The sun is different in the far countries; the ones that border the very edge of the world. Or so it seems; surely Palestine must be on the very edge of the world, since it lies beyond the Middle Sea on the cusp of unknowingness, a place hovering somewhere between Avalon and the great, azure city of Paradise itself. Any pilgrim who ventures from their cold, wet island of Christendom across the jigsaw puzzle of charts; the spread-hand of land that is France, away across that comical riding boot of dusty Italy – and then downwards, to that knifepoint edge where the sun seems to reproach those who dare to tread the dust of the Holy Land. The earth is not how the pilgrims imagine it; by rights it should be verdant like an English summer at its best; like walking through a second Garden of Eden.
Not unslaked and fly-blown, a purgatory of aching rock and stinging sand underneath that scourge of a sun.
'Scripture never told us of this!' A disgruntled, put out, and above all, middle-aged voice rings out with the well-bred bray of courtly Norman French, above the tired clop of exhausted hoof-beats. 'As barren a place as ever I saw! Not a goodly field in sight; what do they mean by it?'
The accent is deplorable; the owner has clearly never so much as seen a courtier who speaks the pure tongue. It thickly rings with the coarse, blunt features of Anglo-Saxon, and mingles with the harsher tones of the colder north. 'I see no lilies of the field yet! Your monks lie, that's for certain – I have a psalter at home shows nothing of this-'
'Hold your tongue, Iveta! I do no discredit to the place…' the voice grudgingly granted that, but in a shrewish tone that belied her words.' Only the next pilgrimage shall be Walsingham, that's all. At least you can be sure of home, within the hour, and some decent company on the road. Not these heathen caravans-'
'Madam, Walsingham is within eight miles of home. The Holy Land is not quite the same, I think? We are the heathens here.' The second voice spoke mildly; a younger voice, although it held a little of her mother's Saxon tongue – and also a little petulance. A very little; her mother's vast, querulous egotism would brook no opposition. 'And we would hardly find Jerusalem without help, and there are thieves and raiders and all manner of villainy upon the road-'
'When you hold the reins of a household, Iveta, you may do as you please! I take no lessons from my daughter! Besides,' her voice held a faint trace of complacency. 'We are better equipped than most pilgrims, I think.'
Iveta risked a dubious glance over her shoulder.
A word here on the mother; Dame Juliana was, in her own way, important. Important in her own circle, and a respected knight's wife, with more fiefs and villeinies than many a court baron could put to his title, but since most of her income came from sheeps-wool and a beady-eyed wariness about her clerks, she had never come within sneezing distance of London. She was still very much the coarse goodwife she had always been. Blessedly Sir William, a mild-mannered man who had clung to his title through persistent equivocation rather than strident law-suits, was long gone; Dame Juliana had embarked on this particular example of piety out of a vague desire for 'saying of Masses for his soul.' But she had brought, out of her swollen pride, thirty men-at-arms to 'aid the protection of the Sepulchre and the holy city.' Iveta was ignorant of anything not concerning herself, but even she doubted that thirty bad-tempered fellows from out the wastes at home could severely impress the Royal Court of Jerusalem.
For a start, their numbers had dwindled to seventeen. Six of them 'fell from the party' mysteriously at Harfleur, along with half the baggage they had brought from the crossing to France. Two of them fell ill as they crossed to Italy with stomach gripes and were left behind. One was found stabbed outside a wayside inn, but since they were a parcel of rogues, it was hardly surprising that it hadn't happened sooner. It did not deter Dame Juliana, whatever misgivings it gave the other members of her party. The other four had refused to go any further, and those that remained simmered and seethed behind the horses, the road swelling their ill-temper with every step. The 'glorious' army of Christendom had been neatly sheared of half its members, and the glorious citadel was not even in sight yet. They followed, though. Draggingly, on their mistress's tail as she chid them from the relative comfort of her palfrey. Her daughter eyed them nervously behind her mother's bulk as she rode pillion, pretty and as petulant as a squirrel, before sliding off with a limp moan.
'I shall ride Mirrum's horse, mother. You bump in the saddle so! Besides, we must be close. The caravans go unguarded from here.' The third horse, which had been keeping a respectful distance during the dame's undignified squabbling with her tender offspring, drew to a halt as its rider dismounted. Iveta took the bridle with no very good grace, brushing dust off the clumsily stitched scarlet cross on her cloaked left shoulder, and then jerked the horse away to trot after her mother.
They were still arguing.
Mirrum, if that was the name, paused a moment, as though to take in the full range and depth of their foolishness. It was not possible to tell what Mirrum was; whether male or female, villein or freeman; whatever it was, it was swathed in itchy linen, a hood pulled over the nodding head as scant protection from the sun and wind. Perhaps Mirrum was a mild-mannered boggart set to guard the foolish from their own folly; it would have seemed no stranger than the quarrelling, bickering mother and daughter, who made so strange a contrast to their pilgrim's badges with their chivvying arguments. The hood, at any rate, half-turned to exchange a glance with the foremost of the seventeen. He spat into the dust.
'Makes you wish something would scythe away the lot on' em,' he hiccoughed – with difficulty, through cracked lips. 'Especially her.'
'They're fractious with the heat, Mab. No need to wish them ill.' The hood nodded, as though the occupant was slightly amused. 'I don't think they'll be impressed with Jerusalem as it is. Think of their disappointment.'
'I'd boil 'em in their own juices with onions if I got the chance.' Mab wished fervently, cursing through his beard. 'Six years steward, and this is the thanks I get! And you, Mirrum. Say, what is the Holy City like?'
'I don't know, Mab. I've never seen it.'
'Heard about it, maybe?' Mab enquired hopefully. The city of Heaven is supposed to be paved with gold, so it is. And angels fly about its towers, and there's no suffering or-'
'In the city of Heaven. Maybe.' Said the unseen Mirrum. Somewhat curtly. 'Jerusalem will probably be a city. A human city, with as many sinners and cutpurses as saints.'
'Oh.' Mab stood quite disappointed for a moment, as the rest of the men trudged achingly onwards. 'No angels, then.' A wide grin split his face in two. 'Best not tell them that, then?' he added, nonchalantly. 'You're right, Mirrum. Think of their disappointment.'
'Mm?' Mirrum had wandered off somewhere inside that sackcloth hood; the voice was abstracted. 'Yes. I'd still like to see it though, Mab. Even the dust must have known Christ. We're treading in the path of the Messiah…' Mirrum looked towards the front of their miniature vanguard. 'And arguing on it, too. Alas.'
'You think too much, Mirrum.'
'I know, Mab.' The hooded figure ambled easily alongside, falling into step with him as they trudged onwards. 'I know.'
True to Mirrum's prediction, Dame Juliana was not impressed by the first glimpse of the Celestial City granted to her and her erstwhile band. Mirrum had foreseen this; anyone who read milady's psalter as much as she would have acquired a very strange impression of the Holy Land. There were ripe cornfields and orchards in the illuminations; perfect, alabaster figures of saints and apostles painted to the size of a thumbnail, all with careful, blank, faces framed by golden hair. It showed England; you could see that. A perfect, bland, flavourless England.
There was very little gold in Jerusalem. That you could see, at least.
But there was something else. Oh, it was nothing the goodly dame or her daughter would have recognized; but those blank stone walls, bleached bone-white by the scourging heat, had a lazy, sun-soaked magic of their own; an ancient… knowledge, if you like, of the thousands of feet that had paced the dirt and dust of this inhospitable land and had carved out a citadel of stone and cool blue glass out of the dust itself. The light painted fantastic colours on the whiteness as they stood blinking at it; a weird, just-possible mirage on the horizon.
Mirrum's breath caught as though snagged on a wire. From a distance it was just possible to imagine painted angels fluttering like mayflies around it…
'As I thought,' Dame Juliana said in disgust, digging her heels into her horse's side with a snort of contempt. 'Dusty, dry, and not a sliver of God's green earth to be found anyway, nor a spot of shade. Or decent company.' She said suspiciously, eying a troop of Saint-Denis Knights who cantered past, unreadable behind their casques and nodding helmets. 'Soldiers and villains! No lords, no company…Compostela was not like this, my girl. Next time…'
'No ladies of birth either.' Iveta said crossly.
'Tch, tch… poor babeling. At least we get good lodging tonight.' Dame Juliana picked up the reins with a self-complacent smile. 'The Marshal is sure to welcome such as we…'
A sudden choking sound from the rear; Mirrum had made a horrified strangled noise, abruptly cut off behind the hood.
'The…Lord Marshal, madam? You are sure that is wise-'
'We bring an armed force of loyal Christian soldiers to swear fealty to the kingdom of Jerusalem.' Dame Juliana said, her dumpy face widening into a superior smile. 'It is necessary, nay… imperative that we bring our humble offering, and in his gratitude to us – as nobles,' she added, 'he will surely find us lodging.'
Mirrum did not dare look at Mab's face. 'The Lord Marshal deals with… barons and dukes and earls and… knights, milady. Huge forces of men. He is hardly likely to take kindly to-'
'Oh? And you have looked on the faces of many Lord Marshals, have you?'
'No, milady, but-'
'Am I not a knight's widow?'
'Yes, milady, there is no doubt of that, but-'
'You would have us take lodging in some slovenly tavern, I see. Or take charity from the monasteries –'
'There are precious few monasteries here, mother.' Iveta interposed boredly. 'Only the Hospitallers.'
'What is that to me? We go to hail the Lord Marshal as befits my rank! I take no grudging charity!'
'In London, perhaps, madam.' Mirrum interposed desperately, in one last sally to rescue the dame's dignity. 'London is different, there is no great need for armed men. Not here, I implore you – this may end badly, you may be treated with discourtesy…'
'May?' murmured Mab, under his breath. 'Has.'
Dame Juliana swelled like a bullfrog, her pouchy cheeks filling with ruffled pride and outraged dignity. 'Courtesy does not dwindle amongst people of rank,' she said, with a sniff of distaste at any objection being voiced by Mirrum at all. 'And we are attending the residence of the Lord Marshal in order to make our presence known at…court!' She rolled the word deliciously in her mouth as though it were a fragment of almond paste, tasting the grandeur with every syllable.
Mirrum's hood quivered, but it made no retort. What could you say to a woman like that? She was enough to quash a whole army with one basilisk glare, floating as she did on waves of arrogant self-confidence. Ambition was the current that she followed. For the most part it worked; sometimes, more humiliating times than once, it did not. Especially with noblemen to whom the Dame was so much wheat chaff with her petty manors and jealous jockeying for position. Mirrum saw, with the terrible clarity of foresight, no warm welcome from the Lord Marshal.
Already Dame Juliana was looking uneasy; her dumpling face had set strangely underneath the swaddling bands that tied up her plump face under her wide-brimmed hat. Mirrum would not have understood the comparison, but the dame was the very picture of the Wife of Bath, and her homely appearance and belligerent attitude had drawn stares once they were thronged amongst the knights and men-at-arms. As well as the various tokens of her alleged piety, the Dame jangled with miraculous medals, shells from Compostela, and enough pieces of the True Cross to have built a second Ark. Iveta had given up the horse in favour of hiding behind her mother's bulk in the crowd, nothing but her eyes peeping out; she was a little more astute than her mother. The incredulous glances they attracted might have warranted a party of mummers attending a court masque, rather than halfpenny pilgrims. Mab trudged alongside his mistress, leading the horse limpingly along; it was going lame. Iveta had ridden the poor beast too hard.
The linen hood, as well as Mirrum, went quite unnoticed amongst them all, a confused mass of Templars, Hospitallers, the Saint-Denis men that had passed them on the road… the cool white of a Cistercian monk dotted here and there amongst the crowd; it all blended into a giddy blend of colour. Jerusalem seethed with life like an upturned ant's nest.
They were more out of place in the somewhat more subdued courtyard, where the Lord Marshal held sway. It was quiet; punctuated only by a soft murmur of serious, dark-eyed men. The fringed shawl of a Pharisee billowed in the wind: black and white, as he murmured his way abstractedly through a roll of parchment. Peculiar, Mirrum thought idly. We are quite sure to be thrown out for our impudence but it makes me almost regret it. he liveried servants had carefully immobile, grave faces above their azure livery, although their eyes flicked over the dusty horses and travel stained newcomers with evident…
Mirrum could not read their expression. And did not care to, either. Besides, the fusillade of enraged oaths coming from the office of the 'Lord Marshal' did not bode well.
'God's wounds! I'll brook no more of your insolence!'
An angry, inaudible reply. Mirrum's ear strained to catch it, but the interview within seemed to be decidedly over.
Blissfully, Dame Juliana was immune to anything like subtlety or discretion. 'You there!' she bellowed, into the ear of a hapless manservant. 'Announce us to your master! Tell him that the pious Lady –'
'You have announced yourself quite aptly enough, lady.'
It was a bear who emerged blinking and scowling into the light. A grizzled, war-torn bear: lean-limbed, with the taut grace of a man who has survived many battles and will survive many more, with God's grace. The hair was already succumbing to the silver of a patriarch; the dark giving grudging way to the grey that laid siege to his temples. But the eyes were dark, intelligent eyes. Quick. Perhaps a little hasty to judge, Mirrum thought cautiously. And certainly quick to anger. They were already snapping fireworks as well as brisk Norman-French at the 'pious lady' with a fluent tongue. No fooling this man with false Norman nobility. Mab looked alarmed; Dame Juliana was flagrantly obvious as a fraud; a plump, squawking hedge-knight's wife with a Saxon burr and false pretensions. They would all be turned out on their ear, if not actually beaten for their presumption.
'Lady-'he said, hoarsely. 'I think we should –'
'A pox on your insolence! Stay silent!' Juliana turned. 'You, sirrah! Are you acquainted with the Lord Marshal?'
'Intimately,' the man returned dryly, shifting his stance from one foot to the other. 'I flatter myself I know him as well as I know myself.'
A barbed jest if ever there was one. Juliana did not take its import, however, and ploughed on regardless.
'Lord be praised! Another night in this sweat-soaked filth…' She glared at him. 'Tell your master that my host will gladly swear allegiance to Jerusalem whenever he chooses to produce himself.'
The dark-eyed gaze grew sharper. 'Your war host? If your pathetic entourage is anything to judge of your… host, I would be very doubtful of the quality of your knights. How many armed men did you bring? Five hundred? Are there sufficient captains to keep them in good order? Did you bring archers?' He was baiting her, Mirrum realised, with a jolt. There was a certain wry gleam in one pocked eye that said he knew precisely how many 'knights' Dame Juliana had brought, and had anticipated the outraged gasps and clucks the lady uttered. And a certain note of enjoyment in his hoarse voice indicated this was a studied amusement of his…
The hood had stared rather too hard. The grizzled head turned sharply, glowered, in a vague 'what do you do, staring at me?' way at Mirrum, and then spoke again to Dame Juliana.
'I can speak for the Marshal of Jerusalem,' he said, with carefully calculated mildness. There was levelled steel beneath it. 'Lady. Your knaves will be welcome: as any who draws sword in defence of Jerusalem will be, but I regret …the Court of Jerusalem can not offer you hospitality.'
'And you are…'
'Raymond of Tiberias, lady. Marshal of this Court.'
How Dame Juliana sagged! It was only a momentary weakness, a flicker of dismay that showed just how severely she had blundered. But in her horror at her mistake, she grew foolish. She could have retired with good grace and a muttered apology, but instead… she grew hysterical. And if possible, more insulting than before.
'Perhaps this is a question of money, rather than hospitality,' she brayed, wheeling her horse about. 'Mirrum holds the purse; she will dispense what seems fitting to you. Come, Mab!'
Mab's mouth had fallen open, aghast at the flagrant affront.' We shall visit the Temple of Jerusalem whilst this is… settled.'
'To barter with your twenty pieces of silver for the money-changers?' Lord Tiberias enquired loudly, with acid inflection.
Dame Juliana was already forcing her jaded horse away through the throng outside, her shoulders hunched over. Iveta looked back once – but only once, and with such a blank gaze that it hardly showed sympathy or no. Mab had vanished, wraithlike; no telling where he had gone to.
Mirrum's hood turned slowly upwards. The Lord Marshal had hardened into an immobile statue, motionless, staring at the muffled figure as though, like Lot's wife, she had changed to a pillar of salt. Mirrum half-wished she had.
'Well?' he said, his voice still etched with cold anger. 'Are you going to offer me 'what seems fitting?' as your profligate mistress puts it?'
Mirrum hesitated –
'Hrrm.' Tiberias grunted, still staring suspiciously down at her. You have a better sense of place than she, at least. Although that does not bespeak much sense on your part, I grant you.'
'Forgive her. Please.' Mirrum suddenly found a tongue. 'She did not understand; we could not dissuade her from-'
'Ah… Freeborn, then. But with a sprinkling of common sense.' The Lord Marshal appeared to be holding an animated conversation with empty air as well as sustaining grudging conversation with Mirrum. 'Was 'we' that poor clown of a steward? And you may get up. Not kneel there like a cringing dotard. A pretty mummery this is!' There was a slight thaw in his tone, as though the farce of the situation had hit home and tickled his sense of humour. 'Get up. What sort of heathen name is Mirrum?'
Mirrum rose with as much stifled, terrified dignity as –I suppose we must say she - could muster. 'Miriam, my lord,' she said warily. 'My father named me from the Bible. It slides together badly on the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but…Mirrum suits me. Will you punish my lady? She intended no offence, my lord! And I have not-'
The battle-axe of a face peered speculatively down at her, the lines creasing momentarily into a brief smile. Gone as fast as winter sunlight. 'I have better things to occupy myself with than fat goodwives from the country,' he remarked wryly. 'I will confess to you, it was an ill-natured jest of mine to vent my spleen on her. And no, before you ask.' the wolf's snarl in his voice had faded. 'I don't intend to beat you about the bounds the city for her sins. I'd never leave off, else.' He added, sardonically. 'Know you where she goes?' Mirrum shook her head. 'No? I doubt she knows where she rides, let alone the city. She'll be back to claim courtesy with menaces, then. Best wait your lady's return. You may uncover your head, girl. I dislike feeling as though I talk with grim Death.'
Mirrum, when uncovered, lost something of that air of swaddled mystery that had covered her before. She was revealed to be a small hopping sparrow of a thing – small, mouse-haired and blinkingly ordinary in homespun, with a plain slash of white face marred by a corn sheaf of almost colourless hair. As though the sun had faded her like an old tapestry. But her eyes were bright, and her smile was both rueful and slyly appreciative of the abrupt exit of her good lady.
'Ah.' The Lord Tiberias said, with satisfaction. 'You are human after all; not the perfect model of an obedient lady-in-waiting. I thought perhaps you half-enjoyed the sensation of seeing her bested. I was not sure with your cowl.'
'I wouldn't deny it,' Mirrum said, a grin twisting her features into pensiveness. Her speech held a faint trace of accent, although it was a dialect Tiberias could not trace, even in the great melting-pot of Jerusalem. She dipped her skirts in an ungraceful courtsey