Authors: Paul Doherty
Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #14th Century, #England/Great Britain, #Mystery
Being the Second of the Sorrowful Mysteries
of Brother Athelstan
Table of Contents
First published in Great Britain in 1992
under the pseudonym of Paul Doherty.
by Headline Book Publishing, A division of Hodder Headline PLC
338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH
eBook edition first published in 2011 by Severn Select an imprint
of Severn House Publishers Limited
Copyright © 1992 Paul Doherty.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
A CIP catalogue record for this title
is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1448300341 (epub)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being
described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this
publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons
is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland
To Jeffrey Norwood of Tower Books, Chico,
California, USA. A good and loyal friend.
Murder had been planned, foul and bloody, by a soul as dark as midnight. Only the searing sun and the glassy, wind-free waves of the Middle Sea would bear silent witness to Murder’s impending approach.
The day had started hot and by noon the heat hung like a blanket around the three-master-carrack out of Famagusta in Cyprus. The sails drooped limp, the pitch and tar melted between the mildewed planks. On board, the passengers – pilgrims, merchants, travellers and tinkers – sheltered in whatever shade they could find. Some told their rosary beads; others, their red-rimmed eyes shaded against the sunlight, searched the skies for the faintest whisper of wind. The decks of the
were hot to the touch; even the crew hid from the glare and heat of the sun. A look-out dozed high in the cross yard. Above his head a silver St Christopher medal nailed to the mast caught the dazzling sunlight and sent it back like a prayer for shade and a strong, cooling breeze.
Beneath the look-out, at the foot of the mast, dozed a knight clad in a white linen shirt and sweat-stained hose pushed into leather boots, which he moved restlessly. The knight wiped the sweat from his brow and scratched his black beard which ran from ear to ear. He looked towards a young boy, sheltering in the shadows of the bulwarks, who gazed in round-eyed wonderment at the armour piled there: mailed shirt, gauntlets, breastplate and hauberk. What caught the boy’s attention was the livery of white cotton surcoat with a crude but huge red cross painted in the middle. The boy peered at the knight, his hands going out to touch the wire-coiled handle of the great, two-edged sword.
‘Touch it, boy,’ the knight murmured, white teeth flashing in his sunburned face. ‘Go on, touch it if you want.’
The boy did so, his face wreathed in smiles.
‘You want to be a knight, boy?’
‘Yes, sir, a crusader though I am an orphan now,’ the child replied seriously.
The knight grinned but his face grew sombre when he glanced at the poop. He had seen the helmsman call the captain; now both were staring out to sea. The captain looked anxious. Doffing his great, broad-brimmed hat, he stamped the deck and the knight heard his murmured curses. Above him the look-out suddenly yelled: ‘I see ships, no sails, fast approaching!’
His cry roused the vessel. Boats with no sails skimming across the sea could only be a Moorish corsair. The people on the deck stirred, children cried, men and women shouted. There was a patter of hardened feet on ladders as both soldiers and sailors roused themselves. The chorus of groans grew louder.
‘No sails!’ a soldier cried. ‘They must be galleys!’
The clamour stilled as fear of death replaced resentment against the hot searing rays of the sun. The day would die, darkness would come and the air would cool, but the green-bannered, rakish-oared galleys of the corsairs would not disappear. They slunk round the Greek Islands like ravenous wolves and, if they closed, there would be no escape.
Genoese crossbowmen began to appear, heads covered in white woollen scarves, their huge arbalests bobbing on their backs; behind them ran boys with quivers full of jagged-edged bolts.
‘One galley!’ the look-out screamed. ‘No, two! No, four! Bearing north by north-east!’
Sailors, passengers and soldiers ran to the rails, making the ship dip like a hawk.
‘Back to your posts! The puce-faced captain scampered down the ladder of the poop. ‘Boson!’ he roared. ‘Armaments out! Crossbowmen to the poop!’
Again there was a rush; huge buckets of seawater were quickly placed round the deck alongside barrels of hard grey sand. Sailors and soldiers roared oaths at the frightened passengers, ordering them down into the stinking, fetid darkness below decks. The knight stirred as the captain approached.
‘Galleys,’ the seaman murmured. ‘Lord help us – so many!’ He looked up at the blue sky. ‘We cannot escape. One might not attack, but four . . .’
‘Will you fight?’ the knight asked.
The captain spread his hands. ‘They may not challenge us,’ he replied despairingly. ‘They could stand off and just take a levy.’
The knight nodded. He knew the sailor was lying. He turned to the small boy now sidling up beside him.
‘A good day to die,’ the knight whispered. ‘Help me arm.’
The lad ran to the bulwarks and staggered back under the load of the heavy mailed shirt. The knight looked around as he dressed for battle. The crew had done everything they could. Now there was a deathly hush, broken only by the slap of water against the ship’s sides and the growing murmur from the approaching, dark-shaped galleys.
‘Bearers of death,’ the knight murmured.
The captain heard him and spun round.
‘Why so many?’ he asked, perplexed. ‘It’s as if they knew we were here.’
The knight struggled into the mailed shirt and clasped the leather sword belt around his waist.
The captain shrugged. ‘Passengers,’ he replied. ‘Barrels of fruit, some pipes of wine, a few ells of cloth.’
The captain sneered and went back to search the sky for a breath of wind but the golden dazzle of the sun only mocked his anxious scrutiny. The knight studied the galleys, long, black and hawkish. On their decks he glimpsed the massed troops in their yellow cotton robes and white turbans. He stiffened and narrowed his eyes.
The boy looked up. ‘What, Master?’
‘By the Bones!’ the knight replied. ‘What are elite troops, the cream of the Muslim Horde, doing packed in galleys hunting a ship which bears nothing but wine and fruit?’
The boy looked up mutely and the knight patted his head.
‘Stay with me, lad,’ he whispered. ‘Stay beside me, and if I fall, show no fear. It’s your best chance of life.’
The galleys swept in and the knight smelt the foul stench from the hundreds of sweating slaves who manned the oars. He heard the Moorish captain’s commands, the harsh Arabic syllables carrying clear across the water. The oars flashed up, white and dripping, like hundreds of spears as the galleys surrounded the becalmed ship. One took up position on the stem, another on the prow, with a third and fourth huge galley to either side. The captain of the
wiped his sweating face with the cuff of his jerkin.
‘They might not attack,’ he whispered. He turned and the knight saw the relief in his eyes. ‘They wish to talk.’
Agile as a monkey, the captain scrambled back on to the poop. The galley to starboard moved closer and the knight saw the brilliant liveries of a group of Moorish officers. One of these climbed on to the side of the galley.
‘You are the
from Famagusta?’ he shouted.
‘Yes,’ the captain answered. ‘We carry nothing but passengers and dried fruit. There is a truce,’ he pleaded. ‘Your Caliph has sworn oaths.’
The Moorish officer clasped two of the upraised oars to steady himself.
‘You lie!’ he screamed back. ‘You carry treasure – treasure plundered from our Caliph! Hand it over, and let us search your ship for the culprit who stole it.’
‘We have no treasure,’ the captain whined back.
The Moorish officer jumped down. One beringed hand sliced the air, a guttural order was issued. The captain of the
turned and looked despairingly at the knight and, as he did so, both he and the helmsman dropped under the hail of arrows which poured in from the galleys. The knight smiled, closed the visor of his helmet and pulled the young boy closer beside him. He grasped his great two-edged sword and placed his back against the mast.
‘Yes,’ he whispered, ‘it’s a good day to die.’
The kettledrums in the galleys beat out the glamour of war, cymbals clashed, gongs sounded. The Genoese archers on the merchantman did their best but the galleys closed in and the yellow-robed, drug-emboldened Janissaries poured across the decks of the
. Here and there, pilgrims and merchants fought and died in small groups. Individuals tried to escape into the darkness below; the Janissaries followed and the blood poured like water through the tar-edged planks of the ship. But the real struggle swirled around the mast where the knight stood, feet planted slightly apart. His great sword scythed the air until the gore swilled ankle-deep, causing further assailants to slip and slide as they tried to close for the kill. Beside the knight, the young boy, his face alive with the excitement of battle, screamed encouragement but no man could resist such a force forever. Soon the fighting died and the galleys drew off, their sterns packed with prisoners and plunder. The
, fire licking at its timbers, drifted gently on a strengthening breeze until it became one blazing funeral pyre. When darkness fell, it had sunk. Here and there a body still bobbed on the surface, the only trace that Murder had passed that way.
A murderously cold wind swept the snow across London with dagger-like gusts of ice and hail. At first it fell in a few white flakes, then thick and heavy, like God’s grace pouring from heaven to cover the wounds of that sombre city. The chroniclers in the monasteries on the outskirts of London tried to warm their cold fingers as they squatted in freezing carrels, writing that the terrible weather was God’s judgment on the city.
The snow continued to fall, God’s judgment or not, to carpet the stinking streets, and the mounds of shit in the lay stalls near the Thames where river pirates, hanging from the low scaffolds, turned hard and black as the river water froze. In savagely cold December, the heavy frost slipped into the city like an assassin to slay the beggars huddled in their rags. The lepers crouching in their filth outside Smithfield cried and moaned as the frost bit their open wounds. Aged, raddled whores were found frosty-faced, cold and dead on the corner of Cock Lane. The streets were empty, even the rats could not forage; the huge piles of refuse and the open sewers which ran down the middle of every street, usually full and wet with human slime, froze to rock-hard ice.
The blizzards hid the sky and made the nights as black as hell. No God-fearing soul went abroad, especially in Petty Wales and East Smithfield, the area around the Great Tower whose snow-capped turrets thrust defiantly up into the dark night sky. Guards on the ice-covered parapets of the fortress gave up their watch and crouched behind the walls. No sentry stood near the portcullis because the locks and chains had frozen iron hard, and who could open them?