"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."
.... There is more of this story ...