Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Templar and the True Cross (part 2)

Chapter II

    In the early hours of the morning Sir Jean-Marc was once again on his knees in prayer. He thanked God for this day, and prayed for the strength and courage to overcome his enemies, to resist temptation and turn away from his own sinful nature. Gathering up his belongings, the Templar left Le Chevalier Noir and went out into the cool, clear morning. Though there was no snow, it felt as if winter had come early, much to the dismay of the farmers. A northerly wind carried a stiff coldness that was to reflect the times to come. Jean-Marc did not like the cold. The years he had spent in the Mediterranean had conditioned him for warmer climates.
    In the stable, he saddled his long-time companion, a spirited stallion, who was the sole recipient of whatever affection existed in the man. The horse had taken him far, been loyal and true, and Jean-Marc realized the need to care for the beast the same way he cared for his sword, which he kept honed. His armour, which he also kept in good working order, was free of rust and dirt. These were his sole possessions, the tools of his trade. He loaded his armour and supplies upon a mule, and the Templar rode to the tournament grounds outside the city of Paris.
    Tournaments were a centuries-old tradition in the Holy Roman Empire, and began as training grounds for knights. The early tournaments were often bloody matches, not far removed from actual warfare. Broken bones, severe wounds and even deaths resulted from these matches, where armies of knights would meet upon the field and battle. The harshness of these melees garnered strong disapproval from the Church. Kings realized the loss of knights did not make up for the brutal and fatal exercise, and so tournaments became regulated and more of a friendly competition rather than a lethal training ground.
    The tournament was being held on a large level field surrounded on two sides by low hills which allowed spectators to observe the matches. On the third side was erected pavilions for the wealthy and nobles, though it was still early in the tournament and few members of the nobility were present. The crowd that gathered today was light-hearted and eager to see a hard-fought competition. They were not eager to see a knight die, but a show of  blood or a serious injury was always welcome, and would provide lively conversations for days to come.
    A fall breeze fluttered the colourful banners and pennants that danced about on poles and lances. The grounds were busy with knights, officials and squires. Sir Jean-Marc soon spotted the three men from the tavern who were competing in the joust. The Templar went over to the jousting officials and with a little persuasion, convinced them to match him up with the scar-faced knight. Jean-Marc waited patiently as an official approached the knight to ask if he had any objections to being matched with de Montpellier. The scar-faced one listened to the official, then looked over to where Jean-Marc stood. Glaring at Jean-Marc, the knight nodded his head slowly.

    This was to be strictly a pas d’ armes, or a tournament a’ plaisance, where combatants competed purely to test their prowess against one another. There was to be no unchivalrous displays of an emprise, where blood and death were purposely sought. Despite this, Jean-Marc fancied himself a good judge of character and knew the man he would compete against. The scar-faced knight would try to kill him regardless of the rules. Jean-Marc would have to be wary.
    Being without a serf or squire to assist him, Sir Jean-Marc laid out his own armour in an orderly fashion, and began to dress inside the small tent he had set up. Against his body he wore close-fit stockings and a loose tunic, over which he put on his acton, or padded undergarments. The acton helped to protect his body from blows and also created a buffer from his hauberk, a mail shirt made from thousands of small metal rings joined together for protection. Jean-Marc’s thigh-length mail shirt had long sleeves ending in mittens to protect  his hands, and a hood or coif to cover his head. Next he put on mail chausses to cover his legs. Over his mail he wore in a sleeveless surcoat of white emblazoned with a black cross upon his chest. The long surcoat was girded at the waist with a wide heavy belt. Lastly Jean-Marc carried his helmet with a cross cut into it for vision. Bending to one knee, he uttered a short prayer, and so adorned, he picked up his shield and left his tent to prepare for the joust.
    Once outside, Jean-Marc was approached by a man a few years younger than himself. The man was dressed as a knight, and was tall, well-proportioned and convivial. The man did not bother introducing himself, nor did he ask de Montpellier his name.
    “You are jousting against Guy of Lyon?” he asked Jean-Marc.
    “Who is Guy of Lyon?”
    The man pointed to the scar-faced knight. Jean-Marc nodded.
    “A friendly bit of warning, Sir Knight; watch out for Guy of Lyon. He is not above foul play. Not long ago Guy of Lyon jousted against a friend of mine. It was to be a competition only. Guy charged and aimed his lance at my friend’s head and wounded him severely. When you charge Guy of Lyon, be mindful of his trickery, Sir Knight. Keep your head low and your shield high.”
    De Montpellier nodded to the man knowingly and with appreciation.
    Jean-Marc approached his horse and gently stroked its head. He spoke to it in soft even tones telling the beast what was to come and what was expected of it. Jean-Marc synched the saddle tighter and inspected the stirrups. Confident his accoutrements were in order, he mounted the horse and made his way to the field.
    Since this was to be a friendly bout, the combatants were issued blunted lances to prevent serious injury. Couching the lance in his right arm, Jean-Marc held the weapon up, while holding his shield with his left. His opponent would approach on his left side. The two knights sat their mounts at the opposite ends of the field.
    The scar-faced Guy of Lyon sat on a black horse with a covering to match the man’s surcoat, which was emblazoned with a white stag across the chest. The man’s shield consisted of six diagonal  alternating stripes of black and white. From beneath his helmet he glared at his opponent. He had been insulted and made to look the fool last night, but now he would win back his honour against this so-called Templar. He would have taken his revenge out on the man last evening, but he had had too much to drink, and his companions had talked him out of it. Now, on the field of battle, he would prove who was the better man. He would have to take the Templar the first round, for despite his hatred of the man, Guy of Lyon suspected this knight was not to be trifled with. He would give him no warning, no quarter. He meant to dispatch his opponent right readily.
    The rules of the joust were simple: the two knights would charge one another and use their lances to unseat the other from their mounts.

    At the signal, the two knights dug their spurs into their horses’ flanks and charged towards each other, Jean-Marc still holding his lance up. The horses gained speed as their hoofs dug in and threw up dirt. Guy of Lyon aimed his lance at Jean-Marc’s head, but still the Templar kept his weapon up. The combatants drew closer and it appeared as if the Templar would not lower his lance. As they were practically upon each other, the Templar lowered his lance across his horse’s neck and leaned forward in the saddle. Jean-Marc held his lance tightly, couched in the crook of his arm for support. He squeezed his knees tightly around his horse and prepared for the impact. Guy of Lyon kept his lance high aiming for Jean-Marc’s head which, if it contacted, would surely knock the Templar from his saddle. Jean-Marc had been sitting his horse high, leaning to the left, but at the last instant he dropped into his saddle and shifted his position causing Guy of Lyon’s lance to miss him completely. Jean-Marc’s lance, however, impacted with the black and white shield of the other, knocking the dark knight from his horse.
    The crowd cheered as Guy of Lyon tumbled off his mount and resoundingly hit the ground.
    Jean-Marc’s lance had splintered on impact, so he discarded it. He turned his horse about and rode up to the knight upon the ground, who was momentarily stunned. The spectators looked on in anticipation as they watched the Templar dismount and approach the other. They cheered again as de Montpellier removed his helmet, tucked it under his left arm and put out his right hand to help the dark knight to his feet. This act of chivalry, so seldom seen these days, caused the crowd to remember the romance of an age gone by that would not likely be seen again.

    On the ground, the dark knight’s ears continued to ring from the impact and shook his head to clear it. Still on his back, he removed his helmet and stared up at the Templar and his outstretched hand. He knew it would show dishonour if he refused the Templar’s gesture. Guy of Lyon put out his hand and allowed de Montpellier to pull him to his feet. As the crowd cheered, Guy of Lyon leaned closer to Sir Jean-Marc and said, “This is not over, Templar.”
    “Here is my head,” Jean-Marc responded.
    The black knight seethed at this blatantly obvious challenge, but knew this was not the time or place for what he intended. He would be patient. He would wait.          
The Templar and the True Cross on Amazon

Youtube promo for The Templar and the True Cross

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sherlock Holmes Mystery - Kindle

The new Sherlock Holmes adventure is a case of Cold-Hearted Murder!

Cold-Hearted Murder by Stephen Gaspar is available on Kindle.
View Cold-Hearted Murder on Kindle
When grotesque murders are committed during one of the hottest summers in London, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are drawn into the investigation.

Cold-Hearted Murder is one of the most baffling and bizarre cases Sherlock Holmes has ever investigated. Why are the victims being monstrously mutilated? Why are they being murdered in cold locations? What is the significance of the Golden Triangle?

What Sherlock Holmes will learn is that these incredible killings have their origins in the Canadian Northwest during the great Klondike Gold Rush.

Cover design and Youtube video by Greg Maxwell
Cold-Hearted Murder Youtube promo

 Also on Kindle, The Canadian Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Templar and the True Cross (Part 1)

I am very happy to present  a series of excerpts from my latest historical mystery, The Templar and the True Cross. Please check back regularly for future postings.

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The Templar and the True Cross
by Stephen Gaspar

                         Chapter 1

    The road that leads from Rouen to Paris is a winding, well-used thoroughfare that cuts through the hilly French countryside. Built during the height of the Roman Empire, this ancient road is shadowed by broad leafy trees on either side that guard a traveller against the midday sun, but in the same vein makes traversing the road at night dark and frocked with peril, as leaves and limbs are tossed by the evening breeze, casting strange, unearthly shadows. The sun had long gone down, and the full moon struggled to peek through the thick low-hanging clouds that marched sullenly across the night sky like phantom legions. Somewhere in the trees an owl hooted, as a stiff breeze rustled the leaves that burned with late-autumn colour.

    Along this road, half a day’s ride outside of Paris, sat a humble inn that offers weary travellers food and drink, a brief respite from their journey, and perhaps even a bed for the night. Outside the inn, a sign hung swinging in the breeze, bearing a picture of a knight on horseback and the name Le Chevalier Noir. A dim light from the inn spilled out onto the road. 
    Inside the ill-lit tavern, the rattling of dishes and tankards banging on rough-hewn tables are drowned by the clamour of voices raised in coarse exchanges and crass jocularity. By far, the loudest noise came from a table where three swaggering and verbose knights ate and drank with gusto, making lewd remarks at the barmaids and patrons alike. The innkeeper, a large dour-looking man with an unwashed apron and unwashed hands, knew these types well. These men were not true knights, but rather mounted men at arms. Sadly, the days of chivalrous knights were no more, their type being replaced with the likes of these three who bullied, barged in and were overbearing. These three ruffians were most likely from an outer province come to partake in the tournament. The innkeeper took some comfort that they had chosen not to wear their swords this evening. Still, he did not necessarily want them in his establishment, yet neither could he keep them out. He could only pray that when they left his inn there would be little breakage and no deaths. 
   Yet, these three did not seem to concern innkeeper as much as the man who sat alone in the corner. The innkeeper had noticed the man as soon as he had walked into the tavern. Tall and broad, but he moved easily, with grace and purpose. He was somewhat silent and morose. The stranger had inquired if there was a room to let. Nothing elaborate he had said. The innkeeper remembered the comment because never had any of his rooms been referred to as elaborate. He told the stranger he had one small room that he could let him use for the night. The man had nodded, speaking as little as possible, then asked for a tankard of warm wine to be brought to the lone table in the corner. The stranger had not given his name, and for some reason, the innkeeper was reluctant to ask. When he brought the drink, the man accepted it without a word and laid down a small coin for the drink and the room.

There was something familiar about the man, though the innkeeper was at a loss to know what it could be. He suspected this stranger could be dangerous, though he carried himself with a certain honour; it seemed to hang on the man like the clothes he wore. He had been sitting there all evening, regarding the three loud knights who sat at the table in the centre of the room. The innkeeper was uncomfortable with the way the stranger watched them.
    Aside from these three, the tavern contained a score of patrons who had come to eat and drink and forget the troubles of their pitiful lives. The low beamed ceiling was half hid by the smoke that rose from the open fire, where one could warm himself against the cool evening, and where roasts of pork and beef cooked slowly on a spit.
    “Here is to the king!” said one of the three knights, raising his cup. He was a rough-looking man with a broken nose and a scar on his left cheek.
    “To the king!” sang out the other two, one a partly bald-headed man with crooked teeth and the other a rather handsome clean-shaven man with a broad sweeping black moustache.
    The trio banged their cups together and drank deep of strong ale that ran freely over the rims and down their chins.
    “And who is more deserving than Philip the Fair?” posed the bald one. “He brought the Pope to France, put the Lombards in their place, and expelled the Jews.”
    “To say nothing of bringing an end to the Templars,” added black moustache.
    “Thank God and the king those heathens are with us no more,” spat the scar-faced one. “A pack of deviants of the worst kind. Thieves and cowards the lot of them, and disloyal to say the least. France is well rid of them.”
    In the dark corner of the tavern, the stranger had finished the meagre repast the landlord had provided him, and now sat quietly sipping warm wine. He could not help overhear the trio, and he did not like what he heard. He had no desire to call attention to himself, but he found he could bear their comments no longer. He stood up and approached their table. He was a tall man and powerfully built, yet he moved with grace and was standing at the table before the other three noticed his approach. The three looked up with a start at the tall, silent man.

    “I could not help but overhear you spoke of the Templars,” the stranger said in a low, but commanding voice. Dressed in a hooded white mantle, the three knights took him for a Cistercian monk. The man lowered his hood and his white cloak hung behind him. He stood as straight as a pole.
    The other three did not object to his presence, but regarded him with suspicion.
    “That we were,” scar-face responded. It was obvious he spoke for the group. He did not shy away from voicing his opinion, and his highest opinion was of himself. With his left forefinger, he stroked his scar proudly while he looked the stranger up and down, assessing the man before him.
    The stranger had a handsome ruggedness, but was not as handsome as the black moustached man at the table. The stranger had a moustache and a dark full beard as well, and kept his dark hair trimmed unfashionably short. The man’s expression was sombre, yet his dark brown eyes held an intensity that locked onto whomever he regarded. He was  large and lean, and though scar-face could not see beneath the cloak, he suspected the man was quite fit and muscular despite his age. The man carried no sword, nor any visible weapon. There would be little to fear from him, they assumed.
    “My comrades and I were toasting the king and good riddance to the Templars,” scar-face continued. “With the burning of de Molay and his band of disloyal deviants, we are well rid of them, may they all burn in hell. France does not need their kind. Come friend, join us in a drink to the end of the Templars.”
    “I cannot drink to that,” the stranger said coarsely, with a hint of defiance.
    Scar-face eyed his companions and all three rose from their seats to face the man.
    “We have extended our hospitality in friendship, sir,” scar-face said, summoning up as much graciousness as he was able. “And you have refused it. Your response is not only uncivilised, but an insult as well.”
    “You have defamed a righteous man and a loyal band of knights whom you are not even worthy to mention,” the stranger said evenly, but with conviction.
    The bald-headed man took a step towards the stranger, but scar-face stayed him with an outstretched hand.
    “Before my companions and I teach you a lesson in manners,” scar-face spoke, holding his usually unbridled anger in check, “we would like to know who we are instructing.”
    “I am Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier of the Knights Templar,” the other declared.
    The three knights paused briefly, then scar-face grinned and laughed with a hearty guffaw, that was joined quickly by his comrades.

“The Templars are no more,” scar-face announced. “De Molay and the last of his kind were burned at the stake this past spring. Those of his ilk who are still alive have fled the country never to return. There are no Templars in France. The king has banished them.”
    Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier pulled his cloak back to display an eight-pointed red Cross Pattee blazoned across his white mantle, the traditional symbol of the Templars.
    The three stared mutely at the cross in disbelief for a brief moment, then black moustache spoke. “That cross means nothing.”  There was little confidence in his words.
    “You best leave here, Templar,” scar-face said slowly to de Montpellier. “France does not desire or require your kind here any longer. Leave here now and go in peace.”
    Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier stood rigid. “You have insulted the Templars and you have insulted me.”  With a movement so quick it was barely seen, de Montpellier struck scar-face upon his cheek with the back of his hand.
    For a moment the scene held, as if none of the three knew what had happened. The sting on scar-face’s cheek gave proof and the man let out a bellow. This was a signal to his companions and all three lunged at the Templar.
    With a deft move, de Montpellier tipped the table that was between them. The trio tripped over it and hit the floor in a sprawl.
    The innkeeper, who had been watching the exchange with an experienced eye, had moved slowly toward the four men. In anticipation of trouble, he had reached them just as the altercation began. The innkeeper positioned himself between the man he took to be a true knight and the other three who were now scrambling to gain their feet. Black moustache was up first and the innkeeper practically threw him atop scar-face, who was just rising. The two went down again. In a mock attempt to help the bald one to his feet, the innkeeper grabbed hold of his shoulders and pushed him backward where he crashed into another table and struck his head, causing him to lose whatever senses he had. Scar-face lept to his feet and lunged for de Montpellier but the innkeeper put his considerable frame between them.
    “Good sirs!” the innkeeper bellowed. “Remember you are gentlemen!  There is no fighting in this establishment.”
    Scar-face disregarded the man until he reached for his knife and found his hands were clamped to his sides by the powerful grip of the innkeeper. Only then did scar-face realize the man’s incredible strength.
    “Let me go!” scar-face demanded, not taking his hate-filled eyes off of de Montpellier.
    “If you gentlemen must battle, I suggest that the tournament would be a more appropriate time and place,” the innkeeper replied.
    Scar-face glared at Sir Jean-Marc, then at the innkeeper. He glanced at his bald-headed companion, who was only now beginning to stir, then to black moustache, but was not ready for any type of confrontation. Seeing little hope for a positive outcome, scar-face motioned to black moustache and they aided their companion to his unsteady legs and made their way to the door of the tavern. Once there, scar-face turned to Sir Jean-Marc and uttered, “You are a dead man, Templar!”
    Sir Jean-Marc de Montpellier, who had stood immobile since tripping up his opponents, received the threat with steadfast regard. When the three disappeared into the cool, dark autumn night, he turned to the innkeeper and nodded his humble thanks.
    The large man spoke dispassionately to the knight. “My only concern was the protection of my property. I have offered you lodgings for the night, for I took you to be a man of honour. I will not withdraw the offer, but I expect you to leave my establishment by early morning.”  And he turned away to tend to his business.
    Sir Jean-Marc retired to the small, windowless room he had been let for the night. It was a simple room, no more than he needed, no more than he deserved. One straw-lined bed, one rickety chair, and two rats. Before going to sleep, the knight spent a considerable time on his knees praying, thanking God for helping him survive the day, and asking to survive the night. Left totally alone and in the dark, he could be brutally honest regarding all the sins in his life, that were the source of his self-loathing. Sir Jean-Marc prayed for the opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of God. He petitioned to be forgiven for sins he had committed in his lifetime, and those which he would commit. Little did he know that God had forgiven him long ago, and what robbed Jean-Marc de Montpellier of his peace was his inability to forgive himself. He did not understand why God had permitted him to live while other brave men died. Surely there was something left undone, and he suspected what it was.
    The knight dressed down to his sheepskin undergarments and lay in the short, low bed. He lay as straight as he stood, and kept his sword within reach. His mind drifted back to many days ago when he lived a relatively peaceful existence in a Castillian monastery. Jean-Marc de Montpellier had resigned to live the remainder of his days in that monastery, but then came a message from the King of France. The message had arrived by mounted courier, who had ridden in all haste from Paris. Sir Jean-Marc lay in bed studying the document now by candlelight. The message carried the royal seal, of course, pressed into blood-red wax. The script was elegant, the message was brief but succinct.
    The document was signed; a Deo et Rege – from God and the King. The meaning was clear. Like all monarchs, Philip IV believed his sovereignty as approved by the Almighty. This very notion inspired the phrase, rex non potest peccare – the king can do no wrong.
    A short post scriptus informed de Montpellier to enter the palace through a private entrance and wait in an antechamber adjacent to an audience hall, and that Sir Jean-Marc should endeavour to be discreet as to his presence in France. A purse of gold coin for travelling expenses accompanied the letter.  
    After receiving the message Jean-Marc had spent an entire day in meditation and prayer. What could the King of France possible want of Sir Jean-Marc? Why call him back to France after all these years? These questions and many others occupied the thoughtful mind of the Templar Knight. Then, coming to a difficult decision, he made some brief goodbyes and he and his horse boarded a ship bound for Le Havre. Once in the seaport town, he travelled overland, past Rouen and finally to this inn. Tonight was the first altercation he had experienced in many years, but his past training revealed itself as muscles responded to instinct, and his honour remained intact. Now that he was back in France and his identity would soon be made known, he suspected there would be more opportunities to preserve his life and honour. He knew that there were others in Paris who would seek his death, just as he was certain there lived some whose death he contemplated. De Montpellier felt the spark of hatred and revenge grow in him. He had hoped his years in the monastery, years spent in prayer and meditation, had quelled these dark desires, but now he felt his heart beat faster and his breath came quicker. He prayed to God for this feeling to pass. He prayed for peace that he knew would never come. The Templar turned to the small candle by his bed and blew out the light.   

Friday, October 5, 2012

New Templar Video

The Templar and the True Cross 
Windsor film maker, Greg Maxwell has just completed a YouTube video promo for The Templar and the True Cross. Like all the previous videos Greg has made for me, this one is great!

The Templar and the True Cross by Stephen Gaspar. Available only on Kindle.

The Templar and the True Cross