|The Plague Tales Excerpt Page 1|
|Delacorte Press, 474 pages|
Alejandro regarded the King's troops as they filed past him in the courtyard at
Windsor, every one eager for some task that would take him outside the walls, out to
freedom. At his side was Sir John Chandos, who wore the subdued look of one who has
resigned himself to some distasteful obligation, but still prays privately for a reprieve.
"How eagerly they line up to brave this pest," Chandos said sadly; "They think it some honor to make this ill-omened journey."
They are so young, Alejandro thought; every one of them younger than I myself. "He turned to Sir John and said, "Who among them is likely to return unscathed?"
The knight's eyes wandered down the line, scrutinizing each volunteer, and came to rest on a hearty-looking, handsome young man. He regarded the soldier soberly for a few moments, then barked out an order.
"Matthews, your King does you great honor. You will represent him on a mission of some importance to the Princess Isabella. Come with me."
* * *
Alejandro used the last of the herbs he had brought from France to make two protective masks for the riders. He admonished Matthews to drink nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, and to keep moving at the swiftest pace possible.
He and Adele watched from a parapet window as Matthews mounted his horse, then turned to his observers and saluted. He rode quickly out of the gate, vanishing in his own trail of dust.
"May God be with him," she said.
"And keep him steady on the path," Alejandro added.
* * *
Alejandro sent a message to Kate cancelling their chess match that evening, for it was his duty to see that Matthews and the tailor Reed were settled into their temporary quarters, and Sir John had told him to expect their return by sunset.
As he fussed about the converted chapel seeing to last minute details, the physician wondered if either man would ever emerge alive. Outside Windsor's walls, half of all humanity had perished, and it was therefore only logical that one of the two travelers should contract the pestilence. God alone knew which one it would be; Alejandro said a silent prayer that both would be spared.
But if the plague ends, I will have no purpose at Windsor, and my welcome will grow thin; my service here will be forgotten by those who will owe me their very lives and futures. And I will not see Adele.
He thought of Kate, who at a tender age was already hardened by the uncertainty of her position. How had this small child found the strength to thrive in the face of her own powerlessness and anonymity, while all the others around her could command what they wished by simple virtue of their birth? Her bastardy, my deception; they are not unalike, he thought. We are neither us of who we are; we are nameless. It was that possibility of namelessness, that he would live his life without memorable accomplishment, then die alone and unmourned, that Alejandro feared most.
* * *
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