Crispin Guest receives a mysterious bundle containing an ancient leather-bound book. A rabbi helps to make a shocking discovery: it is the Gospel of Judas from the Holy Land. Crispin is quickly drawn into a deadly maze and a series of horrific events confirm his fears that there are powerful men who will stop at nothing to see the codex destroyed.
Described as ‘lively’ with ‘brisk prose and well-drawn characters’ by Publishers Weekly, the new Crispin Guest mystery sees religion and politics mix to create an explosive and compelling read. In this #BookExtract, Crispin finds himself drawn into a sword fight with two men whose master demands to speak to him . . .
He hurried on and, taking a shortcut back to the Shambles at the mouth of another alley, he found his way barred again, this time by two men.
He tried to skirt past them with a polite, ‘I beg your mercy.’ But when they stepped back into his path, he squared his shoulders. ‘Is there a reason you are preventing me from proceeding, gentlemen?’
And they were gentlemen, from the sheen of their velvet cote-hardies to the fit of their stockings. The dark-bearded one huffed a breath. ‘We want a word with you . . . Crispin Guest.’
Crispin eyed them both, noted that they both had swords. ‘State your purpose then.’
‘You must come with us.’
‘Don’t ask questions. Just comply.’
‘I’m rarely in the habit of complying when two churls greet me in an alley—’
The punch to his jaw was unexpected. He landed on his arse. Raising a hand to rub at his chin he felt blood. Sticking his tongue out he licked it away from the side of his mouth. ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’
‘You’ll get more of the same if you don’t do as we say.’
Crispin took his time getting to his feet and wiping the dirt from his cote-hardie. ‘You should apologize to me.’
The men looked at one another and laughed. It was true that they were both taller than Crispin, and wider across the chest and shoulders. A wiser man might have been intimidated. But at the moment, Crispin was more angry than wise.
‘I said . . .’ Crispin slowly drew his sword with the whisper of steel on leather. Even in the shadows, the sun caught an edge and sent a shard of light over the men’s faces. ‘Apologize!’
In answer they drew their own weapons.
‘If that’s the way you want it.’
Crispin didn’t wait. He charged them, arcing his blade toward their shins. They blocked his sword with their own in a clash of metal and sparks. Stepping back, Crispin assessed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw people fleeing near the alley entrance. No one wanted to get in the way of a sword fight.
Crispin wiped his other hand over his mouth, swiping the blood away. ‘What is your game?’ he asked the men. ‘Who are you and what do you want?’
‘Our master wishes to speak with you.’
‘And he would do so from the edge of a blade?’
‘If necessary. We were told to bring you to him . . . upright or limp.’
‘And who is your master?’
The clean-shaven man only grinned. He lunged and Crispin parried the sword out of the way. A sword came at him from the other direction. Crispin slid around the man and spun, slicing outward with his own blade toward the bearded man.
Steel caught sleeve and flesh. The man’s cry was almost anticlimactic. Crispin turned and caught the sword from the other with his own and struck hard, slapping it away.
Crispin was already winded. He hadn’t done such swordplay in a while and he was older than these two. If he had been practicing every day as he used to do, as Lancaster had, he would be in fine shape. As it was . . . What he couldn’t do with strength he’d have to do with cunning.
He went on the offensive and slashed again at the bearded man’s shins. Tactical and expeditious in battle, any knight feared to be laid low by a cut to their legs. The man backed away, parrying the blows away with his steel.
Clean-shaven tried to approach Crispin from another angle but Crispin used the same tactic against him, and he, too, defended his legs, backing away.
There was only one way out of this. Crispin kept Bearded Man back with wild swoops of his blade, while he kicked dirt up into Clean-shaven’s face. The man took but a moment to wipe at his eyes, but that was all Crispin needed to spin and force his blade up to the man’s neck. Clean-shaven froze.
‘That was a wise decision,’ said Crispin, close to his face and trying not to pant. Bearded Man stopped his approach. ‘I won’t have any compunction about killing your companion,’ he told the other. Crispin pressed the edge of the steel that much more into the man’s fleshy neck. Clean-shaven cringed but forced himself not to move a muscle.
‘Drop the sword.’
Clean-shaven did so with an echoing clang.
‘Now you,’ said Crispin to the other. But Bearded Man did not seem as anxious to comply. ‘Do you care nothing for your compatriot?’
Bearded Man scowled. He hoisted his sword, changing his grip on the hilt. Suddenly, he heaved it forward toward Crispin.
‘God’s blood!’ Crispin ducked, using his sword to bat it away from his head. The flying sword rang against the stone wall behind him.
When he looked up again, Clean-shaven managed to slip away and was gripping his sword in his hand again. And his angry grimace showed no quarter. Without looking away from Crispin, Clean-shaven kicked Bearded Man’s blade toward his companion, who picked it up.
Crispin blew his fringe away from his eyes and crouched, his sword at the ready. ‘That didn’t turn out as I expected.’
They both swung. Crispin ducked and darted toward the opening of the alley. Footsteps behind told him all he needed to know.
He ran harder, glanced back. Yes, they were hot on his heels. Damn! There would be no point in stopping and turning to fight. Perhaps in another day when he was at his peak, but that day had long passed.
‘Get out of the way!’ he cried to the people on the street in front of him. He waved his sword and they screamed, falling to the sides. If he could get enough in front of his pursuers, get to a roof somehow, he could drop down on them. But for now, running was his only course . . . and he was already tired.
He wove in and out of backstreets and closes, but always he heard their footsteps ringing out and echoing off the shopfronts and houses hard behind him.
Someone dumped their rubbish out the window, barely missing him, but it landed on his foes. He heard their curses and their slowing steps. He sent up a prayer of thanks to that unknown woman.
He turned a corner and made a dash for the main road. And it would have gone well for him if that barrel-shaped carriage hadn’t suddenly pulled into his way.
He tucked his sword to his side, cast his arm over his face, and hit the canvas side hard enough to tear it.
He landed with a thump on the carriage floor, somewhat amazed that he had survived intact. When he looked up, he wasn’t so sure his survival was worth it.
The Duke of Lancaster crouched beside his mistress Katherine Swynford, and they were both staring at Crispin with widened eyes.
TRAITOR’S CODEX by Jeri Westerson is out now in the UK and is available from 1 June in the US. Read more here.