The deceased was an armorer whose death officials rule to be a suicide, but Guest immediately sees evidence of foul play. During his investigation he runs into Sir Thomas Saunfayl, an old acquaintance from his knighthood days, frantically searching for the armorer. It seems the dead man was bargaining with Sir Thomas for the Spear of Longinus, the weapon used to pierce the side of Christ on the Cross, which grants invincibility to its owner. After his friend Geoffrey Chaucer arrives in London, all too eager to help find the spear and conduct clandestine meetings with powerful figures, Guest soon finds himself trying to solve a conundrum of many parts, all centered around the same dangerous and potent holy relic. With the spear now missing and more murders occurring, Guest, together with his loyal apprentice Jack, must use his sharp wiles to find it and piece together the truth in a world of political intrigue, treachery, and murder.
With evocative period detail and an unforgettable cast of characters, Blood Lance is the exhilarating fifth volume in the Crispin Guest medieval noir mystery series. It was one of the “Top 10 Hot Crime Novels” for Fall 2012 selection at Kirkus Reviews.
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Crispin Guest sneezed again and wiped his reddened nose on the grayed scrap of cloth he kept tucked in his belt. As he trudged over the mist-slickened lane, his tired eyes rose to a bright full moon riding on a froth of night clouds. The light's reflection shimmered off the black Thames as it churned past the piers of London Bridge. A few windows of the shops and houses lining the bridge's span still glowed from candle flames, but most were dark. It was late. Sensible citizens were already abed. Crispin shivered. Pity he was no longer one of the "sensible citizens."
He gripped his cloak tighter. Illness was miserable in any season, but this October night seemed particularly icy. He did not recall Octobers being as cold as this but perhaps the winds were changing. Summers were colder, winters longer. First it was plague and now this. Why was God so angry? Was not his anointed on the throne of England?
He coughed, trying to quiet it with his palm.
Crispin thought about the throne, about King Richard. Times had changed since the boy came to the throne and Crispin was cast from court. The king was nearing his majority. Soon he would be twenty-one and his handlers would have to step aside.
Crispin's boot slipped on the slimy paving. He swore and righted himself. Yes, Richard might still be a young man, but Crispin was nearing thirty-two and sometimes he felt far older. He'd just finished a particularly rough job with a difficult client. It had been quite a puzzle finding that stolen necklace. Were all families so greedy and calculating, forging lies and deceptions behind masks of fawning compliments and false loyalties? He was glad to be orphaned, then, if that was what it meant to belong to a dynasty, even if it was a dynasty of wealthy grocers.
A half-smile formed on his chapped lips. It had been a good puzzle, though, and well-deserved coins clanked in the money pouch at his side. If he could avoid the Watch he could get home with a decent purse for a change. He hoped Jack had something warm on the fire, though he felt almost too weary to eat. Perhaps some warmed wine. That would fill the cold hollow in him.
The Shambles seemed farther than ever but he could not make his weary limbs hasten. Thirty-two. He couldn't be an old man yet! He had many good years ahead of him, surely. Look at Lancaster. He was ten years older than Crispin and there he was, off on a campaign to Spain. If Crispin still possessed his title, he would most likely have been on the road with Lancaster, one of the many thousands of valiant knights he had taken with him to the continent. Crispin would have been armed and ready for battle with the others, not weary and sick.
He stopped and turned toward the Thames, watching the lights from the bridge play on the rippling waters. Certainly he was just as fit as before, but how could that be true when exhaustion plagued him from so short a walk across Westminster to London? There had been a time when he had practiced with his sword all afternoon. Battles would go on for hours with few breaks. His muscles used to revel in the exertion.
Of course, that had been almost a decade ago ...
"God's blood," he whispered. "A decade? How can that be?"
Nearly ten years since he picked up a sword in battle? Ten years? He supposed he was fit enough for a man whose limbs had forgotten how to balance a blade. Fit enough to recover the jewelry of vain women and protect the households of undeserving men.
He sneezed again and snuffled.
He should be the one at Lancaster's side in Spain. It would have been him if only ...
No. No sense going down that deadly path in his thoughts. There was enough to worry over now. All of London feared the imminent threat of a French invasion and there was no lack of soldiers on the streets trying to keep order. Four months ago the king had declared that all London's citizens were to stockpile a three-month's supply of food, and prices had risen, fostering panic. King Richard and his minions were little better than street vendors when it came to controlling the populace. And where was Lancaster when you needed him? In Spain! Of all the foolish enterprises. Mustering all the chivalry of England to invade Spain while France watched and calculated, awaiting the moment to strike. How much more ransom did Lancaster need? How many more titles? For the first time, Crispin grumbled at his former mentor, perhaps begrudging too much the man's endless ambitions.
Disgusted, Crispin turned away from the placid Thames, determined to hurry home ... and ran right into the Watch for his trouble.
The three men were just as surprised to come across Crispin as he was to find himself face-to-face with them.
The first man held aloft a burning cage of coals hanging from a staff. He stepped forward, showering light and embers on all their faces. "The evening bell has been rung," he said. He was young, face barely flecked with traces of a blond beard. "What are you doing abroad?"
"Harken," said his dark-haired companion, a poleax resting upon his shoulder. "Don't you know who this is?"
Crispin waited, tensing. Three against one and they were far better armed. He was damned if he was going to give up any of his hard-earned coins for fines or bribes.
"This here's the Tracker." He spit the word. "Heard of him? He's the man the sheriffs are always nattering on about." Lazily, he switched the poleax to the other shoulder. "He's a man who finds things. Even finds criminals, they say. Brings them to the hangman."
The others looked at Crispin anew, eyes bright under their kettle helms. Crispin realized they were all quite young, perhaps only as old as the king. But it wasn't admiration in their gaze.
"So," said the one with the poleax. His grip tightened over the staff and he set the butt of it into the mud. "'Tracking' tonight, are we?"
"Aye," said the one with the light. "What poor innocent have you swindled good coin from?"
"I assure you," Crispin answered with gritted teeth, "that they were no innocents. And I do not swindle. I earn my coin with hard work. Not by harrying men on the streets."
The one with the poleax frowned. "'Harrying' you? Are we harrying him, lads?"
The one with the cresset grinned. The flames from the burning cage made his teeth gleam. "Not yet, we haven't."
"He's definitely breaking the law," said the other. "All good citizens know well enough to be indoors after the bell and in such a time as this."
The third man, silent till now, drew his sword and pointed it in Crispin's direction. "That's true enough."
Crispin's hand inched toward his dagger. "Is this how London's Watch conducts itself? Like ruffians?"
"I think he's up to no good," said the torchbearer. "And I further think he needs to be taught a lesson for his sharp tongue."
The poleax lowered toward him. Crispin grabbed it and swung both man and ax into the torchbearer. He tumbled to the ground on all fours, gasping for breath. The flaming cresset rolled into a puddle and extinguished with a hissing cloud of smoke.
The long-haired swordsman made his move. Crispin swung toward him, hands closing over the blade as if it were a quarterstaff. As the surprised man tried to pull away, Crispin leaned back with all his weight, and curled into a roll. The swordsman was vaulted into the air as Crispin braced his feet against the man's chest and tossed him, sword and all, over his head. The guard landed behind him with a hard crunch and a groan.
The torchbearer recovered and staggered to his feet, proffering his sword. The only light now was from the moon. The blade gleamed then faded with the passing whim of a cloud. He and his poleax-wielding companion flanked Crispin on either side. Crispin let instinct guide him as the men slowly closed in. Each moved his weapon, trying to decide who should strike first.
Crispin glanced back. With the discarded sword too far away, the blade currently pointed at him would have to do.
The man began a chopping stroke toward Crispin's head, but Crispin ducked under the blade and elbowed the man's sword arm up, blocking the stroke. Using the curve of his shoulder to upend him, Crispin forcefully rolled him into the poleax man. Together, they tumbled to the ground in a heap, swearing and grunting.
Now there was time to scramble for the other discarded blade ... but it was no longer discarded. The third man had recovered and with sword held high, advanced.
Crispin pulled his knife and caught the blade's downward descent with the cross guard of his dagger. With brute strength he forced the sword up and away.
Taken by surprise, the man left himself open. Crispin sneezed suddenly into his face and they both froze. Smiling apologetically, Crispin said, "Sorry," and then punched his fist squarely into the man's nose.
Down he went just as the others behind him had gained their feet.
I'm getting too old for this. Crispin huffed a rattling breath and spun, clamping his armpit over the swordsman's arm. Using that leverage, he launched his leg outward and kicked the poleax man in the chest. He went down. By Crispin's reckoning, he would not be up again.
Still clutching the swordsman with one hand, Crispin's other fist found the man's face, and with a sickening crunch and a gush of blood, he knew that man, too, was down.
The other swordsman, spitting blood, uneasily climbed to his knees when Crispin swung out, delivering his boot to the man's head. So much for him.
Panting, he felt the hot blood that had kept him fighting slowly drain away. Crispin surveyed the carnage with aches and pains slowly creeping upon him, including a bruised jaw from when his face had hit the ground. The men at his feet groaned and writhed but made no move to rise. He sheathed his knife, shook out his dagger hand, and slowly straightened. Wincing as pain shot through his shoulders, he grabbed his arm. His foot hurt from kicking and all his muscles rebelled.
Definitely not in fighting form. He groaned.
He leaned over, trying to catch his breath. He'd still have to make a run for it should they recover sooner than expected. Of course they knew where he lived so he'd still most likely have to spend the night in the sheriffs' company, but if he was very lucky and very clever, he might yet escape a fine.
He raised his head, ready to flee. Then he saw it. The moon spread the clouds and shone a bright face, shining dazzling silver over London Bridge and the Thames below. And just when the moon was at its brightest, a man — clearly a man from all his spread limbs — fell out of an upper-story window from one of the bridge's houses and plummeted into the depths of the Thames.
Crispin hesitated only a heartbeat before sprinting for the shore. "Alarm!" he yelled. "Alarm!" He slid down the stony embankment, pebbles flying in all directions. He stumbled and rolled, then righted himself and made it to the water's edge. The tide was out, and the muddy shoreline stretched wide in both directions.
He caught the movement of shutters opening but had no time to ponder it. He leaped and plunged headlong into the icy water.CHAPTER 2
Dark water closed over him. Crispin's scream was swallowed by the cold river. His head breached the surface, and he whipped his wet, black hair out of his eyes. It stuck to the side of his head as he swam forward, eyes searching the waves for the man.
"I'm here!" Crispin cried. "Where are you?"
Each rise and lowering of waves deceived, but Crispin recalled the trajectory of the man as he arced toward the water. He followed his instincts and swam toward the second pier with its wide pointed barrage. The water was so cold around him and the air so icy against his skin, he could no longer feel his own limbs, but he swam on. Vaguely, he heard more shutters opening, and shouts. He searched desperately for a flailing man, for surely he would be trying to save himself.
Ahead, a clump of seaweed lolled against the barrier but as Crispin neared he knew it was not seaweed. He swam quickly and grabbed the man, turning him over, but the face he saw was not that of an unconscious man. The eyes were wide open and the mouth full of water. He would not draw breath again.
A rope hit the water beside him and he looked up at lanterns being lowered over the side as he bobbed in the shadows under the bridge. Men were shouting at him to take the rope. With numbed fingers he tied it around the man and then looped the rest around himself and let them haul both of them up.
They rose heavily from the water. The Thames seemed reluctant to surrender them, but cascades of river water fell away as they rose slowly into the night. Crispin shivered uncontrollably now, wondering if he hadn't drowned, too. He tried to grip the rope to keep himself from spinning, but his hands were more like claws than fingers and he could not grip it. He hung like a sack, the rope clenching his chest uncomfortably, while within the embrace of the dead man.
Higher they went, the wind tracing frosty fingers over his cheeks and raking through his hair like icicles. The bright stars in the black night sky spun as he drew nearer to them.
Finally, hands took hold of him, lifted, dragged. Like some big fish, he was deposited onto the bridge and untied from his grim burden. Someone wrapped him in a blanket and he dug his face deeply into the rough wool, cheeks burning from cold. Someone else thrust a beaker of hot wine under his nose. He took it gratefully and with shaking hands, pressed it to his lips and swallowed, not caring that the hot libation seared his tongue and throat. It invigorated, and he was able to sit up without help and finally take in his surroundings.
He was on the bridge surrounded by the bridge dwellers. Men were scrambling. Some carried cressets and others proffered jugs and beakers of ale. The dead man was laid out on the ground and someone had covered him with a sheet.
"What happened?" people were asking him.
"I saw him," Crispin said, teeth chattering. He pointed to the strand. "I was there when I saw him fall from a window into the water. I went in after him."
"Poor Master Grey," said someone over his shoulder. He turned and the man looked down on Crispin kindly. "That was a gallant deed, sir. But all for naught."
"I was in the water so quickly," he protested. "I should have gotten to him in time."
"Do not blame yourself, sir. No one could have saved Master Grey. He was doomed before he hit the water."
Crispin held the steaming wine to his lips to warm them. "What is your meaning?"
"Bless me, but he said he was leaving London. Could any of us have guessed it was this way?"
"No, it was an accident, surely. I saw him fall."
"Alas, good sir. Would that it were true. But some men are weak and allow demons into their hearts."
"You can't be serious."
"Indeed, sir, I am." His voice dropped to a whisper and he angled close to Crispin's ear. "I fear that he has taken his own life."
* * *
Crisping was helped into a nearby shop and bundled before a fire. He knew he would never be warm again until he could get home to strip off his wet clothes, but he also knew he had to await the sheriffs. And now, surely, the Watch would be after him, too. Well, one problem at a time.
The sound of spurred boots clanged against the steps and Crispin braced himself. He turned, just as Sheriff William Staundon stepped over the threshold followed by his associate, Sheriff William More.
"By God's Holy Name," said Staundon. "Master Guest, what is here?"
"A dead man, my Lord Sheriff. Drowned."
"Yes," More interjected. The slight, dark-haired sheriff stood farther back than Staundon, who hovered in the doorway. "Why is it, Master Guest, that dead bodies always seem to be at your very door?"
Crispin coughed for a moment before laying a hand on his breast. "That, my Lord Sheriff, is known only to God and His angels."
More moved closer and peered from behind Staundon's shoulder. "What do you make of it, Master Guest?"
Both sheriffs were garbed in rich finery. Both were slight men, though Staundon was somewhat taller than More. They had pleasant enough faces, he supposed, for aldermen. Staundon's hair was a dull barley color and his beard and mustache seemed like an afterthought of a whitewasher's brush, swathed across his chin with little care, while More's face sported a neat, dark line of beard. Both men were ordinary in the extreme.
"One man suggests it is a suicide," said Crispin. "That the man jumped. Of this I have no knowledge. I only saw him fall from the window and plunge into the Thames. He must have struck his head upon a pier."
Both sheriffs "oohed."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Blood Lance"
Copyright © 2012 Jeri Westerson.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
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