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The Leper's ReturnA Knights Templar Mystery
By Michael Jecks
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Michael Jecks
All right reserved.
Sir Baldwin Furnshill took another mug of apple juice and sipped. It had taken some years, but Peter Clifford, the Dean of Crediton Church, had finally accepted the fact that Baldwin preferred not to drink alcohol throughout the day, and now, whenever the knight came to visit him, there was usually some form of refreshment on offer which did not threaten him with intoxication.
It was rare for a man to avoid ale and wine, but Baldwin had spent his youth as a Poor Fellow Soldier of Christ and the Temple of Solomon--a Knight Templar. While he had remained a member of the Order he had rigorously avoided strong drink; now he was in his mid-forties, he knew he wasn't capable of consuming the same quantity as others of his age, and thus saved himself embarrassment by sticking to those drinks he knew would not leave him inebriated.
"That must be them," Peter Clifford said as voices were heard in the courtyard. Shortly afterward there was a jingling of harnesses, rumbling of cartwheels and the hollow, metallic clatter of hooves on the cobbles. The Dean stood, emptying his goblet and handing it to the waiting servant. Baldwin set his mug by the fire and trailed after his friend, walking out to welcome the Bishop.
Baldwin had met Stapledon on a few occasions, and had always found him to be an urbane, refined gentleman. Today the knight was somewhat surprised to see the Bishop standing scowling while Peter's stablemen held the horses. The Bishop's men were milling, some pulling chests and boxes from the back of the wagon, others collecting the smaller packages from individual mounts. Their frenetic activity was proof of their own nervousness in the face of their master's anger.
"My Lord Bishop, you are very welcome," Peter said, and Baldwin could hear the doubt in his voice. Peter must also have seen the Bishop's mood. "My Lord, would you like some spiced wine to take the chill off after your journey?"
"My friend, it's good to be here again once more," the Bishop said automatically, though a trifle curtly. "Meet the new master of St. Lawrence's Chapel, Ralph of Houndeslow."
Baldwin had noticed the cleric before he was introduced. To the knight, most young monks looked as if they would benefit from early exercise every morning for several weeks; they invariably had skin that displayed an unhealthy pallor. This one was different. He stood tall and straight, not bent at the shoulder, and from his ruddy color he might have been a laborer. His face was thin, but not weakly. He had a solid, pugnacious-looking chin, and his blue eyes were intelligent, glittering with a prideful confidence beneath a thatch of tawny hair. The monk put Baldwin in mind of some of his dead friends from the Templars.
As they walked back to the Dean's hall, Baldwin noticed that the Bishop did not stride so purposefully as had once been his wont. The prelate had aged in the last year. Although still tall, he was more stooped than before. It looked as if the burden of his office was becoming too much for him to bear. Baldwin had first met him here in the Dean's house a year before, when Stapledon had pressed him to confirm to whom he owed his allegiance--King or Earl. Then Stapledon had been tall, erect and powerful. But Baldwin knew Stapledon was involved in the politics that surrounded the King, and that the pressure must be crushing. He recalled that twelve months before, they had both been fearful of war. In retrospect this appeared laughable: the situation had not been nearly so fraught with danger as it had now become.
Ralph took a seat a little to the Bishop's left, leaving the older man near the fire. Two balks of oak glowed dully, and as the Bishop dropped down with a grunt, Baldwin gave them a kick, creating a shower of sparks, before tossing split beech logs on top. Peter Clifford chivvied servants to fetch the wine before seating himself opposite their guests, and Baldwin pulled up a stool next to Ralph. As the flames curled upward the monk saw the knight's face in the flickering, lurid orange light, and to judge from the set nature of his expression, his thoughts were not pleasant.
Close to, the knight appeared older than the monk had first thought. Sir Baldwin was a lean-looking man, with the massive shoulders and arms of a swordsman, but where Ralph would have expected to see cruelty and indifference, he was surprised to see rather the opposite. The knight had kindly eyes. They were set in a dark face which was framed by short black hair, frosted with gray at his temples. A well-trimmed beard followed the line of his jaw.
His cheek wore a long scar, which shone in the candlelight. But Ralph could also see that pain marred his features. His forehead was slashed across with deep tracks, and at either side of his mouth were vertical lines that pointed to years of suffering. He gave the impression of a man who had endured, although the cost of surviving was high.
Bishop Stapledon also saw Baldwin's detachment and gave a rueful shrug. "Sir Baldwin, please excuse my shortness. I didn't intend to be rude."
"I am the one who should apologize; my mind was wandering."
"In my case I was reflecting on a chance encounter," said the Bishop.
"Really, my Lord?" asked Dean Peter with interest.
"Yes, Dean. I met a man I had no wish to see again," Stapledon said coldly. He accepted a goblet of mulled wine from the bottler, snuffing the aroma and grunting his approval. "That smells good! It was chilly on the way here; I swear I feel the weight of my years more strongly with each succeeding winter. With age, my flesh grows ever less protective against inclement weather. As a lad I'd have thought the weather today was so mild it only merited a shirt, but now I am old and feeble I have to reach for two tunics, a jerkin, and a thick woollen cloak.
Excerpted from The Leper's Return by Michael Jecks Copyright © 2006 by Michael Jecks. Excerpted by permission.
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