England, 1235 (then Iceland, Greenland, France, Italy and the Greek islands)
There was a ghastly whistling sound, and then the deacon’s blood burst from his neck in a thick roiling jet that hit me full in the chest. I staggered back, burning liquid in my eyes, in my hair, my mouth, running down inside my habit. There was a full-bodied reek of salt and iron and I gagged, spinning away in my soaking robes, the hot gore seething against my skin as it trickled down my back, under my arms and into the hair between my legs. The dead man in Sir Hugh’s arms whistled once more, an empty squeak that ended in a forlorn burble. I could see, as if through a red gauze, Sir Hugh still holding the deacon under the chin so that the weight of the corpse dragged its slashed throat apart into a vast wound in which secret things were revealed, white, yellow, red, like the inlaid patterns in the altar steps. I thought I saw the flap between head and torso stretch like dough in a baker’s hands, then I was running down the nave half-blind, blood squelching between my toes at every step. Behind me I could hear Sir Hugh’s voice echoing in the cavernous shadows. He was laughing, a great, warm laugh full of ease and pleasure. ‘Stop,’ he called, happily. ‘Come back, Petroc! What a mess you’ve made! What on earth made you do such a thing?’
This novel could have been titled “The Sucker’s Tale”.
When the book opens, a villainous ex-Templar now employed as a bishop’s steward (which, here at least, means minder/enforcer) is looking for someone to be the patsy. He finds one in the innocent and naive young student priest, Brother Petroc.
Next thing we know, Petroc is on the run accused of committing a horrifying murder. Everywhere he turns he finds people either already involved in the scheme or swiftly drawn into it by his presence.
Yet Petroc proves, under pressure, to be less of a sucker tham the one-time Templar Sir Hugh de Kervezy had anticipated.
He escapes on board a ship, and Sir Hugh is obliged to pursue him across the cold, dark North Atlantic (the Sea of Darkness) then back and down to the Mediterranean and eventually to the Isles of Greece, where the final confrontation between them occurs.
It is not just a page-turner though, it is well set in its period and also often made me stop and think. Like when Petroc’s more streetwise friend and fellow-student observes that the bishop “is no priest, he’s a lord, and a rich one. Interests, brother. They need to be protected. By people like the steward.”
Or speaking of Greenland: “A sad place, too near the world’s edge for people to settle comfortably. In times past it was safe and green, but this age of the world is turning cold, and they freeze, little by little, year by year. […] The chill is creeping over the land …” We are usually informed that the name “Greenland” was Lief Ericsson’s way of conning people into going there as settlers. But what if that were not so? That Greenland did use to be green … Climate change I believe in, of course. How could one not believe in it? If you look at even the last thousand years with its Little Ice Age starting in the late Middle Ages, you see that the climate is changing all the time and that it works rather like a pendulum, cooling and warming, cooling and warming . . .
Actually, the Earth has experienced at least five major Ice Ages in its 4.57 billion year history (as opposed to minor ice ages like the one from roughly 1350-1850): each major Ice Age lasts between 44,000 and 110,000 years, during which the glacial ice extends and recedes. Most of the time, though, the Earth is not in an Ice Age, and ice sheets are almost completely absent, found only at high altitudes. The poles are cold, but they are not covered in ice, and forests extend from pole to pole. Only during about 15% of the Earth’s history has there been an Ice Age.
The most recent Ice Age is well-known because we humans have had our entire history within it. We think ice sheets covering Greenland and Antarctica are typical, even though they are not. More than about 10,000 years ago, there was a severe glacial period that covered the continents in glaciers as far south as Chicago and Paris. Since that time, the glaciers have been receding, and are still doing so. [This is a summary of an article by someone who knows the subject far better than I do. You can read the full article here.]
But I digress, as they say. Back to the book. Relics is a great read. The copy I have here in front of me has been on my bookshelf for years, but I notice second-hand copies are going cheap, and it is also available on Kindle.