Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #General
December 1354 – Cambridge may be preparing for the season of festivities, but physician Matthew Bartholomew is about to spend
the twelve days of Christmas searching for a killer …
The winter of 1354 is as bad as anyone can remember: as heavy snow smothers the countryside, ice chokes the flour-mills, causing
the price of food to spiral upwards once more. But however cold the weather gets, for two individuals it is about to get even
colder. A drunken attempt at blackmail by Norbert Tulyet, errant scholar of the Franciscan Hostel of Ovyng, leaves him dead
at the hostel door. And in St Michael’s church a second unidentified body holds an even greater mystery.
For Bartholomew and university proctor Brother Michael, the murders would be difficult to solve at any normal time of the
year. But now they’ve got to deal with the students electing their annual Lord of Misrule, ushering in a period of chaos.
And if that wasn’t enough, Bartholomew has a further serious distraction to deal with. Philippa Abigny, who he was once betrothed
to, has returned to Cambridge with the man for whom she left him, the merchant Sir Walter Turke.
Walter and Philippa are on a pilgrimage to Walsingham for Walter to atone for a sin – in a heated dispute with a dishonest
merchant, Walter defended himself and his assailant died. Bartholomew hopes that the couple’s stay will be brief, but he is
about to be sorely disappointed. For not only does the mysterious body in church turn out to be Walter’s servant, but a brutal
turn of events ensures that Walter will never leave Cambridge again …
A PLAGUE ON BOTH YOUR HOUSES
AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE
A BONE OF CONTENTION
A DEADLY BREW
A WICKED DEED
A MASTERLY MURDER
AN ORDER FOR DEATH
A SUMMER OF DISCONTENT
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2003 Susanna Gregory
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
To Charles Moseley
HE WINTER THAT GRIPPED ENGLAND WAS THE WORST
anyone could remember. It came early, brought by bitter north winds that were laden with snow and sleet. The River Cam and
the King’s Ditch – usually meandering, fetid cesspools that oozed around the little Fen-edge town like a vast misshapen halo
– froze at the end of November, and children made ice skates from sheep bones. Both ditch and river thawed soon after, but
not before claiming two lives: a pair of boys rashly ignored the ominous cracks and increasing slushiness, and plunged through
the treacherous surface to their deaths.
At the beginning of December came the first heavy snows, smothering the countryside with an ivory blanket and transforming
the brown desolation into a landscape of dazzling, pillowy white. As the snow continued unabated, buildings and trees disappeared
beneath drifts. Because winter had come so early, people were unprepared. They had not cut enough firewood, stored enough
vegetables, salted enough meat or ground enough grain. Ice choked the mills, and prevented them from satisfying the demand
for flour. The price of food – already high after the plague that had ravaged the country five years before – began to spiral
More than one family perished when the soft powder crusted over and sealed roofs or blocked chimneys, so that smoke from their
fires suffocated them while they slept. Beggars, stray dogs and even folk tucked up in their beds froze to death during the
night, and were found dusted silver by frost’s brittle fingers. Others fell victim to shivering
agues, or hacking coughs that seared the lungs. Others still broke bones on the icy streets or were crushed by skidding carts
or horses. Some refused to allow the weather to interfere with long-laid plans, and set out on journeys from which they never
returned: they failed to take into account that icy blizzards could suck warmth and vigour from weary bodies, and make them
long for rest among the downy-soft drifts at the sides of the roads – rest that turned into sleep of a more permanent nature.
Josse knew he was taking a risk by travelling from London to Cambridge when the weather was so foul, but he was young, strong
and confident. He was a messenger by trade, a man who made his living by carrying written and spoken communications from one
person to another. The early winter had been a boon for him, since his services had been in demand by people wanting to inform
others about changes of plan brought about by the storms. Usually, Josse confined his business to London, where he lived,
but he had been paid handsomely to deliver the letter from the Thames merchant to the Cambridge friar, and half a noble was
not a sum to be lightly declined.
The journey of sixty miles would usually have taken a good walker like Josse two or three days. But the snows had slowed him
down, and by the sixth day of travelling he had only reached the village of Trumpington, still two miles from Cambridge. He
was frustrated by the time he had lost: buxom Bess at the Griffin Inn back at home had agreed to wait for him, but he knew
it would not be long before she grew lonely and allowed another man to warm her bed. Bess would inherit the Griffin when its
current owner died, so it was more than mere lust or affection that was driving Josse to complete his mission and return with
As he ploughed through the drifts, his feet felt like lumps of ice, and his legs ached from lifting them high enough to step
forward. The lights of Trumpington’s tavern gleamed enticingly through the sullen December day, golden rays of warmth in a
world that was cold and white. He decided to
rest, reasoning that an hour with a goblet of hot spiced ale in his hands would give him the strength needed to finish the
journey before dusk. It was just after noon and, although the days were short, he still had about three hours of good daylight
left – more than enough to allow him a brief respite from his journey. He pushed open the creaking door of the Laughing Pig,
Because ploughing and tilling were impossible as long as snow covered the ground, the tavern was filled with men. They were
pleased to see a new face, and the taverner provided Josse with free ale in return for news from London. Josse was good at
telling stories, and more time had passed than he had intended by the time he rose and said his farewells. The landlord tried
to stop him, claiming that more snow was expected and that the road had been all but impassable earlier that day, but, with
the arrogance of youth, Josse shook off the man’s warnings, donned his cloak and set off down the Cambridge road. The landlord
watched him go, then poured himself a cup of mulled ale, grateful that
was not obliged to undertake such an unpleasant journey.
Josse had second thoughts himself almost as soon as the landlord closed the door, shutting off the comfortable orange glow
from the tavern and leaving him in the twilight world of black and white. However, he told himself that almost two weeks would
have passed by the time he returned to London, and that Bess had a short memory. He hefted his pack over his shoulder and
began to plough clumsily through the drifts.
The landlord had not been exaggerating when he said the stretch of road between Trumpington and Cambridge would be the worst
part of the whole journey; it was not long before the effort of walking had the messenger drenched in sweat. Josse stopped
for a moment to catch his breath, but the wind whipped around him, freezing the clammy wetness that trickled down his back.
He started moving again, slowly and wearily. The day began to fade, dusk coming early because of the heavy-bellied clouds
that slumped darkly overhead.
Fearfully, Josse began to wonder if he would ever reach Cambridge, and acknowledged that he should have listened to the landlord
after all. His leg muscles were burning and his back aching, so he turned his mind to what celebrations might be held that
evening to observe the feast of St Josse. He gave a thin smile and muttered a prayer. The saint for whom he was named would
watch over him.
Soon, the darkness was complete. Clouds blotted out any light that might have come from the moon, and it began to snow, great
stinging flakes that hurt his eyes and pricked his face like sharp needles. He sank to his knees, and felt the first hot tears
of panic roll down his cheeks.
Then he saw a light. Eagerly, he staggered towards it, hope surging within him. St Josse was watching over him after all!
The light came from a lamp swinging outside a priory chapel: the friars had evidently anticipated that there might be travellers
on the road, and the torch was a beacon to guide them to warmth and safety. His chest heaving with the effort, Josse reached
the priory, then plunged on to where other lights gleamed in the winter darkness.
He passed a noisy tavern with a crude drawing of a man wearing a crown swinging over the door. The King’s Head, Josse surmised.
Its occupants were singing lustily, yelling one of the bawdy songs that were always popular around Christmas time. Near the
inn was a sombre building with a red tiled roof, which Josse supposed was one of the Colleges. Scholars were a rebellious,
unruly crowd, and Josse was heartily glad there was no university developing in the area of London where
planned to live. A board pinned next to the sturdy gate told him that the College was called Peterhouse.
Next to Peterhouse was a church. A sharp new statue of the Virgin Mary stood on a plinth atop what was clearly a recently
finished chancel, her blank stone eyes gazing across the road and her hand raised in benediction. An older, chipped statue
stood forlornly down in the churchyard, and Josse recognised the characteristic square face and curly
beard of St Peter. Here was something that had happened frequently since the plague: an old church – in this case St Peter’s
– rededicated to St Mary, because many believed she was more likely to intercede on their behalf should the pestilence ever
But it was no time for thinking about the Death and the changes it had brought, because Josse had at last reached the town
gate. He started to make plans, his terror at almost being swallowed by the storm already receding. First, he would deliver
his letter to the friar, then he would find a cosy inn, hire a pallet of straw near the fire and sleep until dawn the following
day. And then he would set off towards home – to London, Bess and her tavern.
He hammered on the gate, hoping that the guards had not gone home early, secure in the knowledge that no sane person would
want access to the town on an evening when a blizzard raged. He was in luck. The sergeant on duty was Orwelle, a reliable
man who slept little because his dreams still teemed with memories of the Death – especially of the dear son he had lost.
While his companions dozed, Orwelle usually stayed awake, idly rolling dice in games of chance against himself. He had finally
managed to banish the chill from his feet, and was not pleased when a knocking meant that he was obliged to go outside.
Because it was bitterly cold, and Orwelle did not want to spend longer than was necessary away from the fire, his questioning
of the messenger was brief. He asked to see the money that Josse carried and, satisfied that he could pay for his needs and
would not beg, Orwelle opened the gate and allowed him inside.
Josse made his way up the High Street, drawing level with another of the town’s Colleges, this one identified by a long and
complex name that was carved into the lintel over the door. The title involved guilds and saints, and Josse could not make
sense of the snow-filled letters. Someone, however, had taken a piece of chalk and had written a simple ‘Bene’t College’ next
to it. Josse rested there for a few moments,
catching his breath and offering another prayer of gratitude to St Josse for a safe deliverance while he fingered the letter
he was going to deliver.