Authors: Susanna Gregory
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
An Unholy Alliance
In 1350 the people of Cambridge are struggling to overcome the effects of the Black Death. Bands of outlaws roam the land and the high death rate among priests and monks has left the people vulnerable to sinister cults that have grown up in the wake of the plague. At Michaelhouse Matthew Bartholomew is training new physicians to replace those who died of the pestilence. When the body of a friar is found in the massive chest where the University stores its most precious documents, Bartholomew is dragged away from his teaching to investigate. But the friar’s is not the only unexplained death in town. Almost by chance Bartholomew stumbles across a derelict church, abandoned since its congregation were decimated by the plague. It is now the meeting place for a mysterious sect which holds its followers in terror, and which Bartholomew believes to be at the very heart of an astonishing web of blackmail and deceit aimed to overthrow the established religion.
ISOBEL WATKINS GLANCED FEARFULLY BEHIND HER for at least the fourth time since leaving the home of the wealthy merchant on Milne Street. She was sure she was being followed, but each time she stopped and looked behind her, she could hear and see nothing amiss. She slipped into a doorway and held her breath to control her trembling as she peered down the dark street behind her. There was nothing, not even a rat scurrying from the mounds of rubbish that lined both sides of the High Street.
She took a deep breath and leaned her head back
against the door. She was imagining things, and the recent murder of two of her colleagues in the town had unnerved her. She had never been afraid of walking alone in the dark before: indeed, it was usually when she met her best customers. She poked her head out and looked down the street yet again. All was silence and darkness. In the distance she heard the bell of St Michael’s chiming the hour: midnight.
Dismissing her fears, she slipped out of the doorway and began walking quickly up the High Street towards her home near the town gate. It was only a short walk, and the night-watchmen on duty at the gate would be within hailing distance soon. She grimaced. It would not be the first time she had been forced to give her night’s earnings to the guards in order not to be arrested for breaking the curfew. She caught her breath again as she heard the faintest of sounds behind her, and decided she would be happy to part with an entire week’s earnings just to be safely in her own bed.
She saw the pinprick of light coming from the gate, and broke into a run, almost crying in relief. She was totally unprepared for the attack that came from the side. She felt herself hurled to the ground as someone dived out of the small trees around St Botolph’s Church. She tried to scream as she felt herself dragged into the churchyard, but no sound would come. She felt a sudden burning pain in her throat and then a hot, sticky sensation on her chest. As her world slowly went black, she cursed herself for being so convinced that she was being followed that she had failed to consider whether it was safe ahead.
A short distance away, a man wearing the habit of a Dominican friar knelt in the silence of the tower of St Mary’s Church. In front of him stood the
great iron-bound box that held the University’s most precious documents - deeds of property, records of accounts, scrolls containing promises of money and goods, and a stack of loose pages recording important occurrences in the University, carefully documented by the University clerks.
The University chest. The friar rubbed his hands and, balancing the merest stub of a candle on the chest, began to work on one of the three great locks that kept the University’s business from prying eyes. The only sounds in the tower were tiny clicks and metallic scrapes as he concentrated on his task. He felt safe. He had spent several days in the church, kneeling in different parts so he could become familiar with its layout and routine.
That night he had hidden behind one of the pillars when the lay-brother had walked around the church, dousing candles and checking all the windows were secure. When the lay-brother had left, the friar had stood stock still behind his pillar for the best part of an hour to make certain that no one had followed him and was also hiding. Then he had spent another hour checking every last corner of the church to make doubly sure. He had climbed on benches to test that the locks on the window were secure and had taken the added precaution of slipping a thick bar across the door before climbing the spiral stairs to the tower.
He hummed to himself as he worked. The singing
that evening had been spectacular, with boys’ voices soaring like angels over the drone of the bass and tenor of the men. The friar had been unfamiliar with the music and had been told it had been written by a Franciscan called Simon Tunstede who was earning something of a reputation as a composer. He paused and stared into the darkness as he tried to recall how the Sanctus had gone. As it came back to him, he resumed his fiddling with the lock and sang a little louder.
The first lock snapped open, and the friar shuffled on his knees to the next one. Eventually, the second lock popped open and the friar moved onto the third. He stopped singing and small beads of sweat broke out on his head. He paused to rub an arm over his face and continued scraping and poking with his slivers of metal.
Suddenly, the last lock snapped open, and the friar stood up stiffly.
He stretched his shoulders, cramped from hunching over his work, and carefully lifted the lid of the great box. It groaned softly, the leather hinges protesting at the weight. The friar knelt again and began to sort carefully through the documents that lay within. He had been working for only a few moments when a sound behind him made him leap to his feet. He held his breath in terror, and then relaxed when he realised it was only a bird in the bell chamber above. He turned back to the chest again, and continued to rifle through the scrolls and papers.
He suddenly felt a great lurching pain. He tried to stand up, but his legs failed him. He put both hands to his chest and moaned softly, leaning against the great box as he did so. He was aware that the light from the candle was growing dimmer as the pain in his chest increased. With the tiniest of sighs, the friar collapsed over the open chest and died.
DAWN WAS COOL AND CLEAN AS MATTHEW Bartholomew and Brother Michael walked together across the College yard to the great
iron-studded doors that led to Foul Lane. As Michael removed the stout wooden bar from the wicket gate and chided the rumpled porter for sleeping when he should have been alert, Bartholomew looked up at the dark blue sky and savoured the freshness of the air. When the sun became hot, the small town would begin to stink from the refuse and sewage that were dumped in the myriad of waterways, ditches, and streams. But now the air was cool and smelt of the sea.
Michael opened the gate, and Bartholomew followed him into the lane. The large Benedictine tripped over a mangy dog that was lying in the street outside, and swore as it yelped and ran away towards the wharves on the river bank.
‘There are far too many stray dogs in Cambridge,’ he grumbled. ‘Ever since the plague. Stray dogs and stray cats, with no one left to keep the wretched things off the streets.
Now the Fair is here, there are more than ever. And I am certain I saw a monkey in the High Street last night!’
Bartholomew smiled at the monk’s litany of complaints and began to walk up the lane towards St Michael’s Church. It was his and Michael’s turn to open the church and prepare it for the first service of the day. Before the plague had swept through England, all the religious offices were recited in the church by the scholars of Michaelhouse, but the shortage of friars and priests to perform these duties meant that the College’s religious practices were curtailed. Brother Michael would pray alone, while Bartholomew prepared the church for Prime, which all the scholars would attend.
After, they would go back to Michaelhouse for breakfast, and lectures would start at six.
The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, and although there were sounds - a dog barking, a bird singing in the distance, the clatter of an early cart to the market - the town was peaceful, and this was Bartholomew’s favourite time of day. As Michael fumbled with the large church key, Bartholomew walked over the long grass of the churchyard to a small hump marked with a crude wooden cross. Bartholomew and Michael had buried Father Aelfrith here when, all over the city, others were being interred in huge pits at the height of the plague. He stared down at the cross, remembering the events of the winter of 1348, when the plague had raged and a murderer had struck at Michaelhouse.
Bartholomew had buried another colleague in the
churchyard too. The smug Master Wilson lay in his temporary grave awaiting the day when Bartholomew fulfilled a deathbed promise and organised the construction of an extravagant tomb carve’d in black marble. Bartholomew felt a deep unease about the notion of removing Wilson’s body from its grave in the churchyard to the church. Even after a year and a half of rethinking all he had learned, Bartholomew still did not understand how the plague spread, or why it struck some people and not others.
Some physicians believed the stories from the East, that the pestilence had come because an earthquake had opened the graves of the dead. Bartholomew saw no evidence to prove this was true, but the plague was never far from his thoughts, and he was loathe to risk exhuming Wilson.
He heard Brother Michael begin to chant and dragged himself from his thoughts to go about his duty. Faint light filtered through the clear glass of the east window, although the church was still shades of grey and black.
Later, when the sun rose, the light would fall on the vivid paintings on the walls that brought them alive with colour. Especially fine was the painting that depicted Judgement Day, showing souls being tossed into the pits of hell by a goat-devil. On the opposite side St Michael saved an occasional soul. Bartholomew often wondered what had driven the artist to clothe the Devil in a scholar’s tabard.
As Michael continued to chant, Bartholomew opened the small sanctuary cupboard, took out chalice and.paten, and turned the pages of the huge Bible to the reading for the day. When he had finished, he walked around the church lighting candles and setting out stools for those of the small congregation who were unable to stand.
As he checked the level of holy water in the stoup, he grimaced with distaste at the film of scum that had accumulated. Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. The piscina ensured that the water drained into the church foundations and could not be collected and sold. But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.
Michael finished his prayers and Bartholomew saw him sneak a gulp of wine from the jug intended for the mass. The monk yawned hugely, and began to relate a tale of how a pardoner had tried to sell him some of the Archangel Gabriel’s hair at the Fair the previous day. Michael, outraged, had demanded proof that the hair had indeed belonged to Gabriel and had been informed that the angel himself had presented it to the pardoner in a dream. Michael proudly announced that he had tipped the scoundrel and his fake hair into the King’s Ditch. Bartholomew winced. The Ditch was a foul affair, running thick with all kinds of filth and waste, and Michael’s righteous anger might well have caused the unfortunate pardoner to contract a veritable host of diseases.
Before he could respond, the doors were pushed
open and sleepy-eyed scholars began to file silently into church. Michael and Bartholomew shot to the altar rail and knelt quickly in the hope that they had not been seen chattering when they should have been praying.
Bartholomew watched the Michaelhouse scholars take their places in the choir: the Fellows in a line to the right headed by the Master, and the students and commoners behind. Cynric ap Huwydd, Bartholomew’s book-bearer, rang the bell to announce that the service was about to begin. The scholars of Physwick Hostel, who had begged use of St Michael’s Church from Michaelhouse because their own church had been closed since the plague, processed in and stood in a neat line opposite the Michaelhouse scholars. The arrangement was an uneasy one: Physwick resented being forced to rely on Michaelhouse’s good graces, and Michaelhouse was nervous at sharing the church after twenty-five years.
Bartholomew saw Physwick’s Principal, Richard Harling, exchange a smile far from warm with Michaelhouse’s Senior Fellow, Roger Alcote.