Brother Athelstan’s Canterbury pilgrimage is disrupted by brutal murder in the latest absorbing medieval mystery.
Summer, 1381. The Great Revolt has been crushed; the king’s peace ruthlessly enforced. Brother Athelstan meanwhile is preparing for a pilgrimage to St Thomas a Becket’s shrine in Canterbury to give thanks for the wellbeing of his congregation after the violent rebellion.
But preparations are disrupted when Athelstan is summoned to a modest house in Cheapside, scene of a brutal triple murder. One of the victims was the chief clerk of the Secret Chancery of John of Gaunt. Could this be an act of revenge by the Upright Men, those rebels who survived the Great Revolt?
At the same time Athelstan is receiving menacing messages from an assassin who calls himself Azrael, the Angel of Death? Who is he – and why is he targeting a harmless friar? Could Athelstan’s pilgrimage be leading him into a deadly trap?
About the Author
Paul Doherty studied History at Liverpool and Oxford Universities, and is now headmaster of a school in Essex. He is the author of more than eighty historical mysteries including the Hugh Corbett, Mathilde of Westminster and Canterbury Tales medieval mystery series.
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A Pilgrimage to Murder
By Paul Doherty
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Paul Doherty
All rights reserved.
Azrael: the Four-faced, Four-winged Angel of the Abyss
Athelstan, Dominican friar and parish priest of St Erconwald's in Southwark, moved his ave beads from one hand to the other.
'Strangulation,' he repeated, 'is mentioned in the Book of Tobit, where it describes how the Archangel Raphael chased a demon to Alexandria and strangled it there.' He crouched down beside the corpse of John Finchley, a minor clerk who used to work in the great, grey bulk of Newgate prison. A handsome young man in life, even pretty featured, Finchley had been transformed into a hideously gruesome spectacle by the wire-like garrotte string wrapped tightly around his throat. The clerk's face was almost blue-black, eyes popping, his stained, swollen tongue thrust between yellowing teeth and thickening lips. The shock of death had loosened both bowel and bladder and the stench was noisome. Athelstan tried to ignore this as he whispered the 'I confess' on behalf of the dead man before delivering swift absolution. The church taught that in many deaths the soul could linger for some considerable time close to the corpse, its lifetime place. Not all souls moved directly into the light, so the souls of the dead could still be absolved of sin.
'And the young woman?' Sir John Cranston, Lord High Coroner of London, tapped Athelstan gently on the shoulder and pointed to Felicia Kempton who, caught swiftly and savagely by death, lay in the corner of the room as if gently placed there after the assassin had finished with the garrotte string around her once smooth, unwrinkled throat. Athelstan moved across, swiftly administered the last rites then stood up.
Cranston had remained just within the doorway, his beaver hat off, and his plump, cheery white face, even the thick white hair, moustache and beard, seemed to bristle with good humour. Cranston's ever-dancing light-blue eyes were full of merriment. Swathed in his usual bottle-green cloak under which he concealed the ever-full, miraculous wineskin, the coroner exuded Pax et Bonum to the world and its wife. Athelstan knew the reason why. The Great Revolt had been crushed, the King's peace ruthlessly enforced, and Sir John Cranston, or 'Merry Jack' as he referred to himself, was about to be reunited with his buxom wife the Lady Maude, his twin sons the Poppets, Francis and Stephen, not to mention his wolfhounds, Gog and Magog, and all the other members of the Cranston household. Some months earlier Cranston had removed his nearest and dearest from the city and placed them in the green fastness of the countryside behind the high curtain wall of a fortified manor where they were instructed to remain until the great tumult in the city was resolved.
'Time passes, time changes,' Athelstan declared, 'but murder never rests.' The friar gestured around the small solar of Simon Mephan's narrow house in Milk Street, not far from the bustling markets of Cheapside. 'Murder does not reckon time,' he continued, 'or wait for this or that. The Great Revolt may be crushed but the nightmare phantoms and the mocking ghosts will not leave us in peace ...'
Athelstan paused as Cranston's burly bailiff Flaxwith, along with his constant companion Samson, whom Cranston secretly called 'the ugliest mastiff in the kingdom', a judgement which in all truth Athelstan could not contradict, came clattering down the stairs. Flaxwith hurriedly whispered in Cranston's ear.
'Yes, yes,' the coroner agreed. 'Brother, shall we bring Mephan's corpse down?'
'No, I need to view it as it is.' Athelstan and Cranston followed Flaxwith back up the narrow stairs and into the bedchamber which stood to the right of the stairwell. Simon Mephan, an elderly man, sat slumped over his chancery desk.
'He is dead as a nail,' announced the dark-featured physician. Cranston closed the bedchamber door behind him, and the physician, Limut, wiped his hands on a napkin and threw it on the desk. 'I have examined Simon most carefully.' Athelstan caught the slight accent of another tongue and wondered if Limut was French or Spanish. 'Indeed,' the man continued, 'I know Master Simon very well. I am his family's physician, as I am for other notable households in Farringdon ward. I have, like the good Lord, scrutinised his bowels and his heart.' The physician smiled slightly at his own joke. 'The very humours of the man.'
'In which case, Master Physician, what is the cause of death?' Athelstan enquired. 'How was he murdered?'
The physician, lips all pursed, wrinkled his nose and studied the little Dominican from head to toe, as if memorising every detail of this friar: dark-eyed, his olive-skinned face cleanly shaved; the black and white robe he wore rather shabby, and bound by a piece of frayed cord; scuffed but stout, thick-soled sandals on his bare feet. The Dominican held Limut's gaze, his full lips slightly parted as if on the verge of a smile, large eyes unblinking in their stare. Athelstan was vigorously threading a set of ave beads through his surprisingly long fingers, but he paused at the sudden booming of a bell.
'The hanging bell,' Cranston declared. 'They are taking the condemned from Newgate to the gallows over Tyburn stream.'
'And someone else,' Athelstan murmured, still holding the physician's gaze, 'will be making that same journey for the nightmare here. Now, my friend,' Athelstan's face creased into a smile as he pointed at the dead man slumped in his chair, 'is that murder?'
'Yes and no,' the physician replied. 'The young man and woman downstairs were garrotted, and expertly so.' He paused as Cranston made sure the door behind him was shut and went over to sit on the bed.
'Look.' The physician walked around the desk and tilted Mephan's head back so Athelstan and Cranston could more clearly see the half-open mouth, the glassy-eyed dead stare and the highly discoloured facial skin, especially around the mouth and jaw. 'To put it succinctly,' Limut explained, 'Simon Mephan died of heart failure. His heart just gave way which,' he let his hand drop, 'is perfectly understandable. Master Mephan's heart was not strong; he was becoming more frail and weak by the month. The shock of what happened downstairs ...' The physician shrugged and pulled a face.
'Yes, just what did happen downstairs? Sir John, Master Limut, bear with me.' Athelstan crossed to the door and turned. 'Master Physician, might I know your first name?'
'Giole.' The physician smiled. 'It's Spanish. I am from Castile.' Athelstan stared at the physician, a neat, precise man, clean-shaven, his black hair combed back and clasped in a tail behind his head. Giole sported a silver ring in one earlobe, and jewels glistened on his wrist and fingers. He was dressed soberly, though Athelstan suspected the dark robes were of pure wool and the supple boots of the finest Cordovan leather. Limut smiled at Athelstan's close scrutiny. 'Brother?'
Athelstan raised a hand. 'I am sorry, Giole, but looking at you, I see a reflection of myself.' He walked over, hand outstretched, and the physician clasped it warmly.
'Yes, Brother, there is a likeness, I agree. You must meet my wife Beatrice, my son Felipe and daughter Maria. I am sure they will agree there is a likeness between us.'
'There certainly is!' Cranston chortled from where he sat on the bed cradling the miraculous wineskin. He unstoppered it, took a generous mouthful and encouraged the physician to do likewise.
Athelstan refused, beckoning both men to follow him. They went downstairs and into the solar guarded by Flaxwith, Samson and one of the other bailiffs. Athelstan walked into the chamber and stared around. Everything seemed to be in place, no disturbance or disarray. Cups, flagons and goblets, all polished and clean, stood on a small, gleaming table. The white rope matting on the floor was in place and Athelstan could detect no recent stains. The lock on the money box or tally casket, however, had been smashed, its concave lid thrown back. This was the only other sign that hideous violence had taken place – that and the two corpses sprawled gruesome and grisly in their agonising death throes. Athelstan pinched his nose at the foul smell.
'Have the corpses moved as soon as possible. Well, Sir John, Master Giole, how did this occur? What do we know?'
'From what I understand,' Cranston replied, 'a neighbour leaving for the Jesus mass at St Mary Le Bow noticed the lanternhorn outside had not been lit and the front door was off the latch. An honest, God-fearing woman, I know her well. She came in and saw this horror, then she raised the alarm. The hue and cry were proclaimed and the sheriff's men summoned, then they sent messages to me and for Master Giole.'
'I arrived with my son Felipe,' the physician explained, 'and we met Sir John, who said he had sent for you, Athelstan.'
'Every man's death is significant, Sir John, but why were you summoned?'
'Mephan is – was – a senior clerk in the Secret Chancery of my Lord of Gaunt. He worked for Thibault, Gaunt's Master of Secrets, whom we know so well. Now the revolt maybe crushed,' Cranston shook his head, 'but, following any fierce fire, embers still glow. In a word, the sheriff's men wondered, as I do, if this was the work of the Reapers.'
'Who?' Limut demanded.
'The Reapers,' Cranston repeated. 'Really, the Upright Men wearing a different hood and carrying a different banner. The Great Revolt is over. The Community of the Realm has been shattered and the Upright Men, its principal adherents, are dead, fleeing for their lives or imprisoned. The same goes for their street warriors the Earthworms. They are like ears of corn, shattered, crushed and dispersed to the four winds. The Reapers are the remnant, a so-called secret society composed of Upright Men and a few captains of the Earthworms.'
'Ah yes, I have heard of them,' said Athelstan. 'They write out proclamations and nail them to the doors of churches, full of threats and menaces.'
'True,' Cranston agreed. 'Their proclamations have even been pinned to the doors of the Guildhall. The Upright Men are no longer interested in bringing about God's commonwealth or transforming London into the Holy City of the Apocalypse. They simply want revenge on all those who have crushed their dreams, defeated their levies and hanged and disembowelled their comrades. Mephan could be their victim. After all, he is in the retinue of Thibault, the regent's henchman and dark-souled companion. Consequently, if the Reapers do exist, perhaps they marked Mephan down for death whilst the other two were simply killed to silence them. And yet ...'
'And yet what, Sir John?'
'Nothing for the moment, little monk.'
'Little friar, Sir John!'
'God be with you all,' Cranston retorted. 'But Athelstan, tell us why you have brought us down here.'
'Well,' said Athelstan. 'The front door was off its latch, not broken or damaged, true?' Cranston agreed. 'And no disturbance was heard?' 'None, little friar,' Cranston replied. 'Flaxwith has already made enquiries. Nobody heard or saw anything out of the ordinary.'
'What was the situation here?' Athelstan asked. 'I mean the household?'
'According to the local gossip, Felicia was the maid and John Finchley was Mephan's lodger, but he also acted as his private clerk or scribe. Others claim both were homosexual, that Simon loved young men. Isn't that true, physician?'
Limut pulled a face and spread his hands. 'Sir John, I know very little about my patient's private life, and what I do know is of little interest to others.'
Cranston continued blithely, 'Finchley was dedicated to his master, I understand. Both he and Felicia lived here. Now, before I despatched Tiptoft to fetch you, I had a good look around, but I could find nothing in this narrow, rather plain house to explain these murders, how they occurred or why.'
'Quite so.' Athelstan crouched down beside the dead clerk. 'Here lies a young man, and there sprawls the corpse of a young woman. Both of them vigorous and strong, both garrotted. Their assassin used a piece of fine twine which he left around their necks. He probably carries such deadly strings in a purse on his belt. Now I believe that the assassin was known to his victims. He rapped on the door and was welcomed in.' Athelstan stood up. 'And that's when mystery descends like a mist. Look, Sir John, Master Giole. Two young people garrotted. Did they struggle or kick out? Upset furniture? Try and escape? Scream, shout?' Athelstan shook his head. 'There is not a shred of evidence that they did so.'
'Could they have been drugged?' Cranston queried. 'We have seen that happen before.'
'I smelt no wine on their breath,' the physician declared. 'Nor have I seen any used goblet, cup or jug of wine. Perhaps there might be something in the kitchen or, more probably, the garden – we should go there.'
'The assassin must have arrived before nightfall, before darkness descended. Look.' Athelstan picked up a candelabra; each of the spigots held a primed candle. 'These haven't even been lit.' He returned to the two victims and examined their fingers and wrists and scrutinised their clothing. 'It's true,' he sighed, 'no sign of resistance or struggle on either of them or around them. The breaking of that tally coffer is the only noticeable damage, or theft, to their property. Well, as far as we can establish.'
'Indeed, very clever,' Cranston commented. 'I suspect the assassin took coins but nothing which could be traced back.'
Athelstan, who'd glimpsed rings and bracelets on the dead Felicia, murmured his agreement. He rose, left the solar and went down a stone-paved passageway smelling of rosemary and thyme, which led into the kitchen with its adjoining buttery. The kitchen was clean: the fleshing table had been well scrubbed, and the small ovens either side of the mantled hearth had been swept as was the hearth itself. Herb pots had been filled with crushed plants and a vase on a ledge sported a few roses, whilst the horn-filled windows had been scrubbed clean of flies and other insects. Fire irons on the hearth were dust-free, polished and neatly arranged.
'A clean, tidy house.' Athelstan spoke over his shoulder to Cranston and the physician who had followed him in. Athelstan walked into the buttery: on its table was a leg of cured mustard-glazed ham, a pipe of Spanish wine, a platter of manchet bread rolls, a dish of spiced sauce and a bowl of chopped vegetables next to a tray with three goblets and a jug of white wine, all covered by a fine linen cloth. 'They were preparing for their evening meal,' Athelstan murmured to himself.
'And given the weather, eating it outside,' the physician declared.
'We should go out there,' Athelstan suggested.
He walked across the scrubbed kitchen floor and out through the door leading to a fairly large garden: a perfect square bounded by the house, the other three sides being lined with bushes and trees, probably preserved from when that part of London was still farmland. The garden, like the rest of the house, was neat and orderly. The grassy plots and hedgerows were clipped, the customary three partitions into kitchen garden, flower bed and herb plot all clearly set out. The garden also boasted a small carp pond fringed with lilies and luxurious reeds as well as two garden bowers with flowers growing over the outside and comfortable turf seats within. Leaving Cranston and the physician chatting in the doorway, Athelstan walked across and stared down at the golden carp darting in ripples through the water.
His name was called in a hoarse whisper. The friar started as the corpse of a magpie, a garrotte string wrapped around its throat, was tossed onto the paving before him.
'Be ye warned, Athelstan, be ye warned. Now and in the future.'
The friar shaded his eyes against the dazzle of the strengthening sun which cut through the foliage and bushes in sharp shafts of light, then he glimpsed it, a shadow darker than those thrown by the trees though using them to stay concealed. The sinister figure moved a little closer, becoming distinct enough for Athelstan to make out a black cloak, a cowl and a face mask as well as a small arbalest, primed and ready, its barbed bolt winched back.
'Sir John!' Athelstan yelled. He heard the click of the crossbow and the bolt whirled through the air to shatter against the wall of the house. Cranston shouted and lunged forward, the physician with him. Athelstan glanced back. He heard a crackling in the fringe of trees and realised his sinister visitor must have scaled the curtain wall and fled. Athelstan crouched down and picked up the feathery, soiled corpse of the magpie and showed it to Cranston. After he had briefly explained what he had seen and heard, he placed the magpie down on the grass, walked to the fringe of trees and then came back.
'Brother, if what you describe appeared last night to Mephan and his two companions, it would have caused consternation and panic.'
'I agree, Sir John,' Athelstan replied. 'The hue and cry would have been raised to shouts of "Harrow! Harrow!" I don't think Mephan's assassin appeared like that. So why return to bait us dressed so threateningly, acting so menacingly? Unless, of course, we are wrong and he did the same yesterday evening just before dark. Did he invade this garden then swiftly and silently strike at Finchley and Felicia? Was he interrupted by Simon Mephan who fled upstairs? The attack and Mephan's flight were all too much for the old clerk and, in sudden terror, his heart gave way. All this is logical and possible, except for the reappearance of the assassin this morning in such circumstances.'
Excerpted from A Pilgrimage to Murder by Paul Doherty. Copyright © 2016 Paul Doherty. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Selection of Titles from Paul Doherty,
PART ONE: Azrael: the Four-faced, Four-winged Angel of the Abyss,
PART TWO: The Master of the Secret,
PART THREE: The Sooty Stink of Satan,
PART FOUR: Venenum: a Hideous Poison,
PART FIVE: The Matins of Midnight,
PART SIX: If Only We Could Trap Him: Death is Dead,
PART SEVEN: For the Love of Gold is the Root of all Evil,
PART EIGHT: A Hymn to the Night and the Gathering Dark,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Liked the new Spanish characters & angle from Castille.