Storm of War: Prologue
Roland heard the gentle rippling of water, oddly in time with the fluttering of his heart. He’d never been to the Church of the Paralytic or seen the mythical Pool of Bethesda, but this was where he was told the man spent most of his time, so this was where he would go. The church had a low brown-stone arch that led through a narrow corridor and into an open apse, all built atop the ruins of an ancient Byzantine basilica, which itself had been built over the flowing waters of the pool. The priests had told Roland that Christ had healed a paralytic at this pool. He trod slowly, carrying the torn and dusty leather shoes he’d removed before entering the church.
Dramatic and ornate tapestries hung around the curvature of the apse depicting Christ’s crucifixion, his ascension to heaven, and even the crusaders’ sacking of Jerusalem. A narrow window near the roof let in a thin, dust-filled shaft of pale morning light, illuminating one side of the man who knelt at the center of the apse with bowed head and folded hands. He wore a white surcoat with a vibrant yellow cross upon it, and beside him was his sword, a golden brown leather-wrapped hilt jutting from a scabbard of the same color. It had an upswept silvery-steel crossbar and a disc pommel with a bronze center. A small length of knotted and frayed rope hung from the throat of the scabbard.
This was him. Roland was sure of it.
As Roland quietly stepped closer, he heard the gentle whisper of the man’s singing.
“Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. Simul quoque cum beatis videamus, glorianter vultrum tuum, Christe Deus…”
Roland wanted desperately to speak with the man but feared to interrupt the hymn. He needed this man’s favor, his guidance, his wisdom, and breaking this tranquil near silence was not the way to get it. Roland took another cautious step forward and heard his own bare feet shuffle on the dusty sandstone bricks.
The man shifted, only slightly, and continued to sing.
“Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum, saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.”
The man sighed, long and low and patient, then turned to the tapestry of the crucified Christ and made the sign of the cross, each tap solemn and respectful. He slipped the sword belt around his waist before rising to his feet, then turned to Roland.
His face was as calm as the church around him and just as weathered. A puckered, cross-shaped scar stood stark on his left cheek, and fierce green eyes stared back at Roland with the patience of a teacher, yet fear had frozen Roland’s words in his throat. The man continued to stand in silence. He must know why Roland was there. Why else would a young man, barely sixteen, seek out a knight in Jerusalem?
“I…” Roland tried and failed to swallow the odd lump that had begun to form in his throat. “A-are you Sir Daniel?”
Roland hesitated to say the rest, but he needed to be sure. “Sir Daniel tou Pouthená?”
Sir Daniel of Nowhere, Roland thought. It is not the most flattering of knightly titles. Yet I am not the most flattering of potential squires.
The corner of Sir Daniel’s mouth moved in the smallest of smiles. He didn’t seem to take the title as an insult. “Aye, that’s me.”
“I was told…they said I could find you here.”
“And you have.”
Sweat beaded on Roland’s forehead, and he stood motionless and silent as his heart thudded in his chest.
“What’s your name?”
“Orléans. I mean…south of Orléans.”
“And why have you sought me out, Roland of Orléans?”
“They say you have no squire.”
Sir Daniel’s half smile faded. “I’m not that kind of knight,” he said, stepping by Roland and sitting on one of the stone benches in the nave of the church.
Roland followed yet didn’t sit. He stood in front of Sir Daniel. “Don’t all knights have squires?”
“What do you want?”
He wiped at the sweat. He’d thought that would be obvious by now, yet it appeared Sir Daniel was going to make him say it. “I want to be your squire,” Roland said.
“They say you helped sack Jerusalem,” he said.
“Stop telling me what they say,” he said.
“S-sorry, sir knight,” he stammered. “But…you came from nowhere,” he said.
“I came from Constantinople.”
“I’m told…they say—” He stopped himself short. “I mean, you were a nobody, like me, before you became a knight. That is why they call you Sir Daniel tou Pouthená.”
“If you’re trying to flatter me, you’re doing a poor job.”
Roland’s heart leaped to his throat. “N-no, sir knight. I only…I meant that I wish…” he trailed off, assuming he’d already ruined his chance, yet he saw Sir Daniel smiling.
“Sit down, Roland of Orléans,” he said. “And calm yourself. As I said, I’m not that kind of knight. You can relax.”
Roland sat, drew a deep breath, and let it out in a slow exhale. “I wish to hear your story,” he finally said. “How you came from nothing to become a crusader whose deeds are sung of.”
Sir Daniel grinned. “They sing of me?”
“Well, they speak of you.”
“They do not sing?”
Roland shook his head. “I only meant…they all know you, Sir Daniel. I wish to be known.”
He barked a laugh so suddenly that Roland nearly leaped from the bench. Sir Daniel bent over and continued with a deep belly laugh that echoed through the empty stone church. “You’re a young fool,” he finally said once he had stopped laughing. “Likely as foolish as I was.”
“Will you tell me,” Roland asked. “Will you tell me your story?”
Sir Daniel wiped the tears laughter had brought to his eyes. “Aye,” he said, and that half-smile returned. “Aye, Roland of Orléans. I will tell you my story. Then, if you still wish to sing of my deeds, we shall build you a shield.”