On What Matters

Entry by: macdonald

13th January 2017
Emerging from the trees I saw the tower a quarter-mile distant. Tents pitched around a stone barn. A familiar figure watched my approach.
Mercadier, captain of Routiers, had changed little in eight years; a few more lines about the mouth; the same calm gaze. He greeted me as if only a day had passed since he’d taught me how to hold a sword. When I dismounted, he told me what had happened.
‘A peasant found gold. There was rumour of a jewelled goblet. A false rumour as it turned out. He took the stuff to Achard, Lord of this shit-heap. Richard heard of it.’ He paused before adding, ‘I told him.’ The sky darkened and rain began so he pulled me under the awning of the King’s tent.
‘And Richard demanded his share?’ I suggested. His nostril’s flared.
‘That buffoon has space in his thick skull for a single thought at a time. He closed his gate. Richard vowed to hang him and all his men.’
‘How was he injured?’
‘He went to harangue Achard. He’d drunk wine, didn’t bother with a hauberk as they’d run out of bolts. But they’d found one of ours. That damn crossbowman has signed his own death warrant. Achard came out to apologise. Richard told him to get back to his castle or he would be hung on the spot.’
‘What game is it they play?’ I asked.
‘A man’s character is his fate, Raymond. There was no surgeon. The King broke the shaft within the flesh himself, then demanded a half drunk barberus cut the rest out. He didn’t have proper instruments, wanted to wait for a surgeon. Richard threatened him. He got it out. Eventually.’
‘How is Richard now?’ I asked, glancing over his shoulder.
‘Two surgeons arrived from Limoges the day the wound reddened.’ He hesitated then, his face coloured, his eyes glazed.
‘I knew by looking at their faces. Death cannot be avoided. Inflammation has reached his heart.’ He grasped my tunic. Mercadier never displayed emotion, but looked desperate now.
‘He knows. His mother kicked the surgeons out. He refuses confession. She has gone to fetch the Abbot.’
The smell of camphor filled the air inside the tent. On a trestle board, several tallow candles, floating in a basin, lit the dim interior. On the far side, in shadow, a heap of rugs and animal skins were piled on a low cot.
Amidst the heap lay Richard. He was bigger than I remembered, not fat, but filled out. His thick auburn locks were now close cropped with flecks of grey above the ears. Beads of moisture clustered at his temples and upper lip. His skin was ashen, the flesh drained of blood, his breath shallow and rapid. A bulky poultice covered his left shoulder to the neck.
‘When he wakes, give him this,’ Mercadier said, handing me a clay vial. No need of a surgeon now; only a priest.’ My nostrils caught a sickly, sweet smell as I bent over the cot. The poultice was drawing humors from his wound but couldn’t hide the odour of putrefying flesh. Job’s words came to my lips.
‘Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down: he fleeth ….’ Richard’s eyes flickered open and he raised his head.
‘Are you now a priest, Raymond? I preferred you a singer.’
‘You must confess, sire,’ I replied.
‘How can I?’ he whispered. ‘I’ve no faith. If there be a God whence cometh so many evils, Raymond?’ His head fell back.
‘If there be no God,’ I replied, recognising Boethius, ‘whence cometh any good? Confess and I’ll sing. Until you do, I have no heart for it.’ He began to cough. I lifted a bowl from the floor. He spat out blood-stained froth, then sipped from the vial I put to his lips.
‘Just before you, there was a woman, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men.’ This was Boethius again. ‘She possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigour.’ He was being playful, teasing me. He’d compared the author’s muse to his mother, years before, when we'd first met in Messina.
‘What did she say to the surgeons?’ I asked. He chuckled, but was soon coughing and spitting again.
‘ “Who,”’ she said, “has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man’s bedside?”’ He snorted, catching his breath with the fun of it.‘ “They have no medicines to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse.”’ I joined his game.
‘I know her. She then said:
“His neck bends low in shackles thrust
And he is forced beneath the weight
To contemplate - the lowly dust.”’ I hesitated but Richard went on:
‘And then: “Are you not the man brought up on the milk of my learning and fed on my food until you reached maturity? Surely you recognize me? And yet you do not speak. Is it shame or astonishment that keeps you silent? I should prefer it to be shame, but I see that it is not.”’
He fell back, groaning. Mercadier helped me lift him. He took a deeper draught from the vial.
‘I am sorry for the massacre at Acre,’ he whispered.
‘God's mercy is endless sire. You must await His forgiveness with confidence.’
‘By his deeds, not by his words, is a warrior judged, Raymond.’
He fell asleep and, soon after, Queen Eleanor returned. Mercadier, toughest of men, shrank in her presence. Standing on the threshold all was quiet, save for the soft sounds of a mother comforting a son.
I woke early to a grey dawn. As I helped bring the campfires back to life, Eleanor emerged from the tent.
‘Go and fetch Abbot Milo, Raymond’ she said. ‘He is ready to confess.’ When I got back, Richard was sitting on the edge of his cot.
‘If I am to do this, I will first see the sun again.’ Supporting him under the right shoulder, I felt his weakness; body and spirit ebbing. I led him from the invalid smug into hazy sunlight.
‘Don’t listen to the cautious bishops that make cowards of us all, Raymond. Some things are worth dying for. Not a few coins in Chalus, not even Jerusalem, but when you know what matters most, give your heart and soul to it.’ When Milo appeared, Richard whispered:
‘Jaffa I remember best, Raymond. Other days were good, but that day! Remember Terence?’
‘Fortune favours the bold, sire’ I said. ‘I haven’t forgotten.’
Outside, I listened for a moment.
‘Are you ready, my Lord?’ said Milo.
‘I am.’
‘Are you sorry for all your sins?’
‘I am sorry for them all.’
‘Do you ask forgiveness from our Lord Jesus Christ, your saviour?’
‘I do.’
He died that evening. Next morning, I paid my respects to Eleanor, then shared a flagon or two with Mercadier.
‘She wants me to meet John. He is King now and shall decide my future.’
‘Ah, John,’ he said. ‘As my father used to say “Many a good cow has one bad calf.” Stay away from him if you can, Raymond. Would you be unhappy back in Sicily?’
‘No I wouldn’t ...there is a girl, I knew before. But our life in Sicily would be simple. We would be poor.’
‘Cross yourself and spit twice if you think you know any woman, Raymond.’
But when I was quite drunk I told him more of Genara.
‘I only know the women I rent by the hour,’ he said. ‘If this girl has soft skin, sound teeth and sweet breath, then you’re a lucky man, Raymond.’
Next morning a saddled horse was ready as Eleanor promised. John had arrived overnight and stood nearby, stroking a white breasted falcon resting on his forearm. He was smaller than his brother, much darker in complexion. I bowed before him and he said:
‘My mother has told me much about you. I hope to learn more.’ Queen Eleanor appeared and took his arm. She had outdone all other men in her life and he was her only son remaining, the one she would not outlive.
‘You will learn more about Raymond, Johnny. However today he is pressed for time.’
‘Oh that is a shame, mother. What business is so important, Raymond?’ He spoke through clenched teeth, his eyes intense as the hawk’s. Eleanor replied for me.
‘He has discovered something I’d thought a fiction, a sport played between men and women. Raymond has discovered the truth.’
‘Then please stay and enlighten me,’ said John, releasing the falcon.
‘You mustn’t stop him, Johnny,’ said Eleanor, slapping my horse’s rump. I called farewell as we trotted away.
‘God’s teeth, mother. You talk in riddles. What has he discovered?’ I was almost out of earshot, but heard Eleanor’s response.
‘Love, Johnny. Raymond has discovered love.’ I pushed in my heels and soon the smell of wood-smoke was replaced by wild herbs. The woodland grass underfoot was spongy, still wet with spring dew. A strange throbbing began in my veins. I was going home, back to Genara, at last.
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