Friday, April 10, 2015

A New Novel about the Templars -- As They Really Were

Andrew Latham is the author of the recently released novel “Holy Lance.” Latham has built a great war-story similar in structure to “Saving Private Ryan” about a small band of men on a dangerous mission with a guide of uncertain trustworthiness and unexpected enemies in their own ranks. “Holy Lance” follows a single Templar troop on a fictional but completely plausible mission to try to recover from deep inside enemy-held territory a controversial relic found during the First Crusade, the “Holy Lance,” i.e the lance that pierced Christ’s side before the crucifixion. As I said in my review, Andrew Latham has with this comparatively short, action-packed book done the much-maligned Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem a worthy service by pulling them out of the realm of mystery and romance and putting back into a historical context and perspective.

Below is a brief interview with Andrew about Holy Lance.

Andrew, let’s start at the beginning. What inspired you to write this book?

Well to be honest, until about three years ago I never dreamed I’d write a work of historical fiction.  I’d always loved reading historical military adventures, but it simply never occurred to me that I might write one someday.  Scholarly books, yes – that’s what scholars do.  But a novel?  I have to confess that the thought never even crossed my mind.

All that changed, though, as I was nearing completion of my most recent non-fiction book Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics.  In preparation for writing that book, I’d been reading pretty widely about war and political violence in later medieval Europe and had just begun to get handle on the crusades.  Then one day I encountered the Templar knights.  Like most people, I thought I knew what these guys were all about: either odious religious fanatics or cynical secular thugs using religion to camouflage their all-too-worldly motives.  Like most people, though, I was wrong.  Turns out, there was much more to these warrior-monks than I had initially thought or than is commonly supposed.  The more I read, the more I became fascinated by these “new knights”, the Templars in particular – not by the caricature of them that is so prevalent in contemporary popular culture, but by the historical reality of them.

Being a scholar by both training and inclination, my first thought was to make sense of this weird phenomenon by writing a non-fiction book on the topic.  The more I thought about what I wanted to achieve, however, the more it seemed that non-fiction would not be the best tool.  I was interested in the Templars, not because of their supposed secrets or mysteries, or their fabulous wealth and influence, or even their marital exploits, but because of what they were: warrior-monks.  Think about it for a moment.  On the one hand, Templars, like all medieval knights, were warriors, bred to be brutal and merciless killers.  On the other, they were pious monks, committed to a life of prayer and works of charity.  How was that possible?  How did they reconcile these two personas? How, as it were, did they manage to sustain the hyphen between the words “warrior” and “monk”?  Answering these questions, it seemed to me, required reconstructing the imaginative world of these self-styled “knights of Christ”.  And the best medium for that sort of project, it seemed to me, has always been fiction.  Thus was born the idea of The Holy Lance.

That being said, however, this novel is not simply an academic work dressed up as fiction.  I grew up reading the classics in historical military adventure: series like C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, Alexander Kent’s Bolitho, and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe.  And in more recent years I have enjoyed the novels of Ben Kane, Anthony Riches, Steven A. McKay, Angus Donald, Si Turney, and, of course, Helena Schrader.  These novels taught me what good historical fiction looks like.  My goal in writing The Holy Lance was to apply everything I learned from these great writers to provide an insightful yet entertaining account of the Templars and the Third Crusade. 

And where did you get the idea for the plot? I kept feeling like this was a medieval version of a number of books and movies I’ve read or seen that were set in WWII.

Once I’d committed myself to writing a work of fiction about the realities of Templar life, I asked myself what sort of plot-structure would provide the best vehicle for revealing those realities.  I did a bit of research (the scholar instinct kicking in again) and toyed with a number of ideas, but ultimately decided on that most enduring of plot devices – the quest.  Why a quest?  Two basic reasons, I suppose.  First, the quest format allowed me to tell an entertaining story. The typical quest involves travel, heroic exertions on the part of the protagonist, danger, battles, romance, and escapades of all sorts – in short, all the basic ingredients of an enjoyable read.  Second, and in some ways more importantly, the quest format allowed me to really probe the Templar ideal.  The key element of any quest story, of course, is neither the journey, nor the material object of the journey, nor even the exertions of the protagonist while on the journey.  Rather, it is the transformation of the protagonist into a true hero as a result of his or her  journey along a “trail of trials.”  Think The Odyssey and Le Morte d’Arthur, or, more recently, Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan (this is the World War II angle you mentioned in your question).  In all of these stories, the challenges encountered while pursuing some valued object transform the protagonist into a more perfect version of an ideal.  What better way, I thought, to explore and highlight the true Templar ideal than to have my protagonist embark on a quest for a religious relic and along the way have him grow into a more perfect embodiment of the Templar ideal – that is, a more perfect synthesis of the ferocious warrior and pious monk?

There’s a lot of rubbish out there about the Templars — they are portrayed as secret Jews, secret atheists, as heretics of every shape, color and odor. You said in your first answer that you intentionally set out to counter some of that nonsense. Do you want to expand on that a little?  What have others gotten wrong and how do your Templar’s differ?

 A lot of rubbish, indeed!  As I see it, there are three basic types of “misrepresentation” of the Poor Knights of the Temple in film and literature: they are portrayed either as heretics, atheists or (my personal favorite) late modern secular-humanists; or they are depicted as cynical thugs concealing their all-too-worldly motives beneath a thin mantle of religiosity; or they are made out to be murderous religious fanatics, cut from the same cloth as ISIS fighters in the contemporary world, and every bit as evil and loathsome.  While these depictions might provide grist for interesting or entertaining stories, they are not accurate.  Indeed, I would argue that they belong in the realm of what I’ll call “historical fantasy” rather than historical fiction. 

So, yes, I did intentionally set out to counter some of the more “fantastic” portrayals of the Templars.  And the first step in this process was to take seriously the real, historical religious convictions and motivations of the typical Templar knight.  My point of departure was not to assume that these guys were all saints – they weren’t.  Rather, it was to accept that the people of this era understood the world in terms of religious (Christian, to be precise) categories and concepts.  For them, Christian religious belief was neither a form of mental illness nor a cynical ideology concealing their real material motives (the pursuit of power, wealth, glory or sensual pleasure).  Instead, rather like the laws of physics do for us, these beliefs provided the fundamental imaginative matrix through which they made sense of the world around them.  And if this was true of the average medieval person, it was true in spades for consecrated religious like the Templars.  As I see it, only by restoring orthodox medieval Christianity to the heart of the Templar story are we able to leave the realm of historical fantasy and reenter the realm of historical fiction proper.

What made you give Sergeants and Turcopoles such a prominent role? I love it, as I think they are given far too little attention in most fiction, but I’d like to know more about your reasoning?

In addition to wanting to get the spiritual dimension of the Templar story right, I also wanted to get the material dimension correct.  At one level, this involved some pretty obvious things like making sure the uniforms were correct and accurately depicting their weapons and battle tactics.  But it also involved getting their organizational structure right.  And that structure was stratified.  The order was dominated by a relatively small number of high-status knights (drawn from Europe’s warrior nobility), and these have become iconic of the order as a whole.  But below the knights were two other classes of Templar – classes that comprised the vast majority of the Order’s members.  These were the sergeants, whose job was to support the knights, both on the battlefield (as warriors) and off (as craftsmen and labourers) and the turcopoles – lightly armed auxiliaries recruited from among the non-noble Christian inhabitants of the Latin East.   Early on, I decided that if I really was going to accurately portray Templar life, I would have to find a way to build these two under-represented groups into my story.  Thus was born the roles of William Turcault, the commander of the turcopoles, and Brother Enyon, the Welsh sergeant with the extraordinary archery skills.

When doing research for this novel, were you able to visit the Holy Land and some of the places described?

Although I like to think that I have exhaustively researched this novel, I did not visit the region where it is set.  The reason for that is probably obvious: most of the places where my story unfolds are in Syria and Lebanon – not particularly safe places at the moment (the great Hospitaller fort Krak des Chevaliers, for example, has been badly damaged as a result of the conflict in Syria).  I will say, however, that once upon a time in the not-too-distant past I participated in a month-long tour of Canadian Army peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and so had the opportunity to travel to southern Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, and the Sinai.  As a result, I do have a pretty good first-hand feel for the climate, topography, military architecture (I visited Belvoir Fortress, among others), Jerusalem and its approaches, and so on.  Not quite the same as visiting with the purpose of writing historical fiction in mind, but not a bad second-best option, I think.

What were your most important sources for doing research on this novel? You seem particularly well versed in medieval weapons and armor. Do you recommend any particular sources here?

I read widely in preparation for writing this novel, but broadly speaking I’d say my research was organized into three files: the history of the Templars; the politics and geopolitics of the Third Crusade; and the military technology and techniques of the Latin East (and to a lesser extent of Saladin’s host).  Each of these files is filled with notes distilled from a great many academic and popular works, and it would be difficult to say which were most important (other than to say that anything written by Malcolm Barber is invaluable).  When it comes specifically to medieval weapons and armour, however, I would definitely recommend relevant works from Osprey Publishing’s Warrior and Men-at-Arms series.  Particularly helpful to me were Knight Templar, 1120-1312; Knight of Outremer, 1187-1344; and Saladin and the Saracens.  These three books were written by knowledgeable historians and illustrated by talented artists. They had a huge impact on my portrayal of the fighting men of the Third Crusade. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

As a reader, I had a sense that you really enjoyed writing this book, but there must have been challenges too. What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?

I absolutely loved writing this novel.  Not every minute of every day, of course.  The writing process (or rather, my writing process) is just not like that.  But overall, it was a joyful experience –  the research, the   character development, the plotting,  the drafting, right through to the revising and editing (well, maybe not the final line-editing). Very different from academic writing, which can be very fulfilling and professionally satisfying, but seldom induces feelings of joy (for either writer or reader).

I suppose the most obvious challenge was finding the time to actually write.  Like many writers, I have a full-time day job and young kids and between the two of them every hour of every day seems to get chewed up.  On the other hand, the nature of my job as a university professor means that I have big chunks of time in January and over the summer when I can write full time, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

Beyond that, the really big challenge for me was to shift gears from writing like a scholar to writing like a novelist.  I’ve been writing like an academic my whole adult life and it is really hard to resist the temptation to support every claim with a footnote or to explain every move in excruciating detail.  But perhaps even more challenging than switching off my inner scholar was switching on my inner novelist.  Before this novel, the last piece of fiction I can recall writing was a short story I did in elementary school.  So, in addition to all the historical research I did in preparation for the novel, I also had to research the craft of writing fiction.  Thankfully, most (though not all) of that research involved re-reading great works of historical fiction with an eye to reverse engineering them – that is, with an eye to seeing how the master’s worked their literary magic – so it wasn’t as painful or difficult as it might have been.

The only scene in the book that I really didn’t like was when Fitz Alan tortures the Arab slavers to confess to crimes Christian women have already attested to. I seemed completely gratuitous. I would expect Templars to take the word of a Christian Abbess as sufficient proof, and to then just dispatch the offenders. In short: kill them, yes, but why torture them first? Within 120 years the Templars themselves would be tortured mercilessly to confess crimes they did not commit. Were you in some why trying to establish that the torture they would later suffer was justified by crimes like these? If not, why doesn’t Fitz Alan suffer any pangs of conscience about this completely unnecessary torture? You seem to have missed an opportunity to build up to his later decision not to kill the hostages. Here he lets his blood-lust get the better of him, and so fails in his personal mission; later he successfully overcomes his blood-lust.

I think your last sentence quite effectively captures what I was trying to accomplish in this scene.  It is an important element his evolution into something more closely approximating the Templar ideal that Fitz Alan is periodically tested.  Sometimes he fails one of these tests by being too much the brutal knight; other times, by being too much the pious monk.  In the process, though, he learns to synthesize the two, to become the ideal Templar warrior-monk.  What I wanted to achieve in this scene was exactly what you have suggested at the end of your question: to portray an early failure to overcome his bloodlust in order to demonstrate his evolution when later on in the story he is better able to control his more brutal impulses.

In this book, your principal protagonist, Michael Fitz Alan, has a very poor opinion of Richard of England — but then he seems to have a poor opinion of just about everyone. You imply this is because of things he saw Richard do — or things they did together — in the past. Although I don’t mind you not revealing those things in this book, I’d be curious if you ever intend to tell us about them or if they will remain shrouded in secrecy to the very end of the series?

I chose the Third Crusade because I could see great possibilities in contrasting the world’s premier worldly knight, England’s Richard the Lionheart, with my Fitz Alan – a heroic figure who embodies Saint Bernard’s ideal of the “New Knighthood.”  Beyond that, though, there is also a backstory here.  I will reveal more in the next novel, but suffice it to say there is bad blood between Richard and Fitz Alan. Richard has used Fitz Alan before and, given the Templar’s martial prowess, is happy to do so again.  Fitz Alan, on the other hand, knows he has been burned by the king in the past and has vowed never again to get caught up in his schemes.  He only accepts the king’s commission to recover the Holy Lance in this novel because of the high stakes and the fact that the Templar Grand Master pretty much ordered him to do so.

How many books do you envisage in this series?  Do you know what the ending of the series will be? Or are you still searching for it?

Not quite sure.  This past January I was able to sketch out a pretty detailed outline for the next installment of what is currently conceived as a trilogy but which may evolve into a longer series.  And, once it’s officially summer break, I will begin drafting.  The goal is to complete the sequel to The Holy Lance before September and write the final installment in January/summer of 2016.  Whatever happens, I promise Michael Fitz Alan will definitely see the Third Crusade through to its bitter end.

After that, and providing people actually read what I write, I’ll continue writing historical fiction (can’t see myself venturing beyond that genre, but one never knows).  I may keep on with the English Templars – I already have many, many more stories half-developed for this “band of brothers” ready to go – but I may also branch out a bit.  The Hundred Years War appeals a very great deal, as does the First World War (I’ve written or taught about both in recent years).  We’ll just have to wait and see.

You’ll have one reader right here! I look forward to reading more about Fitz-Alan and his companions — particularly the Turcopoles and sergeants, while the Hundred Years War is also a period that fascinates me. In fact, a biographical novel of Edward of Woodstock (more commonly known as the Black Prince) is one of the tasks I have set myself before I depart this life.

For now, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Special Mission - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

“Felice, try to understand,” [Umberto pleaded.] “We Dominicans have a sacred mission. I is a mission that… that demands incredible sacrifice. Not what you think! Not just obedience and poverty and chastity.” He dismissed these virtues with an irritable wave of his hand. “It demands far, far more. For the sake of God we are forced to confront... to witness… to commit.. How can I explain?” he cried out in agony.

He wanted to share everything with her, but he knew that she could not understand. He had to make her understand. He needed her to understand — and tell him that it was all right. If she, so pure and innocent as she was, would kiss him and sooth his raw nerves, then he knew he would have the strength to go on. And he had to go on. If he retreated now they would tear him apart like a pack of hounds that had run a fox to ground.

“Felice.” He turned toward her on the bench and clasped her hands between his own. “It is good that you do not know — cannot eve dream of — the evils of which men are capable. The perversions, the depravity, the blasphemy to which some men sink…” He shook his head. He could not bring himself to tell her the truth.

I know more than you think, Felice reflected to herself. She knew now that men could tear the healthy teeth out of a prisoner or put burning iron to his flesh — to make him lie.

“There is heresy around us, Felice,” Umberto told her, diverting his own thoughts from the dangerous uncharted waters of doubt into the safe have of righteousness. “Far, far more than I ever imagined. Who would have thought that the very Knights of Christ were themselves rotten with the vilest of heresies.”

She started.

“I know, I know. You think of your uncle and your grandfather an you don’t want to believe it is true. But… but I have been taught you can trust nothing by its appearance. A man, a soul, can wear so many disguises. But to pierce the layers of falsehood to the truth…” He had let go of her hands and grasped his own head. “Sometimes… I am not sure I have the strength.

Felice waited but Umberto was staring into space, his eyes veiled, his tongue licking at his unhappy lips. “The strength for what, Umberto?” She asked gently.

“For my profession. The bishop has entrusted me with so much responsibility already,” he told her and he did not bother to disguise his pride. “I have been entrusted with a special investigation — entirely on my own. But… but it is very difficult.”

“If it were not difficult it would be no challenge and no achievement.” Felice was glad to fall back upon a phrase they had often bandied about before.

Umberto’s lips acknowledged her words with a smile and his eyes lightened a little. She was helping him as he had known she would. He had been right to come to her — and there really was no need to lay his soul bare. It was good as it was. Encouraged, he pressed ahead. “To date, there have been thousands of confessions by French Templars, but not one Templar outside of France has admitted to the vile practices we have uncovered.  That is, one Englishman, a knight who fell into our hands by chance, did confess and we sent him to Poitiers just before Easter — so the Pope could convince himself of the validity of the confession. But he escaped. Some say he was spirited away by Templars still at large and others that villagers — Cathar heretics — have given him shelter.”

Felice was afraid to breathe and afraid not to. Surely he would see how terrified she was.
“You have nothing to fear!” Umberto hastened to assure her, seeing that she looked as if she thought the Templar would come and attack her in her bed. “He had two broken legs and could do no one any harm — that is why he must have had assistance. Unless, of course, he died in the snow.”

If Felice had not known the story, she would have been thoroughly confused. In order not to give herself away, she insisted somewhat sharply, “You’re not making any sense, Umberto. Try to tell me calmly, from start to finish, what has happened — and what this has to do with you.”

Umberto lifted her hands to his lips and kissed the palms hotly. ‘You are right! You are always right. But why have I been frightening you with tales of free and escaped Templars? There can hardly be very many and we will track them down soon enough. You need not fear them. I promise you!”

He reached out and his fingers brushed a strand of her curly hair off her neck. He wanted to protect her from all harm and all evil. He wanted to keep her wrapped in a cocoon of security and luxury. No other man — not the brutal, bestial, disgusting creatures that called themselves men — should ever come near her. Better she lived out her days in purity here [at the convent] than that she was exposed to the world beyond.

“I was entrusted with finding the Englishman or his body when the thaw came, but you know what the weather has been like. It was not until two weeks ago that I could even begin my search. And, you see, that makes it so difficult to find a corpse. It could have washed away in the flood to God knows where! But if I do not find the corpse, then I must find the man. And to find the man, I must question the villagers along the route where he disappeared.”

“Have you been questioning the people in Najac?”

“Why Najac?” He asked alarmed. “That wasn’t on the route.”

Felice felt her stomach turn over. She had given herself away after all. “Because you said I had nothing to fear. I thought it was because you had already established no one there knew anything.”

It sounded ridiculous to her, but Umberto was too pre-occupied with his own thoughts to be alert to disjointed logic. “No, no. I’ve started farther south. But you see the peasants — they don’t want to cooperate. They force us — truly force us — to use harsher methods. And then it can happen… it sometimes happens that even under pressure they … they cannot tell us anything. A man who knows nothing cannot give information he does not have. But think how hard it is for me! How can I know who has information but is refusing to tell and who is truly innocent? So innocent people get hurt. Even women.” He added the last under his breath, the agonized screams of a woman still ringing in his ears.

Felice understood. He had tortured villagers — women — and she felt a revulsion that made her want to run away. But then she saw the beautiful young man she loved and she was filled with pity for him.

Umberto held his head between his fists, his elbows propped on his knees, and gazed at the tiles of the floor.

“Would it not be better to let this Templar go free than to harm innocent villager?” Felice ventured cautiously.

“I can’t do that!” Umberto protested, lifting his head sharply. “Don’t you understand? If I fail to find him, I am ruined! I will have failed the bishop and he is not a man who keeps unreliable men in his service!”

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Lord of Najac - An Excerpt from the English Templar

Castle of Najac, France

The door latch clicked and the door creaked open. Percy looked over expectantly and smiled at the old man who entered.  He knew that this was the man who had saved his life, set his legs and was responsible for the care he had received.

Geoffrey stopped short at the sight of the blue eyes looking at him.  “Brother! You look better today.”

“I am better. How long have I been here?”

“Three days.” Geoffrey told him, advancing to the bed and looking at his patient with satisfaction. He had never really feared for Percy’s life, but the Templar had been feverish and it was good to see that the fever had broken.

“How can I ever thank you?”

“By surviving, by getting well, by taking up the fight against those that did this to you — to us: to the Temple.”

Percy didn’t answer. Three days ago he had not wanted to survive. Now he was content to lay here in this cocoon of good will, but if he got well he would have to leave. And where would he go?  He could not face anyone who had known him before, and the Temple had been destroyed in any case. But if he could face getting well only with uneasiness, he had absolutely no desire to go on fighting.  He did not think there was any point in fighting. The men who had done this to him had not only the King of France but Holy Church behind them. They would surely do it all again if he tried to defy them. Percy knew he could not face the torture chamber again. He would rather kill himself.

Geoffrey sensed some of what was going on in his mind and he laid a thin, wiry hand on Percy’s. “Don’t worry about that now. You did not ask my help, so you owe me nothing.  I helped you because I could not do otherwise. I vowed to help my brothers and I intend to do the best I can. I regret only that I am so old and feeble. I’m hardly a figure to strike fear into the heart of the King or Norgoret, much less the Inquisition.” Geoffrey gave a self-mocking laugh, and Percy was ashamed.

“My lord, I think you would make the King and even the Pope burn with shame.”

“My name is Geoffrey. I should prefer you call me that.” The intensity of Percy’s admiration embarrassed Geoffrey, and he drew a wooden chair beside the bed and sat down, explaining chattily, “This castle and lordship belonged to my wife. I am nothing but a landless Cypriot knight who had the undeserved good fortune to win the hand of my lady from Saint Louis, who was her guardian.”
There was a knock on the door and Geoffrey called, “Come in.”

The girl who entered had masses of curly auburn hair confined only by a ribbon around the crown of her head.  She had wide-set, golden eyes under clean, black brows, a long, fine noes and well-shaped lips in a heart-shaped face. She wore a gown of cream-colored wool and over this a loose pleated burgundy surcoat that ended at her knee with a broad band of embroidery.  She was not the kind of bright, shimmering beauty who took away one’s breath, much less the kind of succulent, voluptuous female to inspire instant lust, but no normal young man could have failed to feel an instinctive attraction. The freshness of her skin and the litheness of her motions as she stepped lightly into the chamber reinforced those instincts.

Percy unconsciously tried to sit up and at the same time keep the blankets tucked protectively around a chest that had grown thin and frail from inadequate diet and lack of exercise. He surmised from her free hair and the quality of her gown that she was a daughter of the house.

She broke into a smile as their eyes met, and Sir Geoffrey reported, “The fever has broken. Sir Percy and I have been having a very pleasant conversation.” Then he turned to Percy. “You remember my grand-daughter Felice.”

Percy froze. He started to remember. Before Sir Geoffrey had found him there had been someone else, a woman. Just after the prisoners’ transport had continued without him, he had heard hooves. He had thought they had come back for him. Instead he found himself looking at a stranger, a woman. She had dismounted and covered him with a blanket. Then she had wrapped his hands and feet in rags. He stared at the enchantingly innocent maiden before him with open horror. He could remember the condition he had been in. As good as naked from the hips down and stinking with his own excrement. He turned his head away and closed his eyes in humiliation.

Hurt, Felice turned on her grandfather with a bewildered and outraged expression.
Geoffrey put his finger to his lips. “Come, my dear. I’ve evidently talked too long and wearied our guest. His fever may have broken but he needs rest.”

Geoffrey pushed himself to his feet and, taking Felice by the elbow, led her back out of the room, closing the door behind them.

“Why does he scorn me?” Felice demanded in outrage.

“He is ashamed of what you saw, that is all. It is a good sign. It means he is recovering — not just his strength but his pride. That is something to be grateful for,” Geoffrey insisted, firmly escorting her down the spiral stairs.

“You mean he would rather I had not seen him at all? That I had ridden by?” Felice asked indignantly.

“No, he would rather that I had found him — or Niki or Hugh.”

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

A Pivotal Confession - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

The Bishop of Albi paced back and forth across his study, his purple robes fluttering about him, the gold threads of the embroidery glittering in the candlelight. He was a formidable figure in full episcopal regalia, his mitre set firmly on his head and his thick fingers laden with massive rings. But for all the jewels and silk, he strode back and forth like an angry elephant, and the calloused guard feared the strength hidden beneath the clerical robes.
The bishop was red in the face and his eyes bulged slightly in his round, flat face. The guard had been sent back to report the loss of one prisoner to the bishop, while the sergeant proceeded with the rest of the detachment to Poitiers. They had lost a whole day looking for the missing prisoner and then decided they could not risk arriving late in Poitiers with the other seven.

The bishop had heard the man out with mounting fury and then demanded to know why in the name of God they had stopped to help the widow with the wine-cart stuck in the snow. “You were already tasting the Bordeaux, weren’t you?”

“No, Your Grace. We couldn’t get past the other wagon, Your Grace.” The guard had been instructed to lie about this point and he had readily seen the sense of it. “We had to stop and get it out of the way first.”

“And you couldn’t leave one moron like yourself to watch the prisoners? How many men did it take to move one bloody wine wagon?”

The guard cleared his throat and flexed his hands nervously but he had no answer, and the bishop’s look of contempt made him run a finger under his collar in embarrassment.

“Why wasn’t the man chained?” the bishop bellowed next.

“We were instructed to bring a wagon for sever prisoners. There was no time to make chains for the eighth,” the guard responded defensively. “I pointed out that there were not enough chains for the last prisoner, but Sir Novice —“ he pointed to Umberto, who was standing as unobtrusively as possible to one side of the fireplace — “said it didn’t matter. He said the prisoner had two broken legs and wasn’t going anywhere.”

The bishop spun about on Umberto. “Is that true?”

Umberto swallowed his own fear and lifted his head. His hood was flung back upon his shoulders and his head proudly emerged from the folds. His skin had a marble pallor and his eyes and cheeks were sunken and shaded grey. “Yes, it is. Father Elion spent all night interrogating this English Templar and writing up his confession just so he could be transported. I assumed that your escort and the fact that the prisoner could not walk was sufficient guarantee that he could not escape.”

“You are as innocent as a newborn lamb,” the bishop observed in a low, insulting voice that made Umberto flush. He knew he had been made to look the fool and he feared for his career.

The bishop’s gaze shifted to Father Elion. The master interrogator looked extremely weary. His boney shoulders were hunched and his head hung low; the lines leading from his hawk-like nose to his mouth stood out like gorges down the side of his face. He eyes were lost in the shadows of their sockets. “The Englishman’s confession is pivotal. He is the first and only English Templar to confess to denying Christ and to idol worship. I have a signed confession here.” Father Elion drew one copy of the confession from his deep sleeves.

“A lot of good that does us now!” the bishop snapped back. “Do you think the King gave such explicit orders about taking care not to kill the prisoners so we could let them slip through our fingers before they can be put on trial?”

“But he can’t have got far. Not with two broken legs. Even if he was rescued by other Templars, they could not take him far in his condition,” Umberto protested. He had to do or say something to mitigate the impact of his error.

“No. Most likely the man never got farther than the woods at the side of the road. You—“ the bishop spun on the guard, “may choose to believe tall tales of phantom Templars still lurking in the woods, capable of miraculous deeds. The Templars I’ve seen couldn’t save their own asses! It is far more likely that the prisoner did no more than roll off the wagon and die in the snow!”

No one contradicted him. After a moment the bishop continued, “As soon as the first thaw comes, you will search the woods on both sides of the road all the way from la Bruyere to Villegranche until you find the corpse. If you fail to find the corpse, then you will search every village and turn every farm and cottage upside down until you find the man. These villagers are all still Albigensian heretics at heart. It would be just like them to harbor a Templar precisely because they have heard the Templars have denied Christ.”

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Templar by the Roadside - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

Lordship of Najac, France
March 1308

Hugh felt the hair stand on the back of his head. "Christ in heaven! Someone was murdered right here! Look! You can see the blood and how they dragged him off the road! Jesus! The corpse is still there!"

Felice first felt the same terror as Hugh did, but then she caught the scent of wine and decided that the red snow was colored with spilt wine not blood. Following Hugh's outstretched finger, she expected to find something equally harmless: a piece of discarded tack or clothing, but she grabbed her pommel in terror when she realised that there was indeed a corpse beside the road.

Felice's mare shied to the left as she felt her rider's nervousness. Hugh was looking frantically over his shoulders and then around at the forest, which loomed ominously in all directions. "Oh, my God. Oh, my God! What if they're still here? Jesus, what are we going to do? Felice, what are you doing? Are you mad?"

Felice had jumped down from her mare and was approaching the corpse. She could not have said why, but something about it wasn't right. Clutching her skirts in one hand and leading her reluctant mare in the other, she approached the body cautiously. And then with a shock she met its eyes and her heart stopped. The eyes had locked on hers and they looked through her to her very soul. She was more than naked. Her soul was on trial. The Day of Judgement would not be more merciless. The shock of that realization took her breath away and blood flushed her face but the fear was gone. Then Felice shook off her astonishment and rushed forward to fall on her knees beside the man. 

Her eyes ran over the long, greasy hair and beard crawling with flees, saw the cracked lips and the blood oozing from the corner of the mouth. The man's skin was so pale it was almost translucent and the grime outlined thousands of lines carved into his face by pain. The eyes were sunk deep in their sockets. Felice registered the smears of dirt on the neck, the half-hardened, half-wet smear of blood on the left breast of what had once been a white surcoat. Though the red of the cross was all but obscured by filth, straw and dried vomit, Felice did not need to see to know what she had in front of her. Her eye continued down the length of his body past the hose blacked with filth to the swollen, bruised and deformed limbs below the knee. SHe gasped and her stomach heaved as her nose registered the revolting mixture of sweat, urine, shit and rotting flesh that emanated from the Templar. 

"Hugh!" she shouted over her shoulder, appalled that her own cousin was still astride his horse and staring at her as if she had gone mad. "Hurry! Bring one of the blankets! No, bring me both horse blankets and then ride for Najac!"

"Are you crazy? You don't know who the man is! He might be an outlaw or--"

"Don't be stupid! He's a Templar and he's close to death. We have to get him to Najac!"

"A Templar? Jesus God! Have you lost your senses entirely? If we help him, we'll be arrested and excommunicated and probably hanged! Leave him alone! If he's close to death, then the best favor you can do him is let him die in peace!"

Felice did not argue. She stood up abruptly and went to her mare. Hugh sighed with relief and turned his horse away from the embarrassing discovery on the side of the road. The he realized Felice was not mounting but dragging her saddle back off her mare's crouper. 

"Felice! What are you doing now?"

"I'd rather be excommunicated than damned! she retorted as she dropped down beside the Templar. She detached the heavy, felt blanket covered with grey hairs and smelling pleasantly of horse to which the saddlebag itself was attached. She arranged this over the Templar as gently as she could. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Poor Prisoner – An Excerpt from “The English Templar”

The faint hope that they would not dare to treat knights and noblemen in the same manner as commoners was shattered on the afternoon of the 19th. That was the day they took the ageing Sir Etienne de Mende to the torture chambers. They extracted his teeth one by one until he had confessed to everything they wanted to hear.

When the guards came and unlocked the chains at his feet, Percy felt such terror of what was ahead of him that he could hardy control his bowels. Sweat glistened on his face. Someone murmured a blessing. Someone else said a prayer for him.

He could hardly walk. His muscles seemed to have frozen. He tripped over his own feet. He smelt his own stench and was ashamed of himself. He was led along a dark, dank corridor, past a chamber full of torture instruments and into a windowless room lit by a torch. Behind a plain wooden table sat the sheriff. At his right hand sat a monk in the habit of the Dominicans. The Inquisition.

To his surprise, a stool was waiting for him. At a gesture from the sheriff, Percy sank down on it. The relief was less than expected. His muscles were not used to sitting anymore and the stool was low. His legs cramped at once and he had to clamp his teeth together to keep from crying out while he tried to shake the cramp from his legs. During the entire procedure the sheriff and the Dominican stared at him like lizards — without the slightest flicker of emotion. The guards who stood just inside the door made some crack to one another in a relaxed tone. Then it was over. He waited.

“Your name?” The sheriff asked.

Percy pulled himself together. He had had enough time to think about what he would say to this inevitable question. “Sir Percival de Lacy, second cousin of the Earl of Lincoln, subject of His Grace King Edward II of England and Knight Templar of the Commandery at Limassol, Cyprus. I hereby protest vehemently at my unlawful detention at the hands of a foreign monarch and demand immediate audience with a representative of the English Crown.” It sounded decisive and self-confident — if only his sweating, stinking body and shaking knees had not betrayed him.

Even so, there was evident surprise and consternation behind the table. The sheriff raised his eyebrows and turned to the Dominican. The Dominican leaned forwards and whispered loud enough for Percy to hear. King Philip had, of course, immediately informed his fellow monarchs of the outrageous crimes committed by the Templars and his own decision to put an end to the perversions which offended God. He had urged his fellow monarchs to follow his example, arrest the Templars and investigate their crimes. As yet, it was too soon to know the response of the English King, but he was due to marry King Philip’s only daughter Isabella in just a few months. He was sure to follow the lead of his wise and devout father-in-law.

The sheriff addressed [Percy]. “Your request has been noted. I will pass it on to my superiors. For now, your cooperation in this grave matter is requested. I am certain that voluntary cooperation will be noted with favor by both your own king and mine. You are aware of the charges levelled against your Order?”

“I have heard what my brothers reported after their interrogations,” Percy answered cautiously.

“Do you agree that the denial of Christ is a vile and heinous crime?”
Percy crossed himself. “With all my heart.”

“And the worship of some idol in place of our dear Saviour must offend every Christian.”

“It is repulsive!” Percy spoke with conviction.

“Yet both these crimes have been confessed to by your brothers.” The sheriff leaned forwards over the table. “How do you explain that?”

“A man will confess to anything to stop pain,” Percy retorted and at once wondered if he had blundered. Hadn’t he just admitted that he too would admit to anything to stop pain? Wouldn’t they recognize how weak he was? Wouldn’t they exploit it?

“But a man who makes a false confession is condemned to the tortures of hell — and hell has no end. The tortures that we poor, imperfect instruments of His will can impose are finite. They can always end in death, and that is — for the truly innocent — a release into paradise. To confess to end earthly torture only to land in the perpetual and eternal torture of hell is the act of a madman.”

“Pain creates madmen,” Percy answered. He had not prepared for these questions. He was not ready for an intellectual discussion about the nature of earthly and divine torture. He had no clue what he should say to defend himself.

“You do not give credence to the confession of your brothers?” The sheriff asked raising his eyebrows.

“How can I? I do not know what they confessed.”

“Ah.” The sheriff lifted the corner of his mouth. For some reason he was genuinely pleased to have a worthy opponent. “Let me read them to you… Your brother and priest, Father Roger of Saint Pierre du Temple confessed the following:

When I took my vows before the chapter, I was led into a small room beside the chapter chamber. There I was told to remove my clothes. This I did without hesitation, thinking that I would now receive the mantle of the Templars. But when I stood naked before the commander, he lifted his habit and ordered me to kiss his navel. I did so. He then turned to back on me and ordered me to kiss his ass. I did so. Then he gave me the kiss of peace.

The sheriff set the parchment aside and looked expectantly at Percy.

Percy stared back and thought of Father Roger’s hands. At the thought of someone tearing off even one of his fingernails, his muscles tensed. Seven of Father Roger’s fingernails had been removed brutally. His hands were swollen like sausages and hot to touch. Blood and pus still oozed from them. And Father Roger was the son of serfs; the pride of his family, the one son who had been allowed to go to school and whose freedom had been bought by the Temple so he could enter the priesthood. Percy knew that now. Sergeant Gautier had told him about Father Roger after they had brought him back from his interrogation.

“Well?” the sheriff prompted. “What do you have to say to that?”
“That Father Roger is a poor, miserable man, whom I pity with all my heart. May Christ have mercy upon him! He did not mean to lie but he was not strong enough to insist upon the truth.” Percy crossed himself. He did not think he was strong enough to withstand torture either.

The sheriff shifted uncomfortably. That too true. Then he suppressed his discomfort. Christ might be merciful; King Philip never. And it was to King Philip he owed his position and his wealth. “Brother Thomas, also of Stain Pierre, confessed to the followed,” he persisted mercilessly. “At my initiation I was forced to deny Christ three times —“

“As did Simon Peter on the day of the Crucifixion.” Percy interrupted without knowing what he did. The stench of Brother Thomas’ charred feet was in his nostrils. He felt nausea rising in his empty belly.

The sheriff looked over at him with a mixture of anger and admiration. He was not used to prisoners interrupting him — unless it was with screams and pleas for mercy. But the remark was correct. And that gave him an exciting idea. “You mean this was routine? Templars re-enact the denial of Christ which Saint Peter made on the day of His Crucifixion?”

“No!” Percy quickly saw the error he had made. “I never denied Christ. I was never asked to deny Christ,” he replied firmly.

“Simon Peter never spat upon Our Lord in his agony,” the Dominican entered the interrogation for the first time. He had a relatively high, frail voice.

“Not that I know of,” Percy retorted. “I wasn’t there.”

“You impudent bastard!” The Dominican sprang to his feet, furious. He thought Percy was mocking him.

The sheriff patted his arm and gestured for him to reseat himself. “But your brother Thomas of Saint Pierre confessed to it” the sheriff remarked calmly. “After denying Christ three times, he was forced to spit upon the crucifix which was held out to him.”

“Read me his confession,” Percy demanded, trying to concentrate all his attention and intelligence on some way out of this spider’s web of lies and torture.

“’I was forced to deny Christ three times and then spit upon his image.’”

Percy noted the difference between this confession and the last. The first confession had been wordy, as if Father Roger had spoken. This confession read like the indictment. They had not torn more than a yes or no answer from Brother Thomas. Or, rather, they had forced him to say yes after countless nos.  He crossed himself. “Christ have mercy. God have mercy. The Holy Spirt have mercy. My brother knew not what he did.”

The sheriff felt first a touch of satisfaction at Percy’s calm but then reminded himself that he would sing a different tune if they were applying the glowing iron to his genitals. He shook his head slowly and leafed through the documents before him. “I think you will agree, sir, that idol worship is not something that can be taken lightly, much less forgiven. Nor is it something an ordinary Christian would think up.”

“Not even the Muslims are idol-worshipers!” Percy retorted.
“Yet I have sworn confession by a brother of yours who describes in detail how the chapter met at midnight, stripped off their habits and trampled on the cross. Then they crept naked, in single file, into a chamber opened by a secret key kept by the commander. In the chamber he idol was kept and each brother bowed before the idol ‘like an Egyptian slave’ I quote,” the sheriff stressed. “’Then after we had bowed three times we kissed the feet of the idol.’ The idol according to this report was shaped like a big head with hands and feet but no body and with cat’s ears. After kissing the feet, each brother retreated backwards so the next brother could enter.”

Percy looked at the sheriff, the Dominican, and then turned and looked at the guards on either side of the door. “You can’s seriously believe that?” Percy asked at last.

“Believe it? It is the testimony of a Templar — freely given I might add, without resort to torture.”

“You think that French noblemen, men who heard mass six times a day, men who fought in Christ’s name, who when captured could gain life by denying Christ, but instead died by the hundred for Christ, secretly worshipped a head with cat’s ears? Have you lost your senses?” Percy felt his protest was much too weak, but he could not find words for his sense of sheer disbelief. The notion of such infantile idolatry was not only too absurd, it was not worthy of the Inquisition or an officer of the crown.

“Let me repeat!” the sheriff said sharply to disguise his own growing embarrassment. “This is a sworn confession — from Saint Pierre, I might add.”

“By whom, in God’s name?”

“Brother Gaston.”

“Gaston?” Percy could not place the name at first. Then it dawned on him. Gaston was the boy. The over-eager boy who had helped him out of his armor. “Gaston is a child!” he said out loud.

“He is twelve and so has reached the age of maturity,” the Dominican retorted with surprising intensity.

Percy was frowning. He did not remember seeing Gaston since the day after the arrest. Gaston had been removed for interrogation — but he had never returned. A shock went through him. “Is Gaston dead? Did you torture him so long that he couldn’t take it? Did you kill him?” Percy, get hold of yourself, he warned himself. You are losing control. Calm down. Shut up. Get hold of yourself. He sat clutching the edge of his stool, shaking and sweating, waiting for a reaction.

“I told you the confession was not made under torture,” the sheriff replied calmly, his eyes narrower. “What makes you think he might be dead?”

“Because he did not return. You took him to an interrogation and he has not returned since.”

“That is true. He was … cooperative. It was not … necessary” the sheriff glanced at his colleague “to returne him to the jail. You need not worry about Gaston.”

A chill went down Percy’s spine. Why did he feel so certain that they had done something vile to Gaston? Surely he should hate the boy for making up such ridiculous stories about heads with cat’s ears and feet! But he could not find hatred for the boy. He closed his eyes and pictured Gaston helping him remove his spurs — the last time he had worn spurs.

“Did you have illicit relations with Gaston?” The tight, jealous question came from the Dominican.

Percy opened his eyes and stared at the man. In that moment he knew this other monk had raped Gasont. Gaston had not been tortured into his confession. His limbs had been left whole. But he had been degraded and humiliated until there was not left of the idealistic youth, proud of his membership in a famous order. Percy did not answer. He stared at the Dominican until the other monk lowered his eyes.

The sheriff had been watching. He knew what his colleague had done. He had not witnessed it, of course, because he found it revolting, but he knew. And he knew that it brought excellent results like this lengthy confession. Furthermore, the boy could be produced as a witness. Cleaned up and properly worked over in advance, his testimony would melt the heart of the pope himself. Oh, Gaston was worth his weight in gold. Gaston was worth more than all the others put together — precisely because there wasn’t a mark on him. Gaston could never, never claim that he had been forced to confess. Gaston could never tell the circumstances of his confession — not without condemning himself to be hanged. That was the beauty of it. And still the sheriff found it distasteful.

He looked at Percy and he was sorry. He liked the young man. He had intelligence, dignity and humanity. It would be a pit to break him, but break him he must. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Black Friday, October 13, 1307 - An Excerpt from "The English Templar"

The crash that came from the courtyard made Percy fling off his blankets and grab his aketon. He could hear shouting, the imperative yelling of men giving orders, the thudding of numerous hooves on frozen ground, the pounding of boots on wooden stairs, the clunk of doors being flung open. He pulled his aketon over his head and tightened the laces at the throat.

Men were bursting into the dormitory. By the light of the two candles, Percy could see that they wore round “kettle” helmets over mail coifs and that they held naked swords in their hands.

Percy dragged his hauberk and surcoat together over his head even as the armed men were roughly kicking the serving brothers awake and herding the startled, bewildered men together.

Sergeant Gautier was on his feet and limping forwards in his underwear, calling out, “What is this? Who are you? What do you want?”

“You are all arrested in the name of His Grace King Philip IV of France!”

While some of the serving brother broke into a jumble of confused exclamations of disbelief, Brother Gautier protested in a raised, somewhat hysterical voice, “Why? On what charge?”

The thought that these simple brothers could have done anything to offend the crown of France was so absurd that Percy instantly dismissed the claim as either a mistake or a ruse. Philip of France could hardly know that St. Pierre du Temple existed. The Temple was, in any case, not subordinate to any king and owed Philip neither taxes nor obedience. Percy knew, however, that he no longer had time for his mail leggings and reached instead for his sword.

There came a shout, the sound of someone running and then he was tackled from behind and flung onto to pallet, pinned down by the weight of his assailant on his back. Even as he rammed his elbows backwards agains this attacker, he saw a foot kick out and send his sword skittering across the flagstone floor out of reach. Another man had joined the first on his back, pressing his knee into Percy’s spine. Another had hold of the back of his neck in a powerful grip and forced his face down into the blankets, nearly suffocating him. Someone was wrenching his arms behind his back and tying his wrists together. Percy knew when he was defeated since that too was something a good soldier learned to recognize and he stopped struggly instantly. The pressure on his spine and head eased at once. The men backed off, pulling him to his feet.

He looked over his shoulder and saw that the men holding him were indeed wearing the livery of the King of France. It was ridiculous! What could they possibly hope to gain by a breach with the pope? Did Philip of France want to start a feud with Clement V to match the one he had had with Boniface VIII? Weak as Clement was said to be, even he would not tolerate such a flagrant affront to his authority.

The King’s men were already herding the bewildered serving brothers and the priest down the stairs to the courtyard. One old man kept asking is brothers what was happening while Gaston kept looking anxiously over his shoulder to see what had happened to Percy. Serfs by birth, they had been born to docility and as monks they had vowed obedience. Such me, Percy told himself, could not be expected to distinguish between lawful and unlawful authority.

Brother Gautier alone was protesting to the captain in charge. He insisted that he and his brothers were innocent of all wrongdoing. Not one day in their lived had they ever been anything but loyal subjects of the king, he assured the king’s representative in a shaky, strained voice. Terror was written on the aged sergeant’s face and Percy felt sorry for him. Evidently, he was so frightened he had forgotten that the Temple was subordinate to the pope alone.

“It’s not for me to judge your guilt or innocence,” the royal officer told Brother Gautier matter-of-factly. “I have my orders. Take it up with the sheriff.” He was relieved that his mission had gone so well. The orders to attack a house of the Knights Templar and arrest all those within had made him break out in a cold sweat just six hours ago. He had been raised on legends of Templars defending their castles against tens of thousands of Saracens, their small bands matching great armies, their rescue of King Louis II from destruction, their heroic defense of Acre. The captain knew that they were not allowed to withdraw unless the enemy had more than a three-to-one superiority, and he could not know how many men they had in Saint Pierre — which was why he’d mustered his entire company of nearly fifty men. In the event, it was almost ludicrous how easy it had been, he thought shaking his head.

“You can be sure that we will take this up with the sheriff — and the pope! Someone — you, your sheriff or King Philip himself — has overstepped his authority.”

Percy’s voice drew the captain’s attention and he looked up startled at the man held by two of his subordinates.  He took in the chain mail hauberk, the muscular shoulders and thighs and drew the right conclusion. This man was a knight. “Are you the commander, sir?”

“No, I am the commander. This is just a poor traveler. Here for a single night. Whatever crimes we have been unjustly accused of, they cannot apply to him.” Brother Gautier spoke before Percy could get a word out.

The captain looked from Brother Gautier to Percy somewhat uncertainly.

“I am an Englishman, Sir Percy de Lacy of the commandery at Limassol on Cyprus, en route from Poitiers to Limassol,’ Percy confirmed. “And you have no business arresting any Templar since we are subordinate to one but our own officers and the pope himself.”

The arrogance of Percy’s tone angered the captain and he took refuge in the certainties of life: “I have my orders and they were to arrest everyone inside this house. I don’t give a damn if you are a bloody Englishman or the pope himself!”

They turned into the narrow alley leading to the city jail [of Albi]. Percy felt a shock go through his body as he saw that two wagons similar to the one behind him already waited there. Had they made raids on more than one commandery? In a single night? Of course in the same  night, he told himself, otherwise there would be no element of surprise. If was standard police tactics, but the increased pounding of his heard could not be calmed.

They stopped and at once someone came and untied his feet. The pain in his ankles as he moved them again was not insignificant but he was too proud to let it show. He leaned forward at once and vaulted to the ground. He had underestimated the impact of a night tied to the back of a horse. His feet were numb and he lost his footing at once. He staggered and, without his hands free to balance him, fell to the ground — to the general gratification and laughter of the guard. He flushed in embarrassment and anger, but also managed to get his knees under him and right himself. Meanwhile, the other prisoners from Saint Pierre were being pushed off the back of the wagon and into the jail.

As Percy was pushed past the porter of the jail, he turned and addressed the old man. “I demand to see the sheriff and a representative of the Bishop of Albi,” Percy protested.

“Oh, you’ll have ample opportunity to get to know the sheriff,” came the answer in a sneering voice. And then something particularly curious happened. The called him “an ass-fucking heretic!” and spat after him.

Percy had not recovered from the shock of such an uncalled –for and perverse insult when he found himself at the entrance to the public jail. Before him, spread upon the stale straw, with chains around their feet or chained directly to moldy walls were over one hundred Templars. It took his breath away. 

The English Templar is available for sale here.