Many years had passed - long and bitter ones for the lady, hard and painful ones for the knight. And yet their passage seemed to effect little change for either the Lord or the Lady. Raoul’s master still entertained hopes of receiving money for his lordly slave, and so made the knight wait on and serve him until he should be ransomed. And with each passing day, Sir Raoul continued to ardently pray for his deliverance. By the grace of God, time would not diminish his hopes.
But time eventually did bring a change to Raoul’s life. After seven long years of waiting, his Saracen master passed away. Unfortunately, the death of his master still gave no opportunity for freedom to the captive knight. He was still the property of his deceased owner. Inheritances were claimed, property divided; before long, most of the Saracen’s possessions had been distributed among his friends and family. Anything that had gone unclaimed was quickly put on the open market for profit.
And so, not long after his master’s death, Lord Raoul found himself being jostled along, bound by thick ropes in a veritable human chain of slaves, all being led to the slavemarket for auction.
“We’ve got a fine lot of prospects here for the serious slave owner. Every one of them a bargain.” The thin voice of the slavetrader rang out above the crowd, his large turban bobbing as he attempted to make himself heard over the noise, pacing before the stand lined with his human merchandise. “Now take this pair of brothers here,” he pointed to a couple teenage slaves. “I’ll give ’em for a packaged deal of six gold coins. Now which wise man is going to take me up on that incredible price?”
Sir Raoul shut his eyes. His lot as a slave was now quite familiar to him. But the ordeal of being auctioned at a bustling marketplace, displayed and subjected to the scrutinizing eye of possible buyers, was altogether a humiliating one. Almost instinctivelty, the knight opened his eyes, only to meet with a keen stare from a shrewd looking Arab. The man was a stranger to him, but the well-dressed Muslim was no stranger to the slavemarket. With a confident stride, the dark Arab resolutely approached the trader.
“How much for the one in the middle there?” he asked, pointing his walking stick at the row of slaves. The seller tilted his wide headdress to the side as he contemplated the price.
“Four gold pieces,” he said at last, giving a nod that jolted his turban.
Without a word, the determined Arab thrust his hand into a leather pouch and retrieved the necessary amount.
“There,” he said, completing the transaction by setting his money on the table, “Done.” The trader calmly swept the coins into his hand and motioned for an attendant to hand over the purchased goods.
Somewhat surprised, though not in the least bit disappointed, Raoul noticed it was the man beside him being untied from the ropes.
The knight was not the only one to notice this, and the Arabian turned angrily to the slavetrader.
“What!” he yelled, “four pieces of gold for that half-grown pig! I am not interested in that runt, I want the tall one next to him.” His staff shook again in the air, annunciating his statement.
“That tall one?” the seller squinted, pointing towards Raoul. “That one costs seven pieces.”
“Seven!?” The Arab’s stick came thudding loudly back to the earth. “That’s outrageous!”
“Then you need not buy him,” the proud salesman tossed the four coins back onto the table. But the Arab’s interest was not a passing one.
“What are you trying to pull here? He may have height and stature, but he’s certainly not worth more than five.”
“Make it eight then.” The vendor sneered haughtily.
“And why would I pay you eight gold pieces?” The Arab’s words came out with amazing restraint and composure. There was an explanation, however, for the trader’s apparent greed.
“Because the handsome brute has a ransom on his head.” The round turban swayed at the proud proclamation.
“Really?” The Arab asked, in an altogether different tone. “A ransom?” He glanced over at the tall knight. “Where is he from?”
“France.” The slave trader answered. “He was one of those Crusaders.”
“Is that a fact?”
Raoul instinctively lowered his face, as he became once again the focus of the Arab’s inquisitive stare. Although the seller and stranger were some distance away from the stand, the knight had been following their entire conversation. And though their discussion competed with the hubbub of the crowd, Raoul had, after seven years of slavery, aquired a keen understanding of, and ear for, the Syrian language.
A few more words and the deal was set, the payment was made, and Raoul had been sold. With fettered hands, the tall Frenchman obediently followed the Arab away from the market to his new home.
As Lord Raoul cast a yearning glance at the Syrian sky, his eyes squinting in its piercing brightness, his thoughts drifted once again to his beloved Crequy. How gently that same piercing sun was surely gleaming in his homeland. Oh, how often had he dreamt of flying over the vast expanse of thousands of miles which lay between him… and home! But no such flight had come. Instead, he had waited and prayed. Seven years of patient, persistent prayers, fervent hopes, long-sufferings... to what end? A new master. Yet heavy though it was, the knight’s heart lost neither its courage nor its faith. Enduring this bitter disappointment, Raoul was unknowingly receiving the fruits of his perseverance – little guessing how soon those virtues would be put to the test.
For little time would elapse before Lord Raoul discovered that he had fallen under the control of a severe and cruel master. Harsh punishments were swiftly dealt for the most trivial mistakes. Rules which had never existed would suddenly become written and executed with brutal force. But there was more to it than that. Little by little, Raoul found himself the target of a silent war. Of all the harsh treatment endured by the other slaves, none compared to the heap of affronts made daily upon the person of the knight. He would receive blame for faults never committed; punishment for offenses never made. Loaded with the most loathsome and difficult tasks, bereft at times of his own food rations, and driven nearly beyond his strength, the young lord was effectively reduced to the least of the slaves.
Yet through it all, his spirit was not shaken, nor broken. Whatever it might be that had singled him out as a target of his master’s cruelty, the string of persecutions served only to increase his fervent prayers for relief and deliverance.
His fellow slaves, however, were quick to notice the peculiar quality of the French slave that seemed to constantly get him into trouble…
“All right, come on! If you don’t claim your bread it goes to the dogs!”
A few servants carried their master’s leftovers out into the yard. Several hands quickly shot out amidst a swarm of filthy slaves, who struggled with one another to catch their evening meal.
After receiving his share of the scraps, Raoul quietly sat down on the ground away from the commotion. A couple of the younger slaves eyed him curiously as they watched him silently bless himself and shut his eyes.
“What in the world was that?” one of them asked rudely. But the knight made as if he had not heard them.
“Was that supposed to mean something?” another one chimed in.
“I was thanking God for the food.” Raoul explained simply. He picked up his bread.
“Why? Did God give it to you?” one of the boys laughed.
But an older slave looked firmly at Raoul. “Were you thanking Allah?”
The knight paused. He knew what the slave was getting at. Firmly, he shook his head. “No, the True God,” he answered. “I was making the ‘Sign of the Cross’.”
“Well you had better make no such signs,” another man warned. “The master does not tolerate Catholics.”
“The master already knows who I am,” he said with a shrug. “I am a Crusader.” He went to eat his food. A grey haired slave shook his head gravely.
“You were a Crusader... out there, long ago. But here,” his old voice quivered, “You can no longer be. Every man embraces the faith of Mohammed. Unless he...” The gray head shook again, a mysterious stare upon its wrinkled face.
Raoul looked up at the slaves now crowded around him. “Unless he what?” the knight asked.
A few whispers were exchanged among the slaves. Some smiled. Others stared. And the old one simply answered. “Every man here adores Allah. There are no exceptions.”
“But my dear, why else do you think I have come? Of course we must discuss it!” The aged Sir Renaud sat shivering by the fireplace. “You refuse to address the issue in any of your letters. And I cannot let you continue on like this.” He turned his face towards the source of the heat.
Lady Mahtilde could not help smiling affectionately at the huddled figure of her noble father.
“How else could I force you to come up and see me in person?” she kissed him tenderly on the back of his head.
“And it is no short distance!” the old man grumbled, grinning besides himself. “Only my dear daughter is worth such a journey.”
“Then for her sake,” Mahtilde suggested slyly, “Let us not quarrel.”
“It is not a quarrel!” her father insisted. “We are discussing your son’s future! Surely you have more care for it than I do.”
“Of course I do, father.” The lady sat down at a tall table.
“Well then,” the old count rose to his feet, “We must face the issues at hand. Now, for these many years, the Lord of Renty has firmly adhered to his offer of marriage. Why do you not accept his proposal?”
“Because,” Mahtilde reached for the ornate box beside her, “I am already married.”
Sir Renaud suppressed a sigh. With a calm stride he crossed the room and sat beside his daughter.
“He fell, my dear,” His kind eyes were as penetrating as his words. “You are a widow.”
“I cannot believe that,” his daughter answered, her voice drained of any emotion.
“Raoul was slain,” the count repeated. “There were witnesses to his death. How do you explain that?”
“I don’t know.... I can’t,” her sad eyes fell wearily upon the little chest in her hands. “But somehow my heart tells me that he is alive.” Then, as if realizing the implications of that reality, she added with a shudder. “Although God alone knows where.”
“Mahtilde,” Sir Renaud began, “We can’t go scouring the eastern world for a French captive. There’s no evidence that he even was caught. If he were, he surely would have pleaded for a ransom; yet throughout all these many years, we have received none.”
“He may have escaped captivity,” Mahtilde suggested.
“Then why is he not here? It has been seven years. And that’s assuming,” the count added, suddenly returning to his original point, “that he is somehow alive! He isn’t, my love. Those knights saw him slain... mortally wounded. He did not go missing in battle. His tragic end was witnessed.”
The elderly father gave pause to his words. Though touched with frustration, he spoke with reluctance, for the dreadful subject was a grievous one. And his daughter had suffered enough already.
“Think of the future, my love,” he said pityingly.
“God will care for us, as He has thus far.” Mahtilde answered. Her eyes remained downcast.
“Yes,” the old count agreed. “But God also wants us to care for ourselves. He is offering you security in this marriage.”
“God is my security. And my hope.”
“And He is showing you now His Will for you,” her father insisted.
“Oh, if you knew how I prayed every day for His Will.” The young woman sighed, staring off listlessly. “And His mercy.”
“You must think with your head, Mahtilde,” Sir Renaud cautioned, “and not with your heart.”
His daughter nodded. “I know. You are right.” She turned towards him with a gentle smile, “But it is for the head to think and the heart to hope.”
“But you cannot live off of that hope. You must be realistic!” Catching himself, his old face softened, “I love you dearly, Mahtilde. You know I would not cause you any grief.”
“Nor I you.” Her words trembled with emotion.
Affected himself, her father assured her, “I am only trying to remove the dagger imbedded in your heart.”
“Leave it.” The lady shook her head sadly. “You cannot fill its wound.”
“You could if you tried.” Sir Renaud corrected. “If you wanted to.”
“That can never happen.” Her voice was firm. Looking down at the half-ring in her hands, she added quietly “If Raoul is truly gone, then half of me is dead.”
“But is it fair to inflict that on your son?” the nobleman asked. “He deserves a father!”
“He has a father.”
The poor man simply moaned hopelessly. Then, with renewed patience, he laid his hand gently upon the table.
“Yes. But his true, great and noble father is gone.” He spoke with sincere compassion and conviction. “And God has given you little Baudouin, my dear, to prevent you from ceasing to live.” His hand now rested upon her own. “You must go on.”
“I am resigned, Father, to this sad life,” Mahtilde answered, though taking care to avoid his gaze. “God wills it.”
“You are resigned, but you will not live.” Anxiety was creeping back into his voice.
“But I can only live with a hope.” The lady now sighed helplessly. Slipping her other hand now on top of the count’s, Mahtilde slowly raised her eyes and faced his.
“If I made this step, Father,” her serious tone was mingled with a certain apprehension. “If I silenced those hopes forever, I tell you that half of me would be forever dead. I want to keep that alive... for Baudouin. Oh don’t you see?” she cried as Sir Renaud quickly rose to his feet. “I must. Or my Baudouin will lose both his father and his mother. ”
But the old count’s back was to the table as he gazed into the fire. “Seven years…” he muttered, running his hand over his beard. “Seven years hoping for a miracle. If God was going to answer your prayers, He certainly would have done so by now.”
“But in His silence I can still hope,” Mahtilde ventured softly, “I could not have endured it for this long without His grace. He has given me faith, so that He may reward it.”
“But not by granting the impossible!” the count exclaimed, turning around. One look at his daughter’s face, though, and the father’s anger was completely disarmed. With a despairing wave of his hand, he surrendered.
“I feel that my pleas have fallen on deaf ears.” He sank wearily into his chair, and Mahtilde stretched out a consoling hand.
“They have not, father!” But her assurance was hardly convincing.
“Then why don’t you listen to me!” the old man pleaded with her. “You think I am senseless to your grief? That I pass over the death of Raoul as if he were a stranger? I loved him too, Mahtilde, as dearly as I love you. But he is gone forever and I can do nothing for him - except see to it that the one woman we both treasured does not succumb to a living death. It is for his sake as much as your own, that I try to secure happiness for you and young Baudouin.”
The father’s earnest pleas had struck something deep in his daughter’s heart. And though she offered no reply, silent tears streamed down her face as she looked once more to the ring in her hand.
Suddenly, a child’s voice was heard echoing down the hall.
“Mamma! Grandfather! Let me show you! I can catch the ball!” With the sound of young Baudouin’s footfalls rapidly approaching, Mahtilde hastened to finish the discussion.
“Let me think about it,” she whispered quickly. “A little time, Father; I promise I will think it over. Please give me just a little more time.”
Sir Renaud sighed. He had heard that over seven years ago. In the next moment, however, his grandson came hurtling into the room. Clasped in his hands was the large bright ball, a present he had received earlier that day from his beloved grandfather.
“Grandfather, watch! I can….” However, after one glance at their somber faces, the little seven year old put an abrupt halt to his steps, and words. He knew well what was being discussed. Hardly a day could pass without the sight of his mother’s tears, reminding him of his family’s loss.
“He’s really a steal,” the vendor tempted, “I ought to make it nine.”
“Make it ten,” was the unexpected response.
The slavetrader’s face lit up in surprise. “Ten?” he asked, impressed by his own successful tactics. “Throw in a couple more coins, and I’ll give you the ‘half grown pig’ with him.” His business instincts knew when to press a bargain. But his customer now seemed disinterested in any ‘deal’. His decision was made.
“No… all ten for the Crusader.”
Do not press her now. The inward voice seemed to say. It is not yet time. Be at peace.
Rising from his chair, the old count strode over to the grieving and bent figure of his daughter. Slowly, yet firmly, he laid an understanding hand upon her trembling shoulder, as if to say “You know I love you.”
In answer, the lady at once took hold of the aged hand and pressed it ardently against her tear-stained cheeks.
A smile warmed his solemn face. Raising his other hand, Mahtilde’s father gently stroked her veiled head. “Very well then,” he said, kissing it softly. “A little more time.”
Raoul could not help but feel some anxiety as he made his way to his master’s chamber. For the first time, the knight had been personally summoned to appear face to face before the man who owned him. Approaching the curtained entrance, Raoul identified his purpose to the two armed guards standing sentry.
“Is that the Frenchman?” a voice called out from within the room. The soldiers' answer was an affirmative.
“Send him in!” was the abrupt command.
Raoul obediently stepped into the luxurious chamber.
“You sent for me, master?” the tall slave bowed. The Arab was seated on a carpeted chair beneath an indoor canopy. Though reclining, he was very much awake, and he motioned for the knight to approach.
This Raoul did, and further knelt down by his master’s outstretched hand. The Muslim hesitated to retrieve it. Sensing his intentions, the French lord softly kissed it. Satisfied, the master waved him to his feet.
“Tell me,” the Arab asked. “How came you to be a slave?”
“I was captured in battle,” answered the knight. “In the mountain passes that stretch beyond the city of Laodicea.”
“Ah yes,” the Arab mused, “Your country suffered a crushing defeat there. When was that?”
“In the early winter of the year 1148.” Raoul said quietly. That fatal date had long been burned into his memory.
“1148?” the Arab took on a surprised tone. “That was seven years ago!”
Raoul nodded pensively. “Yes.”
His master poured himself some wine. “I am told that you are great knight,” he said, eyeing his elaborate glass, “A lord even, of a French estate?”
Returing his gaze towards Raoul, the Arab watched his slave nod once more. He paused a moment and thoughtfully stroked his pointed beard. Slowly scrutinizing his tall captive, he sipped his wine.
“Though not born to a life of servitude,” he said slowly, “you have done well.” He set his glass on the table beside him.
Raoul said nothing, but found himself subconsciously observing every movement of his master. Fruitlessly he tried to fight the infinite number of thoughts that clamoured in his head, each louder than the first. He would not let his mind come to any conclusions. Still... what was this all about? Was his master goading him on? Or was this the answer to the persecutions? Was it all a challenge… or a test? To Raoul's relief, the Muslim himself explained his own words.
“You are a strong man,” he commended the knight, “And you have proven your strength. I am of a mind…” he sent him a searching glance, “to give you your freedom.”
In an instant, a long forgotten sensation surged through the captive knight’s soul. For the first time in over seven years....
“My freedom?” Raoul was nearly breathless, his mind racing to grasp its full meaning. His master eyed him with calm satisfaction.
“You are too noble a man to waste in slavery. That is clear. Your every feature is marked with dignity.” The Arab reached again for his goblet. “I can promise you your freedom on one simple condition,” he raised his cup in the air as he spoke.
Raoul hesitated. Without a word, the knight’s searching eyes asked the condition. His master slowly emptied his goblet before turning to the expectant slave. There was a very pleasant smile on his hard face.
“Deny your faith and invoke our prophet.”
The fatal words fell upon the air like a death knell. The French lord stood in horror and disgust. So that was it, he thought to himself. A bitter chill swept through his noble veins, crushing every remnant of his hopeful joy.
“Embrace our faith,” the Arab continued, “and I will confer on you a new life!” He boldly and generously went on to explain how he would give the French nobleman his own land, a wealth of money... and a beautiful new wife.
“Why, what use is liberty without love?” the Muslim laughed.
But Raoul did not return his smile.
“I already have a wife,” he answered coldly.
“One?” The Arab scoffed. He shook a mocking finger “Now that is part of the religion you must shed. Leave that law to those fools still enslaved by it. Enjoy this freedom of our creed! Your manly strength and qualities deserve more than a single wife.”
“I do not want another,” said Raoul simply.
“Ah,” a more hostile smile played upon the dark man’s face. “But does she want you?”
Raoul’s sad eyes glistened at the mere memory of his Mahtilde. “I am sure of it,” was his confident response.
“Yet how many ransom letters have you sent back to your country?” His master asked abruptly. The slave opened his mouth to speak... but then looked down, his noble face flushed. The Arab cruelly pressed his advantage on the tender wound. “How many of your faithful Catholic friends have rushed to your aid? How many have offered to pay the price for your return? Does your king always reward his Crusaders thus? So much for the Charity of the Christians.”
Raoul made no answer, his fixed eyes remained downcast. But that was the only response the Muslim wanted. With an authoritative and yet persuasive air, he stated, “Your life in that country is over. You can begin anew here.”
“I will never deny my Faith,” the knight answered boldly.
“To what end?” the Arab taunted. “Do you think your wife has waited for you these seven long years?”
“I will not deny my Faith,” was once again the firm reply. Raoul would not let himself be tricked into a debate with his master.
“Your country has been as faithful as your wife,” the Arab scorned, his pretended patience rapidly deteriorating. “I hold out little hope in ever receiving your ransom! You're worthless to me." he grumbled. Then he added, almost as an afterthought, "And to your family and friends!”
His temper rising with each passing moment, the Arab snatched up the pitcher of wine. Refilling his goblet, he glanced with irritation at his slave. “It's true! They have all deserted you.”
After a hesitant pause, Raoul quietly whispered, “God has willed it.”
“Ah, so your God is the One Who betrayed you!” This amused the Muslim even more. “At last we lay the blame where it truly rests. Though,” he reflected, as a smirk crept across his sinister face, “why am I surprised? It is a fitting God for a deceitful religion that so quickly abandons its members.” The Crusader looked up and met his master’s arrogant gaze.
“Not so.” His deep eyes flashed like fire. “God is merely testing my fidelity.”
“Your God has abandoned you,” ignored the Arab, confidently raised his glass to his lips.
“Your efforts are in vain,.” Raoul declared, shaking his head, “For I will never abandon Him.”
“Ah hah!” the Muslim shouted triumphantly, thrusting his cup onto the table, “You admit He has abandoned you!”
“I did not say that! It is you who have rejected Him and His Truth.”
“You wretched fool!” his master spewed furiously,. “I have offered you everything! Win your freedom by renouncing your detestable Faith.”
“Never!” the staunch resolution came swiftly.
“You dare refuse me…” the Arab threatened, rising to his feet.
“I defy your false religion,” challenged the slave, “and your futile tyranny.”
“Those are dangerous words,.” the master responded, his voice trembling with rage. “Choose now… between your freedom... and your treacherous God.”
“I remain ever a loyal servant of my loving and faithful God.” the knight answered staunchly. “I am a Crusader of Christ.”
“The crucified vermin,” the Arab grimaced with hate.
“Don’t you dare,” Raoul shot back, a holy indignation gleaming in his eyes. “You hold your blasphemous tongue!”
“Wretch!” the master screamed. “Don't threaten me!” He lashed out at the knight, knocking him to the ground. Snatching an elegantly decorated vase, he hurled it angrily at his victim’s head. Unsheathing his knife, he stood over him fuming. Poised with his weapon drawn, the Arab watched as Raoul slowly lowered his own protecting arm from his face. Their eyes met. Gradually, the master’s contorted face took on a more ominous expression. His piercing eyes grew black with hate. His pride had been crossed… his will had been challenged.
With an air of calculated restraint and control, the brutal Arab called out for his nearby sentries. The mercenaries were quickly at his side, as they had already entered to investigate the commotion.
“Guard!” the master pointed disdainfully at the prostrated knight. “Remove this filthy slave from my sight.”
The leader nodded obediently, and dealt a harsh kick to the fallen noble, “On your feet!” he bellowed. The other sentinel hastened Raoul’s efforts by roughly yanking his shoulder.
Raoul’s already tied hands were quickly chained behind his back, as the guards hurriedly hustled him away. The Arabian master called out after him.
“Give in, my French Crusader,” he warned, fingering his knife, “Or you will face a different proposition.”
The knight glanced back at the Muslim, fixing his gaze firmly upon him. “You have already failed. I will never renounce the True God.”
“Oh, you are mistaken.” The Arab motioned his soldiers to continue, lest the slave should have time to counter his threat once again. “You are in my power. And you will surrender.”
That night, Raoul could sleep but little. His mind and heart were wrapt in fervent prayer. At length, with some difficulty, the knight sat up; his bound hands were tied to a heavy post before him.
“Dear Lord,” he whispered in the darkness. “Is now the time for my deliverance? How long, O God, must I wait?” Raoul clasped his weary hands together. “Blessed Mother, I am under Your protection. For seven years now I have called out to You… I have trusted. You know my heart,” his voice trembled with passion. “I am not afraid of my master’s hatred. And I will endure any outrage rather than deny You or Your Son!” Slowly his hands glided towards the little bag hanging ever faithfully around his neck. “But I cannot silence the yearnings of my heart. The longings… The hopes…” He emptied the tiny pouch into his hand, exhibiting his sole and prized possession. As he gazed tenderly at the fragment of Mahtilde’s ring, he continued. “Somehow, I know You hear me, Blessed Virgin. And one day You will answer me. Why not today? Seven years, my Lady…” his tone was faltering, “Is not seven years enough?”
Once more, his earnest questions were answered by a dull silence. But Raoul sensed a certain shadow in this darkness. Suddenly clenching his treasure in his fist, the knight shut his eyes. With all the powers of his soul, he swiftly banished the despair which had stealthily crept into his sorrow. He was a soldier of Christ. His constancy from years long past had not yet died away. And if he could be shot half to death, riddled with arrows for Jesus’ sake... then he could bear the contempt and cruelty of his master. With renewed resolve, the Crusader set his will on God. “I will never give up, dear Lord. And I will never give in. Blessed Lady, pray for me! With Your strength, I will endure until the day You set me free.”
Slowly, as Raoul slowly opened his eyes, they fell upon the tiny piece of jewelry in his hand. Gently, almost reverently, Raoul raised the half-ring to his lips. “Some things are worth waiting for.”
And in the humble lord’s heart, the flame of hope was once more rekindled, flickering boldly before the menacing storm which loomed ahead.