"God's Wounds, it's hot!"
The grizzled soldier removed his leather cap and mopped his brow with a filthy rag. His younger companion at the sentry post nodded by way of reply. Below their vantage point in the gatecastle, the city sprawled, baking in the heat, although it lacked an hour to noon. Looking away to the west, where the remains of the army's siege camp could still be seen, the air shimmered and the distant images danced, as though upon a sea. The two guards moved slowly along the walls. The younger man, a Welsh man-at-arms named Cadfael, paused to drink at the water butt. It could hardly be called refreshment, he mused, the blood-hot liquid carried the rank taste of the vinegar added to purify it; plague was rife and one couldn't be too careful.
Cadfael stood up, rubbed his aching back with both hands and adjusted the yew bow that was slung over one shoulder. Horseshoes clattered in the courtyard below. A knight arriving or leaving the Council. The young soldier sighed. It was the horses he pitied most. They, poor beasts, had no say in the matter and too many destriers had left their bones in the wastes to the north of Antioch. He wondered again at what had led him to this place. Oh, it had sounded fine enough back home. The priests blessed them when they left to join God's army. This rabble! The Normans hated the Franks and the Italian followers of Count Bohemond hated everyone. He, a Welshman of Gwynedd, had found himself with the English contingent under the command of Robert, Duke of Normandy. Robert was a brave warrior but a remote and ineffectual leader. He clung to dreams of glory, even in the face of the squalid reality that this great crusade had become.
What had started as a great and wondrous adventure had collapsed into bitter ashes of acrimony and mistrust. The battle cry of 'Onwards to Jerusalem' now sounded hollow even to the most dedicated ears. The army was suffering badly. Supplies were poor and infrequent. The Genoese merchantmen that brought goods from Europe to the port of St Symeon had hiked their prices fourfold. What little plunder that filtered down to humble soldiers like Cadfael was soon spent. The hot, stony deserts had taken their toll on man and beast and there was always the constant fear of plague that seemed to afflict them wherever they made camp for too long. Some things never changed, though. The arrogance of the chevaliers, for instance. Any man who couldn't speak French was considered worthless, even though many of the so-called 'flower of chivalry' were now reduced to foot soldiers. Most of the knights were penniless; younger sons sent on the crusades because their fathers' estates could not support them. Yet they still comported themselves as if at Court. Cadfael found all of this difficult to understand for a son of Wales.
He was short and square of build with the heavy musculature around the chest and shoulders that is witness to many hours spent pulling on the yew bow. His countenance might be best described as open; comely enough; a good Welsh face with much bone and heavy brows beneath the russet-brown hair. He was perhaps barely twenty but it was difficult to judge, his skin burnt teak-brown by the strong sun of the Holy Land.
He was roused from his reverie by a shout; a high, panicked sound that ended abruptly. Cadfael and his companion raced along the walls in the direction of the noise. There was a small gap in the parapet where stones, weakened in the recent siege, had been dislodged. The two soldiers regarded each other with wary eyes. Both had heard the commotion yet neither wished be the first to question the other. Cadfael stooped and examined the dusty stone fragments by the broken inner parapet. He rose slowly and leant out to peer over the edge. There, some forty feet below, was the body of a man. It was clear, even from that distance, that the poor unfortunate had departed this world. The limbs lay every which-way and the unnatural angle of the head revealed a broken neck.
As happens when such disaster befalls, a crowd gathered swiftly. Cadfael and his companion stared down from their vantage point until a peremptory voice, much used to command, summoned them down from their eyrie. They made a reluctant descent. It is not the way of soldiers to seek the company of their betters and in this Cadfael was no exception. He would give best to no man but rather preferred to go his own way in life. He could recognise and submit to authority readily enough if the case demanded such but otherwise he was content to be left to discharge his duty in a manner he thought fit, and he was never one to shirk.
"You there! What happened here? How came this man to fall?"
The two guards regarded their interrogator solemnly with the blank faces of those who do not understand the question or, at least, why such should be addressed to them. The older soldier, one Godred of Gloucester, a Saxon, merely shrugged. The nobleman was unknown to him and, furthermore, the thought of any involvement in this event suggested blame and blame was something Godred would avoid. Cadfael, meantime, was eyeing the corpse. He thought he recognised the man slightly. As he looked, he could not shake the feeling that all was not as it should be. He knelt beside the body to look more closely.
In the time since he had fled his native hearth, and, truth be told, his unfortunate betrothed, Cadfael had become well acquainted with death in all its sordid and unseemly forms. What he saw now puzzled him. With a grunted 'by your leave' he turned the body over and made a low clicking sound with his tongue. The back of the skull showed a deep, circular gash but with little bleeding. He felt under the lank, greasy hair along the neck from the base of the skull to the shoulder. The shattered vertebrae were obvious. He turned his attention to the rest of the body, noting the same sort of patched homespun as clothed most of the army. But why was the man wearing a cloak? It was hot as Hades.
The knight grew impatient.
"Get up man, he's beyond your help."
"That he is," Cadfael replied slowly, rising from his knees. "But I can tell you that he did not die here."
"Nonsense, man. That fall would have killed anyone."
"It would, My Lord; anyone living. This man died elsewhere. I think we are meant to believe otherwise, mind."
"And do you say so?" There was a certainty about this young archer that pricked the man's curiosity.
"Look here. He took this blow from the bastion as he fell."
"It didn't bleed. My Lord, you have seen such wounds. It is not unlike that made by a blow from a mace. Headwounds bleed freely, as you will own."
"I see. Yes, truly, there has been no bleeding. What else?"
"He wears a cloak, My Lord. On such a day in the blaze of noon? Yet we all sweat like pigs his skin is dry. And there's more."
"The leather of his boots has been scuffed, not on the soles or heels, we're all in that case. No, My Lord, look you here. The back of the boot. That's fresh scarring to my eyes."
The knight looked down where Cadfael's thick finger indicated a fresh looking gouge in the leather, above the heel and running straight upwards, to the boot top. He nodded vaguely, already regretting his involvement.
"So tell me what you believe happened."
"I would say, although there can be no certainty, that he met his death last night. The cloak was worn against the cold. Someone decided to cast his body from the wall, hoping it would be thought an accident. The scrape on the boot occurred when the body was dragged up the stairs or else, along the battlements."
"A murder, then, you say?"
"No, that I do not say; only that he died last night and some place else."
"But, if not murder, why go to the trouble of playing out an accident?"
"Ah. There is that."
The assembled idlers listened to the exchanges agog. A low hum of muttered speculation rose. The knight spun on his heel and eyed them.
"Does any here know this man?"
A tall, skinny, ill-favoured individual pushed himself to the front.
"That's Walter Veritas, groom to Sir Lionel de Blois, or was before His Lordship died."
Cadfael nodded. He remembered then. The man had come, seeking to join the company of archers after his master's death. The captain had refused him on grounds of a lack of skill. "And we've no mounts to tend," the captain had told him. Walter had made no complaint but left to try his fortune elsewhere.
"Oh well, there's little to be done here now. Take his body to the infirmary. And you," this to Cadfael, "attend me later. I am Mercier de Longueval, aide to Count Bohemond. You will find me at his quarters. Come at curfew."
Cadfael nodded stoically. He had little appetite for the task but accepted nonetheless. Godred jerked his thumb upwards in a gesture that suggested that they had best be getting back. He gave Cadfael a grimace of commiseration and puffed out his cheeks.
"Perhaps it would have been better if you had let it go," he muttered as they walked away.
"That I could not do, in all conscience. A man is dead and, whether by fair means or foul, I cannot say. But I do know that it merits more than a passing thought."
"So you said! Ah well, on your head be it."
The relief came late in the afternoon and Cadfael made his way somewhat wearily back to the archers' camp. He sought the captain and explained all that had transpired and of his summons to attend Sir Mercier de Longueval. The captain offered no comment but signalled his agreement and Cadfael found himself with an hour or two to kill before the curfew bell sounded. He found his footsteps taking him into the market quarter though, God knew, he had little enough silver with which to make any purchases. The worst of the heat was gone and, although the air lacked that freshness of the morning, Cadfael felt a blessed relief as he made his way down the close-packed alleys that led to the main square. The stallholders were packing up their goods for the night and Cadfael could see their offerings were sparse. Leatherwork and cloth, brass pots and gimcrack jewellery with here and there a vendor of unappetising food. The siege had gone hard with the city and no caravans had arrived bringing spices, silks and frankincense for many months now. Once-wealthy merchants now stood listlessly by half-empty booths, hollow-eyed and ill-fed.
Cadfael turned into the Street of Sailmakers and wandered idly among the booths. A voice hailed him by name and he advanced smiling to greet his friend, Salah the apothecary. Salah was tall but stooped and his weathered features bore the unmistakable stamp of the desert.
"Salaam aleikum, Cadfael. Peace be unto you."
"And to you, Salah bin Mugrun."
"And what brings you to the bazaar, my friend? You seek some remedy or unguent, perhaps?"
"No, Salah, I was simply walking, following my feet, and they led me to your door."
"Come then and take refreshment with me."
The apothecary beckoned Cadfael into the interior of his booth and clapped his hands. A slim, dark-eyed girl appeared and Salah called for coffee and sweetmeats. She made a slight bow and withdrew, her eyes regarding Cadfael with open curiosity.
"My niece, Mariam," the older man explained and urged Cadfael to sit with an expansive gesture. "She is learning my art."
Cadfael merely nodded and breathed in the intoxicating mixture of scents that pervaded the interior of the apothecary's booth. Bunches of wild herbs hung up to dry and there were shelves filled with oils and infusions, pots of ointment, vials of powders and liquids of every hue and description. The store never ceased to fascinate the young soldier. He had met Salah by chance the previous month. Cadfael had been looking for some physick for an infected cut on one foot. Salah had seen him limping and almost dragged him into the booth. The treatment had been effective and Cadfael felt he owed the apothecary a debt of gratitude. He had seen too many men's wounds turn morbid and had feared the worst in his own case. He returned to Salah's booth a few days later, bearing a gift of olive oil, and had stopped for an hour or two to talk. Since then, he had visited the man on perhaps a dozen occasions and, through assiduous questioning, was starting to learn the basics of the herbalist's art. If Cadfael had a motto it would be 'nothing learned is ever wasted.'
He recognised many of the plants used as being common weeds that grow everywhere from Aber Menai to Jerusalem but there were more that he could not put a name to. Salah answered all his questions with patience and corrected many of Cadfael's misapprehensions with a ready smile.
"No, my friend, wearing a sprig of rosemary will not ward off the plague. For that, you must drink a decoction of butterbur and the blessed thistle. But it must stand for two days after the brewing."
They conversed easily for many hours. Salah wanted to know all about the Western lands that sent such soldiers to his city. When Cadfael related his tale of the crusade. Salah simply looked puzzled.
"But are we both not people of the Book? There is but one God and if you believe that Jesus is His prophet.."
"We believe that Jesus is His son, Salah."
"But how? Surely that is blasphemy?"
"I'm no scholar, Salah, I simply tell you what we believe. Yet I have seen more Christian charity among the supposed infidel than I have had from many of my own kind."
"I do not understand, Cadfael, my friend. Is there not but one God? And he is your God and mine, I think."
"So I believe."
"And yet each calls the other 'infidel.' A strange world, my friend."
Meanwhile, Cadfael perfected his knowledge of Trade Greek, the lingua franca of the Levant, and learned a little of the language of the Syrians. He had a facility with languages and could converse with equal fluency in Welsh and English as well as hold his own in Langue d'Oui - the Norman tongue.
Mariam, the apothecary's niece, returned with a brass tray and set the coffee and sweetmeats before the men. Cadfael gave her a smile of thanks and her eyes widened slightly but she said nothing and withdrew behind a curtained door.
"Beware, my friend. My niece is a headstrong girl. Her mother, my only sister, sent her to me a year gone. Her husband died of the cholera. He had no family so she returned home. It was not a happy arrangement. Mariam can be...difficult. There was some trouble over a young man. He was importunate. Now he walks with a limp."
Sensing Salah's unease, Cadfael smiled.
"I do believe you are trying to tell me something."
"A wise man needs no telling. I like you, Cadfael. You are an honest man and have a subtle mind."
"You are not of our faith or our race, my friend."
But as he walked towards the castle where Bohemond's banner flew in defiance of Count Raymond, Cadfael could not quite manage to expunge the image of the dark-eyed slender girl. He cursed himself for a fool and turned his mind to the meeting with Sir Mercier de Longueval. He did not stop to wonder that he had become involved. The dead man had cried out to him for justice; he could not act otherwise. He ran through all he had seen once more; the cloak, the lack of blood, the scuff marks on the boots. The tale they told was limited enough. Questions formed in his mind to which he had no answers. Something worried him, like a burr under a blanket: unseen but irritating for all that.
Sir Mercier de Longueval did not keep him waiting. The young aristocrat ushered Cadfael into a small chamber containing a simple wooden table and chairs and a low bed. An hauberk of fine mail rested on a rough frame and a costly sword lay upon the blankets. Cadfael took in his surroundings at a glance. He guessed, correctly, that these were Sir Mercier's quarters and wondered why he was afforded such intimacy. The knight had a harassed look and seemed barely in control of his temper. Spots of anger suffused his cheeks and his movements were jerky and anxious. He motioned Cadfael to a chair, poured out two goblets of wine and drained one of them at a single draught.
"Your name, soldier?"
"Cadfael ap Meilyr of Gwynedd."
"Duke Robert's man?"
"Of his band but I owe him no oath. I'm sworn to Eilwynn of Worcester."
"An archer, then. So tell me, Cadfael ap Meilyr, do you know how it lies between My Lord and Count Raymond?"
"There has been some talk."
"And what is your opinion of the matter?"
Cadfael considered. Count Raymond and the other Nobles who led the Crusade had sworn an oath to the Emperor Alexis in Constantinople that they would return any lands of Byzantium liberated from the Turk. This, by rights, should include Antioch. But Bohemond and his nephew, Tancred, had captured Antioch where others failed. Further, when the Crusaders had, in turn, been besieged within the city, the Emperor had turned his army away, refusing to come to their aid. Although most blamed the craven Stephen of Blois for this abandonment, Bohemond declared his oath to the Emperor annulled. He had sworn, he said, in return for the promise of aid and succour when at need. In this, Alexis had failed. To Bohemond's mind this very failure released him from his own oath and the turbulent Count now claimed Antioch for his own Kingdom, supported by Tancred. Cadfael gave a quiet sigh and replied.
"My Lord, it is one to me whether Alexis or your master rules Antioch. I came to free the Holy Sepulchre and the other places dear to us as Christians. The disputes of princes are beyond me to understand."
Mercier de Longueval regarded the stocky soldier shrewdly before giving a shrug. He doubted much was beyond this man's understanding but he was pleased by the answer. He did not doubt Cadfael's assertion that he had come to liberate the shrines. Mercier had observed more honest piety among the men at arms than he witnessed from those of his own rank for whom plunder seemed the prime motivation.
"The dead man served Lionel de Blois, Stephen's vassal?"
Cadfael nodded by way of reply.
"And this same Lionel died before Stephen's desertion?"
"So I believe, My Lord."
"What else do you know of him?"
"Little enough. He came seeking a place among our band but the Captain would have none of him. I never saw him again until today."
"Then that is where we must start. I charge with you discovering whom he next served. That may tell us why someone thought it necessary to do murder. And if we know the motive, may we also not find the man?"
"May I ask, My Lord, why me?"
"You chose yourself, man. Others were content to believe he fell yet you were not. May I ask you why?"
"I cannot give you a ready answer, My Lord. It was plain to me that a dead man fell from the wall. And whether he met his end by fair means or foul, do we not owe him a reckoning?"
Sir Mercier gave a thin smile. "Too many of this host care less. There would be more consternation within these walls for a horse deliberately lamed. I laid the matter before Count Tancred and he laughed it off, saying what is one more death to this band of butchers? Count Bohemond took notice, however, and has ordered me to resolve it, come what may. Do you know my lord, the Count?"
Cadfael shook his head. What he knew of Bohemond was little. The foot soldiers held the Count in high regard as a General, careful of their lives and shrewd in battle. Bohemond was a giant among men, his blond head stood tall above the throng of Nobles and he must have been over a foot taller than Cadfael. Only his nephew, Tancred, matched him in height and breadth of chest and shoulder. It was said he had sworn a vow of chastity and was a pious man, but he also had a reputation for an evil temper and a rough tongue. All this was hearsay and opinion and Cadfael set little store by either.
Sir Mercier suddenly smiled.
"He is the best of men, Cadfael; mighty in battle and merciful in victory. Four times we have defeated the Turks and each time the victory was Bohemond's. Raymond of Toulouse hates him for it and your Duke Robert will not stand between them. I like it not. An army divided is an army defeated; bad blood among our princes will ruin us all."
"Amen to that, My Lord."
"Doesn't it worry you?"
"Let us say that I think our cause has merit but falls beneath my hopes and expectations as we stand, My Lord."
"Oh, bravely put for a 'simple' soldier! And I fear you will remain disappointed. Raymond will go to Jerusalem without Bohemond or Tancred, I fear. I came hence from the council. Things look bleak, Cadfael ap Meilyr, I own it freely. Still, that is not to the matter in hand. Will you accept my charge? I'll see you well rewarded for your pains."
"I accept, My Lord, and need no promises to fire me. We owe the man a reckoning, I said. If I can assist, I'll do my best, but find little room for hope and more for sorrow."
"So do we all, Cadfael. But don't be so hasty in dismissing your deserts. Even honest men must eat and, God knows, that's difficult enough! Where shall you begin?"
"With the man who named the corpse, My Lord. I recognised his face and recalled the name when I heard it spoken but I fancy that man knew this Walter Veritas well."
"A good thought. I'll bespeak your Captain to give you leave from your duties. Send word when you have something to tell me."
"I will, My Lord."
Cadfael left Bohemond's castle with a heavy heart. He had given his word to investigate as far as he could but doubted he would achieve much. Whoever killed Walter Veritas had wished to hide the fact. That could be a simple fear of retribution or something more. It was not uncommon for a brawl between men to end in death, and punishment was slow and only rarely severe. The armies had become inured to sudden death. A man slain, face to face, was seldom seen as murdered and, although the Church may demand a heavy penance, the secular authorities were less inclined to pursue the matter beyond the payment of a blood-debt. Something told Cadfael that Walter Veritas had not perished in some squalid brawl over a woman or disputed share of plunder. He shuddered at the implications.
Cadfael woke early the following morning and dressed hurriedly in the pre-dawn chill. He wanted to be away from the archers' camp before the place was stirring and thus avoid those questions he would prefer not to answer. He marvelled anew, as he slipped out of the ramshackle assortment of huts and tents, that he had ever allowed himself to become involved. While never one to shirk his share of duty, neither was he such as would push himself forward to gain attention. Yet here he was, he mused, acting the sheriff's man in an affair that had the stench of politics about it. He couldn't put his finger on why he thought this yet the smell assailed his nostrils nonetheless.
The dead man had been groom to another now dead; but in life, Sir Lionel de Blois, cousin to Stephen of Blois, who was regarded by most as a craven and a traitor, had had a dubious reputation, that of a man who rejoiced in spreading discord. It was Sir Lionel who had whispered against Count Bohemond while showing that warrior a civil face. It was Sir Lionel, too, who was said to have urged his cousin to desert but, when pressed by Count Raymond, had denounced Stephen as an apostate, an oath-breaker and a craven. Sir Lionel had died of wounds received in the abortive siege of Arqah and was mourned by few. That much Cadfael knew to be fact and there was precious little else to go on. Like attracts like, though, he mused, and doubted Walter Veritas had many virtues to commend him.
He made his way silently around the base of the city walls in the darkness. Only the Church of St Peter was showing lights; the torches in their sconces threw soft shadows by the Chancel door. He alone of the city's inhabitants seemed to be awake. Rats scurried from his quiet tread but there was no other sound to disturb the silence. This was Cadfael's favourite time of the day, when he had the world to himself and there was a coolness to the air with the just the barest hint of refreshing moisture. He knew that within an hour of the sun coming up both would vanish into the desiccated heat of the day. If a man needed to think then this was the time to do it before the fiery sun drew all the will from him. He made his way to a little square built around a simple unadorned fountain and sat down upon a stone bench so old that its surface had been polished smooth by countless backsides. It was a favourite spot of his and one to which he repaired whenever he wished to avoid his fellows.
He felt weary already 'though the day had scarcely begun. He recognised it was the burden of his task that weighed upon him and resolved to cudgel his brain into life. As he had told Sir Mercier de Longueval, he had, at least, a place to start. Whither that might take him, he could not guess, but still he used the time most carefully, preparing a list of questions he would ask and also, and perhaps more importantly, a list of answers he would give to those who questioned him.
It was full day by the time Cadfael bestirred himself and made his way to the open camps where the men-at-arms were to be found. It did not take him long to find the ill-favoured soldier and he sat down beside the man at his breakfast fire.
"I recognise you. You're the one as said that Walter Veritas was dead when he fell from the wall."
Cadfael admitted it was so.
"And what brings you now to my fire?"
"A simple question. Walter tried to join our archers' band but my Captain would have none of him. I was wondering where he found a home thereafter?"
"Oh, there's no secret to that. He was taken on as groom by one of Count Raymond's men. I know not his name but the device was a leopard's head over crossed swords."
"You knew this Walter well, then?"
"Not I! I'd played at dice with him a few times but you know these grooms, they keep themselves apart mostly."
Cadfael nodded. It was true that many of the grooms were bound to their lords' service but considered themselves servants rather than soldiers and few had chosen to take the cross but had been ordered to follow their masters, not without some resentment in many instances. Such men held aloof from the rest and hugged their grievances. This did not accord with Walter Veritas, though. No reluctant pilgrim would look to take service in an archers' band.
"Was he a free man or a villein, do you know?"
"Free, for what I can say. He'd taken the cross of his own choosing and liked the life well enough, for all he said."
"When did you see him last?"
"More than a week gone, unless you count seeing him at the foot of the wall!"
"And you know not how he came to be there?"
"Not I! Nor care I less. He was no kin to me."
And with that the man resumed his breakfast, turning a little from Cadfael and signifying thus that the conversation was ended. Cadfael got to his feet with a brief wave of thanks and made his way across the city to where Count Raymond's men were lying. The Provencals had commandeered the old Emir's palace and surrounding houses and were unlikely to welcome anyone on a mission from Count Bohemond's battle. The heat smote upon him as he walked and he was sweating freely as he approached the half-ruined palace, the scene of much looting when the city had fallen to the Crusader army. He paused briefly to rinse his face at a fountain and regretted again that he had taken his cloak that morning when the air was cool. Now it was nothing but an inconvenient weight and, he thought, made him look a trifle strange in the full heat of the day. He shrugged his concerns aside, bundled his cloak with a piece of rope and slung it over his shoulder once more.
He hailed a passing man-at-arms and the man approached him with a curious expression.
"I am seeking a Knight of Count Raymond's battle, one who has the device of a leopard's head above crossed swords."
The man stared at him blankly and made some reply that Cadfael could scarcely understand. It was clear the man spoke only the Langue d'Oc and did not have the Norman tongue. Cadfael tried again, first in English and then Trade Greek. The man shook his head and spat, then walked away. It was as Cadfael had expected; outsiders were unwelcome. How then, he wondered, had a Norman groom found service here? A sharp voice roused him from his reverie.
"You there, what do you want?"
Cadfael turned to see a short, powerfully built knight with close-cropped dark hair. The stranger's features were heavy, almost crude, and he appeared to be angry. He wore a long sword on one hip and what appeared to be a long leather whip at the other. Small tags of iron were woven into the lash. The fact that he was armed marked him as the captain of the day. Cadfael patiently repeated his enquiry and the man stared hard at him for a moment before replying.
"Unless you're on good terms with the Devil you're wasting your time. The man you seek was Sir Jospin de Guise. He died some three days since and is coffined and crypted already. Who are you, anyway?"
"My name is Cadfael ap Meilyr , an archer in service of Duke Robert. I have been charged to look into the death of Walter Veritas. I understand he had taken service with Sir Jospin."
"Was he a Norman, then, this groom?"
"Aye, My Lord."
"I can tell you nothing. Sir Jospin died in a fall from his horse - broke his foolish neck. I know nothing of any groom."
"Thank you, My Lord. I see I shall have to ask elsewhere."
"Try at the stables, they may know more."
"I shall, My Lord."
Cadfael followed his nose to the stables. The odour of horse sweat and manure was unmistakable. No matter how well they were cleaned, the stables soon reeked like a midden in the heat. He was expecting similar brusque treatment so was pleasantly surprised when he was greeted with a hearty 'Hello' by a strapping young man dressed in simple clothing that he appeared to have outgrown long since. He was even more surprised to be hailed in his native Welsh.
Cadfael replied in the same language:
"I didn't expect to find a brother in the stables of Count Raymond! My name is Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd of Trefiw. Who is it greets me in the welcome tongue of Cymru?"
"Morgan ap Iestin ap Ifor of Clywydd at your service."
"Well, Morgan ap Iestin, perhaps you can help me. Did you know Walter Veritas, lately groom to Sir Jospin de Guise?"
"A little. I heard he fell from the city wall and is now with his maker."
"Dead he is but whether he fell is moot, Morgan. What can you tell me of him?"
"Not much, to speak true. He came among us but lately. A good man with the horses but over-fond of dicing for my taste. Still, he must have had luck, for he always had tin in his pouch."
"Fond of dice, you say? Hmm. Are there many such in Count Raymond's band?"
"No. Mostly he played with his old comrades in the Norman battle - or so he said. I took no interest. Dice is no game for a poor man like me. But tell me, friend, if he did not fall from the walls, how did he die?"
"That I don't know, as yet. His neck was broken but I believe he was dead when he fell."
"Strange! His Lord was the same, if you ask me."
"Sir Jospin. They say he broke his neck in a fall from his horse. It's my belief that he died otherwise."
"You say so! But why?"
"His neck was near shattered, man. It must have been broke in three or four places. But there was no sign of a blow. And I swear to you, I saw what I took to be bruises high on his head as if he wore a crown of thorns. I've not seen the like and I've seen men die in many ways these past few years."
"No one saw him fall, then?"
"None who'd tell, that's God's truth. They found his horse grazing nearby, said he must have fallen and that was the beginning and the end of it. And you say Walter was in similar case?"
"I think so, yet I saw no crown of thorns. How did Sir Lionel wear his hair?"
"Cut short and shaved at the nape and ears. 'Tis a fashion among Sir Raymond's following."
"Is there aught else you can tell of Walter?"
"He was a close sort not much given to seeking any man's company. I liked him not yet neither did I dislike him. Sir Jospin, now, him I did detest. Still and all, he seemed to suit Walter well enough for he never complained of his master, as most do here."
"And who is your master?"
"Me? Why I'll have none. I'm a free Welshman and serve for wages. I'm the farrier to Count Raymond's battle. Aye, and good at my trade though it grieves me to see the horses in such straits. The nobles are civil enough to me when they treat their bondsmen worse than dogs."
The two compatriots chatted a while longer and shared a jug of watered wine. After a while, Cadfael took his leave and left. He determined to seek out Salah the Apothecary and ask his opinion of the mysterious bruises.
He slung his bundled cloak over his left shoulder and made his way through the alleys that ran from the Emir's Palace down towards the bazaar. There was not a breath of air in the narrow lanes between the low, mud-brick houses and the heat seemed to rebound from the walls and assail him on every side. He scarcely noticed the stench any more; it was a constant companion everywhere in the city. He adjusted the weight of the heavy cloak on his shoulder as he turned a blind corner. That little movement saved his life. The knife that had been intended for his back deflected off the bundled cloak and sliced along his ribs before becoming embedded in his left arm.
He spun in shock and pain and the sudden movement tore the knife from his would-be assassin's grip. Cadfael's soldier's instincts leapt to life and he lashed out with his booted foot, catching the assailant a ringing blow on the knee. The man staggered back and threw himself around the corner and out of sight. Cadfael made to follow but his legs betrayed him and he slumped against the wall, his head spinning. Only now did the pain begin. He drew a heaving breath and pushed himself upright. He thought about trying to follow his attacker but recognised he was in no fit state to do so. He still felt dizzy and his side and arm were bleeding profusely. Steadying himself with his good arm on the wall, he made his way slowly onwards to the Street of the Sailmakers. He now had a very different reason for seeking Salah the Apothecary.
Salah's booth was shuttered as was customary at this time of the day; no customers would venture to the bazaar until the relative cool of the evening. Cadfael pounded on the door and heard the sounds of someone stirring within. It wasn't Salah's face that greeted him once the bolts were shot but that of Mariam, the apothecary's niece. She was about to tell him to come back later when her uncle returned but then she saw the spreading stain on his side and she sprang forward to support him as his legs gave way once more and he threatened to collapse. She slipped her slight shoulder under his and, with a strength that belied her slender frame, heaved him inside and assisted him to the divan. It was then she saw the knife jutting from the soldier's arm and she hissed in surprise and concern.
Cadfael was barely conscious as she cut the blood-soaked tunic from him. She fetched water and linen and washed the deep score along his ribs. She frowned in concentration as she contemplated the knife. Blood still seeped from around the edges of the wound. The blade had penetrated the muscles of his upper arm and the point stood out two finger-widths at the front. She busied herself preparing a poultice of herbs and a draft of poppy juice to deaden the pain. She worked carefully and methodically, washing and drying the wound in his side before smearing it with her herbal compound and binding Cadfael with a bandage of fresh linen. Satisfied, she next dribbled some of the poppy juice over the visible portions of the knife before encouraging Cadfael to drink the rest, supporting his head as he did so. She waited a while, closely observing the pupils of his eyes until she saw them shrink - a sure sign that the potion had its effect. With her patient now numbed against the pain, she seized the knife and pulled as hard and as swiftly as she could.
Cadfael groaned as the knife came free. Mariam noted that the blade had no central groove to make it easy to withdraw. If anything, it appeared to have been designed to stick fast in the victim's flesh. She noted with alarm the fresh gouts of black blood that issued forth from the gaping tears in his arm. She bound the limb just above the wound and pulled the bandage tight until the bleeding eased to a thin trickle. She felt briefly for a pulse in Cadfael's neck and, satisfied, she worked quickly to pack the wound with her poultice before carefully sewing together the gaping lips with thread from the Chinese worm. Cadfael stirred briefly as he felt the pull of the needle but remained still as she worked. When she had finished, she smeared more of the herbal mixture over the stitched wounds and bound his arm, more gently this time. She removed the tourniquet and was glad to see that no fresh blood marked the linen of the bandage. She fetched a light woollen blanket and covered her patient, leaving him to sleep.
When her uncle, Salah, returned, he questioned her closely on all that she had done.
"Arnica, gentian and yarrow for the wounds. I could do no better. And the poppy juice?"
"Five drops to the beaker."
"Good! You have done well, Mariam. He sleeps?"
"For an hour or more now. He should wake soon."
"What will you do then?"
"Make him drink. His body needs water. And pray, of course."
"Excellent. More poppy juice?"
"Not yet. Later, perhaps, if the pain is bad, but I'd rather not. A tisane of hyssop and vinegar might be better. It isn't as strong, but it's less dangerous."
"I have taught you well, I see. He has reason to be grateful for your skill. He is young and should heal swiftly, thanks to you. But who'd have thought that robbers would be so bold as to tackle a soldier in broad daylight?"
"Robbers? I don't believe so, Uncle. Look at the knife. Have you seen its like?"
Salah regarded the thin-bladed weapon and shook his head.
"It's not Syrian work, nor Turkish. That's a Christian blade. The sort they call a 'poignard,' I think." And he shook his head, deeply troubled.
Cadfael awoke with a ringing head and a raging thirst. It took him a few moments to place himself and recall all that had transpired. He made to sit up and groaned as pain shot through him from his injured arm and side. The noise brought both Mariam and Salah running.
"Ah, awake, I see," said Salah and smiled with concern at his younger friend. "A bad wound, my friend, but well tended by Mariam here. You will soon recover, insh'allah."
Cadfael thanked Mariam but she waved his gratitude away. She fetched a pitcher of cold water and made him drink then drink again until she was satisfied. She peered at his eyes, felt his forehead and then nodded at her uncle.
"No sign of fever."
Salah nodded to her in return and smiled. Mariam helped Cadfael into a more comfortable posture and made to leave. Salah motioned her to stay and she sat obediently. Salah the Apothecary turned serious eyes on his friend, the young Christian soldier. He quietly produced the knife and placed in it Cadfael's good hand, watching the Welshman's face for any reaction.
"I had thought you the victim of a robbery but this knife gives that the lie."
Cadfael raised his head and stared back at the older man.
"No, Salah, my friend. This was meant to kill."
Cadfael related the whole story, the finding of the body of Walter Veritas, his commission to investigate and the various conversations he had, including the last one with Morgan ap Iestin and the 'crown of thorns.' Salah's eyes grew wide and he looked about in alarm. When he spoke, his voice was little above a whisper.
"This is grave news indeed, Cadfael my friend. What you describe is a sure sign of murder. Among my people there are those who kill for money. A secret sect that have their origins in Egypt. They are forbidden to shed blood so have devised many different ways in which to kill. The method that they most favour is to use a knotted noose."
Salah stood and took off the rope belt that gathered his robe. He passed it to Cadfael without comment. The belt had seven ornate knots.
"The knots denote the seven tenets of Islam. Many of us wear such, much as you Christians wear a little cross about your necks. These killers carry a similar belt but it is also a weapon. It can be used to strangle or, as it appears in this case, to fit about the head of a victim. They grasp each end and.."
Salah made a violent sort of double twisting motion with his arms.
"The result is a shattered neck; the bones breaking thrice or more times. A very strong man can do it with his hands alone, of course, but with the rope - it is much easier. When they kill thus it is as a punishment; a signal to others. You walk a dangerous path, my friend."
"Do they have a name, these killers?"
"They have many names but among themselves they are simply called 'the Elect of Hassan.' Hassan bin Jafar is their supposed founder and saint."
"Hassan was a holy man from the city of Aqabar. He died perhaps fifty years ago. It was he who vowed never to shed blood, human or animal, for any purpose. He would eat no meat or flesh of any description. They developed their methods of killing in this fashion - to shed no blood. It is doubtful if he had anything to do with the murderous cult that has grown up in his name. Evil men twist the truth to suit their own ends. Be thankful it wasn't one of the Elect who attacked you else not even all our arts could have saved you."
"Whoever it was came close enough."
"You did not see him then, your attacker?"
"No. He wore a cowl but I know he was a Christian without the evidence of this poignard. He had the pilgrim's badge about his neck. I saw it clearly as he turned away from me. That is little help for many here wear it. I shouldn't know him again."
"But why? One man, at least, killed by the Elect. Another who may have been and then a knife attack by a fellow Christian on you. I can make no sense of it."
"Nor can I, Salah. At least, not yet. But I mean to."
"What will you do?"
"I have to see Walter's body again. Now I know what to look for, thanks to you."
"But you cannot walk so far yet, my friend. Write me a note to take to this knight, de Longueval. I will see to it. You must rest a while longer if the wound is not to become something more serious."
Cadfael dutifully wrote a missive to Sir Mercier. He outlined what he had discovered thus far and skated briefly over the attack on himself. Salah left shortly afterwards and Cadfael settled down to think. He could not believe other than that the deaths of Walter Veritas and Sir Jospin de Guise were closely connected. He gave a moment's thought to Sir Lionel, Walter's original master, but it seemed clear that knight had fallen as a result of wounds received in battle. It appeared that whatever had led to Walter's death must have its roots with Sir Jospin. He cursed his current weakness. The walls of the room seemed to be advancing and retreating before his eyes and he felt light-headed. He lay back on the couch and closed his eyes. Soon he fell into a troubled sleep.
Mariam went about the business of the afternoon. As it grew cooler, she opened the shutters on the booth and saw to the stocking of the shelves with a variety of fresh herbs. She laid out the baskets along the stall's frontage. Salah sold fruit as well as herbs and medicines. He was firmly convinced of the efficacy of fresh fruit as a preventative as much as of the curative powers of his ointments, infusions and pills. She smiled grimly to herself as she worked. Her Uncle was a good man, it was true, but her own life was empty. She thought of her husband, another good man. He had been some years her senior. It was never a love match but he had treated her well; she had grown fond of him in the two years of their marriage. She had not been blessed with a child and supposed herself barren.
She found the presence of her uncle's friend, the infidel soldier, unsettling. She knew her uncle to be a good judge and therefore the soldier was probably a good man also. There was something energetic about him, a sense of purpose. With his dark looks he could pass as one of her own people, not at all like those pale northern Lords with their white hair and skin, pink and peeling when exposed to the strong sun. There was nothing excitable about him either. He exuded a sense of calm self-containment. Everything he said and did had the appearance of having undergone careful consideration. The scars on his muscled body bore witness to his harsh profession but there was a mildness about him also that showed in his eyes. She shook her head in annoyance; these were not seemly thoughts and yet, why not? She was a widow - not a blushing virgin.
She stole quietly back into the room where he slept and looked down at him. Beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead and she fetched a bowl of water and cloth and sponged him down. She felt his temperature and regarded him with a critical eye. Was that the pallor of fever under his tan? He stirred in his sleep, muttering. It sounded like a name but she couldn't be sure, as the tongue was unknown to her. Perhaps he called for his mother; men did when in distress, she knew. And yet that didn't ring true. More like he was saying his lover's name. She felt an unreasoned flash of jealousy at this thought and was moved to laugh at herself. Why not admit it? She found the infidel attractive; had done so since that first visit when she had watched him from behind the curtain, initially out of simple curiosity but soon for other, deeper reasons. She felt his forehead again. Maybe he was a little hotter than before but it was not bad - at least not yet. She would keep a close eye on him. It would be better when the day cooled towards evening. Even there in the shade of the booth it was stiflingly hot - hot enough to make any man sweat. Cadfael stirred again, opened his eyes and smiled weakly at her before drifting back to sleep. That was a good sign, she thought. At least he appeared to recognise her and showed no anxiety as to where he was.
Salah returned late in the afternoon, hot and agitated. He slipped into the booth with a wary backward glance and bolted the door behind him.
She answered his call, noting his worried frown.
"What is it, Uncle? What troubles you?"
"It might be nothing but I had the very certain feeling that I was being followed. We will not open this evening. Keep the shutters bolted and don't answer the door to anyone."
Her eyes widened in alarm and he saw the look, feeling wretchedly guilty.
"I'm sorry, child. It is probably the imaginings of an old fool but better to be safe, I think. How is Cadfael?"
"I think he may now have a slight fever but nothing to concern us at the moment."
"Tough as ox-hide, that one. Is he awake?"
Cadfael's voice sounded from the other chamber.
"He is now! Come through. Tell me, did you see Sir Mercier? What did he say? Did he give you a letter for me?"
"No, no letter. We went together to see the body of the man who fell from the walls. The marks were there, my friend, the same as on the other."
"So we know how Walter Veritas died if we don't know why."
"That is so."
"What can it mean, Salah? Two men murdered - apparently by this mysterious Brotherhood. I feel if we understand the 'why' then we will also learn the 'who' of it. I confess that I am at a loss to know how best to proceed. And why attack me? It lacks wit. Such an action could only draw attention when in aught else they have been taking pains to conceal their deeds. I find no sense in it."
"You look for reason in the doings of such men? To kill at all is blasphemy, my friend; to murder - that is another plane of evil. But I doubt you are wrong in thinking that to guess the motive is but a short step from naming the man."
"Did Sir Mercier have any other news to tell?"
"He said only to say that Sir Jospin was not best loved despite finding the Holy Lance."
"That was Sir Jospin?"
"So said Sir Mercier."
Cadfael cast his mind back to the events of the previous June. A strange individual named Peter Bartholomew had suddenly revealed that he had received a visitation from the Holy Virgin. He claimed the Lady had told him that the very lance that pierced Christ's side was buried beneath the floor of the Christian church in Antioch. Bartholomew was not trusted and was viewed by most as a liar and a fraud. Then another priest, of more trustworthy reputation, claimed to have received a similar visitation. Raymond of Toulouse had been enthusiastic at first and had ordered his men to excavate. Nothing had been found and Raymond had given up in disgust. At that point, a Knight had jumped down into the cavernous pit and 'discovered' the holy relic. It now appeared that the fortunate searcher had been Sir Jospin de Guise.
The crusader camp had been divided as to the authenticity of the 'lance.' Some had believed implicitly and, when led by the allegedly holy artefact they had routed a vastly superior Turkish force, belief had become widespread. Some remained sceptical, Cadfael among them. From what he had been able to make out, the thing wasn't really a lance at all but the head of a standard or flagstaff. The controversy had raged for a while and matters had come to a head when Peter Bartholomew had defiantly demanded the right to prove his veracity. A biblical trial by 'fiery furnace' was agreed and the deluded visionary had willingly submitted himself to the ordeal. He emerged horribly burned and died shortly afterwards. His supporters claimed that he had first come through unscathed and had been thrust back into the flames by his detractors, but the majority considered the matter resolved. The 'lance' was a fake.
That now left Cadfael with the odd sensation that he had found the cause of the murders if not the actual reason; nor the perpetrator, come to that. Who could possibly gain by inventing the story? Certainly not the crazed Peter Bartholomew, so who, then? His head ached and his mouth was dry and he became aware of Salah's close scrutiny.
"I see that your thoughts have been running on a similar path to mine," the apothecary said. "It cannot be just a coincidence that this great treasure was discovered by a murdered man."
Cadfael nodded slowly. He was unwilling to commit himself as yet. Too much was unexplained. He needed to think some more. The manner of the murders was so odd. There was nothing to link the Elect of Hassan to the Holy Lance and yet he could not see past Sir Jospin's role in the finding of the relic. Of course, Cadfael had not been present when the lance had been discovered. He had heard the story often enough, though. The searchers had dug all night and had been on the point of giving up when suddenly, a Knight had jumped down into the hole and, shortly after, given a great, joyous shout. It had sounded too convenient at the first time of asking; now, it sounded simply too contrived. Sir Lionel had come into money shortly afterwards. Walter Veritas had no shortage of silver for his dice games. Now they were both dead. Somehow, and to his great disappointment, making the connection had not taken him any further forward.
Mariam came in and chased Salah away, saying Cadfael needed to rest if he was not to suffer a fever. She fed him a bitter decoction to help with the pain and checked his dressings. All this she did in silence and avoided his eyes. She could feel his gaze upon her and blushed deeply but still would not look directly at him. Knowing he was looking, imagining the frank admiration in his eyes, disturbed her. It engendered feelings that she had sought to avoid since her husband died. He caught her hand as she was leaving and brought it to his lips, brushing it with a light kiss. She looked away as he murmured a single word in Trade Greek. "Eucharisto." Thank you.
Cadfael awoke the next morning to the voice of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. He lay back and listened to the low hum of Salah's muted devotions and closed his eyes. After a little, Mariam entered and began to change his dressings. Her hands seemed to tremble slightly as she worked; her touch soothing and gentle.
She did not look up.
"Mariam, do I disgust you so much that you can't bear to see me?"
Her hands fluttered in confusion and she fled the room. Cadfael stared miserably after her.
He spent the next three days at Salah's booth, recovering his strength and thinking. Mariam ceased to tend to him and he endured Salah's rougher, but no less expert, ministrations. He tried to ask Salah what was bothering Mariam but the older man waved away his questions and shrugged, an unhappy look on his face. Salah was aware of the tension between the two young people and had guessed, correctly, at its cause. He could not and would not intervene. His friend was an infidel, his niece was of the faith; it was not a relationship that his conscience could sanction. So, and with a heavy heart, he did his best to avoid the subject and discouraged Cadfael's every enquiry.
It was with some relief to them both, therefore, when the day came that Salah pronounced him well enough to leave and Cadfael returned to his own quarters. The heat of the day lay like a coarse blanket over everything. There was not a single breath of wind to bring relief and the young soldier was sweating freely and feeling a little weak by the time he rejoined his fellows. He was amazed to see everyone up and busying themselves with obvious preparations to move out. Cadfael's captain, Eilwynn of Worcester, greeted him heartily.
"So! You are still among the living then, it seems. And just in time. We march upon Jerusalem in two days. Are you fit enough?"
"That I am! And this is glad news indeed, for I'd heard none of it. What has wrought this change?"
"Count Raymond is resolved upon it."
"Not him! The King of Antioch remains here with his following. Our own Duke Robert is with Raymond, though, and we must follow on. I'll not be sad to leave this pestilential burgh, Cadfael, I freely do confess."
For his part, Cadfael had very mixed feelings. He had come to the Holy Land, like most of his humbler fellows, to free the Christian shrines from the infidels. Yet, he could honestly say, he had made as a good a friend among the unbelievers as he had ever had. And there was the girl. He was not without experience of women but she confused him. To top all of that, he had yet to resolve the problem of Walter Veritas. He had some ideas but these were little more than vague notions, half-formed and insubstantial. Nonetheless, he set to and helped with the preparations for the coming march. Eilwynn rapidly summed up his physical state and assigned him to clerking: making a tally of weapons and supplies and similar tasks, for which he was grateful.
After the evening meal, he made his way reluctantly to renew his acquaintance with Sir Mercier and report on his progress - or rather the lack of such. The knight greeted him cordially and bade him sit while wine was brought.
"I had not thought to place your life in danger when I put this charge upon you. Else, you must believe, I would have undertaken it myself."
Cadfael waved away Sir Mercier's protestations. He sipped some of the sour wine and gave a full account of all he knew but stopped short of voicing his suspicions. Sir Mercier was silent for a little while before heaving a sigh and running one fine-boned hand over his head.
"I can make no sense of it, I do confess. A secret sect? But why? I cannot make a connection."
Cadfael took a deep breath and replied.
"I believe the Holy Lance is the connection. I freely own that I cannot see why the Elect of Hassan should take such an interest in a Christian relic. There is still much that is confusing and unclear and I must to Jerusalem with the rest of Duke Robert's battle."
"I fear we'll have no answers, then."
Cadfael started suddenly. He asked Sir Mercier a single question. The knight replied without hesitation.
"Oh, curse me for a fool! I have it now! At very least, I believe I have our murderer, although I don't yet know his name."
"You say so! And what has wrought this change, my friend?"
Cadfael shook his head.
"It was there before me all the time and yet I didn't see it. Come with me now, My Lord, and I think we shall see an end to it."
Cadfael led Sir Mercier across the darkened city to the Emir's palace and asked for Morgan ap Iestin, the Welsh farrier. Once again, he was directed to the stables.
"Ho, countryman, what brings you back?"
Cadfael carefully explained. Morgan looked thoughtful.
"The man you describe is Sir Giles de Plaincourt. Not a man to cross, I say."
"I believe I have already felt his ire. Is he within?"
"For what I know. But if you mean to accuse of him something, it would best that you went armed. That man can take an insult when none is meant and is ever free with his fists - and worse."
Morgan offered Cadfael the dagger from his belt but he refused with a smile.
"I think not. Better, lend me a staff. If naught else, I feel the need for a little support."
All the while Sir Mercier stood in silence, a puzzled look on his face. Cadfael motioned him to follow and, thanking Morgan once more, made his way out of the stables to the main palace doors. He enquired civilly of the man-at arms if Sir Giles de Plaincourt could be summoned. The man shot him a frightened look but hurried away. Sir Mercier could no longer contain himself.
"What is this all about? I could not follow one word of your conversation with that farrier."
Cadfael chose his words with care.
"It all started with the dispute between your lord and Count Raymond. Raymond of Toulouse believes himself the leader of this Crusade but Bohemond was winning the victories. The Provencal faction grew jealous of this success. They decided that something was needed to redress the balance."
"So they invented this mummery with the Holy Lance?"
"So I do believe. Sir Jospin's task was to place the relic within the Church of St Peter - or, at very least, to 'discover' it. Once the Provencals had it, they thought to call the tune. Only that poor fool Peter Bartholomew cast all into doubt with his trial by fire."
"But why kill Sir Jospin?"
"It is my guess that he talked too much. Else he threatened to do so. I think Count Raymond knew nothing of this."
"And the groom, the man who fell from the wall?"
"Walter Veritas. Somehow he caught wind of the deception. I suspect he demanded money in return for silence."
"Ah, blackmail! But tell me, Cadfael, what brought you to this now?"
Cadfael turned and pointed. Sir Mercier saw before him a powerfully built knight whose face was suffused with purple rage. He followed the direction of Cadfael's pointing finger and saw the leather whip with its iron tags upon the stranger's hip.
"By Our Lady! I can see you're right!"
Sir Giles de Plaincourt let out an animal roar. The whip snaked from his side and whistled towards Cadfael's head with the speed of a striking viper. At the same instant, the butt of Cadfael's staff slammed into Sir Giles de Plaincourt's groin with all the Welshman's force behind it. The knight subsided to the flagstones, the whip falling from his fingers as he made to clutch at his injured parts.
Cadfael reeled back in agony as the whip struck but recovered swiftly enough to plant his staff firmly in the prostrate de Plaincourt's stomach. The air rushed out of the injured man with a great whooshing sound and he lay, gasping and groaning by turns, at Cadfael's feet. A small cockleshell badge, the mark of a pilgrim of St James, clattered on the flagstones beside him.
The commotion summoned other knights, Count Raymond among them. He surveyed the scene. Before him lay one of his own knights rolling in agony while a short, stocky man-at-arms with thick russet curls was leaning against a pillar, unwinding a wicked-looking leather whip from about his brow. The austere nobleman arched an eyebrow towards Sir Mercier de Longueval who stood mutely shaking his head.
The long explanations were received at first with incredulity and then with rising anger. At length, Raymond of Toulouse spoke with slow and icy clarity.
"I charge you, Sir Mercier, to report everything that has happened this night to your master. Tell him also, that I sanctioned none of it."
He motioned to the figure of Sir Giles, who was by now struggling to his knees.
"Take this wretch away. Let him be stripped of his demesne. I will reserve my justice for the morning."
With that, and a haughty stare at Cadfael, the Count departed followed by his retinue, who talked urgently together in hushed whispers.
Sir Mercier crossed to Cadfael. The young Welshman was rubbing his head ruefully. A line of livid bruises was starting to appear on his forehead like a crown of thorns.
The sun was but a half hour from setting as a tired traveller entered through Antioch's west gate and made his way wearily through the city to the Street of Sailmakers. Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd of Trefiw, once a soldier of the Cross, had returned to make good a promise.
He smiled in recognition at the dark-haired young woman standing in the apothecary's booth. She looked up and her eyes grew wide in surprise before an answering smile lit up her face. He stopped and drank her in. The shapeless black robe and plain head covering that custom demanded that she wear in public could not entirely conceal the taut slimness of her body and a tangle of unruly dark hair was forever escaping from its confinement. As he gazed at her in a mixture of wonder and admiration, he cast his mind back to the night of his departure, some two years previously.
Then he had gone to say his farewells and to tell Salah all that had transpired. The Apothecary had been amazed and then relieved as the story unfolded.
"But how did you know, my friend, how came you upon the answer?"
"I had thought too much upon the Elect of Hassan. I missed the whip that de Plaincourt wore. Then I remembered your belt. Seven knots for the seven tenets of Islam."
"I don't understand."
"It all became clear when I asked Sir Mercier about the bruises on Walter Veritas. I asked how many there were. He told me upwards of a dozen. It was then I knew it was not a fanatic's belt but something else, and saw in my mind that whip with the iron tags."
"Still, you had no proof."
"As things turned, I needed none. Sir Giles tried to attack me in the same way. And then there was the pilgrim's badge at the last."
"And now you are leaving?"
Cadfael nodded slowly but his sharp ears caught the sound of a sudden intake a breath from behind the screen. Mariam had been listening, as he had hoped and suspected. Salah gave Cadfael a hard look and read the quick flash of elation on the latter's features. He sighed inwardly and rose.
"I must go out, my friend. I have a patient to visit. Stay here a while and we will talk some more on my return."
Cadfael accepted the invitation with a glad heart. He stood and saw the older man to the door. When he returned, Mariam was there, standing with downcast eyes.
"Mariam, I leave for Jerusalem on the morrow."
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Cadfael took her hand, felt the slight trembling there and something else; a warmth seemed to crackle between them at the contact. She raised her head and looked into his eyes. In the dim glow of the lamp, Cadfael was convinced he could see the slight gleam of a tear starting at the corner of one eye. He said nothing but pulled her to him. He hugged her close, feeling the softness of her pressing against his chest. He could smell the sandalwood scent of her hair. Still they did not speak. His mouth searched for hers. Their lips touched and all the aching yearning that she felt was assuaged in the instant of that first, sweet kiss.
They sat together on the divan talking. It was as though a dam had burst inside her and the words came flooding out. She told him of her life; how she had married, been widowed, of the emptiness of her days. He responded in kind. He related how he had fled his native Wales, the familiarity of tref and maenol, the certainty of his place in the world, to follow, firstly, a wool merchant, and later to take the cross. He told of his betrothal to and abandonment of a young Welsh girl. He spoke also of his regret and shame and yet, somehow, the inevitability of his chosen path. She drew it all in without comment or censure. He felt a sense of absolution, but also one of hopelessness. In a few short hours he would march away. Ahead lay battle, hardship and the possibility of death.
He made the promise then. He would return. He could not promise more, nor could she ask for it. Their doom settled over them like a cloak and they grew quiet. Salah returned. His glance took in the twinned faces, the mix of joy and sorrow. He nodded briefly.
"Do not ask for my blessing, that I cannot give you. I have set my countenance against this folly but I see I am in vain. No blessing then, my friend, but I will not oppose you more."
Now, as the sun set, he had returned. The intervening years had not dimmed his passion. Mariam took his hand and drew him into the booth. It was cooler inside and she lit a lamp to cast its soft glow upon them. Their first kiss was fierce, full of pent-up longing. When they broke apart, flushed and gasping, she told him that her uncle had retired. Salah had gone back to his native village, taken a young woman to wife and was content to see out the remainder of his days in tranquillity. The apothecary's booth he gave to Mariam. She was happy now and would not leave. This fell between them like a weight.
She brought him cheese and olives and fresh cold water to drink. He washed away the dust of his journey wrapped in bittersweet thoughts. He knew, then, that Antioch could not hold him but a part of him would remain with her forever. He pushed away the remnants of his meal and gazed at her in silence. She stood and slowly eased the robe from her shoulders. The lamplight threw soft shadows on the swell of her breasts and the gentle curve of her slim hips.
"We shall have this night," she said.
She undressed him then. She kissed each scar upon the muscled body. Her fingers flowed over him. She took sweet-scented oil and worked it into his chest and shoulders. Her hands were trails of fire across his skin. She cried out sharply when he entered her. He felt her fingernails dig into his back and the fierce passion that arose within her like a sudden summer storm. He seemed to be tumbling into the well of her body as the night receded from his consciousness. There was only Mariam as the world vanished from his ken. He reared above her, driving to his climax and she cried out once again as he reached his fulfilment.
He stayed fast within her. Began again, a slow, soft movement that fired her to the core. Pleasure lapped at her in mounting waves. She felt the lightning building and rolled her hips to meet him. She was suspended somewhere above the Earth. She was shuddering now, she could feel his body on her and everywhere their skin touched was a tiny nexus of heat. It was as though she embraced pure flame. Then she was lost, soaring towards some great lightness. The world spun around her and her heels drummed upon the sheets. She heard him cry out, as though at a great distance, and warmth suffused her, sweeping over her being and carrying her onwards as the stars exploded in her head.
They lay together afterwards, clinging together in the wreckage of her bed. Twice more that night they tested their passion, each time leaving them still insatiate. Dawn found them intertwined. Cadfael rose with a heavy heart and washed. Mariam regarded from the tangle of the bed, her mute eyes wide but unreadable. He made to speak but she stilled him with a finger upon his lips.
"Say nothing, Cadfael. We have no need of words. My uncle was right. We could neither be happy in the other's world. Have no regrets for I have none. Go with God but, please, go now and quickly. But should you chance this way again."
He trudged through the burgeoning heat of the morning towards the port of St Symeon with ashes in his soul. The day wore on and he stopped to find shade around noon. Gradually, his mood lightened. Sorrow was slowly replaced by gratitude. He had known real love, albeit briefly. Mariam was with him in his heart. Who knew? One day he might return and, if so, he would have at least one true friend in Antioch. In the meantime, the World waited for an adventurer.