Preview of the upcoming books:
A solitary figure was seated in the darkened room, facing the bright computer screen that provided the only light. A half-filled coffee cup, long undisturbed, sat on the desk with its contents a murky brown, topped by curdled cream. Nearby, the remnants of a sandwich, half eaten and hard, gave mute evidence that person before the computer was so engrossed in his work that food and drink had been ignored for many hours. A cigarette burned in the full ash tray next to the computer mouse, quickly reaching the point where it, like so many of its fallen brethren, would be snubbed out and quickly replaced by another from the crumpled pack that rested nearby. In the ash tray, butts of previously smoked cigarettes were relighted by the addition of the fresh one, smoldering, like worn out soldiers called back into battle for one last time. Wispy gray smoke gave the dimly lit room an eerie feeling, much like thick fog on a moist spring morning.
The man sat quietly, his eyes moving left to right as he read the sentences on the screen, and the fingers on his right hand periodically clicking the mouse to move one page from the screen and replace it with another. When he reached the end of the file, he stared at the screen, clicked on an encryption program and watched as the long file became a mass of numbers and symbols. He closed the file and brought up his e-mail program. He spent a few seconds attaching the encoded file to a new e-mail, typed in a single sentence, and addressed it. He was so intent on what he was doing, he failed to notice the dark figure that silently opened the door to the room and padded noiselessly toward him.
The smoke eddied and swirled as the newcomer cautiously approached the seated man, who suddenly took notice of the movement. He turned to face the intruder.
“You! So you’ve come,” he sputtered.
The stranger said nothing as he quickly slipped the shiny blade of a long dagger under the seated man’s ribs and into his heart.
The stricken man’s index finger on his right hand moved slightly as the computer’s cursor hovered over the “Send” button and his last act was to click on it to dispatch the e-mail on its way. He died without a struggle, collapsing on the floor in front of the machine.
The intruder smiled to himself, satisfied that his blade had done its deadly work. He moved past the dead man and looked at the computer screen, which displayed a highlighted sentence, “Your message has been sent.”
“Damn! Too late! Perhaps not,” he said to himself. Nudging the dead man out of the way with his boot, he sat down at the computer. He reached for the mouse and moved the cursor over the screen. He clicked on the “Sent Mail” icon and brought up the message the dead man had sent. He read it carefully, looking for a clue to the recipient, but all he found was a mail address composed of numbers and letters. The single sentence in the message block was worthless—They’re after me—and nothing else. When he opened the file attachment, he was rewarded with an unreadable mish-mash. Frustrated, he nevertheless decided that the file contained the information he was seeking, so he decided to send it on to his bosses to let them decipher the file. Satisfied, he rose, glanced at the dead man with a smirk, and headed for the door. He paused momentarily before exiting, looked once again at the dead man and lifted his hand in a faux salute.
“Never play with professionals,” he said and then he was gone.
To say that I was merely bored was to seriously underrate the general feeling of ennui that had been my burden for the past three months. The excitement of the search for missing Confederate treasure in North Georgia that had ended in such a dismal failure made returning to the routine of my writing schedule almost intolerable. While the few months my high school classmates and I had scoured the foothills of the Smoky Mountains for clues to the whereabouts of almost $26 million in gold bullion had produced only a mocking note from a former Confederate soldier and tuppence in treasure, not finding gold was inconsequential. I had found something more valuable to me—an insatiable craving for the adrenaline highs the search had produced and a desire to stay in the hunt for more hidden secrets. Sadly it did not appear that anything similar was in the works for the future.
Ah, but I’ve had a least one good adventure, I consoled myself, and that’s more than most people ever get in life. Oh, well, time to get writing again.
I grabbed a handful of pencils that were sharpened to a fine point and made my way to the pencil sharpener. It was something to do that allowed me to pretend I was busy and kept me away from sitting and staring at a blank computer screen, hoping for words to come that would send me on a journey of sleepless nights and long days of frantic wordsmithing. Hoping, but knowing full well that nothing like that was going to happen; so here I was reduced to mundane tasks like sharpening pencils that needed no sharpening and which I never used anyway. Bored beyond belief and restless, too. At last, the curse of being retired was finally catching up with me, I fretted, and nothing but empty time to look forward to. Perhaps I should just accept my fate and retire to my recliner to wait for the Angel of Death to end it all—or perhaps to find a part time job loading groceries at Publix?
The announcement by my computer that I had mail didn’t even excite me. Oh, great, I thought, another retired friend of mine looking for something to do or feeling the need to commiserate with another poor soul. A retiree’s life sucks!
I meandered over to the computer and saw an e-mail from a friend that immediately provoked my interest. It was addressed to “firstname.lastname@example.org,” an e-mail blind that I had set up with a small network of friends when I was doing some internet game playing a few years back; nothing particularly unusual about it, just a simple trick to keep unwanted kibitzers from horning in on our little game. I read the single sentence of the plain text message, “They’re after me.” Interesting, but what did it mean? Who?
Unless someone had a bank of computers and was willing to spend a great deal of time chasing through the network of five anonymous internet hosts in Europe, the was no way to find out the origins of this mail nor to track down my computer. Then I noticed the attached file and opened it. It was in code—the same Electronic Enigma code from years ago—more interesting! We’d also developed an electronic version of the German Enigma code machine, which had proven so difficult for the Allies to break during World War II. Instead of the five rotor version, we had added a sixth rotor for ours. All I needed to set the rotors in the right order was the date and, using the month specified, to set them at a starting point. There it was, 25/03/14. Simple enough, rotors in the 2-5-0-3-1-4 position, and the month of March meant that each rotor would be set on the third letter of the alphabet.
Hastily, I searched through my drawer full of compact disks and pulled out the one labeled “E-E Key,” and put it in the disk reader. It was old and it took a few seconds for the computer to open. I downloaded the attachment on the e-mail, set the rotors properly and ran the decoding program. As the scrambled symbols were transformed into words, I began to read. The first sentence made the hair on the back of my neck come to full attention, “Nick, if you are reading this, then I am dead.”
I was hooked!
“I have attached a copy of the document created by Sir Regis de Charnay, a Templar Knight who led an expedition through the Danakil Depression in 1315 to Aksum, the old capital of the Aksumite Kingdom, which, as you know from being stationed at Kagnew Station in Asmara, Eritrea, was once a wealthy empire that spanned the Red Sea into present day Yemen and northward to today’s Sudan and southern Egypt. Like de Charnay, I am the last member of a group of seekers in this inhospitable land. What were we seeking? I will let you read the words of de Charnay, who dictated the following document on his deathbed. The original document was recorded in Ge’ez, the language of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, by a Coptic monk named Tesfai. I apologize for any mistakes, but finding someone who could read Ge’ez and translate it into English was a difficult task, made more difficult by our inability to check the accuracy of the translation. Still, the translated document was good enough to let us achieve our objective, which I will explain at the end of de Charnay’s narrative. Nick, do not share this information with anyone other than the name I have written at the end. To do so would mean your life. Three men have died violently—I should make that number four, since I am now dead—because of their involvement in this matter, and I do not want the life of a good friend to be lost over something sent to him in an e-mail. All I ask is that you deliver this document to the person who is waiting for it. God bless you, my friend, and good luck carrying out this mission which I have imposed upon you.--Derrick.”
More than five hundred pages followed. Derrick had included everything he had collected about this Templar knight. As I read the first pages, I was struck by the formal language he had used to record his story. Enough here to keep me reading for several days, I thought, and much more interesting that what I was writing. A great cure for boredom!
We sailed into the port of Adulis on the fourteenth day of April in the year of our Lord 1308 with a cargo of cardamom, coriander, and ras el hanout, all exotic spices from India and Arabia, consigned to the Judaic merchant, Josephus bar Nissan. Several ships bearing the Order’s naval ensign were at anchor in the harbor, and I made it my first duty to call upon the captain of the nearest ship to catch up on the latest news. It was from him that I learned of events in France and the destruction of the Order. The captain, Giles du Pont, an old friend from campaigns in the Mediterranean, informed me that an emissary from the head of the Order, Jacques de Molay, had visited Adulis three months prior with orders to stand fast and await further instructions. The Order was in grave danger and no one knew what the future held, and as a result, knights of the Order and secular personnel employed in Templar enterprises in Adulis had purchased a large warehouse on the outskirts of the city and converted it into a Commandery.
After learning the bad news, I assembled my men, who numbered twenty knights, and relayed the information to them. I ordered them to report to the Commander and to convey the message that I would be there shortly. Bewildered that the Order, which had been untouchable because of its wealth and military power just a few months ago, was now in peril, they hastened to seek the safety of other knights at the Commandery and to contemplate their futures. Watching them move off, I turned in the other direction to seek out Josephus bar Nissan to learn more.
So started account of Regis de Charnay’s great adventure in Africa.
—Adulis was a thriving port, counting Greeks, Arabs, Ethiopians, Egyptians and other nationalities among its inhabitants. A large population of dark skinned slaves from the territories to the south of the port was employed to do the hard work needed to load, unload and repair the large number of ships that pay call on the port. Referred to as the barria, these poor souls were driven hard by foremen who use short whips to reinforce their orders, fed barely enough to maintain their bodies, and forced each night into large corrals of round huts where they are guarded by a force of five hundred mercenaries employed by the merchants. These hoplites, as they were called, were remnants of ancient Greek infantry formations that had dispersed worldwide following the death of Alexander the Great. In many ways, they were like the knights of the Order, living semi-celibate lives in a communal setting and admitting new members only when their numbers declined below five hundred. Candidates for admission into the hoplites were judged by a strict racial standard and had to meet stringent physical standards. For hundreds of years, they had maintained their separate identity and garnered a reputation as fierce fighters who never left a comrade on the battlefield. Although they spoke Greek among themselves, they had been in Africa for such a long time that many of them spoke all of the languages heard in Adulis. They were a force to be reckoned with anytime, and the sultans who ruled Adulis had long ago determined to employ them as soldiers and not engage them as enemies. The hoplites were proud of the reputation as soldiers and even prouder of the fact that once employed, they would give absolute and loyal service to their employers.
Sailors from all nations and regions of the world contributed to the cosmopolitan nature of Adulis, although they tended to collect in streets adjacent to the harbor and to frequent the ale shops and whorehouses that lined the streets. With them, sailors brought a demand for unusual foods, and restaurants featuring the cuisine of all countries could be found tucked away in the alleys behind the whorehouses and spirituous liquor shops. Along with their exotic culinary tastes, they also brought diverse religious beliefs, and Adulis boasted churches, synagogues, mosques and temples dedicated to a wide variety of gods. What was amazing was that the wealth and urbanity of the port city overrode religious extremism and all faiths and sects coexisted peacefully. Certainly Adulis was unlike any city in Europe at the time.
Musing on the contrasts that made up daily life in Adulis, I made my way to shop of Josephus, where I was greeted as a long lost friend.
“Regis, my old friend,” he greeted me. “Come inside and tell me of your latest adventures.”
He led me inside his darkened shop, where the mixture of aromas from the various spices created a pleasant, but almost unbreatheable, blanket of air. Seeing me gasp, Josephus moved past the counters piled high with colorful mounds of spice and into a spacious courtyard in the rear.
“I know, my friend,” he said with a smile on his face, “the aromas of the spices can be overwhelming to one who does not breathe them every day, but here only the smells of the sug infringe on the natural scents created by the flowers and trees.”
“Thank you, Josephus. I thought I just might die in there. Though pleasant, your shop’s scents are more powerful in stopping a knight than all the arrows of my enemies.”
“Pungent and powerful, my friend, but I’ve grown use to these smells over the years. Let’s share some chai,” Josephus replied and directed Regis to a spot where fluffy pillows rested on a beautiful rug. “Sit and let us talk.” He clapped his hands to summon a servant and directed him to bring some tea.
The two men spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries while waiting for the servant to return. The small talk avoided a more serious discussion of the troubles of the Order until the tea had been served, along with a heaping tray of sweet sesame cakes. Finally, the small talk was over and more serious business could be conducted.
“I have a bill of lading for you, my friend,” Regis began. “It amounts to six hundred gold coins. It seems that with the current state of events concerning the Order, our ships are unwanted in some ports and the costs of cargoes have gone up. I am sorry, Josephus, but I can do nothing about it. Even the captains of our ships are at a loss about what we will do next and they are determined to get the best prices for all the goods they carry, perhaps as insurance against an uncertain future.”
“Yes, I know,” the merchant answered as he reached for the invoice, “all the merchant ships are suddenly more expensive to charter. I think it is because no one knows what your Order will do now. The protection the Templar knights provided against pirates might become nonexistent, and we who trade with other ports of the world will have to bear a heavy burden in extra costs to hire mercenaries to protect our shipments. With the exception of the Order and the hoplites, however, there are few professional soldiers trustworthy enough rely on.”
He shook his head in disgust as he reached for a large polished teak chest that was hidden behind one of the pillows. Reaching into a fold of his besht, which covered the elaborately embroidered thawb or gown that he wore, he extracted a key, unlocked the chest and began counting gold coins. When he was finished, he placed the pile of coins in a leather bag and handed it to Regis, who started to count the coins again.
“Do you not trust me, my friend?”
“It is not that, Josephus, but I have to give an accounting to the clerks at the Commandery, and they are as diligent in counting as a poor widow with a flock of laying chickens. No, my friend, I trust you, but I have demanding masters—men whose fingers are black with ink and who have never swung a sword or battle axe,” Regis replied. His fingers were a blur as he swiftly counted. He suddenly stopped to examine a strange coin from the pile. Tossing it aside, he continued until the count was done.
“Six hundred exactly,” he said smiling. “Five hundred and ninety-nine I recognize as coins from various countries. This one, however, is strange. I have never seen one like it before. What is the origin of this coin?” He looked closely at the coin he had previously tossed aside, “It has a cross on it, so it must be from a Christian country, but I have never encountered such strange writing.”
Regis put the coin between his teeth and bit down. The gold coin, made hard with some alloy that had been added, nevertheless yielded to the sharp points of his teeth. When he took it from his mouth, he looked at it, satisfied that it was indeed gold. He reached for his own purse and extracted a single gold coin, which he added to the large pile Josephus had just given him. The strange coin he tucked away in his purse. Josephus watched him as he completed his examination of the coin and its replacement with another.
“That coin? It is a gold coin from the Kingdom of Aksum, a rich country across the desert, which, unfortunately, no longer exists, but its coins still circulate in trade in Adulis and elsewhere in ports along the Red Sea. It was a mighty nation, but it fell to conquest about four hundred years ago….”
“The cross? Why did that coin have a cross on it?” Regis’s curiosity pushed him to interrupt Josephus—a breach of manners that might have been offensive had he interrupted a stranger. Josephus could see the knight’s excitement and he made no protest at this rudeness.
“The cross, my friend, was because this country was a Christian nation. Its leaders embraced a belief in your Christ many centuries ago, long before the Crusades and long before the Order was created….”
Once more, Regis interrupted, “Why have I not heard of this nation? A hidden kingdom of Christians? Tell me more!” He paused a moment and then added a plaintive, “Please?”
“Patience, my friend, all in good time. Why don’t you come back tonight after you’ve finished your business at the Preceptory. Return an hour after the sun has hidden itself and I will tell you what I know over a feast of the finest lamb in all of Adulis.”
Reluctantly, Regis nodded his head in agreement and made ready to depart. He gathered his belongings, tied the leather bag to his belt, and gathered his arms. As he rose to leave, he stood a moment looking at Josephus before speaking. “Tonight, the whole tale?”
Josephus smiled and agreed, “Tonight, I will tell you everything I know about the old Kingdom of Aksum. Everything.”
Regis nodded again, turned and made his way out of the courtyard, through the shop and into the street beyond. His free sword hand grasped the strange coin and he fondled it over and over as he walked towards the Preceptory. Tonight!—
“I am Regis de Charnay,” he announced to the sergeant guarding the gate to the Preceptory. I have just arrived on the vessel, Star of David, and I have business with the Commander here.”
“Welcome, Sir Regis. Your men arrived earlier and are in the bailey bathing. Would you like to join them?”
Bathing was not something that knights or any of the sergeants willingly engaged in, so Regis looked inquisitively at the enlisted man before him.
“Bathing? Why is that? Are they not fighting men who need not the comforts of feminine city dwellers? Why this?”
“Orders, sir, from the Knight Commander on the authority of Muhammad Abdullahi Dengi, the respected physician of Adulis, who has ordered it as a remedy for preventing an outbreak of disease. I do not agree with him, my lord, but the Commander believes he is right and so has ordered us to bathe at least once a fortnight. I agree with you, sire, such luxuries make a man weak, but then, I am only a sergeant.”
“You seem to have survived a long time, sergeant, without indulging in such foppery. How long have you been in the Order?”
“Thirty-five years, sire. At least I think it has been that long. I became a sergeant some ten or so years before I was in the great battle at Acre and then at Cyprus. Pray tell, sire, how long has that been?”
“A goodly thirty years or so, I would think. When did you arrive in Adulis?”
“Just two months ago, sire. I was on a ship headed for Marseille, but when we put into port here for supplies, we were ordered to stay, since it was unsafe for us to return to France.”
“Unsafe? How so?”
“I know not, sire. I was simply to join the other members of the Order here. After so much adventure in my life, this place is purgatory.” The sergeant quickly realized he had said too much and he looked pleadingly at Regis, “Forgive me, sire, I talk too much.”
Regis threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Not too much, sergeant, but like a man of action put out to pasture. Who be ye?”
“I am known as Hugues Monteres of Chartres, good sire, and I am not complaining, just recounting a full life.”
“Good man, Sergeant Hugues Monteres, I know how you feel. I, too, was at Acre, but since then I have been assigned to duty aboard the Order’s ship. Fighting pirates is tolerable, I guess, but does not have the same excitement that fighting the Saracens did. Now show me to the Commander’s quarters.”
“I cannot leave my post, sire, but you can find his quarters if you walk straight ahead to that building in the center of the courtyard.”
“Thank you, good sergeant. Perhaps we’ll talk again.”
Setting his sights on the building the sergeant had pointed out, Regis walked through the courtyard. Around him, men from his ship found ways to hide their faces as they soaked in wooden tubs of hot water. Not even his good friend Jacques de Sonnac, who had been the only other knight on the Star of David with him, managed to see him as he strolled boldly between the tubs. For a man who has always boasted of his keen sight, Regis thought, Jacques has suddenly developed a strange case of blindness. Shame does that to a man.
He made his way into the small room that served as the Commander’s office, cluttered with scores of papers and stacks of small crates. There was no one present, so Regis sat on one of the crates to wait. A few minutes later, a massive, tall blond knight entered, dressed in full armor except for his helmet, and carrying a small chest. The man was so engrossed in what he was doing that he failed to take notice of Regis sitting in the shadows of the room. For Regis, the sight of the knight was a pleasant surprise. It was his old comrade-in-arms Gerard de Roquefort, a man he had last seen a full ten years ago.
“Greetings, Gerard,” Regis said in a low voice.
The knight was startled by the greeting and whirled to face the man who had just addressed him. Hastily sitting the chest on the small table in the middle of the room, he crossed the room in two quick strides, his arms spread wide and a huge grin on his face.
“Regis! Regis de Charnay! As I live and breathe! My friend, what are you doing in Adulis?” His gigantic arms encircled Regis in a bear hug and lifted him off the floor.
“Enough, enough,” Regis gasped. “Let me go before you squeeze the last breath of life from me.”
“Sorry,” came the response, “but I have no seen you for long years, and I had heard you had been killed. How are you, my friend, and what are you doing in Adulis?”
“I just arrived on the Star of David, and I come bearing Josephus the spice merchant’s payment of six hundred gold coins. Not bad for a dead man, is it?”
“Not bad at all,” Gerard exclaimed, “not bad at all!” He busied himself shedding his shield and sword, allowing him the freedom of movement to again embrace Regis, although this time it was in a more gentle fashion. “Welcome, my friend, you’ve come at a difficult time for the Order, a time like no other in our history….”
“What, pray tell, can be of such importance to the Order? Are we not the strongest army of all the Pope’s knights? What do we have to fear?”
Gerard looked at Regis, a sad and concerned look on his face, before replying, “We are undone, sire, undone! The Holy See has abandoned us to the treacherous Philip of France, who has attacked our priories and arrested our leaders. Even Grand Master de Molay has been arrested and imprisoned. Now Philip has moved against all knights of the Order within his reached and put them in dungeons where they are being tortured and killed. I know not what the latest news is, having heard all this from the seneschal’s emissary just five months previous.” Gerard nodded toward the chest he had placed on the table, “I have here new orders from our leaders, but I know not what this chest contains.”
“Perhaps it will be good news,” Regis said. “Perhaps messages that this time of turmoil is over and the Holy See has come to his senses.”
“Perhaps,” Gerard agreed, “but perhaps not. I am anxious to find out. I am calling a council of all knights in Adulis for the morrow night. However, I fear that all is not well for the Order. Your counsel will be important when we meet, so I expect you in attendance.”
Reaching for the leather bag with the gold sovereigns he had received in payment from Josephus, Regis untied it and handed it to Gerard. “You have a heavy burden, my friend, one that I hope to be able to lighten for you somewhat tomorrow. I leave you to find lodgings here, but take these few gold coins for safe keeping. I have an engagement to sup with Josephus tonight, but send a sergeant to me if you need me. I am glad to see you again, my brother, but I, too, am worried. I have never seen you so distressed, not even when we were faced with overwhelming odds of the Saracen hordes.”
“You can have the quarters next to mine. After me, you are the ranking knight in the Commandery and should be at hand if I need you.” He called and a sergeant appeared in the doorway.
“Show this good knight to the quarters next to mine and attend to his needs,” he said, even as he began to turn his eager attention to the chest on the table. “Until we meet again, Regis.”
The small room was sparsely furnished, as were all the quarters of the knights in residence. A small wooden table and a three-legged stool were placed against one wall, while a single cot with thin mattress was opposite. A wooden stand where chain mail and weapons could be stored in readiness occupied the corner of one wall, and a wooden barrel full of tepid water filled the other corner. Barely enough room to move, he thought, but all a knight needed.
As he shed the heavy chain mail and weapons he had been carrying, Regis felt tired. He had been busy since he had arrived in Adulis and the long walk from Josephus’s shop and the heavy armaments he carried had sapped some of his strength. Twenty years ago, he mused, I would have scarcely noticed, but age and the fact that I have been confined to the small deck of the Star of David for several weeks have taken their toll. Tomorrow demands a full session of training for me and the others I command, for only that will restore us to our full abilities.
Freed from the confines of his armor, Regis removed the heavy woolen pants that protected his legs, threw aside the stiff leather girdle that bound his privates, and stood clad only in his linen tunic. He removed the tunic and stood naked in the center of the room. The heat of the small room seemed less oppressive as he stood there, allowing an occasional warm breeze to evaporate the sweat on his body. How free I feel, he said to himself. Like all of God’s creatures clothed only in what He has given us to wear.
Moving to the water barrel in the corner, he used the copper dipper to pour the warm water over his head and onto his body. Once again, the warm breeze that filtered into the room evaporated the water, cooling him and recharging his tired muscles. Still, the day had been exhausting and he donned his tunic and stretched out on the hard cot. As he closed his eyes to nap, thoughts of the strange gold coin he had gotten from Josephus held sleep at bay. Finally, he rose from his bed and moved to the small table where his purse rested. He opened it and retrieved the coin. He went to the doorway and examined it closely in the bright sunlight. The head of a man, surrounded by an olive wreath, adorned the coin. Greek letters—????????????????—were along the edges and spelled the words “King of Aksum.” On the back, a cross pattée, much like the ones he had seen carved on old Templar buildings, was surrounded with letters of a language he had never seen before, although it appeared to be a form of the language of the Hebrews.
Strange that an African nation would use Greek on its coins, he thought. Regis was unusual because he was one of the few knights in the Order that could read and write Latin, and unusual still that he had acquired a working knowledge of Greek while serving on the Island of Cyprus. Perhaps because this nation of Aksum traded with other countries along the Red Sea and elsewhere?
Satisfied with his examination of the coin, he returned to his cot, his fingers turning the coin over and other as if memorizing its touch. Now the sleep that had evaded him slowly descended and his eyes closed, the coin gripped tightly in his hand. Perhaps Josephus can explain this to me, he thought before surrendering to slumber, perhaps….—
He arose from his cot two hours later, feeling refreshed and eager to start his visit to the Jewish merchant. Expecting no trouble on his journey, he donned his chain mail, and stepped into his boots. He tucked a small dagger into a leather sheath and carefully strapped it to his thigh. Over the chain mail, he donned a white tunic emblazoned with the red cross pattée that all knights of the Order wore. He drew a wide leather belt abound his waist and affixed his broadsword to it. The leather purse with the coin inside, he slipped behind the belt. To be able to move safely through the streets of Adulis without his full complement of armor was something unusual, but he was not willing to travel the dark streets of the city without some protection. Too many sailors and rogues about willing, I am sure, to take advantage of the unwary. I did not get to be my age in life without precautions.
Satisfied, he stepped through the doorway and into the courtyard. The sergeant who had shown him to his quarters was loitering nearby. Regis called to him, “Find me Sergeant Monteres and send him to me.”
With a casual salute to Regis, the sergeant set off. Within minutes, Sergeant Monteres rounded the corner of the building and came to a halt before Regis.
“You wanted me, Sire? What are your orders?”
“Stand easy, sergeant. I desire you to accompany me on a visit to my friend’s home. We will sup with him there.”
“Shall I get you a horse, Sire?”
“No, we shall walk, but I wish you to carry your sword and a pike. I know not this city very well and I do not want to be waylaid by brigands or thieves. The two of us should be sufficient to deal with any threat. Get your weapons and meet me at the front gate. We’ll be off!”
Regis arrived at the gate just moments before Sergeant Monteres, who came puffing up to him with a short sword in a scabbard tied to his waist.
“Ready, Sire,” he panted.
“Breathe easily, my friend, we are in no hurry. A slow pace down the streets perhaps, until you have your breath back?”
“I am ready for whatever comes, Sire. A fighting man should never have to pull garrison duty, it makes him weak. I, Sire, am a fighting man—just a little rusty.”
“Good, sergeant, but hopefully we will need to do no fighting tonight.”
“Aye, maybe not, but you carry your purse on your belt and some of the scum in Adulis will almost certainly try to take it. Let us be wary.”
Despite the sergeant’s warning, the two men encountered no thieves on their way to the home of Josephus, although several scurrilous characters eyed them suspiciously. Still they arrived at their destination without incident. Ignoring the closed shop that fronted on the street, they made their way behind it to where a large wooden gate broke the tall masonry wall surrounding the courtyard Regis had visited early. Several sharp raps on the gate brought Josephus’ servant to the gate carrying a large oil lamp. Opening the small shuttered window in the gate, he peered into the dark. Catching sight of Regis, he quickly opened the gate as let the two men in.
“This way, Sire, my master is waiting inside.” He led the way; the light from his lamp casting shadows in the courtyard, and creating crazy patterns on the walls. “This way,” he said again, “my master awaits you.” Regis and Monteres followed closely behind, carefully picking their way through the myriad objects scattered around the courtyard.
Monteres, who had never been inside a home in Adulis, was awed by the lushness of the plants and trees in the courtyard, keenly aware of the vast quantity of water needed to keep them green and flowering—an expensive proposition in a parched land of limited rainfall. The soft tinkling of a fountain, invisible in the darkness, filled the air with a hint of moisture, which caused the scent of the jasmine to hang cloyingly over the outdoor space, to which was added the lingering fragrances from the spices emanating from the adjacent shop. This is what heaven will be like, he thought, sweet smelling and cool.
The servant opened the door to the house and ushered the two Templars inside. Josephus emerged from a side room to envelope Regis in a brotherly hug. He noted Monteres, but did not speak to him, the class difference too great to overcome in a social situation. The servant took Monteres gently by the arm and moved him toward the kitchen. Josephus escorted Regis into a large open room with rich Persian rugs on the floor and huge soft pillows surrounding a low table covered with platters of dates, currants, figs, roasted lamb and bits of chicken floating in a savory curry sauce.
Regis, who was used to the rough fare of a soldier’s mess, stood for just a minute absorbing the delicious smells of the meal, his salivary glands filling his mouth in anticipation. His only food for the day had been the sweet cakes and chai Josephus had served him earlier in the day and the sight and smell of the food made him realize just how hungry he was.
“Have a seat, my friend,” Josephus said, pointing to the cushions. “We must have a drink of wine to celebrate your return.” He took a flagon from the table and poured red wine into two cups. Putting the vessel down, he handed Regis one cup and took the other for himself, which he raised in a salute, “To an uncertain future and a sterling past!”
Regis lifted his cup and answered, “To an uncertain future, but one where good deeds make it worth living!”
“Ah,” Josephus responded, “good deeds always makes life worth living. Now eat, my friend, and when we have finished, we’ll talk.”
Needing no more encouragement, Regis pulled his small dagger from the sheath on his thigh and speared a large piece of lamb. He attacked it voraciously, the spicy meat fueling his hunger. Sweet red wine followed another hunk of lamb, which was followed in turn by savory curried chicken on a thin crust of what bread. Soon Regis lost track of the different kinds of foods he consumed and the number of cups of wine. Sated at last, he held up his hands in protest as Josephus tried to entice him with more food.
“No more, my friend,” he said. “I have eaten more tonight than I have on some campaigns in the Holy Land. I feel the need for a short nap, and were it not for my desire to hear the story you promised, I would close my eyes and sleep comfortably here for two or three days.”
“Patience, Regis, we must try several cups of this brew,” Josephus answered as he poured two cups of a strong dark brew. “Try this. This is called kaffa, and it comes from the country I am going to tell you about. It will counteract the dulling effects of the food.”
He handed a cup to Regis, who immediately smelled the deep aroma that came from the cup. Pleasant, he thought. He lifted the cup to his lips and was surprised at how good the thick black liquid tasted as it flowed down his throat. Kaffa tasted good! He drank more and, as he did, the dull feeling left by overeating began to dissipate.
“What an excellent elixir,” he said. “This drink must have some magical qualities.”
“I want you wide awake, my friend, when I tell you my story. It all began many years ago when a strange man came into my shop to sell me a small quantity of myrrh. He was dark skinned, but he spoke to me in the language of my fathers—crudely phrasing his sentences, using old and out-of-date words, and yet he was perfectly understandable. I invited him inside my home, where, over a suitable repast, he began to tell me what I will tell to you. I will share his crude maps and other documents he had with him and which I purchased. It is a long tale, my friend, but one that should interest you.”
The stranger was a member of my own race, although he and I bore none of the same features—he being African in appearance
and me Arabic. He claimed to be descended from early Hebrew wanderers who settled the area around a great lake in what is
now the kingdom of Abyssinia. The tradition among his people is that they are children of the Lost Tribe of Dan and he carried
with him a medallion bearing the inscription Beyte Israel in Hebrew and the symbol of a scale, which is the symbol of that tribe.
When I questioned him about the religion of his people, he answered with descriptions of practices that were of Hebrew origins,
but which were long abandoned or changed. It was if he was describing beliefs and traditions of my father’s father and his
father before him. Still, I must confess, he was most convincing, and I accepted him as a Hebrew brother. Thus, Elisha Ben
Dan became a friend and confidante.
Over the years and many conversations over long meals, I managed to piece together the story of the Beyte Israel, a name they gave themselves that meant “the House of Israel,” although their neighboring tribes referred to them as Falashas, or aliens. They lived much as their neighbors did, settling lands around Lake Tana, tilling the soil and herding cattle and goats. Only their religion kept them separate from the other peoples of the region, and their religion kept them unified and powerful. The Beyte Israel prospered in their separation and soon could count a half-million persons who professed…..