Our Templar hero Sir William de Mandeville is forced to return home from the Crusades in Outremer. He must go back to a life of drudgery at the Templar preceptory in Witham, Essex. But as he draws closer to the hated place, it becomes obvious that something terrible has happened
THE TEMPLAR PRECEPTORY CRESSING TEMPLE, ESSEX
William approached the huge barley barn with dread in his heart. A great crushing weight seemed to bear down on his chest as he gazed once more at that mighty timber structure that spoke volumes about Templar wealth and industriousness on the land. The box frame building loomed mightier than many cathedrals and could have matched the great pyramids Pathros had told William of in the land of Egypt. Yet William wasn’t impressed: he felt the building drawing him closer with a malign magnetic pull, as if it resented him ever leaving its presence.
Dotted in the fields round the preceptory were hundreds of sheep whose precious wool kept faraway garrisons in arms and provisions from Acre to Edessa and Tripoli to Famagusta. There were also well-tended bullocks; draught oxen, geese and hens, while the fields were sown with wheat, peas, beans and drage. The common people of Essex who farmed these lands owed their whole existence to the Order of the Temple.
Wulfric, erect on his horse, surveyed his domain with pride. No serf or villein keeled over in these fields, broken from famine, as they did on the Earl’s demesne. God’s fields yielded a great bounty while the Devil’s fields were barren. Which field will I make the puppy plough first? He could picture the knight bereft of sword and shield and chainmail and reduced to wearing a shabby tunic and plain leggings covered in dung, his spine throbbing pain as he was forced to bend and plant seed throughout the daylight hours. God in heaven, I thank you for delivering the proud puppy back to me!
As they drew closer to the great barn with its many outbuildings, William could make out the figures of serjeant-brothers in their black mantles and red crosses buzzing round like the bees in one of Cressing’s many hives. Laymen serfs also ran about urgently, seeing to the day’s many tasks. Life in the preceptory was one of constant labour interspersed with prayer. William regarded the great hall, the dovecote, the chapel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the windmill, watermill and cider press and finally the sad little cemetery for brother knights when they were called to leave this life. I shall not die in this place, he vowed to himself. I shall escape and my last moment on this earth will be with a sword in my hand, slaying the Saracens in battle. The young knight was shaken from his bitter thoughts as Wulfric suddenly halted. Frozen and motionless, the old man stared ahead.
“What is it?” William asked.
“Silence,” Wulfric responded.
Something was amiss: Cressing Temple wasn’t its usual busy self. The frenetic activity was one of chaos and turmoil not the humdrum daily toil. Injured men were being lowered carefully from horses and mules; a serjeant of the Order was gripping a bloody wound to his face. Strained voices cried out for assistance. Riderless horses charged round loose. Wulfric dug his spurs into his steed and set off at full pace.
“Follow me!” William shouted to Pathros as he charged after Wulfric.
A horse bolted past as they entered the vast complex of farm buildings and places of prayer. A burly figure lay on the ground being tended to by a physician. Pathros immediately dismounted and went to help. One of the younger farm hands ran up to William and grabbed the reins of his steed to direct it towards the stables. Running alongside the horse, the young boy gabbled breathlessly.
“Good to have you back, sir. Sorely missed. Want to hear your battle stories, sir. Reckon you killed a few of them Saracens. You heard about Edwy? Badly wounded, sir. Over there he is – being seen to.”
“Grain wagons, sir. They were attacked. Men without God did this. Took three carts. Reckon they were wolfheads myself. Matilda’s people maybe.”
Many of those who had supported the Empress in her attempt to take England now roamed England as dangerous adventurers but Wulfric knew who had committed this and jutted a bony, accusing finger at William.
“Your brother!” His horse wheeled round. “This is your brother’s work!” “You have no proof,” William remonstrated. “Devils, that’s what you de Mandevilles are,” the preceptor blustered, furious to see the Order’s wealth seized so brazenly. “You’ll tell him when you see him that we’re not here doing honest and godly labour just to pay his debts. Mark my words well, I’ll get back what he has taken a hundredfold and he’ll face the full wrath of our Order!”
There was something empty about Wulfric’s threat. It felt to William like bluster with nothing to back it up. The old Saxon was huffing and puffing to no avail. The preceptory’s physician was leaning over the supine figure of Edwy, who had a broken arrow sticking out of his cheek. The arrowhead was embedded several inches in his head. As the Templar doctor began digging into his face with a blunt instrument resembling a spoon with a serrated edge down one side, the serjeant regained consciousness and let out a full-throated scream. Pathros tapped the bungling physician on the shoulder, then barged him out of the way. There was no time to waste on Frankish stupidity. The turcopole smeared a pale blue paste onto the wound that would, as his favourite book on medicine instructed, “kill the tiny demons which cause grave infection”. The Cressing physician tried to intervene again but Pathros was in charge and in no mood to tolerate his backwardness.
“I will cure him! Take your superstitious spoon away!”
The physician remonstrated with serjeants and knights standing around but they were now absorbed by the turcopole’s urgent activity over Edwy’s head. Pathros applied more of his magic liquid and massaged it into the injured serjeant’s cheek. The physician argued loudly that the standard procedure was surely to pull out the wooden shaft and then let pus form round the arrowhead. Hopefully, that would allow it to be pulled out in six or seven days.
“Please help me to treat this man,” the physician shouted at the Cressing Templars, who were now gathering in greater numbers to watch the operation being performed on the muddy ground. “This is most irregular. This man has no right …”
But they all ignored him. His record on saving lives hadn’t been an impressive one and the Templars of Essex were more than happy to let the exotic foreigner have a go instead. Edwy was a popular figure and nobody wanted him to die. From his bag Pathros produced small pieces of wood wrapped in linen to which he applied rose honey and began pushing them into the facial wound till he’d ascertained the position and size of the arrowhead. Then he brandished a curious metal implement resembling tongs with a screw running down the middle. This he dug into Edwy’s face and, with his free hand, began turning the screw. The serjeant passed out in shock as, slowly but surely, the turcopole withdrew the arrowhead from deep inside his head.
“White wine!” Pathros shouted and a Templar serjeant dutifully ran off to find some.
The turcopole applied more honey to the slowly closing wound and then poured the wine over Edwy’s cheek. Next, he applied a plaster packed with herbs and bandaged it to the man’s head. As he completed the operation, Edwy came round and gazed into the turcopole’s bronzed face.
“By Saint George … I have been brought back to life by a Saracen.” Pathros permitted himself a wry smile. “That must be very disagreeable, I realise,” he said.
William swelled with pride at the handiwork of his turcopole. The Templar knight permitted himself a broad, beaming smile but it was soon wiped off his face as he turned to find Wulfric glowering at his side.
“You tell him …” Wulfric, shaking with rage, pointed at Pathros, “… no more sorcery here. You tell him to keep his potions away from our people … because so help me … if I so much as smell heresy or magic from that Saracen, he’ll dangle from the end of a rope.”