Authors: Kate Mosse
Alai’s stepped back as if he had struck her.
“Forgive me,” he said immediately. “I am not myself.” He reached out and touched her cheek. “No man could ask for a more loyal, a more steadfast daughter.”
“Then why will you not confide in me?”
He hesitated and, for a moment, Alai’s thought she had persuaded him to speak. Then the same, shuttered look fell down over his face again.
“All you have to do is show me,” he said in a hollow voice. “The rest is in my hands.”
The bells of Sant-Nasari were ringing for Tierce as they rode out of the West Gate of the Chateau Comtal.
Her father rode in front, with Alai’s following behind with Francois. She felt wretched, both guilty that her actions had precipitated this strange change in her father and frustrated that she did not understand.
They picked their way along the narrow, dry dirt track that zigzagged sharply down the hill below the Cite walls, doubling back on itself over and again. When they reached the flat, they broke into a canter.
They followed the course of the river upstream. An unforgiving sun beat down upon their backs as they rode into the marshes. Swarms of midges and black swamp flies hovered above the rivulets and puddles of torpid water. The horses stamped their hooves and switched their tails, in vain trying to stop their thin summer coats being pierced by the myriad biting insects.
Alai’s could see a group of women washing clothes in the shaded shallows on the other bank of the river Aude, standing half in and half out of the water as they beat the material on flat gray stones. There was a monotonous rumble of wheels over the single wooden bridge that linked the marshes and villages of the north to Carcassonne and its suburbs. Others waded across the river at its lowest point, a steady stream of peasants, farmers and merchants. Some were carrying children on their shoulders, some driving herds of goats or mules, all heading for the market in the main square.
They rode in silence. Once they moved from open ground into the shadow of the marsh willows, she found herself drifting away into her own thoughts. Calmed by the familiar motion of her horse beneath her, the singing of the birds and the endless chattering of the cicadas in the reeds, for a while Alai’s almost forgot the purpose of their expedition.
Her apprehension returned when they reached the outskirts of the woods. Falling into single file, they threaded their way through the trees. Her father turned, briefly, and smiled at her. Alai’s was grateful for it. She was nervous now, alert, listening for the slightest sign of trouble. The marsh willows seemed to tower with malice over her head and she imagined eyes in the dark shadows, watching them pass, waiting. Every rustle in the undergrowth, every beat of a bird’s wing made her heart race.
Alai’s hardly knew what she had expected, but when they arrived at the glade, everything was quiet and peaceful. Her
was standing under the trees where shed left it, the tips of the plants poking out of the strips of linen. She dismounted and handed her reins to Francois, then walked toward the water. Her tools lay undisturbed, where she’d left them.
Alai’s jumped at the touch of her father’s hand on her elbow.
“Show me,” he said.
Without a word, she led her father along the bank until she reached the spot. At first, she could see nothing and, for a brief moment, she wondered if it had been a bad dream. But there, floating in the water among the reeds a little farther upstream than before, was the body.
She pointed. “There. By the knitbone.”
To her astonishment, rather than summoning Francois, her father threw off his cloak and waded into the river.
“Stay there,” he called over this shoulder.
Alai’s sat down on the bank and drew her knees up to her chin and watched as her father plowed into the shallows, paying no attention to the water splashing up over the tops of his boots. When he reached the body, he stopped and drew his sword. He hesitated for a moment, as if preparing himself for the worst, then, with the tip of the blade, Pelletier carefully lifted the man’s left arm up out of the water. The mutilated hand, bloated and blue, lay balanced for a moment, then slithered down the silver flat of the blade toward the hilt, as if alive. Then it slipped back into the river with a dull splash.
He sheathed his sword, bent forward and rolled the corpse over. The body bobbed violently in the water, the head lolling heavily as if it was trying to detach itself from the neck.
Alai’s quickly turned away. She did not want to see the imprint of death on the unknown man’s face.
Her father’s mood was very different as they rode back toward Carcassonne. He was evidently relieved, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He exchanged lighthearted remarks with Francois and, whenever she caught his eye, he smiled affectionately.
Despite her exhaustion and frustration at not understanding the significance of what had taken place, Alai’s was filled with a sense of well-being too. It felt like old times, riding out with her father, when there had been time enough to enjoy each other’s company.
As they turned away from the river and headed back up toward the chateau, her curiosity finally got the better of her. Alai’s plucked up the courage to ask her father the question that had been on the tip of her tongue ever since they set out.
“Did you discover what you needed to know,
Alai’s waited, until it was clear that she would have to draw an explanation out of him word by word.
“It wasn’t him, though, was it?”
Her father glanced sharply at her.
She pressed on. “You believed, from my description, that you might know this man? Which is why you wanted to see the body for yourself.” Alai’s could tell from the gleam in his eyes that she was right.
“I thought he
be known to me,” he said in the end. “From my days in Chartres. A man dear to me.”
“But he was a Jew.”
Pelletier raised his eyebrows. “Yes, indeed.”
“A Jew,” she repeated. “Yet a friend?”
Silence. Alai’s persisted. “But it wasn’t him, this friend?”
This time, Pelletier smiled. “It was not.”
“I don’t know.”
Alai’s was silent for a moment. She was sure her father had never mentioned such a friend. He was a good man, a tolerant man, but even so, if he had talked of such a friend in Chartres, a Jew, she would have remembered. Knowing well enough there was no point pursuing a subject against her father’s wishes, she tried a different approach.
“It wasn’t robbery? I was right about that.”
Her father seemed happy to answer this. “No. They intended to kill him. The wound was too deep, too deliberate. Besides, they left almost everything of value on the body.”
everything?” But Pelletier said nothing. “They could have been interrupted?” she suggested, risking pushing a little farther.
“I think not.”
“Or perhaps they were seeking something particular?”
“No more, Alai’s. This is neither the time nor the place.”
She opened her mouth, unwilling to let the matter drop, then shut it again. The discussion was clearly over. She would learn nothing more. Far better to wait until he was minded to talk. They rode the rest of the way in silence.
When they were back in sight of the Western Gate, Francois went on ahead.
“It would be advisable not to mention our expedition this morning to anyone,” he said quickly.
“Not even Guilhem?”
“I cannot think your husband would be pleased to learn you had gone unaccompanied to the river,” he said dryly. “Rumors spread so quickly. You should rest and try to put the whole unpleasant incident out of your mind.”
Alai’s met his gaze with innocent eyes. “Of course. As you wish. I give you my word,
I will speak of this to no one but you.”
Pelletier hesitated, as if he suspected she was playing a trick on him, then smiled. “You are an obedient daughter, Alai’s. I can trust you, I know.”
Despite herself, Alai’s blushed.
From his vantage point on the tavern roof, the boy with the amber eyes and dark blond hair turned to see where the noise was coming from.
A messenger was galloping up through the crowded streets of the Cite from the Porte Narbonnaise, with complete disregard for anybody who got in his way. Men were yelling at him to dismount. Women snatched their children from under the thundering hooves. A couple of unchained dogs jumped up at the horse, barking and snarling and snapping at its hind legs The rider took no notice.
The horse was sweating badly. Even from this distance, Sajhe could sec the lines of white foam on its withers and round its mouth. He veered sharply toward the bridge that led to the Chateau Comtal.
Sajhe stood up to get a better view, balanced precariously on the sharp edge of the uneven tiles, in time to see Intendant Pelletier on a powerful gray appear between the gate towers, followed by Alai’s, also on horseback She looked upset, he thought, and wondered what had happened and where they were going. They were not dressed for hunting.
Sajhe liked Alai’s. When she came to visit his grandmother, Esclarmonde she talked to him, unlike many ladies of the household, who pretended he wasn’t there. They were too anxious about the potions and medicines they wanted
his grandmother, to prepare for them—to reduce a fever ease a swelling, to bring on childbirth or for affairs of the heart.
But in all the years he’d worshipped Alai’s, Sajhe had never seen her look quite like she had just then. The boy slithered down the tawny tiles to the edge of the roof and lowered himself down, landing with a soft thump and only just avoiding a goat tethered to a lopsided cart.
“Hey! Watch what you’re doing,” a woman yelled.
“I never touched it,” he shouted, darting out of reach of her broom.
The Cite was buzzing with the sights, smells and sounds of market day Wooden shutters banged against stone in every thoroughfare and alley, a; servants and householders opened their windows to the air before the sun became too hot. Coopers watched their apprentices rolling barrels over the cobbles, clattering and bumping and jolting, racing each other to get to the taverns before their rivals. Carts jerked awkwardly over the uneven ground, their wheels creaking and sticking from time to time as they rumbled toward the main square.
Sajhe knew every shortcut in the Cite and he scampered in and out of the jostling arms and legs, dodging between the tapping hooves of sheep and goats, the donkeys and mules laden with goods and baskets, the pigs, lazy and slow, as they plodded their way through the streets. An older boy with an angry expression on his face was herding an unruly gaggle of geese, which honked and pecked at one another and at the bare legs of two little girls standing close by. Sajhe winked at them and tried to make them laugh. He went right up behind the ugliest bird and flapped his arms.
“What do you think you’re doing?” shouted the boy. “Get away!”
The girls laughed. Sajhe honked, just as the old, gray goose spun round, stuck its neck out and hissed viciously in his face.
“Serves you right,
,” said the boy. “Fucking idiot.”
Sajhe jumped back from the snapping orange beaks. “You should control them better.”
“Only babies are scared of geese,” the boy sneered, squaring up to Sajhe. “Is the baby frightened of a harmless little goose?
“I’m not scared,” boasted Sajhe, pointing at the girls, who were now hiding behind their mother’s legs. “But they are. You should watch what you’re doing.”
“And what’s it got to do with you,
“I’m just saying, you should watch out.”
He moved closer, switching his stick at Sajhe’s face.
“And who’s going to make me? You?”
The boy was a head taller than Sajhe. His skin was a mass of purple bruises and red marks. Sajhe took a step back and held up his hands.
“I said, who’s going to make me?” repeated the boy, ready for a fight.
Words would have given way to fists had not an old drunk, who was slumped against the wall, woken up and started yelling at them to clear off and leave him alone. Sajhe took advantage of the diversion to slip away.
The sun was just climbing over the higher roofs of the buildings, flooding sections of the street with slats of bright light and glinting off the horseshoe outside the door of the blacksmith’s forge. Sajhe stopped and looked in, feeling the heat from the furnace on his face even from the street.
There was a crowd of men waiting round the forge, as well as several younger
with their masters’ helmets, shields and hauberks, all of which required attention. He presumed the blacksmith in the chateau was overwhelmed with too much work.
Sajhe didn’t have the blood or the pedigree to be apprenticed, but it didn’t stop him dreaming of being a
in his own colors. He smiled at one or two of the boys of his own age, but they just stared right through him, as they always did and always would.
Sajhe turned and walked away.
Most of the market traders were regulars and had set up in their usual places. The smell of hot fat filled Sajhe’s nose the moment he walked into the square. He loitered at a stall where a man was frying pancakes, turning them on a hot griddle. The smell of thick bean soup and warm
bread, made from half barley and half wheat, stimulated his appetite. He walked past stalls selling buckles and pots, woolen cloths, skins and leather, both local goods and more exotic belts and purses from Cordoba or farther afield even, but he didn’t stop. He paused a while by a stall offering knives and scissors for shearing sheep, before moving to the corner of the square where most of the live animals were penned. There were always lots of chickens and capons in wooden cages, sometimes larks and wrens, which fluted and whistled. His favorite were the rabbits, all squashed together in a heap of brown, black and white fur.