Just in time before the hurricane - I miss New Hampshire!
Not a breath of wind this Easter morning and Brindisi white, clean and filled with hope. Church bells proclaimed the day---
And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
Dawn’s curtain parted and the sun, on cue, climbed the cerulean heaven to bath Brindisi in light and shade. Flowers festooned the white buildings terracing up the hillside, softening them with colours of lavender and pearl. Ivy climbed the hard castle walls overlooking the harbour, masking their wounds from ware and battle. Palm trees lined the approaching thoroughfares while olive groves lazed about like unemployed labourers. The pilgrims ogled as if tourists while Brindisi hid her daughters away, it knew soldiers well – a war town.
Less than eighty sea miles from Macedonian, Brindisi’s harbour had embarked and received armies for over a thousand years: the last one was the Italo-Norman pilgrim army of Bohemond of Taranto that summer. It would embark this army too, embark it with care and efficiency so it could not cause trouble; the force would be shipped in a matter of days. But today, the Brindisians did not worry. It was Easter and the pilgrims would not despoil it. They’d sinned enough during their winter delay . . . and paid for it – more had perished in Calabria than they had on the journey, and still more turned back for home. Idleness, warned the priests, is how the devil creeps in.
And crept the devil did, especially with Tìbald.
Tìbald started well enough, beginning each day with prayer – the Pater Nostra and the Credo followed by intersessions – for Aile, for Fulk, the priest, the leaders, the cause, all in his company. He prayed for the dead, mentioning every name with heartfelt sincerity. He praised God for the goodness in all circumstances, especially those beyond his grasp. How confident when finished, but by the end of the day it lapsed.
Young women of Calabria had the most beautiful necks, their skin like cream flowing onto their shoulders – honey coloured and long raven hair and silky voices. They’d look at you with heads turned and lips parted, pleased to be desired. How could a pilgrim not look?
Fulk, a satyr, took on all partners, willing and unwilling, till he was chafed. Tìbald beat him at first, which Fulk could not fathom, but Tìbald throttled him as one would a favourite dog about to eat tainted meat. “He thinks I’m not fit for manhood” – Fulk’s conclusion. But Tìbald did not think at all and burned every bit as brightly as Fulk – the Calabrian nymphs.
He sought out Aile.
“Tis Lent,” she dismissed him, though in Calabria she had not worn armour. Tìbald looked for Ysobel. She hid. He would not abuse himself – too great a sin. So, to the stews – he and many others. And the stews with such volume, were crowded and filthy. Tìbald went once and soon learned Calabrian girls were easy once you got them drunk. Though maybe not so drunk and cut your purse . . . It all cost cash, but best spent wisely.
But wise spending could not deter guilt. Why’s that, he wondered? Why beforehand no thought of spurning God. No thought indeed, just lust. Once the deed’s done, the girl loses lustre. Only then he sees. Then the dread – God will chastise him as He certainly must. Tìbald beats himself up first, wily servant. Have I not remorse? Odd how he had cried in the catacombs only months before and in a stupor had demanded all “Praise Him.” Why is being a Christian so hard?
Concupiscence – we swim in its water and not know we’re in it.
In confession, Père Marin would not have it. “Your shame is false. You put whoring on a pedestal, which blinds you from your greater sins. Guilt is your armour. You would bar God with guilt. Nothing touches you. God desires not guilt but conviction . . . For your penance – do nothing,” he said and with a brusque Sign of the Cross, “Ego te absolvo.”
“Do nothing?” Tìbald replied. “You’ve said that before.”
“It’s penance now. You are absolved,” Marin’s blunt response. “Grace is upon you. Be still and sit in it. Do not pray. Do no good work.”
“Do no good work?”
“Not as penance. Do good work for its own sake because Christ commands it.”
Good work for its own sake? Tìbald soured.
Weeks passed. A tepid balm, grace. Appetites peaked and he could not sleep, his mind alive on the pillow. His legs churned and kicked. Aile, exasperated, tossed him out. “Sleep with the horses or men, but you cannot stay here.”
The next day, in his grace-filled silence, he got drunk, and laid a Calabrian girl – a horsey wench with a pretty face. Aile never suspected. So he thought. Tìbald trapped on a wheel from which he could not escape. Tìbald always Tìbald.
Aile was on no such wheel with sharp lines regarding her future; she tolerated his foolery. Afterall, this was the world. She’d been married before and had never told Tìbald.
Ah – digression . . .
Her father had betrothed her to a carpenter’s son, the eldest of four brothers, named Coster, who was to inherit the family trade – beefy and quiet with a head shaped like a cabbage. Aile was diminutive at fourteen. She did not love him, but no matter, and lived with him in his father’s house – a warm house and the old man doted on her. Four years of marriage and Coster a hard worker. She conceived four children: three stillborn and one cradle death. Aile wept and wept; her heart was soft then. Coster fell silent and took to drink. Until one day, after so much silence, he did speak: “We will travel as the stonecutters do and fine work in the building of cathedrals.”
“Leave this house?” Aile astonished.
“We will make a new life.”
Coster’s eyes had turned yellow.
“Our life is here.”
“This is my father’s house. Nothing is mine.”
“It is all yours . . . in time.”
“I have no time.”
What could she do but go.
They wandered about the neighbouring towns, Coster finding little work and never very capable in the work found. Always drunk. Soon they were begging.
One night, after days without drink, Coster fell into a lunacy. He abandoned Aile as they slept by a stream. He was found the next morning facedown near the bank, drowned in inches of water. Aile, in rags, made her way back to her father’s house, who received her with pity. She slept in a tiny loft above the artisans’ square and vowed, not only never to be wretched, but to always have more.
She met Tìbald two years later.
Bayard was born.
He died after a tumble-down the steps of Castel de baton. Bayard, a toddler, was in Tìbald’s charge.
Then God closed Aile’s womb . . .
In Calabria, Aile imagined a fine stone house with an ochre plaster sitting amidst orchards and fields. A temperate climate where they would dress in the manor of the East. The hem of their robes would brush over a mosaic floor bursting with colour of the sea. Outside date palms. She liked palms; they did not strike frightening poses and bespoke of holy things and holy things are safe. This, her goal – to be safe – not wealth or standing, though these she must have but they were a means.
And God will do it, not that they deserved it, or acted better than most, but because He said so. “Ask anything and it shall be given,” the gospels say . . . Believe and ask anything. Anything. So, she believed and asked . . .
And the world carried on.
Digress again lazy scribbler . . .
Fat Odo died in January. Weary and weak, he slipped into death on his way to see Count Robert Guiscard in Palermo. No coffin was found large enough, so his exposed body was hoisted on a cart. Odo was mourned publicly, but in private, few shed tears – his funeral mass solemn but perfunctory. So many priests. Tìbald and Aile attended. Père Marin attended too along with Robert Curthose’s seigneurs.
“He was a great man,” Marin said afterwards. “Too few understood him.”
“His morals were lax,” Tìbald commented.
“I said he was great, not good. He was an architect and patron of the arts.”
“Yes, Odo the architect. Is his mansion in Heaven?”
“He was Curthose’s backbone. This is a savage world and he used what he had to make his way through it.”
“Men of politic, what do they do?” Aile asked.
“They hold up the world,” Marin said.
“And dash it to ruin,” Tìbald said.
“The greedy and stupid,” Aile said.
“The greedy and cunning” Marin said. “And from them, a consequential good. Do them all away and who will step in? A good man it is hoped, but a cunning one either way. The pure are gobbled up, and if not, their purity can breed harm. Beware the pure man, the man who wishes heaven in this world. Paradise is not for this world.”
“Such wisdom,” said Tìbald sarcastically. “You should put it down on paper. I can wipe my arse with it.”
Marin grunted. “Wait till you see them – the great princes. Our Curthose is a child compared to them. They’ll eat him up regardless of his standing. Would to God that Odo was still here. He could contend with them . . . Your paltry sins, dómini, are nothing compared to what’s coming.”
What’s coming? What’s coming? It’s been forever coming. Wrapped neatly in a box. Would things have been different if Odo not died? How the wheel turns on minor characters. Would there have been empires if his sinful self had never been alive? So poor Odo’s epitaph:
What profit had I from the bishopric of Bayeux,
What was the glory, praise and honour but vexation?
They have passed away as a mighty tempest.
They record but a bishopric of forty-eight years,
And an escape from the snares of a treacherous world.
And so, the Lord's poor man—I lay me down to die at Palermo.
Wherefore let the clergy whom I have always loved, remember me.
Offering up for me some prayers of sweet fragrance and lamenting for me with groans and tears as they bear in mind the pardon the sinful woman won by her tears.
In the meantime, let my death cause you to look to your own end.
And be sure that here there is no such thing as a blessed life.
The blessed life is God Himself in Whom the joys of life are to be found. Wherefore my brethren make haste to return to Him.
And where is Tìbald, Marin, and Aile? Fulk and Esmé, that prop?
In Brindisi on Easter with all the seigneurs . . . and the bowmen, spearmen, swordsmen, with the carpenters and blacksmiths, arrow makers, wheelwrights and coopers.
Today, holiness was more pleasurable than sin. The seigneurs rode proudly down the narrow streets – no mere knights in search of battle, but warriors in a holy cause. Peasant, priest and noble – all wore the scarlet cross. “He is risen,” they called to each other. “He is risen indeed,” the reply. Winter was over. They laughed. They grinned. A joy to be alive. They could eat. A time to receive and give gifts. The seigneurs gave their men wine. They passed out boiled eggs dyed with pastel colours. Donned masks resembling Saracens or Jews to slink through crowds under catcalls and hoots. Above their heads, noisy gulls hovered, spying for droppings of pear and salted fish. They swarmed about the carts. It didn’t matter. The pilgrims were bound for the Holy Land and on what better day than an Easter morn.
A great congestion on the jetties. Shoremen atop barrels directed the crowd. “Adveho! Adveho! – Come! Come!”
The galleys and luggers, tied off stem to stern, lay next to each other three abreast. Horses were dragged up the gangplanks, many whinnying and yanking against their indifferent handlers. Some jerked away, while some lost their footing and toppled to the water.
Out in the harbour floated barrel-like transports jammed to the gunwales with passengers and arms. With barely a ripple, they floated out to sea while sleeker galleys cut the glassy main with a rhythmic beat of oars.
“Must we go by ship?” Aile balked; the scant two miles across the Strait of Messina had unnerved her.
“Not to fear,” Tìbald said, though liking it no better.
The clamor and sting of ship’s tar turned her pale.
“Tis Easter,” Tìbald proclaimed. “We’ve been confessed and received the Sacrament.” He turned to Père Marin for support.
“We’re saints in the Hands of the Lord . . .”
The transports warped out to sea from the innocuous bay, pilgrims crammed fore and aft, serenading God with joyous carols:
Hail, day of days, in peals of praise,
Throughout all ages owned,
When Christ our God,
Hell's empire trod,
And high o'er heaven was throned.
This glorious morn, the world newborn,
In rising beauty shows;
How, with her Lord to life restored,
Her gifts and graces rose.
As star by star He mounts afar,
And hell imprisoned lies,
Let stars and light and depth and height
In Alleluias rise.
Aile nodded and kicked her mount forward.
They were met by a shoreman on the pier, who motioned for them to dismount. He shouted in a garbled Apulian and pointed at horses being led up the planks.
“Take them up,” Tìbald ordered Fulk.
“No! No! No!” the shoreman bellowed as Fulk came forward and then a string of curses as he pointed to the gangplanks down the pier.”
“Where does this dog want me to go?” cried Fulk, the destrier starting to kick up.
Père Marin stepped forward and asked in a crude Apulian: “Where go horses?” The shoreman replied with a sprinkling of key Latin words and Marin nodded. He turned to Tìbald with a shrug. “Go down to the end and cross over the ships to the one anchored on the outside . . . I think.”
Fulk led the horses down the pier, mixing in with other puers doing the same. The rest of the company, packed like sheep moving through a narrow gate, followed, moving past the buccae docked beside them. They marvelled at the thick timber hulls. That such a thing could float let alone be pushed by the wind. How different from the sleek ships of their Northern ancestry. Indeed, they exhibited no movement other than to press the water as their holds filled. And once filled, they creaked and moaned under their burden.
Tìbald and Aile dodged horse piles as they climbed the gangplank and traversed the decks gunwale to gunwale, stopping on the middle bucca as the far side boat freed its lines to drift out into the bay. It floated in one spot as if that’s where it should remain, but a gentle breeze puffed its sails, taking it out to the fleet in the harbour. Pilgrims packed its deck, waving back to the shore as the boat pitched on an easy tack.
The ship groaned. The pilgrims aboard with an uneasy laugh. The blunt prow cut through the now rippling water. It groaned again. It came from below the waterline like the song of a whale. The hull shuddered. Bubbles frothed. Then a loud crack. The bucca seized up and split, the bow and stern collapsing in on each other. Pilgrims plunged downward with shrieks. From the ship’s bowels in diminishing pockets of air, horses screamed in their stalls.
Men in armour plunged to the bottom. Women and clergy bobbed on the top only to flail against the ungraspable sea. Water choaked their shrieks. The few who could swim paddled desperately for the dock. Most perished.
Tìbald watched a woman flailing too far out to save. She had long golden hair and it drowned her every bit as the bay. “Jēsu! Jēsu!” her gurgling cry, her eyes wild between the sopping strands at those who watched her. Both helpless, holding their breath till she went under.
A hush over the harbour, magnified by the coughing of the few pulled from the bay. Four hundred souls lay at the bottom. Then a single voice – a bowman soaked and bleeding, called out two names – his sons. Never two names so burdened with affliction, entreating God that they answer.
It happened too quickly. The world was right and then it’s not. Sunny days the most dangerous. On those days we die in bunches. We burn. We fall. We’re crushed . . . On safe days. Beautiful days. We are gone. Those left are flattened. And bright days are not as bright as they were before. And inside a gloom. The dead become kin. They murmured to themselves: “The Enemy’s work.”
“Christ, have mercy,” Tìbald said.
“Have mercy,” Aile repeated.
Père Marin held Esmè, who wept, and looked over the army, fearing how it might react.
The bishops did too and gathered the priests on a high place for all to see. “Blessed are they who have died for Christ! Blessed are you who are living! Know, as these brothers and sisters now sleep, their souls, purged of all sin, are welcomed into Heaven. They have their peace now. Pray to God He comforts and strengthens us who remain, we who witnessed these martyrs.”
The army knelt on ship decks and in the streets. The sun tracked the time. All they could see was the chartered ships and the crews hired to sail them – foreign men with swarthy skin . . . with swarthy ways to whom they were to entrust their lives. It was not the weather. Nor the sea and tides. It was the ship and the men who kept it. But how could this be? They all were Christians . . . Or was it God? Certainly, He allowed them to drown. A loving, kind God on this Easter morning. He assembled on that ship all who would turn back. Threaded the worst sinners together. How would anyone know? How could they discern grace from displeasure?
“Look!” someone cried.
Bodies floated up in the harbour. Hundreds of them. The waves pushed them towards the shore. Pilgrims waded into the water for those that could be reached. They hauled a woman onto the quay – the woman with golden hair covering her like sea grass. Her dead eyes half open, in her struggle, she’d stripped off her clothing to swim. In her soaking chamise, ripped open at the neck, on her flesh an imprint of the cross; the red dye had leached into her skin so she, herself, was marked with the symbol.
“A sign!” they cried and stripped her and hoisted her above their heads for all to see.
More bodies were retrieved and on their chests, the same. They processed the naked bodies down the streets, bobbing them like banners.
“Not lost!” the shout. “God has not abandoned us!”
Tìbald swayed as the corpse of the woman passed by, her head lolling with outstretched arms, above her naked breast the red cross. A sign, a sign, how we need signs. How frightening life without markers. He wanted to leave the ship and touch her. Aile squeezed his hand.
The ships crossed without incidence in the palm of a light wind; God be praised though the pilgrims stood lightly upon the decks. On making landfall, they disembarked immediately – not one more moment in the hands of foreign sailors.
They gathered at Durrës, or Durazzo as the Italians called it, a fine old Greek city. Once among the richest of the Greek world, it had seen its share of war. Most recently between the Emperor Alexius Commenus and Count Robert Guiscard of Norman Sicily seventeen years before – a spectacular victory for Guiscard and his son, Bohemond, who now led his own pilgrim forces. Emissaries from Alexius’ court now greeted Curthose’s army, welcoming it on behalf of the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and King of Kings upon the Earth, so they were informed.
“The Basileus has bestowed upon us the honour of guiding the great nobles of Normandy, England, and Flanders through the empire’s lands and to deliver you safely to Constantinople, the glory of the realm. There, the Basileus desires to greet his holy brothers who have come so far out of love for Christ and confer upon them all honours and riches within his power sanctioned to him from God on High. Come with us and march under his banner that we may announce your greatness from city to city so that every Christian may know of your approach.”
How gratifying. Curthose and the nobles rushed into Alexius’ hand . . . Thank goodness – a hard lesson Alexius had learned from Little Peter’s rabble who dispatched anyone whom they believed to be pagans. So too for the force of Hugh the Great come earlier that year, and in succession, Duke Godfrey, whose Burgundians murdered the emperor’s subjects, attacking town after town. By the time Raymond of Toulouse crossed the empire’s borders with the largest of the Christian armies, he was greeted by a military escort of considerable size. When Bohemond came, the imperial force was larger than the army they guided.
Why the bloodshed here and now? Clearly, the armies were in lands under Constantinople’s authority. They were to unite Christianity and free Christ’s tomb. War, though a necessary evil, was not a sanction for senseless carnage. A penitential war for avenging wrongs – secure the peace, punish evil doers, and sacrifice your life to make it so. Is it violence when preventing evil and upholding the highest good? A war of good, of penance, of compensation . . .
The land of the Bulgars was a pitch of angles: waterfalls plummeting into rivers between cliffs, rushing mile upon mile to the sea; trees clawed into rock facings, tipped and twisted, the rapids labouring on them night and day. A place off kilter.
The pilgrims navigated along tree-covered mountainsides – up and down, up and down on snake-like roads, heavy winds in a hollowing forest with no evidence of man . . . At least no kind of man that a Christian cared to see. Grim and dark, somewhere close the open mouth to Hell. Was it the wind or the damn’s screams? The pagan Bulgars eat men and hang their bones high in the trees. They clack.
“An evil looking place,” grumbled Tìbald as they camped on the pathway – no room to pitch their tents – the trail alight with a thousand firepits, like a gigantic glow worm laid down to rest. Out of the black, a nearby river surging like a monster on the hunt.
“Christians inhabit this land?” asked Aile uneasy, keeping Ysobel by her side.
“No, no Christians,” Marin said hunkering near the fire, Esmè on him like a second skin. “They worship trees and stones and are themselves partly made of wood. They cling to the trees and become one with them as they spy us crossing their land. An unholy place of phantoms.”
“The devil reigns here,” said Aile.
“Where does the devil not reign?” Esmè’s fearful whisper.
Tìbald quaked. “A place where men transform into beasts and hunt like the beasts they’ve become.”
On the flanks of their party at the treeline, Joceran formed a picket of six men, their forms flickering in the undulating firelight. At times they seemed to vanish in the shadows, then with more wood on the fires, reappear.
“We must fortify ourselves,” pronounced Marin and uncorked his leather canteen.
“I heard rumours that they kidnapped the bishop, Adhemar, when the Provençals came through last year,” Tìbald said. “He was taken as he wandered from the column to relieve himself. The Bulgars fell on him and hauled him away. Some say they were going to hold him for ransom, while others claimed they were going to sacrifice him in some pagan rite. I heard it took days for Count Raymond to hunt the rascals down and the bishop nearly lost his life.”
“Yes, dómini, this is a fearsome place. Enough for a pilgrim to lose sight,” Marin said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tìbald with a sudden edge.
Marin puzzled with the canteen to his lips.
“Don’t play with me under the guise of counsel,” Tìbald’s tone rising. “You think I won’t strike you because of my vow. I’ll chop your head and repent of you later, wicked, drunken imp . . .”
Up and down. Up and down.
Esmè, if possible, burrowed tighter to Marin.
“Woman, don’t you ever speak?” Tìbald snapped. “Is she your wife or some idiot plaything?”
In the glow of the firelight, Marin flushed, and for the briefest second, eyed Tìbald the Norman, killer of men. He took a long drink . . . to the seigneur’s disgust.
“My buckler,” Marin said.
“Your vice,” Tìbald retorted.
“I shake without it if more than a day. And with not enough, my thoughts race.”
Marin took a breath. “I mask demon with demon, believing one is under my control.”
“It controls you.”
“No, dómini.” Marin shook his head. “I control it with this,” and held up his hand. “It is in this hand I exercise my will. Once the drink is loose in me, it runs its course I grant you, but when in this hand,” he emphasized with a shake, “I ride it as you would that ugly devil. When you charge, you loosen the reins, and it plunges.” He held up the canteen. “With this, it’s the same.”
Tìbald huffed. “By the Blood, you’re a man in authority and I accept you as such. Honour your cloth: it’s greater than your troubles. Be the man of your calling or leave it.”
A night wind sallied forth. Trees moaned. Limbs shook. A clacking sound like bones. Hot wind, like breath from the cave; it sighed. “Father Abraham,” it whispered, “send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue: I am tormented in this flame . . .” Movement in the forest. Sticks breaking. A tang like burning hair . . .
“On the watch, Joceran,” called Tìbald.
“Yes, dómini.” His voice faint.
They rose the next morning, a number of pilgrims gone. Yet no Christian would’ve turned for home amidst the grasping forest. They were taken.
“It’s called the Demon,” Tìbald shouted over the roar of the boiling river swollen to its banks from the spring rains. “That’s what our Greek guides call it. They say it spews out of the mountains and then is supposed to ease in the next valley where it can be crossed. That is the only place for further on it again gains speed. They say it’s a deadly piece of work throughout the year, but this is the worst they’ve ever seen. There has never been such a spring. In my opinion, it is nature rebelling against sinfulness. The Greeks have helped make it so with their schism. This is why the Saracen gobbles up their lands.”
“We’re no less guilty,” Aile countered to shut him up. “Judge not lest ye be judged.” Blowhard, who does he think he is? He offends God with his pronouncements. And in turn, endangers us. The river, even in this comparatively peaceful setting, is a sleeping dragon. Tìbald – he does not think. We suffer because he does not think. Or forgets. Or delays. A man of delays. She gazed at the river between the cataracts, deceptive like fluid glass. Two rivers – above and beneath, the torrents below concealed till they hit the rapids. To cross it, they’ll need God’s protection, and Tìbald, with his mouth, would undo it . . . Save us from this river.
Footmen in the lead ranks waded in the shallows. Not so bad. They forded up to their knees, but just a little further the bottom dropped and they sank to their chests. The Demon pulled them into its current, the serpent suddenly alive and dragging them under only to shoot them to the surface as they struggled for a foothold. They cried out to their comrades, but the Demon gulped them down.
The bishops and clergy came forward and with hands orant, called out to Heaven. Duke Robert ordered the horsemen to advance. He turned to his priest and said, “Bless me, as I am about Christ’s work.” The cleric, thinned from the journey, gave him the Sign of the Cross. Curthose bowed his head, then with a shout, “For Jerusalem!” plunged his steed into the river. The waters bubbled and swirled, grabbing the duke’s knees, but the warhorse pushed through the current until it made the other side.
The army cheered and Robert aglow as the sun glinted off his chainmail. He plunged in again and rode back to prove God was with him. To the Greek ambassadors and guides, he was the perfect Christian miles. So too thought Aile and smiled.
“All who are mounted are to assist their brothers,” he ordered – brothers, seigneurs and footmen equal. “Mount each horse double, and those that can bear it, triple, till all are safely on the other side.”
Back and forth the seigneurs went, the footmen holding on tight. Tìbald’s warhorse stamped the ground and snorted at the additional riders, Fulk and Joceran on his back, bucking at first till Tìbald directed it into the stream.
Aile, in her iron, was no less a farrier, taking over their archers and spearmen; she and Tìbald side-by-side if he must come to her aid. Still, she mustn’t come close to the destrier’s face for it would try to bite her. Exhausting. She did not know pilgrimage would be so exhausting. Just holding the reins tight. Thousands of hooves on the riverbed. Some horses lost their grip only to smack into the riders next to them and a cascading tumble. One was not safe – they were never safe though angels and saints accompany them. These were ethereal. Tìbald was all she had. The perfect Christian miles? God’s Face! Tìbald for whom she prayed, and in praying for him, she prayed for herself.
On the last run, Marin and Esmè were among those left. Tìbald and Aile rode up from the bank. Apart from the foot soldiers, gimping along on a mismatched pair of legs, was a spearman, at least so he appeared.
His head was bent low under the weight of a dented helm, which fell across his eyes – a pointed face, slacked-jawed creature with a palsied right arm with the spear in his left hand, which he held like a staff. On his breast a makeshift cross. Tìbald, upon seeing him, recognized him at once – Jēsu in Disguise.
“Take the priest and the girl,” he said to Aile, staring the man down.
Jēsu, she thought, what’s he doing now?
He rode over, the charger towering over the poor fellow.
“Come, brother,” Tìbald said with an open hand. “I’ll take you over.”
The gimp backed away, his eyes bulging at the destrier.
“Come, brother. Don’t be afraid.”
Aile and the others looked with wonder.
“Dómini,” said a foot soldier, his brow and chin with ragged scars. “He’s not one of us. He’s been following since Durazzo. We’ve tried to drive him away, but he will not go. He is an idiot who cannot speak. He follows like a dog. We figured it would be a mercy to let him die along the way and let his soul go to Heaven.”
“Come.” Tìbald gestured with his fingers.
“Tìbald,” Aile called, not liking it.
“It would be cruel to save such a creature, dómini,” said the foot soldier, his cheeks like leather. “Let the river take him. If he is left behind, the savages about will fall on him and kill him. Or he will wander about the forest and be food for wolves. What purpose does this simpleton serve? Help across those who can free Christ’s Tomb.”
Père Marin now mounted with Esmè behind Aile’s back, bestowed his wisdom in a penetrating stare – You cross him, you own him . . . as you should.
“Brother,” Tìbald sighed in one last appeal.
“Tìbald,” Aile cried again, not really knowing why. How the world becomes small and closes in.
The gimp cringed and walked towards the river.
“He will not go with you, dómini,” the soldier said.
The man waded into the shallows. Tìbald watched. Was the man thinking? Could he think at all? He used the spear as a setting pole and pushed further into the current. Should Tìbald spur his mount and save him? He froze. From his best intention, he froze.
The water lifted the idiot off his feet. The helm toppled off his head as the river twirled him in a circle, the spear pulled from his hand. A gentle ride until it ate him and not fast. A mercy he was too feeble to know. Then gone.
“That should not have happened,” Tìbald said, scanning the water.
The soldier rubbed his chin. “God wills it, dómini. Single charity can thwart a greater good.”
“Unless it was you.”
“But it was not, and God knew the difference. He gathers the weak to Himself, and the strong He lets fight for Jerusalem. Besides, what mean fate awaits me? The devil was in that poor soul and God brought him to the river to wash the devil out. He now sleeps in peace. Dómini, if you take me across the river, I will pray that God continues to bless you. And I will pray for this poor creature’s soul.”
Tìbald extended his hand. “Come. Brother.”
Aile puzzled – blowhard.