Maureen Ash

Shroud of Dishonour


Acre, Outremer-Late autumn, 1201

The Templar Commandery on the southwest side of a Cre lay still and silent under the silver shimmer of a crescent moon. Just before midnight, two figures slipped out of the postern gate and melted into the darkness of the city streets. They were both brothers of the Order and wore black cloaks with hoods over plain dark tunics from which the Templar insignia had been removed. Under their cloaks they were lightly armed, each wearing a dagger at his belt. Their faces were shrouded by the hoods so that only their beards could be seen, one dark in colour, the other tinged with a coppery hue. The dark-bearded man’s stride seemed confident as they reached the main street and started down its length, but there was a nervous agitation about his movements that belied his certainty. His confrere regarded him worriedly as he followed in his wake.

It did not take them long to reach the entrance to the souk, a marketplace which, in the daytime, was filled with stalls piled high with bolts of cloth, silver jewellery, shoes, hides and spices. During the hours of daylight, it bustled with activity and sound-the babbling voices of merchants and their customers, the rumbling growl of camels, and the plaintive importuning of beggars-but now, in the darkness of the night, it was quiet and almost deserted. A few mendicants, young children amongst them, slept curled up on the ground here and there, protected from the chill night air by tattered rags swathed haphazardly about their bodies. The sliver of moon cast little light, but both men knew the way to their destination and threaded the labyrinth of mean streets around the perimeter of the souk with ease. The air was redolent with the pungent stench of excrement. Camel and goat droppings slimed the ground underfoot and human dung overflowed the sewage runnel that ran along the edge of the byway. Neither man took any notice of the offensive reek; both had been in Outremer for over a year and had become inured to the intense heat and noxious odours.

The Templar with the dark beard continued to lead the way and did not falter until they approached the entrance of a brothel. As he came to a halt, his companion put a hand on his arm.

“I do not think this venture is wise,” he cautioned. “Our absence from the enclave is certain to be noticed before long. There will be a dire punishment awaiting us when we return.”

“If you are so fainthearted, go back!” was the angry response. “I did not ask you to accompany me. It was your own choice to do so.” His manner softened as he saw the concern in the eyes of his comrade. “Try to understand, I beg of you. You know I have not long to live, that in just a short time, I will be gone from this world. Before I get too weak, this is a task that must be done.”

At these words, the other Templar’s shoulders slumped in resignation. “So be it, but I refuse to be an accomplice to this act. I will wait outside and keep watch.”

With a nod of grateful thanks, his friend pushed aside the leather curtain that screened the door of the bawdy house and went in.

A babble of voices was briefly heard before the curtain swung back into place. Among them, mingled with the native tongue, were accents from many nations. The port of Acre attracted traders from all parts of the world- France, Venice, Portugal and England, as well as travellers from eastern climes. The brother who had remained in the street slipped into the shadows a small distance from the entrance to the brothel. Nearby, a couple of burly Arabs stood, drinking from a goatskin flask. Both had curved daggers swinging from belts wrapped crosswise around their muscular torsos. These were the guards employed by the owner of the brothel. At the first sign of trouble, the whoremaster would bang on a drum and the two men would come running and use their fists and, if necessary, their blades, to restore order.

After a few moments, the waiting man began to relax. There was no sound of disturbance from inside. Perhaps his companion would carry out his mission without his identity being discovered. If so, it might be possible for them to return to the Templar commandery and slip back inside, their absence unnoticed. How he prayed that would be so. As the minutes passed, he began to believe his prayer had been answered.

Suddenly, the sound of voices raised in argument came from inside the brothel. It was followed seconds later by the crash of furniture being upended and the frantic beating of the whoremaster’s drum. The two guards dashed towards the entrance, pulling their curved swords loose as they ran. Just before they reached the doorway, a figure came hurtling out. It was the dark-bearded Templar.

“Quick!” he said. “We must get away from here.”

The pair ran back along the perimeter of the souk and melted into the darkness of the winding side streets. Not until they could be certain they were not being followed did they halt to catch their breath.

“What happened?” asked the Templar who had waited outside the brothel. “Did you find the girl?”

“Yes. But that is not why the alarm was raised.” The response was made in a tremulous voice and streams of perspiration ran down the ailing Templar’s face and trickled into his beard. The night’s exertions had taken a toll on his weakened body. With a shaky hand, he held the dagger up to the dim light of the moon. On the triangular blade, blood glistened darkly. “I think I may have killed someone,” he said. “An Englishman. If he is not dead, then he is sorely wounded. I cannot stay in Acre. I must get away from here as quickly as possible.”


Lincoln-May, 1202

Just outside Pottergate in the city of Lincoln a prostitute stood. Her slim frame shivered slightly in the pre- dawn chill. She was a comely girl, not as pretty as some of the other whores in the stewe where she worked, but attractive all the same. She had pale blond hair, an impudent manner and a mischievous smile. Now her expression was touched with a hint of anxiety.

She looked up the track that led alongside the city walls but could see no more than a few feet in the inky darkness. Daybreak would not lighten the sky for two hours yet, but this was the time she had been told to arrive and she was certain she was not late. Impatiently, she waited for the man she was to meet and, when a figure at last materialised from the gloom, breathed a sigh of relief. She had been promised ten whole shillings for her help in winning a wager that had been made, and she needed the money desperately. It would take only a couple of hours of her time, she had been told, and she could do it after she finished work for the night. At first, when she heard what was expected of her, she had been frightened, but the assurance that it was only a jape and she would not get into trouble had persuaded her to consent. She had to admit, even though the venture was daring, she was experiencing a pleasurable thrill of excitement at the prospect.

A quiet word of greeting came to her as the man approached. “Hello, Elfie. Did you wear the cloak I gave you?”

Elfreda nodded and twisted around so that he could see the hood hanging down her back. Her companion wore a similar garment; both were of brown wool and capaciously made. Hers hung well below the hem of her kirtle, almost sweeping the ground.

“Good,” he said approvingly. “Now, pull the hood up over your head. Your hair is far too bright to escape the notice of any who might see us, even though it is so dark.”

She did as she was told, pushing her blond hair back and covering it with the cowl.

“You remember what you are to do?” he asked.

“I am to pretend I am a man,” she replied dutifully, “so we can get through the gate of the Templar preceptory. Once we are inside, I am to hide in the chapel behind the statue of the Virgin Mary until the monks come in. Then I am to show myself.”

The man nodded. They had known each other only a few hours, since he had come to the stewe where she worked last evening. It had been while they were in the cubicle where she entertained her customers that he had

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