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«The leper's return», Michael Jecks

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The Leper’s Return

Walter Stapledon, Bishop of Exeter, watched the sky with a sense of foreboding, trying not to wince as his horse rocked gently beneath him.

“It looks like rain, doesn’t it, my Lord?”

The Bishop grunted non-committally. Those few words summed up the animosity with which people viewed the weather. During the disastrous years of 1315 and 1316, the crops had drowned in torrential rain and thousands had died in the ensuing famines. Few families across Europe had been untouched by the misery and even now, in autumn 1320, all feared a repeat of the disaster. Stapledon glanced sympathetically at his companion. “At least this year’s harvest was collected safely,” he said gravely. “God gave us a respite, whatever He may hold in store for the future.”

His companion nodded, but as he surveyed the pewter-colored clouds bunching overhead, his eyes held the expression of one who can see the arrow flying toward him and waits only to see where it will strike. “I pray that God will preserve us in the coming year as well.”

Stapledon forbore to comment. God’s will was beyond the understanding of ordinary men, and the Bishop was content to wait and see what He planned. At least this visit should be restful, he thought-away from the circle of devious, mendacious tricksters who surrounded King Edward.

The monk at his side, Ralph of Houndeslow, had arrived in Exeter only a few days before, asking for a room to rest for the night. When he had heard that the Bishop himself was about to depart for the large town of Crediton, northwest of Exeter, he had been delighted to accept Stapledon’s offer of a place in his retinue. It was safer to undertake a journey with company in these troubled times, even for a man wearing the tonsure.

Stapledon had found Ralph to be quite unlike previous visitors. Most who asked for hospitality at the Bishop’s gates were garrulous, for they were used to travelling, and delighted in talking about their adventures on the road, but Ralph was quiet. He appeared to be holding himself back, as though he was aware of the weighty responsibility that was about to fall upon his shoulders. Stapledon found him reserved and rather dull, a little too introspective, but that was hardly surprising. Ralph’s words about the weather demonstrated one line his thoughts were taking, but the prelate knew other things were giving him concern. It was as if a foul atmosphere had polluted the air in this benighted kingdom, and no one was unaware of the poison at work in their midst: treachery!

Stapledon turned in his saddle to survey the men behind. There were fifteen all told: five men-at-arms, four servants and the rest clerics. The troops were all hardened types recently hired to the Bishop’s service, and he viewed them askance. Since accepting his high office from the King and Parliament, it had been deemed prudent that he should have some protection, and after persuasion he had agreed to take on a bodyguard. He knew they were necessary for his safety, but that didn’t mean he had to enjoy their company. His only satisfaction was that when he studied them he could see they weren’t prey to fears for their future. They each knew that a mug of warmed, spiced ale waited for them at the end of their journey, and that was enough to assure their contentment. They were uneducated ruffians, and higher considerations were irrelevant to them. When he cast an eye over his servants, he saw that they weren’t plagued with doubts either, for they knew their jobs, and would blindly obey their master. No, it was only when he looked at his monks that he saw the weary anxiety.

Stapledon knew what lay at the bottom of it, and it wasn’t only the weather: the clerics, like himself, were aware that civil war was looming.

It was many years since the King’s grandfather, Henry III, had engaged Simon de Montfort in battles up and down the kingdom, but the horror of it was known to those who were educated and could read the chronicles. Their trepidation reflected that of all the King’s subjects as stories spread of the increasing tension between two of the most powerful men in the land. The Bishop paid no heed to such rumors-he had no need to. He had witnessed at first hand how relations between the King, Edward II, and the Earl of Lancaster had soured.

Earlier in the year, Sir Walter had become the Lord High Treasurer, the man who controlled the kingdom’s purse. In theory, the position was one of strength, but it made him feel as safe as a kitten dropped unprotected between two packs of loosed hunting dogs. No matter how he stood, he was constantly having to look to his back. There were many, in both the King’s party and the Earl’s, who would have liked to see him ruined. Men who had shunned him before now pretended to be his friend so that they could try to destroy him-or subvert him to their cause. Stapledon was used to the twisted and corrupt ways of politics and politicians, for he had been a key mover in the group which had tried to bring King Edward and the Earl of Lancaster to some sort of understanding, but the deceit and falseness of men who were well-born and supposedly chivalrous repelled him.

He had hoped that the Treaty of Leake would end the bitterness, but the underlying rivalries still existed. Stapledon was not the only man in the kingdom to be unpleasantly aware of the rising enmity. Lancaster was behaving with brazen insolence; not attending Parliament when summoned, and recklessly pursuing his own interests at the expense of the King’s. Stapledon had no doubt that if the Earl continued to flaunt his contempt for his liege, there would be war. And if that happened, the Bishop knew that the Scots would once more pour over the border. They had agreed to a truce last year, in 1319, but more recently there had been rumblings from the north. Since their success at Bannockburn and their capture of Berwick, the Scots had become more confident. Stapledon was glumly convinced that if the northern devils saw a means of dividing the English, they would seize it.

Stapledon knew that the same thoughts were diverting the monks as they made their way along the road. Leaning over, he patted Ralph’s back. “Don’t worry, my son, we can set aside all fears for the future of the country while we are here in Devon.”

“If war comes, it will reach to every corner of the kingdom.”

“True, but it will come here last of all, and there is no need to anticipate it at present. Perhaps there are enough men of good will and good sense to avert it.”

“I pray to God that we might be saved from it.”

Stapledon peered at Ralph. It was irritating that his sight was so poor now at shorter distances; he could observe things with clarity ten feet away or more, but anything nearer was indistinct, as if seen through a misted glass. “You will find that Crediton will help you forget your fears. It is a happy, bustling town, and the Dean, Peter Clifford, is a good man-and an excellent host.”

Ralph of Houndeslow gave a faint smile. Peter Clifford’s hospitality was immaterial to him. There were vastly more important things to consider than a dean’s generosity to travelling monks and an important prelate-but this was hardly the time for him to raise such matters. He was relieved to see the Bishop revert to silent contemplation of the way ahead.

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