Quest for the True Cross begins with a grisly murder in a church. Two unscrupulous thieves are spiriting away the True Cross from the Syrian city of Edessa – which kicks off a thrilling hunt to retrieve it. The following is an excerpt from Quest for the True Cross by Tony McMahon, now available in paperback on Amazon
The priest clasped at his assailant’s tunic as he struggled for air. Besnik lessened the pressure on the old man’s windpipe yet his grimy hands remained firmly round Father’s Jean’s neck, leaving unsightly purple bruises.
“You should have found a linen box to crawl into and hide,” the Romani mercenary cackled.
“I beg you not to do this, my son,” the priest gasped.
“I’m not your son.”
This cannot be how I meet my end, Father Jean thought. Surely this creature is capable of some decency. Nobody can be devoid of all compassion. If I can only find some common ground between us, I will see the sun rise tomorrow.
“We are … we are both men of the book. Children of Abraham.” Father Jean took a faltering breath. “Only our view of His Son truly divides us.”
His assailant was unmoved.
“I’m neither Saracen nor Frank,” Besnik sneered at the priest. “Don’t waste words about your useless God on me.”
Time was marching against Besnik and his accomplice Giyassedin. Outside the city was falling to the Seljuk Turks. An immense Saracen wave had crashed over the seemingly impenetrable fortifications. The Christian forces had been scattered and their control of this great Syrian city was very much at an end. It wouldn’t be long before the Turks found this church and ranksacked its riches. The two thieves had to work fast. Besnik’s hand gripped Father Jean’s throat once more. The Romani derived a sadistic thrill from tightening his fingers around his victim’s windpipe. The priest grabbed at the mercenary’s hand but it was locked in position and squeezing. He lifted Father Jean off his feet, the priest kicking at Besnik in a futile defence.
“I … I … I … know … nothing …”
His hold was so tight that the cartilage in Father Jean’s throat crackled. Eyes bulging and face reddened, the black-robed cleric writhed as Besnik calmly and methodically throttled him.
“I told you he wouldn’t talk,” Giyassedin observed from the side of the altar in a matter-of-fact way. “He’d rather die than tell us.”
Besnik dropped the priest in a heap on the floor. His patience had worn thin. He resumed beating the old man with his fists. Blow after blow rained down on the cleric’s bloodied face. Feebly, the old man raised a hand to defend himself but Besnik pushed it away. A strong punch closed the priest’s left eye as he groaned for this brutal torture to cease.
“Where is it?” Besnik yelled at Father Jean.
“I … I cannot … I must not say.”
The mercenary drew his dagger from its leather sheath and grabbing the priest by the few grey hairs on his head, severed an ear with one rapid slicing action. Father Jean clasped his head and screamed. Besnik repeated the question.
“Where … is … it?”
His senses dulled by agony, the priest involuntarily allowed his one good eye to dart leftwards for the briefest instant. That was enough for Besnik. He now knew where to find the treasure that he and his accomplice sought. Leaving Father Jean in a pained heap on the flagstone floor, he moved over to the stone pulpit.
“Help me move this,” he barked at Giyassedin.
“Are you sure?”
The two thieves pushed at the block of stone surmounted by a carving of an eagle, the symbol of John the Apostle. With a grinding sound, the pulpit yielded its secret inch by inch. Beneath it was a crudely dug hole in the floor. Besnik thrust a flaming torch into the darkness, revealing a small hill of human bones. A skull stared back mournfully at the mercenary.
“Good,” Besnik announced.
Father Jean looked on in horror.
“What have I done?” The priest wept on his knees, too weak to stand.
Father Jean had never wanted to be a martyr – that was for braver and saintly men. But this creature had no God, he was sure of that.
“Kill me! In God’s name … kill me,” he whispered.
Convulsing in agony, the priest looked up at Besnik. Scum of Christendom! The lowest of God’s creatures! One of that accursed race of men who had fashioned the very nails driven into the hands of Christ in return for base coin. Everybody knew of the perfidy of the Romani people, stealers of bibles and relics, friendless and condemned to wander the earth. And he had delivered up a great Templar treasure to this devil. Those great knights of the Temple of Jerusalem will never forgive me.
“You – you dog!” the priest spat. “You’re more vile than a Saracen!”
Besnik grabbed the cleric’s chin, shoved it back and ran his sharp dagger blade across Father Jean’s throat as if he were killing a pig on market day. A crimson jet spurted out across the grey flagstones. In the warm evening air, the blood soon congealed around the prone body.
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