Ignacio watched in horror: that shifting shape, breathing heavily, was dragging a corpse towards him, the decaying cadaver of a river pirate hanged and left on the banks of the Thames for three turns of the tide. A corpse washed by the river but still slimed with corruption. In those few heartbeats after he had woken, the moon had bathed the horrid sight in its ghostly light – the scaffold arm, the dangling corpse, the flitting shape of his attacker humming that damnable song as he’d crept across and cut the corpse down – and he had realised immediately what was about to happen. After all, he was a
clericus peritus lege
– a clerk skilled in the law. Hadn’t he sat in Westminster Hall as scribe to the Court of King’s Bench? Hadn’t he been out on assize in the shires? Hadn’t he been sworn as a commissioner of oyer and terminer, ‘to hear and decide’? Wasn’t he an experienced jurist, close friend and servant of Chief Justice Walter Evesham, appointed directly by the King? So why was he here? Why was he going to be punished in such a heinous way? He strained against the gag and bonds that held him tight. He should have known. He should have read the signs when Justice Evesham fell like Lucifer, never to rise again. All this for what? Justice Evesham now sheltered in the Abbey of Syon on Thames, a recluse, a sanctuary seeker from the law he had once exercised so imperiously. And he, Ignacio Engleat, Evesham’s clerk, was bound and gagged like a malefactor in this fetid runnel.
Ignacio blinked away the rain and sweat running down his balding brow. The shadowy assassin hovered over him. Ignacio tried to plead, but it was to no avail. He was seized and stretched out along the ground, the stinking corpse of the river pirate placed on top of him. He turned his head from the putrid stench, that horrid face, eyes all pecked by the gulls, the scabby skin hanging in shreds, the flesh nothing but the seeping softness of corruption. He tried to beg, but the assassin, still humming, tightened the cords around him. Ignacio, terror-stricken, tried to move, but both he and the dead pirate, lashed to him, his rottenness now clinging to him like a cloak, were dragged across the rutted trackway, its sharp cobbles cutting his flesh.
The assassin paused. Ignacio blinked and screamed silently as his assailant dug the tip of the knife into his forehead, etching a symbol. Now, at the moment of death, Ignacio abruptly recalled the morbid memories of his own past. The Angel of Death had singled him out. Justice had recalled ancient sins. The Mysterium! Hadn’t he marked his victims in such a way? Hadn’t he, Ignacio Engleat, Evesham’s personal clerk and scribe, listed the macabre details of such ghastly killings? But the Mysterium was gone, surely? Boniface Ippegrave had been exposed and disgraced by no less a person than Walter Evesham. Of course, like all Evesham had done, that was a lie. Now the ghost of Boniface Ippegrave had returned to carry out vengeance. Ignacio whimpered. He tried to recall the opening verse of Psalm 50, but all he could remember as, lashed to that corpse, he was pulled like a sledge across the cobbles were the words of scripture: ‘Israel prepare to meet your God.’ That was Ignacio Engleat’s last conscious thought as he and his dead companion were tipped over the edge of the quayside into the freezing black river.
A few hours later, Abbot Serlo of Syon on Thames finished his dawn Mass in honour of St Perpetua and Felicitas in the chantry chapel of St Patrick. He thanked the lay brother who’d acted as server, then took off the red robes of the liturgy for that feast. As he did so, his keen blue eyes made out St Patrick’s prayer inscribed in gold on a black panel against the chantry wall to the right of the altar. ‘I bind unto myself this day, the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, Three in One and One in Three. From the snares of demons, from the sedition of vice and any man who plots against me near and far . . .’
Abbot Serlo scratched his tonsure and wondered if that was a warning. As if in answer, Brother Cuthbert, brown robe fluttering, hobbled into the chapel as fast as his aching limbs would let him, hard sandals rapping the paved floor.
‘Father Abbot, Father Abbot.’ Cuthbert leaned against the entrance to the chantry chapel, gasping for breath. ‘Father Abbot,’ he repeated, ‘you’d best come. Walter Evesham, he cannot be roused. I cannot wake him; there’s no—’
Abbot Serlo whispered to his altar server, who hurried off, whilst the abbot followed Cuthbert out of the abbey church. It was a crisp, icy morning, the sky greying, the last stars disappearing, in the east a red glow. Serlo closed his eyes.
,’ he whispered. The earth would dry and the brothers could break the soil, but first this . . .
The abbey buildings rose black against the sky. Already members of the community were busy. Brother Odo the sacristan, with his great bunch of keys, was leading a line of novices, each with a shuttered lantern, around the abbey. Candles, lamps and tapers were to be lit, chains unlocked, gates opened and treasures checked. As Father Abbot passed, the brothers, heads bowed, whispered, ‘
’ – peace be with you. Abbot Serlo replied, his eyes still on the hobbling figure of Cuthbert, busy leading him through the cloisters where the gargoyles grinned evilly in the murky light. They went out across the herb and flower plots into the Paradise of Benedict, the main garden of the abbey, its hoed banks greening with the first show of spring. As they reached Goose Meadow, stretching down to the curtain wall of the abbey and the Chapel of St Lazarus, which now served as the abbey’s corpse house or coffin chamber, the wet grass chilled Abbot Serlo’s feet, the water seeping over the thick leather soles of his sandals in between the sturdy thongs. Serlo hid his irritation. Cuthbert would not have come unless this was serious. Not for the first time he quietly wished that the disgraced Chief Justice Walter Evesham had chosen another abbey or monastery in which to seek sanctuary and withdraw from the world.
They passed a copse of trees and stepped on to the path leading down to St Lazarus’ chapel, which had stood here long before the abbey was ever built. According to Brother Cornelius the chronicler, it had been built by the Saxons. A previous abbot had tiled the roof with costly red slate and replaced the main door, yet it still remained an ancient place, its nave of coarse grey ragstone, windows mere arrow-loops, protected by shutters. Serlo paused to catch his breath and take in the view. He had always wanted to do something about this forbidding, sombre place built close to the curtain wall overlooking the river. Cornelius claimed the ancient chapel had once been called ‘the Church of the Drowned’, a place where corpses dragged from the nearby Thames could be brought. Stories and legends swirled of how the chapel was still haunted by the earthbound souls of those who’d drowned, either by suicide or the victims of accident or murder.
Serlo broke from his reverie. Cuthbert was looking strangely at him.
‘Father Abbot?’ he repeated.
‘Of course.’ Serlo smiled. He followed Cuthbert, the
– the keeper of the dead – off the grass and along the narrow, pebble-dashed path. Near the main door lounged Ogadon, Cuthbert’s guard dog. As the two robed figures approached, the great mastiff lumbered to his feet and walked as far as his clinking chain would permit. Serlo patted the the dog’s black head and followed Cuthbert into the church.
It was a grim place, Serlo reflected, with its squat drum-like pillars and narrow windows through which slivers of morning light pierced. Torches flickered at the far end. Above the stark altar on its dais rose a huge bronze crucifix flanked by thick purple candles, their flames dancing in the breeze. Charcoal casks spluttered, their smoke perfumed with sprinkled incense. Pots and jars of crushed herbs were ranged along the walls in a futile attempt to hide the cloying smell of decay. Down the nave of the little chapel stood nine great tables in rows of three. On two lay corpses draped in black and gold cloths with a red cross sewn in the centre. Serlo recalled that one of these was old Brother Edmund who used to work in the infirmary; the second was a beggar found near the great gatehouse. He took the proffered pomander, and Cuthbert led him across the gloomy nave and down steep steps to the cellar beneath, where a paved passageway, lit by torches, stretched past three cells into the darkness. Two had their doors open; the third, at the far end, was heavily barred by a wooden beam held firmly in the iron clasps fixed to the oaken lintel on either side. Cuthbert led him to this.
‘I just knocked,’ the old lay brother whispered. ‘Father Abbot, I just knocked, but no sound. I looked through the grille, but the light is poor.’
Helped by Cuthbert, Serlo climbed on to a wooden tub and peered through the iron grille fixed into the top of the door. Inside the cell it was dark; there were no windows, only a small slit high in the wall, wafer thin, no broader than a man’s finger, allowing a crack of light through the limestone brick at the base of the chapel wall. No lamp or candle burned, the murky darkness betrayed nothing except a shape sitting at a table.
‘Lord Walter,’ Serlo called. ‘Lord Walter!’ He banged on the door.
‘My lord abbot, perhaps he’s suffered a seizure?’ Cuthbert whispered. ‘His humours were much disturbed.’
‘He’s no prisoner, brother, despite what the King says.’ Serlo breathed heavily, stepping down from the tub. He kicked this away just as other lay brothers, summoned by the altar server, hurried down the steps shouting greetings to Brother Ogadon to quieten his grumbling bark. They crowded into the narrow passageway even as their abbot removed the outside bar and tried the door.
‘It is also secured from within,’ whispered Cuthbert. ‘My lord Walter always insisted on that. A bar is fastened to the inside lintel; it can be swung down. I don’t know why . . .’
‘Break it down!’ Serlo ordered.
Cuthbert stood away.
‘Fetch what you have to.’ Serlo gestured at the door. ‘Just break it down.’
The lay brothers organised themselves. Stout logs were brought. Abbot Serlo went up and knelt before the bleak altar in the corpse chapel. He recited the requiem for those who lay there and tried to suppress a deep chill of apprehension. Something was wrong. The King would not be pleased. Lord Walter Evesham had been a high and mighty justice, the terror of outlaws and wolfsheads, be it in the cavernous darkness of Westminster Hall or out on commissions of eyre, delivering jails and decorating scaffolds and gibbets the length and breath of the kingdom. Then he had fallen like a shooting star. The King had returned from Scotland to investigate matters in the city. Lord Walter had been weighed in the balance and found very much wanting. Serlo lowered his head, listening to the battering against the door below. Walter Evesham had fled here seeking sanctuary. He’d proclaimed that he was tired of the world, exchanging his silk and samite robes for the coarse hair shirt and rough sacking of a Benedictine recluse and demanding shelter and protection. Edward of England had openly jeered at this so-called conversion, but allowed his former justice to stay on one condition: that he never left the grounds or precincts of the Abbey of Syon. That had been two weeks ago . . .
The crashing below and the sounds of ripping wood brought Serlo to his feet. Brother Cuthbert clattered up the steps.
‘Father Abbot, Father Abbot, you’d best come.’
Serlo hurried to join him. Down in the eerie vaulted passageway, the lay brothers clustered together like frightened children. The door to the former justice’s cell had been ripped off its leather hinges and lay to one side, the wood around it much damaged where the inside bar had been torn away. The abbot stood on the threshold. A former soldier, a knight who’d served in Wales and along the Scottish march, he recognised, as he would an old enemy, the reek of violent death and spilt blood. He took the lantern horn from Cuthbert’s rheumatic hands, and walked through the shattered doorway and across to the table. The pool of dancing lanternlight picked out all the gory horror.Walter Evesham, former Chief Justice in the Court of King’s Bench and Lord of the Manor of Ingachin, lay slumped, head slightly to one side, his throat cut so deep it seemed like a second mouth. Blood caked Evesham’s dead face and drenched the top of his jerkin, forming a dark crust over the table and the pieces of jewellery littered there.
: a crime so serious, there can be no financial compensation
‘Archers forward, notch!’ Ranulf-atte-Newgate, Clerk in the Chancery of Green Wax, raised his sword and stared across the sprawling cemetery that ringed the ancient church of St Botulph’s Cripplegate in the King’s own city of London. Ranulf was in armour, a mailed clerk, hauberked and helmeted. In one hand a kite-shaped shield was raised against the bowmen peering from those arrow-slit windows in St Botulph’s tower. This full-square, sturdy donjon towered over the cemetery, an ideal refuge for the miscreants who had escaped from nearby Newgate. Ranulf felt exhausted. The chain-mail coat weighed heavy, his arms ached and the cold morning breeze was chilling his sweaty body. The helmet with its broad nose guard pressed down tightly and his cropped red hair itched. He stared across at his master Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal, who was similarly armed, though he had not yet donned his helmet. Corbett’s olive-skinned face was drawn, dark shadows circled his deep-set eyes and his black hair was streaked with glistening grey. He was so sweat-soaked he had pulled back his chain-mail coif, and was staring fixedly at the church.
‘Sir Hugh, on your mark?’
Corbett gripped his sword and stared around what used to be God’s acre at St Botulph’s but was now a battlefield. The dead sprawled under rough sacking that hid the gruesome sword and axe wounds to face, neck, chest and belly. Corbett closed his eyes and muttered a requiem for the dead. He should not be here in this slaughter yard. On this mist-hung morning he should be in his own manor at Leighton, sitting in his chancery chamber with his beloved books or walking out with the Lady Maeve. He opened his eyes and stared at the Welsh archers in their brown leggings, their Lincoln-green jerkins now covered in blue, red and gold royal tabards.