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Authors: Paul Doherty

The Book of Fires

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THE BOOK OF FIRES
Paul Doherty

Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT

Copyright © 2014 by Paul Doherty.
The right of Paul Doherty to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.

This first world edition published 2014
in Great Britain and in the USA by
Crème de la Crime, an imprint of
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.

Trade paperback edition first published 2015 in Great
Britain and the USA by SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD.
eBook edition first published in 2015 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data:
Doherty, P. C. author.
The Book of Fires.
1. Athelstan, Brother (Fictitious character)–Fiction.
2. John, of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, 1340-1399–Fiction.
3. London (England)–Fiction. 4. Tyler’s Insurrection,
1381–Fiction. 5. Great Britain–History–Richard II,
1377-1399–Fiction. 6. Detective and mystery stories.
I. Title
823.9’2-dc23
ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-066-9 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-549-7 (trade paper)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-588-8 (e-book)

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 our second beloved granddaughter, Edie Grace Doherty, with all our love.

PROLOGUE

‘Another kind of fire for the burning of enemies where ever they are …’

Mark the Greek’s ‘The Book of Fires’

R
ichard Sutler, serjeant-at-law, and Crown Prosecutor in the King’s Bench at Westminster, empowered to plead before the King’s justices of oyer and terminer, was a proud, some would even say arrogant man. He was self-made, the child of marsh people from Poplar, close to the muddy waters of the Thames. Serjeant Sutler had, in his words, pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. He was, in the opinion of a Westminster wit, the sort of fellow who would cheerfully give you the shirt off your back. Another tartly claimed that Sutler knew the gamut of human emotions from A to B. Tall and commanding with a sharp, shaven face, popping-eyed with the mouth and jaw of a hungry lurcher, Sutler was in his heyday, especially on the morning of the feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, women of Carthage martyred by the cruel Emperor Severus in the amphitheatre of that city. Full of his own worth, Richard Sutler did not realize that on that cold, dark February morning he was about to be brutally murdered; in the words of scripture, a fate sprung on him ‘like a trap’. Death would strike like a thief in the night and Master Sutler certainly did not know the day nor the hour.

As usual, the serjeant had risen early in his comfortable chambers in Casket Lane within bowshot of the great abbey of Westminster. He had washed, shaved, oiled his skin and donned his best robes, pulling on his high-heeled Spanish boots before swinging round his shoulders a pure woollen cloak edged with the costliest ermine. Sutler collected his chancery satchel bulging with documents which, within the day, would despatch a cartload of felons to the gallows at Smithfield, Tyburn stream or even outside the towering fortified gatehouse of the abbey. Sutler was full of his day as he made himself comfortable in the whispering recess of the Gates of Purgatory, a handsome tavern which stood on the corner of Casket Lane, close to his own comfortable wainscoted chamber with its fine silver-inlaid furniture, woollen Turkey rugs, coffers, chests and aumbries, not to mention that lux-urious four-poster bed Sutler had been so reluctant to leave after the previous night’s drinking here in his favourite tavern. The taproom now lay empty. People had flocked to the Jesus Mass. Once this was finished, they would come here to break their fast on strips of roasted pork and capon, dusted slightly with a savoury peppered sauce and served on the softest manchet coated with crushed spiced herbs. Sutler, however, had decided to leave matters spiritual for the moment. He wanted to prepare for the day’s business. Above all, he wanted to revel in his most recent triumph: the searching out, arrest, conviction and execution of Lady Isolda Beaumont, widow of Sir Walter, merchant, former soldier, adventurer and close friend of the Regent, John of Gaunt. Lady Isolda was a self-made widow. Sutler had proved that. The serjeant squirmed on the thick cushioned seat. He stretched out his hands towards the two capped braziers which had been wheeled into the comfortable corner enclave beneath one of the taproom’s beautifully painted stained-glass windows. Sutler had proved how Lady Isolda had helped her failing husband through the Gates of Eternity with a goblet of rich posset generously laced with the most deadly poison. At first she had protested her innocence. An easy enough task for a beautiful young woman like Isolda with her corn-coloured hair, sloe-blue eyes and lips full and generous as the rose. She could dress in gowns of damask and samite, wear gauze veils as demurely as any nun, but she still remained an assassin. Sutler had proved that well enough, his only regret was that her accomplice, the clerk Reginald Vanner, had fled, mysteriously disappeared. Sutler comforted himself that it was only a matter of time before Vanner was seized and thrown into Newgate. Reginald Vanner, formerly clerk to Sir Walter Beaumont, had been put to the horn, proclaimed as a murderer with a bounty on his head, thirty pounds sterling if he was brought in alive, fifteen for the head only. Vanner had been proclaimed ‘
utlegatum
’, beyond the law, a wolfshead who could be slain on sight. Sutler sipped at the silver tankard, his own, which the taverner kept specially for him. He reminisced on his recent great triumph. He had received the personal thanks of the Regent as well as those of Gaunt’s nephew, the young King Richard II. Such royal gratitude had been expressed with the grant of land in Middlesex. A small manor but one with fertile fields, a well-stocked carp pond and a thick rich copse of trees.

Sutler cradled the tankard between his hands. Lady Isolda and her accomplice, Vanner, had considered themselves very subtle: their crime had been perpetrated in a matter of seconds, a few heartbeats, but serjeant Sutler had been more cunning than either …

‘A relic, sir, a true relic from the Holy Blood of Hailes.’

The serjeant glared at the tinker dressed in a motley collection of rags, a felt cap on his tattered grey hair, his scratched leather jerkin festooned with miniature cockle shells, amulets and brooches which boasted, at least in theory, that he had visited all the great shrines of the kingdom and beyond. Sutler leaned forward aggressively and the relic-seller scuttled away. Sutler returned to his reflections. Gaunt had commissioned him to investigate Sir Walter’s death and he had done so thoroughly, detecting Lady Isolda’s very clever sleight of hand. He had closed in swiftly like any good lurcher in pursuit of a deer. He had trapped her and brought her down. Oh, the lady had tried to seduce her way out of the trap, pressing herself close, whispering all forms of sweet inducements. Sutler smirked to himself; little did she or anyone know the truth. The serjeant-at-law peered over his tankard at the svelte round buttocks of the tapboy as he leaned over a table to clear away some pots. Sutler licked his lips. No one knew where his true predilections lay. Indeed, Lady Isolda had been greatly surprised by his reaction. Sutler placed his tankard down. Isolda had been convicted: all her parry and thrust, as well as that of her lawyer Nicholas Falke, had proven futile. She had been found guilty. Justices Tressilian, Gavelkind and Danyel had imposed the ultimate horrid penalty for the murder of a husband by his wife: Lady Isolda had been sentenced to be burnt alive at Smithfield. The punishment was imposed ‘
sine misericordia
’ – ‘without mercy’. No opiate was to be offered, nor could the Carnifex, the executioner, slip through the surging smoke to garrotte her. Sutler, despite his arrogance, flinched at the memory of the burning: Lady Isolda standing on a stool, lashed to that soaring execution stake! He closed his eyes. The memories were still strong: the smoke billowing, the flames licking greedily around their victim. Sutler opened his eyes. He wondered why Lady Isolda hadn’t bargained for her life. Surely she must have known the whereabouts of that secret codex, Mark the Greek’s ‘Book of Fires’? A manuscript which described the devastating liquid fire that could devour an entire ship, or so they said … A crackling from the hearth carved in the shape of a gaping dragon’s mouth caught Sutler’s attention. He watched the turnspit press the creaking iron on which half a piglet was spitted. The leaping flames, the sweating boy, the way the fire scorched the white, fleshy pork brought back memories of that macabre execution. Sutler quickly finished his ale, despatched the tankard back to Mine Host, grabbed his chancery satchel and staggered out of the main door into the narrow alleyway. Sutler stood taking deep breaths. He glanced to his left. The runnel snaked before him, the muck and filth, frozen hard by a hoar frost, glittered in the grey dawn-light. Sutler glimpsed a hooded figure holding a bucket shuffle out of an enclave, one of those recesses used as a laystall where rubbish could be heaped. He peered at the shambling, awkward figure.

‘Some beggar trying to sell water as the purest from the spring,’ he muttered, and strode purposely forward. As he walked through the thinning mist, Sutler realized the waterman beggar was carrying a pail in one hand and a lantern in the other, the flame of the tallow candle glowing fiercely against the frosted horn covering. Sutler bit his lip in anger. The beggar looked as if he was reluctant to give way. The serjeant-at-law was almost upon on him when the beggar, head and face hidden by a deep capuchon, stepped aside. Sutler sniffed and swept by. His high-heeled boot caught a piece of frozen rubbish. He paused to regain his balance and felt a sticky substance splash the right side of his face. He turned abruptly and glared. The beggar stood, his bucket now empty as its contents, tossed over the back of Sutler’s costly cloak, dripped on to his hose and boots. The serjeant-at-law glanced down then back up in anger. The beggar stepped closer. He snatched the candle from the lanthorn and tossed it ever so leisurely towards Sutler, who could only stare in open-mouthed amazement. The flaring candle caught his cloak and the fire seemed to erupt all around him. He tried to take his cloak off but the fiery tongues darted about him. Sutler struggled, mouth opening in a hideous scream as the flames swiftly engulfed him …

Sir Francis Tressilian, Royal Justiciar and Judge in the King’s Bench, was also preparing for what he did not know was his last day on earth. Tressilian loved the law and all the pomp and ceremony surrounding it: the herald, the criers, the proclamations and processions, the blaring trumpets, the costly woollen robes, white-furred red hats, the glittering badges and insignia of office and, above all, the obsequiousness which accompanied him everywhere. Tressilian smirked to himself as he sat on the jakes stool in the Golden Cresset tavern close to Westminster Hall. All the pomp and ceremony of a judge were certainly missing here, though Tressilian prided himself on hiding his weak stomach and watery bowels. Like Richard Sutler earlier in the day, Tressilian had risen, dressed and hastened to break his fast. He’d eaten a little too swiftly and now sat in the garderobe in the tavern stableyard. Justice Tressilian tried to compose himself as he listened to the sounds from outside. A knocking on the door annoyed him. He was supposed to sit here and take his ease, not be disturbed! He shouted at the would-be intruder to withdraw and got to his feet. Only then did he notice the liquid seeping beneath the door. Tressilian could only gape as the pool splashed about him. He abruptly broke from his surprise, but it was too late. One, two and then a third lit taper were tossed over the door to fall into that widening pool of mysterious liquid, now lapping over his soft leather boots and woollen leggings. Tressilian’s hands went out to the latch even as the ground around him erupted into fire, the flames roaring up turning the King’s Justiciar into a living, screaming torch.

BOOK: The Book of Fires
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