Alys Clare

The Paths of the Air


November 1196

The night had been still and cold. The approaching dawn had brought a rise in temperature and now, as the first faint silvery light appeared in the eastern skies, mist rose in spiralling wisps and curling folds from the lake in its shallow valley.

The track around the lake was clear of vegetation but only a few paces back the undergrowth began, dense and dotted with stands of birch and alder. The leaves had fallen but the thickly growing bracken still provided rust- red cover. Boar made their heads-down, single-minded, trotting progress through the undergrowth; roe deer stood, heads raised and checking for threat, before resuming their browsing.

It was not only animals who were making use of the Vale’s cover.

Suddenly, silently, a tall figure appeared. One moment there was nothing; the next it was there, standing quite still in thigh-high bracken, its outline shimmering in the mist like some phantom of the woods. Very slowly it turned its head, as if making sure no human eyes observed its movements. Then, apparently satisfied, it stepped fluidly through the bracken and emerged onto the path.

The mist swirled around its feet and legs, obscuring them so that an observer would have thought the figure floated, or perhaps flew. Its progress was swift; in a matter of moments it had reached the huddle of simple buildings at the end of the Vale. It gave this human habitation a wide berth, although this was scarcely necessary because most of the inhabitants were still asleep, and it made no more sound than an adder sliding through the grass.

It reached the path that led up the rise and swiftly climbed up to the walled settlement on the brow of the hill. Without hesitation it turned left and, following the line of the stonework, reached the place where the wall turned a corner. Here there were apple trees within the walls and, on the outside, its branches reaching towards the apple trees as if they were yearning arms, an ancient yew.

The figure reached up and caught hold of a thick branch about a tall man’s height above the ground. With a movement that suggested great strength, it swung off the ground and climbed up into the yew, coming to rest astride a high branch. It settled itself as comfortably as such a perch allowed — which was scarcely comfortable at all — and then it froze.

It had sat there in that watchful pose all the previous day and the one before that. It had an urgent purpose and it did not allow bodily discomfort to impinge on its concentrated attention. Pushing back the dark headdress, it gazed down into the enclosed settlement that spread out on the other side of the wall.

Towards the end of the day the man in the tree — it was a man and he was fully human even if he moved and acted like a lost spirit — had seen enough. He began the long and painful process of restoring feeling to his numb limbs, for the descent was potentially fatal and he could not risk an accident. Too much depended on him, and besides — for the first time there was expression in the gaunt face as a wry smile faintly touched the mouth — why risk taking his own life when so many others were lining up willing, eager and very well equipped to do it for him?

He gritted his teeth through the agony of returning sensation in his feet, legs and hands. Then, very carefully, he climbed down the tree. He had to stand leaning against the trunk for some time before the shaking stopped and while he did so he ran his hands over himself, checking on his clothing. The ground-length dark brown woollen tunic was dusty and travel-stained, but that was all to the good as the dirt concealed its quality. Beneath it he wore garments which for very good reasons he chose to keep covered; he felt to make sure that the brown over-tunic had not become caught up and that the neck fitted snug to his throat. Then he smoothed the generous folds of his dark headdress, pulling it down low over his brow and up over his nose so that only his eyes, watchful in the deeply tanned face, were visible.

When he was fully satisfied that he looked exactly as he wanted to look, he stepped out from beneath the yew tree and, following the path, walked light-footed around the walls until he came to the gate. Then, slipping into line behind perhaps a dozen others, slowly and steadily he shuffled forward until his turn came.

The big woman in the voluminous white apron was tired. She had been on her feet since early morning and hadn’t had a moment to call her own. It was a busy time, as it always was when the first hard days of late autumn bit and people began falling foul of the miasmas that lurked and jumped out as soon as hunger and cold revealed underlying weakness.

Quickly she dealt with the first of the sick and the needy, dishing out to the trio at the head of the queue a vermifuge, cough syrup and her patent earache cure. Then came a heavily pregnant woman, a man with bellyache, a boy with a wheeze, a baby with a bad case of cradle cap, a woman with a huge red sty. And, last in the line, a tall, broad-shouldered man in a long, dusty tunic, his head swathed in a concealing headdress. What she could see of his face suggested he was dark-skinned. In the failing light his eyes might have been any colour.

He stood before her and, putting one hand to his heart, gave her a courteous bow.

She waited but he did not speak. ‘What ails you?’ she prompted.

Very slowly, as if his vocal cords were stiff from disuse, he said, ‘My… chin.’

‘Your chin? What’s the matter with it?’

‘Pain. Much pain.’

‘Let me see.’

He glanced around as if to make sure nobody was watching — the other patients had gone and he and the large woman stood apart — then very carefully he reached up and lowered the cloth that covered the right side of his face. She went to help but, with a gentle but very firm hand, he pushed her fingers away. Holding the headdress so that most of his face was still hidden, he turned his head and she saw his chin.

The skin under his jaw was red raw, swollen tightly, weeping and blistering. The dreadful wound must have been agonizing. She said very softly, ‘You poor soul.’

He made a sound in his throat; it might have been in response to her sympathy.

She led the way to a small table where she had laid out freshly boiled water, lavender oil, ointment and pieces of clean white linen. She made up a strong solution of the oil in water and then, with the tenderest of touches, began to bathe away the dead skin and pus. He winced — she was hardly surprised — but made not a sound. The shadowed eyes, she noticed, were focused on some object in the middle distance. A fighting man, she thought, trained to take pain in his stride by detaching from it. She changed the foul and bloody water and began again, and this time the man took her ministrations without a flicker.

When at last she had finished, she gave a nod of satisfaction and turned away to dispose of the soiled cloth. She heard a tiny sound and, spinning round, saw that the pain had overcome him at last; he had slumped against the wall.

She hurried to crouch down beside him. ‘I will find you a bed for the night,’ she said, ‘for you are faint, weak with suffering.’ He also looked as if a square meal and a decent night’s sleep wouldn’t be unwelcome. ‘Come, let me-’

But he was struggling to his feet, backing away from her hands that wanted to help. Repeating his hand-to- the-heart gesture, he murmured, ‘No, lady. No.’

‘Oh, but why won’t you let us care for you?’ She too was whispering, as if she had caught his fierce desire not to be seen or overheard.

He shook his head. ‘You have cared for me already.’ Then, his speech broken and hesitant once more: ‘Pain is less. I thank lady.’

He bowed again, deeply this time, and then before she could stop him he spun round and hurried away.

The relief was exquisite. The pain was still considerable but the woman’s lavender oil and ointment — witch hazel and St John’s wort, he thought, with a few precious drops of poppy — had greatly reduced it. He had known that the wound was infected; now, thanks to her, it would mend. He would have a scar but scars did not matter and

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