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.   

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