An intriguing medieval mystery featuring Brother Athelstan
February, 1381. London lies frozen in the grip of one of the bitterest winters on record. The ever-rising taxes demanded by the Regent, John of Gaunt, are causing increasing resentment among the city’s poor. When the seething unrest boils over into a bloody massacre at a splendid Southwark tavern, The Candle Flame, in which nine people, including Gaunt’s tax collectors, their military escort and the prostitutes entertaining them, are brutally murdered, the furious Regent orders Brother Athelstan to get to the bottom of the matter.
For not only has Gaunt’s treasure trove been stolen, he has reason to believe a French spy is active along the Thames, carefully recording for his masters in the Louvre the state of English war cogs. And a professional assassin, Beowulf, who has sworn vengeance against Gaunt and his minions, also stalks the shadows. Once again, Athelstan must enter the murky world of murder, where the darkness constantly shifts and no one is who or what they seem.
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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Being the Thirteenth of the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan
By Paul Doherty
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2014 Paul Doherty
All rights reserved.
'Flesh-Shambles': butchers' yard.
'Oh City of Dreadful Night!' Athelstan whispered. The Dominican parish priest of St Erconwald's in Southwark, secretarius atque clericus – secretary and clerk to Sir John Cranston, Lord High Coroner in the City of London – could only close his eyes and pray. Once again he and Sir John were about to enter the treacherous mire of murder. The hunt for the sons and daughters of Cain would begin afresh; God only knew what sinister paths their pursuit would lead them down. Athelstan's olive-skinned face was sharp with stubble, his black-and-white gown not too clean, his sandals wrongly latched, whilst his empty belly grumbled noisily. The little friar, his dark eyes heavy with sleep, had been pulled from his cot bed by Cranston, who now stood behind him. The coroner had been most insistent. The Angel of Murder had swept The Candle-Flame tavern and brushed many with its killing wings. Edmund Marsen, his clerk, two whores and five Tower archers had been brutally murdered. The gold and silver, harvested south of the Thames and intended for the ever-yawning coffers of John of Gaunt had been stolen. Thibault, master of the Regent's secret chancery, had sent that raven of a henchman Lascelles to rouse Sir John to discover what had happened and, above all, recover the looted treasure.
Athelstan stood just within the wicket gate leading into the Palisade. He peered through the misty murk at the forbidding donjon, the Barbican, and, beyond it, the expanse of rough land which stretched down to the piggeries and slaughter pens.
'Lord,' Athelstan whispered, 'I am about to enter the domain of murder. If I become so busy as to forget you, do not thou forget me.' He crossed himself and turned to where Cranston stood in hushed conversation with the burly taverner Thorne. Two great hulking men, though Mine Host was clean-shaven and more wiry than the generously proportioned coroner. Both men wore close-fitting beaver hats and heavy military cloaks. Cranston had whispered to his 'good friar', as he called Athelstan, how he and Thorne had both served in France under the Black Prince's banner. Thorne was a veteran, a captain of hobelars who had secured enough ransoms to make him a wealthy man and buy The Candle-Flame.
'Sir John,' Athelstan called, 'we should shelter from the cold and view this place of slaughter.' All three walked over to the remains of the campfire, where a few embers glowed and sparked. Athelstan crouched down, staring at the shifting heap of grey ash.
'A cold night,' he murmured. 'Yet this fire has not been fed for hours.' He rose and walked over to the corpses of the bowmen, knelt between them, closed his eyes and whispered the words of absolution. Opening the wallet on the cord around his waist, he pulled out the stoppered phial of holy oil and sketched a cross on the dead men's foreheads. Their skin was ice cold; the blood which they coughed up through their noses and mouths was as frozen as the congealed mess on their chests. Both men had been armed but there was little evidence that they had used the weapons lying beside them.
'They were killed. I am sorry.' Athelstan held up a hand. 'They were murdered, foully so, in the early hours. The fire has burnt low, their corpses are icy to the touch and their hot blood is frozen.' Athelstan pointed into the darkness. 'Their assassin crept very close.' Athelstan indicated the blackjacks drained of ale and a half-full waterskin lying near the corpses. 'These two unfortunates were crouching, warming themselves by the fire enjoying their drink. They would make easy targets against the flame light.' Athelstan sighed, sketched a blessing in the air and rose to his feet. He stared around at a bleak, stark stretch of land frozen hard by winter, the trees stripped of leaves, their empty branches twisted, dark shapes against the light and that Barbican, solitary and forbidding.
'Executions take place here, don't they?'
'Yes, Brother,' Thorne replied. 'By ancient charter the Palisade must serve, when required, as a gallows field.'
'It's certainly a field of blood,' Cranston declared, bringing out the miraculous wineskin from beneath his cloak and offering this to Thorne then Athelstan. Both refused. The friar stared at the larger-than-life coroner. Sir John stood legs apart, white hair, beard and moustache bristling, beaver hat pulled low, almost covering those large, bulbous blue eyes which could dance with glee, though Sir John was not so merry now. Athelstan could sense the shadow lying across his great friend's generous soul. London bubbled and crackled with unrest. The dirt and filth of the city's restless soul was being stirred. The monster within, the city mob, was honing its greedy appetite as well as its weapons. John of Gaunt was plotting a military expedition, a great chevauchée against the Scots. Cranston and others feared that once Gaunt left for the north the Great Community of the Realm would make its move. The Upright Men would raise their red and black banners of revolt and London would slide into bloody strife and turmoil. Cranston had already sent his buxom wife, the Lady Maude, together with the two poppets, their twin sons Stephen and Francis, into the country for shelter. Cranston's personal steward with the coroner's great wolfhounds, Gog and Magog, had followed, leaving Sir John alone. As for the future? Athelstan gnawed his lip. He agreed with Sir John: London would burn and he knew from chatter amongst his parishioners that Gaunt's palace of the Savoy would be the scene of a great riot. Athelstan had begged his portly friend that when this happened Cranston would seek sanctuary in the Tower. The coroner had gruffly agreed, as long as Athelstan joined him. Ah, well ... The friar felt beneath his cloak to ensure his chancery satchel was secure.
'We should go,' Cranston called out, stamping his feet. 'Murder awaits us.' The taverner led them across to the Barbican with the white-faced, shivering Mooncalf trailing behind. Athelstan pushed against the heavy oaken door, stepped into the lower storey and stopped in shock at the slaughterhouse awaiting them. Fresh candles had been lit. Lantern horns flared, a flickering, eerie light which sent the shadows shifting. Athelstan blessed himself and walked across. He stopped to dig at the fresh rushes covering the floor and, despite the foul odours which polluted the air, caught the spring freshness of newly crushed herbs.
'There is no trapdoor to any cell below?' he asked. 'No secret passageway or tunnel?'
'None, Brother,' Thorne replied. 'The only entrance from outside is the door or the window on the second storey. There's a trapdoor to the upper chamber where you will find another which leads out on to the top of the tower.' Athelstan walked across to the ladder on the far side of the chamber. He carefully climbed up, pushed back the trapdoor and clambered into the upper storey. He immediately closed his eyes at the savagery awaiting him. Four corpses, two men and two women, lay tossed on the rope matting covering the floor. The candlelight dancing in the freezing breeze through the half-open window made the chamber even more of a nightmare. Athelstan opened his eyes. For a few heartbeats he had to fight the panic welling within him, a deep revulsion at seeing human flesh hacked and hewn, sword-split, gashed, their lifeblood thickening in dark-red, glistening puddles. 'Jesu Miserere,' he whispered and climbed back down the ladder. Athelstan took a set of Ave beads from his wallet. He just wished the others would stop staring at him. He wanted to be away from here. This macabre tower reeked of blood; it was polluted by mortal sin. Demons gathered close, their wickedness souring the air. He wanted to flee; to be back in his little priest house sitting on a stool before a roaring fire with Bonaventure, the great one-eyed tomcat, nestling beside him. He needed to pray, to kneel in the sanctuary of St Erconwald's ...
'Brother?' He glanced up. Cranston offered him the miraculous wineskin, his red, bewhiskered face all concerned, the beaver hat now pushed well back. Behind the coroner stood Thorne, one hand on Mooncalf's shoulder. The taverner shuffled his boots and stared around at the murderous mayhem. Athelstan smiled. He could feel his own panic easing. He refused the wineskin and sat down on a stool. He let his cloak slip and loosened the straps of the chancery satchel across his shoulder. He found it comforting as he took out a tablet of neatly cut vellum sheets and uncapped the inkhorn and quill from their case on the thick cord around his waist. He put this on a nearby stool and made himself comfortable. He felt better. So it begins, he thought. He stood in murder's own chamber. All was chaos and confusion within. He would, with God's own help and that of Sir John, impose order, some form of harmony. He must apply strict logic and close observation to achieve this.
'Very well, Sir John.' He looked up. 'Tell me, what have we seen?'
Cranston bowed mockingly as he now broke from his own mournful reverie. He recognized what his little friar was doing and he rejoiced in it. Murder was about to meet its match, mystery its master.
'Well, Sir John?'
'Two corpses outside,' the coroner declared, 'both killed by crossbow bolts. They were clear targets in the firelight. It would take no more than a few heartbeats. Three corpses in here,' Cranston intoned solemnly. 'All Tower bowmen; they were relaxing – boots off, leather jerkins untied. According to Mooncalf the front door was locked and bolted and so was that trapdoor from the other side. There is only this.' The coroner went across into the shadows. He opened a narrow door and peered into the shabby closet which served as the garderobe and housed the jake's pot. 'Definitely been used.' He came back wrinkling his nose.
'And that drains off where?' Athelstan glanced at Thorne.
'Into an old sewer deep beneath the ground,' Mine Host shrugged, 'not really big enough for a rat. The garderobe would serve all who would stay here.' Athelstan put down his writing tablet and went across to inspect. The garderobe was cold and stinking, the jake's hole built into the cracked wooden seat fairly narrow.
'Nothing,' Athelstan murmured to himself and smiled, 'could come out of there except for foul smells.' He walked back into the chamber studying the floor and walls. 'This is hard, close and secure,' he declared, 'as any dungeon in the most formidable castle. Who built it?'
'The present king's great, great grandfather,' Cranston replied. 'Such buildings will appear in my chronicle of the history of this city.'
'Why?' Athelstan asked. 'I mean, why a fortified tower like this?'
'It served as a guard post on the Thames, a place of refuge and a weapons store in case French galleys and war cogs appeared along the river. We could do with such defences now,' Cranston continued. 'Rumour has it that the French are mustering hulkes, even caravels, off Harfleur.' Athelstan thanked him and went over to inspect the corpses of the three archers. He had already decided on what he would do with the murder victims. Now he concentrated on learning all he could. The dead were of different ages though somewhat alike in looks: heads and faces closely shaved, skin weathered by the sun, they wore braces on their left wrists, leather jerkins over ragged fustian shirts, leggings of buckram and threadbare woollen stockings, and tawdry jewellery which glittered on their wrists and fingers. They had apparently drawn swords and daggers; these lay close by, tinged with blood. The weapons had proved no defence against their ferocious body wounds.
'Did you strike your assassin?' Athelstan murmured aloud. 'How could such veterans be so easily despatched?' Athelstan steeled himself against the agony of death which contorted their faces in a last hideous grimace as they fought for their final breath. The barrel tables and stools had been overturned. The corpses lay in different positions across the chamber, indications of an assassin who had managed to divide his opponents. Athelstan walked around the room tapping at the wall, stopping to inspect the chafing dish full of spent ash. The archer's cloaks and bundles of clothing had been spread out to form makeshift beds. He could tell by the creases and folds that they had been lying there when the assassin struck. Athelstan crouched and went quickly through their saddlebags and pouches. He found nothing untoward, just the paltry remnants of professional soldiers – men who had wandered far from their woodland villages to serve in the royal array then stayed to seal indentures for military service in this castle or that. He rose and continued his inspection. On a bench table near the wall empty platters were stacked, stained horn-spoons, a small tun of ale, still quite full, and bowls of dried fruit and congealed spiced capon. Athelstan stooped and sniffed the platters but could detect only the sharp tang of spices and herbs. Around the room lay tankards; he picked one of these up and observed the dregs, but he could smell nothing tainted. Meanwhile, Cranston and Thorne remained deep in conversation whilst Mooncalf stood rubbing his arms and stamping his feet. Athelstan called him over.
'Fetch a wash tub.' He smiled at the ostler's blank gaze. 'A wash tub,' he repeated. 'An empty one. I want you to collect the tankards, the aletun, bowls and platters and put them in it along with any scraps or dregs.' Athelstan dug into his purse and handed over one of his precious pennies. 'Do that,' he urged, 'and keep them safe. Collect the same from the camp outside and, once I have inspected it, the upper chamber. Do you understand?' Mooncalf nodded and hurried off, ignoring his own master's shouted questions.
'He has got work to do,' Athelstan called out. 'Now, Master Thorne, Sir John.' Athelstan paused, his gaze caught by a large bowl of water with ragged napkins beside it. He went across and stared down at the dirt-strewn water.
'The lavarium,' Thorne called out. 'The water was once clean and hot. Brother, what do you want me to do?'
'Master Thorne, Sir John?' Athelstan picked up a dagger and weighed it in his hands. 'You have fought in battles. Each of you is, I suppose, a master-at-arms. Have these weapons been used recently in a fight?' Cranston and Thorne needed no second bidding. Taking up some of the fallen blades they pointed to the scrapes, the streaks, the nicks on the steel and the flecks of blood around their hilts and handles. Athelstan nodded as Cranston explained his conclusion that the weapons had been used very recently. Athelstan shook his head in amazement.
'Why, Brother?' Cranston asked. 'Do you think all this,' he gestured around, 'is a mummer's play, some masque staged to mock and hide the truth?'
'It's just a thought,' Athelstan replied. 'But that's impossible. So, let us view the upper storey.' They climbed the ladder through the trapdoor into the more luxurious solar of the Barbican. The rounded walls were plastered white, rope matting covered the floor and there were cushioned stools, candle holders and a triptych celebrating the Passion of St Sebastian. Nonetheless, the chamber reeked of the same hideous stench as the chamber below, whilst the ghastly sight of four corpses, brutally cut and hacked, chilled the blood and darkened the soul. Athelstan blessed the room before walking around. He noted the wine jugs, goblets, tankards and platters of congealed food; the tankards were clean, whilst the small cask of ale stood untouched.
'Marsen cursed me,' Thorne declared. 'Said he did not want my stinking ale, only the best Bordeaux out of Gascony.'
Athelstan heard Mooncalf busy below. He went to the trapdoor and shouted that once the ostler was finished he must join them. The friar then moved from corpse to corpse. Thorne pointed out Marsen garbed in a costly gown. The tax collector was sprawled against the wall drenched in his own heart's blood, an ugly white-faced, red-haired man with a thick moustache and straggly beard. He looked grotesque, all twisted, squatting in his own dried blood. Mauclerc lay on his back, fingers curled as if frozen in shock at the wounds which sliced his flesh. The two whores, their scarlet wigs askew, gaudy painted faces now hideous, had been despatched into the dark with deep lacerating cuts. The two women were unarmed. Mauclerc had drawn a dagger which lay near him, but there was nothing to suggest that Marsen had time to protect himself.
'The exchequer coffer.' Cranston pointed across to where the chest, its concave lid thrown back, perched on a table stool. 'My Lord of Gaunt,' Cranston grumbled, 'will be furious, not to mention Master Thibault.' Athelstan studied the coffer closely. It was fashioned out of sturdy wood reinforced with iron bands. He had seen similar in the exchequer and chancery of his own mother house at Blackfriars. The chest was slightly marked but sound, its heavy lid held secure by stout hinges: it would be difficult to force when clasped shut by its three locks, yet there was no sign this had happened.
Excerpted from Candle Flame by Paul Doherty. Copyright © 2014 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,
Prologue – 'Bloodletting': A Technique to Restore the Humours,
Part One – 'Flesh-Shambles': Butchers' Yard,
Part Two – 'Via Dolorosa': The Way of Anguish,
Part Three – 'Lollard': Old Dutch Word for a Mutterer or Stammerer,
Part Four – 'Mattachin': A Mimed Battle Dance,
Part Five – 'Mainpernor': Surety for Someone Under Arrest,