An hour later they reached a village clustered around a monastery with spectacular views both back to the coast and down into the valley to the east. In front of the monastery was a paved square with a spring that disgorged water into a long trough through bonze lion heads. They dismounted and let the horses drink, while Balian rang the monastery bell. A few moments later a Maronite monk opened the door, and Balian bowed his head politely before explaining in Arabic that they had come for a picnic but wished to pray in the church first.
The monk looked skeptically toward Eschiva and Betrada, but Balian slipped something into his hand and he nodded and backed up. “Just five minutes!” he warned.
Balian signaled for Eschiva to come, while Betrada waved him off, saying she’d been often enough in the past. Rob too opted to stay with the horses.
They entered the cool darkness of the entryway, and the monk shooed them along an equally dim corridor to a narthex. At once the flooring changed from flagstone to mosaics, and Balian tapped his foot on them to draw Eschiva’s attention. She caught her breath as she realized at once that these were Roman. As they passed into the nave of the church, the mosaics changed again. These were older and depicted a series of sea monsters in a vivid blue sea. A whale devoured a man. A giant octopus pulled a ship, from which men were leaping, down into the depths. As they approached the wooden screens that separated them from the altar in this Orthodox church, Balian went down on one knee bowing his head humbly and crossing himself. Eschiva followed his lead instantly. As she finished, Balian reached out his hand as if to help push himself back to his feet, but his finger pointed. Eschiva followed the finger and realized that between them was a mosaic depicting a galley with a man tied to the mast and surrounded by female figures with wings. Ulysses and the sirens!
Eschiva glanced at Balian, but he was dutifully crossing himself and getting to his feet. He bowed toward the altar and backed up two steps slowly. Again, Eschiva followed his example and realized that to her feet were other scenes from the Odyssey. Trying to see as much as possible without appearing to, Eschiva reached the narthex to find the monk gesturing for her to hurry. “Time to go! Time to go!” he insisted.
A minute later they were back in the sunshine of the square before the monastery.
“They’re beautiful! And totally inappropriate for a church!” Eschiva exclaimed as soon as she dared.
“My father believes it was a Temple to Athena, who was Ulysses’ protector, which the early Christians converted into a church,” Balian explained, adding with a laugh, “I fear the monks know I’m more interested in the art than the prayer.”
“Thank you, Sir Balian! They were worth the long ride.”
“I’m glad you liked them. Not everyone appreciates them,” he noted with a disgusted look toward his squire.
“I’m starving,” was Rob’s answer, “and I unloaded everything while you ‘prayed.’”
He had indeed spread out a linen cloth on a patch of grass beside the square. It was weighed down with wooden bowls in which he had already placed cheese, sausages, meat pies, oranges, and raisins. As Balian and Eschiva sank down on the edge of the linen, Bertrada brought them some cushions, and Rob poured wine into bronze goblets enameled with Ibelin crosses.
Balian lifted his goblet to Eschiva. “My lady,” was all he said, but the words seemed laden with meaning. Or was she just imagining it?
She lifted her goblet in return, unsure what the response should be, but he didn’t seem to expect one.
Instead, he unsheathed his knife, cut a hard sausage in two and peeled off the outer skin before slicing it for Eschiva. “Those mosaics,” he remarked as he offered her the salami, “were made by artists living more than a thousand years ago, yet they still bring pleasure to people. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Yes, it is!” Eschiva agreed.
Balian next cut the hard cheese into squares while Rob sawed the bread into slices and placed the latter in a basket. As he offered Eschiva the cheese, he added, “And the mosaics remind me of your paintings. They too will live long after we all are dead. That is a wonderful thing, Eschiva. A wonderful gift. Promise me you won’t stop.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know that you have lost a great deal, that no two paintings can ever be the same.” How did he know that? Eschiva wondered. “But promise me that you will resume your painting as soon as you are settled. The canons of the Holy Sepulcher have a school of illumination in Acre, you know?”
“Yes,” Eschiva squeaked out, her throat tight with emotion. “I—I studied there during my last year at St. Anne’s.”
“Then promise me you will go to them and ask to take up your studies again—or just offer to help them. They will not turn you away.”
Eschiva was left speechless. The thought of going back to the Illumination School was a wonderful one. They had so many books, so many examples, and the canons were masters. It was something to look forward to. Yet—she caught herself. Wasn’t it just an escape from reality? Wasn’t she just running away—again?
“Creation is never a sin,” Balian spoke into her thoughts as if he could read her mind. “It is an imitation of the divine.”
Eschiva turned to gaze at Balian in baffled wonder. And then the moment of revelation passed.
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