. “It is so good to see you.”
“And you, Mahtilde,” the young man embraced her cordially. “It is good to see your pretty smile.”
Another one followed his compliment, and the lady led him to a table. Motioning to a passing maid, Mahtilde ordered some wine to be brought for Sir Baudouin.
“Don't trouble yourself, Mahtilde.” he interjected. The lady of the castle ignored his protest and sent the servant off.
“You must be tired,” she insisted, sitting down beside him. “It certainly is a surprise to see you here,” she began pleasantly.
But Baudouin took a defensive tone. “What do you mean? You act as if nothing had happened! Of course I should come here. Why wouldn’t I?” He eyed her impatiently.
Mahtilde turned away, hurt. “I am sorry, Baudouin,” she said sincerely, “I meant no harm.”
Her brother-in-law, seemingly affected by her sorry countenance, took her hand. “Neither did I, Mahtilde,” he said, his voice soothing and compassionate. “And I am sorry. It is just that…”
Mahtilde quietly met his somber gaze. He stuttered a moment.
“How - How is father?” he asked, coming to the dreadful subject at once. The lovely lady frowned.
“Very poorly,” she admitted, standing up. “He has not enjoyed an hour's good health from the moment he heard the dreadful news.”
“And nothing helps him?” His tone was more inquiring than compassionate.
“He has been tended to by the most learned physicians.” Mahtilde wrung her hands impatiently. “I'm just afraid...” tears welled up in her eyes. “You cannot heal a broken heart.”
“And yet he does not seem to die,” was the sullen response.
Mahtilde softly turned towards her brother-in-law. His set face betrayed a great deal of thought and anxiety, and the tender woman’s heart went out to him. Submerged in her own grief, everything was viewed in a compassionate light.
Baudouin remained silent though till the servant girl returned with the wine.
“Will you join me, Mahtilde?” he asked, breaking out of his sudden mood.
“No. Thank you, Baudouin.” she said sadly.
“But you must have something,” he insisted.
Mahtilde simply shook her head. Then, drying her eyes, she said, “I must go and tell Gerard you have come! He will be so glad to see you.”
“Gently, though, Mahtilde,” he cautioned. “He is very weak. And I would not startle him.”
Mahtilde nodded mournfully. Then, with a sudden smile, Baudouin tactfully broke the melancholy.
“Tell me, how is my nephew?” he asked.
“Oh your little namesake?” the lady smiled through her tears. “He is my only consolation in this nightmare. And, thanks be to God, his health is excellent. Would you not say so?” Mahtilde now turned to the maid standing in wait.
“Oh yes, my lady!” the girl heartily agreed, glad to join in some cheer. “The little Lord of Crequy is doing manfully well!” she said proudly. Her mistress, however, gave her a sharp look.
“Pray do not call him that!” Mahtilde said quickly.
The young servant reddened. “Very good, my lady.”
Then, with a weak smile, Mahtilde added, “Not yet.”
An uncomfortable silence ensued. At length, Mahtilde excused herself with the repeated offer of telling Sir Gerard of his son's arrival. When she had gone, Baudouin turned curiously to the maidservant.
“What did the Lady Mahtilde mean by that?” he asked, with a strange look on his face.
“Oh. Well,” the girl awkwardly picked up the wine jug and went to fill Baudouin's emptied glass. “It's just that... well, her ladyship refuses to believe her husband's death.”
“I see...” Baudouin reached for his wine. “Perhaps such illusions are the only thing that can sustain her in such grief.” He sipped his wine.
“I - I am sure that is so, good Sir,” the maid stuttered in agreement.
“Still,” the young man set down his glass. “It is a foolish hope to flatter herself with. The Lord of Crequy is dead.”
Then, with a look and a tone whose subtleties were lost upon the simple maidservant, Sir Baudouin added thoughtfully, “And it is a foolish title to bestow upon an infant.”
It was a dark and ominous sleep from which Lord Raoul awoke. Slowly, almost painfully, consciousness returned to him. His waking thoughts came gradually, as his mind began to grasp the reality that he was still alive. Thinking back through the hazy darkness, Raoul recalled his last memories in the dreadful mountain pass: the sudden ambush, the surrounding enemy, and the merciless slaughter of his men. His heart fell as he remembered the death of his brothers, riddled with so many arrows. But then, Raoul looked back upon his last memory, when that final arrow had struck him, casting him to the ground. He assuredly should have died. And yet, he clearly still lived.
How was I rescued? he wondered. Lying on his back, he saw only the roof of his abode. For many months he had lived in tents and their interior was indeed familiar to him. But to Raoul there was something in this mistily lit tent that made him uneasy.
A sudden pain in his head broke his thoughts and brought home to him the reality of his wounds. Uncomfortable though he was, Raoul could feel that his wounds had been bandaged. Instinctively reaching towards his forehead, the young knight heard a sound that made his blood run cold.
It was the heavy and hard clank of the chains fastened to his arm.
Raoul had been captured.
A flood of questions and fears rushed through his anxious mind. Where was he? How long had he been caught? What had happened to his fellow Crusaders? Or the rest of the Catholic Army? Why had his enemies saved his life? What did they want with him?
Shutting his eyes, Raoul strove to calm himself. Blessed Lady, he prayed, Holy Virgin Mary, I am in your hands. Strengthen me. Protect me. A dreadful thought broke through his prayers. What if the Saracens had healed him so as to kill him? Raoul had heard many a tragic tale of captured Crusaders who had been tortured to deny their Catholic Faith and accept the Muslim religion of the Saracens. Those who refused were martyred, but often only after enduring the most excruciating pains.
Dear God, the Crusader whispered inaudibly. Please save me from my enemies - and Thine. Then with a sudden conviction and grace, he added, But not as I will. Thy will be done.
A strange sound caused him to turn his head. It was a little slave boy, who had wandered into the tent on an errand. Glancing at the captive knight, his young eyes widened. He turned on his heels and hurried out, shouting something that the Frenchman could not understand.
As Raoul watched, a stout looking Saracen stepped into the tent, with the little slave at his side.
“You are awake at last,” the Saracen beamed. “I almost feared you would not live. It would have been a pitiful waste of my money. But you are young and strong. Surely Allah was protecting you,” he nodded proudly. Then, looking at his prisoner's face, he realized that the knight could not understand him.
“You do not speak Syriac?” the Muslim asked. Receiving no answer, he motioned for his slave to translate.
Hearing the question in French, Raoul answered him by shaking his head.
“It is not important,” the Saracen said, speaking a little French. “The important thing is that my new slave is alive.”
Speaking again in Syriac, the Arabian began asking Raoul many questions. All of them were translated by the boy, and Raoul in response gave the essential details of who he was and where he had come from. Yes, he was a lord - Sir Raoul of Crequy, France. And he had domain over its lands, as well as the neighboring provinces of Fressin.
His master seemed very pleased at what he heard and the boy, in turn, briefly explained to the prisoner how it had happened that Raoul was caught, captured and sold. It was confirmed, to Raoul's distress, that he had been the only survivor of the ambush. Raoul also learned that for several days he had been unconscious, due to loss of blood from the wounds inflicted by the Saracen archers. It was likewise Saracens, skilled in the medical fields, that had tended to and healed his near fatal injuries. But why?
“A ransom!” Raoul's master spoke the French himself. “I will win a great ransom for you, Crusader!”
So saying, he approached the cot on which his lordly prisoner lay chained. As best as he could, Raoul attempted to sit up. Then, without a word, the Saracen held out a proud hand for the Crusader to kiss.
A strange feeling came over the young lord. Here he lay bound and wounded, while his enemy, without even a noble rank, was humbling Raoul to venerate his oppressing hand. The struggle within him, however fierce, was brief; for he suddenly received the grace to yield to the humiliating trial that God had reduced him to.
Smothering his pride, Lord Raoul bent forward and kissed what was now his master's hand. This he did with such apparent willingness, and even cheer, that the Muslim was impressed. The knight sensed this, and felt emboldened by it.
“May I request a favor of my master?” he asked suddenly. The boy relayed the question and the Saracen gestured for him to continue.
“There was a ring - or rather half a ring - in a bag around my neck.” Raoul spoke slowly, his eyes fixed on the Arabian. “May I have it back?”
The boy looked from the master to the slave. There was silent and thoughtful pause. Without a reply, the Saracen turned and stepped towards a nearby table. After a moment's search, he pulled out a tiny well-worn bag.
Raoul recognized it at once and looked hopefully at his master. The Saracen returned the look with a simple nod and handed him the precious treasure.
“Take it,” he said indifferently, “I shall get more than that for your ransom.”
Mildly puzzled at the eagerness with which his slave took the bag, the Saracen simply shrugged his shoulders. With his arms bound, Raoul could not easily empty the bag, but he could feel the ring inside. As his master turned and left him, the knight pressed the little bag to his heart with a fervent and grateful prayer.
In the days that followed, Raoul was well taken care of by his captors. His master watched him eagerly, as the young knight’s strength slowly returned. As soon as he was sure his prisoner would live, the Saracen set a price on Raoul’s head.
“I will accept 200 gold pieces for you,” said the Muslim. “And not a single coin less. You can write?”
“Yes, sir.” Raoul nodded.
“Here then.” A parchment and pen were set before the French prisoner. “Write a letter to your friends. Set the amount in clear terms, mind you! And I will send it off with a messenger.”
Humiliating as it was, a certain hopeful thrill went through Raoul as he penned his ransom note. What joy it would give his friends and the other Crusaders to know that he was in fact alive. Once freed from his captivity, he would surely repay their kindness. In fact, he would never forget it! The little time he had spent as an infidel’s slave had given him a gratitude and longing for the free air.
The message was instantly dispatched via a hired Arab and Raoul and his master both anxiously awaited the answer. It was not long in coming.