The first in a series of gripping murder mysteries set in 14th-century England
1361: Orphaned by the Black Death, all John possesses are the tools that belonged to his father, a carpenter, and an uncanny ability to work wood. His travels bring him to Chesterfield, where he finds work erecting the spire of the new church. But no sooner does he begin, than the master carpenter is murdered and John himself becomes a suspect. To prove his innocence John must help the coroner in his search for the killer, a quest that brings him up against some powerful enemies in a town where he is still a stranger and friends are few. Chris Nickson brilliantly evokes the feeling of time and place in this story of corruption and murder.
|Publisher:||The History Press|
|Product dimensions:||4.70(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The Crooked Spire
By Chris Nickson
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Chris Nickson
All rights reserved.
Anno Domini 1360
He came over the rise, the bag of tools weighing heavily on his shoulder. The track snaked away in front of him, down the slope, with the soft promise of water at the bottom of the valley. Over in the woods a magpie chattered to its mate as it swooped through the branches.
The August sun was already fierce, even though midday was still four hours away. He shaded his eyes with a hand and squinted. In the distance he could make out the low roofs and the church tower of Chesterfield. Another hour and he would be there, with a dry throat and a hunger the size of England. The chantry priest in Dronfield had let him sleep on a bench the night before, but the man had possessed precious little food to share.
He strode out, stopping to drink at the stream and wet his head then cross himself for luck before striking out along the road into the town. There were few people about, but that was no surprise. Coming down from York he had often gone half a day or more without seeing a soul, his tongue and his heart aching for conversation and companionship.
When he was a child, before the great pestilence came and swept away most of the world, he felt he remembered people everywhere, a welter of conversation that filled his ears all day. He had helped his father then, beginning to learn how to make the wood do what he wanted, shaping and shaving it. But then his father was gone; his life withered to nothing in two brief days, and all John had left was the man's satchel of tools and a mind that tumbled with memories and confusion.
He could recall the crops rotting in the fields at harvest time, not enough people still alive to bring them in, and the cows lowing until they died, their carcasses stinking and covered with flies.
He had taken to the roads that autumn, not wanting to cling to the few folk still alive in Leeds. He had the beginnings of a trade and it had served him well in the twelve years since. By God's good grace he had a feel for wood. He could run his hands along the grain and understand how it should be, how to use its strength, where to cut and where to leave it.
A cart passed, going the other way, the horse plodding slowly between the traces, and he exchanged greetings with the driver, asking about the town ahead, eager for any gossip or information he could use. By the time they parted with a 'God be with you' he had learned there was work for a good man building the spire for the church, and the names of two places where he might find food and ale. Smiling, he walked on into Chesterfield, easing his way up the hill that climbed towards the church.
He glanced around with a curious eye, taking in the marketplace close to the building, then the construction of the spire itself. Groups of men were at work, the masons up high on the scaffold, laughing and joking as they laboured away, joiners busy under the shade of trees in the yard; it seemed a good site, with everyone busy enough.
He passed through, taking a turn around the town. Houses were packed tight along the streets and there was a sense of money about the place. Not wealthy, perhaps, but a comfortable little market town, and a growing one at that. The rich iron tang of blood hung in the air in the crowded streets of the Shambles, where the animal carcasses were suspended and goodwives haggled loudly with butchers over the price and quality of meat.
A few yards further, where the ginnel ended, stood another market place, the largest he had seen, bigger even than the one in York. Astonished, he stood and gazed over the space, imagining it full of traders.
He was still wide-eyed when a high voice close by said, 'You need to see it tomorrow,' and he turned quickly. The boy was no more than twelve or thirteen, not even any down on his chin yet, but he had a warm, guileless smile. His dark hair was awry around his face and he wore a cote of good cloth that was too short, as if the lad had grown too quickly.
'The market's Tuesdays by the church, Saturdays here. People come from all over for it. You're new here, aren't you?'
'Aye,' he agreed. The boy seemed harmless enough, but he still felt to make sure his purse was still attached to his belt. 'It looks like a fair town.'
'Wait until the morning,' the lad inclined his head at the square, 'you won't believe it then. You've never seen so many people,' he said, his eyes wide, then nodded at the man's satchel. 'What do you do?'
'I'm a carpenter,' the man replied. 'I thought there might be work at the church.'
'I'm sure there will be,' the boy laughed. 'They always seem to want people there.'
The answer didn't surprise him. The death had carried off so many skilled men that a craftsman could earn good money these days, before he moved on when he wanted, safe in the knowledge that there would be work ahead of him.
'I'll go over there soon,' he said.
'I'm Walter,' the lad told him and cocked his head questioningly. 'What's your name?'
Walter smiled happily and nodded once more. He started to leave, but then looked back.
'Do you need somewhere to stay John?'
'I do,' he replied. 'Do you know of a place?'
'Ask for Widow Martha on Knifesmithgate.'
'Thank you, I'll do that.'
And with that Walter waved and ran off, moving across the empty marketplace with the effortless grace of the young.
John tried to pat the worst of the dirt and dust from his cote and hose, then made his way back to the church. He watched the workmen for a minute before asking one of the masons for the master carpenter.
'Over there,' the man pointed, staring at the stranger with open curiosity while he drank from a mug. 'They say he's not easy to work for.'
'I'll survive; I've had hard masters before.'
The master carpenter was bent over, planing down a length of oak, sawdust and small curls of wood caught in the sweat and hairs of his broad forearms. He was stripped to shirt and hose, the skin on the back of his neck red and angry.
'What do you need?' he asked without glancing up.
'I'm looking for work,' John said.
'You and a hundred others lad,' the man answered.
'I'm a carpenter.'
'Oh aye? Where did you apprentice?' He ran the plane along the beam again, then felt the surface delicately with his fingertips.
'I started with my father in Leeds,' John explained, 'then the sickness took him. I've been on my own since then.'
The man stood up and faced him, assessing him coolly. He was small but with the breadth and thick strength gained from a lifetime of labour, his short hair heavily flecked with grey, his lips clamped in a thin line.
'Let me see your hands.'
John held them out, palms upright to show the callouses of work.
'Turn them over.'
He did as he was ordered, displaying the many small scars that stood out on his skin.
'What's your name?' the man asked.
'And where did you work last?'
'York. At the Minster.'
'Oh aye?' The man said doubtfully and ran a hand across his chin. 'No shortage of jobs up there for them as is willing.'
'Could keep busy till Judgement Day, most likely,' John agreed.
'So why did you leave?'
He reddened. 'A lass's father thought I ought to marry her. We had words.'
'No.' He shook his head. 'I left in the night on Lammas Eve. It was best to move on.'
The man nodded then inclined his head at the satchel.
'Let me see your tools.'
John lifted the flap. The leather was old and scarred, and over the years he had mended the strap more times than he could count. But he had never been tempted to replace it. He remembered his father carrying it, the sound of it banging against his hip as he walked, looking down at his son and smiling.
'Old but good,' the master carpenter said. 'Now let's see what you can do with them.' He gestured at a pile of offcuts thrown into a corner. 'Make me a mortise and tenon.'
'Can I have a drink first?' John asked. 'Been a long walk in the heat.'
The man chuckled. 'Go on, then. The barrel's there. I'll come back in a few minutes.'
He slaked his burning thirst with two mugs of the small beer then set to work. He picked up a piece of the wood – good, well-seasoned oak – and caressed it tenderly, rubbing along the grain before setting it aside. Within a minute he'd selected the pieces he wanted, knowing they'd fit together well.
He worked quickly. The wood told you what it wanted, if a man knew how to listen. That was what his father had always said, and John had learned the lesson well. He made his marks carefully then worked with chisel and saw, each stroke deft and sure. He forgot all the sounds around him, absorbed in the task until it was done and he stood up, coming back to the world.
He watched as the man inspected the joint, easing it apart then pushing it back in place, checking how closely the two pieces fitted together before nodding.
'It's fourpence halfpenny a day and all your ale. A penny less in winter, if you last that long.' He extended his hand and John took it, shaking it to give his agreement. 'You can call me Will. But I'll give you a piece of advice, lad.'
'What's that?' John asked as he rubbed the tools with an oiled cloth before putting them away.
'Keep your pizzle in your braies round here and don't get any of the lasses with child. They have a temper on them, do Chesterfield men.'
John grinned. 'I'll remember that.' He cast an eye over the building. 'What church is this, anyway?'
'St Mary's, dedicated to Our Lady. Right, you start at daybreak and –' before he could say more there was a loud cry from the other side of the yard. Will ran towards the sounds, fast and agile. John slung his bag over his shoulder and followed, curious.
Two men were facing each other, one holding a knife, the other with a long cut along his forearm that dripped blood onto the grass. Will strode between them, pushing them both back. John came up quietly behind the man with the knife, clamping his hand around the man's wrist, tightening his grip until the weapon fell from his hand. The man turned with pure fury in his dark eyes. He had thin, bony features; his lips were curled in a sneer, the heat of anger boiling off him.
'Get him bandaged up and send him home for the day,' Will ordered, as two of the workers led the injured man away. He turned to the one who'd wielded the knife. 'And you, you've been nothing but trouble since I took you on.'
'He went for me.'
'I don't give a rat's arse what he did.' Will stood close, his spittle landing on the man's face as he spoke. 'I'll not have you here anymore. And you'll not be paid for today.' The man opened his mouth to speak but Will cut him off. 'Get yourself away from here and you'd better just hope Stephen there doesn't swear out a complaint against you.'
The man stood defiantly for a moment, then bent to retrieve his knife and walked away.
'Is it often like that?' John asked.
Will shook his head. 'They're good lads, for the most part. Loud when they've been paid, but that's life. There's always one, though. Anyway, start at daybreak, work until sunset. Be here in the morning and not a slug a bed like some of this lot.'
'I will,' John promised.
'You did well there,' Will added quietly. 'Where did you learn that?'
John shrugged, 'Around.'CHAPTER 2
All of Chesterfield knew Widow Martha, it seemed. The first man he asked readily gave him the direction to her house, taking time to praise her as a good Christian woman.
'I'm told she takes in lodgers,' John said.
'One or two, maybe.' The man looked him up and down, eyes taking in the plain russet cote, old hose, and dirty boots that had covered too many miles in recent days. 'But she's choosy.'
'Well, happen she'll choose me,' John answered with a broad smile. 'God be with you.'
The house on Knifesmithgate was the only one with its ground-floor shutters closed tight against the day. All along the street, cutlers had their wares on display, windows open to the day, the sound of grinding metal and voices spilling out into the light.
He knocked on the door, licking his fingertips and running them through his hair to try to tame it as he waited.
Widow Martha was a small, stooped woman, not even reaching to his shoulder. Her hair was hidden neatly under a crisp, clean wimple, a green wool dress over her round frame, and she was wearing a dark surcote in spite of the warmth. But it was her eyes that he really noticed, pale blue and calm, as clear and sparkling as any young girl.
'Good day to you, Mistress,' he said politely. 'I am told you take lodgers.'
She gazed at closely him before she replied, 'And who told you that?' Her voice was light, teasing, a touch of music in her words.
'A boy called Walter.'
Her glance moved to his satchel. 'Are you working on the church?' she asked.
'I am, Mistress. Just arrived here and hired.'
'How long do you intend on staying?' A smile played across her lips. 'I know you young men, you're here one week, gone the next.'
'As long as the work lasts,' he told her, 'and it seems like there's plenty there yet.'
'So they say,' she agreed. 'There's still the spire to go on the tower.' She paused. 'What's your name?'
She nodded. 'And do you keep the gospels, John?'
'Not always,' he admitted wryly, although she had likely guessed it already.
She stepped aside, holding the door wide. 'Come in,' she said, 'you're welcome enough. There's a place for you here, if it suits you. Call me Martha.'
He stepped through an empty workshop, to a small, neatly kept hall with two benches against the walls, and a well-polished table and small joint stool in the middle of a floor covered in fresh rushes and lavender. A rough wooden staircase led up to the solar. The back door stood open, trying to draw in a cool breeze, looking out on the long burgage plot of the garden, heavy with vegetables.
'How do you know Walter?' Martha asked, sitting calmly on the settle.
'I met him near the marketplace,' he told her, nodding his approval at the house. 'Are there really enough traders to fill all that space?'
'You should go down one Saturday and see for yourself,' she told him with a smile. 'Walter must like you. He wouldn't have recommended you here if he didn't think you were trustworthy.'
'He'd barely met me two minutes before,' John protested.
'Don't you underestimate that boy,' she chided gently. 'He might have young shoulders, but there's a wise head on top of them and a good heart inside. He does jobs for me when I need them. He only lives round the corner with his mother and his sisters.'
'What do you charge for lodging, Mistress?'
'It's threepence for a week, tuppence more if you want your food too. I keep the sheets clean and changed regularly. The food's filling, even for a working man.'
'I'll stay,' he said, digging in his purse for five small silver coins.
'It's a good house, if I say so myself,' Martha said, closing a small fist around the money. 'I've been here nigh on thirty years now. My husband was a cutler – God rest his soul – and I couldn't bear to leave after he died.'
* * *
The room was small, tucked away at the back of the house, with an unglazed window looking over the garden and out across the long valley to the north. He sat on the bed, feeling the firm straw and the sheet crisp against his touch. A small chest stood open against the wall; he placed the satchel carefully inside it before using a small cake of lye soap to wash his hands, face and feet in a ewer, enjoying the delicious coolness of the water then drying himself on the scrap of old linen Martha had given him. There was ample daylight left, time enough to go and explore Chesterfield properly. Instead he stretched out, hands behind his head, and let sleep carry him away.
* * *
The morning was a thin, pale band on the horizon when he woke. He pulled on his boots, picked up the tools and tried to move quietly through the house. But Martha was already there by the front door, fully dressed, her face half-lit by the flame of a tallow candle.
'Here,' she said, passing him a small package wrapped in old fabric. 'You had no supper, so there's something for your dinner.'
'Thank you, Mistress,' he answered in surprise. 'That's a kindness.'
'Oh, get on with you,' she told him kindly. 'And I told you to call me Martha. Everyone else does. There's a market today, just tell me if you want me to buy you anything.'
'Bread and cheese, if you would.' He began to open his purse but she just shook her head. 'Pay me tonight.'
As he walked down the street he could hear people moving around behind their doors, the day already beginning. Over in the churchyard small groups of men stood together, some going over to the barrel to fill their mugs with ale.
He looked around in the gloom, finally spotting Will by the church, staring up at the tower.
'Good morning, Master,' he said. 'What do you want me doing today?'
'There's work up there,' Will told him. 'We need to finish reinforcing the ceiling in the top room. Next week we start work on the spire.' John followed his gaze, trying to picture it. Already it seemed tall enough. 'It'll be more than two hundred feet high when we've finished. People will see it for miles around.'
Excerpted from The Crooked Spire by Chris Nickson. Copyright © 2013 Chris Nickson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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