"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 clamed 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 unmistakeable. 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.