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The Plague Tales Excerpt Page 1
Ann Benson
Delacorte Press, 474 pages
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        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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        "Riders Approaching!"
        The lookout's cry was heard in the last few minutes of daylight, and resulted in a flurry of excited activity in the castle's courtyard. Squinting into the fading light from one of Windsor's towers, it was a few minutes before Alejandro could discern the red doublet worn by Matthews when he had left earlier. The man riding beside him was bouncing up and down on a horse that was far too heavily laden with parcels; wearing their hawkish masks, the pair were a bizarre sight indeed.
        But they were no less welcome for their foolish appearance. So starved were the castle's occupants for news of the outside world that they waited as if for some foreign dignitary or high church official.
        The physician hurried down the stairs to the courtyard. He found Sir John and instructed him on the procedure for their reentry. "Matthews and Reed must unload all of their possessions and lead their horses to the outside holding pen. There they will remove their outer garments and boots. Upon entering through the portcullis, they must walk directly to the chapel, touching no one. There they will find fresh clothing, and can once again assume a state of proper modesty."
        Despite Alejandro's seriousness, Sir John chuckled. "I think Matthews has little dislike of being unclothed, even before the ladies, for he is well aware of his own charms, and can be quite the braggart about his abilities with women. He's more likely to strut like a peacock than slink through the courtyard in shame."
        "Nevertheless, the man must not stop or approach anyone. His path must be swift and direct."
        He turned his attention to the gathering crowd, which had grown in size quite dramatically in the last few minutes. Both Isabella and the Black Prince were already among the curious and excited onlookers. Adding to the confusion was the crier's announcement that King Edward himself approached. Even though he was heavily occupied with the business at hand, Alejandro could not keep himself from looking around for Adele. His searching eyes were rewarded with a glimpse of the gleaming copper hair, and when their eyes met, she flashed him a smile, a momentary respite from the confusion surrounding him.
        It strengthened him. I must gain control of this crowd! he thought, panicking; otherwise, the reentry will not go as I have planned! He leaped up onto a stone bench and waved his arms frantically, shouting out for the buzzing crowd to listen carefully. When the noise finally abated, he surprised the listeners by making his statement in halting but understandable English.
        "All those who do not wish to risk infection by the plague should stand clear of the path."
        There was an immediate hum of alarm, and Alejandro jumped down to the dirt again, then strode firmly to the portcullis. Borrowing a flagpole from one of the guards, he drew a line in the dirt, directing the crowd back out of his path as needed, from the gate to the chapel. Then he drew a parallel line back from the chapel to the gate, creating a wide path on which the riders would make their way to the chapel.
        "Clear the way for these men. Their progress must not be impeded for any reason; do not reach out to them or pass any object to them nor accept an offering they may make to you. Anyone who steps over this line will most certainly be afflicted with any contagion carried by either of these men, however unwittingly."

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