Exeter, 1195. During renovations at the new school in Smythen Street, funded by Crowner John's brother-in-law Richard de Revelle, a semi-skeletalized body is found in the loft of an outhouse. The coroner is called in to investigate. When the dead man is identified as the missing treasurer of the guild of Cordwainers, de Revelle immediately puts the blame on a young outlaw—a Cornish knight named Nicholas de Arundell—whose Devon manor de Revelle had illegally appropriated while Arundell was away at the Crusades. The ex-sheriff claims the body was dumped there to discredit his new school. The investigation takes on greater urgency when another guild-master is found dead on the road from Tavistock to Exeter. Is Nicholas de Arundell, the "noble outlaw," really responsible? Or could there be another culprit entirely?
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The Noble Outlaw
A Crowner John Mystery
By Bernard Knight
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2007 Bernard Knight
All rights reserved.
Exeter, December 1195: in which Crowner John goes back to school
Even Thomas de Peyne, still squeamish after serving for more than a year as coroner's clerk, found little to upset him in the appearance of this particular corpse.
What little flesh that could be seen reminded him more of the cheap dried cod that hung from the fishmongers' stalls than of a human being. The leathery face and shrivelled hands protruding from the mouldering clothes looked unreal, like some amateur woodcarving.
'Been here some time, Crowner!' boomed the broad Cornish accent of Gwyn of Polruan, the coroner's officer and right-hand man. 'Dried up like an old boot, not a trace of corruption about him.'
They stood with their master in the back yard of a house in Exeter's Smythen Street, a lane that ran down to Stepcote Hill and the city wall in the southern part of the city. It got its name from the number of smiths' forges and metal-working shops that lay along its length, though a few of the burgages, like the one they were in now, had recently been turned into places of education.
Behind the main building, which fronted on to the street itself, was a yard with a large outhouse which had been the forge. A square box, it was built of cob plastered on to woven withies held between oak frames. It had a large chamber at ground level, where until recently the furnace and anvils stood. The old forge was roofed with stone tiles, as thatch was too hazardous to use so near the flames and sparks of a smithy. Under this roof lay a loft formerly used for storing iron rods and strips, reached by a crude ladder in the corner. It was there that the corpse had been discovered an hour earlier, before being dragged down to the yard – causing the short-tempered coroner to be incensed even before he had started his investigation.
'For God's sake, does no one ever obey the law?' snapped Sir John de Wolfe, glaring at the discomfited James Anglicus, the magister of this establishment, one of the new schools in Smythen Street. 'When a dead body is found, it must be left exactly where it was until a coroner can view it in its original surroundings!' He scowled around at the gaping onlookers. 'Who was the First Finder?' he rasped irritably.
Magister Anglicus, a mournful, middle-aged man in a long cassock of clerical appearance, pointed at a stringy artisan of about the same age, his fustian tunic tucked up between his bare legs and held in place by a leather belt. 'Roger Short here discovered the cadaver. He's the builder that is turning the old forge into another lecture room for me.'
Roger touched his grubby woollen cap in deference to the coroner. 'Proper shock it was, sir,' he gabbled, displaying a mouthful of rotten black stumps. 'I went to pull up those old boards that floor the loft, to give more headroom. There was a heap of old wood in the angle between the roof rafters and the floor. When I pulled it out, I found him lurking behind.' He jabbed a thumb towards the body lying on the ground. 'My labourer and me hauled him down the ladder straight away, sir. We didn't know we wasn't supposed to, but no one could have got at him up there, tucked tight under the eaves.'
James Anglicus hurried back into the dialogue, anxious to head off any further criticism. 'Straightway I sent my servant Henry up to the castle to inform either you or the sheriff, Crowner. I could see no point in raising the hue and cry, when obviously this poor creature has been dead for months!'
The hue and cry was supposed to be implemented whenever a crime was discovered, the four nearest households being knocked up to pursue any miscreant found red-handed at the scene. John de Wolfe recognised that in this case, Anglicus was entirely right; it would have been a waste of effort. He gave one of his all-purpose throat clearings in response and bent over the sad remains of the man that lay on the dusty ground. Gwyn, the red-haired giant who had been his servant and trusted companion for two decades, came to crouch on the other side of the corpse, prodding the hardened skin of the face with a finger the size of a pork sausage.
'Who the hell is he, I wonder?' he growled.
'Could he be a Musselman, with that dark complexion?' ventured Thomas timidly, keeping his distance but fascinated by the strange appearance of the cadaver.
'He's not dark, he's just dried up,' snorted de Wolfe. He motioned to his officer, and Gwyn began trying to remove the clothing from the pathetic bundle. The dead man was curved almost into a ball, with his legs drawn up and his head bent down into his arms.
'Rigid as a plank, Crowner!' he complained. 'Not ordinary death stiffness, he's just dried into a bundle of sticks. I'm afraid of breaking him in half if I try too hard.'
John de Wolfe dropped to a crouch himself and started to help Gwyn lever off the brown woollen tunic which was peppered with moth holes and nibbled by mice. It ripped easily, which at least helped them to clear it from the body, revealing blue serge breeches underneath.
'Is it seemly to render the poor fellow naked out in the open?' asked James Anglicus rather pompously.
'We'll not expose his nether regions here, but I need to know if he has injuries that would make this a felony,' snapped the coroner.
'I assume he crawled into the loft and had a stroke or seizure, poor fellow,' persisted the magister, anxious to distance his school from any criminal activity.
The coroner and his henchman ignored him and began looking at the dead man's head, back and chest. Gwyn lifted him over on to his other side, picking him up as if he were a feather. 'Weighs no more than a spring lamb!' he observed. 'All the substance has dried out of him.'
The corpse's face had shrunk down to a mask of skin, tightly stretched across his jaw and cheekbones. The eyes had collapsed into almost empty sockets and the brittle lips had drawn back into a grinning rictus, revealing large, crooked teeth.
'Plenty of hair left, though,' observed Gwyn, ruffling a brown thatch which sat above a neck shaved up to a horizontal line level with the top of the ears, a style introduced by the Normans many years earlier.
'More than you can say for some of the skin,' grunted de Wolfe. 'Look at the back here.'
From the neck down to the waist, more on the left side, the surface of the body had fared much worse than the face and hands. Decomposition had destroyed much of the skin, exposing ribs and spinal bones. The wet rot had dried up eventually and there was no unpleasant foulness left, but the sight made the sensitive Thomas hurriedly avert his gaze.
'No sign of injury, Crowner. No stabs, slashes or a smashed head,' said Gwyn in a somewhat disappointed tone. 'Maybe he did suffer from some sort of seizure.'
De Wolfe climbed to his feet again, uncoiling his long body which, as usual, was dressed all in black and grey. James Anglicus, who had never met him before, regarded this powerful man warily, as he was second only to the sheriff in the hierarchy of the county law officers. He saw a tall man with a predatory, slightly menacing stoop as he hovered over those around him. His jet black hair, still untouched by grey at the age of forty-one, was swept back unfashionably low to his collar and was matched in colour by the dark stubble on his cheeks; he was days away from his weekly shave. A long face and big, hooked nose were relieved by full, sensual lips and deep-set eyes beneath heavy brows.
'What happens next, sir?' asked the teacher anxiously. He wanted this thing off his premises as soon as possible, concerned that he would be blamed by his patron for bringing the college into disrepute.
The coroner rasped his fingers over the bristles on his chin, a mannerism that seemed to stimulate his thought processes. 'Cadavers are usually taken up to the castle to await burial, but as we have no idea who this fellow is, I'll hold an inquest here. That old forge is as good a place as any to keep him out of the rain or snow.'
James Anglicus was aghast. 'That's not possible, my students will be back from their devotions at the cathedral in an hour,' he blubbered. 'Their instruction cannot be disturbed for some ancient corpse.'
De Wolfe glowered. 'Administering the king's peace is more important than gabbling Latin at a bunch of youths,' he snapped. 'If necessary, I will order the whole house to be cleared while we search it.'
The pedagogue stepped back a pace, conscious of the angry glint in the coroner's dark eyes, but managed to stammer a last feeble protest. 'My patron will be most disturbed to hear of this. The school is in its formative days and most vulnerable to adverse gossip.'
It was clear from de Wolfe's expression that this plea made little impression on him, but grudgingly he followed it up. 'What exactly is this place? And who is this sensitive patron of yours?' He knew that in recent years, seats of learning had been set up in a number of towns to offer a higher level of education than those provided by the cathedral schools, which were mainly concerned with teaching youngsters to read and write and with training older boys for the priesthood.
'I was appointed to lead this establishment three months ago, Crowner,' began James importantly. 'It is the most recent of the four schools in this road, chosen for its proximity to Priest Street, where so many of the cathedral clerics lodge. Most of our pupils are clerks in holy orders at various levels, the majority of them quite young men.'
De Wolfe nodded impatiently. 'And who is this patron of whom you speak? Does he own the school and run it like any other business?'
The magister was indignant. 'Profit is of little importance, sir. Naturally, each student pays fees, but the prime motive is the education of young minds. Our patron has expended much money and effort in setting up this temple of learning. Any breath of scandal might harm his ambition to attract more students.'
'But who is this paragon of virtue?' demanded John, weary of the teacher's long-windedness.
James Anglicus stared at him in some surprise. 'I would have thought you would be well aware of that, sir. It is your own brother-in-law.'
De Wolfe never gaped, but at this news, his jaw came close to sagging. 'Richard de Revelle!' he exclaimed incredulously. 'You're jesting with me, surely.'
'Indeed I am not,' exclaimed James indignantly. 'Sir Richard is a man of high academic ambition – he most earnestly seeks to establish Exeter as a seat of learning.'
And as a seat of profit for himself, thought de Wolfe cynically, though grudgingly he had to acknowledge that his brother-in-law was well-educated. In fact, Richard never failed to rub it in to John that while the latter was illiterate, Richard himself had attended the cathedral school in Wells, his parents having originally wished him to enter the Church. John shrugged and turned back to the body on the ground.
'It makes no difference to whom the place belongs, magister. There was still a corpse found on the premises and I have to deal with it in the usual way.'
A few flurries of snow were twisting in the cold breeze: both living and dead needed to find some shelter. John gestured to Gwyn and with little effort, the Cornishman picked up the flimsy bundle and carried it back through the wide doorway of the forge, kicking aside some tools and boxes to make space for it on the cluttered floor. John and the builder followed him inside, and Thomas and James Anglicus tagged along more reluctantly, together with a fussy, pompous fellow who the magister had earlier introduced as Henry Wotri, his servant and general factotum in the school.
'We can shut this door and leave the deceased here until my inquest,' announced de Wolfe, indicating the rickety collection of planks that hung on rusted hinges. 'Then you can carry on with your lessons in the house undisturbed for the time being.'
'When will that be?' quavered the master, his morose features looking even more depressed.
'Certainly not today; we first need to make some effort to discover who he was,' snapped the coroner. 'My officer and clerk will make some enquiries around the city and then I will probably call a jury together either tomorrow or Wednesday.'
He stared down at the twisted figure on the ground. 'At least we should do our best to put a name to him and avoid burying him in an unmarked grave, though I doubt we'll ever know how he died.'
For once, Sir John was soon to be proved wrong.
The coroner and his two assistants were in John's chamber in the gatehouse of Rougemont, Exeter's castle built in the northern angle of the ancient town walls. It was a bleak room high in the narrow tower, a draughty cell with two unglazed window slits looking down over the city, as Rougemont itself was at the highest point of the tilted plateau that rose from the River Exe.
De Wolfe sat at a rough trestle table, which together with a bench and a couple of milking stools, was all the furniture in the room. Thomas de Peyne sat on one of these stools at the end of the table, copying out documents on to rolls of parchment, while Gwyn perched in his habitual place on one of the stone windowsills.
There was a metallic clatter from the table, as de Wolfe played with something on the boards in front of him. Thomas stared at the rusted object, a crudely shaped nail about the length of his little finger. One end was sharply pointed, the other fashioned into an irregular head.
After laying the corpse down in the old forge, the coroner and his officer had decided to make a closer examination in the hope of finding something to explain the death. Though they stripped the shrivelled body to examine every inch of its surface, they found no wounds at all until Gwyn looked at the back of the neck. Here skin and muscle had been lost so that some of the bones of the spine were exposed. Stained yellowish-brown by dust and dirt, they seemed unremarkable until Gwyn's sharp eyes noticed a darker brown nodule nestling between two vertebrae. Unable to remove it with his fingers, watched by the others he used the point of his dagger to lever at this alien lump, before drawing out a full three inches of metal that had been jammed between the bones. Now, as it rested on the table, John poked at it pensively with his forefinger.
'When men fall from a warhorse or a hayrick and break their backs, even when they survive, they often lose all feeling and motion in the legs – sometimes even arms as well,' he ruminated. 'So whatever is contained in the spine must be mightily important – and having this nail stuck through it must be a devilishly dangerous matter.'
Gwyn stroked his red moustaches, which hung down to his collarbones. 'When I worked as a slaughterman in the Shambles years ago, the poleaxe sometimes missed the back of the head and hit the beast high on the neck – but they seemed to drop dead just as effectively.' The sensitive Thomas winced and Gwyn, who could never resist baiting his little friend, turned the screw. 'Inside the neck was a thick white cord, joined to the brain. Very tasty it was, dropped in a stew with some turnips and onions.'
As the clerk blanched at the thought, de Wolfe picked up the nail and turned it in his fingers. 'This hammered through that white cord would kill, I have no doubt. If not immediately, then within a short time, as those who break their backs never survive for long.'
'Could it be an accident, Sir John?' asked Thomas, his mild nature hoping as always for an innocent outcome.
Gwyn laughed raucously. 'Accident? How the hell could he get an iron nail three inches deep into the back of his neck by accident? You'll be saying next it was suicide.'
'He could have fallen backwards, on to a plank that had a projecting nail,' hazarded the clerk stubbornly.
'So where's the plank? It's not still nailed to the back of his neck, is it?' jeered the Cornishman.
De Wolfe sighed and held up a hand to halt their bickering. 'He ended up hidden in that loft, so someone must have put him there. No, this is murder, but until we discover who the fellow might be, I don't see how I am even going to start finding his killer.'
Their clerk still worried away at the problem. 'Why should a man stay still while another hammers a nail into his neck?' he demanded.
'Maybe he was asleep – or dead drunk,' suggested Gwyn.
Excerpted from The Noble Outlaw by Bernard Knight. Copyright © 2007 Bernard Knight. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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