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.
The English Templar is available for sale here.