The hearth had burned down to an undulating sea of red embers. Crispin could not see the men clearly. They moved like phantoms in the ragged light. He counted five men, possibly six. They wrestled him into his chair but did not bind him.
No use in angry protestations. Crispin simply sat where they put him and waited.
“I think you know who we are,” said a chillingly familiar voice.
Crispin surprised himself by his composure. “You are the one who flogged me.”
The man chuckled and ordered another man to stoke the fire. The room remained quiet except for the sounds of wood being moved. Sticks cracked over a knee and landed on the red coals. A man knelt and blew on the embers. It lit his profile and reflected on his cheeks and nose, giving him an uncanny resemblance to a demon. The coals awakened and ignited the sticks. White smoke curled around the man’s still indistinguishable features and drifted in dispersing billows into the room. Someone stacked another square of peat onto the shimmering flames and illuminated the rest of the shadows, revealing the five men who stood along the perimeter.
One man leaned toward Crispin. An old scar ran from his left eyelid down to his lip, raising it slightly and revealing his white teeth. A face to the voice. “Now you see us,” he said.
“I see you.” He scanned the rough faces of the others. Many wore day-old beards and some sported bruises on their chins and around their eyes. Those were probably the men he encountered when rescuing Stephen. “What now?”
“It has occurred to me that you were unaware of the nature of the object which we seek.”
“Indeed. What has this to do with me?”
The man smiled. His scar reddened and seemed to smile, too. “Are we to play games?”
“Why should I play games with the anti-pope’s men?”
“Anti-pope?” The man straightened and toyed with the long chain that hung over the breast of his elaborately patterned cotehardie. The coat gleamed blood red in the firelight. The tippet sleeves dragged along the floor almost meeting his long-toed slippers.
The man’s dark hair framed his face in its coifed perfection; fringe perfectly straight, ends of his brown locks curled inward. His men, however, were dressed like monks in long, dark robes that hid—Crispin was certain—their armor. “He is the rightful successor of Peter duly elected by the cardinals. You would call his holiness Clement VII the ‘anti-pope’? You should be flogged for such insolence. And yet….” He chuckled again. “You already have been.”
“Yes,” said Crispin. “I have been. So what now? You know I do not have the grail so why trouble me?”
“The grail?” The man pretended to examine his manicured fingernails and flicked them once before returning his attention to Crispin. “So you do know.”
“Come, sir. I tire of this. Begin the torture, if you will. My patience for talking has expired.”
“I told you. We have not come to torture.” He approached the fire and warmed his hands in its amber glow. “My name is Guillaume de Marcherne. I know you have never heard of me. I, on the other hand, have heard a great deal about you since our last encounter.”
“Oh? Am I expected to be flattered?”
De Marcherne smiled. The scar lifted it higher. “You are a brave one. One wonders how you withstood the shame of your dishonor; how you continue to live despite the humiliation that must be repeated in a thousand different ways each day.”
The men in the shadowy perimeter laughed in low growls.
Crispin smiled. “And yet, I am not the one working for the anti-Christ.”
De Marcherne frowned for the first time. He walked to the coffer by the door and sat, facing Crispin. “Let me tell you a tale, then you may decide if I am in the employ of the ‘anti-Christ’ or not.”
“Everyone wants to tell me a tale,” Crispin grumbled. He shrugged. “Well, why not?”
De Marcherne settled on the chest and leaned forward, resting his fists on his thighs. “When our lord Pope Gregory died in 1378—requiescat in pace—” he becrossed himself—“the cardinals assembled in conclave in the papal palace in Rome. Immediately there was an uproar in the city. Bells in every tower rang out and the people clambered up the palace steps and overtook the guards. Some entered the precincts and, with a force of hundreds, demanded the cardinals elect a Roman or Italian pope. What could they do, poor clerics that they were? They feared for their lives. Forthwith, they elected Edwin, Bishop of Bari. They believed, under the circumstances, that he would reject the vote, telling the mob that popes are not elected by the threats of criminals and villains. But much to their chagrin, he did not decline their hasty election. He allowed Man’s frail ambition to sway him to the detriment of his soul. He all but seized the crown and the seat of Peter. Can you blame the cardinals for retiring to a safe haven outside Rome to set things aright? Even after Robert of Geneva was hailed the new pope, Bishop Edwin would not step down. It is he who is responsible for the divisions we now see in Christendom, not Clement VII.”
Crispin frowned. “I know all that. I do not pretend to be a theologian. Far from it. But there has never been precedent for putting aside a pope, whether that election was under pressure of malice or not. Perhaps it is the Holy Ghost who moved the mob to make the very decision the cardinals deride. Who can say?”
“Men with more knowledge of Church matters, Master Guest. Not dispossessed knights.”
“And just who are you, my Lord de Marcherne? A tool of the anti-pope, or of the King of France? Or both?”
De Marcherne waved his hand and leaned his arm against the bedpost. “Does it matter? I am here to make a proposal.”
“Indeed. I do not care for your kind of proposals, my lord.” Even though the flesh began to heal, Crispin still felt the raw soreness inflicted only two days ago.
“This is a proposal you may have difficulty refusing.” De Marcherne moved away from the bed and sauntered toward Crispin, squaring with him. “We wish to hire you.”
Crispin did not even try to stop the spitting guffaw that left his lips. “Hire me? You jest!”
“Indeed, no. I fail to understand your reaction. By the looks of things—” De Marcherne glanced about the mean room—“you could use the money.”
“Go to Hell,” said Crispin.
De Marcherne slowly turned. His scar seemed to redden. He tapped the pommel of his sword and stared down his considerable nose at Crispin. “You do not even know why I wish to hire you.”
“I would never work for the anti-pope. Despite your eloquence, I do not believe Robert of Geneva’s right to the seat of Peter.”
“Whoever said you would be working for the anti-pope?”
“Are you not his tool?”
“There is much you do not know about me.” He made a gesture to one of his men who fetched the wine jug. Before Crispin could say it was empty, he watched the man pour red wine into the two wooden bowls he owned. The man handed one first to de Marcherne and the second to Crispin.
Crispin took it but did not drink.
“Go ahead, Master Crispin. It is good wine.”
Crispin looked into the wine cup. The berry aromas wafted up his sharp nose. He smiled a crooked smile. “There was recently a man poisoned from wine. Perhaps you know of him. Gaston D’Arcy.”
“D’Arcy was a fool and very sloppy. He deserved to die. Do you think we intend to poison you?”
Crispin’s smile did not fade. “Did you kill him?”
“You already have a man in gaol for this heinous crime. Do you doubt your own work now?”
“No. I merely wondered. He could have had an accomplice.”
De Marcherne laughed and gestured with the cup again. “Drink.”
Crispin’s smile widened. “You first.”
De Marcherne grinned, saluted with the cup, and drank heartily. Wine dribbled down the side of his mouth where it met the bowl. With a flourish he swept the bowl away from his lips and made a satisfied exhale. “Excellent. French, of course.”
With a shrug, Crispin put the bowl to his lips and downed the cup. He barely tasted it, but the residual flavor on his tongue spoke of the wine’s good character. Better than he had tasted in a long while. “You are correct. It is good wine. For French stock.”
De Marcherne laughed. “You are an amiable man, Master Crispin. I regret my earlier treatment of you. Shall we be more civilized now?” He walked toward the bed and sat on it. He held the bowl out for his man to refill.
Crispin did likewise and this time took a smaller sip.
“No, you would not be working for His Holiness, Master Crispin, but for me. I am…how would you say…a free agent. I work for myself and for whoever is the highest bidder.”
“Then why do you need me?”
“You are an accomplished investigator. They call you the Tracker.” He smiled, amused by the title. “And this item is most definitely in need of tracking.”
The bowl stopped short of Crispin’s lips. “What item?”
“The Holy Grail, of course.”
Crispin hesitated, then brought the cup to his lips and drank the entire contents again. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and set the wooden bowl aside. “This is a very popular occupation for me of late.”
“Oh? Who else? Ah. I see. D’Arcy’s compatriots have gotten to you.”
Crispin said nothing. He kicked back, balancing his chair on its hind legs.
“These fine and noble Templar knights,” de Marcherne purred. “Would you like to know something about them?”
“I have not deceived you as to my nature, Master Guest. I am all you see. Deceitful, hungry, pugnacious, greedy. Qualities found in most knights in most courts, wouldn’t you say? I am not like the precious Templars. Their deceit is couched in the odor of sanctity, wrapped in the mantle of piety, and sanctioned by well-wishers everywhere. The Templars want nothing more than to rule and dominate and they use goodhearted dupes such as you to accomplish their goals. But do not take my word for it. Discover for yourself the character of Gaston D’Arcy. Why don’t you ask Lady Stancliff?”
Crispin’s face remained neutral. The chair settled on all four legs again. “Lady Stancliff?”
“You know the lady in question. My operatives tell me that you know her…very well indeed.”
“I warn you. Do not delve into my privacy.”
“Privacy? For such a public lady? A lady whose indiscretions span the court? Ask her what she had to do with the pious Gaston D’Arcy. Ask her. Then ask her about Stephen St Albans. There are more paramours, but we do not have that much time.” He chuckled but there was little mirth behind it. “Perhaps the lady knows the grail’s whereabouts.”
Crispin’s strained fingers clutched his knees. Her vulnerability did seem a little too studied, a little too convenient. He suddenly felt the fool.
“Mon Dieu!” De Marcherne laughed. “I did not burst any bubbles, did I? You are not in love with her, are you?”
“I am under no delusions as concerns Lady Stancliff.”
“Good. Then I suggest you ask her about the grail. Or would you rather I ask her?”
A chill ran down Crispin’s spine. Wily she may be, but he did not relish the thought of Vivienne enduring de Marcherne’s kind of query.
“What say you, Crispin? Make a pact with me to find the grail? I will make it worth your while.”
“I am already being paid to find it.”
“But when you find it for them,” he said, leaning closer, “you must surrender it. Find it for me and there will be no reason to. Think Crispin. There are forces here far greater than we. If you covet the return of your knighthood, if you believe that without it you are only half a man, you will do this. The grail can recover everything for you.”
Crispin tried to shut it out. It was true, then, that the Devil knew your greatest weakness and could use it to tempt you.
He wondered how much he owed to the Templars. Wynchecombe did not care if the grail was recovered or not because he did not believe in its existence. Legend, myth. Who could truly say what the grail was or who it belonged to?
“It is not treason when one works for the greater good,” continued de Marcherne. “How foolish are the English. They do not perceive your value. Come to the French court and your knighthood and all that goes with it will be restored.”
“If I find the grail and give it to you?”
Crispin rubbed his chest. “You could have asked before. Why didn’t you?”
De Marcherne sipped his wine. “When one is accustomed to certain methods it is hard to change. As I said, I do regret my earlier treatment of you.”
“I work for a fee of one shilling a day, plus expenses.”
“You work for sixpence a day. But I will pay you twelve.” He motioned to one of the men who handed him a pouch. “Here is a sennight’s worth in advance.”
Crispin looked at the pouch but did not take it. “What if I don’t find it? What if it falls to another?”
De Marcherne smiled, took Crispin’s hand, and placed the pouch within it. “Don’t disappoint me.”