AN: This was an interesting piece to write. Originally it was a description exercise. But I got really into it since it was so different. Infusing the writing with not only practical applications of the twelfth century but also its prevalent attitudes was challenging since I am the least religious person I know.
By the way. Never take what a man from the twelfth century has to say on medicine with anything but a grain of salt, they didn't know crap about hygiene. I cringed as I wrote about the burn. The reason he doesn't feel pain is because sometimes in third degree burns the nerve endings are destroyed and there is nothing to feel with.
"Potage" is not a made up word. It is a french stew made by nearly everyone in the middle ages (but mostly peasants) out of whatever vegetables, nuts and berries they could get their hands on.
Aquitaine is a province in southern France.
"Let's break their bonds apart, And cast away their cords from us."
"Show me your hand" Godfrey demanded with weary finality. The hand slowly raised itself up, as if in resigned salute, while the head looked down to the muddy road. Godfrey leaned forward and peered at the edges of the swelling burn peeking out from the flimsy woolen bandage. But he only had a quick look before his mare, taking a cue from his shift in weight, sidled forward and startled the other horse which stumbled back, snorting and tossing its head in alarm.
It was an odd and appropriate metaphor for the relations between the two men riding, Godfrey thought as the horses danced about each others flanks, sidling round and round on the uneven road. Like two great elk butting antlers he and Balian had circled each other, testing the ground. Each pushing forward before being backed up again in their tracks, losing footing in surprise at one time or another. Godfrey supposed this was his turn to be taken back.
He pulled his reins sharply to the left to end his mare's challenging gait and hopefully force a truce. She was a spirited beast and did not take kindly to loose, stuttering animals like the old nag snorting under Balian. Godfrey did not ask if the mount was stolen, it did not matter to him if it was. It was a long road back to the coast of Italy, over three thousand miles, and carrying Balian on his horse's back was not a choice he would have relished. Though he'd have done it had he no other choice, and he would have doubled the time of their journey before asking any of his men to carry that burden for him. Godfrey looked long on Balian as he quieted the old horse. This was one burden he would carry gladly, over deserts, mountains, or even up the uncountable steps of Babel.
Balian ran his fingers down the nag's rough crest and leaned forward to whisper in its ear. His hair flopped like a black hood over his face as he rubbed its cheek, and the bitter, nipping gray calmed quickly under his hands. Then he gave the withers one last pat, and sat up. His wounded hand had been brought back to its protected place on his chest and his left one swept up the halter rope that'd fallen by his knees, ready to move. Godfrey nodded in accord.
"It'll keep for a day," he said, gesturing to the burn. Then he swung his mare's head round to face the road and cantered back to the men waiting at the top of the hill, pleased when he heard the double hoof beats thudding behind him.
The road was small and his procession of knights was forced to ride single file, since even two abreast had them holding hands above their faces to guard from branch's gaunt remnants slapping them as they passed. Even in a line some of the longer limbs would reach out to catch hair and stirrups, as if the old forest could sense their imminent escape and wanted to drag them back in under the stale oppression of Aquitaine's poverty. Snow swirled up under the horses churning hooves and stung their skin with cold. Firuz, his Moorish friend brushed frost from his gauntlets in a constant habit.
They rode the day through, stopping not for water or rest. His men had the endurance to take such a stretch and Balian it seemed had not stopped riding since he'd left that old crumb of a village behind him; if his bright eyed, glassy look was anything to judge by. Godfrey wondered when the man had last slept; certainly long before he himself had come through his door asking pardon.
Godfrey did not explain their sudden haste or the circumstances given to him in confidence, but his men did not need it. Balian's sudden and harried appearance on the road had been enough for them, and not long after Balian joined the line his men reformed themselves in order. The procession surrounded Balian so that he was now stuck firmly in the middle between Godfrey's squire and Odo's huge German bulk. A place no one, not bandits nor pursuing knighthood could easily reach without arrows. Godfrey was pleased at the instant amity his men took to Balian. It was a good thing, and lightened his heavy heart a bit, as did the sight of his son.
Godfrey looked past his squire's shoulder, watching Balian's hunched form on the shifty old horse. He was a good rider Godfrey observed, and gladly took the time given him on the road to study the man who was his son.
Balian was both older, and younger than he'd expected. He couldn't have been sure when he was born exactly. Godfrey had been marching across France with the second crusade at the time and knew only that the woman he'd loved and bedded had been with child when he left. That he even knew the child was a boy had been something of a miracle.
A Benedictine monk had come on the tail of a pilgrim trade, just before Godfrey left Metz with the army that summer. The monk said he'd passed through a small village near the Garonne River and he'd been sworn to give Godfrey this message should he find him. That he'd had a son. Godfrey felt sure Christ had intervened for him that day in his intrepid and fool-hardy life.
Yet when he'd thought of who his son would be, should he even be alive still in the curdled deprivation of France's serfs, he hadn't pictured Balian. He'd thought of either a large man well established in habit and fashion with children of his own starting to work the land. Or he'd thought of a youth, barely grown into his limbs, gangly and awkward still, perhaps suffering the calf love of some maid. In fact when he'd reined his mare up on the road in the village and seen the two shadows emerge from the smithy he'd had a moment when he thought for sure the young apprentice with the dripping nose desperately clinging to a wooden post would be his son. Godfrey'd been startled when an instant later the mouse of a priest leading them had directed his attention to the smith himself, standing tall and unmoved in the gathering snow.
The man was neither a youth, nor a patron in his prime, but had been left somewhere in between. He had not spoken at their arrival, nor done anything but nod after Brother Michael made clear their intentions, and their money. Though that had been mere courtesy on their part since as a Lord's entourage they were entitled to the provisions of whatever shack they stopped by.
Balian had charged about the forge as if a fever held him in its sway, not simply hammering the shoes he forged but beating them as if he could strike them dead. When Godfrey'd gone to speak to him and Balian had not spoken back, simply pounded harder on the metal, he'd had a terrible moment of fear that the man was deaf. But he was not deaf, nor slows by any measure. He was simply man being burdened by too much too quickly.
Godfrey looked closely on him now. Balian was a stony man, quiet and reserved. He did not bow or cringe. There was an unusual self confidence in his stance for one bound into peasantry. It was in his posture, the very way he held his head and looked at you straight on, not sideways, as if daring you to beat him down. He was smaller than Godfrey and leaner too, though still muscled from years of hard labor over forges and anything else the lord bishop set him too. His mother had been a serf and Balian would have been born into that same servitude. The black hair and cheekbones he'd taken from his father, his nose and chin from his grandfather, but his eyes were his mothers and Godfrey felt a little pleasure at that. That the Lord God had seen fit to leave something of her in this world.
Godfrey smiled to himself as he rode. He'd been denounced for his sentimentality often enough in his life. He'd been called a fool and an idiot as often as righteous and bold. He'd even heard "madman" whispered by some. But to those who knew him, a little sentimentality was a kindly friend. He was an old, rich knight who found himself with nothing in his world but chivalry, a few dear friends, and dieing dusty lands. Not much to be proud of.
If Balian could not forgive him for bringing him into the world, at least, after seeing him, Godfrey was sure he had not done so great an evil by it. Perhaps, even, he had done a little good, because he could see behind the dark countenance, the burned hand and filthy cloak, an honorable soul still burning. His son was a good man. That was more than he could have asked for, and was truly more then he deserved.
The sun was going down when Brother Michael suggested rest, and Godfrey gave the men leave to scout for camp. His squire, Robert, urged his horse ahead along with one of the knights in their train and quickly disappeared around the bend in the road. The forest grew dark around them as the dull light faded. The smell of evergreen and moss filled up the freezing air and the world was silent around them but for the crunching of broken sticks under horse hooves. They stopped not far up the road, finding Squire Robert waiting for them. Then turned off the road and followed him one by one down into the forest.
Camp was made on the spit of land jutting around the curve of a creek bed. Godfrey dismounted and led his horse to the side. There was a flurry of clinking, stepping, and crunching as the men all dismounted and unsaddled their gear. It was like a flurry of crows taking off, clacking and shedding feathers in a disorganized mess that none the less brought them all into the air without fault.
Balian found himself in the middle of it all, every man working around and past him the same as they did around their lord. Balian supposed that the Lord of Ibelin was now his lord as well, and he dismounted to join the flurry and racket.
His knees trembled slightly as he landed on the sodden earth. Dead leafs and moss clung to his toes as he led his horse to the rope line being rigged up between two trees at the clearing's end. His legs were shaking from the two day ride, which without saddle, girth or reins had been hard. His fingers ached with the cold and he felt dizzy as he carefully tied the halter rope to a tree and started to rub down the old gray's back with his left hand, still clutching his right to his chest.
The squire who'd been behind him on the road glanced over the back of the dun palfrey he was unsaddling and tossed Balian a rag from his belt. Balian nodded thanks and finished rubbing down the old nag, murmuring soft nonsense sounds as he worked.
Without a saddle or tack to disentangle Balian was done quickly and limped off to help the other men prepare the camp. But every job he set his hands to was swept away by another, or he would find it snatched from him just after he took it. The blond braided soldier was stoking a fire while he laid smoked and salted meat strips on the rocks. The squire had moved on from the horses and was at the creek bed taking water into several leather sacks. The other knights gathered wood, loosened armor, or pulled out more food, most of which they had taken from Balian's village.
Finally Balian took one of the water bags from the camp, filled it at the creek and retreated to the horses, knowing that if nowhere else at least there he could be of some good. It was a proper place for him to stay, not being a knight himself, and God had seen good to grace him with a gift for horses. He did not have many gifts, being a simple man. Yet he was often astonished by the stupidity of others, both lord and serf alike, and Balian found he could reach an understanding with a horse that he could not with most men.
He immersed himself among the impromptu herd and took to rubbing each nose and cooing as he gave it water. Their heavy, sweaty smell settled over his head and many nibbled his hair or huffed hot breath into his ear as he went among them with the water bag.
He noticed some of the tack and saddle gear had been left with the horses, and when each animal had had its fill of water Balian turned to undoing the bags from the saddles and hanging out their blankets. As he finished with each one someone came and carried it off to the camp. One blanket tossed over a saddle caught his eye. It was dyed black and sported a white cross sewn on one corner with writing on the hem. Balian stopped and crouched down on his heels to study the mantle. The embroidery was Latin, sewn in a neat hand with white thread. He pulled a corner of it off the saddle and ran his fingers along the stitches, mouthing the words.
"You can read," a soft voice spoke above him and Balian looked up. The crusader wearing the black robes and white cross of the Hospitaller's Order stood over him with a humored smile and a dried apple in one hand. Balian nodded slowly and handed over the monk's horse cover, which he took with a twinkle in his eye.
"As the bishop decreed, I was sent to a monastery for a short time as a boy," Balian replied turning away from the monk and setting himself to the last of the saddle packs with his one good hand. "Before it was decided I had not the temper for it." He yanked the last strap open and threw it aside.
"Hmm, or lack there of?" the monk suggested with a gentle laugh, and Balian felt himself smile a bit as well.
"Yes," he said.
"So what does this say?" The Hospitaller asked behind him, and Balian looked up over his shoulder. The monk stood with his head tipped back, regarding him with an indiscernible smile and tapping his finger repeatedly on the embroidered hem of the blanket.
Balian saw without the helmet that the man was quiet old, as old the Lord Ibelin, with white hair popping off his head like dandelion fluff. Like the lord as well, he was exceptionally hale and healthy for someone of his age. Balian could see no nodules, or pock marks. No stooped and withered grandfather was this priest, nor pudgy and bloated with the yield of peasant labor in his hand. He looked simply, honest. A belayed and foreign concept now for Balian after years of living leased to masters and no better than livestock. he had found integrity only in his wife and the words he'd carved into the barn above the forge. Until one night ago, he had hoped he could still find virtue in his priest but seeing his wife's cross strung around his grinning jugular – stolen – that had been worse than finding the devil in his home.
It was strange. The Pope's law said no man may take a sword to innocents, either serfs or priests, and one of the first commandments was "thou shalt not kill", but he had. He was thrice damned now, yet, picturing the tiny priest flailing in the wood and hay, consumed by the flames that had seemed to leap from Balian's very soul, he felt no remorse. None. Nothing but a cold and barren conviction that the mewling rat had deserved it after all the words of devotion and then desecrating of his wife's body. Suicide or not.
What sort of a man did that make him in God's eyes?
Balian stood slowly before the Hospitaller. He frowned a little as he took the blanket back in hand, confused about the Hospitaller's intentions, but the old monk remained simply amiable and Balian sighed, ready to humor him. He turned back to the cloth and his brow creased as he concentrated on translating the Latin aloud, stretching the sewn words between his hands to make them clear.
"The simple man believes in everything, but the…" he stopped and squinted down at the unfamiliar letters. "I do not know this word," he admitted looking up at the monk. The man leaned in slightly, looking at the point on the hem upside down where Balian's thumb rested.
"Prudens," he supplied, still smiling. "It means to be wise or discreet, prudent."
"Prudent," Balian recited nodding along with the monk's pleased smile, and looked back down at the wool, continuing. "But the prudent man considers his ways… proverb fourteen, fifteen." He stopped and looked up. A gust of snow snuck between them and struck out, causing the icy ends of Balian's hair to stab at his neck.
"That's an odd proverb for a priest to carry," he said. The Hospitaller smiled wider and took the saddle blanket back.
"Maybe," he said. Then pointed at his chest with a corner of the cloth and leaned in with a solemn face, whispering as if departing a great secret, "but it's served me well for many years."
Then he stood back and graced Balian with a shining grin. Balian nodded and leaned carefully against the heaving side of one of the horses, away from the jovial priest, wondering if he might be touched by madness.
"Come," the Hospitaller said, nodding toward the fire where the rest of the men had gathered. "I'll see to your hand," he gestured to Balian's bandaged fist with his apple. "If it festers the wound will curl and the skin will not grow." Then he turned and stepped away from the ring of horses, his heavy feet crunching on the damp undergrowth. Balian gulped down a sudden feeling of bile in his throat, then nodded and followed
He eyed the camp as he stepped towards the fire after the monk. The woods around them had turned black with the on come of night, and the only light now came from the flickering fire in the center of the camp. All the men - crusaders, lord and squires alike - sat hunched around it in a large circle, each rubbing their hands, sipping beakers of water and wolfing down bread.
The bastard son he may be, but that still did not mean he could sit with these men, break their bread and share their prayers. Old habit and suspicion beaten in by servitude kept him at bay from the crusaders and knights who had money and worth. That is, it kept him at bay until the Hospitaller stepped over the knees of two men and beckoned him again.
Then the German who had talked with him in the smithy turned and saw him, and without a word he shoved the man next to him aside and made space on the log; suddenly remaining outside ceased to be choice. Balian glanced at the Lord of Ibelin, sitting across the flames. He looked for a hint of denunciation toward him or his men, but he could find none. The old lord was watching and sipping his tankard while the wrinkles around his eyes creased up as if he was smiling at something secret. Balian squinted and met his gaze, daring the old lord, to do what he did not know, but daring none the less, and with his vision squarely set in Godfrey's eyes he took a breath and stepped over the men into the circle.
Godfrey was indeed smiling behind his tankard as Brother Michael brought Balian into the fold. Taking up his new charge as easily as a Shepard added wayward sheep to his flock. It might be prideful, but he thought that Balian had taken some courage from his look. Whether that was true, or in what form he left up to God.
Brother Michael filled one of the metal bowls with water from the common sack lying at their feet and set it in the ashes of the fire. Balian sat himself astride the log next to Odo and faced the Hospitaller. While waiting for the water to heat the Brother Michael separated the wound from its wrappings, and Godfrey leaned over the fire a bit, trying to see beyond the glare to hands of the men across from him.
The Hospitaller's hands moved gently over the sore, untying the cloth and pulling the reluctant wool from the skin that clung to it until there was nothing but open air between him and the burn. Worry gnawed at Godfrey as the wound was finally revealed, and he wondered if he should regret keeping it till the night. The center of the burn was uglier under the cloth than the exposed edges had been. The heart of Balian's palm was a ghastly red, the edges of flesh blackened and charred like parchment around a hole, and a purple fluid was starting to run under the remnants of skin.
Brother Michael wrinkled his nose and made an exasperated sound as he tossed the soaked and crusty bandage over his knee. He nodded to Odo, who stopped his eating long enough to pull the pot of water from the embers. Then the monk soaked a new cloth taken from his bag in the pan and set to clearing the dead skin from the wound. Most of it came off easily, some of it he pinched between his fingers and pried away.
Balian watched the procedure with a certain avid fascination, but never once winced, nor gritted his teeth in pain. Godfrey blinked, startled by such an example of mettle, and turned his head when he heard the murmur of admiration rustle through his men. He felt an answering rustle in his own rusty heart, and smiled with a bit of pride. Godfrey was not a man easily impressed but it seemed God had a few surprises left in store for him still. Brother Michael though took a more practical approach.
"Do you feel any pain?" he asked as he pealed another speck of skin off the burn. Balian shook his head, his own confusion showing plainly.
"No," he replied with a bewildered lift to his brow. "Not since I put it in the fire."
Brother Michael raised an eyebrow.
"And why pray did you do that?" he asked, dunking the cloth back into the quickly cooling water. Balian said nothing, but Godfrey saw him reach up and cradle something small strung about his neck while he looked at his hand with unfocused eyes. The Hospitaller sighed at the silence and continued.
"Well sometimes it happens. God alone determines how much a man will feel or not feel with an injury, or whether he's fated to survive it." He cast a quick glance back at Godfrey who snorted into his tankard and did not thank the old monk for turning him once more down the well worn path of pondering how many times he'd been brought to death and God had chosen otherwise. Then there was always that fen-sucked arrow head he'd got between his legs.
He re-focused on Balian over the edge of his cup in time to hear Brother Michael turn to a different topic reflection.
"You read well," the Hospitaller praised.
"He does," Odo agreed fervently, tearing into his fare as his spoke and giving the pot of food in the fire a stir. Godfrey hid his smile at the German's immediate support behind his raised cup. It seemed his Baltic friend was impressed as well. Balian blinked at them both, then turned back to watching the work on his hand.
"What else can you do?" Godfrey spoke up cross the fire, with genuine curiosity. The side murmurings of his men quieted with his respected voice entering the conversation. Especially broaching a question they'd all wondered, but would be reprehensible for anyone but him to ask.
"Do, my lord?" Balian repeated softly. He gave a slight deferential bent to his head but did not look at Godfrey, feeling a bit of an angry burning flutter in his belly again. Brother Michael finished with the rag, and Balian reached to retrieve the bandage before his hand was slapped away.
"Ah, ah," the monk warned with a friendly grunt and shook his finger. He took another bandage from his bag; newly stocked from the supplies of the lord bishop's keep they'd taken hospitality at and said "A new habit, impressed by our Muslim friends. With a new bandage every dressing the wound will is not as likely to fester."
"Yes, do," Godfrey continued as if the monk had not spoken, keeping his attention for Balian. "You can ride, you can read. Can you fight?" he asked. Balian nodded.
"Can you wield a sword?" Godfrey asked.
"A little, my lord" Balian replied in a low voice, adding the title almost as an after thought, since he was so wrapped up in the Hospitaller's work and in trying to ignore by the lords attention as much as peasantry dared. The watching was starting to make him uncomfortable. Brother Michael wrapped the last of new wool around his patient's hand, tied it off and gave it a pat saying,
"There, wear that for a few days then I'll give you another." He turned to look at Godfrey meaningfully over his shoulder. "I pray we find another well stocked hearth along the road to take from, or I'll have to re-use the old wrappings."
Godfrey nodded, but he was looking was elsewhere and Brother Michael sighed, seeing by the unfocused frown on Godfrey's face that he'd lost his lord's attention. Well, there was not to be done. He slapped his hands on his knees and stood, taking his bag of herbs and tools with him. Balian was flexing his hand in its new wrapping as the monk stood, but when he noticed the rustle of departing cloth he quickly stood as well, showing respect.
"No, no," Brother Michael said, smiling, "sit and eat. You deserve it," he said with a wink and disappeared out of the firelight, swallowed up by the night and his black robes.
Balian wet his throat tensely and looked back at the fire and the men sitting around him. The large flaxen German looked up at him and without a word handed Balian the bowl and bread from his side. Balian looked at the knight, then the bowl thrust under his chest, and gave in. He was hungry, cold and barely able stand. Propriety could rot with the toads for all he cared. He took the offered fare and sat down quickly on the log.
The bowl was filled to the brim with familiar lumpy potage. The strong smell of cabbage and leaks swirled up under his nose, making his eyes water, but he ate readily and found something unexpected hidden inside. Something he could rarely get in his stew. Meat. The bits of smoked strips he'd seen the German laying out earlier he realized, probably a gift from the Lord Bishop for their journey. A lord crusading back to the holy land was someone to be honored before all others, and happily some his good fortune might fall on you for your help.
Balian's stomach rumbled deeply in appreciation as he wolfed mouthfuls pottage, savoring the meat finding its way into his belly. The large knight beside him chuckled and gave him a wallop on the shoulder that sent him forward over his knees and nearly caused him to lose the food in him mouth. He swallowed quickly, and nodded at the affable German.
Then the hair on his neck raised like hackles and he felt eyes on him again, the same feeling had plagued him all day on the road. He looked up and saw the Lord of Ibelin watching him across the fire. As soon as he saw Balian had noticed him though, the old man took a sip from his tankard and turned to speak with the dark skinned Moor at his elbow. As if there was nothing out of the ordinary and he had been looking Balian's way for only for a moment.
Balian sucked in a deep, cold breath. H felt the snow on his tongue cool his insides and he let his breath out in a shudder through his nose. A brief puff of steam curled in the air before him, obscuring the sight of the camp for an instant and he quickly bent over his food before it could evaporate.
It was like a game of tag the two of them played, casting curious or searching glances across the camp when they felt the other surely wasn't be looking. Then stuttering about with food or drink for an excuse when they were caught. The match started to wear thin on Balian, the longer it went on. Because Lord Godfrey was not the only one sneaking quick looks in his direction, judging how he moved, and ate, and sat, and talked. Finding himself the center of attention for an entire company was a new experience, and while pure curiosity seemed to play a great part there was also something expectant about it, which made Balian uneasy. So he focused on their lord's stare, easier to play the game with one man then with twelve.
Though it was not really how much Lord Godfrey was staring, since he looked at him no more then his men, perhaps even less. It was the way Godfrey looked at him. Not as an animal, or tool that was useful but easily discarded and replaced. For the first time in Balian's life, someone important, regal, one of the powerful elite looked at him, and saw him.
It was a strange sensation, almost frightening but not quite. He would begin to feel the fear, as this new and uncertain future opened before him, and something in the lords watery old eyes would keep it at bay. They spoke to the fear, saying "no, leave him be, there is no need for you." Then Balian would feel the uncertainty retreat, shrinking back before the powerful knight and growing smaller by the minute, even as Balian felt confusion take seed in its place.
Perhaps, he hoped silently, it was only passing.
Perhaps he'd wake and find the new day had brought him to his senses. Or had brought the Lord Bishop's men to see him to his senses… In irons.