Authors: Paul Doherty
Tags: #Fiction - Historical, #Mystery, #England/Great Britain, #14th Century
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
First published in Great Britain in 1996
under the pseudonym of
by Headline Book Publishing,
A division of Hodder Headline PLC
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
eBook edition first published in 2012 by Severn Select an imprint
of Severn House Publishers Limited
This eBook produced by Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1448300396 (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.
To Kathie and Peter Gosling
Many thanks for all your help.
Edwin Chapler, clerk of the Chancery of the Green Wax, sat in the small, musty chapel built in the centre of London Bridge. Outside the sun had set, though the sky was still gashed with red, dulling the stars and giving the inhabitants of London further excuse to trade, play, or stroll arm in arm along the riverside. The taverns and hostelries were full. The jumbled streets echoed with songs from the alehouses. The pains and hunger of winter were now forgotten, the harvest had been good and so the markets were busy. Edwin Chapler, however, had a heaviness of heart, as any man would, who had to face the truth but couldn’t tell it. He looked round the small chapel. At the far end was the small sanctuary, on the left the Lady Shrine and, to the right, a huge statue of St Thomas à Becket with a sword grotesquely driven into his head.
‘I should be in the Baker’s Dozen,’ Chapler whispered. ‘Listening to a fiddler and wondering if Alison could dance to his tune.’
He had come here, as he often did, to seek guidance, but he couldn’t pray. He opened his mouth but no words came out. He glanced up at the painted window. In the fast-fading light of the day, the tortured Christ still writhed on His cross.
Chapler looked away. In here it was cold and he was all alone; it might be days before he finally decided. Silent terror gripped him. What if he did nothing and it was discovered? Chapler swallowed hard. Two summers ago he had seen a man executed for treason: a clerk who’d sold secrets to the Spanish. Chapler closed his eyes but he couldn’t remove the grisly scene: the high black platform, the butcher’s table underneath the soaring gallows at Tyburn. The unfortunate clerk had been cut down and sliced from gullet to crotch as a housewife would a chicken. His head was then cut off and his body quartered to be boiled in pitch and placed above the city gates.
Chapler shivered as he peered through the gloom. The two candles he had lit before the statue of St Thomas glowed like fiery eyes. The darkness pressed in. Chapler felt some evil force was lurking near, ready to jump like a monstrous cat. Outside, the thundering hooves of a horse made him jump. Chapler recalled why he was here. He had been given sufficient warning to stay silent. He’d gone to his stable and found his horse writhing in pain. A sympathetic ostler had agreed to put the animal out of its misery. When the horse’s corpse had been dragged to the slaughterhouse and its belly slit open, instead of hay and straw, fish hooks and sharp thistle leaves had been found. Chapler had protested but the greasy-faced landlord who owned the stable just shrugged.
‘Don’t blame me!’ he’d snapped. ‘The horses are well looked after here. Look around, master, look around! Why, in heaven’s name, should we feed some poor horse fish hooks and thistles?’
Chapler had agreed and walked away: an enemy had done that. He closed his eyes again, clenching his hands as he knelt beside the pillar. A sound above made him start. He opened his eyes in terror at the black form which hovered under the heavy beamed roof. Chapler moaned in fear. A demon? Some dark soul hunting him? The black shadow turned, feathery wings gently beating the air. Chapler relaxed: it was only a raven, one of those great black birds which haunted London Bridge, hunting for carrion on the starlings beneath or, even better, waiting for the severed heads of criminals and traitors to be hoisted on poles. The raven must have flown in and been trapped. Chapler watched curiously: the bird didn’t caw but flew up to a window ledge, its yellow beak tapping at the horned glass, then it turned on its perch. Chapler suspected it was studying him. A portent? A devil? He wondered whether to open the door and see if the bird would fly out but he couldn’t move. He really couldn’t be bothered; at least the bird was a companion. The raven cawed as if it could read his thoughts; its head turned, looking at the door. Chapler sighed and struggled to his feet just as the door crashed open. The raven cawed in triumph as it floated down and out into the fading light. Chapler ignored it, more intent on the shadowy figure shuffling into the church.
‘Who are you?’ he called.
The cowled figure didn’t answer. Instead it stopped before the altar of St Christopher, just within the porch. A coin fell into the box; a tinder was struck, a candle fit and placed upon an iron spigot before the statue of the patron saint of travellers. The figure turned. It was a woman. Her coarse hair fell from under the brim of her pointed hat and lay about her shoulders in untidy coils. She shuffled closer. Chapler glimpsed a wizened face, bright beady eyes, lips tightly pursed, almost hidden by the furrows of her cheeks. He heaved a sigh of relief. It was only old Harrowtooth. A witch, a wise woman, who lived in a shabby tenement further down the bridge. She was called that because her one protruding tooth hung down like the iron tip of a plough.
‘I’d like to pray above the water,’ old Harrowtooth declared, forcing a smile. ‘A good place to pray says I. Always quiet. God’s water beneath, God’s sky above.’ Her clawed hand seized Chapler’s wrist. ‘And it’s always good to see a bonny young man attending to his orisons. Many a young man I’ve seen in my life,’ she gabbled on. ‘I remember one here, drove me away with curses he did when I asked for a coin.’ She pushed her ugly face closer. ‘Fell ill of a fever he did: a terrible thirst raged in his throat. Yet he was afraid to moisten his lips because he could not stand the sound or touch of water.’
Chapler pulled his hand away, dipped into his purse and handed across a penny.
‘God bless you, sir.’ She held the coin up. ‘God bless you. I come in and spend a farthing for a candle and looks I leave the richer. Who says God does not answer prayers?’ The old woman’s narrow shoulders shook with laughter. She opened the door and turned. ‘A word of caution, young man.’ Her voice was harsh, surprisingly strong. ‘The raven is a harbinger of doom!’ She slammed the door behind her.
Chapler went back and crouched by the pillar. Despite old Harrowtooth’s appearance he felt more serene, as if his mind was made up. If he did what was right, if he did what was proper, then he’d be safe and all would be well. He stayed awhile, thinking through what he would do. He dropped to his knees. Now his soul was calm he could pray, perhaps light another candle before he left? Immersed in his devotions, Chapler didn’t hear the door quietly open.
The shadowy figure came up fast like some spider, moving across the flagstones, not a sound till the iron-tipped mace cracked the back of Chapler’s skull and the young man, blood pouring through his mouth, collapsed to the floor. The figure stooped and dragged him out on to the steps of the church. The assassin paused. There was no one around. Darkness had fallen, the day’s business was done. He picked up Chapler, as if his victim was a friend who had drunk too much, and hurried along the side of the church to the parapet of the bridge. He couldn’t be seen here. The buttress of the chapel came out to shield him from view on either side. He hoisted Chapler’s body upon the rails before dropping him like a sack into the river frothing below.
Three evenings later, as the river ran strong and full to the sea, a long barge slipped out from St Paul’s Wharf and made its way across the bobbing tide. The barge was poled by hooded figures. In the prow and stern stood others, garbed in a similar fashion, holding torches. In the centre of the barge sat the Fisher of Men, his cowl pulled back, lidless eyes staring across the river. He was hunting for corpses: he and his beloveds, the outcasts of London, were paid by the Corporation according to a set list of fees for every corpse they plucked from the water. One rate for an accident, another for a suicide. The highest, of course, was for any murder victim. The Fisher of Men, his eerie, bulbous face carefully oiled against the river wind, crooned a lullaby even as he studied the water.
‘There’ll be bodies,’ he murmured. ‘Look hard and long, my lovelies!’
The few barges and wherries which plied the river steered well clear. The Fisher of Men was not liked: he held special terrors for those who worked along the Thames. Rumours were rife in the taverns and alehouses that the Fisher of Men and his companions were not above arranging for their own victims to be found in the Thames. Every boat-man between Southwark and Westminster prayed constantly to their patron saints that their corpse would not be found by the Fisher of Men and taken to his strange chapel where it would lie in a makeshift coffin until identified. Tonight the Fisher was hopeful. Two days ago they’d plucked the body of a drunk and that of a Brabantine sailor who had been killed in a tavern brawl. Sir John Cranston, the portly coroner of the city, had paid them well. Now the Fisher of Men was hunting again.
‘Ah yes, my lovelies!’ he whispered, misquoting from the Office for the Dead. ‘Remember that terrible day when the earth shall give up the dead and the rivers of God their secrets.’
He then rapped out an order and the barge turned to avoid a gong cart which stood off the Fleet dumping the ordure and offal of the city into midstream. The dung-collectors cursed and made a sign to ward off the evil eye as the ghoulish barge of the Fisher of Men swept by.
‘Pole towards the bank,’ the Fisher of Men ordered. He pointed to where the river turned before sweeping down to Westminster.
‘Are you sure, master?’ Icthus, the Fisher of Men’s principal swimmer, spoke up. ‘Shouldn’t we stay in midstream?’
‘No, no,’ the Fisher replied. ‘I knows the river: it runs too fast. Any corpses from Southwark or London Bridge will be swept into the reeds.’
The barge turned, the pitch torches flickering and snapping in the evening breeze. The Fisher picked up his hand-bell and clanged it, the sound ringing ominously across the river, telling others to stay clear. The barge moved in closer to the bank.
‘I see one!’ a lookout cried. ‘Master, I see it! There amongst the reeds!’
The Fisher peered through the gloom. There was enough light. He studied the reeds and he, too, saw it, the glint of a buckle belt and something else.
‘Go in closer!’
The barge did so. Icthus jumped over the side. He swam like the fish after which he was named. He caught the bobbing, water-soaked corpse of Edwin Chapler; he stared at the bloated face, staring eyes and blood-encrusted mouth.
‘A corpse!’ Icthus screeched. ‘Master, we have found a corpse!’
In Ratcat Alley, just off Watling Street under the towering mass of St Paul’s Cathedral, Bartholomew Drayton, a moneylender with a reputation as evil as Satan, was also preparing to meet death. Drayton lay on the floor of his vaulted counting chamber. He moaned in agony at the barbed crossbow quarrel embedded deep in his chest. He turned on his side and looked towards the door; he could not possibly pull back the different bolts or turn the keys in the three great locks. Drayton closed his eyes and groaned. He had always prided himself on that door. Six inches thick, steel-hinged, the outside protected by great brass bolts, it had proved to be his death. He’d always thought himself secure, down here in his counting house; here no thieves could break in nor could one of his greedy clerks help themselves to what he had gathered over the years. No windows, not even an arrow slit. In the end it had proved useless. Drayton, an old soldier from the King’s wars in France, knew he was going to die. So strange, here in this vaulted chamber. He gazed across to the wall at the far end. Perhaps it was only right. Justice had caught up with him. He closed his eyes. His feet and legs were so cold.