Authors: Michael Jecks
‘The Coroner had no reason to kill the girl. Why should he? She could have embarrassed him, but what of it? From all I have heard of Sir Eustace, he is quite used to conducting affairs of the heart, and I expect his wife knows all about them. One more could hardly cause him or her any concern. So I can see no logical reason why he should murder the girl. Yet if he
killed her, he is not the sort of man who would leave all this money with her. You, Edward, say that they walked away together, yet they didn’t. She died there on the ground.’
‘Because he killed her!’
Sir Baldwin held up a handful of coins. ‘The Coroner would not have left this behind.’
‘He must have thrown it over the wall!’
did that. Shortly after throwing the ring in his face, just after he left her, in a fit of rage and despair.’
The tranter stared while Sir Baldwin allowed the coins to dribble through his fingers. ‘No, if the Coroner had killed her it could only have put him at risk. He was used to paying for his women, and he expected her to take the money and start a new life. But she threw the ring at him. She was honourable and wanted nothing of his, once she realised how he had dishonoured her. That was why she threw away the money. Every coin was a reminder of his faithlessness. But you didn’t know it had gone, did you, Edward? You saw the Coroner leaving and hid until he had passed, but you had one thought on your mind: the money! You had seen how much she had at the inn, and you thought it would be easy to slip your blade between her shoulders and take the lot for yourself. Especially since you could incriminate the Coroner at the same time. And perhaps enjoy her body as well.’
killed her, just like Susan in Tiverton . . .’
‘But as soon as the Coroner left her, she chucked the purse over the nearest wall. You were hiding and did not see that. You thought she still had the money on her. But when she was dead, you found nothing on her. Not even her ring.’
‘I never looked for her . . .’ He stopped himself suddenly while Sir Baldwin nodded slowly.
‘And you were in Tiverton, too, when the other girl died, weren’t you?’ he said.
As he spoke, his servant returned. In his hand he held a loose bundle which he untied before his master. There inside was my spare knife, and the man pulled it free from its sheath and held it to Sir Baldwin. The knight took it and studied it closely, then set it aside and picked up a second.
‘That’s mine – what are you doing with it?’
The panic in the tranter’s voice was a warm, soothing balm to me. I could have sagged with relief as I saw the knight frown and pick at the hilt. He wiped his thumbnail over the base of the blade and looked up coldly. ‘Edward, I accuse you of murder. You will be taken from here to the gaol to await your trial when the justices are next here. And God help you!’
Later I went to the Dean’s buttery and poured myself some of his best Bordeaux wine. It sank down wonderfully, and when I heard the knight’s footsteps, I immediately rose and waved to him to offer him some so that he could drink to my wonderful success and freedom. I called out about the blond girl at the inn, and said I’d give him the first opportunity to assault her defences, all in good jest, you understand, although I admit I had been thinking about her myself, her with the wayward-looking eye.
And that’s the other thing I remember about the man: his intolerable rudeness. He must have heard me, but while I stood there, holding the jug high, he walked straight past me without a word, hardly even glancing in my direction.
I mean to say, it’s not as if
done anything wrong, the arrogant bastard!
FOR THE LOVE OF OLD BONES
The sudden violence was a shock: swift and devastating. They came at us from all sides, and what were we supposed to do? We couldn't run; we couldn't hide. There was nowhere to conceal ourselves on that desolate damned moor.
I was struck down early. When I came to, it was to find my head being cradled in the lap of a rough countryman, a shepherd from the rank smell of him, holding a leather bottle of sour-tasting water to my lips that I drank with gratitude. All about me, when I felt able to gaze around, were my companions: resting, holding broken heads, or wincing as their bruised limbs gave them pain. It was all I could do to pull away and kneel, fingering my rosary as I offered my thanks to God for delivering us from our attackers.
'The Abbot is dead!'
The cry broke in upon my devotions and I had to stifle my gasp of horror when I saw Brother Charles standing shaking with grief at the side of a slumped figure, and I hurried over to them as fast as my wounded head would allow.
Bertrand, Abbot de Surgères, the leader of our party, lay dead; stabbed in his back.
It is difficult always to try to recall small details after a horrible event. I and my English brethren have suffered much in the years since the great famine of 1315 to 1316. As peasants lost their food, so there was less for us monks; the murrain of sheep and cattle that followed devastated our meagre flocks and herds, and now, late in the year of our Lord thirteen hundred and twenty one, l had myself taken my fill of despair.
With the pain in my head from the crushing blow, I was in no state to assist my brothers in tidying the body of our Abbot. I sat resting while they unclothed him and redressed him in fresh linen and tunic; others walked a mile or more northward to a wood, from where they fetched sturdy boughs to fashion a stretcher. The horses had gone, of course. For my part, I could not help them. I knew only pain and sadness as I watched them work.
It was a cold, quiet place, this. The sun was watery this late in the year, and its radiance failed to warm. We were on the side of a hill, with a small stream gurgling at our feet. A few warped and twisted trees stood about, but all were distorted, grotesque imitations of the strong oaks and elms I knew. The grass itself looked scrubby and unwholesome, while the ground held a thick scattering of rocks and large stones, giving the scene a feeling of devastation, as if a battle had raged over it all. It felt to me like a place blasted with God's rage. As it should, I thought, with one of His Abbots lying murdered on the ground.
The shepherd disappeared soon after I awoke, but while my companions set the Abbot's body on the stretcher and began gathering together the few belongings that the robbers had scattered, I sat quietly. I saw Brother Humphrey pick up the Abbot's silver crucifix. He saw my quick look and smiled weakly. In our little convent there have been occasions when odd bits and pieces have gone missing, and he knows I suspect him. The cord of the cross was broken, although the cross and tiny figure were fine; nearby, Abbot Bertrand's purse lay on the ground. Humphrey picked up both and passed them to me with a puzzled expression.
As he stood there, I heard hooves. Looking up, I saw three men at the brow of the hill. One was the shepherd, the other two were on horseback. They were unknown to me; indeed, I could hardly make out their features for the low, autumnal sun was behind them, and it was hard to see more than a vague shadow. Now, of course, I know Bailiff Puttock of Lydford and his friend Sir Baldwin of Furnshill near Cadbury, but then they were only strange, intimidating figures on their horses, staring down at us intently while the shepherd leaned on his staff.
At the sight of them Humphrey let out a cry of despair, fearing a fresh attack; a pair of servants grabbed their staffs and advanced, determined to protect us. The three remaining brothers began reciting the paternoster; me, I simply fell to my knees and prayed.
The men rode down the incline and I could make them out. It was soon obvious that one of them was a knight: his sword belt and golden spurs gleamed as the sun caught them. His slow approach was reassuring, too. It gave me the impression that we were safe: he hardly looked like one of those predatory types who might conceal robbery by making demands in courtly language. In any event, such a one would have brought a strong party of men-at-arms to steal what they wanted.
'Brothers, please don't fear us,' the other man said as he neared the staffman. 'I'm Bailiff Puttock under Abbot Champeaux of Tavistock Abbey, and my friend is Sir Baldwin, the Keeper of the King's Peace in Crediton. This shepherd told us of the attack and we have already sent for the Coroner to view the body. May we help you?'
I heaved a sigh of relief. There was no fearing men such as these. 'Godspeed, gentlemen! It is an enormous relief to meet you. Now at least we need fear no footpads while on the moors.'
It was the knight who spoke next, studying me with an oddly intense expression, like one who has no love for monks. He was tall, with heavy shoulders and a flat belly to prove that he practiced regularly with his sword. Intelligent dark eyes glittered in a square face with a thin beard that followed the line of his jaw. One scar marred his features, twisting his mouth. 'Your name, Brother?'
'I am Brother Peter, from Launceston Abbey. My Abbot sent me with Brother Humphrey here, on an arduous journey to France. We were on our way home to Launceston when this happened.'
'It's a long way to go without horses, Brother,' the other man pointed out.
'We had horses until last night, when they were taken.'
'You were robbed? God's teeth! The thieving bastards!' Bailiff Puttock burst out. 'How many were there? And which way did they go?'
'I was knocked down early on,' I grimaced, gingerly feeling the back of my tonsure. The skin was broken slightly and there was a large lump that persuaded me not to prod or probe too hard.
'There were six of them. They appeared like devils as the sun faded, running straight at us …'
As I spoke I could recall the horror. Screaming, shrieking men, all wielding staves or clubs, springing down from the surrounding rocks, belabouring us, holding us off while two young lads, scarcely more than boys, took our horses. And a short while later, nothing: they had clubbed me.
The knight was silent, but the Bailiff cocked his head. 'None of them had a knife?'
'I don't recall. My head . . . I was unconscious.'
'What was their leader like?'
'Heavyset, bearded, with long dark hair.'
'I have heard of him.'
'They took most of our provisions as well as our mounts.'
Sir Baldwin walked off a few yards, bending and studying the ground. He went to the stream and followed its bank a short distance, then round the curve of the hill, disappearing from sight.
His friend appeared confused. 'You say these men attacked and took your horses - but only your Abbot was stabbed? It seems odd…'
He would likely have added more, but then his friend called, 'They went this way. Their prints are all over the mud at the side of the stream. It looks like they have gone westward.'
'Which is where we should go as well,' Bailiff Puttock said. 'If there are thieves on the moors we should warn the abbey. We can send a second messenger to the Coroner explaining where we have gone.'
'And it would be a good place for these brothers to recover from their ordeal,' Sir Baldwin agreed.
'It seems curious that the thieves should have left such wealth behind.'
We were resting in a hollow on the old track to Tavistock. All of us were tired after our ordeal and needed plenty of breaks. The knight was squatting, studying the crucifix and purse.
The Bailiff shrugged unconcernedly. 'They grabbed what they could.'
'But they killed an Abbot.'
'So? In the dark they probably didn't realise he was an Abbot, nor that they had killed him. It was a short, sharp scuffle in the gloom.'
I could see that the knight wasn't convinced. The Bailiff, too, for all his vaunted confidence, scarcely seemed more certain. Both stared down at the items. I cleared my throat and held up the cold meat in my hand. 'Could one of you lend me a knife? My own was still on the packhorse.'
With a grunt the knight pulled a small blade from his boot and passed it to me.
'I've known thieves leave behind goods after being scared off,' Bailiff Puttock continued after a while.
'And I have known Bailiffs who have left wine in the jug after a feast - but that does not mean I have ever seen you behaving abstemiously. No, these robbers planned their raid. Two things are curious: first, that they bothered to kill the man; second, that they left his wealth at his side.'
'Who were these robbers, Sir Baldwin?' I interjected.
'We may never catch them, Brother,' he said with a smile. 'There are so many who have been displaced since the recent wars in Wales. They have swollen the ranks of the poor devils who lost everything during the famine.'
'Poor devils, my arse!' Puttock growled. 'They should have remained at their homes and helped rebuild their vills and towns, not become outlaw and run for the hills.'
'Some had little choice,' Sir Baldwin said.
'Some didn't, no, but this gang sounds like Hamo's lot again.'
'They've never killed before,' Sir Baldwin said slowly.
'True, but the leader sounds like Hamo and the theft of the horses is just like his mob.'
Sir Baldwin rose. 'This is not helping us. You saw nothing of the death of the Abbot, Brother Peter?' I shook my head. 'Then let us ask your friends. Could you introduce us?'
I nodded. ‘On the left there, Brother Humphrey, is another Englishman like me, also from Launceston. The others all come from Surgères. Brother Charles is the shorter of the three. The third, the handsome young one, is Brother Roger, who is also French. He comes from the Abbot's own convent.'
'What was the reason for their visit?' the Bailiff asked.
'There has been debate for many years about where certain relics should be held. The convent at Surgères has demanded our one relic: the fingerbone of Saint Peter. It is held at Launceston, our only relic, and Humphrey and I were sent to the Abbot to explain why we felt it should remain there,’ I told him sadly.
My head throbbed again with the recollection of that dreadful meeting. It was held by Abbot Bertrand in his chapter house, and the place reeked. The fire's logs hadn't been properly dried and the hearth in the middle of the room smoked foully, filling the place with an acrid stench. The censers competed with their own fumes, and the result was that all of us were coughing by the end of the meeting - if it could be so termed. We discussed the ins and outs of sites for the bones, but the decision had already been made. That was made abundantly clear. Our carefully thought-out arguments were overruled or ignored.