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THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT
by Jeri Westerson

Genre: Mystery, Historical, Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

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Crispin wriggled in his seat. “Master Jacob,” he said carefully, mindful of the venomous stares from Julian to the back of his head. “It would be difficult for me to swear before I know all.” The man seemed sincere enough. But he was a Jew, and Crispin had little experience with such people. But the coins were needed. Dammit.

“I give you my word,” said Crispin slowly. “If you will have me swear, then I shall.”

Jacob smiled. “No need, sir. I believe you.” He looked toward his son. “You see, not all men are false. Some, though they be English, can be relied upon.”

“You tread on dangerous ground, Father. We are here by the grace of the king, but that grace may not extend to...to this.”

Jacob sighed deeply and raised tired eyes to Crispin. “Maître Guest, have you ever heard of the Kabbalah?”

The Kabbalah? Vague impressions of half-remembered stories whispered through his mind like wisps of candle smoke. “Jewish magic,” he answered warily.

Jacob shook his head. “Not magic, sir. But theology. The spiritual nature of—”

“Christ’s toes! Jewish magic? I risked life and limb to creep into court for Jewish magic? The devil take me for the greedy fool I am!” He snapped to his feet and headed straight for the door. Pulling it open he looked back at Jack.

Scrambling up, Jack snatched Crispin’s cloak from the fire and scurried to catch up.

Crispin heard Jacob’s frantic steps behind him but kept going, only slowing and bending slightly so that Jack could drape his cloak over his shoulders.

“Maître Guest! Maître Guest!”

He suddenly recalled where they were and how loud Jacob was. He wheeled and clamped his hand over the old man’s mouth, pulling him into an embrace. “Be silent!” Crispin glanced quickly about the long corridor but saw only the flicker of torchlight.

But then, hot stabbing pain pierced the arm he had wound about the man’s neck and he released him at once. “God’s blood!” He looked down and saw red darkening his right sleeve.

Looking up with murder in his heart, he stared into the eyes of the lad, Julian, his bloody dagger still raised in the air. “Get away from my father, you dog!”

“Damn you to hell!” He rushed the boy and slammed him and his wrist with the dagger against the wall. The boy cried out with the suddenness of the attack and the dagger dropped with a thud to the wooden floor. Jack snatched it up and held it tight. His teeth ground his lower lip and he was clearly itching to use the weapon on Julian.

“What have you done!” cried Jacob, grabbing at Crispin’s arm.

Crispin yanked it from him and stepped back.

Everyone turned and froze at the sound of a door unbolting.

Without a second thought, Crispin dashed back into the Jew’s chamber and felt like smiting himself for having to cower behind a door.

“What goes on here?” A woman’s voice in a thick, foreign accent. Crispin spied the corridor through the crack of door and post. She had emerged from the queen’s chamber. One of the queen’s Bohemian ladies, no doubt. She took in the scene: Jacob reaching for his son who was still flush against the wall and Jack, standing with a bloody dagger, face like pale cream. “Physician?” she said, her voice tinted with fear.

Jacob assessed his surroundings and bent in a faintly obsequious posture. He put a hand to his breast and bowed to her. “Mistress, the lad here is a patient but he is reluctant to receive my care.”

“Shall I call for the guards?”

He shook his head. He was the model of calm. “No need. You will come into the chamber now, won’t you garçon?”

Jack looked from Jacob to the woman and slowly nodded. “Aye.” He lowered the dagger and tried to hide it behind his back. “I, er, hurt m’self. With me knife. The good physician here offered to help.”

“Does the queen need me?” Jacob asked, trying to look past the broad woman into the candlelit chamber.

“No. We heard the noise and I was sent to investigate.”

“All is well, and you may tell her Majesty so.” He took Jack by the arm and steered him toward his chamber. With a backward tilt to his head, Julian followed after him. The woman continued to glare in their direction even as Jacob closed and bolted the door, resting his forehead against it.

He took a breath and faced Crispin, gesturing toward his arm. “Let me dress that.”

Crispin glared at Julian who sneered back at him.

“You attacked my father.”

“I was merely silencing him. He announced my name in the corridor. Do you know what would happen to the lot of you if I were discovered here?”

Julian’s eyes rounded. “What have you wrought upon us, Father?”

“Have I not told you at least a thousand times, Julian, to be still! We need this man. And for the moment, he needs our protection.”

Julian sunk to his chair with a look of despair shadowing his face.

Jacob took Crispin’s good arm and led him back to his chair by the fire.

Crispin squeezed the wound shut, scowling at Julian who was slowly shaking his head. He supposed he couldn’t begrudge the youth for protecting his father. Jack might have done the same for him. In fact, Jack was still holding the bloody knife and he was trembling. “Jack,” he said softly.

The boy turned. His brow was stepped with worry lines.

“Put the knife aside. I am in no danger.”

Jack looked toward Julian, but Crispin shook his head. “No, I am in no danger.”

With care, Jack lowered the knife to the sideboard and snatched the wine jug. “Master?”

“Need you even ask?”