Excerpt of Heretic by Bernard Cornwell
(Page 2 of 3)
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Which was why the Count had summoned Father Roubert, the chief Dominican in the town of Berat, to the great hall of the castle, which had long ceased to be a place of feasting, but instead was lined with shelves on which old documents moldered and precious handwritten books were wrapped in oiled leather.
Father Roubert was just thirty-two years old. He was the son of a tanner in the town and had risen in the Church thanks to the Count's patronage. He was very tall, very stern, with black hair cut so short that it reminded the Count of the stiff-bristled brushes the armorers used to burnish the coats of mail. Father Roubert was also, this fine morning, angry. "I have business in Castillon d'Arbizon tomorrow," he said, "and will need to leave within the hour if I am to reach the town in daylight."
The Count ignored the rudeness in Father Roubert's tone. The Dominican liked to treat the Count as an equal, an impudence the Count tolerated because it amused him "You have business in Castillon d'Arbizon?" he asked, then remembered. "Of course you do. You are burning the beghard, are you not?"
"She will burn with or without you, father," the Count said, "and the devil will take her soul whether you are there to rejoice or not." He peered at the friar. "Or is it that you like to watch women burn?"
"It is my duty," Father Roubert said stiffly.
"Ah yes, your duty. Of course. Your duty." The Count frowned at a chessboard on the table, trying to work out whether he should advance a pawn or retract a bishop. He was a short, plump man with a round face and a clipped beard. He habitually wore a woolen cap over his bald head and, even in summer, was rarely without a furlined gown. His fingers were perpetually ink-stained so that he looked more like a fussy clerk than the ruler of a great domain. "But you have a duty to me, Roubert," he chided the Dominican, "and this is it." He gave the Cardinal Archbishop's letter to the Dominican and watched as the friar read the long document. "He writes a fine Latin, does he not?" the Count said.
"He employs a secretary who is properly educated," Father Roubert said curtly, then he examined the great red seal to make certain the document was genuine. "They say," the friar sounded respectful now, "that Cardinal Bessières is regarded as a possible successor to the Holy Father."
"So not a man to offend?"
"No churchman should ever be offended," Father Roubert answered stiffly.
"And certainly not one who might become Pope," the Count concluded. "But what is it he wants?"
Father Roubert went to a window screened with a lead lattice supporting scraped horn panes that let a diffuse light into the room, but kept out rain, birds and some of winter's cold winds. He lifted the lattice from its frame and breathed the air which, this high up in the castle's keep, was wonderfully free of the latrine stink in the lower town. It was autumn and there was the faint smell of pressed grapes in the air. Roubert liked that smell. He turned back to the Count. "Is the monk here?"
"In a guest room," the Count said. "He's resting. He's young, very nervous. He bowed to me very properly, but refused to say what the Cardinal wants."
A great clash in the yard below prompted Father Roubert to peer through the window again. He had to lean far forward for even here, forty feet up the keep, the walls were nearly five feet thick. A horseman in full plate armor had just charged the quintain in the yard and his lance had struck the wooden shield so hard that the whole contraption had collapsed. "Your nephew plays," he said as he straightened from the window.
"My nephew and his friends practice," the Count corrected the friar.
"He would do better to look to his soul," Father Roubert said sourly.
From Heretic by Bernard Cornwell. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.