Authors: Paul Doherty
Sir John Cranston was also troubled by various imaginings. He was finding it difficult to get back to sleep in his great four poster-bed in the opulent chamber he and Lady Maude had decorated over the years. The coroner threw himself back against the bolsters, Ave beads slipping from his fingers. He missed his family and household more than he could say; Lady Maude should be chattering: the two poppets chasing each other; the great Irish wolfhounds Gog and Magog sprawled at the foot of the bed. Outside the maids should be hurrying, whispering and giggling along the wooden-panelled galleries, yet there was nothing but a hollow constant silence. Cranston rolled over on to his back, staring up at the tester. He was certain he had done the right thing despatching his wife, family and household to a moated manor deep in the countryside. Kinsmen and retainers would mount vigilant watch over them. The revolt would come, yet his family would be safe. There would be violence, but, in the end, the rebels would be crushed with all the savagery the great lords of the soil could muster. In the meantime, Cranston rolled over to one side, staring at the sliver of grey dawn-light peeking through the shutters, his mind returning to the mystery of the Greek fire.
Cranston had personally witnessed the devastating effects of boiling oil cascading down castle walls in France, a rushing, bubbling torrent of Hell’s blackness, scolding, burning and searing the flesh. Even worse was when that oil was lighted. The coroner was still shaken by the vicious attacks on both himself and Athelstan. If the friar could only find a way through, yet Athelstan seemed as perplexed as he was. Somebody prowling the city was definitely using Greek fire and not just in these murderous attacks. One of Cranston’s spies had reported a mysterious meeting out on the heathland beyond London Bridge, of a fire being abruptly caused, of flames leaping up against the blackness. Was this a coincidence? At the same time other spies reported that the Upright Men, who had been quiet for weeks, were once again beginning to muster. Did the Upright Men now possess Greek fire? If so, how? Where was that damned ‘Book of Fires’ and who was this Ignifer? Cranston narrowed his eyes at a sound below but then dismissed it. Was the Ignifer someone they had never met, a former member of the Luciferi? Someone who had left Dover under his baptismal name but in France changed that to something more fanciful as he sold his sword or bow to the highest bidder? Once military service was over, he would arrive back in an English port under his baptismal name. It was a way of sealing the past, of forgetting what had happened as veterans settle down to become some parish worthy or city dignitary. Was that the case here? A member of the Luciferi now turned respectable like Falke or Garman? Or was the Ignifer hidden deeper in the shadows, someone they had never met?
Cranston pulled himself up to lean against the bolsters. He snatched the miraculous wineskin from the table beside him, took his morning sip and wondered how Athelstan was coping with the Great Miracle at St Erconwald’s. Cranston was truly perplexed by this wondrous occurrence. As Lord High Coroner of London, he had earned a reputation, second to none, for exposing counterfeits, cranks and cunning men. He had broken through the most elaborate deceits, disguises and deceptions, yet the miracle at St Erconwald’s was not one of these. According to all the evidence, Fulchard of Richmond had entered that church a cripple; he had not left as one. He had been healed and proclaimed himself as such. Cranston’s spies had swept the city; if one such as the crippled Fulchard had emerged, he would have been observed. Sooner or later anyone who hid in this bustling city had to crawl out to be invariably noticed by someone, but not here. Cranston gnawed on his lip. He took some comfort from the fact that his spies had stumbled on other juicy morsels of information. The Upright Men were becoming very active; their captains had been glimpsed in both the city and Southwark. One spy, who rejoiced in the sobriquet ‘the Eye of God’, had reported how the great miracle at St Erconwald’s seemed to have attracted a goodly number of young, rather well-armed men amongst the pilgrims flocking there. Now this did concern the coroner. He was about to seize the miraculous wineskin for a second time when he heard that sound again, a clattering in the scullery which separated the kitchen and buttery from the garden. The outside door was made of thick, heavy oak and studded with metal bosses, its latch stout and noisy. Was someone trying to get in? Cranston slid off the bed. He pushed his feet into tight-fitting buskins and drew both sword and dagger from his warbelt hanging on a hook against the wall.
The coroner slipped silently out of his bedchamber, along the gallery and down the polished oaken staircase. Night candles glowed in their capped glass holders, emitting pools of golden light. Sir John paused on the bottom step wondering who the intruder might be. The Upright Men? Usually they were not so silent. Those Greeks? Cranston paused to control his breathing. The Greeks were allies rather than enemies. The Ignifer? He crept through the buttery and into the great kitchen beyond. He raced swiftly across and opened the door to the scullery; the latch on the garden door at the far end rattled. He stepped inside. He sniffed a perfume, one he knew, the light fragrance of crushed lilies. The floor was greasy. The shutters to his right rattled. Cranston abruptly realized what was about to happen. Sliding and slithering, the coroner hurled himself across the chamber. He ignored the door but crashed into the shutters, even as he felt the intruder press heavily against them. The Ignifer was here! Cranston realized this heavy shutter had been prised open from outside. The Ignifer had entered and the floor was covered in highly flammable oil, waiting to be fired. The assassin had plotted to lure a half-sleeping Cranston across the slippery floor towards the door whilst he pulled open the shutters and threw in a flame. If he had stepped into the trap the scullery would have been turned into an inferno. He pressed his bulk against the shutters. Again he smelt the faint traces of that perfume, of crushed lilies. Lady Maude had once worn it, a gift from the court. Cranston was now calm. Eventually he could feel no pressure. He kept a wary eye on the door and opened the shutter slightly, his sword piercing the gap, its broad, sharp blade jabbing forward before swinging to the left and right. He closed the shutters, refastening the inside hook and opened the garden door. Dawn was about to break. The garden stretched frozen white, bleak and empty. The Ignifer had escaped.
Athelstan, cloaked and hooded against the cutting wind, stood in the copse of ancient trees which lay at the heart of the great garden at Firecrest Manor. Sir Henry had arranged for open braziers to be stoked and fired. The crackling charcoal glowed fiercely, exuding gusts of scented heat and smoke. Beside Athelstan was a taciturn Sir John, his beaver hat pulled fully down, the muffler of his thick cloak raised as high as it could be. Athelstan stretched out his mittened fingers towards the blaze. Those he had summoned had almost arrived, complaining under their breath. They fell silent at the sight of this little friar standing so ominously quiet, in this haunted glade close to the edge of the green-slimed mere; a ghostly place, away from the pleasantries of the rest of the garden. The trees here rose like stark black figures, their outstretched branches frozen solid, bereft of all greenery. No birdsong or rustling in the undergrowth, just a brooding stillness, as if the copse hid a dreadful secret. Athelstan knew it did, but he would wait to uncover it and so would everybody else. Athelstan was furious at the turn of events. He had slept very little and been roused by Tiptoft, who informed him about the attack on the coroner. The messenger had reassured Athelstan that Sir John was safe and well. The friar had given thanks to this but hid his anger in swift preparations to leave. He and Tiptoft had hurried down to the Southwark quayside where Moleskin lay fast asleep in his barge. Athelstan had roused him and they had braved the swollen, mist-hung river to cross to Blackfriars wharf. Tiptoft had hurried away on other errands including messages for Sir John, whilst Athelstan entered the Dominican mother house. After he’d greeted the different brothers, Brother Caradoc the sacristan arranged for Athelstan to say his dawn Mass at a side altar in the main church. Cranston had arrived just in time for the Eucharist. Afterwards both coroner and friar had broken their fast in the great refectory dominated by a huge crucifix with a banner displaying the Five Holy Wounds hanging from the hammer-beam roof. Cranston had described the assault on him, Athelstan listened with deepening disquiet.
‘Three times, Sir John,’ he declared. ‘Three attacks on us. The first was not on Lady Anne but on thee and me as was the second and the third. It’s time we cleared the board of distractions and diversions, fascinating though they may be. Now listen …’
Athelstan had informed Cranston of what he wanted and now they waited in the gloomy, wooded glade with a winter wind rippling the icy surface of the mere. Sir Henry and Rohesia, Buckholt, Rosamund, Falke, Parson Garman, Lady Anne and Turgot, as well as Cranston’s posse of bailiffs and six royal archers from the Tower. The ‘guests’, as Athelstan called his array of suspects, were all protesting. The friar did not care. Some of these were liars and deceivers and one of them could be a hideous assassin secretly plotting the destruction of both himself and Sir John. He would now show them, to quote the scriptures, that ‘God did still raise prophets in the cities of the earth’.
‘Sir John, Brother Athelstan,’ Flaxwith called, ‘they are here.’ Both friar and coroner turned to greet the strange torchlight procession making its way through the trees led by the Fisher of Men. This eerie official of the city council had left his ‘Mortuary of the Sea’, which stood on a deserted quayside just beyond La Reole. A figure of mystery with a highly colourful past as a knight of St Lazarus, the Fisher of Men’s principal task was to harvest the Thames of corpses, the victims of suicide, accident or murder. The Fisher gathered his grisly finds in his Chapel of the Drowned Men: the bloated, river-slimed corpses would be stretched out, washed and covered with a shroud drenched in pine juice whilst they waited inspection and collection. The Fisher was assisted by a coven of rejects and outcasts who rejoiced in such names as Maggot, Brick-Face and Hackum. Leader of these was Icthus, the Fisher’s henchman, garbed as always in black. He had assumed the Greek name for fish, Icthus, a fitting title. He was a young man who had no hair even on his brows or eyelids, whilst his oval-shaped face, jutting cod mouth and webbed fingers and toes made him even more fishlike. He was in truth a superb swimmer. Fast and as slippery as any porpoise, Icthus could thread the waters of the Thames night or day, in high summer or midwinter.
Athelstan ignored the swelling murmurs and protests as he greeted the Fisher and his entourage; they immediately sank to one knee and chorused their salutation to which Athelstan responded with a solemn blessing. They all stood and, like some well-trained choir, burst into the hymn ‘
Ave Maris Stella
’ – ‘Hail, Star of the Sea’, a paean of praise to the Virgin. Afterwards the Fisher of Men, his bald head and skeletal features shrouded by a black leather hood fringed with the purest lambswool, his body hidden beneath a thick military cloak which hung down to the ankles of costly leather walking boots, raised gauntleted hands.
‘We have come,’ he proclaimed. ‘The waters of this earth are no mystery to us. Brother Athelstan, Sir John, we have brought ropes! We are ready to do God’s will and that of the King. Sir John, if we find what you are looking for … we will double the price?’
‘And a little more.’ Cranston took a slurp of the miraculous wineskin and handed it to the Fisher, who took a most generous mouthful before passing it back.
‘Sir John, Brother Athelstan,’ Sir Henry bustled forward, ‘this is my property, demesne …’
‘And I am on the King’s business,’ Cranston snarled. ‘My guests have come by barge. I ordered your porter at the watergate to let them through. Sir Henry, you get on with your own business and let me get on with mine. Brother?’
Athelstan took Icthus by the hand, led him to the pool and whispered what he wanted. The henchman replied in a high-pitched voice, his colourless eyes studying Athelstan carefully.
‘The water must be freezing cold,’ Athelstan warned. Icthus gave a strange lop-sided smile. He took the friar’s hand and pressed it firmly against his own arm so Athelstan could feel the thick grease smearing his skin. Icthus shrugged off his gown and, to the cries and exclamations of the others, and garbed only in a tight-fitting loincloth, waded into the mere and slipped beneath the surface. He reminded Athelstan of an otter he’d once studied as a boy at a gurgling brook on his father’s farm. Icthus was long and sinuous, merging with the water as if that was his true home. Bubbles appeared on the surface. Icthus broke from the water, breathing noisily before disappearing once again. This time he was longer, but when he surfaced he wiped the slime from his face and grinned. The Fisher and his coven served out a long coil of rope. Icthus grabbed one end and sank into the depths. The rope hung slack, then it shook tight and taut. Icthus rose to take a further breath and, impervious to the biting cold, dived again. The rope was tugged. The Fisher and his companions, intoning the hymn ‘
Salve Regina Marum
’ – ‘Hail, Queen of the Seas’, began to draw in what Icthus had found: a corpse, encrusted with the dirt and sludge of the mere, broke the surface, its belly bloated and its face masked by a mesh of weeds. Athelstan ignored the exclamations of surprise as the swollen, disfigured cadaver was dragged free of the water.
‘Vanner!’ Buckholt exclaimed. ‘Reginald Vanner!’
Athelstan knelt by the corpse. He sketched a cross on the bulging forehead and stared into the empty open eyes sunk deep into their sockets.
‘May Christ have mercy on your soul, Reginald Vanner,’ Athelstan breathed. He pressed his hand against the dead flesh, bloated until buttons and points had burst. He felt the hilt of a dagger, its blade thrust so deep into the left side that only the ornamental handle could be detected. Others gathered close. Athelstan cleared the dirt in the area around the fatal thrust. He pulled the dagger, its blade popping out with a loud sucking sound.