At that point John saw Alexius, the money-changer, and pointed him out, anxious to change the topic of conversation.
Alexius beckoned them over. ‘Englishmen, if you have no other plans, please join me. I leave tomorrow for Constantinople and may not see you again.’
‘Yes, I go to an important meeting. I am part of a family enterprise which trades across the Empire and the Muslim lands. My brother summons us all to account every three years.’
Agnes brought two more plates containing a rich stew with a strange aromatic smell.
‘What is this?’ John asked.
‘Goat cooked in spices,’ she answered.
‘It looks lovely.’
‘I wonder what it tastes like.’ Simon muttered when she had left.
‘It tastes very good,’ said Alexius. ‘Agnes is a wonderful cook. And she has a lovely arse.’
John stared at him in astonishment.
‘I can say this,’ said Alexius self-indulgently. ‘I am an old man and young people allow me liberties. Perhaps they shouldn’t.’
Agnes returned and placed a jug of ale upon the table. ‘Young people also have good hearing,’ she said. She grabbed a lock of the old Greek’s hair and shook it.
‘Ah,’ Alexius said, feigning dismay, ‘I am found out.’
‘You will be thrown out if my husband hears.’
Alexius chuckled. ‘He comes now, Princess. Here, Bernard. I was just telling our English friends that Agnes has a beautiful arse.’
Bernard came over and gazed at his wife. Then he leant close to Alexius. ‘She has. But unlike me, who can see her arse in all its naked glory, you can see it only through her skirts.’
‘How do you know I have not seen her exactly as you do?’ Alexius asked, his eyes narrowing.
‘Because I know that you are a creature of lies and fantasies.’ He tapped the old man lightly upon the cheek and took a sip of his wine.
Alexius laughed, his eyes, twinkling with mischief.
Bernard glanced at the Ferriers. ‘How do you come to be eating with this old scoundrel?’
‘He changed some money for us,’ Simon said.
‘What?’ Bernard gave a sharp look at the old man.
Alexius opened his hands wide. ‘The boys were with them. I realised they were your guests. They got a fair price.’
Bernard drew up a stool. ‘See that they continue to do so.’
‘Of course,’ Alexius said. ‘After all, they may be your relatives.’
‘Relatives?’ John glanced at Bernard.
‘Not mine,’ Bernard said. ‘I’m a Frank through and through.’
He grinned and bent closer to them.
‘But my wife,’ he continued, ‘is descended from an Englishman; her great-grandfather, Robert. He came to the Holy Land with a man called Edgar who claimed he was the rightful king of England. Edgar was the heir of the ancient Saxon kings but William the Conqueror stole the throne from him. Family legend says that Edgar was Robert’s father, though he did not realise this.’
John and Simon exchanged quick glances. They had heard a similar tale themselves but had thought it a fabrication.
‘And Robert settled and raised a family,’ said Alexius. ‘Here in Jerusalem.’
‘He had a child,’ said Bernard. ‘Agnes’ grandfather.’
He gave a self-satisfied smile.
‘But that was not the end of the story,’ said Alexius. ‘Robert was captured by the Saracens. They must have realised he was the son of King Edgar even if his father didn’t.’
‘Whether or no,’ said Bernard, ‘Robert was killed for not renouncing his faith.’ He made a cutting motion against his neck. ‘Bloody fool. What does religion matter compared to your own neck? The Saracens would have welcomed him, a man of his blood. He might have even become an emir.’
Agnes had returned with a beaker of wine and a plate of food for her husband.
‘That old story,’ she said with a smile. ‘That’s all it is, a story.’
‘Some stories contain a kernel of truth,’ said Alexius. ‘Is not your own brother, Robert, named for your ancestor?’
‘If this story had any truth I wouldn’t be running around cooking food for old men and a hungry husband. I’d be living in a palace and sleeping in a bed of finest feathers.’
She put the plate down in front of her husband.
‘Wonderful,’ Bernard said, wiping his hands upon his filthy apron and bending to his plate with enthusiasm. He blew a kiss at Agnes who raised her eyes to the heavens.
‘With a headboard of cedar wood,’ she said as she went back to the kitchen.
Alexius passed Bernard a chunk of bread. ‘What news, dear friend?’
Bernard looked around the room. ‘It’s quiet, very quiet. There are pilgrims true enough but it doesn’t make up for the army leaving the city. My takings are down.’
‘You know where to come if you have need.’
‘Thank you.’ Bernard dipped his bread in the stew, turning it slowly to collect the juices. He glanced up at Alexius with a questioning look.
Alexius raised his hand to stop him from saying more. He turned towards the cousins. ‘And how do the English like Jerusalem?’ he asked.
John paused. ‘It is not as I imagined it to be.’
‘And how did you imagine it?’
‘I’m not sure now. More ancient, more holy.’
Alexius laughed. ‘It feels more holy now than when the troops are quartered here. Much quieter at any rate.’ He helped himself to more wine.
‘You pilgrims think that Jerusalem is a place where angels fly and saints tread,’ said Bernard. ‘In fact it’s where different worlds collide and it breeds both saints and demons.’
Alexius placed his hand upon John’s arm. ‘Bernard is right. As a pilgrim you must find grace where you can. It does not reside in the stone walls of Jerusalem. Perhaps it resides in your own heart.’
John felt his eyes moisten at the words and bent to his meal to hide it. Can he read my soul he wondered? Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alexius nod to himself.
‘And what of your news, old goat?’ Bernard asked.
Alexius stared out of the door at the streets. ‘My scales are frenzied, Bernard. The exchange is in turmoil, prices careering like wild bulls.’ He picked up his wine and peered into it as it seeking to find something within.
‘This is just a symptom,’ he continued. ‘Rumour is bleak.’
‘What rumour?’ Simon asked.
‘Of anguish and of wars,’ Alexius answered.
‘The day we came to the city,’ Simon said, ‘we saw an army leaving by the same gate. What was it?’
‘That was the army of Jerusalem,’ Bernard said. ‘Every last warrior in the kingdom. Twelve hundred knights and twenty thousand foot-soldiers.’
John frowned. ‘And where are all these men of blood going?’
‘To defeat Saladin,’ Bernard answered. ‘Or be defeated by him.’
The novel will be published at the end of the month on Kindle, Nook and other e-readers.
- The Common Knights of Jerusalem #SampleSunday #histnov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Part 2 of my Kingdom of Jerusalem novel #SampleSunday #Histnov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Poor Knights and Prince. Part 3. #histnov #SampleSunday (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Poor Knights and Princes Part 4 #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Poor Knights and Princes. Part 5. #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Part 6 of my work in progress. #SampleSunday #HistNov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)
- Part 7 of my Crusades novel. #SampleSunday #Histnov (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)